“Hey, Rixu? Whatcha reading?”
Rixu looked up from his book at the interruption. His shift partner, Tyraga, stood over him, a big ol’ shit-eating grin on his boyish face and both hands behind his back. Rixu regarded that grin with suspicion. He wasn’t in the mood for shenanigans right now. In fact, avoiding shenanigans was an overriding principal of Rixu’s philosophy, not that he’d been especially successful thus far.
Rixu held up the book. “Study manual for Low Demonic.”
“No way!” Tyraga responded, laughing as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The lad was still in his mid-20s and possessed of youthful energy that wore Rixu out by sheer proximity. “What are you studying Demonic for? Planning a trip to the Demon Realm?”
“Of course not. It’s for the next pay grade.” Rixu responded tersely. The checkpoint the two men were stationed was located on a relatively low-traffic road, so they spent most of their days idly; Rixu had taken the opportunity to pursue studying. However, now that his peace had been shattered, he decided to get the upcoming conversation out of the way. “So what are you hiding behind your back?”
Tyraga’s grin grew wider, and more shit-eating. With a dramatic twirl, he revealed a glass bottle filled with clear liquid. “Ta-daaaaaah!”
With brobdingnagian effort worthy of a bard’s praise, Rixu avoided rolling his eyes. “Ty, is that... Crystalclear?”
“It sure is!” Tyraga gloated. “I figured we could do some shots after our shift ended!”
Snapping his book shut, Rixu pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. Then he took another one, and another. He lost count of his deep breaths somewhere around seven.
Putting on his baby gloves, Rixu spoke softly and calmly. “Ty, you don’t drink Crystalclear straight, not unless you want to give yourself alcohol poisoning. That shit is, like, 190 proof. You’re supposed to dilute it, mix it.”
Tyraga looked at Rixu with surprise. “Huh? Are you sure? You mean I can’t just...”
“Nope,” Rixu said firmly.
“But I... how do you even know about that, Rixu? Are you nightlighting as a bartender or something?”
“Hell no. I do have a good friend who owns a... bar, though.” Rixu’s brief pause before the word ‘bar’ spoke volumes, implying that the establishment offered services other than alcohol, but Tyraga didn’t pick up on it.
“Aww, man! I wanted to get wasted tonight.” Tyraga complained, deflating like a balloon.
Rixu felt the inevitable tug of his magnanimous impulses pulling him into yet another bothersome situation. Tyraga was a good kid, if a bit hyper, and watching him go from bubbly excitement to bummed out in the space of a few seconds was a bit more than he could bear. Against his every instinct screaming in protest, he decided to intervene.
“Look, Ty,” Rixu said, standing up and grabbing the Crystalclear bottle. “You’re a lightweight, so I’ll handle the mixing and I’ll spot you, too.”
“Whoa!” Ty exclaimed, grinning once more. “Really?”
“Yeah, really. AFTER we finish our shift.”
Rixu regretted his words immediately. It seemed like this was a really bad idea.
Turns out Rixu should have listened to his instincts. It WAS a really bad idea.
Tyraga was the lightest of lightweights. Even after diluting the Crystalclear in water and fruit juice, the drinks proved a wee bit too much for him. By the time Rixu was slightly buzzed, Tyraga was three sheets to the wind and voyaging into the storm of the century.
Although he’d started out as a happy drunk, Tyraga had quickly descended into sobbing and Rixu wasn’t sure why. It was painful, full-body, dry-heaving sobbing too, the kind that indicated deep pain. Rixu wondered if the alcohol was bringing out something Tyraga had long repressed.
“Hey there, buddy. You alright?” It was a silly question, as Tyraga was clearly not alright, but Rixu wasn’t sure how else to approach the conversation.
“BWAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!” Tyraga responded.
Rixu decided to ditch the conversational approach and instead asked, “So... need a hug?”
Tyraga’s bleary eyes snapped to him, and the sobbing man nodded. Rixu pulled him into a tight hug, patting his back.
“There, there,” Rixu said awkwardly. Tyraga’s breathing slowed, and he calmed down a bit. “Want to tell me what’s wrong?”
Through sobs, Tyraga forced his words out. “H-Have you ever f-f-felt... wrong? Like your b-body, who you are, is w-w-w-rong?”
Rixu had never particularly felt that way, but decided it would be unhelpful to say so. “Are you telling me you feel wrong, Ty?” He felt the man’s head, pressed against his shoulder, bob up and down. “Wrong in what way?”
“I w- I w- I w...” Tyraga heaved, unable to get the words out. Rixu just held him and waited.
“I wish... I’d been born a girl...” Tyraga finally said.
Ah. That would explain things. Rixu pulled out of the hug and pressed his fingers under Tyraga’s chin, tilting his eyes up. “Well, if that’s the case, I know someone who can help.”
Tyraga, who had probably been expecting Rixu to flee in revulsion, looked shell-shocked. “Huh?”
Three years later, Rixu strode down the narrow, grime-covered streets of the Outer District. It was late afternoon and he’d already finished his shopping for the day, stocking up on a variety of things he’d need for his journey into the Demon Realm. He was scheduled to depart Arcyrid with Bob in tow early tomorrow morning; he just had one last thing to take care of.
Rixu turned into a dark alley, pressing his way between two buildings, before stopping next to a set of stairs that apparently lead to a basement of some sort. Directly above the stairs was painted a large bright-red symbol, which resembled a lipstick mark. Rixu descended the stairs towards the door at their bottom. He knocked three times.
After two minutes, he heard someone shuffle up to the other side of the door. “We’re not open yet!” said a muffled voice.
“Vel, it’s me. Rixu.”
“Rixu? Really? Hang on a sec, okay?” There was the sound of a half-dozen deadbolts and chains churning, and then the door opened a peek. “It really IS you!” The door opened all the way, revealing a man who stood about the same height as Rixu.
The man was clad in an ankle-length purple evening dress which accentuated his toned body, accompanied by high heels and long nails of the same shade. His face was done up in very heavy makeup, with the purple eye shadow perfectly complimenting his bright green eyes. His blonde hair was primped up in a ridiculously oversized beehive.
This man was named Velour Intervention, a famous drag queen and proprietor-owner of the exclusive nightclub Crimson Coterie. He was also a very, very old friend of Rixu’s.
Velour dove forwards and pulled Rixu into a tight hug, which Rixu reciprocated. “Look at you! I didn’t even know you were back in Arcryid! Weren’t you off stationed at the Anti-Demon Wall or something?”
“I was, yeah.” Rixu replied, scratching his hair awkwardly. “I got called back to Arcryid on business. I’m actually heading out again tomorrow morning, but I wanted to visit at least.” He peeked over Velour’s shoulder at the interior of the club. “Is Tessaria in?”
“Absolutely! She’ll be thrilled to see you too, I’m sure. Come in, come in!” Velour motioned Rixu inside.
Nightclubs were, of course, illegal in Saimonica, ESPECIALLY nightclubs like Crimson Coterie. Out here in the Outer District, however, things were a bit looser; plenty of ostensible sin was for sale, provided the sinners didn’t make too much noise about it. Of course, CC offered more than just drinks and music; there were twenty private rooms “in the back,” all comfortably furnished with lush velvet beds, where a customer could take a host or hostess of their choosing. After payment, of course.
Almost two-thirds of CC’s customers came from within the Central District, and half of those were clergy from the Church. Your average citizen might be shocked by this statistic, but the sex workers employed at CC would be first to tell you that natural human instincts and urges cannot be denied, no matter how loudly the Gods condemned such lasciviousness. And so the sex workers of CC plied their trade under the watchful and protective eye of Velour, and made quite a tidy profit.
Rixu was familiar with this place from his time living on the streets; Velour had been one of the kind souls to regularly feed him, without demanding anything debasing like the clergy regularly did. Rixu stayed in touch over the years, even after joining the Army, and the two remained good friends. That friendship only deepened three years ago when Rixu had brought a certain distraught, drunk young girl to CC in order to seek Velour’s help.
That particular girl, upon spotting Rixu, pinned him to the wall with a flying tackle-hug, her long raven-black hair splayed behind her. “RIXUUUU!” she cried out joyfully while he unbent his spine. “It’s great to see you! You’re back from the Wall?!”
“Kinda,” Rixu groaned. “I’m only in town briefly; I march out tomorrow on another mission. Can’t talk about it, real hush-hush stuff.”
“Ooh, how MYSTERIOUS~” Tessaria cood, grabbing Rixu’s arm and pulling him over to the bar. “I’m amazed you’re still in the Army. I don’t miss it one bit.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a living.” Rixu said, taking a long look at his friend. She was currently dressed in a spaghetti-strap blouse that bared her midriff and a miniskirt. “You look fantastic, Tess.”
Tess' violet eyes lit up at the compliment. “Don’t I? That apothecary Velour introduced me to is top-notch. Did you notice how plump my thighs have gotten? Curvy, curvy, CURVY!”
“Oh, I noticed,” Rixu said with a wry smile.
“Only the best for my crew!” Velour declared, plopping down two sparkling pink drinks on the bar. “Those are on the house. I’ll leave you two to catch up. Holler if you need anything, okay?”
“Thanks, darling!” Tess called after him. She grabbed her drink and downed it in a single gulp; Rixu watched with admiration.
“Damn. You’ve really gotten a lot better at holding your liquor.”
Tess chirped a self-deprecating laugh. “I know, right? I’ve come a long way since that one night, in more ways than one. What were we drinking, anyway? It’s all a blur. Eversinthe?”
“Right. BLEGH.” Tess retched and stuck out her tongue.
Rixu nursed his own drink. “So you’re doing well? Able to pay for your treatments and everything?”
She snorted. “I’m doing VERY well. I make money hand-over-fist these nights, and the fist costs extra. I even saved up enough to visit a black market shaper mage last month!”
Rixu’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh?”
“Yup! He did a little remodeling ‘down there’ if you catch my drift. Extremely expensive, but oh-so-WORTH IT.” She rubbed her thighs together to emphasize the point, and Rixu averted his eyes.
“Still...” he muttered, guilt edging into his voice. “Back when I introduced you to Velour, I thought you’d just take advantage of his black market connections. I didn’t expect you to start working for him.”
Tess’ eyes narrowed, and she crossed her legs and leaned towards Rixu. He kept talking, his voice low.
“I wish you didn’t have to do... this stuff... to pay for your treatments. It’s just, I don’t want y-” He was suddenly silenced by Tess’ slender finger pressed against his lips.
“Rixu, is that pity I hear in your voice? I’m going to stop you right there. I do this because I ENJOY doing it, and I’m good at it, and I make a shitload of money. Velour is a really great boss and he looks out for us. I’ve told you this before, but if you keep feeling sorry for me I will personally knock all your teeth out.” She removed her finger from his lips and balled her hand into a fist.
“Right,” Rixu groaned, ashamed. “I’m sorry.”
Tess withdrew her fist and chuckled. “You’re too much of a bleeding heart, Rixu. You know that, right? Not that I can personally complain about it, since you saved me, but try to stop worrying all the time. Okay?”
Rixu nodded silently.
“Now, you gonna tell me what’s really bugging you? Or do I need to get a few more drinks in you first?” Her tone was not QUITE teasing as she made that last remark.
Rixu sighed and took a long swig of his drink, relishing the sweet-and-bitter taste as it ran down his tongue. “Tess... when did you first realize? That you wanted to be a girl?”
Tess folded her arms over her breasts and frowned. “Now that’s a doozy of a question. Are you asking me when I first realized, or when I first admitted it to myself?”
“Both, I guess?” Rixu shrugged.
“Wow, deep cut. Why do you want to know, anyway? Are you questioning?” She studied him intently.
Rixu waved his hand dismissively. “Me? Personally? Naw. I did meet someone though... someone who, I think, is a lot like you were, back then.”
“Back when I was desperately pretending to be a man, you mean.”
Rixu stared at his drink. “Yeah.”
“Hrm.” Tess frowned, then stood up from her stool and walked behind the bar. “I don’t mind telling you, but I need another drink first.”
Three drinks later, Tess was sprawled out on a velvety couch near the bar, her head on Rixu’s lap. He gently stroked her hair.
“So. Rixu,” Tess began. “You didn’t attend weekly services growing up, did you?”
“Of course not,” he responded. “I was a street rat, remember?”
“Right, silly question,” she giggled. “Well, I did go to service, religiously, at the behest of my parents. Every Wednesday and Saturday, I sat in our local Creation Hall and listened to the High Breeder drone on and on about scripture. It was frightfully boring.”
“I can imagine,” Rixu said, his tone somewhere between sympathy and sarcasm.
She stuck out her tongue. “The thing is, when you’re indoctrinated with that stuff from childhood... it gets in your head, you know? The guilt, I mean. The High Breeders talk endlessly about how mankind was created in the image of the Gods, and how any deviation from their perfect, wonderful plan is the temptation of sin. Now imagine a young, questioning girl like me, being told that the feelings she’s having are sinful and corrupt and awful. How do you think I reacted to that?”
“Repression? Self-hatred?” Rixu guessed.
“Bingo. I crammed those feelings down deep inside myself and put a lid on them, like a pressure cooker without a release valve. And when they finally reached a critical point... well. You were there for that.”
“Grain alcohol plus repressed gender feelings equals epiphany,” Rixu said dryly.
“Brat.” she responded, lightly punching his thigh. “This friend of yours, they’re a noble?”
“Then they went to services for sure. They heard all the same shit I did, from youth onwards. That kinda shit fucks you up, Rixu. It fucks you up real bad. When I fell apart and started being honest with myself, it took me a very long time to unlearn everything the Church brainwashed into my poor little skull. It took me even longer to put myself back together. Not that I need to tell you. You were there for all that.”
Rixu drew in a slow, long breath. “That’s what I’m afraid of. The person I met, he’s... they’re showing very strong signs. But I don’t want to be the one to crack them open. I just want to be there if... if it happens. There to help pick up the pieces.”
“Gods DAMN, Rixu. You really are a big ol’ softie, you know that?” Tess giggled. “You’re always on about how you hate drama, yet you can’t say no to a person in need. You have a heart of gold, you big ol’ doofus.”
Rixu rolled his eyes. “No need to insult me.”
“Well, the best advice I can offer is... exactly what you just said. Don’t press, don’t push, but be there for them if they need it. Just like you were there for me.” Suddenly, Tess sat up and planted a quick peck on Rixu’s cheek. Then she rose to her feet and strode back over to the bar. “I need another drink. You want one?”
Rixu grinned. “Yeah.”
The next morning, Rixu met Bob by the southern gates of Arcryid.
“You look like shit,” Bob said, eyeing the frazzled Rixu. “Trouble sleeping?”
“Late night,” Rixu groaned.
“Well, nothing cures a hangover better than vigorous physical exertion,” Bob quipped. “Shall we?”
Rixu silently ruminated on his misfortune at being paired up with a peppy morning person before groggily answering. “Lead the way.”
They left the gates and began their journey southwards, towards the Demon Realm.
What they found there would change them both forever.