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Dwarf & Nymph

Chapter Text


“What is the deal with you, anyway!?” Frey’s brows were furrowed and her lower lip pouted slightly; a childish expression, wracked with the sting of injustice.
Bado laughed with his head back. Her indignant face reddened.


“Aaah. Sorry Frey, but it was worth it for that face, I gotta say.” He chuckled again, shaking his head. “But here, don’t be mad. Here is the real thing.” He slid a small box toward her across the counter and smiled. There was no malice in him. The crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes cut deeply into his features, inscribed by years of carefree laughter. Her sour expression loosened a touch.


“hmph.” She rifled in her pack for a moment and briskly pulled out a large hunk of raw emerald, knotted together with bits of the rock it was chipped from and rapped it hard down onto the counter. Snatching the box, she spun around with such force her long pigtails trailed around her in an arc, an afterimage of her flippant attitude. She took three long strides and whipped open the door. Turning as she stepped out she stuck out her tongue at the tall dwarf and slammed the door as she left.

The shop seemed very still after the noise of the door dissipated. The corners of Bado’s mouth pulled into a silent, suspended laugh as he watched her huff away through the window.

“Jeeze you better cool it with the pranks, man.” Doug sighed, letting out the breath he had been holding in suspense. “You don’t want Lady Ventuswill to come down on you for ruffling the princess’s feathers do you?”

Bado was holding up the rough emerald in one hand and looking at it with an incredulous expression.

“BADO!” Doug fumed. The Blacksmith turned.

“Huh?” he glanced at Doug blankly and then looked back at the emerald chunk. “Can you believe she paid with this? I’m gonna hafta set her straight next time…” He said shrugging and set the thing down on a nearby shelf.

“I’m SERIOUS!” said Doug. “You are already on thin ice for your so-called ‘marketing strategies’.” The last two words dripped with mockery.

“Yeah, yeah.” Bado said, waving a hand. “There’s no harm in it. Just relax!” He threw himself in a chair, leaned back and propped his feet on the counter top.

“Suit yourself.” Doug sighed. “But when your ass is getting grilled, don’t expect me to vouch for you.” He started toward the door. Bado shrugged again and put his arms up behind his head, the picture of carelessness as he closed his eyes for a nap. Doug looked back at him as he opened the door. “Hopeless!” he heaved a great sigh, and walked out, closing the door behind him.

The shop was empty, silent. After a few seconds, Bado’s eyes opened. He lowered his feet, righting the chair and looked down at his hands in his lap. If any could have seen him, they would have wondered at the suddenly drooping posture with his head hung low. He was, in a moment, transformed. He fidgeted with his thumbs for a moment then stood up. He looked around his shop with his arms folded, drumming his fingers on his bicep. Something green caught his eye and he looked sideways at the rough emerald on the shelf. It was perched close to the edge. He stared at it a moment, then seemed to shake something off.

He puttered around the shop for a few minutes, periodically glancing back over his shoulder. He shook his head again and strode into the forge room, gathered up some scale mail armor and walked it back out to the front. He arranged it clumsily on a rack, brushed off his hands and turned. There was a sudden clatter as he stumbled into the chair, which toppled back into the shelf, jostling its contents. He swore under his breath and rubbed his knee where it had met the chair. There was something on the ground in front of his foot. The emerald gleamed softly in between the rough chunks of rock adhered to it, seeming to look innocent where it had come to rest after falling. Crouching on one knee, he picked it up with a big, square-ish hand. He turned it over a couple times, frowning slightly, then sighed through his nose. His eyebrows pitched a soft, sad angle on his forehead as he looked down at it.

“Don’t be mad…” he said quietly to it.

Chapter Text

Forte marched down airship way on her afternoon rounds. One hand swung at her side as she walked, the other rested on the hilt of her sword on her hip. The last petals of the magnolia trees were drooping off their branches and new green foliage was unfurling everywhere. She saw a familiar figure boarding the airship. Long mint green pigtails bobbed behind Frey as she untied the lines and prepared to cast off.

“Good afternoon, Frey. Where are you off to?” Frey didn't look up, but continued unwinding a line from a cleat on the dock.

“Sercerezo hill. I need to clear my head.” There was a brief silence except for the creaking of the lines that held the airship down.

“Well… Would you like some company? You know my sword is always ready at your call.” Frey stood up upon hearing the offer. She propped her hands on her lower back and leaned back stretching. A couple cracking sounds came from her spine and she breathed out a sigh.

“Sure. That would be welcome.” She said finally, smiling slightly at Forte, who grinned back and stepped onto the ship. They finished untying the last line and Forte kicked hard off the dock to push the ship free of it. Frey stood at the helm standing up strait with her feet set apart. Forte always thought Frey looked tall when she was not standing next to others. She was nearly the smallest person in the town, after Amber and Kiel, but perhaps by a noble aura she seemed taller and prouder than all the townsfolk, even the young headstrong men. Forte smiled to herself and looked out over the landscape.

The short flight to Sercerezo passed in silence. Frey was preoccupied, paying only as much attention as she needed to in order to navigate the familiar rout, but the rest of her attention was clearly directed inward. Forte watched her out of the corner of her eye, but did not inquire. If she wished to speak, she would surely do so.

Once they had landed and tied off the grounding lines, Frey started off into the woods without a word. Forte strode after her, drawing out her sword as she passed a tree stump scored by many claws. Palm cats were quiet stalkers, but left too many calling cards to be very secretive. On each hip Frey carried a blade, equal in length, but otherwise like night and day. She drew them both, one glittering with an icy blue cast, the other smoldering with a deep red malice. Force Divide the pair was called, and few creatures lived long enough in combat with her to feel a stroke from both of them. A rustle in the trees made them both stop. Then at once, a wild snarling shriek announced an ambush from above. Long eared figures dropped from the trees with their cruel claws outstretched. Forte swung her claymore in a wide arc above her, cleaving the silhouette of a palm cat in two. Its body shimmered with light, flashed and streaks of bright ephemeral traces shot out in several directions, rushing back to the forest of beginnings. Frey had nimbly dodged sideways as two others struck the ground where she had stood. A triumphant “Hah!” burst from her as she thrust the burning blade into one, and spun, beheading the other with the cold blue steel. More rustling from above; a yowling cacophony of rage lit up the quiet wood and the palm cats rushed them in a torrent of bristling fur. The dazzling light of their spirits fleeing their broken bodies was like a firework display in daylight as the two women slashed and struck them down one after another. The light of battle was in Frey's eyes and she grinned and laughed wildly as she wheeled and dashed from enemy to enemy. The earlier tension that had closed her mouth on the trip hence had evaporated. Forte smiled at the change even as she brought the hilt of her sword crashing down onto an enemy’s head. After a short while, the remaining palm cats of the troops hissed in indignation and leapt off through the trees. Panting, Forte and Frey's eyes met and they smiled at one another and laughed.

“Those bastards always help me work up a good sweat.” Frey panted, wiping her brow.

“Indeed, they are always great in number and in boldness.” Forte’s eyes were creased with a secret smile. She always looked that way when the princess let her foul mouth loose. It couldn’t help but be comical to the stoic knight, coming from one so fair and small.

Frey sheathed her swords and walked toward a rocky outcrop nearby. Forte followed her.

“So, can I ask you something?” Frey said, without looking at her. She was pulling a hammer out of her pack and poking around in the rocks, looking for signs of ore or gems.

“Of course, milady.” She beamed slightly. “I am at your service, whatever your need may be.” Frey had found a chunk of ore and raised her arm and with a “Huh!” struck the clustered mineral.

“Has Bado always been that way?” Frey asked in a hurry, watching Forte’s face from the corner of her eye. Forte’s brow raised and she looked surprised, but in a moment her expression turned to a stern frown.

“Milady, has he given you some offense?” her long golden hair seemed to bristle and her fists were clenched at her sides. Frey laughed loudly.

“Well not that it is totally undeserved, but I don’t mean to send him to your wrath just now.” She chuckled again. Two more hammer strokes, a loud ‘crack’ left the ore rock as it crumbled. Frey bent low over the debris and picked at the glittering fragments with one hand. “I just wonder if he is ever serious or sincere about anything sometimes.” There was a pause. “I guess sincere isn't the right word… how about, does he ever take anything seriously?” Forte’s expression had relaxed but she was still frowning.

“I believe he has a good and sincere heart, but for as long as I have lived he has been a lazy, slacking lout and I have never known him to take work seriously at the least. There may be some things he would wake from his stupor for, but short of a life-threatening situation I know not what might motivate him to do so. Even as he proclaims a love of money and plans to amass riches, he doesn't even put a solid effort to that end, and never seems to mind having empty pockets either.” She sighed, exasperated. “My father loved him as a brother and told Kiel and I amazing stories of valiant and daring deeds by Bado the legendary dwarven knight, so I idolized him as a child… but as I have grown it is difficult to feel anything but disappointment when I think of his antics.” Frey had stopped picking through the rocks and sat on her heels, looking at Forte as she spoke. A chunk of green glittering stone mingled with rock lay in her hands on her lap. She rubbed the fractured facets of the stone with her thumb absentmindedly. There was a thick silence after Forte finished speaking as she stared at the ground with a bitter expression. But after a moment, she heard the stillness and looked up at Frey, her cheeks slightly pink. “I… um… I am sorry for carrying on so. It is a… sensitive subject, you might say.”

“No, it’s alright…” Said Frey with a distant expression. “He mentioned something about being a ‘legendary’ knight to me before but I thought for sure he was just spouting hot air for some half-witted scheme that would end with a sales pitch or something…” She trailed off, eyes unfocused. Forte looked surprised again.

“He did? Now that I find unusual. He normally does not mention that or even acknowledge the truth of it in front of anyone but my brother and myself, and even when I pry him all he has ever said is ‘Why waste time talking about events from a lifetime ago?’ and would never tell me the slightest detail. Ever since my father passed, he has been the Bado we know today. Other than his strength no evidence of his ‘past life’ as he calls it persists at all.” Forte’s face looked pained…perhaps with the disappointment in a hero and a family member in one, not lifting a finger to maintain honor or pride?

“Hmm…” Frey, too stared downward. In her hands, the rough emerald was heavy and cool to the touch. It was even roughly the same size as the one she had left on the counter at the Meanderer to mark her anger. The afternoon had passed quickly on their journey, and the light was fading into a burning pink and orange sunset. It would look spectacular from the airship. She stood up, and the motion stirred Forte out of her thinking stillness.

“Well, shall we head back? I’ll buy us some dinner at Porcoline’s place, to thank you for your company today.” She seemed more peaceful and relaxed than earlier, but no trace of satisfaction at Forte’s explanation could be seen in her expression.

“Thank you milady, I would be most honored to accept.” Forte had learned by now that it was no use trying to stop Frey's constant gifts and gestures. She treated everyone in the town that way, cooking their favorite foods, (especially on their birthdays) and bringing a myriad of souvenirs to all from her many trips into the wilderness and ruins. The Princess was wild, rash, and strong-willed, but poured out affection in at least an equal measure to her adventurous endeavors, and she wouldn't take no for an answer when she had resolved to do a kindness.

“Alright then.” Frey brushed off her clothes and pocketed the green stone. She started back to the air ship and Forte followed, but paused a moment as she glanced at the rock pile once more. The princess had broken a very wealthy rock, and bits of valuable minerals were littered about in its fragments, but she had only taken one moderately sized emerald and left the rest where they lay, lined with the golden light of the sun setting in the West.

Chapter Text

“You can’t pay with this, ya know.” Bado tossed the green stone lightly in his right hand and furrowed his brow at the princess. He towered over her, and her tall, white butterfly bows barely came up to his collarbone. Frey stared at the stone in his hand and then at the shelf behind the counter where it had been a moment prior. Had he kept it close at hand all week just to pick a fight as soon as she came back to the store? “Well? You listening, princess? Ya gotta pay with money, not rocks!” his deep voice boomed. Frey glared up into his face, her back strait and weight on her toes, almost rising up onto them to make herself taller. His neck was actually bent to look down into her frowning face.

“I’ll start paying with real money when you start running this dump like a real business!” Her raised voice seemed to fill up the air with a crackling energy. The princess’s emotions were often palpable in the air around her. She was a raw, undisguised kind of spirit and all her doings and feelings were always plain to see.

“Fine.” He huffed and set the stone noisily back on the shelf. “We’ll just call this your tab and you’ll pay what you owe when you get that stick out of yo—“

“BADO! Not another word!!” Forte bellowed. She had appeared in the doorway with uncanny timing. Had she been following Frey? “How dare you speak to Lady Frey that way? I’ll teach you manners yet you, you—“ Her face was red with fury and her fists were lifted high and trembling.

“What about how she talks to me?” he shot back, but his tone was dull… all the pepper from a moment ago had vaporized as soon as he turned his attention to Forte. She took a quick breath and looked ready to shout out the rest of her disapproval but Frey waved her hand.

“Forget it, Forte. This is just a waste of time, and besides I don’t need to buy any of this junk anyway.” She wasn't glaring anymore. Her anger too had dissipated it seemed. She was going through a tote bag at her shoulder. Bado started to form a moody retort but stopped before he uttered a whole syllable. Frey had produced from the bag a familiar shape wrapped in a wide leaf. The frown dropped off Bado’s face and his features changed to surprise.
“Here.” She said as she grabbed his left hand, turned it palm up, and placed the thing in it. “I just came to give you this.” She didn't look up into his face but turned for the door saying “excuse me.” as Forte stepped aside to make way. There was a rustle and a clink with every step from the bag on her shoulder that she always carried gifts for the townspeople in. Even as she had turned, the leaf wrapping which was still fresh and green came undone and fell away slightly from its contents. Bado stared down at the onigiri, plainly hand-made (as always) with a few sesame seeds scattered on the top. He blinked and one corner of his mouth tugged his lips into a lopsided smirk. ‘Brat…’ he thought. ‘She has a good memory.’

But all he said aloud was a quiet “Huh.” Forte was still glaring at him, but seemed disinclined to throw any more harsh words. She shook her head, frowning and stalked out of the shop, leaving the door ajar.

Chapter Text

“Stupid!” Frey fumed to herself as she walked briskly through the town square. “Why do I let him bait me like that?!” She slowed to a stop, breathed in deeply through her nose, and exhaled long through her mouth. She had more gifts to hand out, and it wouldn't do to have a sour face as she gave them. She put on a smile and crossed the street toward the East side of town.

She completed several of her gift-errands without further incident; a sweet roasted yam for Porcoline, a bunch of firm fresh grapes for Meg, a bundle of bright red and orange carrots for Dylas (he blushed hotly but accepted them with a quick “Thanks.”). There was another leaf wrapped rice ball in her bag for Doug. She headed south to the grocery store. As she opened the door and called a cheerful “Hello!” the bell in the door frame rang brightly. Doug had been leaning on his hand with his elbow on the counter, daydreaming. He snapped out of it and perked up when he saw her. “Alright!” he said as he noticed the bag on her shoulder. He loved her home-made treats and welcomed anything to interrupt a slow shift at Granny Blossom’s store.

“How’s business?” She chirped as she handed the leaf-wrap into his expectant hands.

“Ufgh… th‘low.” He said through a mouthful of rice. He hadn't wasted a moment and was already scarfing the onigiri eagerly. She smiled at him as he relished a mouthful of rice that pushed his cheeks out like a chipsqueek. She looked at his ears, shorter and stubbier than Meg or Ellie’s elf ears, but still similarly pointed. Then something occurred to her. She waited until he had popped the last of the rice ball into his mouth and asked,

“Hey Doug…” He swallowed the last of the rice and happily sighed.

“Yeah? Whatsup?”

“What can you tell me about dwarves?” She said slowly, measuring the words. He looked puzzled at her… Ordinarily he might have considered such a question as revealing an interest in him, but they had been down that road before and even though she had never said it plainly, Frey's obliviousness to his advances seemed close enough to a rejection that he didn’t care to repeat them.

“Whaddaya wanna know?” He asked, frowning slightly. “…and what for?” He stared into her eyes, searching for a clue.

“Just curious is all” she said airily… too much so. He furrowed his brow at her, not blinking. The princess was a terrible liar… and besides she had waited too long and phrased the query too carefully to be ‘just curious’.

“Hmmm…” he said, squinting at her. His irises were shiny, almost like metal they reflected a steely glint of light. One other point-eared head held such eyes in the town. “Well, I suppose all I can say is aside from the eyes, ears, and a slightly higher body temperature we aren’t much different from humans. We are all different, see, so there is no way I can generalize and still say truths. …But I could venture to say that many dwarves who live amongst humans make their living on crafting and… (there was a pause) blacksmithing is a favorite trade in those cases.” He put a peculiar emphasis on the word, and a ghost of a smirk flitted at the corner of his mouth. Her mouth narrowed and her eyebrows raised. “Come on”, he grinned at her change in expression. “You’re totally transparent, you know. Always are.” He propped his head up on an arm with his elbow on the counter again and looked slyly at her. “So what are you fishing for anyway? What are you trying to find out about him?” She inhaled suddenly and her shoulders tensed.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.” She said, turning her nose up, breaking his gaze.

“Sure whatever, Princess” He grinned wider. “He’s not a hard mark though. If you want to get even, just throw some gold down as bait. That dumb old fish will always bite.” Frey had already turned and started toward the door, but paused a moment with her outstretched hand on the handle as he had said the words ‘get even’. It lasted only a moment though and she was already out the door shortly after.

As the door shut behind her she stared at the cobblestones in the road as she walked away from the store, fast at first, but slowing as she became lost in thought.

‘Get even, huh?’ She thought, and frowned. Then she looked up. She was standing before the great dragon doorway to the castle.

She passed through the great gate and blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dimmer light inside. She was standing in the shadow of Ventuswill, the divine dragon, whose long neck craned over her, some six or seven feet above.

“Hi Venti.” She said absentmindedly, and walked toward the kitchen. The great feathered head turned after her a moment and seemed to look right through the diminutive frame of the princess as she passed through the doorway.

“Hmmm” The great dragon rumbled.

Vishnall and Clorica were preparing dinner, with Mr. Volcannon looming behind them both as they worked. Frey's gaze was still distant as she greeted them. She seemed mesmerized by the turnips Vishnal was chopping, and sat down in a plain wooden chair by the stove while she watched the rhythmic chopping of the two butlers-in-training.
“What’s on your mind, princess?” Vishnal said softly. His manner was always delicate and gentle with her. Maybe it was a learned response from having him wake her every morning at 6, but his voice snapped her out of her thoughts and she looked up blankly at him as if she had no idea how she had come to be there in the kitchen. His eyes creased with a smile. She was so adorable… and clueless. “lost in thought?” he asked gently.

“Oh…” She said, coming back to herself. “It’s nothing…” and no sooner had she finished saying so, she drifted again, eyes glazed.
“I see” Vishnal said, smiling. He returned to chopping vegetables. Volcannon was taste testing Clorica’s dish. She always finished work of all kinds faster than him, even when she dozed off while on duty. Meanwhile Vishnal was still prepping the ingredients for his dish. Some number of minutes ticked by as the princess stared into a blank distance and listened to the rhythm of the knife on the cutting board.

There was a gasp.“Ow!” Vishnal dropped the knife onto the board and clutched his left hand. Frey snapped out of her funk again and stood up, gripping his shoulders with her hands.

“Vishnal! What happened?” She said with clear concern. He revealed a cut on his thumb and looked embarrassed.

“It’s nothing, princess I’m sorry for startling you.” He straightened up, but she took the injured hand and did not release it.

“Sheesh! You need to be more careful.” She scolded him and began a mending spell on the cut. His hand warmed and seemed to become more translucent for a moment. The skin bound itself back together and left no scar, only a little blood and a red blush where it had been.

“Thank you princess. Ever since I had Bado sharpen this knife I keep having close calls. The quality of his attention to it is truly outstanding but I’m not sure I’m fit to use it when it is this sharp.” She looked up into his eyes, then at the knife, saying nothing. Presently he asked curiously “what is it?” There was a pause.

“His work is always this way?” She looked back at Vishnal’s face.

“Who? Bado?” he said, quizzical. “Well, yes at least as far as kitchen utensils go… but Forte always complains about him making dull weapons, so I guess I can’t say when it comes to all his work.”
“His skills are second to none, in fact.” said a booming voice. Volcannon and Clorica had come over to them after hearing the commotion.

“Then why…” Frey trailed off for a moment, then seemed to come back to herself. “Why would he make dull weapons?”

“Who can say? A man’s motivations may be many and do not necessarily agree with one another” Said Volcannon. Frey's brow furrowed again. She got up and walked out of the room, mumbling to herself.

The three butlers looked after her as she left the room. Then Vishnal spoke:

“Our princess is quite preoccupied today, there’s no mistaking that.”

“Indeed.” Agreed Volcannon.

Clorica snored softly. She had dozed off standing upright since Frey had walked away.

Chapter Text

Bado drained a tall cup and set it on the table. “aaah.” He said, returning his attention to his meal. Porcoline’s egg & rice bowl was particularly good this evening.

“I’m telling you, Bado, you need to watch it. If you keep baiting that hunter wolf, you are gonna get bit!” Said Doug, leaning over the table. Bado laughed.

“Hah! Hunter wolf? A fluffy little woolly, more like. Do you hear yourself, even? Ah, thanks.” he accepted another glass from Dylas who had appeared at their table with a tray. Doug scowled up into Dylas’ gold eyes and said nothing. The long silver tail swished behind the waiter and he wordlessly set a large order of bamboo rice in front of the red-haired dwarf, and walked away without looking at him.

“A woolly eh? Well I heard that woolly is thinking of how to even the score. Better watch your back, man.” Bado finally looked up at Doug, raising an eyebrow. His metal-sheen irises were still bright, but even so his eyes looked as if they had relented to weariness long ago, and always would.

“Is that right?” He said in an unconvinced tone. Had she actually said something to Doug? He doubted it. Doug seemed to like stirring the pot, after all. Indeed, having been rewarded with an acknowledging remark, Doug couldn't help but elaborate.

“Sure is. She was in the shop earlier today asking about Dwarves, see.”

“What about ‘em?” Bado said gruffly.

“Just curious, she says.” Doug seemed proud to be able to reveal some gossip, bit by bit.

“What are you wasting my time for, huh?” Bado stood up and set a cloth napkin down on the table as he pushed the chair in. “There’s nothing that little runt can do to rattle me anyhow. Thanks for the meal, though.” He added as the restaurant door swung shut behind him. Doug sat there staring after the other dwarf’s broad back after he had gone… then something dawned on him.

“Hey wait a sec! Get back here! I didn't say I’d pay for you!” Doug shouted at the door. Someone cleared his throat. Doug turned around and realized Dylas was standing in front of him, check in hand for the two meals and drinks. They glared daggers at one another until finally Doug threw a satchel of coins on the table and left, muttering “stupid swayback.”

“Hey!” Dylas barked, turning, but the smaller of the two town dwarves had already disappeared through the front door as well.

Chapter Text

“Good morning, Princess. The sun is up, and so should we be.” Vishnal’s usual wake-up call came in through the haze of a dream wherein Frey had found a rusted suit of armor at the foot of a great tree. She had just been prying at the visor to open it when the image of her bedroom formed in front of her as she woke. She yawned and stretched.

“Huuuuuhhhhh… Good morning…” she answered sleepily. She got dressed heedlessly, and Clorica had to stop her and make several adjustments to her clothing before she could be persuaded to let Frey pass to the dining room. As they passed the dragon chamber, they said a quick good morning to Lady Ventuswill, whose mouth was too full of pancakes and syrup to utter an intelligible reply. Heaps of pancakes were stacked on a great silver platter at her feet. An enormous bone china gravy boat full of hot syrup sat beside it. It would be a while before Venti would be up for conversing, it seemed.

They entered the dining room and sat down to breakfast. Frey piled fruit and pancakes and whipped cream in a heap on her plate. She was starving… come to think of it, had she even eaten dinner the night before? She felt as though she had been troubled… fixated on something then, but all she could presently mind was the elaborate breakfast Volcannon had prepared, singing in a deep booming voice and wearing an extremely ruffly apron in the kitchen as he flipped pancakes high into the air. Who knew where he got the energy or how early he had risen to make enough pancakes to satisfy an enormous dragon as well as four people. Plus, Frey's appetite was second only to Ventuswill herself.

“Are you feeling refreshed, princess?” Vishnall asked, standing by with a plate of hot steamed hand towels for her to wipe her hands of any traces of syrup.

“Yeah I feel great!” She said, swallowing a last mouthful of food and accepting a towel. She washed her hands and face with it and stood up. Now that she was fed, her mind started to retrace her steps from the night before. “Wait a minute…. Vishnal?” She turned to him.

“Yes, Princess?”

“I don’t recall going to bed last night… what happened?”

“Oh yes,” he said laughing nervously. “Actually… I found you asleep in the stables among the cluckadoodles at half past midnight, and I, er, carried you to bed.” He said blushing. “Oh, uh, Clorica dressed you in your pajamas.” He added hastily. Frey's eyebrows were high on her brow. She struggled to remember the night before. Her mind seemed preoccupied with trying to picture the rusted suit of armor from the dream instead. Then realization dawned and she groaned and drew a hand up over her left eye.
“oh right..” she thought. “How could I forget that bastard’s nonsense? And even after spinning my wheels thinking about it half the night!” She went over it in her head. Where had those questions, turning in a circle, eventually led her before she slipped off to sleep in the hay?

“That’s right. I remember what I wanted to do.” She said aloud, looking up with a sense of determination and heading for the door.

“Princess?” Vishnall stared after her but she didn't seem to notice and just like that had left the castle to go about her day.

Chapter Text

It was too early. Way too early to be open, Bado thought as he nodded, leaning back in a plain wooden chair in the Meanderer smithy. It looked to be a long boring day. So bright and sunny that no one in their right mind would waste it shopping indoors. At once the sound of the heavy wooden door creaking open snapped him out of his dozing. He looked up. The shape of a spritely young woman with long swinging pigtails came into focus, and wakefulness pounced on his brain.

‘Can’t wait to get even?’ he thought wryly, smiling with one side of his mouth as she walked right up to the counter without so much as glancing at any of the merchandise on the shelves or walls. He was ready for the game to start. He stared into her pale green eyes as she approached, returning his gaze.

“Good morning, Bado.” She said cheerfully. “How are you today?” One of his eyebrows pulled vaguely upward.

“Oh just fine, and you?” ‘enough with this civil small talk,’ he thought. ‘Bring on your silly scheme.’

“I am well, thank you too.” She said as if reciting a line, then, staring into his steel blue eyes she too looked warily expectant and possibly confused, but she recovered quickly, blinking. “I wanted to ask you—“
‘Here it comes…’ he thought.

“Would you like to go somewhere with me today?” He blinked in surprise. This was wholly unexpected but he quickly resumed his inward suspicions.

“Uuh… Sure.” He said simply but thought ‘what is your game, huh runt?’ Then excitement welled up. His expression lightened, he smiled and set a sign upright on the counter that read “I respect the honor system. Help yourself and leave payment on the counter.” He looked sideways at her expectantly, bracing for a reprimand for leaving the shop unattended, but Frey's tensed shoulders relaxed and she too seemed suddenly lifted in spirits.

“Alright, let’s go then!” She said brightly and turned toward the door. Bado’s face fell into a confused stare after her. What was she playing at? He hefted a long, battered wooden sword onto his shoulder and left the Meanderer trailing behind the Princess.

They walked to the south gate without a word and passed through it into the gentle Selphia plains to the South. It felt great to be outside, rather than in the dusty smithy. No work, and a mysterious game to unravel with his favorite hot-headed plaything. Things were looking up. …but just how would the little princess spring her trap? How was she planning to even the score? He wandered off in his mind imagining possible scenarios and how he would turn them to his advantage and hopefully get her flustered enough to make another hilarious face when—
“OOF” A low grunt.

“Uwaah!” A shrill exclamation, and Frey toppled forward, arms windmilling wildly and barely caught herself without falling flat on her face as Bado blundered right into her. His ears burned red and he winced.

“Sorry” he said quickly, reaching out as if to steady her but retracting his hand as if it had been slapped as she turned to face him. Her face was startled and her cheeks were pink. “Uh..” he said quickly, turning redder by the moment. “Sorry Frey, I’ll be more careful.” He said clumsily. He had inclined his head to look sheepish but his great height thwarted this outright, and the comical sight made Frey chortle. He winced again, reddened more deeply and cleared his throat.

“Its alright.” She said, smiling. There was no evidence of anger, no disapproval… nothing. She just turned around and kept walking with her springy heedless gait through the woods. He frowned as he walked after her, staring at her back as her hair swung to and fro. His ears were still hot. Late spring flower petals fluttered down and a few got caught in Frey's long pale green hair. She looked so much like a sprite or a nymph bouncing along the path that he chuckled. Hearing the sound, she turned and looked up at him. He stopped in his tracks and looked back at her. Big green eyes searched him and she tilted her head slightly, but said nothing.

“S’nothing” he muttered, and waited for her to turn around again. ‘She is better at this than I thought’ he mused to himself. What a sneak.

Suddenly a loud humming shook a bush off to the right of the trail. Bado turned sharply and gripped the handle of the blunt wooden sword, but didn’t move it from his shoulder. Frey drew Force Divide with a flash and skittered backward like a water bug just as a huge Hercules beetle flew charging out of the bushes right at her. Bado drew in a sharp, quick breath but stood stone still. She crossed the blades and braced for impact. The Hercules beetle’s long sword-like horn clashed with her dual blades and bowled her right over and they both toppled into the bushes. Bado was still frozen in place, but his teeth were clenched and his whole body was tense; his sword arm trembled visibly. He breathed a long shuddering breath in through the nose, mastered himself and dashed toward the place where Frey and the beetle were making a great racket as they fought in the bushes. Just before he reached the place there was a deafening screech and a flash of light. Ribbons of spirit traces shot out from the bushes and off into the blue. The beetle’s spirit had gone back to the forest of beginnings. He took another step, throwing down the wooden sword and bending the branches back. He followed the sound of panting and coughing and soon uncovered Frey sprawled amongst the roots, hair tangled in a bramble, scratched and bleeding in several places, but otherwise unhurt it seemed. She let her arms fall on either side of her, dropping her swords on the ground. Her chest rose and fell rapidly as she gasped for air. He breathed again, closing his eyes briefly and silently mouthing something. Then he spoke in a slightly shaky voice:

“Good grief, Frey what kinda reflexes are those?! How can I trust you to wander in the woods when you fight like that?!” He mocked, snapping the branches above her and tossing them aside to make room.

“And where… the hell… were you… I’d like to know!” she panted. He laughed and busied himself clearing out the tangle of branches a little more, absentmindedly moving his foot beside her. Once he had cleared away most of them he looked down where she was still panting hard, trying to catch her breath. She hadn't made any attempt to lift herself off the springy forest floor. Her head was tilted back, eyes closed. Her arms were stretched above her head and her knees were bent as she pulled her feet closer to her. He stared for a moment and his ears turned scarlet again. He had one leg on either side of her in the close thorny underbrush and looking down at her from this perspective his mind immediately wandered… that breathy voice panting, her chest rising and falling rhythmically as she stretched out on her back. Her clothing was disheveled and even torn in a couple places. He realized he was holding his breath again and swallowed… but he couldn't bring himself to breathe again, and couldn't shake the image from his mind just yet. Presently she tried to lift her head and the brambles pulled cruelly on her long hair.

“Aah!” she cried out. The sound shot through him like lightning. It fit entirely too well with the vision that had just flitted through his mind. He exhaled a slow breath, trembling but unable to hold it any longer. “My hair is caught! Bado, help me get out of here.” She pleaded. His mouth felt dry.

“Y-yeah, I got ya” he stammered. He leaned over, trying to find another place for his right foot. Anywhere! Anywhere but astride her wriggling beneath him. She was making the knots worse and as they pulled at her scalp again, she gasped and gripped his right leg with one arm. “nng” he stifled a yelp and shut his mouth tight. His ears were on fire and a heat was building in his fingers, toes, and-- “No no no!” he muttered urgently to himself.

“Bado!” She breathed. Electricity coursed up his spine again at the sound. Hearing his name like that was even more shocking than the previous sound, if that were even possible.

‘God damnit, you’re not helping!’ he silently cursed her and looked frantically around again. Suddenly as she writhed again a larger patch of forest floor opened up by his right foot, he shifted his weight and lifted his left foot haphazardly. He was desperate to get her out from between his legs before--

“Help me you ass!” She shouted and pulled at the back of his right knee. That did it. His knee buckled and his raised foot swung wildly back to the left to catch himself. He grasped frantically at the nearest branch, winced and released it as the thorny vines pricked him. He had closed his eyes at the pain but felt himself drop to his knees and sensing the brambles brushing his face he rocked himself back and tucked his head toward his chest. The thorns scratched his face as he did so and he held his eyes tightly shut. He heard Frey gasp and a hot fear bubbled up in his abdomen.

‘oh no oh no…’ his mind reeled in panic. He was right on top of her, with a knee on either side of her his weight pinned her down, he felt her knees pull up against his backside and her back arched in her surprise, pushing her body into him from below. ‘no! no! no!’ His brain furiously wished the impossible situation away.
“Bado?!” Her breath was right in his ear and she gripped his sides with frantic hands tangling in his clothing. As he pulled his head away from the thorn bushes by her hair, he had accidentally tucked his face right into her neck. Her soft skin grazed his nose and lips. It was hot to the touch. A red hot flash zinged through him from his toes to the top of his head. This was too much! He lost all semblance of control and gasped, trying to spring up and away from her. The thorns raked him as he did so.

“Aack!” he yelped and fell forward again, landing on his outstretched hands on either side of her head. Frey cried out shrilly and pushed hard on his chest with both hands. The brambles pulled her hair and she winced and gripped him again, pulling her knees up suddenly against him and pushed him firmly against her. He inhaled sharply and became painfully aware of her pelvis pinned under his. His heart was pounding, racing.

“Okay, okay!” he cried frantically. “Don’t move! Stop!” She stopped her writhing and clutched his shirt tightly in her bunched fists, whimpering as her hair was still yanked by the bramble, she opened her eyes and looked up into his face. It was very close to hers, their noses almost touching. He was breathing fast, a wild fearful light in his eyes. She forced herself to relax and fought the urge to flail again. The brambles had snared in his shirt when he tried to sit up and even now they bit the back of his neck. They held motionless for a few moments save for the rapid expansion of their chests as they breathed. His ears twitched, still hot as fire, red as blood. “S-sorry! sorry! I-I uh…” He stuttered breathlessly. “I’ll try to—“ he gingerly pulled himself upward, into the thorns that dug into his neck and shoulders, clenching his teeth. But the bramble thicket attached to him was also what snarled her hair and even as he moved she gasped and cried out again. “Damnit! Sorry! Ah god… I can’t move without pulling it!” He swore and looked woefully at her face as she cringed. She panted for a moment and opened her eyes again. His face was pinched with worry. And in his eyes she saw a helpless panic rising amidst the pain.

“AawwwwFUCK THIS!” she cried “RETURN!” a bright light encircled them and his consciousness seemed to flicker as the Earthmate retornen spell enveloped the two. His head was assailed by a swimming, dizzy sensation and he nearly blacked out, tucking his face back into her neck and shoulder instinctively. Then he could feel a hard cold stone floor under his hands he could still hear her breathing, and himself too. As he came to his senses he became dimly aware of her hands on his chest and his lips brushing her neck… Horror seized him as he realized where he was. He gulped a huge breath and threw himself from her with a start.
His clothing yanked from her hands, she cried “Hey!” He stood up on wobbly legs and staggered backward, shaking all over. “Hold still, Damnit!” She snapped at him as she propped herself up on her elbows. He silently obeyed her outburst and pieced together what he saw around him. The fire in his forge was burning low, the room dim aside from its warm glow. There was no one in the shop. They were alone in the empty Meanderer. He started to calm down and breath normally, blinking. Nobody had seen, and they were out of the bramble thicket. Relief washed over him and he swayed on his feet and groped at the wall behind him. Finding it he let himself slide down to the solid stone floor. After a minute or so he heard his name repeated.

“Bado. Bado!” Frey's voice sounded far away. He opened his eyes and made a startled noise. She was kneeling right in front of him, face no more than ten inches away and her hands were on his chest.

“What’reyou—“ he began and she drew back, pulling her hands tight to her own breast.

“Sorry.” She whispered as he stopped himself squirming again. She continued to stare at his eyes in worried attention. Her hair was still tangled, but only with itself now. Her cheeks were flushed red and she was still disheveled, scratched and bruised. Sympathy stirred in him when he looked at the little streaks of blood where she had been scratched. But mostly he felt utterly overwhelmed and unsure. What on earth should he do? Could it even get any worse? “You’re hurt.” She said softly, her eyes flicking to his neck and back up into his eyes. He reached up numbly, touched the back of his neck and held his hand before his face. His fingertips were red with blood. She reached out her hands to his chest again and he pushed himself back against the wall. “Easy…” she said quiet but urgent. “I’m just gonna heal you.” When he relaxed under her hands she moved them up onto his neck and hummed the cure spell. His skin tingled as she knitted up the many small puncture wounds. He stared at her silently, still at a loss. Her eyes were closed as she hummed the spell. He watched her face and his breathing slowed down finally. It felt like his heart was in is throat. Her small hands about his neck felt strange but distantly familiar, like a name it took a while to recall, but could never really be forgotten. A few more moments passed and then she opened her eyes and removed her hands from him. He struggled to break the silence between them.

“I… Frey, I’m so sorry.” He said quietly… he felt no more pain but saw that he was still grimacing reflected in her worried gaze. She sighed, looked down, then back up at him.

“Me too.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

“Y-you’re not… I didn’t h-hurt you, did I” he nearly choked on the words and felt an icy grip on his heart as he heard himself stammer them.

“No, no. I’m fine.” He sighed with relief.

“Thank god… “ This time it was an actual whisper. They sat in a heavy silence for a time.

“Listen…” She began again, calmly and steadily. “I wanted to say… I’m sorry about yesterday. And I er, I have some things I wanted to ask you about, which is why I dragged you out there in the first place.” She seemed more or less recovered. Could she really shake it off so easily, he wondered. Surely she would want to leave as soon as possible and avoid him for the rest of their lives. He really was going to be roasted by the divine dragon now… He dimly realized she was waiting for him to answer.

“Don’t worry about it.” He muttered. He had never felt so utterly embarrassed and exposed. “but…” he began again “I don’t know how much more I can take, today.” He swallowed.

“Yeah…it can wait” she said quietly. She looked up into his eyes again but said nothing. He stared back, waiting. What else could he possibly say? She was sitting up close to him as he leaned on the wall. He watched her face and breathed slowly. Breathing was all he could manage to do it seemed. Her gaze lingered long. He felt his face growing hot, and his gaze suddenly dropped to her mouth. Her lips parted as if she would speak but she was still silent. He swallowed and forced himself to blink away a sudden fascination with her lips. His eyebrows pulled upward and he looked up at her eyes again, uncertain. He closed his mouth. She held his gaze a moment longer and then looked away fluttering her long eyelashes as she blinked. She lifted a hand and very lightly rested it on top of his. He swallowed again. This was no accident in the woods. She had actually laid her hand on his… on purpose.

‘How long…’ a thought began in his head. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt this kind of touch. Her skin was warm and soft. She was looking down and left, thoughtful. Lost and small as he felt, he could not seem to look away from her or move his hand. Having forgotten this physical contact so long ago, this sudden re-occurrence made him famished for it. He didn't want her to go. Presently he turned his hand over and grasped hers gently. She settled closer to him, back to the wall beside him and leaned against his arm and side. He looked up and saw his chair propped against the front door, barring it from opening. Frey must have put it there. Through the windows the afternoon light was waning. He could feel her heartbeat as she rested against him and he stroked her hand in his with his thumb. She sighed and her breathing deepened. Her eyes were closed. A clenching feeling welled up in his chest. ‘What the hell am I doing?’ He thought bitterly.

Chapter Text

“Princess! Are you alright?!” Vishnal cried out, shocked. Frey snorted and sat bolt upright in bed, gasping. It was certainly not Vishnal’s usual wake-up call. She looked around, confused. She was on her bed, that much was certain, but wearing her field gear. It was a mess; torn and dirty, with leaves sticking out here and there. Her hair was snarled and knotted and she was covered in nicks and scratches.

“Miss Frey! What has happened?” Boomed Volcannon, who had dashed into the room upon hearing Vishnal shout. She brought her hand up to her forehead and shook herself.

“I can’t reme—“ She began, and the gasped and looked up, eyes wide.

“What is it?” Vishnal cried.

She shook her head and stuttered. “N-nothing. It’s nothing. I’m fine” Neither of the butlers were satisfied, their eyebrows rose suspiciously. “I uh, I need to go to the bathhouse…” She said shakily, and stood up. She tottered off toward the great dragon hall, looking off balance. The two stared after her in a bewildered fashion.

Frey mind raced. She put her hand up to her hair. The memory of the entanglement in the thorns had rushed back to her She was replaying it bit by bit in her memory. It seemed so ludicrous that if it hadn’t been for her hair and garments, she probably would have thought it was just a wild dream. She recalled casting retornen, the cold stone floor of the Meanderer, and Bado’s gray-blue eyes wide with fear.

“Well,” Said a reverberating voice above her. “You are a hot mess this morning, aren’t you?” Frey stumbled in surprise. Ventuswill the Divine Wind was towering over her, narrowing her eyes as she surveyed the princess’s wrecked image.

“Oh, heh heh.” Frey laughed nervously “Yeah I got in over my head in the wilds yesterday.”

“Hmmm” Venti’s eyes narrowed further and her long serpentine neck stooped and drew her great, feathered head close to Frey, who fidgeted with her hands. “With whom?” Frey blushed and shifted her weight.

“N-no one”

“Then how did Bado come to find you and bring you home in this state?” Frey looked up into the dragon’s face, eyes widened with surprise. Ventuswill grinned, exposing rows of long pearly teeth. “Yes I saw him. I thought it might be Volcannon but judging by his reaction this morning it was the other tall one. He carried you across the town square and into your room and left without a word.” There was a loaded silence. “Well? I hope you don’t think trying to hide something from me will do you any good.” Frey gulped.

“I, uh…” She squeaked, “w-we went to Selphia plain together yesterday. I wanted to try out your advice.” she looked sheepish. Venti said nothing but continued to pry her with her gaze. “You know, the bit about making peace with someone you’ve quarreled with and trying to understand them?”

“Have you and Bado been fighting?” Ventuswill asked calmly, not sounding concerned. It was so unfair how she pried like a parent but saw through everyone as only a godly creature can.

“Well, no not exactly…” Frey fidgeted, trying to push the memory of his weight pressing her on the earthy forest floor out of her mind, lest Venti read it outright. “But he played a trick on me last week, and we had a little tiff yesterday at his shop because of it…”
“I see.” Venti said evenly. “Go on…” Frey swallowed again, feeling hot under the great dragon’s scrutiny.

“Doug asked if I wanted to even the score, but… I don’t think I want to argue with him anymore. I don’t understand him at all, and…” She trailed off running her fingers through a loose tendril of hair, combing the knots out absentmindedly. There was a brief silence, then: “Venti, did you know Bado before Forte’s Father passed away?” Venti looked hard at her and stayed silent for a few seconds, then said slow and measured:

“Yes… But since he does not like to speak of his past, I do not speak of it either.” Frey sighed. “Why the sudden interest?” Ventuswill added.

“Just something Forte mentioned made me wonder is all… It’s no big deal.” She would not meet the dragon’s gaze. Another silence followed, and after staring long at Frey, who refused to look up, Ventuswill raised her great head again and looked down at her.

“Frey…” She waited for eye contact. Finally Frey looked up with her chin still tucked. “Don’t do anything foolish.” She rumbled cryptically.

“C’mon Venti,” Frey tried to make light of it. “Don’t worry! Now if you’ll excuse me, featherhead, I really need a bath. Besides, when have you ever known me to be foolish?” Venti silently watched Frey stroll out of the hall.

“Always…” The dragon rumbled.

Chapter Text

Bado opened his eyes, waking from a sleep as deep and black as a moonless night. For a moment he wondered dully what day of the week it was. He hoped it was a holiday... a day off. There was no light creeping in from the windows. The sun hadn’t risen yet. Then the day before flashed through is mind like a blow to the head and he clapped his hands over his eyes.

“Ah god…” he hissed. Could all that really have happened? He vainly hoped it was a dream, but it was too vivid, too real. Even now, he was aware of every part of him that had touched her. It was as if a fever glowed in his skin wherever it remembered the warmth of her body. He rubbed his eyes with his palms, willing the embarrassment to subside as he recalled the bramble thicket. Then he unclenched his teeth and let his memory pause in the smithy… her tiny frame leaning against him, and a pale slender hand nestled in his wide palm. Loneliness coiled like a serpent inside him. He shook his head, pushing himself to let the vision fade. How many hours had passed while he listened to her heartbeat as she slept, exhausted, leaning on him? Then he remembered a rush of anxiety while he had carried her quickly but gently so as not to wake her across town to the castle, hoping against hope to go unseen in the small hours of the morning. He laid her gently on her bed in the east wing of the castle, lingering a moment to watch her dreaming peacefully. Then, stealing away through the town square and jogging back to the smithy he had felt the full weight of his weariness crash down on him, and he fell onto his bed and slept instantly, still wearing his boots.

After a time he sat up, still rubbing the heels of his hands over his eyes. It just kept replaying in his mind. Those big green eyes, the embarrassment and panic, and the moment when it had started to spiral out of control… That part was exceptionally strong. Even now he felt as if he were back in the forest, standing over her as she sprawled beneath him on the ground. Her breathy voice gasping, whining, calling out his name--His imagination twisted the memory. In his mind she was not in the brush under the bramble thicket but stretched out on his sheets in his bed… and he was not standing up.

“Stoppit!” He spat, shaking himself. He stood up abruptly and walked to the basin full of water in the corner. He splashed is face and rubbed his hands over it, letting the water drip from the tip of his nose and eyelashes.

“Bado!” Frey’s breathy cry intruded on his mind again and he shut his eyes tightly and pushed the thought away once more. He walked with heavy footfalls to the front of the shop, propped the doors and windows open and threw several logs onto the burning embers in the forge. Picking up the bellows, he fed the flames until the forge roared and crackled. Droplets of water still clung to his short beard and dripped periodically onto the floor. He flung a long iron ingot into the fire with a heavy pair of tongs and reached for his hammer. Dust literally fell from it in a cloud as he lifted it.

“No wonder Forte has been so pissy lately.” He grumbled, wondering vaguely how long it had been since he last held the hammer. He didn’t feel particularly inspired to forge iron, but this was the only way he knew how to still his mind.

All that morning a loud metal “Clang” resounded in a steady rhythm in the streets of the housing district of Selphia. Bado wrought iron and steel tirelessly for six hours before a call from the front of the store made him pause mid-stroke. It sounded like a woman’s voice. Green, bright eyes popped into his mind’s eye but he frowned and recognized the voice in the same instant. He tossed the rough shape of a sword back into the forge with the hilt protruding and slung the hammer onto his shoulder as he walked to the front of the shop.

“What?” he said gruffly, still frowning. Forte was smiling at him approvingly with her hands on her hips.

“Up before dawn and working huh? Do you have a fever?” His dark eyebrows furrowed at her.

“C’mon Forte, leave him be. He works sometimes!” a tiny voice said beside her, coming from the petit figure of her younger brother Kiel as he brushed a lock of blond hair out of his eyes. Kiel wasn’t mocking him intentionally. He was trying to help… but had no grace.

“Yeah so I’m busy as you can tell.” He growled, “whaddaya want?” Forte’s smile twisted into a stern look and she looked about to challenge his stirring temper when Kiel piped up.

“We just came to bring you breakfast!” he chirped cheerfully, holding up a bowl of rice topped with fried squid. Bado’s face relaxed and he accepted it with one large hand.

“Thanks, kiddo.” He said simply.

“We’ll leave you to it, then.” Said Forte in a snipping tone, turning for the door. Kiel scurried after her calling over his shoulder.

“See you later, Bado.” His carefree voice seemed to linger in the air for a moment after they left. Then all was quiet. His mind took advantage of the stillness and flashed the memory of Frey's wide-eyed look of surprise as he bent over her in the underbrush, nose to nose. Bado gritted his teeth and uttered a muffled curse. He put the bowl of food on his work table and hastily pulled the handle of the hot steel from the forge, slapped it onto the anvil, sending a couple zinging sparks aside and swung the hammer down on the hot metal with a deep “HUH”. He would work as long as he needed to drive the little nymph from his mind.

Chapter Text

Frey exhaled a long, weary sigh as she lowered herself into the bath. The little scratches all over her arms and legs stung and burned at the first touch of the hot water, but it felt so refreshing and relaxing she didn’t care at all. She had left the castle in a hurry and made a beeline for the Bell Hotel. Xiao Pai had greeted her smiling as always and didn’t react to her frazzled appearance. The truth was, Frey often came back worse for wear from a trip into the wild, and the hotel bathhouse was always her first stop when she returned. As she had approached the lion statues at the doorway to the hotel, she heard a faint clanging from the housing district. She had inhaled quickly and dashed into the bathhouse as though she didn’t want to be spotted.

Now, she lowered herself all the way up to her nose in the water, brooding.

‘That lousy featherhead.’ She thought. ‘Why do I always get the feeling she knows what I’m thinking?’

‘Don’t do anything foolish…’ Ventuswill’s warning echoed in her ears.

‘Don’t do anything foolish?’ She thought darkly, ‘Like fall for a clumsy, older, pointy-eared slacker?’ She buried her face in her hands, hot and wet from the bath. She went over it in her mind again. At the Meanderer the previous morning, he had a wry, mischievous look and she wavered in her mind, anticipating a jibe in response to her invitation. Even as he followed her out to the south plains trail, he had watched her intently with wary anticipation. What was he waiting for? A trap? An insult? But then, when he bumped into her, his thighs colliding with her rear sending her toppling forward and she spun around (expecting a mocking laugh) he had looked so flustered. His ears turned red, protruding out sideways behind his sideburns. The memory of it made a small giddy laugh swell up in her throat, but she held it in, merely smiling. Then the smile slipped away and her brows knitted together as she recalled the pain and panic in his face in the brambles. He had been so alarmed to find himself pressed against her on the forest floor… and dismayed. Was it such an awful notion? The bitter thought made her eyes burn a little. Then she saw in her memory the helpless grief in his face when he tried to pull away from her, yanking the brambles that snared her hair. She wanted to do something, anything to undo that agony she saw in him. She visualized the Meanderer and focused on the retornen spell, shouting the words and clutching him tightly as he buried his face in the hollow of her neck.

Then even after they were safely returned and out of the bramble, he was so undone… Her eyes stung again as she recalled him jumping back, staggering, panting like a frightened animal, and then drooping to the floor against the wall. She had hopped up and blocked the door with a chair and dropped to the floor as she darted to his side, sliding over the smooth stone and coming to rest just by him. He was breathing heavy with his eyes closed. She fretted with her hands outstretched, hovering in front of him as she noticed blood trickling down his neck where the thorns had sunk into his skin. She held her breath and laid her hands on his chest. He didn’t seem to notice and she called his name in a voiced squeezed by the worry rising in her chest. She flinched as her memory replayed him startling as he opened his eyes and saw her. But then after she had healed him he had apologized, pleadingly, and worried she was hurt. The relief that poured from him once he knew she was alright melted her heart a little with a twinge. She just wanted him to calm down and relax. She wanted to wrap her arms around him and hold him tightly until all the fear was gone, and when she laid her hand on his she saw loneliness and longing well up in his gaze. He had held her hand in his, softly, and though his lips didn’t form a syllable she thought she could practically hear him think ‘don’t go.’ Maybe it was all in her imagination… but he had welcomed her touch and didn’t flinch when she leaned against him, finally relaxing as she sensed him breathing slowly and deeply beside her. He was so warm, even hot to the touch through his clothing. Hadn’t Doug mentioned something about Dwarves having a higher body temperature? Finally released from the clenching worry, the exhaustion pulled her immediately into a deep shroud of sleep.

She frowned slightly. She could not remember at all being carried through town in his huge arms or laid in her bed. She wished she could have seen his face and searched his eyes for some clue as he had carried her. Was he sorry to leave her after the long hours resting in the smithy? Or would he be eager to avoid her now, unwilling to relive the memory from the day before when he saw her face?

A tinkling laughter wafted into the bath as Margaret and Clorica walked into the room to bathe. They draped their towels over the chairs against the wall and waded into the bath.

“Oh hello Frey!” Said Margaret as she looked down at Frey's head protruding from the water.

“Hello.” She said, trying to sound cheerful. The girls’ smiles waned a little and they stared at her.

“Is everything okay?” asked Clorica in her slow, sleepy way. Frey cursed her inability to veil her emotions.

“Of course, I just had a rough time with a monster battle yesterday and I’m kinda worn out from it.”

“Well we’re glad you’re alright,” Said Margaret, “but you really should be more careful!” She shook her finger at Frey. Same old Margaret, she thought.

“Anyway, what were you saying, Meg?” Said Clorica as she dipped her hair in the water.
“Oh yes, that’s right. Arthur was telling me that Kiel is spreading it around that Bado has been at his forge all morning, since before dawn, even!” Frey's ears pricked up.

“Really? Clorica’s eyes widened.
“Uh-huh. He’s apparently been bitten by some kind of powerful will to work and won’t even put his hammer down to eat!” Then she laughed. “Dylas has been buzzing around all morning saying if Bado was working that hard, then he would have to double his pace so as not to fall behind.” The girls giggled together. Frey was staring into space, a rosy glow creeping into her cheeks. What did it mean? There was no way it was coincidence, but why would the events of yesterday drive him to work so furiously? He never worked that long, ever. She looked up, realizing the silence. The girls had stopped talking and were grinning at her.

“What?” Frey was clearly flustered.

“Why are you blushing, Frey?” Clorica leaned forward as she slowly spoke the words. She always talked slow, even when she thought she was being urgent. Frey felt a fear bubbling up. She wasn’t even sure of the feelings that were forming for the blacksmith yet and she definitely wasn’t ready for someone to guess at them, even if she couldn’t keep it from Venti for long.

“Ooh, she turned bright red as soon as I mentioned Dylas.” Meg chortled.

‘Oh thank god.’ Frey breathed as she thought. It suddenly made sense that they would assume her reaction regarded the young, moody stallion, rather than a man at least a decade older than her. She laughed nervously and willed them to take the bait. Clorica gasped.

“You DO have a crush on him, don’t you?”

“What a big heart you have, to feel so affectionate to such a grump!” Meg said, looking at her slyly. “Maybe you can inspire him to start learning how to be a gentleman.

“C’mon guys, you are embarrassing me.” Frey said, inwardly thinking how the statement could easily apply to another man she knew…

The girls giggled and plied her for details about her feelings for Dylas, but she stood up saying she would soon sprout fins if she stayed any longer, and wrapped herself in a towel as she padded out of the bath on her small white feet.

“Whew” she sighed. That was a close call. How was she ever going to master her plain-as-day emotions? It wouldn’t be easy to keep the situation under control if Leon or Kiel ever got wind of it. But, she thought, at least two members of the town already knew something of her feelings. Thankfully neither the Dragon nor the blacksmith had a habit of gossiping, or a reason to spread around this particular bit of info. She was safe, for now.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t working. All day and into night after the sun sank below the horizon Bado pounded away at innumerable weapons and threw them in a pile against the wall to add the finishing work later. He had nearly exhausted all his raw materials but he still couldn’t shake off the forbidden thoughts. His hammer strokes were falling more rapidly as he fought with himself. The clanging was climbing to a crescendo.

‘Forget it!’ he shouted at himself in his mind. ‘You can’t have her so you just have to get over it!!’ As his inner voice said the last two words his arm brought the hammer crashing down with a fury, shouting: “Haaaaah!”

He had worked the metal too long without heating it. The raw blade shattered as the hammer struck. It had lost all malleability as it cooled. “Ungh” he grunted as a splinter of metal struck him and clapped a hand over his right eye. The rest of the pieces had fallen to the floor with a clatter, but one had flown strait up and buried the point in the wooden beam above the anvil. He held his breath and carefully removed his hand and opened his eye. His vision seemed fine. The shard had cut his brow above his right eye, but it wasn’t deep. ‘lucky.’ He thought, wiping the blood from his forehead with his wrist. He was afraid for a moment he was about to resemble all too well another member of his clan that had settled in Sharance. ‘Another penniless loser.’ He smiled ever so slightly to himself. Gaius almost never left his forge but he could never be bothered to sell anything he made, so his business was always teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. His vision blurred a little, but it was in both eyes. Frey's face surfaced in his mind again and he sighed heavily, reaching for a new steel ingot. He could not escape her.

Just then a wheeling vertigo hit him and he fell sideways, seizing a post to steady himself, but it was no use. His head swam. He couldn’t tell which way was up. Vaguely he thought to lean away from the heat of the forge as he slid from the post, his legs unable to hold him. Then there was nothing but inky blackness.

***

Bado’s mind began to stir and he wearily opened his eyes. The ceiling was unfamiliar. A pale white room came slowly into focus. He was lying on a bed in the town clinic. He was much too tall for it and his large feet hung over the end toward the tile floor. He brought a hand up to his face and rubbed his eyes. It was bound in gauze and so was his head, he realized, touching the bandage curiously. He began to sit up.

“Oh no you don’t!” a chiding voice scolded him. “Behave yourself or I’ll sedate you and don’t think that I won’t!” Nancy put her hand up in front of him as he righted himself, set her palm on his chest and pushed him back down onto the pillow. He was amazed to find he could not resist the force. “You’re in bad shape, Bado. You need to rest so just keep still.” Her voice had softened but her brow was still furrowed at him. “You really overdid it this time.” She added.

“ahm’fine…” he slurred and raised his hand to remove hers from him. His arm felt heavy and his vision blurred again. She pinned his arm back down with ease. His strength was gone.

“You will be. Just rest.” Her voice was fading into the distance as he slipped into a dream.

Sometime later he opened his eyes and saw the clinic ceiling again. His head felt much clearer, but it was pounding with a headache.

“Good afternoon, sleepyhead.” Nancy’s voice was much more cheerful than before. “You have visitors.”

He edged toward the headboard, sat up and looked around.

“How ya feelin’, Bado?” Kiel’s ever-chipper voice sounded as carefree as ever. He rubbed his eyes with both hands.

“You had us quite worried.” Said Forte, sitting beside the bed with her brother. “What were you thinking?”

“Sorry…” He mumbled. He was in no mood to argue. He looked up at her. She had purple shadows under her eyes and her brow was lined with worry.

“What’s gotten into you?”

“Nothin’… I just ain’t as spry as I used to be, apparently…” He said quietly. All the fight had gone out of him, but he still wasn’t going to admit anything either.

They stayed and visited with him for a quarter of an hour but soon left as he didn’t seem up for conversation. Forte told him how she had come by to check on him after her night patrol to find him lying unconscious by the forge. She had struggled to drag his limp body inch by inch to the clinic, appreciating that it was just around the corner. As she got up to leave she turned and looked at him. He was staring at a little basket on the bedside table containing half a dozen leaf-wrapped onigiri as if he had seen a ghost.

“Miss Frey brought those for you while you were out.” Forte explained, watching his face. He said nothing, but looked down at his bandaged hands for a time, thinking. Forte stared at him. Kiel looked back and forth between them curiously.

“We’ll leave you to your rest, for now.” Said Forte. “Come on Kiel.” After they had left he looked around. There was no one else there. Maybe Dr. Jones and his wife had gone upstairs to have supper? He wasted no time. Swinging his legs shakily over the side of the bed he pushed himself up, staggered, and leaned on the wall. He was still weak and dizzy but nowhere near as bad as before. What if Frey came back? He had no desire to wait and be cornered by her under the watchful eye of Nurse Nancy, who was already determined to see lovey-dovey versions of every interaction she saw. He had to get out of there.

With each step his legs seemed to remember better how to hold him up and soon he let go of the wall and pushed the door open, stepping out onto the street. The blazing sunlight stung his eyes and he held a bandaged hand up to shade them. The cool spring air brushed his face and he felt a little more life come back to him. Better than the stuffy, medicine smell of the clinic. He started down the short road back to the Meanderer and soon walked at a fairly normal pace, but still a little wobbly here and there.

“How are you feeling, sir?” Volcannon thundered at him, making Bado jump and sway slightly. “Are you quite rested and recovered?” Why did the old man talk so loud?

“Uh, yeah. Never better.” Bado said slowly. Volcannon’s manners were impeccable as always, but he was staring intently at Bado with a shadow of something in his eyes.

“That’s quite a relief, sir.” Volcannon said. “Since you are well again, I must inform you that your presence is requested by Lady Ventuswill. I will accompany you to the castle and you may lean on me if you should feel the need.” The butler puffed out his chest.

“I think I’ll be all right…” said Bado, eyeing an outstretched elbow Volcannon offered him. Then he followed the Butler toward the castle with a sinking feeling. What did the dragon want from him? Doug’s words echoed in his memory. Had Frey told Ventuswill about the incident in the woods? He grimly wondered if he would be packing up a knapsack and heading off to exile in an hour or two. They arrived at the gate and Volcannon ushered him in. Ventuswill towered above him regally. An impulse came over him to kneel before her.
‘Old habits…’, he thought. He swallowed and looked up at her, mouth going dry. Volcannon made as if to stand by the entryway, but the Divine Dragon dismissed him with a wave of her tail. He bowed, turned and left the room. A painfully long silence followed. Then a deep, resonating voice came from the dragon’s throat.

“I owe you a favor.” She said slowly in a dangerous tone. He felt dizzy. “Kneel.” She commanded. He did so, bending on one knee, one fist propped on the stone floor before him. She took a deep, swelling breath and the air in the room felt tight. A warm tingling sensation washed over him and a green light shimmered in the air. Then he felt her lift a great winged forelimb over him. He shut his eyes and his shoulders tensed. A long curved claw dragged delicately under the bandage on the back of his head and lifted, pulling it off over his dark, ruffled hair. He blinked and realized that the dull ache in his head was suddenly absent and he touched his brow with a fingertip. The cut was gone and there was no scar.

“Rise.” Her voice echoed even though she was speaking quietly. Such a gigantic creature could only be so quiet, he supposed. He stood up and cautiously raised his eyes to look at her. Surely she wouldn’t heal him just to snap his head off in her jaws a moment later? She looked at him, her expression unreadable, and spoke again:

“I thank you for your service in bringing home Princess Frey, who is in my charge.” She said formally. He inclined his head graciously, but his hands trembled at his sides. “And I have some questions for you regarding that service.” He should’ve eaten the rice balls at the clinic… they would have made a decent last meal, he thought resignedly.

“Yes, milady?” His voice was hoarse.

“Did you accompany her to and from the forest South of Selphia the day before yesterday?”

“Yes, milady.” His insides wound tightly…

“Do you know how she came to be so disheveled?” He took a deep breath.

“Yes, milady.”

“And have you done anything to your knowledge to do her injury?”

His back stiffened and he looked straight into her eyes with determination. There was one thing among all the confusion of feelings he had regarding the princess that was certain beyond any doubt. He could never lay a hand on her with a will to harm.

“No, milady.” The gray-blue reflection of his eyes flashed like steel on the surface of Ventuswill’s huge shining dark eyes. The skin at their corners crinkled and the dragons brow lowered. She looked pleased and slightly gloating.

“Then you need to settle down and stop looking so grave.” He let out a breath and swayed. Ventuswill’s great winged arm shot out and her huge taloned hand caught him gently at the shoulder, steadying him. “I have not known you to look so serious for many years, old friend. Nor to work yourself ragged and even become careless with your hammer.” She paused. He looked up into her eyes. “I hope you are not worrying over something silly.” She looked sly. “After all, I’m sure she does not think ill of you for it or she would not have gone to visit you at the clinic.” Bado’s eyes widened slightly. What did Ventuswill mean by ‘it’? How much did she know? It was clear she had the upper hand so he drew up his courage and reached into the proverbial lion’s mouth.

“What did she tell you?” he asked, fears not assuaged.

“Plenty without ever saying a word,” Ventuswill answered “Just like you.” Bado sighed giving in. He had to assume that all was laid bare before the dragon.

“Well then if you haven’t skewered me by now then I suppose I’m not as wicked as I’d guessed.” He cracked a smile. It was a relief in a way to know that he couldn’t hide anything from her. Venti smiled.

“That’s better. Worry doesn’t suit you very well.”

“I’ll be damned if I’ll ever be able to look her in the eye again, though.” He sighed. Venti chuckled.

“I’m sure you’ll manage, and I’m even more sure she won’t let you off that easily.” He couldn’t argue with that. “Don’t hide from her, Bado.” She said, suddenly solemn. “It will do neither of you any good. You need to answer each other’s feelings and be truthful.” It sounded easier said than done, especially when he couldn’t avoid a smoldering sensation beneath his stomach whenever he thought of her.

“I’ll try.” He promised.

“Good.” She replied. “Now go wash up and eat something before you keel over. You look even worse than she did.” The dragon snorted. Bado laughed aloud and his heart felt lighter.

Chapter Text

‘You damned idiot!’ Frey thought frantically, dashing out of the clinic. ‘What the hell are you thinking?’ She sprinted around the corner and was suddenly knocked senseless as she collided with something solid, no… someone solid. Two hands shot out and grabbed her as she fell backward, then overbalanced and pulled her tightly against a black coat. She pushed against it and staggered back, looking up into the face of Dylas, who looked flustered and angry.

“Hey!” he barked. “Watch where you’re going!” then flinched and drew back, blushing crimson as if he had been slapped.

“Ohsorry.” she said in a hurry and darted around him and down the street. He stood gaping for a moment, fluffy ears bent backward, then shoved his hands in his pockets with a ‘Tch’ and his tail lashed back and forth.

Her feet thudded against the cobblestone path in front of the Meanderer. She ducked inside, heart pounding. It was empty and still. Even the fire in the forge was cold.

“Damnit!” She huffed and bolted off down the street to the East. She had only one confidant, one person who she could ask… The front door of the castle was closed. She braced herself and slammed her hands against it, pushing hard, then lunged into the room, crying “Venti!” and then gasped. Bado was standing in front of the dragon, twisted around at the din of her entrance. They stared at each other, frozen.

“Speak of the devil.” Said Venti with a nonchalant air.

A wave of relief came over Frey; then her temper flared up. “You big dumb BLOCKHEAD!” she shouted. “What the hell is wrong with you?!” Her voice echoed loud against the tall marble hall. Venti and Bado both gaped at her outburst. She stood rigid with her fists balled tightly at her sides. Her eyes burned and hot tears welled up in them. His look of surprise melted and he smiled gently and stepped closer to her.
“Hey hey,” his deep voice said softly, “Take it easy on me, I just got out of the clinic, you know.” He put his hands on her shoulders and looked down into her trembling face. She was overwhelmed, furious and unbelievably grateful to see him unhurt. Then, feeling a handful of tears spill over her eyelids and down her cheeks she flushed scarlet and let her head fall forward onto his chest. Her shoulders shook. He squeezed them in his great hands and wrapped his arms around her gently and held her to him for a time. She fought the tears, embarrassed to be so vulnerable, so obvious.

“Idiot…” She swore, muffled, into his broad chest. He chuckled softly and put a hand on top of her head as she sniffled. After a few moments, she pulled away from him, wiping her eyes with the back of a white, gloved hand. “Don’t ever do that again!” She scolded, trying to make a stern face up at him.

“Is that an order, princess?” He asked. He was smiling still, looking straight in her eyes. The crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes and smile lines around his mouth creased.

“You bet your ass it is.” She said, furrowing her brow. “I’ll throw your hide to the cluckadoodles if you step out of line!” He laughed out loud. The sound seemed to swell in her chest. She let go of the worry and grief and felt herself smile back at him.

“I’ll have to watch my step, then.” He said.

She walked him back to the clinic, insisting he wait for Dr. Jones to release him. Jones, having heard Bado’s account of Lady Ventuswill’s healing, looked at his brow where the wound had been and then agreed to dismiss him, but insisting he eat and drink plenty and rest for another day at home at the very least. Frey promised Jones she would make Bado keep his word and picking up the basket from the bedside table, she pushed on his back, saying “March, you miscreant!” Jones and Nancy laughed at the sight of the little princess shoving the huge dwarf and didn’t give so much as a second glance after the two had left the clinic again.

Then as they stepped into the empty smithy the private setting seemed to bear down on them. The door swung slowly closed behind him. She had walked in first, setting the basket of onigiri on the counter. An oppressive silence settled heavy in the room. Suddenly the notion that she did not think it would look well if someone came upon them alone together like this floated to the surface of her mind. It was difficult to heed the caution though. She groped for some excuse to stay with him a while longer. He was standing by the door still, looking at her from across the room and suddenly seeming uncertain. The sun was setting outside and shafts of burnt golden light streamed in from the West-facing window, but other than that the shop was dim. He was fidgeting with his hands, rubbing the gauze bandages on his right palm.

“I’ll get the fire going.” She broke the stillness and walked over to the forge.

***

Bado watched her tossing kindling into the forge and weaving a spiral with her hands in the air she blew a breath that turned into a tongue of flame that coiled and danced between her outstretched hands. She thrust it into the hatch and it began hungrily consuming the wood. She dusted off her gloves of soot and turned toward him. He felt a pang as she looked searchingly at him. Longing had surfaced since they had returned to the Meanderer, and something else was stirring too. His eyes combed over her little frame, lingering on her hips and thighs. It was so much easier to keep his thoughts in line in front of others! Standing in the shadow of Ventuswill his affection felt innocent and chaste, a thing there was no need to hide or shield from the eyes of others. But every time he thought of Frey when he was alone, or as was now proven, when they were alone together, he couldn’t keep his thoughts in check.

He wanted her. Even as he forbade himself the thought, a second will, like red-hot metal from the forge protested. ‘Just accept it.’ It said in his brain. ‘You can’t just wish this away. Resisting will only drive you mad.’ And he felt that it was true and he submitted to it, letting himself stare with a distant expression at her lips.

“Bado?” her voice was soft and high.

“Huh?” he blinked.
“In the woods… “ She said slowly and his chest tightened. “I know you didn’t mean anything by it… it was an accident.” She watched him intently.

“Oh, yeah…” He said thickly, and swallowed. She was generally naïve, so perhaps, he hoped, she couldn’t see what his clouded eyes held. Even if she could, his resistance was low, and he didn’t know if he could explain it away. There was a long silence. Then she twisted the fingers of her left hand in her right.

“I, uh… I’d better get home…” The last light of dusk was tracing the contour of her face. She stepped slowly toward the door, where he was still standing.

“Yeah, sure.” He heard himself say, low. Then he gulped. She was standing right in front of him now. He realized the door was behind him and made a move to get out of the way. She reached out suddenly and grabbed his hand. He looked at her, turning around.

“Bado…” She said his name softly and with a jolt he saw her eyes dart between his eyes and his mouth. She rose up on her toes, her other hand slid onto his chest. His ears grew hot, and he felt his heart start racing. He could smell lavender and rosemary from her fields on her. Her fingers curled, pulling the fabric of his shirt, tugging downward. He bent his neck, hardly daring to breathe. He was looking in her eyes and they seemed in a mist…

‘It couldn’t be…’ he thought. They paused, holding still just inches away from each other. He couldn’t move.

She stretched upon her toes and tugged on his shirt again, reaching out her neck. He was terrified transfixed, hopeful. She slowly leaned in. Her upper lip brushed against his lower lip. Red hot fire burned him from inside. His will to fight it dissolved utterly, and he pressed his lips to hers and pulled her against him with a hand winding around her waist. She leaned into him, pushing her hips against his without any hesitation. He reveled in her warmth, bringing his other hand up to her back. Her breasts pressed against his chest beneath her clothes as he pulled her closer to him. She moved her hand up to his cheek, dragging her fingers through his beard. He kissed her lips again, pressing them a little harder this time and focused singularly on savoring their taste, softness, and heat. Then he felt her pull back and he immediately loosened his arms around her and exhaled slowly as their lips separated from one another, his eyes still closed. When he dared to open them he found she was gazing at him with lidded eyes. Her cheeks were flushed and her lips were puffy and deep red.

“Goodnight…” She whispered, slipping out of his arms and laying a hand on the door handle. It was dark in the smithy and as she moved away he could no longer see her expression.

“ ‘Night…” he replied almost inaudibly. She turned and quietly passed through the door and closed it with the tiniest click of the latch. He was alone in the Meanderer again. He rubbed his palms over his eyes and ran his hands through his still-ruffled hair, breathing a long, slow sigh.

Chapter Text

Frey walked slowly, absentmindedly down the street toward the castle, crept into her room through the East door, and out the back to her fields and stables North of the castle. Her feet carried her but she paid little heed to them. She was completely absent from this world, turned inward.

‘I doubt it was the first…’ she rationalized in her mind. It was tough not remembering growing up. How would she know if she had ever kissed anyone before? She looked up and found she was standing still in the middle of one of her monster barns, cluckadoodles surrounding her and looking up curiously, waiting for a treat or to be stroked. She sat down cross-legged in the hay and one of the feathered monsters hopped lightly into her lap, crooning softly. She scratched it under its beak/jaws and continued pondering what she had just experienced. He let her, no, he wanted her to kiss him, and he had kissed her back immediately. Frey felt a warmth in her cheeks, chest, and groin and a chill went through her. She closed her eyes and replayed it in her mind. He was so warm… gentle and powerful at the same time. His hand around her waist lifted her slightly off her tiptoes as he pulled her against him and pressed her lips with his. Then she opened her eyes and grappled with confusion. She added up the pieces in her mind and felt sure that he would never have shown lust in front of anyone else, like the way his affection had spilled over in Venti’s room. And she was quite sure the look that had come over him in the Meanderer was lust…

His eyes had wandered over her body and his ears turned red and twitched periodically. His gaze was shrouded by whatever vision he was imagining… but, she thought, he had only let it happen because they were alone together… Was he worried about the age difference? Or did it not bother him? He had kissed her after all… but not until she practically did it for him. She wavered back and forth in her mind, but eventually gave up trying to figure anything out and simply enjoyed the memory, still near. It had been a good kiss, regardless. Her lips were still red and warm and a tingling sensation was unfurling slowly between her legs. She bit her lower lip, eyes closed and still savoring the memory. She laid back in the hay and rubbed one leg over the other and passed a hand over her eyes. It wouldn’t do to get this hot the next time she saw him in public…

***

Bado stood still by the door, holding one hand over his mouth. What was he doing? Was his will really so frail? How could he have kissed her like that?

‘You’re too old for her, damn your hide!’ he cursed himself and tried to insist to his other will that he could never be with her, that it was his responsibility to draw the line… ‘even though she seems rather eager to cross it?’ the other will asked slyly. With that thought he slipped again into memory, reliving the kiss, her body pressed against him deliberately this time. With a twinge he realized he was getting hard as his imagination dwelt on her. He was losing the fight… he pictured her slender legs, pale soft neck and her face, flushed, after she pulled away… He stiffened beneath his undergarments.

He made an exasperated noise and rubbed his eyes. Then he pulled off his boots, socks and shirt and threw them into a corner of his room behind the shop and sat down on the bed. He sighed and swung his long legs onto the mattress and laid down with one hand resting on his chest and the other up at his head, fingers in his hair. He closed his eyes as if to sleep but breathed in and out slowly, trembling. He knew he had seen it, but couldn’t believe it. The tightened coil in him that strained with desire when he looked at her was mirrored in her misty eyes, cast over with the same clawing lust that he felt. He feebly told himself to think of something else. But all that came to mind was the memory of her bringing up the bramble thicket, and saying she didn’t blame him… She acknowledged it, and then came up to him and kissed him. The last of his will to not heed the hot clenching pull cracked. He let his imagination slip into fantasy and saw her body stretched out beneath him once more, pearly white skin and pale green hair… his beautiful nymph. His hand slid slowly down over his abdomen toward the hard bulge between his legs and he slipped his fingers beneath the fabric. He drew a shuddering breath in the dark as he caressed himself and whispered:
“Frey…”

Bado surrendered to his desire. His first will unraveled and fell away.

Chapter Text

“You can have it back later.” Forte said, holding Bado’s forging hammer in the crook of one arm as she stood in the doorway of the Meanderer. She was no civilian but it was heavy. How had he used it for so many hours strait? No wonder he had spent himself like that. “Just take the day off.” Forte never thought she would have to force Bado not to work. What on Earth was the world coming to? At least as long as she had this she could trust him not to forge anything. He would not lift any hammer but his own. Dwarven blacksmiths were funny about them that way.

“C’mon Forte! I won’t overdo it again, I promise!” He pleaded. She didn’t budge. “What am I supposed to do all day?”

“What do you normally do?” She asked sarcastically, eyebrows raised, and let the door swing shut behind her as she left.

“Sheesh.” He muttered. He looked around for something to focus on. He still couldn’t get Frey out of his head. He was getting used to it, but in the daylight hours he didn’t want to be so fixated on her, not in front of others at least. Just then the front door creaked open again and he marveled to see none other than the Princess of Selphia, bright-eyed and springy in her gait, strolling into the shop as if nothing had ever happened between them. He started to think her timing was uncanny, but then remembered that if he was thinking of her all day she was bound to run into him while she was on his mind eventually…

“Morning!” She chimed. Another figure sullenly followed her into the shop. Dylas’ furry ears were bending out sideways, his hands in his pockets and a scowl on his face. He stood close behind her and looked around the shop, then looked up at Bado with his brow furrowed and said nothing. Bado raised an eyebrow.

“Hey.” He said tentatively, eyeing the young man, or was it monster? He didn’t know what to call a half-and-half and be polite.”

“You aren’t working are you?” Said Frey suspiciously, narrowing her eyes at him.

“Nah, I’m grounded, apparently. Forte took my hammer.” He said, looking at her as nonchalant as he could manage. It wasn’t easy to pretend they were just casual acquaintances, but it was even harder not to search her eyes for a sign that the night before had actually happened. He was starting to feel like he was crazy.

“Oh, that’s good.” She said, smiling. “I’ll feel better knowing you’ll stay out of trouble after yesterday.” Her tone was as if she were speaking to any of the townspeople. That Bado had wrung himself out and had to be hospitalized was already common knowledge thanks in no small part to Kiel. That kid never could keep his mouth shut. Dylas was staring at him… or was it glaring at him? Bado set his jaw.

“Anyway, what’re you two up to?”

“I was just running some errands and wanted to stop by to check and make sure you were behaving yourself. Dylas bumped into me and said he had nothing to do so he’s coming with me while I run around.” She explained. “I do have a favor to ask you after I go collect some materials. Mind if I stop by later?”

“Sure.” He said simply, following her face closely. He couldn’t read anything in her eyes. Was it actually a simple favor, an excuse to get him alone again, or a hint? He had no way of knowing. “What are you lookin’ to gather? I might have it here.” Probably untrue, but curiosity was getting the better of him.

“I need to find fire and water crystals. Dylas knows the ruins pretty well. I thought we could look there first.” She said.

“I can’t get much work done without my hammer. Want an extra pair of hands?” he offered.

“We’ve got it covered.” Said Dylas, still glowering. Bado was liking less and less the idea of Dylas and Frey alone together out there…

“You aren’t supposed to be doing any work!” She countered. “Plus, adventuring doesn’t count as resting.” She had squared her hands on her hips and frowned at him. She was as adorable as ever. Did she do that on purpose? He said nothing. Gray-blue eyes met green and he made no effort to disguise the long stare. He was getting desperate for a sign. “Don’t make me turn you over to Nancy.” She shook her finger at him, a perfect impression of Meg.

“Alright, alright.” There was nothing else he could say while Dylas was standing there. “Just be careful.” He added, letting concern creep into his voice deliberately.

“We got it.” Said Dylas more pointedly. Bado ignored him.

“Come find me when you’re done.” He said, looking at her. “We’ll get that favor figured out.” She smiled up at him.

“Thanks, Bado.”

She turned and headed for the door with Dylas close behind.

Alone again in the empty Meanderer, Bado sighed, brows knitted together. It was going to be a long day.

Chapter Text

Frey walked thoughtfully beside Dylas as they headed for the water ruins. Bado had seemed strange in the shop… like he was waiting for something from her, but she couldn’t bring herself to believe that he was alright with revealing an intimate interaction in front of others. She would have to wait to figure it out until later after she had shaken off her 'tail'. Dylas was looking at her from the corner of his eye as they walked. She was getting weirded out about it.

“What is it?” She asked, finally.

“Since when are you so chummy?” He said, and then seeing her blank look he added: “you and Bado?”

‘Shit.’ She thought. Dylas couldn’t have picked up anything from that simple conversation, could he? She figured he was pretty dense, but who knew what someone is thinking when they rarely open their mouth. She would throw him off the trail, just in case.

“I’d be checking in on you if you were found face down on the floor and dragged to the clinic.” She said coolly. He blushed and looked away.

“I guess.” He said quickly. They walked in silence for the rest of the way.
‘Awkward silence.’ She thought. It was weird enough for Dylas to so much as say hello to her unprompted, but to insist on accompanying her somewhere was downright suspicious. What the hell did he want with her, all of a sudden?

“We’re here.” She said as they slowed in front of the crumbling colonnade and heard the sound of water falling here and there.

“I know.” He grunted, pulling on a pair of gauntlets. Hand-to-hand was his preferred fighting style. She rolled her eyes. What was the point in following her out here when he didn’t seem to enjoy her company at all?

They padded into the ruins and started checking the crumbling rooms. Orcs were always piling up little bits and bobbles they found or stole from one another. That might be the best way to find what she was looking for… but it did mean they’d probably have to fight orcs.

Suddenly as if summoned by her thought, a feral scream ripped through the room and a bristling orc came charging at them from the nearby archway, raising a club high in the air. Dylas dashed between Frey and the monster, holding out an arm in front of her protectively as he faced off with it. Just as it was close enough to see the red rims of its eyes he lunged, struck its swinging arm with his forearm, causing the club to swing wide and miss him, then with a roar he sent it flying with a hard right hook. The orc’s spirit dissipated before its body hit the ground.

Shouts in the adjacent hall announced more orcs pounding on their clawed feet towards them.

“Stand back!” Dylas shouted at her, one arm gesturing to block her from the orcs.
“Ohfortheloveof— ” She yelled, reached out and snatched his collar. She pulled hard and sent him staggering backward out of her way, then she quickly mumbled a string of earthspeak, and threw an arm strait out toward the oncoming pack of orcs with her fingers splayed, shouting “Huah!”. An abrupt low rumble gave way to a great crash as a huge, jagged wedge of rock like a row of gigantic teeth shot out from beneath the broken stone slabs of the temple floor, impaling them and sending a sequence of flashes as they disappeared. Her head spun slightly, but she kept her footing and didn’t let on how much rune energy the spell had consumed. She turned around and glared at Dylas, who was standing a few paces behind her, gaping. “Don’t treat me like a child! I don’t need you to protect me” She barked, red in the face. Dylas flinched noticeably.

“S-sorry.” He blurted out, flushing red. She was hot with anger but satisfied at his stunned face. He wouldn’t think she was helpless now. She let her temper go, exhaling. She looked at his face again and he turned his eyes away with a pained expression. Guilt gnawed at her.

“I’m sorry for yanking you like that.” She said more calmly. “You were only trying to help…” She looked down at the ground. He looked up at her. There was a pause. Then he walked over to her. She looked up at his face as he stood just before her.

“You don’t have to prove anything to me.” He said, looking down into her face with eyebrows lowered, but the hurt wasn’t gone from his voice. She felt a prickling shame for her outburst, and broke his gaze, looking down again.

“Sorry.” She said, looking at his feet. He stood silent in front of her watching her face.

“C’mon.” He said after a while and turned around. “We still need to find some water crystals.”

“Right…” she followed him further into the ancient ruin.

Chapter Text

Bado fretted and sighed, resting his chin on his folded arms over the back of a chair. Dusk was falling. Where was she? He had whiled away the hours finishing the weapons he had forged the day before, polishing them to a shine and then started on binding the hilts but he soon became too anxious to work. Since then he brooded siting backward on the plain wooden chair in the shop and growing impatient for her to return. Most of the townspeople were probably heading home or to Porcoline’s place for dinner by now. Then his ears pricked up. Footsteps approached outside. Was it Forte coming to check on him again or--

The door opened and Frey ducked in, shut it and then leaned back on it with a soft thud, her head back.

“UUuuuugh!” She made a long, frustrated noise. “Longest afternoon of my life!” Bado stood up quickly, his mood suddenly buoyant. He laughed.

“What happened?” he couldn’t help but smile.

“Just a whole lot of awkward, that’s all.” She said moodily, looking sideways at the ground. He was suddenly aware of being very pleased that she hadn’t relished her time with Dylas.

“Huh.” He said looking her up and down. She looked tired but none the worse for wear.

“Anyway…” She said, as if to change the subject but trailed off again. He felt a familiar tightness in his chest when she looked up at him. He opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t bring the words forth. All afternoon he had argued with himself, one minute following a fantasy that they would become lovers in secret the next moment insisting to himself that he had to set her strait and put a stop to this. Just before she arrived he had wavered back to plan ‘break-it-off-before-you-go-too-far’, but now that she was here he couldn’t imagine doing anything that would send her away.

“What did you need?” He asked quietly. She blinked.

“Oh, right…” she mumbled. “I was wondering if you would help me reforge Force Divide? I lost it in the woods the other day when I gated us back here with retornen.”

“Sure.” He said, looking down. Maybe it was just a favor after all? “Did you ge—“

“And—“ she began at the same time. They both fell silent. And? And what? He thought in suspense. She suddenly seemed bashful, not meeting his gaze. “I wanted to ask…” She bit her lip and her cheeks started to turn pink.

“Yeah?” he said quietly.

“If uh,” she turned redder. “If we are okay, you know, after last night” she finished in a hurry, looking anxiously up at his face. “I hope I didn’t, you know…” she trailed off again. So it had been real, but now it sounded like maybe she wanted to forget it and pretend it had never happened. He felt disappointment start to sink down on him.

“You asking because you regret it?” he asked her straight out, sure that it was too late to hope for anything different. Her cheeks flushed and looked down again. He took that as a yes, and sighed. His shoulders drooped. ‘It’s for the best…’ he told himself.

“I didn’t say that.” Her voice was small. He looked up and stared at her. Her posture was apprehensive, head tilted away but her eyes strayed back over and looked at him and her face was red. She looked embarrassed, but also hopeful? He held his breath. “I just wanted to make sure…” she said at last “That you weren’t upset with me…” She squirmed slightly. “I thought I might have crossed a line.” He exhaled with an effort.

“No, I’m not upset…” he said, low. She raised her head and looked at him more directly. He couldn’t think of how to continue. Instead he looked longingly at her form across the room. Another silence stretched between them.

“Can I stay for a bit?” She ventured in the same small voice. He swallowed, then nodded. She slowly straightened up and walked toward him. He felt paralyzed again. His ears warmed as she stepped closer. She reached out and touched the back of his hand hanging at his side. He turned it over, palm up and she took it and brought it up in front of her, both her tiny hands lightly grasping his large, rough one. She paused. He watched her, transfixed. She pulled his hand up and touched the back of his fingers to her upper lip. He could feel her breath on his skin and his resistance wilted again… “I missed you.” She whispered. He inhaled deeply through his nose, a shiver ran up his spine and his hands and ears felt hot.

“You too…” he mumbled. She smiled slightly and moved her thumbs, stroking his hand. He turned it over and very delicately caressed her cheek. His fingertips brushed her neck as he let his hand fall slowly from her. He looked into her green eyes and felt an intense pull inside him. Something stirred in the deep wells of her dilated pupils.

“I don’t regret it.” She said quiet but level. His insides clenched. Elation, apprehension, and lust wrestled all at once in his belly.

“Frey…” he whispered. The daylight had faded again outside the windows. Only the dim light of the forge illuminated her with a warm glow, her fair skin gleaming. A wrenching thought came into his mind and his expression became pained. Her eyebrows curved with concern as she saw it. “There are plenty of younger men in this town…” he choked on the words a little but they were still audible, barely. Her face tightened for a moment, looking almost like she might cry.

“I don’t want any of them.” She said, breathless, her throat clenched. She was gazing up into his eyes without blinking. She stood up on her toes and put her hands on his chest, leaning forward into him. His heart swelled. “I want you--.”

“Frey!” He breathed and lifted her in his arms, twisting around and bracing her against the wall, leaning into her warmth. Her legs wrapped around his waist instantly as he kissed her lips feverishly, one hand wrapped around the small of her back, the other at her cheek, pulling her face gently toward his. Her arms were about his neck and her fingers ran up the back of his head through his hair, nails grazing his scalp. He broke the kiss apart and traced her neck up and down with warm, wet lips, cradling her face with his other hand still. She moaned and it sent a wave of fire through him. He felt himself getting hard and made sure to hold her up above his groin, keeping her neck and shoulders within reach of his lips. She drew her fingers up to her collar and hurriedly unbuttoned it. Her collarbone was revealed to him and he pressed his tongue and lips to it repeatedly, bending his neck. She tugged at the buttons again and pulled apart the shirt to reveal her upper chest and the tops of her breasts, pushed together slightly by a white, lacy bra. He moved his arms downward swiftly and firmly grabbed her thighs one in each hand with his fingers curving around her buttocks and hoisted her up higher and re-propped her against the wall. She was panting breathlessly. He buried his face in the hot, flushed skin of her chest, kissing her feverishly everywhere it was exposed. She squeezed him with her legs around his middle and wound her fingers in his ruffled hair, making it stand up in all directions. His breath came fast and heavy. He felt her hands on either side of his head pull his face upward, he tilted his head back and she kissed him, slipping her tongue into his mouth. The heat and wetness was intoxicating. A pulse of arousal coursed through his body, starting in his groin. It was too much. He couldn’t breathe. He broke off the kiss and rested his forehead against hers, panting. He was shaking all over. She breathed heavily in his ear and gripped his shoulders.

‘You can’t.’ said a voice in his mind. He squeezed his eyes shut and cringed like that for a few seconds and then slowly pulled her legs, unwinding them from his waist and setting her down gently, standing on the floor looking up at him with concern.

“I’m sorry.” He whispered. “That was… I went too far.”

“I’m not.” She replied, “And no, you didn’t.” He looked into her eyes with a worried expression but inside he smiled helplessly as she stared back with a determined look.

“I don’t want to rush anything…” He said, hoping she wouldn’t argue. One or two more cracks and the dam would break…

“Alright…” She said softly, looking at him a moment longer. Then she stepped forward and cuddled close to his chest, her nose and mouth tucked against his clothing. He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her close. They held each other for a few minutes, reluctant to let go. Then he gently pried her hands from him and held them in his, bending down and kissing the top of her head.

“Go on…” he whispered. “You don’t want Lady Ventuswill to worry, do you?”
He led her to the door and she reluctantly stepped across the threshold into the night.

Chapter Text

“This the one?” Bado asked Frey, holding out a huge open book with a wrought-iron cover. The pages were thick and inflexible. The thing took both of Bado’s muscular arms to hold open and when closed it was a good 8 inches thick. It must have weighed as much as she did. On the facing page there was a detailed ink drawing of two short swords angled opposite one another on the page in a Gemini fashion, one adorned with red ink and the other blue. All around them there were hand written notes in an angular but elegant script of runes as well as drawings of the materials used to make them. She leaned over the book, looking even more petit than usual as she tugged at the corner of the page. He smiled as he watched her curiously trace the unfamiliar letters with an outstretched finger, her long hair trailing on the page as she craned her neck this way and that.

‘Adorable…’ he thought. She looked up.

“It looks right but I can’t read these letters.”

“It would be pretty surprising if you could. Only Dwarves use them.” She looked at him in wonder.

“Did you write any of these entries?”

“Uh… Yeah. A couple… long time ago.” He mumbled reluctantly. She looked curious but didn’t press him. “Anyway, we should get cookin’ on it cause this one’ll take a while.” He pushed aside a pile of jumbled scraps of metal, ore and various bits of monster claws, horns and the like with a clatter and set the Forge Tome down open on the table by the wall. He looked back over his shoulder at her. She was standing with her hands entwined behind her back and staring silently at the new weapons on the rack he had finished the day before while he waited for her to return.

“Bado?”

“Yeah?”

“Why do you make them dull?” She asked slowly. He closed his mouth and sighed through his nose. “That’s actually one of the things I wanted to ask you the other day when we went into the woods.” She added.

“They’ve got retornen cast on them.” He said without meeting her eyes. “There’s no reason to make em’ sharp on top of that just to fight monsters…” How many times had he argued the point to Forte whenever she barked at him?

“What if you aren’t fighting monsters?” She asked. He clenched his teeth behind closed lips.

“I hope you never have to fight anything other than monsters.” He said finally in a low voice. Silence followed.

“Have you? …fought something other than monsters, that is? When you were a knight?” Old pains ached dully somewhere in his heart.

“Yeah…” He said quietly. She was watching his face intently, waiting. He relented, sighing once more. “With retornen, monsters don’t bleed… they don’t suffer. They just return to the beginning.” He drew a breath. “It’s not the same with people…” She swallowed and stared at his face not moving or blinking. His stomach turned over. He hated reliving these feelings. “…but I don’t fight people or monsters anymore… That’s why I froze up when that beetle jumped out.” He looked into her eyes. “I’m sorry I didn’t help you then…” She stared up at him quietly.

“It’s okay… don’t worry about it.” She said in a tiny voice. She looked tense… or nervous? He wondered if she was uncomfortable with the topic or his change in demeanor. He smiled a half-hearted smile to try and reassure her.

“Thanks. The advantage of being an oversized retired knight is usually no-one really wants to fight with you anyway.” He shook off old woes and worries and picked up his hammer. Forte had kindly polished the handle and inlay around the head and it shone handsomely in the light of the forge. She appeared to relax too, smiling in turn. “Now, let’s get started, shall we?”

They spent the afternoon together devoted to the work of reforging her trusty dual blades. Bado showed her how to hold the hammer, standing behind her and reaching around to support its great weight as she gripped the handle. She was scrappy but just didn’t have the muscle mass to handle it alone. He promised himself not to get careless in any way while she was there in the smithy with him. He read the Tome to her and explained each step, patiently answering all her questions. When it was time to set the crystals in the hilts to catalyze the magic that gave them their characteristic bite, Frey cast the spells according to his direction. He wasn’t very good with magic, except for retornen, which he had a lifetime of practice with. The familiar, sequential steps to forging a weapon left enough of his attention to savor his affection for her, adoring her curiosity and quick understanding. He watched her flit about the smithy, poking into every crate and sack of materials and goods. It felt good to enjoy her company without the distraction of arousal.


He had the doors and windows propped open to let the heat of the fire dissipate, but it was also a safeguard against any further intimate doings with her. He had been surprised by his own passionate reaction to her words the night before and was startled and apprehensive about how far they had already taken their feelings of attraction. How did this keep happening day after day? He had to check the momentum. It couldn’t last. Somehow he had to work up the nerve to either explain that he was too old for her and she should reconsider a younger partner, or to take on the firestorm of social backlash that was sure to rain down on them if they really became lovers. He felt a pang as she smiled at him, holding up a groggy little mouse she had found sleeping in a sack of turnips. Both options sounded impossible, but he had reluctantly allowed the other will to consider that they might be together, somehow…

She wanted him. She had actually said it… right to his face! It was so unbelievable, so astounding and so secretly wished for that the memory of it melted him like butter every time he thought of it. That the affection of such a beautiful, spirited and young woman should come to be focused on him years into his self-imposed exile was the stuff of myths and fairy tales. Frey was sitting across from him at the table, watching him weave the delicate binding deftly with his huge hands. She let the mouse sit on top of her head, its tiny paws resting on the rim of her floral tiara as she stared with an innocent fascination at his fingers pulling the strands. ‘And you, little Nymph, are right out of myth, too.' He thought, smiling at her.

The detail work took a few hours. Frey had fallen asleep on her folded arms upon the table while she watched him work. Finally, he tied the last knot, picked up each blade in turn and placing his left palm on the cold flat of the blade he chanted the retornen spell in his deep resonating voice. She stirred at the sound and rubbed her eyes. The mouse had run down one of her long pigtails and crept back to a nook somewhere. He placed the newly complete Force Divide dual blades delicately on the table in front of her. She gazed at them with wide eyes.

It was his only useful skill for making a living since he had given up his rank and title but he was unquestionably a master blacksmith. When he took the time to put a little art into what he did instead of churning out utilitarian products to sell at modest prices his true skill wrought kingly treasures out of knives, swords, staves and axes. Most of the time he begrudged the touch of metal because of the memories that were tied to it and was therefore unmotivated to make anything that reflected his skill. These days he only rarely took a commission once he was about to lose the roof over his head but each time saved himself from financial ruin by accepting one of the requests from some general or cousin of the royal family who remembered his skill and coveted his works.

This, though… This he had poured his affection and longing into completely. The two blades were together a masterpiece of craftsmanship, motivated by love and care, rather than ambitions for battle and conquest. The experience of creating these was peaceful and dear, weaved together with Frey's company. He felt deeply grateful to have a pure memory of practicing his craft.

On the table the new Force Divide glittered with inlaid platinum in beautiful coiling vinework patterns. Their balance was ideal and at the butt of each hilt there was a large, polished emerald grasped by a silvery dragon’s claw.

“I thought I’d put that rock you skunked me with to use.” He said, grinning mischievously at the memory. Had it really been only six days since she had left it on the counter and huffed out the door? She picked one of them up in both hands and turned it over, staring in wonderment. Her fingertips lingered on the emerald and her eyes softened.

“They’re beautiful!” She looked up at him. “Thank you.” Her voice rang earnestly. “I’ll treasure them.”

“You’re welcome, Frey.” He said softly. She gently set down the blade again and stood up, walking around the table toward him. He watched her approach and worried that she would forget the open front door... They were face-to-face. Even sitting down on the bench before the table he was at eye level with her as she stood up in front of him. Age wasn’t their only disparate characteristic. His steel-blue eyes searched her face. There was no smoldering desire there now, only tender affection. She reached out her hands and placed them on either side of his face at the jawline and gently tilting his head down, she nuzzled his always-disheveled hair and kissed the top of his head furtively, then stepped back with a blush and cast a glance to the door over her shoulder. He felt his heart swell with elation hugely in his chest. His throat tightened and his eyes stung briefly and threatened to water.

‘You’re in over your head…’ he thought to himself. He couldn’t deny it any longer. This was much more than just sexual attraction… He loved her. Blue-gray eyes tenderly gazed into green ones beneath their long lashes.

“THERE YOU ARE!!” A thundering voice shattered the stillness in the Meanderer and both of the jumped with a jolt. Volcannon was standing in the doorway. Frey put a hand up to her chest as she recovered from the shock. Bado reeled internally from the sudden shot of adrenaline. He was deeply shaken, but silently thanked the stars they had been clearly standing apart from one another when the old butler appeared. “I came to make sure you returned to the castle for supper and got to bed at a reasonable hour. We have a festival tomorrow and it won’t do if our princess is fatigued during it.”

“Very true.” Bado said, forcing his voice to be steady and causal. “Run along, princess.”

“Alright, alright.” She laughed “Did Venti send you after me? I’m coming, already!” Then she turned around, facing Bado again with her back to Volcannon. “Thanks for your hard work today.” She said formally, winking at him. It was so unfair how cute she could be … She picked up the dual blades and held them out in front of her as she turned back to Volcannon. “Look at these beauties, Mr. Volkannon! Bado made them for me since I lost mine in the woods the other day.”

“MY WORD!” He bellowed. “What spectacular workmanship! My compliments to you, sir.” He bowed to politely to Bado and then rose saying “But now we really must be going. Please excuse us.” He ushered Frey toward the door with a gloved hand. Quickly slipping Force Divide into the twin scabbards hanging at her hips she stepped lightly through the front door and passed out of view. Volcannon turned to follow her but as he reached for the door to close it on his way out Bado caught a suspicious glint in the old man’s eyes as Volcannon looked back at him before the door clicked shut.

‘That was way too close…’ he thought as he let a long breath out.

Chapter Text

Frey traced a finger along the blunt edge of the red half of the new Force Divide. Should she sharpen them? Actually, she wasn’t sure she even could now… The pain and sorrow in Bado’s eyes as he had alluded to his past was clearly rooted deep. Plus, how could she willingly alter them, now that he had crafted them just for her? She was sitting in the hay on the floor of one of her monster barns again, surrounded by curious, overfed woolies with wide, blank eyes. Her pets snuggled close to her and sniffed at her hair and hands. She had a soft spot for woolies.

Somewhere in the distance she could hear Volcannon’s booming voice calling a 10 minute warning that the Fishing Frenzy festival was about to begin. She sighed, and slipped the short sword into its sheath. As Princess she felt it was her duty to participate in all official town events, but she wasn’t overly fond of fishing. Whatever Dylas may claim, fishing was boring…

She stood up, brushing bits of hay from her skirt. A wooly that had been leaning on her back toppled over with a disgruntled ‘Ba-ah!’.

“Sorry, Wally.” She bent over and scratched the fur behind its ears. Wally leaned into her hand with a dopey sheep smile.

Frey left the barn and walked through the center Field, bountifully planted with huge ripening strawberries. She paused once or twice to pull a weed then passed through the East Wing, putting on a smile before she stepped out into the town square. The townspeople of Selphia were gathered in little groups all around. The ends of numerous fishing poles could be seen standing up in the air everywhere she looked, one for each of her friends around town. She walked over to where a group comprised of most of the young women in town was gathered.

“Hi Frey!” a high pitched voice squealed. Amber pounced on her, hugging her tightly and then hopped away, trilling “Lalalaaaa” and looking like a little doll as she went.

“Are you going to have Dylas give you some tips on how to catch a big one?” Pico materialized inches from her face, giddy with mischief. A din of high pitched giggling followed. Frey blushed and waved a hand rapidly through the little ghost, temporarily disrupting her ephemeral form. “Heeeey!” Pico protested, and flew back over to jeer out from behind Dolce’s dress.

“Serves you right.” Dolce frowned down at her.

“I think he’s looking over here, actually.” Clorica said slowly. They all turned their heads quickly like a bunch of cats that had seen a bird. Dylas was standing with Leon, who was saying something to him with sly, sideways eyes, holding up his peacock fan to block their eyes and ears from his comments at a distance. He was staring in their direction, but upon finding himself fixed in the eyes of the multitude of women he turned red and looked away abruptly, his tail lashing. Leon’s shoulders shook with mirth. His tufted ears stood up strait and his poufy tail curled this way and that.

“He asked if I had seen you yesterday…” Said Clorica.

“Ooooh, he likes you, it seems, yes?” Xiao Pai teased in her characteristically bizarre manner of speaking.

“Jeeze, girls, calm down already!” Frey huffed with her hands on her hips. “It sounds like you all think about him a hell of a lot more than I do.” Meg, Clorica, Xiao Pai, and Amber giggled. Just then Frey realized Forte was standing in the group as well. She too, focused her attention on Frey but she did not engage in the teasing campaign or say a word. Frey wondered if she objected to the teasing or perhaps her mind was just elsewhere at present? Just then the clang of a large brass bell reverberated around the town square.

“BEEEEEEGIIIIIN” Volcannon bellowed.

“Guess it’s time to get fishing!” Said Meg. They walked off, dispersing from one another as each headed for a place to fish out of each other’s way.

Frey let her feet carry her down the road toward the lake. There was plenty of space around the shore so she wasn’t worried she wouldn’t find a spot, even though most of the others were bound to head there too. She wondered if she would see Bado sitting by the edge of the lake, but then guessed that she couldn’t get away with spending another whole afternoon with him without arousing suspicion from the townsfolk. ‘Today is gonna drag on forever…’ she sighed.

The bright spring sun warmed the ground all around. There was no sign of a rain cloud but it wasn’t too hot either, perfect for fishing. Frey found a large smooth boulder and sat down on the warm stone, looking up at the clear blue sky with a hand shading her eyes. ‘Maybe I should just take a nap out here, instead.’ She thought, but then thought she had probably at least catch something or she’d surely be teased again with more allegations about her and Dylas and ‘fishing lessons’ or some such stupid innuendo. She sighed and lazily tossed her line into the water, propping up her head with a gloved hand.

“That’s no way to cast.” A low, moody voice said behind her.

‘Oh, god damnit… Already?’ she thought. Dylas walked over and sat down beside her on the stone.

“I’ll show you how if you like. This sort of thing is right up my alley.” He said, baiting a hook.

“Sure… why not?” Frey said lifelessly. He swung his fishing rod and the hook gracefully sailed out over the glassy surface of the lake. Hers was caught on a lily pad. She made no effort to dislodge it.

Frey politely, if somewhat inattentively, listened quietly to a surprisingly long-winded explanation of the basics of fishing as well as the merits of the sport, pitting man against fish and so on and so forth. Finally after Dylas had pulled in his third catch and held out the flopping thing so that it flicked drops of water all over her, she stood up, saying:

“Man, I stink at fishing. I think it’s because I hate sitting still for long. In fact, I gotta go stretch my legs and take a walk. See you later, Dylas. Good luck wining the contest!” she walked off before he had a chance to reel in his hook and follow her.

“O-okay. Bye….” She heard him say.

‘Whew’ she sighed as she bent a branch gently out of her way, making her way around the lake through the thick, new foliage. It was quiet here, a little ways away from the groups of people laughing and comparing fish on the shore by the West Gate. As she followed the sandy shore along the perimeter of the water the townsfolk came into view on the opposite side of the lake. She saw the familiar silhouettes of all the town’s usual participants in every festival including Nancy and Jones sitting on a picnic blanket together, Margaret plucking a stray piece of trash out of the lilies, Dolce reading quietly under a tree, and Porcoline unpacking a bulging basket of finger foods. She picked out each of them aside from Dylas, who she had left sitting on the boulder, Leon, who was probably sneaking up to startle Clorica awake somewhere, and one more… one with broad shoulders and a short beard… She traced a finger on the emerald in the hilt of the fire blade on her right hip again and kept walking slowly around the shore.

“Well now, here comes trouble.” Said a deep voice suddenly. Frey gasped and then bent over with a hand on her chest.

“You trying to give me a heart attack?” she breathed, looking up to see Bado leaning back against a large tree stump with his feet crossed in front of him, hands up behind his head. Beside him a pile of stones held a fishing rod up. The line trailed listless in the water nearby.

“You’re going to lose your pole that way.” She raised her eyebrows at him, a corner of her mouth turning up, slightly.

“Not if I don’t bait the hook.” He grinned mischievously. She laughed and sat down beside him, smiling. “Ain’t fishing great? You don’t have to do nothin’. You can even sleep while you fish. That’s my kinda sport.” He said, sighing happily in the warm spring sun. She made a little noise of assent, picking at a little patch of purple clovers between them in the grass. He adjusted his head so he could look at her while he lounged. “You catch anything, yet?” he asked casually.

“Nah… not unless you count Mr. master fisherman over there…” she replied. He chuckled and closed his eyes again. She looked over at him, peacefully basking under the blue sky. She was tempted to scoot closer and lean on him but settled for staring at his face a little while. She couldn’t think of anything in particular to say, but felt like just being near was enough to make this setting suddenly relaxing and enjoyable. She wouldn’t mind if the afternoon passed slowly like this. After a little while she heard footsteps and sat up suddenly. Bado’s eyes opened. “Oh no.” she hissed and jumped up. Looking around in a hurry she dashed off to the right and scrambled up a very leafy maple tree. Bado leaned forward and tilted his head, looking up at her with a half-smile and a raised eyebrow. She urgently made a shushing gesture with a finger in front of her lips. She saw him laugh silently, shaking his head. Just then Dylas came out of the verge, brushing little bits of leaf litter from his jacket. Bado looked up at him from the ground and held up a wide hand in a lazy gesture of greeting.

“Hey.” He said.

“Hey.” Dylas replied, looking around. They were similar in brevity of speech, it seemed. He took a step or two into the clearing and then folded his arms and sighed.

“You looking for something?” Bado asked.

“Yeah… You seen Frey? I thought she came this way.” Dylas said, still craning his neck to look around in the grass and bushes.

“Nope, ain’t seen anyone on this side.” Said Bado. Frey held her breath above in the tree. He stood up , picking up the old fishing rod as he did so. “I’ll help you look for her, though. I’m starting to get stiff sitting here anyway.” He said and beckoned the young man. “C’mon. You know all the good fishing spots right? We’ll check them and see if she’s there.”

“Hmph.” Huffed Dylas, but began to follow him anyhow.

The two men disappeared into the thicket and all was still, save for the sound of birds and bugs.

Frey sighed with relief in the tree. She smiled, wondering how she would repay that little favor. Then a scarlet hue crept into her cheeks.

“So you are smitten with him!” a voice said from nowhere.

“Waaah!” Frey jumped with surprise, slipped off the branch and scrabbled madly to cling to it without falling. Leon had somehow climbed into the tree beside her without her knowing. He had a nasty habit of doing this sort of crap…

“…Just not the ‘him’ everyone thinks it is…” He had a wide, wicked grin, as fox-like as his fluffy ears.

She felt a jolt and a hot blush came over her face. Leon’s appetite for mischief and drama was notorious, but he wouldn’t actually want to do them real harm, she was sure. But then again, whether he would make a move at all depended on how serious he thought the situation was.

“Jeeze, you scared me!” She hissed at him, doing her best to glare as hard as possible. “And I don’t know what you’re blathering about either. We were just sitting around fishing like everyone else!”

“Mmhmm…” he ignored her, snatching one of her swords from its scabbard and holding it up before his eyes. “And how long has this been going on, huh?” he twisted it in his hand, making the emerald in the hilt flash with refracted sunlight. He relished having the upper hand.

“Give that back!”

“Oh, no can do, princess.” He grinned even wider. “I’ll be giving you the orders now, unless you want your secret to come out?”

“Jeeze! Come off it.” she said snatching the blunt blade back from his hand. He let her take it. He was always horsing around, but she could tell by now that it was a mostly empty threat. Frey and the trickster were not strangers, after all. By now she could read him fairly well and could see that this time he had at least some appreciation for the implications of his jest. She hopped down from the branch and straightened her clothes. He sprang down near her, landing lightly on the front of his feet.

“What’s this? You aren’t worried I’ll run off and tell Meg that you are into older men?” he said in a hushed voice in her ear. There was no point trying to deny it now that he was onto the scent. She had to do damage control some other way.

“Well if you wanna get technical about it, you and Dylas are a lot older than he is, right?” She said slyly. “How many centuries ago were you born, again?” She crossed her arms.

“Yeesh, did you have to go and say it like that?” Leon winced. Then he cracked a real smile, shrugging. “Well, have it your way, but it’s a small town, you know. Even if I don’t spill the beans people are gonna figure it out sooner or later.”

“Yeah well, I think I prefer later.”

“You’re serious aren’t you? Not even going to deny it?” His eyes widened a touch. Frey sighed and looked down at the ground, squeezing her hands about her shoulders.

“I dunno, Lee.” She carefully dropped the nickname she used whenever she indulged him in some harebrained prank he’d come to excitedly tell her about. Those adventures generally ended in embarrassment if not outright disaster, but the two had bonded like mischievous cousins over their misadventures. She had to convince him that she needed to be able to trust him now with this. “I’m not sure what I’m gonna do…” She made a point to fret visibly, then looked up at him. “But I don’t need the whole town judging me for something that isn’t even certain.”

“Alright alright, I gotcha.” He held his hands up disarmingly. “But if I’m gonna half to keep this juicy bit a secret, you owe me some details.” She couldn’t help a wicked grin to match his creeping over her face.

“Oh? You into older men too now?” her eyebrows stretched upward as she shot him a loaded glance.

“I’m into stories, princess.” He countered. “Ones you gotta be nosy to hear.” They laughed together.

“Fine.” She said, letting her arms fall comically at her sides in defeat. “But let’s at least climb back up into the tree.”

Chapter Text

Frey set her fishing pole in the corner of her room, propped up on the wall. The quiet spring evening blanketed the town in a sleepy dusk outside.

She and Leon had discussed at length the recent events concerning her and Bado as they perched together in the tree. She felt a mixture of relieved and apprehensive about letting him in on her secret. Leon wouldn’t betray her trust, even as a prank, but all the same it made her nervous knowing yet another resident of the town was aware of her feelings for the blacksmith.

In the end, She, Leon, Bado and Xiao Pai (just by virtue of her clumsiness) had stood together at the back of the crowd as Volcannon announced the results of the contest. They were the only four to fail to hook a single fish. Porcoline ended up winning first place since Dylas had been preoccupied looking for Frey.

She sighed as she stood in her room, thinking about the day’s events. Her conversation with Leon played back in her memory.

“You aren’t bothered by him being older than me?” She cringed as she had asked him earlier.

“Why should I be?” Leon had answered casually. “As long as you both want it, what’s the issue?”

He had dismissed her concern so easily.  Somehow she didn’t think everyone she knew would be so readily accepting. Just then an idea popped into her head and she turned and walked across the room and through the door to the Great Dragon Hall.

“Good evening.” Ventuswill said politely above her.

“Hi Venti,”

“How was the festival?” the dragon asked absentmindedly as she dragged a claw lightly over an oversized scroll unrolled on her reading podium. It was among her duties as protector of Selphia to correspond with the neighboring regions and their governing personages.

“Huh?  Oh, fine.” Frey was similarly unfocused on the small talk. She paused, fidgeting with her fingers. Seeming to feel her hesitation, Venti turned her huge head to look down at her, letting the scroll curl shut again. “Um… Venti?” Frey squeaked.

“What’s on your mind?” She asked gently.

“Is there… anything wrong with liking someone who is older than you?” Ventuswill looked down at her for a long moment with an expression both thoughtful and affectionate.

“Not in and of itself, no…” Her great voice was quiet.

“Then why do I feel like I need to hide it?” She wrung her hands in front of her as she looked up into the dragon’s glossy eyes. Ventuswill reached out a huge winged arm and delicately nudged Frey closer to her as she coiled around her in a great, scaly spiral, lowering her head and looking into her eyes.

“The reason people are uncomfortable with the idea of it,” She began, her voice resonating in her huge chest. “…is because it is implied that the older person has an advantage over the younger, and will use it to manipulate them because of their lack of experience or wisdom.” Frey looked into the dragon’s steady gaze, her face cringing slightly.

“Do you think that?” She asked in a small voice.

“No.” Venti’s answer was immediate and level. “I know you both better than you might have guessed, and I am certain that what has grown between you is both consensual and mutual. That old buffoon Aquaticus might have made a stink about it, but I am not he.” She finished, looking peevish as she mentioned her sibling dragon. Frey smiled and relaxed a little. Venti returned the smile. “Besides,” she continued after a beat, “When you’ve lived for millennia, a few years difference in the age of mortals seems rather trivial.” Frey chuckled.

“Thanks, Venti.” Frey reached out and laid a hand on her mane.

“It just occurred to me, Frey.” She said with a glint in her eye. “Do you even know how long Dwarves live?” Frey looked back at her, eyes wide. It hadn’t once occurred to her, in fact. She stared for a moment and then looked suddenly confused.

“Wait a second,” She put her hands on her hips. “Didn’t you tell me not to do anything foolish?”

“Like fret and worry alone instead of talking about what you’re feeling?” Venti countered coolly with a raised eyebrow. Frey laughed, letting the last of her worry fall away for the time being.

“I think that’s enough to ruminate on for now though. Run along now and go to bed. It’s getting late.” Venti gently pushed her with her noise, nearly knocking her over.

“Okay, okay.” Frey answered, but turned and leaned on the dragon’s neck and nuzzled her face in the large colorful feathers. Venti rumbled affectionately. “Goodnight, Venti.” She said quietly and walked back to her room.

“Goodnight…” Venti said softly

Chapter Text

“Rrrghgh!” Frey thrashed and kicked the blanket off of her legs, splaying her limbs haphazardly over her bed. It was no use… She couldn’t sleep. Outside the window a waxing moon made everything gleam with a silvery cast.

She had been so relieved after talking to Venti, but now she was just impatient to see her tall dwarf again now that she was more reconciled about his age. She stared at the ceiling, furrowing her brow. She was sure he was worrying about it. What else could she do, though, to show him she didn’t care? That it didn’t bother her... She had already made it pretty clear, she thought, that she didn’t want one of the young bucks over him. But still, he seemed gripped by reservations about it. She sighed and stood up in her pajamas. Pulling on a hooded jacket, she stepped quietly out into the still night air, hoping a walk would help settle her mind.

‘Yeah… this was a good idea.’ She thought, breathing in the cool air.  She felt restlessness dissipate as her legs carried her through the silver moonlight. She headed East then North, aiming to make a counterclockwise lap around the town. A quiet orchestra of crickets chirping accompanied her every step along with the trickle of water in the small canals between the streets. She went over Leon and Venti’s words repeatedly in her head, feeling more determined by the block as she walked. She had to make Bado see that it was okay, somehow…”

After some number of minutes lost in her thoughts Frey felt herself slow down to a pause, one foot poised on her toe in mid-step. She turned her head slightly and looked out the corner of her eye down the side street. The hammer and anvil sign hanging outside the Meanderer swung ever so slightly in the night air a few yards away. She stood stone-still, then swallowed.

‘Don’t…’ She said to herself. She didn’t move. ‘just go back home…’ she felt her foot turning, and as if by a will other than her own she took a cautious step toward the building, holding her breath. ‘You are insane!’ she hissed at herself as her feet crept closer to the door. ‘Turn around! Go back right now!’ she reached out a trembling hand and touched the cold iron handle of the door. She stood frozen in place for a few seconds, then very slowly turned the handle silently… it was unlocked. She swallowed again and let out a trembling breath, then slipped through the door without a sound.

Moonlight seeped in through the small windows on the walls near the ceiling, but even so her eyes were not adjusted to the dark and she feared to step forward once she had carefully and soundlessly closed to door. Her heart was beating rapidly, she peered around in the inky blackness. To the right, the forge glowed softly with a dying reddish light. The doorway to the left was still and dark with a lopsided drapery hanging in place of a door.

‘It’s not too late… turn around and go.’ Her mind pleaded urgently. She ignored it. Inch by inch she tiptoed toward the drape and held out her hand, still shaking. She froze, hearing a rustle of blankets. Her eyes stretched open in the darkness, ears straining to hear.

“Frey…” a familiar deep voice sighed her name from the dark room. Could she have really heard it? Or was it a trick of her imagination in the midnight hour?

She grasped the edge of the drape in her fingers and pulled it aside slowly...

***

Bado was deep in a fantasy. He lay on his back, eyes closed, imagining soft white skin brushing against him, green eyes glazed with desire and pink lips parted… He had given in to the other will again in the stillness of midnight and let his mind run loose, visualizing her slender fingertips instead of his own huge hands as he stroked himself slowly beneath the blanket. He stretched his legs out and pushed on the rough wooden footboard with his toes, tensing his back and tilting his head. His lips parted and he drew a breath.

“Frey…” He sighed in the dark, savoring the image of her in his mind’s eye.

“Bado?” A small voice whispered back, sending a bolt of lightning through him. He couldn’t possibly have heard it, but it was not part of his imaginings either… His eyes snapped open and saw the dim outline of a small, familiar silhouette in the doorway, holding open the drape. He sat upright rapidly, staring at the apparition.

“Frey?!” He whispered hoarsely. The darkened, long-haired shadow moved toward him. His heart pounded furiously against his ribs. Then as he gaped, transfixed, her face came into view as she stepped into a shaft of silvery moonlight. She was real.

His mind reeled. What devilry had brought her to him now, in his weakest hour, shrouded in the silent midnight?

“Bado!” She said, breathy and quiet, and stole silently over to him, sliding her knees onto the bed and throwing her arms around his neck. He gasped at the touch of her skin on his, her hands and wrists were cool from the chill night air against his bare torso. She hugged him tightly and he placed an unsteady hand at her back, still stupefied from the shock.

“What’re you doing here?” He asked, disbelieving. She stifled a laugh. They were both unwilling to disturb the quiet, it seemed.

“I don’t even know! I couldn’t stop myself…” She grinned at him in the dark, then snickering she drew her fingers up under his bearded chin and lifted it, closing his mouth which hung open as he looked at her in amazement. He was flabbergasted. No words came. He just swallowed and stared into her eyes. She laughed quietly again and leaned on him, shifting her weight so as to slip into his lap while she nuzzled his neck. With a sharp inhalation, he remembered his erection standing upright between his thighs. He grabbed her shoulder, stopping her movement and looked desperately into her surprised face, but still couldn’t form a syllable. He heard the thudding of his heartbeat in his burning ears and felt them twitch twice. She looked at him with a sympathetic curve of her eyebrows.

“It’s okay…” she whispered, and slid her hands down onto his chest, fingers trailing through the dark, thick hair there. He exhaled and blinked slowly, his eyelids were suddenly heavy as he concentrated on the sensation. Her face relaxed. She lifted herself up slightly on her knees and leaned into and over him, stopping just short of his lips. She hesitated, hovering there, eyes staring softly down at his mouth. He felt a powerful urge to lean forward and meet her lips. “It’s alright,” She breathed again, “I promise.” There was no use resisting… He kissed her delicately at first, feeling a warm rush emanate where her lips touched his. She wrapped her hands around the back of his head, running her fingers through his hair and he slid his hands down around her waist. Now he kissed her harder, tilting his head sideways and pulling her body tighter against his broad chest. She pushed her mouth against his and he deepened the kiss, swimming in the heat of it. Kissing her in the moonlit room was even better than his fantasy…

Frey shifted her weight again and pulled back a little, sighing slowly into his mouth. The corners of his lips turned up in a smile. She sounded like she was enjoying herself. After a short moment, she curved her back and spread her thighs a little to lower herself. Then, with a delicate touch she tilted his head back and teased a trail of kisses down his neck. He stroked her back and sighed, determined to feel every touch completely. Her tongue slid up and over his throat and he exhaled something between a moan and a whisper. He felt her legs move as he was absorbed in the sensation and realized she had lifted one knee over him and was now straddling his abdomen so she could still reach his mouth with hers. Then she pushed gently on his shoulders and he leaned back against the headboard obediently. She straightened up and unfastened the hooded jacket, sliding it down over her shoulders. She was wearing a white, sleeveless nightshirt. He squeezed her hips in his hands and tensed his back as she traced a fingertip from his chin down to his navel. Smiling, she pushed her palms against his skin and slid them up to his clavicle again. As she did so she slid her pelvis down over his stomach toward his groin. His breath caught sharply in his throat and he grabbed her rear end with his big hands and pulled her forward again, sitting up with his shoulders rounded and his head bent. His eyes were shut tightly as he fought with temptation.

“Frey, I can’t.” he breathed quickly.

“Why not?” she returned immediately. He shook his head. This was so painfully difficult…

“I’m too old for you.” He choked the words out in a hurry, cringing.

“I don’t care about that.” She insisted, trying to catch his eyes but he still looked down as he held onto her tightly, not daring to let go. Her words cut deep like a knife into his determination, but he had to overcome it and do the right thing, even if it felt dreadfully wrong to resist her.

Still…” he said determinedly, shaking with the effort. She curled up slightly and he could feel her tremble suddenly. He felt a pang of worry and looked up into her eyes. They were full of shining tears and her face twisted in pain.

‘Oh, gods...’ He thought wretchedly. He had been sure that refusing her was the hardest thing, but this... He could see the crushing agony of rejection rising in her eyes and his heart dropped into his stomach.

“You don’t want me?” she mouthed soundlessly, squeaking slightly on the final syllable. He couldn’t go through with it, not if it meant doing what it was doing to her now. He threw his arms around her and squeezed her tightly, burying his face in her neck and placing a hand on the back of her head.

“Of course I do.” He said, pushing his sincerity out with every syllable. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to…” he trailed off. Her fingers curled on his chest and her shoulders shook. He had to undo this if ever he could. He pulled back and held her face in his hands, staring straight into her eyes, pleading with his brows for her to trust his every word. “Frey, I want you so badly it’s tearing me up inside… I’m just scared. I don’t want anything to happen to you because of me.” Her face relaxed a little she stopped shaking and started breathing again. He hugged her tightly again. “Please believe me.”

After a moment or two, he felt her slowly wrap her arms around him.

“I do…” He heard her say quietly. He sighed and squeezed her in his arms with a rush of relief.  They held each other for several minutes while her breathing became even again. Finally, she pulled back and looked at his face. She took a deep breath as if readying for something.

“How old are you, anyway?” She asked in a steady voice. He swallowed. A brief silence hung between them. Then he forced himself to speak.

“Thirty nine…” He watched her face in suspense but couldn’t see a noticeable reaction, other than a quick blink.

“How old do Dwarves live to be?” She asked slowly.

“About half again as long as humans, I suppose.” He answered quietly. She sighed, and then to his amazement, smiled slightly.

“I don’t know what year I was born.” She said calmly, putting a hand up to her chest. “But I do know that I’ve been a woman for a number of summers now. If I had to guess, I would say I am probably in my early twenties.” He stared at her, impressed at her resolve. She hardly ever mentioned her amnesia, and even now hadn’t let it become a weakness. She drew a breath and continued: “Human women come of age at eighteen years old. I am certain I am an adult” There was another pause. “When are your people considered to be adults?” he blinked thoughtfully.  He had lived for so long among humans that he hadn’t thought about the difference in lifespans or age related cultural norms in so long he could not remember when.

“At twenty six years…” His heart resumed its place in his chest and the dread he had felt before had faded away. He followed her logic, and felt her intentions as well as remembered her previous words. She really didn’t mind his age. It had been his own fear all along… hope rose up in him once again.

“Well then,” She said, letting her shoulders relax. “We know we are both adults and in terms of an exact number of years it’s not all that reasonable to compare straight across when our lifespans are so different anyway.” She finished matter-of-factly, crossed her arms and nodded as if to indicate that her point could not be argued. He stared at her and detected that she was suppressing a smile.  He smirked.

“You’re rationalizing.” He teased in his deep voice, and leaned forward, grinning as he nuzzled her neck, tickling her with his whiskers. She squirmed but laid a hand at his cheek and leaned into his touch.

“I’m not wrong, though, am I?” She countered. He laughed into her neck and kissed her soft skin.

“No, you’re not wrong.” He gave in.

“Good man.” She said and squeezed him back.

“But not everyone will reason the same way you do, pet. …and you’re our town’s darling little princess. I’ll have an angry mob at my door wanting to skin me alive for daring to lay my hands on you within the hour if they find out.”

“The ones that matter won’t mind.” She said reassuringly.

“If you say so.” He purred softly in her ear. It was starting to sink in… they were together, a couple… even if it had to stay secret for now. Happiness swelled in his chest and he started to move his hands, stroking her back and sides over her pajamas. One more pang of worry twisted in his gut though…

“I should probably tell you, though…” he said slowly. “…that I haven’t been with a woman in a long time…”

“That’s fine,” she answered without missing a beat, “I don’t actually know whether I’ve ever been with a man before.” His ears twitched and he felt a jolt, jumping slightly. Her words were like the twist of a knife. Up until now, he hadn’t actually allowed himself to consider the possibility seriously enough to wonder whether she was a virgin or not. He mocked a wavering little whimper, lifting his chin.

“You just can’t let me off easy, can you? My poor heart is gonna stop!” She laughed and snuggled up to him. He leaned back against the headboard and pulled her over onto him as he did so. She stretched out on top of him eagerly. His red-hot desire had cooled into fear and dismay when he had seen her crying, but now a warm, loving glow took the place of both as he cuddled her in his arms, pulling the blanket up over them. She sighed happily and tucked her head into the side of his neck. He kissed her head and smiled, looking down at his darling Nymph shining in the slivers of moonlight that crept from the windows into the dark bedroom. Her breathing was soft and slow. She had fallen asleep. His eyes felt heavy. Even as he slipped into slumber, he kept his arms around her little body, holding her close.

“I love you.” He whispered to her as he fell into dreaming.

Chapter Text

Bado slowly became aware of his senses. Shafts of sunlight were pouring in from the windows. He felt their blazing light through his eyelids. It was well past dawn. He slowly opened his eyes and blinked in surprise as he saw Frey's face lying close on his pillow. His mind snapped into waking. Panic fluttered in his stomach for a moment as he frantically tried to remember the night before. Then as his memory kicked in and he recalled the late night visit and conversation he exhaled, relieved and elated all over again. Her eyelashes fluttered and she slowly opened her bright green eyes and smiled at him as she woke. He returned her smile.

“Good morning.” She whispered.

“Mornin’” he glowed with affection for her. She was really here, warm and solid in his arms.

A pounding on the door made them both jump. Frey gasped. They lay frozen, listening. A muffled voice called from outside.  Its words were unintelligible through the heavy oak door but he thought he recognized Forte’s voice. Then the sound of the door latch opening chilled his blood.

Shit.’ He thought immediately. The full implications of being caught in bed with the princess by this particular young woman struck him like a ton of bricks. Frey quickly pulled up one hand, lightly touching his lips with her slender fingertips and made a shushing gesture over her own with the other.

He nodded, squeezing her hand in his and then slipped out of the bed and stood up tall. Looking around quickly, he snatched an undershirt that was draped over a teetering stack of belongings and pulled it on over his head. He was still wearing the simple, longish cotton shorts he typically slept in.

“Bado! Are you even up, yet?!” Forte snapped from the entryway. Her armored boots clunked heavily on the stone floor as she stepped toward the draped doorway to his room. He sped over to it.  He had to get there first and eliminate any reason for her to come in here. On the bed, Frey curled up in the corner by the headboard and the wall and pulled the blankets and pillows into a pile on top of her and hid, but long pieces of her very distinctive hair were trailing out between the folds here and there. She couldn’t tell they were visible. “You lazy oaf!!” Forte’s temper was rising as she stomped closer to the curtain. He reached it just in time, brushed it aside and stepped out, ducking in the doorframe and letting the curtain fall closed behind him.

“Yeah yeah I’m up. Just hold your horses, sheesh!” he said as his bare feet padded across the threshold and he came face to face with the young knight, clad in full armor and bristling. He frowned down at her, towering above due to his great height.

“It’s about time!” She barked furiously up at him.

“Jeeze Forte, what’s so impor—”

“Miss Frey has gone missing in the night!” She shouted urgently “Get off your lazy ass and help us look for her!” He flinched visibly. This was an outcome he hadn’t considered when he let himself fall asleep with the princess in the small hours of the morning.

“What?!” He tried to sound surprised and alarmed.

“Yes!” Forte said, exasperated. “That’s what I’ve been yelling outside your door for the last few minutes! Now come on!”

“Go on, I’ll catch up in a moment after I throw on some clothes.” He waved her off. She nodded, seeming satisfied at his eagerness to help. She turned and hurried out the door, the joints of her armor clinking as she went He ducked back into the bedroom as the heavy front door slammed shut.

Frey's head popped up out of the pile of bedding as he came back.

“Now we’ve done it!” he whispered urgently to her, pulling on pants and throwing on a vest with a white fluffy collar, wide buckled straps and pockets for holding field equipment and found materials. “I hope you’ll pick out a nice saying for my tombstone after Forte chops my head off!” But he was laughing silently. She looked so comical, like a meerkat sitting up to look for coyotes in the grass, and the situation seemed ridiculous to his happy heart, still high from the night before and waking up with his lover for the first time.

“Get Leon!” She hissed, pointing vaguely through the wall in the direction of the Bell Hotel.

“What?!” He rasped in confusion.

“He can help! We can trust him, I promise.” He looked at her with worry in his eyes, hesitating. She sprang up, flung out her arms and seized the fluffy collar of his vest and pulled him over, kissing him hard on the mouth from where she stood on the bed and then pushed on his shoulders. “Now hurry!” His face felt hot and he smiled at her for a beat before yanking on his shoes and sprinting out the door.

He jogged over to the Bell Hotel two blocks away and ducked inside. Outside he could hear Volcannon in the distance shouting Frey's name as he dashed about searching for her. No one was at the counter.  Was everyone in town out looking for her?

‘This is crazy.’ he gritted his teeth and flew down the empty hall and took a right. Forte would suspect something if he didn’t meet up with her soon, or worse yet she would return to his house to find him… What if he couldn’t find Leon? But just then Leon came stumbling out of his room into the hall, holding his fan in his teeth as he hopped on one foot, slipping on a sandal. Their eyes met and Leon dropped the fan from his mouth and stood up.

“You!” he whooped, and then dashed over toward him and grabbed his arm. “Do you know where she is?” He sharp eyes looked intensely into Bado’s face. All at once, he understood that Leon knew something about his relationship to the princess.

“Yeah, she’s fine, but we need your help. Now.” He said quickly in a hushed voice, grabbing Leon’s shoulder. Leon’s face shifted quickly from concern to surprise, then understanding, then he grinned a mischievous, fox-like grin, his ears standing up straight atop his head.

“What do you need?” he asked, his eyes flashing.

***

Frey huddled underneath the pile of fabric on Bado’s bed, trying to make herself small enough not to invite someone to pull the blankets back and see if anyone was sleeping there. Guilt and giddy excitement wrestled in her. She was chagrined to have made so many of her friends so worried, but something about the situation made it impossible not to smile.

Just then she heard the door again, then footfalls striding closer, too light to be Forte or Bado for that matter. She held her breath as she squeezed her arms around her knees, pulling them closer into her chest. There was an agonizingly long silence as she strained her ears and hoped it was Leon.

“Alright, come on out, Frey. It’s just me.” Relief washed over her. She scrambled out of the pile and looked up to see Leon’s fox-grin and his hands on his hips. He laughed aloud. “I can’t let you out of my sight for even one night?” He mocked an exasperated and scolding tone. She laughed and hugged her friend quickly.


“Thanks for coming.”

“Yeah, sure.” He replied in a hurry. “Now we gotta figure out how to diffuse this situation without getting your new boyfriend run out of town.” He made a lopsided grin, unable to reconcile scolding and a giddy sense of mischief. This kind of nonsense was his favorite pastime. “C’mon.”

“Where is he?” She asked, hopping down off the bed.

“Making a diversion.” Leon answered, grabbing her hand and dashing to the door. “But it won’t last. We gotta move.” He turned the handle on the door and popped his head out, ears erect and turning to and fro. The coast was clear. He sprang forward, pulling her dashing barefoot behind him. The streets were empty. The town seemed mysteriously uninhabited. They sprinted down the side streets, trying to stay off the main thoroughfare. They stopped just before the town square. There was no cover to sneak through there. They had to be quick and needed luck and timing too.

“Must have been one hell of a diversion.” She panted.

“Not really,” he answered as he peered around a corner, “Everyone’s just so frantic that they are easy to misdirect right now.” She cringed.

“Jeeze.”

“It’s clear. Let’s go.” They sprang forward and pelted across the empty square over to the East door and dashed inside.

Back in her room, she caught her breath and sighed.

“We’re not home free yet.” Leon said “Your man should be safe from suspicion as long it seems obvious he has no idea where you are. We have to make it all look like an innocent misunderstanding and you have to convince everyone it was your own carelessness and no one else’s fault you went missing.” She furrowed her brow and thought hard for a minute.

“The barn.” She said, looking up. She had recently fallen asleep there before. It would be believable enough. But what if Vishnal had already checked there? He had found her and carried her to bed last time, after all.

Just then they heard voices and a great many footsteps outside.

“Quick!” hissed Leon.  They bolted out the back door, splitting up in the field. Leon sprinted off to the North while Frey ducked into the wooly barn. The huge, blank stares of the woolies were all turned at her as she slammed the door shut behind her and caught her breath. They leaned toward her curiously. One of them overbalanced and fell forward onto its face.

“Baah!”

She laughed, still out of breath and picked Wally up off the ground under his forelimbs. “You silly little thing!” She nuzzled his dark face and he squirmed and wiggled but licked her nose as she pulled her face back.

Suddenly she heard an angry shout from the direction of the castle. Things must be escalating with the search, she thought. Still holding Wally in one arm, she bent over and scooped up a handful of hay and rubbed it on her clothing to plant some evidence, then drew a deep breath and walked out the door again, carrying the wooly in her arms like a stuffed animal prize at a fair. She speed walked through the field, hugging him to her chest. Her heart was beating fast. ‘This had better work.’ She thought grimly. The shouting was getting more frequent. She held her breath as she approached the castle.

Stepping through the back door to her chambers, Frey jumped with a start as she saw it was full of people. Her eyes darted around the scene and fear bubbled up in her stomach. Clorica, Vishnal, Arthur, and Forte were standing all around, looking aghast at the center of the room. Volcannon was standing up at his full height there, his face furious, and his hands were gripped tightly on Bado’s vest, lifting him an inch off his heels. It was hard to say which one of them was bigger but the two of them were certainly the largest men in Selphia (unless you were considering girth, in which case Porcoline won by a large margin). Bado’s hands gripped the butler’s wrists as he glared back into his face.

“I told you, I don’t know anything else! It was just a hunch based on what Leon told me!” Bado’s deep bass voice was raised.

“If I had known you were without honor,” Volcannon roared, “I would not have—”

“VOLCANNON!” Frey shouted shrilly. Everyone turned, shocked to see her standing in the doorway with the wall-eyed wooly hanging limp as a ragdoll in her arms. “WHAT IS GOING ON? Put him down this instant!” Her face reddened as she yelled. No one breathed as they all stared at her, but Volcannon’s arms relaxed slightly, letting Bado’s weight back down on his feet. Wally bleated softly in the crackling tension. She looked angrily from one shocked face to another. “WELL!?”

“M-miss Frey!” Volcannon sputtered. Bado wrenched the huge, gloved hands off his vest and straightened his clothes, his jaw set. Volcannon blinked repeatedly, still stunned. Frey padded over to where the two tall men stood in the center of the room, hoisting up Wally who had slipped down as she stood in the doorway.

“Are you alright, Bado?” She looked up at him with concern.

“I beg your pardon, sir.” Volcannon bowed, his face red. “I lost my head with worry and said and did things I should not have…” Bado smiled mildly at him, casting a meaningful sideways glance at Frey.

“Don’t worry about it. We were all worried.” He said reassuringly. Volcannon stood upright again, his face contorting with a tearful expression. Then he lunged forward suddenly.

“Oof!” Bado huffed as the giant butler threw his great arms around him and lifted him clear off his feet this time.

“WAAAAAAH!” Volcannon bellowed, tears streaming down his face. “You are most kind and understanding, sir.” There was a collective sigh of relief around the room.

“Sheesh.” Frey shook her head.

“Okay, okay. Take it easy, fella.” Bado pried himself out of Volcannon’s arms again, blushing abashedly. Volcannon nodded, sniffing. Then he blew his nose loudly into a lacy handkerchief.

“Milady! Forte rushed forward and put her hands on Frey's shoulders, looking worried into her face. “What happened? Where have you been?”

“What are you talking about?” Frey asked, sounding confused. “I’ve been in my wooly barn. Why’s everyone so freaked out?” She looked from one face to another.

“In the barn?” Clorica asked

“Yeah. Wally wasn’t feeling very well last night so I slept out there with him.” Frey said, holding up the dopey sheep-like monster in her arms. Forte leaned back and looked into his fuzzy face, blushing. The group looked her up and down, standing in her pajamas with bare feet, bits of hay clinging to her all over. As she stared back at them, she noticed Vishnal’s expression differed from the rest. The rest of them had their brows raised in surprise, but Vishnal still looked confused or worried, staring searchingly at her face.

“I thought you said you checked the barns!” Clorica glared at him. Vishnal startled and gulped.

“I-I guess I must have m-missed one…” He stammered. Frey's throat tightened with guilt. It wasn’t fair to hide her mischief at his expense… but the alternative was impossible to consider at present. She silently promised to make it up to him somehow. Maybe she would make curry rice for him every day for a month…

“Ah, there you are.” A casual voice said as Leon came into the room from the front door. “I thought we were going to sneak out for a little haunted stroll through Obsidian Mansion last night?  Where were you?” Forte and the butlers looked from Leon up to Bado, who was shrugging at Volcannon with an air of ‘I told you so.’

“Oh, sorry Leon.” Frey laughed nervously, playing her part. “I just couldn’t leave Wally alone last night. I think he was having nightmares or something.” She squeezed a little “ba-ah” from him and nuzzled his fluffy wool.

“Oh really?” said Leon with a wily grin. “Sure you didn’t just chicken out?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She said turning her nose up haughtily. Forte sighed loudly and hugged the princess briskly. Frey Blushed. It was rather out of character for the lady knight.

“I’m glad you are unhurt.” Forte said, then stepped back and resumed her formal manner. “I should get back to my patrol now.”

“Right…” Said Frey, looking into her face. Then she spoke to the group. “I’m sorry for worrying everyone.” It was a completely sincere apology amidst all the deception.

“You can make it up to me later.” Said Leon, winking. The group filed out of the room, Bado last of all, casting a glance over his shoulder at her with one corner of his mouth turned up.

Frey sighed after he disappeared through the door and fell backward onto her bed, still hugging Wally, who patiently dangled in her arms.

“Thanks for saving my bacon, buddy.” She sighed to her pet. “You can sleep in here with me every night this week.” She nuzzled his fleece again.

“So, I didn’t just miss you when I searched the barn.” Frey jumped so hard with surprise that Wally slipped out of her arm and flopped sideways onto the mattress as she sat upright. Vishnal stepped out of the shadow of the doorway leading to the central hall with a miserable look on his face. Frey stared at him, paralyzed and swallowed, her mouth dry as a bone. He walked forward until he stood in the same spot from which he woke her every morning. His brows were curved with anxiety and a shadow seemed to hang over his eyes. “Leon is in on it too, I gather…” he said quietly, then he looked down at the floor, frowning. “I am deeply sorry that you don’t trust me as you do him. I have failed as your butler.” His eyes glistened.

“Vishnal…” Frey's heart ached. She didn’t want anyone to suffer because of her selfish indulgence and secrecy. It was especially painful with the naïve young servant, who hung on her every word or call and wilted with anxiety whenever he made a mistake. She put her hands on his shoulders and looked earnestly into his eyes as he raised his gaze off the floor. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, and you haven’t failed… It’s just…” She trailed off, closed her mouth for a beat and searched for the right phrase. “I don’t think this is something I want a lot of people knowing, for right now…” Vishnal’s face didn’t relax. He continued to search her gaze with pleading eyes. She sighed. “I won’t keep the secret from you forever…” She promised, “Please, just be patient with me.” Vishnal sighed and looked back down at his feet.

“Yes, Princess.” He mumbled.

‘Not good enough…’ she thought bitterly. She stood there, still holding his shoulders in silence for a couple seconds then her expression lifted as an idea popped into her head.

“But…” She began again. He looked up into her face. “If you promise not to ask where I’m going or tell anyone I’ve gone, you can help me sneak out next time!” The misery faded out of Vishnal’s face. He smiled slightly. Throwing him a bone had worked. She smiled and put a cherry on top: “C’mon, if you chop an onion for me I’ll make you some curry rice for lunch.” He brightened visibly, grinning wide.

“Okay!” he beamed. Frey laughed, hugging the butler briefly, relieved.

They walked down the hall together toward the kitchen.

Back on the bed, Wally burrowed under her comforter happily with his fluffy butt sticking up.


Chapter Text

Bado walked back to the Meanderer with a slight spring in his step. He still felt like he was walking on a cloud, having woken up holding Frey in his arms.

‘Too bad we won’t be able to get away with that again for a while.’ He thought, sighing as he remembered the suspense of the morning’s events. ‘Better lay low today…’ He placed a hand on the door and twisted the handle, stepping into the familiar space. After another moment, he pulled aside the drape and stepped into his room and then froze.

Forte was standing by the bed, her back to him and her head bent over a tiny hooded jacket in her hands. He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, only stared in horror as she plucked a very long, pale green and glossy hair from it and held it up before her eyes.

“I smelled this place on her back at the castle when I embraced her…” Forte said, low and dangerous. “The soot from the forge… metal dust… and you.” Bado drew a rapid breath.

“Forte, I—” He began frantically but she spun around, hurling the jacket into his face. The sleeves swung around and wrapped about his head as it met its mark. Then he felt an impact to his sternum as Forte leapt forth and kicked him hard with an iron clad foot.

“UNGH!” still blinded by the jacket over his face, Bado was knocked right off his long legs and crashed down hard the ground like a great tree that had been felled by an axe. He threw a hand up and pulled the thing down off his face just in time to see Forte charging him again, an iron gauntlet balled into a fist raised high in the air.

“HAAAAH!!”She roared. Bado rolled sideways on the floor and sprang up as she turned and re targeted him. He threw up a hand and caught her fist as it hurtled toward his face. “YyyyaaaAAH!” she shifted her weight and swung the other fist wildly. His reflexes were still sharp, though and he caught that one as well. Grasping both her hands he desperately shouted at her now that her momentum was stopped.

“It’s not what you think! Calm down and let me explain!!” Forte thrashed frantically, her face a torrent of fury.

“You BASTARD!! UNPRINCIPLED, --nggg—SCANDALOUS –rrrrgh-- FIEND!!” She spat. It was no use trying to pin her and make her listen. He had to switch tactics. Taking another deep breath he threw her back, releasing her hands and then jumped backward and felt his back hit the wall. Immediately he bent his knees and slid down it, throwing his arms up over his head protectively even as she lunged forward, drawing her sword. He cringed and braced himself, shutting his eyes tightly.

“FORTE STOP!!” He thundered and felt a rush of air stir his hair. He held his breath a moment and heard her panting above him. Opening his eyes carefully he saw the point of her sword poised inches from his face.

“You!” She growled through clenched teeth. “What did you DO TO HER?! How COULD YOU?!” Then he saw tears rolling down her cheeks as her eyes flashed. It was more than just rage. “I’ve watched you degrade for years into a good-for-nothing WASTE—” She drew a frantic, shuddering breath mid-sentence. “But THIS! HOW COULD YOU STOOP SO LOW!?” She buckled, sobbing and threw the sword aside as her knees hit the floor and she dropped her face into her hands and wailed.

Bado stared at her aghast as she hyperventilated, curling her face into her gloved hands, her shoulders shaking. Could she really believe that he forced himself on Frey? His darling little Nymph?” A hot, sick feeling clutched at his gut. He couldn’t remember ever feeling so wretched as the daughter of his oldest and dearest friend sobbed uncontrollably on her knees right before his eyes.

“Forte, I- I would neverever…” he choked, reaching out a hand, hesitated, then wrapped both arms around her and hugged her tightly. She was too undone to resist and gripped his clothing as she cringed between rattling breaths, twisting her fingers tightly into the fabric. He hadn’t seen her cry like this or held her since her father died so many years ago… He wrestled the crippling woe down and forced out his thoughts as speech. “I don’t even have the stomach to fight monsters with blunted retornen weapons anymore! What makes you think I could possibly—” He clenched his teeth, unable to even say it. After a moment, he forced himself to speak again: “I’m sorry I’ve never been the hero you wanted to believe in… but I’m not a villain. …Please…just listen.” She cried into his collar for a few more spasms and then, seeming utterly spent with the outpour of emotion, she drew a long, deep breath and then hissed:

Fine… Explain yourself, then.” He sighed, exhaling a long, weary breath. Then he pulled her back away from him and looked into her puffy eyes hoping against hope that his sincerity would be plain beyond any doubt.

“I love her, Forte. I love Frey, and I’m in love with her too…” He watched her face for a reaction. Forte sniffed and her eyebrows bent as she held down another fit of sobbing.

“R-really?” She squeaked, then hiccupped.

“Yes, really.” He started to feel a glimmer of hope. “She came in here last night to see me and I let her stay. We fell asleep together and slept here until morning… Just. Slept.” He added with emphasis. “We’ve been hiding from everyone because—”

“You’re so much older, though!” Forte blurted out.

“Yeah. That.” He felt the blow, but forced himself to shake it off. He absolutely had to make this right as soon as possible. “I promise you, Forte, Frey has been pushing harder than I have. I had more reservations about my age compared to hers than she did. Last night was the first I really felt okay with it after we talked about it. I swear to you that even if my life depended on it I would never hurt her like that…” Forte stared into his face for moment more, then wiped her eyes on her sleeves.

“She loves you, too?” Her voice was quailing and much higher that he was used to hearing from her.

“It seems that way, yeah.” He replied quietly. She looked down and said nothing. “Do you want to talk to her about it too?” he asked softly. She nodded. “I think that’s a good idea.” He said, rubbing her back. He stood up and led her over to a chair. She sat down in it readily. Then he disappeared behind the drape for a moment and returned with a blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders. Stepping around in front of her he knelt down and looked into her eyes with his big hand resting on her shoulder.

“I’m going to go find her and bring her here. Will you be alright for a little while? I’ll lock the door so no customers come in.”

“You don’t have any customers, anyway, but thanks. Please do.” She sniffed. Bado smiled sympathetically.

“You got me there.” He stood up again and turned as he reached for the door handle. “I’ll be back in two shakes of a wooly’s tail so just sit tight, okay?” She nodded and pulled the blanket tighter about her shoulders. “Good.” He sighed and then stepped out the door.

Walking across the town square he prayed Frey would still be there where he could find her quickly. His heart dropped as he stepped into her room and saw Wally snoozing on the bed but no green-haired princess. Then he heard her fluttering laughter from the direction of the kitchen. He turned and followed the sound. She was talking cheerfully with Vishnal as she pinched herbs into a pot of curry on the stove. He cleared his throat and the pair turned and looked at him. She blinked, and immediately he saw his concern reflected in her bright eyes.

“Bado? Whats wrong?” She asked immediately.

“I need your help with something, Frey.” He said evenly. “Will you come? Please?” She stared into his eyes a moment then looked at Vishnal, who in turn began to look worried as he saw her face change.

“I’m sorry, Vishnal, I’d better go see if I can help. The curry just needs to simmer for a bit and it will be done, so start without me, okay?” He nodded.

“Thanks.” Bado said, looking at both of them in turn.

They stepped outside and walked briskly to the East.

“Are you alright?” She asked, trotting to keep up with his big strides.

“Kind of.” He replied “But it’s Forte who needs you right now.” She looked concerned and confused but said nothing more. It occurred to him that he might be able to explain the gist of what was happening without outing them in the street. “She found your jacket.” Frey's eyes flashed with shock and comprehension at once.

“Oh no…” They reached the housing district and approached the door of the Meanderer. He quickly looked around and so no one in the street.  Dropping his voice he spoke quietly to her.

“Yeah… Just about took my head off for real, but she’s calmed down a little.  I told her about us but I think she needs to hear it from you too.” He unlocked the door with an iron key from his pocket.

“Sure.” She said, as he held the door open for her and she stepped inside. He followed her in and saw her dash over and drop down to a kneel in front of Forte’s miserable, hunched form huddled in the chair. Frey grasped her gloved hands and squeezed them, looking up into her face.

“Forte! I’m so sorry!” She said urgently. “This is all my fault. I didn’t want you to find out like this.” Bado held his breath and watched the two Women as Forte looked down into Frey's eyes.

“You came here in secret? Last night?” Forte’s voice was flat and monotone.

“Yes.” Replied Frey, looking with desperate worry in her friend’s eyes.

“He never tricked you, or forced you into—”

“No! Never!” Frey assured her, squeezing her hands more tightly and shaking her head vigorously. Forte paused, scrunching her face slightly as she stared into Frey's pleading eyes. She swallowed.

“…And you are in love with him?” She stared hard at Frey, unblinking, who looked straight back at her, unwavering.

Yes.” She said insistently. Bado felt his heart clench upon hearing the word. His eyes burned a little and his throat tightened. Forte closed her eyes, tilted her head up and fought down a fresh volley of tears. Then she stood up, grabbed Frey's hands and pulled her upright, then hugged her.

“Forte…” Frey said softly.

“I’m sorry for snooping…” Forte said in a wavering voice.

“It's okay.” Said Frey, returning the hug. Then Forte looked up at Bado and breaking away from  Frey, she walked over to him slowly. There was a suspenseful silence while he stared into her tired eyes as she stood still in front of him. After a moment, she took another step forward and put her arms around his middle, tucking her face against him. He exhaled a long, grateful sigh and felt an ocean of relief pour over him. He put his arms around her and hugged her gently in return.

“I’m sorry for misjudging you.” She said, muffled, into his chest.

“Don’t worry about it.”, he said softly. Forte squeezed her arms around his waist tightly. A few paces away, Frey sniffed and wiped tears from her eyes, smiling.

A few moments passed like so, then Forte backed up and addressed them both.

“I’m sorry for all this trouble today on my part.” She began. Frey shook her head, but Forte continued. “But I do think you two should keep your secret a little longer.” Bado looked at her, surprise written in his face.

“But, Forte…” Frey piped up. “This misunderstanding happened because we were sneaking around…”

“I know.” Forte answered, her voice beginning to reclaim its usual strength. “But still… I don’t know if this town is ready to find out about this… I wasn’t, clearly.” There was a pause. “I don’t know much about love… but I trust you both, so…” She inhaled deeply, steadying herself. “Just be good to each other.” She looked at each of them in turn and they nodded, smiling reassuringly. “And don’t let the cat out the bag at least until I figure out how we can prepare to do it right next time. There will be trouble, I assure you, especially if Volcannon finds out by accident.” Frey looked worried. Bado nodded. After the tense moment in Frey's bedroom earlier that morning, he certainly heard truth in her words.

“From now on…” Forte said finally. “Will you two please plan your clandestine shenanigans a little more carefully?” She finished with an exhausted exhalation, then smiled widely at them both. They returned it.

“We will.” Said Frey cheerfully.

Chapter Text

“So, why did you think Bado was coercing me, anyway?” Frey asked Forte as they walked side by side through the Selphia plains trail to the South of the town. Forte turned red. Frey felt a little guilty for making her relive it but she had to know what was it that made people misinterpret her relationship to Bado so wrongly if she was ever going to figure out how to bring it out in the open safely.

“Oh, I uh… Well you see…” Forte fumbled over her words. “M-meg has been saying—that is to say there is a rumor…” She blushed scarlet and paused, but then seemed to draw her courage up a little. “Everyone in town thinks you like Dylas.” She said very quickly.

“Hahaha!” Frey laughed out loud. “Oh yeah, that. Jeeze, I didn’t think that little red herring would go this far.” Forte looked at her, dumbfounded.

“W-well anyway… After you went to the water temple with him, most of us assumed you two were, um… you know… and plus, Bado is um… quite a bit, uh—”

“Older.” Frey finished her sentence calmly. She wanted to encourage everyone to stop thinking of it as taboo… and she meant to begin by talking about it openly.

“—than you, yes. So I just assumed it was impossible that you would have slept with him of your own will…” Frey winced. It was severely uncomfortable to think that Forte had ever thought that Bado would have tricked or forced her into sex… especially given how gentle he always was with her. For anyone else to make that assumption was gut wrenching to even consider. She had to prevent it, next time.

“Yeah, that brings up another question, actually.” Frey brushed aside the distressing train of thought. “How did you know I had been in his bed? I mean you found my jacket, of course, but what made you go looking in there in the first place?”

“As for that,” Forte began, looking a might uncomfortable herself. “I suspected that you were misleading us into believing you had spent the night in the barn right away. There was no way you couldn’t have been aware of us shouting and running all about even if you had been in there, not to mention Vishnal had been out to the barns already, so I thought if you hadn’t come out right away you must have been either hiding in there deliberately, or you weren’t there to begin with.”

“Huh… I guess we weren’t as clever as we thought we were, huh?” Frey felt a little rush of embarrassment.

“Well the rest seemed to believe it well enough, but I took further measures when I embraced you at the castle. I could smell the familiar signs of the smithy and of course, I have known Bado all of my life and he has always looked out for Kiel and I since our parents passed away, so I would know his scent anywhere.” Frey fidgeted abashedly.

“Wow, Forte. I don’t know why I thought I could hide this from you... Sorry for being such a brat.” She laughed nervously.

“It’s alright milady.” Forte said with a genuine smile. “I’m just terribly relieved that you are unhurt and that I was sorely mistaken about his behavior concerning you. …I am… ashamed though… of how I treated him this morning.”

“It’s okay, Forte. I’m sure he forgives you.” Frey laid a reassuring hand on Forte’s shoulder and looked into her eyes.

“Yes, I believe you are right… but I’m not sure I deserve it, just now.”

“It was a rough thing to go through…” Frey said quietly. “It may take some time to work through those feelings… but I’m positive you’ll pull through and I hope you two will have a stronger trust in each other after that.”

“…That would be well.” Forte smiled slightly back.

“Oh, and I hope it goes without saying by now that I’m not interested in dating Dylas.”  Frey said tilting her head in a comical exaggeration of a serious look. Forte covered her mouth as she laughed.

“No? You mean you don’t find him terribly charming? With that sour face?” Frey joined her laughter.”

“Hahaha, oh I know! How I can resist that gentile and poise is beyond me!” She flipped her wrist, holding it up to her brow as if to swoon. Forte chuckled again. “But back to reality, it’s getting a little late… should we head back or do you think we need to patrol some more?”

“I think we can return.” Forte nodded.

“Oh thank goodness. I’m starving. I hope Vishnal saved plenty of curry for me!”

Chapter Text

‘Perfect…’ The one word thought turned over and over in his mind as Bado looked into the blushing face of his young lover. It was so difficult sometimes to believe that this was waking life and not a dream.

Frey was picking herbs and tucking them into a little leather pouch, stooping in the radiant green meadow that had blazed into life once it felt the warmth of spring. She was flitting about and looking over her shoulder at him as he gazed at her curvy little waist and her slender legs. Each time she would see his eyes tracing her body and she would turn pink and get flustered, dropping the pouch or picking the wrong leaf.

“Why are you staring so much?” She laughed, a fluttering, nervous but excited sound.

“Because you’re so beautiful.” He answered without a pause. She blushed a deeper shade of scarlet. He laughed softly.

“You could come help me gather instead of just watching.” She teased, holding up the pouch with her other hand on her hip.

“Nah, it’s time for a break.” He said, taking a couple long strides toward her and scooping her up in his arms. She made a shrill noise of surprised and giggled. She was so small, or he was so big, that if he wanted he could have held her up with one arm, but he was not about to leave such a precious burden to chance, no matter how confident he was in his strength.

“Heeyyy! What if someone comes this way?” She protested, not at all convincingly.

“No one wanders around outside of town as much as you, Princess.” He grinned at her. “But if you like, I’ll take you somewhere a little more secluded…”

“Oh?” She purred, looking happy as a cat in a sunbeam, “some secret garden you go to when you want to avoid work?”

“Something like that.” His mouth curled into a smirk. He headed off down the trail through the verdant lushness of the meadow and into the young deciduous forest. Shafts of sunlight were shattered by the abundance of foliage, breaking them into dappled golden patterns over everything including Frey, who looked more than ever like a little wood nymph with leaves patterned in sunlight and shadow over her long green hair. After a few of his long strides, he stepped off the trail and ducked under a curtain of willow branches. On the other side there was a shimmering little spring and a soft mossy bank at its edge. The shade of the willow tree made the spot dim except for the dazzling light that reflected on the surface of the water.

“Oooh!” Frey voiced a sense of wonder as if she had stepped into a vison. He gently set her down on her feet and she pulled off her boots, socks, and gloves and tiptoed over the little shoots of grass and the blanket of moss. “It’s so soft!” She said, holding her hair out on either side of her face with her hands as she looked down at her toes curling in the lush forest carpet. Bado smiled softly at her, drinking in the view of her delicate hands and bare feet as she pranced around the little forest oasis, trailing her white fingertips in the willow vines with a laugh like a butterfly.

He walked over to where she was inspecting a fuzzy caterpillar on a low hanging branch and lightly traced a hand down her side, following her curves with a whispered exhalation. Feeling his touch, she turned around and he wrapped his hands around her waist and pulled her against him, gently but not without a trace of eagerness.

“Ah!” the smallest of sounds escaped her lips as her body collided softly with his, teasing a little of the breath from her lungs. He felt a warm rush as he looked down into her eyes. They seemed to melt into a slight haze as her eyelids drooped over them a little. That delicious look of desire was flowering in her features again. It unraveled him every time…

“Frey…” Her name was honey on his lips as he bent his neck and leaned in to kiss her. She rose up onto her tiptoes obligingly and brushed his lips with hers delicately. Then he slid one hand up onto her back and wrapped the other arm around her waist, squeezing her a little more firmly against him, all the while tilted his head in different little angles as he kissed her lips repeatedly, warm and soft. Her hands, which had been resting on his chest, fingers searching their way into the folds and crevices of his clothing, slid up over his collarbone and neck and came to rest at either side of his jaw. Delicate white fingers brushed his pointed ears, sending shivers down his spine and he inhaled a trembling breath just at the turning of their mouths in between another kiss. He felt her lips smile against his and then she laid her cheek against his a moment moving her index finger and lightly traced the blade of his left ear with the softness of a moth landing it’s fuzzy feet on his skin. Waves of molten arousal reverberated from her touch. His ears warmed rapidly until they were fever-hot to the touch and he moaned quietly somewhere deep in his broad chest.
Then, feeling him hardening through their clothing as her body leaned into him, she inhaled with a slight sound of surprise. For one flash of a moment he had an impulse to pull himself away, a leftover reservation about showing his arousal plainly to the young princess. But almost in the same instant he remembered how boldly she had taken the lead in his bedroom when she had snuck into his arms in the dark of night the week before. Instead, he tucked his face into the hollow of her neck and shoulder and breathed in her sweet smell, tightening his embrace slightly.

“Better watch out cause now I know one of your secret keys.” She whispered in his ear. He found his brain unable to divide its attention between forming words and feverishly seeking her lips again, and so he repeated the only combination of phonemes his mind could grasp: her name.

“Frey…” It was such a spellbinding sound to him, a rolling somersault of speech with no hard edges, like a dandelion fluff riding a warm breeze. He kissed her long and deep, losing the thread of intelligible thoughts in the warmth and wetness of her mouth, her tongue sliding over his.

Presently he became aware of her hands tugging at him as they wrapped around the back of his neck. She was stretched out as far as possible with her dainty toes barely touching the ground. He grinned and chuckled softly, moving his arms down and pulling her up off her feet. Her legs wrapped around him as he shifted his balance and held her thighs in his wide, warm palms. His neck tilted back now that she suddenly had the higher angle on him and she curved her back, pressed her chest against his collar and ran her fingers upward through his hair.

Her weight was nothing to him as he held her frame against his, savoring the heat of her body as she gripped his waist tightly with her legs around him, feet curled like a clasp behind his back. His hands moved almost of their own will as he pressed her mouth with his once more, exploring her overtop her clothing and memorizing every supple angle of her body. She was slowly growing hotter, trembling now and again as his fingers curled around her buttocks. Their lips separated a moment and he looked into her face, glowing crimson with desire, eyes dilated, heavily lidded and glazed, but not without a smoldering consciousness evident in those dark pools. She turned his face gently and stroking his neck with one hand as she held herself against him with the other, leaned in, and slid her tongue along the angle of his right ear. His mind came undone like a thread pulling apart a hand knitted scarf. He shuddered and moaned, panting softly. A dizzy feeling overtook him and legs weakened. He could only take so much, standing up…

He held her tightly and let himself drop, knees thudding softly into the cool earth. She yelped lightly and then giggled as he leaned over and landed his hands on the ground, gently laying her back on the moss as she was still clinging to him with her arms and legs about him. He felt her loosen her grasp and let her weight down on the forest floor. He was breathing deeply and trembling as he looked into her smiling face. His ears twitched. She laughed again.

“You’re completely overtaken right now, aren’t you?” She laughed, “I’ll have you eating out of the palm of my hand if you’re not careful…”

He bent over her on his hands and knees on the forest floor by the trickling sound of the little spring. Two weeks ago he would never have guessed as he looked, terrified, into her shocked face in the bramble thicket that soon she would be thinking up excuses to invite him away from the eyes of the townsfolk and pull his will apart with her fingertips and tongue… A wicked, playful smile came over him.

‘Alright, pet, now it’s your turn to lose your senses.’ He thought as his mind came under his own control again.

“We’re not done yet.” He said aloud as he looked mischievously into her eyes. Her hair was spread out around her over the mossy ground, her arms resting on either side of her head, palms up, fingers relaxed into a soft curled grip on the warm spring air. Her posture looked so sweetly fragile and open, but her eyes glinted with a similar wickedness to the giddy feeling rising up below his lungs.

“Hmm?” She mused with closed lips.

“You’ll see.” His bass voice resonated in his lungs as he nuzzled her jaw and pushed her head a little to open the angle of her neck a wider and give his mouth access. He planted kiss after kiss, interspersed with long strokes of his wide tongue, feeling her breath quicken as he tasted the soft skin of her neck and collar. She was wearing a white button down shirt, darted at the sides to show off her hourglass waist. It had a wedge shaped collar and the first button had already been undone when she came to his shop earlier that morning to ask if he would help her gather herbs. The little dip of her clavicle right in the center had mesmerized him then, and now he eagerly kissed it and filled in the concave with his tongue, tracing her collarbone as she sighed underneath him.
Delicately he teased the buttons open with his fingers, surprisingly deft at intricate work for their large size. Pulling the fabric aside as he moved his mouth downward, her pale skin trembling with every breath as her chest rose and fell, revealed to him in the warm green forest light. She wore no undergarments beneath her top. He paused his kisses for a moment and lightly dragged his lips and nose over the contour of her left breast, taking the right in his big hand and stroking his thumb softly over her nipple.

She gasped and tilted her head back into the soft ground, pushing her shoulders up slightly. His lips curled into a smile at the sound.

‘That’s more like it.’ He thought, and closed his lips around the left nipple. She tensed and whined as his tongue flicked against it, right hand massaging the other all the while. He quickened the pace, switching between her breasts as she squirmed and panted beneath him.

“Aaah!” Her cry sent electricity shooting down his spine. It was the sexiest sound that had ever teased his ears. Down between his legs he felt harder than he ever remembered being before. He pulled her right nipple into his mouth, sucking it gently and rolling his thumb over the left one, still slick from his mouth. She arched her back and squeezed her thighs together, shaking hard. Her hands, which had wrapped around his neck gripped and twisted in the furred collar on his shoulders, a customary feature of his clan’s clothing.

“Nngaah! Ah! W-wait! Bado!” She panted. He stilled his mouth and hands and listened to her breathing and felt her tense her body repeatedly. “It feels like a cord is going to snap somewhere…” She breathed, eyes closed and head tilted sideways as her chest rose and fell rapidly.

It seemed she was, in fact, inexperienced with sexual pleasure.

“Yeah…” He whispered, privately relishing the thought that he would eventually be the first one to send her over the edge and hear her first orgasm. But there was no hurry.

He lifted himself a little and holding the bulk of his weight off of her with his elbows in the soft earth, he nuzzled and caressed her jaw and cheek while her breathing slowly returned to a normal pace.

“I’ll take you further, next time… if you like.” He purred in her ear. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. Then he felt her nod her head as she held him. He smiled into her hair. This real-life fantasy would sweeten his dreams richly until then.

Chapter Text

“What the hell happened anyway?” Doug loitered in the Meanderer while Bado milled around the shop, changing prices on little hanging placards with a bit of chalk for everything that hadn’t sold recently. “Two weeks ago I thought you were dragon bait for sure, and now she’s bringing you lunch?” Doug’s gray eyes followed faded blue ones and both their metal cast irisis flashed at one another reflectively.

“She brings everyone stuff. You know that.” Bado said dismissively, frowning. He did not like where this was going. “The day after the one you’re talking about she brought onigiri, and I’m betting she stopped by to give you some too? Am I off the mark?” he added, seeing Doug furrow his brow.

A bowl of Tempura on rice was sitting on his work bench. Little trails of steam still wafted up from it occasionally. Frey had stopped in a minute before to bring it for him and even though she had treated him the same as any other resident she was on gift-giving terms with, Doug, who had been standing in the shop making small talk, wouldn’t stop prying.

“Yeah well…” Doug said, staring at him continually. “It just seems fishy to me… Maybe you two are conspiring to make some bigger prank in secret for one of us!” Inwardly, Bado thanked the smaller dwarf for having such a feeble imagination.

“If that’s your concern, you should keep a closer eye on her and Leon.” Bado countered, careful not to deny Doug’s innocent interpretation of the abrupt lack of tension between himself and the princess. Doug was utterly undeterred.

“Yeah, but seriously,” He implored. “What did you do to get on her good side like that? I want her to bring me tempura rice too!” Bado actually laughed aloud, first, because of Doug’s simplistic motivations for interrogating him, and second as a result of imagining Doug’s face should he tell him about the service he rendered her under the willow the day before. He suspected that was at least in part responsible for motivating her to make a special dish for him today.

“Well I re forged her swords for her a bit ago… That probably has something to do with it.” He threw Doug this scrap of info as if he were a dog begging a little ways from the dinner table.

“Yeah but wasn’t that like last week or something? Why this, today?”

“Hey, those blades were some a’ my best stuff. I’d say it’s worth more than a week’s worth of gratitude. Especially since I didn’t charge her…”

“Sure, if you say so, but I’ll bet you haven’t made a damn thing since then, am I ri—wait a sec! What? You didn’t charge her?!” Doug was leaning forward with his mouth actually hanging open. Bado’s right ear twitched, this time with restrained annoyance.

“No, I didn’t.” He said shortly.

“Well why on Earth not?! I swear you are so hopeless, man. Always trying to come up with ways into easy money and then it just falls into your lap and you don’t even collect any?!” Doug was waving his arms around in an exaggerated fashion as he spoke.

“Well… it’s the thinking of ideas that’s fun… not the actual money itself.” Bado said slowly, raising his eyebrows a little as he thought about it.

“Sheesh!” Doug shook his head at his feet.

“Oh, speaking of which,” Bado said, suddenly brightening a little. It was plain that Doug was not nearly as perceptive as Forte. This little chase wasn’t going anywhere for now. “What do you think of this, huh? It’s a charm for making people want to give you things… I bet they’ll sell like hotcakes.” He held up a very ordinary silk charm, all the while rubbing the heel of his hand over the placard where it had said ‘love charm’ a minute before.

“You’re just making that up right now…” Doug rested his chin in one palm as he looked peevish at Bado.

“Just because somethin’s made up doesn’t guarantee it’s not true.” Bado countered, tossing the charm back into a bin with the others.

“That is the worst logic I’ve ever heard.”

“Well, what’re you hanging around here for if you don’t want to help me come up with new angles? Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

“Fine, I’m leaving. But I’m not convinced, man. I’ll figure out what’s going sooner or later and then you’ll have to spill it and tell me how you pulled in her favor like that.

Bado looked in Doug’s direction but his eyes did not register the other dwarf. His mind was suddenly occupied remembering the taste of Frey's skin and the delicious noises she had made on the forest floor… “Sure, whatever you say…” He mumbled absentmindedly.

“Tch.” Doug scoffed and headed for the door.

Just as he was reaching for the handle, it opened suddenly, causing him to jump back. Forte stepped inside and looked with mild surprise into Doug’s gray eyes. Doug blushed.

“Oh, excuse me.” She said stepping aside and holding the door open. Blushing a little redder to match his hair, Doug scurried through the doorway.

“Thanks.”

Forte paid him no more mind but stepped over to Bado. He looked down into her face apprehensively. They hadn’t actually spoken since reconciling after the fight when Forte had found Frey's jacket in his bed.

“Hello.” She said plainly.

“Hey.” He swallowed as he looked at her, still unable to shake off the memory of her sobbing with rage and grief on the floor in front of him. There was a stony silence.

“…How are you?” Forte said after inhaling a deep breath. Was it difficult for her too?

“Doin’ fine… you?”

“I’m well, yes. Thank you.” They blinked at each other awkwardly. “How has your relationship been so far? Been enjoying yourselves and keeping out of trouble?” She asked cautiously.

“Yeah, thanks.” He said, feeling himself blushing slightly.

“Good.” She sighed. This was getting unbearable. He had to say something to address the elefun in the room.

“Listen, Forte…” He began but cut off as he searched for the right words. “…I hope you know that you can talk to me about anything you might be thinking or feeling… especially regarding Frey and me. I feel rotten for how upset I made you by hiding it.” Forte looked almost sympathetic as she smiled slightly.

“Actually, it’s the bond between you and I that worries me more, just now.” He looked up with a bewildered expression. She took a deep breath, then looked up into his face. “Bado, I’m sorry for how I treated you… truly.”

“Hey, I thought I already told you not to worry about it.” He answered quietly.

“I know, but… “ Forte seemed to struggle with herself in her thoughts briefly. “It’s more than just you and Frey… I, um…” Suddenly the sound of her shouting at him replayed in his memory ‘for years I’ve watched you degrade…’ he cringed a little as he remembered the end of the sentence.

“Forte, I know I haven’t lived up to your hopes… I haven’t been the man your father told you I was… not since he died.” She flinched backward at his directness, but then looked up into his eyes hopefully.

‘Must have guessed right.’ He thought inwardly. He paused, considering whether to go on. He had always hesitated to reveal these things to her, thinking it would be a disappointing blow. But now he knew that his divergence from the image of him her father had given her was a slow and cruel punishment in its own right. Even if she couldn’t bring herself to accept him, better to have it out and give her the chance to understand him for who and what he was, at least. He took a breath and continued.

“…But the simple truth is that isn’t me anymore… I’ve often wondered if it ever was, actually.” Forte was watching his face intently, processing his words as they came. Her brows worked as she considered what he was sharing. “Being a knight wasn’t glorious or heroic for me… just hollow…” He looked down with his brow lowered and his mouth a tense line. “I was just walking beside him because I didn’t know where else to tread.” He blinked down at his big feet. “I never had a direction of my own. It was just dumb luck I was so good at it. Even when fame and recognition came and people started calling me ‘legendary’ I felt I was living a lie. Your dad was the only one who knew me for what I am, and what I’ve always been. He knew I hated fighting, so I stuck with him, even though doing so doomed me to fight all the time. It’s too tough to let go of the only float in a lonely sea of your own misgivings, even if it means becoming something on the outside that is against your nature.” It felt like a relief and a torment of suspense all at once to reveal so much to her.

“And what is your real nature?” Forte asked quietly, watching his eyes as she spoke.

“Some folks would say coward.” He said with a soft hint of a laugh. “…But I prefer to call myself a pacifist. I just want to live without hurting others. When he died I lost the will to fight anymore, not that I ever much enjoyed it. I feel like I have been asleep in a slow waking dream ever since… without him and without any direction… until now, that is.”

“Do you think I have aimed poorly with my dream of being a knight?” Forte asked in a meek voice.

“No… I have no doubt that there is merit and honor in that path… just not for me.” He answered sincerely. “I always respected and loved your father enough to follow him into battle… not only because he knew me and could see my true heart, but also because he was a great knight, greater than I ever was by far. I think the ‘legendary’ tag only ever stuck to me because of my strength, but the truth is I couldn’t do much of anything without him to point me to a goal.” Forte sniffed quietly, tears welling up again, but she did not let them overtake her.

“You’ve never talked about him this much… or yourself for that matter.”

“Sorry for keeping secrets.” He said softly. There was another lengthy pause. He thought he felt a long forgotten understanding pass between them as he met her eyes and saw in them respect and admiration for the first time since he could remember. “But if you’re determined to be a knight, Forte,” he began again. “Be one like your father, not like I was. The person I was pretending to be then is not worthy of your praise or reverence.”

“Alright… I’ll forget about Legendary Knight Bado…” Forte said, smiling tearfully at him.

“Thanks.” He said simply but genuinely “…that guy was an ass, anyway”. She laughed softly.

“But you said ‘until now’ earlier… when you said it felt like you were asleep… Is it because of Frey?”

“Yeah, It is.” He said as he pictured her green eyes. “Right now it feels like my purpose is to love her as best I can, as long as I’m able. It’s a simple, and maybe unimaginative goal in life but it really feels like it’s enough, you know? I don’t feel empty anymore…” Forte smiled more widely than before at him.

“I’m glad…” He returned her smile with gratitude swelling in his chest.

“Thanks, Forte.” He said, looking into her eyes without a worry anymore.

Chapter Text

Waiting was terrible, awful, wretched… and, deliciously, tantalizingly sweet at the same time. Nothing but the agony of waiting all day and half the night to sneak out with the help of her butler and steal away into the thick arms and broad chest of her lover could have made his voice sweeter, his hands warmer, or his lips more welcome on hers. Waiting was hell… the hell that made heaven recognizable in his touch.

Frey sighed, tossing a large ripe turnip the exact shade of a healthy flamingo into the shipping bin on the edge of her central field in the lands just North of the castle. Farm chores may not be a commonplace pastime for princesses of other realms, but as princess of Selphia and an Earthmate, it was a part of her life that Frey would always be content to give her attention to. And yet now, in the heat of late spring, she could not focus on her task. But distracted or no, She couldn’t very well neglect it even for a stolen moment with a certain tall dwarf sporting a short beard framing his face and jaw.

Even so, she couldn’t stop remembering… imagining his fingertips tracing her spine and his mouth on her skin.  Daydreaming had recently become a common pastime for her, a temporary and inadequate substitute for the real thing while hours crawled by until she could see him again.

“Hey.” A voice intruded unexpectedly into her daydreams as she knelt amongst the turnips. Frey jumped slightly, then looked up to see a familiar-by-now black coat and pale blue mane of hair capped with short tufted ears, not as tall and bushy as Leon’s, but nevertheless evoking the same half-monster image.

“Oh, hello Dylas.” She said softly as she slid back into her daydream mid-sentence with unfocused eyes.

“You want some help?” He asked with his hands in his pockets as he looked around at the bumper crop of pink turnips all around her.

“Sure, if you like.” Frey sighed, but smiled still as she let her imagination run loose in the background. Even Dylas and his awkward but persistent attentions couldn’t spoil the sweetness of the memory she was currently afloat in.

“Here.” Dylas reached out a hand to her and pulled her up onto her feet once she took it. “You’ve already picked all you can reach from that spot.” He smirked.

“What? Oh, yeah.” She mumbled, eyes wandering off to the side. Dylas looked searchingly at her face for a moment, blushed then turned away and rolled up his sleeves, stooping and plucking turnips left and right with his tail swishing behind him. Frey's eyes followed the motion for a moment absentmindedly before she came to herself again and began to do the same.

Lately Dylas hadn’t missed an opportunity to hover near her with an anticipatory but fidgety energy. It was obnoxious, but not as bitter as wiling away the hours with no distraction so she let him keep her company as much as he liked. He didn’t say much, so she didn’t have to spend her full attention on conversation either. It was a strange but agreeable truce to her mind.

For a while all that could be heard was the rustle of leaves and tearing of tiny roots as they pulled the brightly colored vegetables from the rich, black soil. Then the occasional rolling din of dumping a bucket of firm turnips into the wooden shipping box would disturb the quiet, temporarily rousing Frey from her inward wanderings. In this way, two and a half hours or so passed without a word between the Princess and her nervous harvesting companion. Finally, as she stood staring down at the last of the pink turnips resting in her hands, he approached her, dusting dirt from his hands as he came.

“Well, that’s all of them.” He said matter-of-factly, then looked down at her hands. “…Except one?” he added. She gazed unseeing at the vegetable, eyes glazed in a vision. “…Frey?” Dylas’s voice sounded faint and remote. She didn’t look up. Then she felt timid fingertips brush a wayward piece of hair from her face. She inhaled suddenly and drew herself away, dropping the turnip and looking sharply at him with indignance.

“S-sorry!” he stuttered, pulling his hand away and turning a violent shade of crimson. He fidgeted with his hands, looking abashed, but then glancing up into her incredulous expression became angry. “W-well what do you expect?! Looking so—I mean, what am I s-supposed to think, anyway?”

“What are you thinking?” Frey asked hotly.

“I—you… “ He sputtered for a moment, tensing up. “Gah, forget it!” he spat and whipped around and stamped off, tail lashing furiously as he went.

Frey watched him go until he turned the corner and was lost from sight. Then stooping to pick up the dropped turnip, the thought occurred to her that it was probably time to put a stop to this notion that the townspeople, him included, had that Dylas and her would be a couple. It had been a convenient scapegoat for her lovesick sighing and daydreaming up until now, but if it lead to him feeling so bold as to reach out and touch her uninvited then it had to stop. She resolved to set him straight the next time she saw him.

The afternoon light was shifting to dusk. Everything seemed to grow sleepy and smothered in the fading sunset. Frey turned and walked inside to wash up before dinner. Vishnal was standing at the door waiting with a steamed towel. She accepted it with a grateful smile and wiped her face and hands of dirt.


“What are we having?” She asked the eager butler.

“Tonight we have salted salmon and risotto, with Volcannon’s own blend of Relax Tea and cake for desert.” Vishnal said proudly as he followed her to her quarters.

“Wow, quite the spread!” she said, stepping behind a folding screen and peeling off her field gear.

“I have laid out a nice light dress for you since the night is so warm recently.” He added, paused, and then in a lower voice continued: “Will you be needing a hood and shoes later, princess?” Over the last couple weeks Vishnal had eagerly and discretely assisted Frey's secret outings after bedtime with a sense of pride and privilege at being trusted with the task.

“Yes, thank you, Vishnal.” She said sweetly as she bathed herself lightly with a bowl of steaming water and a set of fresh washcloths he had laid out behind the screen.

“Aahh, you are so lucky to have a lover.” Vishnal sighed in an exaggerated but happy manner. “I wish I had a lover too.” Frey laughed, smiling to herself. She didn’t have to see his face to imagine it.

“Well there are plenty of ladies with love on the brain around town, judging by how often they like to speculate about my affairs in that category. Why not ask one of them out?” It seemed wholly natural to converse with him this way. Even though the impropriety of talking of such things with the young gentleman had once or twice crossed her mind, him being her household servant made him almost genderless to her and therefore she was convinced that there was no danger in it.

“Oh I couldn’t possibly…” He began, embarrassed.

“Pssshh, c’mon Vish. You can’t really expect me to believe you haven’t set your eyes on someone yet?” She teased, pulling the dress from the small clothing rack by the screen, a simple but pretty little trifle; pale blue with green trim made of soft, breathable cotton.

“Well… you might be correct, but it would hardly be fair for me to tell you, when I’m forbidden from asking who you are sneaking off to see.” He had certainly become a little more bold and intimate in his attitude toward her as of late. But she didn’t mind, being that she was grateful for all his quiet assistance.

“I suppose you’re not mistaken there.” She conceded, stepping out from behind the screen. She had taken down her long hair from its usual arrangement of pigtails tied at the roots and the tips to keep them tamely under control as she dashed about inside the town and out in the wilds, notoriously full of energy. Now it fell like a seafoam green waterfall about her shoulders with a silvery gloss to it when the light caught it at a certain angle.

“You look lovely, princess. I’m sure this mystery man of yours will be delighted to see you.” Vishnal grinned at her. She returned the smile with one tinted with a playful wickedness.

“Thanks, Vish. You are a surprisingly good accomplice to my criminal endeavors.”

“Oh I wish you wouldn’t put it that way…” He said, but laughed all the same. Then something dawned on her and her mouth dropped open.

“Hey wait a minute! Who ever said I had a lover?!” Vishnal laughed aloud, unable to help himself.

“Oh princess,” he shook his head. “You really are so adorably naïve.”

Chapter Text

Frey lay in her bed with her eyes open, staring at the vaulted ceiling of her castle chambers. Her ears strained, waiting impatiently for the sound of Volcannon snoring all the way over in the West wing. Vishnal had taken on responsibility for looking after all the East wing chores and duties to ensure that the older Butler would not have a reason to pass through and possibly notice her absence when she snuck away in the dark, which lately had been nearly every night. During the day she would nap in the hay cuddled up among a pile of dozy woolies in her monster barn to compensate for her late night adventures. It was all a very agreeable arrangement for a princess with a secret love affair. All except for the waiting…

During the day she had to expend no small effort to reel in her overflowing affections around Bado during the uncommon times she chanced to visit him at the Meanderer, or when he would come stroll through her fields insisting to passerby that fresh air and exercise were more important than regular store hours. It was amazingly difficult to treat him the same as she used to, before she loved him. For one thing she could hardly even remember or imagine what it was like not to be in love with him. She sighed quietly and pulled the sheet up over her head, pouting at the serene stillness of the quiet night.

Then the long awaited moment came. A very disruptive sound came floating through the castle halls, like a thunderclap combined with the tearing of canvas. Frey could hardly have swung her pale legs over the side of the bed and into a pair of slip-on summer shoes faster than she did now, and then flung a short cape and hood around her shoulders and flew like a breeze and silently slipped through the door to the town square. She had enjoyed a lot of practice closing it without a sound from the latch over the last fortnight.

Looking around cautiously she ran as quietly as possible across the large stone slabs that paved the town square and all the roads of Selphia. The moon was out and brightly shining like a grin in the blackness of the sky, almost vanished in a new moon but still creating a surprisingly well-illuminated midnight. She passed through the South gate and down the main road.  All was motionless and virtually soundless around her. Only the breeze and night insects and frogs disturbed the spell of silence that covered the area. The path was getting narrower. She was almost to the appointed place. Any minute now he would probably hear her soft footsteps and walk up the path, impatient to wrap his arms around her once again.

“So,” a man’s voice behind her made her jump and gasp. It did not belong to Bado. She spun around, breathing the syllables of a sonic wind spell as she wheeled and her long hair made an arc around her. A hand shot out of the dark and grasped her wrist, forcing her arm down at her side and attached to it, Dylas came into view with a spiteful twinge in his eyes. “You’re sneaking out to see him? Whoever it is you’re really interested in?” The spell fizzled just beyond her palm and she made a muffled sound as she struggled to wrest her arm free of his grip. He snatched the other wrist as she began to pry at his rigid fingers pressing into her skin.

“Let go.” She hissed, inwardly praying that Bado would not hear them and reveal himself. She did not trust this vengeful Dylas she was seeing for the first time to respect their secret if he found out about it.

“Not until I get some answers.” He bit back with a harsh tone. “You’ve been happily stringing me along all this time so it’s the least you can do.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She glared and continued to twist her arms to try and break his hold. It wasn’t working. The half-monster was surprisingly strong.

“Bullshit! You’re a tease and a brat, and you don’t give a damn about how it’s felt on my end!” His anger was plain but she could also hear hurt in his tone. A small amount of guilt and a huge amount of fury flared in her at once.

“I don’t remember ever saying that I wanted you following me around or—ungh—touching me either!” She struggled further against his grasp, ducking and twisting so that he was obliged to step wide to ground himself. Then he braced himself briefly and stepped forward, pushing her off her balance and she staggered back. He took advantage of her movement and shoved her backward into the trunk of sturdy old tree, pinning her arms up above her head and looming over her with the bitterest expression she could remember ever seeing on anyone.

“If you don’t like me then why didn’t you just say so? Why’d you have to let me keep chasing after you like an idiot?!”

“So what, I have to go around telling every guy I’m around for five minutes or more that I don’t want to fuck him, is that it?!” Her wrath was in full bloom, now, the need for quiet pulverized by white-hot indignation at this least-loved resident of Selphia and his accusations. Dylas flinched backward at her snapping tone not to mention the jarring swear coming from her innocent mouth, but he found fighting easier than talking and her rage made it comfortable for him to lash back at her.

“Oh, so you’re not gonna take any responsibility? Huh?”

“Get it through your thick head, already! I don’t like you that way! Why’d you even assume I did in the first place?!”

“Because Meg told me you said so!” be blurted out, winced, then resumed his spiteful frown. Frey stopped struggling and stared into his face, anger faltering momentarily.

“Well, she was mistaken. I never said I was in love with you. It was just an assumption on her part that I didn’t bother correcting her on. Now I see that was a mistake. If I’d known you were such a boor I would have told her how much I dislike you instead!” Dylas gritted his teeth and glared furiously.

“No! You’ve been using me to cover up whatever you’ve been sneaking around doing!”

“Fuck off, Dylas! I haven’t invited you or called you to do anything! It’s all been your persistent badgering this whole time!”

“Well, you should have told me straight out from the start! This is your fault!” they were both shouting at their fullest volume, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that they couldn’t hear the approach of footsteps. But Dylas must have seen Frey's eyes widen in surprise as she looked over his shoulder, for his expression had slackened as well as his grip for an instant.

“Hwha—“ His hands released her wrists as he was lifted off his feet and thrashed this way and that in his surprise, but the huge hand that gripped his collar and no small amount of his long hair as collateral was strong and steady.

“Kid, you’ve got a lot to learn about how to treat a lady.” Bado was frowning darkly as he held the young man aloft with one great arm.

“Bado! What—“ Frey began, but he cut her off with a look of warning in his eyes.

“I was taking a walk by the south gate and heard raised voices, so I came to check it out.”

“Mind your own business!” Snarled Dylas, prying vainly at Bado’s fingers on his collar as he dangled in the air.

“I figure it is my business to do a little peacekeeping when I hear fighting of this kind at midnight… call it an old knight’s habit.” He growled. “Now listen up you little shit,” he rotated the bristling, hanging figure to face him. “No woman owes you any explanation for not being into you. If she says leave her be then you sure as hell better do it and no arguments either!” Bado’s deep voice boomed menacingly and the nighttime wildlife had completely hushed around them. Dylas and Frey both gaped at him, speechless. It was, in fact, the first time anyone in the town save perhaps Ventuswill herself had ever heard him rouse his anger over his usual gentle, careless air. Dylas gulped, but said nothing. Bado released his hand all at once and Dylas fell to the ground in a disorderly heap of long limbs. Then he scrambled to his feet and looked up at Bado, his eyes flashing. Frey couldn’t tell whether he meant to fight or flee for a moment. “Now get out of my sight, until you learn better manners!” Bado commanded. Dylas turned and dashed haphazardly back to town, with his tail quite literally tucked between his legs.”

Frey sighed heavily and bent over steadying herself with her hands on her knees. Bado turned to her and gently grabbed her shoulders to steady her.

“What happened?” His voice, now shrunk back to the gentle rumble it usually was, cringed with concern in the very timber of it.

“I think he followed me out here.” She answered, standing upright and looking into his face. “Earlier today he came to the field while I was harvesting and I got mad at him when he touched me—brushing the hair out of my face…” She elaborated in a hurry upon seeing Bado’s eyes harden at the mention of the other man touching her in a way that angered her. “I guess Meg told him I liked him so he’s mad now that he knows I don’t… called me a tease.” She looked down with a pained expression. Despite her temper and all the shouting, she wondered if he had been right… maybe she should have told him earlier that she didn’t like him?

“Hey, hey…” He said, touching under her chin gently. She looked up into his steel blue eyes which smiled softly, creasing at their corners. “Don’t look so uncertain. What happened to all that fire from a minute ago?”


“But I did let Meg think that I had a crush on him back then…” She fretted again.

“So what?” he shrugged. “Even if you had said that you were interested in him that way, it’s fine to change your mind and nothing other than plain old invitation gives a man permission to lay his hands on you, no matter what else he may believe based rumors or truths.” She allowed a timid smile to creep onto her face, gradually relenting to let his words comfort her. “And anyway,” He continued, sensing her come around. “A real man wouldn’t blame a woman for his misguided feelings, no matter how irresistibly cute she is…” at these last words he ran his fingers through her long shiny hair, holding a piece or two out as proof of his description of her and raising his eyebrows with a grin. Frey laughed a little and snuggled up to him.

“Thanks, Bado.” She purred. He nuzzled her hair as he held her a moment, but then she felt him tense slightly. He reached up and gently turned her wrist over in his hand, holding it up to look closely. Purple shadows were beginning to appear where Dylas’ fingers had bruised them. He scowled.

“What kind of a foul-hearted little terror is he?” He seethed, and kissed her skin softly where the knave had gripped her.

“It’s nothing.” She said, but let him turn her other hand over and kiss her wrist without pulling them away. "It's just cause I was pulling against his grip. He wasn't trying to hurt me... He's really not like that. He's just a bonehead when he gets upset... You didn’t have to step in like that…” She said quietly. “…but thanks for doing it anyway.”

“Hmm…” He raised his eyebrows and smirked. “You’re the type who thinks you gotta do everything yourself without help, aren’t you?” She raised her eyebrows in turn, unsure of how to reply. “Well sorry pet, but as long as you’re with me you’re gonna hafta live with my protective side.” He lifted her up with his hands around her waist and hugged her tightly as he spoke the last few words. She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him back.

“I guess it’s only fair since you’ll have to live with my stubborn side.” She felt him chuckle. After a moment he set her back down on her feet carefully.

“Shall we go find a quiet patch of wilderness? It’s not too late to make this a pleasant night.”

“Sure but maybe a pleasant night of cuddling?” She ventured. “Wrestling with that jackass has spoiled my appetite for anything more adventurous at the moment…” She fidgeted a little as she looked slightly pleading into his eyes. He gazed tenderly back at her.

“Of course, pet.” His deep voice hummed sweetly. He bent and kissed the top of her head, holding her fingers gently between his. Frey glowed with gratitude and affection for him. She reached around his waist and hugged him again.

“I love you.” She said softly.

“I love you too.” He said as he held her tight but gently against him.

Chapter Text

Frey took a deep breath and sighed, frowning in front of Porcoline’s restaurant. She had to do it, but she didn’t have to like it… It had been less than 24 hours but still, she wasn’t the type who could easily let things lie if something bad still lay between her and a friend. Even if Dylas wasn’t her favorite person in town, she still thought of all the people of Selphia as her friends, and couldn’t bear to leave it for long. She pushed the door open and walked inside.

Dylas was, as expected, waiting tables during the tail end of the lunch hour. She worked up her courage and walked to the back of the room where he was unloading dirty dishes from a tray into a soaking tub.

“Hey.” She said, holding her arms at her sides to keep herself from crossing them in front of her. Dylas looked around and startled, then frowned and turned his face back to the dishes in the tub. He was turning red again. His ears flipped back.

“What do you want?”

“I need to talk to you.” She said determinedly. “When do you have a break?” He turned and glared into her face. She didn’t budge. Then he seemed to struggle with himself slightly for a moment, but sighed, saying:

“Fine. Give me a minute to ask Porcoline.” He walked off, tail lashing and drooping alternately. Frey rubbed her thumb and forefinger on her brow. This was like licking sandpaper.

After a few moments, Dylas came back with his hands in his pockets and his brows still furrowed.

“Alright, where do you wanna do this?”

“You may use my office, if it will suit.” Said a smooth voice nearby. Arthur was sitting at an adjacent table, writing notes in a ledger and taking small, polite bites of a sandwich on a little white plate in front of him alternately. He glanced up slyly at them.

“You been eavesdropping?” Dylas growled. Frey held out a hand to silence him.

“That’s perfect, thank you Arthur.” The true Prince nodded graciously to the stand-in princess.

Frey walked out of the room into the adjoining parlor and office. Porcoline had opened his home to both these young men no matter how different they were from him or each other. She took a moment to marvel a little at his generosity. Dylas followed her with a foul temper written all over his face.

Once they were inside, she closed the door and turned to him, sighing again.

“I’m sorry for yelling at you last night.” She began, watching his pissy expression cling to his features. “But you shouldn’t have grabbed me like that.”

“I—“ he began angrily, but she shot a hand up in a warning gesture and cut him off.

“You don’t have a right to try to physically force me to do anything, even if it’s to just listen to your grievances. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t touch me again without my permission.” She kept her tone level and respectful. He flinched. Frey guessed that using the phrase ‘physically force’ had hit a note and that he couldn’t now argue with the point she was making.

“Okay…” He said grudgingly, then: “…sorry.” He mumbled. He looked like he wanted to say more, but she was determined to explain all she came to say before she let him have his turn.

“It isn’t my responsibility to answer for what other people say about me when I’m not around, but I am sorry your feelings were hurt because of the rumor. I could have been more direct and saved you some trouble, but the same could be said of you. You didn’t exactly make your feelings plainly said either.” He looked down abashedly. “But let’s just call it water under the bridge, okay? I would like to be friends, if possible…” There was a pause as Dylas mulled over her words, frowning. Then he sighed.

“Alright.” He muttered. “That sounds fine.”

“Good.” She smiled, her features relaxing, and put out a hand. He took it and they shook on the truce. “I’ll tell Bado next time I run into him that you’re reformed so he won’t flatten you.” She laughed. Dylas scowled again, tail twitching in embarrassment.

“Tch.” He huffed.

“Aw, lighten up, Dylas. Here!” She pulled out of her bag a container and pushed it into his hands. He looked back and forth from her face to the gift, confused.

“It’s milk porridge, a peace offering.” She smiled genuinely.

“How did you…” He trailed off. Frey giggled.

“C’mon, now. Porcoline, Meg, and Arthur are all my friends too. One of them was bound to know your favorite. He looked hard at her and then sighed, his eyebrows lifting and shoulders relaxing.

“Thanks.” He said, and smiled slightly, all enmity had gone from him.

Chapter Text

Bado laughed silently as he looked down into Frey's face burning with curiosity as she plied him with those emerald eyes.

“It’s a surprise!” he insisted.

“But what did you mean ‘further next time’? What happens?” She stood up on her toes, her hands on his chest and leaning toward his face as she implored. He chuckled again and grabbed her shoulders, easing her down onto her feet again and separating her from him gently. They were, after all, standing in the Meanderer in broad daylight during open hours. Clearly she had forgotten secrecy in her eagerness. She pouted up at him.

“I’m positive you’ll love it so just be patient, pet.” His voice was just above a whisper.

“Ohhh!” She fussed. He couldn’t stop grinning at her. She was so adorable, especially now while she fidgeted with impatience, having found herself in an amorous mood and being loathe to wait for the cover of night to slip into his arms. The truth was he was aching to get his hands and mouth on her again too, but he had more years behind him after all and had learned patience along the way.

“Go on. You don’t have long to wait. It’s already four thirty. You’ll be tiptoeing back here in the dark before you know it.” He nudged her. “It’s only a few hours.”

“Might as well be a few weeks…” she muttered, but obeyed, shuffling out but glancing back at him over her shoulder. Then she smirked, unable to keep up the pout for long. “See you soon”, she mouthed. He smiled at her until she passed out of view and then sighed happily. He almost felt that he was getting younger with every taste of her, every whispered exhalation, whimper of anticipation or moan of pleasure. For all his reassurance, he knew he was in for a tough evening of waiting too, knowing tonight he would reveal something new and decadent to her…

At first he had been apprehensive to find out she was a virgin. The stigma of their difference in years was not something that could be forgotten easily, after all, even though they had decided to cast it away. But now, this was such a delectable sequence of stolen nights wherein each time he showed her a little more of her sexuality, savoring her eagerness, curiosity, and surprise with each new touch and sensation. It was the most fun he’d ever had. The way she closed her eyes and squirmed and panted… and especially when he was able to pull a cry from her lips. Those sounds lit a wildfire in him every time and he delighted in his burning desire for her, but all the while never felt inclined to take her completely… not yet. This slow crescendo was far more enjoyable than burning the candle all at once. And he wanted to pamper and tease her until she was begging for him.

‘One step at a time.’ He thought, smiling to himself. Each step was sweeter than the last.

***

A tiny rapping sound on the door of the Meanderer rekindled the grin that had been pulling on the corners of Bado’s mouth all day since Frey had come to plead for another midnight rendezvous. It was an inky black night. The new moon shed no light on the stone paths of Selphia. They had devised a plan to excuse her absence overnight this time so they could lose themselves in each other in the safety and comfort of his home, which none of the other villagers, save perhaps Forte and Kiel would have any reason to enter after closing time.

It was a decided advantage having Forte on their side. She kept Kiel out of their way and occasionally even helped make alibis for the princess or the dwarf when both were coincidentally absent from the town when they were looked for.

He opened the door and a small cloaked figure lunged into the room and flung her arms around him. He caught her and wrapped one arm around her as he closed the door quietly with the other and buried his face in her neck.

“Welcome back.” He purred into her hair. “Did you come up with a good alibi?” He teased.

“Yep, as far as anyone knows I’m off hunting spirits in Obsidian Mansion. And they only appear at night.” She made an affectionate little noise and nuzzled him energetically. After a moment she pulled her face back to look into his. A mischievous grin bloomed on her features and she raised an eyebrow.

“I believe you mentioned having a surprise for me?”

“All in good time.” He hummed with his deep timbered voice. She was so eager. It made him want to tease her all the more… but he would always make the payoff for her grudging patience worth it. He leaned in and kissed her lightly, running his fingers through her silky hair. She returned the kiss, leaning into him with her whole body.
He slid his hands up and down her waist and hips over her clothing. She lifted her hands and pulled the drawstrings of her cloak until it slipped from her shoulders and fell away. Her pearly skin shone between the narrow straps of her dress in the red-orange glow of the forge in the corner. It called to him with an almost magnetic pull and he pressed his mouth to her neck and shoulders repeatedly while she sighed and tilted her head to give him more access.

After a time, she reached up and delicately guided his face up to hers with her slender fingers in his beard. He teased her parted lips by plucking at them one at a time with his until she whined softly and pulled at his shirt. Then he obliged her, slipping his tongue into the heat of her mouth and feeling her return the motion eagerly. They swam together in the kiss with hands wandering over one another feverishly. He began to harden again and she pressed herself against him even more insistently as she felt it. His breath quickened and he wrapped his hands around her buttocks and pulled her soft slight weight into him. A little gasp escaped her and she ran her fingertips through his hair, leaving a tingling sensation behind wherever her nails dragged against his scalp. A chill ran down his spine. He reached around her middle and lifted her with ease. The sensation of her legs wrapping around him was very familiar by now. She seemed to love being lifted up and kissing him while he held her aloft.


This time he carefully walked her to the doorframe as he kissed and breathed on her neck. With one arm supporting her under her thighs he brushed the drape aside with the other and ducked through the doorway into his bedroom. Once he reached the bed he turned and sat down on the edge with her still wrapped about him, kissing him all the while.


Feeling him let his weight down on the bed, she loosened her grip and let herself slide down into his lap, pushing her groin against his stiffened sex quite deliberately as she did so. He trembled at the sensation and let out a shuddering breath. She seemed to relish the sound and shifted herself to make room between their bodies. Then she slid a hand down his stomach and with the slightest hint of a shy pause, just for a moment, slowly smoothed her fingers down his erect manhood over the fabric of his pants. His eyes closed automatically and his teeth clenched, drawing a deep breath as a hiss as the fiery trace of her touch lingered on him. He shuddered slightly at the sheer intensity of his arousal, then he wrapped his fingers around her wrist, pulling her hand slowly from between his legs with a great muster of his will. But even as he did so she lifted herself up a little on her knees and flicked her tongue against his right ear, following the motion quickly by drawing the point into her mouth and nibbling it lightly.

“Aahhh!” His voice resonated through both of their bodies as he moaned. She was mastering him with startling efficiency. He couldn’t keep his mind together for long when she brought his ears into their play…

“Frey, wait—” He breathed, gripping her shoulders and pushing down the lust that was rising up in him.

“What’s wrong?” She whispered, tensing with worry.

“Nothing’s wrong, love… but I promised you a surprise and I need to keep myself coherent to give it to you.” She relaxed against him, nuzzling his hair softly. He breathed deeply and held her while he briefly waited for the fog in his head to clear. “Alright…” He whispered after a time. “Are you ready?”

She looked into his eyes. Hers were widely dilated and heavily lidded. “I think so.” She replied.

“You won’t need this…” He breathed and slowly unzipped her dress down her back. She blushed deeply as the straps fell away from her shoulders, but then slipped off of him and set her feet close together, letting the light summer dress slip down around her thighs and off, landing softly in a pile around her ankles on the wooden floor.

He slowly exhaled and leaned back a little, drinking in the view of her standing before him in his room wearing nothing but a pair of lace-lined panties. She tilted her head down and drew her hands up to her chest, nervously plucking at her hair. He had taken a measure earlier to lay out some luminous rune crystals on the night stand to offer a little light in the moonless night, and their silvery glow made her skin shine like marble. He marveled as he combed over her with his eyes.

“What is it?” She mumbled, looking anxious.

“Oh, Frey…” He breathed, delicately prying her hands from their nervous work and holding then in his between them. “You’re like a dream. I could look at you forever…” She stared back into his eyes with a fragile expression, like she was on the verge of tears but not out of sadness. He suddenly realized with a bitter twinge that what he saw was shyness and possibly even insecurity as he gazed on her body so revealed. It singed him to even think that she might not know or believe what a vision of loveliness and sex appeal she was to him. “Please don’t look so shy, my little nymph. I’m not in the habit of exaggerating and you are lovelier than anything I’ve ever seen or will ever see, surely.” She looked timidly back at him, lifting her head slightly.

He donned a determined look, then pulled her onto the bed and rolled her onto her back, positioning himself over her and looking down into her face which was poised somewhere between surprise and anxiousness. “I will prove to you how staggeringly sexy you are, pet, If you’ll trust me to.” She looked up into his eyes searchingly, then with the slightest audible utterance said:

“I trust you.”

Bado smiled devilishly at her and leaned slowly toward her ear, holding his body just above hers so that her nipples brushed against his chest. She gasped quietly.

“Close your eyes.” He said softly in her ear. She obliged. Slowly he traced a line down her throat with his lips and nose brushing against her skin, then dragged the tip of his tongue back up to her chin as she tilted her head back and made a small muffled noise from behind closed lips. Gradually he nurtured her anticipation as he breathed on her skin hotly before pressing his lips to her body or drawing a little spiral with his tongue as he tasted her. She was growing hotter and her breathing was getting heavier.

He took his time, working his way over her collarbone and both shoulders before drawing a dotted line of fire down her sternum to the valley between her breasts. These he massaged gently in his warm hands, which he had taken the precaution of rubbing with sunflower oil a few times a day to soften them for her. The callouses from gripping a hammer and iron were far beneath what he hoped to offer her sensitive skin. She giggled as his short beard tickled her between her breasts and he smiled against her skin as he moved his right hand and nuzzled the soft plump rise on her chest that had been beneath it, brushing her pink nipple until it hardened, then licking and sucking them each in turn like he had in the forest. He always began where they had left off during their previous sexual exploration. It was his way of teaching her gradually how to enjoy his attentions without any apprehension.

“Nnng.” She hummed as he teased her left nipple with his tongue, drawing a ring around it repeatedly. He would soon make her part her lips and hear her pleasure out loud. He squeezed her breasts in his hands again and moved his mouth lower toward her navel. She gasped and squirmed as he strayed into this new territory. Each kiss, lick and breath fell on a part of her that no man had ever touched, as far as they knew. His ears burned and twitched as he thought about it. How he could have possibly become so lucky as to enjoy the privilege of exploring her for the first time like this, he couldn’t fathom.

He paid exceptionally close attention to each breath and tensed muscle as he pushed the boundary, retreating back up toward her chest with a long, wet stroke of his tongue when he felt her tremble too hard or inhale too sharply. He was patient, and would take as long as she needed to warm her up before the main event. A giddy feeling rose beneath his lungs as the anticipated what he had in store for her. He drew himself toward the headboard, propping up his weight with his hands on either side of her and ground his pelvis against hers slowly, all the while watching her face closely as she gasped. Alternating between this motion and drawing her nipples one at a time into his mouth and sucking them gently for a few beats, he increased the pace until she could no longer keep her voice behind her lips.

“Haah!” she cried softly, arching her back a little as he pushed a little more of his weight behind his hips with the next slow rolling motion. As always, her cry pulsed through him like a shock of electricity, and he switched back to licking and kissing her a little lower this time.

Just at the rim of her panties he slowed, kissing her delicately all along that line, and then maneuvering lower down the extra-long bed (to accommodate his height) he drew his thumb up under her left knee and lifted, wrapping his fingers around the top and raising it up until her heel propped it upright in a steep angle on the bed. Then he kissed his way up her thigh toward her groin, listening with relish to her whimpering growing louder with each inch. He moved to the other leg and drew the same pattern up the other thigh, this time adding frequent licks to the mix as he inched toward her center again. Before long she was panting breathlessly and tensing her back and legs as his face drew close enough to her groin for him to feel a radiant heat emanating there. He gently pulled her legs apart a little wider until the taught tendon that led down her thigh from her crotch stood out, and then he teased it with his tongue.

“Aaah!” her voice rang out, to his delight, and he paused while she tensed and then licked it firmly again.

“Nngah! … Hahhhh!.” His erection throbbed and hardened every time he heard her cry out. Every flash of lightning down his spine spurred him on, but even now he didn’t want to overwhelm her until she wanted it beyond any doubt or reservation. He drew up a little and hovered over the soft rise of her mons for a breath, then nuzzled it through the fabric of her underwear. She gasped and arched her back, twitching away from the touch. He looked up from between her thighs and saw her looking back at him, face flushed and eyes glazed, panting.

“Bado…” She breathed, her eyebrows inclined.

“I’ll stop the moment you say so… but there is no reason to be afraid, pet. It only gets better.” He smiled at her with an expression somewhere between reassurance and seduction. Her chest rose and fell a couple times in silence, but then she nodded slightly. Pleased at the invitation, he bent his neck and closed his teeth on the rim of her underwear and pulled downward as she inhaled a trembling breath. A little garden of pale green curls, matching her long hair perfectly, came into view as he tugged the fabric away. She lifted her pelvis slightly, allowing the little frilly garment to slip over her hips and buttocks and down around her thighs. He raised a hand and released the fabric from his mouth, pulling it off over her feet with his fingertips and tossing them aside playfully. She left her legs in the air with her knees together and her feet crossed over one another.

Gently he wrapped his hands around her thighs just above her knees again, slipping his thumbs in between her legs to encourage her to open them. She did so slowly. He didn’t rush her, but patiently supported the weight of her legs as they lowered to the sheets. Now he looked on her adoringly, splayed out in his bed, bare and beautiful before his eyes.

She trembled and breathed deeply as he lowered his head, then inhaled suddenly and held her breath as he nuzzled the soft curly hair between her legs. He chuckled and leaned on one elbow as he brought his other hand up and lightly ran his fingers over where his face had brushed a moment before. She let her breath out with a soft moan. With his thumb he gently stroked her sex in an upward motion and felt her tremble as she whined and squirmed. Encouraged by the sounds he slipped the thumb between her lips and found her generously wet already. Desire shook him as he felt her wet heat, and he took a deep trembling breath of his own. Meanwhile she was stretching out her legs with her toes splayed. Her eyes were shut and she tilted her head back as waves of pleasure made her twist in place.

“Aah!” He smiled again at the sound, and wrapped the other arm around her thigh and very carefully pulled her lips apart, exhaling a warm breath onto her exposed vulva. She arched her back and he heard her brace her palms on the headboard. Her thighs strained to spread further apart and she made a long keening whine. She was too shy to ask for it out loud this time, but someday soon he’d hear her plead his name. Her hunger for his touch was the sweetest indulgence he knew of.

He slid his tongue between her folds and dragged the tip lightly upward, his heartbeat pounding in his twitching ears as he tasted her. She cried out again. The headboard creaked as she pushed her palms against it. His excitement boiled over and he pushed his mouth into her heat as he kissed and licked her feverishly. Her voice rang desperately, whining and crying out alternately as she writhed and gasped, breathless. Despite her frenzied reaction she was lasting well, but either way he sensed her building toward a climax as her voice became higher and her movements more wild. He lifted his mouth slightly and found the firm little knot of nerve endings at the apex of her sex.

“AAH!” She was getting louder and higher. The sound of her unraveling made his mind reel, he flicked his tongue rapidly against her and felt a spasm of anticipation course through her. Her cries of pleasure were a steady rhythm now, separate by desperate gasps of air. She was so close… He pressed his mouth over her clitoris suddenly and pulled the delicate flesh between his tongue and palette. The cord snapped inside her. She coiled and arched as she cried out long and breathlessly, bucking slightly as the contractions of her climax shook her at intervals. He held her tightly throughout it, pressing his tongue against her to sweeten the waves as he felt them break over her. Then she was still, save for the rapid rise and fall of her chest as she panted, letting her arms fall limply on either side of her head, her face lay sideways on the pillow. Her skin was flushed and hot still. He pulled a fold of fabric up and wiped his mouth on the sheet before crawling up the length of the bed and grinning proudly at her as he settled a little of his weight down on her soft warmth.

“I told you you’d like it.” He purred. She wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed him tightly, breathing heavy still.

“I love you, Bado… Thank you.” She breathed, glowing with pleasure and affection. He cuddled closer into her neck and hair, as happy as he could ever remember being.

“I love you too, Frey.

Chapter Text

“It’s called an orgasm. Or sometimes ‘climaxing’.” Bado explained in his deep voice as he stroked Frey's back. She was stretched out on top of him under the blankets, looking curiously into his face as she probed for details.

“Do all women do it?” She was transfixed as he patiently explained various aspects of sexual interactions to her. It was difficult to decide whether it was adorable or embarrassing how persistent she was in asking all kinds of details. Either way, he smiled and stroked her, giving all he knew to feed her curiosity.

“I believe most can. But it seems it’s harder for some than others. And some don’t seem to get them at all.”

“Why?”

“I’m not sure, love. But I’m mighty glad to know you can have them when I touch you.” He kissed her head and ran his hand down over her rear, squeezing a cheek in his palm as he did so. She was silent for a moment but looked as though she were still thinking hard. Dawn was just barely breaking on the second morning they had ever awakened in each other’s arms. It was impossible not to be in an elated mood. Bado was again inwardly dumbfounded at how he could have come to enjoy such good fortune as to have her with him and in love with him.

“Can men have them?” she asked next. He laughed softly, looking into her bright eyes. “Yes, pet. Men tend to have them more easily than most women, in fact. But men can only have one at a time and then have to wait for a little while.” Her eyes widened.

“Wait, you mean women can have more than one at a time?”

“Some women, yes. And it’s more like… in a row, I guess.”


“Do you think I can?” Her face was red, but she was too fascinated to be timid with her questions at present. He couldn’t stop smiling at her.

“I hope so. We can try to find out sometime, if you like.” He felt a twinge of desire thinking about it, then his face and ears warmed at her next question.

“Can you have them?” He swallowed, lust creeping up to overtake his amusement.

“Yes.” He said, staring into her eyes. She turned a little redder and looked away, fidgeting for a moment. He swallowed. Then she turned back and looked at him with a determined expression.

“I want to give you one.” He pulled in a breath, feeling the coil tighten inside him. Her expression wavered, then looked uncertain. “…but, I don’t know how to do it, exactly…” She seemed to wilt with disappointment slightly. A burning hot blend of affection and desire for her mingled in his chest.

“Well… There are actually a few different ways… for both men and women, that is.” She looked up, attentively waiting for more with those big green eyes. He took another breath. It was hard to believe that she knew so little, but then again, having lost her memory, maybe this information had all been casualties of her amnesia if she had ever in fact known it in the first place.  He slowly pieced words together in his mind and then spoke, determined to give what information she needed without overwhelming or scaring her. “And when a man has one, it’s a little different…”

“How?” She looked eagerly into his face. He faltered, unsure of how to make this part sound appealing.

“Well, um… there’s something that comes out… right when a man climaxes. It’s a kind of fluid…” He trailed off, then chuckled again as he watched her try to imagine it, making a confused face. “Sex is a little messier for men.” He added.

“But how do I make it happen? What are the ways you were talking about?” She was very insistent.

“Well, one of the nicest ways by far is called coitus. That is what people are usually referring to when they talk about sex, or fucking, as you so eloquently put it when you were yelling at Dylas the other night.” He raised an eyebrow and smirked at her. She blushed and ducked her head slightly. Then she cleared her throat and looked off sideways.

“Is that not what you did for me last night?”

“No, that’s called oral sex. There are other, more euphemistic terms for it too, though. It basically means getting someone off by using your mouth.”

“And it works for both men and women?” She lifted her head up and looked at him eagerly.

“Well, yeah.” He said laughing, but his ears were getting hot again. She brightened, then looked confused again.

“But, then what exactly is sex, or coitus or whatever you called it?” He took another slow breath, stringing together an explanation in his mind.

“It’s when the man puts his penis inside a woman’s vagina and moves it in and out until they both come.” He watched her face as she took in the words. She still looked confused.

“Come where?”

“Oh, sorry… it’s another way of saying they have an orgasm.”

“Oh.”

“That way is how a woman can get pregnant. Because the stuff that comes out of the man, which people generally call cum, is the seed that she needs to make a baby.” It was bizarre to be explaining all this so directly to her, but he forced his tone to remain calm and level. He didn’t want any of it to sound bad or frightening to her.

“What do you mean, inside her?” She asked, looking perplexed still. He took a deep breath and looked a little bewildered at her. She hadn’t experienced an orgasm before, so he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised, but still he had never really considered that she might be quite so ignorant about her anatomy.

“Frey…” he began again, with some difficulty. “Have you ever… touched yourself down there? Where I was touching you last night?”

“I don’t think so? Not that I can remember.”

“Okay…” He nodded, frowning slightly. This was getting a little difficult. It had only been a year since she came falling out of the sky onto Ventuswill’s head. And she had servants attending her at all hours at the castle so he guessed it made sense that she hadn’t begun to experiment at least since she lost her memory. “I think it might be better to try and show you. It will probably be easier than describing it.”

“Alright…” She watched his face as he shifted his weight, rolling her onto her back and lying next to her on his side. He gently ran his right hand over her, tracing her body with his fingertips as he did so. Anticipation seemed to stir in her as he leaned in to kiss her lips. He gently stroked the unbroken smoothness of her naked body beneath the sheets as he pressed her mouth and teased her tongue with his.

Once he felt her temperature rising and her eyes were dilated and misty once more, he gently ran his fingers over her groin, trailing through her curls and stroking her between her thighs. She moaned softly into his mouth. He stroked her again and felt a little slickness coming from between her lips. He turned his hand so the width of his palm coaxed her into spreading her thighs apart a little more. Then he gently slipped his middle finger in between her labia and over her entrance, letting the silky wetness lubricate his skin for a moment. He pulled his mouth away from hers and looked into her face. Then, slowly and carefully he slid his finger inside her, watching her eyes widen with mingled surprise and curious enjoyment as he did so.

“This is what I mean by inside.” He said low and soft. She was so warm and wet around his middle finger. He was very hard already, but as he pulled it out to her entrance and slid it back into her again, she whimpered with pleasure and he felt his groin twitch as his heartbeat began to pound in his red-hot ears. He moved his hand again, this time bringing his thumb up and stroking her apex. She gasped and her breathing quickened. “And this is one of the other ways I was talking about…” He breathed. She squirmed and trembled for a moment as he watched her face intently through the haze of his desire. Then he felt her hand wrap around his wrist, staying him from continuing to pleasure her.

“Bado, wait…” She opened her eyes a little and looked up at him from where she lay, panting somewhat helplessly in the throes of her own enjoyment of his touch. He froze, looking at her with slight concern and holding his breath for a beat. “I wanted to do it for you, this time…” she breathed after a moment. Her words, though softly whispered through a fog of sexual pleasure, hit him with startling force and he looked briefly surprised at her insistence.

“Frey, I’m just fine… and it seems like we need to get you up to speed a little more, first…” He whispered.

“But… it’s not fair…” She said in a small voice. “I want to see you climax too!” She had propped herself up on one elbow with her free arm and was looking into his eyes evenly again. She bent her eyebrows and her lip pouted slightly. The sight combined with her words melted him utterly. His desire for her couldn’t withstand her persistence, no matter what well-laid plans he had to slowly introduce her to all he knew of pleasuring her first. He stared into her eyes as he wavered, and then gave in.

“Alright… you win.” He said at last “How am I supposed to argue with that anyway?” Her face brightened and she sat up as he removed his hand from between her thighs and rolled onto his back, leaning on the headboard. “Let me show you how, though…” He reached out an arm and invited her to snuggle up to his side as he pushed the sheets down past his lap, uncovering a hard bulge between his thighs beneath the soft cotton of his shorts.

“Should I use my mouth on you this time?” She asked eagerly. This too was a blow and his breath caught in his throat as another wave of lust coursed through him at her words.

“I think we better stick with hands for this first one.” He said somewhat hoarsely after a moment. She looked slightly questioning at him, but it vanished in a moment as she curled up next to him, leaning into him with her body and dragging her fingers lightly over his muscular abdomen. He breathed in and out slowly as he convinced himself this was really happening. Trying to balance between gently and patiently teaching her and indulging in his own sexual pleasure, he silently gave himself permission to stop worrying and enjoy himself as he granted her request.

Her fingers wandered downward and then pulled a trembling inhalation from him as she trailed them lightly over his erection through his clothing. He pushed his heels down on the mattress and hoisted his pelvis up long enough for one of each of their hands to pull his shorts down off of him. Just as his hardened member stood up from him after the fabric drew away from it she gasped and looked a little startled. He held his breath once more.

This is supposed to fit inside me?!” She asked, a bit flabbergasted. He was very large in all parts of him; his height, hands, feet, and this too… and he couldn’t help a breathless laugh at her remark. She looked up into his face with disbelief.

“Don’t worry about it… It’ll fit. You’ll see.” He smiled softly at her through the haze of his arousal.

“I’ll have to take your word on that for now, I guess.” She replied and then looked down at his groin, somewhat at a loss. “What do I do with it, though?” He smiled again. She was so unbelievably cute…

“Here…” He breathed, reaching over himself and taking her fingers lightly in his hand. “Follow my lead… I’ll show you what to do.” Her hand followed his obligingly and he slowly brought her fingertips down to his hot, hard sex. She timidly let her fingers touch it but drew away suddenly as he tensed and inhaled sharply. She looked worriedly into his face but he was dizzy with desire, not hurt or apprehension. He reassured her immediately.

“It’s okay… it’s just very, very intense… in a good way.” He added as she relaxed and moved her hand over his heat, pausing again. He reached up and touched her hand again, guiding her fingertips down his shaft lightly, then back up to the head where a shining bead of clear, slippery liquid was perched on the tip. He rolled her fingers over it with his and drew a shuddering breath as he slowly helped her rub it over as much of his length as possible and then closed her fingers around him with his hand over hers. He sighed and closed his eyes, unable to keep focused on anything they might see at present. He could feel her watching his face just the same, and slowly he guided her hand up and down, moaning softly as he helped her stroke him. She began to understand the idea and squeezed him in her grip softly between long slow strokes. Each time he would gasp or moan as the delicious sensation overthrew his mind. She seemed to grow more excited as she watched him build toward his climax. He led her hand faster, working up the rhythm and tempo, breathing heavily. Assuring himself that this was the right way to go about this at present and once again coaxing himself to let go and enjoy the ride.

“Aahh…” he began to moan softly as he stretched his leg and toes out a little and tilted his head back. Her hand was like a firebrand of pleasure on him. He was panting now, between low, deep rumblings of desire in his broad chest, getting closer. He tensed his back repeatedly.

“Oh, Frey— l…” He breathed, then clenched his teeth and inhaled with a hiss as he lost track of which way was up. She was energetically stroking him, matching the pace he guided her to with his own hand and leaning into him as she studied his face while he unraveled rapidly. “Aaah!” He moaned again. All that was left of the world was the distant sound of his own voice and Frey pressed against him, her hand gripping him hard as she pushed him over the edge.

“Ah! Aaaah! Nggg—aAH!” His own climax struck him like thunder as he came, quickly moving his hand up and hovering it over the head to keep his ejaculation somewhat contained while she still gripped his shaft. He stretched his legs, shutting his eyes tight and holding his breath while the sensation reverberated through him, intense almost to the point of being overwhelming. But it felt magnificent… with her touch on him he enjoyed a greater tide of pleasure than he’d ever known before. He let out his breath all at once as it began to subside, both their fingers slippery with his cum which had run back down over her hand after he had covered it with his. She drew her hand up and looked at it curiously, moving her fingers over one another and studying the slightly elastic slipperiness of the fluid with wide eyes. “Here.” He breathed, smiling and pulled a corner of sheet up to wipe her hand off. Then, being quite spent for the moment, he leaned into the headboard behind him all at once and panted breathlessly, letting his head tilt back limply.

“I guess I see what you mean by messy, now.” She smirked after a moment, curling up next to him again. “But it looked like fun, too.” He laughed between panting for breath again. “Did you enjoy it?” She asked in that tiny voice again.

“Oh, Frey,” He rolled onto his side and put his arm around her, tugging her closer and showering her face and head with kisses while she giggled and squirmed. “You are amazing and you make me feel such incredible things… That was as enjoyable for my body as licking you until you come is to my mind… It’s impossible to decide which is more fun, my pet.” She smiled and snuggled into his chest.

“I’m glad.” She purred.

“I love you so, Frey. And I’m very happy to be the one to explore these things with you.”

“I love you too. Thanks for showing me.”

“You’re welcome, love.” He kissed her hair again. “And you know… with a little more practice we’ll be able to do a bit more each time and we’ll both climax, no need to pick whose turn it is…” He said softly, stroking her back slowly again as he enjoyed her warmth next to him.

“Yeah?” She breathed, sounding sleepy again.

“Yeah.” He replied as they both dozed happily in the early sunlight creeping in through the small windows near the ceiling. This heavenly frontier had a lot of untouched territory to it yet.

Chapter Text

“Well now, you’ve had a very agreeable visit, haven’t you?” Venti rumbled teasingly as Frey walked into the Great Dragon Hall a few hours later. Frey had of course, felt that she had been aglow all morning as a holdover from her exploits with her lover the night before and earlier that day but, as always, the fact that her mood was plain for all to see had not occurred to her. However, being so extremely pleased with her first intimate relationship that she could remember she was inclined to revel by sharing a little of it with the few who were already privileged with the information.

Frey turned up with a very exaggerated look of mock-innocence, laying a hand on her chest with her little finger extended as if to say ‘whomever could you mean? Not me, surely.” Venti snorted, inciting a laugh from the princess, whose spirits were as high as she could remember them being, and that was quite a measure of joyfulness since she was in fact one of the most lighthearted people anyone in Selphia could remember knowing. After her laughter subsided, Frey sighed happily and leaned against the dragon’s side, pulling some of her very long crest feathers about her like a shawl.

“Oh Venti, If you had only told me sooner that having a lover was so nice I would have run out and got one right away!” She looked off into space with a dreamy expression, toying with a tip of one of the long, flexible plumes. Venti chuckled.

“Alas, not all love affairs are as agreeable as the one you’ve had the good fortune to find.”

“No?” Frey said, half curious, half absent-minded.

“No. I’m afraid humans—and dwarves, elves and other types of mortals for that matter—are not much in control of who they ‘fall in love’ with and sometimes it’s a very poor matchup.”

“Well if that’s the case, then why call it love?”

“’Love’ is a very confounding word with a great many meanings, little whelp.” Venti replied enigmatically. “One of its meanings is rather better described as ‘infatuation’ and it is this that is often involved when a poor match, or a one-sided affair occurs. I would not know first-hand, of course, but unrequited love is apparently one of the most bitter things in all the world to experience.”


“I suppose I can certainly believe that…” Frey replied, but still only invested about half her attention as she did.

“Well, in any case, I’m quite glad that you both are enjoying such a favorable relationship so far.” Venti concluded, dropping the subject of unpleasant or misguided love affairs. Frey sighed again. Then the dragon stooped her neck and brought her great head before Frey's face, looking somewhat serious as she spoke this time. “But, since you seem to be eagerly exploring physical intimacy with your dwarf lover as of late, there is a matter that I need to discuss with you.”

“Venti!” Frey gasped, a little shocked. “How—“

“You are all over with each other’s scents whenever you return after a nighttime rendezvous.” Venti huffed, as though she grew impatient with Frey's naivety. “You should be sure to bathe before you encounter Dylas, Amber, or Kiel, though. Half-monsters and family members will smell him on you right away, you know.”

“Yeah… I do, actually.” Frey laughed, a little embarrassed.

“But anyway, to get right to the point: I think you ought to take precautions before you go much further.” Frey looked into her black, glossy eyes blankly. Ventuswill’s subtle expressions were difficult to read, but by now Frey had seen enough of them to know she was showing a slightly exasperated attitude towards her ignorance.

“Sorry Venti, but as I’ve been finding out all too well over the past twenty four hours I am really behind on this subject. It’s embarrassing to have to ask your lover all the basics about lovemaking because you don’t know a single thing about it yourself…”

“I expect it is.” Venti answered flatly. “But this deals rather with the consequences of lovemaking. I can’t give any specific advice on sex between mortals, as you should have guessed by now.” Frey snickered, covering her mouth. “I’m talking about pregnancy, Frey. It’s too early, even at the pace you two are romping at, to be having offspring.” Frey  blushed crimson and became very flustered.

“We aren’t trying to—“ She began shrilly.

“I know.” Venti’s deep voice interrupted. “But trying or no, it will happen if you let instinct pull you together after all.” Frey flushed and looked this way and that uncomfortably as she imagined the activity that Bado had told her could result in pregnancy. “You need to take a contraceptive.” Venti explained rather like an order.

“A contr—what?”

“Contraceptive. It’s something that will prevent pregnancy by controlling your fertility in some fashion.”

“Oh.” Frey said in a small voice.

“Go to the clinic and talk to Jones or Nancy about it. I believe they can sell you a tea made from Emery flowers and Eli leaves that will do the trick. Do this straight away before you find you have let him inside you already in your eagerness.”

“Venti!!” Frey said, aghast at her candor. The dragon laughed a slightly wicked laugh at Frey's mouth hanging open in shock. “You are a dirty dragon!” She gasped.

“I beg your pardon!” Venti said in mock-indignance. “You are most presumptuous to speak to a divine dragon so disgracefully.” She flipped her tail for emphasis as she haughtily looked down her snout at the princess, gesturing dramatically in her role. Frey laughed aloud and soon the dragon joined her, dropping the act.

“Alright alright.” Frey said after she caught her breath. “I’m going, I’m going. First to the bath, then to the clinic.”


“Good girl.” Venti answered, nudging her back with her nose to hurry her along.

Chapter Text

Frey looked at her feet and fidgeted as she sat on the edge of one of the clinic beds opposite the pale, spectacled figure of Dr. Jones while an uncomfortable silence grew in length between them.

“Frey, did you hear me?” He asked. “I said, ‘what brings you in today?’” She gulped, looking somewhat lost as she blinked rapidly at him in her shyness. She had really hoped it would be Nancy she would be explaining her need to. “Are you Ill?” Jones asked, looking bemused.

“N-no…” She mumbled. Then upon seeing his expression begin to look disconcerted, leaning towards impatient, took a deep breath and forced the words out in a clumsy tumbling of syllables: “Ineedacontraceptive.” She held her breath and braced for his reaction.

“What?” Dr. Jones breathed, clearly staggered by the sudden request. Then he quickly composed himself, cleared his throat, and looked rather piercingly at her “Frey, have you been having unprotected sex?” She wilted under his stern gaze and hurriedly tried to explain herself now that she had jumped into this conversation with both feet.

“Yes. Wait—no! I mean, um, I—or rather we…uh, n-not the kind that would make me pregnant, anyway!” She shook her head vigorously. She was not now nor had ever been the type to lie when asked directly about something. It had been hard enough for her with her personality to hide her relationship altogether. She cringed as Dr. Jones furrowed his brow at her.

“Well, it sounds as if you’ve been rather reckless lately.” He began to scold her.

“No, no! He’s made sure not to do anything that could make me pregnant! He explained it to me very clearly, see—“

“Who is this ‘he’?” Dr. Jones interrupted her, face set like stone in an expression that would have looked like a glare if it were not for the clear concern that was inscribed in it. Frey closed her mouth tight with a small squeak. He frowned more pronouncedly. It was normally his nature to be soft spoken, even meek. But now some protective instinct combined with a righteous disdain for the situation he was imagining her to be in changed his air to that of seething disapproval and anger. “Miss Frey, I must express my concern that you have been taken advantage of sexually by some careless young rogue due to your lack of experience or education on the subject.” He could not have been more wrong on multiple points within the statement, all except the part about her being inexperienced, she thought dryly even as she leaned back and quailed slightly under his stern gaze. “I ask again, miss Frey, who has been pushing you into sex?” At this, her temper broke through the surface of her embarrassment and she sat up straight and returned the stern expression with a determined flash of her eyes.

“No one! I’ve chosen my lover and gone to bed with him all of my own accord!” Her sudden bold declaration had shaken the doctor’s serious countenance, and he now blinked in surprise and stared silently at her as her words broke over him. She took advantage of the momentum. “I’m a grown woman and I can make my own decisions! If I want to have sex with a man then I will do so. All I need from you is the means to prevent pregnancy, not your approval of my choice of activities or partner!” He began to stammer a retort, but just then Nancy appeared behind him as though she were a spirit or a genie that had just been summoned. She gripped his shoulder rather firmly, making him jump and abandon whatever he was about to say.

Darling,” She said rather pointedly “why don’t you go mix up some para-gone for our stock?” It was an order, not a request. He fumbled a little over a response, but after a sharp glance from her excused himself wordlessly and disappeared through the privacy curtain that was hanging around the bed area. Nancy sat down on the stool, taking her husband’s place with very straight posture, and looked steadily into Frey's eyes. The defiance of a moment ago hadn’t left them, but she did feel rather confused and surprised and supposed she must look it as well.

“Now then,” Nancy said, clearing her throat. “I will be glad to assist you if you’ll please explain your situation, princess.” Frey hesitated. What did she mean by ‘explain her situation’? How much did she expect her to reveal?

“I want to have sex with my partner without getting pregnant.” Frey said slowly, eyeing the nurse a little suspiciously as she gave no more specific information than she had to.

“I see.” Nancy said, her expression quite unreadable. “Have you had sexual intercourse before?” Frey paused… considering the question.

“Oral sex… and hands…” She said quietly after a spell, still looking into her eyes while her hands gripped the chair she was sitting on.

“But you have not had a man’s penis inside your vagina?” Nancy asked levelly. Frey flinched. How could she ask a question like that so calmly, anyway? She shook her head.

“Alright.” Said Nancy, looking satisfied at her answer. “I would be happy to provide you with some Emorelli tea, which is the most convenient and agreeable contraceptive we carry, but first I would like to talk to you a little about sexual intercourse to be sure you are properly informed on the subject before I give you the prescription.” Frey swallowed and looked around a little nervously, but did not make a move to go or speak a word of refusal. Nancy took this as permission to begin.

“What do you know about sex?” She began.

“Not very much…” Frey admitted vaguely.

“And do you know what meaning sex has for you?” She continued calmly. Frey thought about it briefly, tilting her head slightly and looking off to the side at the wall.

“It’s something you do with your partner to celebrate your love and enjoy each other?” She said after a moment.

“Ah, so you are in love, then?” Nancy asked with a voice like a feather. Frey blushed and nodded, glancing away again. “How wonderful.” she said, surprisingly genuine given the tone of this very uncomfortable conversation. “It is very enjoyable, don’t you think? To be in love, that is?” She had transformed into a smiling sprite with a giddy chortle.

“Yes…” Frey said, watching the nurse’s face in amazement as she suddenly turned back to a serious, mature figure.

“But, Frey… Are you certain you would not rather wait until you marry?” Frey blushed and blinked rapidly.

“M-marry him?” She was rather taken aback. The thought, and all the complications still implied by their secrecy and the reason for said secrecy tumbled down over her head for the first time. She hadn’t considered marriage at all in the first place, not with Bado, not with anyone. Nancy laughed a dainty laugh with a hand over her mouth.

“No, honey, not necessarily him specifically, just whoever you end up marrying? Wouldn’t you like to save your virginity for your wedding night?” Frey raised her eyebrows.

“Why?” It was an honest query. Frey wasn’t aware of any reason why sex should be reserved for some distant, unknown night over a sooner one when a very attractive and very willing dwarf with warm hands and a talented tongue was ready to accommodate her interest now.

“Well, some women think of it as a special gift for their husband that they reserve until they are married.” Nancy explained patiently. Frey bent her eyebrows and looked thoughtful but vexed.

“But why should the first time be more valuable, and why is it a gift for him? Do men save their virginity for their wives?” Once again, it was an honest if somewhat unromantic question.

“Well, no, they don’t usually…” Nancy said, a little reticent. “But a man will generally prefer a bride who is pure still, you know. Don’t you want to get married someday?” The leading questions were starting to irritate the princess a little.

“I suppose, but it just seems weird to me to put so much importance on a woman’s virginity when it seems like no one much bothers about a man’s when it comes to marriage.” Nancy looked as though she might argue, but then paused and looked thoughtfully into Frey's eyes and seemed to let go of something, smiling slightly.

“I guess it is a little strange…” She conceded. Then a silence sprawled between them. Presently Frey made up her mind and quickly put it into concise wording before she spoke quite confidently to the nurse.

“I want to make love with him now. I know it will be special and fulfilling because I love him… and he loves me too. I don’t see the sense in waiting so long or refraining for some abstract reasoning that pretends that my virginity is some kind of trophy. It seems to me that enjoying one another mutually is more meaningful than holding back until I marry while we both starve for intimacy but he isn’t expected to be chaste like I would be.” Her voice became stronger as she heard the justice of her own argument.

“My, my.” Said Nancy looking sly but also a little impressed. “He is a lucky man indeed to have earned the devotion of such a bold and independent young woman. May I ask who this gentleman is that you are grown so fond of?”

“No, you may not.” Frey answered, putting on a front of confidence as she refused her. Nancy’s eyes glittered a little and a clever smile slid onto her face.

“How interesting, that you should wish to hide his identity.” She said in a tone just a bit too cunning not to seem dangerous. Frey swallowed, feeling a hot flush in her cheeks and her heart in her throat. “Now why, when you are so sure of your love for one another, would you want to keep it a secret?”

“It’s just not the whole town’s business who I date, that’s all…” Frey bluffed. Nancy’s sly smile did not fade, and her eyes flashed more fiercely.

“And you say he loves you too?” She ignored Frey's explanation. “Enough, say, to do something rather out of character?”  Frey's eyes widened. She did not like where this was going. She said nothing, her mouth shut as she stared, transfixed at Nancy’s face. “Aah...” Nancy said softly, leaning back and donning a triumphant look. “So this is the answer to that riddle from a little while ago… I did think it rather odd that he would suddenly work so furiously, even until exhaustion, and I was rather curious to know what could have come over him, but he would not tell me anything about it…” Frey was frozen like a rabbit in a trap, eyes wide with terror as she stared silently into Nancy’s look full of sudden comprehension. “You must have given him quite a fright! Are you as bold with him as everything else, Princess?” Nancy had taken Frey's paralysis as confirmation of her theory and one thought falling into place after another could be detected in her sharp, clear eyes as she remembered all the little details of a fortnight’s worth of suspicious coincidences. “And he has been in such good spirits recently…” She was talking as if to herself, now. “I suppose you are to blame for that as well.” Then her gaze focused again on Frey, rather than an unseen distance as she pondered. “And now you are both in a pickle, aren’t you? He’s half again your age and then some, after all. No wonder you’re hiding. Oh, princess! For all your disdain for romantic notions of virginity you are a scandalous young lady after all, aren’t you?” Frey's mind reeled in panic. Nancy had pieced it all together so quickly and now she couldn’t think of a single way to deny her conclusions believably. She trembled and cringed, looking even more like a little rabbit in the jaws of a wolf by the moment.

Just then, as she beheld Frey's tormented state of mind, Nancy’s face softened and she took on an expression of utmost understanding and compassion, saying: “Don’t worry, darling. Of all people in this small town, I know better than most the wiles of love and I don’t disdain your relationship with him, not for his age, race, or any other reason. If you love him and he loves you, there is no need for explanations, or justifications, after all.

“Y-you mean you’re n-not…” Frey stuttered after this latest shock.

“Not what? Angry? Disapproving? Inclined to reveal you two? …No. I am, after all, very guilty of letting love drive all my decisions in life. It would be rather hypocritical of me to judge you harshly for it, even if your choice of partner is a bit… unorthodox.” She finished with a flourish and grinned.

“You don’t think I’m being taken in?” Frey asked suspiciously, having seen that reaction from both Forte and Jones now. Nancy looked thoughtfully at her for a moment.

“No… You are certainly Naïve enough to be manipulated, perhaps… but he is quite a gentle lamb, after all, even though he’s so big and has a military record… and not at all the proactive type. I just can’t imagine that he would insist on anything over your preference or will… not sex, not the weather, nor anything else…” Frey stared at Nancy for a time. It was only now dawning on her how very astute an observer she must be to have gathered so much about someone she had no very close relationship to. And she was thinking carefully on the matter rather than jumping to conclusions based on superficial facts. A strong sense of respect hardened in Frey's mind. Nancy was far less frivolous and far more intelligent than she had given her credit for.

“In any case, love is love, yes?” Nancy seemed settled on her point of view and certain that there was no more need to argue the point. “Let me get you that tea.” She stood up, pulled the curtain aside, (Frey looked about the room and sighed with relief to see there was no one else in the clinic at present.) and walked over to one of the cupboards, opening it and gracefully plucking from it a paper pack of tea tied with a severely rouge ribbon. She came back over and set it in Frey's hands with a smile. “No charge, this time.” She chirped. “Think of it as a ‘congratulations on finding love’ gift.” She winked at the princess.

Frey felt relief and gratitude welling up in her. She smiled broadly at the nurse and nodded.

“Thank you!” She said earnestly.

“You’re welcome, Darling. Now, the instructions are on the package but let me just explain briefly: Drink a strong cup once every other day for as long as you are sexually active and do not wish to become pregnant. If you miss a dose, you’ll be at risk so be very diligent about it, alright?” Frey nodded vigorously.  “Okay, then. Take care, Miss Frey and give my regards to your lover.” She giggled again and put a hand up over her mouth.

“Nancy, what are you thinking?” Jones was incredulous as he entered the room and overheard Nancy’s words. She turned to him and stood up tall, exuding a very intense energy as she spoke to her husband.

“Darling, I have discussed with Miss Frey at length the nature of her relationship and I understand her situation now. There is no cause for concern and I deem it both appropriate and wise to give her what she came for.” She was so resolute and so suddenly noble, like an aristocrat of some kind, that Jones faltered and seemed to grow smaller as he looked at her. Then he mumbled something that sounded like ‘if you’re sure…’ and cast an uncertain glance at Frey. Nancy admonished him with a lowered brow for a moment, and then he winced and turned to address the princess once more.

“Each package is enough for about a month. You’ll need to come back regularly to fill the prescription. We’ll be sure to keep it in stock for you.” He looked uncomfortable but Frey was greatly pleased at his sudden compliance. Nancy was a powerful lady indeed, despite typically giving the impression of a romanticizing, silly schoolgirl.

Frey stood up, bowed, thanked them both, and walked out of the clinic carrying the package with a satisfied air. She was suddenly possessed of a new and excited anticipation of informing her lover of this newest development, and what they could look forward to thanks to it.

Chapter Text

“Hmm…” Frey frowned at the red ribbon tied package on her bed. She had shoved it in her nightstand, tucked it under the mattress, stuffed it in her sock drawer, and even hidden it inside the ear of a gigantic plush silver wolf that sat by the foot of her bed, but each time she tried a hiding place for it she imagined a probable circumstance under which Volcannon might accidentally discover it. That would not do at all…

“Princess?” A delicate voice said behind her.

“Oh hi, Vishnal.” She picked up the tea and put it in one of her pockets before turning to smile pleasantly at the butler.

“I must inform you, Meg was looking for you earlier while you were out.”

“Oh, she was? I better go find out what she needs.” Frey said, and headed for the door, the tea still in her pocket

“Um, princess?” Vishnal called nervously just before she left the room. Frey paused and turned.

“Yes?”

“Your lover… why is it you wish to hide his identity? You seem very happy to be with him, so I don’t understand all the secrecy…” He fidgeted as though the question made him uneasy, but it was a superficial show of reservation. Upon closer inspection, he could be observed to be intent on posing the query, apparently quite confident in his reasoning. Frey sighed. The question was kind of out of the blue at this particular moment. Vishnal must have been thinking about it on his own.

“I just don’t know how to handle it quite yet. It seems like even people finding out about me having a relationship at all makes all kinds of things happen, some silly and harmless and some downright nerve wracking.” She furrowed her brow as she considered how much to reveal, how much to imply, and how much to leave completely obscured still. “I guess I’m just scared of what people will think… or how they’ll respond… or something like that.” She trailed off a little at the end and looked down at her feet.

“Why do you think people will respond badly?” He asked. She looked at him for a little while, considering her words carefully.

“I don’t want to keep the secret forever… really. I just haven’t figured out how to break it yet.” Even as she said it, inwardly she thought ‘with the rate people are figuring it out around here, I’m not gonna have much choice anyway if we don’t come up with something soon.’

“But having a boyfriend isn’t really a big deal. I’m sure—“

“Vish, please… Just… be patient, okay?” She tried to sound as gentle as possible despite her frustration.

“I’m sorry…” Vishnal looked downcast.

“You aren’t wrong… but there’s more to it than you know. I just have to come to it on my own. I appreciate your trying to help, though… really.” She smiled reassuringly. He seemed to cheer up a little. “In any case, I better go find Meg now. She left through the front door and fretted a little once she was out of sight of the butler. The burden of secrecy was beginning to wear on her and everyone she knew. How could they convince everyone to accept their relationship without any turmoil? Then again, even after the fight with Forte, everyone who knew so far had been willing to see it as an acceptable or even a good thing. Maybe Vishnal was more correct than she had given credit for?

Frey stopped and looked up, she had walked all the way to Margaret’s house without really noticing time or distance passing. Now she reached out to knock on the door, but it swung open and Meg came out of the house, almost running into Frey's outstretched hand.

“Oh!” They both exclaimed at once, then laughed.

“Hi, Meg. Said Frey cheerfully. “Vishnal said you were looking for me?”

“Yes! I’m glad you came to find me. I want to invite you to a sleepover at my house this evening! All the girls will be there. It will be so much fun! Please say you’ll come?” She was bouncing on her toes in her excitement.

“Of course I’ll come!” Frey said. Meg’s enthusiasm was quite infectious.

“Yay! She squealed. Oh and be sure to wear your pajamas! It really adds to the atmosphere.” She giggled.

“Sure thing.” Frey nodded.

“Okay then! I’ll see you tonight around seven? Just come on over, I’ll leave the door unlocked. Oh but I gotta go help out at Porcoline’s place until then. Have a good afternoon!”

Frey waved as Meg trotted down the street. ‘What should I do until then?’ she wondered. As usual, one idea rushed to the top of her consciousness. She started off toward the Meanderer. They day was warm and breezy, a perfectly enjoyable spring afternoon. All was relaxation and pleasance in Selphia. The cheerful ring of the shop bell announced her entrance even before she called out “Hi!” She stopped suddenly. Nancy was standing by the counter, talking to a fairly uneasy looking Bado. A tiny rush of surprise quickly subsided as Frey remembered her conversation with the Nurse. Then she felt a little sorry for Bado, not knowing what had transpired and probably worrying quite a lot at this moment.

“Oh, hello Frey.” Said Nancy, turning and smiling at her.

“Hi Nancy.” Frey smiled back, trying to give a disarming look to Bado, who still leaned away from the nurse nervously. “Doing some afternoon shopping? You’re not letting him upsell you on anything, are you?” She teased.

“Just stopping by for a quick checkup to make sure he isn’t overdoing it. Even if that was never an issue before a couple weeks ago, now I feel like someone should keep an eye on him just in case.” She winked at Frey.

“I’ll be sure to do my part to scold him if he misbehaves.” Frey grinned. Bado’s eyebrows lifted and he looked from one woman to another in slight surprise. It was a comical expression. Both of them laughed  as they looked on his face, then he blushed a little and suddenly became very focused on organizing some merchandise on a nearby shelf.

“But I had better get over to the grocery store to buy ingredients for tonight’s dinner. I just know Jones will love every bite!” She laughed a tinkling laugh again and then headed for the door. “Have a lovely afternoon, both of you.” She called as she left the shop.

“What was all that about?” Bado turned to Frey after Nancy had gone. “Did you tell her?” He looked a little put out.

“Not exactly. She figured it out on her own when I asked for this!” She pulled the package of tea out and held it up in front of him. His eyes crossed slightly as he read the label just in front of his nose. A rush of crimson took over his face and he looked a bit shocked at her. “Don’t worry, though. She’s pretty cool and says she won’t tell. ‘Love is love, after all’ she said.” Frey explained. Bado was blinking at her, apparently still stunned.

“Sheesh, you move pretty quick, doncha?” His voice quailed slightly. The point of his left ear twitched. Frey snickered and scrunched her nose in an affectionate way.

“Don’t pretend you aren’t excited.” She prodded his side with a finger. He flinched away, smiling.

“Well, yeah that goes without saying… but I didn’t think you’d run off and get this the same day I explained how to, uh… well y-you know what I mean.” He looked embarrassed as he quickly stammered out the last few words. She giggled with a hand over her mouth.

“There’s no hurry.” She said, patting his hand. “This just means we’ll be prepared.” She tossed the package in her hand.

“How’d you know to go find that, anyway? I don’t remember telling you about it.”

“Venti suggested it.” He looked even more stunned.

“V-ventuswill did?!”

“Yeah. She said I had your smell all over me so she could tell we’d been up to something.” Frey smirked and raised an eyebrow at him.

“Jeeze.” This one word plus a little nervous chuckle was all he could seem to muster.

“Don’t worry, you are off the hook tonight.” She winked at him. “I have a slumber party to go to.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, Meg just invited me. It sounds pretty fun. I’m excited.” She grinned up at him. He chuckled softly in his deep voice and returned her smile affectionately.

“I’m sure you’ll have a blast.”

“Oh what did Nancy say to you, anyway?” Frey asked, having just remembered her curiosity.

“Nothing terribly direct. She mostly just hinted and looked way too excited to talk to me. It was pretty strange.” He explained. Frey giggled.

“I expect she is thrilled to know there is another love struck couple in town now. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.”

“I just hope she doesn’t tip anyone else off with all her fussing.” He sounded doubtful. Frey shrugged, then looked a little more serious.

“Actually, I don’t know how much longer we can keep this a secret. Nancy guessed at it based on the fact that I wouldn’t tell her who I was wanting to have sex with (Bado jumped slightly at this very direct statement) plus the fact that she has noticed you’ve been in a real good mood lately. Oh and she found that day you worked yourself into the ground pretty suspicious too.”

“Ah…” Bado swallowed a little nervously. Things were developing rather more quickly than he expected, it seemed. Frey looked with concern at his eyes as he fidgeted a bit.

“Are you okay?”

“Y-yeah… I’m fine. Just fine. Really. I—“ She laid a hand softly on his forearm and smiled sympathetically.

“I hope it goes without saying that I wouldn’t want you to do anything you don’t want to or don’t feel ready for. I’m plenty happy just being with you, regardless of how we pass the time.” He looked both surprised and relieved, but sense of wonder also glinted in his steel blue eyes.

“That’s something I was expecting to say to you. You’ve gone and lapped me already.”

“I mean it.” She insisted with a little laugh. “N-not that I don’t love all this new stuff, too.” She blushed deeply, fidgeting with the tea in her hands. A lopsided grin spread on his face.

“That’s more like it. I can’t be the only one a little blown away by this pace.” He laughed again.

“Are we going too fast?” She asked nervously.

“It’s pretty fast, to be sure. But ‘too fast’ depends on what we want. I’ve been real pleased with the pace so far, but maybe that’s because I’ve kinda been driving…” He ruffled his own hair and looked shyly at her. “I’ve never been with someone so… I mean, uh, s-someone who’s gotten ahead of me like this.” She stared at him as he became increasingly flustered.

“Should I back up a bit?” She asked, getting a little shy herself.

“N-no, I didn’t say—or I didn’t mean to say that… I—er it’s just uh, it’s new territory for me too, in a way...”

“But you’ve done this stuff before, right?”

“W-well yeah… I have, but that’s not really what I mean.” He pulled at his short beard anxiously as he spoke.

“Do you prefer to ‘drive’?”

“I mean, well, that’s more familiar to me I suppose. B-but I don’t mean that you shouldn’t feel comfortable taking the lead some of the time either, it’s just…” He looked a little lost and a lot apprehensive. “Maybe for a little while you could let me s-show you some more stuff before you take the reins?” She stared at him a moment, considering his words. He looked like he might be holding his breath, his brows inclined. Then a smile crept over her features.

“Alright… I’m in your hands, then.” She said softly, looking both affectionate and mischievous at him. He relaxed, letting his breath out and smiling slightly in return. She reached out and stroked the back of his hand with hers lightly. He glanced at the door briefly, then pulled her hand up and kissed it quickly, stroking her fingers with his thumb twice before letting them slip from his grasp. Frey smiled softly.

“I Better go get ready for the sleepover tonight…”

“Have fun…” He said quietly, looking a little wistfully at her. She hesitated. It was always difficult walking away when all she wanted to do was leap into his arms and squeeze him as tightly as she could.

She traced his body with her eyes, lingering on his broad shoulders, chest and thighs, then fluttered her eyelashes as she looked away sideways, blushing. A wide grin pulled on one side of his mouth more than the other.

“Don’t worry, princess. I won’t charge you for looking.” He teased.

Chapter Text

“Oh good, you’re here!” Meg squealed as she opened the door. Frey stepped into the house in her nightgown and was met with the excited fluttering and giggling of Clorica, Amber, Forte, Dolce, Xiao Pai, and Meg, all in their own pajamas. Meg grabbed Frey’s hand and pulled her over to where they were sitting in a circle on the floor with a bowl of popcorn in the middle. Pillows were scattered all about the place. Amber was tossing one up in the air repeatedly saying “Weeee!”.

“We were just starting a game of ‘truth or dare’, yes?” Xiao Pai said.

“You go next, Frey!” Said Amber excitedly.

“Okay! Now leeeeeets seeeeee…” Frey made a show of looking at each of them in turn with a devilish expression.  “…Clorica!” Her target, who had been nodding slightly, startled awake with wide eyes. “Truth or Dare?”

“Oh, uh… Dare?” Clorica yawned.

“I dare you to draw a moustache on your upper lip!” Frey pointed triumphantly her.

“Ooooh!” A chorus of voices taunted Clorica as she blushed and looked around at them.

“You gotta do it! That’s the rule!” Amber chirped.

“Here, we’ll use charcoal so it will come off easily later.” Meg snickered and fetched a charcoal pencil from her music stand.

“I can’t see it though…” Clorica protested slowly.

“Ooh! Let me! Let me!” Pico shouted enthusiastically, flying up through the floor in front of her. Forte and Meg grabbed hold of one another and Meg made a shrill yelp. Pico’s presence had made them less sensitive to apparitions in general, but their fear of ghosts hadn’t abated completely. Pico seized the pencil in her transparent hand and carefully sketched a curly black moustache on Clorica’s lip. Everyone laughed uproariously as Clorica crossed her eyes and pushed her lips out, trying to see it on her own face.. She didn’t seem particularly phased by it and subsequently yawned again while the other girls still rolled with mirth on the floor.

“Okay, now your turn, Clorica!” Meg said, wiping a tear from her eye as her laughter subsided.

“Oh, me?” She gestured to herself while the rest still snickered about the moustache on her face. “Okay then I guess I pick…. Meg!” Meg sat up straight, looking surprised but excited. “Truth or dare, Meg?”

“Truth!” Meg said defiantly. Another “Oooh.” travelled around the circle.

“Have you ever kissed a guy before?” Everyone looked with surprise at Clorica’s sleepy face.

“W-wow I didn’t expect to reach this point so soon!” Meg blushed and drew her hands up to her chest.

“Don’t chicken out now! You have to answer!” Amber insisted. She seemed to fancy herself the referee of the event.

“Well… Yeah, once.” She said quickly. “B-but it was just the once. I’ve never dated anyone.” All the ladies were watching her intently, suddenly enraptured by this information.

“Were you in love?” Forte piped up. Frey glanced a little surprised at her. Forte sometimes did seem curious about love, even if most days she wouldn’t touch the subject.

“N-no it was just a summer festival back in my homeland. It was a silly tradition thing… like mistletoe, you know?”

“Oh…” Clorica sounded disappointed.

“Drat!” Said Xiao Pai. “I was hoping we would hear a good story, it seems.

“Have any of you been in love?” Meg looked around the room at a circle of suddenly blushing faces. Frey felt a sudden suspense climbing up her spine. “Dolce? You are the oldest of us right? Did you have a lover before you became a guardian and went to sleep for so long?”

Dolce blinked, looking a little surprised, but otherwise her expression was as stony and unreadable as ever, save for a slight pink tinge creeping into her cheeks.

“No.” She said simply.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Pico fumed. “I wouldn’t let any fools come near my dolly!” Everyone ignored her outburst.

“No one here knows anything about love?” Meg asked.

“One of us has a notion…” Dolce said in a monotone voice and looked very hard at Frey from the corners of her eyes. Frey blinked and tensed, looking stunned. Everyone turned and gaped at her. Dolce lived with Jones and Nancy. Had she overheard her conversation with Nancy? How much did she know? Or had she guessed it some other way?

“I d-don’t know what you mean!” Frey stuttered.

“Yes you do!” Pico pointed at her. “You came to the clinic today to ask for Emorelli Tea!” The little ghost looked gloatingly at her as she shouted. Frey felt herself turning beet-red. She was trapped like a rat.

All the ladies gasped, jumped, or stared with wide eyes at her.

“Ooh ooh! Ask her next! Ask her next!” Amber jumped up and down.

“Okay!” Meg said excitedly. “Frey! Truth or Dare?”

“Dare!” Frey squeaked frantically.

“Awww!” Amber, Clorica, and Xiao Pai lamented at once. But Meg grinned slyly.

“I dare you to tell us all about everything you know about love and dating and stuff!” All of them, even Dolce leaned forward expectantly. Frey looked slightly desperately at Forte for some kind of help, but it was no use. Apparently her curiosity was stronger than any awkward feelings she may have about hearing details from Frey’s relationship.

“I, uh…”

“C’mon, princess! We’re counting on you! None of us know what love and dating is like so we need to experience it vicariously through you!” Insisted Meg.

“Yeah, what’s it like kissing Dylas?!” Pico was enjoying Frey’s embarrassment immensely, but at the mention of Dylas Frey’s lips suddenly became much more ready to articulate speech.

“It’s NOT DYLAS, Sheesh!” She shouted, then covered her mouth and blushed hotly.

“AH-Hah! So you DO have a boyfriend, Yes?!” Xiao Pai pointed at her.

“Ooh! She does! She does!” Amber cried.

“Well, obviously.” Sighed Dolce, “Why else would she want a contraceptive?” Frey gulped.

“Tell us! Tell us!” Amber chanted.

“Those are the rules.” Said Meg.

“Who is it, anyway? Doug? Arthur?” Clorica pried.

“I’m not telling!” Frey folded her arms in front of her.

“But you have to!” Pico protested.

“No I don’t! You dared me to tell you all I know about love and dating, not to say who it is I’m seeing.”

“Ah, clever move, princess.” Meg said, grinning. “We’ll get you on the next turn, though!”

“No you won’t! I’m not gonna play after this turn so you better listen carefully or take notes or something cause this is all your getting!” There was a mixture of laughter and ‘aw’s around the circle. Only Frey noticed Forte sigh with relief. They leaned in closer.

“Okay okay, spill it already!” Said Meg.

“Well…” Frey began. She wasn’t thrilled about being coerced into talking about this, but if she could keep them preoccupied and avoid guesses at who her boyfriend was, it would be worth it… hopefully. “This is my first relationship, that I can remember anyway, s-so I don’t know all that much…” They said nothing, watching her closely and waiting for more. “But… “ Suddenly the absurdity of the situation struck her and she found she was actually feeling a bit giddy. “It’s pretty much the best thing ever!” She laughed. “I’ve never had so much fun before from anything.”

Details, Princess!” Clorica implored. Frey blushed again.

“W-well… Kissing is pretty nice.” She mumbled awkwardly.

“Oh come on, Frey!” Said Meg, laughing, “I hardly think they would write so many novels and songs about something that was just ‘pretty nice’.” She rolled her eyes.

“Alright, then.” Frey felt her mischievous side take hold and she wielded her advantage of experience over them, suddenly wanting to get a reaction. “It’s like drinking fire and floating on a cloud all at once!” They all giggled excitedly at her sudden poeticism. “Kissing him makes the world fall away until all that is left is the feeling of his lips and his tongue.” She felt a warmth kindling in her stomach as she vividly remembered the sensation. “And snuggling in the arms of someone you love like that is the most happy a person can be, I think.” The girls looked mystified at her with eyes wide. Forte’s expression had something more, though… a sweet little smile with her eyes focused on something unseen in the distance. Overall, Frey thought, her expression belied her fondness for Bado and Frey and her gladness at their mutual affection.

“Hugs and kisses are fine and all…” Pico began loudly. “But that’s not what you came to get Emorelli for!” Her voice was taunting Frey musically. “Hurry up and start talking about the saucy stuff!” Forte sat up and Blushed almost as deeply red as Frey,  who was very determinedly not looking at her. This was going to get really awkard really fast if she started expounding on the sexual exploits of an honorary family member to Forte.

“Uh—”

“It’s getting a little warm in here…” Forte stood up in a hurry “I’m going to take a little walk outside where it’s cooler. Carry on without me…” She headed for the door.

“Oh, Forte are you sure?” Meg said, her voice growing weaker toward the end of the sentence. She plainly wanted to hear some saucy details too.

“Ooh, no stomach for sexy stuff eh?” Pico teased. But Forte had already stepped out. Dolce made a frustrated noise and waved a hand through her poltergeist, who squealed and flickered and retreated, flitting into the piano.

“Ignore her.” She said, then looked off to the side and back quickly. “But actually, do go on.” Then she blushed.

“Yeah, what can you tell us about… about lovemaking?” Meg whispered the last part. Frey couldn’t hold back a laugh.

“Well we haven’t done that yet. I only just got the emorelli today, ya know.”

The girls collectively drooped a little with disappointment. Frey laughed aloud again.

“But…” She began again. They all perked up and looked at her intently. “I can tell you about what we have done…” Clorica, Meg, Amber, and Xiao Pai nodded eagerly. Dolce simply concentrated on Frey’s face rather more interested than she had ever seen her. “Have any of you had an orgasm before?”

“None of us have had a boyfriend, remember?” Amber pouted at her.

“Well yeah, but you can give yourself an orgasm, or so I’m told. I was just introduced to the notion of an orgasm altogether recently since I lost my memory, see, so I have only had one he gave me.”

“What is it, anyway?” Clorica asked slowly, smudging her charcoal moustache a bit as she reached up to scratch her lip.

“It’s supposed to feel very, very good, yes?” Xiao Pai added.

“It is the main goal of lovemaking is it not?” Said Dolce.

“Yes, it feels incredible, and lovemaking seems to work up to it and then quiet down, but I would probably say that the main goal for me is enjoying being intimately close to him. Don’t get me wrong, I love the way he uses his hands and mouth, but I also really like watching him enjoy it when I touch him too.”

“Wait, what does he use his mouth for, other than kissing?” Clorica asked. They all turned from her back to Frey with intense curiosity. Frey felt herself turn even more scarlet, if that was possible.

“Oh, w-well, he said it’s called ‘oral sex’.” They all looked wide eyed at her but there was no comprehension evident in their stares. “I-it’s when you use your mouth to give your partner an orgasm.” She explained nervously. Had it been so embarrassing for him to explain all this to her? She wondered, but he only had to describe it all to one person that time…

“How?” Asked Dolce.

Um… w-when he did it for me, h-he mostly, um, licked me a lot… down there…” Meg clapped a hand over her mouth. The rest gaped open-mouthed at her except for Dolce, who merely looked quietly shocked with slightly widened eyes.

“He licked your pussy?!” Amber exclaimed shrilly. They all wrenched their necks in the sudden urge to turn to her with severely shocked faces.

“AMBER!” Meg squeaked.

“What?” Amber shrugged. “It’s more fun to say than ‘vagina’, anyway.” Frey laughed.

“You’re probably right about that.” She grinned. “But, yeah. He did. …And it was pretty much the most intense pleasure I could have even imagined, especially at the end.”

“Oh yeah, what is an orgasm like, exactly?” Meg asked.

“Hmmm” Frey scrunched her face as she concentrated on how to explain it. “It’s like… a cord pulling tighter and tighter, if the cord is how much pleasure and tension you are feeling…” They all made amusing faces as they tried to imagine what was meant by the metaphor. “Then, once the cord finally snaps, it feel so good like a wave of pleasure that courses through your whole body over and over for a little while. And after… you feel all warm and just overflowing with love…” Frey lost herself a little in the description and as she finished she sighed happily at the memory.

“Wooow” Clorica said slowly. They all stared at her. She laughed quietly as she looked at each of their faces in turn.

“So he’s a bit more experienced than you, I take it. …If he knows how to do that already…” Said Dolce.

“Haha! Yeah you could say that.” Frey conceded with a laugh.


“Have you done anything else?” Dolce asked after a moment.

“Well he showed me how to give him an orgasm with my hands. It was really fun to see him have one. I guess when you love someone it’s just as much fun to know they are feeling that kind of pleasure as having it yourself…”

“You touched his… his cock?” Amber looked amazed again, but not as much as they all were at this, the second time she had pulled out the naughtiest word for what Frey was talking about. She looked around. “What?! There is no pretty word for a penis!” She said, exasperated. They all laughed.

“Yeah, I did…” Frey chuckled, “a bunch, until he came. It was like he was totally unraveled from it, but in a good way. He was really enjoying it.” Frey smiled, pleased with herself as she recalled his deep voice moaning with pleasure. “Oh, but it’s a bit strange when a man has an orgasm…”

“Why?” Some combination of two or three of the girls said at once.

“Because some really slippery stuff comes out. It’s called ‘ejaculating’ or ‘coming’. He said that the ‘cum’ is what can get a woman pregnant during lovemaking.

“Weird!” Said Amber.

“Oh, you have to tell us about lovemaking once you’ve done it.” Meg said imploringly. Frey laughed again.

OR… You all could just get boyfriends and find out for yourselves?” She teased.

“Easy for you to say, princess.” Said Clorica with a comically indignant look.

“Aw, c’mon!” Be a little braver, ladies! If you’re so eager to know about this stuff, why don’t you just ask one of the guys out?

The rest of the evening consisted of all the girls saying in turn who they thought was handsome and why. Forte came back in during this part of the conversation once she was sure Frey was done explaining things concerning lovemaking. Frey was careful to give equal praise to all the young men they discussed so as not to give any clear sign who it might be (or might not be).

“But if you’re really not gonna tell us who it is, how do you expect us to feel okay with asking a guy out? What if we accidentally ask out this secret boyfriend of yours?” Asked Xiao Pai. Frey smiled mischievously and lowered an eyebrow. Forte smirked down at her feet.

“I wouldn’t worry about it…” Frey said cryptically. They weren’t very satisfied with her answer but she would give no more hints.

Eventually after they had wondered aloud why there didn’t seem to be any male elves in Selphia, commented on Doug’s gray eyes, compared Dylas and Leon’s fluffy ears and tails, praised Arthur’s manners, and giggled a little at Vishnal’s way of becoming flustered at the drop of a hat, they all agreed It was time to go to bed. All of them had been yawning or nodding a little during the last hour so it took almost no time before they all dropped off to sleep snuggled up in pillows and blankets on Meg’s floor.

Frey sighed happily amongst her friends and smiled as she drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

“You told them What?” Bado felt the color drain out of his face as he looked at Frey, aghast. Frey was looking back at him with almost equal surprise.

“What’s the matter? I didn’t tell them it was you.” She said. He ran his hands through his hair frantically, ruffling it to the point of being completely disheveled.

“Well sure, but what happens when they eventually find out it is me? They’re gonna remember that you told them I ate you out when that happens, ya know!” She looked perplexed.

“’Oral sex’, ‘pussy licking’, ‘ate me out’? How many names for it are there?” She tilted her head.

“Ahaha…” he gave a weak, frantic laugh and clapped the heels of his hands over his eyes, rubbing them hard.  “It’s also called ‘cunnilingus’ if you want to give them more ways to describe why they all rose up and murdered me!” He threw himself down onto his bed, still covering his face. Frey laughed somewhere in his room and after another moment, he felt her climb onto the bed and snuggle on top of him, resting her chin on his chest.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart, Forte and I won’t let any mean girls murder you.” She patted him reassuringly. He laughed silently in exasperation.

“Frey, you are really lousy at secrecy, ya know?” He looked up at her a bit helplessly. She raised an eyebrow in response.

“You know what happened when I refused to tell Nancy who I was dating? She figured it out right away based on the very fact that I wouldn’t tell her who it was! We were playing truth or dare! The only way I could get them off the trail as far as who I’m getting busy with was telling them what kinda things boyfriends and girlfriends do when they are alone together! They’re just curious. None of them have a boyfriend to try this stuff with. You are way too worried over this.” He let his head flop back onto the bed and sighed.

“You know what they are really going to remember once they know you’re the man I’ve been with this whole time?” She waited until he reluctantly looked questioningly into her eyes. “They’re gonna remember how I said I am having the time of my life with you, that I love you, and that you make me feel so good I don’t even know how to describe it properly!” She waved her hands about to emphasize her point as she spoke. “If they want to murder you for that, then I need to get new friends.” She finished sarcastically and dropped back down on to his chest. He somewhat begrudgingly relented to the affection and gratitude that was bubbling up in his chest from her words and let go of his fear and panic little by little. He smiled at her after a moment and drew his arms up around her.

“C’mere” He mumbled, and pulled her up to where he could snuggle her and nuzzle her face more easily. She snickered and squirmed playfully, but then cuddled close to him once more. He sighed again, letting the last of the worry fade from his mind. “I hope you know what you are doing, pet. My life is in your hands.”

“You’re safe with me.” She purred and rubbed her nose against his playfully. It was cold and the tips of her pigtails still had a little rain clinging to them from the gentle spring shower she had skittered through in the dark to sneak over to him once everyone in the castle had gone to bed. She was even shivering slightly, he noticed now that his mind was no longer occupied with fear and apprehension.

“Oh, Frey,” He said quietly with a little concern in his voice. “We need to warm you up.” He pulled the blankets up over her and ran his large palms over her chilled thighs and butt repeatedly.

“Well, you’re generally pretty good at that.” She said, just above a whisper.

“I figure if I’m gonna get taken down by a bunch of villagers for gettin’ frisky with the princess, I might as well earn it completely, eh?” He squeezed her rear in his hands and lifted his head off the pillow to kiss her. She leaned in and met him halfway, eagerly pressing his mouth with hers and tilting her head to keep their teeth from clicking together as she slipped her tongue into his mouth. She was getting good at this. Already, Bado felt himself getting warmer and more excited as she kissed him. He drew a hand up and slipped it just under her jawline and pulled her face a little closer. After a few more moments indulging in her lips, he felt her pull away slowly and he opened his eyes. Hers were fixed on his face and she looked thoughtful.

“Bado?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve been thinking… So far everyone who’s found out has been fine with us being together, even if their initial reaction wasn’t the best.” She added quickly at his raised eyebrows. “Would it really be so bad to come out in the open with this now?” He sighed quietly with concern in his face, but couldn’t think of what to say, so he remained silent. “Other than Forte, you haven’t been the one let anyone know, but Leon, Nancy, and Venti never even batted an eye, you know. Maybe you should try telling someone. Then you’ll see. Folks aren’t nearly as hung up about it as you might think.”

“You saw Volcannon almost punch me in the face, right?” He said doubtfully.

“Well I didn’t mean you should go tell him first!” She laughed. “But seriously. How about Doug? You two are both dwarves, so he’ll get the lifespan thing. He’s always hanging around here to talk to you anyway. You’re friends, right?”

“I guess so?” He never had been aware of anything he had in common with the redhead other than his race.

“Alright, then it’s settled!” She nodded assuredly.

“Hey, wait a sec, I never sai—”

“Nope! It’s decided. Royal orders, you know.” She looked exaggeratedly haughty as she said it but a smirk was teasing the corner of her mouth again. “Oh and also royal orders: you must kiss me some more now.” Bado smirked back at her.

“Should never have taken that vow to serve you demanding royals all those years ago…” He muttered.

“Too late now!” She said triumphantly and grabbed his face and kissed him repeatedly. He laughed in between her kisses and wrapped his arms around her once more. Then he rolled suddenly, toppling her sideways onto the bed. Now he was on top of her, nuzzling her neck until she squealed and squirmed as his beard tickled her.

“Who’s got the upper hand now?” He teased, and bit her ear gently. She made a shrill cry of protest playfully and wiggled beneath him.

“You know I’ll win if we start messing with ears, mister! You’re a terrible tactician! I’ll have you wrapped around my finger in no time!” She turned, reached up with both hands and stroked the blade of each of his ears with a fingertip. He hummed happily and blinked slowly at the sensation.

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. This seems like a win to me.” She laughed and sought his lips again. They cuddled and kissed for a long while. Tonight affection reigned over desire, perhaps because they both knew she could not stay until morning this time and would have to leave soon. Nevertheless, Bado was determined to enjoy her company to the fullest until the moment she had to slip away again. The truth was, he was eager to have their secret out in the open too. The sooner they got that over with the sooner he could treasure her without fear of discovery. No more anxious moments in between stolen midnight meetings. He wasn’t looking forward to actually telling Doug about his relationship, but a part of him really wanted to believe what she was saying, so he resolved to try it soon.

“Goodnight.” She whispered a little while later, reaching up around his neck and kissing him once more, slow and soft, before pulling her hood up and dashing out into the warm pattering spring rain.

Bado sighed happily alone near his front door. Maybe she was right, after all. Who could look at her so happy and shining with affection and not believe she loved him all of her own will?

He stepped back into his room and laid down again in the dark, savoring her scent still lingering on his pillow as he fell asleep.


Chapter Text

The very next day Bado found himself standing alone in the Meanderer just after lunchtime with Doug. Frey had just dropped in, pressed another homemade rice bowl lunch into his large hands, winked at him and turned to leave again. He stood awkwardly looking at the smaller dwarf, who gazed wistfully at the lunch as the princess called a farewell over her shoulder on her way out. Doug sighed once she had gone.

“I wish you’d tell me your secret.” Bado felt a jolt as Doug’s uncannily appropriate words hit his ears. “That looks sooo good…”

“Uh, listen…” Bado began, setting the bowl down. Doug’s eyes followed it. “About that…” He trailed off and looked away, rubbing the back of his neck nervously. Doug looked up at him curiously. “We, uh.. W-we’re friends right?” He fumbled for words.

“Yeeeah?” Doug answered suspiciously raising an eyebrow.

“Right… S-so I, uh… Well there’s… There’s s-somethin’ I gotta tell ya…” He fidgeted and held his breath.

“Kaaaaaayyy…..” Doug looked even more suspicious now.

“You, uh… You may have been right about… about there being s-something going on with Frey and me…” He struggled on, forcing the words out one syllable at a time.

“I knew it!” Doug started to shout, but Bado held up his hands and gestured for him to wait and listen. He settled down again and folded his arms in front of him, waiting for him to continue.

“She uh… Well see, the thing is… I, uh…”

“Dude! Spit it out already.” Doug said impatiently.

“She might be, uh… s-she’s…” His stomach knotted tightly and he took a quick breath and forced the rest of the sentence out. “She’smygirlfriend.” He said in a hurry, then held his breath and braced for Doug’s reaction.

“SHE’S WHAT?!” Doug’s mouth hung open.

“She’s my girlfriend.” He repeated. “We’re together. That’s why she keeps bringing me lunch.”

“Are you messing with me right now?!” Doug was completely flabbergasted.

“No! I mean it. We’re a couple! Have been for a little while now…”

“Your serious?” She’s… and you’re?” Doug stammered, then comprehension shifted into place in his eyes and he sank down into the plain wooden chair by the counter and covered his face with his hands.

“Uuuuuuughhh…” He groaned. “That’s so unfair! I’m so envious right now! Why couldn’t she have fallen for this dwarf?!” He pointed at himself with both hands. Bado laughed a little, unable to hold it in.

“That’s rough, man, but I can’t say I’m sorry for it.”

“Well obviously!” Doug snapped back incredulously. “Why would you be when you’ve got the cutest girl in town?!” Bado blushed and smiled, buoyed a little at his words. Of course, he very much agreed that she was the most attractive…

“I really didn’t see that coming though. How the hell did you manage to get her attention? I tried for so long to get her to like me… I was starting to wonder if she even liked men.” Doug rubbed a hand through his red hair. Bado shrugged.

“I’m kinda unclear on it myself.” He laughed. “One minute I’m terrified I’m gonna get a face full of fire magic, the next she’s holdin’ my hand…”

“What happened?” Doug asked, leaning forward.

“Well remember that day you warned me she had been asking about dwarves and you figured she was planning some prank?”

“Yeah.”

“Well the next day she came in to the shop and invited me to go somewhere with her. It was slow as hell so I agreed, even though I was fully expecting some mischief from her. Then once we got out into the forest she got tackled by this huge beetle…” Doug was listening with his gray eyes fixed on Bado’s face. “She ended up all tangled up in the bushes in this bramble, and I went in to try and help her out. Her hair was all snarled in the thorns and as I was trying to help her out, she pulled on my leg and I fell onto my hands and knees right on top of her.”

“Holy cow!” Said Doug.

“Yeah, so there I was, just nose to nose with her and mortified, wondering how the hell I’d gotten there. She was so shocked, herself, she grabbed my sides and she was just... pushed right against me!” Doug gulped. Bado briefly thought how odd it was that he was telling the younger dwarf all this, but he couldn’t seem to stop now. It was a bizarre relief to describe his experience to someone else. “I tried to jump up but by then I was tangled up too and the bramble pulled her hair.” He cringed as he remembered the pain in her face.

“Wha’d you do?”

“Well there was nothin’ I could do. I had no clue how to get out of there. Honestly I was just frantically trying not to think about her between my legs at that point.” Doug smirked. “But then she gated us back here with her magic and I jumped up off of her in a hurry and fell back against the wall. I was so relieved no one was around, I just closed my eyes and tried to catch my breath. Then when I opened my eyes again she was right here.” He gestured with a hand right in front of his face. “Worryin’ that I was hurt and puttin’ her hands on my chest, here.” He laid his palms just below his collarbone. “I just froze while she healed up some punctures in my neck where the briar got me and stared at her. Then I apologized to her, all nervous still and she said it was alright. Then the next thing I know she’s put her hand on mine! I couldn’t believe it. All of a sudden I didn’t want her to leave, so I held her little hand and she just leans up on me and falls asleep, just like that!” Doug’s eyes were wide.

“Sheesh!” He said

“Yeah…” Said Bado “And after that I just couldn’t get her outta my head so I worked all day until I just about blinded myself with a chunk of metal (he tapped his head where it had cut him) and passed out on the floor. Next thing I know, I’m waking up in the clinic.”

“So that’s what that was all about…”

“Yeah pretty much. But then I got real worried she was gonna come visit me and everyone would end up knowin’ about the whole bramble thing and I’d get run outta town so I snuck out just as soon as no one was watching and just as I get outside I get a summons from Ventuswill.”

“What? Why?”

“That’s what I was wonderin’. Of course, I immediately figured she knew about the day before and was gonna roast me for real, but instead when I get there she heals my head and says I need to stop worrying so much cause I never did anything to hurt the princess… I just about fell over again!”

“So Ventuswill was cool with it?”

“Yeah, completely. She told me I needed to talk to Frey and figure out our feelings, even. But just then, the doors bang open and who do you think charged right in?”

“Frey came in?” Doug asked, surprised.

“Yeah, shoutin’ ‘the hell is wrong with you?’ as soon as she saw me but then she starts to tear up and leans forward and just cries a little into my shirt while I hold her. I thought my heart was gonna either burst or jump right out of my throat.”

“Woah…”

“And then she walks me back to the clinic and then here and we’re just standin’ here not knowing what to say for a bit.”

“Then what?” Doug was hanging on his every word.

“Then she came up to me and kissed me right on the mouth, would you believe it? I was real smitten by then what with her worrying so much over my injuries that I kissed her back without even questioning it. Then she went off home and I was standing here in a daze.”

“She kissed you? Just like that?!” Doug was leaning forward with wide eyes. Bado nodded. “Damn! Who knew she was so forward!” Bado chuckled.

“I know, right? But I was just about driving myself crazy worrying about it all.”

“Why?” Doug’s inquiry was genuine, which shocked Bado all the more.

“Whaddaya mean, why?!” He was stunned. “Cause I’m way older than her by human standards!”

“Yeah but you aren’t human, are you?” Doug frowned at him. “How old are you?”

“Thirty nine.”

“Tch! That’s not old at all. You know very well Dwarves aren’t even considered middle-aged until sixty or so. What the hell are you so worried about?” Doug waved a hand dismissively. Bado stared at him and blinked stupidly. “Man, she obviously doesn’t care if she’s so eager to lock lips with you. Don’t be stupid! You’re pissing me off! You’ve got the hottest little thing in town all over you and you’re worrying about being thirty-nine? Sheesh!" Doug sat back in the chair and folded his arms peevishly. Bado laughed weakly. She had been completely right, after all…

“W-well, I mean, I’ve kept seeing her since then, ya know? She talked me into going steady and insisted my age was no big deal but we’ve been hiding it cause not everyone gets that, you know?”

“Hmph!” Doug huffed. “I better not hear you complain about anything ever again! You are the luckiest bastard I’ve ever met!” Bado laughed aloud, his heart lightened.

“Okay, okay, I get it. But could you please be cool and keep it to yourself for now?”

“Fiiine!” Doug groaned, then paused. “…if you give me that lunch…” His eyes returned to the bowl on the counter. Bado threw his head back and laughed again.

“Take it!” He pushed the bowl into Doug’s hands, so relieved he thought he might actually be glowing.

Doug immediately started wolfing down the food. Bado shook his head, at Doug scarfing the rice bowl, at himself for fretting so much about this, and at Frey for knowing exactly what to do… Doug was finished with the bowl in no time at all, sighing happily and patting his stomach.

“So what’s it like, anyway? Kissing her and, you know… all the rest.” He blushed. Bado raised his eyebrows at the red headed dwarf. Doug’s ears were turning pink.

“Curious are we?”

“Shaddup! Just spill the beans will ya?” Doug turned a little redder and frowned at the taller dwarf.

“Hahaha! Alright, alright, already.” He replied. “Holding her is better than a cool breeze on the summer solstice, and kissing her is like drinking sunlight.” Doug stared in wonder. “And as for the rest…” Bado continued, feeling his own ears turn red and twitch as he remembered her crying out in pleasure as he teased her with his tongue between her legs. “She’s more than hot enough to melt adamant with just her fingers and her voice, but after all that she still has her tongue and those legs and… well, everything else…” He pulled at his beard as he tortured himself a little, remembering her beautiful marble skin as she stretched out naked on his bed before him. Doug whined and drooped over the chair.

“Well at least it’s you, another dwarf who gets her and not that stupid horse-face, Dylas…” Bado laughed again. Then Doug looked up at him a little more seriously. “Hey…” He spoke again.

“Yeah?”

“I still think you are an idiot for worrying about it so much, but thanks… for trusting me. I won’t tell on you guys.”

“Thanks, Doug.” Bado smiled, suddenly very sure of his friendship with Selphia’s only other resident Dwarf.

Chapter Text

‘Another slow day…’ Bado leaned back in the plain wooden chair next to the counter in the Meanderer, which was and had been empty all morning. He sighed. It wasn’t even the preferred kind of torment: a grudging patience while waiting for nightfall when he could expect a stealthy visit from Frey and enjoy a little more exploration of their relationship, both sexual and emotional.  No, today it was just a dull early summer Wednesday bound to be uncomfortably hot come mid-afternoon with nothing to distract him whatsoever… except work, which he was not really in the mood for.

A scratching sound at the front door disrupted the quiet. He stood up, walked over and opened the door. A silver wolf padded its way in, sat down and looked up at him excitedly, panting. He stared at it quite surprised and not at all displeased. He liked monsters, always had.

“Hey fella.” He knelt down in front of the wolf and offered a relaxed hand for it to sniff. The wolf did so, then licked his hand and looked up at his face expectantly again, stretching its neck toward him. He reached under its chin to scratch and pet it and noticed a small scroll tied to a cord loosely fastened around the canid’s neck. “What’s this?” He asked the wolf as he untied and unfurled it in his hands. On the curled paper was a hand written note in delicate letters saying:


               “Hi, handsome. I’m stuck indoors officiating some kind of butler assessment today. It’s kinda painful. Clorica can’t stay awake long enough to hear the instructions and Vishnal is too nervous to understand them, so it’s taking SOOOOOO LOOOOONG. Uuuugh… I wish I was kissing you right now instead… or maybe doing a little more than kissing? (three scribbled hearts followed this sentence) By the way, this is Ari, my silver wolf. Would you please give him some water after he delivers this note to you? Thanks. I’m dying to sneak out with you again. When do you think we can manage it next? You’re welcome to write a reply and send it back with Ari. I love you!”

XOXO
Frey


Bado smiled as he read the note in his right hand while his left absentmindedly scratched behind Ari’s ear as the wolf leaned into his hand. He walked over to his work bench, picked up a tin bowl full of malm claws, dumped them carelessly onto the table, and set it on the ground. Then he lifted a tall ewer of cool water next to the workbench and filled the bowl for Ari, who lapped gratefully at the water until it was gone.

Having decided to put a reply at the bottom of the note, Bado began to look around for a quill. He turned to another table on the opposite wall as the work bench and began to sift through some very neglected papers as he searched. At one point he toppled a teetering pile of unopened letters and though he ignored two that fell directly on to the floor, another caught his eye because it was addressed in the same dwarf runes that the forge tome was written in. He set Frey’s note down on the table deliberately and turned the dwarven letter over. The return address was in Sharance, and he recognized two names in the center of the envelope, one of which being his own:


“To: Bado
From: Gaius”


Now his interest was piqued. It had been about two years since he had heard from his kinsman and fellow blacksmith in Sharance. It wasn’t too far away but Gaius was not inclined to travel any distance from his forge and Bado couldn’t be bothered to take the trouble to pack for an overnight trip. He curiously tore open the envelope and his eyes ran over the dwarf letters without pause.


“Hi Bado,
              
               I’ll be coming for a visit six days after the Solstice to collect a favor from you. It’s not my habit to presume to enlist your services like this but I wouldn’t insist if it weren’t urgent. Please consider this kindness you do me repayment for that favor long ago. (You know the one.)

Yours,
Gaius

P.S. I know how terrible you are with correspondences so I’m just going to come regardless of whether I get a response. I hope you read this sometime before I come knocking on your door.

Bado exhaled a short ‘huh’ as he finished the post script and then looked up at a calendar on the wall. It read “Winter” in blue and white letters across the top.

“Oops.” He said causually to Ari as he flipped the pages up to the current Season. His eyes found the solstice, marked by an elaborate sun detail and counted six squares to the right. A Wednesday… This Wednesday. Today.

Just as the realization took shape in his mind there was a knock at the door. Ari stood up and barked twice, looking from the door to Bado uncertainly, who immediately crossed the floor and opened the heavy oak door.

A familiar silhouette, though somewhat foggy in his memory, stood in the doorway: he was a smallish, lean man with a mop of untidy blue-black hair that didn’t quite cover his short, pointed ears, an outfit adorned with wide buckles and a white furred collar, and the distinct blue-gray eye color that flashed like steel when the light hit it right. All of these were exactly like his own, save for one detail: The Dwarf’s right eye was permanently closed, with a long blue-ish scar running over it and down his cheek.

“Hello cousin!” Gaius said both bright and mildly as he smiled up at Bado.

“Gaius!” Bado said somewhat surprised but still joyful at the meeting.

“I see you got my letter just in time…” Gaius said, eyeing the paper still grasped in the taller dwarf’s fingers.

“Haha, yeah… just barely.” Bado backed up and held the door for Gaius, who stepped into the Meanderer quite casually. A young woman followed after him carrying a small knapsack, her long red hair floating slightly behind her in the hot summer breeze. It was Raven, who peddled goods from monsters a few days a week in Selphia.

“Well that’s good. I was hoping I wouldn’t be arriving unannounced.”

“You know you’re always welcome, but I didn’t expect to see you leave your forge anytime soon.” Bado clapped a hand onto Gaius’s narrow shoulder, accidentally making his knees buckle a little. Gaius was as diminutive as Bado was enormous.

“He wouldn’t have, but…” Raven said suddenly, setting the Knapsack on the counter and pulling out a bundle wrapped in scrap linen. Gaius drooped a little as he saw it, and sighed. Curious, Bado stepped closer as Raven unwrapped the bundle. As the cloth fell away, a number of broken pieces of something were revealed. There were long shards like that of a horn handle as well as one large hunk and two smaller chips of a dark black metal, very heavy and substantial. It was the shattered remains of a Dwarven Hammer. Bado felt a shocked expression come over his features.

“Now I get it…” He said quietly and somewhat seriously for the happy mood of the reunion with his clan mate.

“Yeah…” Replied Gaius in a somber tone.

“And they thought I overdid it…” Bado mumbled.

“What was that?” The smaller dwarf perked up with curiosity. Bado fidgeted a little.

“Oh nothin’ important… I just landed myself in the clinic a little while back from forging too long one day, that’s all. Nothin’ serious though, I was out of there next day.”

“That’s not at all like you.” Gaius replied, looking intently with his one steel-blue eye at Bado.

“Yeah, yeah.” He replied, but did not elaborate. “So I’m guessing this is the urgent favor, huh?” Gaius nodded, smiling a little. “You know it’s been a hell of a long time since I made one of these, right?” Gaius nodded again. “Why didn’t you just go back to the clan and get it remade by Yvallen? Wouldn’t his hand be more valuable for this?” Gaius smiled in an understanding way.

“You and I are the only members of our clan to choose exile and live amongst humans. Yours is the only hand that knows my heart out here in the wide world. It has to be you.” Gaius’s expression was filled with a quiet approval. Bado drew in a deep breath and raised his eyebrows.

“I suppose that makes sense…” he replied after a brief silence and paused for a moment, holding Gaius’s one-sided gaze briefly. “I’m honored.” He added. Raven watched the two of them intently, looking from one dwarf to the other and back again. The smaller dwarf smiled a little wider and held out a hand, which Bado clasped graciously and shook. Then he nodded quickly as if they had discussed some kind of agreement, though no words had followed Bado’s last vague utterance. Suddenly distracted, Gaius looked down at Ari who was sitting at his feet, looking up hopefully with his eyes and ears trained on the short dwarf. He patted the wolf’s head awkwardly. Ari didn’t seem to mind, but flattened his ears in anticipation of Gaius’s gloved hand before they sprang back upright as soon as it lifted up again.

“How long have you had this one?”

“Oh he’s not mine, he’s—“ Bado began to say, before Ari spun around and bolted between his legs and behind him just as the door swung open.

“Hi—Oop!” Frey caught the wolf around his middle as he jumped up excitedly to greet her and reached up to lick her face eagerly. “Hi Ari! Have you been bothering Bado all afternoon?” She said rubbing his ears vigorously, to Ari’s great appreciation.” Then the wolf resumed his manners and sat down patiently on the floor as Frey looked up and started with surprise as she saw the visitor who had so many traits in common with Selphia’s blacksmith. “Oh, hello!” She said brightly, waving a hand at Gaius.

“Frey, this is Gaius, one of my clan mates from my hometown.” Bado gestured politely to Gaius, who inclined his head graciously. “Gaius, this is Sephia’s acting princess, Frey.”

“Pleased to meet you, princess.”

“Thank you, but ‘Frey’ is just fine.” She replied sweetly. “it’s nice to meet you too.”

“Frey, then. Is this wolf yours?”

“Yes, he is. I sent him on an errand to deliver a message to Bado earlier today.”

“He looks very well cared for, doesn’t he, Raven?” Raven, who had been gazing affectionately at Ari, who was n turn staring at his master with adoration shining in his eyes, snapped out of her daze and blushed, nodding ever so slightly in response to Gaius’s question. He chuckled softly. “So what brings you here today, Frey? Do you come visit Bado often?” His tone was perfectly airy and carefree. Bado looked between their faces, happy at the company of his guests but unsure of how to handle the situation now that both of them had come to call simultaneously.

“Oh I, um… I was just coming to see if he got my note… and to collect Ari, of course.” Frey fidgeted and blushed a little at Gaius’s unbroken attention fixed on her face. Bado suddenly recalled the contents of her message and swallowed deliberately as he realized what she had come hoping for. He felt his ears growing warm.

“I got it…” He said, his voice hoarse on the middle syllable, motivating him to clear his throat quickly. “Sorry I didn’t reply. Gaius just arrived, see.” He explained, feeling a single eye watching his expression very deliberately.

“Oh no worries!” She pulled at one of her gloves with her fingers. “It’s nothing urgent.” She blushed slightly. Bado felt a knowing smile tug on the corner of his mouth. “I better get going though.” She hurried to say. “The butler assessment is only in recess for a half an hour you know.” She inclined her head in a mocking way. He chuckled softly, and out of the corner of his eye he noticed what seemed like a glimmer of mischief in Gaius’s steel blue eye. The corner of both the smaller dwarf’s good eye and the closed, scarred one creased with silent laughter. Frey waved to them and gestured for Ari to come with her as she left the way she came. Bado’s gaze lingered on the door with a very slight regret hanging in the back of his mind.

“I should go too… I have a delivery to make.” Said Raven, and left through the door not thirty seconds after Frey.

All was quiet again in the Meanderer.

“So…” Gaius began, suddenly turning to look at Bado, who snapped out of his daze and looked back into the face of his guest. “How long have you been in love with her?” It was so abrupt that Bado choked and coughed several times as if he had been drinking water as he heard the words. “Oh sorry, is it a secret?” Gaius sounded neither sorry nor surprised.” Bado caught his breath and looked startled into Gaius’s eye.

“How did you…” He began, but trailed off as Gaius tilted his head sideways slightly and gestured at one of his own pointed ears, smiling cheerfully. Bado was suddenly aware that his own ears were quite hot. The left one twitched as he thought about it.

“I doubt it’s as secret as you think it is, with those ears giving you away like that.” Gaius said casually. Bado cleared his throat again, still disrupted from the fit of coughing.

“Well lucky for me, there’s only one other dwarf in this town who can recognize that little tell, and he already knows…”

“Why is it a secret, anyway? She’s clearly interested. Wouldn’t it be better to just tell her?” Bado smiled at the floorboards at Gaius’s appraisal of the situation.

“Oh, she knows… It’s the rest of the town that it’s a secret from.” He smirked sheepishly at Gaius, in whose singular eye comprehension shifted into place.

“Because she’s so young?”

“Yeah…” Bado looked curiously back at the other dwarf with his brows furrowed slightly. Gaius smiled and blinked once at him.

“I believe it’s both more obvious and less complicated than either of you realize…” This answer to Bado’s curiosity was delivered in the most benevolent tone possible. Gaius was a forthright, honest, and clever person who was quick to adapt to new information about a person and slow to judge them for it. If it hadn’t been so long since Bado had last seen him he probably would have anticipated his rapid understanding of the situation better. Now he found himself very glad at his old friend’s company. It was clear that he did not think ill of him at all for his choice of partner, and nothing was more likely to earn Bado’s appreciation at present.

Just then Gaius looked down at the broken hammer on the counter with a soft smile.

“You are fortunate.” He said quietly. Then Bado saw his smile become a thing bitten by sadness. “The woman I fell in love with is also human… but I was not so lucky as you to have my feelings reciprocated.” As his words settled in Bado’s mind he felt a pang as he involuntarily imagined how it would have felt if Frey had rejected him rather than sought him out. Suddenly his heart was heavy with sympathy for Gaius and he was determined to make his hammer whole again even if he could do nothing to mend his heart.

“I’m sorry…” He said earnestly. Gaius looked up and the sorrow that had shone in his expression was suddenly masked again.

“Thanks, but there is no need for you to feel sorry. You should feel like the happiest dwarf in Norad right now, I would say.”

“I think I just might be.” Bado answered. “…which is lucky for you because normally I would never take on a job so labor intensive.” He laughed. Gaius resumed his quietly jovial manner.

“Well then I’m glad I came to visit you while you are so love struck.” Bado grinned at his guest and put a hand on his shoulder again, a little more carefully this time.

“It’s good to see you, Gaius.”

“Same to you.” They passed a moment of authentic gratitude as their identical eyes exchanged metallic glinting.

“This is going to take all week, though. Do you need to stay here with me? I can make room if you don’t mind my place…”

“That’s alright, Raven booked a room for me at the Bell Hotel, actually. I do hope they keep the bathwater plenty hot...”

“Not hot enough for you, I’ll wager.” Bado replied with a grin. Gaius had been known, even in their early youth, for liking high temperatures a little too well and more than once had been found unconscious from heat stroke in a hot spring back in their hometown. Even so, He seemed to be somewhat resilient when it came to overheating and bounced back pretty rapidly each time.

“Ah, that is a shame…”

“Hahaha, well don’t worry. I’ll be keeping my forge plenty hot over the next few days while I sort this thing out anyhow.” He gestured to the hammer pieces on the counter.

“I hope this won’t interfere with your love life.” Gaius teased suddenly.

“Nah, not if you are staying at the hotel.” He winked back at him. “Oh, but why don’t we go for a little walk around town. I’ll show you a bit of Selphia before you get settled in.”

“Sure.” Gaius said mildly as Bado carefully carried the bundle of broken hammer over to his work table and made a space for it. Then they left the building together, looking for all the world like half-brothers, alike in all aspects but size.

Bado took Gaius all around Selphia, introducing him to almost everyone in town as they made a loop through the town circling the castle in the center. Gaius met each new face with a pleasant, carefree air and charmed nearly everyone immediately, except for Dylas, who was always uncomfortable and reclusive when meeting new people. Gaius paid the young man’s sullenness no heed whatsoever. Finally, they entered the fields behind the castle from the North and strolled at a relaxed pace around them, talking casually.

“Who tends these fields?”

“Princess Frey, actually.”

“Ah…” Gaius smiled a knowng smile every time she was mentioned. “You said ‘acting princess’ before…”

“Oh, yeah… She lost her memory when she arrived about a year ago and the current Prince, who we met a little ways back… Arthur, remember? Anyway… He doesn’t much like the public parts of being prince so he kinda delegated the role to her after she got here. She took to it so well, though, I wonder if she isn’t of royal blood after all…”

“There is an amnesiac in our town too. He is also an earthmate.”

“No kidding?” Bado asked. Gaius nodded, and suddenly became distracted as he saw Ari standing in the doorway to a monster barn not far off. The fluffy silver wolf was looking excitedly at them and back into the barn as if waiting for instructions. He began to walk over to it and Bado followed without thinking. They stepped into the building and immediately greeted none other than princess Frey, who was carefully shearing her woolies. The ones who had already been relieved of their wool looked very contented while those who crowded around waiting their turn seemed a little miserably overheated. Summer was no time to have a wool coat.

“Hello again.” Gaius said cheerfully. Frey looked over her shoulder and smiled as she saw them.

“Hi!” She chirped. “What are you guys up to?”

“Just having a tour around town.” The smaller dwarf said in his airy way. Frey stood up and brushed some wool clippings from her clothing. Around her ankles three fully fleeced woolies and one half-shorn one tugged at her skirt anxiously.

“Gaius is going to be in town all week. I need to help him reforge his hammer.” Bado explained. Then something occurred to him. “Speaking of which, Frey?”

“Yeah?”

“Have you come across any doubling steel and also orichalcum in the caves outside of town?” She looked thoughtfully at him for a moment and then brightened.

“Yeah, I think I have a little of both. They are in my room in the storage chest.” She made a move toward the door but the fleeced woolies bleated anxiously and crowded between her and the door, pushing on her legs. “Hahaha! Maybe you’ll have to go get it yourself while I finish with these guys.”

“Thanks. That will help out a lot.” He smiled at her.

“Sure, no problem.” Her fluttering voice replied. He lingered just a moment and enjoyed her smiling face before nodding to Gaius and heading for the castle with Ari trotting along beside him.

***

Frey smiled softly as she watched Bado’s wide shoulders disappear across the fields toward the castle through the door.

“I’m happy for you…” Gaius’s voice snapped her out of her stare and she quickly became flustered. “Both of you.” He added with a genuine smile.

“W-what?”

“I’m happy that you are enjoying being in love with one another.” Gaius clarified patiently. Frey blushed deeply.

“Oh, he told you?”

“Well, his ears did…” Gaius replied enigmatically. “But regardless, I hope you will cherish each other. It’s good to see him like this. A man like him always worries his kin.” Frey looked curiously at his smiling face. Gaius sounded almost like an affectionate older sibling in the way he spoke of Selphia’s blacksmith, but he didn’t look much older than herself. Seeming to sense her thought, he looked warmly at her. “I am younger, but only by a couple of years. Being in the knighthood aged him quite a bit, you know.”

“Oh!” She said softly in her surprise. Gaius chuckled softly.

“I imagine he hasn’t told you much about his past?” She shook her head slightly, quite transfixed. “That sounds about right…” He looked pleased at her inquisitive expression. “He is quite special you know… the spitting image of Paragon Drhamhau. Maybe that is why he felt compelled to strive for the warrior ideal. It was stupid even then, though. I warned him he wouldn’t like fighting.” A very subtle bitterness laced Gaius’s expression as he said this last part. “But actually…” He brightened but it was a superficially cheerful look. Frey sensed a less jovial feeling beneath the surface of Gaius’s smile now. “I wanted to ask you about something.”

“Yes?”

“What would you do if you did not love him in return?” He asked softly. The question startled Frey visibly. “Hypothetically, of course…” He added. She said nothing immediately, but looked perplexed and a little worried at him. The half shorn wooly butted at her knee impatiently but she did not look down. “Do you think you could bring yourself to try being with him anyway?”

“I don’t know…” She said, barely audible, after a moment. Why was he asking a question like that?

“Please forgive me. It was a selfish question, only wishful thinking on my part.” Gaius said graciously, dispelling some of the tension. Frey felt a realization take shape in her mind.

“Who is she?” She asked softly. It was Gaius’s turn to look a little surprised, but he recovered more quickly, smiling sadly.

“It’s a relief to know that you are so perceptive. You’ll need that. He is quite dense.” He said, avoiding the question, which was in and of itself a confirmation of her suspicion. “Even so,” He began again, with quite a mischievous air suddenly, “I’ll wager he is an excellent lover. That was about the only thing he ever really liked about being a knight, I think. With that handsome countenance, he was quite popular, I heard…” Frey made a surprised little noise and turned crimson.

“I-I, uh…” She stuttered, completely at a loss. Gaius laughed aloud, apparently pleased with this trivial bit of vengeance for guessing at his sorrow. Now that she thought about it, she supposed her boyfriend had to have learned so much about sex somewhere, given that he knew his way around her body better than she did.

“But since you saw through me…” Gaius suddenly said, low, and stepped toward Frey. She leaned back in surprise at his abrupt closeness, but he grabbed her shoulders and stayed her from moving away. Frey didn’t dare breathe as he leaned in and held his mouth very close to her ear, his cheek just barely brushing hers as he did so. “Thank you for loving him… It is a small consolation, to know vicariously what it might have been like…” His voice was just above a whisper, smooth and rich like velvet or grape liquor. Then she felt him kiss her cheek very lightly and she gasped softly. He drew back, released her shoulders and stepped away slowly, resuming a very placid and unassuming smile as he waited for her to recover from her surprise. Once she had done so, she swallowed and stared at Gaius’s face for a few seconds.

“…You’re welcome.” She said finally, very quietly. His mild smile widened slightly. Just then an exasperated ‘Baa-aah!’ punctured the silence as the half-shorn woolly and his companions began to lose patience below. Gaius laughed softly.

“Do you like woollies, Frey?”

“Oh, yeah…” She said, grinning and stooped to finish shearing the grateful sheep-monster at last. He watched her clipping its fleece for a couple of minutes before he spoke again.

“You know, there is a man in Sharance, where I live, who is half woolly.”

“What?” Frey laughed.

“It’s true. He can change from the form of a smallish blond man to a golden woolly and back at will.”

“That’s amazing! I’d love to see that.” She replied.

“He married a human woman last year.” Gaius continued, staring directly into her eyes. Frey said nothing in reply. His penetrating gaze was loaded with some motive other than sharing an amusing anecdote. She searched his face for a clue. “I suppose what I’m trying to say…” He said calmly after a pause. “Is that if a town can accept a marriage involving a half-monster and a human, then another town should easily be able to accept a love between a young human and a mature dwarf without much turmoil.” She gazed at him thoughtfully.

“You think so?” She asked softly. He nodded. “I want to believe that… a lot. And the few people who know about it already haven’t minded… but I can’t shake the feeling there will be trouble with some of the townspeople.”

“Perhaps. But isn’t it worth a little trouble?” He blinked calmly at her. A smile began to grow on her face.

“Well, Yes. It is.” She replied. Gaius returned her smile with an affectionate one of his own.

“Good.” He replied, then looked a little devilish. “Sorry I’ve interrupted your time together.”

“No, don’t worry about it.” She fluttered a hand in front of her.

“Still, I’ll get out of your way and make some space for you two this evening.” He said confidentially. She snickered.

Just then Bado returned to the barn with Ari beside him. He ducked under the doorframe to avoid hitting his head as he entered.

“Still right where I left ya, huh?” He said to them.

“Did you find the ore?” Frey smiled sweetly at him, still thinking about her conversation with Gaius. Bado looked back at her and blinked, then returned her smile with a warm, affectionate gaze.

“Yep. Thanks again.”

“Well… I should go get things settled at the hotel and claim my room before they consider me a no-show.” Gaius said suddenly, nodded to both of them, and then headed for the door. “I’ll come to call on you tomorrow around noon.” He said over his shoulder to Bado, who looked a bit confused.

“Uh, okay… bye.” He mumbled, turning toward the door. Gaius was already gone. Frey giggled and slid her arms around his waist from behind, tucking her nose and mouth into his back and breathing in his scent.

“He’s just giving us some space for tonight.” She explained, muffled, into his clothing.

“Oh?” He twisted to try and look at her. She let go and he turned to face her properly, gazing intently at her up and down. “We better use the time wisely, then.” He said in a low, smooth voice. She gave him a sly look.

“I can make up an excuse to be gone overnight again, you know…”

“Yeah?” He hummed, stepping forward and stroking her arm hanging at her side with his fingertips.

“Yeah…” She grabbed the wide belt around his hips and pulled him toward her, feeling voracious for the warm, solid presence of his body. Once she felt him close, her eyelids automatically hung a little heavier. A warm sensation was growing in her lower stomach. She longed to pull off his layers and feel the hot touch of his skin on hers. “We can even run off into the woods right now…” She purred.  He drew a finger up under her chin and delicately lifted it up to look into his eyes more directly, then kissed her forehead.

“Patience, pet. My bed will be more comfortable than the forest floor, especially since I don’t want a thing between us.” He tugged at her collar for emphasis, teasing the first button open and revealing her clavicle.

“That makes two of us…” She replied, tugging on the shoulder straps of his vest with her outstretched hands. She pictured his broad chest bare and warm before her, his muscular legs and abdomen, and the parts of him she had only recently become familiar with… A hot blush came over her face and she bit her lower lip as she looked up into his eyes hungrily.

“Easy there. You are going to melt the buckles right off my outfit if you look so fiery at me.” He teased, his own gaze beginning to smolder with desire in turn.

“When?” She asked eagerly, ignoring his jest.

“After closing. Then it’s your choice.”

“Alright. I’d better finish my chores before the impulse to tear your clothes off gets any stronger…” She grinned at him as he smirked at her. He bent slightly and she reached up, stretching her neck toward him. He kissed her softly. After a moment she grabbed his collar and pulled him toward her, pushing her mouth insistently onto his. He caught his balance quickly and wrapped his hands around her hips, holding her tight against him. She felt him linger as they eventually let the kiss end.

“See you tonight.” He said quietly as he hesitated another moment to look ardently at her before he left, ducking through the doorway once more.

Frey sighed a breath heavy with longing. In moments like these she could hardly bring herself to care what anyone thought or how they would react. Virtually anything would be worth being able to go to him whenever they pleased, without any need for secrecy. But for now, bearing with the tightening coil in her chest while she waited a few more hours to really lose herself in his touch was well worth it.

Chapter Text

A few minutes past 8pm, after Frey had conspired briefly with Vishnal to excuse her absence, she stood next to her bed, holding her fists together in front of her and concentrating. Her brow was furrowed and her mouth narrowed. She took a deep, slow breath, then whispered determinedly:

“Return!” With a flash, the retornen spell wrapped around her in the blink of an eye and she felt a familiar pull as she slipped between time and space. Then she blinked as her eyes reported new surroundings to her. Bado was standing a few feet away, frozen in the middle of removing his vest. His shoes and gloves were already sitting in a pile by the foot of his bed. He stared, shocked at her for a moment, then seemed to spark with excitement as he moved toward her. “Perfect!” She breathed as she saw him. The modified retornen spell had worked like a charm.

“That’s a clever trick.” He mused.

“It beats running through the streets in the dark.” She replied, and looked into his eyes, her face feeling hotter as his steel-blue eyes gleamed at her. The hungry expression she felt herself making was mirrored in his face. She bit her lower lip again and leaned instinctively toward him. He exhaled slowly as he looked into her eyes, drawing closer. Then like a spring-loaded contrivance they flew toward one another and collided at the hips and chest, wrapping arms around each other eagerly as they kissed feverishly, panting in between closing their mouths onto one another and occasionally breathing a noise somewhere between frustration and intense anticipation as they pried at each other’s garments. Soon she had helped him finish unfastening his vest and pulled it down off his shoulders as she reached up and kissed his neck. He tugged her shirt up over her head and made a breathy, pining noise as he saw her bare from the waist up.

She was still focused on his clothing, however, and grasping his shirt she pulled it over his head as he bent down so she could reach. Then she quickly directed her attention to his pants, pried the button open and pulled down excitedly. They fell around his ankles and he stepped out of them and kicked them aside. Meanwhile, he unfastened the hook and eye clasp of her skirt and watched with apparent satisfaction as it slid to the ground. They paused and breathed as they gazed at each other for a moment, both revealed except for his black cotton shorts and her white, lacy underwear. Then without warning, Frey sprang up and by pure instinct he caught her as she wrapped her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck. She kissed him half a dozen times rapidly as she smiled and laughed.

“Good reflexes.” She said, giddy at the fluttering sensation in her stomach and the heat in her loins. Her breasts were pressed against his chest and now at last she was once again savoring his skin on hers just as she’d pined over for most of this last week. They hadn’t been able to arrange a covert meeting for several days now, only stolen kisses and whispers on short walks outside the walls of the town. As far as she was concerned, a week of waiting constituted a year’s worth of patience. He exhaled slowly and trembled a little as he held her tightly against him.

“Oh, I’ve missed feeling you close like this, pet.” He breathed, running two or three fingertips down her back almost timidly. He seemed to be having difficulty deciding whether he wanted to press her even more tightly against him or draw back to look at her hungrily.  She decided to resolve the problem by kissing him passionately with her fingers in his hair. He returned the kiss eagerly, and the breath he snatched between the turning of their heads as they pressed their mouths together was like a spell on her, peeling away in layers any ability she had to wonder or care if anyone would knock on the door or enter, discovering them in this passionate embrace. In this moment she almost wanted anyone and everyone to see her as she kissed him feverishly, almost whimpering with desire as she tasted his tongue. Surely this picture would prove how much she wanted him, and that she had no reservations about quenching that desire as long as he was willing, also.

‘How could anyone believe this is wrong?’ She wondered resentfully as she ran her hands over his shoulder blades and the back of his neck, sinews bunching as he held her aloft in his huge arms. He was a vision of masculine beauty to her, sturdy and substantial in every part of him, like a pillar or a great tree. But for all his great size and strength, he was so careful, so gentle. That contrast was perhaps what was most attractive to her. That he still had the mind and will to consider every ounce of pressure and measure out just enough force to describe his desire without ever exceeding what was comfortable. Or perhaps it was also the way he sometimes touched even lighter, just teasing her. His composure was the sexiest thing about him in times like these. Actually, she mused, there was one thing that might be even better. She stretched herself up and drew her mouth close to one of his pointed ears and exhaled a breath as she paused just shy of it. A shudder of anticipation ran through him and he stopped moving his hands over her briefly. At this she brushed it with her lips, smiling and then dragged the tip of her tongue slowly over the long strait edge to the point. His body tensed and his breath drew in as a hiss, followed by a soft moan of his deep voice as she teased him. Seeing him come undone with pleasure and lose his composure at her touch was in fact the best thing, surely. She closed the edge of his ear delicately in her teeth. An involuntary tremor ran through him from head to toe.

“Ah…” He cried softly. Shivers ran down her spine as she listened to the timber of his bass voice quail in his enjoyment. “Frey…” He breathed, and turned his head, burying his face in the hollow of her neck, still trembling. He took a step back and lowered himself onto the edge of his bed, still supporting her weight carefully with one arm beneath her thighs and the other wrapped around her back. She enjoyed a wicked satisfaction as she decided not to give him a reprieve from her insistent attentions, leaning over him and pushing his shoulders back as she balanced on her knees on the mattress on either side of his middle. He did not resist, but leaned back tamely onto the bed, lifting his feet onto the mattress and adjusting the angle of their bodies to be parallel with it.

Her hunger had not abated in the slightest. She wanted to push him, unravel him a little more… She shifted her weight and distracted him with a fingertip tracing the contour of his throat. He tilted his head back as she positioned her pelvis directly over his and then pressed herself onto him. The firm shape of his manhood grew yet harder against her groin as she rolled her hips against him, the fire in her burning hotter at the sensation. His hands closed around her hips and he opened his eyes, looking helplessly at her through a thick veil of arousal. Just a hint of bewilderment peeked out at her in his expression. She stilled.

“Right… driving… sorry.” She whispered, and lifted her weight to sit up, now straddling his abdomen. She looked adoringly at him as he clawed his way back to conscious control of his limbs. Letting him lead was no displeasure to her, on the contrary, the anticipation of his next move was delectable, but she always felt rather proud when she could unravel him and see him rendered helplessly lost in the pleasure of her touch. It was pretty hard to resist the urge to keep doing it, honestly.

Bado seemed to have recovered and now he sat upright, wrapping his arms around her and kissing his way around her neck and shoulders. She sighed happily at the sensation. Then she felt his tongue drag up her neck and she tilted her head back and gasped. His hands wrapped around her waist and lifted, she obliged, raising herself up on her knees. He lavished her collar with kisses and worked his way down. She felt her eyes close involuntarily as his tongue and lips reached her breasts. He spared one of his hands from wrapping around her waist to massage one while he teased the other with his tongue until her pink nipples stood up pertly and glistened, still wet from his mouth. She gave a sigh that was half moan and curled her fingertips in his dark hair.

The heat of his body and especially his mouth on her was so intoxicating. She wasn’t sure she could keep her wits about her enough to balance much longer. But there was one thing she had yet to accomplish before she let him overtake her. She shifted again and sought his mouth, kissing him slowly but eagerly and drowning a little in the intensity of her desire for him. Down at his hips, she insinuated her fingertips beneath the rim of his shorts and pulled them down a bit. Realizing her game he moved is hands down to the mattress and lifted his weight off the bed as she inched her way down and pulled them off as she went.

Frey drew in a breath. Once again, his size surprised her though she had seen him laid bare like this once before. He stared intently at her as she combed over him with her eyes. She thought she detected a sense of satisfaction in the way he watched her shiver and sigh as she beheld him. The pull was stronger than ever. She heard herself make a little pining noise and look pleadingly at his face. His gaze burned brighter and he wrapped one arm around her waist and somehow exchanged places with her before she could figure out what he intended. Now the sheets were at her back and he bent over her, the heat of him pressing down on her deliciously as though the air it traveled through was heavier for it.

“Bado…” She breathed his name just before he captured her mouth with his and she whimpered longingly as they kissed ardently once more, her hands running with a mind of their own over his body, trying to touch as much of him as possible with every breath. Her thoughts fell away one by one until only one thing occupied her mind, wrapped tightly in molten desire. She gave it her voice as he broke the kiss gently and looked into her eyes.

“Please…” She panted. “I want you so badly…” His eyes were still slightly glazed with arousal but looked more aware and clear-minded for a moment.

“Frey…” He breathed her name with evident strain as he struggled between hesitating a little longer and giving in to her.

“Please, Bado…” She savored his name on her tongue. “Please make love with me.” Her heart skipped a beat as she heard herself. He hesitated still.

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait? For a special occasion or something?” He asked quietly, swallowing as he stared unblinking into her eyes.

“This is special.” She whispered. “I love you.”

“Frey…” He seemed to melt a little, his eyes softening. “I love you so much...” Her eyes threatened to water as she looked adoringly up at him. “I would give you anything, you know.” He smiled softly.

“All I want is you.” She replied, reaching up and laying her hands on either side of his face. He leaned in and kissed her again, slow and sweet this time, pouring tender affection into her on top of all the lust. The sensation both cooled her passion slightly and enriched it generously. It became almost tangible inside her.

A moment later, he delicately pulled her underwear off, holding his breath until they slipped over her feet and then exhaling with an effort. Then, with the lightest touch, he dragged his fingertips over her stomach down through her short, pale green curls to her sex and slid his middle finger in between her folds. She whimpered again. His touch felt slippery over her entrance. She vaguely thought she must already be wet again like before when he touched her or when she spent too long thinking about him touching her. She closed her eyes and focused on feeling his fingertips graze her delicately.

Then the still-new but oh-so-welcome sensation of him sliding a finger inside her parted her lips in a breathy sounding of feverish pleasure. She moaned softly, tilting her head back. She breathed slow and deep as he gradually pulled it out and pushed it in again, then she opened her eyes and looked into his through the fog of her hunger for him. He moved in and out of her a few more times, studying her face carefully as he touched her. Letting her eyes close again, she swam in the sensation. Then he pulled his finger completely out of her for a moment. She opened her eyes again and looked pleadingly at him. A gasp escaped her lips as this time he pushed two of his thick fingers into her at once.

“Ahh…” She cried softly. He blinked and smiled at the sound. He looked down at his hand as he slid his fingers in and out again, then paused, looking thoughtful as he hesitated. He held her gaze, brow just slightly furrowed.

“Frey?” He spoke her name very softly. She looked at him. “We can't know for sure whether you're a virgin or not, since you can't remember..." She fretted her brows, suddenly worried he would feel disappointed to think he hadn't been her first. He smiled reassuringly, all affection in his dilated eyes. "But it doesn't really matter much, love. I only mention it because for some women it can hurt a little the first time, but I want you to know I'll do everything I can to make it comfortable and more. Be sure to tell me right away if you're feeling pain, okay?"

"Okay." She whispered, her face flushing bright red. 

"Good girl." He breathed, his gray-blue eyes glinted hungrily in the dim light of the room. "I flatter myself that I do know a thing or two that should help."

“Thank you.” She squeaked, suddenly bashful in the face of his clearly greater experience in bed . He smiled at her again and leaned over her on his hands and knees, looking searchingly into her eyes. She spread her thighs on either side of his legs as he moved closer to her. She shivered visibly and he hesitated again, lifting a big, squarish hand to caress her cheek as a concerned and tender expression revisited his features.

“Are you sure you want to?” He said softly. She continued to tremble but inside her resolve was firm as steel. She'd never been surer of anything than her love of this man.

“Yes.” She said without blinking. She moved her hands down his sides and rested them on his hips. He held himself just above her and she felt something hot near her skin between her legs. He shifted his weight and balanced with one hand on the mattress just to the left of her head, reaching down between his legs with the other. She gasped as he touched the tip of his member to her and slid it over her entrance slowly once or twice. Frey closed her eyes and savored the sensation, whimpering with pleasure and anticipation as his teasing sent waves of sexual frenzy through her. He stilled again. She panted once or twice and then opened her eyes slowly and looked up at him. He was staring down at her with a look like the glow of burning coals.

“Bado…” She breathed with a pleading look.

“Ask me once more…” His deep voice resonated through her. As he said it, he pushed his sex slightly against hers with the lightest possible pressure and positioned his hand back up by her head, bearing weight down on both arms. The sensation wrung a whine full of lust and longing from her lips.

“Ohh…” She cried, shivering with frustrated anticipation. “Please! I want you inside me now!” Her voice shook a little but it rang aloud nevertheless. He drew a deep breath and looked into her eyes, full of lust, love, and sweetness all at once as he leaned into her, slowly pressing his length inside her, inch by inch.

“Aaahhh!” she heard her own voice but was not aware of making a sound deliberately. All she could bend her mind on was the sensation of her sex stretching around the width of his phallus as he entered her. It was, at present, difficult to decide whether the sensation was more akin to pain or pleasure, but regardless, the last thing she wanted was for it to stop. After a moment or two that felt much longer as he slid slowly inside her, he seemed to push up against something deep in her insides and she felt a twinge. “Nng” She whimpered and cringed.

“Frey? Are you alright?” He whispered anxiously. “We can stop if it’s too much.”

“No…” She whispered “Don’t stop… please.” He watched her face very closely as he moved again, slowly and carefully, this time pulling himself part of the way out of her again. She gasped softly and gripped his hips with her hands. He pushed forward again and slid further inside her this time. The something that he had pushed against uncomfortably a moment prior had shifted a little deep inside her. She still couldn’t feel his body on the other end of his shaft press against her groin yet. Had he been wrong after all? It did seem a little crazy to think that he would fit all of it in her. He was so damn big…

He breathed in and out again, very slowly, and pulled partway out of her. She didn’t tense this time, understanding that he was not about to remove himself completely from within her. Her consciousness hung in space a moment as he paused. She opened her eyes and looked into his, deliberately holding his gaze this time as he slid into her. Her body had adjusted even more now. He met no resistance, slipping further and further inside her until she opened her mouth in surprise as the whole of his length filled her completely and he pressed his hips against her thighs.

“Aaaahhhh!” She exhaled something like a sigh and a stifled moan together. His eyes closed and he made a little half-muffled noise and lingered, still keeping pressure against her. The sheer intensity of the sensation staggered her, and seemed to do the same to him. He stooped a little lower, resting his forehead on hers as they both panted for a moment.

“Oh, Frey…” He sighed, pulling in another breath. She felt, rather than heard his voice but could not form a reply. Her mind was too much occupied with exploring this new sensation. It was strange, both confusing and delectable at the same time. Most of all it just felt right, having him fill up this void in her body she never knew before now. She wanted more of this feeling. In fact, she had never wanted anything so ardently before. She waited in suspense as her body quivered. She wasn’t completely certain what was supposed to happen next, but surely he knew what to do. The ambiguity between discomfort and enjoyment had vanished. It was all pleasure and heat now. She silently wished he would continue.

As if sensing her thought, he began to move again, rocking his hips against her slowly and in between strokes, pulling himself out of her a little ways before sliding back in until all of his shaft was once again swallowed up by her. The sensation each time he buried himself in her was delicious beyond anything she had ever felt. He seemed to be making an effort to press himself against the front of her firmly with each gradual plunge, kindling an intense sensation in the same place he had kissed and licked until she had come undone and climaxed for the first time since waking up with no memory.

“Aaah…Aah…ah!” She moaned again and again as he gradually built the tempo. Her eyes fluttered closed without effort unless she deliberately willed them open again. In between the oblivion of thought that came over her each time he thrust himself into her, triggering another wave of building tension, she noticed that his eyes were closed too and his expression described a fevered struggle between intense concentration and pure, white-hot pleasure fighting for dominance over his will. Soon, though, she lost the ability to notice even this. The cord was pulling tighter inside her. She felt the tension and frenzied desire building with each beat.

“Aah—Ba—do—I—ah!” She yelped out each syllable shrilly in between desperate gasps of air. His panting rhythm of breath matched hers as well as the rocking motion of his hips. Then just as the imaginary cord snapped, all at once her mind went blank, empty of everything but the immensity of her pleasure as she came. She arched her back and gripped his sides as tightly as her hands would let her, holding her breath sharply before letting it escape in little squeaking segments as the rhythmic pulsing waves of her orgasm came over her one by one until she let the rest of her breath out in a long, voiced sigh. He slowed a little and looked into her face as she looked lovingly back at him with heavily lidded eyes, flushed cheeks, and parted lips. He smiled and let go of the straining concentration that bound him, letting his own mouth fall open he began to voice his anticipation as he thrust into her intently once more. She watched his face in a dazed fascination as he surrendered to the sensation of her wet hot sex and neared his own climax.

“Aaah… Frey… haahhh… ahh… I…” He looked into her eyes with an effort as he failed utterly to make his fevered voicing of pleasure coherent. Then his eyes closed involuntarily and his body tensed. “Aah! Aaah! Ahhhh!" Frey watched his face intently as he came, clutching his hips with her hands again and holding him tightly against her. His whole body shook and trembled in the long moment it took him to feel all of his climax, then he let out the breath that he had been holding tightly in his chest, leaned forward and moaned softly into her hair, kissing her head dazedly. At the same time, he settled onto his elbows and let some of his weight down on top of her as they both panted and savored the glow of their post-coital high together.

After a few breaths, he kissed her lips repeatedly in a tired, dizzy way.

“Oh Frey, my little nymph… I love you so.” He sighed.

“I love you too, Bado… Thank you.” She placed her hands on either side of his jaw and held his face tenderly before hers. He smiled, seeming in pure bliss. Finally, he drew himself, still half-hard, out of her, blinking and smiling a little wider as she gasped quietly, then slid a hand beneath her back, wrapping his arm about her and rolled onto his back while gently depositing her on top of his chest with the same movement. Now he wrapped both arms around her and cuddled her eagerly, nuzzling her hair. She sighed happily again. “I’m so happy to be with you…” She whispered as she drifted off into an extremely decadent slumber on top of him.

Chapter Text

The following dawn after an extremely affectionate good morning including many hugs, kisses, nuzzles and whispered sweetness, Frey used her newly modified spell of returning to slip back to her room without anyone being the wiser that she had not slept in her own bed the night before. Bado sighed happily after she’d disappeared in a flash of silvery light. This clandestine romance was so difficult to believe sometimes. Never in his life had he expected that he would ever be half of a pair of lovers so completely and utterly enamored with one another. It was the stuff of plays and novels, not of reality. Yet here he was, basking still in the glow of the night before, constantly remembering the luscious way she pleaded for him to make love to her. He smiled and sighed all morning, both unable and unwilling to reign in such a completely elated mood for the benefit of stealth and secrecy.

Given this, Gaius did not need his customarily uncanny awareness of his clanmate’s state of mind to guess at how the previous evening had gone. Anyone could have seen at this particular moment how completely and hopelessly in love the tall dwarf was. Fortunately, no one other than Gaius had any particular reason to visit this morning. The smaller dark-haired dwarf had arrived shortly before noon, smiling with his usual mildness as he commented on Bado’s mood.

“Oh my, you seem to have had a very agreeable night, eh?” He raised his eyebrows at the other blacksmith, who was lost in memory, eyes unfocused as he turned the huge pages of the forge tome without actually seeing or reading a thing. “Of course I meant to give you two a little privacy but I didn’t think you’d use the opportunity to deflower her.” Bado’s head which had been resting in his hand with an elbow upon the work table, slipped in his surprise so that his weight fell to the right of his balance and he toppled off the bench haphazardly.

“How in the hell do you do that?!” He gaped at Gaius from where he was now half-sprawled on the floor. Gaius laughed merrily.

“That was only a lucky guess, but it was based on your exceptionally high, and very distracted spirits this morning. So it was a good guess, you could say.” He mused. Then he held out a hand and leaning very far back, pulled Bado back up onto his long legs. He regarded the taller dwarf thoughtfully.

“What?” Bado asked after a moment of silent intermittent blinking. Gaius smiled.

“Oh I was just thinking, remembering when you ran off to become a knight so hot-headed and impetuously. You’ve always been a hopelessly over-romantic sort… but even with your wild notions, I never expected you would gain the love of an actual princess.” He looked somewhat whimsically at his friend. Bado shrugged with a smile as if to say he could not explain such a happy miracle by any means either. “But how did you come to find yourself in love with her, anyway?” His tone was very curious.

“If you’re looking for a tale of a spark between us and of love at first sight, I’m afraid it’s much more ridiculous than that. We were only acquaintances until I found myself entangled in a thorn bush with her one afternoon.”

“A thorn bush?” Gaius laughed lightly.

“Yeah, a very mean thicket of the nastiest brambles you ever saw. I was trying to help her get out of them and ended up just exactly in the same plight as she had been, only when I became caught in the thorns I had somehow landed myself on top of her in a very compromising position. I thought I would have a heart attack from sheer nerves, I was so panicked.” He explained.

“And what about being pricked and snared in a bramble makes one fall in love?” Gaius mused.

“Well I figure finding myself stooped over her like that planted a little seed in my addled head, you know? Starting right then, while she laid on her back and panted on the forest floor, I began to feel very attracted to her in an unambiguously sexual way. From there my attention was real fixated on her and after she showed some concern and affection for me I added a romantic attraction to my desire for her—not that I felt at all in control of any of this development of feelings.” He added hastily, then briefly recounted the events of the next week that followed the bramble incident. “It was just a whirlwind of confusion and anxiety until I finally allowed her to persuade me to accept my feelings for her and agree to be together.”

“Oh, so she convinced you, did she? What a charmingly bold young thing she is.” Gaius chuckled breezily.

“You don’t know the half of it.” Bado smiled in a distant way, once again lost in his remembering of his lover’s eyes, lips, tongue and voice.

“No, you are right, I do not. So I’ll have to find out.” Gaius said very matter-of-factly. It snapped Bado out of his daydream and he looked at his friend with a puzzled expression. “Let’s have her over for dinner, just the three of us… this evening, if that won’t trouble you much?”

“Sure.” Bado answered airily, almost adopting Gaius’s own carefree aura. The smaller dwarf nodded.

“After all, It’s not very fair for you to hoard all her company, even if she chooses to give the best parts of it to you exclusively.” He grinned. Bado smiled a one-sided smile in return.

“Sounds reasonable enough. But I won’t share any more than her friendship, you know, so you’ll have to go on envying the rest.” He teased. “But in the meantime, you’ll have to settle for my company while we make some headway on this hammer. If we don’t start on it soon, you’ll be here until new year before you realize it.” Gaius chuckled and followed Bado toward the forge in reply.

For the next hour or so, he watched placidly as Selphia’s blacksmith examined the pieces of the ruined hammer carefully, picking each up and weighing it in his hands, turning it over, and even touching the broken side of one chunk of metal from the head of the hammer to his tongue at one point. Periodically he would rise and go about the shop to different corners, bringing particular quantities of this and that material over to the table and comparing them with the pieces of the hammer until all around bowls, bags, boxes, envelopes, and pouches of just about everything one could possibly imagine would be involved in forging or crafting were gathered about the work table, stacked on every surface including each other. No words passed between them during this period, but occasionally Bado would ‘hmm’ or ‘huh’ or merely furrow his brow, and then he would pick up one of the materials and hand it without looking to Gaius. He in turn would take it away and place it back where Bado had fetched it from. For having only one half of the visual faculties of most people, he was exceptionally observant in this, and didn’t have to ask once where anything belonged, which was just as well because Bado had become wholly fixated on his task and could not attend to anyone else’s thoughts or words just now any more than he could fly.

The entire time this was going on, Gaius quite patiently stood by without expressing the least displeasure at being alternately ignored and handed things. Twice, customers came into the store and he greeted and assisted them and even sold a thing or two while Bado did not appear to notice at all that he had gone until he turned his head to see why Gaius had not collected the bowl of powdered fortoise shell he had been holding out in the air to his left for some minutes. After he had narrowed down the materials he wished to use, which took another couple of hours of constant thinking, looking, touching, and comparing, he fetched the envelope that had contained Gaius’s letter and found a quill with a broken shaft and sat down at the table in front of the open forge tome. Upon looking around and finding no ink, he resorted to using a horrible looking liquid from a small glass jar, both purple and black and light blue all at once depending on how the light hit it. As he scribbled notes in the angular dwarf script on the envelope the toxic looking substance hissed and burned the paper a little with every stroke.

“Are you sure you want to use that? Isn’t King Hornet venom hard to come by?”

“Yeah, s’fine… I never have’ny use for it anyway… don’t make poisonous weapons ‘nymore” Bado mumbled absentmindedly as he wrote. His suddenly sloppy speech was understood perfectly by his kinsman, who as sure as anything knew exactly what it was to forget a little how to converse after bending his mind so completely on a solitary task for an extended period of time. Gaius sat quietly and very still as his one eye followed Bado’s hand and eyes as he worked.

The small west-facing windows near the top of the wall eventually let in a golden evening glow as the sun crept toward the horizon. It would not be completely dark for a few more hours but the softer light said undeniably that the dinner hour approached. Gaius stood up, stretched his arms and back and placed a hand firmly on his friend’s shoulder. Bado startled a little at his touch, rubbed his eyes briefly and looked up at Gaius.

“I’ll go get Frey.” Gaius said simply. “You should wash your face and snap out of that mood or I’ll keep her attention all to myself this evening.” He smirked. Bado rubbed his eyes again with the heels of his hands and grunted a little noise of acknowledgement. He stood up and put a stopper in the bottle of venom he had been using for ink. Gaius nodded, seeming satisfied that he had stopped working and turned to leave by the front door.

“Gaius?” Bado called suddenly. The smaller dwarf turned and smiled mildly, tilting his head in an inquiring way. “Wha’d’you wanna have?” His speech was still stumbling.

Gaius looked somewhat thoughtful for a moment, then said simply: “Curry Udon.”

Bado nodded and fetched a large cast iron kettle from beneath one of the tables in the forge room. Gaius gave one more approving glance and left the Meanderer.

***

Frey sighed happily as she stared at nothing in particular while her arm moved automatically to brush Ari’s gleaming silver-blue fur. He took advantage of her distracted mood and licked her face before she could pull away and dodge him.

“Phhgheh” She shook her head and giggled. “Just because I’m thinking about kissing and such doesn’t mean I want you to kiss me.” Ari panted happily with his wolf grin pointed at her as she spoke.

“How unfortunate for me.” A teasing voice said placidly from behind her. She gasped a little and turned around, standing upright and pulling a hand up automatically to her hip, but she was not wearing her scabbards at present. Then she recognized the dark-haired figure and let out a breath of relief.

“You startled me!” She said breathily. Gaius blinked at her, still smiling in his mild way.

“I came to invite you to dinner with me and your affectionate lover.” He said amiably. She smiled and nodded happily in reply.

“I’d love to join you.” She chirped, then looked a little startled again as Gaius stepped forward and came very close to her.

“But first I want to talk with you a moment.” He did not reach out to touch her or whisper in her ear this time, but he stood very close and looked down at her with one eye glittering with an intent expression.

“O-okay.” She squeaked and then swallowed, leaning backward slightly. Gaius’s eye creased with an affectionate smile.

“You are quite cute, aren’t you?” He said. She blushed and blinked rapidly a couple times.

“Um—“ She made a shy little tucking motion with her head in her uncertainty. There was no smoldering or hungry expression in Gaius’s face. He did not blush, and his ears seemed quite still and unperturbed, and he looked perfectly relaxed and at ease. Clearly he had no romantic agenda, so why on Earth was he behaving this way? She frowned in her confusion, blushing still deeper. He laughed aloud and took a step back to give her room to breathe.

“Forgive me. It’s a little hard to resist playing games with you. …But I do, in fact, have a question for you.” She relaxed a little, wondering to herself if there was something about her that made people want to play tricks suddenly. Bado had certainly endeavored to ruffle her at every conceivable opportunity before the day they fell into the bramble thicket.

“What is it?” She asked.

“I want to know how you fell in love with him.” Gaius said calmly. Frey blushed again as his question hit her. It really didn’t seem fair that he always got to be the one surprising her with such sudden words and actions.

“H-how?”

“Yes. He told me about the incident in the thorn bushes, but I want to hear your account of how you came to love him. I think it will probably be very enlightening.”

“Well…” She said slowly, thinking back. “I guess it started out as curiosity.” Gaius eyed her with interest. “He had annoyed me once or twice, going clear out of his way to get a rise out of me and that made me wonder a bit about him. I wanted to know what kind of person he could possibly be, who’s only motivation was supposedly money, but whose only evident interests were little amusements like getting me to make an embarrassed expression or some other nonsense.” She looked thoughtful again as she struggled to remember her prior feelings for the tall dwarf. “I guess what really motivated me to try and figure him out were the contradictions… claiming to love money but never trying very hard to actually get any and being completely unmoved if he lost most of what he had. And then there were the weapons… I heard he was an amazing blacksmith but that Forte was always complaining that he made blunt weapons. I decided to ask him about it so I invited him on a walk outside of town and that is when all that nonsense with the brambles happened.”

“I see. And did you find out anything from him?”

“Well not the things I had intended to ask about, anyway.” She chuckled. “But I did learn that day that at the very least I cared very much about his wellbeing regardless of all his prior shenanigans. The moment I saw him so full of panic and distress I kind of melted inside… All I could think of was how I might calm him. It was like some kind of instinct when I put my hand on his after we got back to the shop. It didn’t even seem strange at the time that I wanted to be close to him and comfort him.”

“But at that time it was merely sympathy?” Gaius asked. “Or were you attracted to him, then?” She tilted her head and looked off in the distance as she thought.

“I don’t think so? Not right away, anyway. I was a bit too worried about him to be appraising his looks at the time. But the next day, when I thought back on it, I realized I was disappointed somehow at how alarmed he had been to find himself up against me. …And I thought about how wistful he seemed as soon as I held his hand.” She felt her expression soften as she recalled it. “It was pretty subtle at first though… I don’t think it occurred to me that I was attracted to him right away.”

“Oh? And when did you realize it?” Gaius asked with an amused and interested tilt of his head.

“I guess it was after he got out of the clinic and I walked him back home. That time, too, it just felt like some other force was influencing me and I remember it seemed very clear to me that kissing him was what I wanted, even though I hadn’t even thought of it before that moment.” She blushed and looked up at him with an expression both shy and very pleased with herself. “After the kiss I have been very plainly attracted to him every moment since… Especially when he looks at me like—“ She broke off, twirling a piece of hair nervously around a fingertip. Ari leaned against her and licked her other hand which hung at her side. Gaius stared at her, smiling with every sign of enjoying what he saw in her now.

“How interesting…” He said quietly.

“What is?”

“You seem to have come to it in opposite patterns, you and him.” Gaius answered in an amused tone. “You began with curiosity and sympathy, and he with desire and apprehension. Yet you both turned those things into love simultaneously shortly after, like two different stones worn smooth by the same river…” He trailed off and his expression became distant.

“How poetic of you.” She teased.

“Not really.” He chuckled. “I just can’t help but relate everything to rocks and stones and ore, since those are what I understand best.”

“Why are you so curious about our feelings?” She suddenly asked without hesitation. He looked uncertainly at her, as if he were deliberating on whether to be evasive or forthcoming.

“Because I envy him.” He said finally, in a level tone full of cautious vulnerability and just a touch of defiance. “…and you.” She looked silently at him. For all her boldness in asking, she wasn’t sure what to do with his answer now that she had it. “But don’t worry, I have no interest in competing with him for your affection, not that you are anything less than his lovestruck eyes perceive. It’s just… I can’t help but wonder why, you know? Why one and not another? Why refuse one when there are no others? Why fall for one most people don’t even consider a possibility for someone your age, for example? …and what on earth do you do with these feelings if you can’t give them to the person they’re for…” Frey opened her mouth to make some reply, but stopped when she saw his gaze drop to the ground and his expression become embittered. “But I shouldn’t be surprised when I couldn’t even bring myself to speak to her…” There was a long silence.

“How do you know she doesn’t love you if you don’t speak with her?” Frey said finally. He looked up gloomily.

“She told me she thinks of me as a friend.” He did not elaborate as to who the ‘she’ in question was, but made no more effort to disguise his thoughts either.

“But you haven’t told her you love her?”

“…no.”

“Her answer might be different if she knew how you feel. Maybe a friend is all she thinks you want to be to her.” He did not reply, but only stared at her fixedly. She sighed. He seemed not to accept her words, but then he spoke, suddenly.

“If she loved me, wouldn’t she have just said so?” He challenged. Frey smiled sympathetically.

“You haven’t. So why do you expect her to have?” His open eye widened slightly and some of the bitterness ebbed from his expression. “It’s hardly fair to assume she feels one way or another. Nobody I have ever met can read minds… Wouldn’t it be better to just ask?”

“I don’t know how…” He looked away, downcast. On a sudden clear impulse, Frey stepped forward and this time it was Gaius who looked surprised at finding her suddenly so near to him. She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him gently, feeling him pull in a little breath as she did so. He didn’t move to return the hug or to pull away from her.

“I’m sure you’ll find a way.” She said quietly into his pointed ear, squeezed him lightly and then released him, stepping back. He was staring at her with wide-eyed astonishment, apparently at a loss for words. She laughed a short, quiet fluttering laugh. His cool mask of mild, detached amusement had cracked completely.

“I thought…” He began quietly, “I’d be the one to give you insight… about him.”

“By all means.” She said happily. “I’ll take anything you’ve got on him. He’s not all that into volunteering info about himself, as you know.” He finally cracked a more genuine smile, albeit a small one.

“Well… It’s a good thing we have all week, then.”

 

Chapter Text

“You’re lucky, Gaius. Frey’s a much better cook than I.” Said Bado, smiling his half-smile at Gaius as Frey rummaged excitedly through a box of spices. One thing that was convenient about living in a shop was that there was always a wide variety of things on hand, and he wasn’t so attached to his business not to use them if he felt the need. Frey was not only talented at cooking but also very fond of it, so without any provocation other than being invited to taste the dish in progress, she had eagerly taken over the making of the curry udon that Gaius had requested. Both dwarves watched her affectionately as she flitted around the work room which had temporarily been reimagined as a makeshift kitchen. The forge was stoked with wood, not coals, and burned at a far more ordinary temperature than usual. On this tame little fire the large kettle sat simmering the soup, into which Frey tossed this spice and that vegetable until she was finally satisfied with the taste. She had excellent instincts. The meal was as delicious as restaurant fare, even though it had been ‘forged’ as Bado liked to call it, rather than cooked in a conventional way.

The conversation, which had been pleasant and mild enough, lapsed while they ate but as soon as the three of them had eaten their fill and pushed their bowls (all quite mismatched and cracked) away, Frey looked from one perfectly matched head of untidy dark hair to the other and started afresh with questions.

“So you two are related, right?” She asked. Bado looked slightly confused, then answered.

“Well, yeah. Aren’t all clanmates?”

“Oh, yes but I meant like are you half-brothers or cousins or something like that?” Gaius smiled a little wider as he watched Bado glance upward as he thought about it.

“Letsee… cousins have parents who are siblings, right?” Frey looked a little surprised at him. Gaius laughed.

“All Dwarven clan members are at least as close as cousins.” He explained. “But aside from brothers and sisters and sons and daughters, we don’t differentiate much between specific family bonds. Everyone more distantly related than a sibling is a considered a cousin, regardless of whether they have sibling parents.”

“I don’t think we are cousins in the way humans define it.” Said Bado finally. “But we certainly have many family members in common.”

“Well, you certainly look like family.” Frey giggled a little as they both tilted their heads in the same exact gesture at her. “All except for size, that is.”  Bado smirked at Gaius, who looked playfully annoyed.

“Yeah, yeah. As if I have not heard that a thousand times already.”

“Which of you is a more ordinary size for a dwarf?”

“Well, me of course.” Said Gaius. “This oaf is too big to be a human, elf or dwarf, really.” Frey laughed again, covering her mouth with her slender fingers. Bado made a point to mock a look of being affronted. She scrunched her nose affectionately at him and he smiled at her in return, unable to keep a sour expression in the face of her adorable mannerisms.

“How is the hammer coming?” Frey asked pleasantly, changing the subject.

“Haven’t started the actual forging yet. That’ll be tomorrow… Got the materials pretty much figured though. Plan’s in place and so on.” Said Bado.

They talked pleasantly until dark had settled outside. Finally, Gaius yawned and rose, bade them goodnight, and returned to his room at the bell hotel. Bado stood and set about tidying up, if one could ever call the Meanderer an entirely tidy place. He felt Frey’s eyes following him around the room. Then, though he hadn’t seen or heard her rise from her chair, her hands slid around his waist from behind while he scrubbed out the kettle. He stopped and concentrated on her slight weight leaning into his back. Presently he turned around and lightly touched under her chin, looking intently at her face. In her expression he saw his own mirrored once more, a look that asked a silent question and held back the bulk of a very eager pull.

He stood very still as he gazed at her. Somehow the moment seemed like it should be preserved, the unspoken question unanswered.

“Bado?” She said his name as softly as a voice can without collapsing into a whisper. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth and he delicately grasped her hands in his and knelt down upon his knees. She was still only a little taller than him though he was kneeling and she was standing. He looked at her through layers of desire, longing, and loving affection. Then he wrapped a hand around her lower back and pulled her gently into a soft embrace, nuzzling his face into her collar and breathing in her scent.

“I love you, Frey.” He sighed happily, smiling into the fabric of her shirt. She was hugging him back with one hand on the back of his head, curling her fingers in his hair.

“I love you too.” She replied. The held each other in silence for a time and the glow of their affection for one another seemed to warm the room even more than the embers in the forge. She kissed the top of his head and nuzzled his hair. “Can I stay?” Her voice, soft and high, seemed timid.

“Of course, pet.” He squeezed her again, then pulled back just enough to look at her expression. Her eyes were half-lidded, her lips parted slightly. Once more, he had difficulty looking away from those lips. They seemed to cast a spell on him, holding him in place. She trembled, as if the costly effort of something bore down on her. He brought a hand up and gently laid it at her cheek, his little finger just under her jawline, caressing her neck. With this hand, he pulled her to him ever so slightly and leaned in, bringing his lips very close to hers and then holding still once more. One of her hands clenched the fabric of his shirt between her fingers and he felt a shiver run through her. Her anticipation was filling the air with a charge of electricity. He smiled. She was bravely holding back to let him lead but clearly it cost all her strength of will not to throw herself at him. A half-wicked twinge of satisfaction flared in him. Oh, it felt so good to see her pining for him.  But, there was one thing better still…

“Ask.” He whispered. He continued to hold himself just apart from her, letting the slight space between their mouths singe them both a little more. She whimpered softly. It sent a shiver through him. His ears burned and twitched. “Tell me what you want.” He said softly but insistently.

“Please…” She breathed. “I want you… all of you.” She trembled as she spoke.

“Frey!” He cried and kissed her hard, holding her tightly to him. She returned the kiss eagerly, whimpering again into his mouth and trembling all the while. Then, squeezing both arms around her he stood up and lifted her as he returned to his full height, kissing her mouth over and over as he did so. Her legs wrapped around his waist and he walked to his bedroom, one hand around her and one tracing the wall as he went. When he reached the bed he bent over it and deposited her on her back while he hovered above her, breathing deep as he looked down at her desirous expression.

Her hands sought their way beneath his shirt and pulled it over his head. He lifted himself off of his hands obligingly and finished removing it. She ran her fingers over his shoulders and chest and looked hungrily up at him, biting her lower lip in the most agonizingly alluring way. He shivered again from the intensity of his own desire for her. After a moment he lifted a hand and unbuttoned her shirt. She wriggled out of it eagerly and lifted herself off the mattress on her elbows to give him room to reach behind her and unclasp her bra. He let out a slow breath as he beheld her. Suddenly, as if the sight of her bare skin from the waist up made him feverishly crave the whole sight of her, he immediately leaned back on his heels and pulled off her skirt and tights eagerly. Perhaps instinctively, she reached her arms above her head and stretched out beneath him, perfectly naked and perfectly gorgeous. He leaned back and gazed at her, frozen in appreciation. She blinked slowly at him, then traced the fingertips of her right hand down the center line of his chest and abdomen until they curled over his belt and the edge of his pants.

“No fair.” She whispered, and pulled the tail of the belt until it came unfastened. To facilitate the speediest possible removal of these, he stood up from the bed and took them off himself, letting both the pants and underwear fall to the floor and stepping out of them back onto the bed while Frey reached for him with both arms. He crouched over her and kissed her passionately while her hands ran over his body. Her skin was so warm and soft against his.

The solid, real presence of her beneath him amazed in over and over again. Always he half expected to wake up and realize that everything since the day in the brambles had been a dream, beautiful and decadent but unreal and quickly fading into nothing. Yet here she was, open and eagerly inviting him to see, hear, touch, smell and taste her. Here she was, panting and pulling on him and pushing her mouth onto his. Here she was… really and truly here with him.

Gradually he became aware of her legs wrapping around him and pulling him closer. She tilted her head back after they broke apart their kissing to snatch a few heavy breaths and whined aloud, arching her back and spreading her thighs a little more. This was perhaps the most unbelievable and decadent part of this fanciful reality. She wanted him with her in this final circle of intimacy. She wanted his body entangled with hers, and she wanted him within her. Electricity coursed down his spine and fire burned inside him as he remembered the sensation of pushing slowly into her the previous night for the first time.

No such rapture had ever demolished all other cares, thoughts, worries, or feelings so completely before. When he had made love to her there was nothing in this world but the two of them, bound together in love and desire. This, he thought, was nothing like anything he had experienced before. Even with the sexual adventures he enjoyed while in the knighthood, a benefit of his ‘legendary’ title and celebrity at the time, nothing could have prepared him for what he felt with her. Before, sex was merely a means of distracting himself and dulling the pain of hating who and what he was, an act without meaning beyond a few moments of forgetfulness and shallow pleasure. This was wholly different. He may have known what to do with his body and how to touch her and please her until she purred with longing, but as far as making love emotionally was concerned he had been just as much a virgin as she. With Frey, he made love with his mind and heart as well as his body. All of him was here and with her. He would give her all of him again tonight… tomorrow… always, as long as she wished.

Such were his fevered thoughts as he felt her squirm with impatient, red-hot desire beneath him.

“Oh, you are wicked!” She said plaintively. “Do you want to hear me beg so badly?” She made her voice pout, but she was smiling too. He grinned back at her.

“It’s in my nature to be wicked, love. I take pleasure in tormenting myself as well as you with waiting. But, all demons must follow their own rules, and I am humbled before your voice when you beg for me. I will be as obedient to your desires as you can imagine as soon as you ask.” Upon the last word he whispered delicately in her ear and then brushed it with his lips. She twisted again, curving her back and breathing in with a shrill, playful sound. Then he looked into her eyes with a mocking, expectant expression.

“You know what I want, you depraved thing.” She teased back. “Give me what you gave last night.” She reached down and slid her soft fingertips slowly down his shaft. His eyes misted and he melted a little at the unraveling pleasure of her touch. “I want every inch of you…”

“Frey…” He breathed her name again, unable to keep up the game as he drowned in her words and the sensation of her caress.

“Please…” She whispered in his ear. “I want you so much, Bado.” His heart swelled and as if he really were bound by some enchantment, the compulsion to give her whatever she asked for washed over him. He found his words again.

“Of course, love… I told you I would give you anything… especially myself, in whatever way you want me.” Their eyes held each other tenderly, mutual affection almost tangible in the small space of air between their bodies.

Now, he leaned into her, slipping the tip of his member in between her slick folds. He watched her face as he pressed himself slowly and carefully into her. Her eyes closed and her lips parted, she leaned her head back and moaned softly. She was so very warm and tight around him. He could hardly bring himself to breathe. It wasn’t just for her sake that he moved as gradually as he possibly could, feeling himself slide into her by degrees. Wrapped in her sex and her love, he felt things both physical and emotional that were of such magnitude he thought it might break him.

When he finally pushed the last of him inside her, she gasped very softly and opened her eyes half-way to look into his. He poured all the overwhelming intensity of his love for her into his gaze. He could not form a word with his lips or tongue anymore. She reached up with both hands and pulled his face gently toward hers. Her lips captured his and he lost track of all things except the wet warmth and pleasure of her mouth and her sex below.

After a few moments of uninterrupted, slow and sensual kisses, he moved his hips very slowly and deliberately, first merely pushing some of his weight into her without withdrawing from her in between. She breathed in time with the motion. Gradually he began moving in and out of her slightly. She sighed and moaned softly, stroking his sides with her slender hands as he moved. Then upon one slightly more confident thrust he felt himself twitch inside her and he froze, trying to wrestle down the peak of stimulation that had suddenly hit him. It was too soon. He must have been making a strained face, his eyes closed and jaw set, for she set a timid hand at his cheek and called his name softly.

“Bado? What’s wrong?” He did not open his eyes right away. He had heard and understood her voice by some miracle, but all his will and concentration was bent now on keeping himself from finishing early. He took two slow, deep breaths. “Are you alright?” She sounded worried. Finally, he opened his eyes and saw hers drawn with concern.

“I’m fine, love. “ He replied quietly at last. “But, you are just too enticing, it seems. I’m not sure I can last like this.” She looked confused. He wasn’t sure how to explain, or that an extended monologue wouldn’t break his focus to the point of spoiling it all. Then an Idea struck him. “Would you like to try being on top?” He asked softly.

“Will that help?” She whispered back.

“I think so.”

“Sure.” He smiled slightly and carefully eased his way out of her again, only letting his breath out once he was clear of her and the cool air tempered the fire within him.  She sat up and moved sideways a little to make room for him to lie down, then she looked lost. “I don’t know how…” She said in a very small voice.

“Come here.” He guided her gently to him and lifted one of her knees over himself. “I’ll help you.” He said. She put her hands on his chest and adjusted her balance as she straddled him. He wrapped his hands around her hips and squeezed gently. “Ready?” She nodded a little timidly. He moved one hand and positioned himself in line with her entrance once more. Then he carefully pulled her down onto him, sighing softly as her heat wrapped around him again. She watched his face intently and moved exactly as she felt his big hands encouraging her to. Without the distraction of balancing and holding himself upright he was better able to regulate the tide of pleasure that came over him with each movement. He gently coaxed her into angling her pelvis to give her the friction he knew she’d need and smiled as he saw her head tilt back when she felt it. Once she had adopted a slow, steady rhythm he chanced to take his hands off of her hips and massage her breasts as she panted softly above him. She leaned into his hands and closed her eyes. He rubbed her nipples in small circles with his thumbs, watching her breathing and listening to her soft moaning sounds humming in her chest still. Then he drew his feet up a little and braced them on the bed. The next time she lifted herself a little he thrust up into her as she came back down.

“Aaah!” She cried, leaned forward, and arched her back. He stilled, concerned it had been too much. She was so small, he couldn’t help but worry that he might overdo it, no matter how careful he tried to be. “Oh! Don’t stop! Do that again!” She breathed shrilly. Reassured and not just a little excited at her exclamation, he gripped her hips in his hands again and repeated the motion. She cried out again and he felt her strain to widen the spread of her thighs. He thrust upward a third time and felt her tense her body. Her fingers curled on his chest and she inclined her brows and opened her mouth involuntarily. She was completely enthralled by pleasure. The sight of her like this spurred him on. He continued, reveling in the rhythm of high pitched gasps and cries that escaped her. Over a few more strokes he increased the tempo, bucking his hips against her. She grew louder and wilder. Her hair and breasts bounced as she rode him, losing herself more and more with every thrust. Suddenly she straightened up, tilting her head back and letting out a long, broken cry of ecstasy. He heard his own voice gasp as she tightened around his manhood repeatedly. Then with a jolt he felt her balance slip too far and he sat upright and caught her in his arms as she fell backward.

“Careful!” He laughed. But she was still absorbed in her orgasm and let her weight completely into his hands as she panted, then moaned long and soft. She wasn’t coming out if it as quickly this time. On a sudden impulse, he held her tightly with one arm and maneuvered back into the position they had started in earlier. She clutched at his sides and arched her back again. He looked at her in mingled surprise and giddy delight. ‘No way…’ He thought, and began to resume a rocking motion with his hips, thrusting into her again and again. She was panting and gasping and whining in a chorus of fevered delirium, eyes shut, mouth open. The hot, molten pleasure from earlier resumed and he fought it just enough to keep himself to a reasonable ramp up as he pushed a little harder into her now.

“Aaah! Aah! Ah!” She was yelping out with every stroke, tensing her back and squeezing his sides tightly.

“Hhahhhh, aahh!” He heard his own voice slip out as the intense pleasure began to overtake him. She went rigid once more and gave another long, shrill cry. The contractions of her climax around his sex triggered his own orgasm and they came together in a torrent of heat and passion. For one moment, he forgot everything, every thought that had ever entered his mind, every feeling that had ever touched his heart except for his pleasure in and love for Frey as she wrapped her arms and legs around him and panted breathlessly. Then just as he returned to his usual consciousness, though quite foggy and confused by the feverish haze that hung over him, she pulled his face to hers and kissed him hard between gasps of air. He laughed as she flopped back onto the bed and tried to catch her breath, letting her hands fall on either side of her head, her chest rising and falling rapidly.

“You tricky little minx, you just had two, didn’t you?!” She did not raise her head or speak, but cracked one eye and smiled in an exhausted way and nodded slightly. “You’re full of surprises, pet.” He grinned and kissed her forehead.

“Says…you…” She panted. He laughed again.

“Oh, Frey… I wonder if you can possibly know how much I love to see you enjoy this so much.” He nuzzled her neck and kissed her cheek as her breathing slowly returned to normal.

“I’m way too spent to gate my way home, though.” She breathed.

“Lucky me, I get to have you to myself until morning now.” He purred, rolling them both over until she was sprawled on top of him, still limp and pliable. “You know, you make a fairly comfortable blanket, even if you are quite small…” He mused. She laughed a tired laugh.

“I love you, you ridiculous creature.” She breathed.

“I love you too, little Nymph.” He pulled the actual blanket over them both and stroked her back tenderly until they both fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Just after dawn a tapping on the front door roused Bado from his dreams. He stirred and realized Frey was once again cuddled in his arms as he woke. It was a heavenly way to begin the morning every time. He kissed her forehead and slipped his arm carefully out from under her. She mumbled a little in her sleep but did not open her eyes. He stood up and stretched, still naked from the previous night’s adventures. The tapping on the door came again. He pulled a pair of shorts from a drawer and put them on hastily, then tugged a shirt out of his wardrobe. It was the wrong one: a soft, gray long sleeved shirt with three buttons going partway down the neck. It was the wrong time of year to wear long sleeves. He tossed it over the footboard and grabbed a more suitable V-neck t-shirt.

Once he had dressed he opened the door and quietly welcomed Gaius into the front room. The smaller dwarf snickered and pointed at Bado’s hair which stood up in all directions. He smiled and shrugged with a mischievous air.

“What do you expect? I have a feisty little Nymph to try and keep up with.”

“Nymph, huh? I had no idea she was a princess and a mythical creature.” Gaius remarked lightly. Bado chuckled. He sat down in a chair and gestured to a second one for Gaius, who did the same. Reaching for a bowl of small oranges on the counter, he tossed one to his friend and began peeling another. “So what did you decide about the materials yesterday? Do you have everything you need?” his kinsman asked pleasantly.

“Yeah, I have an idea of what I want to do with it. It might take a couple more days than I originally thought, but it’ll be better than before. The trick will be getting the weight right. It’s hard for me to judge, since mine is heavier than most.”

“That sounds about ri—“ Gaius choked halfway through the last syllable, stiffening in his chair and staring wide-eyed over Bado’s shoulder, his face suddenly beet-red.

“Bado, c’m’back to bed… it’s so cold n’there w’thout you…” Frey’s voice mumbled behind him. He twisted around and froze, staring with the same stunned expression as Gaius. She was padding silently over to them rubbing her eyes, still sleepily closed, with one hand. She had put on the long sleeved shirt he accidentally grabbed a few minutes before, and being much too big for her it had fallen off one of her shoulders and the sleeves hung well past her fingertips. It was long enough to cover her to mid-thigh but no more. The collar hung open to the third button, revealing a tantalizing view of the space between her breasts. Altogether it looked like it might slip right off of her any moment and was held on merely by a vicious desire on the part of the fabric itself to tease him cruelly. The orange fell out of Bado’s hand onto the floor as he gaped at her. How on Earth could one person be so adorable and so sexy at the same time?! He couldn’t form a word.

The two Dwarves sat petrified in the face of the barely-dressed princess approaching. She stopped a pace away from where Bado was sitting and suddenly yawned and stretched her arms high in the air. The motion pulled the shirt up several inches. It was barely long enough to make her decent to begin with and in between two rapid heartbeats Bado gulped and snatched the lower edge of the shirt with one outstretched hand and pulled it down over her groin just before she accidentally exposed herself. The sides of the shirt still lifted high enough to see the unbroken curve of her hips and thighs. She wasn’t wearing any underwear… He glanced back, horrified, at Gaius as the smaller dwarf blinked in embarrassment and gripped the rim of the chair he was sitting on. Feeling the tug, Frey opened her eyes, blinked, and spotted Gaius sitting three feet away like a creature that had been struck by lightning. She flushed scarlet instantly and drew one sleeved arm over her chest and the other shot down between her legs to hold the shirt in front of her.

“Oh!” She cried shrilly and dashed back into his room behind the drape in the doorway.

“S-sorry! Sorry, Gaius! I didn’t know you were here!” She called frantically from the other room.

“T-that’s alright.” Gaius croaked, then smiled in spite of himself. “F-far be it from me to complain about seeing something like that first thing in the morning. He chuckled a little nervously. Bado laughed aloud more generously, shaking his head.

“What did I just get done saying? I told you she’s a handful!”

“Ha ha, very funny!” Frey cried, laughing in turn from his room. She reappeared, fully dressed, after a moment and cleared her throat lightly. “Sorry about that.” She said again. Gaius shook his head and dismissed the apology.

“No worries.” He said pleasantly. She smiled gratefully, but still looked a little embarrassed, and then leaned over and kissed Bado on the cheek.

“I’ve got to go before someone sends out a search party again.” She said, looking a little guilty. “See you later!” She grinned at both of them and then was gone with a flash of light and a word.

“Good god!” Gaius exclaimed after she left. He clutched at his chest and looked frail, but he was grinning in the most irreverent way. “Are you sure she isn’t a will-o-wisp, rather than a nymph?!"

“Tell me about it!” Bado laughed again. “And you haven’t even heard the sounds she makes!” He felt his face and ears grow hot as he thought about it.

“Cool it, lover boy.” Gaius chuckled. “I need your head screwed on straight to work on my hammer you know…”

“Right, sorry.” He replied, smiling sheepishly. Just then the shop bell rang as the door opened. It was still a little early for customers, but clearly Dylas, who stepped in carrying a broken fishing pole, wasn’t here just to shoot the breeze either. Bado hadn’t forgotten his objection to Dylas’ previous behavior, but at Frey’s request he was obliged to be civil.

“Hey, Bado!” He called out as he entered, pausing to look curiously at Gaius for a beat. “I need a favor.”

“Looks that way, yeah.” Bado replied, eyeing the fishing pole. “What did you do to this thing?”

“Hooked something that was more than it could handle, I guess.” He muttered in reply. He held out the thing in front of him and Bado stood up to go look at it. As he stepped close, Dylas flinched and drew in a long, sharp breath through his nose, looking stunned at Bado. All confusion and bewilderment, Bado watched as if in slow motion as the pole slipped from Dylas’ hands and clattered on the floor between their feet. Everything about the shocked expression on the young man’s face described utter disbelief and anger. Before he could say a word, Dylas wheeled around and pelted back out the door, leaving the rod where it lay on the stone floor.

“That can’t be good…” Bado mumbled darkly.

Chapter Text

“Good afternoon, Princess.” Arthur said politely, looking up from some paperwork he was attending to on his desk. His demeanor was as cool and calm as ever, and as usual his eyes glinted with secrecy. Frey always got the impression that Arthur knew and thought more than he was letting on at any given moment on any given subject.

“Hi Arthur!” She called cheerfully. “Have you got a harvest report for next week that I could see?” She walked toward his desk from the doorway of his office in Porcoline’s house. Three things there were in abundance here: Papers, books, and glasses. The prince had a peculiar fascination for spectacles, and apart from changing his own every day as an expression of fashion or some such thing, he also collected them adamantly. More than once Frey had been compelled by his pleading to model his latest acquisition for his amusement. She owed him too much to refuse, but always felt a little odd watching him all but squeal with excitement whenever he saw her put on a new and different pair of glasses. With most things, the prince was just as pragmatic as the acting princess, except when it came to glasses and cute things…

“Yes, right over here.” He said, handing her a paper and smiling pleasantly.

“Thanks.” She took the report and began to scan it. Next week would be ideal weather for tomatoes. She made a mental note, then kept reading down the column, but just then the door flew open with a bang and she heard Dylas’ voice full of outrage. Spinning around, her eyes met his and he froze in mid shout.

“ARTHU—“ He stared at her, mouth hanging open for a beat, then his features contorted with a range of unhappy emotions, not the least among them being a very bitter anger. “YOU!” He bellowed, dashing toward her. Frey gasped and backed into Arthur’s desk leaning backward over it just as Dylas seized her shoulders and shook her once before she had time to react. “What’s wrong with you?! Are you really so Naïve? You don’t like me? Fine! But why did you let him—“ He clenched his teeth and stopped mid-sentence. Frey’s eyes widened in surprise and horror.


‘Not again! Not here!’ she thought frantically, abhorring the notion that she would once again have to defend her partner against allegations of manipulating her, pressuring her into sex, or worse…

“Dylas! Release her and compose yourself! I’ll not allow such behavior!” Arthur suddenly bore the authority of his lineage like a banner into a battlefield. Dylas flinched and stepped back in the face of the Prince’s stern glare, letting go of Frey instantly. He looked wildly into Frey’s eyes and then back at Arthur’s. “What is the meaning of this disturbance? Speak.” The prince’s tone was dangerous.

“Dylas, don’t!” Frey blurted out. Arthur held out a hand to silence her with a stern gesture. Dylas’ face crumpled into a tormented mask of disbelief and fury.

“What, you’re going to cover it up for him, now?! I know what you let him do to you!” He shouted.

“No, you don’t! You don’t know anything! Just shut up and let me—“

“SILENCE!” Arthur suddenly roared. The princess and the half-monster ceased their argument but continued to glare and frown at each other. A very tense moment passed as Arthur walked out from behind his desk and stood between them, turning to Dylas first. “What is all this about. Tell me, calmly.” He growled. Dylas glanced back at Frey, his face full of pity, hurt, and wrath, then he turned to Arthur. Frey’s heart dropped like a stone.

“The blacksmith has been fucking her!” He pointed at Frey and shook with anger as he spat out the words. Frey’s eyes clenched shut and she winced as she heard his exclamation. Arthur lost his princely composure for a breath as he looked shocked at her face. She grimaced involuntarily.

“What?!” The prince hissed, then looked back at Dylas. “Why do you say this? Explain yourself!”

“It’s true!” Frey barked boldly, causing both of them to stare at her. “I’ll explain it for myself, so just shut your mouth!” She glared daggers at Dylas.

“Frey this is most unseemly—“ Arthur said through his shock, but she held up a hand to stop him.

“I have been sleeping with Bado.” She said firmly. She put on a determined face but inside there were butterflies in her stomach and her knees felt weak. If she wanted to defend her right to choose her partner and go to bed with him, she had to show that she felt no shame. “But I’ve done so because I wanted to, not from being coerced or forced. I’m in love with him!” She glared defiantly as she raised her voice on the last sentence. “Not that it’s either of your business!”

“Bullshit! What kind of gullible fool are you?” Dylas bit back. “What did he say to you? You just eat it up, don’t you? You’ll believe anything!”

“I don’t give a damn what you believe!” Frey snapped, then wielded Dylas’ own vulgar choice of wording like a dagger. “We’re in love and we’ll fuck if we want to!”

“Frey, hold your tongue!” Arthur snapped at her. “You too!” He turned to Dylas just as he opened his mouth to shout some retort. “Go upstairs to your room and don’t leave until I come to get you. I’ll be there to hear your account after I’m finished here.” Dylas looked as though he would like to fight Arthur’s orders, but flippantly turned and stomped up the stairs instead. Arthur sighed and then turned to Frey with an expression devoid of the compassion and understanding Frey would have hoped for.

“We haven’t done anything wrong.” She said insistently.

“On the contrary!” He spat. “You haven’t given one thought to the implications, or to your position, have you?” She looked confused at him. “You represent the authority of the royal family and the government so long as you are acting princess of Selphia! Your reckless behavior reflects on me, on my father, and Lady Ventuswill herself!” The cold fury in his eyes chilled her blood, but she was desperate enough to be understood that it couldn’t silence her.

“But she already knows! Just ask her—“

“I would if she were here! I can’t even begin to imagine Ventuswill supports this salacious impropriety, and I’m eager to hear her opinion of what’s to be done with you, but she is away on business in the capitol city just now, which means it’s up to me to decide how to handle this situation.” He said frostily.

“There’s nothing to handle! Why the hell do you sound like you mean to punish us?”

“The fact that you don’t see anything wrong with what you’ve done is perhaps the worst part of all this! I really didn’t expect such foolish, immature nonsense from you, princess. Are you really so careless and naïve?”

“Why won’t you just listen?!” She seethed in exasperation. “Who I choose to love is none of your concern! Just leave us alone!”

“Open your eyes! Men his age don’t fall in love with girls like you! They just use them for sex!” Arthur shouted, losing his temper.

“If that’s what you think, then you don’t know the first thing about him, or me for that matter.” Frey glared coldly at the prince.

“Clearly there’s no getting through to you.” Arthur returned her icy stare. Just then a timid knock punctured the heated atmosphere and Meg cracked the door from the restaurant and peaked in.

“What’s going on in here?” She looked severely troubled. Arthur looked up at her and resumed his commanding tone.

“Margaret. Please go fetch Mr. Volcannon immediately.” She looked startled, nodded, then left, letting the door snap shut. Frey cringed again. Only Volcannon’s involvement could have made the situation worse. This was going to be a hell of storm to have to weather. “Dylas! Come down here!” Arthur bellowed. Dylas came sulkily down the stars a minute later, determinedly not making eye contact with Frey, who glared bitterly at him. Arthur looked from the princess back to the young man and spoke again.

“I hardly require your account of how you came to discover this scandal, being that she has no intention of denying any of it, but you will accompany us as we go to resolve this issue.” Frey did not like the way he said this. What did he mean to do? She wouldn’t let him come between her and the man she loved. She’d renounce the royal family, Norad, and everyone in it who denied her relationship to her tall dwarf if she had to. Suddenly the front door opened and Volcannon stepped in, looking stately as usual.

“You sent for me, your highness?” He bowed respectfully.

“Yes. You will accompany us to the Meanderer immediately. There is a matter of grave importance that needs our attention.” Arthur said icily. Volcannon narrowed his eyes at his dark tone, but bowed silently and held the door open. Arthur nodded to Dylas and grabbed Frey’s arm firmly and steered her through the door into the street.

Chapter Text

Bado paced the floor of the Meanderer, vacillating between heading for the castle to find Frey or hunting down and confronting Dylas. He had dressed in a hurry in his usual gear, but hesitated before heading out the door as he wondered what to do. There was no mistaking the half-monster’s reaction earlier. He must have smelled Frey on him and understood finally why Bado had been close by that night in the woods beyond the South gate. Gaius watched him fretfully as he stalked to and fro and shook his head, pulling his beard in his anxiety. He looked about to speak some words of consolation when the front door swung open, ringing the shop bell in a most agitated sounding way.

Volcannon entered the Meanderer, holding the door while Dylas marched in, glaring alternately at the floor and at Bado. Then his heart clenched with worry and fear as he saw Arthur brusquely lead Frey into the room with a hand firmly clamped on her arm. Once inside, she wrenched herself free of his grip and looked at Bado with her green eyes full of the same concern and anxiety he felt. He froze, holding her gaze, a world of unpleasant possibilities flashing through his mind. His worst fears concerning their relationship were about to become reality…

“Bado.” Arthur spoke his name sternly. He turned and looked into the prince’s cold stare, swallowing his panic for the moment to hear what he would say. “It has come to my attention that you have been pursuing an illicit relationship with Selphia’s acting princess, Frey.” Volcannon’s eyes widened and a shadow of wrath cast itself over his features.

“WhaaaaaaAAAAAT?” He roared, and lunged toward Bado. Several things happened all at once. Bado froze like a cornered monster, staring wide eyed at the enormous man charging him. He heard Frey’s voice shout “NO!” and he felt the air move around him. With a jolt he realized that Gaius had jumped between him and the butler, his arms flung forward in a defensive, warding gesture. He was unarmed, and maybe half the size of Volcannon, whose eyes were too tinged with rage to show restraint. There was only one moment, no time to think. Bado threw a large hand forward, gripped Gaius’ collar and flung him out of the way just as Volcannon’s swinging fist flew toward him. A flash of pain and shock shot through him as the butler’s fist collided with his face. He lost his balance and staggered back. Two powerful hands seized his vest, lifted him off the floor, and slammed him into the wall.

“Aagh!” He heard his own shout of pain and shock as the shelf behind him broke and spilled its contents all over the stone floor below.

“I’LL SEE THAT YOU GET THE BEATING YOU DESERVE, YOU GUTLESS CURR!” Volcannon shook him fiercely, slamming his back once more into the wall. Bado grasped Volcannon’s wrists but made no effort to free himself. Fighting back could only make the situation worse.

“STOP! DON’T HURT HIM!” Frey was screaming frantically somewhere a few yards away. He opened his eyes and caught a glimpse of her struggling against Dylas, who had grabbed her and was holding her back as she frantically tried to run forward. She ducked, twisted and jerked her elbow back into Dylas’ stomach and with a yelp he released her. She dashed toward them. Then he felt Volcannon pull him off the wall and heave him sideways, hurling his considerable frame a good six feet into the work area in front of the forge. The work table and of the benches cracked and collapsed under him as he fell onto them with all his weight. He clawed his way back from the pain and wheeling dizziness and opened his eyes just in time to see Frey slide to a stop in front of him and swing her arms open in a wide gesture in front of her. Volcannon had already begun to pursue him to strike another blow by the time he had landed onto the table, and in one horrifying moment frozen in his consciousness, Bado saw the butler’s huge fist swinging toward Frey’s tiny frame as she stood protectively over him. ‘NO!’ the thought blasted through the pain and shock and he seized her around the middle and pulled her to his chest, twisting his body around to protect her from the blow before it landed.

A dazzling light filled the room and the ringing sound of a force colliding with the light prism spell broke through his single minded determination to shelter Frey with himself. No impact fell on him. He opened his eyes and looked into hers as he loosened his grip around her. Her green eyes were full of tears and she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. He held her close, gratefully thanking whatever gods or stars there might be watching over them as he realized she was unharmed. Frey’s Earthmate magic had conjured a wall of light between her and Volcannon, and the shock of colliding with it had interrupted his wrath. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath in suspense.

“That is quite enough!” Arthur’s commanding persona resumed dominance over the room. “I did not bring you to exact vigilante justice, Volcannon! Get a hold of yourself!” Volcannon Bowed low, muttering reluctant apologies and glancing darkly at Bado all the while. Clearly his fury could not be abated so easily as that. “Princess Frey, come away from him this instant!” Arthur suddenly turned his fierce gaze on Frey, who glared defiantly back at him, assuming a defensive posture as she stood up once again putting herself between Bado and anyone who directed their anger his way.

“No!” She barked.

“I am ordering you as prince of Selphia to stand aside!” he bellowed. “If you refuse, you will be renouncing your role as princess and your standing with the royal family. If you wish to continue the life you’ve led since you arrived here with no memory of who you were, I suggest you obey!” The words hit Bado hard. All along what worried him most was some terrible consequence to tumble down on Frey for his actions in pursuing a relationship with her. He couldn’t let this happen.

“Damn my standing and reputation!” She spat, bristling at the prince from across the room. “I won’t let you hurt him!” Her ferocity and the force of her will was at least equal to Arthur’s, even without the born authority of a prince that he had.

“Don’t mistake me. Our nation is not one of barbarians! I don’t mean to handle the situation so violently, regardless of the bad start it got off to.” Arthur gave a punishing glare toward Volcannon, who continued to stare at the floor, his face red. Bado grabbed Frey and turned her to face him, pleading with his eyes for her to listen.

“Frey, don’t! I won’t let you throw away your life here for my sake!

“But—“ She began, but he squeezed her shoulders and interrupted her.

Please! The last thing I ever wanted was for you to suffer because of me.” He shook his head. Tears were rolling down her cheeks as she looked at him in anguish. She seemed at a loss for words now, her terrible ferocity crumbling as she looked into his eyes. He mustered his will and pushed her gently from him, stepping away and looking up at Arthur, his posture broken and defeated. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Frey’s hands balled into fists at her sides, tears falling from her bowed head onto the stone floor. A clawing pain raked his heart. He willed himself to keep looking expectantly at the prince, lest he lose himself and rush to comfort her, which was all he really wanted to do. Arthur stared back at him coldly, seeming determined to drag out this horrible moment. Bado glanced helplessly over at Gaius, who was standing off to the side looking miserably anxious. Gaius returned his gaze briefly.

“I will not allow this scandal to continue.” Arthur began suddenly. “The royal family will not suffer one of its representatives to have an affair with a man twice her age.” The words bit cruelly into him. If he were not so completely in love with her, he might have regretted ever having let her touch his hand that day after they escaped the brambles. As it was, what grieved him most was her choking sobs as she fought with herself, torn between his begging and her own wishes. He longed to wrap his arms around her and hold her until she could smile again. But all he could do now was look miserably at her, his heart breaking in his chest to see her so distraught.

“You will be separated.” Arthur continued, “Princess Frey will be guarded with a chaperone at all times.” Frey looked up furiously at Arthur then stared frantically into Bado’s eyes. “Don’t” he mouthed, begging her with his eyes once more. She fell to her knees and hung her head, a fresh round of tears falling steadily from her downcast eyes. Bado’s eyes burned and he swallowed his wretchedness and grief. Gaius seemed to read his heart in his uncanny way and walked over and knelt at Frey’s side, wrapping his arms gently about her and pulling her to him until she leaned into his shoulder and cried into his furred collar, her shoulders shaking. Bado thanked Gaius silently in his heart.

“And you…” Arthur glared at him. “…will await judgment upon Lady Ventuswill’s return. I will keep you under house arrest until then if need be.” A glimmer of hope kindled in his chest. Ventuswill! She knew everything. She would never banish him from loving Frey... she couldn’t… not after all she had said and done so far. Despite the assurances he thought to himself, doubt lingered painfully.

“He may choose exile and stay with me in Sharance until the dragon returns.” Gaius suddenly spoke from where he knelt, holding the princess in his arms. She sobbed again. Bado nodded gravely, turning his eyes away from seeing her shaking her head, her face buried in Gaius’s shoulder. “Send Raven back to Sharance with a summons when it is time.” Gaius continued. Arthur nodded, lowering his brow.

“That is a suitable solution.” He said quickly, then nodded to Volcannon. “See to it that they leave for Sharance immediately.” Volcannon stepped toward Bado, who looked down and let himself be led roughly with a hand gripping his shoulder toward the door. Gaius delicately pried Frey from him and stood up, looking sadly at her as she drooped toward the floor, hanging her head still. He walked ahead of Volcannon and Bado through the door. At the last moment, Bado relented to an impulse and looked wretchedly back over his shoulder at his love where she cried still on the floor in his home. She looked up into his eyes in that moment with all the agony of helplessness and the forced separation from him pouring out of her like the tears that continued to spill from her emerald eyes. Part of him wished he had not looked back and seen her look so terribly sad but he knew he could not help but look anyway. A black dread wrapped its icy fingers around his heart. What if this was the last time he would look into those green eyes?

Volcannon shoved him suddenly through the door and it swung closed behind them. Bado staggered, utterly devastated in his heart by his fear. A far more friendly touch brought him back to himself, just barely. Gaius was smiling weakly at him, his hand on Bado’s arm. He took what strength he could from his friend’s support and stumbled toward Airship way with his heart like a stone in his chest.

Chapter Text

All was quiet in the Meanderer. Arthur stood stone-still by the door after it closed. Dylas was looking at his feet, saying nothing. Frey had spent all her tears. As soon as Bado had passed out of her sight, her sorrow cooled and hardened into an icy lump in her chest. She stared silently at the stone floor. After a long, heavy silence, she heard Arthur step over toward her.

“Please understand…” His voice was more like his usual self, calm and gentle and light, but for all the compassion he tried to express, she felt only disgust as she heard his words. “It just isn’t proper. You’ll see in time… It is my duty to protect you from this kind of thing.” He reached out a hand to help her up. She flung her head up and glared at him with all the hatred she could muster. He flinched and stepped back, his expression deeply troubled.

“RETURN!” She shouted, striking her fists together in front of her and disappearing from the room in a flash of light.

***

The magic of retornen carried her instantly to her room. Once the familiar surroundings came into focus, she recognized Vishnal dusting the surfaces with a large yellow feather duster. His face assumed a very anxious expression as he looked at her puffy eyes.

“Princess! Whatever is the matter?” He called in a worried tone.

“They…they sent him away…” She choked out the words in a faint voice, feeling tears well up again.

“Who?” Vishnal reached out to her, dropping the feather duster. She was shaking, her knees suddenly unsteady. Unconsciously she automatically reached for him and grabbed his outstretched arms, letting herself lean on him as the shock of what had transpired hit her over and over.

“Bado! They made him leave!”

“What? Bado? Why?” Vishnal asked immediately.

“Because I love him! But they don’t believe me!” Hot tears rolled down her cheeks again. She looked into Vishnal’s eyes, which widened in surprise.

“B-Bado is your lover?!” He stammered in shock.

“Yes!” She wailed. “But they think he is just using me! They won’t listen!” She looked desperately at him, hoping to see understanding, but the young servant’s eyes showed only a vacant sort of surprise. Just then, footsteps rushed up the back porch and Dylas came running into the room through the open door.

“Frey!” He called as he saw her. Anger rose up again when she looked at his golden eyes, then her fury faltered as she recognized a fraction of her own despair reflected in them.

“What do you want?!” She spat, turning toward him. “Get out!” She was crying as she shouted at him still. Dylas did not reply with words. Instead he walked toward her with an urgent energy. She bristled and glared at him. He looked down into her eyes searchingly. They were tinged with worry and confusion, but the anger from before was gone.

“What is the matter with you?” He said in a hushed, rhetorical tone. “Why are you crying for him?” She cringed as another wave of bitter grief washed over her.

“Why do you think?” She hissed in between shallow breaths. Suddenly Dylas looked miserable, taking a deep, pained breath and wincing as he looked at her.

“You…you actually love him? H-how could that be?” He whispered, as if he were speaking to himself.

Now you believe me?!” she asked, incredulous.

“I th-thought—“

“I know what you thought!” she shouted. “This is your fault!” He looked as though he had been struck, then assumed an undeniably remorseful expression as she glared at him through her tears.

“I…I’m sorry, Frey…” This unexpected apology stunned her for a moment. “I… the last thing I wanted was to hurt you…” He drooped, looking down at the floor. The three of them stood in silence, Vishnal was looking between them anxiously. “I didn’t want to believe it… because I wanted you to love me…” He said quietly. “I should never have said anything…” He looked dejectedly at her. She said nothing in reply. As much as she desperately wanted to blame him and lash out, she couldn’t hold a grudge in the face of genuine penitence. Instead she turned back to Vishnal.

“When is Lady Ventuswill expected to return?”

“Oh, um… it’s not very certain, but we were expecting her before next Sunday.” He said in a small voice. Her heart sank a little further. A week’s worth of torment and waiting lay between her and the one person she wanted most to see this very instant; being torn from him cut deeply into her spirit. Venti would not let this nonsense continue once she returned, she was sure… but in the meantime, what if he convinced himself that he had to stay away in Sharance permanently for her sake? He couldn’t be that dense, could he? He couldn’t forget how much she loved him and wanted him… She would throw everything and everyone else away to be with him if she had to as long as he loved her. But for now, all she could do was wait.

Frey was silent a moment, looking both sad and thoughtful, then she looked up at Dylas.

“I wish you had kept your mouth shut and let me explain the situation to you… but I accept your apology. I know this whole thing hasn’t been very graceful all together. Sneaking around and hiding… It was bound to blow up in our faces sooner or later…” She sighed again. Dylas looked at her, still somewhat anxious. A moment ago she wouldn’t have believed it possible, but all her anger at him was draining out of her now. “I don’t want all this bad blood between us… I don’t want to fight with you.” She held his gaze for a moment, working her way through the bitter disappointment of having failed to handle the situation without creating this rift. “And I sure as hell never wanted to hurt you just because I was too chicken to deal with my choices directly. You and I have both screwed this whole thing up along the way… and for my part… I’m sorry Dylas. If I had just told you the truth from the beginning instead of keeping secrets, I could have spared us both a lot of heartache…” Dylas’ eyes assumed an expression of sympathy and apology in return. He opened his mouth, but couldn’t seem to form words yet. She looked down at his feet. Another silence lingered for a time.

“I don’t know what I can do…” Dylas began suddenly. “But I’ll try whatever I can to help make this up to you.” He looked at her determinedly, but still sad. “I can’t take back what I did and said, but I can back you up from this day forward… I told myself I was doing this because I care about you, but I was just being selfish. From now on I’ll help you for your sake, not mine. I’ll help you get him back.” Frey stared at him, moved by his words suddenly. For all his clumsy emotional blundering and stumbling, Dylas had a genuine wish to help her… he wanted her to be happy, regardless of what else transpired.

“Dylas…” She said softly in mild disbelief. He looked a little hopefully into her eyes. She let forgiveness grab hold of her without reservation. “Thank you…” She smiled gratefully at him. He nodded, smiling meekly in return. There was a pause. “I don’t know if there is anything any of us can do until Ventuswill gets back though…” She sighed. Dylas stepped forward and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. As she looked up into his face she could hardly believe how different he seemed from the furious, bitter and hurt version of him she had seen earlier that day. He was smiling reassuringly at her now. It was really quite a handsome smile, clearly genuine.
 
“We’ll get it sorted. You’ll see. Everything will be alright.” He said kindly. Frey let his assurance into her heart, wanting to believe his words more than anything at present.

Chapter Text

 Frey hid herself away in her monster barns for the rest of the day, meticulously grooming each of her monster pets as a way of keeping herself stitched together by focusing on a task. Dylas asked timidly if she wanted to be alone, but offered to keep her company if she didn’t. It was amazing how differently she viewed his presence now. She readily accepted the offer to stick with her as she brushed woollies and filed the nails of her cluckadoodles. Despite being the catalyst for all this drama, Dylas clearly understood her feelings now as well as anyone could. He had seen her reaction to each turn of the day first hand, after all. It was curiously fortifying to have him close by, almost as if his consideration for her feelings shielded her from the bitterness of anyone else’s judgment of her.


Once in a while her resolve to keep her emotions in check weakened, and she would droop and cry softly for a spell. Each time, Dylas would wordlessly draw near to her and rest a comforting hand on her shoulder. Eventually she sought this show of comfort, going as far as to hug him during the bitterest moments and let his words reassure her over and over as he held her.

“We’ll get him back to you… Don’t worry.” He would say quietly. It seemed a bit unbelievable, but just in the space of this day she and the half-monster had gone from bitter combatants to close friends. She guessed that it might not be prudent to be so physically close to him, knowing he had harbored a strong attraction to her, but it felt too horribly lonely to go through the pain of her sudden separation from her lover all alone with no one to comfort her, so she tentatively excused their sudden intimacy in light of the unusual circumstances.

At one point, Leon came to check on her, having heard very quickly what had transpired. Selphia’s rumor mill was not always accurate but it was stupefyingly efficient.

“Everyone’s pretty polarized on this whole situation…” He said glumly. Frey guessed that if it hadn’t demoralized her so completely, the circumstances would have struck the foxlike young man as much more amusing. “Forte has been running around correcting anyone who talks about him tricking or manipulating you… But I’m not positive they aren’t just thinking she is defending her family member’s reputation or something like that. Nancy and Jones even had an argument about it at Porcoline’s place and she walked away from their meal! Doug has been trying to tell people something about Dwarf lifespans and such but all anyone seems to have understood from him is Bado’s actual age, which just makes the ones who didn’t like the idea right away even more disgruntled now that they have a number.” He trailed off. Frey sighed, looking down.

“Why are they all so nosy?” She grumbled. Dylas put his hand on her shoulder and she touched it gratefully with hers. Leon looked curiously between them. A silence hung over them for a minute or two. She didn’t bother justifying the sudden overlap of her and Dylas’ personal space.

“What are you going to do?” Leon asked eventually. She sighed.

“I have half a mind to just leave and go to Sharance myself. If everyone here is so disgusted with me for loving him then maybe I don’t want to live here anymore anyway…” It was only partly true. She dreaded the notion of leaving her life in Selphia, but knew at the same time that if staying here robbed her of her love, she would always feel bitter about the town and the life she lived there.

“Frey…” Leon looked both sad and serious at her. It was out of character for the rogue-ish youth, but it did make her pause her pessimistic train of thought. “Your friends love you too, you know… None of us want to see you unhappy, but we won’t be happy if you leave, either… Don’t run away. We’re here for you. It would be better by far to see this through until they all come around and then you won’t have to be separated from us or him.” She looked up into his face uncertainly, then turned and looked at Dylas. He nodded and smiled a small but reassuring smile.

“The waiting might kill me before then though, she cracked a slight smile but looked helplessly at them in turn.

“You didn’t really get to talk to him did you?” Dylas looked pained. She remembered Bado’s words back at the Meanderer. He was so quick to throw himself away in favor of her continuing to live in Selphia, as if she could ever be satisfied with such an outcome.

“He’s so stupid!” she suddenly squeaked. “How could he think that I would want to live here without him just because that pig-headed prince—“ She choked, and fought back a fresh batch of tears.

“I agree. He is an insufferable idiot.” Forte’s voice suddenly broke into the quiet of the room. She was standing in the doorway with a resolute posture. Doug was standing behind her looking at Frey sympathetically from over her shoulder. She strode into the room with a determined air. “Which is why I’ll be leaving for Sharance in the morning to knock some sense into his thick skull!” Her declaration filled the room and all of them looked surprised at her, then Dylas turned to her.

“I’m coming with you.” He nodded to her. “I have an apology to make… and—“ He turned back to Frey, “If you would like, I’ll relay your feelings to him.”

“Are you sure you want to offer that?” Leon said in a teasing tone, suddenly his usual mischievous self. “Cause I’m pretty sure the first thing she would do is kiss him…”

“Wha—“ Dylas looked affronted and blushed. Frey actually laughed aloud. All of them turned and looked pleasantly surprised at her, but Dylas was still red in the face.

“Thanks, Dylas…” She looked warmly at him.

“Be sure to punch him once on my behalf for leaving” Doug piped up. “I told him I wouldn’t stand for him not appreciating how lucky he is…” He blushed slightly and his eyes darted to Frey’s face and away again.

“I don’t see why I shouldn’t be the one to go to him, though...” Frey said, looking at Forte.

“Because, milady…” Forte looked reassuringly at her. “You need to be here the moment Ventuswill returns and in the meantime you can set the people of this town straight on a few things, especially that self-righteous prince! Tell them all that your love is not theirs to be making judgments on and dare them to come up with a single good reason why you two shouldn’t be together.”

“And I’ll tell them all they don’t know shit about dwarves! If Bado were human he’d only be a handful of years older than you, anyway!” Doug added. Frey looked astonished at each of them in turn as they smiled at her, tears of gratitude welled up and she gathered all four of them with her arms outstretched into a hug.

“Thank you all!” The group were all blushing and carefully avoiding each other’s eyes as they were suddenly snuggled close together, but they grinned at her warmly and looked very relieved to see her smiling again. Then she let them go and felt herself stand up straighter and speak more firmly than before. “I’ll take over your patrols while you’re gone, Forte. While I’m walking around the town I’ll have the opportunity to make them all listen.” Forte nodded approvingly. “You two make sure Bado doesn’t talk himself into anything stupid, okay?” She looked hopefully at Forte and Dylas once more.

“You got it.” Dylas replied, while forte smiled and nodded once more.

Chapter Text

The next morning, after slipping slowly into consciousness on her own, Frey wilted as she remembered that her tall dwarf and his warm embrace were miles and miles away, then immediately steeled herself to be strong until Venti came back. After a moment, she felt, rather than heard Vishnal standing nearby. He was hesitating to give his usual wake-up call, and she had already guessed at why. She rolled over and sat up, looking up at him calmly.

“Vish, what’s wrong?” She said, her tone strongly implying that she already knew the answer.

“Oh! You are already awake…” He mumbled, fidgeted and looked away, but did not turn to leave.

“Vish…”

“I…I j-just never expected… When you said you had a lover, I-I thought—“ He stammered and then fell silent, looking bewildered at her.

“Does it bother you?” She said levelly. He winced a little, but said nothing. “Why?” She asked, taking his silence for affirmation of her suspicion.

“It’s just… not proper…” He said after a moment, clearly uncomfortable. “He is much too old to be your boyfriend…” To his apparent surprise, she smiled and huffed a short laugh through her nose.

“See, this is why I didn’t want to tell people.” She shook her head a little. “But seriously… What’s wrong with him being older than me? I’m a woman, not a child, you know. We love each other. Everything we do is consensual so what’s the problem?” She looked boldly into his eyes as she challenged him to answer.

“It’s just… not done like that.” He fumbled.

“But why?” She said, refusing to back off. “You can’t just tell me it’s wrong and expect me to agree if you have no reason to back that judgment up. Sure, maybe it’s not the most typical pairing. Hell, how many human-dwarf couples are there altogether, I’d like to know!” She gesticulated in an exasperated manner as she said it. “But it’s not wrong just because it’s uncommon! It’s really unfair for you to make a call like that based solely on a superficial fact like age, especially given that dwarves and humans have totally different lifespans anyway.” Borrowing Doug’s logic felt advantageous. Vishnal blanched, blushed, and looked down.

“I… well… I suppose you aren’t wrong, to say such things… It’s just difficult to accept, princess… especially since you are much closer to my age. I can’t imagine having a thirty nine year old girlfriend…” He shifted uncomfortably.

“Well, maybe it wouldn’t work for you, but everyone’s different, you know? You can’t judge every individual based on your own experiences and preferences. I don’t expect you to relate, but I do expect that you will keep an open mind and understand that this is what I want.” She grabbed his shoulder and looked determinedly into his eyes. “I love him, Vishnal. I want to be with him, and as long as we both want to be together and neither of us is getting hurt I don’t see it being anyone’s business to tell us we can’t.” Vishnal sighed and the weight of something seemed to fall from him as he relaxed his shoulders, but continued to frown slightly at her, looking earnestly in her eyes. She didn’t blink as she looked back at him.

“You’re sure?” He asked in a small voice.

“Absolutely.”

“…Okay.” He relented. “It will take some getting used to, but I’ll try to accept your relationship with him as best I can, princess… I’ve only ever wanted to help you and see you happy…”

“I know, Vish. Thank you.” She hugged him gratefully. Then she smiled warmly as she looked once more into his eyes. “Will you help me change this town? I’m not going anywhere and I’m not going to let anyone make him stay away either. It will be better for everyone to learn how to accept us rather than have all this crappy tension.”

“I’ll try.” He reiterated, looking bewildered still.

“That’s all I ask.” She replied. “Now let’s get some breakfast. I need to go do Forte’s rounds while she’s away.”

They went to the kitchen and she endeavored to try and teach him to make an omelet, graciously reassuring him when it became scrambled eggs when he failed to flip it properly. She ate the dish in a hurry and then got dressed in her field gear. Pulling on her gloves and strapping her dual-scabbard belt on, she took a little comfort in knowing that the new emerald-hilt Force Divide she carried on her rounds would remind her of all Bado’s affection for her throughout the day. She took a deep breath and walked out the door, wondering how many times the conversation with Vishnal would repeat itself today with other members of the town.

She walked down the road to the East, looking this way and that for signs of anything amiss. It was rare for Forte’s rounds to turn up anything of concern, but perhaps that was specifically because the young knight was always monitoring the quiet town. As grateful as she was to Forte for travelling to Sharance to check on her tall dwarf, she was determined to do the best job possible while she covered for her friend.

“Frey! Are you okay?” Meg rushed toward her as she rounded the corner across from Porcoline’s kitchen and grasped her hands, looking concerned into her eyes. Frey was stunned speechless. “I heard what happened. Arthur said you were pretty upset…” Frey face suddenly darkened into an expression of fury.

“Like he gives a damn?”

“Don’t be too angry with him, Frey. He feels really bad. He’s just convinced it’s his responsibility. I told him to mind his own business.” She gave a laugh like a wind chime. Frey’s face relaxed a bit but she still felt very suspicious and not at all ready to forgive the prince just yet. “But honestly! Bado is just about the last man I thought you could possibly have been referring to when you told us all that stuff at the pajama party!” She was pink in the face and still laughing as she said it, but aside from a lot of bashfulness, there was nothing amiss in her demeanor.

“Are you gonna tell me how improper it is for me to be with him?” Frey said uncertainly, a little reticent to believe Meg would be so accepting so quickly. Meg smiled with an embarrassed tinge.

“Well I was… but Forte already got to me first and gave me an earful all about how even if he was a lazy slacker, Bado didn’t deserve for everyone to assume he was some kinda wolf preying on a ewe, and how you knew what you were doing and didn’t need to be steered in one direction or another by anyone else when it comes to your relationships. And, well, it kinda struck me that if Forte was telling me all this—you know no one is harder on Bado than her—then what was there left for me to say?” She shrugged as she finished this explanation. Frey’s heart lifted.

“Well, I’m glad she’s already done a little of my work for me as far as convincing people.”

“You’re gonna have a hard time with some of the others… But Porco at least is completely ecstatic.” She laughed again. “He thinks it’s terribly romantic, like some ballet or something about forbidden romance… I can’t make heads or tails of him when he’s like this so just be ready for that.” The elf rolled her eyes. Frey chuckled in reply.

“Thanks, Meg. I appreciate you trying to be open-minded about this.”

“Haha, well trying is the operative word, after all… But I’ve done alright at not flipping out so far… as long as I don’t think about the stuff you told us that night…” She flushed more deeply scarlet and shook her head as if to dislodge the lewd mental images. “I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to handle seeing you kiss him though…” Frey blushed too, but laughed lightly.

“I’m sure you’ll survive even if you do. But, Meg?” She looked pleadingly at her friend.

“Yeah?”

“I know this is already a challenge to accept… but do you think you could help me? …To make everyone see that we have the right to be together?” Meg looked torn.

“I… I want you to be happy, Frey, but It’s hard enough for me to be okay with it myself… I really don’t think I can convince anyone else…”

“You don’t have to. All I ask is that you encourage others to talk to me about it if they have misgivings. I want the opportunity to tell people how I feel first hand. I much prefer for them to decide how they feel about my choices based on that, than some rumor of Arthur banishing my boyfriend and threatening me with the same if I don’t comply.” Meg winced when she heard the word ‘boyfriend’, but nodded anyway.

“I think I can handle that…” She said after a moment. Frey smiled approvingly at her.

“Thank you.” She squeezed Meg’s hands which had been holding onto hers throughout the conversation, then released them and composed herself a little more. “I’ve got to keep going. I’m covering Forte’s route, so I can’t slack off, you know?” Meg nodded.

“Good luck, Frey. I’ll be sure to send others your way if they need an explanation.” With one last smile, Frey headed down the road, buoyed by her success, albeit a little reluctant on their parts, in convincing Vishnal and Margaret to give her relationship a chance. She turned the corner to the right and started making her way South toward the grocery store. Her heart slipped a little from its newly elevated position as she heard the raised voices of Doug and Blossom arguing. She sped up her gait a little and frowned with worry as their words became audible.

“You can’t go defending that kind of rubbish just because he’s a dwarf, Doug!” The elderly woman was in a higher temper than Frey would have guessed possible for her. Typically blossom was as delicate and adorable as any old granny could be.

“It’s not defending him, granny, it’s—“

“You just said ‘his age doesn’t matter because he’s a dwarf’.” She bit back. Doug made a frustrated sound and ran his fingers through his hair furiously.

“You’re not listening! I’m saying that first of all, there’s nothing to defend. They aren’t doing anything wrong! And second, if you think about how long dwarves live, the fact that he’s thirty nine doesn’t really matter that much anymore. I mean jeeze, if I were dating her, you could judge by the same stupid reasoning that I’m much too young for her!

“Do you really think there’s nothing wrong with a man his age seducing—“

“Excuse me.” Frey interjected suddenly.

“Oh!” Blossom squeaked in embarrassment of being unexpectedly faced with the person she had just been talking about. Doug turned around and flushed scarlet once he realized she had overheard his last comment. Frey was suddenly possessed by a somewhat vindictive urge to punish the old woman for vilifying her lover by embarrassing her just a little further.

“If anyone was seducing anyone, it was me seducing him.” She said as calmly as she could force herself to be.

“OH!” Blossom gasped and drew up a withered hand in front of her mouth at Frey’s declaration. Frey smiled, a little satisfied. Doug smirked, but blushed a little further at the same time, torn between a little jealous appreciation of her confidence in her sexuality and the humor of the situation all at once.

“But it was neither of those, in fact.” She finished. Blossom looked a little less horrified but still very scandalized by the princess’s attitude. “I would appreciate if you did not jump to such rash conclusions about his character, especially because you don’t know anything about our relationship but what you’ve heard in rumors.” Frey thought with a little grim satisfaction that she was getting good at delivering fair but jarringly direct requests like this of late.

“I-oh, but Frey, dear, you can’t really mean that you intend to continue this…” She trailed off as Frey’s gaze narrowed into a glare. Whatever derogatory word she was about to assign to Frey and Bado’s love never had the opportunity to offend the princess’s ears.

“Of course I do.” She said confidently. “What kind of lousy person would I be if I left someone I love just because of a bunch of misguided people were affronted by my being with him?” Blossom blinked at her in a very stunned fashion.

“But miss Frey—“ She began to argue again. Frey interrupted her.

“I don’t think you are understanding me very well, ma’am.” She cleared her throat and made a point to look very directly at the old woman as she spoke again, throwing down all the social norms she had to in order to get her point across. “I am in love with Bado and he with me. We are in a consensual romantic relationship between adults and it is not anyone else’s place to determine the validity or propriety of our partnership but us.” Blossom was stunned silent, looking wide-eyed at Frey for a beat and then blinking rapidly. Doug looked approvingly impressed.

“You can’t really expect me to… to approve of such a thing…” Blossom floundered. It was clear that the old woman couldn’t be brought to accept such an anti-normative relationship so readily. Frey inwardly concluded that this would have to be an ‘agree to disagree’ situation.

“No, I don’t. You are free to hold whatever opinion of me, him and our choices as you will. But, I do expect you to treat us with respect and courtesy, as all citizens deserve. I will not poke my nose into anyone else’s private affairs and I’ll thank you to leave mine alone in turn.” She nodded for emphasis upon finishing her speech. Blossom stayed silent this time, looking bewildered but unable to argue any further. This was the true advantage of asking for basic stuff that was already expected of someone to be a good person. No one could argue without sounding like a colossal ass when being asked to show someone respect and dignity like any other person would expect from them. She bowed slightly to the old woman saying, “Good day to you.” brusquely and continued walking down the street.

Doug caught up with her after a few paces and once they were out of earshot he bubbled over with excitement.

“That was awesome!” the redhead grinned from ear to ear. “You’re sure a lot better at this than me…” Frey couldn’t help a chuckle.

“Actually, Doug, I’ve been thinking…”

“Yeah?”

“I really agree with what you are trying to explain to everyone about Bado’s age and dwarf lifespans and all of it, but I think it doesn’t really get to the heart of the issue even if they do understand and agree with what you are telling them on that point.” He looked confused at her.

“Whaddaya mean?”
“I guess it’s kinda like… the fact that he’s younger by dwarf standards than his age would suggest to humans seems like a loophole or something. I want people to accept us because of the nature of our relationship, not in spite of it and based on something that feels more like a technicality. Does that make sense?” Doug looked thoughtful.

“Yeah… I guess so…” He looked down as he pondered the idea. “Granny Blossom was just saying before you arrived that it was all ‘indecent’ and such, for a man his age to be with you, so I tried to explain that he is still in the same life stage as you… But that didn’t really work at all anyhow…”
“Yeah. So let’s maybe focus on the part about us having the right to choose each other regardless of being Human, Dwarf, old or young, don’t you think?”

“Sure thing.” He agreed. They walked a little further South until they reached Carnation’s flower shop. Doug stepped forward and opened the door for Frey, who nodded a polite thank you and entered.

“The criminal!” Illuminata’s obnoxiously familiar accusation rang out as soon as she came into view. “You covered your tracks well but the jig is up!” Frey very much doubted if Illuminata was serious in this, but it was often hard to tell with her, so she erred on the side of humor.

“Sheesh! Why don’t you solve the mystery of why everyone in this town is so nosy about my love life?” Frey teased in an exasperated manner.

“Ellie! Don’t!” Amber’s sudden, serious and imploring tone startled all three of them in to silence. “Frey can love who she wants to!” An abrupt wave of amazement and gratitude came over the princess as she stared at the diminutive young woman. Illuminata looked down sympathetically at Amber.

“I was only teasing. Of course she can, you’re totally right.” She ruffled Amber’s hair affectionately. Amber reluctantly dropped her guard as she looked from one face to another between them. Illuminata looked up at Frey and spoke again in the meantime. “But seriously, miss Frey, I am very much mystified at why you chose the one single man in his late thirties over the multitude of attractive younger men in this town. Even this one would have surprised me a great deal less…” She tilted her head in Doug’s direction.

“Hey!” Doug barked, then blushed and looked rather embarrassed. His earlier infatuation with the princess was hardly a secret to anyone, but he was still pretty bashful about it. Frey shrugged in response to the so-called ‘detective’s’ question.

“I wasn’t expecting to fall for him any more than anyone else until it had already happened.”

“Well, you have always been pretty strange, so I guess if anyone was going to pull this kind of rabbit out of a hat, it’d be you.” Illuminata replied, tilting her head and stroking her chin in a caricature-ish way.

“Frey, why did he have to go to Sharance?” Amber tugged on her arm as she asked. Frey looked pained at her.

“I think… he probably wanted to try and cause the least trouble for me… If he hadn’t gone, Arthur would have kept me under guard and locked us up separately to keep us apart. Maybe he thought at least this way we both would still have some freedom. I don’t really know for sure…” Frey drooped a little. It had dismayed her beyond words to hear him agree to leave so abruptly. She vaguely understood his and Gaius’ intentions in giving him a place to go out of the center of the storm, but still… it hurt her deeply to see him looking miserably back at her over his shoulder as he stumbled out the door toward a distant town she had never seen. The ache and confusion in her heart throbbed whenever she thought of it.

“He’s coming back though.” Doug said in an encouraging tone. Amber lit up significantly. Frey snapped out of her sad inward thoughts.

“When?” Amber piped.
“As soon as Ventuswill returns.” He answered.

“Yeah! Venti won’t make them stay apart!” She bounced up and down excitedly. Frey cracked a smile at Amber’s enthusiasm. Her optimistic response bolstered her courage to keep her chin up a little while longer.

“You are a revolutionary now, though, princess.” Illuminata interjected suddenly. “You’ve really stirred the pot this time. Whether the majority or the ones in power side with you or against you, we are going to see a change come over this town. All that’s left is to see what kind of change it will be.”
“The result will either involve restoring Bado to Selphia or Selphia losing me.” Frey said darkly. Illuminata raised her eyebrows.

“I was afraid that would be your answer.” She replied. “But it is a clever strategy…” A wry smile came over her features. “Now all of us who don’t wish our princess dethroned must defend your lover’s honor regardless of our opinion of him if we want to keep you.”

“What, you don’t like him either?” Doug furrowed his brow at Illuminata.

“I didn’t say that.” She replied lightly brushing away his distaste. “Actually, I don’t feel like I know him, to be honest. Other than his salesman shenanigans I wonder how much anyone in this town, except Forte and Kiel, really interact with him. Maybe that is why so many are quick to assume he’s a wolf in woolly’s clothing.”

Now that she thought about it, Frey recalled that other than her own unusual habit of visiting the blacksmith almost daily to give small gifts, as she did for most everyone in town, she hadn’t seen him around the town much. Maybe it had been her stubbornly steady attentions that had piqued his interest to begin with, motivating him to play tricks on her whenever she came to him. But, the more she remembered back, the more she had to conclude that he had been something of a recluse. Between town events and festivals, no one who didn’t go out of their way to do so saw him. Mostly he kept to himself at the Meanderer or occasionally took leisurely walks outside in the evening but never visited anyone and hardly ever went to the restaurant either until someone, like Doug, specifically invited him. On multiple occasions, Frey had seen him leaning on the railing up on the deck of the observatory, looking with a distinctly unfocused expression out into the distance. She made a mental note to ask him what he had been doing up there so many times when he was restored to her.

“It’s pretty lame to assume someone is an asshole just because you don’t know him though…” Doug folded his arms moodily.

“I agree.” Said Illuminata, shrugging in turn. “But maybe it’s because he looks like nothing so much as a retired warhorse? I’ve heard a rumor more than once that he used to be in the knighthood. With that physique, I can hardly believe it couldn’t be true.” She raised her eyebrows at Frey in a knowing kind of way.

“He is as gentle as any creature can be…” Frey said sadly, remembering the pain with which he had alluded to his violent past and the firm way he asserted that he didn’t fight any more. “…which makes it all the more unpleasant to hear anyone suspect him of evil intentions, especially hurting or coercing me…”

“Well!” Illuminata dusted her gloved hands upon each other as if she had just decided something. “Leave the gathering of evidence of his gentle nature to me! I’ll show that Woolly in wolf’s clothing for what he is!” She sounded triumphant already. Frey chuckled.

“Ooh! Yeah! And I’ll help too!” Amber hopped up and down.

“Very good, my dear assistant!” The elf twirled a finger in the air with a flourish, playing her favorite role. More and more, Frey was beginning to understand that if the justness of her argument wouldn’t sway a member of the town, their attachment to her, their princess, was her greatest asset in getting them on her side. She made a silent vow to wield whatever influence she had earned over them during her time as princess of Selphia to encourage them to give her gentle giant a chance, regardless of whatever other preconceptions they carried.

They left the shop with high spirits. Doug bid the princess goodbye, saying he had better head back and help Blossom in the shop. The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully. Feeling somewhat spent from the conversations so far, she steered clear of the Bell Hotel since she had no idea what Xiao Pai and Lin Fa thought about her and Bado. She also avoided the clinic. Even if Nancy supported her love, she wasn’t eager to face down Jones and even finding out Dolce’s thoughts sounded intimidating.
Frey resolved to take the rest of the patrol a bit more casually and not initiate any more difficult conversations for the time being.

Chapter Text

After Frey’s coverage of Forte’s patrol was complete, she tended her fields and did her daily monster chores. Then, in the evening she cleaned herself up and changed for dinner, apprehension climbing ever higher once she realized she would inevitably have to face Volcannon and Clorica once she entered the dining room.

Vishnal came in to announce their meal was ready and she took a deep breath and steeled herself, passing through the empty dragon hall, wondering if she would really have to wait until the following Sunday for the divine dragon to return. The long dining table was only set in the last four seats, as usual. The three butlers and the princess took meals together most days and it was typically a rather jovial affair, but tonight was different. An intensely oppressive atmosphere hung over the table. Frey sat down and quietly greeted them, taking note of Vishnal’s fidgeting and nervous glancing about the room. Clorica was awake and alert for once, but she very intently keeping her gaze fixed on her plate… the pepper shaker… anything and everything but the princess. Volcannon was similarly aversive to making eye contact as he served the meal.

Her appetite had deserted her. All she could do was furrow her brow as she stared silently at her own plate for a completely indefinite period of time.

“Miss Frey…” Volcannon said, putting down his own fork and knife and looking dissatisfied. “Is the food not to your liking?” She looked up at his face for the first time since he had roughly led her lover away to the airship the day before. A crackling tension seemed to charge the air.

“No, I’m just not very hungry.” She said quietly. He did not look away from her and she did the same, blinking periodically as she determinedly returned his stare.

“You must eat. It will not do to skip meals.” He said firmly.

“I have a hard time eating when I’m sad.” She said evenly. Vishnal jumped a little and Clorica glanced up at her involuntarily. Volcannon’s brow became more deeply lined as a stern and uncomfortable expression came over him. Frey dared him with her eyes to respond.

“I’m sure your spirits will recover if you take care of yourself, which begins with eating regular meals.” He said, looking back down and sawing at a piece of meat on his plate with a blunt table knife and fork.

“My spirits will recover when Bado returns to Selphia.” She replied calmly. Clorica gave a little high pitched squeak and Vishnal jumped again. Volcannon looked darkly at Frey.

“Miss Frey, we will not discuss this topic at the dinner table.” He said firmly.

“Why?” She felt the intensity of her tone grow a touch.

“It is indecent to talk of such things in this setting.” He growled. Her temper flared hot at the word ‘indecent’.

“You know what I find ‘indecent’?” Frey’s words sped up their rhythm and her voice climbed to a shout. “The way you violently attacked the man I love for no good reason!” She stood up, her hands curled into fists at her sides. The two younger butlers gaped at her in horror. Volcannon looked taken aback, but then anger and shame turned his face into a mask of fury.

“Perhaps if you were not so reckless in your choices, those of us who seek to protect you would not find ourselves in such a situation!” He raised his voice in turn.

“I don’t need anyone to ‘protect’ me from him! He loves me and I him!” She leaned forward as she shouted across the table at Volcannon.

“A man of his age cannot love a woman of yours!” Volcannon squared his shoulders and his back stiffened as he argued with her at full volume.

“What do you know about how he feels?!” She snapped back. “How is it any of your business to decide whether we should be together? I don’t remember asking anyone’s permission before deciding to be with him!”

“And that attitude is precisely why you are not mature enough to have such an affair!” Volcannon stood up, his huge palms flat on the tabletop.

“Rrrghhh!” Frey made a furious noise. “Why do you and that nosy prince think it’s your job to tell me what to do?! If you hate my choices and think so little of me then maybe I should just leave too!” She knew it sounded like a childish tantrum somewhere behind all the anger that was currently in command of her voice, but she couldn’t help a vindictive satisfaction at the startled and fearful expression that came over the old butler’s face as she said it.

“Princess, no!” Vishnal said suddenly.

“Mr. Volcannon doesn’t want that and neither do we.” Clorica added suddenly. Frey looked over at her and blinked in surprise at her abrupt entrance into the verbal fray. A very tense silence followed for a minute or so.

“Miss Frey…” Volcannon began again, with difficulty. “We wish only for your wellbeing. Everything we do is to that end.” She looked up at him with a softer expression, but it wasn’t without a serious air.

“Well, while I appreciate the sentiment, I wish you would consider my wishes important too. Being forcibly separated from my lover is not the kind of ‘wellbeing’ that I could ever accept or be happy with. If he is not returned to Selphia and all this bad feeling between us all resolved, I’ll never be able to enjoy my life here again. This town and everything in it will just become a reminder of what I lost and who took it from me. I’ll have to leave just to escape the pain.” Volcannon looked unhappily at her. Clorica’s brows angled sadly on her brow, and Vishnal looked anxious.

“I know it’s strange to a lot of people, yourselves included… and I’m not asking you to relate to or concur with my choice of partner, but please don’t try to come between us. No good will ever come of that. Trying to force someone to agree with your opinion on a matter, especially one like this, will only tear friendships apart. I’m prepared to own my decisions… But I need all of you to let me do that and trust me a little more to handle my own affairs. If you’ll agree to do that, I promise not to keep secrets like I did with this anymore.” She smiled a small, imploring smile at them as she finished this speech.

“I’ll try to have more faith that you know what is best for you.” Clorica said softly. Frey smiled gratefully at her then turned with a hopeful look to Volcannon. He drew a breath and sighed, shaking his head.

“I do not know that I can accept your relationship with Bado…” Volcannon seemed to seethe as he said his name. “But it would cleave my heart to see you leave us, miss Frey. That would be worse by far.” He took another slow breath, his chest expanding as he steeled himself for what he was about to say. “So, if it will prevent your going, and if you secure lady Ventuswill’s blessing when she returns… I shall not interfere with your relationship again.” Frey stared at him a moment, then a tentative smile crept across her face.

“Thank you.” She said at last, every syllable full of genuine gratitude. Volcannon nodded ever so slightly. Frey sat down again and began to slice a sweet potato on her plate into little squares. The room seemed to let out a breath of relief. The rest of the meal passed in pleasant, affable conversation about inconsequential things like tea recipes, the weather, and how soon the cucumbers would ripen. After the meal and a quiet walk with Vishnal around the perimeter of the fields, Frey fell into an emotionally exhausted sleep as black as a shaved woolly’s backside.

Chapter Text

Bado clawed his way out of a miserable nondescript nightmare full of suffocating dread and impotent anxiety only to realize that those feelings persisted into the real world as the unfamiliar ceiling came into view for the second morning in a row. He blinked slowly from what seemed like the bottom of a well. All light and joy seemed a distant glimmer at the end of a long dark tunnel of sorrow and uncertainty.

His discomfort and heartbreak was such that he briefly wondered if the heights of his elation and feelings of love for her had been worth it. Would he take it all back if it meant never having to suffer the loss of the heart he had given to her?  No… Even if he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this agony would return in a week’s time, he would still give anything in this moment to have Frey back in his arms.

This limbo of waiting for word was surely what hell was must be like. The previous day had felt like a season’s worth of hours creeping by, every second punctuated by the involuntary reliving of the painful memory of his lover’s helpless, tearful look of woe as he cast one last glance at her before he let himself be taken far away. Sharance was a beautiful town, perhaps the most beautiful in all of Norad, but he could not see anything but gloom from within the fog of his misery. Nothing would ever seem beautiful again if he were permanently deprived of his adorable Nymph.

“Sir? Would you like your breakfast? …Mr. Dwarf?” The fluttering, high pitched voice of the mermaid girl who worked at the inn came wafting in from the other side of the paper-lined screen doors. This building was strange… Gaius had told him it was an Eastern style, but Bado couldn’t help but resent that all that separated himself and anyone he would be expected to interact with was rice paper and flimsy wooden slats. He didn’t want to see or speak to anyone unless it was Raven returning from Selphia to say that Ventuswill was back… But it was too early to hope for that news just yet.

“No… thank you.” His own voice sounded strange to him, thin and brittle with unhappiness distorting its usual rich tone and timber.

“Oh… Okay, well please just ring if you need anything!” The silhouette of her bushy hair hesitated a moment on the other side of the screen and then went away. Bado sighed, placing a large hand over his eyes and trying to muster the will to last through another months-long day of empty hours, waiting.

Then the sound of the screen door sliding open and the change in the light of the room punctured his gloomy consciousness.

“You have to eat, you know. What do you expect me to tell Frey if I return you to her all starved and ragged?” Bado opened his eyes and looked numbly toward the door. Gaius walked in and sat down, Raven close behind him. Then another short figure walked in he did not recognize. He felt the newly hollow sensation in his chest twinge as he regretted the impending necessity to meet a new person while he felt so low.

“I brought someone you need to meet.” Gaius said insistently. Reluctantly, Bado rubbed his eyes and then sat up. He was dimly aware of his extra disheveled hair and guessed that there must be dark circles beneath his eyes. Everyone was sitting on the floor. Apparently that was an Eastern style thing to do as well. He finally relented to the inevitable necessity and looked up at the stranger, not bothering to lift his drooping shoulders as he did so.

The man was small, delicate, and fairly feminine. He had a wild head of blond hair and bright blue eyes. He smiled brightly at Bado as he spoke with a light, airy voice.

“Hello, Bado. My name is Micah.” He said pleasantly. Bado blinked at him. Since Micah already knew his name and he honestly didn’t know what else he could bring himself to say, he simply remained silent and stared, waiting for whatever Micah wanted to tell him. “I have something to talk to you about. I think it will help you.” The young man continued. “…but first there is something I need to show you.” Bado waited for whatever it was. Gaius nodded to Micah. Then there was a flash of light and the form of the young man reordered itself in the blink of an eye. Bado’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open slightly. Just where Micah had been sitting, there was a woolly with golden fleece looking up at him with a considerably less vacant expression than any other woolly he had ever seen. He wondered where Micah had gone and why he had used magic to exchange places with a woolly, of all things. Then to his utter amazement, it spoke with almost the same voice that had come from the blond man a moment before.

“I am not your average human, or your average monster. I am both.” Bado blinked, some of his spirit kindled slightly by the sheer surprise and curiosity of the scene. Micah continued his speech, since it seemed clear by now that Bado was not likely to articulate another side to the conversation at present. “Before I moved here, the people of this town and the monsters who live in a settlement in the desert nearby were enemies and bitterly mistrusted each other, never interacting with one another. But about a year ago I got married to a human woman in this town. Sharance and the people who live here have changed that much, you see, that they can accept the marriage of one of their own to a half-monster. The people of Selphia will come to see in time that your love for this young woman is genuine and they will accept you both together. There may be trials ahead, but if you both stand your ground and reach out to them, the people in your lives will accept you, I’m sure of it.” Then the woolly changed back into the man and he chuckled. “Besides, you have it easy! I had to fight an Elder Dragon to earn the acceptance of my marriage. From what Gaius has told me, all you have to do is talk to one.”

Bado had seen many things in his lifetime, having travelled far from his homeland and become a knight and fought in wars… but this was a first. He would have to come up with a new word for Dylas and the others back in Selphia, since half-monster no longer seemed appropriate to describe them. He looked at Micah in amazement, trying to process what he had heard. He wanted to express gratitude for his tale. It had, in fact, lifted him slightly out of the depths of his dismal state. The distant glimmer of hope seemed closer now, the dark tunnel of uncertainty and waiting less terrible. But all he could seem to do was look mystified at the half-monster half-man sitting with a cheerful smile before him. Then fear struck a blow in answer to this brief respite. The dreaded thought that had plagued him ever since the prince had barged into the Meanderer with Frey, Volcannon, and Dylas in tow reared itself like a serpent from the empty ocean of all misgivings.

“What if I’m wrong to try and be with her, though? What if she would be better off without me?” He felt himself slip back into the cold and darkness of his doubt, like drowning in a frozen lake under the ice.

“Why would she be?” Micah appeared impervious to the seething tormented emotions that seemed to creep into the atmosphere from Bado’s hollow chest as he looked at him.

“She could lose the only home she knows… the life she has now only started a year ago. Whatever she had before is gone. She wanted to throw it away to be with me… I can’t let her do anything so foolish, even… even if it means leaving her…” Bado blinked slowly as he looked down at his hands. He hated himself as he heard his voice form the words. Part of him railed furiously at himself for thinking of abandoning Frey, but he couldn’t bear to think that he would be the cause of her suffering the loss of her home and all her friends either.

“Oh boy, not that again.” Gaius shook his head. Then he looked up and of all unexpected, infuriating things, he smiled at Bado in his typical carefree way. Bado felt the slightest twinge of bitterness at his clanmate for making light of his words, but mostly he just felt cold and numb as he looked into Gaius’ eye. “Fortunately, we aren’t the only ones who came here to talk some sense into you today.” He turned and nodded to Raven, who left the room promptly, sliding the screen behind her as she went.

Bado looked at Gaius with an empty expression that might have been curiosity under normal circumstances. Gaius said nothing. Micah looked between them and seemed possessed of the same disturbingly unperturbed attitude as the half-blind dwarf. How could they be so happily ignorant of the terrible storm of sadness, fear, and doubt that Bado had been plunged into two days prior?

Suddenly, heavy, frantic footsteps of at least two people came pounding up the stairs in the hall of the inn. Bado had just enough time to recognize the familiar sound of armored boots before the screen flew open and Forte glared down at him with her hands clenched into fists at her sides. Dylas came into view just after her, looking at him with a strange mixture of pity, guilt, and anger. Then last of all, Raven returned calmly to the room.

“Forte?” Bado’s voice said faintly. The shock of seeing her here was enough to slow his already fogged brain to a stop. He didn’t have any bewilderment left over at the moment to wonder about Dylas being present too.

“Yes, me.” She snapped. “And by the sound of it I arrived just in time to knock some sense into that thick skull of yours!” She stepped forward with a fearfully aggressive energy. Gaius and Micah hopped out of her way as she reached out and seized his collar roughly, pulling him up a little from his drooping posture on the floor. Bado dimly thought Forte was about to slap him, and shut his eyes as he anticipated the feeling of being struck across the face with her iron gauntlet. Then he felt her hesitate, loosen her grip and drop to a kneel in front of him, wrapping her arms around him as she did so. He could not have been more surprised if she had turned into a dragon. His eyes snapped open and he looked stunned at nothing in particular. He was paralyzed as she hugged him tightly.

“How could you even think of leaving her? Or Kiel and I, for that matter? What kind of idiot are you?” Her voice shook a little as she spoke the words with bitter resentment. “Do you really believe anyone would be better off if you did? You promised me you’d be good to each other, remember? You can’t do that to her.”

“But… Forte, I… I can’t let her choose Exile because of me…” He choked the words out, fighting bitterly with the part of him that screamed for him to agree with her.

“It won’t be that way! You need to come back and talk to Ventuswill and the others. The sooner we work this out, the sooner we’ll all be living happily back home again. Frey declared she would not live in Selphia without you anyway. Don’t be stupid!”

“How can I take that chance?” He countered. “If I end it, she’ll stay… where she can live in peace.”

“Oh! Of all the bone-headed, stubborn, ridiculous notions!” Forte spat, releasing him from her embrace and glaring furiously into his eyes.

“Bado—“ Dylas suddenly called his name. He looked up and stared blankly at the young man, as if he had only just registered that he was in the room. “She wants you back in Selphia. You hurt her when you agreed to leave in the first place… now you need to say you’re sorry… and so do I.” Dylas blinked and took a deep breath. “I should never have butted in and I shouldn’t have shot my mouth off to Arthur. I let my own jealousy drive me to hurt the person I wanted to help and protect the most by accusing you of using her… I’m sorry.” Bado stared at Dylas in amazement. This transformation was even more shocking than Micah becoming a woolly at will. “You can’t leave things as they are. She loves you and wants to be with you more than anything else. I came here to make sure you don’t forget that.”

“Don’t run away, Bado.” Forte added, looking earnestly at him. He looked back at her, then at Dylas again, then Gaius, and swallowed slowly. Something warmed in his chest slightly. The heart he thought was missing stirred as he looked at them. Reason and love came back to him and swallowed up the fear that had plagued him. How could he have thought to leave her? Frey, who had given his existence meaning when she gave him her love… What devilry had possessed him to think that he could possibly cut her out of his life? What would be left of all good things he knew without her? Not enough to fill a teacup…

“I’m… I’m sorry.” He said thickly, tears burning in his eyes. He blinked them back. “I don’t know why I ever…” He shook his head. Forte smiled widely and hugged him again. He put a hand on her back and returned the gesture meekly. Then she drew back and punched him hard in the arm with one iron gauntlet.

“OWowww! What the heck was that for?!” He rubbed his arm and cringed at her.

“That was from Doug, who says he won’t stand for you not appreciating how lucky you are that Miss Frey loves you.” She said matter-of-factly, beaming at him. Bado laughed weakly.

“No one’s ever gonna let me off the hook for anything, are they?”

“Nope, you need all of us to point you in the right direction.” Gaius said amiably. “You’re a bit too dense to be left to your own devices for any length of time. Always have been.” He smiled warmly at Bado. Just then Raven sat up and whispered something in Gaius’ ear. He looked slightly surprised at her but then smiled again and nodded. “I think that is a very good plan.” He said quietly to her, then looked at Bado with obvious gladness. Raven stayed put a moment, then she glanced at Bado briefly and turned and left without a word, seeming in a great hurry suddenly. Bado looked curiously after her as she disappeared behind the sliding screen door, then combed his gaze over the four who remained in the room with him, all of them having come to restore his hope and faith that he would be reunited with his love.

“Thank you… All of you.” Bado said finally, letting a slight smile pull at the corners of his mouth for the first time since he had said goodbye to Frey on Friday Morning after she had walked out of his bedroom wearing nothing but that long sleeved shirt. Today was Sunday. He had no idea how he would manage to pass seven more days waiting for the chance to return to her, but hope had been restored to him, and he promised himself not to forget reason and never entertain the possibility of casting away her love again.

Chapter Text

Frey woke to a beautiful morning with sunlight streaming in through the windows of her castle chambers, but sighed when she remembered it had only been two and a half days since Bado had left Selphia. It was too early for Vishnal’s wake-up call, but she couldn’t stomach the idea of lying in bed dwelling on the vacant place in her heart, so she stood up and walked over to where her calendar hung by the back door. Her fingers traced wistfully on the square labelled ‘sun’ at the end of the current week. Then she dragged them back to the left until they stopped on ‘Mon’… today. She sighed softly, letting her hand fall from the calendar until it hung listlessly at her side.

‘Maybe I should go see Porcoline today…’ She thought, groping in the dark for some means of gaining encouragement to help her get through another day. Meg had said he was excited about her relationship, rather than upset or uncomfortable like so many of the others. Normally Porco’s over-the-top antics were a little much to deal with first thing in the morning, so she never breakfasted at his restaurant. Today, though… today she would make an exception.

Yesterday she had gone to the Bell Hotel for a bath and had the conversation with Xiao Pai and Lin Fa, respectively. Both had expressed discomfort and reluctance, but they did not refuse outright her request to try and accept her relationship. She was making progress, little by little. All in all, convincing the townspeople of Selphia to accept her and Bado’s love had gone better than she feared but worse than she’d hoped. Either way, it was exhausting, particularly in the emotional sense.

She said good morning to Vishnal and Clorica on her way out and headed North through the fields until she reached Airship Way, then turned to the right. The Restaurant was only a block further. A figure was sweeping in front of the door… a figure with tufted ears and a fox's tail. Leon looked up and raised a hand in greeting, smiling a deliberate, careful smile for her benefit. 

“Hey.” He said, gazing searchingly at her. Every time he looked at her since they had bid farewell to Forte and Dylas on Friday afternoon, he seemed to be carefully assessing her mood, perking up hopefully if she smiled, and furrowing his brow with concern when she drooped with sadness or worry. Today he looked tentative, which, she guessed, meant that so did she. For now, Leon was a mirror of her own feelings, so much did he value his friend's well-being. It was a curiously useful thing to have.

“Hi.” She said quietly in response, assuming he must be filling in for the absent Dylas at his job.

“How you holdin’ up?”

“All right, I guess… Thought I’d try talking to Porcoline this morning. See what he has to say. I know I should square off with Arthur soon, but…” She trailed off.

“I think talking to Porco is a good idea.” He said calmly, with the slight reassuring smile he had encouraged her with almost constantly throughout the weekend. He held the door open for her and she stepped inside. “I’d be happy to keep you company after my shift.” He offered as she passed in front of him.

“Sure… thank you.” She said softly. He nodded, smiling again, and let the door close quietly so he could finish his sweeping outside. Frey walked to the back of the restaurant. The wide, colorful figure of Porcoline came into view behind the counter, his bright clothing and brighter orange hair livening the room drastically. He turned around with a flourish, revving up one of his flamboyant greetings.

“Hyperrrrr gooood moooorni—eeeeee! Freyyyy!” he dashed toward her, arms outstretched and grasped her hands pulling them toward him over the countertop. “I have been so hoping you would come to see moi!”

“Haha! Hi Porcoline. You’re sure in good spirits.” She grinned at him, his infectiously giddy energy was impossible to resist completely.

“Well how could I not be excited to see you, knowing how gorgeously in love you are!” He smiled from ear to ear, giggling in a most affectionate way. Frey laughed aloud again.

“Well! It’s good to know somebody is excited about my love life, instead of just butting in so they can yell at me about it.”

“Oh for shame on those naysayers, says moi! What kind of miscreant could begrudge such a beautiful, secret romance blooming between unlikely lovers?” Frey could swear she saw actual stars in his huge watery eyes as he drifted in the giddy enjoyment of his exaggerated imaginings.

“Well, the prince would be at the top of that list…” She sighed bitterly, dropping her gaze off to the right.

“Oh, then you must educate him! Arthur is a good man, Frey. He may be misguided in his reasoning, but he wants the best for you like we all do.”

“That’s what people keep telling me…” She said reluctantly.

“It’s true, my dear! He may not understand just now, but that is why you must strive to help him understand. Our prince would never want to do harm to the princess he, himself appointed, you know.”

“I know… I think.” She said after another sigh. “I do need to talk to him before Venti gets back…”

“You know what they say! No time like the present!” He pranced around the counter and shooed her toward the door at the far end of the restaurant that led to Arthur’s study. “I’ll make you a bright, shiningly wonderful breakfast while you chat, then we can all eat as friends when it is done!” He beamed, dashing back behind the counter and pulling a truly alarming number of ingredients out of the icebox and pantry. Frey shook her head, then took a deep, fortifying breath as she reached for the handle of the door. ‘Here goes nothing’, she thought nervously.

She turned the handle and opened the door, stepping quietly into the office.

“Arthur?” She called apprehensively. No one answered. She walked timidly inside and looked around. Arthur’s office was always cluttered, but it looked oddly disorganized and chaotic today. Papers were strewn about the desk instead of being stacked neatly and books were lying open on the floor around it, but the room was quite deserted. A strange combination of relief and disappointment rose up slowly in her chest. She wasn’t sure what she would say to the prince when she saw him. Already she had shouted all of her usual arguments at him at the start of this latest conflict. What was there left to tell him if all that could not make him see reason?

Somewhere outside a piercing cry like a bird but much larger shattered the peaceful morning calm out of nowhere. Frey startled and looked vaguely upward at the ceiling as if she might behold the source of the sound from inside the building. She held her breath and listened for a long moment. Then a second cry, different from the first made her gasp in shock. It was the huge, trumpeting call of the Divine Dragon of wind, Ventuswill. The sound immediately preceded a second, familiar sign of the dragon approaching. Huge, slow wing beats rattled the walls and windows as she passed overhead with their steady rhythm.

‘It can’t be!’ Frey thought, elated, shocked, and hardly daring to believe what her ears told her. She flew to the door, pulled it open haphazardly, letting the knob bang against the wall as it swung wide open, and dashed out into the street, looking upward at the sky. The great serpentine silhouette of Ventuswill was passing high overhead, heading toward the castle. Just before her an enormous red and gold bird soared with plumage like burning tongues of flame and sunlight. Frey had never seen a creature the likes of this before, but she supposed it must be a phoenix, a fiery bird monster she had read about in a book in the castle library. She pelted down the road toward the castle. Her heart swelled in her chest and her spirit soared. Here was hope and light come before it was looked for. Never had anything so welcome surprised her before. Her feet seemed to fly over the ground in a blur below her. She was back in the shadow of the huge castle before she knew it. Above, the phoenix folded its wings and dropped gracefully through the huge open roof of the great dragon hall. Ventuswill continued to soar in slow circles above the building, presumably waiting for her fiery companion to land first.

Panting as she came rapidly into the hall from the North entrance, she skidded to a halt as she saw the great red monster land gracefully in the center of the dragon hall. To her amazement, Gaius slid down from its back and landed lightly on his feet upon the marble floor.

“Thanks, Raven.” He said, turning to the phoenix. Frey’s eyes widened as the bird was engulfed in a glow of flame and light and shrank into the form of Raven, her red hair shining with the sunlight that streamed in from above.

“Gaius!” Frey called. He turned and smiled at her, raising a hand in a wave of greeting as he walked toward her. If Gaius and Raven were back with Ventuswill in their wake, surely Bado couldn’t be far behind…

A firm grip wrapped around her arm suddenly. She yelped in surprise.

“It seems this meeting will take place earlier than expected.” Arthur’s voice said suddenly. It was his hand restraining her. “You will wait here.” He commanded. She recoiled inwardly but forced herself to remain calm, focusing on staring up eagerly as she waited for Venti to land.

Volcannon and the other butlers entered the hall from the west wing. Others, too, were trickling into the great dragon hall, having heard the roar of the divine dragon from all corners of the town. Before long every one of her friends were gathered in the hall as Venti’s great wing beats grew louder and she descended finally into the hall, dropping gracefully with a flourish of her many colored feathers and a sweeping gesture of her tail. Upon her shoulders, three figures were seated, clinging to her plumage for purchase as she carried them. One by one, an armored woman with long blond hair, a lean young man with blue-ish silvery mane and tail, and a tall, broad-shouldered man with pointed ears a short beard slid down from her back and landed on the ornate tile work of the dragon altar.

Frey felt tears of joy pooling in her eyes. He was here, almost a week ahead of when she thought she might hope to see him again. Unconsciously she leaned forward and took a step. Arthur’s grip tightened painfully on her arm and tugged her backward.

“Be still!” He ordered. She didn’t answer or turn to look at him. She didn’t even notice him other than the peculiar force that kept her standing where she was, though her eyes persistently reached for her lover on the other side of the hall. He was standing up shakily from where he had landed after dismounting. His head finally lifted and he stilled as he saw her. Time seemed to stop for a moment. She wanted to call out to him, but she couldn’t seem to make a sound. Even her breath was trapped, motionless, inside her as she saw his mouth form the syllables of her name from across the room, but all sound seemed to have been smothered.

She leaned forward further, straining against the hand that held her back. Bado took an eager step toward her before he was seized and his arms twisted behind him by Volcannon, who had taken him by surprise while he was single mindedly gazing at her.

“Let me go!” She heard herself shout. Her own voice sounded distant.

“Be still, Princess! This audience will take place according to the protocols of the royal house!” Arthur’s voice broke into the muted stillness of the slowed down instant and time and sound returned to normal as if a spell had just been broken.

“Frey!” Bado’s deep-timbered shout sent a shock through her and she stilled momentarily, allowing Arthur to pull her more closely to his side and readjust his tight grip on her arm.

***

Bado leaned forward, straining slightly against the butler’s hold on him. A burning, anxious fury was smoldering in his stomach as he watched Arthur restrain Frey from across the room. He knew beneath the immediate layers of emotion that hit him as soon as he saw her that he had to comply if this scene were going to play out appropriately, but it was bitterly hard to see her like this and not fly toward her to gather her eagerly in his arms and hold her to him as tightly as he could.

“Frey!” He called her name, unable to hold back his anxiety. She seemed to stop as she heard him and Arthur drew her closer to him and held her arm more insistently.

“Stay where you are!” Volcannon roared behind him, twisting his arms painfully behind him, but Bado could not keep himself from straining against his captor toward his love where she did the same, looking anxiously back at him in turn.

“SILENCE!” A shout combined with a roar shook the room and everyone froze and ducked slightly in the face of the Divine Dragon’s anger. She arched her long neck and glowered at all of them in a sweeping motion as she looked around the room. Everyone looked up at her, even Bado and Frey. It was the first moment they had torn their eyes off one another since they saw each other across the dragon hall.

“Lady Ventuswill—“ Arthur began, but was cut off.

“It seems you’ve all been rather rash in my absence.” The dragon boomed, staring icily at the prince and then at the butler as they held each of the lovers at bay. “What is the meaning of all this?”

“Your Eminence,” Began Arthur, “We require your wisdom in deciding what to do about the illicit relationship between the blacksmith, Bado, and our acting princess, which we have just become aware of since you left for the capitol city last Thursday.”

“Indeed.” Ventuswill growled.

“As I consider it my responsibility to protect princess Frey from any and all sources of harm, I ordered them separated until such a time as when we might receive your judgment on the matter. What do you say, divine protector of Selphia?”

“Harm, you say?” The dragon rumbled. “What harm has befallen her? Has princess Frey been injured?”

“No, milady. The harm I refer to is that of being manipulated and taken advantage of for the selfish interest of an unscrupulous man.” The great dragon’s eyes narrowed and her plumage rose and rattled at the end of its full extension dangerously. Her displeasure was palpable in the air. Beside Frey across the room, Bado saw the prince looking grimly confident. But Ventuswill’s wrath was not for the accused.

“You are young, Prince. Your memory reaches back only unto your own naïve generation. I knew this man before you were born, before your father took the throne. If he were unscrupulous and guilty of such crimes or intentions as you suggest, I would know, and I would have dealt with him long ago, when he served me directly as my most distinguished soldier.” Arthur’s eyes widened in surprise and his mouth fell open slightly. Bado felt a vindicated sense of justice at the Prince’s faltering righteousness. A silence hung heavy in the air as the dragon glared down at him. Then she spoke again.

“I have been aware of the relationship between Bado and Princess Frey since its inception. I know the nature of it as well as the lovers do, themselves. But since you lack faith in my understanding of my subjects—“ She hissed within her throat at the end of the sentence and Arthur quailed a little under her. “You will see proof of their feelings!” She swished her tail as her voice rose. She looked forcefully at Volcannon and then back at Arthur. “RELEASE THEM!” She boomed. There was a collective gasp at the force of her exclamation from all the people in who had gathered in the great Dragon Hall. Bado’s eyes turned in the direction of the prince and princess and he saw from thirty feet away Frey’s green eyes gazing hopefully back at him.

A heartbeat passed as Volcannon and Arthur assumed shocked expressions and then loosened their respective grasps on their captives. As he felt his arms slip free, Bado leaned forward and moved single-mindedly toward those emerald eyes. On the other side of the hall, Frey’s long hair whipped out behind her as she lunged forward, tearing herself free of Arthur’s grasp and flying toward him. At the third great stride of his long legs, he reached the center of the room, immediately in front of the towering figure of the Divine Dragon just as Frey stepped onto the Altar from the other side. She sprang toward him and he caught her in his outstretched arms as she wrapped her own slender arms around his neck and called his name joyfully. Relief hit him like an avalanche. The real, solid presence of his young lover held tightly in his arms seemed to shift the entire world back into its rightful place since it had been so terribly rent in two when they were separated.

“Frey!” He choked, eyes burning. “I’m so sorry for leaving, love! I was a fool to think of it.”

“No kidding!” She half-laughed, half-cried, “But I forgive you, turnip-head.” She squeezed him in her arms and he returned the gesture, tucking his face into her hair and taking in her sweet smell and the warmth of her at once.

“I missed you so…” He sighed.

“And I you.” She replied softly in his ear. Gradually he remembered where they were and felt himself blush at their outburst of affection in front of the whole town. He hesitated to raise his eyes and look at the townsfolk standing all around. What would be their reaction now as he held his adoring Nymph, their princess, in broad daylight for all of them to see this love laid bare?

“Now do you understand?” Ventuswill’s voice echoed once more, addressing the prince. Then she shifted her balance and raised one great winged arm, holding it poised above Frey and Bado in the center of the Altar before her and addressed all present. “There should be none among you who doubts that this couple is in love now that you have seen it with your own eyes… But let me give you further reason to accept them, just as they are.” She drew a great breath and looked exceptionally regal. “I, Ventuswill, the Divine Wind bestow my blessing upon this partnership for as long as they love one another and wish to be together.” Bado exhaled a happy sigh, an ecstatic joy flowering in his heart as he understood the dragon’s words. Frey drew back just enough to smile, beaming at him and mirroring his elation perfectly as the dragon finished her speech: “Let no further action be taken on the part of any one of my subjects to impede them or keep them from each other.” She placed her huge, clawed hand back on the marble floor, then she turned to Volcannon. “As my first servant in waiting, I order you to support and protect princess Frey without passing judgment on her relationship.” Volcannon bowed low. Ventuswill’s great head turned once more to Arthur. “And you, prince… Know that my word is good enough for your father and his father before him. It shall be good enough for you, as well. Do no more mischief to them and worry not for your family’s reputation. By my word, all shall know no wrongdoing comes of these two loving one another.”

“Yes, your majesty.” Arthur smiled as he bowed, looking humbled but strangely happy, as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders too. Then he stood up, turned to the couple and smiled a gracious little smile. “You are certainly the oddest couple I have ever seen, but then again, you have both always been a little strange on your own, so I suppose it should not be too surprising...” He looked thoughtfully at them for a beat, then raised his eyebrows a little. “Stay out of trouble, now. Making the decision to throw down social norms and expectations means you will be scrutinized by everyone who isn’t entirely comfortable with your choices, even if you do have the sponsorship of a Divine Dragon.”

“We’ll do our best.” Frey said, smiling at the prince. Bado simply nodded. Gradually he became aware of the murmur of conversation all around the great room as the townspeople began to digest this unusual development. Forte rushed forward, a tearful, joyous expression on her face, and hugged them both. Then gradually the townspeople began to dissipate. Gaius, Raven, Leon, Doug, and Nancy went out of their way to come over with a word of encouragement and congratulations, but the rest settled for smiling from a distance, looking uncertain, or in some cases, anxious as they left the dragon hall one by one.

Once the hall was mostly empty, Frey turned to Bado and hugged him tightly once more.

“Shall we go?” She smiled cheerfully up at him.

“Wait.” A deep voice rumbled above them. They both looked up at Ventuswill curiously. “I have more to say to the two of you.”

“Sure thing, Venti.” Frey said simply. Bado blinked in surprise at her familiarity with the dragon. He had known her for longer than the princess had been alive and he had never addressed her more intimately than ‘milady’. They waited patiently before the huge figure of the Ventuswill for several more minutes until all the townspeople had left. Then she stooped her head to look piercingly at them a moment.

“You two sure are trouble, aren’t you?” She scoffed. “Who ever heard of a Divine Dragon having to publically endorse a couple’s romantics, anyway? This whole scenario is rather preposterous.” She finished with a snort. Bado squirmed a little with embarrassment. But Frey laughed a fluttering laugh and put a hand on Ventuswill’s nose.

“Thank you, Venti. It really means a lot to have your support, and not just because it got everyone else off our case.” She said kindly, then reached over and entwined her fingers in his and held his hand. He looked from her to the huge plumed head of the dragon once more.

“Same goes for me, milady. You gave me the freedom to live in peace when you dismissed me from the knighthood and now you’ve given me the ability to live the life I want to live with the person I want to live it with. I’ll be in your debt for all of this lifetime and the next.” He reached out, slightly hesitant at first, and put his huge hand on the dragon’s plumed neck with the same gesture as the princess. Ventuswill’s eyes creased at their corners in a smile.

“Treat each other well, my favored lovers. I would hate to find out I placed my faith poorly.” She raised her head again and looked refined and regal once more. “Run along now, I’m sure you’ll be glued to one another for the rest of the day anyway, you might as well get on with it.” They shared a laugh and smiled their goodbyes to one another before Frey and Bado walked, hand in hand, out of the castle and down the street toward his home.

Chapter Text

The Meanderer had taken on a lot of meaning to Frey over the last month. It wasn’t just the home of her lover, but also the place where she had her first kiss, her first orgasm, and the place where they first made love. As bizarre as it surely sounded, the smell of coals burning and red-hot metal had become synonymous with all the aspects of love and lust she had recently become acquainted with. The sight and smell of the forge warmed her heart and turned her on all at once. It was a symbol now, a thing she would likely always carry a strange attachment to, and that would be quite a curious thing to any outsider’s eye.

She lovingly tended the fire in the forge, adding and arranging fuel and savoring the heat of the thing even as she turned away from it finally and walked back over to where Bado was repairing the joints of the overturned table. She sat quietly upon the floor nearby, watching him affectionately as he tapped new nails into the wood with his forging hammer, holding it nearer to the head that usual. It was much too large for the task. They hadn’t spoken since returning to the meanderer, having become immediately focused on making this special place whole again after the altercation the previous Friday.

“Why not use a smaller one for this?” She ventured at last in a soft, absentminded voice. She was only half attending to her query, most of her attention fixed on his huge, masculine hands. She was mesmerized as she appreciated their angular sturdiness. He paused and blinked at her.

“A hammer is a pretty symbolic thing to a dwarf…” He said a little vaguely. “A blacksmith only uses one… only his own.” She stared at him, mystified.

“So then… You remaking Gaius’ hammer is a pretty big deal, huh?”

“Yeah… He won’t feel whole again until it’s back in his hands. And it has to be made especially for him, which is why he wants me to do it. Once I do, well…” He looked like he was having difficulty putting an explanation together. “It constitutes a pretty special bond.” He finished simply. Frey was very curious as to the details that he was currently not articulating, but simply made a mental note to pry Gaius for more information later.

“It sounds like the fact that he wants you to make it means you already have a special bond.” She observed.

“Yeah, I suppose so.” He smiled softly at her. Then he stood up and righted the table, leaning over and pushing on it a little to test its strength. Frey felt a sudden lonely twinge in her heart as she looked at his broad shoulders from behind. She reached out and slowly curled her fingers into a timid grip on the back of his vest.

“Bado…” She spoke his name very softly. Perhaps he heard the sudden fragility in her voice, for he turned and looked at her with a melancholy and slightly guilty expression. She felt tears begin to well up in her eyes.

“Yes, love?” He asked sadly. Did he know already what she was thinking?

“Why did you leave?” She asked in a small, delicate voice. He cringed and reached for her, wrapping his arms around her and pressing his nose and mouth to her hair.

“I’m so sorry, Frey…” His deep voice resonated through her. She buried her face in his chest and squeezed him but did not reply, waiting patiently for more. After a long moment, he took a deep breath and pulled back enough to look into her eyes. “I thought…” He stopped and swallowed “I thought you’d be better off if I stayed away. I just couldn’t stand to see you lose what you have here in Selphia because of me…” Frey felt herself tremble as she understood his words. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Bado looked miserable as he saw her cry. He cupped her face in his hands and stroked her cheeks with his thumbs, wiping the tears away as he looked earnestly in her eyes.

“W-what I have here?” She squeaked. “You’re what I would hate to lose the most, you dummy!”

“I know how stupid that was, now, pet.” He smiled weakly. “I promise I’ll never do it again, so don’t look at me like that anymore. I missed you so terribly, Frey. I just want to see you smiling and happy now that we’re together again.” She sniffed and hugged him tightly.

“I missed you so much, Bado. It hurt all the more knowing you chose to go away. I… I was afraid you wouldn’t come back…” She cringed as she spoke. He held her to him and kissed her head.

“Please forgive me, love. I was such a fool to go. I hope you know I never wanted to be separated from you. I felt like all the light had gone from the world when I thought I had to leave you to keep you safe and secure here in Selphia.” They held each other, unmoving, for several minutes as if letting go would cause the other to slip away into nothingness.

“I forgive you…” She said finally in a tiny voice, then pulled at him and cuddled closer in his arms. “I just want to be with you… so don’t leave me or ask me to stay apart from you again, okay?”

“I swear it.” He said insistently. She sighed and hugged him tightly once more.

“Good.” She breathed, satisfied at last that he meant it and she no longer feared that he would think to disappear from her life again. “Can I stay with you tonight?” She asked after another long hug.

“Of course, love. I would like nothing better.” He smiled and kissed her head again. Frey yawned hugely, finally allowing all the fatigue, both physical and emotional, to drag down over her now that the events of the day were settled and she had her loving dwarf in her arms once again. He smiled affectionately as she blinked sleepily and then lifted her up in his arms, carrying her to bed and tenderly laying her there with her head on the pillow. He helped her remove her field gear and then peeled off his own before slipping beneath the sheets and pulling the blanket up over both of them. As she felt herself slipping slowly into sleep, she saw that he was staring softly at her face as he wrapped his arms around her and stroked her hair very gently.

“What is it?” she mumbled sleepily. He blinked slowly at her with a solemn expression.

“…I thought I’d never hold you like this again…” He whispered. She laid a hand at his cheek, teasing her fingers into his hair and stroking him reassuringly.

“I’m not going anywhere, Bado. I’m here because I want to be here.”

“And that is what is just so unbelievably amazing… you can’t blame me for wanting to just look at you and appreciate that very truth.” She smiled weakly, sleep threatening to take her under its inky veil. He smiled and kissed her forehead. “Go to sleep, my pet. I can’t wait to wake with you in my arms.”

“I love you…” She sighed syllable by syllable as she finally fell asleep, just barely hearing him say the same in return as she slipped into dreaming.

Chapter Text

His own gasp startled Bado into wakefulness the following morning. He breathed hard as he came out of the confusion and panic of a nightmare in which Frey had left him, saying she couldn’t forgive him for abandoning her. Then he realized as his brain began to regain awareness of his senses that he was alone. A long strand of her green hair was draped on the pillow and her scent lingered in the sheets but Frey was gone. Bado sat up and looked around in alarm. The nightmare was still near, his emotions not quite stabilized after the events of the dream.

“Frey?” He called. His voice seemed to fall to the earth as soon as it left his throat, hardly making it across his bedroom in the early morning light creeping in through the windows. There was no answer. Fear and confusion bubbled just beneath the surface, threatening to boil over. Where was she? He thought he could remember the difference between the actual events of yesterday and the nightmare for what they were, but with her mysteriously gone and his heart still racing, he could not quite convince himself that all was well, either. Looking around, he noticed her field gear still strewn on the floor by the bed where he had dropped it the night before after carrying her to bed. So that much at least had happened as he remembered…

A flash of light filled the room and he turned to see Frey standing in the middle of the floor holding a cup of steaming tea. She blinked at him then smiled.

“Oh, you’re awake. Good morning.” She said quietly. He stared at her, still a bit bewildered, then his eyes fell to the cup. She followed his gaze and looked down at it. “Oh this? It’s the Emorelli tea. I just gated to my room and back to get it. I’m supposed to drink it about the same time each day.” Bado felt his shoulders relax a little and he began to breathe again. His breath came out in a sigh. Frey looked at him half-curious, half-concerned.

“What is it?” She asked after a moment.

“Nothin’… just wondered where you were…” He muttered, shaking his head slightly and rubbing his eyes. Somehow his fear hadn’t completely abated, even now that she had proven his unpleasant dreams false by returning. Something was different from last Friday morning… something hadn’t been restored exactly as it had been before he had left for Sharance. Bado knew he should be happy, ecstatic even… heck, at the very least he should feel content at this moment, yet something had deeply unsettled him and he could not shake it off like a mere bad dream.

He had made his first major misstep in their relationship, and in doing so he had hurt her. The possibility of losing Frey had become very real to him in the course of the weekend’s events and now the notion had dissolved the perfect, rosy impression of their romance up until the present. What if he screwed it up again? Could she forgive him a second such blunder?

“Bado.” Her soft voice intruded on the downward spiral of his thoughts. He looked up and saw her staring at him with a sympathetic air. She set down the tea on the bedside table and sat on the edge of the bed very close to him and looked up into his face. “Tell me what’s wrong.” She said evenly. He blinked at her and swallowed. It was suddenly impossible to form syllables with his tongue and mouth. She waited patiently, gazing up at him for a minute or two, before furrowing her brow with concern.

“…please…” She said very quietly, “talk to me…” He looked bewildered at her and took a deep breath. Why was this so hard?

“I—um…” He stammered, forcing himself to begin even though he still had not strung the words together in his mind properly. “are you… sure? …that you can forgive me? I really fouled everything up when I left the way I did… without even asking how you felt about it…” He cringed slightly at her. She smiled sympathetically.

“Bado... I already told you I forgive you.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and nuzzled his cheek. “I’m so glad to have you back, love.” She whispered in his ear. He hugged her gratefully, then pulled back and looked concerned into her eyes once more.

“You’ve given your love to a fool, though, Frey… I can more or less guarantee I’m going to mess up and hurt you again…” He winced as he said it. Some part of him almost wanted to hear her renounce him and break it off now. It was so terrifying, loving her so completely… and knowing he was still the same imperfect person he’d always been. How could he possibly live up to what he wanted to be to her?

“I don’t care…” She said, hushed, “I want to be with you, whatever you are… fool or otherwise.” His heart ached and bloomed all at once. Hugging her tightly again, he fought to speak from his clenched throat, his eyes burning all the while.

“You—“ His voice stopped in his mouth and he swallowed. “You’re a fool too!” He choked out the words in a broken voice, burying his face in the hollow of her neck and trembling at the weight of the sudden rush of emotions that hit him. She kept one arm around him and stroked his hair with the other. He felt as though he was completely enveloped in her tender embrace, despite the fact he was entirely too large for that to be possible.

“I love you, Frey.” He said intently after his throat had relaxed and his eyes stopped burning.

“I love you too, Bado.” She answered, resting her forehead against his and holding his face in her slender hands. Then she kissed his lips, slow and soft. He closed his eyes and drifted in this most pleasant sensation. Just as she made to let the kiss end since he hadn’t moved and her lips separated from his slowly, he leaned forward and kissed her this time, timidly at first. He had gone back to the early moments of their intimacy in his mind, this love so unbelievable as to be like a myth or story, rather than his actual living experience. As the familiar sensation of her soft, pink lips upon his took him back through all the memories of every touch and kiss up until now, he let his desire for her filter back into his movements and kissed her again and again, more passionately every time until they were both out of breath and she was beginning to make those delicious little pining noises he liked so well.

A knock on the front door filtered into the bedroom like a sound from underwater. They both opened their eyes and looked at one another, equally disconcerted at the interruption. Then she smiled and nuzzled his cheek affectionately.

“That’ll be Gaius. It’s already midmorning, you know.” She said quietly.

“Right…” He mumbled, wishing they could have disappeared to some secret place with no doors to knock on. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help Gaius, but just now all he wanted was a long, uninterrupted session of intimacy with his lovely young nymph. Every touch of her warm, soft skin was helping immensely to dispel his anxiety and prove to him that all was well. To let go now and be parted again seemed sorely unfair. Frey picked up the tea and sipped it, then looked at him curiously. He had moved to the edge of the bed, his feet on the wooden floor, but hadn’t risen yet. His shoulders drooped slightly as he anticipated her saying she would leave and let him get to work.

“May I stay and watch you work for a while?” She asked in a gentle tone. He looked up at her both surprised and pleased at once. Could Earthmate magic allow one to read minds? There were certainly times when nothing seemed so likely…

“Please.” He answered, smiling a small, relieved, smile. She returned it. “But this time…” He began again. She looked up. “You should probably wear more than just one of my shirts.” He teased, grinning mischievously.

“Oh!” She scoffed and swatted his arm. He laughed and stood up, finally attending to the door once he had thrown on a shirt and a loose pair of pants.

“Good morning, sunshine!” Gaius called cheerfully as Bado opened the door. He carried a little basket with a hand towel over it into the Meanderer and set it down at the work table by the forge. “Xiao Pai made this breakfast for me, but I’m not sure it’s totally safe to eat. I thought maybe you could use it for forging…” Bado laughed lightly.

“Yeah, you’re new here. Everyone who lives in Selphia already knows to steer clear of her cooking, but even she can’t hold a candle to the terrifying things I’ve seen Forte come up with in the kitchen.”

“Well… I suppose it would be a little unfair for her to be such an outstanding fighter and an expert in domestic charm.” He mused. Just then Frey came out of the bedroom, fully dressed, and waved a pleasant hello to the smaller dwarf. “Then again…” Gaius added, raising his eyebrows as his eye flicked from her to Bado’s face. “Perhaps there are such creatures in this world, after all.” He smirked. Bado mirrored the expression.

“Is Raven here today?” Bado asked as he walked over to the table. “I want to thank her for bringing back Ventuswill early.” Frey looked up curiously.

“She’ll return tomorrow, I think.” Gaius said calmly. “She’s not very talkative, that one, but she is quite thoughtful…” Bado nodded. “We do need to get this done though…” Gaius said, inclining his head at the broken hammer that still lay on the work table by the forge with just a touch more gravity than his usual airy disposition. “Or she’ll have nothing left to sell at my shop back in Sharance.”

“She’s welcome to take some from my stock to fill in the gaps in the meantime.” Bado offered. Gaius looked slyly at the weapons lined up on the wall.

“Maybe the armor…” He said, seemingly absentmindedly, “But there is no market for blunt weapons in Sharance, you know.” Bado huffed.

“You gonna bust my chops about that, too?” He grumbled. Gaius chuckled in a satisfied way.

“Actually, the bluntness isn’t really the issue. Raven knows how to sharpen steel. It’s the lack of investment. I’m not interested in selling the things you make in your sleep.” Bado raised his eyebrows. Of course Gaius, another dwarf and a fellow blacksmith to boot, would notice his heart wasn’t in any of the things he sold at the Meanderer, even if the customers were still impressed with them. “When was the last time you used your hammer for what it was made to do?” He said, pointing a finger at the tall dwarf.

“I’ll bet it was this.” Said Frey suddenly, and placed the twin blades of the new Force Divide on the table in front of Gaius. His singular eye seemed to light up as he looked at them.

“Aah, so you do remember how to make good things!” He hummed excitedly as he picked up the fire blade and turned it over before his eye. He examined them both with evident satisfaction, tracing his fingertips over the delicate pattern in the binding and staring approvingly at the emerald pommel in the platinum grip of a dragon’s claw. He smiled continuously as he inspected them, then set them down gently on the table again. “But I wouldn’t sell something like this in my shop either.” He said enigmatically. Frey and Bado both looked nonplussed at him. Gaius grinned a little wider and wilier at them both. “I can’t have the folks back home getting a taste for your best work or they won’t buy mine anymore. I hope you realize how unfair it is that you got all the talent and none of the discipline.” He chided his clanmate. Bado chuckled at the roundabout compliment.

“Yeah, well, maybe if working weren’t such a drag I’d be motivated by less than the affections of a princess, but oh well, that’s life.” He wound an arm around Frey’s waist and pulled her to him affectionately as he spoke. Gaius smiled approvingly at them as Frey playfully tried to wriggle out of her lover’s grasp.

“How does it feel to be out in the open?”

“It’s still a little scary, to be honest.” Frey answered, looking at Bado and then to Gaius. “If people around here didn’t already like me so well, I’m fairly sure we both would have been run out of town by a few of them…” She recounted her efforts to convince the various residents of the town while they had been away in Sharance to the two dwarves, who listened quite attentively to her story. Once she had described the argument with Blossom, Bado cringed.

“Yeesh… Sounds like I should try to buy groceries while Doug is working then…” He said apprehensively.

“That’s wrong…” Gaius said evenly. Frey and Bado looked surprised at him. He smiled and began to elaborate: “You went through so much to be open about your love. Don’t hide yourselves now from the naysayers. Those are the people that need to see you most to get used to the idea.”

“Huh.” Said Bado, smiling a small, one-sided smile. “You’re probably right…”

“Of course I am.” Gaius replied simply.

“Speaking of loving someone openly…” Frey piped up, looking directly at Gaius, “When are you going to talk to this mystery lady of yours?” Gaius blushed and Bado raised his eyebrows, looking between them. He remembered the comment in which his clanmate had alluded to having an unrequited love interest but had not until now been aware of any words between Gaius and Frey on the subject.

“Give me a little time, sheesh! I’ve been too wrapped up in your romance to deal with any of that just yet anyhow…” Gaius looked genuinely flustered, to which Frey’s face assumed a satisfied expression. Bado chuckled again. It was gratifying to see his cool and overly perceptive kinsman ruffled from time to time, especially by a clever turn of his lover’s wit.

“Well! Dwarf hammers don’t forge themselves, I suppose.” Bado said, standing up after a few more minutes of idle chatter. “I had better get to work, much as I hate saying that.” His self-mockery made Frey smirk, but then a little growl came from her stomach and she turned pink in the cheeks.

“Ahaha!” She laughed nervously, “I think I need to go find some breakfast.” Gaius looked sideways at Bado with his singular eye and he felt a twinge of shame at having neglected to provide her with anything to eat. Normally she would sneak away back to the castle before a proper hour for a morning meal, but even if this was the first time she hadn’t left so early, he still should have thought to give her something

“Sorry, Frey. Let me make you something.” He offered quickly, but she waved a hand dismissively.

“No, no. You have to make Gaius’ hammer, remember? I’ll just run over to Porcoline’s and bring back some omelets or something for all three of us, hmm?” She was smiling cheerfully as she spoke. Bado looked guiltily at her still. She tilted her head as she read his expression and donned an understanding air. “You can make me breakfast tomorrow, okay?” He brightened, not only at the invitation to make up for his oversight but especially at the implication that he may expect to have her spend the night again and wake with him tomorrow morning too. He nodded, letting a smile tug on the corners of his mouth.

“I’ll be back in two shakes.” Frey chirped and stepped through the front door with her long pigtails trailing behind her as usual. Bado’s eyes followed her until the door closed behind her and then sighed happily. Gaius had watched his face intently throughout the exchange.

“She is quite the catch, cousin.” He observed, looking distant. “You better step it up and take good care of her. She already seems to know what to do with you better than you do…” Gaius blinked and looked sideways at his clanmate once more. “In most areas, that is…” Bado lowered one eyebrow and looked slyly back at Gaius.

“Yeah, but even there she’s way too quick a learner.” He picked up the smaller dwarf’s implication without hesitation. Gaius smirked a knowing little smile.

“All the more reason you can’t afford to be asleep at the helm. It’s more than just youth, you know. She’d be a handful for a man her own age. I’m not sure how you are going to keep up with her.”

“Me neither.” Bado sighed, but smiled as he looked into an unseen distance. “I’ll probably always be humbled by her.”

 

Chapter Text

“Wonderful Helloooo!” Porcoline’s enthusiastic greeting pulled a laugh like a songbird from Frey’s mouth as she walked across the restaurant to the counter.

“Hi, Porco.” She chuckled. “What’s the breakfast special today?”

“Ooohoohoohoo!” Porco pranced about with delight behind the counter. “It’s fruit sandwich and French toast with a side of pineapple juice!” He beamed at her as he finished speaking.

“Hahaha, sounds delicious. Can I please order three to go?”

“Hungry this morning, aren’t we?” A familiar-by-now voice said from behind her. She turned around and smiled pleasantly.

“Morning, Dylas.”

“Hi.” He smiled in return. “Have you been tending your fields early this morning to work up that kind of appetite?”

“Ha. Ha. Very funny.” She chided. “I have two dwarves at the Meanderer to keep out of trouble and I’m betting they’ll both forget to eat anything all day while they are forging if I don’t step in.”

“Ah, I see.” He replied. “Sounds like they sure need a lot of looking after.”

“Yeah, they are pretty dense, each in their own way.” She grinned from ear to ear.

“It’s good to see you happy again, Frey.” He said, his tone suddenly soft. Frey looked up into his amber eyes gratefully.

“Thanks, Dylas.” They talked for a few minutes while he wound place settings by rolling silverware into cloth napkins for the tables. Then Porcoline made a beckoning gesture full of unnecessarily flourishes.

“It’s reeeeeaaaaaadyyyyy!” He called in a musical tone.

“Thanks, Porco!” She deposited a neat, short stack of gold coins on the counter and then began to try and pick up the teetering stack of take-away boxes.

“Here, let me.” Dylas collected most of them and turned toward the door.

“Oh, you don’t have to—“ Frey protested.

“I know… But I’ve got to take time with you where I can get it now, don’t I?”

“Thanks.” Frey acquiesced to his help and they walked at a leisurely pace through the town toward the housing district. They said nothing for almost three blocks when an idea popped into Frey’s head. “Hey Dylas?” she called timidly.

“Yeah?”

“Um… you know, Bado and Gaius are going to be pretty busy this week during shop hours… and… maybe, if you are feeling up for it we could go fishing at the lake or something?” He brightened suddenly as he heard her words. “Not that I can promise I’ll like it… but if anyone can show me how to appreciate fishing, I figure it’s probably you…”

“You bet I can.” Dylas said confidently, his step suddenly springy as they walked. “My shift doesn’t start until evening tomorrow. You wanna go mid-day? I’ll make a picnic lunch.”

“Sure!” Frey was at all times very aware of Dylas’ very humble sacrifice of his own feelings by supporting her so much in bringing Bado back, but it wasn’t just a sense of obligation, either. She actually enjoyed his company. Sure he was an insufferable grouch at times, but when he was relaxed and easy in his heart like now, he had a very calming energy and its effect on her was most agreeable.

Suddenly she saw something odd a few yards away that caught her eye. Her feet slowed as she stared. Forte was making her usual rounds, decked out in armor and with her trusty sword in its sheath on her hip, and with her walked a red-headed figure with short, pointed ears. In the first moment, Frey wasn’t sure why she had thought it odd to see Doug and Forte walking together, but as she watched them pass through her line of sight between two rows of houses, her eyebrows climbed higher on her forehead.  Even at this distance, she could detect a nervous, excited, and shy energy in the way they moved. Two months ago she wouldn’t have recognized it, but her recent experiences had taught her well that giddy, anxious air.

Doug was fidgeting with his own sword on his belt and looking at Forte, then down at the paving stones, then up at a bird, then at her again. Forte, on the other hand, was very deliberately forcing her gaze straight out in front of her even as she spoke to him, but she was blushing slightly and Frey noted that she seemed to be slowing her strides a little so he could keep up as he trotted along beside her. Then they passed out of her sight behind a building as they continued Forte’s usual trek around the town.

“Huh.” She mused, a smile pulling on one corner of her mouth. She had stopped in the middle of the street as her thoughts turned in her head.

“What is it?” Dylas had stopped and turned to look curiously at her. Had he missed them?

“Nothing.” She smirked. He lifted his brow curiously but did not pry. Then they started off again for the Meanderer a couple more blocks away.

“Tadah!” She called as they stepped through the door and into the smithy. Three identical steel-blue eyes turned up and looked at her. Bado’s blinked in surprise and shifted his gaze between her and Dylas standing behind her once or twice. They walked forward and set the boxes on the store counter. The table was taken up with neat piles of different ores and other materials that the pair had presumably decided on as key ingredients for Gaius’ new hammer.

“Thanks for your help, Dylas.” She said politely.

“No problem. See you tomorrow, then?”

“Yep!” She chirped. Dylas smiled and then nodded to Bado and Gaius before turning to leave.

“Thanks, Frey.” Said Gaius, peeking into one of the boxes.

“Thank you, sweetheart. This smells great.” Bado said, nuzzling her hair as he wound an arm around her waist. Gaius walked over to the table to clear some room and as he moved out of easy earshot, Bado dropped his voice to a lower volume and whispered into her ear. “But I think I’d rather eat you.” His breath tickled her ear and she squirmed and snickered.

“Maybe for dessert, later tonight.” She purred quietly back at him, stealing a quick kiss and then unwinding herself from his grasp and moving off to help Gaius set the table.

The three of them enjoyed a cheerful meal full of light conversation. Inevitably their talk came back around to the hammer forging process and Gaius and Bado resumed their planning and discussion of materials and methods before long. Frey didn’t understand all of it but for now she was content to watch the two while they talked and admire the sight of her lover that she had missed so dearly over the past weekend.

“We’ll have to partition the forge.” Bado was saying, “Since these two have real different melting points but we need ‘em liquid at the same time.”

“These ones have a lower requirement, so we can probably just toss them in with this one when it’s melted down. The Alloy should be more or less complete when we pour it anyhow.”

“I’ve found it’s better to sequence them. The result is more integrated that way.” It went on and on like this for a while. Eventually, they actually got around to lighting the forge and gathering what they needed to begin the melting process. Frey began to nod with her arms folded on the work table, so she said goodbye and went off to tend to her field chores for the rest of the afternoon.

Having worked up a good sweat and a fair amount of dirt from the fields, she went in the early evening to the Bell Hotel to enjoy a leisurely bath. Lin fa was far less gregarious than usual, but Frey made a decided effort to be just as sweet and cheerful as she always was. Becoming bitter with those who refused to support her relationship with Bado wouldn’t make them any more likely to come around, after all.

The hot water felt wonderful. A very contented sigh slipped from her lips as she relaxed in the ornate bath. Steam wrapped around her in heavy vaporous clouds, but there was an even hotter sensation growing within her.

Sexual desire had deserted her in her anxiety over the last few days but now that her lover was restored to her and the worst of the drama seemed over for a while, it came roaring back, tormenting her with a ravenous hunger for him. She counted down the hours until Gaius would return to the hotel and she could monopolize Bado's attentions for the rest of the night…

The bath was curiously empty this evening. She could hear every trickle of water from both sides of the large wall that divided the ladies and men’s side of the bath. This came in very handy when the door slid open and two very familiar voices entered the men’s side a few minutes later.

“You think we’ll need fire magic to help it along? Raven is handy with that element.” Gaius could be heard first.

“It might help get the temperature up, but that won’t do much good until we insulate the forge some more… All the heat will just dissipate and I don’t like living in a furnace as much as you.” Bado’s deep bass voice joined him.

‘Still talking shop…’ Frey thought, smiling to herself. Soon she would burn all thoughts of work and forging from his mind. His fixation on the subject of melting points and alloys would be no match for her lips on his. And, if she was feeling really feisty, perhaps she would break him down with a wet, slow drag of her tongue on the edge of his pointed ear… She sighed, half happy, half longing. It wouldn’t be long now, but somehow the closer the hour came, the slower the minutes seemed to tick by.

She savored the heat of the bath and a mischievous enjoyment of eavesdropping on the two dark-haired dwarves a few minutes more before finally drying off, dressing and stepping out of the bathhouse back toward home.

Upon reentering her room, she rummaged in a drawer, pawing through various petit undergarments before selecting a lacy, purple pair of panties and grinning to herself as she imagined her lover’s expression full of lust and longing. Only a couple more hours now…

She changed into a light summer dress and smirked to herself as she let it fall over her lacy little secret and walked toward the dining hall for dinner.

Chapter Text

The clamor of the dinner hour in Porcoline’s restaurant rang all around Bado and Gaius as they sat down to dinner after returning from the bathhouse. Dylas served them placidly but wasn’t any more talkative than usual. Bado didn’t know what to make of the young man in light of his recent actions in helping to reunite him and Frey. On one hand, he was as aloof and standoffish as ever to him… but on the other, the former Guardian showed no particular mistrust toward him any longer. In the end, he could think of nothing to say to Dylas outside of the usual things one says to one’s waiter at a restaurant. Dylas showed no sign of wanting to start any other kind of conversation either.

After Bado had paid for himself and his kinsman, they walked for a lap around the town before parting back at the hotel. Gaius waved a cheerful goodnight and disappeared into the ornate Eastern building. Bado started back toward the Meanderer in the dusky evening light. He wondered when his young lover would make her sudden appearance in his room tonight... They hadn’t said a time or even explicitly planned for her to come over, but he was willing to bet based on their little stolen whispers earlier that she was itching to get him alone just as much as he was. A happy sigh slipped from his mouth as he walked over the paving stones of Selphia’s roads.

The familiar quiet of the empty Meanderer was waiting for him as he stepped inside and closed the door behind him, turning the bolt as was his new habit whenever Frey slept over. Ducking under the drape in the doorway to his bedroom he kicked off his boots and began to unbuckle the wide straps of his vest.

“You took your time.” A smooth voice said suddenly. He looked up and noticed for the first time Frey laying in his bed leaning against the headboard, her arms draped over it above her head and her bare feet crossed over one another. His heart jumped in his chest. Her gaze was smoldering with desire. A grin began to spread across his face.

“My humblest apologies, milady.” He gave an exaggerated bow. “I did not mean to keep you waiting.” Hearing her giggle at his play, he straightened up and moved toward her with a wide smile.

Bado felt more spritely than ever before. The anxiety of keeping his relationship a secret was over and here she was, jumping the gun to sneak into his bed and await his return. He crossed the room with a couple long strides and held back a giddy laugh as she bit her lip and pulled her legs up toward her as he approached, her eyes burning even brighter than before. His hands wrapped around her legs and pulled her rapidly across the mattress to the edge of the bed. She gave a shrill yelp of surprise and her mouth hung open, corners curling in a mischievous grin. Bending low over her he felt a devilish gleam mirrored in her eyes as he propped his hands on the bed on either side of her head.

“You are a very wicked creature, after all.” He growled down at her. “Climbing into a man’s bed when he’s not around… hardly the behavior of a princess.” He clicked his tongue and fixed her with a stern look.

“Your duty is to carry out my wishes, not question my motives, knight.” She looked playfully haughty at him, but her flippancy was difficult to believe even in jest while she was pinned beneath him.

“True enough.” He shrugged, but retained a sly one-sided smile. “But first, I need to be sure you are actually the princess of Selphia. It would be quite the betrayal of my vow, to carry out the orders of an  imposter!” He pounced on her, grasping her slender wrists in his big hands and making a show of pinning them to the bed above her head, all the while only touching her with his usual gentleness. Frey squealed and giggled. He looked dubiously at her.

“I am who I appear to be, knight! You can’t treat a princess so ungenerously!” she huffed.

“Hmmmm…” He rumbled, passing up her challenge. “You certainly look like my princess…” He pulled her arms toward one another and pressed his left hand over both her little wrists to free up his right. “But just to be sure…” He reached down and grabbed the edge of her dress and slowly dragged it up toward her waist.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing, Knight?! You can’t just look under a princess’s skirt!” She fumed. He raised an eyebrow at her as he defiantly tossed the garment up and revealed her from the waist down.

“Aha!” He cried triumphantly as he spotted the violet lace of her panties. They were narrow, with a very minimal wedge of fabric covering her sex and the straps that reached over her hips clung only lightly. His hunger for her burned and bubbled as he saw them, but he kept up the game just the same. “My princess would never wear something like this” He pulled at the rim of the garment for emphasis, “she is far too innocent for something so plainly seductive!”

“And who are you to tell your princess she cannot be seductive?” She bit back. “I’ll have you stripped of your armor for this insult!”

“Sounds like the trickery of a devilish little imposter to me, but on the off chance that you are telling the truth, I had better investigate further…” He moved swiftly, grabbing her thighs and tugging her toward him until her pelvis hung just over the edge of the bed and then he pulled the lacy underwear off with one quick motion.

“Ah!” She protested shrilly. He wrapped his arms under her, lifted her off the mattress and then tossed her onto the center of the bed. Another shrill cry escaped her as she bounced on the springy surface. He didn’t wait a moment to spring onto the bed and loom over her for another breath before bending low and ducking his head underneath her dress to kiss a line down her middle and tickle her sides with his whiskers. “Hahaha! Oh! There’s no way a knight is supposed to do that to his princess!” She cried.

“Your disguise is clever, whelp. You managed to emulate her beautiful body and her soft, delicate skin perfectly…” He pressed his mouth onto her abdomen, planting wet kisses over her stomach and inching his way lower.

“Ah!” she gave a breathy cry as he dragged a long wet swipe of his tongue over her flushed alabaster skin.

“Ah, yes, now that sounds more like my darling Nymph princess…” He hummed, “But there’s only one—way—to know—for sure…” he kissed her lower and lower in between the words and coaxed her legs wide apart with his warm hands smoothing over her thighs. She gave a high pitched little whine and tensed her back as he paused just over her sex. “Let’s see if you taste like her…” He said in a low, devilish voice, and spreading her lips with his thumbs, he dragged his tongue right up her center in a swift, wet stroke.

Frey gasped shrilly and arched her back. Bado’s heartbeat pounded in his ears. The combination of her sounds and the taste of her on his tongue flooded him with a ravenous lust. He closed his mouth over her sex again and again; kissing, licking and sucking at the slippery folds of her flower in quick succession while she cried out over and over again, squirming and writhing at the intensity of the sensations he was throwing her into. Between her own native slickness and the added wetness of his mouth, his short beard was practically dripping from her before long.

She was all fire and lust now, crying out with every breath and wholly lost in a fever of desire. Normally he liked to build her up slowly, but this game had its own appeal: tearing away all of her control with an overdose of pleasure until her mind was unable to comprehend anything at all except the feeling of his tongue and lips on her. A swell of pride filled him up every time he could force an involuntary shiver or yelp out of her. This sight of her, helplessly lost in his touch and desperate for him to continue… this was how he proved to himself that she was all his. Bado smiled at these thoughts between his princess’s thighs.

“Oh!” She whined aloud as he dragged his tongue farther upward now. It was time to throw her over the edge. He panted and flicked his tongue against her clitoris, spurring her to buck her hips against his face. He wrapped his hands around her thighs and held her to him as her movements grew more uncontrollably wild.

“Aah! Aaahhh!” Her voice rang out as she tilted her head back and rode the tide of pleasure helplessly consumed by his every stroke. He moved his tongue faster and pushed harder on her apex. Her fingers curled into his hair, nails scraping over his scalp. “AaaaaAAAH! AAAH!” She was climbing to a crescendo. He pushed his mouth hard over her clitoris and pulled at her repeatedly for the finishing stroke. A spasm shot through her like a shockwave and she went rigid, a long ecstatic cry pouring from her lips. It was a sound wholly saturated with sexual pleasure, exhausted and involuntary and delicious beyond compare. He kissed her slowly a few more times, triggering little aftershocks to her orgasm that made her gasp as she panted and lay limply in his grasp. Now he finally raised his head and wiped his mouth once with the back of his hand. It was altogether ineffective. His mouth and jaw were drenched by her. He grinned in a very satisfied way as he combed over her with his eyes, delighting in the way her whole body trembled as she desperately tried to catch her breath, her eyes closed, mouth hanging open.

“Alright, now I believe you.” He teased. “Only my Frey is that sexy.” A hint of a laugh laced her next gasp of air.

He climbed onto the bed and hovered over her, basking in the heat of her breathless afterglow. Then, suddenly she grabbed his face and pulled him into a passionate kiss. With a pang he thought how much of herself she must be able to taste in his mouth but she showed no sign whatsoever that she objected to it, so after a moment he returned the motion with an eagerness to match her own. They kissed for a few long, indulgent moments before breaking apart and looking hungrily at one another once more.

“I hope you don’t think I’m going to let you get away with that…” She said in a dangerous tone heavy with implication. He raised his eyebrows, a grin tugging on one corner of his mouth.

“Uh-oh…” He said in mock apprehension. Her hands found the buckles of his vest and impatiently pried the garment open and pulled it down over his wide shoulders. The fact he was still dressed plainly vexed her. He sat upright and assisted her in pulling off his layers. Eagerly she kissed and licked his neck and her hands traced his body over and over. Her energetic attentions surprised him and his vision misted with pleasure at her touch. He unzipped her dress and pulled it off over her head, breathing deep and slow as he looked on her with hungry eyes. An increasingly wicked gleam was burning in her gaze. She reared up on her knees upon the bed and pushed on his chest with her hands. He let himself be guided into a reclined position, his neck and shoulders leaning on the headboard.

Frey leaned back on her heels, dragging her fingertips down over his chest and stomach as she went. He lifted his hips off the bed and she insinuated her fingers under the edge of his underwear and pulled them off in a swift gesture, biting her lip as she looked into his eyes still. This was quite the second wind she had caught…

Bado was suddenly aware of feeling held fast by her will. Frey wasn’t holding back anything anymore, her determination to assert her desire over him overtaking the habit of letting him lead their sexual endeavors. His hands reached up behind him and gripped the edge of the headboard. Now his body language described complete deferral to her every whim. He waited for her next move.

Size had no bearing on her sudden power over him. Her small, slight frame perched on top of his large formidable one, pinning him with her burning gaze as if his equal in physical strength. Steel-blue eyes looked entranced into smoldering green ones. She leaned forward and lavished his neck with her mouth and tongue. He tilted his head back and his breathing became shallow as his consciousness drifted in the sensation. She worked her way up to his ear, his breath catching in his chest as she licked and nibbled the edge. Her left hand found the other ear and she mirrored the movement of her tongue along the blade with her fingertips on the other side. His eyes closed automatically and he savored the burning pleasure as his ears grew red-hot and twitched within her grasp. A soft moan surprised him by escaping his lips as if pulled from his lungs by a ghostly force.

His body was full of fire and anticipation. She was still very new to all the specific mechanics of lovemaking, but she certainly knew how to seize the reins, somehow. Her mouth was suddenly close to his. He reached for her slightly but she did not press a kiss to his lips yet, merely teasing them with a light brush of her mouth and a lusty sigh. A deep-voiced sound between longing and frustration kindled in his throat. She tortured him another long moment, tracing her fingertips lightly over his chest, which expanded with a deep breath. His mouth opened a little wider, hungry for her warmth. Then it was full of her tongue as she wrapped him in an insistent, molten kiss, her hands caressing his jawline and ears alternately. His hardened sex twitched as his arousal climbed yet higher.

Her mouth on his was growing yet more fevered and forceful. He lost his senses in her red-hot attentions just long enough to become startled when he felt her kiss her way down his sternum to his abdomen, crawling down the length of the bed like a prowling cat as she did so. He gasped involuntarily as she licked his skin with a little spiral flourish of her tongue. She kept going, kissing and licking right down past his navel. Bado whimpered. His mind reeled, fighting desperately to regain control of his voice. She didn’t slow or hesitate in the least. At this rate…

Her slender fingers suddenly wrapped around the base of his shaft and the hot wet firebrand of her tongue slid smoothly over the length of his sex. The sensation hit him like a thunderclap, his breath a hiss as he inhaled suddenly and his back tensed. He frantically willed his hand to move in spite of the paralysis that seized him through the pleasure of her mouth on him. She caressed the head with the tip of her tongue.

“Aaah!” He gasped and moaned at once. “Fr—Frey!” His voice faltered but he finally broke through the spell and he gently pulled her face up with his fingers under her chin. “Wait!” He panted.

“What’s the matter?” She wrapped her fingers around his and pushed his hand down onto the sheets again, her voice dripped with desire and teasing. “Can’t handle a taste of your own medicine?”

“You… you might not like it…” He panted, barely able to form the words. He pleaded her with his eyes, unsure of whether he hoped she would stop or continue.

“Only one way to know for sure…” She stole his earlier words as she leaned forward and pushed his shoulders back until he was against the headboard again. His resistance crumbled once more as he looked into her eyes. Her long hair fell like a curtain around her face, her cheeks flushed scarlet and her lidded eyes sparked with desire. All he could do was breathe and wait. Soon she kissed her way down his middle once more. He gathered her hair delicately in his right hand and held it out of the way behind her head as she strayed down between his legs again.

Time seemed to distort into an impossibly slow grind as her hand gripped him again and her open mouth descended toward the head of his cock. He pulled in a desperate breath and held it as her lips closed over him, her tongue reaching partway down his length as she did so. He moaned again and felt her lips twist into a smile around him. She had him completely at her mercy. There was no way he could stop her now. All he could manage was a whimper and a gasp as she took a little more of him into the intoxicating wet heat of her mouth.

It didn’t matter that she had no experience. The mere fact that her mouth was wrapped around him was enough to send him spiraling into a fever of sexual pleasure. He had had no control whatsoever of his escalation, but he didn’t care how little time it might take, letting his arousal run free as she drew herself up and then down again, sliding him inch by inch into her mouth as he held her hair.

He twitched and gasped as she moved over him repeatedly. Her tongue traced every contour of his sex curiously. He tilted his head back and moaned again. Then the very tip of her tongue teased a little ways into the opening atop the head.

“Aah! Frey!” He gasped, “Frey, I—“ A tiny part of his consciousness tried frantically to warn her but his breathless exclamation only made her more insistent. She sealed her lips around him, pushed her mouth down over his length as far as she could and pulled the last of his control right out of him. His breath caught in his chest and his body tensed, his mouth hanging open and eyes shut tightly as he lost himself and came forcefully into her mouth.

Frey convulsed and gagged, drawing up off of him suddenly.

“Agh!” He yelped as she released him all at once, still at the mercy of his orgasm reverberating through him and frantically trying to shake off the delirium. Worry had wrapped its terrible grip around his heart. He opened his eyes as she coughed and shuddered, a slippery combination of saliva and cum falling from her mouth. Her eyes were tightly closed but he could see that they were watering.

“Oh, no no no… come here, my love.” his voice quailed. He reached for her and lifted her with ease onto him, wrapping her in his arms and stroking her hair as he pulled her into a protective embrace. “I’m so sorry, pet. I was afraid that would be too much…” He cringed, scolding himself that he should have known better than to let her try that without guidance. She trembled in his arms silently. Guilt lashed at him. “Darling, please don’t ever do anything you don’t like for my sake… It’s not worth it if you aren’t enjoying yourself, no matter how good it might feel… I won’t find any pleasure in something that makes you unhappy.” He stroked her and kissed her head repeatedly, pouring comfort and affection onto her with his voice and his touch.

He held her tightly to him until her breathing became more regular again. Then, feeling her pull away, he loosened his arms around her and she looked up into his face, wiping her eyes and laughing feebly.

“S’my own fault, but that was surprising!” He couldn’t help a smile as he looked at her, relieved that she didn’t look sad or angry. She laughed again and wrapped her arms around his neck, cuddling close to him. She was so unbelievably adorable. Bado marveled like he had so many times before at the mysterious turn of fate that had resulted in their falling in love.

“I love you so much, Frey. I just want you to be happy and enjoy yourself…”

“I just wanted to return the favor…” She said in a small voice. “It doesn’t seem fair, otherwise…”

“Oh, Frey. Please don’t worry yourself over something like that. I wouldn’t eat your pussy if I didn’t want to. I did do it to please you but I also like doing it. There is no need to try and make it even. I appreciate so much that you want to please me, love, but I would much rather you enjoy getting me off than doing it in a way that is uncomfortable for you.” She drooped a little. He chuckled and hugged her. “Don’t be disappointed, pet. If you really want to give me oral, maybe next time just don’t let me finish in your mouth?” He offered. She looked into his eyes a little hopefully.

“But isn’t it better for you if you do?” She asked timidly.

“What, are your ears painted on?” He nuzzled her and bit her right ear playfully. “I just told you, it’s better for me if it’s fun for you too! Just finish with your hands or we can switch to coitus before I’m done, okay?” He looked at her expectantly.

“Okay…” She said, finally appeased. She smiled and nuzzled him affectionately. He kissed her sweetly and hugged her again.

“I love you, Frey.”

“I love you too.” She snuggled closer to him and sighed. Then she stirred again and looked up at him shyly. “Will you show me something new, next time?” She asked timidly. The giddy feeling from earlier started to bubble in him again. He grinned at her.

“Of course, my pet.” He hummed, delighting in her eagerness and curiosity and very proud of the fact that he was the one to help her discover what she liked between the sheets

 

Chapter Text

Bado kissed Frey’s head and stroked her hair, smiling softly in the quiet of the morning. She was sound asleep still. Watching her breathing softly in his arms was the most contented he could remember being. All of his adult life he regretted nearly every decision he made and even the one thing he knew he’d done for the right reasons. Quitting the knighthood with Lady Ventuswill’s help in the form of dismissing him from service was something he sometimes questioned, even so. But now, knowing that everything had led to this moment… his departure from his homeland, years of struggle putting on a façade of something he was certainly not, the bond he had formed with the divine dragon he served, and choosing to live in exile from his people and his comrades in the Norad knighthood here in Selphia. At this moment while he thanked his lucky stars that he could live in peace with this amazing young woman who loved him, all of it was worth it. He wouldn’t change a thing, not if all the events of his wayward life had contrived to make this silent morning full of Frey’s warm little body nestled against him possible.

After a few more minutes of decadent indulgence in her peaceful dreaming, Bado carefully extricated himself from the bed without stirring her awake and dressed himself. It was a reasonable hour to rise, after sunrise but still cool and quiet save for the birdsong and summer insects beginning to fill the air with their noise. He took stock of the icebox and finding plenty of eggs, milk and fresh vegetables, he decided to make a quiche for breakfast in the cast iron kettle. That kind of cookware did best in the forge anyhow. He set about chopping veggies and whisking eggs, humming a cheerful tune quietly to himself as he did so.

Frey came padding into the room just as he slipped the kettle into the forge. She was still a little groggy, it seemed. Yawning widely, she gave a soft little ‘good morning’ that was so adorable as to melt him a bit. She was wearing the long sleeved gray shirt again, her bare legs like polished marble stretching downward below the rim of the garment, and the pale skin of her chest peeking out from the unbuttoned collar. He gazed at her with suddenly avaricious eyes. She smirked in reply to this hungry look and plucked the edge of the shirt, pulling it up enough to show him her frilly white panties.

“I made sure to wear something underneath, this time.”

“Oh, Frey, I don’t know if I can take you wearing that even if you are wearing underwear…” He furrowed his brow. She looked suddenly worried and embarrassed, nervously pawing over a piece of her long hair repeatedly.

“Does it look bad?” She asked, cringing. He laughed, unable to help himself.

“No, my pet, it’s too sexy.” He combed over her with wolfish eyes. A naughty smile replaced her anxious expression quickly. “The way that thing is all but falling right off of you makes me want to tear it off and eat you up!” He lunged forward and scooped her up in his arms, inciting a high pitched shriek followed by a trill of laughter from her as he tickled her neck with his facial hair, nuzzling her energetically. Then he kissed her face, neck, shoulders, collar and chest rapidly as she squirmed and pawed at him in a half-hearted, playful resistance.

“Take it easy, will ya? What if a Gaius or a customer comes in?” She balked.

“Then you’ll have some explaining to do about why you aren’t wearing any pants.” He raised his eyebrows at her. She laughed again.

“Alright, alright! Put me down and I’ll go get dressed.”

“Aww! That’s no way to motivate me…” He pouted, but set her on her feet anyhow and smiled at her as she pranced back to the bedroom, giving a teasing look over her shoulder as she went.

Just before the quiche was finished, Gaius did indeed arrive and bade them a cheerful good morning in his usual mild way. The three of them enjoyed the meal and conversation capitally and once they were all sighing happily with their stomachs full, Frey scrubbed out the kettle while Gaius and Bado cleared off the table and prepared the forge for the day’s work.

The hammer was coming along nicely so far. The core of the head had been caste and now it was a matter of melting down and layering on different alloys until the composite hammer head was complete. This layering process was the sole reason Dwarven hammers took so long to make. It took an immense amount of knowledge, skill, and especially patience to carefully build up the thing so that it would react with peak efficiency to every stroke, sparing the user the trauma of each shock as the hammer fell while transferring the force of each stroke into the material it was being used on. When forged and used properly by a master smith, these astounding tools could absorb excess kinetic energy back into the tool without breaking the metal they were pounding if too much force was used in a given swing. Each layer was a complex medley of exotic materials, not just metals but a wide variety of monster components too, including dragon scales and teeth, powdered rune crystals and even a hefty quantity of ironleaf for certain steps.

It was a pain to make even ordinary weapons and tools, so normally he would never put himself through so much tedium and difficulty in the course of his work, but he owed Gaius a great deal and even if he didn’t, Bado had enough affection for his closest clanmate to help however he could.

“I better go take care of my chores before the day gets too hot, and before it’s time to go fishing with Dylas.” Said Frey as Bado stoked the fire with fuel and threw on several hot-hot fruits to amplify the heat even more.

“Fishing? I thought you didn’t like fishing?” He turned and looked at her curiously, raising an eyebrow. It felt strange to say… maybe because what he was asking in his heart was ‘I thought you didn’t like Dylas?’.

“Heh, yeah… But I figured I should give it another shot since I’m trying to find some common ground with him, and that is about all he ever gets excited about.” She shrugged.

“You two getting along better now?” He said uncertainly.

“Yeah… He helped me out a ton while you were in Sharance…” Frey’s eyes softened and she looked as though she was reliving some tender memory. A decidedly discontented uneasiness stirred in the pit of Bado’s stomach. Dylas was the whole reason the lid had been blown off of their secret in such a tumultuous way in the first place… What had happened while he had been away to inspire such an affection between his Frey and the irritable former monster?

“You wanna come over again tonight after you’re done running around?” He carefully avoided inviting her to elaborate on how Dylas had supported her until he had returned.

“Sure!” She smiled gleefully at him. Then, buckling her belt and pulling on her field gloves, she bounced over to him, tugged the straps of his vest down and kissed his cheek as he came within her reach. “Thanks for breakfast. I’ll see you tonight!”

“You’re welcome, love. See you later.” He said warmly. Inwardly he felt very satisfied knowing regardless of whatever she did with Dylas, her day today would be bookended by spending time with him, and he would be sure to give her ample reason to be glad she did, come nightfall. Every delicious after-hours encounter with her made him hungrier for more of her and happier all the time at her enjoyment of and interest in their sexual explorations.

After the door had closed behind her he and Gaius worked in silence for a few minutes, measuring materials and waiting for the forge to get hot enough to move on to the next step.

“Don’t brood on it.” Gaius said suddenly, his tone that of a warning. Bado looked up and blinked at him.

“I don’t think I’m gonna miss how you are always up in my head once you go home…” He said in a low voice. Gaius chuckled, but looked sternly at him anyway.

“You don’t even realize how much trouble you are going to go through without me to steer your thoughts back on track.”

“Well if that’s true, I have to learn to swim on my own sometime, don’t I? Sounds like you have a relationship of your own to get started back in Sharance, anyway.” He raised an eyebrow at the smaller dwarf.

“Tch… Frey got that out of me with less to go on than I ever get from you. You best watch your step. That little Nymph of yours is sharp as dragon’s teeth and you are too slow to keep up with her, especially if you think I’m too perceptive…”

“Hmph.” Bado made a gruff, irritated noise. “ ‘preciate your concern, but I have every intention of spending plenty of time with her alone, so I’ll have ample opportunities to practice being her boyfriend without the benefit of your nosy mindreading.”

“You won’t hurt my feelings, Bado.” Gaius stared seriously at him. Bado suddenly dropped his defensive air and became once again attentive to his friend. Gaius looked satisfied at his change in demeanor. “She’s smart as hell but she’s totally vulnerable with you and she has no experience with relationships. Nobody’s born with the knowledge of how to reconcile or the confidence to know that even if you have a fight or hurt each other’s feelings it will be okay once you work it out.”

“Who said anything about fighting? We aren’t fighting.”

“You will, someday. Everybody argues, and everybody makes mistakes. You aren’t perfect and neither is she. Plus, you two are completely different on a number of levels, including your age and experiences. Everyone goes through it, man. If you don’t keep your head on straight, you’ll both be in for a rough ride once infatuation wears off.”

“What I feel for her is much more than infatuation, Gaius.” Bado said seriously, a little stung.

“I know.” Gaius smiled sympathetically. “That’s why I’m telling you these things. I want you two to be happy together for… well forever if possible…” Bado blinked. ‘Forever’ was a concept he rarely grappled with. His life was a series of brief moments concerned only with what was before him right now. He put a lot of effort into living in the present to stay out of the misery of his past, and he rarely had much reason to think beyond tomorrow, having no long term ambitions of his own. As much as he loved Frey in this moment and wanted to continue to be with her, he hadn’t given any thought to the notion of being together forever and what that would mean.

“Yes.” Gaius nodded as he spoke, seeing the wheels turning in Bado’s mind. “I know it’s not your style, but if you want to make this last you do need to think about how your relationship will develop and how it will change. If you don’t, you’ll just feel scared and overwhelmed when it does.” Bado looked silently at Gaius with his brow furrowed.

“Why are you bringing all this up now?”

“Because I just saw you get jealous of Dylas just because they are going fishing together.”

“What? I’m not jealous!” Bado flared, incredulous. Gaius simply raised his eyebrows and stared at him. Bado winced. The over-the-top reaction said it all. His face burned with embarrassment. Gaius leaned on his elbows on the table and looked at him intently.

“See, there?” He said calmly. “You might have gotten all pissy with her if she were the one calling out your feelings.” Bado sat back in his chair with a huff.

“Fine. Point taken.” He grumbled. A silence followed. In the interim, Bado’s mind started turning again regarding Frey’s plans with Dylas. “You don’t think it’s odd? Them palling around like that now?” He ventured finally. If Gaius already knew what he was feeling, he might as well get some council that he was actually asking for along the way.

“Whatever his intentions are now, he went to a good deal of trouble to come get you in Sharance. I think it’s safe to say he wants to give her whatever will make her happy.” That notion didn’t help Bado’s nerves at all. Gaius blinked at him again. “…which should be reassuring for you. Your rival for her attention went out of his way to convince you to return to her. Clearly her desire to be with you has more weight with him than his own wish to have her affections for himself.”

“Makes sense…” Bado grumbled and looked away at the forge.

“So what’s the issue, then?” Gaius finally sounded a little irritated, himself. “You don’t trust her alone with him?”

“Wha—? Of course I trust her…” The accusation hurt rather sharply. He frowned at his kinsman. Gaius’ expression didn’t soften. “I… well, I just… don’t feel good about them gettin’ too close, that’s all.” He shifted uncomfortably.

“Why, though?” Gaius persisted.

“Damnit, I don’t know why!” Frustration was gnawing at him. “It just makes me worry, okay? What if she changes her mind about being with a good-for-nothing older dwarf after all? That’s what a bunch of these nosy townsfolk want to happen anyhow!” His temper was rising, then he felt a pang and looked miserably at Gaius, pushing his feelings down again. “What if they’re right?” He said in an anxious, quiet voice. The smaller dwarf suddenly smiled and leaned back into a more relaxed posture.

“Ah, I understand now.” He said softly. “You’re just insecure about it all… well, I know how that goes.” His expression reminded Bado of regret somehow. The taller dwarf shook his head slightly in confusion.

“Where is all this coming from? What do you know about these things?” He voiced his thoughts without filtering them, then looked abashed as he heard how insensitive it sounded. Gaius gave a bitter half-smile in reply.

“You left young. I stuck around for a time while you were off gallivanting around in armor. I even had a girlfriend or two back home over the years. Not all of us are as cavalier with women as you were in those days.” Bado blushed and burned with shame at Gaius’ comment and its implication. His promiscuous antics in his younger days had never troubled him until now… he wished he could erase the careless way he had used sex and the women he had slept with back then and remember only the tender experiences he’d awakened to recently with Frey. “I may not have had as many partners as you, but I have more experience outside of casual flings and one-night stands than you do. Having a relationship that outlasts the initial high of infatuation is a whole different animal, Bado.”

“Sorry…” Bado said heavily. “I’m just as much of a boor and a fool as I’ve always been. I never learn…”

“That’s wrong.” Gaius said flatly. Bado looked up, more confused than ever. “You need to unlearn more than just your selfish lone-wolf lifestyle… You need to unlearn hating yourself, too.” The words were like a dagger slashing open a half-healed wound. Bado cringed and looked alarmed at Gaius, unconsciously clutching at his shirt over his chest as he did so. The ache in his heart was very real. All at once, what had sounded like a vague jibe earlier came into clear focus. He was insecure. That was exactly what thinking so little of himself meant. He did hate himself… even now.

The shock of realization struck the words right out of him. He couldn’t form a reply. Gaius looked sad and thoughtful at him in this pitiable state, then stood up and walked over to where he sat in a daze. Bado dimly looked up at his friend’s face, still at a loss. The smaller dwarf’s hand gripped his shoulder firmly.

“You can’t love someone else while you carry contempt in your heart. It just doesn’t work. You have to love yourself first.” He said earnestly, looking straight into Bado’s steel-blue eyes with his own one. “Frey believes you are worth loving. Now you need to figure out how to believe it too.” These words shocked him too, though in a very different way. Love himself? Was that even possible? He was suddenly very aware that he had never considered it before. He swallowed slowly.

“I’m just a coward who runs away from everything meaningful and chases after empty things like money… What’s there to love?” The words came slowly, as if from a different place than his own throat.

“Why don’t you ask that sweet little thing who is so head-over-heels for you when she gets back?” Gaius suggested kindly, smiling warmly. Bado felt a little calmer at his words.

“How did you learn to do it?” He asked quietly.

“I haven’t… not completely, anyway.” Gaius shrugged. “It’s not easy.” Bado sank a little lower at this admission. He had been pointed to an ocean no one knew the width or depth of and instructed to swim across. One tiny wish—the wish to be worthy of Frey’s adoration kept his heart from submerging completely into doubt. Even so, he felt like breaking down, or going numb. He pressed his right hand over his eyes and trembled.

“It’ll be alright.” Gaius said, squeezing his shoulder affectionately. “You have everything you need. She’s a great role model to teach you about love.” He smiled happily. Bado took comfort in imagining Frey’s smiling face as she looked at him just a little while earlier. The vision revived him a little from his fear and uncertainty.

“Thanks.” He said thickly but earnestly.

“Any time.” Gaius answered.

 

Chapter Text

“Here, use these for bait.” Dylas handed Frey a little tin which upon closer inspection was full of wriggling earthworms. She felt herself give him a dismayed look. “What’s the matter?” He asked.

“I kinda always feel bad for these little guys….” She looked at the worms dubiously. “Seems pretty cruel to skewer them and then just make em’ dangle while they wait for some fish monster to eat them cause they’re stuck there…” Dylas raised his eyebrows and gave a bewildered laugh.

“Wow… You’ve uh… You’ve thought a little too much into this.” He retracted his arm and put a lid on the worm can.  She looked up curiously at him, waiting to be berated for assigning so much sympathy toward a bunch of squirming invertebrates with no recognizable features. Dylas reached into the basket of food he had brought and pulled out a wedge wrapped in cloth. “We’ll use this instead.” He smiled at her, holding it out.

“What is it?” Frey took it and began to unwrap the cloth.

“Cheese.” Dylas said simply. “A lot of bug-eating fish like this just as well. But it is easier for them to take without getting hooked…” Frey smiled gratefully at him.

“Thanks… for not making fun of me.” He smiled in return with that natural easy smile that came out from time to time. She wondered at the fact that such a socially backwards person could have such a genuine and charming smile.

“Sure.” He replied. “Though I do wonder how you can run off and fight a bunch of monsters without hesitation if you can’t handle sticking a worm on a hook…”

“Oh… um…” She blushed and looked down. “Well, see I fight monsters with Earthmate magic and retornen weapons so it doesn’t actually kill them or hurt them permanently or anything…” She mumbled this explanation in a nervous, timid fashion. Ever since the day Bado had cringed and explained briefly why he didn’t bother sharpening any of the weapons he sold, Frey had been uncomfortably aware of how heedlessly she had fought monsters up until then. Of course she knew already by then about retornen and the monsters going back to the forest of beginnings, but she hadn’t ever stopped to think about it before. Uncomfortable as it was, she had to admit she might have just as easily been killing them for all the lack of consideration she gave the act of fighting them. Ever since then, she hadn’t felt quite equal to running out and fighting with the same fervor she carried into the fray before.

“You don’t feel comfortable killing anything, huh?” He said slowly. “Is that why you don’t like fishing?”

“Well… That’s… I’ve just been kinda hung up on it lately, I guess…” She shrank into a somewhat defensive posture, arms around her knees pulled up in front of her chest. “Actually I’ve never been bothered by the idea of killing a thing like a fish by catching it before, especially when I mean to eat the thing…”

“So what changed your mind?” Dylas continued to watch her face curiously.

“Heh. Actually it was something Bado said about retornen and monsters and such.” She smiled sheepishly. “He’s, um… He’s actually a really gentle person.” She blushed. It felt a little strange to be saying that to the same young man Bado had lifted roughly off his feet with one arm a few weeks ago.

“That’s good…” Dylas said quietly. “But if you get too worried about taking any kind of life, you’ll starve.”

“What?”

“Think about it… plants are living organisms too. Many of them have to be killed in order to consume the edible parts of them… or they are prevented from procreating because you eat their fruits. They aren’t animate like fish or monsters, but they do still live and die just the same. Choosing to live is choosing to kill on some level, because you are consuming the runes from another living thing.” Frey stared wide-eyed at him. Where was this philosophical analysis coming from?  Certainly she had never known Dylas to be so outwardly contemplative before.

“That’s… a little deep. I think you just went over my head a bit.” She said carefully.

“Sorry.” He blushed. “I’ve uh… I’ve given it a lot of thought… ever since I decided to become a guardian. In a way, it was like choosing to die, or to become food for the sake of another living thing surviving…” Frey blinked. She had never heard him talk about the ordeal he went through to try and save Ventuswill back when he chose to become a guardian and be sealed away in the interest of keeping her alive. “Certainly didn’t expect to wake up again… but here I am, thanks to you.” She blushed. He was looking at her with some very soft eyes… eyes that looked rather intimately affectionate at times. She turned away.

“Frey?” He said softly, and touched her hand with his, timidly. She gasped and drew her hand away. “S-sorry…” He mumbled and pulled his own arm away again.

Frey very determinedly avoided his gaze for a few awkward moments. She wasn’t sure what to say. As much as this kinder, more talkative, and more relaxed Dylas interested her, she couldn’t forget that he had up until just recently coveted her affections to the point of trotting along behind her everywhere just to be close by. She didn’t want to mix messages with him. It was bad enough that she had let him be so physically close while she was struggling with Bado’s temporary exile from Selphia. She had to draw the line before anything got out of hand…

“Um, listen…” She started to say. “I do want to be friends… but I think I need to set some boundaries and apologize for waiting until now to do it.” Dylas blinked at her, half curious, half bewildered. She took a deep breath and steeled herself for the awkwardness that was bound to follow her next words. “While Bado was gone, I was really upset… and lonely.” She began. He cringed ever so slightly. Did he still feel responsible and guilty for getting her lover kicked out of town for a time? “…And I kinda set a precedent for a level of intimacy with you that I shouldn’t have…” Every sentence was a struggle. Being so direct was her nature, but it didn’t make the situation feel any less uncomfortable. “I think it’s best if we try not to… t-touch e-each other from now on… okay?”

“Yeah…” He said a little hoarsely, looking away sideways and shifting uncomfortably. Guilt prodded her stomach as she looked on Dylas and felt his humiliation alongside her own.

“I’m really sorry, Dylas… for being so…. confusing.” She cringed as she apologized. He looked up at her again, looking timidly interested through an obvious shroud of disappointment. “I just don’t think I want to be… physically affectionate with anyone but him, you know? And I don’t want to be sending mixed signals either.” She added, blushing deeper. Dylas looked down again and nodded wordlessly. Another silence sprawled.

“But...” she began again. “Thank you… really, for comforting me that way… when I needed it. I probably shouldn’t have let you, but… it was really what got me through all that in one piece, I think, so… I just want you to know I’m grateful.”

“You’re welcome.” He said quietly, looking up into her eyes again. “And… Well… Since we are having this conversation anyway… There’s some things I should probably say to you too…” Frey swallowed again. This was shaking out to be quite an emotionally charged fishing exclusion… not at all the carefree mid-day diversion she had been prepared for.

“What is it?” She asked quietly. Dylas took a long time, full of anxious fidgeting, to muster the determination to speak again.

“I… I still wish it was me!” He blurted out. “There. I said it.” He shook his head.  Frey stared at him, at a loss for what to say now. His amber eyes searched her emerald ones and he took another steadying breath before speaking again: “I wish you really were interested in me the way I thought you were after Meg told me she heard you say it… But more than that… I just want you to be happy. So I made it my job to get Bado back here for you. I never woulda guessed that you loved him so much, but I couldn’t stand to see you so upset once he left…” He was almost out of breath from saying so many difficult things. Frey could hardly believe he was being so forthcoming about his feelings.

“Dylas…” She didn’t know what to say, but she wanted to acknowledge his feelings anyhow.

“It still sucks a bit, you know… seeing you with him… knowing he gets to be closer to you than I ever will… But as long as he’s the one you really want… As long as being with him makes you happy, I’ll never do anything to mess with your relationship ever again! I promise…” He looked determined and a little anxious.

“Thank you.” Frey said finally, smiling gratefully. “You’re an amazing person, Dylas. It’s no wonder you became a guardian to save Venti. He blushed. She continued to smile as she looked at him in amazement. More than anything, the total transformation of him in her eyes had taught her that a person could be a very changeable and complex thing. She had experienced some of the least and most noble behavior she could remember having seen through this one person. Looking at him as she pondered this, Frey felt very young and naïve. The world was full of surprising experiences, it seemed.

Dylas cleared his throat, plainly unable to handle squirming under her long stare anymore.

“We better get to fishing… I have to be to work at three…” he muttered. Frey made a little noise of affirmation and broke off a piece of the cheese with which to bait her hook.

The two of them turned to face the water and sat side by side while their fishing lines trailed in the blue-green waters of Dragon Lake. Dylas showed Frey how to cast her line properly and talked at length about the need to be focused but without tension.

“Be in the moment.” He said insistently. ‘If you are anxious or impatient, that energy goes right down the line and the fish won’t trust it. They can feel what you feel, like all creatures.” Frey made a number of efforts to still her mind and think only on the lure bobbing in the water. Several times there was a tiny tug and she would gasp or yelp and haphazardly yank the pole backward, but each time the fish had taken the cheese off the hook but hadn’t been snagged, itself. Dylas chuckled each time and patiently helped her try again. His own pole was lying at his side on the bank. Frey needed so much assistance, he had bent all of his attention on her, rather than doing any fishing of his own after the first cast.

At one point, she finally did manage to get a fish on and Dylas coached her excitedly while she fought to reel it in. It put up a colossal fight for such a little creature, she thought, but when she finally pulled it wriggling from the water and held it up Dylas proclaimed happily that it was a very good sized rainbow trout. A giddy feeling took over Frey and she laughed and bounced up and down happily.

“Haha! I did it!”

“You sure did.” Dylas chuckled.

“This is so cool! I’ve never actually caught one like this before! I can’t wait to cook you, you tasty looking thing!” She shouted excitedly to the fish.

“Oh, haha. Um. You might want to reconsider that. Rainbow trout are poisonous to eat…” Dylas said a little reluctant to spoil her fun.

“Oh, really? Well then I guess I’ll cook it for Leon!” She said, unperturbed. Dylas looked at her in blank confusion. She giggled with a hand over her mouth at his expression. “He likes poisonous foods. I think I remember him saying that grilled rainbow trout is his favorite, even.”

“Sheesh. What a weirdo…” He laughed.

“Hahaha! Yeah, he is, isn’t he?”

Dylas helped her wrap the fish in wax paper and they took a break to eat the lunch he brought. In the end, they spent all their remaining time talking about Leon’s strangeities, fishing, and how best to prepare fish. He was surprisingly knowledgeable about cooking. Frey guessed that more than just waiting tables, he was starting to try and pick up some of Porcoline’s profession while he worked there.

All in all it was a very enjoyable event. Frey parted ways with Dylas on the way back to the restaurant in very high spirits, wholly contented with her new friendship regardless of its rocky beginnings.

 

Chapter Text

The jolly chime of the shop bell announced Frey’s return to the Meanderer in the drowsy warmth of evening. She skipped across the floor to where Bado was organizing some swords in a rack on the wall and hugged him energetically as he turned to see who had come to call.

“Hi!” She chirped, squeezing him affectionately.

“Well! You’re sure in a good mood…” He smiled slightly at her, but something was odd about the tone of his voice. “Must have hauled in a lot of fish, huh?”

“Actually I only caught one… and it was poisonous so I fried it up for Leon to eat.” She looked up at him, curiously.

“Oh, yeah… That guy has some strange tastes.” He said absentmindedly. Listening carefully, Frey noted that he sounded somewhat distant and distracted.

“How’s the hammer forging going?” She asked, carefully watching his face for clues.

“Alright… We didn’t make much progress today.” He sounded tired. Frey tried to piece together the oddities in his manner but all she could determine was that he was rather subdued and preoccupied. She paused and thought carefully about what to say. As the silence sprawled longer, he finally looked up at her with a fatigued and bewildered air, wondering why she had gone quiet. Frey reached up and traced his jawline with her fingers, looking lovingly into his blue-gray eyes, somehow dull and less metallic than usual. He reached up and laid his hand over hers, leaning his face into her touch and pressing her fingers beneath his. He blinked but said nothing.

“What’s on your mind?” She asked softly, leaning against him until he slowly wrapped his other hand around her waist. He looked pained at her, then opened his mouth to speak but the words didn’t come. He shook his head and sighed. A minute or two passed before Frey grasped his large hands with her tiny ones and led him gently but insistently to his room. She crawled onto the bed and sat with her back to the headboard and then patted the mattress in front of her to invite him to join her. He hesitated a moment but then obliged, kicking off his shoes before sitting cross-legged on the bed.

“Tell me what’s troubling you.” She said calmly, laying her hand on his as he fidgeted with a seam that was coming undone in the blanket. He took another deep breath but didn’t speak yet. Frey turned his right hand over and traced each of his fingers with hers while she waited patiently for him to talk. Finally, after an unknown number of minutes he spoke.

“Frey… Why do you love me?” His voice was quiet and fragile. It was a curious tone to hear his deep, rich voice articulate. She looked surprised at him. Her hands stopped moving over his.

“Why?” She repeated, confused.

“Yes…” His expression was vulnerable and strained.

“What’s gotten into you? Has Gaius been asking all kinds of odd questions about love again?” She raised an eyebrow.

“Please… I… need to know.” He said softly, not reacting to her teasing. Frey stared at him in bewildered surprise and concern. He was being completely serious. It seemed uncharacteristic, to say the least, but it made her heart ache to see him laid low by worry like this. ‘Why did she love him?’ It was an odd question to try and answer concisely.

“Well…” She began quietly, letting her hands rest about his collar as she toyed with the white fur around the neck of his vest. “I think a big part of it is the way you are always careful… and gentle.” She made her voice very soft and sweet. “You’re probably strong enough to wrestle a dragon with your bare hands…” She smirked, squeezing his muscular shoulders as she spoke. “But the way you move around and the way you touch me, I’m betting you could hold a whole handful of butterflies without ever harming a one.” He looked timidly at her out of the corners of his eyes. She smiled. “And you’re way too big for it to be anything but a conscious choice. That’s what makes it so appealing. I love that you choose to be gentle.” She felt him relax a little, and it encouraged her to continue. She leaned forward and kissed his dark, ruffled hair.

“You’ve been pretty crafty at hiding all your best qualities until recently.” She teased. “But now I know you’re secretly a big, cuddly marshmallow!” She nuzzled him affectionately and wrapped her arms around him, humming a pondering note into his hair as she leaned into his warmth. “I love the way you can’t help but be honest, even when you could gain more by hiding something or misleading someone. That is probably why all your schemes always flop, but those strong principles are incredibly endearing and attractive, so don’t begrudge the difficulty they make with being a salesman, okay?” She looked at him sweet but mischievous at the same time. He returned her gaze, letting a very weak smile tease one side of his mouth.

“If you insist…” He mumbled. It was a pretty small show of acquiescence to her reassurances, but it was something. She took it as an invitation to continue, then thought hard and endeavored to filter for only the most core aspects of him for the time being; nothing transient or impermanent. Of course, he was very physically attractive to her, but she wanted to focus on the deeper things first. She fawned over him with her hands some more, toying with his beard with her slender fingertips as she spoke again.

“You are also very fun to be with. I love how playful you are, even if you used to use that against me all the time…” She tugged the point of his beard for emphasis as she mocked an annoyed tone.

“Aw, c’mon.” He said quietly, a hint of his usual self creeping back into his voice. “You aren’t gonna try and tell me you didn’t think those pranks were any fun, are you?” She smirked fiendishly at him, giddy in her heart to see him perk up a little.

“I’m not going to admit to that, no.” She said haughtily. He laughed very softly behind closed lips, then drooped again. Frey felt her own spirits dip as she saw it.

“Are you sure you’ll be happy with loving a lazy, penniless ex-hero who’s pretty much useless at most everything?” It wasn’t a hopeful thing to ask. His tone belied only a resigned certainty about the self-demeaning labels. Frey frowned.

“Did you listen to anything I just said?” She tugged on his ear. He looked into her eyes a little hopefully through the dark cloud about him. ‘Not good enough…’ she thought. A sudden bold determination seized hold of her. She rose up and threw a knee to the other side of him, straddling his lap and looming over him as he sat on the bed. At either ear she set her hands and tilted his face to look up into hers. She furrowed her brow and looked sternly at him. His face was a startled mask of surprise and bewilderment. “I adore you because of who you are, not in spite of it, you dummy! Stop second-guessing it and just let me love you, already!”

***

Frey’s voice broke through the gloom of Bado’s melancholy. It wasn’t an entirely comfortable sensation, like being startled awake by falling into cold water. Even so, the way she framed it perfectly pinned his inner fears like a butterfly to a board. He stared at her as she held him fast. Maybe Gaius was right about her being an even more perceptive person than him.

“Frey…” He breathed her name. Then her eyebrows inclined and she looked a little hurt.

“You believe me, right?” Her voice was small, suddenly.

“Yes… I believe you.” He gathered her in his arms and rested his forehead against hers. “I’m sorry, love. I just… I’m not sure I deserve you, sometimes.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.” She replied in a low voice. “Why all this doubt, all of a sudden, though?” He took a deep breath. It was time to explain himself but despite her reassurances it wasn’t easy to admit why he had asked this of her.

“It’s not all of a sudden… not really.” He began, then swallowed before continuing. She looked at him with concern. “When I was young I had this image of what I was gonna be and I ran off to the knighthood without thinking it through. Gaius and some others tried to talk me out of it…” He paused for a painful breath. “By the time I realized what a terrible fit it was and how much I hated that life, I was already a killer. The middle of a battle is pretty much the worst possible time to find out you can’t stand fighting…” The discomfort of reliving the memory wrenched him, but he forced himself to continue anyway. “I couldn’t be what I set out to become… I couldn’t handle it, and I didn’t even want it anymore. From that moment… when the illusion cracked, I’ve pretty much figured myself for a useless waste of space ever since.” She cringed at him.

“That couldn’t be less true, Bado…” She said softly, her voice full of sadness. He pressed on. He had to finish before he lost the will to lay all his humiliatingly vulnerable feelings out for her, as he believed he must.

“I trust you, Frey, and I believe you mean it when you say you love me… But I don’t know how to believe I’m worthy of your love. It’s the idea that anyone would decide to love me that I have a hard time believing.” Her face tightened into a tearful expression and he mirrored her cringing as she collapsed into tears and leaned into him. He hated to see her cry. A frantic need to calm her and hold her until she was happy again took over him every time he saw those hot, shining tears rolling down her cheeks. “I’m sorry, Frey…” He felt more inadequate than ever. If he weren’t so backwards and undone, she’d have no reason to be crying… He held her to him as she shook.

“I can’t stand that you think so poorly of yourself.” She choked in between sobs. Her words reached him, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. He tightened his embrace around her. Suddenly she sat up and grabbed his face again. He waited through his surprise to see what she would do. All at once, her mouth was pressed hard onto his as she kissed him and then looked desperately into his eyes through her tears.

“You are absolutey worthy of love, Bado. Don’t you tell yourself you’re not ever again! I think you are wonderful and I love you more than anyone or anything, so just stop calling yourself worthless and say what I would say to you instead. You’re a kind, gentle, beautiful person and all the bullshit you are holding yourself accountable for isn’t even what really matters. I don’t care if you are a knight or not, or whether you’re rich or poor. I just want to be with you, exactly as you are… and I want you to be happy.”

Bado felt tears burning in his own eyes as her words washed over him. He shut his eyes tightly and forced them back down, trying to swallow with his throat tightly clenched. All he wanted in the world was to be with her and love her, but on top of that blessing she gave him her love too. All of it was more than he ever dared to hope for. If loving himself was the key to loving her as well as he could, he’d do anything to make it happen.

“…Okay?!” She said insistently when he failed to articulate a response. “No more bad-talking yourself!”

“Yes, Love.” He breathed, still clutching her to him, his face tucked in the hollow of her neck. Gaius had said she was the right person to teach him about love… Bado saw now how very correct he had been.

“Good.” Frey nodded, stroking his hair. “I’m betting it won’t happen overnight, but you are going to learn to appreciate yourself the way I appreciate you, damnit!” She said firmly. He laughed in spite of the heavy but happy emotions that weighed on him. She squeezed him. “That’s better.” She chirped and drew back to look at him properly. He was smiling sheepishly at her, feeling his flushed face and red eyes acutely. She smiled wider, clearly relieved by his recovery of spirits.

“Do you know what else I love about you?” Her voice was teasing again. He shook his head slightly. She lifted a hand and ran her fingers through his dark hair, making it stand up in all directions after her touch. “This.” She said, then tapped the bridge of his nose. “And this.” Her fingertips traced his pointed ears. “And these.” She tugged his beard. “And this.” Her lips plucked at his. “And these.” He smiled as she pulled his hands up in front of her and kissed the backs of his fingers one by one. “And—all—of—these!” She grinned in between kisses. Her fingers gathered under his chin and lifted until he tilted his head back. A shakey sigh escaped his lips as she kissed her way down his neck “And this.” She whispered. Below her mouth her hands were busy undoing the buckles of his vest. She pulled it open, exposing the tight black shirt he wore beneath it and then peeled it off of him, tossing the thing with its many pockets and furred collar aside playfully. He leaned back on his elbows and looked up at her, somewhere between curiously exploring the feeling of letting her take over and burning with mingled affection and desire for her at once.

Frey seemed to be encouraged by his open, wanting posture and smiled with a seductive expression as she pulled the shirt off of him. He watched her face carefully. Her eyes dilated as she slowly dragged her focus over his chest and abdomen, following her gaze with her fingertips with the lightest possible touch. Her mouth opened as she burned for him. “And all of this…” She breathed, running her hands up over his abs and chest to his collarbone as she brought her mouth close to his again and then paused. He was lying on his back now with her straddling him on her hands and knees atop the bed. He ran his large hands down her sides and pulled her pelvis against his, exhaling softly. He hardened between his legs against her as her soft weight sank onto him.

“And yes, that too.” She grinned devilishly. He smiled and breathed a laugh through the veil of lust that wrapped about him.

“Frey…” He sighed her name, letting himself drift in the pleasure of her presence on top of him. Now she sat up and untied the laces on the front of her shirt and slipped it off, stroking his wrist as he lifted a hand up to drag his fingertips down the center line of her beautiful body. She squeezed his hand and lifted herself off of him, standing up beside the bed and undressing herself the rest of the way. He propped himself up on his elbows again and watched her with hungry eyes combing over her up and down. Her hands found their way beneath the rim of his pants and undid them, pulling them slowly off while he lifted himself of the mattress a little to assist.

Bado watched like a man in a dream as Frey crawled back onto the bed over him and looked lovingly into his eyes. She reached down and kissed his forehead slowly.

“You are gorgeous.” She whispered. “I love you… I’m in love with you… and I’m very attracted to you.” His heart warmed and and swelled with gratitutde. He felt himself coming back to the happy place he’d been just last night before he’d been so jarringly made aware of his problematic view of himself. A wide, genuine smile grew on his face and he pulled her against him, savoring her soft warm skin on his and sighing happily.

“Thank you, Frey.” He said softly as he stroked her back with a very gentle touch. She drew her self up smiled at him in a very satisfied way before lowering her head until her lips were brushing against his. They kissed slowly at first, paying careful attention to every breath and touch. After a long spell of lips and tongues, Frey lifted herself upright and moved lower until she was straddling his groin. Her small size compared to him made it impossible in this position for her to reach his mouth with hers while he was inside her. Gradually she began to roll her pelvis against him, aligning his sex with hers by degrees until her wet heat slid over his length as she ground on him. Their breathing grew heavier. The slow firm pressure of her on him drew a soft moan mixed with a sigh from his mouth. He saw her smile, very satisfied as he tilted his head back and focused on the sensation.

Frey watched him intently, so intently in fact that she was silent save for her breath which was carefully measured. Bado felt a bit lost without her usual vocal expression of pleasure. He wanted to know she was enjoying it... He wanted to hear her come undone. At the same time he was so tired… The tumult of emotions that he had been lost in throughout the day had worn him out. He couldn’t be in charge of their lovemaking just now, so it was just as well she was asserting her will over him this time. Part of him wanted to plead for her to let her voice loose, but a curiosity also plied him to stay quiet and wait to see what she would do while at the helm throughout the session.

 As she moved downward again, he angled his pelvis until his member began to slide into her then stilled, waiting to see if she would complete the motion. This she did, her eyes getting cloudier, their lids heavy as she pressed herself down onto him.  Bado’s eyes closed involuntarily as he felt himself enveloped in the hot, wet heaven that was Frey. A little noise escaped him as part of the breath he was holding slipped out just as she swallowed up the last of his length. They both exhaled very slowly as they settled into the feeling of being joined together. It was the first time since they were reunited after that painful separation. Bado opened his eyes and reached up to caress her cheek with one hand.

“I love you so much, Frey.” His deep voice hummed.

“I love you too.” She purred softly in return and began to move again, still gazing silently at him as the pleasure of her wrapped around him coursed through his body. Still watching his face intently, she let her lips part a little but continued without a sound save for her careful breathing. Bado watched her in turn, his eyes foggy with desire. Frey was upright and perpendicular to him as she rolled and ground her pelvis against his. Even though it felt decadent to lie back and let himself be forefeit to her whim, he felt sure her lack of experience would make it too difficult for her to manage every motion while keeping it pleasurable for both of them. Bado felt too responsible, even in this weakened state, for ensuring that Frey would have a good experience. This compulsion was especially strong in light of the misadventure they had just recently experienced when she tried giving him oral.

He reached up and grasped her arms, gently pulling her forward until she was leaning on his chest. Then he gripped her hips and firmly adjusted her position while she moved until he saw her eyelashes flutter and her mouth open wider. A satisfied smile spread across his flushed face. With an effort, he mustered his energy and began pushing up into her while she rode him.

It was by no means as energetic as their previous lovemaking sessions had been, but there was an exceedingly tender quality about the way they watched each other carefully while each drew closer to climaxing. Rather than a ravenous desire, a clear intention to comfort characterized Frey’s every move. Bado returned her attentions with a determination to show his gratitude for her support and reassurance. In this moment sex wasn’t sex, merely a style of intimacy through which they expressed a very gentle affection for one another.

As Frey’s breathing grew heavier, Bado let himself slip by degrees into a drift of pleasure. Even with her on top of him setting the pace, he couldn’t bring himself to risk overtaking her. Ever since their first time, he wanted every time he made love with her to live up to the meaningful and emotional context that only this love had ever given sex for him. Knowing beyond a doubt that she was awash in his love expressed via his body and seeing her come was a prerequisite for his own climax now. He smiled at these thoughts and at her eyelids drooping as her lips parted further. Her fingers splayed on his chest and her back tensed. She was panting quietly. He adjusted her angle a little by means of his hands still gripping her hips. Through long unbroken eye contect during which he gazed unblinkingly into her, she came to understand what he was waiting for and directed more of her attention to her own pleasure.

Soft, slight, high-pitched cries fluttered from her throat as she closed her eyes and tilted her head back. They were little more than voiced breaths but the addition of her voice to the scene gave Bado immense satisfaction and seemed to restore his vigor a bit. He thrust a little harder and faster. Her thighs squeezed him on either side and she whined with desire. Instinct drove Frey as she let herself lose focus and moved according to what gave her the most pleasure. His own breath came quicker as she upped the pace.

“Oh!” Her voice slipped out. He panted as he felt her thighs strain to spread wider and her spine curved more tightly. Three more beats and he felt a shiver run through her. “Aah... Aaah!” the pitch of her voice grew higher and it wavered as she began lose control. Determination seized him and he moved faster to chase down her completion. “Haahh! Aahh! Ah!” She was so close. He gripped her tightly in his huge hands and pulled her harder against him. She forced her eyes open a little and looked concerned at him as she panted, but her voice went quiet again.

“Let go, Frey.” He breathed, looking steadily into her emerald eyes. “I want to hear you.” He felt his gaze burn with desire and saw her surrender to the ecstacy of her orgasm on the very next thrust, her voice pouring out of her like honey, thick with pleasure, half a sigh and half a moan. She arched and stretched as tightly as her body would let her and trembled like a rope about to break. He smiled broadly and stroked her with his big hands, reaching up and cradling her face with one as he drank in the view of her like this.

When she returned to herself and opened her eyes once more, determination shone in them and she braced her hands upon his chest and resumed her previous pace with ardor.

“Now you.” She panted. “Show me.” The sight and sound of her climax had stoked the fire in him generously already but this eager plea was like throwing oil on it. He let his own mouth fall open as he grasped her once more and he thrust up into her without reservation.

“Oh, Frey…” he panted, keeping his eyes on hers as long as possible until he could take no more. He came undone within her exquisite warmth with his eyes shut tightly and his mouth hanging open. His back stiffened and his voice stopped in his throat for a hearbeat just as the first shockwave passed through him and he let out a fevered cry like water from a burst dam a moment later. Pleasure blinded him and the world dissolved for a long moment. Finally, as his consciousness returned to Earth, Frey’s smiling lips were on his, kissing him affectionately over and over as she stretched out on top of him.

“Thank you, love.” He sighed. “For everything.” His arms wrapped around her automatically and held her gently but firmly against him.

“You’re welcome.” She whispered, cuddling closer to him eagerly.

At peace once more, Bado felt the full force of his emotional exhaustion with none of the anxiety that had dragged him down all afternoon. He fell into dreaming almost immediately while Frey watched his face and stroked his hair with her delicate fingers, her expression a perfect paintng of adoration.

 

Chapter Text

Over the next few days the peaceful tranquility of Selphia went uninterrupted in the heat of midsummer. Bado kept mostly to the Meanderer working with Gaius on his hammer, but the three of them formed a habit of taking walks together at dusk at Frey’s insistence that the blacksmiths should get an eyeful and an earful of something other than the forge for at least a few minutes a day. The Dwarves both playfully argued with her all the while having every intention to whatever she asked of them. If the degree of affection Gaius had for the princess, almost equaling the platonic part of Bado’s own feelings, were as strange as it might seem to an observer, Frey didn’t notice or didn’t care. She felt no tension between the two dark haired dwarves over her attentions and though Gaius wasn’t shy about inviting himself into her personal space both to express his affection as well as tease her, it no longer occurred to her to be troubled by it.

“If I didn’t know the situation, I would wonder if your appetite for dwarf demanded more than one man to satisfy.” Leon teased her as he lounged against a tree while Frey tended her crops in the blazing afternoon sun.

“That’s nonsense.” Frey laughed.

“You’re such a damn rebel. It’s hard to keep up with you.” He continued. “But speaking of which, how have things been with everyone? You think they’ve gotten used to your relationship yet?”

“Some more than others.” Frey sighed as she gathered cucumbers from their vines all around and threw them lightly into a basket. Just that morning Blossom had tried to reopen the topic of why she believed Frey needed to give up her attachment to Bado in the name of common decency or some such rubbish. Vishnal, on the other hand, seemed to be growing accustomed to the notion quite a bit more readily. After his initial reluctance, Frey did not expect a truly welcoming attitude from the young butler, but to her delight he resumed a cheerful optimism about her relationship very like how he had spoken of it before he knew who she was seeing. However, he rarely mentioned Bado by name and became a bundle of nerves if he encountered her gentle giant. Perhaps Vishnal wasn’t quite so adapted to the notion as he was making an appearance of being… but at leat he was trying.

Half a dozen times a day Frey thanked the stars for Bado’s exceedingly long thread of patience with the whole situation. He never reacted with any pepper or belligerence to the prejudices of the townsfolk, merely smiling mildly or blinking silently with a placid expression in response to their jibes. Sure, it wasn’t a terribly proactive way of changing minds, but the way Lin Fa could be seen to squirm under his silent refusal to give an answer to her thinly veiled attempts to demean his character and accuse him of nefarity was extremely gratifying to Frey as they walked together to the bathhouse the previous evening. In the end, his quietly resolute resistance to their poor assessment of him and his relationship with Frey left opposers awkwardly alone with their intrusive opinions and the way they squirmed with shame and gave up trying to assert their suspicions proved his method to be quite effective.

Frey was much more combative with the people who hinted at him having seduced her or tricked her, even now after everything that had transpired. Her directness and her temper were enough to discourage most people from saying anything plainly, but even their sideways glances and cold auras were enough to get her to call out the naysayers now and again and challenge them to prove any of their unfounded suspicions. No one wanted to fight with her and most were very eager to have her favor, so Frey did not encounter much direct opposition except in Xiao Pai, Lin Fa, Blossom, and Jones. Dolce’s opinion she might have worried over were it not for Pico eagerly blurting out that ‘Dolly wants to know everything about what it’s like to be in love and especially about the saucy parts!’, much to Dolce’s chagrin. Frey merely laughed and invited Dolce to tea someday soon, fully intending to indulge her as much as she liked out of gratitude for her accepting, if quiet, attitude.

Volcannon’s thoughts were more masked than others. More than likely his commitment to professionalism was what motivated him to be completely nonreactive. Either way, Frey could not for one moment believe he had become fully accepting of the notion so quickly, given his violent first reaction.

Frey finished taking inventory of those opposed or questioning of her relationship in her mind and landed upon the one person she still did not have a clear picture of. It was tempting to assume that Kiel was fine with the whole situation, given that Forte surely would have spoken with him on the matter by now, but it still troubled Frey. The young man had not shown himself much since Bado’s return to Selphia, and as far as she knew he had not spoken to either herself or her lover on the matter at all. The lack of anything to go on made her considerably more nervous than the outward resistance of the others. She made a mental note to try and get to the bottom of it later.

“Even if there are still some prejudiced individuals about town, is it not much better now that the two of you can walk about hand in hand without fear?” Leon smiled.

“Sure is. And not having to sneak over to his place at night is quite preferable as well.”

“I’m sure.” He agreed. “But now that people are getting used to the idea, there’s not nearly enough juicy gossip to go around. Kiel has been oddly silent on usual grapevine topics.” With a pang Frey wondered if Leon was somehow reading her thoughts. “…Unless you count the whole Doug and Forte thing…” His voice was very sly. Frey looked at him with undisguised curiosity.

“What are you talking about? Are they together?” She pried unabashedly. He laughed aloud in return.

“Oh, so you can be just as nosy as the rest of us, huh?”

“Just spill the beans, will ya?”

“Well, there’s not too much to tell as of yet…” He continued to grin mischievously at her. “But it seems that the red headed dwarf has taken a rather uncharacteristic interest in assisting with all her patrols… and she, normally so obstinate and independent, has welcomed his company on nearly every rout.”

“Ohhh! Wouldn’t it be adorable if they became lovers?” Frey squealed.

“Hahaha! Don’t get ahead of yourself, now.” Leon chided. “Walking about together doesn’t make them lovers.”

“I know…. But it would be cute, would it not?”

“Cute? Sure. And juicy! We sure could use a new bit of gossip around here. And nothing so extreme as your shenanigans.” He grinned slyly at her. “That was a little over the top even for me.”

Just then, a figure came running out into the fields from the castle, waving a hand and calling to Frey. His red hair made him recognizable at a distance, even if they could not hear his voice carrying through the still summer air.

“Doug?” Frey called back. “What gotten into you?” He kept running until he reached them and then stooped and panted, his hands on his knees. Then he righted himself and spoke eagerly all at once.

“Ineedyourhelp! I mean, a favor. I need a favor.” Then he noticed Leon with a start and looked embarrassed. “Uh… Whenever you get a chance… when you aren’t busy.” He plainly didn’t feel comfortable asking for whatever it was he wanted in front of Leon, so Frey winked at her friend while Doug was looking down at the ground and the fox-eared man took the hint gracefully.

“I actually need to go help Lin Fa and Xiao Pai prepare for a large group that should be arriving tomorrow back at the hotel. Rubber cockroaches don’t hide themselves in guests’ slippers, you know.” He chuckled at himself as he strode off at a very easy pace.

“What do you need, Doug?” Frey asked pleasantly, turning to him.

“Oh um, well, I was wondering if you could teach me your return spell… you know, the one that lets you gate back to town when you go out adventuring?”

“Oh, that? What do you need it for?” She blinked curiously at him. She had never known Doug to be a magic enthusiast before.

“Well, see… I uh… I promised Forte I’d go with her on her patrol tomorrow at six in the morning but by the time we are done with the patrol I’m supposed to be opening the shop. I won’t be able to get back in time and Granny will rail me if I’m late to work again. So I thought if you taught me your spell I could make it back in time?” He looked hopefully at her.

“I see… Well I’m very sorry, Doug, but I can’t help you. That spell is a modification of Retornen magic. There’s no trick to it and you probably already know the spell itself, but only Earthmates can use retornen on themselves successfully. I’m afraid it won’t work for you.” She explained with consolation in her voice.

“Oh…” Doug drooped visibly.

“I’m sure Forte will understand if you need to reschedule.”

“Yeah you’re right… I was just hoping I wouldn’t have to…”

“By the way…” Frey’s curiosity was getting the better of her. “Why have you been going on so many patrols with her all of a sudden?” Doug looked up and flushed deep red in his face to match his crimson hair.

“Oh, um… I… See I—no, wait, I mean we… That is to say…”

“You’re an item?” Frey offered helpfully. Doug gave a shy smile.

“Yeah, well I want to be, anyway. We haven’t explicitly made it official or anything… but it seems like we are both on that page, yeah.” He explained, blushing still redder. Frey giggled.

‘You know you can do other things with her than patrolling, right?” She smirked.

“Y-yeah, I know… It’s just… I don’t really like to see her go off to fight monsters and stuff all alone…

“Forte fighting monsters is nothing new, Doug.”

“I know, but I just worry, you know? What if she got into trouble or got hurt by a monster out there alone? How would she get back to town if no one was there to help her?”

“Relax. Forte can totally handle herself out there. She has for as long as I’ve known her. Just trust her, okay?” She looked expectantly at him.

“It’s not a matter of trusting. Of course I trust her.” He frowned, “I just don’t like to see her take a risk, you know?”

“You realize it’s a little silly to be unsure of her all of a sudden now that you’re smitten?”

“I don’t think it’s silly at all.” Doug huffed. “What’s so strange about being a little more concerned about someone you lo—uh like… a lot… than others? I’ll bet you anything you can name that Bado won’t like you running off alone to fight monsters now that you and him are paired up.” Frey looked dubiously at him. She wanted very much to protest this notion, but the truth was she wasn’t sure Doug was off the mark after all… Bado did abhor fighting, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he didn’t like her engaging in it… but she hoped he had more confidence in her than to think she needed looking after whenever she left town.

“Well, You’ve got nothing to worry about, really.” Frey retorted obstinately. “And you can’t be with her all the time… But if it will make you feel better and stop fretting, lets ask Bado and Gaius if they know any tricks or tools that would help someone in a pinch when it comes to monsters, kay?” Her voice grew softer as she offered her help.

“Sure. I’d like that.” He agreed, letting his earlier challenge drop unanswered. Maybe this evening after I close the shop?

“I think that would probably be fine. I need to go answer a summons from Arthur first, but I’ll ask Bado about it as soon as I get back to the Meanderer and see what he thinks can be done. Unless I send a message that says otherwise, go ahead and try us after supper but before sundown, okay?”

“Oh? Don’t want to be interrupted after dark, eh?” He teased. Frey flushed crimson in the face and frowned indignaty at him.

“Cad.” Was all she got out. She was too poor a liar to refute a true statement out loud, no matter how lewd, but still she resented having been embarrassed in this way. Doug laughed aloud.

“Well, you can’t always expect to have the upper hand.” He said with a grin, then turned and waved over his shoulder as he headed for the general store, calling “See you later.” over his shoulder. Frey watched him until he turned the corner out of sight and then headed toward Porcoline’s restaurant to seek Arthur out in his office.

With every passing stride she felt herself coil with tension inside. After Ventuswill’ blessing, Arthur had been cordial, but even so, she hadn’t exactly reconciled with him since the incident… not to her satisfaction, at any rate. By the time she reached the door, she had to take a deep, steadying breath and grasp the door handle with both her shaking hands to articulate it quietly open as she stepped inside.

“Hello?” She called quietly.

“Ah, good afternoon, Frey.” Arthur’s pleasant tone answered immediately. “Please have a seat.” He had crossed the room toward her from next to the large globe in the nook-like partial room that adjoined the desk area of the office. Now he gestured graciously to an ornate upholstered chair before a low table to invite her to sit. This she did, eyeing him cautiously as he seated himself across from her, the table between them. “Would you like some tea?” He added amiably.

“Sure… thank you.” Frey agreed, accepting a cup in her delicate fingers.

“I suppose you know well already why I called you here to talk?” The prince suggested with aggravating calmness, given the levtover tension from the previous week’s events. Frey nodded cautiously.”That’s good. I am encouraged that you came knowing what I would discuss with you.” Frey stared mistrustfully at Arthur and waited. They paused in awkward silence, then Arthur forged ahead rather boldly, with evident strain and a little discomfort, but with no malice, anger, or any other indication of the foul temper that had initially seized him upon learning of her love affair.

“How is your relationship going? Keeping out of trouble, I hope?” He looked expectantly at her. Frey squirmed a little.

“As far as I know…” She offered tentatively.

“Very good.” The response sounded automatic. “And you are keeping up with the contraceptive tea Jones and Nancy prescribed? Taking it every day as directed?” He added without hesitation. Frey flushed scarlet and stared wide-eyed at him. She was so shocked, she forgot to be indignantly silent at such an intrusive question.

“Y-yes.” Her answer came without her will.

“Excellent. It would be an issue of an entirely different scale and character to have to answer for my appointee having a child out of wedlock, after all.” Frey blinked stupidly at this nonchalant statement. Arthur smirked, apparently delighting in her flustered reaction. Frey could only surmise that it was highly gratifying to the prince, having lost face in front of the entire town when Venti scolded him, to embarrass her slightly in his sole company as a trivial piece of revenge for his humiliation. The vintictive enjoyment lasted only a moment in his expression, however. Soon he resumed his professional air.

“I hope you are aware, miss Frey, that my earlier reaction was based more on my political duties than any personal objection.” He said and then paused, not elaborating an explanation. Frey hesitated to answer with total forgiveness just yet. She wanted a little more of an answer for his extreme actions.

“You… don’t object to our partnership?” she inquired slowly.

“No. It is very unorthodox, but as it is not my affair, I can’t really judge the two of you as long as you’re happy and willing to be together. It was just a matter of the public image of the royal family, you see. Norad’s monarchy was folded into the present system of government more or less as an archaic curiosity. My father is not much more powerful or invulnerable than an elected official, you know. Naturally it is assumed that I will take up the position when he retires, but if the people do not approve our family the branches of government that operate in parallel to the king will oppose his agenda and they will oppose my sucession of him too, I should think. It is a curious creature, our political system… something much nearer to a republic but wearing the face of a monarchy…” He looked distantly thoughtful a moment, then shook it off and smiled at her. “Frankly, princess, I can’t relate at all to the notion of being in a relationship with someone nearly twenty years older than me…” Frey winced as Arthur let silence linger long enough for the impact of his words to hit her, then smiled again with both his mouth and eyes. “But as I said, it is not my affair.” At this last bit of speech, he shrugged and then sipped at his tea with perfect etiquette.

“Alright…” Frey began to reply cautiously. “Well I’m glad you don’t have any personal objections per say, but what about the concerns that made you so disagreeable before? You aren’t worried about how I’ll reflect on the royal family anymore?” Suspicion was written clearly in her expression.

“I am, in fact.” He said with the same infuriatingly contrary smiling face. “But there’s no possibility of arguing the point in spite of Ventuswill’s orders. Far worse to contradict her in word or deed than suffer the political slings and arrows of a scandal. She is our guardian deity after all..” Frey continued to look at the prince skeptically. His smile grew wider until he almost looked affectionate... But it was hard to read only sweetness when so much cunning was always evident in his eyes.

“Please, Frey… don’t fret. I promised not to do you any further mischief and I will hold to that.” He blinked, looking thoughtful, then added: “You know… just because someone doesn’t share your view doesn’t mean you need be at odds with them. I see no reason why we should not be friendly with one another merely because I don’t agree with your choices in your personal affairs.”

“…You mean it?” Frey asked slowly after a moment.

“Of course.” He replied, and reached out his hand to her. She stared down at it reluctantly for one more breath, then looking back up into his smiling face she allowed herself to let go and believe in his good will. Her small hand grasped his and a smile stretched across her face.

“Alright then.” She said with energy and shook his hand vigorously. “Thanks, Arthur.”

 

Chapter Text

“Really?” Bado said dubiously, his eyebrows raised.

“Really!” Frey insisted cheerfully, having just related the story of her conversation with Arthur.

“Well! Color me surprised.” He said with a half-smile.

“I know, right?” She laughed. “But it’s true! He won’t be any trouble from now on.” Bado stared at her smiling face and his gaze began to grow distant in his appreciation. Seeing her so delighted was too good a treat not to lose himself in momentarily. He sighed happily. “Hey! Are you listening?” Her words broke into his unfocused state and snapped him back into the present.

“Sorry, pet.” He chuckled and wrapped her up in his arms, nuzzling her neck with a wide smile as he did so. “You’re just too cute.”

“Alright, alright.” Gaius teased, “Take it easy you two, I’m still here and it’s still shop hours, you know?” A sudden streak of defiance shot through Bado and he lifted Frey up and held her tightly to him, sliding a large hand over her thigh until it came to rest supporting her weight under her round buttocks. All the while he buried his face briefly in her chest as he nuzzled her skin where her shirt was slightly open.

“If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” He said with a wicked grin at his clanmate as his head popped back up.

“Sheesh!” Frey protested “You’re impossible!” and shook him off with an effort as he laughed and let her back down on her feet. She was blushing and making a show of disapproval, but her performance was unconvincing. He knew very well what was on her mind, since it was also what preoccupied him for a good portion of every waking day.

“Keep it together, you two. I’m only here two more days then you can close your shop and have at each other until you’re blue in the face.” He finished with raised eyebrows and a smirk.

“And Leon says I’m immodest!” Frey said, apparently affronted, but laughing all the while. “Are all dwarves so blatant?”

“It’s clearly his fault.” Gaius tilted his head toward Bado. “He’s a bad influence on me, and probably you , too.”

“Aw, what? You’re going to put all the blame on me?” He protested, but their playful banter was interrupted by the shop bell. Three steel-blue and two emerald eyes looked up at once to see Doug stepping into the Meanderer.

“Is now a good time?” He ventured, a little cautiously.

“Sure, what’s up?” Bado said good-naturedly. He was in a jubilant mood and not at all disinclined to share it. Suddenly Frey laughed aloud and the three heads with their matching pointed ears turned to look openly curious at her.

“Will you look at this? Every dwarf in Selphia is here!” She cried, mirth overtaking her again. What would Leon say if he saw her keeping the company of three dwarves now, given his earlier comment? The three in question looked a bit bewildered at her, glancing between one another to see if any of them understood the joke. Bado shook his head, smiling. Smitten as he was, he found everything she did adorable, no matter how incomprehensible it was. For Gaius, hers and his cousin’s elation was reason enough to smile along with them, but Doug was thoroughly confused.

“What’s so funny about that? There’s only three of us…” He looked at her with a lost expression.

“Nothing, don’t worry about it.” Frey said with a final giggle.

“In any case, Frey mentioned you wanted something, so lets have it out, Doug. What do you need?” Bado asked in a good-natured tone

“Oh, right… uh… So I’m wondering if you know of any good emergency measures in case of monster attacks?”

“Emergency measures? Are you going looking for trouble outside of town?” He raised an eyebrow at the red headed dwarf.

“No! Its just in case, okay?” He was blushing again. Suspicion kindled in Bado’s mind as he watched the young dwarf fidget under his gaze.

“Who’s it for?” Gaius asked pleasantly. Doug looked surprised at him.

“Not you?” Bado asked tentatively.

“Uh, no…” Doug looked at his feet.

“It’s for Forte.” Frey said cheerfully, making all three of them turn to look at her abruptly again, Doug looking shocked and embarrassed at her candor.

“Forte?” Bado repeated, confused. “Why on Earth would you want to buy something like that for her?” Doug looked up at him with a bewildered expression that quickly became anger.

“Cause I give a damn for her safety! I thought you’d relate to that! Aren’t you like family or something?” He said incredulously. Gaius huffed a quiet laugh while Bado blinked in surprise, then echoed it.

“Heh. I don’t think you get it, Doug. I mean she’ll knock you flat if you try it.” Bado said with a smirk.

“What?” Doug looked blankly at him.

“Forte doesn’t take kindly to anyone expressing a lack of faith in her strength.” Gaius explained more graciously.

“But that’s not—“ Doug protested.

I can take it, but are you sure you’re ready for the kind of punishment you’ll get for worrying about Forte? Kiel’s the only one who gets away with it without being pummeled, ya know.” He looked Doug up and down, noticing pointedly how small he was compared to himself. Privately he doubted Forte would be as hard on anyone other than himself, but it was fun teasing Doug. The red headed dwarf gulped visibly.

“You’re better off making her some cookies to take on her patrols if you want to show your affection.” Gaius said offhandedly, toying with some bit of merchandice plucked from the shelves. With a pang, Bado looked over at Gaius, who didn’t bother to look up. By now he knew better than to write off his uncanny perceptions of others’ inner feelings, but a part of him wasn’t quite ready to accept the notion that Doug was interested in Forte for anything but friendship. The hypocracy of being prejudiced of others’ partnerships struck him forcefully, though, and he swallowed his first reaction determinedly.

Doug was looking up at him with a slightly terrified expression, which made Bado suddenly aware that he was looking darkly stern at the young dwarf. He forced his face to relax and tried to make his voice casual.

“Oh, so you like her, huh?” He managed to keep the bite out of his words. Doug looked no less anxious. “Well… If she likes you, too, then she probably won’t kill you for giving her emergency gear…” He trailed off but looked piercingly into Doug’s gray eyes. “But keep in mind, she is family to me.”

“Pay him no mind.” Gaius said, casually tapping Doug’s arm with the back of his hand. “He’s just a little overprotective, but he won’t squash you. …Not before Forte would, anyway.”

“Jeeze, stop scaring him!” Frey interjected suddenly, and wrapped her arms around Doug’s shoulders as if she would snatch him out of their reach. Doug yelped in surprise at her touch.

“Hahaha! Looks like you scared him more.” Bado countered with a wide grin.

“Oops, sorry!” Frey released him and blushed.

“S’okay…” Doug said hoarsely.

 “But anyway, what are some likely emergency measures for monster battles?” Her curiosity had overtaken her, clearly.

“Well… There are smokescreen packets… and flash powder. I suppose a dragon call might qualify since most monsters will run from that sound—except for a dragon, that is.”

“Smokescreen? Wouldn’t there be a danger of fire?” Doug asked doubtfully.

“Naw. It’s not really smoke, actually a really fine powder that hangs in the air amd makes a cloud to serve as a decoy and blocks the monster’s view all at once. Flash powder can be measured out into single charges, but it’s pretty dangerous to the user too if they aren’t careful. …And with a dragon call there is always the risk of a feral dragon answering the call…”

“Better go with that first thing.” Frey said nervously.

“Well, making shroud powder can be time consuming to do it right, and my plate’s already full until Gaius’ hammer is finished. It will have to wait until next week… and it’ll cost ya.” He winked at Doug.

“What do you need to make it? Should we go and gather the goods?” Frey chimed in again.

“Let’s see… mostly it’s made of bones and claws… sometimes horns. The best is probably chimera claw, but that’s too hard to get in sufficient quantities around here. Better go with palm claws since they are easy enough to come by… but honestly, Doug, there’s no need for all this anyhow. Forte’s patrol routes don’t cross paths with anything she can’t handle. All the monsters she might actually need a shroud to get away from are farther out in the caves and the mountains, and even as bull-headed as she is, Forte knows better than to go out that far alone.”

“More than likely she’ll take it as condescention.” Gaius agreed.

“I’d just feel better knowing she had a contingency, okay?” Doug was immovable on the matter. “Besides, are you telling me fighting monsters alone in the wilds is normal for a young woman? –and this one doesn’t count.” He jabbed a thumb in Frey’s direction.

“Hey!” She balked.

“Forte’s a knight, Doug, which is an uncommon profession for women her age to begin with. ‘Normal’ doesn’t really apply.” Bado had folded his arms. He was beginning to feel a slight impatience with the argument.

“So you don’t worry about it at all? You don’t care if Frey runs off alone to fight monsters out beyond the reach of anyone who could help her if something happened?” Doug’s voice was raised. A silence followed his exclamation. The dark haired dwarves and the princess looked blankly surprised at him.

“I thought we were talking about Forte…” Bado said slowly.

“I’m talking about any woman who’s partner cares about her safety!” His hands were fists at his sides.

“I don’t think I like what you’re implying.” His expression darkened. Gaius looked up at Bado with something like warning flashing in his eyes. In his mind, Bado flashed back to the moment that beetle had lunged out and knocked her into the bramble thicket. The fear that had seized him then was no small thing, but a moment of greater horror came back to him as he remembered Frey dashing in front of him and Volcannon’s huge fist hurtling unchecked toward her.

“Well? You really okay with it?” Doug bristled. Bado suddenly recalled that the redhead had harbored no small amount of interest in Frey as a lover before. There could be no doubt that a little of that sentiment was involved in his accusatory behavior, now.

“Excuse me!” Frey barked. “I’m at least as good at fighting as Forte and I don’t need looking after!” She was looking venomously at Doug, but then, to his complete surprise, she looked up at Bado with the same fury. He blinked in surprise and dismay, stung by suddenly being the target of her displeasure when he hadn’t said anything objectionable, to his knowledge. He couldn’t think of anything to say, but in his silence his expression must have betrayed his bewilderment, for Frey’s expression softened.

“Jeeze, this is nothing to be stubborn about!” Doug retorted. “It’s not about whether you can fight monsters, it’s a question of whether you should, alone especially!”

I’ll decide what I should and shouldn’t do, thank you very much!” She bit back, glaring at the youger Dwarf.

“And you don’t give a damn how much you worry him, I suppose?” Doug spat. They were almost nose-to-nose and their tempers were equally fierce.

“Hey, Hey! Take it easy!” Bado finally found his voice again. He picked Frey up around her waist and set her down again a little distance from Doug, then looked from one to the other, alarmed. “This argument is getting really weird. When did we go from talking about Doug and Forte to me and Frey? And why are you asking such stupid questions, anyway?” He stared disapprovingly at Doug. “Of course I care about her safety! Of course I’d worry if I knew she was running off to fight monsters alone!”

“I—“ Frey began.

“And I know you don’t care to have anyone’s blessing to go off and do as you like, regardless of how crazy it may be.” He turned to look at her both earnest and apprehensive. “You two are arguing about completely different things.” The two of them looked up at him, anger fading from their faces as they clearly wondered what he meant.

“I think it’s time to call it a night.” Gaius said suddenly, wearing his mild smile but putting a firmness in his voice that anyone would be reluctant to argue with. “He’ll see to the shroud powder next week and then you can give it to Forte and explain your concerns to her. In the meantime, leave it to him to discuss his own feelings with Frey.” He stood up and ushered a speechless Doug toward the door, and called “See you in the morning.” to Bado as they stepped out of the shop and the door closed behind them.

Suddenly alone with Frey in the Meanderer, Bado ran his hand through his hair and looked at her with alarm still lingering in his features “What was that all about?” She was looking at the floor with a tightened expression, saying nothing. “Frey? What’s the matter?” He was growing more concerned at her silence, and walked over to her. When she continued to stare resolutely downward he raised his hand and gently touched under her chin. She looked up at him and any remaining anger slipped out of her as she looked into his worried eyes.

“You don’t think I can fight well enough to go out alone?” She said with obvious hurt in her voice.

“That’s not it, pet.” He squeezed her shoulders with his wide palms. “You’re just too precious to me for me to like the notion of you taking a risk, no matter how well you fight.” She looked up at him a little more softly, but not completely won over, it seemed. He cupped her face in his big hands and kissed the top of her head. “Worrying about you doesn’t mean I think you’re weak, Frey.” He said softly as he looked into her eyes. “You were worried about me when I left the clinic on my own, remember?” He watched her face closely as she recalled the event.

“Yeah…” She said reluctantly.

“I love you, Frey. Anything bad happening to you is the worst possible thing  to me. You can’t blame me for preferring that you keep to where I know you’ll be safe.” He implored. She sighed.

“I know…”

“Good. So let’s go back to having fun for the rest of the night, ‘kay?” He smiled hopefully at her. A smile crept across her face in spite of her.

“Fine.” She said, finally, with a little laugh and cuddled close to him.

“That’s more like it.” He grinned and lifted her up to hug her tightly and bury his face in her neck again while she giggled.

“You wanna go to the bathhouse? I’m still a bit dirty from farming.”

“Sure.”

“Lets go every day until Lin Fa and Xiao Pai stop giving us dirty looks!” She said mischievously.

“You’re going to get me in trouble.” Bado laughed.

“Nu-uh, not as long as you stay on the men’s side.” She said with a crooked smile. The fantasy of having her in a bathhouse was a favorite of his, and he felt his ears grow hot as his imagination visualized her pink with heat and dripping wet. She watched his face turn scarlet and desire creep into his gaze. “I doubt sneaking in the Bell’s bath together would win anyone over for us, but maybe we should go find a hot spring outside Selphia sometime?” She offered with a purr.

“I’d like that.” He whispered into her hair, stroking her back as he held her tightly. She laughed softly and squeezed him in return.

“Alright, it’s a promise… but I seriously do need a bath now.”

 

Chapter Text

“Mmmm! That is sooo much better!” Frey sighed happily, stretching her arms high as they walked back to the Meanderer from the bathhouse. Her hair was still damp, falling down her back in wavy strands. Bado chuckled as he walked beside her, his own dark hair sticking up in every direction after he had toweled off most of the water. The heat of the bath had done wonders to loosen her up, her stiff muscles relaxing gratefully in the steam and hot water. Now her limbs were like rubber and she tottered along with a very satisfied expression as they made their way in the warm dusky evening.

A large hand wound around her waist and tugged her closer until her hip bumped against him. She wrapped her own slender arm around his waist obligingly.

“I seem to recall promising you something recently… something new?” His tone was playful and a little seductive. Frey smiled with a twist of wickedness.

“That sounds vaguely familiar, yes.” She replied lightly. He laughed softly at her playing it cool.

They reached the Meanderer and stepped inside, Bado locking the door and tossing the towel that had been wrapped around his shoulders aside carelessly. Meanwhile, Frey stepped over to the counter and set her bath tote down with more care, picking up her brush and combing through her wet hair again. It got tangled so quickly when it wasn’t restarained into her usual pigtails. Abruptly she felt the warm solid presence of him behind her as he drew close, then wrapped his arms around her from behind and held her to him.

“Aren’t you curious?” He whispered in her ear, dragging a fingertip lightly up over her throat while she tilted her head back and exhaled very slowly. A shiver ran through her. It was very difficult to speak while desire like this heated her blood. She turned and looked over her shoulder at him, eyelids half-lowered and lips parted. One side of his smile widened and his ears twitched. Clearly he had taken her look for the ‘yes’ that it was.

He began to unzip the back of her light summer dress and she leaned forward with her hands on the countertop to make room for it to fall from her shoulders. His breath came out audibly trembling as it slipped off of her onto the floor. The way he gazed hungrily at her every time she was bare for him was extremely gratifying.

She drew in a long breath and let her eyes close a little as he teased her with a very soft touch, dragging his fingers down her back slowly. As she made to turn around and face him, he lifted her onto the counter and leaned over her, kissing her neck repeatedly with an occasional stroke of his tongue to taste her skin. Her fingers found their way into his hair and she gasped softly at a particularly insistent, wet kiss near her collarbone.

“Bado…” She breathed his name and drew his face to hers with one hand, kissing him feverishly and running a hand down his back. She gripped the edge of his shirt and pulled it up until they broke apart long enough for her to pull it off over his head. With a pining little noise she ran her hands down over his chest and abdomen, relishing the heat from the bath still lingering in his muscles.

His mouth was on her again now, kissing his way down her neck to her chest, where he lavished her breasts with his lips and tongue untl she was afire with lust and had just begun to moan and sigh audibly at his every move. Then she was in his arms, lifted off her feet suddenly as he carried her to bed.

He dropped her onto her back on the mattress and pounced with his hands on either side of her, leaning over her with a wordless, ravenous look in his steely eyes.

“What are you going to show me?” She whispered.

“You’ll see soon enough… as long as you promise you’ll say something and stop me if I do anything you don’t like.” Frey looked warmly into his eyes and nodded as she slid her hands up to rest on either side of his face.

“Good girl.” He breathed with a smile and kissed her passionately again. She whimpered as the fiery hot pull clenched in her at the feeling of his tongue on hers, then she sighed into his mouth as he pulled back. Now he kissed his way downward once more, pausing to pay special attention with his tongue to her nipples as she panted and moaned again. He kept right on going, down over her stomach, past her navel. His hands closed around her thighs just above her knees and spread her legs until the shock of cool air teased her pussy as her lips separated. This was followed by a hot breath as he hovered there, just a few inches away as she shivered with anticipation. She was confused, as cunnilingus wasn’t new to her at this point, but as his tongue slid over her sex and the intense pleasure shot through her like lightning she no longer cared whether it was novel or familiar.

“Aah!” Her voice slipped out. He moved agonizingly slow, dragging the tip up over several seconds until he reached her apex and flicked his tongue against it once or twice. She saw stars and whined aloud. He drew back and kissed a line up her inner thigh, first one, then the other. Frey’s brows inclined and she whimpered again. He suddenly licked her again and drew away, the chill of the air following the heat of his tongue immediately. She squirmed involuntarily.

“Bado!” She pleaded, tormented by his teasing. Through barely open eyelids she saw him give a wicked smile and hovered over her before licking her fast and furtive again. Each touch was similarly brief and she quivered with frustrated desire each time he pulled back. “Oh!... Please…” She breathed.

With a mischievous and self-satisfied half-laugh he finally relented, kissing and licking her constantly as she panted and arched her back, getting closer… The world began to blur and slip away, only the sensation of his tongue on her and the sound of her own gasps and moans remaining. Then his mouth was gone again.

“Wha—“ She began in confusion, but his huge hands had lifted her and turned her over before she could finish. She found herself on her stomach, still dazed and thick-headed with pleasure despite the abrupt cessation. His hands wrapped around her hips and lifted her pelvis until her knees came up under her to support her weight. Then his thick fingers were sliding over her pussy, still wet and slick from his attentions. She had been about to lift herself up on her hands but the sudden resurgence of pleasure made her stretch them out in front of her instead, lifting her head and gasping as she felt him slide a finger inside her.

She didn’t have enough mind left to puzzle over the peculiar position, her backside in the air and her chest and arms flat on the cool sheets. He was sliding two fingers in and out of her now, the other hand smoothing up over her back and pressing gently down to pin her upper body to the bed. Her mouth open and her eyes shut, she savored the sensation and listened to his breath in between the sounds she was making involuntarily.

He drew his fingers out of her completely now. Her eyes opened again, once more confused as to why he would stop short of bringing her all the way. Then they were replaced by the tip of his sex slipping into her a little. She gave a little cry and raised her head off the mattress again. He brought his hands up and grasped her buttocks, thumbs tugging to spread her enough that his entire length could slide into her without pause.

“Aaaaah!” She grew louder as his thighs pressed against her, his length filling her completely and the sensation strangely clearer to her than it had ever been before. She Let her head drop to the sheets and held very still. Her shoulders were bunched, fingers gripping the fabric and she breathed hard. His hands squeezed her briefly. It wasn’t the kind of blinding pleasure that overcame her when she drew close to orgasm, but it felt wonderful just the same, having such acute awareness of every inch of him sliding into her.

“Frey?” He breathed, concern in his voice. Reaching out a hand, he brushed the hair away from her face as she turned her head to look back at him as best she could in this position.

“I’m fine.” She panted. “More than fine. Don’t stop.” He smiled, letting his breath out with relief and stroking her back as he drew his hands back to her hips. Slowly and carefully he drew himself back until only the tip of his member remained and then pushed the whole of it back into her while she moaned aloud. Again and again he moved in and out of her, gently, carefully. She savored the feeling each time, closing her eyes and letting her mouth hang open. As she got used to the feeling she moved backward in anticipation the next time he pushed into her.

“Ah!” She cried, and clutched the sheets between her fingers. He gripped her hips again and thrust a little harder. It was exquisite. She pushed against his movements in time with each thrust and the collision of his thighs against her backside teased a little high-pitched voiced breath from her lungs in a fevered rhythm. The tightening coil was strangely absent, but a curiously distant sensation of the same stimulation still teased her at the edge of her consciousness. It almost seemed as though this were a pleasure she could enjoy indefinitely, but the absence of ramping up to a climax puzzled her.

Just as she was ruminating on these curious thoughts, he paused after the next thrust, holding her tightly to him as he filled her up once more. Then he drew out of her and pushed her over so she toppled onto her side with a yelp. She heard him laugh softly again, then his hands grasped her and rolled her onto her back. Without so much as a breath of hesitation, he slid onto the the bed on top of her and rested his forehead on hers briefly, enjoying with apparent satisfaction her hazy look of desire as she gazed unblinking into his eyes.

She drew her legs apart, knees pointing toward her head as he leaned aganst her with his pelvis, slipping himself inside her from the front this time.

“Nnng!” She whined behind closed lips as the unexpectedly intense pleasure resurged as soon as his weight pressed on the front of her groin and his sex pushed against her walls from within. He repeated the motion, pressing hard against her at the end of it.  “Oh!” she cried. Each time a wave of pleasure shocking her with its magnitude.  She clutched at his sides and arched her back. “Aaah! Aah!” Two more thrusts. Her mind was unravelling. He kept it up, keeping the pressure firm but the pace gradual. “Aaah! Bado!” She shut her eyes tight, perched at the edge. Then, with the next insistent press of his hips against her she went over, whining long, shrill, and broken as her orgasm came over her, oddly slow but very strong. Her toes splayed and her back curled, her mouth open in a suspended cry long after the last of her breath was already spent. He gently continued, reinforcing the waves of her climax with slight little peaks of pressure as he watched her face with evident enjoyment.

Frey came back to Earth dazed and flushed, but no less hungry for him. The pull hadn’t slackened much. She opened her eyes and looked ravenously at him, squeezing his sides and pressing herself against him once more. Begging with her eyes for him to continue. He looked down at her with a strange expression between seduction and giddy excitement.

“Please.” She panted.

“Of course.” He hummed, and began to rock his hips against her once more.

“Aaah!” She moaned aloud almost immediately. He thrust into her in a gradually increasing rhythm. She lost the ability to concentrate on sight and closed her eyes, her mind fixed on the ecstatic pleasure of her lover within her and on top of her. Suddenly close again, she tilted her head back. “Aah! Bado!” She gasped. “H-harder!”

He obliged immediately, eager to please her as always. She was lost in the feverish anticipation once more, yelping and gasping with each insistent motion and his weight pressing against her repeatedly. Her second orgasm hit her hard and she arched her back and gripped his sides desperately as she felt every pulse course through her.

She came to again without a dip in her eagerness to continue, but still she paused, looking up at him uncertainly. The desire to do it again pulled on her powerfully, but she didn’t want to neglect him either. He had slowed down as he saw her anxious expression.

“More?” He whispered, smiling breathlessly at her.

“What about you?” She panted. He laughed.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll finish once I see how far you can go.”  And with that he resumed, grinning at her as her eyelids fluttered once more. The pause had let her fire burn low a moment, demanding a longer buildup than last time, but he served her tirelessly with his steady, firm movements. Soon she was moaning aloud and gripping him tightly again. He matched her escalation with faster, harder strokes, panting and thrusting as he watched her closely.  The cord pulled tight again, her cries growing louder and more fevered.

She was beginning to tire, the friction threatening to overstimuate the sensitive skin of her vulva were it not for the overpowering and intoxicating pleasure as she drew close to climaxing for a third time.

“AahhhBado!—come—with—me!” She gasped, forcing her eyelids open to look up at him pleadingly. Even amid the already eager movement, she felt him shiver powerfully and his eyes became more clouded. He changed the angle of his pelvis slightly and hummed with pleasure in his throat and chest.

Fanning the flames of his own desire, he moved in a manner somehow different than before, brow furrowed with concentration and eyes closed. Frey didn’t know quite how it was different or why it felt better for him, but she smiled as he began to let his voice run loose, moaning softly at first then forcing his eyes open again as he grew louder. He gazed into her eyes now, panting as they both burned hotter and hotter.

“Aaah… Frey… Oh, Frey…” He breathed her name over and over, the sound like silk slipping over his tongue. Her heart swelled and her affection bloomed intensely, enriching her pleasure as the cord tightened and grew close to breaking once more.

“Aaah! Ah! Bado! Aah!” She arched her back and squeezed him as tightly as she could, toes splayed and fingers pressed into his skin around his sides.

“Hahhhhh ahhhh! Frey!” His breathy cries echoed hers as they both came almost at once, entangled in one another, tensing, panting and fever-hot for several long moments. When the waves of her climax subsided and he had finally ceased twitching inside her, Frey wrapped her legs behind him, twisting her feet over one another and squeezing him.

As they came out of that ecstatic daze together, trembling against each other and smiling while they gasped great breaths of air, he let his weight down on his elbows and bent his neck to kiss her, hands about her ears, winding his fingers in the roots of her hair. She laid her hands on either side of his face in turn, pulling him more firmly into her kisses and sighing, happy and exhausted. Then she went limp and let her arms, legs, and head flop onto the matress.

“That—was—fantastic…” She panted.

“Glad you liked it.” He laughed, still out of breath.

“I love you.” She breathed, wrapping her arms around his neck and hugging him tightly.

“I love you too.” He purred. Then, fatigue finally overcoming them, he laid down beside her and pulled her close against him, stroking her hair as she drifted rapidly to sleep, utterly spent and very drunk with the pleasured aftermath of their exuberant lovemaking.

 

Chapter Text

Dolce was making even less eye contact than usual as she drank her third cup of tea in ten minutes. They had barely gotten through a quick description of how events had unfolded to result in Bado’s temporary exile from Selphia and Frey was beginning to grow concerned she would soon become over-caffeinated. She made another pot of tea, not nearly as strong this time to try and spare her friend. Holding the teacup in front of her mouth seemed to be a sort of self-soothing behavior. Plainly by all Pico’s assertions Dolce was very curious, almost to the point of desperation, to know more about intimate relationships, but it was clearly still difficult for her to be in this conversation.

“So, yeah. Since he’s been back I’ve been staying with him nearly every night. Oh and Arthur promised not to mess with us again and basically made a peace offering of sorts.” She finished telling the last of her tale.

“But you are not with him during the day?” Dolce’s low, soft voice inquired tentatively.

“Heh, well he’s been busy this week working on Gaius’ hammer. They should be done with it this evening though.”

“Working every day? That doesn’t sound like him… not that I know him very well, mind you.” She said, sipping her tea and looking off sideways again.

“Yeah I guess it does sound a little out of character,” Frey chuckled. “I don’t think I ever saw him working so much before, in fact.” It wasn’t intended as a disparaging remark. She spoke with nothing but affection in her voice, reflecting the degree to which she had been smitten with him since she first began to see him as a man she wanted nearer to her, emotionally and physically.

“It does seem odd,” Dolce said, finally looking into Frey’s eyes briefly as she spoke, “That someone as busy and active as you would like being with someone so lazy…” Hearing how rude the thought sounded aloud, Dolce blushed and hid behind her teacup a little more determinedly, but Frey took no offense, instead seizing an opportunity for mischief.

“He isn’t lazy in bed.” She said in a devilish voice, a wicked smirk half-hidden behind her own cup. Dolce blushed deeply scarlet, but did not balk or react beyond that.

“Oh! It’s about time!” Pico burst out, ruining the great effort she had been going to keep quiet at Dolce’s earlier insistence. “Tell us more!” Frey laughed cheerfully at this as Dolce’s eyes flicked up to gauge her reaction to the little ghost’s nosiness, clearly curious whether she would oblige.

The little table was just big enough for the tea things and the tray of sweets, its ornate vine decorations matching the drapes, rugs, and doors, all similarly themed. Selphia’s castle was a public building after all, functioning as what basically amounted to a very elaborate town hall. Frey looked around the little upstairs drawing room, rarely used but perfect for this occasion. There was little chance of being overheard and it was out of the way such that no one would could pass through the room but who meant to come there specifically. Vishnal or Clorica was sure to check in on them and help refill the tea things as necessary, but the tall stairway made a great echo out of even soft footfalls, so there was no chance they would be taken by surprise by one of the butlers either.

Frey smiled wider as one eyebrow climbed a bit higher. Dolce was watching her expectantly, her wish written on her face but her mouth reluctant to put it to words.

“What would you like to know?” She addressed Dolce, despite the fact that Pico had been the one to levy the demand on her. There was a long pause. Frey waited patiently with a pleasant smile as Dolce labored between fidgeting and voicing an answer. Finally she reverted to her usual course, looking off to the side with a great show of apathy that belied her feelings despite her silence.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Dolly! There is no need to be bashful with Frey!”

“Hmph.” Dolce huffed quietly, furrowing her brow without looking back over at Pico or Frey for that matter. Frey shook her head with a slight smile

“It’s alright.” Frey conceded, but Dolce looked up suddenly with a determined expression.

“Tell me what it is like to trust someone enough to be sexually intimate with them.” She said with abrupt directness. Frey blinked in surprise. It wasn’t that the question was a strange one, but the focus on trust specifically surprised her. She could not help but feel it very telling in terms of her friend’s own character.

“Well,” Frey began softly, “I don’t know that it is always involved with sex for others, but for me love is a prerequisite for trusting him enough for sex. It does leave you vulnerable… open to being hurt sometimes, even if your partner means the best for you. But letting go and being vulnerable is the only way to let love in… and it is well worth the occasional injury, I promise. Having this connection…” She gesticulated faintly as she searched for words simple but profound enough, “surrendering fear and believing in love—that is, the love you want to give—makes room in your heart for another to give you their love. To me, sex is just the icing on the cake, a treat that is made possible by loving him and knowing he loves me.” She finished this speech feeling very satisfied at the sound of it. Dolce was looking openly surprised and curious at her simultaneously.

“But have you ever thought what it would be like to be rejected? What if Bado did not love you?” She asked slowly, staring unmoving into Frey’s eyes, quite uncharacteristic for her.

“That’s the thing, though… If you let go and believe completely in the love you want to give, and know that you are worthy of the same kind of love from another, then being rejected won’t break you. Only thinking you aren’t good enough to be loved will do that.” Frey remembered painfully the hopeless frailty she had seen in Bado as he asked why… why did she love him?

Dolce looked uncertain, saying nothing yet, as if she were still trying to work out whether this was indeed an answer to her question.

“I’m not saying feeling rejected doesn’t suck.” She laughed, the lasting discomfort of worrying her tall dwarf would not return to her still fairly fresh in her heart despite more recent convictions to the contrary. “But, I think it’s worth the risk. Knowing how fulfilling it is to throw your faith into another enough to love them completely, I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”

“Hmm.” The princess’s interlocutor finally made an acknowledging noise.

“And what it comes down to with sex is a simple desire to express your love by pleasing them as best you may.”

“I see.” Dolce’s voice revealed no specific emotional response, so that Frey was unsure her message had come across, but then she smiled the slight, almost-imperceptible smile that was by her standards a great show of feeling, and Frey knew her words had done some good after all. “So you say he is very diligent about pleasuring you?” She ventured after another moment, her energy suddenly more calm and open.

“Haha, yes indeed. He likes to be the initiator of things too, and I am never sorry to give up the lead because he really knows what I’ll like even before I do, somehow!” She smiled brightly, cheeks reddening with a slightly bashful but also self-satisfied blush.

“He does not ever push you too far?”

“Oh, no. Not at all… in fact he rather likes making me ask and beg him to go further at times. And he is always very gentle and careful.”

“Sounds nice.” Dolce said softly, with a slightly wistful smile. The pair sat in silence for a time, Pico fading to near total transparency as she leaned on her elbows listening without a word. It would seem that having ‘Dolly’ speaking so openly eliminated her compulsive need to elucidate her hauntee’s feelings when she refused to share them herself.

“Do you like that he is older than you?” Dolce asked quietly after a while. Frey was unexpectedly taken aback. Up until now, the only question anyone had put to her on the subject of Bado’s age was whether she was troubled by it, or why didn’t it bother her? She found she had no ready answer, having never thought particularly on this view of the issue. Bereft of a reply, Dolce continued. “It seems to me it would be very comforting, having a partner who is far more experienced in life than yourself. Someone to help teach you how to make sense of the world, without always having to find everything out yourself…”

“That is an interesting perspective…” Frey said thoughtfully. “I suppose I have learned a great many things in the course of my relationship with him… but I have never thought of him as a teacher or anything.”

“Oh, I don’t mean it that way… not like a teacher. It would be more accurate to say that just knowing he has been through much would make me feel like I were all the more likely to come out alright from whatever may happen from now on, I suppose.” She elaborated.

“I think I can see the appeal of such an interpretation. It certainly has made learning about sex very pleasant, knowing I can rely on him to show me new things gradually and in a very agreeable manner, too.” She paused and thought a little further on the subject. “And I suppose… being around someone so patient and usually tranquil helps me be more relaxed and content too. Normally I can’t wait for anything…” She gave a little half-laugh at her own expense. “But for all that, I don’t think I would like him much less if he were my age, either... but I would miss the beard, I think… and the smile lines… jeeze maybe I do like that he is older…” She laughed aloud liberally. Dolce echoed her mirth in a more subdued manner.

“I have a hard time seeing the young men of Selphia as potential partners. They are all either impetuous or Naïve.” Her tone was extremely matter-of-fact and wholly unsympathetic to the half dozen eligible young bucks she was disqualifying from her affections with one sweep. Frey almost snorted with shock and humor at once. When she had composed herself, she ventured a probing question.

“So you would like an older partner too?”

“Perhaps.” Dolce sighed, noncommitting, and looked out the window.

“You don’t have anyone in mind, then?” She pushed a little more.

“No.” Dolce said simply, not looking at her. Frey glanced over at Pico, who could normally be depended on as a kind of interpreter for Dolce’s feelings but she too was determinedly refusing to acknowledge Frey with direct attention. It was too hard to read the enigmatic young woman without the little ghost’s help, so Frey gave it up, instead stirring the tea leaves in the bottom of her cup by swishing the last of the tea around over them.

“What do you do? You two?” Dolce ventured after a spell.

“Huh?” Frey said blankly.

“Jeeze!” Pico’s voice burst out in exasperated release after having held quiet for so long. “In bed, dummy! What kind of sex do you have with him?” Frey blushed hotly despite her overall comfort with her own sexual endeavors. It was still startling to be prompted so bluntly.

“Oh, um… Well, we mostly like coitus… and oral, though it turns out finishing him all the way with my mouth isn’t something I’m up to…” She laughed nervously. “He did just show me a new position the other day… it was really nice, but kinda strange too.”

“What was it?” Pico demanded. Dolce had reverted to silent, blushing attention disguised as picking over the cake frosting left on her plate with a fork.

“Well I was on my knees and elbows on the bed and he was behind me. It was really nice, but I’m not sure I can finish that way… it’s pretty different from being front-to-front. He switched to that after a bit and I came three times! But then I was seriously exhausted. It’s a good thing he was able to come along with me on the third one because I don’t think I could have done much else even if I wanted to.” She finished with another light laugh, slightly nervous at sharing all these details so openly. Dolce showed no prejudice whatsoever, though, even introducing her to the notion of Bado’s different age being a good thing to her, and all this motivated Frey strongly to give over whatever information she could want, out of gratitude.

“I didn’t realize having several orgasms was really possible.” Dolce shrugged, once again making a show of indifference that wasn’t quite convincing. Frey looked at her almost suspiciously until she turned and eyed her disconcertedly. “What?”

“You’re really comfortable knowing all these details? It won’t make you feel weird when you see him next?” She couldn’t forget Margaret’s reluctance to contemplate the subject once the identity of Frey’s sexual partner was revealed.

“I doubt it. Actually, it kind of makes me respect him a little more.” She smirked. “I have never given him credit for going to great lengths for another’s benefit, especially when he will hardly lift a finger for himself. It is encouraging to know he is so eager to please you and keep you happy. There is more to him than I’d guessed, and that is much more endearing than the façade he’s put on until now. I don’t have much patience for people who keep the lion’s share of themselves secret from the world.” She finished prosaically, as if she regularly expounded on her philosophical assessment of others in such detail. Frey was speechless at this sudden abundance of shared contemplation.

“Why, because that’s what you do?” Pico asked dryly with a raised eyebrow, her head resting in her palm, elbow apparently leaning on the table, though she was not presently interacting physically with it or the chair she was pretending to sit upon. Dolce made an indignant noise and glared at her poltergeist, but then softened a little.

“I suppose it is what we dislike and fear in ourselves that we are most likely to find fault with in others…” She said contemplatively. Frey couldn’t help but wonder if the earlier conversation had opened up a more intimate friendship than they had previously shared, or if Dolce was simply in a particular mood thanks to the talk. The quiet young woman then rose and thanked Frey graciously before excusing herself, but as she neared the stairway she paused and turned partway around again.

“I would like to do this again soon.” She put simply with a small smile, then left with Pico trailing behind her. Frey merely stared after her friend. She was as impossible to read as always.

 

Chapter Text

“What’s her name?” Frey asked, with a sweet tone not wholly devoid of nosy curiosity. Gaius blushed rather pink at this, and blinked at her twice.

“Um… Evelyn…” He said quietly, glancing up to see her expression even as he pretended to be interested in cleaning up some of the materials that were littered about the Meanderer after another day’s labor working on the dwarven hammer.

“That is a pretty name.” She smiled at him. “What is she like?”

“Well… She is, uh… She’s kinda strange… but not nearly as much so as her family, I guess.” He laughed nervously. Frey tilted her head curiously at him.

“How so?”

“Well, her father and her sister only speak in opposites, saying exactly the reverse of what they mean. So, until you get used to it, you’ll be very confused while talking to them.”

“What the heck? Really?” Frey stared at him. She had never heard anything so ridiculous before.

“Yeah… they are De Sante Coquilles, you know. All of them are eccentric. Maybe it’s genetic?” Gaius mused.

“De Sante Coquille? Like Porcoline?” Comprehension dawned on her.

“Yes. I think they are cousins, most likely.” This didn’t necessarily mean anything specific, given that in spite of no certainty of such a blood relation Gaius would call virtually anyone from his clan a cousin, thought Frey to herself at his words.

“Huh… but Evelyn doesn’t talk like that? So what is her eccentricity?” At this, Gaius looked thoughtful a moment.

“Fashion.” He said simply.

“Fashion?” She repeated, confused.

“Yes. Fashion.” He nodded.

“…So she wears eccentric things?”

“Yes. And makes them, too.”

“Like what?”

“Well… Just before I left, she had been sewing needlefish into the hem of a dress…” He said reminiscently.

“What?!” Frey stared at him.

“Yep. A lot of the outfits she makes are very… perishable.” He laughed again.

“Wow.” Frey shook her head in disbelief. “That may be the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Alright…” Bado exhaled wearily from where he had been working nearby. “It’s done.” He stood up from the work table and lifted the hammer in both hands, holding it out to Gaius, who stepped forward and stood before his kinsman with a hint of reverence. He raised his hands, palms up before him in a gesture of receiving, but did not try to take the hammer.

“I am ready to accept your honorable efforts.” He said formally. Frey stared in surprise at the suddenly ceremonial atmosphere. Bado looked down at his clanmate and spoke in his deep voice but with an uncharacteristically serious air.

“Herein has been forged the heart of one of your clan, that you may carry it with you and know that it beats in time with yours. Wherever you go, my strength and my spirit be with you. I am your brother in fire and iron, Gaius.”

“I accept your heart with this hammer, Bado. My oath to my clan is first to you, brother of fire and iron.” He looked up and they held each other’s eyes as Bado lowered the hammer into Gaius’ hands. As his fingers wrapped around the handle, Frey thought she saw Gaius’ shoulders relax with a potent sense of relief. He sighed, closing his eye a moment as he held it up before him. Then he smiled and opened his grey-blue eye once more. Bado’s face relaxed and broke into a genuine smile too.

“Man, the hammer oath always sounds cheesy to me, but I mean it, Gaius. I’ll always lend a hand, whenever you need me.” He said, much more casually.

“And I will always be here for you, too…” Gaius returned, looking around to Frey and adding, “Both of you.” She blushed and looked between their faces. Bado was a bit scarlet with embarrassment at having been witnessed being so ceremonial.

“That was so sweet!” She trilled, not quite sorry at giving her lover even more cause to blush. Gaius laughed aloud.

“Well, I guess that means it’s time for me to get my butt back home and put this thing to good use.” He said energetically, holding the hammer firmly and beaming happily.

“You’re so weird.” Bado laughed. “I’ll never understand why you like forging so much.”

“No, I don’t suppose you will, lazybones.” The smaller dwarf returned, utterly chipper. Bado made a scoff but smiled good-naturedly anyway.

“You gonna run home just like that, or will you stay long enough for a goodbye dinner?” Gaius looked thoughtful at the offer, but then shook his head, still smiling.

“No. I don’t want to say goodbye. It might make you feel justified in ignoring me for another two years. I fully expect both of you to pay me a visit in Sharance someday soon and keep up a healthy correspondence by mail until then, got it?” He looked at each of them in turn. Frey nodded cheerfully.

“You got it, Gaius.”

“Sounds like I’m not being given a choice, here, anyway so… sure. I’ll keep in touch this time.” Bado said, feigning reluctance rather transparently.

“You bet you will.” Said Gaius. “You were dragging around so gloomily last time as to give everyone the wrong impression altogether, so you have to come back and show a better side of you, and show off your princess, too.” He winked at Frey as he finished. Bado nodded with a sheepish smirk.

A jolly chime of the shop bell announced one of the many regular visits by Raven to check on Gaius and their progress, as well as to make sure he had remembered to eat and drink. She had informed Frey in short, blunt terms that he could not be trusted not to drop from hunger, exhaustion, or thirst if he was left working with no supervision.

“Ah, Raven. Good timing. Are you ready to go home? We have some catching up to do, back at the shop.” Gaius greeted her cheerfully, propping the hammer on his shoulder and walking over to her. As he passed close, Frey peered at the tool that Bado had labored all week to give him. It was smaller than his own, with a simple, practical sort of design whose only ornamentation was in the joining of the handle and the head. Even so, something about the lustrous black sheen of the mysterious and complicated composite metal of the head seemed to betray a powerful sense of value and permanence. Gaius certainly did appear more lively since he had accepted it into his hands. It seemed almost like magic.

“Yes.” Raven said simply.

“Well, I’ll be looking forward to your first letter!” Gaius called as they made to leave through the heavy wooden door of the Meanderer.

“See ya later.” Bado held up a wide palm in farewell.

“Don’t forget to tell us all about how it goes with Evelyn when you write back!” Frey returned as they passed out of view and the door swung shut with another cheerful ring.

“Well, that only took forever.” Bado sighed. “Remind me not to take any more jobs for a while.” He sank into the plain wooden chair by the counter and ran his hand through his hair in a very tired manner. Frey walked over to him and sat in his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck and looking affectionately at him.

“It’s too late for that, you already told Doug you’d make him shroud powder next.” She said quietly as she toyed with his ruffled hair with one hand.

“Aw jeeze, why the hell did I do that, again?” He grumbled half-heartedly, returning her sweet attentions with a gentle, albeit fatigued, hand stroking her back. She chuckled a bit and kissed him briefly.

“That sure was sweet of you to do that for Gaius.” She said quietly. “I’d say you’ve earned a day off or two.” He smiled and hugged her softly.

“Come on, then.” He sighed. “I want you for a blanket while I take a nap.” He stood up, lifting her as he went and ducking behind the draped doorway to his room.

 

Chapter Text

“I thought you said malm claws would work?” Doug’s voice was incredulous.

“They do, it’s just these ones are too old. They aren’t grinding properly.” Bado explained in an impatient tone, breaking one in half in his hands and holding it out to show Doug the way the broken ends splintered.

“Like I know what that means!” Doug griped. Bado was losing patience with the red-headed dwarf. He didn’t want to be working so soon after that week long stint on Gaius’ hammer anyway, but especially not with someone giving him so much grief even as he was doing him a favor.

“It means they’re no good! If you want shroud powder, go get me some fresh ones!” He barked.

“Why don’t you stock your shelves better! You’re the one with materials too old to use!” Doug’s voice was raised too now.

“I’ll go.” Frey said, drawing surprised looks from both of them. “I need some exercise anyway.” She twirled one of her dual blades in her right hand with a confident air.

“Oh no you don’t!” Doug turned his anger on her. “The whole point of making this stuff in the first place was to make sure nobody’s girlfriend goes running off and fighting monsters without safety measures!”

“What?!” Frey fumed.

“Forte’s not your girlfriend until she says she is.” Bado growled, thumping Doug on the top of his head, gently but irritably. Doug frowned peevishly back at him. The smaller dwarf’s presumptuous attitude toward the lady knight was only half the reason for his displeasure. Doug had riled up his sweet little Nymph last time on this same topic, and Bado was very unsatisfied to see her put out of temper again. Unfortunately, a sudden furious aura coming from her told him it was even worse this time around.

“I’m the one who can use retornen to gate out of any situation I can’t win in! I don’t need shroud powder, or some guy telling me what I can and can’t handle just because I’m a woman!” She shouted furiously. Both dwarves flinched at her outburst and stared at her. Bado wanted to believe she was only angry with Doug, but he couldn’t help but worry she blamed him too for the comment. She was glaring with fiery eyes at them both.

“It’s not just because of your gender! You’re his girlfriend now! You can’t just go running off risking your neck without asking!” Doug gestured impatiently at Bado, who frowned angrily at him for roping him into the argument in a way that was hardly likely to pacify her.

“I don’t need anyone’s permission to do my job!” She roared. “I’m as much a protector of Selphia as Forte is and fighting monsters is part of my duty!” She turned and wrenched the door open violently and made to leave, stopping and shouting back as she went: “And just because I’m his girlfriend doesn’t mean he owns me!” Then the door slammed so forcefully the shop bell came off the small metal limb holding it and clattered on the floor.

Bado and Doug stood frozen in the silent aftermath of the princess’s fury. Then Bado remembered his own anger and struck Doug’s shoulder with his fist, not hard, but enough to set him stumbling aside a pace.

“Dumbass! Why’d you hafta go and say that crap! Now I’m in the doghouse thanks to you!”

“Well, You don’t want her running off into the wild to pick a fight with monsters anyway, do you?” Doug countered.

“That’s not the point, you brainless runt! You made it sound like we think she’s weak and helpless, and even worse, that I’m entitled to order her around!”

That’s not what I meant!” Doug spluttered.

“No? Well that’s what you made her think, damnit!” Bado snapped, then winced, hearing his own lost temper and feeling immediately sorry for it. He looked away, clenching his teeth behind sealed lips and wrestling his feelings down until he was calm. When he looked up at Doug again, the younger dwarf’s expression was worried and guilty all at once.

“I didn’t mean that.” He repeated quietly, as if he hoped to undo it by saying so.

“You better apologize to her after she’s cooled down a bit, and go get some new malm claws before she really does tear off and do something rash to prove you wrong.” Bado said, his tone more reasonable now. Doug nodded and trotted out the door looking determined.

Left alone in the Meanderer again, Bado shook his head and sighed. He knew himself to be clumsy and foolish enough to hurt her feelings from time to time but having Doug do it in his name without himself having said a word felt sorely unfair.

‘The worst bit is he’s not wrong about how I feel when she goes off to fight…’ Bado thought gloomily. It was going to be difficult to convince Frey that he didn’t think her weak and didn’t want to boss her around while still expressing his worries.

The door opened again, oddly glum sounding without the ring of the bell. Bado looked up hopefully but it wasn’t Frey who entered. Nurse Nancy smiled placatingly at him as she closed the door gently behind her.

“Everything alright?” She said softly. He sighed through his nose and looked bewildered at her, supposing she intended to console him but not feeling quite inclined to confide in anyone at present. A long silence stretched in the quiet room. He looked away. “Not talking huh?” She hummed, then stepped toward him. He resented her kindliness and good intentions. He couldn’t bicker with her the way he could with Doug, and he didn’t like anyone to think Frey unhappy with him, given the townspeople’s predisposition to think ill of him regarding their relationship.

He startled a bit when he glanced up and saw Nancy standing very close before him. He moved to step back but she seized the crossed buckles on the front of his vest and held him fast.

“You don’t look well.” She said, staring intently at his face. He swallowed but said nothing. Her other hand reached up and pressed two fingers against the side of his neck. He leaned away from the touch but she still had a firm grip on him and he was wholly unwilling to lay a hand on hers to pry it off of him. Instead he merely held still, meekly holding his hands out at his sides as far from her as he could.

“Pulse elevated.” She said clinically after a moment, then reached up and seized his head in both hands, tugging him down where she could see more easily. He shifted his balance but did not resist, wondering stupidly what she was on about as he let himself be unceremoniously examined on the spot like a draft horse. She grabbed his nose and jaw and opened his mouth, peering in suspiciously, then held his right eye open with a thumb and forefinger and ‘hmm’ed in an unsatisfied way as she looked at it before pressing a palm on his forehead. He blushed and frowned at her for the undignified treatment, but remained mute. What the hell was a man supposed to say in this situation, anyway?

Then she grabbed his head in both hands again and turned it sideways to look in his ear, pressing it with her fingertips as she did so. He gasped a hissing breath and finally seized her hands and thrust them gently away with a very crimson blush and a frown. That was not the kind of touch he wanted from anyone but his princess.

“Enough.” He muttered indignantly.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize they were so sensitive.” Nancy giggled, very infuriatingly and to his further embarrassment, added: “Is that how she gets you hot and bothered? Does she tease them for you?” He flushed more deeply scarlet and frowned unhappily at the nurse as her face went from a wicket sort of grin to a full volley of fluttering laughter.

“I ain’t ill.” He said finally, his speech slipping into the most informal and gruff portion of himself in his unsettled state. He hoped it would be enough to stop her poking and prodding… at least the physical kind…

“Then why don’t you just tell me what has got you so ruffled?” She countered. “I heard her shouting as she left. We are neighbors, after all.” He sighed and shrugged in defeat.

“I suppose there’s no use denying it, then.” He mumbled. “But it’s all Doug’s fault. I didn’t even say anything!”

“Sometimes that is worse than saying the wrong thing, you know.” She said gently. He looked miserably at her, at a loss for how to respond. The nurse smiled sympathetically and squeezed his arm.

“Come, where is your kettle? I’ll make some tea and we’ll sit and talk.” She said kindly. He sighed again and followed her with an air of surrender to the work table. She looked around for a stove once she had the kettle in hand but was left only puzzling with no obvious means in sight. He took the kettle wordlessly and thrust it into the forge on the hot embers, still wearing his work gloves which were very well insulated. They sat down on either side of the table, his hands folded disconsolately on the surface as she watched his face and waited patiently for him to speak.

“She thinks she needs to prove to everyone that she’s strong enough to run around fighting monsters… And she thinks everyone—me in particular—is under the impression she ain’t up to it. That’s how she interprets it when somebody worries over it. ‘specially me, apparently.” The words came reluctantly, but he gave it his effort anyway.

“She probably just wants you to admire her, or at least respect her. Feeling like you don’t think she can handle something she’s done all along might give her the impression that you think little of her.”

“That’s not true at all, though.” He protested quietly. Nancy chuckled a little at him.

“Doesn’t mean she won’t get the wrong impression sometimes.” She said reasonably. “Especially if it’s a subject she’s already sensitive about.”

“Then how can I make her see reason?” He replied plaintively. She laughed softly again and laid a hand on his while he resisted the urge to flinch away from her touch.

“You won’t.” She said simply. “Not with that attitude, anyway.” All of this vague alluding was trying his patience. He allowed a decent amount of frustration to show in his expression in hopes of motivating plainer answers from her. She laughed and patted his hand reassuringly. “It’s not about being right or wrong, Bado. What matters is that you address each other’s feelings.” She said earnestly. He gave her a look that was not very comprehending.

“You mind elaborating a bit on that?” He asked after a moment. She returned a very obliging look with her answer.

“It’s like this: thinking in terms of who is right and who is wrong puts you in the position of competing with one another. That means someone is the winner and someone is the loser in the disagreement, but that is not good at all for a loving relationship. Instead, it should be about making sure each of you understand how the other feels and validating one another’s feelings.” Nancy explained patiently. The kettle started to whistle in the forge and Bado stood up to fetch it.

“ What do you mean, ‘validating each other’s feelings’?” He asked, puzzled, meanwhile absentmindedly pouring hot water for the tea into two mismatched stoneware cups for them.

“I mean acknowledging them and showing that you value and honor what she is feeling, even if you don’t agree with it or wish she felt otherwise. It’s a very important step. In my experience, most folks won’t be ready to get over something and move on to changing behavior if they don’t feel their feelings have been validated by their partner. For example: in this situation, Frey needs to know that you understand that she is hurt and disappointed that you aren’t expressing the level of faith in her ability to fight that she expects. Then she might be persuaded not to be running around recklessly in order to save you the pain of worrying yourself to pieces about her.” He nodded tentatively in response to her explanation, not entirely sure he understood it fully but still having a reasonable degree of confidence in her advice.

“And how do I do this ‘validating’ thing, then?” He asked levelly.

“Well, one of the best ways is to relate to her, like saying: ‘I can see why you’d feel that way’ or something similar.” Nancy explained with an air of patient diligence. “Whatever you do, just don’t tell her she shouldn’t feel the way she does or that it’s crazy or wrong to feel that way. If she already feels a certain way about something, it’ll do no good to wish she didn’t. You just have to address the reality of how she does feel.” He sighed. It sounded very difficult in the face of his own apprehension and frustration with her headstrong ways.

“I’ll try.” He said finally. Nancy nodded approvingly.

“Good. It will take some practice, don’t get me wrong. Plus, one thing you two might not have accounted for about your age difference is your respective maturity levels. It may take her longer to figure out how to be a good communicator, you know. You need to be very patient with her, Bado. That is part of the deal if you’re going to be with such a young woman, after all.”

“Yeah.” Said Bado, nodding in agreement despite the lecture-like tone she was leaning toward. He could hardly argue with her, but it wasn’t like he had gone looking for a girlfriend only a little over half his age, either. Falling in love with Frey had not been an entirely voluntary experience for him in the beginning, regardless of how glad he was now at it having happened. He was quite sure he would still be attracted to her were she his own age, or at least that was an assertion he convinced himself of in the absence of any evidence to the contrary… but who could really know?

They sat in silence, drinking their tea while he contemplated her words. After a time, Nancy patted his forearm reassuringly once more, saying:

“Just remember, no matter what the disagreement, that you love her and want her to be happy and that is the goal far and above being right or justified or whatever else. Don’t forget it, even if you are angry or hurt or sad… got it?” She made an effort to catch his eye and wait for confirmation.

“Yeah.” He repeated, brief but earnest, and accompanied the answer with a nod.

“Good.” She said, and finished her tea promptly. “I need to get back to the clinic, but I’ll check on you again from time to time. I don’t particularly trust you to know when you should ask for help or to actually do it even if you did know it.” She rose and made to leave. Bado shook his head, smiling ruefully but still grateful, nonetheless. As much as he would hate to admit it aloud, she had known what he needed better than he did, and beyond that, she knew what he ought to do far better than he did as well.

“Do as you please.” He said quietly, betraying the slightest smile at her as she gave him an appraising look before leaving the shop with a very satisfied air.

 

Chapter Text

Bado paced anxiously around the Meanderer, drumming his fingers on his folded arms. It was past sundown and Frey had not returned. He was done hesitating to acknowledge that he was indeed worried. It didn’t much matter to him that she had gone off on her own a hundred times or more before they had become a couple. Doug was undeniably  correct in his assumption of how he felt as a result of her reckless wanderlust. But he would not make the younger dwarf’s mistake, no… He would do as Nancy had advised, and be as calm and dear as he may.

Earlier that afternoon he had stopped by the castle to inquire whether the princess had returned there, but was informed by a very fidgety Vishnal that she had promptly left after storming home to quickly change into light armor and throw a pack on her back. This news had chagrined Bado to no small degree, but he did his best to veil his anxiety as he politely asked Vishnal to inform her should she return directly to the castle that he hoped to speak with her as soon as possible. The young butler agreed, nodding quickly and assuring him that he would deliver the message to her faithfully. But, as Bado had turned to leave, Vishnal called softly: “Wait.” Bado paused and turned to him somewhat numbly. All his attention was bent on wondering and worrying after Frey at the time. Vishnal fixed him with a determined gaze and spoke with a confrontational tone but devoid of any great confidence.

“What did you do to upset her so?” He challenged. Bado sighed and turned to face the young man directly.

“We disagree on whether she oughtta be running off alone into the wild and scrapping with monsters. It worries me, and that has made her think that I have no faith in her abilities. I have failed so far to make her understand it is just that I don’t want her at risk, even though I know she is strong enough to fight her way out of most situations. So she is angry with me… and I probably deserve it for being so poor at articulating my feelings to her.” He said all these things with a pained sort of calm, curious to hear in his own voice as if it were a stranger’s. Vishnal in response looked surprised, then embarrassed, then sympathetic.

“Oh...” He said softly, looking down for a pause before continuing: “I’m sorry. I have to admit I expected something unpleasant of you…” He looked painfully sorry, indeed. So much so that Bado was disinclined to even feel indignant at having been assumed of having done Frey an unkindness deliberately or out of spite.

“Yeah… There is a lot of that going around. If I’d known you all trust me so little… actually I don’t know that there is anything I could have done differently, knowing that…” He finished resignedly.

“No!” Vishnal shook his head vigorously. “You mustn’t just submit to that kind of treatment!” Bado gave the young man a completely undisguised look of surprise. “I never thought you a scoundrel before and there is no good reason I should now that you and princess Frey are together. It is unfair and horrid for me to do so! Please don’t let anyone treat you like a fiend anymore, Bado, sir!” The butler’s insistent, heartfelt tone shook Bado very much. He stared, struck speechless and unable to form a response for a few breaths.

“Well…” He began finally, as Vishnal looked up, expectant and still grimacing from guilt. “I certainly agree I’m no scoundrel, especially where Frey is concerned. I may be fairly usele—“ He stopped himself, remembering with a pang Frey crying with her arms around his neck and insisting that he should not disparage himself so. He pressed his lips together and swallowed the rest of the sentence, starting over while keeping his promise to her. “I can safely say I’ve done nothing to earn the animosity that has been directed at me since my relationship with Frey was revealed, except maybe hiding it as though we should be ashamed. But all by ambitions begin and end with keeping her happy and safe and being her faithful partner for as long as she will have me. I daresay you’re right, Vishnal. I shouldn’t let anyone paint me a villain ever again for being with her. Not when loving her is perhaps the noblest and most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done.”

He left with Vishnal’s repeated and far more friendly assurances that he would be sure to tell her that he wished to make amends as soon as she would see him. It was a peculiar feeling, to suddenly be supported by the young butler, who had let go his mistrust altogether in the course of one conversation. But she hadn’t come, yet.

He was reluctant to believe that she could feel so unfavorably disposed as to avoid him. But perhaps that was just his own wishful thinking…

He continued to pace, sighing away a few more minutes before shaking off an unpleasant voice in his head supposing she was lost or hurt somewhere. Suddenly, as he walked around behind the counter again in his track around the room, the door swung open. The bell (which he had repaired in his nervous agitation waiting) rang in a frantic way as Frey entered the Meanderer, her chest puffed out and her head held high. A mingled surprise and relief flooded Bado’s mind as he saw her face.

She strode forward brisk and cocky and tossed a leather satchel onto the counter, calling “Tadah!” in a triumphant voice. He was somewhat confused by this victorious attitude but not displeased, having expected her to return roughly as angry as she had left. As it hit the counter the satchel spilled a number of long, curved, semi-translucent claws with a dulled clatter on the wooden surface. He looked down at them where they fell and a cold dread came over him as recognition took shape in his mind.

Chimera claws. There was no mistaking the long shining white quick that threaded through the center of the glassy chiton, hard and sharp and glinting cruelly in the dim forge light. Each one of the things was nearly as long as his own hand. He looked up at her, horrified, but she was too pleased with herself to notice.

“See? I told you I can handle myself out there!” She was panting, out of breath and now that he looked at her more than a moment he saw her leather armor scuffed, scratched, and even torn in places. “You said these are best for shroud powder, didn’t you? I went and got them for you so how do you like that?” She was gloating happily oblivious of his shocked and sick expression, his face first drained of color and then flushed with anger a moment later.

When at last she looked at him properly the smug look fell off her face with a flinch and she took on a very startled expression as he vaulted over the counter and surged toward her, seizing her shoulders as she instinctively took a step backward in the face of his urgent energy. He looked into her eyes, feeling his own wholly hardened by worry and fury at once. She, in turn, was frozen, staring unblinkingly back at him in blank confusion and bewilderment.

“What is the matter with you?!” He breathed in disbelief. It seemed to jar her out of her silence.

“What?! I’m not hurt! Everything’s fine!” She spluttered, trying for self-righteousness but obviously shaken by his reaction already. He looked her over closely with a sweep of his eyes. His fingers traced over her and found their way through slash marks in the armor over her thigh until they reached skin. There was dark, dried blood barely visible on the fabric of the clothing she wore underneath the leather padding. Then he saw a similar stain of dark red on her collar just beneath the armored vest. He brushed aside her hair and stared with a sick feeling rising in his gut.

Her ear was notched. A small, bloody gap in the cartilage contour of the outer edge stood out amidst the pale green of her long hair. It wrenched him cruelly to see it, still wetly glistening though it was not bleeding openly now. This smaller wound she had obviously not taken the effort to heal with her Earthmate magic, whether it had gone unnoticed or she had simply spent as much of her rune energy as she was able, already. She certainly looked like she had come running back instead of gating through the retornen spell. He reached with a trembling hand and gingerly touched her ear with his thumb and forefinger below the notch.

“Oh. Heheh. Oops I guess I missed that one.” She laughed nervously, but held very still in his grasp. A panicked breed of anger took hold of him, born of the fear that she might come to harm beyond his reach to protect her and terrible in its potency.

“F-Frey…” He trembled as he began in a whisper, but quickly rose to a shout. “How could you do something so deliberately reckless?!” She cringed at his outburst and stared up at him with wide eyes full of shock and hurt. “You could have been killed!” He gripped her shoulders tightly, fingers pressing into her even through the padded leather sleeve.

“I’m f-fine!” She squeaked. “It’s just a scratch! Bado please, you’re squeezing too tightly!” She pleaded with a whimper. He released his grip and turned his head, teeth clenched, eyes shut and quivering with a miserable combination of terror, wrath, and hurt. This last feeling panged him deeply. It felt a cruel and deliberate cut to his heart that she would wilfully go off and charge an enormous, vicious chimera with poisonous fangs, huge cruel claws and all the animosity any monster could boast, all to throw his words and his worry back into his face and to display her defiance and indignation in the most brazen way possible.

“Don’t you have a lick of good sense?!” He spat. “Don’t you give a damn about your own hide?” He glared desperately at her, tormented by the acute awareness that even if he were with her he was not sure he could fight to protect her in such a situation. His hesitation and paralysis back in that forest where the beetle had jumped out at her haunted him viciously. He could not trust himself to keep her safe… and he could not trust her to stay out of danger either. That much was plain.

“Bado…” She cried in a small voice, tears in her eyes as she looked up at him in disbelief.

“I wish—“ He choked on the words and stood tense and trembling a moment more. “I wish if not for your own sake, then perhaps for mine you would stop this foolish proving yourself nonsense and at least stop putting yourself in harm’s way on purpose!” He finished at volume, panting as he spent the last of his breath on the exclamation. She shook in her tears, beginning to breathe frantically in her turn and then spun around and flew out the door, saying nothing.

Alone once more with nothing but the sound of his own gasps of air and the tangle of emotions overtaking him, Bado slipped to the ground on his knees and broke down in the face of his frustrated grief and guilt, all his determination to calmly and kindly reconcile her hurt feelings and make peace with Frey burned to ashes by his shock and pain and fear. He had shouted at her and scorned her, and now she was gone again. He felt himself a small and wretched creature, only masquerading as a tall, broad-shouldered man worthy of her love… a fool to think he could be for her what he’d hoped.

Bado wept alone in the grip of a misery made all the more painfully severe by its contrast to the heights of his recent joy at being with his loving nymph when all was well.

 

Chapter Text

“Miss Frey! You are wounded!” Volcannon’s roaring voice boomed before Frey as he plucked her up off the paving stones of the courtyard before the castle in his gigantic gloved hands and with impossibly long strides went sweeping down the avenues back toward the housing district where the clinic was. “We must get you to Jones and Nancy straight away!” He bellowed, ignoring her clumsy, stuttering protests completely as she struggled half to object to his efforts and half to conceal her tears and sniffles.

He barged into the clinic and set her down, embarrassed and red-faced, on the examination table before calling loudly for the doctor or nurse. Frey wished heartily she could disappear, but she had spent all her energy in healing up the injuries done to her by the chimera before she brought it down and now she had not enough left to cast retornen and whisk herself away from this mortifying situation.

Nancy came down the stairs and into the room in a rush, calling indignantly at Volcannon to lower his voice as she entered. Frey could not bring herself to pay much attention to what they were saying. The shock of seeing Bado angry and shouting at her was still too fresh in her mind, leaving all other thoughts foggy and indistinct for the moment.

She was dimly aware of Volcannon excusing himself and Nancy sitting down in front of her a moment later, frowning as she brusquely unfastened the buckles of her armor and stripped her down to examine her. She too examined the slashed holes in her clothing and her nicked ear with an unpleasantly grim and shocked face.

“What have you done?” She demanded indignantly, lifting Frey’s chin none-too-gently to force eye contact on her and pry answers from her with a forceful glare.

“Nothing! I’m fine! I already healed everything but the ear and that doesn’t even hurt.” She pouted, wriggling out of Nancy’s grasp and wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. She couldn’t seem to stop the tears from coming. “And I’ve already been yelled at for it so I don’t need this from you, too.” She sniffled and turned her eyes away as more tears rolled uncontrolled down her cheeks. There was a heavy silence and stillness from Nancy’s direction, though Frey was deliberately not looking at her or focusing on her at all, presently.

After a silent stretch, and feeling on firmer ground for her outrage, Frey looked up into Nancy’s eyes when the nurse failed to respond.

“You’d think if he were that worried he wouldn’t be so angry and maybe more relieved or something…” She muttered. Then Nancy’s eyes hardened abruptly and a shock of stinging impact struck Frey’s cheek, turning her head to the side with the force of it. Nancy had slapped her across the face. Stunned for a moment, Frey swallowed and finally turned her head back to look at the nurse aghast, her hand rising to her reddened cheek as she did so.

“I suppose you think that just because he is bigger and stronger and older than you that he can’t be hurt by you, huh?” The usually kindly voice of the nurse was venomous, her gaze icy. Frey stared at her, completely at a loss as she digested the words. She was first, surprised at Nancy’s uncanny implicit understanding of the situation and then a powerful dread and guilt began to fall on her like a heavy rain. “I would not have guessed you could be so thoroughly selfish, Frey.”

“W-what?” Frey stammered dumbly, her hand still on her cheek.

“Are you trying to worry him to pieces all for the sake of your silly pride? It is very low of you, princess, very low indeed.”

“I didn’t do it to make him worry though…” She protested feebly.

“But you knew that he would be worried to know what you’d been up to and you did it anyway. That is just as bad as doing it with a will to wound him.” The nurse rebuked her mercilessly.

“I just wanted to show him he doesn’t need to worry about me! I can take care of myself!” Frey insisted, a little more strength in her voice as she remembered her motive.

That is not at all reason enough to go looking for trouble. Doing so isn’t brave or courageous or anything of the sort. It’s only needlessly rash and stupid! And why would you want to reject his feelings like that anyway? This isn’t how conflicts are resolved in relationships, Frey! You don’t go off on your own to get proof or win or anything like that. You should have just talked to him about it and gave a hoot for how he feels if you wanted him to respect your feelings on the matter! What would make you think that you would solve an issue between the two of you by yourself, anyway?” Nancy railed on her without pause until she finished. Frey felt her cheeks flush red with shame.

She had been selfish… brutally so. In the face of overwhelming evidence that it would pain him she had done precisely what he did not want her to do… and found the most extreme way to do it, too. With an extra jolt of guilt she realized it was possible that having been the one to mention the chimera claws that he might even feel responsible for her foolish choice.

“I have to go.” She said suddenly resolved to return to the Meanderer straight away, but Nancy snatched her hand as she stood.

“I’m glad you’ve come to your senses, assuming you are about to run back and apologize, but first you do need to let me bandage that ear.” Frey reluctantly sat back down and fidgeted impatiently while Nancy cleaned and wrapped her notched ear.

“There. With any luck, it will bind back together and not leave a gap.” She said as she worked.

“I am sorry.” Frey said quietly after a silent few minutes.

“I’m glad to hear it.” Nancy replied quietly. “Now go back and tell him that.” She smiled at Frey as she folded her hands in her lap, having finished with Frey’s injured ear.

“Thank you, Nancy… for slapping me.” Frey said smirking, but with a hefty dose of sincere gratitude behind it all the while.

She left the clinic and went jogging back toward the Meanderer just around the corner. Drawing up to the front door and seizing the handle, she hesitated, remembering the sensation of reeling as Bado’s raised voice hit her as he gave words to his distress. She closed her eyes tightly for a breath and shook it off before pushing the door open and entering.

Bado was more or less where she had seen him last, in the middle of the room having not moved except downward to the floor. He was sitting with his arms folded over his knees, and though he had raised his head to see who had come, she was sure it had been drooped against his arms a moment prior. His eyes were bloodshot and his expression wan with misery, but he was looking up with a slightly hopeful expression when he saw her.

She drew a long, anxious breath and froze, suddenly agonizingly unsure of whether he would welcome her or not. Certainly she did not feel she deserved his loving embrace just at present…

He swallowed visibly but said nothing, merely watching her. So she steeled herself and exhaled, letting the breath out again having held it tightly in suspense to wait for him to speak or even yell at her again. She put a foot forward and hesitated again, one hand clenched to her chest, a manifestation of her nervous tension. He blinked his reddened eyes and continued to stare uncertainly at her. The thought of him having been there since she left, paralyzed by sorrow on the floor, grieved her painfully with a cold grip on her heart.

She let go of her reservations and moved toward him, stooping, then crawling slightly at the last stretch as she came to him on the floor. Her eyes threatened tears once more. He wore a fragile, hopeful, and weary expression. There was no anger there. It almost looked like he was surprised that she would come back to him. She pushed the thought away. It hurt too much just now, knowing it was her fault. He drew in a slow breath and held it as she reached out a timid hand toward him. He did not try to move away so she felt heartened and continued to reach for him until she laid her hand on his cheek and he let his breath out and drooped with some combination of relief, fatigue, and leftover sadness.

She, too sighed out her apprehension and rested her forehead against his, bringing the other hand up to his face and holding him tenderly like that for a long, delicate moment.

“I’m sorry.” She breathed, breaking the silence. These two words seemed to open the floodgates and she suddenly could not keep silent comfortably anymore. “I’m sorry… I’m so sorry.” she repeated again and again, kissing his hair and wrapping her arms around his head and neck. “I’m sorry, Bado.”

He moved, at last, his arms slowly shifting from their position, stiff from the unhappy reluctance to stir since he had sank to the floor earlier. Gradually she felt them wrap around her and draw her to him. Once enveloped in the familiar warmth and comfort of his arms, the tears rolled down her face once more, but this time as an expression of relief. “Please forgive me.” She whispered from within his embrace.

“Of course.” He breathed, and gently squeezed her more tightly against him.

“Thank you…” She replied gratefully, then added, “I guess it was my turn to be the fool.” She felt him smile against her neck.

“I’m glad you came back, Frey… and I’m glad you’re safe.” He said softly. Frey swelled with relief and then the guilt compelled her to elaborate on her sudden apology.

“Ohhh! I’ve been a beast, Bado. I knew you’d hate it and I ran off and did it anyway and all to show you wrong about something you didn’t even believe of me anyway! I could hardly have been a worse terror to you over this…” She sighed miserably, but far from growing angry again, he stroked her back and kissed her hair, pouring out affection just as usual.

“It’s alright, pet. I forgive you.” He repeated. “And I’m sorry too. I feel rotten for yelling at you, no matter how worried or afraid I was.” She squeezed him back with gratitude. Then he continued: “I hope you know I do admire you for your strength and moxy, and I believe in you, too. But even with all that, I can’t be reconciled to the notion of you seeking out battle with highly dangerous creatures, especially for silly reasons.”

“Yeah…” She sighed “It really doesn’t even have anything to do with you, specifically, either… I just feel like I have to prove it for some reason… especially hearing Doug say those things…”

“Are you feeling a little insecure about it?” He said softly. She felt a pang of impulse to deny it, but stopped herself from speaking right away. Leaning into the discomfort of the label ‘insecure’, she tasted it gingerly in her mind… and found it familiar.

“I suppose that must be it.” She said, abashed. “I don’t know what else would make me act so pig-headed.” He chuckled and snuggled her closer. “But it isn’t your fault. It’s my issue, after all.” She insisted. He stroked her hair thoughtfully, resting his jaw against her head for a few moments before speaking again.

“I think that is true… at least in the sense that you’ll only be able to resolve it within yourself when you choose to tackle it… But that doesn’t mean I can’t be of help, either.” He added determinedly.

"It is part of my job to fight monster sometimes, though. Especially if they come too close to town or harass travelers."

"I know, love... and I'll try my hardest not to fret over the run of the mill ones, just no more hunting things like chimeras alone, okay?"

"Yeah... I promise." She said gently.

"Thank you, sweetheart. I'll rest easier knowing that." He relaxed a bit more in his relief. She hugged him again, finally feeling the guilt begin to ebb.

"Do you worry about Forte this much?" She asked in a small voice.

"Not quite as much" he answered quietly after a breath. "Seeing as how she is not nearly as hot-headed as you..." he finished with a smirk. She ducked her head in a sheepish way. "Actually, that could be a good solution." He said, perking up.

"What would?" She looked up at him curiously.

"You and Forte should do your fighting together from now on." He explained, brightening a little more. "That way she'll keep you out of trouble and you'll both be safer! It won't even leave anything for Doug to complain about!"

"You wouldn't rather I leave the fighting to her?" Frey asked warily. He looked at her somewhat apologetically.

"Well, yeah, I can’t pretend I wouldn’t prefer that… but I've been thinking about it and I feel like that wouldn't be very fair of me to ask you to give up a part of what you have been all along just for my comfort. After all, if you weren't such a scrapper we might never have gotten tangled up in that briar and who knows if we'd have ended up together if it weren't for that day." He smiled affectionately at her as he spoke. Her heart in turn was aglow with gratitude at his acceptance. "All I can ask is that you spare me by being as safe as you possibly may, even while fighting."

"I will. And I'll stay out of unnecessary brawls too, cross my heart." She nuzzled him as she spoke, abruptly willing to give whatever he may ask.

“Thanks, pet. I appreciate it… really.” He smiled warmly at her and she basked in their restored harmony, all the happier for having made it through this uncomfortable hiccup in their usual affections. She kissed him two or three times and hugged him soundly again.

“Thank you, love.” She breathed.

 

Chapter Text

Forever. The notion just kept cropping up since Gaius first broached it. Bado tried not to think about it. Too terrifying. Too unlikely. Too wholly wonderful and wished for…

He sighed audibly, standing in the middle of his shop in the early evening, but thankfully there were no customers at present. The empty stillness of the Meanderer seemed to breathe like a huge slumbering creature all around him. This place was full of memories of Frey now. The stone floor, the plain wooden beams, the shelves, the counter, the door and the forge… all the parts were the same as they had ever been but the Meanderer was a different place now.

Even in the face of such evident change, it was hardly possible to imagine what, if anything, he could expect to be different between now and ten years from now. Not that he’d invested much thought into it, but up until recently it seemed life would be the same today, tomorrow and a dozen years into the future. He would grow older and a little more forgotten. Forte and Kiel would probably have families of their own by then, and he’d watch their children grow just as he’d seen them grow up and helped them along after their parents were gone. But he, Bado, would always be the same. Drifting sleepily through his uneventful existence was pleasant enough, as long as he didn’t have to go back to the way things were… as long as he didn’t have to fight.

Until that strange day back in spring it had been enough to pass the days in the harmless and careless pursuit of easy (but honest) money, but now… now everything was different. Frey was his future. She was his tomorrow, his next sunrise, his fall, winter, spring and summer. All of him now and hereafter he understood relative to her. The thought itself was exactly what he’d like to imagine, but the weighty drag of cold reality hampered any ability for him to believe that ‘forever’ was a word that would describe his relationship truthfully.

It was enough of a miracle that she had fallen in love with him and stayed with him this long, but how could he even begin to hope that a far more incredible piece of fortune, her permanent affection and commitment, was even possible? He was her first lover, and a wholly unconventional one at that. Surely she would wish to experience something else before… before marrying.

He swallowed. Even tasting the word in his own thoughts nearly made him tremble. The idea seemed to creep further into his mind like a slowly growing vine. Forever. Could he hope she would be his forever? That the love she bore him now would last so long? But no, what right had he to ask for such a thing? How could he expect her, young as she was, to promise four times as many years as she had lived on this Earth to him and only him? And even if she would... even if he did ask her and she agreed, he would still be separated from her before the end of his life. Dwarves lived to be many more than just twenty years older than humans… In all likelihood she would reach the end of her life decades before him, and he would live the last of his long years a widower, without her.

A powerful urge to shudder and clutch at his heart seized Bado. Inevitable or no, it was torturous to imagine the end of his time with Frey, whether by her eventual desire to seek a permanent love elsewhere, or by her mortality itself.

‘Still…’ he thought, cringing. ‘I would still rather stay with her as long as I may… even if I outlast her... even if I die alone, missing her.”

But even this morbid notion presumed that she was willing to remain with him. He suddenly wondered with a jolt whether she had ever thought of ‘forever’. She wasn’t like him, with his lack of ambition. His placid complacence with a simple, uneventful life suited him indefinitely, but what if Frey wanted for more? He could not expect her to sacrifice her wishes to reconcile herself to his lifestyle… and what kind of woman would marry a man with no goals and no ambition anyway?

Drooping, he was about to put a period to his hopes as a lost cause, the chance infinitesimally slim and not worth counting on, when another thought popped into his head to balance the others in one fell swoop.

‘What if she does feel this way though? I can imagine… want to imagine being with her forever, so it’s not so crazy to think that she might have thought about it too? That she might want to?’ His circular thoughts were interrupted by the door. A cool autumn breeze and a few stray rust colored leaves preceded the short figure that entered the Meanderer. As the door closed behind him and he changed from silhouette to a familiar personage, Kiel smiled brightly at Bado and made his way across the room toward him.

“Hey kiddo.” Bado greeted him.

“Hi Bado!” The youth chirped. “Whatcha up to?”

“Nothin’ just watching the coals burn low. Business has been dead today.” He shrugged.

“That’s too bad. Where’s Frey? I’m surprised she isn’t here with you.” Kiel said casually. Bado blinked. Kiel hadn’t said a word about his relationship to Frey since it was revealed, which, he assumed, meant he had no issue with it. But he didn’t really know for sure.

“She’s doing the evening patrol with Forte.” Bado replied, looking curiously at the young man who was brushing his bangs out of his eyes.

“Oh that’s right. They’ve been doing that for a while now, huh?” He piped. Bado nodded. To his and Doug’s considerable relief, the princess and the lady knight had conducted all their excursions into monster territory together since the day Frey had charged off to bring down a Chimera alone. The remainder of summer had passed without incident and now, halfway through autumn, the pair had settled very comfortably into a routine of patrolling and policing the roads leading to and from the town for the safety and benefit of the residents as well as any travelers passing through.

“Yeah. Those ladies have got us covered, that’s for sure. Hardly been a monster attack reported since the two of them started tag teaming the patrols.” He said conversationally. Kiel was peering at some items on the shelf behind the counter, not making eye contact anymore.

“But she’ll come over after, right? Frey, that is?”

“Uh, well… yeah. She stays with me most nights.” It felt awkward skirting around the question burning in his mind. But more awkward still was the prospect of asking Kiel straight out when he had waited this long and never broached the subject before.

“Do you ever stay with her?” The youth asked casually, prodding at the shroud packets Bado had made from the Chimera claws weeks ago. With Frey and Forte’s agreement to work together, Doug relented on his notion of pushing them on Forte, so they had remained in the Meanderer, unsold and unlooked for to this day.

“No, I haven’t. She says her bed at the castle is too small.” He answered without thinking, then flushed scarlet when he remembered who he was talking to. Kiel wasn’t much younger than Frey, but it seemed a little improper somehow to talk about such things with him. Maybe it was because he looked so young…

“Yeah I suppose that would make it tough…” Kiel mumbled contemplatively, “You are pretty big, after all.” Bado flinched and swallowed. This was getting too embarrassing. Kiel was like a nephew to him and he had helped raise the boy, after all.

“Kiel,” He began tentatively, “Are you… comfortable… with Frey and my relationship?” Yep, it was every bit as awkward hearing himself ask the young man as he expected it to be. Kiel looked up at him with his large eyes and blinked a couple times.

“Not really.” He said matter-of-factly. Bado winced again and stared at him, wondering whether to wait for elaboration or not, but the boy merely looked up at him placidly, revealing nothing more.

“Ah…” Bado said awkwardly, then swallowed again and pulled on his beard nervously. “Is, uh… is there anything in particular about it that troubles you?”

“Well, yeah.” Kiel replied immediately, “I had a crush on her.” Bado startled and stared at the boy, part mortified, part dumbstruck. “…But I never expected to find myself rivals with you when it comes to love. It feels a little unfair. I know there aren’t many women your age in town, especially single ones… but I don’t suppose you could have just gone out with Illuminata or someone else, instead of plucking up the best girl my age?” An unfamiliar and slightly challenging light gleamed in Kiel’s eyes briefly as he spoke.

Bado wrinkled his nose with a moderate pang of disgust. Just picking any woman his age merely to have some kind of relationship? Is that what this boy thought love was about? He was suddenly acutely aware of a sense of responsibility to correct Kiel’s attitude as best he could.

“I wasn’t shopping around, Kiel.” He said with a disapproving bite in his voice. “Frey and I fell for one another unexpectedly. Neither one of us saw it coming.”

“But you still started seeing her. You could have just let it go.” This retort made Bado seethe even more.

“Do you imagine women just passively wait for guys to claim them or something? Like they have no say in the matter?” He made no effort to soften his tone, but gave the youth the whole of his distaste through his words. Kiel looked taken aback.

“Well, obviously she has to say yes and all…” Kiel said hurriedly.

“That’s not what I mean.” Bado said, shaking his head. “Listen here, kid. Frey propositioned me, not the other way around. She knew what she wanted and she had less hesitation about it than I did. It wasn’t a matter of me simply not taking her. And besides, it would be kinda messed up if I turned down the woman I’m interested in when she came on to me, all to reserve her or something for some other guy. That would presume that guys are the ones deciding who she should be with.” He stared hard at Kiel, who wavered under his stern gaze.

“I was just saying you could have left me the chance—“

“No. Who she is with is her choice and she chose me over any of the younger men in Selphia. She told me so before I’d even accepted her feelings. It isn’t about opportunity, Kiel. It’s about people deciding who they want to be with, men and women alike. I wanted her too, after all, not just some woman to call my girlfriend… I would rather just be single than think of it like that.”

“So you’re saying I never had a shot anyway?” Kiel sighed.

“Yeah I guess I am saying that.” Bado said unsympathetically, “If you think that women are interchangeable as partners, or if you think I see them that way, I hope you grow up soon cause there’s just nothing good about that kind of attitude.” It felt a tiny bit hypocritical to say given his behavior with women long ago when he was a knight, but like so many other aspects of his life, that was completely different now, so it was not a lie. Not in the least.

There was no mistaking the hurt expression on Kiel’s face. Guilt gnawed at him as he saw it, but he didn’t let it show.

“Well, it’s not like I have anything to go on… other than stories out of books.” He said stormily. It was so bizarre seeing the typically happy-go-lucky boy so bitter. Bado suddenly wondered if he hadn’t been neglecting his duties as a role model to him, even if Forte probably would roundly resent the idea on account of his lousy work ethic…

“Well, there really isn’t any way to learn about relationships other than to be in one. Books can’t do much for you there. But there are some things I can tell you that might help.” Kiel looked up somewhere between skepticism and hope.

“Like what?” he said tentatively.

“Like that you should seek a relationship with a partner who likes you for their own reasons. That’s far better than trying to convince someone to like you. Just be who you are and live by the principles you value. Then, when someone does come along who shares those values and respects you for them, you’ll be an attractive partner to them.”

“Sounds pretty passive…” Kiel muttered.

“Well, I’ll grant you it’s not the only way to go about it, but you can only be so proactive about it. Love isn’t something that can be forced to happen, ya know.” Sympathy had resurfaced in his attitude toward the boy, and his tone was more gentle now.

“I just hope I don’t have to wait until I’m your age to have a relationship…” He sighed, to Bado’s not particularly disguised offense.

“Well let me tell you,” He clapped a hand on Kiel’s shoulder, causing the boy’s small frame to wobble. “If it’s a relationship like mine and Frey’s it will be worth waiting for, even if it does take until you’re forty to find it.” His words were earnest, but he knew they were not the thing to sooth the ruffled tempers of such a young man. He himself had been told when he was Kiel’s age to be patient and not to rush off and pursue his goal of becoming a great knight, and had he listened?

‘Oh well…. May as well give him the chance of better input, anyway…’ he thought resignedly. Kiel sighed.

“Well never mind about all that cause I’m over it anyway.” He said unconvincingly, “That’s why I haven’t been by much since you two started dating… but I’m here now and I’m done sulking.”

“Glad to hear it…” Bado said dryly.

“So if your relationship is so great, when are you gonna marry her?” Kiel said suddenly. His temper all at once restored to his usual airy way, complete with his typical obliviousness to the embarrassment of his interlocutor. Still no grace…

“Sheesh! Don’t rush me!” Bado blurted out, very flustered to have his earlier thoughts guessed at so abruptly. Then he flushed crimson. It was as good as admitting as much…

“Oh, so you have thought of it already, then?” the youth’s tone was sly. Bado swallowed hard. The last thing he needed was for Kiel to feed the rumor mill with the notion that he would propose to Frey any day now. He hadn’t even fully accepted the idea of marrying her, himself, after all. He laid his hands on Kiel’s shoulders firmly and looked very seriously at him.

That is a secret, Kiel.” He said insistently, “I’m asking you to keep it to yourself, okay?”

“What about Forte, can I tell her?”

“Absolutely not.” Bado said, wincing again. He hardly wanted the person Frey spent the most time with after himself knowing either. Kiel’s face assumed a pout. With an exasperated sigh, Bado tried a different route. “Listen… It wouldn’t be very nice for her to find out from anyone but me. Partners should talk to each other about their future together.”

“Then talk to her about it already.” Kiel said, and laughed at Bado’s expense suddenly. “I won’t give you too long.”

Bado swallowed, staring down into a face he’d never known to be cunning before this moment. Kiel had him in his pocket now.

“You turned out a hell of a lot more wicked than I’d have guessed, kiddo.” He muttered with no semblance of confidence. Kiel chuckled in a self-satisfied way.

“Don’t worry. I won’t abuse it unless you drag your feet forever.” Perhaps this was meant to reassure him, but Bado only blinked in apprehension. Kiel had given no indication of how long was too long for him to take.

“Guess I’m on the hook now…” He grumbled, which earned him another fiendishly cheerful smile from the youth.

Outside the light was fading in the early evening. The chill in the air crept in under the door. Soon they’d see the first frost preceding winter, but for now there was a waning quality to the landscape with its fiery foliage burning bright in the sunset.

The shop bell rang again. Frey pranced into the room with a springy skip in her step. In her hair a spray of red and gold maple leaves adorned each of her long pigtails at the tie. Ever the spritely little forest Nymph… Bado melted a little as he beheld her, then fear caught up to him as he wondered with a jolt whether Kiel would betray his secret in this oddly timed opportunity.

“Hi Frey.” Kiel chirped amiably.

“Oh, Hi Kiel! I haven’t seen much of you in a long time. How are you?” She walked over to him, all smiles.

“I’m better all the time… but I can’t stay and chat just now, sorry.” He excused himself with a gesture of apology and padded out the door without another moment’s hesitation. As the door closed on his shadow and the couple was left alone in the shop, Frey turned back and looked at Bado with a nervous expression.

“Yikes, d’you think he’s angry with me for dating you?” She ventured. Bado sighed, knowing there wasn’t a safe way of explaining what Kiel had divulged to him without potentially revealing some of his notions of the future to her prematurely.

“No.” He settled for this plain answer and hoped it would be enough. He couldn’t think how else to go about it.

“Heh, you sound pretty sure about that, but I guess you know him pretty well, and Forte too, huh?”

“Yeah. I’ve known them since I came to live in Selphia after I was dismissed.” He answered with what he feared was visible relief at the convenient excuse to avoid the subject of what Kiel had been saying to him just before she entered.

“Before their parent’s passed away?” She said softly, timidly…

“Yeah.” He sighed, a different apprehension creeping up from a part of himself he tried most hours of the day to ignore. He couldn’t fault Frey for being curious about his past, but he hated recalling most of it, so it was difficult to be obliging to her when she tested the water like this. Even so, he gritted his teeth and steeled himself to do as Gaius had insisted in his most recent letter and be open to her as much as he could bear to.

“You said before you looked after them while they grew up…” Frey ventured, looking expectantly at him for elaboration.

“Uh-huh. If you believe the paperwork, I was their legal guardian, or adoptive parent or whatever the law calls it.” She looked at him with widened eyes as he spoke. “But I was never their dad, even figuratively speaking… Those two took care of themselves and each other just fine and mostly I was just in the way or makin’ Forte angry when I tried to do anything fatherly. I’ve tried to be there for them but the truth is, they’ve never really needed me.” He smiled a helpless shrug of a smile.

“Does it bother you?” Her voice was very small, and she let her fingertips pluck absentmindedly at his shirt as she leaned on him while they spoke. He in turn let his arms rest around her waist as usual.

“Naw… There’s no way I coulda lived up to their dad anyway, so there’s no sense in bein’ hung up on it if they agree with me on that.” He brushed off the notion honestly. He had only registered himself as their guardian out of a sense of obligation and to keep them in proper standing with the kingdom so they would not be taken to an orphanage or some nonsense of that ilk.

“Do you… um, do you want to be a father, someday? Uh—not to those two… to your own kids, I mean.” She blinked rapidly and blushed as she hurried out the last bit of the query. He, still painfully in the mindset of his earlier contemplations, could not help but think of the question in the context of his fantasy of being permanently bound to her, which was to say, speculating on the possibility of having children with her. He felt himself turning crimson and abhorrently realized that his words were slipping off to desert him. Several heartbeats ticked by without his answer as he looked into her bright green eyes.

“I, uh…” He rasped hoarsely in his bewilderment and hopeful curiosity, “I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea… that is… I’d certainly consider… depending on circumstances…” He fumbled awkwardly, letting his words drift off into half-articulated mutterings.  Then a quick idea saved him and he opened his mouth again. “What about you? Do you want to be a mother?”

“Oh!” She said a little breathlessly in her surprise. “I, um… haven’t really given it much thought, but… I think so, yes… perhaps, anyway.” They both fell lamely short of a firm answer, but at least they were similarly unsure, he thought wryly.

This was getting too close to what was in his heart to feel like anything but a lie of omission. Bado shifted uncomfortably and seeing his uncertain expression, she looked concerned at him.

“What is it?” She asked softly. He swallowed the fear and butterflies in his stomach and resolved to try and hint at the subject in the most glancing way he could manage.

“Frey,” He began, nervously toying with the laces on the back of her dress. “I’m not really in the habit of thinking into the future, but… do you? I mean, Have you… thought about the future much?” he heard his own voice become timid in his turn. Something in her expression became pained and sorrowful. Immediately Bado rued having brought it up, though he had no idea why it had earned this reaction.

“I, uh… I haven’t thought about it too much, no…” She said somberly, looking away.

“Frey?” He made his voice as soft and quiet as possible and grasped her hands, entreating her for eye contact with a tilt of his head. “What’s wrong, pet?” She cringed for a moment or two and then sighed, making her face relax before finally turning her head to look into his eyes.

“It’s hard for me… to plan on the future… when I’ve already lost my past once.” She said quietly with an effort.

“Oh, Frey…” He breathed, his tone lamenting her pain earnestly. He drew her close and held her tenderly to him, stroking her hair and desperately trying to will his love into her heart in the hopes of undoing the sadness he saw in her. When he finally leaned back to look at her again, there were stripes of tears down her face, but she didn’t sob or sniffle. The hurt was deeper, older than that… “Are you afraid it will happen again?” She nodded slowly. His mouth tightened into a line and he bent his eyebrows with concern.

“It’s just… too scary to think ahead and hope for one thing or another when even what I have now might just drop out from under me one day and I’ll be alone, nameless, and lost again. I don’t want to forget everything that’s happened, the people I’ve met… and I especially don’t want to forget you.” She looked worriedly at him, as fragile as a dandelion puff, ready to come apart with no more than a breath.

“Frey…” He breathed her name again and cupped her face in his huge hands with the utmost delicacy. “No one can promise nothing bad will ever happen… But… Even if you do lose your memory again, and even if you forget me… I will still love you, and I will still be here for you.” As he finished this speech, she teared up again, this time with fresh, raw emotion, but not sadness now.

“Bado!” She threw her arms around him and held him tightly. He returned her embrace instantly, wrapping his arms around her tiny frame and holding her with a gentle but insistent grasp. He had no idea how many minutes passed, but he insisted to himself that he would hold her forever if it would banish that sorrow and make her smile again.

Finally, after the sun finished setting and the street lanterns began to burn the dark away in their round patches of yellow light she pulled back and looked up at him, calm once more and smiling gratefully.

“Bado…” She spoke his name softly and heavy with affection. He brushed a stray piece of hair from her face and left his hand at her cheek, stroking her slowly with his thumb as he gazed into her beautiful green eyes.

“Yes, love?”

“I hope…” She began and then broke off, swallowing and blinking as her eyes watered before bravely finishing: “I hope you are my future, Bado…” His heart swelled fit to burst in his chest. It wasn’t by any means a betrothal promise but still, to hear those words from her own lips…

“Frey, my darling little nymph,” He hummed, loving affection and elation giving his ears a pink blush as the words came, “I will be yours for as long as you want me.”

In his heart these words were the promise of a proposal… someday soon. For now though, they were merely an offer of himself, freely made and with no conditions, so ardently did he wish to place himself in her hands. Frey beamed at him, her smiling adoration a treasure beyond anything to his happy heart.

“Thank you my great big gentle dwarf.” She replied in kind. “I love you more than anything.”

“And I you, Frey.” He replied smiling at her words and at his own inner thoughts. Though perhaps she wouldn’t guess it just now, he was already bound by his love to her and her alone. He would never love another, not now that Frey held his heart.

 

Chapter Text

Frey woke before Bado, to her slight surprise. Usually he would silently slip out of bed to make breakfast or get ready to open the shop before her and she would wake sprawled across the bed alone, her limbs searching for him in her sleepy delirium. This particular morning, though, she could enjoy a rare treat: to watch him breathing and enjoy his peacefully sleeping face until he woke.

She watched his deep chest rise and fall, expanding with his slow, steady breath. His lips were parted slightly and the air slipped between them almost silently. A stifled laugh kindled in her throat as she looked at the chaotic mess of his dark, ruffled hair on the pillow.

‘Good thing he keeps it short.’ She mused, ‘I’d hate to see what that crazy hair would do if it were as long as mine.’

One of his big, squareish hands was resting on his chest, the arm thick and muscular all the way up to his broad shoulders. She admired him silently, savoring the view of his body, partly nude, where he had brushed off the blanket in the night, despite the oncoming chill of autumn. He was very warm when he slept and seldom wanted more than a light blanket, even that often becoming discarded before dawn.

Frey paused, ceasing her eyes’ hungry plying of her lover as they came to rest on a pale and slightly silvery line, winding partway around his bicep on the left arm. She reached out and traced it with a fingertip. A scar. Years old and almost invisible, she had never seen it before now. But then again, usually when he was bare for her it was in the middle of an amorous exchange of lips and tongues, or something even more intimate… So, she supposed, she could not quite be blamed for missing it before.  

The scar was long and jagged in places, surely dealt by a weapon, by the look of it. Combing over his exposed skin again, with more scrutiny this time, Frey noticed other scars similar to the first, though smaller and even fainter but not without that slightly silvery caste. Perhaps it was just a quirk of dwarfkind to bear them so much more subtly than did the skin of humans… Frey did not know.

As she stroked him softly over every place she found a pale remnant of injuries long since healed, Frey realized with a pang that these scars, numerous though they might be, were nothing to the pain that crept into his features on those rare occasions when he alluded to his participation in warfare on behalf of the Norad Knighthood. Clearly those hurts were far deeper and more severe to him, despite his usual resolve to pretend them away.

“I suppose you are wondering—“ she jumped with a start. “—what the story is behind each one…” Bado’s deep voice was quiet and gloomy. She hadn’t noticed when he had woke, but guessed he had been watching her through barely open eyes as she examined his old wounds. “…but I can’t remember most of them. I was asleep for years… the only way to get through it was to shut my heart away and go numbly forward, feeling as little as possible. So… the knighthood is mostly a blur to me, now.” He looked somberly up at her, expecting a question or a plea for more information, which he always gave a little, but rather reluctantly. Frey pushed her lips together. No. Not this morning. She would not ask him to relive anything right now.

She leaned over and laid herself on top of him, nuzzling his cheek and kissing him softly. He turned his face toward her and she pressed her mouth gently to his, caressing his jawline with her slender hands.

“No need to dwell on such things, now.” She mumbled into his mouth between kisses. “Just be here… with me.”

“I can handle that.” He murmured in reply, stroking her softly with his big hands as she continued her slow, tender kisses and caressing. His lips began to curve into a smile as she traced his short, pointed ears with her fingertips. They grew warm and flushed and began to twitch as she slipped her tongue into his mouth. Beneath her she felt him harden by degrees at her delicate attentions.

“Mmm” He hummed happily as she pressed her mouth more insistently onto his. She was smiling too now.

“That’s better.” She whispered after breaking the kiss for a moment to look into his eyes and enjoy the way they misted with desire and watch him blink slowly and reach for her lips with his once more. She teased him for just a moment more before giving her kisses unreservedly and savoring the heat and wetness of his mouth and tongue. A banging knock on the front door of the Meanderer disrupted them just as she was beginning to hum and whimper with desire, his hands squeezing her beneath her nightdress.

“I’m going to flatten him.” Bado growled darkly. Frey laughed good-humoredly though, apparently less perturbed at the disruption. It was morning, after all and getting later by the minute judging by the sun shafts creeping across the floor from the windows. At this hour it was only reasonable to expect others to be up and about and perhaps come a knocking, too. She supposed by ‘him’ he probably meant Doug, who had gotten it into his head recently that he should learn forging and make Forte a sword as a present. The lady knight’s eager suitor was officially her boyfriend for several weeks now, but he still fretted and fidgeted with worry over whether she was as interested in him as he hoped.

Doug, however, was worse than talentless at forging, and though Bado had given up the notion of teaching him anything after the third day, Doug would come back several times a week as soon as the store was open and plead for him to help again. It was through this comedic exchange that Frey eventually learned that Bado made all Forte’s armor and weapons, and though the armor itself had lasted years and years without so much as a piece needing replacement, the sword broke every couple weeks, almost like clockwork.

One afternoon, while Doug was sulking in the Meanderer, having been refused yet again by the blacksmith, Kiel had come by to ask Bado to make another claymore for Forte, as hers had once again broke during one of her marathon training stints.

“Venti told me you made a sword for her father than never broke, years ago. Why do you keep making flimsy ones now?” Frey had questioned him that evening.

“Cause having to wait for a new sword ensures that Forte has to take a break. She’ll work herself to death otherwise…” He had answered, grumbling, “makes a lot of unnecessary work for me, though…” but smirking in a knowing way even as he pulled an iron ingot out an tossed it into the forge to begin making who knows what number this sword would be. Frey smiled at him then and she smiled at him now too, treasuring the kindly generosity he showed his old friend’s orphaned children.

She hopped up off the bed, nimbly evading his grasping hands.

“No! It’s time to get up if you have people knocking on your door, you lazy thing.” She teased with a giggle, and tossed him a pair of pants and a shirt. She tied her hair up in twin pigtails as he dressed reluctantly.

“Better do something about this, though…” He mumbled. She turned around and laughed again. His pants were tented at the groin over the erection she had given him with her lusty attention. She covered her mouth as he frowned at her mirth. “Yeah yeah, laugh it up, but this is your doing you know.” He teased, smirking.

“What are you going to do about it? Do you want me to get the door?” She giggled again in spite of herself.

“Naw, I got it…” He muttered and walked over to the basin, lifting the ewer full of slightly chill water. It was still too soon for frost, but the early fall weather had made the ambient temperature very cool already. He pulled in an apprehensive breath and bent over the basin, pouring some of the cold water over his head and neck until his hair and beard were dripping and sodden and he let out his breath with a visible shiver. Frey winced at the extreme measure, and trotted across the floor with a towel to dry him off.

“Jeeze you are going to give yourself a chill and get sick! Next time just let me cover for you for a spell while you wait.” She tugged him down to her height and ruffled his hair vigorously under the towel to dry him. When he straightened up again, there was no more visible evidence of his arousal.

“Thanks, pet, but the fires you start are too hot to just wait out.” He smirked devilishly at her.

The pounding on the door returned, more insistent now.

“Alright, alright. I’m coming!” He called and pulled on the shirt she had thrown him earlier.

As he opened the door, he startled slightly, his voice faltering in the middle of calling a rebuke to Doug. Frey came out to the front room, having dressed, and grew surprised in turn as she saw it was Nancy at the door with a grave expression.

“There you are!” The nurse exhaled with relief as she saw the tall dwarf, who blinked stupidly at her a moment before regaining his voice.

“You need me for somethin’?” He said blankly.

“Yes. Please come with me.” Her tone was urgent. Bado glanced over at Frey who sprang over to the pair, making it plain she meant to come too and help however she could. As she looked up at Nancy with concern, the nurse turned to her and spoke again. “Yes, you had better come too. Your magic might be of help.” She said, and turned around and jogging down the street, lifting up her skirts as she went.

The blacksmith and the princess trotted after her, equally bewildered. Frey called out to her.

“What’s going on, Nancy?”

“There’s been an attack. A traveler is lying unconscious on the South trail, but he’s very big and we can’t move him without help. That’s what I need you for, Bado. We tried looking for Volcannon but it seems he’s gone on an errand for lady Ventuswill. Can you help us carry him?”

“Sure.” He huffed immediately. Frey ran along beside him with concern turning over in her mind. She and Forte had been through there just the previous evening there was no sign of any monster large or strong enough to bring down a man large enough that it called for Bado’s strength to move him.

“What got him?” She panted as they ran.

“We don’t know. There isn’t a mark on him anywhere.” Nancy gasped back, then turned right abruptly. “This way.” They ran along the path a little ways further before finally breaking into a clearing. Dolce and Jones were kneeling by the side of a prone figure sprawled upon the forest floor. He was indeed a sizable specimen, almost as large as Bado himself.  Frey looked over the unconscious figure. He looked ordinary enough, other than his size, of course.

“Did you find anything?” Nancy asked Jones as she hurried over to kneel by him. Jones was examining the traveler with meticulous attention to detail, turning his head by degrees and combing clumps of hair out of the way one at a time to look over the stranger’s entire skull for bruising.

“No. There’s no evidence of what has happened to him, whether a monster attack like we originally guessed, or some kind of medical emergency native to his own health issues. At this point, I have no explanation for what has rendered this man comatose. Either way, we should get him back to the clinic as soon as possible.” Jones looked up and saw Bado. He stiffened, visibly uncomfortable. It was no secret to them that Jones still carried distaste for Bado, harboring disain for his relationship to Frey and still considering it inappropriate for a man his age to be sexually intimate with a woman of her years, but it hadn’t stopped him from providing the Emorelli prescription dutifully every month, so Frey had no confrontations with him up to now.

“If you can help me get him up onto my back I can carry him to the clinic.” Bado said, betraying no hesitation or discomfort at working together with the doctor despite his low opinion of him.

“By yourself?” Dolce said, startled. Pico flickered into view beside her, looking up with the same worried expression in her large round eyes.

“Yeah, shouldn’t be too much, but I’ll not be able to run with him, so it will take a little longer to get back.”

“Wait.” Said Frey suddenly. They all turned to look at her. “I have a better plan. Bado, all you need to do is pick him up and hold him. I’ll gate the three of us back to the clinic with retornen. Then, if I’m not too spent I’ll come back and get you four.” She turned to the doctor and his family. “If I’m not back in five minutes, though, you should start walking back. Carrying others with Retornen takes a lot out of me.”

“Okay.” Jones said, nodding to her. Bado looked at her with concern in his eyes.

“It’s alright.” She reassured him, squeezing his hand and smiling. “One way shouldn’t be an issue, at the least.” He pressed her hand in return and nodded, but did not smile. Jones and Nancy hoisted the man’s shoulders to prop him up a little to make it easier for Bado to pick him up. The blacksmith stooped down low and maneuvered the man onto his back with his hands folded under the traveler behind him, his arms pinning the man’s legs to his sides. Frey and Dolce couldn’t help but stare, wide-eyed as he hoisted the man onto his shoulders and stood up. He showed no sign of significant strain, but moved stiffly to try and balance the dead weight of the man without letting him slip to one side or another.

“Jeeze! I’m glad he’s the gentle type!” Pico squeaked and then was hurriedly shushed by Dolce. Nancy gathered up the knapsack and a few stray belongings that had tumbled out when the traveler had hit the ground after whatever happened to him robbed him of his consciousness.

“Okay.” Frey said, taking a deep breath through her nose as she readied herself for the spell. She pressed her hands to Bado’s chest and gathered her rune energy. He looked steadily into her eyes with obvious tension in the lines of his face. “Don’t worry, love. I’ve got you.” She murmured quietly to him.

“It’s not me I’m worried about.” He muttered in reply. She said nothing, but took another deep breath and concentrated on visualizing the clinic and wrapping the spell’s energy around bado and the unconscious traveler as well as herself.

“RETURN!” She barked the spell and flared out her rune energy in a great burst. The yanking pull of the gate slipping between space wrenched her as the view of the Doctor and his family blurred to black.

 

Chapter Text

The sickening jolt of being jerked out of one location and flung through a dark void to a completely different place stunned Bado senseless for a breath. Just like the first time when she had magically sent them back from the briar to the Meanderer, it took a moment or two for him to make sense of his surroundings.

The sterile whiteness of the walls and drapes of the clinic came into focus and the heavy weight of the traveler on his back returned to him at once. It had worked. Then with a horrifying pang he saw Frey stagger, clutching at her chest. He dropped the unconscious man unceremoniously onto the clinic bed by his side, leaving him sprawled awkwardly with his legs hanging off the side and his feet haphazardly trailing on the ground.

Frey was wavering, off balance and making a strangled kind of moan. Her free hand searched about in an uncoordinated manner, groping for something to steady her, while the other gripped her clothing over her heart and clenched there, white-knuckled. Her eyes were shut tightly and her face was a grimace of pain.

“Frey!” He cried, horrified, and caught her in his arms just before she toppled over. She went limp in his hands and he dropped to his knees instantly to catch her falling weight, so small and slight in his great arms. His heart was pounding frantically and his mind reeled. She remained draped motionless over his hands for another breath or two before shuddering visibly and gasping a great breath of air as she woke again.

“Aagh GODS! My’ead feelslike issbeenhit by’a buffamoo!” She slurred, barely coherent and gasped another great breath of air as her hands clutched at her head now. His relief at seeing her wake immediately deserted Bado as he stared in terrible alarm at her sudden loss of faculties. She was still off balance, only upright still by virtue of his supporting hands holding her firmly.

“Easy! Take it easy, love.” He implored as she moved to try and stand. She got one wobbly leg under her and pushed up onto it before the knee buckled and she dropped ungracefully into his outstretched hands again. “No more of that, just lie still, okay?” He fretted as he laid her on the other clinic bed, panting and wincing as she covered her eyes with one hand.

“NNg! Th’light! It hurts!” She wailed, writhing a little and then curling into a ball on her side with her arms wrapped protectively over her head. Bado quickly doused the lantern and heard her exhale with palpable relief. He fumbled in the dim room back over to the beds, hoisting the travelers feet up onto the bed to avoid tripping on him before rushing to Frey’s side again. Despite it being midmorning, the clinic was as dark as if it were after sundown. The windows were shrouded to give privacy and peace to those who were unfortunate enough to have to endure an extended convalecense.

He waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark as he knelt by her, pressing a worried hand on her shoulder and leaning close to listen to her labored breathing. Gradually she sounded less frantic and pained. He ventured speech.

“Frey? What happened, love? Please tell me you’re okay…” He whispered, not entirely confident she could reply. It was merely a voicing of his desperation to know she was safe.

“I… I don’know” She groaned, cracking an eyelid to look at him in the gloom of the dark room. “There’s somethin’ wrongwith’im. No runes… empty…” He couldn’t make sense of it, but at least she could hear him and try to respond, even if her words were labored and distorted. He gathered one of her slender hands in one of his own and squeezed it gently, while still keeping his other pressed on her shoulder, feeling her heart pounding in her tiny frame through her clothing. “He… tookit… almost every’thin’ I’had left…” She struggled on with her disoriented speech. “OhBado…I’msotired…” She closed her eyes and panted wordlessly for several long moments.

He held her hand and gazed at her in worried attention for an unknown length of time. Gradually her breathing became soft and quiet and she began to squeeze his hand and stroke it with her thumb.

“I’m okay… I think. That was like nothing I’ve ever felt before… it was awful… but I feel alright. I’m not hurt, just very, very tired… and this headache…” She trailed off, sounding every bit as exhausted as if she had fought a pack of chimeras. Then she looked up at him again, fighting the fatigue to reassure him, “Don’t worry, Bado. I’m fine. I just need to rest.” She breathed. He stroked her head very gently and raised her hand to kiss it softly.

“Go to sleep then, and rest until you feel better. I’ll be right here, love.” He said quietly to her. She closed her eyes and was asleep almost instantly, her breathing slow and deep. She looked even peaceful. He sighed out a long weary breath, badly shaken and tired himself. He stood up and turned around. The traveler was still crumpled on the bed where Bado had dropped him. Now he arranged the stranger more comfortably on the clinic mattress. He certainly looked dead, pale and cold, but a faint heartbeat and the slightest breath issuing from his parted lips proved him living yet.

Aside from his height and bulk, the stranger was very plain, so much so Bado was not sure he would be able to remember what he looked like once he was out of his sight. He had short brown hair with no particular style, an ordinary, forgettable face framed by the ordinary round ears of a human, and threadbare clothing the color of ochre and sand. For all his unassuming mundane appearance, though, Bado looked on the unconscious figure with a suspicious dread. What had happened to this man? What was he afflicted with that had drained her so when Frey tried to gate him back here?

At first, Bado had wondered if she was merely not up to transporting two large men at once in addition to herself, but her labored explanation had indicated something more sinister. ‘No runes… empty’ she had said… Had this inert figure somehow cost more rune energy to gate than a waking body? He could not claim any acute understanding of Earthmate magic, so he resigned himself to waiting for further supposition from Frey herself. She alone could elaborate on what had transpired.

He sighed and sank to the floor by her bedside again. The clinic beds were, as he had discovered upon waking in one after he had worked himself into a faint, far too small for him even by himself, so there was no possibility of lying with her, cuddling her close for his own comfort as well as hers. He settled onto the floor by the head of her bed. The height of the mattress was agreeable to lean on with his arms folded. He rested his head on his arms and held her hand in his once more, staring softly at her face as she slept deep and dreamless. Suddenly he was aware of a potent fatigue of his own, pulling him down, down into sleep, regardless of his own wishes. His eyes closed once… twice… and then stayed closed.

 

Chapter Text

It couldn’t have been long before Jones and his family made it back to the clinic and the sound of their return began to stir Bado’s consciousness. He wanted to wake… meant to wake, but it was as if he were trapped under a thick, heavy shroud, unable to stir just yet. Nancy’s voice became audible first through the miasmic sleep that still clung to him. He still could not open his eyes or move yet, though.

“Oh my!” He heard her say as if very distant, “Look, Jones! I wonder if she was just too exhausted by gating all three of them?”

“I don’t think that’s all…” Dolce said suddenly, “Look at Bado… and why would they sleep here if she was merely tired? I think he would have taken her home. Something isn’t right.”

He strained mightily against the oppressive sleep, bending all of his will against the paralysis unti he felt his hand finally twitch and his face change into a strained expression.

‘Move! Damnit! Move!’ he shouted at himself in his mind. Every monumental effort produced only the slightest result, tiny little flickers that could easily be mistaken for the usual motions of a fretful sleeper.

“Bado? Bado! Wake up!” Nancy was calling him, shaking his shoulder. The sensation gave him an anchor to waking reality and he managed a small groan, twitching a couple more times before finally opening his eyes and feebly raising his head.

“Nancy…” He mumbled, barely audible, even to himself.

“What happened to you two? She gasped, and seized his face with her hands, tilting it up and pulling open one of his drooping eyelids with her thumb. He mustered his will and raised a hand to tug weakly at her hand. She did not release him just yet, but continued to ply him in her grip while her gaze became more and more worried. “Jones! Jones, look at him! His color is gone and he’s as weak as a child. He looks as though he ran here with ten men on his back!”

“Lay him out on the floor. We can’t move him any easier than the traveler but we can get bedding and try to make him comfortable where he is.

“They’re faded! Like the man! Bado’s just a little gone but Frey is almost as faint as that stranger!” Pico quailed in a shrill voice.”

“I’m… not…hurt.” Bado managed to say with a great effort. He looked up at Nancy and pulled her hands off of him successfully this time, a little of his strength and coherence returning.

“Be still, you. Lie down. There’s something strange going on and you’ve definitely caught a bit of it, yourself.” He let her push him down to the tile flooring onto a pillow hastily fetched by Dolce. Instead of fighting her insistent hands he focused on speaking a little more.

“Frey… She…” He began, every word a desperate struggle to articulate, but it was becoming easier, now. Bit by bit he was regaining himself.

“She’s right here. She’s asleep. Don’t worry, Bado. We’ll keep an eye on you both. Just take it easy.”

“She said… something about runes… empty… he took it all…” He mumbled, then vainly realized he wasn’t making any more sense than she had been.

“Jones. He’s saying something about the traveler did this to them. We had better quarantine him, just in case.” She said, turning to her husband.

“Ventuswill may be able to help.” Dolce ventured.

“Yeah! Ven will know what to do!” Pico echoed.

“Frey’s vitals are all present but not as strong as I’d like…” Jones was saying from the other side of Frey’s bed. “She won’t wake.”

“Dolce, you and Pico go tell Ventuswill what happened and see if you can find Volcannon. Maybe with his help we could bring them to her.” Bado heard Dolce leave the clinic and he looked up at Nancy, who was unbuckling his vest. “Jones, will you hand me that stethoscope?” she said. Another blurry moment passed and then her hand slid uner his shirt with the cold chestpiece of the stethoscope. He gasped weakly at the sensation and tried to keep his eyes open and looking up at the nurse, but his eyelids were so heavy… they kept closing in spite of him and he fought over and over again to open them.

“His heartbeat sounds okay, if a little slow and weak.” She said aside to Jones, who appeared beside her a minute later and began his own prodding examination of Bado’s eyes, mouth and pulse.

“He’s definitely better off than her… Symptoms just look like exhaustion. He looks just like that time Forte dragged him here back in spring. He’ll probably perk up after some rest.” Jones muttered, then turned back to Frey. “I don’t know enough about magic to say what has afflicted her as a result of gating that unconscious man with retournen. Hopefully lady Ventuswill will be able to hep us understand what on earth happened here.

“She blacked out… but just for a moment…” Bado tried speaking again and to his relief found it easier now. He seemed better able to keep conscious too. His body still felt weak and feeble, but at least his head was clearing up.

“What? Right when you got back here?” Nancy said, watching his face intently. He nodded slowly.

“She was… in pain… I caught her as she passed out. She came to in a minute though. She had a bad headache and the light hurt her… she was covering her eyes.” He paused and breathed deeply as a brief dizziness assailed his head, then continued as it subsided. “She felt a little better after a bit… she said she was just very tired and needed to rest… but she said she thought she was alright otherwise.” He finished all the information he could relay and blinked helplessly at Nancy.

“I understand.” She said kindly, and squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. “Just rest easy, Bado. We don’t know all the effects of whatever this is. You need to be careful not to overexert yourself.” He silently obeyed. She left for a moment or two and returned with a blanket which she draped over him.

Minutes ticked by as he listened to Jones and Nancy moving around the clinic, preparing a quarantine space for the unconscious traveler and speaking quietly to one another as they worked together on the task.

Bado clenched his hands into fists repeatedly, a little stronger and less faint each time. Gradually he shifted into a more upright position and from there eventually managed to sit up. He looked over the edge of the bed at Frey where she lay on her side. Her sound sleep would seem wholly innocent if it weren’t for the sudden agony and instability that had immediately preceded it.

His head was throbbing dimly too, now. It seemed whatever had afflicted her had indeed affected him too, but not nearly as severely. He was feeling more normal now, though, his faculties seeming to return more rapidly the longer he remained awake.

“Oh!” Nancy stopped as she walked by and saw him sitting up. She looked like she might reproach him but then stepped closer to inspect his face. “You look a little better, now. You’ve got a little color to you.” She pressed her palm to his forehead for a moment or two. “You don’t seem feverish, so that’s good.”

“I think I’m alright.” He said quietly, then added, “thanks.”  Suddenly the door of the clinic opened noisily and Bado heard Volcannon’s heavy footfalls enter from the other side of the curtains.

“In here.” Nancy called. A gloved hand drew the curtain aside and the tall, broad-chested butler appeared, staring down in shock at Bado and Frey where they lay.

“Good Lord!” He gasped. “Don’t worry, sir I will carry you both to Lady Ventuswill’s side and she will make you well again!”

“I think I can manage just by leaning on you, actually.” Bado said, struggling to his feet. He swayed a little and Volcannon caught his arm and steadied him. “Thanks.” He said, “But you should take Frey first.”

“I will take you both.” Volcannon insisted, and scooped the small, still form of of the princess up in his other arm, cradling her against his chest even as he ducked under Bado’s arm and held him up with his other gloved hand gripping his side. Bado felt the butler’s eyes on him as he stared worriedly at his little Nymph, so small and frail, lying unconscious in the grasp of the huge man. He thought he felt Volcannon’s grip on him tighten almost imperceptibly. “Come, let us go quickly.”

“Okay. Lead the way.” Bado said, mustering his reduced strength to take the wobbly steps he could manage even while letting Volcannon support a good portion of his weight. They plodded through the streets to the castle, the bright sunshine of midday confusing Bado slightly as they stepped outside. Had it really only been an hour or so since they had gated back to town? It felt like it should be late into the night... the long painful struggle to wake and regain mobility seemed like it took hours.

“I hope we are not going too quickly for you.” The butler said as Bado stumbled for a second time at the entrance to the castle courtyard.

“No… I’m fine.” He muttered, though his vision blurred. “Let’s just get her to Ventuswill…” Volcannon stared at him from the corners of his eyes and then nodded, walking steadily onward and lifting a little more of Bado’s weight off of his feet with the huge arm wrapped around his waist.

As they finally arrived at the gate, Clorica and Vishnal appeared and held open the huge door as Volcannon carried Frey and helped Bado limp along into the Great Dragon Hall. Ventuswill’s huge head loomed close as they stepped within her reach. She sniffed at Bado and pressed her snout against his chest briefly before turning to fret over Frey.

“Bring them here.” She ordered, gesturing with a wing to thesurface of the Dragon Alter. Volcannon helped Bado over to the raised step of the circular platform and let him down gently to his knees. The walk over had rendered him too weak to stand even to the wavering degree he had managed back at the clinic. Then he laid Frey down gently on the cool marble surface. Bado crept a little closer on his shakey limbs and caressed her cheek with a trembling hand, then reached up and brushed her hair out of her eyes very gently. He could feel Volcannon’s eyes on him again, but despite his gratitude for the butler’s help in bringing them here, he could not bring himself to care about the old man’s objections to his love for the princess.

Ventuswill’s head stooped low and she nudged Frey experimentally with her snout again.

“She’s had most of her rune energy pulled out of her.” The dragon rumbled. “And you’ve been drained of a good portion of yours too.” Her large dark eye turned to him as she spoke.

“How…” He croaked, once again fighting a little to remain fully coeherent.

“I’ll explain my theory in a moment. First things first.” She drew in a huge breath and pressed her nose against Bado’s chest, amost toppling him over where he sat. A tingling sensation stirred in his chest and he felt a curious sensation almost like plunging into water, but the water in this case was his liveliness returning all at once. He gasped. “Hmm.” The dragon rumbled, “Good, it seems to work just fine…” She turned to Frey and squinted. “She’ll be a little tougher though… Earthmates can hold much more rune energy…”

Bado panted a little and blinked. He was fully alert and felt alive again. His limbs were still a little shakey from the ordeal but none of the dragging, clawing fatigue still clung to him. He watched the dragon pull in another great draught of air and then press her nose to Frey’s chest where she lay. The air seemed to be charged with energy and after a few long suspenseful moments, Frey gasped and twisted in place on the floor but did not quite wake. Bado gathered her in his arms and cradled her as she stirred in her sleep, looking anxiously at her unconscious face.

“Oh…” She said faintly without opening her eyes then drifted off again, but ther breathing seemed easier and her face was more relaxed. Ventuswill rumbled with an approving tone then her great head sank to the ground and her own eyelids drooped. Bado looked from Frey to Ventuswill a couple of times, confused.

“It hasn’t afflicted you too, has it?” He asked hesitantly.

“No… but Frey has a pretty deep well of Rune energy, so it took a lot out of me to replenish her.” The dragon sighed. Bado reached out a hand and stroked the plumes on her neck.

“Thank you… Venti.” He tried out the nickname Frey always used… a little tentatively. Venti rumbled again affectionately, but did not object. The three of them were silent on the dragon alter for a few beats, then Venti roused herself again and looked at Volcannon.

“I think you should bring the traveler to me as soon as possible. For the safety of all our citizens, we need to identify what this is and whether it is a danger to others.” Then, after the butler nodded and walked briskly out the door, she turned back to Bado. “Take her to bed. She’ll be fine now but she’ll still need to sleep it off. I wasn’t able to fill her up all the way. Earthmates sure are odd for humans…” He nodded and lifted Frey in his arms as he stood up and began to walk toward her room. “Oh, and Bado…” Venti called after him so that he paused and looked back over his shoulder at her. “You may stay too, of course. Something tells me she will not like to wake without knowing what became of you.”

“Thanks. I appreciate the permission, but you would have had to chase me out if you didn’t want me to stay, after all.” He smiled at the huge feathered head and the dragon gave him an amused expression and a snort in return for his comment.

Passing into the east wing of the castle, Bado carried the slight weight of his little nymph with tender regard. He laid her gently on her bed, sat down beside her and stroked her hair softly. She looked so fragile and small in this moment, limp and pale in her exhaustion. His mouth tightened and he regretted having let her try retornen on himself and the traveler. Of course, there was no way he could have known this would be the result, but at the same time if he had just insisted on carrying the traveler back himself…

“I’d like a word with you.” A voice said, far from kindly tones, in the doorway. Bado looked up, a little startled, and saw Jones standing with his hands clasped behind his back, his expression resentful. Bado stood up and wordlessly gestured for the doctor to follow him to the next room, the castle workshop, so as to leave Frey her peaceful privacy in the room without whatever unpleasant conversation was about to take place.

“What can I do for ya, doc?” Bado tried to sound casual, but his back and his voice were stiff and apprehensive.

“You can reform your behavior and stop taking advantage of that young woman.” The doctor’s icy tone stabbed at Bado’s ears. He frowned and glared fiercely at Jones, his ears twitching with wrath and his metallic irises flashing.

“You don’t know shit, Jones.” He growled. The doctor’s face blanched in surprise. Bado certainly wasn’t known for being anything other than a mellow, lazy goof in Selphia and there wasn’t anyone left other than Venti who remembered the warrior version of him from years ago. That identity may have nearly smothered his soul to nothing and sank him into despair, but with his strength and stature and his hard metal glare he had often sent soldiers running on the battlefield without a fight. Jones certainly could not have expected to be face to face with this version of the tall, indolent dwarven blacksmith of Selphia. He quailed and even shifted his weight as if to take a step backward, but then caught himself and redoubled his efforts in spite of the ferocity of Bado’s affronted energy.

“You can’t possibly believe it right and proper for a forty year old man to be sexually intimate with a twenty year old!” He said with bitter insistence. Bado gritted his teeth behind tightly pressed lips.

“It’s pretty brazen of you to be judging other people’s relationships as wrong or improper when they are consententing adults.” He said coldly.

“Pretty thin justification.” Jones said, low and biting.

“Frey is of age.” Bado bit back, “Are you gonna go in there and tell her she doesn’t have the right to choose her own partner?”

“Are you really so convinced of this fantasy you’ve dilluded yourself with? She’s an amnesiac and about as naïve as they come. Even if she is an adult by years—which I’m far from convinced of, regardless of whatever you’ve talked yourself into believing—she is emotionally stunted. You’re just the scoundrel who used that to satisfy your selfish indulgence and steal a young woman’s virginity!”

Bado was seized by an impulse to strike the doctor, to his horror. He clenched his fists and turned his head to the side and waited for it to pass. A dozen or so scathing insults came to his mind but he kept his mouth pressed closed until he had control of himself again. Then a new inspiration took him.

“Jones…” He said quietly, “Why do you love Nancy?” The doctor was startled again.

“That has nothing to do with this.”

“It does.” Bado insisted calmly. “Did you marry her simply because she is close to your age?”

“I’m not talking about selecting because of age, but in spite of knowing that the age of her is innapropriate!”

“So, if you found out Nancy was actually twenty years younger than you… you’d leave her?” He pressed the doctor, watching his increasingly angry expression with a detached and vaguely amused curiosity.

“Of course not!” Jones’ face contorted with indignation.

“Then, wouldn’t you say her age isn’t as important as the fact that you love her?”

“It’s not as neat and easy as you think.” Jone’s said venomously, “What makes you think a girl her age with no experience of relationships is equipped to know the difference? How would she know if she loved you or not?”

“You don’t give her much credit…” Bado muttered disapprovingly. “And you don’t know either of us… at all.” Jones turned his head slightly, uncomprehending.

“What don’t I know?”

“Well, that I’m even more emotionally stunted than she is, for one thing… And I have just as little experience with having a relationship as she does.” He smiled slightly with a face both defiant and vulnerable. Jones blinked in surprise and looked suspiciously at him. “And by the way, I didn’t tell her to come to you for Emorelli tea. She’s taken a lot more initiative to start this relationship and with sexual intimacy than I had the guts to.” He threw the doctor’s stiff wording back at him. Jones’ mouth curved into an angry frown once more. “I may have more experience in bed, but I’d bet you my last coin that whether it were it me or someone else she’d fallen for she wouldn’t hesitate… and hasn’t.” he added, raising his eyebrows slightly in even more plain defiance.

“You...” He snarled. There was no mistaking the revulsion in his tone. Bado didn’t wait for another verbal lashing.

“I don’t need your approval and neither does she. I love her, Jones. I would never hurt her or do anything with her that she didn’t want me to. It’s not your relationship, it’s ours, so it really isn’t any of your business to dictate what we may do together.” Jones’ expression didn’t soften. He took a breath and opened his mouth to say something in reply but was interrupted by a strident exclamation.

What do you think you’re doing, riling up a patient after lady ventuswill went to such trouble to get him back on his feet?!” Nancy reprimanded her husband with bright eyes flashing. Jones wilted briefly at her chastising look but then steeled himself and stood his ground.

“Nancy, I’ve kept quite at your insistence for a while now but I can’t ignore such a blatant lack of moral principle indefinitely.” He said sternly.

“Jones—“ Nancy began firmly but then stopped short and gasped. “Frey, dear, what are you doing up?!” Behind Jones, Frey had tottered in from her bedroom and was leaning feebly on the doorframe. Bado looked over anxiously and immediately moved toward her. Jones stepped in front of him, blocking his path. “Jones!” Nancy scolded him, but he would not budge. Bado threw him an angry look and wavered briefly before deciding to put out a hand and push the smaller man aside out of his way, but he stopped as Jones turned around with an astonished look. Frey had stumbled forward and seized the back of his white coat.

“Moral principle…” She began, breathing a little heavily with the effort of walking in her fatigued state, “Is something mortals made up.” The doctor, the nurse, and the blacksmith stared at the little princess with wide eyes. Free of protest or resistance, she continued. “And… it’s different depending on which mortal you ask about it. There is no right and wrong with morality… only whether people agree or disagree with your ‘moral principle’… and you, doctor Jones, are in the minority here in Selphia. Most have accepted us already, so you don’t have the power to tell us we can’t be together on the basis of some moral high ground.”

“I—“ The doctor began in tones of protest, but faltered and fell silent almost immediately. Frey’s eyes had a shadow of weariness on them from the effects of her earlier ordeal, but they were also undeniably resolute. She was completely secure in her argument.

“Get out of the way, please. It’s time for him to come to bed.” She said, pushing him two steps to the side. She then reached out and grabbed Bado’s hand and pulled him toward the bedroom. He followed her tiny fingers tugging at him with wonder in his eyes. Suddenly his adorable little Nymph had transformed into a titan. She didn’t even bother trying to convince the doctor, but merely struck him down with her words with all the finality and inarguable resolve that could be possible for a mortal creature.

Frey turned and looked up at him once they were back in her room. She looked small and delicate now… his darling little Nymph again. Bado adored her for all her sweetness and innocence, but the power in her personality enriched his affection all the more. He was in awe of her.

“Bado?” She spoke his name softly, breaking the distant way he stared at her.

“Sorry, pet.” He said with a small smile that grew by the moment. “But you are really something, you know that?” She returned the smile.

“Yeah, I think I do… when you look at me like that.” She said softly.

 

Chapter Text

“Oh! S-sorry!” Vishnal gave a shrill, surprised exclamation that startled Bado awake. He sat up in confusion, toppling Frey from where she had been nestled against him over the edge of the tiny bed.

“Eeyaah!” She shrieked even as he caught her with one arm around her middle before she hit the floor. There the three were frozen for an awkward moment; the young butler, red in the face and spluttering with apology and embarrassment, the princess, dangling over the side of the bed in her nightgown with one of Bado’s big hands holding her a foot above the ground, her feet still tangled in the sheets upon the bed, and the oversized dwarf, shirtless and with dark ruffled hair all askew in every direction.

“Oh my! I apologize! I d-didn’t realize you were staying here, Bado, sir.” Bado looked around wordlessly. He was in Frey’s room in the castle. It took a heartbeat or two for him to remember what had transpired the day before, then with a start he hoisted Frey back onto the mattress and looked her over with a combination of concern and amusement.

“Sorry, love. Are you alright?”

“I need a bigger bed…” Frey groaned, then laughed at her own expense. The happy sound filled his heart to the brim. She sounded like her normal, chipper self. Bado did make her small bed appear comically undersized, his full height curled up on the surface of the mattress to avoid having his feet dangle over the end of the bedframe.

“Please let me see to the purchase and delivery of a new bed. It’s the least I can do!” Vishnal blurted out in a hurry, bowing.

“It’s okay, Vish.” Frey laughed. “Thanks for the wakeup call. I think he’s just not used to that, yet.” She smirked and pawed at Bado’s jawline where a tuft of his beard was sticking out at an unruly angle.

“Thank you, milady, but even so, I have more than one reason to want to do you both a kindness.” He straightened up and gave a meaningful glance to Bado, who recalled acutely the conversation with the butler wherein Vishnal had insisted Bado defend his good name from naysayers. Then he walked toward the door at a swift pace with crisp posture, still pink in the face.

“Vishnal!” Bado called after him. The Butler stopped short and turned, looking back at him. “There’s no need to call me ‘sir’… ‘kay?” He smiled mildly at the young man, still grateful for his words from before and wanting to put him at ease. Vishnal nodded with a smile.

“Yes, Bado.” And with that, he was gone out the door, apparently off to procure a bed.

Frey laid back and stretched mightily, reaching with her slender limbs as if she would grow taller by sheer force of will. Then she yawned.

“Wow, I feel like I slept for a week… but I’m still a bit tired.” She said groggily. An insistent growl suddenly emanated from her stomach. She blushed and laughed nervously. “And hungry, apparently.” She folded her hands over her middle. Bado chuckled affectionately.

“Well let’s go see about breakfast.” He nudged her from the bed up onto her feet before standing up and pulling on his black undershirt from the day before.

“We might have to make it ourselves.” Frey snickered. “What with Vishnal off on his mission.” She scrunched her nose in an adorable grin full of glee.

“That’s no problem!” He said happily, cracking his knuckles with an optimistic smile.

“Please, allow me.” A deep voice said magisterially. The couple looked up to see Volkanon standing in the doorway with a gracious smile. Bado’s eyebrows lifted in confusion. Sure, the old butler had helped them at the behest of the dragon, but he had not expected any voluntary support or niceties, given their past altercation.

“Volkanon?” Frey said uncertainly.

“What would you like?” He said, cheerfully insistent. The lovers looked at him tentatively for another breath before Frey piped up.

“Well, if you’re offering, how about French toast?”

“Splendid!” Volkanon roared, and from a pocket of his coat he produced a very ruffly white and pink apron and fastened it about his neck and waist. Then he turned and strode off toward the kitchen with his chest puffed out. Frey giggled and turned to hug Bado happily. He returned the gesture with evident affection, then the two of them followed after the butler.

As they passed through the dragon hall, Frey let out a gasp and ran forward, sliding to a stop on her knees on the dragon alter. Ventuswill was slumbering with her coils and wings arranged haphazardly and her great neck stretched out on the cool marble floor. If it weren’t for the steady rise and fall of her enormous ribcage, she would have looked dead to the world.

“Venti!” are you alright?! Frey cried, nudging the dragon’s head and stroking her plumes anxiously. The dragon rumbled and stirred, her large glossy eyes blinking open to look at the princess. She did not lift her head though.

“I’m fine, Frey. But there will not be a remedy for the stranger any time soon.”

“What happened?” Frey cried. Bado stepped forward and settled beside her to hear Venti’s explanation.

“I tried to give him some of my runes as I did for you two…” She murmured. The dragon version of murmuring still made the hall echo with her deep, resonating voice. “But he pulled more out of me than I meant to give and now he is still just as empty as when Volkanon brought him to me. I sent him back to the clinic for Jones and Nancy to look after him.”

“It happened to you, too?” the princess’s voice was hushed.

“Yes…” Venti said somewhat ominously. “I don’t know what has happened to that man, but whatever it was, the effect has not left him. For now he must be quarantined. If he survives long enough to wake, perhaps he can tell us what this is all about…”

If he survives?” Frey squeaked. “Do you think he’ll die?”

“It is not unlikely. Frankly, I’m surprised he is alive at all. I would expect being drained of all one’s rune energy to result in immediate death. I cannot account for his survival up to the present at all.”

“Is he human?” Bado asked suddenly. Frey and Venti looked up at him with a glimmer of understanding.

“I… thought so?” Frey ventured.                                      

“I had also assumed as much… He certainly carries no obvious signs of being elf or dwarfkind…” Venti said vaguely.

“I met a man in Sharance who was half monster, but he looked like an ordinary human until he transformed.” He said, his gaze distant as he remembered his conversation with Micah.

Micah had married a human woman… that was what he had said. Bado looked over at Frey as the thought returned again.

‘Forever… if possible…’ Gaius’ words echoed in his mind. Worry consumed him the day before when she collapsed. Admiration replaced it when she struck down Jones’ accusations, but even now her brush with whatever deadly force had stolen the stranger’s rune energy made him cringe inside when he looked on her; her slender neck, hardly bigger around than his wrist… her tiny hands, which he could fit both of in one of his own. She seemed so small and vulnerable now. The urge to protect and shield her from harm was so painfully strong… even if she wasn’t the type to ask for or want help often.  To wake with her every morning for the rest of her life… he would keep her safe. He had to. If she would agree to it, promising themselves to one another would be the best way. He would stand by her, wanting nothing but her love… forever.

“You think he is a half-monster?” Frey’s voice pulled him back to reality and he shook his head slightly and blinked.

“I, uh… well it’s possible… it might explain how he survived I guess?” He fumbled, pulling on his beard.

“Hmmm…” Venti rumbled. Frey was still looking up at Bado, who avoided her eyes for fear of blushing and stammering.

“Hey… You okay?” She ventured, touching his arm gently. He felt himself flush red, even though he was looking down still.

“Yeah…” He said somewhat hoarsely and then cleared his throat. “I’m… yeah, I’m fine.”

“Well, whether he is human or monster or other mortal creature, we won’t know anything more until he wakes, if he will oblige us enough to do so. You two better run along and have some of that breakfast I smell… Frey, I wish you had asked him for some pancakes instead of French toast…” She said with a wistful glance toward the dining room and kitchen. Frey chuckled.

“You’ll not be able to lift your butt off the ground if we let you eat pancakes every day, you great glutton!”

“Oh! And after I gave you so much of my rune energy to save you the trouble of having to sleep for a week to get it back on your own!” The dragon huffed indignantly.

“Hahaha!” Frey laughed merrily. Bado smiled at her cheerful face. “I’m just messing with you, you big lizard!” she teased. Venti swished her tail with a ‘hmph’ and then wilted again.

“Oh… I think I need to nap some more…” She sighed, and let her head down onto the stone again.

“Rest up, Venti.” Bado said in his warm deep voice. “Thanks for putting us back together.”

“You’re welcome… but take better care of yourselves, okay? I can’t always be gathering up the pieces every time you two get into trouble.”

“I’ll try to keep us in line, but you know how this one is…” He angled a thumb toward Frey, who looked playfully indignant.

They left the dragon dozing on her alter and went into the dining hall where Volkanon was just setting down a generous platter of French toast and bacon on the table.

“Please, enjoy.” The old butler said with an outstretched hand in a giving gesture.

“Uh—thanks.” Bado said awkwardly, still uncertain of the man.

“Thanks Volkanon.” Frey echoed. But the two still hesitated a moment to sit down. Volkanon looked at them and sighed.

“Please… sit. I have words for you both.” He said, pulling out chairs for them. They obliged him and sat down, waiting apprehensively as he went back to the other side of the table and took his own seat.

“I… Please allow me to give you my formal apology for my past behavior.” He said seriously. The lovers blinked at him in surprise in the silence that followed this unexpected gesture, and he took the opportunity to continue. “I have only ever wished to protect you, miss Frey… but I was mistaken in my judgment that you needed protecting from this man. I understood before that you cared for him, but I did not believe him worthy of your feelings until now. I have seen that he cares deeply for you first hand, since then, and I believe that he will protect you better than even I can.” He said solemnly to her, then turned to look at Bado, saying: “I am ashamed that I misjudged you, sir. If you can find it in your heart to see past it, I hope we may be friends.”

Volkanon stared into Bado’s blue-gray eyes with an anxious steadfastness. As he looked at the man with his brow furrowed with remorse, there was no question of holding his transgressions against him any longer. Forgiveness had always come easy to Bado, and now was no different than any time before. He would always rather let a grudge go and turn an enemy to a friend.

“Sure thing.” He said with a smile. “I forgive you, so don’t give it another thought, ‘kay?” Volkanon’s face relaxed into a smile of the most generous variety.

“Yeah, don’t worry about it anymore. We would much rather have you on our side than stay bitter about it, right?” Frey chimed, looking brightly at Bado as she finished.

“Right.” He concurred. The huge butler began to sniffle, and quickly blew his nose into a frilly handkerchief before wailing aloud his gratitude.

“You are both souls of purest platinum!” He shouted, tears streaming from his eyes. “I shall never forget your kindness and generosity!” Frey rolled her eyes and laughed in an exasperated manner.

“Sheesh! You don’t have to cry about it! Just act normal around us, will ya?” She balked, patting one of Volkanon’s gloved hands comfortingly. He sniffed again and composed himself.

“Well, thank you both from the bottom of my heart. I must attend to my other duties, but I promise you I will honor you both fully in all word and deed henceforth.” And with a final bow he turned and left with all his perfect posture intact.

“Man, I’d wear myself out in a heartbeat if I took everything so seriously.” Bado shook his head with a chuckle after the butler had passed out of earshot. Frey scrunched her nose again in her adorably affectionate way and tipped a few pieces of French toast from the platter onto his plate.

“He’s something alright, but I wouldn’t change him for the world, you know? And the same goes for you.” She blushed as he gave her a smirk feebly masking tender gratitude for the comment and refocused her gaze on her food. “Now let’s eat! I just realized I missed lunch and dinner sleeping all afternoon yesterday and I’m gonna shrivel up and blow away if I don’t make up for it now!”

 

Chapter Text

“So how do you like having a boyfriend?” Frey nudged Forte with her elbow as they walked along the southern trail on their evening patrol around the perimeter of Selphia. The chill morning air contrasted sharply with the blazing, fiery colors of the fall foliage all around them.

“I, uh…” Forte fumbled, blushing hotly. “I guess I like it well enough… Though it’s not as romantic as you made it sound at the slumber party back in spring.”

“No?” Frey raised her eyebrows. “Have you kissed him yet?” Her voice was full of mischief.

“N-no!” She stammered.

Really?” You’ve been an item for a few weeks now, yes?

“Well, yes but not everyone moves as quick as you, princess!” She said, looking like an indignant tomato by the shade of her cheeks.

“Hahaha! All I’m getting at is maybe that’s why it hasn’t been very exciting yet. When I told you guys about my relationship at the slumber party, we had already gone pretty far. Oh, but I guess you didn’t stay for that part, huh?”

“N-no, I d-didn’t.” Forte shook her head rapidly.

“Sorry.” Frey said with an apologetic laugh. “But you are not losing interest already, are you?”

“No… I wouldn’t say that, but It does seem like I must always be the one to decide everything, and there doesn’t seem to be anything he is prepared to teach me, though he is ready enough to strut around like he is my bodyguard, as if I needed such a thing.” Her temper simmered as she spoke.

“Maybe he is just a little intimidated? You have a pretty strong personality, you know.”

“I suppose… but it isn’t as though that wasn’t true already when he asked me out. Why would it bother him now?” Forte kicked a stone into the underbrush as she spoke. Frey made an exasperated noise.

“I dunno, Forte, but it seems to be a thing that happens with boyfriends. You should see how Bado frets if I come home with so much as a scratch or a hair out of place… like I’m made of glass or something…” She let her hands fall to her sides and shook her head a little.

“Doug is also prone to borrow trouble when it comes to my safety. It’s a shame those two are both so foolish..." Forte sighed.

“It is inconvenient, but I don’t think I’ll call it foolish…” Frey said, looking off to the side and recalling the painful memory of the fight with Bado when she had hunted the chimera. “I promised not to put myself at risk… I don’t want to make him sad.” She said softly, nearly forgetting altogether that Forte was listening.

“Frey…” She said, making the princess startle and look up with a deep blush. “You know Bado is kind of like a father to Kiel and I, right?”

“Oh, I uh… yeah. He told me about becoming your guardian.” She fidgeted nervously.

“So, I suppose you’ve probably known all along that this has been… a little strange for me.” Frey swallowed, her heart pounding. “It’s really weird… him dating someone my own age, and on top of that I don’t think he’s dated anyone for as long as I’ve been alive. I think I… I understand why some people aren’t okay with it… but as weird as it is… I think you two are meant for each other.” She smiled, blushing in her own turn.

“Forte…” Frey said, her throat clenched with emotion.

“In the beginning, I was mostly concerned about you and whether it was good for you to be in a relationship with him. I didn’t think about his feelings before. Bado may not have been the most involved guardian. I mean, he kinda let us run wild and learn our own lessons for the most part… but he was always looking out for us. I guess it never occurred to me to look out for him, too. He must have been lonely… all this time.” She looked down with a somber expression. “But… he’s different now, with you. He seems so much happier.” Her expression suddenly changed from wistful to a lighter, joyful look. “I’m sure you are exactly what each other needed, so please take good care of him, Frey. I’m counting on you.”

“I won’t let you down, Forte.” Frey returned brightly with tears in her eyes. “I promise to treasure him, so you don’t need to worry.”

“Thanks, Frey. I’m glad you came to this town, for all our sakes.” She grinned broadly.

“Me too.” Frey returned the smile. “I may not know what I was before or where I came from… but I’m very happy I’m here now. I don’t need to know anything from before.” Forte nodded, still smiling.

They continued walking a little ways, Frey still aglow with Forte’s words. Her friend’s opinion meant a lot to her, especially given the history Forte had with Bado. Nothing could have been quite as good an endorsement of her relationship than Forte’s blessing, so to hear her say they were meant for each other was all the more special.

She would keep her promise… she would take care of him. That tall, gentle dwarf with his lousy work ethic and his goofy sense of humor would never need to be lonely again as long as she was here. Frey felt her mouth curve into a sweet smile as she pictured him with his pointed ears and dark ruffled hair. Then his words came back to her: ‘I’ll be yours as long as you want me.’ She blinked and her lips parted in a silent realization.

‘As long as you want me’… his voice echoed in her mind.

‘He’ll never be lonely as long as I’m here.’ Her own thought from a moment ago came back as well.

‘As long as’… on these terms the two thoughts overlapped. Frey’s eyelashes fluttered and her heart jumped up in her chest.

‘How long is ‘as long as’?’ She asked herself in her mind, but knew the answer already.

“Frey…” Forte’s voice snapped her back to reality.

“Huh? What?” She blinked in confusion

“This place… it feels wrong.” The alarm in Forte’s voice shot up Frey’s spine like lighting. She looked around sharply at the quiet wood. Everything was still and silent.

“What is it?” She whispered.

“I don’t know…” Forte replied, her hand tightening on her sword. They stood stone still for a few moments. Nothing happened. There was nothing there, yet she sensed a palpable malice in the air, thick and stagnant, all about them. No breeze stirred the grass or the leaves, which hung slightly limp on the branches, and the silence, almost absolute save for their own breath and the clink and rustle of their clothing and weapons, was oppressive.

“Where are the monsters?” Frey whispered.

“Monsters?” Forte echoed, “What kind were you expecting?”

“I wasn’t… but… they should be here, somewhere. There are always monsters in the woods. Even if they don’t attack, even if we don’t see them, we should be able to feel life in here, their rune energy and their presence… but there’s, just nothing…” Frey looked all around the little clear patch along the trail by where they stood. Something about it was so familiar.

Suddenly her memory flashed the image of the traveler lying sprawled where now her eyes fell on a mat of flattened down grass just by the trail. She gasped quietly.

“What is it?” Forte pulled her sword partway out of its scabbard.

“This is where he was… the traveler who drains rune energy.” She hissed quietly.

“It is?”

“Yes. I recognize it now.”

“Do you think he made it this way?” Forte looked worried, but stern and tensed as always when she was prepared to fight.

“No… No, I think whatever did that to him… I think that is what made this place like this. Some of it must still be lingering.” A frozen, paralyzing fear was creeping inch by inch up her back. Frey had the distinct, unsettling feeling that a pair of cold, cruel eyes were on her. It wasn’t a normal presence, but a concentrated emptiness that constituted something like the impression of a living will, and it felt… hungry.

“We better get back to town and report this to Lady Ventuswill.” Forte said firmly. “She’ll want to know about this, and we should warn the townspeople not to come here, just in case.” Frey nodded silently, goose bumps forming over her arms and legs.

“Yeah, let’s go.” She said, after a trembling breath. They turned and walked briskly back along the trail, looking over their shoulders involuntarily every few steps. The silence of the small clearing seemed to reach after them and wrap around their feet. As they walked they both began to pant and stoop.

“What’s going on? I feel so tired, all of a sudden.” Forte gasped.

“It’s just like the traveler.” Frey breathed. “We need to get away from that place. Run!” She sprang forward and pushed Forte hard so she staggered alongside her as they pelted through the woods.

They ran and ran, tripping and stumbling in their fatigue. ‘Keep going. Keep running.’ Frey kept repeating in her mind until the familiar sounds of the forest were audible all around them. The birdsong, insect noise, and rustling of bushes and treetops were the most welcome sensation she’d ever hoped to have returned to her. They slowed and tumbled to the ground, panting breathlessly as they lay in the dirt and grass.

“What was that?!” Forte gasped.

“I—don’t—know!” Frey panted. “It was like it was cursed or something…” Then she heaved herself up onto her feet and reached down for Forte’s hand to pull her up, her own legs wobbling just as much as her friend’s did as she righted herself with Frey’s help. “C’mon! We have to get to town!” She insisted, pulling Forte by the hand as she began to run back to Selphia.

 

Chapter Text

Bado stared at the stranger, lying motionless as he always had, as far as he knew. He frowned. Curiosity burned in him, but more than that, he had to know what had happened so he could make sure it would not befall Frey again. Her abrupt collapse was still very vivid in his memory, though it had been three days since it actually happened. Today Frey was going on rounds with Forte outside of town again for the first time since then. It had taken longer than even Ventuswill anticipated for her to get her full strength and stamina back.

He winced as he remembered how she had swayed and clutched at the doorframes in the castle or at him as they walked around the quiet fields where she grew vegetables. She was attacked by fits of dizziness and weakness off and on up until last night. If he had his way, she would not be on patrol so soon, but at her insistence that she felt fine now and that she’d be safe with Forte, he had reluctantly dropped his opposition.

Now he frowned down at the stranger and his slow, shallow breathing. He hadn’t so much as snored since they had deposited him in the clinic, but he was undoubtedly still alive.

“I hope you aren’t thinking of smothering him?” Jones’ voice said sarcastically behind him.

Bado turned and blinked at the doctor, hoping he was not being at all serious.

“Sorry. Bad joke. But you were looking at him with a pretty dark expression.” The doctor said without warmth in his voice.

“It’s just… I just keep feeling like I’m forgettin’ something when I look at him.” Bado heard his own words as if they were a stranger’s. What could he possibly forget about a man he’d never met and never seen until he was found face down in the dirt South of Selphia?

“Do you think you might know what caused his illness?” Jones’ curiosity was overcoming his frigid disposition toward the blacksmith.

“I don’t think so… but there’s something… it reminds me of. I can’t think of it though. It might be nothing at all.” But he continued to stare at the man as if the motionless figure would somehow elucidate the mystery if he neglected to blink long enough.

“Well, if you do happen to remember something of use, be sure to tell me.” Jones said, resuming his aloof disregard for the tall dwarf.

“Yeah… will do.” Bado murmured, squinting at the prone figure once more before turning to leave the clinic. Just as he moved, however, a glint of blue hit his eye and he froze for a moment and looked back over at the stranger. “What’s that?” He heard himself say.

“What?” Jones replied. Bado walked over to the stranger and tugged a flap of his coat sideways. Something was shining with a thin blue light through the fabric of his shirt beneath the coat. “What are you doing?” Jones asked sternly. Bado ignored him, tugging a cord hung loosely around the stranger’s neck until a pendant bearing a luminous blue stone popped out of his shirt collar.

“So that’s it.” Bado murmured, turning the stone over with his fingertips.

“What is?” Jones asked, coming over and staring at the stone with alongside him.

“A rune crystal.” He lifted it a little and turned it this way and that on his palm with his thumb.

“Do you think this has anything to do with his condition?” The doctor said, staring at him.

“I think it’s the only reason he has survived up to now.” Bado said gravely.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean something happened to this guy that stole all his rune energy and it’s still affecting him, cause it took Frey and Ventuswill’s energy too. All that has saved him from being drained completely and dying is this stone. These have a hell of a lot of rune energy in them, so I’m guessing whatever it is that is messing with him is still feeding on this maybe…” He swallowed after he finished this speech. What kind of horrible thing would persistently drain rune energy until a person died?

“What happens when it runs out?” Jones said, his strained tone belying that he already knew the answer. Bado looked sideways at him with a grim expression. “I see…” The doctor replied.

“I should go tell Ventuswill about this.” Bado muttered and turned for the door.

“If you think of some way to help him, you will tell me immediately?” Jones called after him. Bado turned his head and looked back over his shoulder at the doctor.

“Of course.” He replied. What kind of heartless person did Jones take him for? There was no time to be offended though. He strode out into the residential district and speed walked toward the castle, turning it over in his mind again and again. What was he forgetting? Suddenly he heard a frantic patter of feet and panting and he turned his head sharply to look to the South end of the courtyard.

Frey was sprinting over the stones pell-mell, clutching Forte’s hand as she all but dragged the lady knight toward the castle.

“Frey? What’s wrong?” He called, springing forth to lope toward them. It took only a few of his great strides to reach the two exhausted women and they fell to their knees and gasped on the stones before him. “Hey! Easy! Take it easy. What happened to you two?” He heard his own voice ringing with alarm.

“The—woods!” Frey gasped. “Where—we—found—him!”

“Slow down, you aren’t making sense!” Bado gripped her shoulders to steady her. She looked about to collapse. Beside her, Forte’s arms shook violently and she slumped onto the stones on her side, gulping great breaths of air with her eyes closed.

“Pick her up! We need to hurry!” Frey panted, struggling to her feet. Bado looked at her anxiously. “Please!” She implored. Reluctantly, he let her shoulders go and she swayed on her feet but stayed upright. Gathering Forte in his arms he stood up and nearly dropped her when Frey again faltered. He was just barely able to catch Frey against his side with one arm without letting Forte slip completely from his other arm.

“Jeeze, you two are in rough shape!” He said in worried, exasperated tones. “Hold on to me for a second.” He ordered. She nodded, clinging to his clothing and leaning heavily on him while he hoisted Forte onto his shoulder and balanced her limp form with one arm. Then he wrapped the other around Frey’s waist and pulled her against his side. “C’mon. Let’s get you to Venti.”

They continued for the castle, Frey stumbling more and more along the way, until finally Bado fixed her with an anxious cringe and lifted her up and pinned her against the front of him with his free arm while he took the last few steps to the Dragon hall and into the great building, shoving the huge door open with an outstretched foot.

Venti, still not wholly recovered from the incident earlier that week, was resting on the cool marble still but not looking nearly as bedraggled as before. Her huge feathered head rose up anxiously when Bado entered, carrying the two women limply in his great arms.

“Put me down. Please. I need to talk to Venti.” Frey said faintly. Bado knelt down and laid Forte and Frey on the stone. Forte was unconscious, her breathing growing quieter but her eyes still closed. Frey was struggling on shaking limbs to prop herself up and address the dragon. “Venti…” She rasped. The dragon’s eyes hardened and she thrust her nose forward, lifting Frey up off her hands and tipping her back until she fell against Bado and he held her gently in his arms, looking down fretfully.

“Quiet you little troublemaker.” The dragon scorned her. “You are drained again!” She huffed and turned her serpentine neck to loom over Forte. The large wedge shaped head nudged the limp armored form of the knight. She did not stir. Bado gulped, holding Frey tightly to him despite her feeble protests and looking on Forte with dread in his heart. The still form of the wakeless sleeper in the clinic resurfaced in his mind, haunting him.

Ventuswill took a deep breath and pressed Forte’s body with her nose. The slightly shimmering air around her was all the visual evidence of her gift of runes until Forte groaned and stirred, still not waking.

“She’ll be fine. It was mild with her, like you. No direct contact with the source of this devilry. You on the other hand…” She turned back to Frey with furrowed brows. “Your well is too deep for me to refill like this every time.”

“Venti… the woods…” Frey’s voice was barely audible.

“Hush! Save your strength. It will be easier to revive you if you stay awake.” The dragon looked up at Bado with a serious air. “Take her to the fields outside. Find rune flowers. She has tended the land well and it will repay her in kind today.” Bado nodded and gathered her up again, cradling her against his chest protectively.

“What about Forte?” He said, hesitating.

“I’ll have Volcannon carry her to the clinic. Now hurry.” He nodded and jogged out the back gate with his precious Nymph limp and faded in his arms.

He didn’t have to go far to find the small blue flowers, slightly iridescent in the waning evening light.

“Here we are, pet. Just hang in there and stay awake, okay?” He said softly to her as he laid her down on the ground next to the spray of blue flowers sprouting in the field.

“Okay…” She breathed, her eyes barely open. Off to the left a healthy crop of eggplants were nearly mature. With her pale green hair and his predisposition to think of her as an adorable nymph, she looked perfectly suited to lie here amongst the plants and vegetables.

He pulled a pocket knife from a pouch in his vest and unfolded the blade, holding it close to the stems of the flowers as he gathered them in his other hand. Pressing the blade to the bunch he took a breath and cut the stems all in one stroke, letting the knife and the heads of the flowers drop and plucking up Frey’s hand from the ground.

Just where the stems had been cut a glimmering blue light, pure rune energy, was burning like a blue firefly in the gathering dusk. He drew her hand up and folded her fingers over the light, cupping the rune in her hand and looking hopefully at her face.

She drew a deep breath and her eyes opened. He breathed a sigh of relief.

“You have got to stop scaring me like this, love. My old heart isn’t gonna last at this rate.” He smiled at her, feeling his own features looking a bit pale and weary at all this recent stress.

“You’re not old, Bado.” She said quietly, reaching a hand up to touch his cheek, threading her fingers through the thick, short beard.

“No? But you’re gonna make me old if you keep doing this.” He pressed her hand with his. “C’mon. Let’s go find you some more rune flowers.” He lifted her in his arms again. She was still limp and weak but her eyes stayed open and she could speak softly without difficulty.

“I’m sorry… I really didn’t mean to.” She whispered. He looked down at her and his eyes burned.

“I know, Frey. I just… it hurts too much to see you like this.”

“I’m sorry…” She repeated softly. “I don’t want to make you sad.”

“It’s alright, pet.” He kissed her head. “Let’s just get you back on your feet for now, okay?” She nodded.

They made their way around the field to each cluster of rune flowers he could find. With each rune Frey regained some of her strength until she could stand and walk only leaning on him with an arm around her.

“I think I’m alright now. I’ll sleep off the rest.” She said quietly. “I really do need to talk to Venti though. I need to tell her what happened.” He nodded gravely and helped her walk back to the castle.

Ventuswill looked her up and down and nodded approvingly once before again gruffly chastising the princess.

“How do you keep managing to get yourself roughed up like this?”

“That’s what I was trying to tell you about, Venti.” Frey tried to sound exasperated but her fatigue ruined the effect. “Forte and I went back to the place where the traveler was found. The actual wood there is changed. It’s… wrong, somehow. We were drained just by being there.” Bado looked at her in horror. If that was true, then she and Forte could have easily been cursed by the same uncanny force that held the traveler captive in perpetual sleep. Ventuswill’s dark, glossy eyes narrowed at the princess.

“I see. You are not to return there under any circumstances. Understand?” She said in a firm, commanding tone. Frey nodded meekly.

“Ventuswill.” Bado called her attention quietly. The enormous head turned to him. “I know how the stranger has stayed alive. He is human, but he had a rune crystal on him in a pendant. The draining force is swallowing up his runes but the crystal is sustaining him so it can’t finish him off completely while the crystal is on him. I think he will die when the crystal is used up though…”

“I understand.” She rumbled. But beyond that she offered no further insight or speculation. “You two rest now. Take no further action in this matter without my say so. Behave yourselves and keep each other safe.” She turned to Frey. “Do not leave his side.” Then looked back at Bado. “And you must protect her. Trust your instincts. If anything strange turns up, take her and flee as fast as you can. This force is unknown to us but it is clear that it will kill if we let it. “

“Understood.” Bado answered, nearly saluting out of habit in response to the commanding tone.

“Good.” Now go to bed, you two. You need rest more than anything else at present.

Bado helped Frey walk to her bedroom and carefully relieved her of her field gear and helped her into a simple blue nightgown. He stripped himself down to his underwear while she waited for him, seated on the edge of the new, expansive bed Vishnal had acquired for them two days prior, just as he had promised. It was easily large enough to accommodate him comfortably, to his profound satisfaction, but it comically made his adorable little Frey look even more diminutive than usual. He put out the light and walked back to the bedside in the dark.

Her tiny hands sought him as soon as he was within reach, touching his skin delicately in a timid, somehow vulnerable way. He knelt down at the bedside so he was at eye level with her and grasped her hands. Her eyes were shining in the dim moonlight that came in by slivers through the high windows of the castle.

“Frey? What is it love?” He whispered.

“I… I don’t know what to do…” Her voice trembled. “I’ve never felt so helpless…” Tiny glimmers of reflected moonlight marked her tears as they fell from her eyes in the dark.

“Oh, Frey…” He wrapped his arms around her and held her tenderly to him. She curled up against him, cringing as she cried. After a few trembling sobs, she stilled again, breathing deeply as she clung to him.

“S-sorry…”

“Don’t be…” He breathed. “Some things are just bigger than us, love. There’s nothing wrong with having limits.”

“I… I w-wanted to protect this t-town… and you—” She choked. He hugged her gently again.

“We’ll protect each other, Frey. You can’t do it all on your own, no matter how feisty you are.” He kissed her head and stroked her hair softly. She pulled back and looked at him with those big green eyes watery and shining with tears.

“Bado…” She whispered. “Stay with me…”

“Always.” He breathed, resting his forehead against hers and cradling her face in his hands. She took another long, trembling breath and then her hands were caressing him and pulling him to her. She pressed her lips to his and whimpered plaintively. Moved by a desire as deep as anything to comfort her he kissed her again and again, whispering. “Always, love.” In between warm gentle presses of his lips.

“Bado…” She breathed his name again.

“I will always be here for you, Frey…” He said softly once more. She leaned back and laid down on the oversized bed, tugging him until he climbed onto it and lay curled around her protectively, his mouth pressed against her hair as she tucked her face and hands against his chest. He stroked her softly until she fell asleep and her breathing grew slow and deep. Only then did Bado allow himself to drift to sleep, wrapped about his darling nymph in a tender embrace for the entire night.

 

Chapter Text

Sleep released its hold on Frey only with great reluctance. She fought for every twitch and murmur as she clawed her way out of the dense fog of fatigue until finally Bado’s thumb caressing her cheek brought her back to the world enough to open her eyes a little.

“How ya feelin’?” he murmured. She stared at him through the persistent fog left over from sleep. Her voice wouldn’t come. He lay quietly and gazed at her, his face just a few inches away on the pillow. She tried to speak again and made a slight little sound, just forcing a little breath through her vocal cords. It was enough to break the spell, though, and she stirred and propped herself up on her elbows, taking a deep breath.

“I’m okay…” She whispered. “Just… feels… heavier than sleep.” He propped himself up too now and furrowed his brow slightly with concern.

“D’you want to sleep in some more?” He asked quietly, stroking her arm lightly. She shook her head.

“No… help me up? Please?” She breathed, closing her eyes to wait for a sudden mild dizziness to pass. Bado carefully extricated himself from the bedding and stood up. Turning around, he lifted her to an upright sitting position and paused to check and make sure she could stay sitting up on her own.  She breathed deeply and waited through another bought of vertigo. With the sudden shift of blood upon sitting up, her head felt like it was clearing up. She shook herself and stood up, swaying slightly but maintaining balance nevertheless.

“Are you sure you’re up to walking around just now?” Bado asked in worried tones.

“Yeah… I feel better, now. I was having a hard time waking up.” She said, stretching her arms high and rising up onto her toes. He chuckled softly while she yawned, then just as she finished her stretch he wrapped his arms around and lifted her off her feet, holding her against him and nuzzling her neck.

“You’re so cute.” He purred. She did not play at trying to escape his grasp this time, but instead leaned into his touch. All she wanted just now was more of him touching more of her. The comforting solid presence of him satisfied her better in this moment than food when she was hungry or sleep when she was tired.

“I love you…” She sighed, pressing her cheek to his and nuzzling his hair.

“I love you too, Frey.” He replied softly and hugged her to him a little more firmly before letting her down onto her feet and looking affectionately into her eyes as he brushed some of her wild hair out of her face. “Shall we get some breakfast?”

“Sure, but let’s check in with Venti first.” She replied and wrapped her small hand around three of his fingers as they walked toward the dragon hall together.

Ventuswill raised her head and reached for Frey as she approached. She prodded her with her nose and ‘hmm’ed in an ambiguous tone.

“How are you feeling this morning?” The dragon asked tentatively.

“I’m a bit worn out but otherwise doing well.” She replied in mild tones.

“I see. Well that is good.” She nodded, then turned her glossy eyes on Bado. “I have been thinking about what you said about the rune crystal pendant the stranger wears. I think it would be worthwhile to acquire some rune crystals to make talismans for the townspeople. I would not like to see the same fate befall anyone here in Selphia, but if the danger does show itself to one of our own, I would rather they survive by the grace of a rune crystal charm than risk the alternative.

“I know where rune crystals typically form out on the autumn road.” Frey volunteered.

“You are not well enough to go get them.” Ventuswill said with finality, eyeing her with a sidelong glare.

“What if Bado came too? I could just show him where they are and he could help gather them.” She offered, looking up at him hopefully. Bado’s expression was a little surprised and apprehensive.

“There may be monsters, and I do not like the notion of you fighting again before you are recovered.” The dragon rumbled. “I recall you have avoided fighting since I let you leave your title behind.” She addressed Bado. He swallowed, visibly uncomfortable.

“Yes, milady, that is true.” Frey blinked in surprise at his sudden relapse into formal honorific speech.

“So I suppose with her unable to fight and you unwilling, I cannot allow you two to venture into monster territory anyway.” Bado drew a deep, steadying breath.

“I am not unwilling.” He said resolutely. Frey stared at him as he continued to look steadily into Ventuswill’s dark, unreadable eyes.

“Oh?” The dragon voiced in a prying tone. “You would fight again if I sent you out there?”

“I will fight to protect Frey, should you see fit to send her outside of Selphia.” Bado corrected her.

“Hmmmm” Ventuswill rumbled again in her thoughtful way. “So that will keep your principle intact? Only fighting to protect those you love?”

“I hope so. But when we come right down to it… It just matters more to keep her safe is all.” He said calmly. Ventuswill nodded with a rumbling approval while Frey stared sidelong at her tall dwarf, blushing. It wasn’t that she wanted him to fight. She’d rather he never have to again if fighting would make him unhappy, but that he considered her safety a higher priority than his own objections to fighting struck her heart like an arrow. She swallowed.

“Well go on then. I think Volkanon has got breakfast going already. And you two had better come back in one piece and with all your rune energy intact or so help me I will lock you up to keep your reckless hindquarters safe!” Venti’s feathers rose as she spoke, giving her an inflated appearance for a moment.

“We’ll be good, right Frey?” Bado smiled. Frey nodded mutely, still blushing as she looked at him. His smile pulled a little wider on one side and he raised his eyebrows at her but did not pry.

“It’s a promise then.” Venti nodded and nudged Frey toward the kitchen. “Now go eat. You need to do everything you can to replenish your runes, I can still feel how empty you are, you know.”

“I’m fine! Really…” Frey piped, but tottered off toward the door looking back over her shoulder to see if Bado was coming just behind her. He followed closely with a searching expression as he looked at her. She smiled reassuringly and grabbed his hand as they walked to the dining hall together.

Breakfast was uneventful. Frey didn’t have much appetite, but ate mechanically until her plate was emptied to comply as promised with Venti’s orders. Clorica avoided looking at or speaking directly with Bado throughout the meal even while she served the two of them. Normally she wasn’t quite so bashful around him but normally he didn’t sleep with Frey at the castle, either.

‘Well, she might as well adapt to it…’ Frey thought with a smirk. She would have to remember to tell Vishnal how much she loved the gigantic bed he had picked out for the two of them.

Bado placidly ignored the lady butler’s aversiveness and thanked her politely for every favor throughout the meal. Frey smiled at his patience. She often thanked him silently in her heart for all the patience he had shown since they had become lovers. Frey knew she was hot headed, naïve, and stubborn and thus she also knew that it was largely thanks to this virtue of his that they got along so well. She reached over and wrapped her little hand around a couple of his fingers where they rested on the table and squeezed, smiling affectionately. He returned the smile and kissed the top of her head with a playful air.

“Should we get ready and go to Autumn Road now?” She asked after they had cleaned their hands and helped carry the dishes to the kitchen.

“I’d like to check in on Forte at the clinic before we leave town, but yeah we’d better get ready and go.” He replied. She nodded, brow furrowing with concern. Forte had fared worse than her in the woods where the strange presence drained them. Venti had revived her and she heard the lady knight was doing as well as could be expected, but she would still feel better having seen her improved condition herself, too.

They dressed with a slightly anxious hurry and walked silently to the clinic together. Jones greeted them stiffly at the door, as frigid as ever when it came to seeing the two of them together.

“How ya feelin’ Forte?” Bado called as they entered the clinic.

Forte looked up from where she lay in the clinic bed, oddly diminished looking without her armor on. Frey suddenly realized that outside of the slumber party at Meg’s and swimming at the lake in the summer, she had never seen Forte without her armor. She wore a faded blue t-shirt, loose and limp over her shoulders. Her lean, muscular arms looked uncharacteristically thin protruding from the large sleeves.

“Oh, hello Bado, Frey.” She smiled slightly to each of them in turn. “I am feeling better now, thank you. Jones and Nancy have forbade me from resuming my duties yet, though.” She looked over to where her armor was arranged neatly in the corner of the room with an expression between irritated and downcast.

“About time you had a few days off.” Bado replied defiantly to her complaint.

“Knights do not take days off.” Forte retorted.

“I know. It’s bullshit. That was one of the worst things about that gig.” Bado grumbled with his arms folded. Forte narrowed her eyes testily at him. “You need to take care of yourself, Forte.” He said more seriously. “You can’t protect the town if you run yourself into the ground.”

“He’s right Forte. I don’t like it either but I’m sure as hell not fit to go back on patrol yet. And we promised to only fight together, remember? Just wait a little while longer for me, okay?” Frey grasped one of Forte’s hands and squeezed it fondly. Forte’s expression relaxed a little.

“…Alright.” She relented. “I’ll try to rest up while I’m waiting for you.”

“Good girls.” Bado smiled approvingly at them both.

They talked quietly a little while longer to give Forte a little relief from the boredom of convalescing in the clinic. Books were stacked around the bedside table by her but she didn’t show much interest in them even when Bado inquired if Kiel had been the one to bring them all.

“Yes, it is very kind of him, but I do not share so much his… enthusiasm… for books.” She said evasively.

They told her briefly of their plan to gather rune crystals to help insure the safety of the townspeople and then bid her an affectionate farewell, promising to visit again later that evening or perhaps tomorrow.  Then they left, hand in hand and cheerfully ignoring Jones’ dark expression as they passed by him on their way out of the clinic.

 

Chapter Text

Frey noticed Bado walking with more spring in his step as they headed back through the residential district. He threaded his fingers between hers and smiled at her as they walked over the wide paving stones of the Selphian roads. As they neared the meanderer, he slowed.

“Better run over and check the mail since I haven’t been home in a few days.” He said. Frey nodded brightly. She had enjoyed immensely having him sleep over at the castle over the last few nights, especially now that they had a bigger bed, but she still missed the Meanderer, too.

He gathered the small handful of envelopes from the post box hanging next to the door.

“You wanna sleep here tonight?” She trilled, squeezing his hand. He looked up from the letters and smiled at her.

“What, you don’t wanna sleep in that nice big bed Vishnal went and found for us?” He smiled his one sided smile and looked at her with all the light-hearted affection in the world. Her heart fluttered. Never would she have guessed a year ago that she could find someone this large and masculine so adorable. Then another feeling surfaced and she blushed a little redder, but grinned with no small amount of cunning.

“The new bed is awesome, don’t get me wrong…” She followed him into the shop and up to the counter where he started turning the letters over and tossing the uninteresting ones onto the surface, likely to be forgotten. He had gotten better about mail since Gaius had begun a regular correspondence with them, but not much better. She drew close and wrapped her arms around him from behind, “I just thought we might like a little more privacy than we can get at the castle…” she said with a smooth tone, sliding her hands down and squeezing his groin through the fabric of his pants with a wicked grin he couldn’t see.

Bado tensed and dropped the remaining letters on the counter, drawing in a startled breath. She delighted in the sound as well as the immediate response of his manhood hardening under her hands. Finding the button and zipper quickly, she carefully drew out his considerable length and stroked it from base to tip. He trembled and drew in another breath with a hiss, immediately panting a little. She bit her lip, head foggy with desire and lips curled in a satisfied grin.

“F-Frey…” He gasped, breath catching as she rolled a finger over the tip catching the pearl of clear fluid and smoothing the slippery substance over the head. Then one of his large hands grasped her wrist, gently but insistently prying it away from his sex, twitching upright at attention from her touch. She stilled, the smile slipping off her face as she let him guide her hands away. “You need to take it easy, pet. I can’t let you get too rowdy.” He breathed with an effort, turning around to look at her directly. His face was flushed and his eyes were glazed but there was tension there too. It was obviously a struggle not to heed the pull of his own desire in the face of her eager attentions.

“I feel fine.” She insisted, “Besides… if anything, sex helps me get more rune energy back. I’ve felt it before.” He swallowed, wavering between insisting on his earlier point and giving in to her. She set her hands at his hips and pushed him gently backward until he bumped against the counter and leaned back, propping his hands on the surface. She insinuated her hands into the open fly of the pants and tugged downward, letting his member pop out of the last confines of the fabric and twitch in the chill open air before her. “Let me show you.” She purred in a liquid voice before bending down and slipping him right into her mouth.

“Aah!” He moaned, gripping the edge of the countertop with his huge hands and cringing at the sheer intensity of the feeling. “Fr—Frey!” He gasped again as she drew back and then insistently took more of him into her mouth, salivating in response to the smooth skin of his manhood sliding against her tongue and the inner walls of her cheeks. She could only fit about half of it in her mouth before it threatened to touch the back of her throat and gag her, but he didn’t seem to mind, by the way he trembled and gasped, openmouthed whenever she took him.

Now she pulled back and flicked her tongue over the rim of the head a few times and traced the line curiously around the circumference. “Hahhhhh!” He moaned again, his body tensing and trembling deliciously. She wrapped a hand around the shaft and licked the head up over the center, teasing the tip of her tongue into the slit at the crown of his sex.

“Aah! Frey!” He gave a somewhat frantic yelp of her name and gripped her shoulder with one large hand, pushing her backward a half step as he slid down to the floor, his back against the counter, panting. There he drooped, partly sprawled on the floor as he shook his head and shivered through the powerful pulsing arousal marked by the rhythmic twitching movements of his erection. She knelt to the floor and watched him wrestle to come back from the way she had so thoroughly undone him with giddy satisfaction.

Suddenly he raised his head and grabbed her jaw with an outstretched hand and tilted her head up to look into his eyes, burning with fevered desire. She blinked in surprise and gasped a little high pitched breath, turning a deep crimson at his intense expression.

“You are a terror, pet.” He panted with a lopsided grin. “But, I’m not beat yet—” Frey gasped as he practically lunged into a passionate kiss, rocking forward onto his hands and knees and toppling her backward onto the floor. He kissed her again and again, panting as he tilted his head in between each firm press of his mouth onto hers. Soon she was gasping and whimpering into his mouth with a fever running wild through her.

His energetic attentions seized her with an unshakable greed for him. A ravenous will, almost alien to her usual mind spurred her. She wanted him. All of him. Now.

“Bado!” She gasped. “I need you so much right now! She reached down and pulled the rim of her skirt up and revealed her underwear. She had already wetted the fabric over her pussy through in her arousal. He pulled them off of her as she lifted her pelvis up off the floor, her heels bracing on the stones. She spread her thighs and looked pleadingly up at him, here eyebrows inclined.

He paused, looming over her with his big hands flat on the stones on either side of her. His eyes were burning like hot embers and his breath trembled on its way in and out as he stared in her eyes hungrily. By now she recognized this look when she saw it and she knew what he wanted.

“Please!” She begged. “I want you inside me.” Her voice was almost all breath shearing its way out between her lips as she arched her back and pleaded for him. “I want you to fuck me until I can’t see straight!”

“Ah, Frey!” He cried, Dropping to his elbows and lavishing her throat with his tongue as he leaned forward and pushed inch by inch into her. She moaned long and plaintively with her mouth open and her eyes shut until his thighs pushed on hers and he was completely buried in her. “You’re so sexy, pet. You drive me crazy.” He breathed against her neck and began thrusting into her with evident pleasure, moaning low in his deep voice.

She was already on fire, savoring the delightful sensation of his thick, firm sex filling her up with each push of his hips. The loose hanging buckle of his belt clinked with every move. They were both obviously too eager and impatient to worry about removing all their clothing. She clutched at his sides and pulled her legs up tighter, tugging at him to press her down with more of his weight as she panted and mewled her rising anticipation.

“Aahhh Aah Ah!” She cried out with every thrust, curling her spine and tilting her head back, his heavy, voiced breathing like honey in her ears. She was getting close, the fire burning white hot in her as he pressed her rhythmically. She gripped him around his hips and pulled herself against him, whining shrilly as the cord pulled fit to break inside her.

“Ba—do—Ah! Ah AH AHH!” The sound of her own voice getting higher and more fevered redoubled Frey’s escalation and the cord snapped as she arched her back tightly on the next firm thrust. The lightning bolt of her orgasm struck forcefully and she stretched her jaw open as far as it would go, giving a volumious desperate cry and absolutely heedless of the risk of being overheard even through the heavy front door of the Meanderer.

She gasped and panted in helpless surrender to the repeated waves of frenzied pleasure. Once it subsided enough for her to crack an eyelid and look up at her lover, she whined again and stretched out her limbs until they shook visibly, to his grinning satisfaction.

“That sounded like you were having fun.” He purred, slowing down until he was merely leaning into her. “You want to keep going like this?” Most times since they had worked out that Frey could achieve multiple orgasms per session he went to persistent efforts to give her as many as she could handle and rarely had he finally removed himself from her without having heard her come at least three times before finishing, himself.

“I want you from behind next.” She breathed, eyes half open and mouth salivating still. She was right in the middle of the fever and still very hungry for him. His smile widened and his gaze fogged a little more with arousal.  

“As you wish, my pet.” He drew back and helped turn her over with his big, warm hands. She dropped her upper body down on her elbows and held her rear end up for him, looking back over her shoulder with a keen of anticipation while he teased her pussy a little with the tip of his member.

“Aahh! Please, Bado!” She cried. He ceased his teasing and pushed into her once more, the whole length of him gliding into her without pause. She cried out again with an open smile, heart pounding as she heard him moan with pleasure behind her and grip her hips in his large hands.

He moved slowly at first. She delighted in every long moment full of him sliding gradually inside her and then back out. The heavenly sensation of being penetrated by him who she loved most and who loved her beyond anything held her spellbound and speechless.

“Frey…” He breathed her name “I love you so…”

“I love you too, Bado.” She replied, eyes misted as she looked back over her shoulder at him again.  He smiled, that same tender expression she’d treasured every day since she first convinced him to be her lover regardless of his age or hers.

Suddenly, Frey was aware of a change in her appetite. Normally she was ravenous enough to chase down several orgasms while he thrust himself into her in whatever positon she asked for, but in this moment there was something else she wanted more. He was so attentive and so sweet, every time. His eagerness to please her melted her heart. Of course he knew she loved him. Scarcely an afternoon ever went by without them exchanging that three word spell with one another. But right now, all she wanted was to see and hear him come undone and lose himself with pleasure in her. That was how she wanted to give her love in this moment.

He was gradually picking up the pace, watching her closely for signs of pleasure or discomfort so he could adjust as necessary. Climax or no, it still felt wonderful to have him within her and Frey found it difficult to interrupt her own rhythmic heavy breathing in time with her lover’s thrusts to speak again.

“Aahhh… Bado…” She sighed halfway through a moan. “Go ahead…” His hands tightened briefly around her.

“Are you sure? You’re done already?” He said softly, slowing down again.

“Yes.” She hummed. “I want to hear you come inside me...” She smiled as she heard his breath stop for a beat.

“You… you are a terror…” He repeated his earlier words, this time choking slightly around what sounded like a combination of fevered desire and powerful emotion. She laughed softly and smiled at him once more, sticking her tongue out in playful defiance even as she felt him still as deep inside her as her body would allow, just enough to admit his entire girth and length by some curious providence.  He ‘Hm’ed a short chuckle in reply and then squeezed her hips in his hands once more.

“Alright, you sexy little devil.” He grinned. “But I better hear you enjoy it too, or I won’t give you the satisfaction of hearing me out loud. Fair’s fair.” And with that he began to move again. Frey’s eyelids fluttered and she sighed happily. His breathing grew louder and soon both of them were moaning audibly as he pushed into her over and over. He upped the tempo by degrees, squeezing her as she shrilled her pleasure in time with his thrusts.

She felt his thighs spread wider and his body tense and abruptly he lifted her backside up with one big hand and wrapped the other around her from under her left breast up over her right shoulder. He leaned forward and pressed his nose and mouth against the back of her neck. Every thrust was angled downward into her now as he moaned into her hair and she relished the pressure of him pinning her upper body down with his and the impact of his hips against her butt as he grew faster and more fevered. Her high pitched yelps and shrill gasps of breath drove him over the edge and he let his voice run wild as he came.

“Nnng… Mmmm… aaahhh…Aahh… Aah! AAH! FREY!…nnnggggAHHhhhhh!” The whole length of his great height curled around her and trembled intensely as his orgasm triggered shockwaves of pleasure marked by his continued exhausted moans. “Ohhh… Aahhhh… F-Frey… aaahhhh… mmmm.” As his body relaxed and drooped around her he slid partway out of her so that Frey felt his cum running out and over her pussy and falling from her in hot slippery drips below. She bit her lip and grinned again, listening to him breathe through the aftermath of his climax.

After another few moments of his hot breath on her as he panted, he kissed her neck and hair and pulled out of her the rest of the way before rolling her over with one hand and kissing her lips passionately, humming happily into her mouth as she tasted his tongue with hers.

He ended the kiss slowly and smiled against her lips before resting his forehead against hers and looking with an immensely pleased expression into her eyes.

“Frey… Do you know how unbelievably wonderful it is to love you?” He sighed.

“If it’s anything like how incredibly good it feels to love you, then yeah, I have a notion.” She smirked. He laughed with tired exhalations and kissed her a few more times.

“Wanna lounge in bed and read Gaius’ letter together?” She asked cheerfully, pointing up at the plain envelope addressed in dwarf letters where it lay temporarily forgotten on the countertop.

“Heheh, yeah the floor’s only as comfortable as we are drunk with it all, huh?” He stood up and pulled her to her feet with an outstretched hand. She stooped to pluck up her underwear from the floor and accepted a washrag from him to clean herself up after their frenzied lovemaking. He did the same, tucking himself back into his pants and rebuttoning them before stooping to mop up what had slipped out of her onto the floor earlier.

They padded hand in hand to his bed and snuggled close together as he carefully sliced open the envelope with a letter opener and unfolded the fibrous paper to read what his cousin had written.

“Dear Bado and Frey,” He began,

“I hope you are both well and keeping out of trouble. I have some great news to tell you two. Evelyn and I are officially a couple! It took some help from Micah to get us on the same page (seems like we both need some practice at communicating clearly) but she happily accepted my feelings and returned them. I feel like the luckiest, happiest guy in Sharance. (I would say in all of Norad if I weren’t already aware of how much better off my cousin has been since you came into his life, Frey)

And as for you, Lover Boy, I may be in need of your advice when Evelyn and I get around to doing more than kissing. I don’t have the benefit of the experience you got when you ran off and became a legendary knight/tramp. (Hahaha)

Yours affectionately,

-Gaius”

Frey giggled at his expense as he finished.

“Sheesh, what a way to ask a favor.” Bado grumbled with a sideways smirk. “Oh, wait there’s a post script…”

“When would be a good time for me to come for a visit so you can tell me all your tricks? Or maybe you’d just rather show me? XOXO –Gaius”

Frey clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle her laugh.

“Divine dragons help us…” Bado groaned, shaking his head.

“He doesn’t really want to watch us, does he?” Frey chuckled nervously.

“Naw, he’s just being his odd self and trying to make us blush. He’s always liked putting people off balance by saying weird stuff like that. But I’ll bet he really does expect some advice.”

“He said something about you being pretty popular when you were a knight…” She skirted around actually asking the question in her mind. Bado raised his eyebrows as he looked at her apprehensively.

“I, uh… yeah I—I guess you could say that…” He muttered indistinctly. She blinked at him with tentative expectancy. He winced and then sighed. “You really wanna hear about this?” His tone was rife with reluctance.

“I want to know everything about you, silly.” She smirked, then looked down. “But… I won’t ever try and make you talk about anything you don’t want to…” Bado fidgeted with his beard and turned the letter over in his other hand, saying nothing for a time. Finally, he sighed again and looked at her with a heavy internal struggle in his eyes.

“Frey… The reason I don’t want to… I mean I don’t like to talk about that is because… I… I’m not that guy anymore. What I was doing back then… I’m kind of ashamed of it now.” Frey felt her eyes widen a little as she stared at him. His face became startled in turn, bordering on mortified. “Uh, it wasn’t—that is, I wasn’t doing… ah, jeeze. I’ve already messed this up.” He ran his fingers through his hair in a pained, exasperated way, cringing.

“Maybe you should just tell me what you were doing, to start with?” She offered. He drooped, submitting to her request with chagrin.

“Alright, alright… I just hope you’ll still like me once I explain… I was uh… I was a bit of a lech… back then.” She stared blankly in confusion. “Promiscuous… I was very promiscuous… when I was a knight.” He clarified.

“Is that where you learned it all?” She smirked mischievously.

“Heh. Uh, yeah…. but it wasn’t a very good way of doing it.”

“Being promiscuous is bad, then?” She asked quietly.

“Well… not necessarily… not on its own. As long as it’s mutual and people treat each other with care and respect I think it’s probably okay for people who want to have a lifestyle like that.”

“Then why are you ashamed of it?”

“Because… well, because I was… just… running, I suppose.”

“Running?”

“Yeah… Sex was… just a convenient escape I suppose. I really didn’t like my life and, well, it felt good and made me forget my troubles for a little while. So, I did it as often as I could find someone who wanted to do it with me, which was pretty often once I got a bit famous…” He pulled at his beard anxiously.

“So using sex as an escape is what was bad?” She asked, trying to understand and willing herself not to judge him, regardless of the answer.

“Well… escaping in general rather than dealing with your issues isn’t really good… but I think what was bad about it was that I was using the women I slept with without really thinking or caring about them. I was always looking for someone else to help me forget… to help me escape, but I wasn’t interested in them as people… not as friends… not as lovers in the sense that you and I are… just… another temporary fix. That’s all any of them were to me. And what’s worse, even though some of them were just interested in one night stands, others actually did like me and wanted to be lovers… and I knew it. I slept with them knowing it was just another moment of forgetfulness for me, but to them it meant something else… something more. Even though I never lied with words… I know my actions were lies in their own way. Back then I never hesitated to use any woman who’d let me for my own gratification.” Frey stared at him, blinking slowly as she carefully thought over his words.

She hated to think of him behaving in a way she knew to be wrong or unkind, but even as part of her mind feebly tried to refute it, she knew it was pure willful denial to think that he was perfect, after all. No one was perfect…

“I know it’s not pleasant to hear, but I promise it’s worse to remember it all first-hand… how I made that same mistake over and over again. I’m sorry to tell have to tell you all this, darling. I’m sorry I was ever so foolish as to have done it in the first place. I regret it completely… every day.” He looked down miserably, letting his hands lie still in his lap. Frey looked at him thoughtfully a moment, took a slow, deep breath, and laid her hand on his. As he looked up she met his eyes, leaned in, and kissed him once.

“I don’t regret it.” She said softly. His face assumed a look of mild astonishment.

“You sure you heard me?” He raised an eyebrow. She let a slight smile pull her lips.

“I’m not saying it was good… but it sounds like you understand plenty well why it wasn’t okay to do… And you wouldn’t treat me that way—”

“No! Never!” He insisted, squeezing her hands and shaking his head with an anxious air.

“I know…” She smiled reassuringly at him. “So you’re sorry and you’ve learned better. It’s time to forgive yourself, love.” He blinked at her.

“Just like that, huh?”

“Well, why not? I forgive you, and I just found out about it. You’ve had plenty of time punishing yourself. It’s time to be done.”

“Frankly, pet, I’m just kinda shocked about the fact that you’re forgiving me so easily.”

“Everybody makes mistakes, Bado. You remember how easily you forgave Volkanon when he said he was sorry? You just have to do that for yourself too. And besides, it’s not like I haven’t benefitted, both in terms of how well you know how to please me and in that I never lost you to any of those women before I ever met you.” She smirked at him full of wiles and whimsy. He smiled and sighed.

“Frey, my dear… I am forever in awe of you.” He said fondly, squeezing her hands again. “There was a time when folks thought I could do anything, including win any fight, but you… you do the things I can’t all the time… and what’s more… you teach me how to do them too. I love you so much, pet. I hope you know that every minute of every day.” He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her with all the sweetness and gentle warmth she had come to treasure in him since that spring full of unexpected events and feelings just a few months prior.

“I do, love… I know.” She hugged him back, overflowing with affection. As he loosened his arms around her to look into her eyes again, she guided his face to hers with her slender fingertips along his jaw and kissed him soft and sweet.

“Good… But I’m still gonna tell you again and again, just to make sure.” He smiled against her lips before kissing her once more and then leaning back, just gazing at her with that smile still wrapped around his face.

“You had better make sure to tell Gaius about all this kind of stuff as well as the saucy details he’s sure to ask about.” She winked at him. “It wouldn’t be very kind to not let him in on knowing the best part of a great relationship, after all.” He chuckled.

 “Don’t worry, I won’t let him leave until he gets the whole picture. It’s about time I was able to give him advice anyway… Actually I’d better wait and write him back once all this craziness with the rune draining thing is over with.” His eyes took on a tinge of worry as he returned to the subject of their current situation.

“Yeah…” Frey sighed as she too was reminded of the unresolved threat.

“Come on, pet. Let’s grab some lunch and then get a move on to the Autumn Road. We don’t want to wait too long. Days are gettin’ shorter and all…”

“Yeah...” She said softly. They rose and left the letter on his bedside table as they left the comfortable quiet of the Meanderer and went back out into the world.

 

Chapter Text

The Autumn Road path was overgrown like a field of fire with its bright red and orange foliage. The intensity of the warm colors dazzled Bado’s eyes a little as they came across the bridge over the ravine. He blinked and rubbed at them.

“Sheesh. At least the rune crystals will stand out plenty visible against all this.” He muttered. Then he turned back to look at Frey over his shoulder as she disentangled her hair with a bit of brush that had snagged it. “Still feeling up for this? I don’t want you to push yourself.” He said firmly.

“I’m fine.” She said placidly and walked up beside him. “I’ll just stick close to you and hopefully nothing will feel confident enough to attack such a gigantic dwarf anyway.” She scrunched her nose affectionately at him. He sighed through his nose with a smile, hoping once more in his heart that she’d be so inclined to stand by him like this indefinitely.

They walked along the path side by side, the woods perfectly peaceful with birdsong and buzzing insects all around. Once or twice a monster was stirred up by their footsteps and went darting away under the brush with a rustle of leaves, but nothing sprang out to attack them. Bado never had been likely to be attacked by any but the most savage monsters. Frey wasn’t mistaken when she supposed his size would frighten off most local fauna. And on top of that, He wore a real sword on his back for the first time in nearly twenty years.

He had expected it to rekindle his old anxieties with all the harshness of the blood-and-steel nightmares that occasionally came back to haunt him, but to his surprise he was remarkably calm on the matter. Perhaps it was because he had resolved only to draw his sword in her defense. Maybe Venti was on to something: this was a principle he could fight for, if he had to.

He glanced over at her every couple minutes. Despite her light assurances she looked tense and kept glancing this way and that with a poised, expectant posture. He set his jaw. Always he admired her strength and independent spirit, but all the same he knew he had to keep an eye on her to prevent her from exceeding what she could handle. Her expectations of herself didn’t seem to gel with reality all the time. He was learning gradually that she didn’t mean to be so frustratingly reckless, but just didn’t understand her own limits as a mortal being very well.

“What is it, Frey?” He asked finally, stopping and turning to look solemnly at her.

“What? Oh… nothing.” She mumbled, looking off to the side. He turned to face her more directly and stared firmly at her with a slight frown, saying nothing. She squirmed a little under his unblinking gaze and relented. “I’m just trying to feel for that weird presence… just in case. If I feel it, we need to run away as fast as we can, okay?” He raised his brow in surprise. This was the first time he’d seen her show fear rather than impetuous overconfidence in the face of a possible threat.

“You think it’s a monster? …that it might show up here?” He said warily.

“I don’t know… At the time I thought the forest itself was corrupted but at the same time it was like… a conscious kind of malice… a will that meant to kill. I don’t think the forest itself could ever acquire that.” She said, fidgeting nervously with the red Force Divide on her right hip. His eyes hardened as he looked at her.

“You didn’t tell me before…” He said, low. She cringed apologetically and shook her head.

“I wasn’t trying to hide it! I just… I’m not really all that sure… I could have just scared myself into thinking all that. I’ve… I’ve never been so shaken up like this before…” She looked up at him with a fragile expression with a hint of panic underneath. A powerful ache throbbed in his chest. He gripped her shoulders and knelt down in front of her, looking with determined intensity into her eyes.

“Frey…” He began slowly in his deep-timbered voice. “There are things in this world that are beyond our control or our strength to fight, but you never ever need to fear facing anything alone as long as you have me. I promise I will lay down my life to protect you, whatever may come.” Her expression grew tearful as she stared at him, unblinking and digested his words. He pulled her close and hugged her gently. “I will always be here for you, Frey. My life is yours.” He felt her tremble in his arms as he held her.

“You d-dummy….” She choked. “Like I’d ever let you die for me!” She drew back and looked sternly through her tears at him. “I’ll protect you, too. Neither of us is going down, no matter what comes at us!” He smiled softly at her, his own eyes stinging at her stubborn optimism as well as her insistent reciprocation.

“As you say, love.” He murmured, and kissed her sweetly. She returned it and wiped her eyes on the back of her gloved hand.

“C’mon we better hurry and find these crystals before it gets dark.” She mumbled. They walked hand in hand along the quiet path without incident. Eventually Frey tugged his arm and led them off on a smaller, slightly overgrown trail which let out into a little clearing dazzlingly full of blue crystalline structures of all sizes. Bado whistled in wonder at the array.

“Damn… This is quite the trove.” He mused.

“Do you think there will be enough for everyone in town?”

“Maybe… We’ll have to harvest them carefully though. Only really concentrated pieces retain the kind of energy that the traveler’s charm has. We should try not to break the ones that aren’t ready, that way they don’t have to grow back from scratch.” She looked up curiously at him.

“How can you tell which ones are ready?”

“Well it’s not easy…” He laughed nervously, “I’m probably gonna mess it up, at least at first, but I’ll do my best.”

The nearest cluster of crystals was growing low to the ground and glowing softly in the late afternoon light. He stooped and unhooked his hammer from the wide belt around his waist, then took out a narrow object very much like a tuning fork but with a long, thin shard of blueish metal mounted between the two prongs on tiny branching wires. He held it in front of him and struck the instrument on the head of the dwarven hammer and then set the humming metal stem against a piece of the crystal cluster.

“What’s that?” Frey asked curiously over his shoulder.

“It’s called a rune seeker.” He explained. “The idea is that this rune-heavy alloy in the middle will react to strong concentrations of rune energy and resonate, making a certain sound and a little light. In theory, it’ll tell us which crystals have dense enough concentrations that we might find a crystal with some persistence if we break this open. …But I’ve never made one of these before today, so I don’t know how well it’s gonna work.”

“Well, what’s the worst that can happen if it doesn’t work?”

“We trust to dumb luck and guess, I suppose?” He shrugged.

“That’s not so bad. I have excellent luck.” She said brightly.

“Your recent clinic record kinda makes that statement hard to believe, pet.” He teased, striking the rune seeker again and grounding it on a different patch of crystals. It hummed feebly for a heartbeat or two and went quiet again.

“That had nothing to do with luck.” She countered with a playful huff. He squinted at the seeker and struck it a third time, this time propping it against a very small, half buried crystal next to Frey’s foot. The metal shard suddenly burned brightly and hummed a tone that grew higher and higher as his and Frey’s expressions turned to surprise. Then it cracked and went silent as chips of it fell from the main body of the shard.

“Oh no!” Frey gasped.

“Huh…” Bado said vaguely surprised. He set the seeker aside and clawed the topsoil and leaf litter out from around the crystal. It was faceted both inside and out and felt slightly warm to the touch.

“How will we know if it’s a good one?” Frey asked in suspense.

“Cause it will disintegrate and become vapor like the rune flowers if it doesn’t have the power to maintain a permanent structure.” He said, lifting the hammer. Frey stepped back a pace to give him room.  He brought it down on the jutting diagonal crystal with a ‘Hup’ and it snapped off with a flash of blue light and fell to the dirt. He held his breath as it flickered, but the light did not go out and the crystal remained solid. He let his breath out with a half-smile.

“I guess you are lucky, Frey.” He said, picking up the crystal carefully.

“Told you!” She chirped, then looked confused “But was the seeker supposed to break?”

“Dunno…” He murmured, turning the blue crystal over in his fingers. “I might have made it poorly… or maybe that’s just what happens when a crystal is particularly strong. He reached into one of the pouches and pulled out a pair of needle-nose pliers and a chain with a cluster of branching silver wires hanging in a group from the center of it. Frey knelt down in front of him and watched curiously as he bent and twisted the wires around the crystal in a spiral.

After several minutes he held it up and ‘Hm’ed with satisfaction at the result.

“It’s beautiful” She said, “You’re quite an artist when you wanna be.” He laughed.

“You came so close to a real nice compliment there.” He felt the half-grin tug mischievously on one corner of his mouth.

“Sheesh! You know I didn’t mean it like that!” She chided. He chuckled again and unfastened the clasp of the chain, leaning forward and refastening it around her neck. Her green eyes widened.

“Bado… We have a whole town full of people who will need these…”

You are my first priority, Frey. Together we’ll help protect all of Selphia, but I need to make sure you’ll be safe first.” He said with all the resolve he felt in his heart and stroked her cheek with his thumb. She flushed pink and blinked at him, prompting another affectionate smile to pull on his lips.

“Bado…” She called name softly, her supple mouth forming the syllables light and delicate. It melted him for a beat before her lips moved again, her voice still slight but earnest.

“I love you…”

 Her expression brimmed with vulnerability. She had said these words so many times to him over the months since they had become entangled in the brambles together and from then on had their hearts tangled in one another too. Now, though… There was something more to this utterance… a wish? A question hidden in the plain statement of affection? He swallowed. Could she be promising to him what he’d already decided in his heart to give to her? There was no way to know for sure. One thing he did know, though, was that this ‘I love you’ carried greater significance than all that had bloomed from her lips before.

He cupped her face in his hands delicately and looked into her deep emerald eyes, seeing his own steel-blue irises reflected in those dark, lucid pools. She gazed back, unblinking and holding her breath.

“I love you too, Frey.” He gave his voice all the depth of his limitless affection and gratitude for her. Somewhere in her mesmerizing eyes he saw, or rather felt her heart melting. The promise behind the words had been received on both ends. He kissed her lips very slowly and then held her to him, resolved in his heart to make this unspoken promise tangible very soon. She hugged him tightly back, smiling softly as she leaned back after a moment and looked into his face again. Then she looked around.

The light had changed to the burning gold and pink of a spectacular sunset somewhere beyond the veil of crimson autumn leaves. Bado picked up the broken seeker and tucked it into his pocket, fastening the hammer back onto his belt as he stood up.

“We better get back.” He said quietly.

“We only found one though…” She said anxiously touching the crystal hanging around her neck.

“It’s alright. We know the seeker does help, even if the design isn’t perfect yet. We don’t want to rush it and break the wrong ones or there’s no way we’ll get enough of them for the folks back home. I’ll write to the knighthood in the capitol and old Yvallen back in Gaius and my clan’s home village and see if anyone can send any rune crystals they have to help out.”

“Okay.” She relented, but still didn’t look completely reassured.

“C’mon, pet. Let’s go home.” He reached out to her and she took his hand and walked beside him back through the quiet woods to the West entrance of Selphia.

 

Chapter Text

The chirping crickets sounded all around them as Bado and Frey stepped over the threshold of the nort