It's a sunny day, with all the fragrance and warmth of late spring. Only a few hours ago, Wendy was enjoying it to the fullest, stepping on springy grass whenever the dirt path grew faded, but the comfortable part of her journey soon came to an end. Now the air around her is cool and humid, and the faint sound of dripping seems to come from every direction inside the winding cave she is exploring.
She's spent enough time in these labyrinthine passages to know she has no idea how to get back to the surface. The thought makes her reach nervously for her Scroll of Return. That will get her back, even if she travels much deeper underground. As long as she doesn't lose it.
She steps into a wide chamber, suspiciously cleared of any occupants. It's the third in a row, which only tells her that something bigger is scaring everything else away. And everything else wasn't that small to start with. She tightens her grip on her war hammer, swinging it lightly to feel its reassuring weight and balance.
It isn't a very elegant weapon. Her sword hangs on her waist, but its thin blade isn't ideal for either the squishy elementals or the skeletal undead that haunt the place. Swinging a big heavy thing at them works much better, sending the bones clattering every which way like bowling pins or exploding the colorful goo as the essence within flies up towards the surface.
She hopes whatever is keeping them away now will also be susceptible to a nice whack in the noodle. And that the treasure it’s crawled down here to guard is worth her time.
She whips her head around at the sound of rolling pebbles. A shadow in the corner of the room moves and she is disoriented for a moment, searching the empty place for what could be casting it, before she realizes it isn’t a shadow at all. It’s a hairy mass of darkness, growing taller as it stretches upwards, dislodging the stones around it.
At first, she worries that it could be a shade, or some sort of vengeful spirit. Non-corporeal entities are so hard to fight without blessed weapons, she’d have to spend her entire supply of potions.
But then the dark body continues to rise and reveals the thin structures on which it’s supported, and Wendy realizes what she’s looking at.
A huge spider stands among the rubble, beady eyes blinking in unison. Wendy watches its spindly legs, which are black in color, fuzzy in texture and just excessive in number. They are also, luckily, great targets for smashing.
She rushes forward to meet the creature, war hammer raised to strike. Its two front legs rise into the air, reaching for her, but she rolls under their grasp at the last second and emerges with a powerful blow to the nearest limb. The spider releases an unnatural screech and stumbles, turning clumsily to face her again.
Before turning back, she spares a glance at the hole the spider left behind, to make sure its contents are worth the fight. What she sees brings a smile to her face, even in her present danger: this creature has been collecting trinkets for a long time, and some of them seem quite valuable. One even glints with an iridescent sheen that clearly indicates its magical nature. It’ll fetch a great price, especially if a mage can identify the enchantment.
She feels the air shift at her back and drops down by instinct, narrowly avoiding another swipe of the spider’s legs. Rolling onto her back, she finds herself right under its thick body, uncomfortably close to snapping jaws. She slams her hammer upwards, the movement awkward but effective at keeping the mouth at a distance, as the spider dances backwards, avoiding the attack.
She quickly scrambles away, her escape far from elegant, and readies her weapon again. The spider charges, probably trying to catch her off balance as she gets to her feet, and she surprises the creature by standing her ground, side-stepping at the last second and whipping her hammer into another of the thin legs.
The spider crashes heavily into the wall, its weak limbs unable to stop its motion in time, but Wendy finds a bit too late that her dodge wasn't entirely successful. Her right arm feels hot, and begins to grow numb with each heartbeat, as she realizes that she's been struck and probably poisoned. She runs out of range, despite the downed spider making a tempting target, and rummages in her waist pouch for an antidote.
Finally, she finds the right vial, its contents thick and greenish. She takes a steadying breath and gulps down the icky mixture, feeling its effects almost immediately as sensation returns to her arm and a throbbing pain replaces the unhealthy warmth. She switches her grip to the left hand, which is not quite as dexterous but still good enough to swing, just as the spider finally regains its balance.
The two legs she’s struck are too injured to sustain its weight, and it wobbles on only four as it waggles the front two wildly in her direction, a very good non-verbal indication of its ill intentions. Still, it doesn’t immediately run at her like before. It seems to be weighing her up, having bumped her from a mere nuisance to a real danger.
She pulls her right hand from the handle of the hammer, leaving the left to sustain its weight as she goes through the satchels slung across her chest. Her fingers feel the shapes of arrows, scrolls, rings, a couple of coins and finally what she was looking for. She pulls out a small sling, already loaded, and swings it in a clean arc before releasing it to send the small lump of coal straight at yet another leg. It shatters against it, barely making an impression. The spider blinks at Wendy, like it too feels that this was all very anti-climatic.
And then its leg bursts into flames, the fragments of fire-starting coal embedded in the coarse bristles lighting up all at once.
It jumps and bounces from side to side, all healthy legs now doing their best to support its weight along its crazy path. Its flaming leg shakes wildly, doing all it can to put out the fire that eventually dies out on its own. Wendy watches it from a safe distance, taking advantage of the time to swiftly bandage her injury. It isn’t too deep, but it’s a long gash and looks a lot worse than it actually is.
Maybe she should switch to a clean shirt before she goes back to town. No use in worrying people over some slashed fabric and dried blood. Maybe Irene won’t even notice.
The spider stands on its remaining legs, fixing its hateful eyes on Wendy with furious intensity. There are about equal odds of it retreating or standing its ground, but it seems today is her unlucky day. The creature roars once more and runs toward her at full speed.
She sweeps the hammer to the side. With a quick movement that makes her wince in pain, her right hand grips the hilt of her sword and pulls it free. Her left hand covers the first, holding the blade steady, and she tries to calm her breathing as the spider comes closer and closer.
She clenches her jaw. She aims the blade at the target ahead of her, the muscles in her arms tightening in anticipation. The spider opens its mandible, spittle flying out and almost hitting Wendy in the face, and she jabs out the sword with all her might.
A sickening crunch follows a heavy weight as the spider impales itself on her blade, mouth-first as if trying to chew through the metal. She keeps her grip on the sword as she is pushed backwards, just enough to avoid getting caught under the weight of the enormous creature.
With one jerk, then another, it finally goes still, and she lets go of her sword with a sigh, leaving it buried in the spider’s jaw. She’s going to be so sore tomorrow.
She steps carefully around the black ichor pooling on the floor and heads back to the spider’s cache. A few tiny elementals gather by the entrance of the room, but they seem too pleased at the death of the invader to strike, or maybe too afraid of Wendy. She keeps an eye on them, but mostly ignores them as she goes through the treasure, putting away most things in her loot bag and leaving a few useless trinkets behind. She finds an almost full set of armor, which doesn’t bode well for whomever was wearing it last.
She wraps the magical gem in a thick cloth, making sure to avoid any accidental touching, then considers her looting finished and turns back around to leave. The spider is still dead on the stone floor, the elementals still watching near the entrance. A few more have come to join, a little bigger, and Wendy feels that she shouldn’t overstay her welcome.
She pulls her sword free, cooling muscles protesting at the effort, then cleans it with a few swipes against the spider’s hairy body, before putting it back on her belt. She pulls out the Scroll of Return, calls out the words, and watches the word go unfocused as the slip of parchment disintegrates in her hands.
Then she is back under the friendly sun, warm in its sunset glow, the grass under her feet as springy as ever. She breathes in the fragrant spring air, filling her lungs with it, then swings her heavy bag of treasure over one shoulder and makes her way to her horse.
She takes her time with the trip back and camps for the night to get a few hours' rest instead of riding through the night. She takes advantage of the break to change the bandage on her arm and apply a healing salve. It's cool and soothing, and she sighs with relief at the sensation.
By the time she guides her horse into town at a leisurely pace, it is early dawn and the pain in her arm has died down to the occasional twinge when she forces it. The horizon is lighting up with color and the shops are opening for business. She waves hello at the familiar faces, awkwardly dodging Mark, the baker's son, who always tries to give her free pastries, and heads straight for the item shop.
Irene stands by the entrance, sweeping up with her old broom, but she stops as soon as she sees Wendy and waves excitedly.
"I'm back!" Wendy calls out uselessly, patting her horse's side to point out the heavy bag it's carrying. She’s in a fresh shirt, with long and loose sleeves to conceal the bulk of the bandage.
"How did it go?"
"Well, I think. I've got some exciting stuff." She pulls the bag open a bit to peer inside. "A set of armor Seulgi might want to take off your hands, it’ll probably sell for a good price once she’s hammered out the dents. Uhh, a few pieces of gold jewelry. No powers, I think, but good for decoration. The usual odds and ends. And… this!" she concludes excitedly, holding the magic gem in the palm of her hand.
Irene watches her with a crooked smile that she is clearly trying to bite down. Wendy feels the tips of her ears go warm at the sight.
"I meant, how did it go with the fighting? Nothing too dangerous, I hope?"
"Oh, no, of course not. Nothing like that." She looks off into the distance, trying not to call attention to her injured arm. Is she holding it out too far from her body? Should she pull it in? How does she usually stand, anyway?
"Is that the shirt you fought in?"
"Your shirt, it's the nice one."
"All my shirts are nice," Wendy protests weakly. Irene is onto her. "I, uh, I changed it, yeah. I got elemental goo on the other one."
A moment of silence. Irene watches her with the bland smile of one who is entirely unconvinced.
"Well, then. Let's go inside and see what I owe you." She turns on her heel and heads into the store, followed at once by Wendy. She can't believe she got off this easily. "Do you need any supplies? I'll throw them in for a discount."
"Oh, yeah, sure. Let's see… some fire-starting coal, a Scroll of Return, silver-tipped arrows, an antidote, a couple of speed potions-"
"Antidote, huh?" Irene asks without turning around. Her hand works quickly, noting down the list, and it doesn't pause as she throws the question that sounds a lot more like an accusation. Wendy freezes.
"Just running low. Figured I'd throw it in there."
"Very prudent of you."
"You know me. Prudent is my middle name. I've never gotten into a dangerous situation if I could avoid- Ow!" she cuts herself off, yelping as Irene snaps her broom around and straight at her left shoulder. She brushes it sulkily to rub away the sting. "What was that for?"
Irene shrugs. "That it isn't a shoulder injury you're hiding from me."
"I'm not hiding any- Ow, cut it out!" She clutches at her ribs, where the handle has just struck. "That's going to leave a mark!"
"No it isn't, you big baby."
The broom swings again.
"Ok, ok, fine, I cut my arm!" It stops, mercifully. Wendy lets out a thankful breath.
"Your right arm," Irene points out sharply. "The one you use to defend yourself. How could you let such an important-"
"Wait, how did you know it was the right arm?"
"You're favoring the left. Heavily. You look like you have a hunch or something."
"No, I don't," Wendy replies defensively, straightening up under Irene's judgmental glare. She resists the urge to cross her arms, partly because it would hurt.
"What was it?"
"Just a spider. Teeny tiny one. Caught me by surprise, got a jab in before I took it down."
"Is that why you used up your antidote?"
Irene's lips press together, but she doesn't say anything else, turning her attention instead to the bag of treasure Wendy has brought in with her. The lack of berating feels even worse, somehow.
"Anyway, I think you should have this gem checked out by a proper mage, I have a feeling it could be something big,” Wendy suggests, hoping to change the subject and escape the tense mood.
"If it's another reflex booster or something like that, it'll end up selling for less. And I'll be down the price of the appraisal."
"I can absorb the risk. You buy it for the base price if it's good, or for cheaper if it turns out to be a dud."
Irene ponders the offer, clearly a little softened by Wendy's generosity. That's good, anything to brighten her mood a little.
"Isn't that a little much? You won't make a living giving away money like this."
"Oh, I'm making tons of money. All self-respecting adventurers do," she says with a hint of humor, smiling as Irene laughs softly.
"Okay, fine, I won't refuse such a good offer. Unlike you, I know how to run a business."
"That you do," Wendy concedes. Her smile is still there, very firmly lodged in place as she watches Irene's profile, her hair falling to partly cover it as she leans forward to account for all the loot and check her numbers once and twice.
"How much for the appraisal?" Irene asks, startling Wendy out of her dazed staring. She looks away abruptly, even though Irene hasn't even looked her way and couldn’t have caught her in the compromising position.
"Uh, 50 coins, I think?"
"No, I know how much they charge," Irene says around a laugh. "I meant for you to bring the gem there and back."
"Oh, that's fine." She's barely done with the sentence before Irene is opening her mouth to protest. "No, I mean it, I have to go to the Guild anyway, so I'll just have it identified there."
"What are you doing at the Guild?"
"Just collecting a bounty."
Irene's eyes are back on her, studying her closely. She shouldn't have said that.
"What kind of bounty?"
"Uh… Demon spider."
Irene's eyes narrow. "A teeny tiny one?"
" So tiny. I think I stepped on it by mistake. Easiest bounty ever."
Irene sighs, but Wendy can tell she's amused, which means Wendy is forgiven for putting herself in danger. She counts out coins until she has filled a bag with them, then hands them over.
"Your share. The 50 for the appraisal are there too, and I'll get you your supplies when you get back, unless you need something now."
"No, nothing urgent." Wendy takes the bag and straps it onto her belt, feeling its weight. She really did make a nice profit. "Do you need help stocking up?"
"No, you go on ahead. Go see Joy, she'll take care of your arm."
"That's okay, I already put a salve on it and bandaged it up."
Irene tuts under her breath, studying Wendy's arm with disapproval.
"Be more careful next time, will you?"
"Of course," Wendy says gallantly, offering the promise with a certainty that she definitely doesn't feel.
Irene scoffs, well aware of the fact. "Out of my shop," she demands playfully, sweeping her broom at Wendy's feet. "Go get flowers for the festival."
"Oh, is that tonight?"
"Don't tell me you forgot."
"Hey, it's easy to lose track of time on the road!"
"Oh, of course, on the road ," Irene repeats with mock grandeur. She sweeps at Wendy's feet again and she finally gives in and starts heading out. "And bring me some murkweed, if you find any on the fields. I need it for those antidotes."
"Ugh, no wonder they taste like that."
"They taste better than death by poison," Irene throws at her right as she leaves. She chuckles to herself, not bothering to respond. Irene's got a point.
With all her armor, weapons and equipment safely stored in her room at the inn, Wendy feels lighter than she has in a while. She strolls through the fields at the edge of town in a cool tunic and loose pants, taking her time to collect just the right flowers for each of her friends, letting her path stray close enough to the marshy areas to make sure she comes across some murkweed as well.
She has lunch with Yeri, who leaves her poor parents to handle serving all the other customers as she excitedly presses Wendy for every detail of her latest adventure. After their meal, the girl pulls out her lute and plays Wendy a few bars of a new song that she promises to debut that evening.
The plan after lunch was to string the flowers into necklaces and crowns, but drowsiness wins out and she sleeps away the early afternoon. When she wakes up, she rushes to Joy’s place, and together they weave in the peaceful shade of the large trees that crowd all around the healer’s home.
At the first hint of nightfall, everyone leaves their work, shops closing up so quickly that they’d have to kick out their customers, if they weren’t also in such a rush to go. Only the inn remains busy, setting up long tables outdoors for everyone to dine together. Wendy was planning on watching from a distance, teasing Yeri as she bustled back and forth with endless benches, but she ends up giving in to the youngster’s puppy dog eyes and lending a hand as well.
As more and more people gather in the town square, lined all around with little boxes of light decorated with tiny flowers, the gifts begin exchanging hands. Single flowers or bunches of them, weaved into necklaces and bracelets and crowns, slipped behind the ears or dangling out of shirt pockets.
There used to be a rule for it, long ago. Specific instructions for how to present the flowers to friends, to work partners, to family, to loved ones. Now it’s all more or less according to personal preference, although a single flower is still considered to be a bit too romantic to give to anyone but a special someone.
Joy is already decorated from head to toe by the time Wendy finds her. She’s even wearing a bright red rose behind her ear, but when Wendy comments on it she only smiles cheekily. Knowing her, it could be a boyfriend or girlfriend as easily as it could be a random hopeful that she took pity on. She takes Wendy’s necklace, woven in violet and pink, and drapes it around her neck over three others.
Seulgi is there too, and for once not covered in soot from her furnace. She has a few loops of flowers around her neck already, but Wendy knows the only reason she doesn’t have more is because she’s probably been dodging offers out of embarrassment. Before she can give Seulgi the bracelet she’s made for her, she’s swept off her feet by a crushing hug.
“I didn’t know you were back!” Seulgi calls out happily, her strong blacksmith’s arms doing a good job of crushing Wendy’s poor ribs.
“I couldn’t miss the festival,” she points out, a little out of breath. Seulgi releases her, mercifully, and digs in her pocket, pulling out a string of flowers that have been only slightly bruised by the careless storage.
“I made this for you, just in case,” she says with a bright smile, handing it over. Wendy happily ties it around her wrist before giving Seulgi her own present. “Oh, by the way, I think Mark is looking for you.”
“Huh. You didn’t happen to see his gift for me, did you?” She’s filled with an ominous premonition that the youngster might be getting thoughts of a confession she’ll have to tactfully refuse.
Seulgi’s answering smile is too teasing for Wendy’s taste. She’s clearly been spending too much time with Yeri and Joy. She walks off after an amused wish of “good luck”, leaving Wendy to fend for herself.
As the crowd parts, Mark himself pops up, face lighting up with recognition. Oh no.
Wendy angles herself to conveniently run off, but just as Mark seems to have locked on, she is startled by Irene, who appears right next to her as if by magic and forces the boy to steer away as naturally as he can manage or be pulled into a group interaction.
“Hey,” Wendy says, and it’s somehow already enough for her to feel like she’s acting supremely awkwardly. She spent hours wondering whether to give Irene a flower crown or throw all caution to the wind and offer a single blossom. In the end, she chickened out and weaved the crown under Joy’s affectionate teasing.
“Hi,” Irene replies. She isn’t wearing many flowers yet, although Wendy can imagine she’s already received plenty. Like every year, she’s probably keeping most of her presents at the store, carefully preserved to serve as decorations for the rest of the week. Her place always looks so nice after the festival, full of color and delicate petals like a temple to some gentle deity.
“I found you some murkweed,” Wendy remembers to say, and quickly rummages through her satchel to pull out a handful of brownish-green leaves.
“Is that my present?” Irene asks with a little giggle, and Wendy’s ears burn red with embarrassment. She shoves the murkweed back in the bag.
“No, I uh, I have- Here,” she ends weakly, holding out the crown. It’s mostly white, with a few pale blue blossoms for color. Irene smiles happily at the sight and immediately puts it on her head, making Wendy impossibly proud of the achievement.
She gets another necklace in exchange, to drape over the one Joy gave her, and both of them make their way to the dinner tables in hopes of catching Yeri. She should be dodging her responsibilities as the innkeeper’s daughter soon, and rushing off to recover her lute and play a few songs.
When they get there, she’s still in her apron, with her hair neatly tied into a ponytail to keep it out of the way, and she scowls at Irene’s laughing request to know what’s on the menu for the evening. Once Joy and Seulgi join them, she nearly rips off her apron in her rush to get away from the inn, hurrying over to a nearby tree that conceals her instrument and dragging them all along with her, out of the town square and down a side street.
It’s a familiar path, one that leads to an out-of-the-way hollow, surrounded by old trees that help muffle any sound coming from within. There, Yeri begins tuning her lute, sounding out each chord until she is satisfied with her work.
“Before the show,” Joy cuts in just as Yeri takes a deep breath, and Wendy hides a snicker behind a fake cough. Yeri puts down the lute and watches their friend sullenly. “Where are our presents?”
“My music is a present!”
“Flowers,” Irene demands, joining in. Seulgi meets Wendy’s eye and they laugh silently.
Each of them pulls out her own accessory for Yeri, and she ends up tastefully decorated in four long flower necklaces in a multitude of colors. On her part, she simply brings four long-stemmed flowers out of her pocket and hands them out.
“Yeri,” Wendy begins, playfully sorrowful, “we can’t all be your girlfriends.”
“Shut up, I didn’t have the time for anything else.”
“Sure,” Irene replies under her breath, too low for anyone but Wendy to pick up, and Wendy knows that she understands the situation as well as she does.
Joy takes her own flower and threads it through her hair, replacing the red rose that she pulls out without much concern, then turns to Seulgi and “helps” - or, more accurately, forces - her to place her own flower behind her ear, despite the blacksmith’s protests that she’ll look ridiculous.
Of course, Yeri has exactly one person to whom she wants to give a single flower. But apparently she is too shy to make it clear, so she’s taken a clever way around the problem. Wendy can’t blame her, since it’s more than she herself has managed. Irene looks lovely in her flower crown, but it isn’t what Wendy really wanted to give her.
Even if Irene doesn’t feel the same way, she’d like to confess her feelings one day. Put them out there, take her chances. For a brave adventurer, her courage does fail her sometimes.
Yeri sings her new song, to thunderous applause from her rapt audience. She finishes the performance with a low bow, swinging her arm far out behind her so that she looks more like an actress in some pantomime than a serious bard.
For the next few songs, she pulls Wendy up from her place sitting by Irene’s side and convinces her to sing along, the two joining their voices in a pleasant harmony that gets another flurry of applause and encouragement for Wendy to leave her adventuring career and form a duo with Yeri. She bows her head in embarrassment and just sits back down, a little shy at the attention.
They join the crowd, where Yeri performs her biggest hits for the whole town. They sit among the others, taking bites of the pies and salads prepared for the occasion, sipping from the juices and wines available. As the moon rises higher in the sky and the night grows deeper, Irene’s head begins to slip, until it is settled snugly on Wendy’s shoulder. She does her best not to disturb it, and gently pulls out the flower crown to keep the petals from getting bruised.
Her mind wanders, distracted from the music and the people and the food. She wonders if the magic gem is worth anything. If it does something really rare, like ward against all the elements, or summon a powerful creature, it might sell for enough that Irene would be set for life. No more getting up before sunrise to open her store, no more carrying around heavy loads, no more dealing with demanding adventurers passing through.
She could devote all her time to her hobby of making potions, and exploring the surrounding lands for rare and precious herbs, spend more time with her friends. She could even take the time to go South and visit her family.
Still, even if the gem is worthless, Wendy has her backup plan. A few more trips to the infested caves of the Haunted Woods and she should have enough to buy that anti-dragon armor Seulgi has kept in her shop for years. And then she can take down the white dragon at the Smoky Mountains, and take its treasure, and sell it all to Irene at a low price, so she’ll make a nice profit from the resale. Then they’d both be rich, and settled for life.
The gem would be easier, though. Lower risk of being eaten by a dragon. Or falling down a giant mountain. Or burning all her hair off.
After another hour, she gently wakes Irene and walks her home before she falls asleep too deeply. She smiles at Wendy through a haze of sleep, her eyes shining with unfiltered happiness, and Wendy wants to do something crazy, like tell her she’s been in love with her from the first time she saw her. Instead, she offers her arm for support - the left one, of course - and off they go.
By the shop’s door, Irene takes Wendy’s hand and gazes at her with a low intensity, like she’s searching for the right words. They stand there, silence weighing heavily between them, but in the end Irene only shakes her head.
“If that gem is worth anything,” she says with a nod at Wendy’s satchel, even though the gem is actually back at the inn, “we’re splitting the money, okay?”
“That’s no way to run a business,” Wendy jokes, but it comes out a little flat because her mind is too sharply focused on how Irene’s hand is still in hers.
“Well, some things are more important than business.”
Irene disappears inside. Wendy stands by the door a little longer, waiting to see the light go on behind the little window upstairs, that she knows leads to Irene’s room. She sighs, pushing out all the butterflies fluttering in her stomach, then turns back to the party.
Joy is standing a few doors down and she teases Wendy mercilessly for the rest of the night.
The gem doesn't summon anything. It isn't worthless either, far from it. It just isn't the gold mine Wendy began to hope it would be.
It's a Gem of Stoneskin. As long as you carry it with you, properly set in a magic piece of jewelry, it will increase your skin's toughness, making it harder for slashing or piercing attacks to break through. Wendy has half a mind to keep it, but she'd rather have the money, especially since she'd still have to buy the gold jewelry to set the gem, and pay somebody for the job.
After collecting the money for the bounty, she sells the properly identified gem to the artifacts trader and rides back to town with her jingling bag of coins hung on the saddle. Robbers are rarely daring enough to attack a seasoned adventurer, usually sticking to unguarded traders, so she makes it back without any trouble, and delivers the good news and half the money to Irene, as promised.
Back at the inn, she adds up all her coins, then once more for confirmation. She sits on the floor, surrounded by glittering and unsteady piles, and comes to terms with the fact that she's finally saved up enough.
She's a little nervous, now that the moment has come. It's good timing, right on the cusp of summer, when the mountain will be at its least deadly, and the dragon full and a little drowsy from the heat. But it's still a dragon. Nothing to sneer at in the best of times.
For a couple of weeks, she delays it. First it’s because she needs her arm to heal. Then she’s making sure she has all the supplies for the trip. Then there is just a small job to take care of, and another, but eventually she has to quit stalling or she’ll miss her window and have to make the trip in much worse conditions than the current fair summer weather.
She heads out into town and strolls aimlessly, taking a slow and winding path to the little annex by Seulgi's workshop, the armor shop that she typically only opens by demand rather than bother keeping it open all day, which would require hiring someone to man it.
She stands against the wall on the other side of the street and resolutely eyes the closed door and little hanging sign. She's going to do this. She's going to buy the anti-dragon armor. She's going to fight a white dragon.
She jumps a foot into the air at Seulgi's voice, then tries her best to act nonchalant.
"Oh, hey, what's up?" she asks casually.
"Nothing much, just finished making some horseshoes so I’m taking a breather. Did you need something from the shop?"
“Yeah, actually, but I can come back later if you’re busy or…”
Seulgi looks at her curiously. “No, I’m on a break so now it’s fine,” she reminds her, like she didn’t mention it just a moment ago.
Wendy is more freaked out about this dragon thing than she realized. She takes a steadying breath. She just needs to get it over with. Get the armor, prepare her things, leave by morning. No time for news to spread and for her nerves to fail her.
“Okay, then, I need your anti-dragon armor.”
Seulgi freezes on her way to unlock the shop door. She turns back to Wendy. “The… Uh, why?”
“I mean, I think there’s only one reason someone would buy-”
“You’re going to fight a dragon?!”
She shushes Seulgi frantically. The last thing she needs is word getting out. Joy will kill her if she-
“You’re an idiot.”
Too late, then. The woman has materialized out of thin air, just in time to criticize Wendy’s choices.
“I am an adventurer,” she announces slowly, ignoring Joy’s eyeroll. “That means I go on adventures and fight dangerous things. Sometimes those things are dragons.”
“Okay, but you could probably leave the dragons to someone else and stick to, uh, spiders? Really big bears? Oh, and those water beasts. Those were awful, somebody should keep an eye on them.”
“Seulgi has a point. Why risk your neck when you can make a good living as it is?”
She crosses her arms. Everybody is against her already, and she hasn’t even left yet. She didn’t exactly expect a warm reaction, but all the discouragement is making her feel even more nervous about it, and the cold prickle of fear settles at the back of her neck with finality, pushing her to give up on the whole thing, but then how will she ever help Irene retire? She has to do it. Even if it’s scary.
“I’m doing it,” she says with finality. Seulgi frowns but goes on opening the shop, accepting Wendy’s decision. Joy sighs.
“You’re an idiot.”
“Yeah, you mentioned.”
“Well, it bears repeating.”
She doesn’t really need anything else, having finished her supply shopping long ago, but she still finds herself heading to the item shop. To say goodbye, maybe? To make a grand gesture, if she were braver. But even if it’s just a casual “see you later”, it’s better than nothing.
The armor clinks inside its bag, strapped to the side of the saddle. She tried it on at the shop and Seulgi made the small adjustments needed, so that it fits snugly without pinching her or leaving exposed points. All ready for the dragon fighting.
She heads inside the shop in her usual leather armor and finds Irene sitting by the counter, head resting on her hand as she looks down intently. Her eyes look shiny under furrowed brows and although her mouth is pressed against her palm, Wendy can see the corner of it move, like she’s chewing on her lip.
“Hey,” she says in a low voice, trying not to startle her. Irene turns her way slowly, as if in a daze, and her eyes go wider as she recognizes Wendy.
“You’re going to fight a dragon?” she asks in a trembling voice.
Wendy isn't sure which of those two ratted her out, but her money is on Joy if it was on purpose and Seulgi if it was by accident.
"Yeah, but I've got really good armor for it," she offers in her best attempt at a cheerful mood.
Irene sniffles. Wendy feels like the entire world is falling at her feet at the sight.
"I don't want you to fight a dragon," Irene whines, voice as watery as her eyes. "What if you get hurt? Even a teeny tiny spider managed to get at your arm, let alone a dragon with all those teeth ."
"It wasn't that tiny," Wendy admits with a grimace. "It was pretty big, actually."
"Was it bigger than a dragon?"
"Okay, no, I see your point."
She throws a quick glance around the store and spots a nearby bench, which she carries over to sit near Irene. She hesitates for a moment, then reaches out slowly to rest her hand on Irene's back in what she hopes is a comforting gesture.
"I'll come back before you know it."
"In how many pieces?"
"Just the one. And with all my limbs still attached and everything."
Irene deflates a little as she looks off again, chest filling with a stuttering motion, like she's moments away from sobbing. She blinks rapidly.
"You don't know that." Slowly, she leans over until she is resting against Wendy, head hidden in the crook of her neck and hand clutching at her shirt. "Why do you have to fight a dragon, anyway?"
Why, indeed? Wendy is suddenly at a loss.
"Do you need it that badly? I can just lend it to you."
Wendy snorts. Her hand has begun to rub soothing circles against Irene's back, although she isn't sure when it started.
"Don't you need that money for your shop?"
"Oh, I don't care about the stupid shop," Irene whines against her shirt collar, hand gripping a little tighter. "I only keep it open to see you, anyway."
The circles stop as Wendy's entire body freezes. She tries her best to act casual as she resumes the motion, but she can tell Irene is feeling the awkwardness too. Did she mean it like that? Or just as… a friendly desire to see Wendy? That sounds strange even to her stubborn self.
"I don't want to fight a dragon," she admits in a whisper, because maybe there are better ways to be brave than risking her life.
"You don't?" Irene asks hopefully.
"I just wanted to find a lot of treasure, so you could make enough money to retire. I know you don't like the shop either."
"But if I retired, someone else would run this place and you'd spend all your time with them ."
"I don't know, I thought you might want to focus on your potions. Maybe visit your family."
"I can already do all that," Irene points out with amusement. "How busy do you think this place is when you aren't around? We're not exactly bustling with adventurers."
"I don't know," she mumbles, suddenly a lot more confused about how useful her plan actually is, and still not sure what Irene meant about wanting to see her.
"If I retired, would you retire too? If we both made all that dragon money.”
"I'm not sure. I never thought about it."
"So your whole plan was to fight a dragon and then make me retire?"
Irene isn't sniffling anymore, but Wendy is feeling increasingly like the woman is getting the upper hand of the conversation and leaving her more and more unsure.
"I just wanted to do something for you."
"Because I like you," she blurts out.
Both her hands are busy keeping Irene close, so she doesn't get the chance to slam them dramatically over her mouth at the revelation. But she still does it mentally. She thinks she feels Irene go a little stiff, just for a second, but she isn’t sure anymore. She isn’t sure of pretty much anything at this point.
"Well, just for the record, if you plan on doing something nice, I'd much prefer that you just get me a flower or something."
"Just a flower?"
"Sometimes a single flower is even better than a whole crown of them."
She feels her whole face go warm at the words. Irene wanted a flower from her, at the festival. Irene did want to see her like that . Irene likes her, like Wendy likes Irene. And she gave her a stupid crown, and Joy was right to laugh at her.
She feels Irene's hands slowly slip around her, and their position subtly shifts from a comforting embrace to just… sitting close together. A strange sideways hug that she wouldn't give up for anything. She returns it the best she can.
"Hey, Irene?" she asks softly. Irene hums in response. "You didn't give me a flower either."
"Shut up," Irene mutters, suddenly embarrassed. She chuckles at her reaction.
"So, what are your plans for today?"
"Why?" Irene asks suspiciously.
"I just thought maybe you could close up early and we could go out and collect some potion ingredients."
"What about the dragon?"
"Hmm, I was thinking about that. All that money, it changes people. Better not risk it. You might become a mean old miser."
Irene muffles a giggle that must have escaped against her will. "You're not as funny as you think you are."
"Am I even funnier?"
Irene giggles again.
They spend the entire afternoon walking up and down the surrounding hills, collecting herbs and other useful plants. Wendy finds the prettiest flower and secretly picks it, then offers it to Irene when she least expects it, down on one knee for the full dramatics.
Irene squeals at the sight and smacks her arm incessantly at the cheesiness of it all, but she still takes it and carefully tucks it behind her ear.
The flush on her cheeks tells Wendy she knows exactly what was really being offered, and that she accepts it gladly. She smiles so hard, she thinks she'll pull a cheek muscle.
"Do you think Seulgi has a good returns policy?" she blurts out a few minutes later. They are walking down a grassy path, hand in hand, and Irene turns to her curiously as she speaks. "That anti-dragon armor was really expensive."
Irene laughs. She pulls her closer by their joined hands and kisses her.
Just kisses her.
Like that's something they can do now, whenever they want.
Is it? The thought is intoxicating. Wendy can kiss Irene whenever, for no reason at all. Just because.
She kisses her, to test the theory. Irene melts against her, arms wrapped firmly around her shoulder.
It's worth all the treasure in the world.