Ivy meandered along the sidewalk with her head tipped back, looking up at the skyscrapers topped with the explosive green indicative of rooftop gardens, and wondered idly what people grew in them on this side of the state. She took a second to add that to her mental list of 'Things I Really Need to Learn About My New Home' and slowly shook her head. She'd been a country girl for most of her life and being surrounded on all sides by artificial lights and multi-story buildings would take some getting used to.
“A little different than back home, huh?” Hazel asked, pulling Ivy's focus back to street level. The woman tapped along beside her in strappy sandals and a light sundress. The silver charm bracelet that had been a three-year anniversary gift caught the late afternoon sunlight with each easy swing of her arm.
Ivy returned her smile, relaxing. “A little, yeah. It's, um... it's a lot more steel and glass than I'm used to.”
“I kinda hated it when I was a kid,” her girlfriend admitted, looking down as they walked. The situation seemed funny now, though it certainly hadn't been at the time.
“Really?” Ivy could hardly imagine hating a place like this. Sure, it was pretty far removed from what she'd grown up with but the capital had always had a sort of whimsical quality to it, like something out of a futuristic fairy tale.
Hazel's dark curls bounced as she nodded. “I used to go walking out on the nature trails all the time after school because I just wanted to get away from all the... ” She waved her hands as she walked, gesturing in a way that was meant to encompass the whole scene. “Industry. But then I got a little older and like... Everything's covered in solar panels, we recycle our rain water, most of our food is local and almost everyone has a garden... It could be a lot worse for such a big place.”
“Oh, totally.” Ivy cringed as a memory of her own bubbled up: being a small kid and screaming her lungs out after finding a bucket full of severed pig's heads by the side of their barn. Apparently she'd passed out and her mother had carried her back up to her room. Things never quite got back to 'normal' after that.
And now she was here, a newly-minted college student anxious about starting classes, walking along the sidewalks of the capital city with a woman she just might marry someday.
Right when she started thinking in circles (and generally being confused as to how she came to be standing where she was currently standing), Hazel reached over and grabbed her hand. She did that a lot when Ivy got quiet, like she was trying to give her a guideline in case she ended up too deep in thought and had trouble finding her way back.
“You doin' okay?” she asked.
“I think so.” Ivy stared a little because the sun was making Hazel's skin glow. Then she started to smile. “I'm trying not to think about school, but other than that, I think I'm okay.”
Hazel scoffed, feigning annoyance. As usual, she had far more faith in Ivy than Ivy did in herself. “Please. You're gonna be fine. College is a lot easier than high school.”
That made sense somehow. The few classes Hazel was taking during her first semester already looked a lot more fun than than the ones Ivy had been slogging her way through for the past few years. Plus, it was nice to have someone to test the waters a bit before you jumped in yourself. Hazel was only half a year older than her, but sometimes that small difference really showed.
She was about to say something else, start another conversation, when Hazel looped around in front of her, grabbed both of her hands, and gently tugged her toward one of the many apartment buildings in that section of town.
“Come on,” she said with a grin. “Let's go say hi to the folks.”
The apartment was large and open, full of the late-afternoon sunlight and the scent of spices. The few static walls were decorated here and there with pictures from trips and events, as well as the occasional art print. Folding screens could be used to break up the rest of the space on calmer evenings but it looked like they'd all been stashed away for the evening. Hazel's brothers chased each other through the main room before checking up at the sight of them standing in the doorway.
“Hazel!” Leo greeted her loud enough for the whole place to hear, throwing his arms open. Then, toward the kitchen space, “Mom! Hazel's back!”
“I heard you,” Rose wrapped the words in a warm laugh as she rounded the corner, drying her hands on a towel she'd pulled through one of her belt loops. She hovered near the wall until Leo released his little sister from the bear hug he'd clamped her in, then smiled with her teeth when her daughter ran into her arms.
Through all of this, Ivy stood awkwardly near the door, hands folded so she didn't keep fidgeting. It wasn't like she hadn't met Hazel's family before, but those had mostly been brief interactions at school functions and the occasional day spent out in the town or the woods, where there were things to be distracted by. Besides, she wasn't much of a hugger.
Thankfully, North appeared from behind his older brother and waved to her and that seemed to break the ice a bit. He was a couple years younger than Hazel and still a little shy around people.
“Hi, Ivy,” he said, one hand worrying the braided necklace his partner had given him about a few years ago as a birthday gift. It held a simple silver cross and a small crystal Ivy thought was meant to help with aches and pains (North was one of the sportier members of the family). She'd never once seen him without it.
“Hey. How's practice?” That was always a good opening topic and he relaxed more as he rambled about their season so far and how his friends were doing. Ivy had been the athletic kid growing up too, so this was easy common ground for them to meet on.
During a lull in the various conversations, Rose broke in to ask the boys to check on the grill out back - “I don't want the corn to burn.” - and ushered the girls into the kitchen with her. Ivy perched on a barstool at the island while Hazel sat on the counter, her long dark legs swinging easily as she talked about her classes.
“But he says I've got a good grasp of things, so I'm happy,” she was saying when Ivy tuned back in. It wasn't that she was bored – it was just that Hazel had already brought her up to speed on everything over the past few weeks. As usual, her English teachers were impressed by her.
“I'd imagine,” Rose said, checking on the few dishes she had in the oven as she spoke. “Of course, I'm not surprised. You've always been good with words, just like Leo. We're all still proud of you though,” she added with the slightly crooked grin that appeared to be a family trademark.
“Gee, thanks,” Hazel responded with a good-natured roll of her eyes.
“Seriously.” Rose turned to face them both, leaning against the counter with her arms folded loosely across her stomach. “I don't know how I got so lucky. You're all so bright, and you're all doing so well...”
“Aw, Mom...” Hazel hopped down when she saw that familiar mist come over Rose's eyes and hugged her tightly. Ivy smiled and looked at the countertop between her fingers.
“Can I ask something?” she broke in after Rose collected herself a bit, hand raised out of habit.
“What are these?” Ivy picked up a small scrap of color from a square dish. It was soft and cool to the touch.
“Edible flowers.” Hazel's mother smiled at her, clasping her hands. “My mom always had them for big events like this. I candied a bunch of them this morning, but there are a couple small dishes of plain petals too, so we all have some options. But don't eat them until after dinner, okay?”
Ivy smiled and promised she wouldn't nibble at them before dessert. Edible flowers... She'd never even thought of it before and the idea seemed so whimsical that it almost made her laugh.
Rose gently shooed them both out of the kitchen while North and Leo shuffled dishes and plates around on tables set up on the sizable balcony. The grill held veggie burgers, kebabs, and ears of corn wrapped in a reusable foil. The metal tables, a mix of ornate and sleek, were mostly hidden under deep green bowls full of spiced popcorn, and stir-fry vegetables with long, soft noodles. The matching plates were covered in rolls stuffed with different kinds of gairy*, falafel burgers, dumplings, chocolate-topped oat bars, and massive arraignments of richly colored fruit.
It all seemed a little excessive until Ivy remembered that it wouldn't be just the five of them for much longer – Leo's wife would be there after she locked up her store for the day, and North's partner was coming over after their music lessons were finished. That didn't even touch any other acquaintances who might drop by. Or food-sharing with the neighbors later on.
Hazel's dad had wanted to make it back for the solstice, but sometimes the life of a reporter could be a little unpredictable. Apparently, they'd all gotten to talk to him over video earlier in the day though, so things could have been worse.
Ivy leaned on the iron railing that enclosed the balcony, trying to stay out of everyone's way. The metal was still warm from the summer sun and a cool breeze was coming in from the water. This side of the apartment overlooked a massive garden that made up the center of the complex. It was full of fruit trees and small winding paths, and Ivy caught herself thinking that she'd like to be in a place like this when she got a little older.
Hazel gave her a quick kiss after a toast with a glass of lemonade made with elderflower and the two of them managed to slip outside for a walk not long after. The sunlight was fading by then, replaced here and there by the small solar lamps that lined the garden pathways. Ivy clung to Hazel's hand as they walked, unhurried, through the soft fall of petals shaken free by the breeze.
She felt a soft squeeze on her fingers and slowed her steps.
“I'm glad you're here,” Hazel said. “With me and just... in general. I'm glad you exist.”
“Aww...” Ivy gave her an exaggerated doe-eyed look. Then, more seriously, “I'm glad you exist, too.”
It was a small moment – nothing terribly significant in the grand scheme – but it felt bigger than that. The entire evening did. The whole world was ahead of them, with all the beauty and uncertainty that life demanded of those who truly lived it, and for maybe the first time in her life, Ivy felt happy about the prospect of exploring it.
That was where her thoughts wandered as they climbed the stairs back to the party, and that was where they stayed for the rest of the night, talking and eating and laughing and listening to North's partner Gabe play something soft and summery on their violin.
This was what she'd been missing before: the soft magic of an ordinary world.
*I sort of made that up, but I like it, in a way. It's a shortening of 'grain dairy', or vegan cheese.