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can you even ride, city girl?

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She doesn't go straight back home. The first thing she does is try to call out to Flowing Fire in a sad attempt of bringing him back, and when that fails, she tries to figure out where he could have gone. The trouble is, the ranch has some twenty acres of land, and all her bones are sore and tired from getting bucked off. She doesn't have the resilience of her youth, to pull several all-nighters in a row and still be standing.

By the time she trudges back home unaccomplished and no Flowing Fire with her, the sun is starting to set and the chill pressing in around her like sharp grass. Mud sloughs off her in drip-drips, trailing down her braid and leaving stains of brown against the porch, the wood flooring of the house. She can feel the dirt solidifying in her face.

Ha. Nangong Jingnu is so fond of her mud masks, at least she has a genuine one now.

The house is silent when she unlocks the door; the only sound she can hear is the faint ringing in her ears and the squelch of her jeans against her calves. Her breaths stutter in her throat, her lungs unwilling to let her breathe. All of the two bathrooms in the house are upstairs, and hopefully, Nangong Jingnu hasn't come back yet to claim the master bathroom.

Qiyan Agula seriously contemplates leaving Nangong Jingnu out for the coyotes to take if she doesn't come back by sundown. The only reason she decides against it is because Gongyang Huai would very much notice his client's disappearance.

Her socks leave tracks against the stairs, grass stuck in the synthetic wool. She’s going to have to clean the floors tonight—nobody else will.

When she reaches the landing, she hears the shower running from the master bath. Qiyan Agula sighs and shakes her head, turning around to the guest bathroom, only for Ding You to inform her that Gongyang Huai is currently occupying the shower and singing Shakira.

He also fusses over the mud on her face and the slow-blooming bruise on her cheek, taking his thumb and trying to rub some of the dirt off.

"What did both of you do?" he says in astonishment, looking her up and down. "She came back looking like the raised dead. And you..."

"It was nothing," Qiyan Agula says gruffly, and almost stomps into the master bedroom. She waits for ten minutes, checking her watch every few moments, and when the water still continues to run, she scoffs in disgust and wipes at her forehead, dry and cracking with dirt.

After fifteen minutes, she decides that she has just about had enough, unlocks the bathroom door with the key only she has, and steps inside. Steam fogs up the bathroom, so hot she feels like she's melting, pressing wet against her lips and mouth.

Qiyan Agula knocks on the wall next to where the shower stands, the sound echoing. A second later, she knocks again.

The shower curtain rips itself open and Qiyan Agula gets a faceful of near-boiling water.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" Nangong Jingnu shrieks, wielding the handheld shower head as though it's some sort of weapon. In the thick steam, she's only a faint, pale blur topped with black hair. Qiyan Agula immediately regrets installing the handheld shower head. She should have taken it off after she knew Nangong Jingnu was going to be using this bathroom.

Too late now.

She screams in response to getting blasted with steaming hot water. And in response to her, Nangong Jingnu screams too. They both scream at each other for what seems to be an eternity but really more along the lines of twenty seconds, and then Nangong Jingnu slams the shower curtain shut, the fastening rings scraping against the shower rod.

The sounds of water running stop; a moment later, Qiyan Agula can see Nangong Jingnu's thin hand reaching out to grab a towel. There is some rustling, and then the shower curtain slams open again, to reveal Nangong Jingnu, a towel wrapped around her torso, face red with anger.

"WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING HERE," Nangong Jingnu screams again, voice scratchy at the edges.

Qiyan Agula looks to the side, seeing herself in the mirror: more brown than not, with mud melting off of her face as though she's the Wicked Witch of the West. There's a branch stuck in her hair, she notices.

"WHO EVEN TAKES A SHOWER FOR THAT LONG?" Qiyan Agula screams back.

"It wasn't even that long!"

“You’ve been in here for like, half an hour!”

Nangong Jingnu makes a face. "Not really."

Qiyan Agula can see the slight puffiness of her cheek and though Nangong Jingnu is lobster red from the shower, there's still a faint purplish mark around her nose. Good, she thinks.

Nangong Jingnu looks her up and down too, then they're both silent. Qiyan Agula can feel the sweat dripping down her back from the heat of the bathroom. As she waits by the shower, Nangong Jingnu gathers her things, and just when she is about to walk out, she opens her mouth to say, "I'm sorry."

Qiyan Agula blinks at her. She doesn't say anything.

"I shouldn't...I shouldn't have said that," Nangong Jingnu continues, looking down at the tiled floor. "I know my father's done some shitty things, but he's my father, you know?"

"I don't."

Nangong Jingnu is quiet, then she inhales, exhales, breath coming out in a sigh. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say that."

"Do you always apologize after you do the damage to someone?" Qiyan Agula bites, acid flooding her mouth. "Is that it? Because I certainly don't regret punching you. You deserved it. You more than me, at least."

Nangong Jingnu laughs and walks out, the open door bringing in a sudden gust of cold, sweet air.

 


 

At dinner, Ding You fusses over her and makes a fit over her barely-bruised skin. Nangong Jingnu's nose still drips blood at inopportune moments, but he pays it little mind, much to the smugness of Qiyan Agula. All he offers her is two rolled up pieces of gauze to clog the bleed, and he goes back to slathering ointment over Qiyan Agula's cheekbone.

"What did you do?” he asks, bandaging the scrape on her shoulder. Ding You looks to the side, where Nangong Jingnu glumly sips at her soup, and then back to her, something unreadable in his face. "Did you two fight?"

Qiyan Agula gives him a hpmh for an answer, and Ding You doesn't accept it. He pinches her ear and drags her over to Nangong Jingnu, and even though she bats at him to let go and oh my god, Ding You, stop embarrassing me, he holds tight.

"Say sorry," Ding You says firmly, pressing her into one of the dining chairs. He sits between her and Nangong Jingnu, as though he would be much of a buffer between them.

Nangong Jingnu ignores him and continues lapping at her soup. Qiyan Agula huffs and looks over to the side, lips pressed shut.

Gongyang Huai looks up from his phone and soup, eyes flitting between the three of them, and he must decide that he wants nothing more than to not be involved, because he immediately goes back to his phone—and soup.

"HEY," Ding You whines, reaching across the table to cuff him on the ear as well. "Back me up here!"

Meekly, Gongyang Huai looks up, then back down at his soup, pushes it away, and stands up from the table. "I think I'm going to go to sleep early."

Ding You looks as though he wants to murder him. Qiyan Agula would cheer him on if he tried.

And Gongyang Huai flees upstairs.

Once more, Ding You sighs, and yanks both Qiyan Agula's and Nangong Jingnu's ears down.

Nangong Jingnu sputters, the gauze rolls in her nose falling into her soup like mock-croutons. She looks down at them with something like mourn crossing her face and then glares at Ding You, rubbing at her ear. "What the fuck was that for?"

"Apologize to each other," Ding You says. "I don't know what you did or what happened, but what I do know is that if you don't make up right now, you're going to end up murdering each other, and I have said it a thousand times at this point, but a murder witness I do not make."

Qiyan Agula kicks at him under the table. He kicks her back.

"My soup," says Nangong Jingnu in distress.

"My sanity," says Ding You.

"My goddamn peace and quiet," says Qiyan Agula, standing up with her bowl of soup and trudging upstairs. A moment later, there are soft footsteps at the door, and there Ding You is, shuffling his feet at the doorway.

"Agula," he says.

She loudly slurps her soup in a poor attempt to get him to go away.

"Agula," Ding You says again, the hallways lights casting him in a halo against the dark of the room. "Apologize to her. You don't have to mean it, but you should at least do that. She has a nosebleed, aren't you two even at this point?"

Qiyan Agula slurps even louder, and finally, Ding You gets the point, because he sighs, crestfallen, and walks away.

 


 

"I'm sorry," Nangong Jingnu says as soon as she walks into the bedroom. "I shouldn't have said that and I know there's nothing I can do to make up for it. But I'm sorry for doing that, at least."

Qiyan Agula looks up from her book and glares at Nangong Jingnu from over the cover.

Then, finally, with the air of someone biting into a bitter gourd raw, Qiyan Agula says, "I'm sorry too."

She doesn't mean it. Both of them know that, but they don't mention it further.

 


 

Once more, Nangong Jingnu fusses over Qiyan Agula as she's washing her face. It's almost become routine at this point; Nangong Jingnu tells her that she needs to be kinder to her face, and Qiyan Agula tells her to be quiet and to just go to sleep.

"You have a bruise," Nangong Jingnu laments, cupping Qiyan Agula's cheek in her hands. "You're going to make it worse if you keep scrubbing like that."

Neither of them point out the fact that she was the one to make the bruise.

"Who cares," Qiyan Agula mutters, tries to yank her face away, but Nangong Jingnu wins again, somehow, and makes her sit through a thirty-minute skincare routine to reduce inflammation and coloration.

 


 

The worry about Flowing Fire's wellbeing presses in her like a vice to her stomach, twisting, twisting, tearing her into two. He is a smart horse, but he spooks so easily and…what if he gets hurt? The ranch is huge, and there's no saying what he can manage to do with nothing but his hooves and his teeth. If he wanders off, there's no way she can find him.

She wants to blame Nangong Jingnu. She wishes she could.

"I lost him once already because of your family," she whispers into the dark, looking over at Nangong Jingnu, at the moonlight reflecting off of her dark eyelashes. "And I refuse to let it happen again."

 


 

The next morning, Nangong Jingnu is dressed in a highlighter-themed outfit, Lululemon jeans a bright, annoying yellow on her legs and tank top a jarring neon pink. There are six different clashing colors on her, from her Balenciaga sneakers to her awful little Chanel baseball cap, but somehow, with some sort of dark magic or something or the other, she manages to make it work.

"What the fuck are you wearing," Qiyan Agula says, nearly spilling the soy milk into the sink.

Nangong Jingnu looks primly self-assured, bouncing on her heels on her path to the counter. "I'm going to help you find your horse."

"Horse?" Ding You repeats, looking to Qiyan Agula. "You lost Flowing Fire?"

"Sort of," Nangong Jingnu replies, voice tight. "But it's okay, we'll find him again!"

"There is no we," Qiyan Agula grumbles, forgoing the mug and just drinking the soy milk from the carton. "I'd rather die before I let you come near me with that outfit."

 


 

Nangong Jingnu buzzes in the seat next to her, peering intently at the different dials and switches on the dashboard. "Shouldn't we have taken a car?"

"This is better," Qiyan Agula says, which is a lie. Of course, a car would be better to find Flowing Fire with. It would be much faster than this ratty old golf cart, and it would have air conditioning to boot. But Nangong Jingnu is tagging along in the hunt, and Qiyan Agula refuses to let her search in comfort. If she has to suffer alongside Nangong Jingnu, then so be it.

They putter along the fields, Nangong Jingnu straining her neck all around to try and catch a glimpse of Flowing Fire, and Qiyan Agula doggedly pressing forward with her foot on the almost broken gas pedal. Luckily enough, Nangong Jingnu forgot to bring her phone, and the only station that Qiyan Agula gets this far out from civilization is 104.9, which, objectively, is its own type of torture.

Even with the sun blazing hot over their heads (the plastic cover is broken in some areas), their maddeningly slow pace, and the fucking music, Nangong Jingnu does not complain. She folds herself into complicated poses she must have learnt in yoga class to try and gain a vantage point to scout from.

Qiyan Agula would say that she was impressed with her will, but...

Not when it comes to Nangong Jingnu.

 


 

They go back for lunch, and immediately out once more. However much that Qiyan Agula is trying to pettily revenge upon Nangong Jingnu, she still is trying to find Flowing Fire, and with each passing minute, smoking hot anxiety presses upon her like a brand.

"How far could he have gone?"

Qiyan Agula shrugs. There is acres of open land out here, some ditches, some stray trees, and lots of danger for a horse. Flowing Fire is fast, too, and when spooked, he's faster. She doesn't know where he could be.

He can normally take a puddle, a butterfly, and maybe, just maybe, velcro all by their lonesome. Normally, he's a calm horse. Good with the kids.

But even the calmest of horses still panic.

And even the most annoying of people on this planet...just might not be.

 


 

Defeated by the sets, they drive back to the house with nothing to report but several bug bites. Nangong Jingnu itches at her calves relentlessly, while Qiyan Agula watches on, almost a bit smug.

She wears jeans for a reason. Excellent ankle cover.

That night, Nangong Jingnu apologizes again. Qiyan Agula hates to think about the fact that she almost says, "It's alright."

 


 

Noon of the second day, they find Flowing Fire, cozied up under a tree and next to a small circle of shorn grass. Qiyan Agula makes many incoherent babbling sounds when she almost tumbles out of the golf cart to run to him, frantically checking over his body for injuries.

"You little brat," she says, but no ire backs her voice. "Just ran away from me like that, didn't you?"

Flowing Fire snorts at her, then tenses once he sees something behind her. His nostrils flare, teeth flashing, and Qiyan Agula turns around to find Nangong Jingnu, dressed in an outfit more atrocious than the previous day's, all bright green and orange and brown.

"Hi," Nangong Jingnu says almost sheepishly, waving a little. Flowing Fire, if a horse could even, glares.

"He doesn't like you," Qiyan Agula comments, petting his mane. "I wonder why."

Nangong Jingnu sticks her tongue out, going back to sit in the golf cart, knees tucked into her chin as though Flowing Fire would scuttle over and try to bite her ankles. "The feeling is mutual, horse."

Since Nangong Jingnu cannot drive the golf cart—Qiyan Agula doesn't trust her to do so, in adddition—and Flowing Fire refuses to let her anywhere near him, they decide on leaving her behind while Qiyan Agula gets Flowing Fire to the stables.

She spends more than her sweet time making sure that he has everything he could possibly need, cooing over him one last time before grabbing her rusted, years-old bike and starting to pedal.

By the time she reaches Nangong Jingnu, she is sweating buckets and wants nothing more than to jump into a pool of ice. Regardless of all of that, Nangong Jingnu runs to her and catches her in a tight, rib-crushing hug, cinnamon wafting up in clouds.

"I thought you abandoned me!" she says into Qiyan Agula's chest. "You were gone for so long. I was dying!”

"Bike old," Qiyan Agula responds, eloquently, tilting her head back and wishing there would be at least a spring breeze to ease her suffering.

"I'll get you a new one, then," Nangong Jingnu promises, her fingers digging into Qiyan Agula's bicep. She leans back, a little, but not much; Qiyan Agula can still smell the sharp bite of cinnamon hovering around her. "My prince in denim armor, on a rusted bike."

Qiyan Agula raises her brows and looks down disbelievingly at Nangong Jingnu. "I'm not here to rescue you," she lies. "The golf cart."

"I'm worth more than a thousand of these, and you know it," Nangong Jingnu tells her once she starts the ignition. Qiyan Agula laughs and pulls back on the gear to reverse, but Nangong Jingnu presses her hand on hers and yelps, "Wait!"

Qiyan Agula doesn't know why she listens. Why she waits. But she does, as though compelled to.

Nangong Jingnu reaches up and kisses her, hand resting on her cheek like she does every single night. Qiyan Agula makes a strangled noise at the back of her throat, looking away once Nangong Jingnu pulls back and driving the rest of the way home in silence.

 


 

She stops clearing her Netflix watch history. Too much work, and for such little payoff. Inefficient, really.

 


 

Nangong Jingnu makes her sit through yet another skincare session, though the bruise on her cheekbone has long since faded away. Once she finishes slathering sweet mint lip balm all over Qiyan Agula's lips, she kisses her again, mint and cinnamon melting together to burn at Qiyan Agula's mouth.

Tentatively, Qiyan Agula reaches up to tangle her hands in Nangong Jingnu's short, silky hair, marveling at its softness. Nangong Jingnu sighs into her, bracing herself with a hand pressed against the wall, and then, she pulls back, a satisfied gleam in her eye, and says, "Thank you for the lip balm."

Qiyan Agula stares at her in stunned silence.

Once in bed, she straddles Nangong Jingnu, the same way she did a few days ago in the mud, except this time, she leans in and slots her lips against hers, minty and cinnamony and just—

Just right.

 


 

It happens again, and again, and again. As though their fight was something like a catharsis, to peel away Qiyan Agula's festering resent and Nangong Jingnu's...whatever it was, to leave them raw and uneven, pressing up against each other like sandpaper, two rocks in a tumbler, scraping each other smooth.

They don't talk about it. But there's not much to talk about, anyway. It's not as though this is going to last forever—the moment May third comes along, Nangong Jingnu will be driving off to the airport with Gongyang Huai, the documents she came here for clutched tight and triumphant in her hands.

So Qiyan Agula rationalizes it, puts the entire matter into a neat box and shelves it far, far away from where she can see.

She thinks that she doesn't hate Nangong Jingnu. Maybe. Seeing her face makes a wave of emotion rise up in her throat, but this time, perhaps it isn't anger.

Qiyan Agula is unsure of whether to be scared of that.

But they don't talk about it, and that's fine, for now. All they were going to be was temporary, anyway. They both know it, pretend as if they don't, but it still haunts the corners of their conversations, a specter, almost, a deadline, looming over their necks.

She decides that she doesn't care about it. What she does care about is Nangong Jingnu's face when the shitty movie she's watching makes an equally shitty joke. Purging her Netflix account every day was a waste of time, anyway, and now, she can make fun of Nangong Jingnu's awful taste in movies.

She can also make out with Nangong Jingnu over her awful taste in movies, but that was more of an unintended side effect than anything. It's not like she'll complain about it, though.

 


 

May second, she gets out a roll of linen and one of cotton, spreads them out on the dining table and snips five-by-eight rectangles, enough to make two three-ply masks. She looked up what materials would be the safest, and she happens to have both linen and cotton, and it's not as though she's going to be using them anytime soon.

She pricks her fingers five times embroidering a small pig's snout onto the corner of one of the masks and ends up throwing it away in the end, the crumpled cloth and elastic shoved into her drawer. May third, she gives Gongyang Huai and Nangong Jingnu identical masks, down to the length of the ear elastics.

It had taken them all morning to pack away Nangong Jingnu's stuff, which had somehow migrated all over their bedroom and into the closet, even. Outside of the room, Nangong Jingnu's things are scattered across the house, her chargers tucked inside one of the kitchen drawers and her extra heels hidden in the shoe rack, right next to Qiyan Agula's old power pumps.

Qiyan Agula isn't sure if she wants to say that she has grown fond of Nangong Jingnu over this awful lockdown, but once she ends up fussing over her mask as they wait outside for the taxi to pull up, she realizes, with no small amount of horror, that she has, indeed, grown quite fucking fond of Nangong Jingnu.

And even worse, she tolerates Gongyang Huai. He was never bad to begin with, just a reminder of a past she wants to forget, but the fact that he hugs her before getting into the car leaves a not-quite sour taste on her tongue. He and Ding You do some sort of bro-fist bump as they part, then, right before Gongyang Huai gets into the passenger seat, Ding You yells out, "I'll see you soon!"

Qiyan Agula blinks at him. "What?"

"We're both in New York," Ding You says, as though that means anything, and then retreats into the house.

Nangong Jingnu rocks on her heels as she waits for the taxi driver to maneuver her suitcase into the trunk. Qiyan Agula walks over to her, not quite sure what to do or say.

"So," Nangong Jingnu says, voice muffled behind the mask. "A month of lockdown. Finally over."

"Yeah," Qiyan Agula responds, scuffing her boot against the gravel. "Finally."

"Well, I'm glad that we survived, and that you signed these papers," she waves her folder about, fanning herself, "and thank you for hosting me. Sorry for all the trouble."

"Ah," Qiyan Agula says. "Ah, yeah. No worries, really."

Nangong Jingnu nods and slips into the backseat with not a word more.

As they drive away, Qiyan Agula finds herself watching them, and once the car is but a speck upon the horizon, her phone buzzes in her pocket. She sighs and picks it up, swiping the notification open. It's from AirBnB.

User Jingnoo has sent a rent request to you.

Qiyan Agula doesn't even think twice before she hits the accept button.