Once upon a time in a land far away, there lived the good Queen Laura and her consort, King William. They ruled the land like most benevolent dictators tended to; with the best of intentions but mixed results. The greatest joy in their lives was their only daughter, the beautiful and headstrong Princess Kara.
The princess had an engaging and enjoyable childhood, learning to hunt and govern and swim and paint and anything she ever wanted to try. While Laura was in charge of her education, Kara was particularly close to her father and shared his talent for riding and archery. The king and princess would spend hours each day with their horses while the queen ran the kingdom.
The royal family spent every summer on an island at a resort area known for its royal clientele. It was there that Kara met her best friend, Prince Lee, when she was five years old and he was eight. They would greet each other on the first day of every summer on the stretch of sand between their parents' estates with big grins and bigger plans. Lee played the pragmatic philosopher to Kara's creative soldier. She could ride a little better than he could, but he beat her at chess more often. She was slightly more accurate with a bow and arrow, but he was a bit deadlier at fencing. They laughed and fought and swam, and day by day, year after year, as their skin burned brown under the tropical sun, it became difficult to imagine one without the other.
One starry, balmy night before they parted for the rest of the year, the last night she ever saw him, Lee kissed an eighteen-year-old Kara for the first time; kissed her like she was the last woman in the universe as they stood on the narrow shore. Her bare toes had dug into the sand and her fingers had clutched his arms. Lee's hands had gently held her face while his mouth had moved strongly over hers in promise. In that moment, those series of seconds forever suspended and labeled in Kara's mind as perfect, she realized that Lee loved her. He loved her so much that he didn’t need to say the words for her to hear them. So, Kara had kissed him back with just as much strength and surety, equaling him as always, trusting that he heard her too.
That winter Lee vanished. And no one, not his parents nor his brother nor the necromancer nor the sorcerers nor anyone Kara talked to knew where he went or even if he was still alive. When summer approached on that endless, horrible year, she asked her parents if they could go to the mountains instead of the beach. Kara never stopped missing Lee. Even as the years went by and her memories of him lost their sharp edges and she allowed other boys to kiss her, though never in the summer starlight, the sound of the surf played in her dreams.
* * *
When Kara reached the age of twenty-five, the age that princesses were expected to settle down, her relationship with her parents became strained. Far from being excited about the prospect of finding a husband, the princess refused to even consider going on a date with a prince, preferring to consort with her father's knights, staying up until all hours drinking mead and laying bets on cock fights.
One night, after Kara had actually punched a would-be suitor in the face for putting his hand on her shoulder after her father had ordered her to have dinner with him, the queen found her daughter standing on the battlements of the west tower staring into the dark. "Your father and I have given you everything you ever asked for, but it was always with the clear understanding that, when the time came, you would do your duty."
"Why does my duty involve being married to a mealy-mouthed prince whom I can out-fight, out-hunt and out-ride?" Kara asked. "Why do I have to get married at all?"
"Alliances," her mother replied, "pure and simple. It is one more deterrent for our enemies when we join another kingdom in matrimony; one more way to keep our people safe and our borders secure."
"Alliances," Kara snorted, "that's real romantic, Mom."
"I didn’t raise you to be romantic, Kara. I raised you to be the ruler of my kingdom when I am gone. So I suggest you start thinking like the future queen that you are."
Kara turned her head and looked Laura in the eye, her back ramrod straight, "I'm not some silly girl pining for love. I'll do what I have to do to keep our people safe. It's just hypocritical of you to turn marriage into an act of state when you and Dad are so in love."
Laura patted her daughter's hand before turning to walk back into the castle, "We weren't always."
From that day on, Kara at least made an effort with the princes her parents had deemed suitable. She let them take her to dinner. She let them choose the target when she challenged them to archery contests. She always let go first when they played chess. She even gave them a head start when racing horses, but to no avail. She could not find her equal.
King William reasoned with his daughter that, just because no one could come close to beating her in any of the contests she so loved did not mean that they were wholly unworthy. Kara tried not to think about Lee and stopped challenging princes to anything more strenuous than croquet.
Then along came Prince Sam. He was tall and handsome and kind, and beat Kara in croquet. He was an avid Pyramid player, a game that Kara herself loved, and they spent a couple of happy, sunny afternoons battling it out on one of the courts on the palace's grounds.
The fifth time she met Sam, he dropped to one knee on the court and presented her with a golden pyramid ball, "Princess Kara," he began formally, "I know that we don’t know each other very well, but I would be very much honored if you would agree to be my wife."
The yes sat on the tip of Kara's tongue even as she reached for the ball. It was perfect, Sam was perfect, yet something held her back, the flash of blue eyes, the echo of pounding surf in her heart, and she found herself saying "I'm going to have to think about it."
Sam looked at her, hurt, "I thought that you liked me."
"I do," she said, cringing involuntarily at the phrase. "I do, Sam. I like you very much. I'm just. . ." she blew out a frustrated breath, "I'm hung up on a dead guy, and it's pissing me off."
Sam insisted on giving her the golden ball anyway, as a gift of friendship he told her, which made Kara feel even worse about her non-answer. Still, she thanked him, told him that she would talk to him later, tucked the ball under her arm and walked to one of her mother's walled gardens where she could be certain that she would not be disturbed.
The garden had a very deep, very old well in the middle of it. Flowers climbed the crumbling stone and a small bench curved around its base. Kara sat at the well, leaning her head back against its rim and closed her eyes. She had to get over Lee. He was gone and not coming back because, if Kara knew anything, which she did, she knew that he would never have left his family, his friends, her without a word if he could have at all helped it.
She opened her eyes, "I'll just have to marry him." She said into the peace of her mother's sanctuary and she tossed the ball up into the air.
"Marry whom?" a decidedly annoyed and gravelly voice enquired and Kara, startled, jerked her head up, missed catching the golden ball on its way down and heard it splash into the well behind her.
"Frak!" she yelled, turning to kneel on the bench and peer down into the water. She was just in time to see the symbol of Sam's devotion sink rapidly out of sight. "Frak!" She yelled again, pressing the heels of her hands to her forehead. "Who the hell is there?" Kara whirled around in fury and saw no one in the garden. Not one other living thing, except for a fat frog sitting on the bench next to her.
"Marry whom?" the voice came again, more insistent, and absolutely from the frog.
"Oh frak me, I've lost my mind," Kara said, scrambling off the bench and falling onto the soft grass, staring at the frog.
"You haven't, Princess," the frog smiled. Kara rubbed her eyes, Could frogs smile? "or at least no more than your normal level of insanity."
"You are entirely too familiar, frog," Kara said, trying on her best impression of her mom because - son of a bitch - there was a frog talking to her like it knew her and she had no idea how to handle the situation.
The frog made a suspicious noise that sounded vaguely like a snort before deeply nodding its little green head. "My apologies, your highness, it has been ages since I last spoke to royalty."
"Did you just. . . bow?" Kara asked, and the lunacy of the situation caught up with her. She flopped backwards onto her elbows and, throwing back her blonde head, howled with laughter.
"You always were beautiful when you smiled in the sun," the frog said, almost wistfully and Kara stopped abruptly.
"How do you know me?"
"I live in the queen's garden," the frog replied, "of course I know who you are."
"No, how do you know me?"
"Now that would be telling," the frog said. "A frog has to have its secrets."
"Yes, I do like a sense of mystery in an amphibian," Kara said agreeably, sitting up and wrapping her arms around her knees. "I take it this is one of those enchantment things where you are something more or less than you appear but you are bound by a spell not to tell me." The frog said nothing. "Mom made sure that I had a thorough education; everything a princess would ever need to know. Blink once for curse and twice for charm." The frog glared, unblinkingly. "Not even sign language, huh? You can't tell me anything? Okay, we'll figure it out somehow."
"Marry whom?" the frog asked instead, voice pleading.
Ah, what the hell, she thought, who was a well dwelling frog going to tell?
"Prince Sam," Kara said.
"Do you love him?"
"No, but I could grow to love him, which is just as important in these state marriages."
"A marriage of alliance? Surely Queen Laura and King William would never force you into an arrangement like that against your will?" the frog asked, shocked.
"Not forced, not exactly," Kara said. "They would never force me to marry someone I didn’t want to, but they have also made it abundantly clear that it is my responsibility as a princess to marry in order to protect our borders." The frog began muttering under its breath, something about lazy diplomacy and antiquated treaties. Kara felt the overwhelming urge to comfort the distressed amphibian. "It's okay, frog," she said, patting it awkwardly on the head with two fingers, "Sam is a good man. I'll be happy with him." She frowned, "If I still have him that is, seeing as I sort of refused his proposal and then threw his gift into a well." She stood up and stared down into the water. "Frak," she said.
"I can get it for you," the frog said, hopping up to the edge of the well.
"Would you?" Kara asked. "That would be excellent. Not to mention save my future happiness."
The frog looked conflicted, but it nodded, "If I go in that deep well and bring back your no doubt heavy ball, will you spend the rest of the day with me?"
Kara blinked, "The rest of the day- Oh! Does this have something to do with the curse?" The frog rolled its eyes. "Right, you can't tell me. Okay, what does the rest of the day entail?"
"Will you take me to supper and let me eat off of your plate and drink out of your cup? Will you allow me to sleep next to you, on your pillow? And will you kiss me?" The frog spoke its requests quietly, looking down into the well, as if embarrassed to ask. "I'll do it for nothing you know," it continued. "Even if you tell me no, I'll still get the ball for you."
Kara's heart ached for the little creature, "It's a deal," she said. "Now hurry up so we aren't late for dinner."
The frog's eyes brightened and, without another word, he dove into the well.
It took the better part of the afternoon and a lot of effort on the frog's part, but the golden ball was finally extracted from the well. The frog floated flat on its back, flippers out-stretched and eyes closed, head tilted toward the sun. Kara laughed, "You look relaxed."
"I don't have the energy to climb out of the water," it replied.
Kara reached in and pulled the frog out of the well and it let out a startled croak. She tucked the ball under her arm, balanced the frog on her shoulder and began walking toward the palace. "I feel like a pirate, gold from the watery depths under my arm, talking animal on my shoulder. . ."
"Yes," the frog said dryly, "I hear that all the really ferocious pirates carry frogs."
* * *
The King and Queen were, understandably, startled by their daughter's guest, but once Kara had explained the circumstances, omitting mention of Sam's proposal for his dignity as much as her sense of self-preservation, they welcomed the frog as they would any of Kara's friends.
The frog turned out to be a delightful dinner companion, and if Kara couldn’t stop herself from guffawing when she caught her father's raised eyebrow of disbelief as the frog and Laura argued about the feudal system . . . Well, as least the frog's amused shake of the head in her direction let her know that she was forgiven her laughter. Who wouldn't laugh at the Queen being challenged and matched word for word by a frog?
All too soon, the candles began guttering in their sconces and the royal household rose to retire for the evening. Kara picked up the frog and carried it in the palms of her hands to her chambers. She put it in a basin of water in her dressing room and stripped her clothes off before rummaging through her drawers to find her night clothes. She turned, nightgown in hand, to find the frog watching her intently, sitting on the edge of the basin with near despair in its eyes. All pervert frog comments slid from her lips as she hastily pulled the gown over her head and walked over to the basin. "What's wrong, frog?" she asked. "Why do you look at me as if you've seen a ghost?"
"You are a ghost," the frog said, closing its eyes and turning its back to her, "the ghost of everything I could have had, once upon a time. If you believe in things like happily ever after."
Kara silently lifted the frog from the basin and patted it dry with a towel. She carried it over to her bed and placed it on the pillow next to her own. She climbed between the sheets and blew out the candle on her bedside table so that the room was lit only by the bright light of the stars. "Bright, shiny futures are over-rated anyway," she said dully as the surf pounded in her head, drowning her heart in could have beens.
"Good night, Princess," the frog said.
"Good night," Kara replied, and, because the frog was a surprising comfort in the dark, she leaned over and kissed it.
* * *
The frog emitted a sharp cry of pain, and Kara threw herself out of the bed and lit the candle in time to see it writhing on the pillow, its green skin rippling and bubbling. She had no idea what to do, so she ran through the archway and into her dressing room, grabbing a bowl of water and sponge before sprinting back, water sloshing, to fling herself on the bed next to the frog. She wet the sponge and squeezed it over its skin, hoping to offer some relief to the animal's clear pain. "Are you . . . glowing?" she gasped.
The frog was indeed glowing, and growing too for that matter. Kara got out of the bed but continued to hover in concern as it stretched out longer and grew broader. His flippers curled in to form hands and feet and his skin paled until it was chalky white and then ripened into peach. His eyes shifted forward and became such a familiar blue that Kara felt lightheaded and sat down on the side of the bed to put her head between her knees. She had never fainted in her life and she was not about to start now.
She became vaguely aware of a hand running weakly up and down her back and a familiar voice calling her name, "Kara," she heard again, "are you alright?" She felt the bed shift and two hands rest on her shoulders, drawing her gently up even as she continued to take slow, steadying breaths. And then he was kneeling in front of her, hands on her knees, naked as the day he was born, and alive, and not possibly real.
"Lee," she choked. It was him, older and tired but still so very much him. Kara found herself reaching out tentatively to touch his face, freezing before making actual contact. She hadn't seen him clearly in her dreams for years now, and she wouldn’t break the illusion for anything. If all she had to do was sleep to keep him this near, she would sleep for the rest of her life; never leave her bed, until her emaciated corpse withered to dust and she was free to join him, wherever he was.
"Yes," he said quietly, urgently, "yes, it's me. I promise." He took her hand, still arrested halfway between her body and his face and he pressed his lips to her palm with reverence before closing his eyes and sliding her hand over his jaw, up his cheek, drawing her fingers down his straight nose to bump over his parted lips.
"Lee," she breathed again, grasping behind his neck with both hands to tug him up. Because Kara was a princess and she had responsibilities and people who loved her, she wouldn’t sleep her life away waiting for another opportunity to touch him, if only in her head. So she took what she wanted. If this was all she'd ever have of Lee, a ghost of a lover in the corner of her heart that came to her once upon a dream, then she would take it.
His mouth crashed on hers, rough and desperate and, gods, he still tasted like sea salt, and his cheeks were wet and she realized that he was crying or maybe she was, or maybe they both were and it didn’t even matter who was shedding tears because one couldn't hurt without the other feeling it. She raked her hands down his bare back, looking for something to tug or grip, and finally managed to pull him down on top of her, and this time it was Kara who let out a broken sob at the full, glorious weight of him holding her down.
His hands slid up her sides even as he pressed tight against her from knee to lips. She could feel him getting hard, feel his desperation as if it were her own, and she closed her eyes tight because it was her own, he wasn't real. He broke the kiss, "Kara," he said, running his tongue along her full bottom lip, "Kara, look at me," he said and she opened her eyes to stare into his. "This is real. I was the frog. You broke the curse."
Kara shook her head, "I can’t believe, Lee, I can’t lose you like that twice. I am going to enjoy this dream, and then I am going to wake up, bring the frog back to Mom's garden and agree to marry Sam."
"You can't," he said burying his face in her neck and muffling his voice. "Not after everything. Not after the curse and the years it took me to get to you. You can't."
"I can, Lee," she said running her hands up and down his spine, through his hair, tracing every wonderful inch of him that she could reach. "You are not real. No matter how much I loved you, I need to move on."
Lee lifted his head, his eyes dark and hard on hers, "I will make you believe in me again, Kara and then you'll never be able to let me go. I won't let you." Lee's hands moved purposely to the hem of her nightgown, now rucked up around her thighs, and tugged hard, lifting himself off of her to pull it over her head, and Kara lay as bare as he was, Lee straddling her legs. He let out a noise, somewhere between want and need, and pressed his palm against her heart, pushing firmly into the flesh at her breast. "Feel me right here, right here with you."
Kara slid her hand on top of his and looked up at him with tears in her eyes, "I always feel you right here." And she sat up to meet his mouth with hers, wrapped her arms around his neck and sank back down into the pillows, bringing him with her into the warmth of her most well-buried fantasies, where Lee was alive and they were together, and not even the end of summer holidays could part them.
* * *
Kara woke up reluctantly, heavily. Today was the day she truly moved on and she just wanted to stay in bed, wrapped in everything that had been Lee to her. She felt a little sticky, which was to be expected after a dream like that, but she had somehow managed to trap herself as well, perhaps twisting in the sheets until they were like a vise around her. She wiggled experimentally. A disembodied voice grumbled over her, "We just went to bed two hours ago, would you be still?"
Kara's heart leaped into her throat. "Frog?" she asked tentatively, poking at what she now recognized as an arm wrapped around her waist. The arm tightened and a kiss was pressed to the back of her neck. "Lee!" she shouted, wrenching out of his arms and twisting to look at him. And there he was, spread out shamelessly in her bed and ogling her naked breasts, the right of which, Kara observed, had a pretty pronounced hickey on it.
"Believe me now?" he grinned up at her, with no reservation as the morning light streamed in through her windows.
"Maybe," Kara said warily. "How the hell did you get turned into a frog?"
Lee had the grace to look embarrassed. "I tried to mediate a territory war between some witches and one of them wasn't happy with the results." Kara looked at him disbelievingly. "What?" he asked defensively, "Witches are not treated as equal citizens, with equal rights to representation and protection under the law. These two tried to do it the right way; they went to the local authorities but were refused a civil court case. I heard about it and didn’t want any unnecessary bloodshed or . . . curse casting."
"Oh my gods," she said softly, in wonder, running her finger along his shoulder. "It really is you."
Lee sat up, and regarded her soberly. "Kara, don’t marry Sam, not yet. Give me a chance."
Kara shook her head at him, "Being a frog clearly did not improve your brain, although I should have known it was you by the way you were arguing back and forth with Mom. I haven’t seen anyone debate her like that since you disappeared."
"Not exactly an answer," Lee said playing with the ends of her hair. "Am I to assume that I should be able to read your mind?"
Kara leaned in and touched her nose to his, smiling hard, "You've always been able to read my mind when you didn’t think too much."
Lee grinned back at her, rubbing his nose lightly against hers, "Well then, you are thinking that you are madly in love with me and could never possibly marry another while I am on this plane of existence; and not an amphibian of course."
She pushed on his shoulders until he was flat against the mattress and swung a leg over his thigh. "Not exactly how I'd put it," Kara said, rocking her hips against him, "but close enough. It's a good thing my parents love you and missed you, or they might be a little put out to discover I spent the night in bed with my future husband without the banns published first. Shame on you, Lee, you know how I cherish propriety." And Lee's eyes were alight with laughter and his hands were on her hips and there was near worship in his face as Kara paused to adjust and take him inside her. She locked one hand in his hair and flattened one hand against his chest, feeling the pull of the tide with every beat of his heart.