Ruby Rose finished coiling up some spare rope that she used on her latest mission. She was dirty, tired, and she was ready for a break. The owner of Willow Creek Farm, Katherine Willow, had gotten another piece of farm equipment stuck in the mud, and it had been difficult to get it out. She considered giving the fire truck a wash but shrugged it off as something she could do the next day.
She picked up her backpack and started to close the main garage door. Behind her she heard someone approaching, and it made her groan. She knew she was the only one at the station right now, and Flynn had a rule about always helping the citizens, but she really wanted to ignore that mantra right now. Of course, she wanted to be a Protector, and that meant helping all of the citizens, so she turned to greet the arrival with her best forced smile. When she realized it was Olivia Sun, she considered doubling back and hiding inside, but their eyes met before she could dodge away.
“Hello,” Ruby said, trying to sound cheery. “How can the Protectors help you?”
“Is Flynn here?” Olivia asked, her voice as calm and distant as ever.
“No, he’s gone to visit with Mayor Walsh. You could probably—”
“That’s good news,” Olivia clarified. “I’m actually here to speak with you.”
“Me?” Ruby asked, slightly surprised. “If this is about the Explorers, I’ve spoken my mind on the subject with Elsie. I could fly that helicopter with my eyes closed and it’s not giving me the fulfillment I need in my life. If Elsie want to talk about it she’ll have to come down here herself.”
“I’m not here about your career choices,” Olivia replied. “Elsie has sent me to speak with you about something unrelated to your old duties of flying the helicopter to the Core.”
“You are trained and have flown as pilot on several Explorer Two observation missions. In light of that, I have come to ask you to pilot a mission for the Explorers.”
Ruby remained silent. She didn’t want to betray the utter excitement that swelled up in her guts. She had begged to pilot more missions, but her position as the helicopter pilot had always loomed over her head.
“I’ve asked around,” Olivia added. “You’re the top choice.”
“What about Robert Shim?” Ruby asked. “He flies most of your missions nowadays, doesn’t he? I don’t understand why you couldn’t utilize his skills?”
“He did… and I would have. Unfortunately for the Explorers, Robert was informed by Doctor Patel that he is going to be the father of two healthy twin boys. He immediately tendered his resignation. As of right now, you are the most experienced pilot behind Flynn. He has sworn never to fly again… that leaves you.”
“So train up some new ones,” Ruby mused. “You have the time.”
“Not exactly,” Olivia said calmly. “We have information that has put us on an accelerated timeline for our next mission. I can’t say much, not yet, but we would need you training for it right away.”
Ruby frowned. A few months ago she would have been begging for this conversation. Now, things had changed for her. She did enjoy piloting, and she loved the thrill of a mission, but there were other things at play. “So, a dangerous mission wrapped in vague details. If the mission is of such importance, surely Flynn would pilot for you? He went into the Garden with you not long ago.”
“That was his mission,” Olivia corrected. “He’s far less interested in ours.”
“Flynn isn’t a cruel person. If the mission is important he would fly it. You know that.”
Olivia frowned. She didn’t look sad, or disappointed, but rather uncomfortable. She hesitated for a moment, clearly looking for the right words. “Flynn,” she finally mustered. “The truth is, Flynn is ineligible for this mission.”
“That really is all I can say.”
“I love the transparency,” Ruby grumbled. “Fine. So, Flynn is out of the mission and that leaves me to fly for you. This isn’t you approaching me because I’m the logical choice, it’s because I’m the only choice. I’m always your backup plan.”
Olivia’s frown deepened, but her eyes showed a flash of recognition. “I understand. I never apologized for pulling you into the chaos of my fight with Rayland. I am sorry for it. I am thankful that you did as I asked, but I took advantage of your loyalty, and I can’t expect to be forgiven for my actions.”
Ruby rolled her eyes. “There’s a ‘but’ in there somewhere.”
“But,” Olivia said, emphasizing the word. “My visit today has neither negative intentions or divisive opinions. Elsie wants a pilot that has plenty of experience to fly it. I recommended you, so she asked me to consult with you.”
“Well consider me consulted,” Ruby said firmly. “Anything else?”
Olivia shook her head slightly and stepped back. “No, my apologies. I’ll let you get back to your duties. Tell Flynn hello when you see him.”
“Sure,” Ruby said. “Take care, Olivia.”
The Mayor’s office was surprisingly quiet. The only sound Flynn heard was the click of the wall clock as the thin hand moved with each passing second. On top of the lack of sound, the room also smelled musty. Flynn wondered if Rayland had bothered to open a window in the last few days.
Across from Flynn, Rayland sat at his desk wearing a welcoming expression that nearly looked genuine. “What can I do for you, Mr. Brickshelm?”
Flynn wished, honestly, that he could have simply asked the Mayor about his day, how he liked the weather, or his opinion of Oliver’s latest menu, but there was no room for casual conversation here.
“I’m going to give you a chance,” Flynn said, his voice calm and steady. “One chance.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Tell me the truth,” Flynn said. “Right now.”
For a brief moment, Rayland did nothing. He just sat there, motionless for a considerable moment, before he finally seemed to relax all of his muscles at once.
“The gun?” Rayland asked. “Leonard told you that I gave it to him?”
“That’s right,” Flynn confirmed. “You gave him the weapon that nearly brought our town into utter chaos. I have half a mind to arrest you like you arrested Olivia.”
“You aren’t going to, though, are you?” Rayland asked sheepishly.
“No. I already told you, I’m going to give you a chance, Rayland. One chance. I want the truth and nothing less from you on this. Do you understand?”
Rayland seemed particularly bothered by Flynn’s request. His face scrunched up like he was about to reject it. Flynn partially hoped that he would. He wasn’t fond of anything he was doing here. Rayland always made him feel uncomfortable.
The two locked eyes for another long moment, with the clock ticking the seconds away. Finally, Rayland surrendered. He rubbed his hand over his tired face and let out a defeated groan. “Very well, Flynn. What is it you want?”
“Tell me about the names.”
Rayland’s face shifted from concern to confusion. “The names?” he asked.
“No, I’ll tell you everything,” Rayland assured him. “I’m just surprised it was Leonard that spoiled it and not Elsie Lamarr. After all, she’s the one that provided them to me.”
“Elsie?” Flynn asked, suddenly feeling equally confused. “Start at the beginning. I want to understand this whole thing before I leave this office, or you’re coming with me for a turn in the bank vault.”
Rayland nodded vigorously. “Fine, yes. Of course. The names. It will make sense once I’ve talked you through it, but it might take some time. It started a while back, when Elsie Lamarr had been moved to the Grid. She held a grudge against Olivia and that triggered everything that followed…”
Johnathan was busying himself in Oliver’s Kitchen with gleeful anticipation. He had just finished stirring some broth when he heard the jingle of the front entrance bell. He walked over, curious if he had an unexpected guest, but he was thankful when he saw it was Ruby that had entered. She looked tired, but she smiled at him when she saw him and showed him a bottle in her hand. “I hope you’re about ready,” she said. “I’m starving.”
“Fear not,” John said, heading back into the kitchen with Ruby in tow. “Oliver gave me everything I needed and a great recipe to follow. It’s called roasted turkey.”
“Turkey?” Ruby asked. “What’s that?”
“It’s like a big chicken,” John explained, gesturing toward the golden roasted bird on the kitchen counter. “It is delicious, I assure you.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” she joked. “Are we eating in the restaurant?”
“I suppose we could,” John answered. “In fact, that’s a great idea!”
The restaurant lights were low, the lamps on the street outside reflected on the windows, giving their light a halo effect. John and Ruby ate in peaceful bliss. The turkey was as tasty as promised, and they made quick work of the bread and baked carrots.
John had just finished his last bite when Ruby gave a satisfied groan and leaned back in her chair. He looked at her and couldn’t help but smile. He always smiled when he looked at her… she brought happiness to him in ways he couldn’t quite describe.
Tonight, this special dinner, was the culmination of the last year of his life. John and Ruby had grown close, spending more and more time together until they were nearly inseparable. He had bitten his tongue for far too long on the subject, and now he knew he needed to make his feelings known.
“Ruby,” he started. “I have wanted to… uh…”
His voice drifted. Ruby was looking out of the restaurant window, clearly lost in her own thoughts. He considered pressing forward, then she looked to him and smiled once more.
“What is it?” she asked. “I’m sorry for drifting… I’m afraid something odd happened at the station today, and it has consumed my attention ever since.”
“What happened?” John asked, suddenly concerned. “I hope everything is alright?”
“Oh no, nothing bad. Elsie Lamarr is working on a new mission and asked me to pilot.”
“Really?” John asked, making a poor attempt to hide his shock. “Why not Flynn?”
“Well that’s just it,” Ruby explained. “He either will not, or cannot, fly the mission.”
“That is odd,” John said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m belittling your experience, but it seems like Flynn is the logical choice.”
“No offense taken. I agree with you. He has twice the logged hours that I do. There’s a mystery to be unraveled in it all. It’s been all I can think about.”
“Are you considering it?” John asked.
“I said no at first,” she admitted. “To be totally honest, I think I want to say yes.”
Ruby frowned at the sadness in his response. “Don’t sound so gloomy.”
“I don’t mean to,” John replied, opting for honesty. “It’s just… well.. I’ve gotten rather used to having you around since you became a Protector. I asked you here tonight… well, Ruby, I have something that I want to say to you.”
Ruby sat up straight. “You do?”
“I do,” he said. “I just… I think it should wait until after this mission.”
John’s insides were churning, but he nodded firmly. “I think so.”
“Well, you can wait if you want,” Ruby replied. “I suppose I can’t. John, I love you.”
“I didn’t realize it at first. I thought I was just anxious around you. I hadn’t seen love before, so I didn’t know what it was. Then, after the Everett family arrived and I saw the way they were with one another… it all came to me. I want that for us, John.”
“I want that too,” he said, his heart filled to burst. “I love you too, Ruby Rose!”
“Good,” she said, beaming. “Now that we’ve cleared the air on that subject, I am still going to learn more about the mission. It won’t change the way I feel about you or how I want to spend my life, but I am interested in taking this path if I can.”
“I know,” John said, his joy tempered ever so slightly. “If you take the mission though, it will mean more time at the Grid for training and preparations. Then, when that’s done, there’s the mission and the obvious dangers that follow. Knowing what I know now, I couldn’t handle the idea of…”
He couldn’t finish the statement.
Ruby understood. “Explorer Two has completed nearly thirty missions in the last year. Each and every mission is unique, and yes, there are risks, but aren’t there risks with everything we do here?”
John ached at the idea of her leaving. He had just been told the most wonderful news, and now she would be running off to get involved with another mess. Still, he also didn’t want to be the one pushing Ruby away from her own goals and objectives. He took another sip of his drink and looked at her with a stoic grin. “I love you, Ruby. You love me, too. For now, there is nothing else that matters to me. I support your decision, and I’ll be here waiting for you when it’s over.”
“I would certainly hope so,” she said. “Now, can we kiss?”
John nodded in approval. “Yes, let’s do that.”