Always Ch. 2: Nightmare | FFXV Fanfic

Read Chapter 1 | Word count: 1170 (2 to 10 minutes) | Rating: G | Final Fantasy XV Spoilers| Characters: Ignis Scientia and Noctis Lucis Caelum


When making camp at a haven, Ignis was frequently the last to bed and first to rise. On occasion, Noctis may have stayed up later or Gladio rose earlier for a run at dawn. More frequently than that, to Ignis’ concern, Noctis would awaken in the middle of the evening. Not pleasantly so either.

His nightmares were understated on the surface: a white-knuckle grip, an oddly quiet interruption of his usual restful breathing, and then a sharp hiss as if caught off guard. After a moment’s pause, an impatient sigh would indicate if the nightmare woke Noct. He had been much the same in his warning signs since he was a child. Following his recovery and return from the disaster in Tenebrae, the instances of his sleeplessness had increased. Yet he rarely spoke of it or sought support.

Simply put, Ignis had years of experience in waking when Noct was troubled. That first startled inhale cut through his dreams perfectly in time to catch the sigh as the young prince maneuvered his way out of his sleeping bag in pursuit of fresh air. If he paced the restricted grounds of haven, Ignis knew to leave him be. But when the sound of a camping chair unfolding reached him, he likewise exited the tent to see Noctis seated by the low embers.

“Noct?”

He gave only a cursory glance and nod over his shoulder in greeting. Something in seeing him cast in silhouette, even without his spectacles, emphasized the burden placed upon him by his station and the Six. There was no one on Eos who deserved nightmares less.

“Hey, Ignis.”

Pulling a chair out himself, Ignis pressed it out to be a comfortable distance from Noct. He was not particularly tactile in his affections on a good day—Prompto being the exception, by and large. Intruding upon his space would do neither of them any favors.

“Was it a nightmare?”

His exhale was quiet and plainly displeased. The prince had yet to learn the lesson that the majority of healing procedures were less than soothing. He punctuated his distaste for Ignis’ observation with a half-shrug as stilted as it was tense.

“Yeah. Don’t worry about it.”

“Hm.” The answer wasn’t to his liking, but in fairness, the line of questioning wasn’t to Noct’s. The least Ignis could muster was being in his company for a while longer. The prince shouldn’t be forced to wait alone in the dark with the remnants of his fearful dream. Somehow, the nighttime chill made for a surprisingly crisp and refreshing atmosphere. His vision was not in need of so much correction that Ignis couldn’t see beyond the dim firepit to the moonlight cast over their forested surroundings. But it was the sky above that captured his attention above all else. In the hopes that a diversion would draw Noct back to slumber sooner, he made note of it aloud. “I find the views afforded to us in nature have an uplifting aspect to them.”

Noct looked to Ignis for direction, which never failed to instill a sort of pride in Ignis. To have his trust was a gift he could never bring himself to squander no matter how small the circumstance. He pointed to the stars in this case, and Noctis tilted his head up to see for himself.

“I guess.” He crossed his arms as his hair stood on end, but still held his attention on the stars. The chill didn’t agree with him, clearly, and he should return to the tent. Ignis similarly knew better what a pensive pause from Noct sounded like. “Where do you think she is right now?”

“Lady Lunafreya?” There were not many other women he might have referred to, yet assumptions were not known for paying off.

“Yeah.” He breathed the word more than speaking it. A testament to how near this conversation was to his heart.

“She is a highly intelligent woman with unwavering resolve.” Ignis himself had never met Lady Lunafreya in person before. In his role for the prince, he knew of her far more than their mutual unawareness would indicate. He knew his words to be true. Noct needed little else in the way of reassurance. “Wherever she is, I’m certain she’s safe.”

His response did appear to dissolve some of the tension from his shoulders. Ignis could not place the precise reason that he sensed there was more Noct had to share. All he could do once more was wait for him to be ready. That, too, was an honor Ignis gladly rose to accept.

“It’s not right.” He looked back down to the firepit, uncrossing his arms to rest his hands on his knees. “Nothing’s been right since we left. I get that my father sent me off to save me, but—” A frustrated sigh stole away the rest of his sentence while Noct rest back in his seat. “Forget it.”

“Noct,” Ignis implored him, speaking to the struggles had already been expressed indirectly. All part of his royal duty per His Majesty, and yes, a sort of hobby for him as well, as the prince preferred to refer to his stewardship. “Your father had every confidence in you when he sent you away for your own safety. He loved you.”

Turning away abruptly was a poor mask of Noct’s shaky inhale at those three words. Ignis pretended not to notice out of respect for his privacy. Sentiment was not a welcome aspect for him. He rather enjoyed having his emotions separate from his interactions with others as much as humanly possible. Where his father was concerned especially. Despite that, the truth that his father loved him dearly was a statement he should have heard more often in the years before King Regis passed so tragically. The Wall and the war occupied much of his father’s attention while Noct simultaneously came to realize what precious little time remained for them to share.

“He knew as I do that you will be ready for the road ahead. And whatever it may bring, you will not walk it alone.”

The three of them all supported Noct on his journey to kinghood. Prompto brought out a certain brightness in the prince that he’d only seen before his severe injury in his youth. Gladio inspired him to aspire, even as they warred over several subjects where their opinions differed. And Ignis himself took no small amount of pride in his steadfast service to Noct. Wherever their path lead, he would never suffer a time without their companionship.

“Thanks.” He’d reached his limit for emotional discussions. So soon. Ignis supposed he should be grateful he made it that far. Noct pushed himself out of the seat, circling around it in the direction of the tent. “I’m gonna—”

“Of course. Rest well.”

He received no answer aside from the zip of the tent doors opening. Ignis took the time to return the two chairs to their rightful place and wasn’t far behind.


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Saving Ourselves: Ch. 2: Journey


Loren Howard

Noyo held the reins and a steady scowl as the horse clopped along behind Dira’s carriage up ahead, guiding them to the crystal site for them to harvest for energy and bring home. At least they weren’t returning empty-handed that way and Loren could be less ashamed of her fumble. Once in a while, a piece of whatever Dira was whistling reached them but not enough to recognize. He was calm for someone obviously being watched after just escaping Union capture. Until they reached their destination, Loren was under strict orders to watch him closely and tell Noyo if she found anything suspicious or even curious. According to them, there was nothing too small to notice.

Loren would never tell them this, but no one who made it out the collapse of Garres City was ever quite right again. All the survivors had this intangible sort of haze that separated them from others. As if the world they lived in now was no more real to them than children’s tales and might dissolve at any moment. Some were jumpy and others resigned themselves. Noyo was prepared. They did not fear the world falling apart, only not being ready for it. They focused on the path ahead of the horse, waiting for Loren or maybe fate to reveal some key flaw in Dira that exposed him as an awful omen.

And maybe he was. But Loren didn’t believe that was so simple. This disaster brought out the best or worst in people, and how that fell depended on how they were received. If you treated someone like a threat, it only made sense that they would feel threatened. The right way forward was somewhere between Noyo and Loren, as her fathers told her countless times. Why else would the two of them do so well as a team? At least when Loren listened and didn’t get captured, standing around uselessly while a stranger pulled more weight than she did.

Frowning, she offered up her first discovery. “His aura’s too small.”

If Dira was a runner too, his protective aura against the smog should have been about half the size of their own. But she could barely make it out in the smoke that only thickened as they went towards the harvest site and beyond that, Brook Mills. With how dense the fog was, maybe it was better that they ended up doubling back after all. That felt less like an excuse for her messing up than it probably should have.

“It is,” Noyo agreed. “He must have just the mask.”

“You think he doesn’t have sigil tattoos?” She turned, her voice rising in disbelief. Leaving the barriers surrounding a city-state with only a mask and no back-up if anything happened wasn’t brave, it was crazy.

“Reckless,” they agreed again, resting back as the horses climbed a hill turning out of the woods and into the open plains characteristic of the area surrounding their home. Loren looked back ahead at the translucent glowing sphere surrounding where Dira sat on his own carriage. She squinted and tried to come up with any reason at all not to have both defenses in place, thinking of just one.

“Maybe he thought it was too painful.”

“And the leader of his city-state agreed to that?” Noyo shook their head once and with conviction. With the old government sealed on the safe side of the barrier, the people here made do with whoever took charge in all the chaos four years ago. For Brook Mills, that was Fekhi, and she’d never agree to a runner going on an energy harvest without sigils inked into their skin and charged up. It was unlikely anyone else would feel differently. Even the most annoyingly unfazed person had a use, after all. “He can’t just walk up and get charged tattoos from the Union when he’s an unsanctioned mage, but he can send someone else to restore the mask sigils.”

Loren twisted her expression one more time, confused from start to finish. What did the Union care if someone practiced magic outside of their ranks? His casting wasn’t orderly, but it was effective. Was it really worth denying someone warding sigils or else… What could they do? Looking back at the attempted kidnapping, or maybe worse if they didn’t get away, how far were the people in the Union willing to go? Stephen was a mage, but he’d never mentioned what happened if he left the Union. And Loren never asked.

“Why do that? Wouldn’t it be safer not to go out?”

“Excellent questions,” Noyo praised her honestly, offering a small one-sided smirk. A short-lived one as the topic went back to the stranger up ahead. “If he’s not an official runner for any city-state, there’s no reason to risk travel unless it’s personal, or he’s a liar.”


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Holmes Academy WIP story preview

“Your unkind words will not dishearten me today.” He drew himself up and held a finger up with purpose, too triumphant to be discouraged from whatever speech he settled on. “I’ve paid you a visit because it’s the last weekend before summer, so Min and I will depart for our homes soon. As the top three students of this esteemed academy founded in the name of the prestigious Sherlock Holmes—”

“I will jump out this window,” she promised, nodding to the arched window frame between them. Undaunted, Everitt beamed and brought his ramble to a surprisingly early close.

“It’s only proper that we have a farewell party.”

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Saving Ourselves: Ch. 1: Together


Loren Howard

25th of Rebirth in Year 4: Shrouded Era

She was a forest elf, even if she had only lived in mountains before Brook Mills. The smell of rich soil and heavy fog through her mask was a comfort. An inherited instinct, maybe. Through the haze of her grogginess, that came as a touching thought. A light chill draped on Loren like a blanket and the prickling urge to get up and movewere smothered under it. The small square of light from the barred window in the cart hadn’t moved, she thought. Only an echoing ache in the back of her head kept Loren awake.

The door at the back creaked open, the sound and light cutting into her space. A healing spell came right behind it and pushed out the pain in her head.

“Loren,” Noyo said and knelt over her while the glow of the restorative magic still faded from their hand. With their dark grey skin, they looked as if they were carved out of the light from outside. Explaining their fluid identity to others in Brook Mills had been difficult, but Noyo always commanded respect effortlessly. It wouldn’t have been hard to believe they’d cut through the sun itself to get to Loren. “Stand up.”

They held their hand out and Loren took it, steadying herself as she got to her feet. Truth was, Loren saw Noyo fighting so often with close-quarters lightning or flames that it was easy to forget those hands could heal too. Blood stained the front of their cloak even then. The sigils glowed on their mask, standing out from the late afternoon sunlight behind them.

“What—where—”

“There isn’t time.” Noyo insisted over their shoulder, leaving the cart through the open back gate and jumping down.

“Fresh out, as it stands,” said a man past where she could see, casting a spell from the sound of it. A sharp crackle that made her hair stand on end gave it away as an ice spell. The scream that followed said it hit its mark.

The fight for their freedom from whoever these people were had started without her already, not that she had a weapon anymore. Loren dropped down from the end of the cart, landing behind Noyo. Almost inaudibly, they snapped a flame to the tip of their pointer finger and flicked it towards the people coming for them. The forest was shrouded in the rolling smog, nowhere near as thick as it’d been back in Brook Mills, but more than on the beaten path. How people survived out here to attack others, she didn’t know. There wouldn’t be a chance to ask, either, knowing Noyo. They weren’t vicious, but they never left a job unfinished.

And right now, there was one person trying to pull themselves free of the ice jutting out from the forest floor and through their calf while the other fended off fireballs with a singed wooden shield. It didn’t look good for them.

“Sword,” Loren asked, hoping to get a weapon of her own before anyone reached them. If anyone reached them, between the two mages with her.

“Stay with us,” Noyo answered indirectly, holding out the sword and calling on another fire spell in the other hand. “No shield.”

“I can make do.” Settling the sword in her hand and still feeling a little off-balance without her shield, Loren readied herself for anyone that might come.

“Ah, no need.” The man, whoever he was, didn’t have spellcasting as crisp and neat as Noyo’s. Not many did. The spells did what they had to, though. Rumors about chiali mages were that they were naturally stronger than any others, and not because they had four arms to cast more. That didn’t hurt his odds. But the chiali people were supposedly the original discoverers of magic who only taught it to those they deemed deserving back then. Maybe that history was enough that he didn’t have to worry about form.

Wrapping his long tail loosely around one of his legs, he pointed to the sky with all four of his hands. Her hair raised this time from the energy itself. His own untamed black curls were unaffected, probably a magical trait her brother would’ve understood. Noyo kept up her barrage to hold the shield-bearing fighter back, sparing a quick glance to the stranger.

All Loren could do was wait like she was told. That was the sound thing to do.

And when his hands came down, four bolts arced to strike the two people. The shield shattered at last, petrified before it hit the ground, and both of them shook from the magic lightning running through them. The one on the ice went still first, then their ally. Loren finally noticed the third person motionless on the ground by another wooden cart, an empty sheath hanging from their belt. It was all finished.

She lowered her sword, letting out a breath. It was done.

“Good luck on your travels,” Noyo said flatly, nodding for Loren to go to the front of the cart she was just in. There, a horse would wait for her.

But Loren wouldn’t be dismissed from the action again. She stood right where she was, and the man with them just shrugged.

“That’s it, is it?” The smirk behind his mask made its way into his voice. Freckles that were a lighter blue than his skin peeked around the worn fabric, making his face look almost like dappled water.

“It is.” She knew Noyo was talking to her. That harsh edge to it was directed at Loren staying there, the second time she brushed off instructions from her teacher that day alone.

Neither of them paid any attention to that tone. The more Loren looked at him, the more she realized was different. His tail and arms were obvious, but the black tufts from the tips of his ears and along his tail were easy to miss during a fight. His eyes were hazel at a glance, only noticeable as more golden than she expected with more time. The upturned almond shape to them was unusual to her, even if some humans had similar eyes. Loren did guess right thinking that chiali would be taller. As the tallest person she knew, Noyo still only stood just a bit over him.

“Never seen a chiali before, I take it?”

He smiled anyway, or it looked like he did because of his eyes, and he walked off to the nearest body to check the pockets. Searching bodies wasn’t anything like Loren pictured doing as a runner for her city-state, but she couldn’t ignore that it was a waste to leave supplies with the fallen.

“I—No.” She looked down to her scuffed leather boots first, cursing herself for staring at him. Between growing up in the far-off mountain city-state and then living in the farming town of Brook Mills… She didn’t see many kinds of people. Loren never went to the capital like her brother. Stephen saw all sorts of people in those streets, worked with them in the Union to make new equipment like the mask she wore, and he was there when the smog first showed up in Garres City. That was why he was gone and Loren was here. Everything had good with the bad.

Everything.

Looking back up to Noyo, she changed the subject. No reason to dwell on things she couldn’t change. “Aren’t we all going back to the road?”

“We never should have left it.” Noyo reminded her, those yellow eyes giving a final warning to Loren in their narrowed stare.

“But since you did,” the man offered, pulling some parchment from the chest pocket of one of the fallen people as his tail swished over the flattened grass, “maybe we should stick together. These folks are Union mages, so they’ll be looking into what happened here.”

Noyo held their hand out for the parchment, taking two measured steps towards where he stood up. “Show me.”

“I’m Dira, by the way.” He held it out, and they took it without answering. Dira didn’t show it if that bothered him at all.

While Noyo unfolded the paper, Loren caught a short glimpse of the symbol from the Union outpost’s flag back home and in the mountains of Crescent Ridge too. Their attackers had Union orders, then, but it didn’t mean this was part of those orders. Stephen told her the Union hired spare hands from time to time. Even people without much magical ability like Loren. When it came to identifying mages operating outside the Union, harvesting known magical herbs, or hunting down creatures to get mystical ingredients, anyone could be useful.

But not this.

Pretending to need help in order to lure in runners to kidnap, what could they get from that? It’s not as if they couldn’t just ask for volunteers to help clear this smog and reconnect them to outside regions. No one wanted to be sealed off here until the smoke wiped out everyone living inside the barrier that sealed them and the infectious fog in.

“What does it say?” Leaning over Noyo’s shoulder, Loren saw for herself the page was empty.

“It’s blank.”

“Hm?” Dira raised his eyebrows, his two lower arms crossed and the other hands barely clasped. “Enchanted, I guess.” Looking down at the body he took it from, he continued. “I bet they knew the magic words to show what it says.”

“Not as though they gave us a chance,” Loren thought aloud, frowning. She knew that killing was necessary in life as it was, but she never wanted it to be the first on the list. The smog rolled through the trees, indifferent to people wherever it went. Her mask filtered it out, glowing with magic sigils that protected her with its charged wards. Even that wasn’t forever. Not like the fog.

“They’d never have told us.” Tucking the note into the inner pocket of their cloak, Noyo took the time to reassure her those lives had to be sacrificed. It was the three of them or their enemies, and it could be just that simple. They told Loren that often enough that she probably should have known it in her dreams.

“Well?” He implied asking his suggestion again.

“Good luck,” Noyo repeated.

“Noyo, can’t we—”

“I told you not to chase these people,” they brought up her first warning, ignored and forgotten, and pointed to the bodies. “You didn’t listen, and now we’re separated from the others.”

Her fathers among them. This was an assignment to transport one group of the Brook Mills residents out to Tolston, a larger city-state that could support them. The rules were simple: everyone had to stay together, and Loren went off at the first cry for help from the woods. She winced, clenching her fists and biting back the mean words ready to force their way out. Noyo was only looking out for her. They always did. More often than not, they talked about how you’re on your own out in the wild, but they never turned their back on Loren. No matter how often she didn’t listen and stuck with her gut instinct instead. They deserved some respect from her for all of that.

“We can’t join them. We have to go back to Brook Mills and re-charge. Please, listen this time.”

In a quieter voice, Loren gave it one last try. She knew she was right about this. Being wrong before didn’t change how it was now. “We have a better chance with three of us.”

Closing their eyes, Noyo held two fingers to their temple and waited.

“Look, I don’t want to cause a fight,” Dira stepped in, almost literally as he walked closer to the two of them. He held his upper hands out, rolling into a gesture to explain. “But going to Brook Mills leads into the thicker smog. I’ve seen that pass by in a few days, but it’s not likely to leave much behind.”

“You have a plan,” they observed more than anything else. They didn’t do much besides open their eyes to look his way. Noyo always made their stance clear, almost making demands even when asking questions.

Dira nodded. “There’s a crystal site not too far from here. You come home with capsules of power for the Union’s ward generators, and it could save some lives.”

Loren turned to Noyo immediately, watching for their approval.

“How do you know about it?”

“Oh, I saw it with our companions here,” Dira gestured to the Union members using his lower set of arms, and Loren had the impression he was too used to the dead. He seemed closer to Noyo’s age than Loren’s—he must have been a runner in the smog since it all began.

“Out those windows?” Noyo nodded to the barred square opening in the side of the cart, only just big enough to see out of for someone who was tall enough to reach.

“Heard it might be more accurate. You know that faint hum it has? That.” Dira nodded again, referencing a noise Loren had heard much less often than the other two had. She knew it anyway: a ringing echo like the few seconds after the bell called people in from the farms of Brook Mills. Everyone had to be inside the barriers before the dark settled in with the smog. The creatures of the fog were drawn to crystals, not the blackness of night, but there was still the risk of having trouble seeing clearly in both.

“You remember where it is?”

“Perfectly, thank you for asking.” Dira held his arms out to no applause or even praise. He was beyond discouragement, and it brought on a mix of pity and being impressed at how little anything bothered him.

“Then let’s go,” Loren inserted herself. Just because the people with her had more experience didn’t mean her opinion should be left out. “You said it,” she spoke to Noyo, “We don’t have time.”

Noyo glanced from Loren to Dira, exhaling curtly. “Fine.”

Dira walked backwards to the other horse in front of the farther cart. Lucky for them, these were warhorses unafraid of combat. An odd choice for carriages, maybe, but very lucky for them. Few city-states could boast about having trained warhorses.

“Who’s going with me?”

“No one,” Noyo insisted, a hand on Loren’s back to guide her to the mottled grey horse hooked up to the carriage where she was rescued. “Keep the cart attached.”


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Saving Ourselves: Story Trailer

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Seeing Red: Transistor Fanfiction

Word count: 1400 (3 to 11 minutes) | Rating: T | Note: Transistor Spoilers | Characters: Red and Boxer


He was heading to Junction Jan’s when they met.

Aside from her, that day was like any other. Normal days or not, the city always had some kind of energy to it. You could just sit on a bench, take in the sights, smells, and chatter, and really feel it resonating in your chest. Like a full orchestra playing.

It was the dives and local joints that really made up the place. The spots you knew about only because you lived there. Whatever the polls decided about the sky or the city layout, those tried-and-true restaurants and bars were his constants. He could tell the time with just a glance at some of them. And even without checking his watch that night, he knew he was out too late on the streets of Cloudbank.

Looking for a worthy cause to fight for, mostly. Bad things could happen at night. It helped if someone was there to keep an eye out before things got out of hand. Even if that someone smelled like stale sweat from odd jobs and was still figuring his life out. And things never got out of hand in Cloudbank. Not for years.

He sensed her before he spotted her, if he was being honest. She was like that. Always was. Red was made for the stage, and there was some kind of spotlight centered on her even when there wasn’t. Like the universe just knew she was special.

It was fitting that he saw her hair first. Spiraled wisps of red embraced her delicate features, and then he caught her eye. Of course her eyes were somewhere between blue and green, like the water in the Canals District, right where it met the painted sky. Dressed in her stage outfit still, she glowed in the crowd.

She was fearless. The alleyway shortcut to the gondolas might as well have been her living room for how she walked right into it. High heels announced her every step, but it didn’t stop her. He’d learn later that it took way more than that to make Red call it quits.

That night, he was willing to leave their one-sided meeting there. A mystical encounter he could recount later and wonder if he imagined her. But when another person followed her down that dark walkway, he had to do the same. In that way, he reasoned that he was following that person, not her.

It didn’t sound believable to him then either.

“—irst fight like that in four years,” the man hissed. He was taller than Red and scarily skinny, with pale blonde hair fluffed around his ears. Almost to bring more attention to how upset he was like the finger he jabbed in Red’s face.

It didn’t make a difference to her. Those bright, watchful eyes stayed on him and if he didn’t feel small, he had to be too dense for anything worthwhile. Red kept her voice steady, just like her expression.

“I didn’t write that song to provoke anyone.”

“Yeah, well, he’s been banned from the hall!” He added in a wild gesture back toward the street and him as a coincidence. Stepping around a cluster of flowers forcing their way up through the cracks, he kept walking over. This little chat wouldn’t wind itself down, something told him.

“I never intended for that to happen.”

“Your music speaks for itself, that’s what you said.” The man took two steps closer; he took four. One fight in four years was plenty. No need to make it two. Especially not with her. “What it causes, you caused.”

“That’s enough,” he interrupted, entering the soft yellow light of the streetlamp over them both. It felt staged. For a second, he thought it might be a sort of destiny that they met like this. The other strange man to follow her that night didn’t feel the same way. He sneered, looking him over without bothering to hide his disgust. That kind of reaction never bothered him anyway.

“What’s it to you?”

“Just the right thing to do.”

“There you are,” Red said, confusing everyone but her. She brushed past the other guy like he was nothing more than a sheet hung to dry. The way her hand lingered on his arm was a world apart. He could feel slight calloused spots on her fingertips on his arm, and even that touch was so warm.

He could never forget if they’d met before. So what was she doing?

“I told you to meet me at the restaurant.” That gentle squeeze on his forearm urged him to go along with whatever her plan was. It wasn’t like he had one. Not like he could do much thinking with a bit more light in her gaze directed at him.

“Looks like it’s good I didn’t listen.”

She smiled, and he forgot what brought him to her in the first place for a moment. “You never do.” She took her hand back, turning with a muted click of her heel on the stone walk to face their only company. “I’m taking what happened seriously, but I can’t change it. I’m moving forward. You should too.”

She passed by him next, walking back to the street and leaving them both. After a beat, he followed. He never did find out what became of the stranger they left alone in the light of the alleyway.

———-

For the first stretch of their walk, she only looked back for a second or two. Eventually, she nodded him over to walk with her. He joined her in a few long strides and was greeted with a sideways glance.

“Why did you follow me?”

“Well,” he stalled, shoving his hands in his pockets. The crowds thinned out even more during their short detour. “The alleys by the Bay can be dangerous.”

“Obviously I wasn’t alone.”

He ducked his head, burying a laugh that way. He nodded before turning back to her and seeing that smirk holding up. She raised her eyebrows, half teasing in her sympathy. And here he thought he’d been watching over her. Over time, he realized they were both looking after one another. That’s how it was. “You knew I was here?”

“No,” she admitted, brief and weightless. The waves of her hair moved with the quick shake of her head. “But it seems like you need reassurance.”

They turned a corner to the shops and restaurants by the Bay, and he realized how they must have looked. A woman dressed in a fine gown next to a guy who looked like he was wearing the same shirt from yesterday. It wasn’t, of course. And hey, he didn’t mind. She asked for him to be there. What did it matter how it looked?

“I saw him following you, and I thought—” Taking one hand from his pocket, she made a vague gesture. “Anyway, I thought it’d be smart for me to go too.”

“Good instincts.” Red stopped by a crossroads. One path went further into downtown, and the other, towards transport back to Highrise. He never really liked it up there. But he thought she might have had business in that section of Cloudbank. His opinion changed when he found out she lived there on his first invitation. “Even though I know how to handle myself.”

She swayed a bit, maybe to a tune only she could hear. She had songs, the guy said. He was embarrassed afterwards to admit that he’d never been one for the arts before her. And after her? Well, he couldn’t listen to anyone else.

“Would you be alright if—” He sighed, looking to the fork in the road that went to Highrise. He had nothing to lose by asking. “Can I walk you to where you were going? Just in case.”

“Junction Jan’s.” She waited for him to catch on. Red was good like that.

“Hm?”

“That’s where I was going.”

He looked to the opposite walkway, clear in the other direction from where he found her in the Bay area. It took too long for him to piece together that she was asking him out to dinner. But when it mattered, Red was patient. Persistent might’ve been the better word.

“Funny.” He chuckled, looking back to her. “Me too.”

“Then I say we go together.”

She went on ahead, and she didn’t even need to ask that time. He was right beside her.


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Web of Love | Claude Edition Ch. 5: An Impromptu Date

Word count: 4500 (10 to 36 minutes) | Rating: T | Note: Fire Emblem: Three Houses Spoilers | Characters: Claude, Ferdinand, Lorenz, and Hubert

Read the previous chapter.

Although he would adamantly refuse to admit it to Claude, today was a rather nice afternoon for a horseback ride. Flayn had recently been rescued, although she was never in any grave danger herself. Only he and Lady Edelgard knew as much, and it was far from certain. Her involvement was strategic. She was of no use to anyone if she was dead—at least not at this stage. Regardless, with her return, tensions at the monastery dissipated. Claude, among others, was in a state of mind to smile at the full clouds drifting overhead. The light, crisp fragrance signifying the approach of autumn carried in the air. Now out in droves, hunters would arrive at the monastery with more game soon. Another cause for celebration and a suitable diversion from the war yet to begin.

“What did I tell you, Hubert?” His companion began his teasing boast. Hubert didn’t even need to look to know he was smirking. “I knew you’d be glad I convinced you to take a quick break with me.”

The speckled grey mare that Ferdinand chose for his training seemed to scoff on Hubert’s behalf. She was well-selected. Experienced, reliable, and with a stern disposition, the two of them did cooperate quite well together. If only thanking Ferdinand for his attentiveness was so simple.

“I didn’t say I was.”

“With a friendship this close? You don’t have to say a word,” Claude continued his playful jabs. Obviously, he didn’t know Hubert even half as well as he assumed. A glance at the Golden Deer House leader revealed that he was, in fact, grinning. He may as well enjoy his carefree days while he still could. “Besides, if Lorenz heard that I neglected to invite such a treasured friend to join me for a horseback ride, he’d have my hide!”

“How odd,” Hubert feigned ignorance with a smirk of his own. They led their horses down the familiar path further from the monastery to a quiet field where they could speak freely on various subjects the Church disapproved of. They would make their way back shortly before the hardy variety of bugs emerged to claim the night as their own. “Since when did you become so invested in his opinion?”

“Oh, since he mysteriously ended up running into me in random circumstances with unknown origins. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”

“Not at all. As you recall, I’ve been trying to study despite your best efforts.”

“Sure, sure,” Claude dismissed that shameless evasion somewhat too readily. Surely, there would be something he wished to pursue right behind it. Hubert peered at him, but he could be difficult to read when he chose to be. That would undoubtedly prove useful in leading the Alliance. Claude leaned over with the reins loose in his hand, so casual that he appeared to have forgotten he was on a horse altogether. “So, are you going to show off all the stately, cavalier form that Ferdinand’s shown you?”

“No.” Hubert urged his horse ahead, but his travel companion was not easily dissuaded.

“Oh, come on!” Even his horse appeared to have a merry little jaunt to its trot as he caught up with Hubert, that grin immovable from his face. “You can say I paid you to, if it’s your sinister aura you’re worried about.”

Hubert grimaced in return, exhaling heavily. Would that he could convince Claude to discuss alternative governing structures, compelling strategies with battalions, or even guessing the ages of different monastery staff if he felt so inclined. Any topic but his determination to act the matchmaker, however well-founded his judgment turned out to be.

“Claude! Hubert!”

Hubert straightened in his saddle, turning to look after Claude had already done so. The vibrant warmth of that voice was enough to identify Ferdinand, but he was obligated to at least look at him. Regardless of whether his timing was exceptionally poor or not, he supposed.

“Well, look who’s here, Hubert!” Claude stopped his horse, waving Hubert down like he wasn’t beside him as it was.

“I can see them,” Hubert answered, glancing to Lorenz meaningfully as they approached. If nothing else, he wouldn’t be ensnared in this trap on his own. By Claude’s account, it was only expected of Hubert to reciprocate his ‘favor’.

“Imagine seeing you both out here!”

“Yes, quite the coincidence,” Lorenz agreed with Ferdinand, however skeptical he was through those manners. His proud steed drew up beside his friend’s with impeccable grace. One had to wonder if the horse was well-trained or Lorenz simply had that effect. After all, his presence alone was enough to get Claude to eat with some extent of decorum. Or perhaps that was simply Claude’s response now that he’d been on the receiving end of his own romantically inspired scheming.

“I see what you’re hinting at, Lorenz, say no more.” Claude seemed perfectly at ease, twisting in his saddle to face the two noblemen’s sons. Hubert would rather turn his horse, but they unfortunately lacked the space in that area of the path. “You followed us out here to seek out our company, didn’t you?”

“What? No!” Indignant, Lorenz insisted somewhat too intensely, sparing a glance to Ferdinand for support and earning a quick nod. The two were childhood friends, and that simple act likely signified something to Lorenz that neither of the other two present would have any chance of guessing accurately. It served as encouragement of some sort, clearly, as Lorenz continued more calmly. “We often go for a stroll at this time. I was suggesting quite the opposite.”

“Ah, so we followed you out here before you left,” Hubert proposed, following his suggested reasoning with a cold smile. Lorenz had much in common with Ferdinand, including the simplicity of stirring him to ire. “Yes, that sounds sensible.”

Before Lorenz could get too far into his tirade, elegantly shaped eyebrows raised in offense, Ferdinand rested a gentle touch on his forearm. To think, Lorenz would emerge his mocking encounter with Hubert as the fortunate one.

“Come now,” Ferdinand smoothed over the tension, an effortless smile at the ready. Lorenz huffed, but let it fall with a final sneer. Even that was poised for appearances. Ferdinand accepted it even so, holding his reins in both hands again and turning that expression to Hubert. “Perhaps this was simply serendipitous! I, for one, would be delighted to have your company.”

“Be that as it may,” Hubert stalled in his answer, feeling a nameless sensation course through him at having Ferdinand’s direct attention, and with such a remark! In a weak attempt to distract him, Hubert nodded to the road stretching out towards the fields and town ahead. “The path only accommodates two horses side by side.”

“I’ve got an idea!” Claude’s ideas were, in a word, horrendous. Artfully thought out and clever, yes, but often resulted in landing in some plot of his. True to form, he was undeterred by Hubert’s eye roll. “Let’s shake things up a little! Hubert here can go with Ferdinand, and I’ll ride with our noble Lorenz. What do you say?”

Lorenz flushed pink, complementing his lilac hair in a way—a fact Claude seemed intent on noticing with a lingering gaze like the one he bore. That victory of Hubert’s own schemes to draw Claude’s amorous feelings into the light was difficult to celebrate, what with Ferdinand’s blush framing a hopeful, fragile smile.

“A fine idea, Claude!”

“Ah.” Hubert caught Lorenz’s eye, however fleetingly. They seemed to be the only two who were aware of the emotions charging this discussion. Despite that, the brief glance proved neither of them could place or settle those sentiments. With a short nod to Ferdinand, he surrendered. “I see no issue with it.”

“Then it’s settled,” Lorenz rushed out, guiding his horse to move closer to Claude, who had already started ahead at a lackadaisical pace. “We shall see you upon our return.”

“Y-yes, indeed!” Ferdinand winced so slightly, it could easily be overlooked. By someone less keenly aware of his every move, perhaps.

Hubert ushered his horse to go ahead at a pace to put distance between them and the pair up ahead. If Claude insisted on his romantic machinations, it was only fair that he would be caught up in them as well.

He suspected the socially adroit House Leader of Golden Deer would fare far better than Hubert himself, whose gloves were already gathering a light layer of sweat in the palms as Ferdinand’s horse sauntered up in pursuit.


The silence is stretched taut between them, but not with anger. Such a far cry from where they began their connection. No, this was something Hubert was much less capable of recognizing. Ferdinand and Hubert had gone on countless horse rides, spent hours in the kitchen together, and worked on assorted weekly tasks numerous times. What could possibly have changed?

Hubert must have offended him in some way.

“I enjoy all horse rides,” Ferdinand started, kind enough to fill the quiet hovering between them like smothering fog. “But today’s is especially lovely.”

“Oh?” Glancing to Ferdinand from the edge of his vision, Hubert truly could not think of anything further to say. He looked much less like the prime minister’s son and more the son of some well-off merchant, at least in physical appearance alone. His outfit suited horseback riding more than noble presentation, although it managed to appear stately. That may have more to do with his bearing than any concrete attribute of button-down shirts and equestrian pants.

His hair was curled into the style he commonly preferred, whether natural or requiring attention and care. Both, as the case may be. Hubert had idly wondered what it might call for, and if perhaps he might know how to do so for Ferdinand. He saw to certain aspects of hair care for Lady Edelgard for years. How different could it be? What would he speak of in the morning, still yawning with having just woken?

“The weather, that is!” Ferdinand broke through his revelry, and Hubert turned away with the return of that damnable feeling under his skin. Almost like an anxiousness. That response was beneath him, trained out of him by his wretched father. And yet, it persisted. Just as it did with Ferdinand, laughing tightly. “It’s perfect, is it not?”

“Yes. Yes, of course.” Again, the silence returned. Of course, that was what occurred when one did nothing to further a conversation. Hubert exhaled through his nose. He was entirely fed up with his own uselessness already, and they had only reached the first fork towards a small forested area outside Garreg Mach. If the simplest, most vapid noble of Enbarr could manage small talk, so could Hubert von Vestra. Clearing his throat and, with more effort and to a lesser extent, his mind, he offered his best attempt. “Lorenz said you routinely go on horseback rides together?”

“Ah, that we do! I join Lorenz at least once a week.” Ferdinand was grateful in instant, brightening on the spot. Seeing him then, it was impossible to remember what it was that so inspired hatred in Hubert at the sight of the future prime minister—particularly when content, as he was now. The honeyed depths of his eyes took on an ever-more vibrant presence, incapable of being ignored or denied. Freckles scattered over the light pink enduring on his face, and something in his tenuously pleased grin endeared him.

“You must know the area well.” Shared observations were working thus far. Hubert saw no reason to change that particular strategy, not with his inner thoughts as they were.

“I could easily navigate this area blindfolded!” Ferdie beamed with familiar self-satisfied pride as their path sloped downward and closer to the clustered trees. Where once that would send Hubert into a cutting remark that earned him a scowl, he merely chuckled.

“Dramatic as always. I was only asking for a recommendation as to where we might stop for tea.” The seasoned scarlet oak tree Hubert favored would be developing its trademark blazing color, and it would be a fine place to rest with—company. Regrettably, they were nowhere near it. “My favorite coffee drinking spot happens to be on the other side of the monastery.”

“You have coffee and tea with you, Hubert? And a tea set?” Surprised, but not displeased, Ferdinand looked to him in wide-eyed curiosity. Much better than a scowl, as it so happened.

“It’s a metal set, and I have only tea. But yes. Why else would I mention it?”

“Right! Of course,” Ferdinand answered, that nervous laugh coming again. Hubert frowned and cursed whatever fickle whim of the universe that decided he would respond to social awkwardness with more of the same. “There is a clearing nearby that is both charming and secluded. Assuming you wish for privacy, that is. Because I know how much that means to you.”

“Thank you.”

The knowledge that Ferdinand had been observing him in turn, and even learned that his brusque demeanor served more than one purpose, materialized against all odds. Truthfully, Hubert had not the slightest as to how to proceed from there.

“Then I shall lead the way!” Inclined to mercy, Ferdinand did precisely that so Hubert could follow without having to speak to imagined feelings. There was no chance that they were anything but. Hubert prepared for the eventuality that such emotions did exist between them, yes. Lady Edelgard knew of the budding affections he held for Ferdinand. She was delighted by them, even. Yet he knew better than to hope.

And somehow… Still, his heart raced as he did nothing more taxing than kneeling at the center of the clearing Ferdinand brought them to.

Hubert had no ability to summon a fire spell worthy of being an attack, but he could warm the metal kettle using only the low flame in his hands. The water from his canteen had originally been for Claude and Hubert to share, so it was slightly less than he would have brought had he planned for Ferdinand. Another manner in which this trip did not go according to Claude’s impulsive idea. He would just have to drink less to compensate. All in all, it really should have been rather simple. But the unidentifiable sensation from when they first split off carried over even so long after.

When he glanced to Ferdinand tying off their horses, their gazes brushed and fled from one another insuppressibly. That atmosphere rendered both of them distracted and inefficient with their tasks. The water should have been ready by then, and Ferdinand took far longer than usual to secure the reins to a sturdy branch.

“There,” Ferdinand said with no particular need to do so. Noise for the sake of noise—a hallmark sign that his colleague was ill at ease. He took the time to pet one of the creatures on the nose, affectionate and gentle as he dallied. “Do behave now.”

“Damn,” Hubert hissed, dropping the kettle onto the flat stone he’d set beneath it earlier. Watching Ferdinand robbed him of his focus, causing the fire to flare higher than he intended. Not enough to burn through his gloves or anything drastic, but enough to convince him to let it go abruptly before he faced the consequences.

“Are you alright?” Ferdinand darted over, his hand positioned over Hubert’s shoulder as concern pierced every syllable.

“Yes. Of course.” Being the focus of his concern especially was foreign to Hubert. He managed not to withdraw from his touch, a success in itself. “I misjudged the heat required, so we’ll have to wait longer for it to cool.”

“Oh. I see.” Settling down in the grass across from him, Ferdinand leaned back with a relieved breath. The first few buttons of his shirt were undone, so a portion of his skin was visible there. Tanned skin, indicating that Ferdinand was without his shirt in the sun often enough to maintain that. It was new intelligence on his habits, nothing more, but Hubert was even less in control of his mind than before. All of these effects had never happened to him before. Not with men or women in the capital, and certainly not with Ferdinand von Aegir. At least until Claude’s interference.

Or was the reverse true? It hardly seemed to matter in that private space within those woods.

“This is a—”

“Hubert, I—”

Just as they spoke at once, they both halted simultaneously. Ferdinand let out a small chuckle and bowed his head to Hubert, extending a hand in a hypothetical offer. “My apologies. You can speak first.”

“I was only admiring our surroundings. They are—” He looked away from Ferdinand at the final moment, unsure what had come over him. Taking courage in Lady Edelgard’s encouragement when they’d discussed this possibility, Hubert pushed himself to conclude as planned. He looked to Ferdinand once more and finished his sentence. “Truly lovely.”

After a short pause—neither reassuring nor disquieting, but plainly being—Ferdinand smiled anew. “I must confess, I sincerely hoped you would think so.”

“But you had something to say as well?” Rather than avoiding a momentary lapse in his typically stern mannerisms, Hubert circled back to Ferdinand out of honest interest. As he waited, he held his hand near the kettle’s side and deemed it the proper warmth to pour over the tea in their respective cups.

“Right! So I did.” As Hubert lifted the kettle, Ferdinand fussed with his cravat to no apparent end. “I have just been thinking as of late that I feel immensely grateful. For our evolution from bitter enemies to,” he hesitated yet again, clasping his hands in front of him. He assumed it was an endeavor to steady them that was mostly effective. “Well, I’m not sure what, exactly. All I can say for certain is that I am grateful for you.”

Hubert’s vital organs took that as a cue to collectively forget their purpose. Holding his breath as his stomach seemed unwilling to settle, his heart pounded while he searched that familiar face. How strange, to see his own uncertainties and hopes reflected back at him. It couldn’t be that he…? Hm.

He abandoned the thought of pouring his own water, setting the kettle down the flat stone between their cups.

“Forgive me if I misheard you; did you say for me?”

“I did, yes.” Ferdinand beamed, holding his own hands tighter. These mixed signals would be the death of one or both of them, surely. “After all of our lengthy disputes and the utterly horrid manners I’ve shown you, I came to be disappointed that we may never be comfortable with one another. That even the barest civility would be an unexpected turn of events for us,” he clarified when Hubert remained still and stared in abject disbelief.

“As such,” he pushed ahead, moving at last to reach for his cup, seemingly oblivious to the gaze trained on him exclusively. “I was very much pleased to find we have become what I am sure is quite a bit more than colleagues finding it difficult to even be civil.”

There had to be a gesture or tell of some kind that would reveal this for what it was. Something fancifully misread on Hubert’s part, no doubt, soon to be exposed as a friendly expression and nothing further. He felt that his face must rival the kettle itself in warmth by then, but there was only the one method to know his meaning for certain. No significant information was ever gained without risk or sacrifice.

“It seems I still don’t understand. There is a generous range beyond forced civility.”

Ferdinand flushed pink, smiling shyly and confirming Hubert’s suspicions. The discovery made his heart soar on the one hand and snuck in a trembling in his chest on the other. Emotions were as ruthless a tool as any weapon, he decided, but… With the proper application, any tool could be turned to his favor.

“Please, Hubert! I know social matters are not to your liking, but I beg of you, please do not make me say it outright.”

“So that I might instead?” Hubert suggested with a smirk and willed that unsettled feeling within to stop. He met with some limited success.

Only to realize that Ferdinand looked deeply uncomfortable. The vibrant hope once shining from him noticeably was eclipsed by a darkness he knew far better than he ever should have, likely a cruel courtesy of Ludwig von Aegir: self-doubt. “Have I—Oh, I have misread your—Forgive me, Hubert. Please, forget everything I have just said.”

“I’m afraid I can’t.” Hubert rushed to answer before Ferdinand could bury his face into his hands. The anxiety of the moment was beyond Hubert’s reach. But shame? He would do anything to keep that from plaguing Ferdinand’s thoughts. Fortunately, in that case, it was quite simple—or so it seemed. “My sentiments on you go beyond what one would consider professional or even merely companionable.”

Reaching for the kettle again, Hubert poured the water over his own tea and kept to his misleading sense of calm. It was wasted on Ferdinand, perhaps, but it brought him some small comfort all the same.

“So you see, now that you have suggested your inclinations towards me may be likewise favorable, I couldn’t possibly put that from my mind.”

“Truly?!” The proper air for Ferdinand had been restored, it seemed. It was, admittedly, rather rewarding to see his smile return as relief washed over him in a breathless laugh. “Does that mean you have sensed this change between us as well?”

“I have,” Hubert confirmed, utterly neglecting his tea just as Ferdinand was. It did lend this space a pleasant aroma, the warm fragrances of steeped tea and autumn leaves blended into one. It had been said that scent was closely associated with memory. He hoped it proved true so he would always have that marker to remind himself of this moment. Even in it presently, he hardly believed it was true.

“Furthermore, I have told Lady Edelgard about it. Despite all her responsibilities as Emperor with all that is yet to come, she has encouraged me to go where my heart leads me.” His instinct was to reach for Ferdinand, and yet, he couldn’t quite bring himself to. Perhaps it was all an elaborate illusion, as realistic as his dreams often were. This was one to linger in. Hubert rested his hand against his chin, letting his expression relax into a smile. “I suspect that would be to you.”

Ferdinand, with impressive speed, threw himself at Hubert. Entirely unprepared, he fell back with Ferdinand over him. A handful of ways to disarm or imbalance him flashed through Hubert’s mind. And yet, nothing could outshine Ferdinand’s laughter in his ear—with his own layered beneath it.

This was not part of the plan with their time at Garreg Mach. He would need to discuss their secret plots with Lady Edelgard to determine if they should involve Ferdinand. And if so, to what extent. He had her blessing for the relationship, yes, but that didn’t cover Ferdinand’s knowledge of what must be done to dismantle the current nobility in Adrestia as well as the false Church of Seiros.

For that once, Hubert immersed himself in the moment. The smell of drying autumn grass and leaves, the fragrance of the steeping tea drifting over to where they laid together, the warmth and presence of Ferdinand smiling down at him—him. If the worst came to pass, as it so enjoyed doing, Hubert intended to capture this memory. A window into the carefree as well as a potential glimpse of the future.

“Ah, I cannot possibly contain my joy! All the world is full of song and wonder, as magical as any operatic performance!” Almost wild with delight, Ferdinand clearly meant it. When did he not?

His arms rested around Hubert’s neck, who placed a single hand on his back. It was tempting to surrender to the comfort of his closeness, after so long spent resisting, then longing. Hubert persisted, of course. He had his brief peace. As always, reality had to be let in.

“Before you get ahead of yourself, you must understand,” he began, knowing how near he would be to losing Ferdinand at any time in the coming moons. Perhaps whether he told him or not, but there was something to be said for a warning. However devoid of details. “I have a role in the Empire that requires a great deal of secrecy. Even from those closest to me, if not especially so.”

“How like you, to be so practical in an occasion so momentous,” Ferdinand teased, shifting to lay beside Hubert with a broad smile. “That is one of many upstanding attributes I have grown to love in you.”

The merciless march of his flush advanced down his neck, and still, he kept eye contact with him. His suitor now, he supposed. Witnessing the color to his skin was part of the experience, should unreasonably popular tales of romance be any guide on the topic.

“I’m serious, Ferdinand.”

“As am I! As the Minister to the Imperial Household and the heir to House Vestra, there are secrets you must keep. That is one of the several remarkable traits I respect in you, not tolerate in desolation.” Shuffling closer on the grass, running the risk of stubborn stains, Ferdinand placed a kiss to his lips before Hubert could react.

In truth, he very well could have. He should have. But he only froze, eyes widening just so. When it was done, he took in a sharp breath—and remained lost in the expanse of his eyes, the fondness of his tender smile.

That had been Hubert’s first kiss.

Ferdinand would be beside himself with joy for even longer if made aware of it. As though he couldn’t guess from his immobile awe.

“To be considered among your closest companions, one of those you hold dearest to your heart, is an honor beyond measure.” Seeking out his hand, Ferdinand intertwined their fingers among the grass. “And from now on, secrets or no, we will have each other.”

“Although I know you cannot comprehend the enormity of what you’ve promised,” Hubert began, bringing his other hand up to pull a leaf from Ferdinand’s hair. He could be so careless when swept up in sentiment like this. It was safe to assume Hubert looked much the same for his tumble back into the grass. “I find myself helpless not to believe you. Therefore, as futile as it may be, I will strive to be worthy of you.”


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Saving Ourselves: Loren Character Introduction

Word count: 800 (2 to 7 minutes) | Rating: T | Original Fiction: Saving Ourselves | Note: Fantasy races (common), magic, post-apocalyptic setting

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Radiant Dance of Year 1: Shrouded Era

Not as bright as it once was, the summer sun still burned its way through the smog surrounding them to warm Loren’s skin. Maybe it would feel different when she was out there for real, not training in some course hastily set up next to the runners’ base.

Her braid swung out behind her as she leapt over the simple fence in her path, using that momentum to roll over her shoulder beneath the next fence after it. Loren barely cleared that when a training staff came down from her right flank. Raising her wooden shield, it caught the blow in her stead with enough force to ripple down her arm. She pushed off from her crouched position to stand and force the staff away—which shouldn’t have worked half as well as it did. He was going easy on her and they both knew it.

No one asked him to.

He stepped into a wide, bracing stance, and narrowed green eyes at her as he squared his shoulders. If she struck, he was ready for it. And she was ready for that. Human men were generally muscular, well-built, and sturdy. Nothing like dwarves, but a far cry from elves like Loren. But she knew how to leverage her lithe build in her favor over his staunch one. That skill was years in the making by then. He jolted the staff’s end towards her to break her guard, Loren parried that end aside to make an opening, and he spun the other end of the staff up at her head. Ducking again, she jabbed her sparring sword upward towards his chest. With his relatively tall height for a human, that could be enough to stagger him, even without the rules of their training leaving him “wounded” by the blow.

All that, and it was the soft-tipped arrow zipping by her to bounce off his chest that took him out of their mock run.

“Loren,” her trainee-in-arms called out, only barely looking out from behind his cover. Dwarves were hardy, but he knew better than to stand out in the open even if he could take the hit. As one of the defenders in their crew, that was more her job anyway.

With a sharp nod, she darted across the small field to his hedge.

“Thanks,” she offered and he smiled, knocking another arrow.

“Who’s counting?”

“They are.” Noyo, of course. As one of the first runners in Brook Mills, they helped prepare others for the transformed world. That was only two months ago now. It felt longer. They weren’t the most capable runner, according to the village, but they were the best teacher. Patient but firm, they were both realistic and encouraging in their lessons. The townspeople would have to agree to disagree with Loren on the first part.

Noyo waited on the porch, still decorated from the building’s days as an inn, and sand fell through an hourglass next to them on a weathered handrail.

“Right.”

“Wait—” Too late, Loren reached for him as his path sent him tumbling into one the shallow pitfall traps the trained runners set up. Shallow for her, anyway. She could just barely meet his worried gaze, brows knit and forehead smeared with dirt from his fall.

“Don’t go.”

He’d never make it out of there alone. Glancing up to the hourglass, Loren couldn’t make out how much time was left. Not a good sign. The third trainee had gone ahead from the very beginning, and she was already waiting at the end goal, tossing a magic ball of light back and forth in her hands as she waited. Loren frowned at her. If anyone deserved to fall into a ditch, it was that woman.

“I’ll get you out.” Grabbing some rope left on the ground as part of the mock wreckage they could find out there, Loren tied a quick knot, familiar from so much repetition, and tossed the rope down to him. Reaching down, she explained the first step. “The bow.”

He wasted no time passing that up, then climbing his way up as she stood guard. No one was left to threaten them, but that wasn’t the point of this test. She had to prove herself a good runner in all circumstances. So Loren would defend him until he was safe, and the fence post anchored him much better than she ever could.

“Thanks,” he breathed, taking his bow from her.

“Let’s go.”


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