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A Loyal Knight

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The shapeshifter smirked as she waited by the alley next to the bathhouse. Though she’d always greatly enjoyed her assignments, she’d felt especially invigorated by how much fun the pills she’d started using had made it. She’d been told from the start that, unlike the usual approaches her organization used, they were by far the most effective method, allowing a degree of control over the extraspecies transformation that other approaches didn’t, so much so that she was even able to imprint a personality on her targets. She didn’t believe all the hype behind them at first, but her opinion quickly turned after changing some nobody slacker into a self-proclaimed “royal guard” centaur who was determined to find a mistress to serve and protect. Sure, it was a little harder to pull off than the other tactics the group used, since getting a target to ingest a pill required far more effort than something as simple as delivering the drug through a scratch with a coated fingernail, but, at least as far as she was concerned, it was well worth it.

She’d adored how well her first run with the pills had turned out. It was easily the best result she’d had so far. Her target really had become absolutely adorable, but she couldn’t help but feel that she’d screwed up in a couple of key areas, and was determined to do even better this time. While she’d loved giving her last target such an outlandish personality, the performance she put on to imprint on her target’s mind was...lackluster, to say the least. It left the centaur stumbling over herself to talk as formally as possible, ultimately making her more of an adorable, dorky ditz than a regal knight. The shapeshifter knew that, if she was going to attempt something similar again, her performance would have to be better to make the imprint clearer. So she spent weeks honing her acting, determined to make sure that every performance was utterly flawless. She practiced in front of the mirror every day, making sure her mannerisms matched her speech, and even spent time as completely different people, convinced that it would help her understand their character better. By the end, she had so many personalities cooked up, and she couldn’t wait to make her victims just like them.

She’d even picked out a perfect target, too! A loner who, from what she could tell, practically never ventured outside of his apartment unless it was for food, or, as she’d discovered, the bathhouse she was staking out right at that moment. She’d never seen anybody else go in there, and the owner seemed to be absent at night, when her mark would visit, which was likely why he enjoyed it as much as he did. Much to her delight, she’d also discovered that it was a mixed bath, meaning that she could corner him and change him when he was all alone without even the slightest chance of anybody else seeing the two of them.

As she watched her mark hurriedly walking down the street, like he was doing his best to avoid being seen by anyone, she mentally prepared herself for what she was about to do. The shapeshifter was certain: He was going to be her masterpiece, and she was going to give the performance of a lifetime.

~~~

Azuma left his money on the counter and headed into the baths, a happy, calm smile on his face. Though he’d given up on ever seeing much of the world outside his apartment, this was one of the few places left for him where he could feel totally at peace. The owner knew him well, trusting Azuma completely and allowing him to use her baths even when she was away, giving him something of a refuge where he could let all of his cares just melt away. A stress-free paradise where absolutely nothing and nobody would bother him. He went into the changing rooms, got undressed, grabbed a towel, and headed straight for the baths, soaking himself in the warm, pleasant water and sighing happily.

He knew the bathhouse wasn’t exactly thriving, and there were likely places with better service in the area, but he was certain that there wasn’t another place on Earth that felt so uniquely tailored to his needs. He could spend hours and hours here, and he was sure absolutely nothing would take him out of the pleasant, sleepy mood this place always put him in.

“How fortuitous! That I should find a brave knight in a place such as this! I have searched far and wide for one as naturally capable as yourself!”

Of course, he didn’t usually anticipate his baths getting interrupted by women dressed like knights. If anything was going to take him out of his lull, that would almost certainly be near the top of the list.

“S-s-sorry! I’ll get out!” he said, scrambling out of the tub and wrapping the towel around his body hastily, his face turning bright red as he did so. “I’m...I’m really sorry you saw me like this… Nobody normally comes here, and-”

“Oh my! This is no place for you to be clad in such improper attire!” The woman before him was stunningly beautiful. Long, flowing brown hair tied up in high ponytail, with smooth, almost porcelain skin and deep, gorgeous blue eyes. She was far taller than Azuma, too, coupling with her intense demeanor and giving her a statuesque beauty that captivated him even through his embarrassment.

“A-again, I’m sorry! I’ll get out of your hair right away!”

“Nay, this quest is of the utmost importance, and if you are to be my chosen knight, it is vital that you make haste! It is as you have said, we find ourselves in quite a barren land! In all my travels, you are the first soul I’ve gazed upon who I truly believe can succeed in the task I have prepared! Dost thou accept?”

Despite her beauty, and how ashamed of himself he was, he couldn’t help but largely find himself...intimidated. Was this woman some kind of LARPer? Her armor seemed totally authentic, and he didn’t exactly want to test her and find out how real her sword was. As bizarre as the situation was, he reluctantly decided to go along with whatever she was talking about, in the hopes he could head back to his apartment as peacefully and quickly as possible.

“Wh-what would you like me to do?”

“I am afraid I cannot make thee privy to such information until I am certain of your fealty, good sir!”

He sighed heavily, worried that he was about to get himself involved in something incredibly sketchy. Still, he saw no other way out of it.

“I...I accept…” he stammered, shyly.

“Very good! Truly, my judgment was keen this day! Though thou art most certainly not battle-ready as is, I shall have your true strength shining through within the hour!”

“T-training…?” he asked, already regretting his agreement.

“Good sir, it would do you well to have patience! All shall be revealed in due time, though I should certainly hope to see a change in your demeanor if thou wish to represent our fair kingdom!”

“M-my apologies...Ma’am…I’m ready to receive any orders you have for me...” he responded, believing that getting at least slightly more in-character might make her a little easier to deal with.

“Oh my! It seems you are already grasping the respect a knight should possess at all times! Very well, allow me to detail your quest, brave knight! An army most foul known as M.O.N. has swept across our fair kingdom, capturing my fair sisters without so much as challenging us to an honorable duel! Truly, these fiends are little more than lowly brigands!”

He was certain she was telling him little more than a story. There was no way any army or anything had kidnapped her sisters. Wasn’t M.O.N. some sort of extraspecies protection group, anyway? Even if what she was saying was true, it made no sense for her to come to a bathhouse and track someone like Azuma down to help her. Still, he went along with it, getting as theatrical as he could muster through his embarrassment.

“H-how...er...undesirable! We should save them at once!” he yelled, his blush growing more and more intense.

“Indeed! They are familiar with my visage, and would surely attack me on sight, but you, brave knight, would be able to charge ahead without fear of retaliation!”

“I...I’m all too happy to help, Ma’am…if I can, of course…” he muttered.

“Why of course you can! However, I did state that your current state was inadequate, so there is one vital step we must take before you can embark, brave knight!”

“Wh-what would that be…?” he asked, unsure of what to expect.

“Thou wouldst surely refuse were I to explain my methods, so I’m afraid I must simply begin posthaste!” she cried out, before walking right up to him and forcing something into his mouth before clamping it shut.

“As suspicious as my actions may seem, I assure you I have done nothing unbecoming of a knight, however my grip shall not loosen until thou hast swallowed my generous provision!”

Azuma was panicking now, sure that she was drugging him or something, but again, saw no way out of things considering how much bigger and, as he’d just discovered, stronger than him she was. Without putting up much of a fight at all, he quickly swallowed, giving her a thumbs up to signal that he’d complied with her request.

She promptly let go of him, a satisfied smile spreading across her face. She couldn’t believe how well this had gone so far, and now she was going to get to watch the effects of it all up close! Still, she couldn’t let her performance slip now, she had to keep up appearances.

“Wh-what was that…?” he asked, unaware of his skin slowly lightening, growing paler and paler across his whole body until it reached a similarly milky tone to the supposed knight. He suddenly started to itch all over, a feeling he tried to suppress at first, but soon gave in to, desperately scratching at his body for relief and staring at the strange woman, his expression looking increasingly worried by the second.

“Brave knight, cast your fears aside, for I am releasing your true strength!”

As he scratched, he looked down at his body, watching as just about every hair seemed to...melt away, vanishing without even the slightest trace and immediately easing the irritation he felt, leaving every inch of his skin looking far smoother and healthier than it ever had, the pale tone his body had taken on becoming immediately apparent.

“What manner of curse has befallen me?!” he cried, his face reddening as he realized just what he’d said. He hadn’t meant to speak like the knight at all, but somehow every word came out sounding more formal than the last, as though his typical shyness was being stripped away from them, replaced with a tone that was more and more in line with hers. He barely had time to ponder what was happening to his speech, though. As he looked over at the knight, he noted that she now seemed...smaller to him, somehow. He was sure she was almost a foot taller than him earlier, but as his body began to ache all over, stiffening and feeling tense, he realized that, somehow, he no longer had to crane his neck to look her in the eye. His towel, however, quickly began to loosen, falling off of his now slightly more slender figure, the realization that it was him, not the knight, who was changing sinking in as he scrambled to pick it up and cover himself once more.

“These results are truly remarkable! Your body has been holding you back for far too long, but I shall imbue you with elegance and strength! Embrace these changes, brave knight! I assure you, thou shalt come to see how magnificent they are!”

“Thou art- ah!” he stopped, catching himself talking like her again, then quickly collecting himself before speaking again. “I mean, y-you’re changing me?!”

“Indeed! When all has come to pass, thou shalt possess a form truly worthy of a loyal knight!”

Suddenly, his panic began to dissipate. For as baffling as everything was, something about what she said...excited him, as though some part deep inside of his body was crying out ecstatically. “T-truly? I shall be deemed worthy of knighthood?” he asked, his voice no longer resembling the one he’d possessed moments ago. He should’ve been terrified but...it carried so much weight, so much importance, imbuing his every word with a regality that, despite himself, he couldn’t help but adore. A part of him noted that it seemed to have risen a few octaves as well, much of his masculinity leaving him and pushing it firmly into an androgynous range, but that didn’t bother him too much. His head was too caught up in the idea of him really being a knight to get very upset.

“But...huh?” he was snapped out of his odd, almost elated state for a moment, confused as to why he was getting so caught up in all of this. He’d never wanted anything even slightly like this, yet suddenly, becoming more knightly seemed like the most important thing in the world to Azuma. “W-why do I long for such a thing? My heart has never yearned for anything of the sort before now…” he asked, furrowing his brow as his face felt like it was almost...melting, his features reforming as he spoke. “And what of my speech? I have never possessed such a dignified manner befoRE!” As much as he wanted to call his new way of talking “ridiculous,” a part of him winced at the mere idea, turning his complaint into praise as it left his lips, which had slowly started to fill out, becoming plumper and taking on a soft pink tone even as his voice cracked higher.

The rest of his face soon began to follow suit, his nose cracking and narrowing down to a prettier, more dignified shape. Though he’d lost some of his chubbiness as he grew taller, his cheeks seemed to get just a touch softer-looking as his cheekbones rose and his chin smoothed itself down to a gentle point. His eyes seemed to brighten, the dark brown of his irises giving way to a radiant sky blue as his lashes grew thick and long, while his eyebrows thinned dramatically, their worried arc straightening out and taking on a more naturally elegant shape. Lastly, his hair, a dark, muddy brown, quickly lightened to a golden, shining blonde, the color shocking its way through every last short strand before it began to grow out, accompanied by a tingling sensation that wrapped around his whole scalp. Weight started to build up on his head as it lengthened, first tickling at his ears, then brushing against his neck, until large, thick torrents of hair began to spill out, flowing down his body. It easily covered his eyes, forcing him push it out of his face and feel it smooth, silky texture. It wasn’t long before it settled against the back of his thighs, a few longer strands kissing at the back of his knees, before it finally stopped, giving him hair that was definitely longer than his had ever been, but also far richer and thicker than he ever could have grown on his own. For as beautiful and warm as his features now were, possessing a feminine grace he had altogether lacked, his current, entirely serious expression gave him an intimidating edge.

“Magnificent, is it not? Indeed, I am pleased to see you so thoroughly embracing your destiny, my brave knight! I can even see it on your face, you are most prepared to take on the gravity of a quest such as this!” The knight smiled, all too pleased with how things were going.

“M-my face? O-Oh my!” He lightly gripped his throat as the words left him, suddenly all too aware of how his voice had changed. The lighter tone he’d heard earlier was fine, but this was entirely different. It was still strong and elegant, not much higher than it was a moment ago, but it had taken on a further degree of femininity that only confused him further as he rushed over to a nearby mirror, his free hand working to tie the towel around his body as tightly as possible.

“Thou art stripping me of my masculinity?!” he asked, panic gripping him once more. “My voice, my countenance! They bear no resemblance to myself! Nay, these are the features of a woman!”

“Ahaha! My brave knight, my provision only sought to bring out your true inner strength! It would appear that, in this instance, thou art best suited to the form of a beautiful woman! Carrying both grace and strength on your shoulders! ‘Tis nothing to be ashamed of, none who challenge you will ever doubt your worth, of that I am certain!”

“Y-you are certain?” he asked, a shy tone creeping into his voice, “I...I shall be stronger this way?”

“That I am!” the knight yelled out, passionately. “The sooner thou cast off the shackles of your old life, the stronger you will become! Your encroaching womanhood is a gift, it will do you no good to deny it further.”

“V-very well…” she said, wincing slightly as her shoulders cracked inwards, “If a woman is who I am to become, I shall embrace it posthaste!” she cried out, a determined look creeping onto her face once more as she cast aside her doubts.

As if the changes were thanking her for her acceptance, her arms quickly became thinner, any hint of fat leaving them as they grew lithe and soft, her hands shrinking down shortly after. Her fingers, however, seemed slightly longer on her diminished palms, taking on an elegant shape that was only highlighted by her lengthening nails shimmering in the room’s light. She held her hands up, moving her arms and wiggling her fingers nervously, though noting that, despite their reduced size, her arms felt so much stronger than they ever had. Though they bore no visible trace of muscle, she felt her biceps, poking them gently and realizing that, beneath her supple skin, they were undeniably firm and tight.

“It is as you say, I do indeed feel stronger!” she cried out happily. “I was wrong to consider this a curse in the slightest, can you forgive me for doubting you…?”

“Certainly, my brave knight! After all, thou shalt use this strength to liberate my sisters, and I can think of no greater repayment for my gifts than that!”

“You are most gra-Oof, I’m...I’m sorry Ma’am, I just…” she tried to respond, but she was quickly cut off by the feeling of her stomach twisting and turning. Gripping her waist, she felt as it rippled beneath her, much of the remaining fat melting off and giving way to a firm, flat, tight tummy that cinched in at the sides, giving her the beginnings of a remarkable hourglass shape as the tension in her stomach eased greatly. She smiled for a moment, grateful for how good it all felt to her, before she was quickly distracted by a building feeling of weight at her chest, turning her gaze towards her pecs as they softened and pushed outwards, slowly and, much to her embarrassment, extremely sensuously, as her fluffy towel gently caressed them

“I...I suppose a lady such as myself does require b-breasts…” she said, gently cupping the soft, supple mounds at her chest with a light blush as her nipples began to puff up, turning a gentle pink that looked as delicate as they now felt, going by the short, sharp pulses that rushed through her body as she touched them. She bit her lip, trying to hide her burgeoning arousal as her towel slowly began to undo itself, her swelling chest pushing it further and further until it simply couldn’t take it anymore, slowly drifting to the floor. Feeling far too unsteady to bend over and grab it with her chest’s building weight, she simply grabbed at her chest, desperately trying to cover herself as they grew larger and larger, the flesh beneath her fingers feeling softer, more pillowy, and far heavier with each passing second, sagging slightly and resting comfortably against her abdomen. She bit her lip harder, determined to not let out even the slightest moan as she was forced to wrap her arms around them, her hands alone not able to sufficiently cover them.

“S-surely they need not be so large!” she cried, her blush growing more intense as she turned to face the mirror, seeing just how sizeable they looked on her taller, though far more slender frame. They were gigantic, only beaten by the ogre models she’d seen on TV from time to time. Still, those women were far taller than she currently was, their larger endowments somehow looking less substantial than the bountiful breasts that now added to her curvy frame.

The shapeshifter grinned. She’d fully expected them to develop a body like this considering what kind of extraspecies they were about to become, but she’d never had such an intimate view of it all. Still, she took steps to ensure she never fell out of character, even as she watched Azuma’s breasts slowly rise and fall with each nervous breath she took, quickly working on an excuse that would satisfy her. “Brave knight, though their size is rather immense, ‘tis rather dishonorable to play with oneself in public! Nonetheless, take pride in your body, for you shall be filled with the strength to carry such endowments without struggle!”

“R-right…” Azuma muttered, still feeling particularly embarrassed as she loosened her grip on her chest, letting her breasts rest freely even though they made simply standing a much greater struggle than it had been earlier, something that was only further compounded by the tension she felt in her hips. As she looked down to observe what was happening to them, she blushed as she realized how hard it was to see past her breasts, instead turning towards the mirror and gasping as she saw her hips widen greatly, making her hourglass figure even more attractive as her butt started to perk up, filling with soft, feminine fat and taking on an irresistible teardrop shape. Soon, her thighs began to shift as well, plumping up to a delectably supple size and shape, though, as she gently squeezed them, she noted that they too had a firmness to them that her soft appearance completely hid. The changes continued unabated, her calves narrowing down to a cute, girlish size before her feet began to shift and crack, getting increasingly small and slender with each passing second, her toes getting cuter and softer to match, with nails that seemed glossier than they ever had before. When all was said and done, she was left with a pair of long, supple, wonderfully sexy legs. Still, as she looked at her reflection, she could only find herself growing increasingly embarrassed by the one part of her that had yet to change alongside everything else.

As though spurred on by that feeling, a warm, gentle tingle began to spread throughout her crotch, bringing with it a pleasant sensation that tugged at the edges of her senses, making her feel almost as though she was floating. She watched in the mirror as the genitals that had been causing her so much distress started to change and shrink down, easing the anxiety she’d felt before with each second that passed. They soon took on a delicate, soft pink hue as they continued to retreat into her body, delicate lips and a tender bud starting to form between her legs. The floating she felt faded as the last of the changes finished, and Azuma’s breath caught in her throat as she felt an unfamiliar elation bubble forth.

“I-is this truly the proof of my maidenhood?” she breathed, a light blush spreading through her cheeks.

“Why, of course not, my brave knight! Maidenhood, much like the virtues of strength and courage, doth take many forms, but none are found between thy legs. Nay,” the shapeshifter started to say, moving to Azuma’s side and placing a hand over her left breast, “the true proof dwells closer to to heart.”

“With this, then, are your gifts complete? Have I now the strength to free our comrades from their shackles?”

“Nay again, dear knight,” she answered, walking away and trying to smirk at what was to come next, “there is power yet dwelling in that body of yours, still waiting to be developed, potential yet unreached. Give it time, and all will be clear.”

Azuma continued to look at herself in the mirror, wanting more than anything to believe in the words of the knight, but finding herself confused at her words. Strangely, she almost felt insulted, the idea that there was something about the body that she was looking at that wasn’t perfect bringing forth a sense of pride that she never knew she had.

Still, despite her newfound pride, the changes soon began to flare up once more as she felt an odd warmth building in her ears. As she reached up to touch one, it felt strangely tender for a moment, before quickly starting to shift and change, getting larger and spreading out sideways, tapering into a long, pointed shape as the sensitivity she’d felt earlier began to fade.

“I-I am to become an extraspecies?! How is such a thing possible?! These ears...they are...elvish? Perhaps that of an ogre...nay, they are far too large for their kind and- O-Oh my!” she cut herself off, crying out as she saw a thin, soft layer of light brown fur beginning to coat her ears as she peered into the mirror, quickly covering them entirely, with light tufts at the tips making her ears look even larger than they already had.

“Wh-what on Earth is becoming of me, Ma’am? What sort of knight am I to become?!”

“My dear knight, have no fear! It is clear to me now that you will become more capable a knight than either of us could have foreseen! For you, it seems, will be both knight and steed at once! Indeed, you are to take the form of a noble centaur!” she said, wearing a triumphant, satisfied smile.

“A...a centaur? Am I truly to become such a strong, noble breed?!” she beamed, excited by the idea, though she wasn’t sure why she felt her heart surging with pride at the idea.

“Patience, dear knight. Just wait and watch,” the shapeshifter answered with a smirk, glad that her suggestion had taken hold.

Sure enough, it didn’t take long for a warm, slightly numbing sensation to sweep through Azuma’s legs. She turned back to the mirror to see soft, light brown fur start to cover the edges of her hips, spreading up to the lines of her pelvis and traveling downward, coating her crotch before moving through her thighs and calves, only stopping once it reached her ankles. She watched as her legs seemed to slim down a bit, the muscle that was hiding underneath their plumpness becoming more apparent as they did, her calves thinning out even more than her thighs. Her feet tensed up as their bones started to shift and rearrange, and she found herself teetering a little as they changed into hard, brown hooves.

Azuma continued to watch, her pride only swelling as she began to look more and more equine. She started to feel something pressing out from her back, pushing out of her tailbone, until she felt long, soft strands of silky blonde hair brushing against her knees, a thick, noble tail flowing out from behind her. Weight then began to fill her butt, making it even wider and larger than it was before, until it slowly began to spread outwards. It wasn’t long before her lower half more clearly resembled that of a horse, two more legs starting to grow out of her body, their hooves touching down to support the new, massive weight that was still filling with delicate fat and thick muscle. She couldn’t help but smile as the changes finally died down, slowly turning her body to get a look at how wide, powerful, and noble she’d become.

“It’s all...it’s all so...wonderful!” she cried, excitedly gazing into the mirror. Though this wasn’t something Azuma had ever even remotely desired, the shapeshifter’s words ensured that she could see nothing but the positives in all of it. Why would she dislike it, anyway? She’d lived such a lonely, empty life up until that point, but now, she was beautiful, elegant, and far stronger than she’d ever been, both in body and mind, though she admittedly struggled to handle her hair, constantly having to push it out of her face as she peered over as much of her body as she possibly could.

“It pleases me to see you appreciate your new form, dear knight. Please, allow me to assist you one last time.”

“I-I am still to change further? I...I’m rather fond of my body as is, Ma’am, can we not halt any of the remaining effects?” she asked, picking up her towel once more and clutching it to her body, her ears drooping slightly as she blushed shyly, hoping desperately that she could remain as is.

“Ahaha, nay, dear knight, you shall not change again! I merely wished to fix your hair, as it seems awfully troublesome.”

“Y-you will not cut it, surely?”

“I would never do such a thing! I only wish to bestow upon you a second tail…” she said warmly, walking next to Azuma and working quickly to style her hair, tying it into a high, flowing ponytail that still gently tickled her back, though remained firmly out of her vision save for two long locks that delicately framed her face. When she was done, she patted Azuma on the shoulder warmly and gestured towards the mirror, allowing her to soak in her reflection once more.

“Oh my! ‘Tis truly gorgeous, Ma’am! If I may ask for appropriate garments, and possibly a weapon, I feel I am ready to depart on my quest posthaste!” she said, smiling proudly at the shapeshifter.

“Though I am loathe to admit such a thing, I am afraid I have no garments that would fit one such as yourself, nor a sword save for my own! ‘Tis no matter, however! A true knight shall succeed regardless of the tools at her disposal.”

“B-but Ma’am...I cannot simply go out in nothing but a towel…”

“Indeed, such a thing will only constrict your movements! Off with it!” she declared, quickly pulling off the towel and letting it slowly drift to the ground, while Azuma herself let out a panicked cry and dropping to the floor, trying her best to cover her immense chest.

“M-Ma’am, surely I cannot depart wearing nothing at all!”

“You need not concern yourself with such trifling matters, dear knight. Thou shalt surely find attire within the M.O.N. base! Until then, fight through any shame that plagues you, concern yourself with little beyond our comrades!”

“O-Our comrades, of course!” she cried, getting up once more. “I...I shall depart at once, Ma’am! M-my apologies for letting fear grip my heart!” she yelled, the light blush that painted her cheeks showing that she hadn’t really shaken off any of her embarrassment.

“Very well, dear knight!” she said. “They are not far from here! Merely a few miles eastward, in a building known as the Cultural Exchange Office!”

“I shall not let you down, Ma’am! By the morrow, our comrades will taste freedom once more!” Azuma cried out, before dashing away in what she was certain was the right direction, eager to complete her very first quest.

“Oh wow!” the shapeshifter said, her voice reverting to its normal, light tones, dropping all hint of formality. “That had to have been my best performance ever! I made such an incredible cutie! Hopefully she’ll raise hell at those offices, give ‘em all a real wake-up call before they give her a new identity. Gosh, if I see her again, I might have to invite her into our little group!”

Her body slowly shrank down, reaching a cuter, less intimidating size as her armor completely melted away, before she moved into the bath, taking a seat and sighing happily as the warm water caressed her body. “Ooh yeah, that feels really great… I’ve earned this, for sure!”

She’d have to leave soon, she was sure M.O.N. would investigate this place as soon as they could, but for now, she was all too happy for the chance to unwind.

~~~

It had taken her a while longer than she’d have liked to reach the Cultural Exchange Office, the vague directions the shapeshifter had given her not providing much help in a city so densely packed with buildings that looked so similar to each other. She had a vague recollection of the city’s layout, of course, but she hadn’t ventured this far from her apartment in months. Still, she was grateful for how quiet the city streets had been so late at night, only needing to shield her body from the cool night air.

Eventually she found it, a determined glare on her face as she stared through the glass doors, seeing a receptionist sitting happily at a computer.

“It would appear that she has not seen me as of yet! Terrific, that gives me the element of surprise!” she yelled, before charging ahead towards the building, skidding to a halt as she realized she was about to collide with a set of locked doors. “Wh-what am I to do?! Should I break the doors? Nay, ‘twould attract far too much unwanted attention, and without weapons, I am sure to injure myself and-”

She was pulled out of her thoughts by the sound of the door’s lock releasing, the receptionist waving for her to come inside, a worried look on her face.

Shyly, Azuma gripped the door handle, pulling it forward and stepping into the building.

“Oh my, are you OK?! What happened to your clothes, Ma’am?” she asked, rushing to Azuma’s side.

Azuma, however, was too taken aback to respond at first. Why was her enemy showing her such kindness…?

“I...well…”

“Would you like to speak to one of our agents? If someone’s harmed you, they’ll be more than happy to assist you in any way they can!”

“B-but…” Azuma stammered, before shaking her head and scowling. She couldn’t allow herself to be so easily deceived! “Nay, no harm hath been done to me this day! I have come to free those your foul organization has so cruelly captured! Take me to your dungeon at once and no harm shall come to anyone!”

The receptionist just sighed. She had a feeling she knew exactly what was going on. “M-Ma’am, can you tell me the names of the people you believe we’re holding? We don’t do anything of the sort, but if it would put your mind at ease…”

“N-nay, I...I was given no names…”

“And why do you believe we’ve captured anyone?”

“I-I am under orders to rescue my comrades and-”

“From who?”

“Well...the brave lady knight who gave me my quest, and-”

“Right right, I’ve got it. Do you mind sitting here for a moment? I’ll move you to a private room in a second and call someone to help you shortly after.”

“I will not cooperate with-”

“Do you even know where you’d go to look for this ‘dungeon?’ This building is rather big, plus, everyone will see you naked, and I’m sure you don’t want that, no matter how important your quest is. I promise, we’re not going to hurt you.”

“But…” Azuma weakly protested, realizing she had no real idea of where she’d even begin without further information.

“Help yourself to some water while you wait, OK? It’ll make you feel better.”

“Th-thank you…” Azuma said with a blush, slowly walking over to a water cooler and pouring herself a drink, waiting shyly in the lobby until the receptionist escorted her to a private room, handing her a blanket to cover herself up until further help arrived.

Soon, the door to the room she was waiting in opened up again and a tall, dark-skinned ogre with a blood red horn on her head wearing a sleek black suit stepped inside, her eyes lighting up the moment she saw Azuma.

“Oh gosh oh gosh oh gosh! We had a cow last week, now we get a horsey, too!” she yelled happily, running up to Azuma and wrapping her arms around her, their chests smushing against each other softly. “Can we start a farm, Ma’am?! That’d be so much fun! I’ll tend to it and be the best farm hand ever!”

“How dare you?! I am no mere horse! I’m a proud centaur!” Azuma cried, trying to shove the ogre away.

“Tio, ease up on the poor girl, seems like she’s a bit frazzled and confused.”

“Awwww, but she’s so pretty…” Tio whined, backing off from Azuma.

Another woman, a human with long, dark hair stepped inside, dressed in a similar suit to the ogre. She wore a pair of sunglasses despite the late hour and was sipping from a mug of piping hot coffee. “Nice to meet you, you can call me Smith,” she said with a smile, holding out a hand towards Azuma, waiting for her to shake it.

Azuma, however, just stayed exactly where she was, glaring angrily at Smith.

“Yeah yeah, I get it,” the woman muttered, taking a seat. “Our receptionist filled us in. Some woman dressed like a knight told you we’ve got people in a dungeon or something, so you burst in here wearing nothing at all and demanding us to set your ‘comrades’ free. Is that all, or am I missing some details?”

“Thou art making a mockery of my quest! She was truly a brave knight, not merely dressed as one, and-”

“But I got everything, right?”

“I...I suppose, in a manner of speaking…”

“Good, good! Well, like I said, I’m Kuroko Smith, but please, just call me Smith. I believe you’ve already become well acquainted with Tionishia here, she’ll be caring for you at our new farmhouse.”

“R-really?!” Tio’s eyes lit up once more, while Azuma recoiled in shock.

“Guess that one was a little mean, huh?” Smith said, taking another sip of her coffee. “But no, sorry to disappoint you, Tio.”

“Awww…”

“W-why must you make a fool of me?!” Azuma asked, clearly annoyed.

“Sorry! This is unprofessional of me to admit, but...honestly, it’s…” she checked her watch, “just shy of midnight. I reeeeally don’t wanna be here right now… Still, rest assured, I’m gonna make sure you’re taken care of.”

“T-taken care of?! You’ll throw me in the dungeon?!”

Smith sighed, chuckling softly before she spoke again. “We really don’t have any dungeon. I’m sure you’re confused, so I’ll cut to the chase. You were human until a little while ago, right? I’m assuming that knight you were talking about changed you into a centaur?”

Azuma’s eyes widened. “H-how are you familiar with the knight’s sorceries?!”

“Do you mind telling me what it was that she gave you?”

“A...a pill, some form of magical medicine that slowly changed me into an elegant woman, and then a proud, noble centaur. All to make me a better knight.”

Smith raised an eyebrow. This was all sounding increasingly familiar to her. “I’m going to guess, then, that you didn’t really have any...knightly behaviors until all of this?”

“‘Tis most shameful, however… Nay, I was… Must I say it?” she asked, nervously.

“No, that’s OK. I just...I hate to break your heart, but that woman you encountered wasn’t really a knight. She was a member of an organization responsible for a string of recent disappearances. At least, that’s what we tell people they’ve done. In truth, they’re turning humans into extraspecies, just like yourself.”

Azuma just stared at her, utterly shocked. “The...the knight wasn’t…? The one who bestowed me with such lovely gifts...she...she was a brigand?”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you all of this, but...yeah, basically.”

“It’s OK!” Tio said, hugging Azuma gently. “It doesn’t matter what she really was, because I think you turned out really beautiful, and we’re gonna make sure you’re safe and happy no matter what!”

Azuma, for her part, found herself returning the hug, a look of resolve spreading across her face. “I...I am sorry to have distrusted you all, played for a fool by some foul ruffian...”

“Don’t worry about it, she filled your head with all sorts of things. It’s understandable you’d be confused.”

“B-but what do I do now? Where can I go?”

“Well…” Tio started, happily, “you like your body, don’tcha?”

“I...I do...”

“We can’t change you back, but you wouldn’t want that anyway, would you?”

“I...I would not like to give up my body, no matter what deceit it was born from.”

“That’s perfect! We’re gonna sort everything out! We’ll give you a cute name, and find a nice place for you to live, right Ma’am?”

“Right,” Smith said, grateful for Tio’s gentle touch during situations like these. “I have a house in mind, and if you just sign a few forms, we can get you eased into your new life without a hitch.”

“Y-you would do so much for one such as myself? One who called thee an enemy not a moment ago?”

“Water under the bridge,” Smith said, looking at the papers in front of her. “But we’re going to have to give you a new name, like we said, and, unfortunately, you’re going to have to keep your past as a human under wraps. Can you do that for me?”

“Perish the thought! I...I would not dare to look back on a time before I was a proud knight!”

“That’s the spirit! Now, as for a name…”

“Ooh, can I name her?” Tio asked, still hugging Azuma tightly.

“I’m not some pet for you to-”

“Centorea Shianus! A suuuuper cool, fancy name for a pretty knight like you!”

“Ce-Centorea…” the centaur muttered, a light blush on her face.

“Perfect! Let’s call you Cerea, for short,” Smith said, writing it down. “I trust you have no objections, Cerea?”

“I...I must confess, I am quite fond of the name…” she replied. Even though part of her name was clearly an odd joke, there was something regal and elegant about it that she found herself dearly loving.

“I love it when these meetings go so smoothly, don’t you, Tio?”

“It’s really fun to help pretty girls like you, Ms. Centorea!”

Centorea found herself smiling weakly. Though things had gotten off to a rocky start, she was already being treated with the utmost kindness. “Indeed, thou art remarkable hosts, gracious even in the face of adversity!”

“Thank you so much!” Tio beamed proudly. “Do you wanna get dressed before we carry on with the boring stuff? Ms. Smith can call a host family for you while I get you something cute to wear, and maybe something yummy to eat, too!”

“That...that sounds rather pleasant…” Centorea said, nodding happily. “But...a host family? Dost thou mean to say that I shall have my very own...L-Lord or Lady to serve?”

“Haha, you’ll fit right in with the people I’ve got in mind!” Smith smiled, before letting out a soft yawn and stretching as she rose to her feet. “I’m gonna make some calls, but I think at this point we’re all spending the night here. You OK getting a little shuteye? We’ll get you some blankets and pillows you can use, and Tio’s more than happy to keep you company. I’ll come back in the morning with a fine Lady for you to protect. Sound good?”

“Yup! I’ll go get all that stuff for her right away! It’ll be like a slumber party, Centorea!” Tio said happily, rushing off.

“R-right! I shall rest easy, knowing that such an honor awaits me in the morrow! Good day, Ms. Smith!”

“Sleep well, Cerea. You’re handling this admirably, you must be one hell of a knight…” she said with a smirk, shutting the door behind her as she stepped out of the room and leaving Centorea alone, blushing bright red and wearing a goofy, all-too-pleased smile.

It didn’t take long for Tio to come back, a duffel bag that was absolutely stuffed full under her arm.

“Oh gosh, Cerea! Are you OK, you’re all red!”

“I-I’m fine!”

“OK! Sorry I don’t have any PJs for you, but I got you some pretty, really comfy clothes!” she said, pulling out what appeared to be a sleeveless blouse, a cute red ribbon, and an absolutely massive flowing black skirt.

“Wanna get dressed?”

“C-certainly! Though…’tis rather shameful, but...I’ve never worn anything since I...became a knight, and…”

“Gotcha, I’ll help out, so don’t worry about a thing!”

It didn’t take long for them to put the outfit on. Though Centorea had never worn a skirt before, she was remarkably at ease with the idea, especially considering how limited her clothing options likely were for that part of her body. She did, however, lament not being able to put it on herself, realizing that it meant she’d need someone to assist her daily with such things. Still, the skirt fit perfectly, covering up much of her body and adding a great deal of elegance to her already regal appearance. The sleeveless blouse was a bit easier, up to a point. She didn’t need help from Tio on that, though she blushed furiously as she tried to button it over her massive chest, trying her best to fit it in comfortably without looking utterly ridiculous.

“Sorry there’s no bra, Cerea! Mine are a bit too big for one, but I’m sure we’ll be able to find you some soon!”

“‘T-tis no matter! No need to concern anyone with my b-breasts!” she stammered, just barely managing to make them fit. Lastly, she tied the cute red ribbon around her collar, complimenting the rest of her outfit wonderfully. It was a simple ensemble, to be sure, but it was utterly feminine, and, much to Centorea’s delight, truly did make her look like something of a knight, even if she possessed no armor.

“You look super pretty! How does it feel?!” Tio asked, happily.

“This is certainly fine garb for a knight such as myself. I owe you many thanks, Ms. Tionishia!”

“Awwww, thank you! For being so nice, here’s a little reward for you!” Tio turned around, reaching into the duffel bag and pulling something out, turning back towards Centorea and handing her what she’d found.

“A-a carrot?” Centorea asked, nervously.

“Yup! I know horsies can only eat vegetables and fruit and stuff, but I also know they really love carrots, so I thought this would be really tasty!”

“A-as I have said numerous times, I am no mere horse! I am a proud...proud…” she started to trail off as Tio inched ever closer, holding the carrot beneath Centorea’s nose. As much as she wanted to avoid eating it, and even though she’d hated carrots before, it just smelled so very, very good. The scent was practically intoxicating her, tempting her to just take one little bite…

“W-well, I have not eaten in quite some time, a-and I suppose a nibble might not hurt…” She took the carrot from Tio’s hands, eyeing it shyly.

“It’s OK, you can eat it!”

“I-if you insist…” she muttered, before taking the smallest nibble she possibly could, her eyes lighting up the second it hit her tongue. “O-Oh my!” she cried out ecstatically, all decorum flying out the window as she munched on the carrot happily. “This rich, delectable flavor! ‘Tis a marvel, Ms. Tionishia! I...I…” she blushed brightly, suddenly realizing that she’d made a total fool of herself before Tio gently patted her head, smiling at her.

“I’ve got a whole bag of them, so eat up!”

Centorea could hardly resist, practically devouring the rest of the carrot before getting to work on the rest of the bag. She did her best to fight through her growing embarrassment, all too aware of the blissful smile spreading across her face, knowing that her stomach was far stronger than any feelings of shame at that time.

A short while later, feeling completely stuffed and full, she was finally ready to head to bed. She helped lay out the blankets with Tio and rested comfortably on them while the ogre lay next to her, snuggling up to her happily, warm smiles painting themselves on their faces as they slowly drifted off to sleep, Centorea’s head swimming with fantasies of the new Lady Smith had promised to find her the next day.

~~~

Centorea’s eyes slowly fluttered open, feeling the soft weight of Tio pressed into her side, hugging her tightly. She was quickly forced into attention, however, by the hoof just a few inches in front of her face, covered in ornate, jeweled armor. As she slowly turned her gaze upwards, she saw a large, stocky centaur with a round, adorable face staring down at her, her features forced into what must’ve been an attempt at a glare that her natural cuteness absolutely betrayed.

“You’re gonna- er, sorry, I mean, you are to be my Mistress’s new guard?” a bubbly, ditzy voice said. As she corrected herself, she attempted to affect a lower, more dignified tone, but it only made her sound even sweeter, following her earlier fumble.

Centorea, however, jolted upright, the blankets that had been covering her falling down onto Tio, who still slept happily, unperturbed by the disturbance.

“Thou art a comrade? One who shall protect my Lady alongside me?” Centorea replied, a hint of worry in her voice as she considered the fact that the centaur in front of her may be another enemy, someone trying to deceive her.

“I’ve been protecting Mistress for quite some time, and if you...uhhh, what’s the word…?” She thought to herself for a moment, her eyes lighting up as she continued her sentence, “Intend! Yeah, if you intend to bring her harm, I’ll...well, I’ll stand in your way!”

“If your Mistress is indeed the noble Lady I am to serve, then rest assured, I shall do nothing of the sort! I shall dedicate my heart and soul to her!”

The other centaur’s glare totally faded, her expression softening into a cheerful smile before giving Centorea a big, warm hug. “Oh wow, you’re really good at this! I didn’t quite get all of that, but it sounds like you’re gonna be friends with Mistress and me, and that’s great! I’m Shaia, Mistress Michiru’s royal guard! It’s so nice- I...I mean, it’s an honor to meet you!”

Centorea was taken aback for a moment, but soon found herself shyly returning the hug. She was an odd girl, to be sure, but she seemed more than friendly enough. She was sure she’d get along well with her. “Well met, Shaia! I am confident that thou art a fine guard indeed. My name is-”

“Ooh, hold that for a second, OK?” she said, putting a hand over Centorea’s mouth, immediately stifling her before calling out in the direction of the door, “Mistress, It’s safe to come in, now!”

The door to the room opened up, Smith stepping inside and waving cheerfully at Centorea, while another, fairly tired looking woman with her hair in a tight, though somewhat messy ponytail followed behind, yawning as she did.

“Morning Cerea, I see you’ve met Shaia. She lives with Michiru here, the uhhh...Lady you’ll be serving. We just drove them in from the countryside, so she’s a little beat, but I’m sure that the three of you will be getting along in no time at all.”

Michiru rubbed her eyes, trying to lighten her fatigue, clearing her vision before looking up at Centorea with a sleepy smile. “Nice to meet you, I- Shaia! What are you doing to her?!”

“Ooh, well, she was gonna tell us her- I mean, she had a grand introduction planned, and I thought it best to share it with you!” Shaia said, smiling happily as she removed her hand from Centorea’s mouth.

“I’m really sorry, Shaia gets a bit excitable at times… I’m Michiru Kinoshita, it’s good to meet you.”

“Nay, my dear Lady Michiru, ‘tis an honor to meet you at last. My name is Centorea Shianus, though my comrades prefer to use the name Cerea. I shall graciously accept any name you find most acceptable, it shall not dampen my ability to serve you in the slightest!” she said proudly, certain that it would delight her new Lady.

“Eh? Y-you’re...a knight…?” Michiru asked, a look of open-mouthed confusion on her face.

“That is correct, my Lady.”

“S-Smith…?” Michiru asked, nervously.

“Hmm?”

“A-are all centaurs like this?”

“Well, these two sure are! They’ll make a good pair, don’t you think?”

“It’s just...well…”

“My Lady, please accept my humblest apologies if thou dost not approve of me…” Centorea said, her head bowed in shame.

“N-no, it’s just…” Michiru sighed. She couldn’t treat the latest addition to her house like this. “It’s an honor to have you, Cerea! I just wasn’t expecting to meet such a noble knight! In fact, I’m sure you’ll serve me perfectly!” She smiled, doing her best to cheer her up. Next to her, Smith stifled a small chuckle, while Tio remained on the floor, sleeping happily.

“M-My Lady, thank you ever so much!” Centorea said, walking towards her and clasping her hands tightly. “In truth, I have worried dearly that one such as I has no purpose, though meeting you has renewed my spirit! I shall pour my entire being into my duties, I swear it!”

“G-goodness gracious, this is aweso-er, lovely! I just knew that Mistress Michiru was gonna- gosh, this is hard sometimes...” she coughed, clearing her throat before continuing “I was certain Mistress would take to you the moment she laid eyes on you, Cerea!”

“That’s great! You’re all getting along wonderfully, I see.” Smith said. “Michiru, mind filling out some paperwork? You can get going as soon as that’s done.”

Michiru nodded, walked up to the stack of papers Smith had laid out on the desk and quickly started signing them.

“Before we depart, my Lady, dost thou mind sparing me the briefest moment to thank my dear friend Tionishia?” she asked, gesturing to the sleeping ogre on the floor.

“Sure, take as much time as you need,” Michiru said, barely looking up as she focused on the papers in front of her.

Centorea walked over to Tio and shook her gently, watching her eyes slowly flutter open, a warm smile spreading across her face.

“Morning, Cerea!” she said, hugging her gently, feeling Centorea’s arms wrap around her in turn. “Last night was so fun! You were really comfy!”

“‘Twas indeed a fine evening, Ms. Tionishia. Sadly, however, I must bid thee farewell. My Lady has arrived to take me to my new home. I am certain, however, that when we next meet, no matter how far away such an occasion may be, it shall be even more magnificent.”

“Oh gosh, Michiru’s here?!” she looked around for a moment, smiling and waving at Michiru and Shaia. “Hi you two, it’s so good to see you again!”

“Hey Tio,” Michiru said, still working on paperwork.

“Hi Tio!” Shaia said, waving excitedly.

“But don’t worry, silly, I’ll be driving you home, and I’m gonna visit you as much as you want!”

“T-truly?!”

“Yep! A friend of mine introduced me to Shaia and Michiru a while ago, so I visit from time to time! Oh, you can text me anytime, too! You’re going to such a pretty house, Cerea!”

Centorea smiled happily, hugging Tio once more. “That’s wonderful, Tionishia! I am truly blessed to have found a companion so lovely and understanding as you! To think, I came charging into your place of employ, full ready to make war! Few things fill me with such shame, now that I have come to know the compassion that dwells within each of you!”

Tio hugged her back, giggling softly. “You’re so sweet, Cerea! Thank you so much!”

“Aaaand done,” Michiru said, putting down her pen.

“Wonderful!” Smith said with a smile. “Well then, ready to get going?” she asked looking at Centorea.

“Indeed, I believe I am,” Centorea responded, beaming confidently.

~~~

Centorea dashed through the meadow, eager to reach her Lady. She’d received a text message from Michiru a few minutes earlier, simply saying that she needed her urgently, asking Cerea to meet her at the tree on the hill overlooking their property. The home Michiru had been given was surprisingly vast, seemingly intended to be used as farmland, but as Centorea rushed to aid her with whatever crisis had emerged, she’d wished she’d spent more time familiarizing herself with the lay of the land and working out the most efficient routes she could for navigating her new home. Still, it was no matter. She was quick, as a knight should be, and was certain that it wouldn’t take much longer for her to reach Lady Michiru. She wished Shaia had been present when she’d been texted. She could’ve used a comrade at a time like this, but she was more than confident she could handle the situation herself, though she grumbled as she felt how wildly her breasts were bouncing as she galloped, hoping she would find an adequate bra soon.

As she reached the hill, beginning her climb upwards, she readied herself for whatever may be waiting, pulling out a wooden sword she’d fetched from her room. No matter what the threat was, she was confident she would perform her knightly duties admirably.

“Vile fiends, unhand my Lady at once or taste my blade! I am a proud knight of House Kinoshita and...and…” The fire in her eyes began to fade as she took in the situation, a confused look spreading across her face instead. “L-Lady Michiru? Shaia?”

There was no fight going on, no evil to vanquish, nothing. Just Shaia and Michiru, sitting happily on a blanket, with a spread of food laid out between them.

“You’re here!” Shaia said, happily saluting Centorea. “That was really fast-er, I mean, prompt!”

“No fiends here, Cerea, I promise,” Michiru said, smiling and patting the spot next to her on the blanket.

“Th-then why the call for such urgency…? ‘Tis not a problem, my Lady! Of course not, I just-”

“Because of how you’re getting now, dummy,” Michiru said with a warm smile. “Shaia and I thought we’d throw you a little party, that’s all, so take a seat!”

“C-certainly,” Centorea said, sitting down nervously between Shaia and Michiru, who handed her a carrot.

“A c-carrot? Though I appreciate the gift, my Lady, a knight such as myself is no mere horse, and-mmph!”

Michiru grinned, cutting her off and shoving the carrot into her mouth as she spoke, watching as Centorea shyly started munching on it, before rapidly devouring the entire thing, a blissful expression on her face. “You don’t need to hide yourself away, silly. Shaia loves these, so I knew you would, too. We’d never think less of you because of what you enjoy. I know I’m your Lady and all that, but...well...jeez, I’m no good at this stuff...Shaia and I love you, Cerea.”

“Yep! I...I mean, we most certainly do, Cerea!”

Centorea’s face turned bright red as she tried to stammer out a response “M-m-my L-Lady! I-I...well…”

Michiru grabbed another carrot, holding it out for Cerea and smiling as she took it, shyly eating it as she looked down at the floor. “It’s OK, I know it’s hard to say, but we’re here for you, got it?”

Centorea finished her carrot quickly, her head spinning with all kinds of amazing feelings. She was so desperate to respond to them, she just had no idea how to collect herself.

“And if you can’t say it now, or don’t feel the same way, that’s alright too. We’ll never think you’re anything less than amazing, Cerea. We promise.”

Centorea steeled herself at that. No matter how shy she was, no matter how difficult it was to say, she wouldn’t allow either of them to think she disliked them. “My Lady...Shaia… Please, do not for a moment believe that I do not think the world of both of you, for I…I…” She took a deep breath, before speaking up once more, filled with more courage than she’d ever before possessed. “I love the both of you as well! I wish to spend the rest of my days alongside you!”

“Goodness gracious! That was amazing, Cerea!” Shaia said, hugging her warmly.

“It really was!” Michiru said, chuckling softly as she hugged Centorea as well. “But I guess it fits you, giving everything your all like that. I have a feeling your wish will come true, Cerea. We’ll spend every single day together, and no matter how tiring it can be, no matter how difficult it can be, we’ll always, always have each other.”

Cerea slowly put her arms around the other two, fighting back her tears. “I-Indeed! We certainly shall!” Shaia and Michiru slowly pulled away, smiling at the latest addition to their family warmly. “And there truly is no better way to celebrate than with this fine feast you two have prepared! May I take some more, my Lady?”

“Help yourself! We’ve got enough to stuff ourselves full for the week!”

“And don’t worry, Cerea! It’s all Centaur-friendly, I checked!”

As Centorea picked up another carrot, she smiled at the other two. “Well then…” she started, “it seems to me that you two are giving everything your all as well!”

The three chatted away happily for the rest of the afternoon, enjoying everything that Michiru and Shaia had prepared for the occasion. There were happy to have so many more wonderful days ahead of them, talking about all the amazing things they wanted to do with each other until it grew late. They watched as the sun slowly began to set, sinking down past the hill they were sitting on, their conversation dying off as the appreciated the beauty of it. They couldn’t help but smile, knowing that, for as big as their plans for the future were, the best moments were the small ones like this, where they happily enjoyed each other’s company, content and happy that they had truly become a family.