A/N: Oh. My. God. Can you believe it? I'm done. I'm finally, finally done with this story and I have brought it to and ending that will at least do for now. At least I like some parts of it. And I'm hoping that all you, my beautiful, gorgeous reviewers will too. Muah. I love you all so much and without your encouragement, none of this could have ever happened. So…thank you for being there throughout this whole experience, or even just a bit of it, because at least you were still there. I love you, I love you, I love you all to infinity and beyond.
There is nothing more comforting in this world or the next than a really, really good meal. It is a universal truth that the mere taste of a small fragment of a succulent piece of meat, that first shock of herbs in your mouth, the crunch of fresh vegetables, the flavor of a buttery potato, can wish away many of the world's ills.
Unfortunately, it doesn't really help you tone up your unexcercised, inactive body
I surveyed myself in the mirror. I had to have gained at least seven pounds in the past two months, what with all the fantastic cooking (if I did say so myself) and the non-heroinish-activities. The most exercise I ever got was maybe walking up the mountains to fetch fresh herbs every once in a while.
My thighs were looking distinctly bulkier.
Ah, the qualms of being a retired heroine! I sunk back into my meal with weepy vengeance.
"Oh, Mr. Piece Of Sautéed Duck," I sighed mournfully, holding up a bite of meat to the sunlight that was gradually making its way across my floorboards and out the window towards the lowering sun. "You're my ooonly friend in this whole, wide world. You're the only one who really, really knows what happened." I sniffed unhappily and thrust the portion into my mouth. "I bet you never had to worry about…about your would-be mate running across the country trying to find you and imminently bringing about said country's doom if your duck did find you."
A robin flew by my window and I could've sworn it gave me a reproachful look.
GAH! Stupid brain.
"Yeah, that's right!" I hollered around a mouthful of garlic-butter potatoes. "Eat your tiny little heart out because I AM EATING YOUR COUSIN DUCK!!"
And that was really gross. I pushed my plate away.
I had moved out of the tiny blacksmith's cottage my father and I had shared, and moved into the room above the kitchen of The Laughing Llama. It was mostly about how my father deserved some privacy now, especially with his little romance with the village teacher going on…
…And it was kinda…a little…just a little about me, too.
I didn't want to be reminded of too much, nowadays. The cottage held too many memories of Mother, which meandered along thought patterns to reach the Heroine Contest, which in turn slid through to reach Ash. I didn't see Milly all that often anymore either—she was busy in her new married life, and she was also the one who had convinced me to enter the Heroine Contest in the first place.
Maybe I was a bit resentful to her about that. And being with my best friend reminded me of another best friend, who was apparently shacked up with Donny 'the Guard'.
So I buried myself in the inn's business and all that stuff, and pushed along the tentative connection between Lillian and Braden, two of my kitchen helpers and sometimes-servers. They were nice people, really. Two years younger than me, true, but I could have conversations with them and they were actually really funny at times. Mostly funny in the way they shied away from each other and covered their attraction with lots of glares and sniffy remarks and—
And oh gods, there was the 'Ash' factor again.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid…" I muttered, leaning my head against the slightly grimy window. "Just go to bed, Ray, and then wake up, and then make your way through the next day and the next day and the next day after that. Not too hard. And stop talking to yourself before everybody declares you certifiably insane."
That's the problem when you don't come into contact with people for long periods of time. You start having conversations with yourself or bits of paper or objects that don't exactly possess good conversational skills, and soon after that people invariably overhear you and get the nice men in white suits to drag you to the nearest locked-and-padded cell in the vicinity.
Sudden footsteps. "Aaah…does a Lady Larasia Astarr live here?"
It was a young voice that met my ears, and an equally young face that met my terrified eyes as I whirled around. The young voice and the young face suddenly reflected my expression—probably upon seeing my ginormous thighs, I reflected morosely. They were like…hairless white mammoths.
I grabbed a large loaf of bread and whacked the intruder with it. "Aaaaah!"
"So sorry to bother you miss and I promise it won't happen again and I'll just be going now and please don't huuuurrrttt meeeee!" (Blubbers.)
"Why're you screaming?" I bawled.
"Because you're screaming!" The page screamed back at me.
"I wasn't screaming!" I shrieked.
"Y-yes you weeeerrreeee!" The boy wailed.
I burst into tears of stress and pent-up emotion. The boy's hairless lip started quivering and he joined me in a right little wailing party of mutual distress.
Ten minutes later, we returned to staring at each other. "Who are you?" I asked.
"G-Gerald." The boy whimpered, pale eyes widening again in fear. "Wh-who are you? Are you Lady Larasia? 'Cause I've been sent to f-fetch you to the pala-a-ace."
I suddenly noticed his livery, the silver and green of the kingdom. Ha, I sneered. Green little boy out on his first big mission and who got lucky and found me.
Bastard, I added for good measure.
"Well," I smiled thinly, "I'm afraid you're wrong. I'm not this Lady Larasia you're speaking of."
But gods, it was just so, so tempting to fling open my arms and cry, Yes, yes, I'm Lady Larasia and I'll be thrilled to accompany you back to the palace and fall into the arms of my One True Love!!
Yeah. For one itty, bitty bit of a second I was tempted to just shout, Screw the country! and ride off into the sunset with the little page-errand and travel to Ash's waiting arms and basically send the kingdom to hell, accompanied by a freaking fanfare.
Because, you know, you can't really be outspoken and stuff when you're head of a country. Visiting ambassadors really, really don't like people who can't shut up about their opinions and neither do other members of the court. And while that habit might be charming to your consort, that's only in private and after a while, not even then.
Like…they won't really want to hear your opinions about their garlic breath twenty years into the marriage. Not that Ash had garlic breath or anything. I'm just saying.
"Eh?" The kid peered at me and slumped. "I was so sure I'd gotten it right. All the other men said that they'd find her first and I was real happy when I found the lead, 'cause there's a big prize and me mam and sisters 'n' brothers're all real hungry and stuff. 'Cause you have the weird hair and eyes like the girl too, and the crazy kind of glint in your eyes and…"
Gah! I don't care about your measly family! I just care that you get your little butt out of my house without discovering what a completely bad liar I am! See? I'm a heartless, wicked, thunder-thighs woman who eats children like you for breakfast! I don't care about your starving family, so don't try to use that method to persuade me to jump into your little carefully laid trap because I totally see right through it!
Okay, I care about your stupid family.
I surreptitiously stuffed about five loaves of bread into the huge sack he was lugging with him. Huh. Maybe it was part of standard Ray-capturing gear or something. Like…bagging a cat.
Hey, I resent that. The irony is so not funny, Ash-wherever-you-are!
Hold on. I was just insulted by the kid. "Hey, I don't have weird hair!! Or eyes!" Pause. "And I'm not crazy!"
Huh. That might be a little bit suspicious, defending myself that way.
Apparently, the boy was too dense to notice how I'd practically given myself away and instead dolefully plodded out of the room. "Oh. Nice meeting you, miss. Come find me if you ever see a girl who kinda looks like you."
"Sure." I waved cheerfully, ushering him out. "Bubbye, now. Safe traveling. Hasta luego. Asta la vista. Bon Voyage." I shut the door behind him. "Ha! Sucker."
Ash strode through his palace hallways, boot heels clicking gently against the marble as he contemplated…things. Deep things. Involving lots of metaphors about lotuses and butterflies and other…frou-frou stuff. Or lace.
Ooo, Ray in lace.
He sighed, sitting down in one of the simple, uncomfortable chairs in the petitioner's hall and took out a crinkled piece of paper that had been looked over and flipped over and read and touched more times than he could count. Ash had looked for secret messages, secret codes; but it all came to just the simple message, again.
I love you.
He quelled the rising anger. If she loved him, said that insistent voice that sounded miraculously like Lady Neie, why would she have left? If she had truly loved him she would have stayed by his side and faced it together with him, wouldn't she?
You're just jealous that she can make it without you. You're just pissed off and sad that she doesn't need you. Another taunting voice entered the fray.
Right. Ash officially knew why Ray was constantly complaining about the different voices in her head. Maybe the voices were a symptom of gut-twisting, teeth-gnashing love because he had certainly never had the Little Voice problem before the contest. And hell, but they were bloody annoying and certainly not helping in the least. They were just buzzing in his ear like little…buzzards.
Oh, no, those were birds, weren't they?
Well, buzzing in his ear like things that buzzed.
Ash turned his mind to Important Affairs of State—the county of Illevas hadn't paid their monthly taxes in full since August of last year, and he'd have to look into that. He'd heard from one of the heroines who lived in that county that it was doing badly. The harvest of last year had been weak, and as the county's main source of income resided in its agricultural fields, the economy had suffered in turn.
The question was rather to punish the county or offer Illevas Royal Aid.
Well, it's not like Illevas can help it that the harvest was poor, a snotty voice said in his head. Illevas is a county, not a one person. So send some people over there, have them teach the farmers that newfangled method of planting that doesn't hurt the soil, and then lend the county a bit of money that they can pay off once they get the harvest sorted out; maybe decrease the taxes in accordance with their depleted wealth. You know that they're one of the richest counties in the kingdom when the harvest is good, so just wait. And don't send people, actually. Go yourself, you big, lumbering idiot. What the hell kinda king are you, anyway?
Shut up, Ray-voice.
He had been trying to become a Good King. Really. And his father and his mother had noticed, and other people whose opinions he respected more had also commented on his now…nearly fanatical obsession with the role he had been trained and groomed for since birth. He had cracked open books he hadn't opened since he was twelve years old, and even then he had only opened those books to pretend he was reading them while the latest play was hidden beneath the desk.
He riffled through papers and papers and was a constant presence during court and petitioner's hall, abolishing acts that had been put into place centuries ago and now no longer applied or even made sense, and issuing new acts that might actually help people.
It was mostly done out of an odd sense of loyalty to his kingdom. And there was also a bit of him that did it because he hoped that maybe, maybe she'd see what he was doing and come back. Because he was doing something, and he was actually liking it instead of just sitting foppishly around all day complaining about how bored he was, and it was sorta…kinda because of her influence that Ash was finally ready to wear the crown.
Stupid 'growing-up' end-of-story morals.
He sobered. But it wasn't quite the end of the story. It couldn't be, because he hadn't gotten the girl yet. Goddammit, but he hadn't even kissed the girl yet.
His lips twitched and he almost smiled. But he had held her hand, right? Like some kind of twelve year old adolescent? That had to count for something.
"Your Highness." A manservant was suddenly beside him with a discreet cough. "The last messenger you sent out is here to report."
Ash straightened up. "Yes. Yes, send him in."
Bowing, the man exited the room, presumably to tell the last messenger to enter the room. Ash frowned. He could have sworn he'd seen the last of all the runners yesterday, but perhaps there was one he had overlooked…
A boy, little more than ten years old, shuffled before the chair.
Ash raised an eyebrow, before turning to the manservant. "I wasn't aware that I employed ten year olds in my service to send riding about the kingdom."
The manservant raised an eye in turn. "Your Highness, I wasn't aware that you didn't."
He could've sworn that the man was mocking him, and was about to call him out on it before he saw the glint of blue eyes beneath the mop that passed for the servant's hair. Oh. Donny.
Why couldn't he have just shifted into a bird and left it at that? But noooo, Ash's long-time friend and fairy guardian just had to go to all the trouble of disguising himself and…stuff. How did Donny know that that uniform wasn't needed by someone else? Hm? Inconsiderate bastard.
How he had managed to get that Ana girl was something Ash could simply not understand.
"Mister…sir…Highness," the boy who was nervously knotting his obviously stolen palace livery was mumbling, "I went there to find her myself 'cause some of the boys told me that you were giving a lot of money if one o' us found her."
Ash was growing impatient. He sympathized with the boy. He would even give the boy some gold coins as compensation, maybe. But by gods, he had things to do and people to see! "I see. And…?"
"Well," the boy gulped nervously, and Ash quickly closed his eyes and counted to three, getting himself under control again before seeing an odd little glint in the boy's eyes. It wasn't a glint of fear—no, not anywhere where near that. It was a glint that Ash was all too familiar with because he often saw it in his own reflection. It was a glint of pure glee and knowingness and mischief. "I think I found her."
"Is that so?" Ash asked warily, now quickly on his guard at this strange, quick boy in front of him. "And is she in that rather large sack you're lugging behind you?"
"Nah." A grin almost threatened to slip out before the boy was again the typical blubbery, weak, sniveling, uneducated peasant. "She wouldn't fit. Her thighs are this big." The boy demonstrated.
Ash nearly kicked his ass before he was restrained by Donny.
What kinds of children were being raised these days???
"So I left her there. But I'm pretty sure it was her. She had the purple hair and the eyes. She didn't have any cat stuff, but she was pre-e-etty crazy. She hit me with a loaf of bread."
Ash closed his eyes and smiled, remembering the night out in the hallways. He still had the sack he had stuffed all his food and clothes and money in during his brief attempt to escape. Wow, he was such a freaking girl. "Sounds like her." He murmured.
"Yeah?" The boy gave him a look of absolute disgust upon seeing Ash's look of absolute adoration. "Your Highness, forgive me for saying, but you have weird taste in girls."
Okay. Gone was the uneducated peasant and a streetwise city urchin was Ash's new company.
"And then she starting screaming and gods, but she has powerful lungs, sir. And of course she said she wasn't who she was, but she's a really bad liar, sir. Her eyes were rolling like a horse's and everyfink. And she started mumbling and rambling to herself, though I think she thought she was just thinking the stuff 'stead of saying it all aloud. And she got all weird and defensive. And she stuffed five loaves of bread into my bag when I said that me family was starvin'. Not that I have a family. But she thought she was goin' about it all surptitious, like."
"Surreptitious." Ash remarked absently. No question about it. It was Ray.
"Yeah. Sure. That. So, do I get the money?"
"Where is she?"
"Some little town called 'Littleton-on-the-dell' or something like that, working in some dinky inn called 'The Laughing Llama'. And don't get your panties in a twist, 'cause your future bride ain't whoring or anyfink."
Ash gaped at the scruffy boy in horror. "Who's teaching you your language?"
"Me's teaching me my language." the boy glared. "You got a problem, Highness?"
Sometimes Ash regretted doing away with the act that allowed any member of the Royal Family to throw anyone they pleased into jail.
"Right. Right. Donny, see to…?"
"Me name's Gerald. Wasn't lyin' when I told the lady that."
"See to Gerald's reward, will you?"
The street urchin positively skipped after Ash's friend, gleefully shouting, "Wait 'til the lads hear this!"
Ash slumped back down in his chair, smiling wearily. So he had finally found her, after all her running, eh? Huh. Grimly, he cracked his knuckles. I love you, Ray, but we're really going to have to talk about your martyr issues, because while it's all very well for this heroine business, it doesn't work in love.
…Haha. He had made Ray gain weight out of general misery.
…How much weight?
Ash grinned. I really couldn't care less. I'm going to find her.
Donny shifted into bird form and immediately flew off to the little estate he and his new wife shared, just outside the castle. Stupid, stupid boy. He clucked. He'll scare Ray away if he sends people after her. And I know this. Because I know women. Smirk. Smirk.
"Darling?" Donny shifted back into his normal, humanoid form and looked around for his wife. "Ana, where are you?"
"Right here," she called, and he saw the glint of sun on pale gold hair as she made her way towards him. "What is it?"
"What have you been doing all day?" He grinned sweeping her up and leaving his hand on her still-flat belly in a lingering caress. "Nothing too strenuous, I hope?"
"Nope." She murmured against his neck, smiling softly. "Just thinking about how lucky I am that I've married the fairy guardian to the prince, who is not only stunningly attractive, but wealthy and titled to boot."
"Egads!" Donny cried in mock horror. "I knew it! I've married a social climber!"
And his wife cackled. "Ah, I knew you'd find my secret plan sooner or later! I shall now have to poison you to ensure that I get all the money and keep my secret safe!"
"Okay, darling, no time for games, all right?"
Ana abruptly sobered. "Sorry, Donny. It's the mood swings. I don't know what's wrong with me lately."
"As long as you don't send me running to drug dealers to get you some of the new Rapunzel thing that's sending all these other kingdoms into a right terror, I'll deal." He paused, worried. "Er, you're not going to suddenly crave drugs during this pregnancy, are you?"
"It will have to be one very frightening baby if that ever happens." Ana laughed, pressing her lips to his and gently fingering the sensitive hair on the nape of his neck. "Now, tell me what's the matter."
"It's Ash. And Ray. And us. And everybody else involved in this thing."
Ana sighed, knowing what was coming up next. "Shall we go, then?"
"I think that would be the most appropriate course of action right at this moment."
"I have the saddlebags packed already. Would you like me to ask Reliah to fetch Vex so he can join us on this quest for True-Love-for-our-friends?"
"The baby unicorn—she was given to me in Round Four as my magical creature."
"And we must fetch Tala, of course."
"The horse that Ray rode in Round Seven to rescue the stable boy. Or, I suppose, Prince Ash."
Donny was understandably confused—miserably so. He didn't like being the one with less information. He was a Meddler and Meddlers just…knew everything! Sulking, he cursed everybody for knowing more people than he did. He felt abandoned. Like a little lost puppy alone in the storm with no shelter and no warm, loving arms to hold him safe…
Sniffle. He was bringing himself to tears.
Ana was on a roll. "And I suppose we must bring that lovely Mother Reena."
"The guard! Lovely woman. She was guarding Ray in Round Three."
It went on. And on. And on.
"Oh! And Cook Rolser! Occasionally managed to slip us proper food during the contest."
"And we mustn't forget Sirs Hakim, Arsar, and Lald; and Madams Leota, Nissar, and Elsa. From the diplomatic round, remember? They adored Ray—as they should." Sniff.
"Mistress Keelar and all her seamstresses helped outfit Ray throughout the whole contest, and they still insist they felt a connection to her. Although they never met her. But who can protest these things?"
"What is this, a wedding?" Donny remarked, helpless and surly throughout the whole thing. That wasn't good. Ash was rubbing off on him.
Ana gave him a severe look. "If everything goes correctly, it should be. Now, hut hut and fetch everyone!"
"Ha! Stupid Ash." I growled, stabbing some grapes that reminded me too much of Ash's…eyes. How disturbingly sad. Even pulpy fruit was reminding me of Ash.
I pushed the grapes away, their image replaced by…well, eyeballs.
Yuckyuckyuckyuck. Ew. Brush teeth. Scrape eyeballs. Gah! Eyeballs!!
"Oh. You again. Go away. I don't need you any more or your help because my days of heroine-ing are OVER!" Dramatic cry.
"Silly bint." Toadman came a lot these days. Mostly for dinner, and he stole my food and drank my wine (which I never drank anyway because wine disagreed with me and because I was determined that if I was going to drown my sorrows in something, it would not be mere alcohol. No. It would be first class onion soup, if anything.). "Now stop moping and do you have food for me?"
"No." I scowled. "You're a…a moocher. And I don't like you. So piss off."
"So articulate, as always." He…It sneered, whapping me with its staff and flipping up my skirt in the next instant.
God, I hate the guy. He behaved like a drunken uncle at a wedding. And he hadn't even had any of my cooking wine yet! What kind of thing gets drunk without alcohol, huh?? Or even sugar? Or drugs!
…At least, as far as I knew.
Which, thankfully, wasn't that far.
And I needed to take a bath. But I couldn't very well take one with Toadman standing there, could I? Unless I wanted to be leered at throughout the whole process and probably eye-molested, which I certainly didn't want, because any form of molestation is bad.
Shut up, brain.
"Now," Toadman said five minutes later, still licking his vaguely humanoid fingers after eating my dinner. "I have come to warn you."
Warn me? More like 'warm' me. But just in case he had used the one with the 'n' instead of the 'm', I gave him the benefit of doubt.
But come on. Retired heroines don't get warned about anything!
"Ahahaha! Warn me about what, you loser?"
Calmly, Toadman licked the last crumb from his fingertips and turned his pale eyes towards…my breasts…and up to my face. "About that." He pointed to the door.
And the door flew open.
"Yeah, thanks for the warning!" I screamed to the air as Toadman vanished with a pop, and I turned to the company that peered into my room with frenzied eyes. "What the hell are you guys doing here??"
Poop. And I thought I'd fooled that boy so well.
Speaking of which…there was that boy! Cowering behind…behind Donny…who stood next to Ana…on whose shoulder was Vex…who was trying to bite the ears off that weird guard with a fixation on cats (yeah, go Vex!)…who was glaring evilly at both Vex and the seams-mistress who had stuffed me into all those clothes…a similar creation that was being worn by the ambassador who liked cookies…
Oh, hell no. I hate reunions.
Now just to wait for Neie and Triliasia to pop up. (Oh, gods no, don't let them be hiding behind more people, please…)
Right. Back to that boy. What was his name? Gerald. That was it.
"Oh, Gerald…" I called sweetly, ignoring everybody else for now while I reaped my vengeance. "Come out."
He scuffled out, a charming, missing-toothed smile on his face. "Hallo again, miss."
"How did you know I was lying?"
More saccharinely sweet smiles. " 'Cause you're so pretty, miss."
"Don't try that on me, buster." I roared. "DIDN'T YOUR MAMA EVER TELL YOU IT WAS BAD TO LIE???"
"Aaaaeeeeiiiieeee!" He shrieked, and went scurrying for cover under my table. I dove in after him, a war cry warbling throughout the whole room. My hand grasped his ankle in the fist of doom and pulled him out as I thundered and screamed and roared my rage (accompanied by little spurts of fire from Vex and the distinct scent of burning hair).
"…and you will pay!" I finished.
"Are you finished?" The boy blinked up at me, clearly bored.
But bored? This kid was bored after my great speech I had crescendoed, I had ranted, I had talked brimstone and hellfire and he had been bored??? Hadn't anything gotten through to him??? I saw that I had to resort to drastic measures.
"Now, what was the message?" Sweetly. My sweetness-supply was sooo running out.
"Yeah, no lying, I'm dead for telling all the people who you are, yadda yadda. You're a liar too, miss, so don't you be talking to me."
Well, my lying was different. I lied to preserve myself. The kid lied to get money and exploit my whereabouts.
"That ain't…isn't the point. The point here is that you are a very, very bad boy. You're like, what, ten? And when was the last time you took a bath, mister? Hm? Because you're smelling very, very ripe."
"Yeah? I've been bad?" The little urchin scoffed. "Whaddya think I am, a baby? You can't do anything." Sneer, sneer.
Huh. Then he obviously hasn't ever met me.
I really, really liked the sniffling messenger-boy from before better than this…evil…creature.
"Can't do anything, eh?" I murmured softly, ignoring Ana and Donny and Vex and other people who had known me before, who were slowly inching out of the room at my tone. "Well, let me show you this!"
And I dunked him in my bath.
The hooves of twenty-one horses beat out a melody on the earth as rich and old as time itself. It was the beat of the hooves, yes, but it was also the beat of the wind and the heart of a man.
They knew what was happening—the ones who had seen so many other horses go by, so many other young men and women and other not-so-young men and women that had that look in their eyes. A look of desperation; a look that said that that man or that woman would go to the ends of the earth to find what they were looking for.
"Another one, Mally, dear." He was old; looked far older than any human had the right to look. "There's another one riding by."
The old woman next to him, just as many wrinkles mapping her face as his, smiled softly and spoke with a quavering voice. "I think it must be a very special girl to make the young prince so anxious. Don't you, Haralt?"
"Eh? Yes, I do. I hope he finds her. I'm going to make some popped corn so we can watch."
They both turned to a little glass mirror (had been in the family for generations, and made out of a fragment of the original Mirror that had once belonged to a rather evil witch-queen a couple hundred years ago) that lay innocently on the table next to them, and chuckled knowingly.
Old people like doing that.
Gerald and I exited the room a few short minutes later, laughing as if we had been friends for years and cackling ourselves to tears while ignoring the strange looks everybody else was throwing at us. The landing was crowded with the presence of people and creatures from all stations and ranks, and as the inn's other customers irritably tried to make their way through, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
"Ray!" Ana immediately admonished disapprovingly, falling back into the role she had played all those months ago. "Pardon…what did you say?"
Her lip quivered. Her eyes filled up with tears. Donny started backing away, and I really should have taken mind of this because husbands always know when it is best to get out of range, but my peripheral vision was never too good.
"I…I thought you'd b-be haaaappy to s-seeee m-m-me…"
Agh! Tears! RUN!!!
"I…Of course I'm happy, Ana! I'm thrilled you're here; why wouldn't I be? Oh, gods, please, please stop crying because I'm so, so, so, so happy you're here, okay? Okay? Okay??"
She beamed at me and enveloped me in a bone-crushing hug. Apparently she had still been working out…although you wouldn't think it to look at her bony little arms… "Really?"
"Thank you, Ray," Ana sniffled into my neck. What was wrong with her? She was never this emotional! I was the emotional one! What was this, role-reversal time or something? Because I was…I had been getting along with a kid. I never got along with kids. Kids hated me! I hated kids! It was the way things worked.
Except Gerald wasn't really…a kid. He was a fifteen year old thief boy stuck into the body of a ten year old thief boy.
"C'mon, Ana…c'mon, tell me what's wrong…" I coaxed, rubbing what I hoped were soothing circles in her back.
"That ain't gonna help the lady." Gerald butted in, although he was somehow less offensive now that he was all bathed and soaped off and it was revealed that he had really nice, shiny, soft hair of a color somewhere between blond and brown. And he had big brown puppy eyes, too.
Aaaw, but he was a cute kid.
Except he was mean.
"That won't help her," Gerald repeated, a bit louder. "Circles? C'mon. That never works. You need to get her drunk to tell you stuff."
Donny unceremoniously bonked him on the head. "Stop talking about my wife that way."
Gerald rubbed his nose on his sleeve. "Gods, but grown-ups choose the weirdest people to love."
"Wasn't aware you even knew the word, Gerald-laddieboy," I said over my shoulder. "Now, Ana…tell me what's wrong, yeah? You know you can trust me."
"Nothing's wrong," Ana hesitated. "I'm just pregnant, is all."
Oh good, nothing's wrong.
"YOU'RE PREGNANT? If you knocked her up, Donny, I am so kicking your shapeshifting tailfeathers. YOU'RE PREGNANT???"
Donny frowned. "Me? I can't get pregnant. That's anatomically impossible. I don't have—"
"That's enough!" I clamped my hands over Gerald's ears. "There are children here."
"I ain't a child!" Gerald howled. "Lemme listen!"
It continued for the next ten minutes. By the time it was done, Vex had joined the fray with an affectionate breath of fire at me—although it took me a bit to realize that this gesture was wholly loving and not, as I had first thought after Vex had given me a small second-degree burn on my ear, completely malicious—and the other people had decided to just wait downstairs rather than get involved.
"Are you serious? I'm going to be a godmother?" I gushed, touching Ana's stomach almost reverently. "Wow. I've always wanted to be a moth—Er, never mind."
For some reason, that seemed to remind Ana exactly why she was there. "Oh! Oh, oh, oh, why did I take so long to get to this? Ray, listen to me. Something's going to happen soon and you have to promise that you will stay calm and that you'll listen. And you can't just leave, okay? Promise me?"
I stared suspiciously at her. I wasn't that stupid. Her tone and her word choice were ve-e-ery ominous. Why was she making me promise this, anyway? What was going to happen? Dubiously, I cocked my head at her. It didn't sound too pleasant.
"Ray, promise m—"
The door flew open with a bang.
To be frank, I had had enough of all these unfinished warnings that didn't come soon enough at all. Not soon enough at all!
Time to throw a tantrum!
Or not, because it will considerably shave down my running time.
"GERALD, YOU GET YOUR BUTT HERE RIGHT NOW BECAUSE YOU ARE SOOOO DEAD!" I can't believe it. I can't believe he told Ash!
Okay, I can believe it.
But who else did he tell? The whole kingdom? Should I be expecting a visit from random farmers and bakers and butchers soon??
"Ray!" Ash gasped, obviously trying to catch his breath. "Ray, please."
No. No. I had worked so hard…I thought I'd been untraceable…And gods, but he had to stop looking at me as if…as if he loved me…because otherwise I'd start crying…
And bugger, it was too late…
"Ash, go away." I backed up against the window, trying to scold him out as if he was an unruly pup instead of the Crown Prince, and able to do whatsoever he pleased. Trying to see from behind my tear-sodden lashes, I wiped them away. "Ash, please. Don't do this. You really, really don't want to do this."
"Ray," he breathed again, coming towards me with hand outstretched.
Oh gods, stop it, and please be your old annoying self again instead of this…this person who's walking towards me as if I'm the only person in the world…and Ana! Ana's still in the room, idiot! She's still…She's gone…
"I found you, huh?" He gave me a weak attempt as his usual snarky grin.
I coughed. "Yeah. Yeah, you did, you…you effing idiot." Coughed some more. Could've sworn that a bit of mucus came up with that.
I hate crying.
"Still the same after all this time." Ash stopped in front of me, and my eyes were drawn up to his as if by a weird magnetic force. Purple orbs blazed into mine and gods, I had missed him.
"Wouldn't change for the world." Tried to chuckle. It didn't work. Tried to force out another 'Go away!' or possibly a 'Piss off, you creepo stalker!' That didn't work either.
Please don't say 'And I wouldn't have you any other way' because that's just lame.
"That's a pity."
Ash laughed softly again, and I froze. He wasn't supposed to be here. "Ray…" He murmured again. "I've missed you."
I've missed you too.
Only I didn't say that.
"And…I really have been doing some thinking." He continued slowly, quietly, as if I was going to bolt off like a startled doe. "Ray…would you…d'you think that maybe…perhaps…Will you marry me?"
And that brought the tears all over again.
Only…they weren't happy tears.
It was a bit of a blow to his ego when Ray leaned her head back and covered her eyes with her hand as tears leaked down, and she cried silently.
"But…why not?" He steeled himself. Steeled himself for the words people waited their whole lives to hear. "Ray…I don't know if you've noticed…but…I kinda…I really do love you. Like…the way that I thought only happened in stories. I love you." Grin. Gods, but that felt good to say. And right. "I love you."
And she knew. She knew he did; he could tell. And he knew…at least, he hoped so hard that maybe it might come true, whatever the letter said…he knew she loved him. Maybe he wasn't supposed to be so sure and certain, but he was.
"But you're…but you're King. You're going to be King, and the stories and the songs aren't true in real life because I can't be a queen. I'm not a queen. And don't you dare give me that crap about being queen of your heart because I can't just be queen of your heart—I'd have to be queen of a country, Ash. I'd have to be queen of the people."
Gods, but you're King. And maybe you can handle that but I can't just yet.
And he looked at her. He looked at her, and it almost broke her heart, and his heart was so close to just shattering into a million, million pieces; like snowflakes on a cold December's eve. "It's just a job." He whispered, a sad smile drifting across his features. "It's just a job, Ray; just like any other job. And I have responsibilities, like in any other job. Don't…don't I…can't I…what if I also want, what if I also need someone to come home to, just like any other job?"
A broken sob, and she collapsed on the frosted ground next to him.
"Please." He pleaded, and Ash never pleaded, but maybe…maybe this woman was worth it. "Please. It could be…wonderful. We could do this."
"But what if it isn't?" She cried. "What is we can't? What if it's not all these great things? What if one day I wake up and you're gone, or something happens and this road you're speaking of splits in two? What if one day we wake up and realize that all this was a lie? What if…what if it isn't beautiful?"
"But what if it is?" He whispered.
And that, Ash thought, was reason enough.
So he kissed her.
As first kisses went, it wasn't magical. It wasn't soaring lust and the swell of violins. There weren't any lurid description of tongues and lips battling for dominance, of heat and sweat and gasps and moans. It wasn't the sweetly chaste kiss; the gentle butterfly landing on suddenly dry lips. There wasn't that, and there weren't chirping crickets or whispering winds or moonlight. Not even the soft tinkling of a long ago music box choosing only now to let its melody out.
It was clumsy and searching. Not the kiss of experienced experts in the art, because this woman was too important to waste on carefully choreographed placement of lips and hands and tongues. Their lips met; they smashed against each other, bruising the delicate flesh. Teeth clacked together and noses bumped. It didn't taste sweet or spicy or cinnamony and vanilla-y or like whatever other baking product kisses were said to taste like. It tasted like flesh, and it tasted like them, and it tasted a bit like afternoon-breath, too. It was an odd taste.
But it was warm. Gods, but it was warm, and Ash was almost scared that the two delicate lips suddenly molded against his were going to melt with the heat and he'd be left with nothing, until he realized how ridiculous he was being.
It tasted of love.
I'd let him go.
One hour before, Ash had backed away with a broken, cruelly ironic bow. One hour before, I had told him I didn't love him. I had gone against the unwritten code of honesty that flowed through my very veins and I had lied. And now there was nothing I could do as I watched him and his entourage ride away, Ana and the people she had brought following behind him.
Vex had stayed behind, though, despite my pleas for him to go with them. Unfortunately, once Vex set his mind to something, there was hardly anything anyone could do to stop him.
"Vex." I sobbed into his scales, welcoming the heat and the jagged edges of the dragonhide. "Gods, Vex."
But it was for the best, wasn't it? It had to be. I had made that decision two months ago when I left the palace, and what was the difference now?
Vex purred into my neck, little coos meant to comfort me only succeeding in making things worse. Maybe if I cried enough, I'd even manage to drown Vex's fire with tears.
Stupid Ray. This was no time for bad poetry.
This was a time for chocolate. Lots and lots and lots of chocolate.
I touched my lips, gently.
"Pardon me, miss."
My head shot up and met Gerald's childish, oddly angular features. "Gerald? What…what're you doing here?"
He shrugged. "Nothing. Just thought that maybe the prince had forgotten something."
I winced. I didn't want anything around to remind me of him ever, ever, ever again. "What is it? I'll help you look." Sniffle.
Gerald squinted at me.
"Nah, I guess I was wrong." He bounced on his heels, coming up close to me. "Thought maybe he'd accidentally left you behind or somefink."
"Shut up and go away, Gerald. Would you like some money? I'll pay you to—" I looked up.
He was gone.
Sighing, I went over to my bed and let Vex sit on my stomach. "That wasn't too nice of him, you know." I muttered, feeling a bit odd, talking in the silence. "That wasn't very nice of him at all."
And I rolled over.
And promptly began crying.
And promptly realized what an idiot I was.
Because. Because maybe I didn't live in a ballad, but that didn't mean that I had to live in a tragedy, either.
"Vex." Vex uttered a squeak of protest when I picked him up by his round, draconide stomach and tried to bite me. "We're going to make a journey. Are you ready?"
He tried to bite my nose instead of my fingers.
Downstairs, Gerald was waiting for me and led me outside where a rather familiar horse was pawing at the frosted ground. "I hope you brought a lot of carrots, apples, or other crunchy, sweet items, 'cause this horse is a bloody bitch."
And how well I knew that fact.
"Don't say that word, Gerald. It's impolite."
I knew where he was, and as I climbed up the hill the next morning, I realized that I had no idea what to say.
Oh, right, like that was a novelty.
Still. I bet that other heroines know precisely what they're going to say. They always do. And things always work out for the best. They tended to throw in a lot of metaphors and other complicated stuff and words that no one really uses in real life, though, and I wasn't sure if I could do that.
I was close enough to see the hairs on the back of Ash's neck bristle, but he still didn't turn around. There is something infinitely painful when someone knows you're there, but they don't turn around or acknowledge your presence. It's when you might as well be the literal buzzing bug or snap of wind. Not really there. Just 'there' enough to be ignored.
And I needed to see his eyes.
There was no time for metaphors or complicated, superfluous words. There wasn't any reason for them, either. I didn't need to give speeches. I didn't want to hear speeches. And I had the oddest feeling that maybe…maybe Ash didn't want them either.
"I love you." I said bluntly.
I could feel him grinning, and I walked over to sit next to him. "Yeah?"
Leaning over, with the sunrise to pay witness, I kissed him. It was only a very simple press on the lips—almost like the chaste kiss one would give an ailing grandmother.
Except that Ash wasn't my grandmother (which would be very, very wrong), so it was more than that.
And I knew it was such a cliché to say hello just after I'd basically taken advantage of him. I knew how clichéd it was. But somehow it made sense to me. "Hey," I whispered, only a breath away from Ash now.
"Hey yourself." He whispered back, and leaned forward to kiss me again.
It was a goodbye kiss. It was a hello kiss. It was a kiss of golden sunrises and purple rain and ivory towers; the taste of morning coffee and chicken pot pie, and the sound of laughing children and cackling chickens. It was a kiss to end all kisses.
There would be plenty of time, later on, to talk things through. There would be time enough for us to resolve loose ends and for me to realize that being Queen was more than what I had thought (and to maybe even realize that I might like it). There would be time for me to learn that being Queen wasn't just about planning dinner parties or being politically correct or saving the world. It was also about being a…partner. In all things.
And maybe it was also about saving the world, my country, my king, and myself…but that could wait for later. For now, Ash and I said hello.
A/N: It might have gone a bit too quickly, I've realized as I've read this over. But I don't see a way I can change this aside from writing it all over again, which I do not want to do. I admit that I liked the ending chapter to Elves on the Job better than this one's ending chapter, but…I'll learn to live with it. Sorry for the muchly cliché-ness of it all, but I hope you'll find it in your hearts to forgive me. Lol. –puppy dog eyes-
And wow. My first real kissing scenes, right there.
So. I'm begging you all to at least review this chapter, if nothing else. Just a few words will suffice if you don't want to spend too much time, but please, please at least this chapter. I know there are people out there who don't have the time and/or the inclination to review the story/chapter after they've read it, but please review this one because it'll mean a lot to me.
Thank you again.
Much love to all.