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It is still some time before the engagement begins in earnest. The Biomancers are hard at work around the clock, and Dolce is hard at work during normal business hours, because if lack of sleep causes a lapse in the dining service disaster will ensue.

“My…temporary nemesis, will not let me stray far once we find them. I think, if I were in his shoes, it would be far easier to simply restrict my movements and actions rather than try to figure out what I was doing. He will certainly not let me leave the ship; I can think of no excuse that he would accept. Nor is there any function of the Service that could compel him to let me go at such a critical moment.”

Thus, there will be no lapse in the dining service. His order forms are rerouted the moment they leave his desk, helpfully filtered through several stages of quality checking for overtaxed supplies, inventory management, and disagreeable menu items. Precisely eight hours after he attends to his duties, he will be given an invitation to dine with 20022, after which they will take a refreshing stroll back to his quarters. No doors or desks are locked. He is an honorary member of the Service in honorary good standing, and so, to lock him away would be unthinkable. It is a testament to 20022’s diligence and good planning that he still has so many resources to spend on looking after his junior.

“That said, he has no way of knowing if I even want to leave. His authority ends at my office, as it were. To pry into my doings, that would require time, paperwork, and a reasonable suspicion that could stand up to outside scrutiny. He will be much too busy for that. Without any way of knowing for sure, I think he will settle for waiting, and watching for the slightest clue of mischief. Should he spot one, he may make my life rather difficult.”

Dolce’s evenings are spent as peacefully as they can, under the circumstances. He reads. He writes letters. He chats with Sanalessa over herbal teas, to what end, no one really knows for sure, but he is quite consistent about asking for his tea things in the evening. It is important to keep close tabs on such a dangerous resource, isn’t it?

“Since we do very badly want to leave, I think it would be best if it was not my idea.”

Tonight, someone knocks at the door.

There is the chink of cup meeting saucer. A rustle of wool and papers. A click. Dolce opens the door wide.

“Hello? Oh, it’s you-”

They are all the words he’s allowed.
This is the biggest Birstake in the history of birds, everywhere.

Him? The Golden Fawn? No, sorry, he’s Hazel. From Earth. You’ve probably never heard of him. Which makes a lot of sense why you might not realize he’s not all that, prophetically speaking. Wait, was this actually a case of mistaken identity? Was there supposed to be a different deerboy getting a wet crow to the antlers, but he’s here instead and now a prophecy’s been ruined forever by wrong place wrong time?

That’s a neat thought. He’ll come back to it later, there are more important things happening right now, like aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

He makes an undignified scramble out of the now-loose coils, and the only mercy is that nobody can clearly see this part. It’s like trying to crawl around in a bouncy castle; no purchase anywhere, and every other step the ground gives way and you go bum over teakettle. When at last he finds solid ground again, it’s another fumble to tug the sash down, and get the gag out of his mouth. Patooie! Which is almost certainly enough time for a wolfgirl to climb a tower and be about to pounce on him. Better peek so he at least sees his doom coming for him.

On the plus side, he’s not immediately captured, or peppered with heart-arrows. Downside, the huntresses won’t be stymied by the city guard forever, and one or both of those things will surely follow. Worst of all, neither of those facts have really sunken in, as each fresh scream sends his heart to yet-unexplored depths of mud. All this, because he got caught. Because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because-

“Better get going! Awk! Awk!

“Yes! Yes! I know! I’m going!”

“Eh, doesn’t look like it!”

“It’s a work in progress!”

Right. Okay. Feel sad later, make an escape now. Escape to where, exactly? Down was no good, down had at least two snakes, that is two too many. The plaza? No, no, no, plaza is all kinds of bad. And his thoughts might’ve continued on these pathways until time and awks forced him to one bad decision or the other. But starlight does funny things to a fellow, especially one who’s never had so much as a sip, and the Crow of Destiny hadn’t asked before giving him a whole bird-ful. As his eyes danced beneath the glow of his antlers, they saw fascinating possibilities in a rope tied to the tall tower, and the sparkly light jacket that Purnima had dropped in her sudden snooze…

Hunters!

As your heartblades sing and dance with the city guard’s, there’s a glimmer of movement up above. Sorry, scratch that, there’s a whole dazzle of movement up above.

“Hey!!!!”

With a novel battle cry, the Golden Fawn wraps a spangly bit of fabric around a rope holding up some of the festival banners, the light from his antlers now positively radiant, and-

”Aughhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!”

-well, he doesn’t particularly zip on down, there’s far too much friction, and it’s a struggle to get past the banners without getting completely tangled up in them, but he does stagger his way down quite admirably.

“Stop fighting! I’m running away now!”

“...please don’t chase me!”

Then he’s falling the last few feet, windmilling his arms wildly to keep from eating pavement, and he’s off at a bouncing run to the far end of the plaza and the city beyond it. Away from the crowds, away from the festival, away from anything that he could possibly put between himself and the pack. Nothing but winding streets, the dark of night, and his glowing antlers.

Well. Perhaps you’ll be sporting and fulfill one of those requests?

[Rolling to Defy Disaster (Grace) to protect the crowds, risking his own safety, taking -1 from Women Want Me, Fish Fear Me: 1 + 3 + 2 - 1 = 5. Oops!]
a boywhAT

That’s, what? What? What? What?! His lashes? His eyes?! What about them? How? Why? What? Adorable?!

“Mrrmmmph!!!”

But he couldn’t ask a one of those very reasonable questions. Not with all this fabric to talk through. Double especially not with her thumb? Pressing the cloth to his lips??? Goodness, she was. Firm. On his lips. On his earrrrrrrrrrrrr oh oh oh that’s the spot. Um. That is to say, he had to figure it out on his own, which he could definitely do if he just. Blinked. Enough? That seems reasonable. Blink enough times and the eye secrets will surely be revealed b e a u t i f u l ?!

No! Wait! See! This is! It’s just! She’s! She’s trying to butter you up! She wants you melting and blushing so you won’t try to escape! It’s a trick! She doesn’t mean it! Don’t listen to her Hazel!

“Mrrrrrrrrr…”

The coils are…definitely, also, probably, a trick. A trick she isn’t even thinking about. That’s what makes it so tricky. She probably isn’t even paying attention to his breathing, the way the squeezing lines up to the rise and fall of his bound chest. Or, was it his breathing being squeezed into rhythm? In. And press. And hold. Out. And release. In a wave. Alllll down his body. He pants, and huffs, and fights to keep his heart racing. Hold on to the adrenaline of the earlier chase. He’s still in danger. Don’t let go. Don’t let her squeeze the tension out of him. Don’t. Ngghhhh. Don’t sigh as she. Drains it away. As muscles melt. In. He clenches his jaw. And press.

“Mmmmmmmm-!”

It’s a trick, Hazel. She’s just saying that to tease you. She’s just squeezing you to wear you out. She’s just. Looking to…

Looking to what? Looking for what? Why is she looking at him like that? She’s not saying, which is unfortunate, because looks don’t explain themselves either. But they say so much. They could say so much. It’s a look for him. She’s looking at him. With intent. Golden eyes focusing sharp. Pupils drinking him in, so deep, even his reflection vanishes in them. Taking him in. Flicker flick, licking lips. Pointed smirk. Possessive. Glittering.

Hungry.

Oh…it’s bronze. Like the participation medals for sports day. But, warm, like a campfire, so, so warm…

And then he’s breaking the surface, gasping for air as she rips her gaze away, only for the breath to be pushed from him anew. Wasn’t that what made the coils tricky? That she didn’t have to think about them? Freed from her grip his head lolls against the cool scaled wall of her body. Down below there’s…something? Lights? People running around? She’s looking at that now, and he’s looking too, but it’s hard to follow as she squishes him mercilessly.

“Mrrpmrrrr…”

His muffled voice drowns in the hubbub from below.

“Mrrpmrrrr, mmmphhhh, mrr mpphh mrrrrr….mmmmpphhh…mrrmphmprrr…”

Yuki, Yuki, please, come save me…please…anyone…

Can Yuki hear him? Can anyone hear him? Doesn’t matter. Not worth thinking about. The sounds spill out of him, broken only by panting and helpless squirming.
Had he? The Manor had quite the extensive, ancient library, and many of its treasures were open to the staff provided they left no marks and did not neglect their duties. Diomedes…was the name familiar, or did it just rhyme pleasantly with more popular figures? “I do not know. I will need some time to think and reflect. If I go hunting for more information, that may help me recall more clearly.”

It doesn’t feel right. Probably because it isn’t. By all rights Sanalessa ought to be here for a conversation about her own future. You know, all of her, voice included. The galaxy’s deadliest warrior wanted to see her sisters again. She wanted to live. She wanted to be free. What right did he have to take that from her? Who was he to decide that she *had* to join him on this hunt, wherever it eventually led him?

Somebody who’d Demeter had given a gift to. And didn’t that still feel like a shortcoming on his part?

He doesn’t speak until he’s confident his voice won’t crack. “If you say it is necessary to. Take. Her. Then I will trust in your promise. You have said you would prevent me from any unnecessary sacrifice. I will trust that is so.” Folded hands hide white knuckles. “It would be improper of me to treat a gift from a goddess with carelessness and scorn. But society has given me few examples of how one should behave to your Assassin. Please. If you will tell me the regulations and the protocols, I will follow them.”

The pupil maintains strict attention on a goddess, patiently waiting as she peruses her thin, carefully-typed paper.
Did you know? If you let your eyes unfocus juuuuuuust so, and let your head flop back and forth as coils thick as your whole entire body squeeze you silly, you can see secret creatures in the ceiling colors? It’s true! He’s just spent…several? Probably several instructive minutes making a close study of the subject. He’ll have a paper out next month. It’ll flip the whole world upside-down. Or rightside-up, if it was already flipped wrong. Now that he’s got that sorted out, he can tackle the next item on his to-unpack list. It’s a very good list. One of his favorites. Excellent work, under the circumstances. Now let’s see here, ah! Yes, of course. One teeny tiny itty bitty question to tackle:

Was the gagging supposed to make him squirm?

Like, okay, the gag makes sense. He’s caught, she doesn’t want him talking, gags are very common here, that all tracks. But there was an awful lot of production around the choice of material. He thought maybe he was naughty because he didn’t let her hypnotize him, but was he actually naughty because this is Seli’s sash and veil? Both? Maybe a bit of both? He guessed? Resisting her, of course that’d be naughty to her. But why’s the sash and veil naughty? Seli was just wearing them, yes, but so what? How was this any different from borrowing a coat? Was it a heat thing? A smell thing? Was it supposed to be taboo because she was just wearing them, and didn’t want to give them up? Sooooo, borrowing a coat without asking first? That is a bit of a power play. She’s making him borrow her coat without asking. And maybe she’s playing like it was all his idea, like he’d wanted her sash and veil the whole time. For smell, or for her just wearing it, something like that. There’s options, the specific answer isn't all that important. He can see the underlying theory. Feels like it’d be more potent if she picked something other than a veil and a sash, but then again, if she’d chosen something more intimate that would’ve been a bit much. Ugh, didn’t bear thinking about.

Anyway.

“Mmmpphhh!!!!” Hazel’s muffled, panicked squeaks rang out through the empty halls, wavering as he shook helplessly in her iron grasp. And then they fell even quieter as he buried his face in faintly cool coils. The only defense of a goofball. Hide away from his tormentor. They can’t see him, they don’t exist. Flawless logic.

It’d be better if he knew how to flop his ears down over his face, that would be a nice touch. But he works with what little he’s got. Moments like this, you’ve got to do something. It’d be odd if he didn’t.

Almost as odd as thinking he was Yuki’s husband??!? Excuse me? What? Why?! Oh gosh, that wasn’t the rumor around here, was it? Yuki-

Yuki.

The plaza.

The ceremony!

On the one hand; he had successfully made it to the plaza, where Yuki could, in theory, spot him and rescue him. On the other hand; if Yuki were to see him right now he would Die Forever. Tough choice, touch choice. No, wait, not a tough choice! Not a tough choice at all! This lady - Purnima? - was up to no good, and was planning on using him, to get to Yuki, to get to Princess Sulochana, to get to all of Crevas!

Oh no. Was this a Market War?!

He had to escape. If he could convince her this was all a case of mistaken identity, maybe she’d let him go? Or at least let him go enough to reach his tablet, get a message out to Yuki, warn her of the danger before it was too late. He just. Had to. Work his jaw just so, and. Not chomp on the sash while he…

“Mrrr!”

Okay, not. The most clear, but he can work with that.

“Mmphh? Mm mrr?”

Did she get any of that? Any of that at all? No, no, doesn’t look like it. She’s not even looking at him. Just, rubbing his antlers. Still.

“Mmphh? Mmphh! Mrrrph, mr mpphh-!”

Huh. He could feel her rubbing his antlers. That was. A new feeling.

“Mrr? Mrrr…mrr…m-mrrrrrrr~”

O-oh. Um.

Okay! Apparently! Antlers can feel! And ears can feel even more! That doesn’t change anything! Not one bit! Even if it does feel kinda nice and there’s a funny tingling in his spine threatening to turn all his bones to wiggly jelly, you do not! Ear rub privileges are a sacred thing! And, he doesn’t want them from somebody who’s plotting against Yuki and Princess Sulochana, especially not somebody who thinks he’s her husBAnD?! A fact which she would know if she would just! Listen!

“Mmmph! Mm mrp mrr mrrpmrrrphh!”

Golly it’s hard to talk like this!!!
Later, he’ll marvel at the magic of Thellamie that kept him from crashing into every person, cart, and fragile object along their escape route. Because it has to be magic. There’s no other explanation. In his short time here, he’d gotten a whirlwind crash course (oh no!!!) in how the world works here. He’d walked through the Hubs. He’d drawn a Heartblade. He’d (safely) caught a glimpse of the dancing stars. He’d also grown antlers, and it was taking him some time to remember to duck through some doorways. But his legs?

They weren’t his legs. Subtly, not in ways he could really articulate, beyond looking in a mirror and having to pull a double-take. But they worked just fine, and he moved just fine, like he’d had these legs his whole life, and so he hadn’t thought anything of it. Later, he’ll think about the running, the leaping, the bounding, the climbing, and he’ll wonder how the legs of a stranger knew to carry him like that, and no matter how he looks at it the only thing it could be is magic.

That is later. This is now.

Keli and Seli scamper ahead of him, twin comets, guiding stars for him to follow. They speak no words to each other (but plenty of words to him) and take the road like it’s another stage, one they’ve spent their whole life rehearsing. They trade off leading and pulling, one of them surging ahead and around and over and under, the other clutching his hand and guiding him along the path. Around this crowd. Over that cart. Down this alley. Turn, climb, run! Run! Run!

And Hazel runs. With a bounding, leaping gait, he runs as fast as he dares. He can’t manage the sliding dives, or the steps that carry them along a wall, or the hi-five they give each other as they cross paths, but there’s just no time to think about what he can’t do. Because he can scramble over that cart with just two steps and a leap. He can vault that roadblock if he steps one-two-three-hup! He can squeeze himself sideways, and let his momentum carry him with a lunge-step and scrabble. He can follow them. He can keep running, even though by all rights they should’ve had to slow down six times now. He can hear the angry shouting behind him, as the terrific speed of the Nagi fights with their muscle and bulk to unsuccessfully push through the crowds.

He can leap off a building with Keli, and if you’d asked him before he would’ve said absolutely not, and you can’t ask him now because a helpless giggle is blooming into a wild yelp of adrenaline and joy and-

”Mmmphh!!”

Abwuh? Huh? Running? Warm? Dark? No? No running? Oh. Oh. Hiding. Hiding now. Being quiet. Okay. Okay. He can be quiet.

Um. Was she going to stop…? No? No. Okay. Nose breathing it is. Right. In, and out. Deep breaths. Slow breaths. Quiet breaths. Wait for that heartbeat to slow down. Try to find his heartbeat; one beating in his chest, and one beating against him, all tangled up in. Here. Very tightly.

Um. Oh dear.

That’s okay! This is okay. When next she looks at him, he looks at her, and wrinkles his eyes in what he hopes is a reassuring, friendly sort of way. (Can she feel his lips smile under her palm?) Slowly, deliberately, and above all silently, he wiggles his hands until they’re safely pressed between his body and the wall. See? No funny business. He will sit here, perfectly still, and perfectly quiet, until they get out here. No worries.

…it’s a bit difficult to see if she got the message, on account of the veil and all. And the look in her eyes - Bright. Sharp. Alive. - hardly changes. Nor does it change when a sudden angry shout jolts him against her. She raises one finger to her veil in the universal sign for silence.

And winks.

Okay! That’s okay! She’s fine! Winking means she’s fine! And he can keep being quiet and still! No problem! No problem. Just. Keep standing here. A little squished. Don’t think about the slight pressure against his chest every time she breaths in. Don’t think about the trembling of her body. Don’t think about how sweaty and gross you might be from the run. Don’t think about a snakegirl bursting through that thin, thin curtain at any moment…

He always hated this part of hide-and-seek. The waiting. Hearing footsteps nearby, and all you can do is wait. Hope they don’t get closer. Hope they don’t spot you. Sit, and dread, and worry, and implode, with no end in sight, repeat forever. Except. Well, yes, the worry was still there, somewhere. But there was also the comforting warmth of another person, standing close beside him, and how often did that happen? Somewhere along the way, one of Keli’s fingers had started idly stroking his cheek, probably without her realizing, and he couldn’t forget that. There’d just been a chase too, and if that memory could ever fade he would see it echoing through her glittering eyes. All that time dancing, and she’d never quite looked like that, huh? And with every deep breath, there was a rush of her sweetly spiced perfume, tinged with a smell he’d later realize was her skin, holding back the musty, dusty air of the alley, and, and, and-!

“Wa-chew!”

...and he may have forgotten not to sneeze.

Oops.

Well.

Maybe it was so quiet she didn’t hear it?
You know, maybe this is why Artemis chose to have this conversation sitting down. Was that how it always happened, when learning from the gods? The stories, well, now that he thinks about it, they leave details like that to the listener. What does it matter whether the Knight and the god were conversing on a leisurely stroll, sitting in a grove, or lying back and gazing at the distant stars? The Knight spoke with a god, divine wisdom was granted, and that was that. Sitting felt a lot more convenient, in hindsight. Less limbs to lose track of in a critical moment.

The Lethe…it makes sense. Even as it sounds impossible. Him? The little chef from Beri? Take on a quest from Hades, pledge his allegiance to royalty, cross the great river of death? This is a joke, right? You’ve gone and picked one the least suitable souls on all of Beri for the most dangerous quest imaginable. Except. Bits and pieces of the past gone missing. Misplacing the unforgettable. Two goddesses to vouch for it.

“I do not suppose…no, there is no reason to expect I would get it all back now, is there? ‘What one god has done, no other may undo’ and all that.” And think about that for a moment. A god saw fit to carve up the memories of Dolce of Beri. He wraps a shudder in his wool and refuses to let it go. Stillness. He is stillness.

Around them, Demeter goes about her work. The grove is undisturbed.

Folded arms unfurl to folded hands. “First and Greatest of Huntresses. I have left all I had behind in Beri, though I did not know I was doing so at the time. My house is no more. I am barred by forces far stronger than me from returning to my family. I am in hostile territory that seeks to swallow me whole.” His nose wrinkles. Words are weighed, carefully. “It is the second time I have left home behind. I set out the second time as I did in the first; in pursuit. If all obstacles disappeared tomorrow, and I could return to my cafe with no trouble at all, I would be returning empty-handed.” Of what, he couldn’t say exactly. Thank goodness she didn’t ask him to put that part into words. “I do not know if it is something I long for within my heart, or that building a home without it is impossible. But I suspect that if I were to return, I would leave a third time before long.”

Dolce, from somewhere, bows his head to Artemis.

“Which is all to say: It is also necessary for me to finish what I have started.”
His tail flick-flick-flicks with the rhythm of a curiously low, rumbly laugh. Butterflies in his tummy flutter and alight on the fascinating words “my dear.” His cheek still tingles.

Yeah. Yeah, he’s still thinking about the end of that conversation.

Didn’t turn out half bad, huh? That was, whoof, that was really dicey there for a second, and before there’s a next time he’ll ask Yuki about proper protocol when talking to very tall girls who are snakes with dangerous eyes. It was messy. No two ways about it, but she laughed! She did very much laugh! Never underestimate the power of a floofagoof! When all else fails, it never hurts to be a little silly. Like the little smile he’s wearing as he takes in the sights of Crevas at dusk.

The crowds around the plaza look like the crowds on TV for the Thanksgiving parade, only the giant mass of people was constantly broken up by swaying Nagi and towering Seligamaru, by clothes and fur and scales of every color imaginable. Against the riotous splash of the crowds, the city around them stretches out, weaves of color swirling from street to wall to roof and back again. Districts, neighborhoods, families, he can spot them all by the colors they share. Where some giant must have delicately painted the sands, and here and there people called out, asking to share a brushstroke with their neighbors. As the lights from above fade, lights from below flicker on; some in lanterns, many more in glittering orbs of magical light, rising above the streets and setting the sand to sparkling.

Crevas. The real Crevas. At the Festival of Lights. Being shaken down by Keli and Seli.

It was all really happening.

************************************************

It was all really happening.

“So which is it? Kidnapping or not?!” He pants as they all but fly down the streets. “I’ve been getting some very mixed messages lately!” Behind them, the sound of the guards grew…closer? Farther? More angrier? Look, it’s very hard to tell under the circumstances, and he really didn’t feel like taking his eyes off the street to check!

And Keli gave Seli a look, and Seli gave Keli a look right back, and, oh beans.

He’s in a Spot. With Keli and Seli.

If you’d asked him before, he would’ve told you that being chased by rather large Nagi for no reason at all alongside two foxgirls who might be considering if there was a reward for turning him in must be a rather stressful experience. Ask him now, and he wouldn’t say a thing, because he needed all that breath for running. Ask him later, and he might remember not thinking very much at all, in the moment. Just a few wishes, wished so loudly that there wasn’t room for anything else.

Please don’t catch me.

Please don’t rob me.

Please don’t ruin this day.


[Spending my final question on Keli: How could I get Keli to help me without making me sacrifice my precious treasures? (His special festival day, the purse itself and at least a few of the coins Yuki gave him)]
Does he have experience with girls like this?

No, not really. Well, sort of? Kind of? It’s, hrm. He has experience with different sorts of girls, who are a bit like these girls, if that makes sense? He’s never really been bullied properly, if there’s a proper way to be bullied, that is. Nobody’s ever been deliberately mean to him, not really. Hazel Valentine Fletcher is a friendly guy, and gets along well with just about everybody, even across cliques and social barriers. (And hasn’t he been lucky in that regard?) He’s got a good sense of humor, smiles easily, loves to hear about what’s going on in your life, and never has a mean word to say about anybody.

But. There have been girls who freely give out kisses in the group chat to all their friends. And the first time it happened to him, he was so startled and flustered that all he could do was transcribe the noise he made. And maybe from that point onward, girls like that take special care to kiss him in the chat because everyone likes to see him flustered. Or fumble a train of thought. Or curse the name of his tormentor in allcaps, to a chorus of little kitty faces.

He’s got a good sense of humor. Sometimes a joke needs a goofball to say something silly. Sometimes a joke needs a straight man to step on the big red X. It’s good to be able to laugh at yourself. He doesn’t mind it if everyone’s laughing together. Though he’d mind a bit more if the aforementioned girls also took his wallet. Especially today, on his first Festival of Lights, at the start of his Thellamie adventure. And he didn’t have anything he could bargain for, not like Yuki might’ve. If he took his shirt off, they’d probably charge him extra.

…they’ve been dancing for like, four songs? Five songs? More? Are they ever going to - oh! Oh! That sounds like a big finish! Keli maneuvers them into a final pose, with an arm around the small of each other’s back, and in one motion they bow low until she whispers that’s low enough. She starts to say something else, maybe “good job?” But it’s drowned out by all the applause.

The applause. Somehow, he forgot that there were people watching? Except, he didn’t, because now that it’s over, he feels fit to burst with nervous energy. Despite all that dancing, he could run for miles and still have energy to spare. But they liked it. They liked it! They liked it a lot!

He grins until his nose scrunches with joy, and he shakes every hand offered, and oh, thank you, thank you so much. No, he’s just helping them out today. Aw, shucks, no worries, he’s glad you liked it so much! His head whirls, and maybe he shakes some hands more than once, but it’s better than missing someone, right? He makes a mental note to add a real note to his tablet later, he can’t forget to message that nice girl back. (He can’t forget.) Oh, goodness, for him? Thank you! That’s so kind of you! And may the light of the stars illuminate your path too!

Now, uh, how do you hug back a kid who’s hugging your leg? Are headpats appropriate, or…? Oh! No, no, ma’am, it’s no trouble. It’s okay. Glad she enjoyed the performance, take care! And of course he waves back, like a big goober, and his heart soars to see the tiny Nagi smile-

oh.

A shiver visibly runs down the length of his spine. All the stress and effort of dancing just. It doesn’t go away. Not really. He knows that his body is tired, he knows that he’s worn out. But he doesn’t feel it so strongly. It’s there, but wrapped up and kept away in a thick blanket, and in its place there’s. Stillness. Relief. Peace.

Her voice.

His legs tremble. He can’t stop them from shaking. His stomach performs complex acrobatics, tying itself in a knot of acidic panic. He smells and hears and feels Seli steal up on his right, and some dutiful part of his brain registers the fact but the rest of him isn’t listening anymore. There are more urgent matters to attend to.

Where does he look. Where does he look?! She is. Wow. She is. She is really pretty. Which is fine and he is not going to do a thing more with that thought. He is going to stand here and. His mouth is hanging open, but he’s not saying anything, but everybody else is talking so that’s maybe okay for a little bit longer. He’snnghhghhhhuuhhhhhhhhh. Gold. Shiny. Really, really shiny. Bad. Can’t. Shouldn’t. Can’t. Can’t. Look at…hair? Face? Face is safe. Face is moving. Hair is swaayyyyyyyyynnghhhh hair bad hair bad. Nose? Lips? Lips. Um. Lips. Um. Um. W…wow. Shiny too. Pretty, and, that’s all. Do not. She is pretty. She is so pretty. And that is okay but that is it. This is just a conversation. You’ve just met. She’s just being nice. She doesn’t know you. You don’t know her. Stop it. Don’t be a creep. She is pretty. Leave it at that. You’re just talking. Keep talking. And look away.

He tears his gaze down to the elegant hand squeezing his shoulder. She whips it back to her face with a soft, sultry hiss.

“I.” Ear. Look at her ear. “That’s really nice of you to say. Miss. Anat? Anat.” His curls tremble with the effort to hold his neck still. “But, I, really, I don’t know a thing about dancing. I wouldn’t have stepped up if it weren’t for Keli, and I only knew what to do because she was leading.” Gold sparkles in the periphery. He should look away. Look away. Come on Hazel. Look away. “I just. Hung on for the ride, and, I’m glad it turned out so good.”

He’s so tired. His heart’s racing so loud. Just keep talking…

“Anyway, it’d be a really risky start to a life of crime, and I don’t think you should kidnap me off the street.”

…okay, maybe stop talking.
Dolce sits down.

He chooses his spot with care. Not so close to the goddess to imply improper closeness. Close enough to hear her every word, and reply without raising his voice. The correct distance of teacher, to student, of divine, to adherent, of huntress, to maiden. Crosses legs, crosses arms, as she does. All around them, the garden of Demeter grows, and he is always aware of it. Do not take his focus for blindness. But when the hunter has discerned a place of safety, they will only harm their chances with panicked second-guessing. As the garden parts around them, as a tranquil grove manifests where it should, he does not take his eyes off of her.

“In my rather limited view.” His voice is steady. His voice is professional. The huntress cannot allow emotion to overcome them. “I see a difference, between then and now. In the past, I see the necessity of the hunter, the need to survive on a harsh and unforgiving land. The hunter lives or dies by proper respect, discipline, and technique. Today, I see a powerful man, secure in his position and wanting for nothing, decide that there is a need to test his colleague’s security, as a joke. He grows a new person, makes this need their need, burdens them with curses that will destroy them in the end, but will also give them the means to see their job through before they are shattered.”

He says nothing more, because what more is there to say? What could a mortal do for the pain of a goddess? Let this sliver of understanding, and this respectful silence, be his offering. May it bring you some delight, Huntress. Even a little bit.

“There are many things that are necessary for me to do. It is necessary for me to act as a member of the Service, or else I will be dropped on a remote planet and it will take me ages to catch up with my wife and my loved ones. If they are not all killed first. It is necessary for me to find a way to stall Liquid Bronze and the Summerkind for at least a day. Something that 20022 can’t undo, so that Vesper can find a way to save us all. It is necessary for me to hide what I am doing from 20022, or else he will lock me in my room until his task is finished. It is necessary for me to find a refuge for the Royal Architect, or else either he or the other Sanalessa will die. And.” His ear flicks. The work continues behind them. “It is necessary for me to give Sanalessa a life. One not bound by curses. I know that, in the strictest definitions of necessity, my life would continue if I abandoned these final two tasks. But I think the sheep who survives by discarding her would not be me anymore.”

The ground here is unsteady. The student speaks his answer boldly.

“That is to say, it is necessary for Dolce to return to Vasilia.”
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