Favour for Favour

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Foreword: This fic is set in the fictional universe of Apex Legends, but I’ve written it in a way that it’s still very understandable if you’re not familiar with the fandom. P.S. stick around till the end to see a commissioned piece of art from the phenomenal @nanakyuubi who helped bring part of the story to life!

 

“We have our Apex Champions”

The announcer’s grand voice echoed as Natalie stared at the monitor in her locker room, a smile playing on her face as she recognised the woman in the centre of that podium. Renee always looked calm and collected— even after winning the most cutthroat of matches where the odds look grim for her team, her guise remains composed as the cameras capture the victory poses of the winners. The same can’t be said for the other two on either side of her, though. Elliott was breaking into a victory dance— hell, when was he never dancing?—, and Octavio was jumping all over the place in joy, still high on the last stim he used in that final firefight.

Natalie sucked in a breath through her teeth as she pulled a bit too hard on the bandage she was unwrapping, loosening her grip on that cloth that was woven around her left forearm. While the Games’ cutting edge armour technology prevented death and permanent injury while competitors shot at each other, it wasn’t entirely bulletproof— cuts and scrapes are commonplace, and today’s Games were a little rougher than usual for Natalie. But when her mind wandered back to that fateful moment she was knocked down, suddenly the pain seemed that little bit more bearable.

*

Her team was holed up in a building in Fragment East, with her fences all set up to the tee and Caustic’s noxious barrels lined up strategically on every floor. Crypto was in the corner, on his drone as he always was, keeping an eye in the sky for any threats. It was the perfect storm— the Ring (designed by hers truly, as she’s ever so proud of it) was pulling towards their building, and with luck they would’ve been the most entrenched team to take the round given how incredibly set-up they were. It would’ve been impossible for anyone to set foot in the building without setting off one of the traps— that is, if they weren’t even snuffed out by Crypto’s drone.

But even the most well-fortified base had its blind spots. The loud crash of a jump pad’s trampoline was heard, and everyone was on edge. Rifle barrels were pointed to the air, expecting a full, aerial assault from Octavio and his team. But there was no visual. And as Natalie’s ears picked up that faint, yet familiar whooshing sound, she knew it was too late.

In a flash, Renee appears out of the void on the roof of the building, which was in perfect angle of the open-aired floor that Natalie’s team was using as their main base. Renee’s hand is shaped in a claw, which she thrusted forward, and that only meant one thing. The entrance to the portal is planted, and within a split second appeared Elliot and Octavio, right beside Renee— armed and ready. Before Natalie’s team could so much as react, bullets were fired.

In an organised focused fire, Caustic was the first to get knocked down, then the near-oblivious Crypto. Natalie tried to take one of them down— to at least attempt to even the fight, but Octavio was too fast, and Elliott’s clones were throwing her off. And before she knew it, Renee was gunning her down. But just when she was left to an inch of her life, the raven-haired skirmisher had to reload. This was Natalie’s perfect opportunity— to just turn around and run while her opponent was indisposed. But Renee never reloaded. Instead, she sheathed her rifle, then in one swift motion lunged at Natalie who could only hold her arm up in a desperate defence.

And before she knew it, she materialised in the respawn chamber with a rough gasp— still fully intact, but with that jagged kunai cut across her left forearm.

*

“I still can’t believe we took down Natalie’s team. You could tell no one wanted to even go close to that building. But you, Renee, you just said “I got this”, and BAM! All three of us teleport onto the roof, and just wipe them out.”

Natalie heard Elliott’s voice echo through the corridor, and she realised Renee’s team had already made it back to the Tournament Base. She quickly shut off the monitor, making sure passerbys couldn’t tell she was still staring at that Victory Screen (or rather, the one specific person her eyes were drawn to). She turned to her locker, opening it to make it seem like she was occupied and not all distracted by anything else in case of prying eyes walking by. She pretended to study herself in the mirror, undoing the hood of her safety suit as her wavy, blonde hair poofed out, with its ends spreading out across her jawline as she shook it out with a hand.

“We chose the right path,” Renee coolly said.

“The right path means a win. And since we won, you know what that means,” Elliott sang teasingly as their footsteps stopped. Natalie heard Renee sigh— and then realised how close the two of them sounded to her locker room. “Come on… we had a deal! You already flaked out after the last win. You can’t chicken out a second time— not even a chicken does that!”

Natalie froze as she remained back-faced to the glass door, but still keeping her ears sharp while she combed through her locks with her fingers. Her mind raced, wondering what this bet that Renee and Elliott have with each other, one that seemed to be making Renee reconsider. Renee— the one person who Natalie thought always seemed to be so committed to her goals and principles, suddenly being one to back out of an agreement? It was certainly out of character.

Fine , I’ll do it right now. I promise. But could you please let me do it alone?” Renee said resignedly.

“Oh my god, it’s happening!” Elliott was always one to sound excited, but this time it seemed to be on another level. “You are going to tell me everything when you’re done later, okay?”

“Yes, yes , now go,” Renee shooed off the trickster, who immediately sped off into the distance of the corridor. And as his footfalls got softer and softer, Natalie was still left stunned in silence— still sensing that Renee was right there, just outside the locker room.

knock knock

“Natalie?” Renee called out from the corridor, and Natalie’s insides were fluttering out of control. Renee was here for her .

As nonchalantly as she could, Natalie turned to face the door, then quickly went forward to press the button on the wall to let the glass door slide open. “Renee,” Natalie greeted, her voice suddenly growing a little weak as her crush was right there, so up-close. Renee’s leathery getup was pitch black as always, with the only colour being the light purplish tones that embellished her vest, along with her pale face.

“Hey you,” Renee said, a slight smile appearing on the edge of her lips which only made Natalie’s heart throb. “You holding up alright? I’m sorry I slashed you so hard back there— instinct and all-”

“It’s okay,” Natalie was quick to cut in, breath still airy. “It’s nothing much, it’ll heal in no time. But congratulations on the win!”

“Thanks,” Renee played it off humbly, never revelling in the jaws of victory.

“Did you… need something?” Natalie decided to push a little, nervously eager to figure out what this ‘bet’ Renee had with Elliott was all about— one that Natalie suspiciously felt was going to involve her.

Renee’s gaze shifted uncertainly— those dark circles under her eyes seemed to hold the weight of the world. “Listen, uhh,” Renee finally started, her gloved hand finding its way to the back of her neck, fidgeting with a few of those stray, ebon locks that she didn’t properly tie up in that messy bun she always wore. “Did you, uh, wanna go for dinner tonight? Like… on a date?”

Natalie’s racing heart skipped a beat, processing those words that left Renee’s lips so sweetly. Renee? Asking her out on a date? Never in a million years did she expect it to happen this way. Natalie could only dream of cooking up the courage to strike a conversation with Renee, let alone ask her out on a date. But in some twist of fate, it was Renee taking that first step. A surprise for sure— one that sent Natalie’s spinning with glee.

“Yes!” she accepted too excitedly, almost busting out in a jump. “I’d love to, Renee,” she tempered her enthusiasm, staying grounded as she realised Renee’s shadowy face was lighting up.

“Oh, that’s great!” Renee seemed to be in a shock too— perhaps not expecting things to go the way it did. “Say we meet at that new fancy restaurant across the Paradise Lounge around 9? I’ll make a reservation!”

Parfait! à plus tard! ” she instinctively broke out into her native tongue, then covered her mouth in embarrassment. “ Pardon , I mean, see you then!”

Renee chuckled, and it strummed Natalie’s heartstrings so deviously. “I’ll see you then. Can’t wait,” she bade farewell, then casually walked off with her hands in her pockets and with the slightest spring in her step.

The moment the sliding door closed, Natalie’s back hit the wall as she slid down into a squat, her entire system riddled with sparks of joy. She had a date with Renee Blasey: the woman she’d always steal glances of every moment she got— sometimes even in a match when she should’ve been shooting at her. The one and only Wraith (well, at least the one in this dimension).

And then the logistical reality of actually attending a date hits her. What was she going to wear? How was she going to do her makeup, her hair? Hell, when was the last time she ever went out on a date? The Games had been such a big part of her adult life, and she’d known nothing but trying every single day to win— to make Papa proud. And now, for once in her life, she was feeling nervous for something that didn’t involve leaping off a jumpship while wondering if she was any match for the other constellations of competitors descending onto the battlefield. No — she was nervous about making a good impression on a woman she’s adored since the first time she laid eyes on her.

Ding.

The sudden beep startled Natalie, though she was only more perplexed seeing the name that flashed across the screen of her phone. Loba . Curious, she tapped on the message.

“Natalie dear, how’ve you been? I know this is sudden, but I need a HUGE favour from you. Could you stop by my place later with your tools? I’ll owe you BIG time xx”

It wasn’t every day you’d get Loba texting you out of the blue— let alone to ask for a favour. She was always one of those more ‘outgoing’ personalities at the Games, where her status preceded her. Sure, becoming an Apex Champion was everyone’s goal, and that was always the surefire way to get yourself noticed amongst the other competitors and the sponsors. But Loba had an added flair for theatrics, being the diva she was. Every match is a beauty pageant to her, strutting over gunned bodies in her pumps as she so cleanly massacres— her hands dripping with blood, and somehow also style. Winning was never enough for her, though. She had to win, and she always had to make it look pretty. Glamorously ruthless, she was the wolf of the Games.

And that was when Natalie realised she had been given the best stroke of luck— to be owed by Loba herself. She typed out her reply, a sneaky smirk scrawled on her face.

Bien sur! Will be there in an hour.”

The elevator dinged as it reached the floor, and the doors slid open to reveal the corridor. Natalie carefully walked out, keeping her eyes peeled for the right apartment. 712, 713, 714-oh . The door to apartment 715 was slightly ajar, and she could feel the cold air conditioning draft emanating from the gap. As she moved closer, she could swear she heard a sound coming from deep inside— almost like a constant droning. While it was an open door that Natalie supposed she could just walk through, it only felt right for her to press the button on the wall beside it.

Ding dong .

There was a brief silence, then came a voice from inside. “Come in! Second door to your left!”

Natalie took it as her cue to walk in, though she did spend about ten seconds wondering if she should shut the door behind her. Inaction took over her instead, and she just left it ajar before moving deeper into the apartment.

The first word that came to her mind was ‘glittery’— almost as if the entire house was adorned with diamonds. Not at all surprising of the Loba Andrade who always had a penchant for the prettier things in life. She made a sizeable apartment look almost like a penthouse suite, and Natalie could only wish she had that level of dedication to detail for her own place. As she approached the second door, she realised that the droning sound was still there— and was getting louder. What in the world could it be?

Quietly, she pushed that second door that was ajar, creaking open as her head peeked through. “ Oh là là ,” the words left her lips in a whisper as her eyes captured the rather unexpected setting.

The room was large, with a bright white light above that lit up its calm, beige walls. Loba was standing behind a chair, hands fully occupied on the woman seated directly in front of her, whose short, ashen hair could only have belonged to Kairi. The pilot’s head was bowed down with the help of Loba’s fierce hand, left to stare down at the wine-coloured cape that draped her seated figure as Loba’s other hand propelled a device up the woman’s neck. And that was exactly where the droning sound was coming from.

Bzzzaaa. Bzzaaaa .

Loba flicks the device away as it nears the top of Kairi’s head, sending tufts of hair tumbling down onto the floor. And then it finally clicked in Natalie’s mind— Loba was giving Kairi a haircut. Loba herself was clad in a satin, emerald-green nightgown that ended just above her knees, with a pair of black, knitted home slippers gracing her feet. Her luscious, brown tresses cascaded in beautiful waves down her back, and seemed like such a perfect foil to her lover’s shorter, pixie-like hair— which only seemed to be getting shorter in the chair.

“Natalie, dear, you’re here already!” Loba eventually turned as she sensed the blonde woman enter, her finger immediately flicking off the clippers which stopped the droning sound.

Bonsoir ,” Natalie greeted, giving an awkward wave as Loba set her tools on the little dresser beside the mirror.

“It’s been too long since we’ve caught up with each other. Uhm… Ça va ?” Loba took a stab at the unfamiliar language, and Natalie couldn’t help but giggle remembering the time she tried teaching a few phrases to Loba.

Ça va ! Tu vas bien ?” Natalie played along, curious to know if her teaching efforts were for naught.

“And this is where my knowledge of French ends,” Loba concluded, “but yes, I’m doing well, thank you.”

“You’re supposed to say ‘ ça va ’ back to her,” Kairi chimed in from the chair, giving a charming smile through her reflection in the mirror. “And hi Natalie!”

“Hello Kairi,” Natalie waved, slightly amused at the seated woman’s hair where the top sections were completely pinned up atop her head, while the sides were still exposed, with a few shorn paths up her nape that stood out.

“Thank you so much for coming— you’re a lifesaver. Come, have a seat,” she gestured to a small table with a couple chairs around it towards the other corner of the room. “I’ll be right back.”

Natalie settled herself in the chairs by the corner, setting her little toolbox on the table before Loba disappeared from the room. She returned in a jiffy, and Natalie’s brows furrowed as she recognised the bracelet in the she-wolf’s hand.

“So… you could probably tell from my message that something needs fixing, and well,” she set the wide, metallic accessory down on the table, a guilty expression on her face, “it just had to be my Jump drive.”

“What happened?” Natalie asked as she carefully lifted the bracelet to examine it, in awe that she was even allowed to touch something that was so sacred to Loba. Natalie had been intrigued by its technology since the first time she saw it in use in the Games— Jump Technology was simply fascinating, but a luxury she never did manage to get her hands on before. Designed in a way that it’s calibrated specifically to its wearer, Loba could throw it anywhere she wanted, and at her command, she would appear where the bracelet was. They didn’t call her the Translocating Thief without reason.

“It’s been… malfunctioning,” Loba hedged. “Hasn’t been as reliable as it’s always been. Some days I throw it and expect myself to teleport immediately, but then it ends up taking more than a few seconds to work— and you know how much a few seconds is the difference between life and death in that arena,” she mused. “Now, I’m no engineer, so I can’t quite diagnose these things. And usually, Jaime’s the one helping me with these technical problems, but he’s away on vacation for a bit. And that leaves…”

“Me!” Natalie proudly announced.

“Yes, you,” a soft smile played on Loba’s lips. “Now, I’m not entirely sure if you’re well-versed in this particular technology, but I had to give it a shot. You’re my only hope now. This bracelet is everything to me in the Games,” she asserted, a hint of desperation in her tone.

“I’ll have to open it up and see first, but I promise I’ll try my best!” Natalie assured.

“I know you will,” Loba said. “You let me know if you need anything while you work on it, okay? I’ll be right here, cleaning up Kairi’s hair,” she added before returning to the chair where the pilot was still obediently seated.

And so Natalie jumped right into work, eager to get her sparky fingers on such an intricate novelty. But as she dug into the mechanism, she could hear the clippers reigniting to life, filling the room with its constant humming as both Loba and Natalie got to work. It was such a harmless scene, but Natalie couldn’t help but peek up every once in a while, watching as Loba trimmed Kairi’s undercut so expertly.

Loba, the hairstylist— it was a skill Natalie didn’t quite expect out of the she-wolf, but the more she watched, the more it made sense. Loba: the woman so obsessed with making sure everything in her possession was as pretty and glamorous as can be, and perhaps also with a newfound habit for making things pretty. Like Kairi’s hair.

The humming song of the clippers soon came to a halt, and was replaced with a symphony of snips. Natalie did her best to take silent glances here and there, catching bits and pieces of Loba wielding the scissors with finesse, a constant yet not too demanding distraction as Natalie’s fingers tinkered on the bracelet. Little clippings of ashen hair rained around Kairi, littering her cape as the cut slowly began shaping up.

Before long, Natalie could hear the blasting of the hairdryer, gushing over Kairi’s floppy, bowlish pixie as Loba styled the hair this way and that. The cape was soon whisked off, and Kairi was spinning her head from side to side as she relished the feeling of her freshly trimmed hair.

“Oh, babe, that feels great ,” Kairi commented as she stood up with her hands all over her head, and Natalie realised how Kairi’s baggy t-shirt and sweatpants was such a contrast to Loba’s sultry night outfit. Natalie thought the haircut turned out perfectly— the undercut around the sides and back was clipped close to the skin but still with a gentle fuzz left behind, and the top was trimmed neatly to just above her ears, like how she usually had it.

“I know,” Loba smugly said, moving closer to Kairi as the she-wolf’s hand crept up the back of the pilot’s fuzzy neck.

“Mmm, I love it when you do that,” Kairi hummed, surrendering herself to Loba’s touch as she rubbed Kairi’s nape.

“And I love how fuzzy it feels after every trim,” Loba added, then swiftly dove in.

Natalie immediately realised she’d been staring for a bit too long, and quickly shifted her attention back to her work. Nonchalant, nonchalant, nonchalant. She didn’t exactly need to see the smooching session the other two were getting into, but it also didn’t help that they were rather passionately loud. Good for them, Natalie thought.

“Mm,” Loba eventually made a slightly alarmed sound as Kairi’s fingers ventured too expeditiously, “maybe don’t do that here, angel. We have a guest.” Kairi only made a low giggle as she slowly pulled away, still beaming from their little encounter. “Listen, angel, why don’t you go home and get showered up, then I’ll drop by with some drinks later after I’ve got my bracelet sorted. Sound good?”

“Okay,” Kairi agreed, giving a peck on the other woman’s forehead before heading out the door with a spring in her step.

And then the room was left with just Loba and Natalie, where the latter was still focusing —or at least, doing her best to— on the faulty bracelet, and to good success. “I never knew you were a hairstylist,” Natalie brought up, trying to keep the conversation away from that massive display of affection that she was exposed to less than a minute ago.

“Mmm, though I wouldn’t use that word to describe myself. Hairstylist ,” Loba was almost spitting the word out of her mouth. “Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it? No, I’d prefer the term ‘barber’— now that has a gorgeous ring to it, don’t you think? So bold, and so serious.” She took a moment to smirk, proud of the labels she affixed on herself. “But yes, I do dabble in cutting hair. I like having pretty things, and ever since a certain angel flew its way into my arms very recently,” her eyes glanced momentarily towards the door that Kairi had left through, “ well , I realise some pretty things are going to need some maintenance. And thus,” she gestured to the room in an extravagant way, “Loba the barber is born.”

“So you’re… the Lo-barber?” Natalie cracked, giving her favourite, stupid little smile every time she comes up with a killer pun.

A low growl bubbled at the back of Loba’s throat, suppressing that desire to express her disgust. “I suppose it’s only fair I let you pop your silly little puns given that you are doing me a huge favour,” she played it off, face still as unimpressed as ever.

Natalie giggled, relishing in that talent of hers. “Do you cut anyone else’s hair too? Or is this all just for Kairi?” It would definitely have been magnanimous to have an entire home salon set-up built just for one person in her life, but it was something Natalie wouldn’t have put past Loba.

“It started with Kairi and Anita. My two little beauties love keeping their hair so short that I have to trim it often to keep it looking pretty. Then eventually Obi and Jaime caught wind, and I thought ‘why not?’. So I guess… ‘loved ones’, if you will,” Loba explained. “How’s the bracelet coming along? Is there hope?”

“Yes, actually,” Natalie said to Loba’s relief. “The wiring’s a little complicated, but I think I got it figured out. Turns out some of it’s just fraying a bit too much, which is what’s causing the electrical delay. Annoying, but inevitable— standard wear-and-tear of electronics,” the engineer started her spiel, always excited to explain science-y things to her friends. “Right now I’m just reinforcing the wiring so that it’s more intact— that way it’ll last a lot longer than before, and then it should be back to peak performance.”

“Oh, Natalie , you have no idea how much your words soothe me,” Loba heaved a sigh as she sat herself on the armrest of the barber chair. “I knew I could trust the most notable electrical engineer in the Outlands.”

“It’s nothing much, really. Simple electrical maintenance,” Natalie humbly replied.

“But it’s no simple device,” Loba added. “One wrong move and it might even fall apart— I couldn’t risk that on something so precious. I had to make sure I go to the best.” Loba leaned against her arm that was resting on the cushion of the chair. “It’s like going to the best diamond dealer, to make sure I get the best service and talent.”

Natalie tried her best to stay looking down on the bracelet, shy to show her cheeks that were obviously starting to colour. It was one thing to have caught Loba’s attention, and another to have her pepper you with such sweet words. And now that Loba herself was to owe Natalie a favour, the evening’s prospects only seemed to get brighter.

“All done!” Natalie eventually announced, raising the bracelet in victory.

“Ooh, let me see!” Loba bolted forward, snatching the bracelet the moment she was in range. She flicked it around her fingers, getting a feel of it before calibrating it to herself.

She then stood by her corner of the room, with a hand holding the bracelet firmly as she eyed the other, empty section of the room. In one fluid motion she tossed the bracelet, then clenched her fists against each other.

Natalie watched in awe as Loba’s figure dissociated into wisps of white, and then immediately materialised in a kneeling position at the other corner of the room. She caught the bracelet casually before it could plonk onto the floor, a look of calculated joy written across her face.

“Natalie,” she stood up, facing the engineer. “You. Are. A LIFESAVER.” She rushed forward to Natalie, embracing her in the tightest hug as Natalie cautiously returned the favour— not at all used to such sudden, physical means of gratitude. “I don’t mean to sound at all dramatic, but you probably just saved my career. Thank you thank you THANK YOU!” Loba was jumping for joy, her free hand still fiddling with the bracelet so happily.

“Happy to help,” Natalie simply replied, still reeling from the hug that came out of the blue.

“Alright then— name your price. And know that I will be very generous about this,” it was Loba’s turn to offer up her services.

Natalie bit her lip, realising she was actually going to have to verbalise the request now. The whole day she had imagined it to go so smoothly, but only now did she realise she didn’t quite know how to say it. So she started slow. “Can you… promise me you won’t tell anyone?” She asked. “I mean, it’s not a big secret, so to say, but I’d prefer to keep it hush hush for now.”

“My lips are sealed,” Loba mimicked a zipper across her the length of her mouth.

“So… I have a first date tonight,” she dropped the bomb lightly, trying to ease in the request.

“With Renee.” Loba shot, and Natalie realised she wasn’t asking for clarification. She was stating it, as if she knew all along.

“H-how did you know?!” Natalie was incredulous. Could Renee have actually told so many people in such a short amount of time? Would she have told anyone at all? It didn’t quite seem like her, and this was all playing out very bizarrely.

“Honestly? A bit of a wild guess,” Loba seemed very impressed with herself— as if she didn’t quite think the guess was right in the first place. “But at the same time… you should see the way you two look at each other. My god, like two little smitten foxes stealing glances every time! It took you two long enough to go out with each other.”

Natalie could only turn her cheek away, failing to hide the redness of her face this time. “I didn’t think I was ever that obvious!”

“It’s a joint effort with you two, really. But it’s also very endearing,” Loba commented, very much invested in this budding romance playing out in front of her. “And now you have a first date! And you’re actually letting me know about it. I’m honoured.”

“Uh, yeah… about that,” Natalie shook off the shyness, trying her best to own it. She took a deep breath, readying herself to ask the ultimate favour. “I… need your help getting ready for this date.” Loba blinked, but remained silent as ever as the words hung in the air. “I know it’s a weird thing to ask, but I haven’t gone out on a date in forever , and I really don’t want to mess this one up. I think I really like Renee.” She immediately sealed her mouth with a hand, not expecting herself to spill a bit too prematurely.

But Loba’s grin only grew. She was completely immersed in this romance novel that she’d found herself being a side character in. “First of all, Natalie,” Loba stepped forward, lifting up the engineer’s chin gently with a hand, “I don’t think you could ever screw up a date with Renee. You’re a brilliant woman— what’s there not to adore about you?”

“And second of all,” her fingers now went up into Natalie’s blonde hair, carefully stroking through a few of those messy, wavy locks as the she-wolf’s eyes turned pensive. “I am absolutely flattered that you would think of me to help you get ready for a date.”

Natalie was a little on edge, but steadied her breaths. Physical touch had always been something she shied away from, but as she let Loba’s fingers gently explored her bobbed hair… maybe it didn’t seem too bad. There was something about Loba’s touch that felt more comforting than invasive. “So… will you help me?” She asked once more.

Loba’s lips twitched, then she turned to look up at the wall clock. “What time’s your date?”

“Nine, at that new, fancy place across the Paradise Lounge.”

“Perfect, then we have plenty of time!” Loba clapped excitedly. “Natalie, I will do everything in my power to make sure you look your absolute best for Renee tonight. You have my word,” she held a hand to her chest as she made the promise. Natalie watched as Loba curiously walked back to the barber chair, standing so confidently beside it. She then turned the chair to face Natalie, giving its cushioned seat a couple inviting pats. “Come, dear. Let’s make you look divine for your date.”

Natalie’s face went blank, puzzled at the request. “Huh?”

“Oh, Natalie ,” Loba’s face turned almost impish, “you didn’t think I was just going to give you a pretty dress and do your makeup before sending you on your way? No no, if you want me to make you look good for your date, that means I’m going to give you the full package.”

Perhaps it was naive of Natalie to think Loba would’ve gone for the simplest things— choosing a cute outfit and some makeup really were the bare minimum, but it was all Natalie thought would’ve been enough. And now that she found herself in Loba’s little shop by chance, it’s perhaps only fitting that she’d have to be another one of her ‘clients’.

“There’s no need to be afraid, Natalie.” Loba ambled forward, extending a hand to the engineer. “I’ll make you look extra pretty for Renee.”

A haircut was the last thing on Natalie’s mind when she’d thought of Loba helping her out, but everything seemed to be pointed in that direction. Perhaps a trim from Loba wouldn’t be so bad, Natalie thought. Surely, it wouldn’t hurt?

With a deep sigh, she took Loba’s hand.

“You won’t regret this, Natalie,” Loba assured with a sinister grin as she led the engineer back to the barber chair.

Natalie settled into the chair with Loba’s help, easing herself into that comfortable padding as the chair was turned to face the mirror. And now she could everything up-close— this quaint little workstation that Loba managed to fashion. Fixed below the mirror was a black sink, with a few bottles of shampoo and other hair products. Right beside it was a marble countertop with an assortment of tools laid out across them, from scissors and combs to brushes and clippers. Natalie was impressed at how professional the setup was, and felt just that little bit more assured about this entire affair.

“Now, let me have a closer look at what we’re dealing with here,” Loba started as she picked up the paddle brush, then carefully began running its bristles through Natalie’s blonde locks. The engineer’s eyes were drawn back to the mirror as Loba pampered her hair, taking in that stark image of herself with her loose blue turtleneck and dark jeans, willingly seated in the jaws that were Loba’s chair. As Loba’s fingers reached the left side of Natalie’s face, she paused. “May I?” She gestured to the fairly obvious branches of marks on her face.

“Mhm.”

Loba’s fingers traced the lines of the Lichtenberg figure, examining it with pure awe. “Does it hurt?”

Non ,” Natalie replied. “It stung for about a week after it happened, but now it’s just there on my skin— permanently on my face and,” she gestured down the left side of her body, “most of my body. Usually when someone gets struck, the marks from

the electricity disappears within a day or two. But when it’s intensely powerful…” she trailed off rather wistfully, as if mourning the skin she could’ve had if not for her electrical misadventures when she was still learning from her Papa.

“I think it’s very sexy,” Loba complimented, and was only met with Natalie’s furrowed brows. “I mean, a scar always tells a good story, and yours is just a little bigger than most. Sure , you didn’t get it in battle, but you did it doing something you love,” Loba explained as she tucked those blonde locks behind Natalie’s left ear, exposing the intricacies of the electrical scar to the light. “It’s a mark of passion— etched on your skin to remind you that you still do what you’ve always loved.”

Loba had a way with words, making such a mark of shame and folly seem like a badge of pride. More than anything, Natalie was surprised she was believing it. For so long her hair was in that perfect length that it didn’t need to be tied up, but just long enough that it could cover most of the scars when she wasn’t wearing her hood. She felt so exposed as Loba was almost mesmerised by the scar, as if trying to memorise by heart the way it blooms across her cheek and down her neck. But she somehow felt safe— at least knowing Loba didn’t think it was as hideous as how Natalie felt about it at times.

“I think,” Loba mused as she tucked the other side of Natalie’s bob behind her right ear, letting the both of them see this sparkling image of Natalie’s hair off her ears, “I know just the thing for you.”

And with that, Loba spun the chair round, letting Natalie face the back of the room where the door was. With a pump of the lever below the chair, its backrest slowly reclined down, lowering Natalie into a supine position. “We’ll get your hair washed up first, okay?” Loba asked.

“Mm,” Natalie affirmed, though she knew it wasn’t necessarily something she had a choice in— more of Loba being polite as she took control.

“Slowly bring it down for me, dear,” Loba’s hands found their way to the back of Natalie’s head, where she helped to gently guide it into the basin comfortably. With a whistling twist of the tap, the warm water gushed out onto Natalie’s scalp, soaking her blonde hair.

Loba’s fingers were tender yet firm, combing through the wet locks with her fingers to make sure every nook and cranny was sufficiently damp. It started off rather unnerving, but as Loba’s lathered in a few pumps of shampoo into her hair, Natalie couldn’t help but surrender herself. She basked in the coconut scent of the shampoo, fully immersing herself in this pampering session she was getting from Loba. It had been so long since someone ever touched her head of hair with so much care, and Loba’s masterful scalp massage just made every worry feel like it was melting away.

But the water was shut off too soon to Natalie’s dismay, and Loba began wrapping her head of hair with a towel before gently drying it. She slowly propped Natalie’s head back up as the chair was brought back upright, still lightly dabbing Natalie’ damp, blonde locks, but never tugging uncomfortably. Once dry enough, she tossed the towel into a bin beside the dresser, then picked up the wine-coloured cape from its wall hook.

With a flick and a flourish, she draped most of Natalie’s body in that large, red cloth— and Natalie realised that right near the breast of the cape was a golden logo of a wolf head. A she-wolf. Even in her own personal, little shop Loba wanted that bit of branding to truly make it hers, and Natalie found it charming. Loba clipped the ends of the cape a little high on Natalie’s neck, making sure it was just above the collar of her turtleneck. She smoothened out the cape to make sure it was properly covering every inch of Natalie’s seated figure, then pulled out a wide-toothed comb to begin sectioning the hair.

Loba spent a good few minutes here, making sure most of the sides and the back were left hanging down while the top section was held in place neatly atop Natalie’s crown. “Aren’t you going to turn me around?” Natalie eventually asked, realising that she was still suspiciously faced away from the mirror.

A devilish smile flashed across the she-wolf’s face. “No,” Loba simply said as she pinned up the bangs. “Do you not trust me, my dear?” She continued, trying to prod a response out of the engineer.

Pardon , I didn’t mean it that way-“

“Relax, Natalie,” Loba’s hands found their way onto Natalie’s shoulders, giving them a light squeeze to help her calm her posture that was perking up. “I promise— you’re in good hands.”

Natalie had a hunch of suspicion, and now it only seemed to snowball. Trust her? It was only going to be a trim, wasn’t it? Surely something as small as that wouldn’t have needed so much mystery around it. But her faith in Loba was beginning to err precariously— Natalie could trust that she would look nothing short of fabulous in Loba’s care, but how far would she go? Trim or no, it didn’t change that Natalie had been the one to come to Loba. And now that she was firmly clasped in the she-wolf’s paws, she knew her fate had been sealed already.

Pop. Bzzzz

Natalie jumped in her seat when she heard the loud pop, followed by that same droning sound that’d been playing when she first arrived. Loba was beside her now, the wired clippers held deftly in a hand as Natalie realised how far the she-wolf was planning to go.

“Ever had these used on you?” Loba asked as she waved the intimidating device. Natalie shook her head, violently. “They won’t hurt you, I promise. They just… tickle.”

Before Natalie could protest, Loba’s other hand was planted atop the engineer’s head, tilting it towards her right. The blades of the clippers were positioned below Natalie’s left cheekbone, primed and ready to do its menacing work. Natalie’s shoulders tensed up, wincing as she braced herself for the clippers that were making their way up her head.

Bzzzaaa .

Then out of her mouth came a hearty giggle. “You alright there?” Loba looked amused as she pushed the clippers up high.

“It’s so ticklish!” Natalie expressed as those blades munched so bizarrely close to her skin. But her glee was only short-lived as Loba flicked the clippers once it was near Natalie’s crown, sending a chunk of blonde locks plunging down onto the cape with a thud. “Loba! How much are you cutting?!” She half-screamed, staring at those limp, locks of hair sitting on the cape that seemed too long to be off her head.

“Just a little bit,” Loba teased as she kept Natalie’s head firmly tilted, readying her clippers before pushing them up for another pass. “Aw, don’t worry, my dear. It’s going to look magnifique. If you don’t like it, I can lend you a wig. I still have plenty from my heisting days.” Bzzzaaa. Bzzaaa. Loba made a few more passes in quick succession, shearing off even more of Natalie’s blonde in such little time. “But I promise you, once you see how it turns out, you’ll forget how much you’re losing. Renee’s going to be all over you tonight.”

Natalie wanted to object, but realised it would’ve just amounted to nothing. The damage was already done, and the only way out of this was to let Loba finish. And so all she could do was pout slightly as the clippers did their work, holding her tongue while those blades tickled close to her scalp, followed by the constant raining of blonde around her.

Loba was quick to move around Natalie’s head, first transitioning to the back where she had to force the head forward as she worked up the nape. Heavy, severed locks were piling on the back of her neck which Loba had to merrily sweep off, letting them plop onto her floor so unceremoniously. Her head was then tilted to the left, where Loba dove in to finish that last, sufficiently hairy section that was left laid down.

Every lock of hair that fell in sight of her shook Natalie, and by the time Loba was about done with the right side, she couldn’t believe that all that hair scattered over the cape was even on her head just a moment ago. She kept her head slightly loose for Loba the entire time with just that bit of petty resistance, making it so the she-wolf had to at least put in some effort to manoeuvre around. Loba began shortening the bottom sections now, blending them in slightly as they made a soft taper towards the cheekbones and the bottom of the nape.

When the clippers were finally shut off, Natalie let out the biggest sigh, realising she could finally breathe a little more easily now. Loba returned to her dresser, putting the clippers back before rummaging for her next set of tools. And in that brief moment of opportunity, Natalie silently got a hand out from under the cape, eager to at least feel how this new landscape on her head was going to be-

“Uh-uh!” Her arm was caught red-handed a mere inch away from her head, with Loba’s iron grip around her wrist. “I never said you could touch it,” Loba chided as she slowly lowered Natalie’s arm back under the cape. “Just a little longer, my dear. It’ll be worth it.”

“Fine,” Natalie relented, back to her pouty face as she folded her arms under the cape.

Once Loba had gotten her next set of tools ready she unpinned the top section of Natalie’s, letting those wavy blonde locks messily spill all over— still giving the illusion that her hair was still intact in its typical, bobbed state. Loba’s comb started raking through those damp locks, combing it all backwards and off Natalie’s face. She then started from the back of the crown, combing up a generous section of blonde hair before holding it firmly between her forefingers.

snip snip snip

Golden tufts fell backward out of Natalie’s sight, and her anxiousness gnawed on her trying to figure out how much shorter Loba was taking her hair. But the she-wolf never stopped to dally— she simply combed up another section, then snip snip went the scissors.

She slowly worked her way towards the front part of the crown, where Natalie was starting to realise how close the length was going to be to her head. It seemed like she was leaving barely any length between her fingers and her scalp before snipping off the hair that was being held aloft.

snip snip snip

The loose hairs were starting to fall forward now, and while they didn’t seem as long as the locks that were so mercilessly shorn by the clippers, the length she was losing still felt excessive. With every click of the shears came a torrent of hair onto the cape, growing so heavy that even the little logo of the wolf was completely covered in Natalie’s severed, blonde waves. By the time Loba combed up that last section in front that formed Natalie’s bangs, the engineer knew she was going to face the music soon enough.

snip snip, snip snip.

Natalie had to close her eyes as those little tufts of hair tickled her face, trickling down onto the cape. And the moment Loba let go of that section of her hair, Natalie realised that her bangs were nowhere close to touching her brows like they usually do. Oh , what had Loba gotten her into?

Once done with the rough cut, Loba began cleaning up around the head, using a scissor-over-comb technique to blend in the top section with the rest of the sides. She was very quick here, moving so rhythmically as tiny clippings of hair were shed.

“We’re almost doooone,” Loba eventually announced in a singsong voice before setting her scissors down on the dresser. “Now, I know you’ve been a bit squirmy cos you’re scared, but you need to promise me you’re not going to move a muscle during this part. I don’t want to hurt you here,” she said, appearing beside Natalie with a long, metal implement between her claws. “You keep real still for me for a few minutes, and then you can see how it looks like, okay?” she requested. Natalie stared at that tool in her hand, realising what it was. The straight razor.

“Okay,” Natalie cautiously accepted, not knowing what Loba was going to do with something so lethal.

But she obeyed, keeping her head as still as a rock this time while Loba tilted it gently. The blade of the razor was sharp, but Loba wielded it so professionally— scraping the sides so scarcely as she shaped the sideburns perfectly. She slowly manoeuvred around Natalie’s head, sculpting the neckline with precision to add those final, edgy touches to Natalie’s look. Not once did it ever hurt— instead, it felt almost like a soft scratch. A she-wolf carefully carving with her claws.

“That’s a good girl,” Loba eventually finished, setting aside the razor before getting out the hairdryer. She flicked it on, blasting the hot air across Natalie’s freshly shorn head.

Natalie’s goosebumps flared as she felt the wind gushing across her head— ghastly for her to think how her ears were so exposed to the air breezing about without any hair to shield her head. All that hair that she had to frame most of her face was probably gone now, and she could only hope she was right in trusting Loba. The she-wolf’s claws ruffled across that freshly shorn head, styling what was left this way and that as it didn’t take long for the dampness to dry up completely.

“Natalie,” Loba eventually said once the hairdryer was shut off, standing in front of the woman in the chair to take in that new, spectacular image of her, “you look divine .” Natalie tried to suppress a blush— she may not know how dramatically different she looked now, but the way Loba complimented added that little bit of confidence to her. Loba’s hand found its way to Natalie’s chin yet again, softly turning her head from side to side as she-wolf’s smile grew, proud of her own handiwork. “Are you ready to see it?”

Oui ,” Natalie nodded— a brief gasp leaving her throat as she was taken aback by how her hair wasn’t swinging around her head anymore. And so Loba fulfilled her wish, turning the chair around to let Natalie see the new her.

Her blue eyes scoured across that mirror, taking in that peculiarly familiar image that was staring right back at her. Her blonde hair was cropped short— much shorter than what she’d ever imagined to see on herself. Her blonde locks were no longer substantial enough to frame either side of her cheeks, leaving that Lichtenberg figure on her cheek so exposed as the ends of her blonde locks weren’t even close to touching the top of her ears. The sides were clipped close to the scalp, though still thick that it didn’t reveal the paleness of her skin so harshly. And right at her forehead was a set of short bangs— short enough that it was firmly above her brows, but long enough that her signature waviness in front still showed.

“I know I went really short,” Loba chimed in, her hands squeezing either side of Natalie’s shoulders for comfort, “but I think it’s what suits you best. What better way to remind your competitors that you harness the power of electricity itself,” Loba continued her ode, her thumb tracing those branches of scars on Natalie’s face that were so naked now, “than by leaving such a beautiful mark for all to see. A symbol to let people know that you’ve tampered with such a fatal power, yet live to tell the tale. Wattson— the Spark of the Games.”

Natalie’s face was still blank as ever, overwhelmed by this new image of herself with her features so front and centre without her hair to mitigate it. Never in her life would she ever have asked anyone to cut her hair so short, yet there she was— the unwitting victim of Loba’s rambunctious ambition. And there was no part of her that hated it.

“I like it,” she squeaked, confused that those words even left her lips— but none of them were lies.

“Of course you do,” Loba confidently acknowledged. “Natalie, dear, with your face you were made to wear a crop. The bob was adorable on you, but now,” she cupped either side of Natalie’s face, lowering her head so that it was an inch above the engineer’s, with both of them facing the mirror, “you are striking. So ravishingly gamine.”

And Natalie couldn’t disagree. It was a powerful look, having her hair so short yet with just enough texture that it gave it a splash of sophistication. No longer able to hide behind those golden strands of hers.

“Come, let me show you the back,” Loba said as she picked up the hand mirror, lifting it up behind Natalie’s head to let her see the tightly buzzed nape. “Short and bold,” she elaborated as she ran a free hand up Natalie’s nape, “but with a soft taper so that it doesn’t look too drastic. Oh , don’t be shy my dear, you can touch it now.”

Natalie cautiously got her hand out from under the cape once more, somehow more wary than the first time she wanted to feel her head of hair now that she could actually see it. A gasp left her as her hand slowly made its way up the back of her neck, feeling how close the hair had been buzzed to her skin. So prickly and fuzzy— she’d never felt anything like it before.

“Oh, ça fait du bien ,” she expressed, already in love with it.

“Addictive, isn’t it?” Loba added, her perfectly polished fingernails grazing that nape as well. “Every time Anita or Kairi get theirs trimmed I’m just all over it. And I’m sure Renee’s gonna love it too.”

Natalie’s hands eventually went upwards, wanting to feel that top section that’d been cropped so short. “I left the top nice and short so you don’t have to worry about styling it much— you couldn’t even mess it up even if you wanted to,” Loba began explaining as Natalie experimented with it, a pit in her stomach as her fingers struggled to grab firmly onto the short, wavy locks that adorned her crown now. “But it’s still long enough that it’s got your beautiful waviness to it, and that you can still have it poking out of your hood from the front like you always do. A stylish and practical cut.”

The more she looked at it, the more Natalie couldn’t believe what was right in front of her. It was still so surreal that Loba had practically shorn her like a sheep, yet somehow still made her look more stunning than she could ever imagine. And with each passing moment, her love for it only grew.

Merci , Loba,” she finally found it in her to say.

“Anything for my lovelies,” Loba proudly replied as she set the mirror back down. “Here, let me clean you up a bit and we can get this off you.” Loba picked up a neck brush and began dusting the sides of Natalie’s head of the little stray hairs. She couldn’t help but let out another giggle, realising how close the bristles of the brush were tickling her skin. Loba undid the cape from behind Natalie’s neck, then whisked it off it in a whoosh. She gave it a few flicks to the side, sending all those helpless blonde locks cascading to the floor beside Kairi’s little ashen clippings.

Natalie stayed in the chair for a bit, registering that new image of her with her outfit. And to think that this was only the first part in Loba’s grand plan for preparing her for a date.

“Come, my dear,” Loba eventually extended a hand, helping the lightheaded Natalie out of the chair, “let’s have a look at my wardrobe and see what’ll make you even more radiant tonight.”

*

They’d spend quite a bit of time in Loba’s walk-in wardrobe, where the she-wolf rummaged through her throngs of outfits while the engineer was just standing in awe of the multitudes of fabrics surrounding her. It was enough to open a grand boutique with the sheer quantity (and quality) of clothes she had. She could probably even make a living auctioning most of these off if retirement was ever on her mind.

Loba soon shooed Natalie off into a dressing room, pressing a few sets of outfits into the engineer’s arms for her to try on before shutting the drapes. The she-wolf nestled herself on a couch just outside while Natalie changed, lounging with a wine goblet to her lips as the engineer showed herself with each outfit.

The first few outfits were nice— spectacular for Natalie’s standards, given that she never quite imagined herself to be in such precious fabrics, but still too mediocre for Loba’s tastes. And the she-wolf wasn’t going to settle for anything less than perfect. Loba’s thoughts were starting to wander to her wardrobe once more, thinking of another set of outfits she’d have to pull out for Natalie. Then the drapes of the dressing room were pulled, and she almost choked on her wine.

Minha nossa ,” she uttered so airily, fingers still on her damp lips.

Natalie was standing a little nervously on the threshold of the dressing room, her bare arms and shoulders slightly hunched in that berry blue spaghetti strap dress that regally flowed down past her knees, with a slip revealing part of her left leg. “How’s this one?” She asked, sounding a bit more uncertain than the previous outfits. Her hands were fidgety, rubbing up the back of her exposed neck and arms where her scars were clear as day.

Loba got out of the couch, not speaking a single word as her eyes feasted on that immaculate figure before her. She glided around Natalie, taking in every inch of her as the engineer could only wait a little impatiently— still unnerved by the attention. Loba then turned Natalie around to face the dressing room mirror, still standing behind the engineer as they both looked into the reflection. “I remember feeling frustrated that I couldn’t quite pull this dress off. Blue has always been my colour, but this particular one never embellished my body quite as magnificently as I wanted it to,” Loba began musing, her hands gently grasping on Natalie’s toned biceps that she’d never seen before as she turned her ever so slightly from side to side. “But now I feel at peace, knowing that it’s because it was made for someone else to wear so perfectly.”

Natalie pushed out a smile, still getting used to that overwhelming image. It wasn’t just her hair that was all so different, and now to top it all off she was in a dress that showed much of her skin— specifically, much of those marks that branded her. “I know you’re not used to showing much of yourself,” Loba added, as if reading her mind, and then traced the Lichtenberg figure as it stretched down the neck and across the engineer’s left shoulder and bicep, “but remember what I said— it doesn’t have to be a part of you that you feel shame in. It is a mark of passion. You are your scars, and they are unabashedly you. And if people can’t appreciate that about yourself,” Loba locked her eyes with Natalie’s— the wolf’s gaze becoming one of sternness, “then they don’t deserve you.”

“Besides,” Loba continued, her fingers lightly pressing on the firm muscle that enriched those arms, “I never knew you were so… stalwart. I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen your majestic arms.”

Natalie’s cheeks were just full of colour now, overwhelmed by the flattery. “Well, I have to carry a heavy pylon on my back every day,” she tried to play it off. “I need to be strong enough to lug it around.”

“Ah, of course,” the dots started to connect in Loba’s head, “it’s a shame you have to cover them up on the field. I think you could even make Anita do a double take if she saw yours rivaled hers.” Natalie chuckled, the mirth slowly returning as she adjusted to that image of her. “Now come, my dear, let’s get you a little dolled up, then you’ll be ready to steal Renee’s heart.”

*

The night was already in full swing, with throngs of people out and about on the streets revelling in the end of the week. Natalie had been brisk walking from her apartment, trying her best not to stumble in Loba’s pumps in that little bit of rush to make sure she wouldn’t be late. The last thing she needed was to go through all that hustle and bustle of getting ready with Loba, only to kick it off on the wrong foot being tardy for Renee.

Her phone clock ticked a minute away from nine, and she could see the bright lights of the Paradise Lounge coming into view. She heaved a little sigh knowing she was close, and would make it just in the nick of time. She opened the front camera of her phone one last time, still caught off-guard by that bare image of her as she checked herself one last time.

She’d felt a little self-conscious when she left her apartment building— worried about what she might have had to say to anyone she would’ve recognised. Then it hit her: would they even recognise her ? Maybe a keen eye would catch onto her signature blue eyes, or the way she walked, but hardly anyone’s ever actually seen her so exposed with her scar in full view. Come to think of it, Loba was probably the first one to properly see it in its entirety just earlier that day-

“Natalie?”

Her heart skipped a beat, recognising the voice. She slowly turned, looking across the street to where she was called out from. Before Natalie could even respond, the raven-haired woman sprinted forward with a childlike excitement to cross the road.

“Renee,” Natalie uttered, stunned like a deer in the headlights as her date got closer. Renee was clad in black trousers and a matching loose jacket, with a gorgeous white blouse underneath that was unbuttoned towards the top of her sternum. The two seemed to be frozen in place for at least a minute, basking in pure awe as they stared at each other. Renee probably had the bigger reason too— what with Natalie’s dramatic transformation that happened in just less than a day.

But Natalie was about as equally starstruck too— for once seeing Renee in a getup that wasn’t her black, combat outfit, though the vibe was certainly similar. The top layers of her hair were tied up in her signature bun, but the sides were left laying down, showing off the waviness as it splayed over her chest. She carried a bright aroma to her as well— lavender, a scent Natalie absolutely loved.

“You cut your hair,” Renee commented on the elephant in the room, sounding partially in disbelief, yet also in admiration.

“Yeah, Loba cut it for me,” Natalie confessed as her hand instinctively went up to that short head of hair of hers. “Do you like it?” She asked anxiously.

“I love it,” Renee said with her whole heart. “My god, Natalie… you look divine,” she found herself blushing now, adding some colour to that paleness on her face.

“And you look beautiful too!” Natalie returned, still feeling a little shy, but at least trying to own it knowing her date didn’t hate it.

“Well, the restaurant’s just over there,” Renee eventually snapped out from staring too hard, pointing over yonder, “we should be just in time. Shall we?”

Allons-y ,” Natalie excitedly agreed.

“May I… hold your hand?” Renee then asked out of the blue, hand outstretched.

Natalie was taken aback. It was such a harmless question, though it was one she didn’t expect. But she found it endearing— that Renee would ask for the simplest things, and wanted to make sure she was comfortable. A refreshing request after having to spend her time with Loba, who took a lot of liberties to herself. But she didn’t say anything in response. All she did was take Renee’s hand so eagerly, which sent sparks coursing through her veins. The good kind of sparks.

The two were quickly settled in their seats at the restaurant, facing each other at the table as they were both rather amazed by the interior. A live band was playing jazzy music, and the waiting staff were all suited up to the tee. There hadn’t really been a ‘fancy’ restaurant in Talos before— it was mainly diners and bars, and maybe the odd casual dining restaurant.

“Your wound,” Renee eventually pointed out in relief as Natalie’s arm rested on the table, “it’s healed.”

“I told you it heals quick,” Natalie rubbed a finger across the skin, a phantom of the kunai cut still lingering, though the pain was practically gone.

A sommelier eventually attended to them, carrying a bottle of sparkling white liquid. “Good evening Dr Blasey and Ms Paquette,” he greeted the two with a slight bow before presenting the bottle. “Compliments of a generous donor, who left you a note, Ms Paquette,” he added as he slipped the piece of paper to her. Natalie opened it up, curious to know who even knew about her date. Then she read the name that was signed— along with the red-stained lipstick mark beside it— and it all made sense.

Something sumptuous but light, in case you get lucky tonight. Kisses, Loba .

“Loba says ‘hello’,” Natalie notified as the sommelier poured away, artfully filling each of their wine glasses to about halfway before he disappeared.

“How sweet of her,” Renee said. “I never knew she was a hairstylist,” she led on.

Barber ,” Natalie corrected, remembering how much it meant to the wolf. “Like… Lo barber ?” she cracked. She didn’t know why she tried the same pun, even when it fell a bit flat with Loba. But Renee actually laughed— not a loud, boisterous kind, but it was accompanied with the most genuine smile Natalie had ever seen.

“Did you always want to have it really short?” Renee continued, following Natalie’s gaze attentively.

“Not really,” it was Natalie’s turn to be shifty, “I went over to her place to help her out with her bracelet, and then I told her I had a date tonight, and one thing led to another and,” she shrugged, her bare shoulders and neck still feeling so foreign, yet so freeing, “she cut it pretty short. But I really like it.”

“And I do too,” Renee added, her chin resting on her palm as she looked on longingly. “Shows off your pretty face a lot more.”

*

The hours at dinner zipped by too quickly, and they found themselves heading out close to midnight, though still in high spirits and chipper as ever. Natalie was the first to invite the other back to her place, and Renee relented— enjoying letting Natalie take the lead.

Pardon , it’s a bit of a mess,” Natalie said as she flicked the lights on, revealing the dim living area with her documents sprawled across the coffee table.

“It’s neater than my place, that’s for sure,” Renee assured as she entered, letting the other woman lock the door behind her. She took a brief scan of the room, then her eyes honed in on the kitchen counter as she saw it. “Wait.. you have a cat?”

Oui , that’s my little baby, Nikola! Come here you!” Natalie called out as she immediately rushed for the fluffy, white boy. She lifted the large furball, who meowed in a low tone— clearly upset that his sleep was disturbed so abruptly. “Say bonjour to Renee, Nikola,” she said as she carried the little boy to her date. “Oh, pardon , you’re not allergic, right?”

“Not at all, I love cats!” Renee lit up, coming closer to have a look at that furry friend.

“Be careful, though, he’s a grumpy cat. Usually doesn’t like visitors,” Natalie warned, making sure she wasn’t carrying Nikola too close.

“Don’t worry, I have a way with them,” Renee said as she carefully offered a hand close to Nikola’s. Cautiously, his furry white head craned forward, getting a good sniff of Renee’s scent. Then slowly blinked at her. Taking it as her cue, her fingers moved closer, giving Nikola a good scratch underneath his chin. And he completely let her, soaking in the feeling of her fingernails gently grazing that sweet spot of his. “See?” Renee boasted, a smirk playing on her lips.

“Cat whisperer!” Natalie exclaimed, staring at this exchange in disbelief.

“Every grumpy cat has a weak spot— you just have to find it,” Renee said, her fingers still relishing in the furball’s muzzle. “Poor boy’s probably still tired. Let’s let him sleep.”

Natalie obeyed, lowering her arms as Nikola bolted off, heading out of sight deeper into the kitchen. “Could I get you something to drink?” Natalie asked as she swept up the documents on the coffee table, stacking them up before shoving them in a drawer.

“Water’s fine.” Natalie went over to pour two glasses, setting them on the coffee table as they both sunk into the couch. “Thanks,” Renee said as she took a sip. “Your place is lovely.”

“It’s not much, really. Doesn’t quite have the spark like some others. You should see Loba’s— it’s like there’s diamonds everywhere around the house,” Natalie rebutted, picking her glass up.

“I don’t need to go to her place to see diamonds. I already see one in front of me.”

Oh , Renee,” Natalie said, her hand going to the back of her neck as she turned a little to hide her uncontrollably blushing cheeks. She didn’t quite expect Renee to be so smooth, and it didn’t help that her skin was in almost full display that she couldn’t hide the red flushes.

“Natalie… Nat,” Renee called out, realising the nickname she’d attempted. “Can I call you ‘Nat’?”

“Mhm,” Natalie nodded, already smitten by the way the name rolled off Renee’s tongue.

“Could I…” Renee started, trailing off as her eyes searched Natalie’s face, thinking of how blunt she might end up being with this request. “Could I touch your hair, Nat?”

Oui ,” Natalie agreed instinctively, even though the request came quite unexpectedly. The other woman scooched closer on the couch, their figures now barely a few inches apart from each other as her lavender scent got stronger.

Renee’s arm reached across the couch, slowly finding their way to the back of Natalie’s exposed neck. The engineer stifled a gasp when she felt those cool fingers on her naked skin, but slowly warmed up to Renee’s touch as she made her way up the nape. She was gentle— starting with slow rubs across that fuzzy nape as her face put on a more amused expression. “It’s so fuzzy,” she airily said. “Like rubbing Velcro.”

“Mm,” Natalie could only make a sound, her eyes slowly shutting as she felt Renee’s touch. Renee’s fingers were so soft, weaving in a few scratches with her short nails as she caressed so tenderly. Natalie just wanted to stay like that all night if she could— just having her nape rubbed by the woman she adored.

The other woman’s hand slowly crept up her head, making its way to Natalie’s crown as she explored longer layers of the blonde crop. She ruffled her fingers across Natalie’s head, as if trying yet failing to grab onto those elusively short locks.

“It’s too short for that,” Natalie remarked, opening her eyes. Her heart skipped a beat after regaining her vision, realising Renee’s face was a mere inch away from hers. Renee’s blue eyes were deep, staring right into Natalie’s as their eyes locked for god knows how long.

“Nat,” Renee finally whispered, her soothing voice still sending jitters through Natalie’s body, “may I kiss you?”

Natalie’s eyes went blank. Somehow, in some magical way, the stars were just aligning that night. She didn’t know how she could ever get so lucky, but there she was: face-to-face with the woman she couldn’t ever peel her eyes away from. Heated combatants in the Ring, but now— in Natalie’s abode— they were just women that wanted everything to do with each other.

But Natalie was too speechless— too enamoured by that goddess in front of her. So all she could do was nod as ecstatically as she could, giving the other woman the green light. Renee’s face softened, then her eyes closed so beautifully as she dove in.

Their lips found each other so easily, a peachy taste left on Natalie’s tongue as she tasted the woman of her dreams. Renee’s hand was still on the back of Natalie’s head, holding it so gingerly as they were caught in a lip lock. The sparks were everywhere now, coursing through Natalie as her system jolted in the most refreshing way she’d ever felt in her life.

The two eventually pulled away, gasping for air as they stared at each other— nothing but exhilaration on their faces. “Do you, uh,” Natalie found the flicker to speak, to take charge, “want to move this inside?”

“I’d love that,” Renee whispered back. Without a word, Natalie wrapped her arms around Renee, then lifted her up in one swift motion. “Nat!” Renee exclaimed, flushed at how Natalie could do something with such ease.

“Oh, pardon , is this okay?” Natalie asked, still careful with every muscle on the other woman’s figure.

Very ,” Renee leaned in, wrapping her arms around Natalie’s neck as she nuzzled her face into the crook of the other woman’s neck.

“Mm,” Natalie hummed as she got to her feet, with Renee still deftly in her arms as she marched into the bedroom. But it was only when she got to her bed when she realised her big, macho gesture was going to falter.

No way ,” Renee looked on disbelief, a stupid grin on her face, “that’s so many Nessie plushies!” Natalie was a full flush now, unsure how to ever recover from unwittingly exposing her entire collection of large, colourful aquatic dinosaurs. “Hey hey, look at me Nat,” Renee urged, tilting Natalie’s face to hers to see how red she was. “I think it’s adorable,” she assured with a warm smile.

“I’ll let you keep one if you don’t tell anyone,” Natalie bargained.

“Deal,” Renee agreed, planting a full kiss on Natalie’s lips.

Natalie slowly set her down on the sheets, then climbed up to join the other woman. Renee grabbed onto Natalie’s hips, then like a panther twirled them around so that she was on top while Natalie’s back was on the mattress. “Come help me with this,” Renee instructed as she lifted the engineer’s hand, guiding them to the collar of her blouse. Natalie couldn’t even answer as Renee dove back in for a kiss, only making the most sumptuous sounds of delight as she undid the buttons. She slipped them down those toned arms as Renee shook them off, letting it fall to the floor as only black lace was left to adorn her upper body. They then pulled away for a moment, locking eyes as they caught their breath. “Does this… hurt?” Renee eventually asked, a thumb tracing the Lichtenberg figure that sprawled across her face and down her neck.

Non ,” Natalie replied, heartened to know that Renee cared about it.

“Perfect,” Renee simply said, then craned her head back in. But this time she didn’t go for the lips— this time she peppered Natalie’s cheeks with kisses, going over the scars that branched across her muse’s skin, and slowly working her way down.

“Mm,” Natalie surrendered herself as Renee went to town, her heart filling so bountifully knowing Renee would show it so much adoration. “Even if it did hurt,” Natalie added, “I think your kisses would make the pain go away.”

Renee chuckled between kisses, still making sure every inch of those reddish marks were shown every bit of love. “You’re gorgeous, Nat,” Renee whispered. “So, so gorgeous.”

*

“Nat, are you sure about this?”

“Are you scared, Renee?” Natalie shot back, amused at the scene in front of her. She wondered if she’d ever find herself back in Loba’s apartment— specifically in Loba’s little barbershop that the she-wolf took so much pride in. She didn’t, however, quite expect Renee to be the one in the chair this time.

“I didn’t say that,” Renee retorted, her fingers shifting under the silver-coloured cape that draped her body.

“You sound like it, though,” Loba chimed in as she fiddled with her tools. “What do your voices say, Renee? It’s not like I’m planning to harm you at all. I’m quite careful with my tools.”

“They’re not saying anything,” Renee admitted.

Oh , so you’re just plain scared?” Loba said as she began combing out Renee’s mess of jet black hair. “And since it’s not a life-and-death situation you’re afraid of…” she continued, her eyes darting towards the engineer that was seated so comfortably in the chair by the corner of the room, where she had a brilliant viewing angle of the action, “are you afraid of how you’re going to look for a special someone?”

Natalie held back a giggle, watching Renee realise she’d been found out. But it was adorable— knowing that deep down, Renee was anxious of how a ‘little’ haircut was going to turn out. It was quite a surprise when Renee first brought it up— that she’d been considering having Loba give her a cut, rather than just having her trim it all on her own like she usually did. But Natalie knew Loba wouldn’t just settle for a trim. It wasn’t her style. She knew that whoever sat in her chair was bound to get ‘full’ treatment, and would only leave looking more fabulous than they ever had— even if it meant losing a lot of what they had when they came in. And even with all that information (which she conveniently didn’t let Renee know about), she dropped Loba a text to let her know she was to have a new customer, and the she-wolf was more than happy to oblige.

“You’re in good hands, Renee,” Natalie assured, watching Loba clip up the top sections of her jet black hair securely on the crown.

“Trust your girlfriend— she didn’t regret her haircut at all,” Loba said as she went to pick up her tools, making sure to fit on the correct attachment. “Besides,” pop bzzzzz , “I, for one, think you’d look absolutely killer with an undercut.”

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Post-haircut scene illustration by @nanakyuubi

4 responses to “Favour for Favour

  1. Something different from the usual norm.Creative writing and very well written.Thanks for sharing.One of the best authors to emulate especially for anybody wanting to improve proficiency in English, be it reading and / or writing.

  2. Adorable story! I love the fan service of working Loba’s bracelet bug into the lore. It’s not often a willing short to shorter cut story can hold my attention, but you did it. I could hear them all in their voices the way you represented them here. Well done!

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