Situated on a tree branch overlooking Fey's tree-sung platform, Amethyst and Magic observed their respective owners and conversed in quiet squeaks.

Amethyst wriggled rather impatiently as she squeaked. ("How long are they going to just sit there? It's been an hour.")

Magic gave the mushroom equivalent of a shrug, having picked up an element of patience from his new owner. ("Until they don't want to anymore, I guess.")

Amethyst looked around at the forest and back down at the cuddling elf and angel below. She squeaked again. ("This is boring.")

Magic squeaked. ("They look comfy though.")

Amethyst experimentally hopped onto Magic's cap and flattened until she resembled more a translucent, purple pancake than a living creature. (*glom*) After a second, she squeaked. ("I don't get it.")

Magic, who had some minor idea of the emotional turmoil his owner had suffered through to get to this point, hastily thought up something to distract his friend and squeaked. ("Hey, I have a new poison.") The mushroom sent a cloud of his new death angel Spore up at the slime.

He sighed in relief as Amethyst delightedly began to consume and analyzed the complex poison. Looking back down at the idyllic scene below, he squeaked the equivalent of "I got you, bro" at Leandriel (who didn't notice but no doubt would have greatly appreciated his pet's heroic fight against the dangerous state of boredom).

*/*/*

Leandriel found himself playing with strands of Fey's long hair, marvelling at their cool, silky texture.

Except for minute shifts in her head position that told him she was aware of what he was doing, he would have guessed she had fallen asleep, having gone quiet and almost doll-like in relaxation. On impulse, he removed her hair tie, allowing the waist-length strands to cascade freely down her back.

Fey did not react except to snuggle closer.

"I did not think you would be so…" he murmured, trailing off to search for the correct word.

Fey stirred, taking several seconds to answer. "Cuddly?" she suggested.

"Soft."

A shrug that he felt more than saw. "I'm not, usually."

"So I should not expect moments like these very often?" he asked, keeping his tone light although the thought disappointed him.

Fey further roused herself enough to lean back to meet his eyes and put a hand on his cheek. "Whenever you want," she said, before tucking herself back against his chest.

Leandriel's arms tightened without conscious intent. He had always been aware of a sense of loneliness throughout his life, but he had not realized there was an element of touch hunger to it until Fey's easy promise struck a chord deep inside him.

He tucked her head under his chin, trying to deal with the onslaught of unfamiliar emotion. Fey quieted again, not protesting his now confining embrace.

He sighed shakily and swore under his breath. The emotional upheavals of the last week were exhausting, even if positive.

Fey nodded as if in agreement, patting his arm in comfort.

It made him laugh. "So if I wanted to sit here all day, you would be fine with that?'

Fey shrugged. "Hey, it's your legs that are going to lose circulation, not mine."

Leandriel huffed in amusement. In her avariel form, Fey hardly weighed anything. He shifted her to a different spot with one arm to make his point.

*/*/*

Fey felt… safe. It was strange, because she had never felt unsafe before this, had always been comfortable standing on her own.

With Leandriel here, she suddenly had the option to lean on someone. She did not just trust his intentions, she trusted his capabilities. She could quite literally leave herself in his hands, tune out the world, and only come back to it when she felt like it.

She found herself drifting repeatedly into a relaxed, nonverbal state where there was only simple sensation and such a pervasive sense of contentment that she could indeed imagine staying there for an entire day. She had to pull herself out of it to answer Leandriel's occasional remarks, but the effort did not alter the peace of the moment.

Names on her friend list flashed green as Sirena, Blade, and Mimi came online.

Fey briefly contemplated ignoring this, but she doubted Sirena would leave her alone. "My friends are online," she murmured, a grumpy undertone to the words.

"Would you like to go meet them?" Leandriel asked.

"It's that or wait for Sirena to hunt us down," Fey said, the grumpy becoming more pronounced.

Leandriel chuckled. "I owe her a thank-you."

Fey nodded. "Her nosiness and meddling is annoying until it dramatically improves your life."

"Shall we head to town, then?"

Sirena's first impatient PM was already pinging her system interface. "But it's so comfy," she complained. "I don't wanna move."

Leandriel chuckled. Sliding an arm under her knees, he stood up without apparent effort, keeping her cradled against his chest. "Then move you shall not." He began walking down the tree ramp.

This was ridiculous. She was a strong, independent person who could walk perfectly on her own.

But she was so comfy.

Her sense of dignity tried to assert itself but was easily smothered by lazy contentment. Fey let her head fall against Leandriel's shoulder and did not move for the rest of the trip back to the Moonwood.

*/*/*

Sirena had braced herself for some level of lovey-dovey-ness when Fey had answered her PM to say that she had made up with Leandriel, but seeing them walk out of the forest together made her wince as if she had accidentally ordered bubble tea made with 120% sugar.[i]

"What did we say about public displays of affection?" she complained when angel and avariel had come within conversational distance.

Blade looked at Sirena, confused. Fey and Leandriel were currently not even touching, and he really saw no evidence of any display of affection. Indeed, Fey had taken the time to retie her hair and start walking under her own power before meeting up with her party, so (to an unobservant eye like Blade's) looked no different than usual.

Mimi, like Sirena, noted the pair's body language and how they were clearly moving as a harmonious unit. She remained silent and expressionless, almost disappearing from notice despite not activating any of her rogue skills.

Just to mess with Sirena, Fey slipped her hand into Leandriel's and leaned her head on his shoulder. "What, this?" she asked innocently (not innocently) while Sirena winced and recoiled as if someone were trying to force her to chug the aforementioned 120%-sugar bubble tea.

"I'm going to get diabetes (2)," the mermaid muttered darkly.

Fey did not reply with a snappy remark, expression going distant in a way that indicated she was conversing via PM. From Leandriel's focus on her, it was clear who she was talking to.

"Argh!" Sirena exclaimed, turning dramatically and walking away. "I've created a monster."

"Sirena," said Leandriel, pulling a large, uncut gemstone from his pouch, "I wanted to give this to you." The yellow stone was roughly the size of his head.

Sirena pivoted 180 degrees and walked back without breaking stride. "This is…"

"Lighting essence," Leandriel confirmed, referring to a substance that occasionally dropped from high-level monsters with substiantial elemental affinity. The large globe he was holding had been made by combining hundreds of smaller pieces.

Sirena did not quite snatch the essence from Leandriel's hands, but she did not hesitate, either. "I approve of your existence," she proclaimed, then marched towards town, presumably to commission a set of high-level mage equipment.

The rest of the group kept pace, pausing outside the enchanter shop while Sirena went in to haggle and falling into easy conversation.

"So what should we do next?" Blade asked. He was looking forward to some straightforward adventuring after all the frilly shenanigans associated with the Yule Ball over the last month.

Fey shrugged, unconcerned with their next goal. "Whatever. We have Leandriel on loan for the next week, so if there's anything particularly dangerous you want to do, now's the time."

"Dangerous, huh…" Blade mused.

Sirena marched back out of the shop, still holding the lightning essence. "They said they can't process this much essence here," she complained. "Apparently, I have to find a specialist shop in a larger city or find a player with high enough crafting skills to process it."

"For equipment beyond level 50, you will have to start venturing out of the starter towns," Leandriel confirmed. "For the closest NPC lightning specialists, your best bet would be in the towns in the Oré Mountains."

"But I don't wanna go mountain climbing," said Sirena.

"You know, if we're going to go on a trip to get new equipment, we might as well all get an upgrade," said Blade, looking down at his well-worn platemail.

"Would one place have people specialized for all the different types of equipment we'd need?" Fey asked.

Mimi pulled up a forum post that reported an eccentric player who seemed to be highly skilled in every crafting specialty. Most of the posts were complaints that he refused to trade in money and only accepted payment in crafting items he was interested in experimenting with, which were often tedious or extremely dangerous to obtain. He was reportedly based in Mountaingate, a city at the eastern edge of the Oré Mountains when he was not off on material-gathering trips.

The party looked at each other. "Your hoarding tendencies might actually be useful this time," Sirena said to Fey. They had a large store of random items of uncertain usefulness that the player might be interested in.

"To Mountaingate!" Fey announced, leading the way towards the town's western exit.

"But I don't wanna go mountain climbing," Sirena whined again, although her steps did not drag as she followed behind.

"Are we not, ahem, flying?" Leandriel asked.

Fey paused in the middle of jerking her thumb at Blade and accusing him of being a heavy lug when she remembered the properties of Leandriel's magical belt pouch. "Oh yeah. Okay, landlubbers, into the pouch."

Eager to avoid physical exertion, Sirena quickly complied. Blade followed at a sedate pace.

(The Feypets were already in the pouch, enjoying what they referred to as "Lootland" in the Squeak language.)

Fey summoned her wings in preparation for taking off when she noticed that Mimi, still wingless, was gesturing towards the pouch. "You don't want to fly?" Fey asked, confused.

"You two enjoy yourselves," Mimi asnwered, a slight smile in her eyes.

Leandriel handed the sniper into his belt pouch with the slight sense of discomfort he always felt when interacting with Mimi. He shook himself free of the sensation and asked, "Need a boost?"

Fey could now perform a vertical takeoff, although the effort strained her muscles to a painful degree even if she jumped first. "Yes, please."

Leandriel bent and cupped his hands for Fey to step into. With an easy heave, he launched her into the air, easily clearing the treetops. She gave a startled eep before catching the air and curving towards the west.

With a chuckle, Leandriel launched himself after her.

*/*/*

In the strangely amorphous realm of magical storage space, Sirena, Blade, and Mimi found a comfortable pile of furs to settle into for the duration of the trip.

They were quiet for a few minutes, silence interrupted by squeaking as the Feypets marvelled at the valuable items everywhere.

"You okay?" Sirena asked Mimi. "I know you have a thing for Fey."

Blade choked on the water he was in the process of drinking, frantically suppressing his coughing in the middle of the heavy moment.

Mimi held Sirena's gaze for a moment, then nodded.

Sirena looked at Blade. "Cough it out before you drown yourself," she said impatiently, and he started coughing in earnest.

Blade's breathing finally settled down. Don't ask, don't ask, don't ask, he told himself. He knew he would regret asking.

His self-control failed. "Since when…" he ventured.

Mimi met his eyes and for a moment, he could see past her cool exterior to a type of painful resignation that silenced him.

Sirena slapped him lightly on the back of the head. "You never learn, do you?"

"Sorry," he muttered, looking down.

"Since I first heard her talk," Mimi answered quietly.

Blade regretted asking. "Oh," he said lamely.


(1) Certain bubble tea chain stores such as Chatime allow you to customize the amount of sugar in your drink as a percentage of the normal, with typical benchmarks being 0%, 50%, 70%, 100%, and in some chains, 120%. At the higher amounts, there can be over 100g of sugar in one large bubble tea.

(2) A diet high in simple carbohydrates is a risk factor for the development of insulin resistance and ultimately type 2 diabetes mellitus.