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Promises and Presumptions

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Human Wren drawn by Vanessa Stefaniuk

Wren snaps up the gift eagerly.

Her human has often brought her items, whether presents or things only to show her but not to keep (to her disappointment). This one is in a thick wooden box laid upon her human bed, the one Shy had given her, but also not to keep, only hers for as long as she remains a guest in his city. She rattles the box, tempted to wrench it open, but instead her nails clatter along the edges in contemplation. Being a human for so long has given her more patience and understanding, and so she’s able to tell that this box is very precious and deserves her care while handling it.

Her nails flick up the locks on either side in a near simultaneous clickclick.

She has a number of ideas of what she wishes is inside the box, but when she lifts the lid, she’s just… puzzled.

Folds of fabric lift up as if gasping for breath with the release of the box’s confines. Fabric? Did he expect her to craft him something? Surely he knew that dragons are better with other challenges.

She lifts the fabric up. Unexpectedly, it unfurls and billows out to reveal the shape of a dress.

Wren hums to herself in delight. Very fine craftsmanship. She admires the delicate weaves and stitching near the bust, the smooth lines of the sleeves, and the way the colour appears to differ depending on the intensity of the firelight. She purrs to feel it brush her soft human skin, delighting in the sleek fabric so unlike her coarse ordinary daytime clothes. If he expected her to wear this from now on, she would not object.

She’s so preoccupied with trying to decrypt how this garment is worn that she only notices the note after stepping on it twice.

“Instructions,” she sighs with satisfaction, and snatches up the parchment, flicking it open deftly without putting down the dress in her other hand.

It’s a letter. She sits on the edge of her bed, pouring over the words her human wrote to her - she thought she came to understand human writing after learning from Shy’s journals, but after being presented with bound books written by other people, she realized that Shy’s handwriting was not at all as legible as normal human writing. And so it takes her a moment to work out what the paper says.


Dear Wren,

This dress was one that my mother brought with her from her home many years ago. She no longer wears it, but I hope it will fit you. You might have noticed that the people working in the keep have been busy these past few days. Tonight is a celebration of the longest night, and it is also the anniversary of my birth into the world. I hope you will wear this and join me at the celebration. Ask Jayne if you have any problems getting it on. Please be kind to her, she only wants to help.

Yours sincerely,



Wren flicks the paper aside atop her bed and gives the beautiful dark blue-green-purple dress another inspection. She snorts in derision; no way would she need Jayne’s help to wear a human gown.

Minutes later, she emerges with smug satisfaction from her chambers, marching out with the dress worn backwards, an arm slung through the neck, a breast visible out a shoulder hole, the leg slip poked by her knee, and her hair a static charged bird’s nest. Jayne, having been waiting outside after the last several disastrous attempts to help Wren uninvited, gapes at her in horror. Her hands shoot out and she shoves her back into the room with not but a hasty glance down the hall. She prayed to the gods that no one saw her charge like that.

It was many, many minutes later before Wren was actually presentable (and decent, though she still didn’t understand why humans were so ashamed of very specific parts of their bodies). It took much, much longer than she had hoped. But her patience was getting better, and she only ground her teeth just a little as Jayne ruined the hair that Shy had braided for her, brushing out the tangles and making it too poofy.

Whatever. It was dealt with, and now she can see this long night party for her favourite human.

She only had to be reminded once that it wasn’t lady-like to run, and to please be elegant when she enters the great hall. Jayne’s pleading earns her a snort from Wren and a sharp reminder that she’s not a lady, but she slows down all the same.

There is a queue to enter the great hall, to Wren’s utter frustration. More waiting. Some man dressed in a mask and a funny gown is shouting everyone’s names as they enter. Wren looks around. Everyone else is wearing a mask. She turns sharply to Jayne, her slitted eyes wide with anxiety as she searches the girl’s face. Jayne squeaks in fear. Wren reaches up and flicks at the mask that’s pulled up and resting on the top of Jayne’s head.

“Are these required?” Wren asks in an urgent hiss. “I don’t have one!”

Jayne gulps, though whether because she’s the subject of those eyes that scare her so much or because of the realization that she’s about to present her charge to the celebration without a key piece of her outfit, Wren is unsure.

“Stay here. Let others go in front of you if I am not back before you’re to be presented!” she insists, then breaks off into a run down the hallway.

Wren’s face twists in fury. Why is Jayne permitted to run in the halls and Wren gets scolded for it? Wren folds her arms, eyes narrowed at where Jayne disappeared. She would just have remind the servant sharply that there are rules against running.

The line thins. Wren paces in a very small circle in agitation. Jayne still hasn’t returned when Wren reaches the front of the line, and she steps aside, surprising the silly looking man who was about to ask for her name. Hastily, she waves through an older couple who gape at her, snapping at them to go ahead first. This is very patient of her. She didn’t even raise her voice or growl like she might have years ago when she first met Shy.

Finally, the mousy servant round the corner in a wide run, padding quickly and shaking something in front of her. She’s out of breath by the time she reaches Wren, and the dragon girl looks at her with a twisted and apprehensive face. The scolding for running left her mind at once. Her fingers pluck the mask from Jayne’s shaking hand, and she holds the finely crafted and decorated half-mask up to catch the light. It seems to be made of the same colour shifting material as her dress, dark and illuminated like the night sky that Wren had been shown by the fae and was told were lights in the north sky. A thousand little shimmers are imbedded in the material, but when Wren drags her nail over a handful and tries to pick at them, Jayne scoffs and taps her hand, telling her to stop wasting time and put it on already.

Wren remembers about the running rule, her temper and the injustice of it flaring up in her belly where the heat of her dragon’s fire would be, but she knows the girl is right. Dipping her head, and with the help of Jayne’s fingers to ensure her hair isn’t too disturbed by the ties, she slips the mask on. It hugs her face like it was moulded to sit hers and only hers in all the world. Had Shy made this for her from the sketches he did of her? But, no… the dress was his mother’s, so the mask would logically be, too. Wren’s lip juts out in puzzlement as she runs a finger along the edge. Magic, she decides, magic lives inside this mask.

Jayne steps ahead and tells the servant Wren’s name, the man perplexed that she only has one of them to say. But he blinks in surprise when he catches sight of Wren in full costume, murmuring and conceding that she needn’t have another name, that no one will forget a beauty like that, not in a thousand years.

Wren snorts. Humans say such strange things in flattery.

The man shouts her name, and with only a little urgent hand waving from Jayne, who is already inside the busy hall ahead of her (and unannounced, Wren notices belatedly, something else she’ll have to scold her for doing that broke the rules she so loved to fling at Wren but not follow herself), Wren steps inside. Far too many pairs of human eyes look her way. She silently curses at Shy for giving her a strange dress that his people couldn’t take their eyes off of. Or maybe she had forgotten to do something when she entered.

Either way, there was relief in her when the little prince Mason runs up to her and catches her hand.

“You’re here! Finally! I was saving some of the cakes for you! Wow,” and he stops the pulling he was immediately doing to her arm to gape at her dress, having only just seen it shift colours, “I wish I could have worn my glass eyes tonight. I swear on the roots that it looked like your dress was blue but then it turned green!”

“Yes,” she confirms in a satisfied hiss, touching her free hand to a bunching up of fabric at her hip, finger manipulating a wrinkle. “Blue and green and blue and purple. It is your mother’s dress. My- Shy gave it to me.”

Mason’s face splits into a cheeky smile, interpreting that differently, or perhaps seeing exactly what Wren doesn’t see about Shy gifting her a dress like this.

“It’s nicer on you,” he compliments mildly as he turns and tugs her hand. “Come on, before someone steals my cakes.”

She has no choice but to follow him, the people parting to let them through, presumably for respect for their prince, but small as he is, they likely see Wren first and know to move because of that.

Wren self consciously adjusts the mask on her face. That’s a new feeling all together for the dragon turned young woman, a wariness of people’s eyes on her that she’s never quite shaken since arriving in Duskhollow. She smiles politely as Mason leads her around a plump woman, but from the way she draws away from Wren, the dragon woman supposes that not everyone likes the sight of her fangs as much as they like the look of her dress.

Wren had started to think this whole party was a bad idea right up until Mason suddenly stops in front of two plates of bready desserts overflowing with out of season fruit. He lets go of her hand and thrusts a plate up at her.

“The berries are from our trading partners in the south! The kitchens can keep anything fresh until we need them, as long as they’re put on the ice boxes. Taste it!” Mason’s delightful round face beams up at her with expectation, and Wren knows she can’t let the little prince down, not during his brother’s party.

She tastes it with a generous, over exaggerated bite to please him, but what astonishes her is how much the sweet flavour pleases her instead. A growl of delight ripples through her throat, and she mashes the remainder of the dessert into her mouth and smacks her lips once it all passes her tongue.

“Good?” Mason asks, though his giggle that follows reveals that he already knows her answer.

She nods vigorously, then snaps her teeth into another one with darker berries without haste.

“You two should think to leave some of those for our other guests,” a voice chastises without any heat.

Wren twists, inelegantly hurrying to eat the rest of her blue berry bread before this newcomer expects her to speak. Or before he might steal it away right from her mouth. Her tongue flicks over her lips, doing nothing to rid them of the bluish stain. Really, the colour suited her ensemble, Shy noted, trying not to let himself linger too long on her lips, especially not when his eyes are so punctuated by his fine wooden mask.

“There are plenty,” Mason argues, finally beginning to eat his at a much slower pace to relish the taste like the fine little connoisseur he is.

She ruffles his brother’s hair, ignoring the food muffled protests and leaning over him to lift a small tart from the desserts table. Although there are years between them, Wren notes that Shy isn’t far taller than his brother, and that the smaller prince would someday tower over his brother and be able to lean over him in revenge. It brings a small wicked smile to her lips to imagine that revenge.

Still, her affection for the eldest prince flares alive in her belly much more passionately than her alliance with the young one, so even in her mind she feels it necessary to draw attention to his finer qualities. His hair is sleek as a raven’s feathers, brushed as it is back into a bundle and tied with a ribbon that matches her dress. His shoulders are broad and help to hold him in a fine line when he is relaxed, and stoops when she observes him ever feeling small or disheartened, but that is rare now that Wren is here to help him to prove his worth. She drums her nails along the underside of her empty plate, trying to catch a glimpse of the deep liquid eyes that match the wood of his mask so well. She succeeds, and watches his face heat and burn outwards toward his ears underneath the delicate accessory. Her blue stained lips curl into another wicked smile.

“Good wishes on…” and she struggles to remember what Shy’s letter had called this, settling instead for, “your birth anniversary, my human highness.”

Shy’s own mouth quirks in amusement. “Close,” he praises her, sending a flare of delight across her arms which she mentally blames as a chill of cold because her dress is without sleeves. “Generally it’s Your Highness, and it isn’t my birth anniversary yet until the moon is at its peak, but thank you.”

“What am I supposed to do here?” she asks tactlessly. She doesn’t mean to be rude or indignant in most things, but while her fae upbringing taught her the ways of the supernatural world, it failed to prepare her for human courtesy and customs. Mason and Shy don’t so much as blink, used to this as they are by now as she’s stayed with them for weeks. She really has gotten better.

Shy side steps around his brother and joins Wren at her side. The great hall’s tables have been moved aside to allow for dancing, and musicians are in the rafters, their sweet music sprinkling down like rain in the vaulted room.

“We celebrate in a number of ways,” he explains patiently. Wren just barely resists leaning her chin on him as she did for years when he would tell her stories as a dragon. Something about being human makes this touch shocking, she found out.

“There is eating, of course, and there is drinking alcohol that loosens our spirits and leads to the dancing and merriment… and sometimes mischief,” he adds hurriedly. “Sometimes there are gifts presented to my parents if we have visitors from outside the city, but those such visitors rarely come here during the harsh winter months. More often, that’s during the summer solstice or autumn harves--”

“But I am from outside the city,” she interrupts in an urgent hiss. Her eyes are frantic, pupils slitted in distress. “Why didn’t you tell me to bring a gift?”

“Oh… I meant more like guests from--”

“I wasn’t prepared,” Wren reasons abruptly, interrupting again. Her fingers curl around his sleeve - oh, of course he is allowed warm sleeves but she is made to go bare - and her nails pinch his soft vulnerable skin. Fire reflects in her inhuman eyes as she insists, “I will fix this.”

Shy’s mouth moves soundlessly, his tongue catching up after a brief silence between them. “N-no, it’s really all right, Wren, it’s something that ambassadors and politicians and royals do, it’s not something my parents will expect from… well, they think you’re just a guest after all…”

Wren huffs indignantly. Shy had explained repeatedly why he hadn’t told his parents yet what she truly was, but none of it made sense to her. She had assumed it was for human reasons of tact and bloodlines, but never until now had it ever occurred to her to worry that he might in fact be ashamed of her true identity.

Shy can see that he’s losing her, see something behind the literal mask and into the one hardening on her face that she has the wrong idea about this. To placate her, he stammers out, “But, but for anniversaries of birth, sometimes there are gifts. So you can do that just for me. All right? And not right now, either, since you didn’t have any time to prepare…”

A mighty sigh passes through her nose, and Shy can feel her ease and see her thoughts whirling. He gently peels her fingers from his arm, flexing his fingers first as the sting shoots down his arm, willing himself recovered so that he may instead take her arm in a much more comfortable and appropriate way.

He doesn’t have the chance, though, as Wren whirls toward him and into his personal space. It seems she had largely forgotten about Mason, who widens his eyes in incredulous disappointment before making himself scarce with the rest of his plate, but she also ignores the throngs of partygoers around them who can see her familiarity with him. He steps back into the space that Mason vacated to put room between them, which is fruitless as Wren simply follows him.

“My gift will be that,” she proclaims, nudging her head in the direction of the dancing couples. They both turn to look at them, the whirlings fabrics of gowns, the tails of jackets lifting, the variety of masks touched together at the forehead as lovers speak so closely they can only hear one another. And, there are also those who believe the privacy of their masks to extend further than they actually do, stealing kisses from one another while moving more slowly across the dancing area.

“Well, we can certainly dance…” he trails off, and forces room between them as he mimes out which part he refers to, “but I’m afraid if we did any of the other things… people might be bothered by that.”

“Why?” she asks, squinting over her shoulder at the couples. “If they are bothered, we can do it somewhere else where they can’t see us.”

Shy swallows. He buys himself some time with another cursory look out at the masquerade attendees, his people. His tongue feels heavy in his mouth as he tries to form an explanation to her question, an answer that he doesn’t truly take to heart himself and therefore has no motivation to defend. Cued by the sweet note of a violin, he sighs.

“There are expectations of me, Wren, and to deviate from those expectations would cause unrest.” He could hear his father’s words come out of his mouth and tries to stand taller to match them, his shoulders pulling back to help extend to a height he’ll never grow to match. He can feel the dragon woman’s peculiar eyes watching him. “If I were to show any special interest in anyone… well, my people might feel that unfair, or pass judgment that expands the duties expected of you.”

A snort of very human annoyance bursts from Wren. She folds her bare arms part in a further show of annoyance, but also because it’s cold and she has not felt warm since leaving her furs in her chambers. The cold of winter permeates her vulnerable human skin even here, surrounded by hundreds of bodies and the roar of fires. She misses the very real fire inside her chest and hates the churning, uneasy feeling of the human fire that licks her soft insides.

For the first time since arriving in Duskhollow, she wonders if she would have been better off home in hibernation.

When she doesn’t answer him, unusual as that is, Shy lightly nudges her with his shoulder. The brief tickle of fabric over her arms earns him a scornful glance. What height he managed to rise in himself with talk of duty and honour melts under her gaze, and for a moment he looks again like the half scared boy who hunted her in the forest those years ago. The fire in her stomach twists in a way that tells her that she’s both sorry to hurt him and nostalgic for that boy and their time alone together.

She slides her arms apart and turns to him in a half step. “Dance with me,” she demands, though her tone is the softest she can manage and still be heard over the sweeping music. She lifts her arms in a poor imitation of the dancers, looking more like she’s imitating a duck than welcoming him to an elegant dance.

He can’t help it. He smiles.

“Of course,” he accepts, the politeness worthy of his position returning to his voice, and he takes a step back in a grand gesture of a broad bow. She keeps her arms up all the same, wondering with a quick peek at the quieting dancers what she’s supposed to do in return.

He rises and takes one of her hands from the air, guiding her away from the tables. “I’ll show you everything, since I’m leading anyhow,” the prince assures her, his brown eyes sparkling like slick mud in warm daylight. “Let’s find somewhere with enough space so we aren’t knocking into anyone.”

Mason watches from nearby, his own mouth stained in the corner from deep red fruit filling of a pastry. Curious if his brother’s secret dragon friend knows how to dance, he clambours to a higher vantage point up on the royal seating platform to watch. He might even see some toes stomped on. That brushes a cheeky smile over his lips.

Shy positions her arms first, following up by warning her aloud where he’s going to put his hands next. Nothing he does can stop his face from reddening when he touches her, though, and unlike his dragon friend, he feels it’s much too warm in the great hall and he’s far too warm to remain here long. Wren, perplexed, remains statue still in place save for her furrowed brows and eyes flicking here and there, to their feet and his hands and his blood hot face. She’s seen it do this before, but has never puzzled out what it means.

She moves both hands suddenly to his cheeks. “Here, be cold,” she commands in affectionate worry, her indeed cool fingers shocking his warm skin. He swallows down a yelp in surprise, swatting at a wrist while glancing around with frantic worry.

“Keep them at my shoulders!” he barks in a quiet embarrassment. “Just… just step when I say to step, and let me lead you!”

The dance is clumsy and fumbled, but not altogether unpleasant as it draws to an end with the pair in giggles and Wren kicking her shoes off to observe the damage to her toes. Somewhere, Mason is also laughing.

Wren brushes off Shy’s concern as he leads her to an empty bench. “You aren’t heavy enough to damage me,” she jeers, her fanged teeth bared in a wicked smile as she teases him.

“Keep making me eat my brother’s pillaged desserts and I will soon be! ” he counters, lightly pinching her hip as he helps her to sit. He’s suddenly red again in shame to have allowed himself to be so publicly familiar with her, but he can’t see anyone nearby who might have noticed his misdeeds.

She rolls her eyes and flexes her fingers threateningly at his face. “You need to stop that. Humans are weakened by too much heat and I am not strong enough in this body to carry you as I once did when you insisted on racing me to the waterfall last autumn.”

He sits, yanking her down with him to force her off her feet. “That’s unfair, it was a particularly warm autumn!”

“Colder than this enclosement,” she scoffs, but she sets her hands in her lap.

He smiles at her for a moment, the adrenaline of his dance with her finally fading, but his heart is no more calm than it ever is in when he is by her side.

“Your duties.” Shy is surprised to hear her remind him, to pull him away from their precious time alone, but in the same breath he’s so very fond of her for learning to care about what is proper. He rewards her with a squeeze of her hand in his own. If their fingers linger longer than necessary, then he can blame it on needing her hand to cool his own.

“Yes,” he clears his throat, separating regretfully from her as he stands. “I’m sure there will be other opportunities to ask you to dance again throughout the night, but for now…”

He bows, a half-bow this time, not as grand as his invitation to dance. She watches him adjust his wayward mask and mirrors his movement to touch her own, but it hasn’t budged at all, the seal of magic keeping it perfect atop the bridge of her nose and pressed faintly into her brows and cheeks. Only the sight of his mask reminded her at all that it’s there.

The night stretches out and Wren enjoys it from that sticky warm bench, occasionally bothered by one or another man with an invitation to dance. She merely gestures at her feet, trying for apologetic that her long gone injury keeps her from accepting. Shy, on the other hand, has danced with several other people, spoken to many more, and accepted gifts from certain dignified guests with fancier costuming than most attendees adorned.

Wren bristles.

She tries to look up the vaulted ceiling for a view through the enormous glass, but no sign of the moon is visible to her. Her hands wring with anxiety, something she had never experienced before meeting Shy and cursed to her marrow for what it does to her.

Suddenly, she springs to her feet with resolve. He will receive a gift from her.

She doesn’t notice the eyes identical to the ones of her favourite human watching her from the royal platform. Nor does she feel them on her back when she scurries through the crowd and out the great hall doors, the queen quietly watching the young woman wearing her old dress.

Making quick excuses that she needed to fetch new shoes from her chambers, Wren walks at a sharp pace down the stone hallway. She’s very grateful for the brisk cold on the bottoms of her feet and the fresher air available in this near abandoned area of the castle, and almost considers not returning. Until, that is, she realizes that her pace has become sluggish with the rapid loss of warmth.

She shakes her head. This is serious. She can’t allow herself any thoughts of sleep, and definitely none to hibernation once she’s in dragon form to forge her gift. Needing somewhere very warm but also private, Wren navigates deftly, silently thankful for Prince Mason’s tours and especially the gift of him showing her the enormous fires of the kitchens. The night is winding down and she saw no new food emerge in quite some time, so she deducts that most servants have been allowed to join the masquerade with their duties wrapped.

Still, she’ll need somewhere private so no one sees a dragon and raises an alarm. As she passes the first grand fire she’s ignored by the skeleton staff of two kitchen workers and passes through to the store rooms. With quick touches to the stone walls, she finds a dark but warm grain storage room that she guesses must be behind the great fire for the heat that pours from its walls. It’s not but a second later that she is stretching and unfurling as a dragon.

Artwork by Vanessa Stefaniuk

Her feet are unsteady on the grain. Her tail and wings feel almost peculiar to her after these months without them. She only allows herself a few minutes of adjustment to her new old body before setting her mind to task. She sits, plopping a dragon shaped indent into the pile of grain. Her clawed fingers roam over her shoulders and down her arms. Unsatisfied, she tries the other side, then down the spine of her tail, until her fingers finally pause at her chest.

Working deftly, she removes a large loosened scale from her body near to her great thumping heart.

Squinting in the low light, she brings the scale to her eye. Taking great care to be precise, she aims her first claw over the scale to find the right area, fussing and adjusting. This is for Shy, her human. It requires perfection. Finally, she pierces the scale with a claw to create a hole in it whereby she can string a chain. She presses the scale between her claw hooked hands and shuts her eyes, the orange suddenly blazing brightly and her chest’s fire matching it briefly as magic imbues itself into the scale.

And with that, and a satisfied nod of her grand dragon head, she is small again. The scale is much bigger in her human hands, a hefty pendant for any necklace but very worthy of a prince. She smiles down at it in what dim light she can see by, immensely proud to soon be gifting a part of herself to her beloved human.

She makes her way out of the kitchens largely ignored by the remaining staff, the scale delicately cupped between her hands, barely small enough to remain covered. Her dress has nowhere to hide the gift. A very inefficient flaw in the design, she decides, wondering why humans would choose to do something so impractical. Still, this leaves her with the problem of concealing her gift until the intended recipient receives it, and preventing any of these easily startled humans from taking it from her when they realize what it is and the value it holds.

A dragon’s scale grants the human possessing it with the command of will over the scale’s originating dragon. Old scales of long dead dragons hold no such promise; they can’t raise the bones of the dragon and give it life again any more than they can a human’s skeleton. Wren knows that the humans are usually practical, but their wit and reason can become clouded when they see something of value like this scale. They wouldn’t think about how dragons haven’t been seen on the continent since the last great war ended, when the fae hid away the remainder of the dragons and brought them into their own realm to protect them from the humans who possessed them and flew them to war.

She brushes her thumb over the textured side of the scale in her palm, her eyes sharp on lookout as she navigates the castle’s hallways. As an autumn dragon, the scale is a deep burnt orange of licking fire. She remains one of few dragons permitted temporary access to the human world after many decades of peace, her hide allowing her admittance during the harvest months and only within the Whisperwoods where the great expanse of orange leaves provide her with natural camouflage.

Nonetheless, her human had found her.

She doesn’t notice that she smiles when she thinks of him. The short young prince proclaimed himself a man to her and she had laughed, but she could now see how his words are now true. He is a man now, a few short years since he used his books to learn how to track her in his people’s forest. But he had never harmed or threatened her, and he expressly denied ever wanting to command her into war efforts should any ever arise again as they once did. So, Wren came to the conclusion that the fae were mistaken, and that her human is worthy of a willing gift of servitude.

The swell of heat in the great hall welcomes her with open arms. Folding the scale into her hand as best she can, she presses it against the fabric at her stomach as she strolls the hall in careful search for the eldest prince. She still hadn’t the chance to spot the position of the moon outside to know if it is now into the following day, but that shouldn’t matter. Humans can be so fickle.

She sees him talking to a woman in a feathered mask, no doubt someone important to afford the luxury of brightly coloured feathers. She pauses, her bare toes curling against the wooden floor planks as she weighs her next move. Interrupting, she’s been expressly told after doing so many times at the start of her visit, is something frowned upon. Still, he would just continue to have his time monopolized if she didn’t make herself known.

“And it’s really quite a shame you haven’t come out our way, Prince Shyler,” the woman purrs, setting a hand on Shy’s upper arm for the briefest of moments, but her eyes search his out from under her mask in a way that tries to drive her point home. As if Shy could’ve missed it.

He smiles weakly.

“Sylvaqua is a good distance from our lands,” he concedes apologetically with a minor bow of his head. “I’ll have to look into a visit when the weather is kinder.”

This was the right thing to say, Wren observes from just steps away, because the woman’s face brightens and she pinches his sleeve, giving it a shake. “Wonderful! Do let us know and we’ll make the grandest preparations. My daughters will be delighted to finally meet you in person after all I have written them to say about you and our time here.”

Wren stands at Shy’s shoulder now, holding a glass of an amber liquid to mimic many of the people surrounding them. She’s not sure if it’s meant to be ingested since it smells like it has gone off. Quite possibly, it would give hallucinatory effects or worsen her reaction time with its toxicity.

So instead she holds it by the stem decoratively, the other hand still pressed possessively to her stomach to conceal her gift. Her presence is known now, with the woman looking startled at Wren’s appearance, and Shy’s utter relief washing over him to have an excuse to politely leave this conversation.

“Madam Agoyné, may I introduce you to my friend, Wren. Excuse me, Madam, I think I’m needed…?” Shy’s eyes search Wren’s out of view from the Madam’s, silently pleading with her to help validate his excuse.

“Yes, tragically that is so,” Wren answers, testing her best mimicry of the formal cadence these important types respond best to. Another trial and error on her part in her early days involved learning this the hard way. She tilts herself into Shy and he takes her arm by the elbow, the one clutching her precious present firmly to her stomach. It still doesn’t budge, regretful as she is that he can’t take her hand.

She leans her head in and whispers for only him to hear, “I need to speak to you alone.”

Worry splashes over Shy’s features and stiffens his body at once. He had noticed Wren was missing from the party for some time and had even asked Mason and Jayne separately if they knew where the dragon woman was. While he was relieved she returned, it’s replaced now with a dozen worst case scenarios she could drop at his feet.

Wren answers his shift in expression with a severe rise of an eyebrow.

“Out there,” he decides hoarsely, nudging his chin toward a balcony just up a set of plain wood stairs adorned for the occasion with swaths of near white fabric.

The air is shockingly cold. Shy realizes his mistake almost immediately, shrugging off his cape and tucking it around Wren so she doesn’t immediately lose herself to the chill. She abandons the glass of alcohol on the railing in favour of a tighter tuck of the fabric around her body.

“I bring you your gift,” she finally tells him, stepping in place as her bare feet chill on the sharp cold stone.

His relief is palpable, but quickly replaced with confusion. “But I already told you, you don’t owe me a gift, Wren. And… besides, what could… is that why you disappeared?”

The moon. She suddenly remembers she’s outside and stretches her upper body to angle and navigate her eyeline to see the moon. On a good clear day, the sun and moon are only visible from above due to the thick expanse of enormous trees engulfing the city. Wren can see now a faint glow from above the roofline. Shy’s hands move to steady her as she leans nearly backwards over the railing to confirm the time. Well past midnight.

“It’s your birth anniversary,” she points out with brimming excitement. She’s never had one of these human milestones, though she can deeply empathize with the need to be seen as a self sufficient adult, and this - this must be it, the one that her human has spoken of for years. He certainly looks and acts like an adult now, especially compared to when she met him those autumns ago.

Shy is quietly reflective. “So it is,” he agrees, his voice distant and soft. His dark eyes blink several times under his mask, swirling through several emotions that Wren doesn’t yet have names for. The one she does recognize, however, is fondness, and it’s the one he gives her specifically.

Despite the chill in the air, Wren’s chest burns with passion in her own fondness and it warms her to be the recipient of his gaze.

“Here!” She thrusts her hand out, noting how cold her palm is in the winter air with the sweat that has collected on her palm while dearly clutching the gift.

Several long quiet moments flow between them. To Shy it feels like no time at all as he turns the gift over in the dim light and tilts it, angled toward the firelight from inside the hall to see it better. To Wren, it feels like eons, like she can hear the churning movement of the continents in her ears, long enough for a hundred generations of fae creatures to live and die before Shy will ever so much as flinch in reaction to the gift of her scale.

“Do you like it?” she asks hurriedly, her voice thick with anxious energy and emphasized by the taf-taf-taf of her soft human feet padding up and down on the frigid balcony stone. “It’s… it’s my scale. It’s for you,” she explains dumbly.

“It’s very beautiful.” Shy lifts it closer to his eye, finally catching an angle where a wall sconce just inside the door brightens the scale to an auburn colour and picks up the bumpy surface of the exterior side of the scale. The side laid against his palm is silky smooth and still quite warm.

“Did this hurt?” he asks suddenly, lifting his eyes from it with great difficulty and catching the end of the immense relief that washes the anxiety from her muscles.

Her coiled hair, no longer properly tamed by the braiding that Jayne wove it into earlier, bounces against her ears and pieces tickle the skin at her neck and the cloak over her shoulders.

“No, no,” she reassures him in what’s practically a purr, a very unusual tone he’s rarely heard her speak in. “Nothing like that. I don’t think anything would hurt if you asked me to do it. It wasn’t any worse than the first time you combed my hair.”

He rolls his eyes and stutters out a laugh, his brain stuck on what she inferred about her following his requests. Very inappropriate ideas claw their way up from places he thought he buried deeply. He swallows.

“W-well, it’s very- it’s a very precious gift. Thank yo-”

“That’s not everything it can do,” she interrupts, hopping forward when her thrill of pleasing him tries to find somewhere to go. Her hands clasp around his, soothed by the warmth of them and the intimacy of touching him. “I used my magic on it. Do… do any of your books, those books you always talked about that spoke of my kind, did they tell you what the scales are used for?”

A little jerk of his head doesn’t loosen his memory in spite of him trying to do just that. He’s extremely aware of her hands on his. Worry eats at him that she’s far too cold out here and she needs to return to the warmth, but they can’t risk being overheard speaking of this, and--

No, he does remember. The dragon scale pendants of the Dragonriders in the last great war. His stomach flops when he realizes that the hole in one end of the scale isn’t a natural phenomenon, but that she intentionally bore into it to allow it to hang on a chain. Many images of the riders made certain to show the pendants and the effective control they gave over the dragon’s actions.

Wren watches him very closely, her cold nose tipped up and slitted eyes widening to try and interpret his microexpressions. She can see he remembers what it does and rewards him with an encouraging squeeze of her hands, but they fall loose when his face grows ashen and his mouth quivering as if all of his words are dribbling out soundlessly. As suddenly as it was lit, the pleasant aching fire in her chest is snuffed out by a breath of cold sad wind.

“What’s wrong? Is it wrong? Did I… Shy? My human?” Her voice chokes and she hates that sound, hates it, hates the feeling of choking without hands around her neck, the sting of water in her eyes, and most of all she hates the way he looks at her with a sickened palor so far from the red one she had hoped to earn. Her human skin bristles like the flesh of a plucked bird. The air is bitter and harsh.

And then he thrusts the scale back into her hands, tucking her fingertips around it to force her to accept it back.

“I can’t,” is all he manages to say. “I can’t, Wren, I can’t… I can’t…”

“Yes you can! ” she protests, and she knows that if she were still a dragon, it would come out as a mournful roar. As it is, her lungs are human, and her voice is pitiful.

He swings around, pacing in a short oval. He brings a hand to his hair, bumping his knuckles against his mask when he forgets the height of its wooden spires. “I can’t! ” he answers more firmly, his fingers latching onto a tuft of hair and pulling. “Wren, I can’t take your free will like that. I’ve always told you that’s not why I came to find you. I never wanted…”

The fight leaves her. It’s an entirely new sensation, and this night seems to be making a habit of presenting Wren with such things. The scale would have fallen from her hand had the hole not found its way on her fingertip. Reflexively, she curls the rest of her fingers around it and pushes it against her breast. She holds it there so hard, it’s almost as if she’s trying to return it to the place where it came from, the patch near to her dragon heart. But it goes nowhere, it does nothing, it heals nothing.

“Wren…” Shy’s voice is so gentle and cautious, as if trying to soothe a crying child.

To her horror, Wren notices that her eyes are leaking. She is the crying child.

A strangled whimper escapes out of her. In the time it takes Shy to reach out to touch her shoulder, she’s turned for the door and throwing it open. Another fumbled movement from the prince fails, and she’s gone from his sight entirely as she’s swallowed up by the party’s crowds.

Chapter Text

Gesturing animatedly, Jayne is regaling the handsome kitchen boy with a story of her trip to her grandmother’s in the western woods settlement when the prince appears at her left. To her horror, she only notices him when she knocks a swinging hand into his shoulder.

“Pardon me, Jayne.” The prince sounds winded. Jayne scrunches herself down, mortified that she essentially inadvertently attacked the royal heir, expecting punishment. So his hurried continuation throws her off balance. “Have you seen Wren?”

“N-no, your highness,” she manages to get out. “Not since earlier in the evening. Should I… would you like me to look for her?”

Prince Shy grimaces, but nods. “If you don’t mind. I think she’s in a foul mood.”

His voice is warning and sympathetic. Jayne knows why. The first time she had been charged to Wren’s needs and was helping her to bathe, the woman had thrown such a fit over her hair being undone and wet that Jayne could swear she’d never bathed before. But she didn’t have the look of someone who hadn’t, and Jayne had the misfortune of stumbling across a few of those types in town. Wren had sprung from the bath and torn around her chambers in a fit suitable for a wild animal, and Jayne wouldn’t forget the fear of it for as long as she lived.

She gulps.

“Yes, I understand, your highness,” she whispers with a hurried bow. She touches Finnegan’s arm apologetically before tearing away from the masquerade at a brisk walk so as not to alarm anyone. Anyone else, anyway. Her own heart is begging mercy for what she’ll find when she finds the war path of the frightful woman.

No one will forget a beauty like that, the doorman has said when they arrived, yet no one Jayne hurriedly asked had seen a hair of Wren since far earlier in the evening.

Her guest chambers, then. Jayne swallows down a glass of wine she plucks up on her exit from the hall and its lovely party and beautiful eligible men. By now she can walk the route to Wren’s room in her sleep from anywhere in the castle, and she’s even figured out a shortcut or two through some unmarked passageways she definitely didn’t find while smooching the very handsome kitchen boy.

She can reach the room in only a few minutes. That’s not the problem. Whatever might greet her when she gets there is the problem.

Still, there’s no further delaying it. The prince looked absolutely shattered when he asked after the strange guest, and Jayne doesn’t intend to prolong his suffering. Even if it means she might have to reassemble Wren’s room from the floor up, depending on how this, whatever it is, ranks on the scale compared to when she threw a fit over Jayne untangling her braids and insisting on a thorough wash of her hair.

Wren still holds a grudge over that one, Jayne is certain of it. But only the gods know why. It’s as if the woman hasn’t ever properly bathed before coming here. It wouldn’t surprise her at this point if that were somehow the truth.

She knocks lightly on the door.

“Wren?” she asks, allowing for a pause. When she doesn’t hear anything, she presses her ear to the door. “Wren, darling? Are you in here?”

Jayne doesn’t have the chance to be relieved over the lack of smashing sounds while there’s no answer at all. In fact, what answer she does receive worries her even more than if there had been a chorus of furniture meeting an untimely end.

“I’m tired,” the little voice chokes out. “I’m sleeping. Go away, please.”

A please.

And was that… in her voice… was she crying?

Oh dear.

Jayne sucks in a sharp breath, her hands hovering at the door’s handle as she debates defying the request in favour of the prince’s worry. Her hands tuck into her body and warm at her armpits in a self hug.

“Okay.” Jayne’s voice returns with a shakiness of uncertainty. Maybe that last wine was a poor choice. “Okay, you rest now, little flower. I… just came to check on you.”

“Good night,” comes the voice that the servant hardly recognizes as her charge’s. The beleaguered warble that possesses it sends Jayne’s thoughts reeling with the possibility of what she must have missed happening at the masquerade to put Wren in such a state.

Jayne takes her leave as politely requested by Wren (still mind boggling an occurance on its own). Many ideas spring to mind, but none seem to match what she knows to be the prince’s good character. Plucking a candle from a nearby sconce, she slips behind a painting and hurries down a secret passageway in a shortcut to the great hall. She must find the prince. He’ll sort this out.

Wren wipes her cheeks with the fleshy thumb palms of her human hands. Her hands. She realizes numbly that she doesn’t mentally distinguish this body as foreign anymore, as strange as it remains to be, what with its new surprises all the time. And the surprise right now isn’t that she accepts ownership of this human body now, it’s that it seems to endlessly produce water from its eyes. She couldn’t possibly have drank this much in the first place.

Stubbornly, she rubs her fingers along her eyes in time with a whine of protest, but her fingers just squelch wetly in rebuttal.

She sniffs violently in defeat, stretching her legs to bring her bare feet closer to the fire. Her bedroom is dark except for the fire that crackles near to her bed. Wren is sat on the floor, hiding from the door and the furthest place away from everyone under the castle’s roof that she could think to go in her miserable haze. Now here, she can conjure up a dozen better places to sulk but absolutely no desire to move anymore.

The scale sits in the middle of the fire, glowing but otherwise unaffected by the heat and flames.

She imagines snapping it, throwing the pieces out of her window, of the hot remains sizzling holes in the snow outside, of some goat coming across them in the future and shitting on them. Her expression remains the same, though. It doesn’t make her feel any better.

She loses track of time, staring into those flames. At some point, Jayne’s voice came through her door, but mercifully she left as quickly as she arrived. Wren tucks Shy’s thick decorative cloak around herself tightly, bundling in her arms and soothing herself as the fabric constricts further with every unsteady intake of breath. But it smells of him, of her human prince, the one who couldn’t - wouldn’t - accept her gift, and Wren trembles as she relives the rejection over and over behind her eyes.

The fire is in desperate need of feeding when the heavy door groans open and shut. The intruder pauses in place. His heavy boots scuff the floor as he turns one way and then the other. If Wren had been paying more than a cursory amount of attention, she’d realize he’s looking around for her.

But she doesn’t, not when he spots her bare cold toes and not even when he walks to her side, her far off stare not breaking away from the glowing embers and the flickers of fire that continue to dance well after the party is over. The fire is her familiar friend, but even tonight it betrays her too, the scale unburnt on the crumbling remnants of a log pyramid. There are no trust left with a promise to her heart, not from fire and not from her best friend.

What jerks her attention is the fresh log that crunches down in the scale’s place when a fire poker knocks the rejected gift out of the embers. Wren’s hiss of surprise is gobbled up by the crack of fire finding new dry wood. Her slitted pupils widen with a flash of anxious sorrow, but Wren has no words to really know what these complex emotions are, just ones of guttural draconic cursing mumbled under her breath as she once again wipes her stained cheeks and bleary eyes.

She twists her body away from him and nearer to the darkness by the wall, rolling her shoulder along the edge of her borrowed bed and wrapped tightly in a borrowed cloak. The shadows show her how the prince flinches and then sags.

Good , she thinks bitterly, knowing and believing it’s absolutely not good at all. Let him think I’m angry, let him think I’m dangerous. Let him think I’ll put a curse on him with magic if he tries to apologise. Let him--

“I’m sorry.”

Wren’s entire body tenses, frozen except for her eyes darting, unfocused, trying to analyse his strategy. Does apologising make it easier for him to end their arrangement? Or does he intend for her to turn, to let her guard down, in order for him to strike like a verbal viper and poison her with more hurtful words to explain his rejection? She won’t give him that satisfaction. Her topmost shoulder jerks as she yanks the cloak tighter around herself, forcing the fiercest growl she can muster.

It comes out as a sob. Yet another betrayal.

There’s a shuffle of fabric of as Shy draws away from her. His head dips in disappointed shame to see her recoil from him as she once did the day they met. It becomes a mark on an otherwise fond memory of the start of their unusual friendship.

Shy exhales a shaky breath. His fingers twist and fidget against one another in his lap as he finally has a moment to think over what he can say to repair their bond. He starts by stretching his foot toward the hearth and pulling the warm scale nearer with his boot. He doesn’t chance touching it just yet, leaving it next to his thigh when he’s sure it won’t burn into the floor planks.

“Wren,” he begins, his voice a soft pleasant divulgence that the dragon has always found impossible to ignore, even when she’s angry at him. Frustration burns in her chest because she’s absolutely sure that this is why he measures his voice just so, because he knows that he can whisper her into a calm meditation like a druid transfixes an animal.

When he’s sure she’s listening, and acutely aware that the longer he takes to soothe this hurt the worse their friendship will suffer, Shy presses on and speaks straight from his heart. As much as he values carefully measuring his words, the prince more often is forced to think on his feet through a cloud of emotion. His heart wept too many times into a puddle of useless protests when he had let his father down over and again as a child, so he’s certain the practice has prepared him for just this.

“I’m very sorry you think I didn’t like your gift. I do. It’s the best midwinter present I’ve ever received.” He slides a hand preemptively to the general estimation of the ridge of her shoulder blade and rubs soothingly just as she growls. He predicted this disbelief from her. “I’m serious, my friend. Will you not allow me the chance to… to explain now why it is I can’t keep it?”

Her growl stutters and slows, her eyes shutting at the soothing feeling on her back. Even though she has no memory of a parent rubbing her infant back to coax her to sleep and stop crying, as Queen Ryna once did to Shy in this way and he emulates now, there’s something about the dragon’s human body that responds pleasantly to his touch all the same.

He accepts her softened silence as permission to continue pleading his case. “I know what the scales do and how the humans, my ancestors… how they wielded them, and in turn… the dragons. Not long after we first met, you asked me if I was going to tame you. Do you remember? We were such young things back then…”

Shy shakes his head as if dispelling the memory from in front of his eyes. His hand heats from the friction of rubbing circles into the cloak. He knows if he was touching her true body, he could blame the heat against his palm on the crackling fire that lives in her belly. A fond smile tugs at his lips, but it doesn’t quite dispel the aching sorrow that invaded ever since he saw his beloved dragon cry because of what he said.

“Well,” he coughs away an unsteadiness in that voice meant for gentle soothing, “Um. You said… you were mad at me, and you asked me what the point of finding you was, then, if I wasn’t going to tame you. I was so scared that you would spit fire at me… your eyes were so fierce that I could feel them as if they were daggers pressing into my skin.”

He hopes this will make her laugh. He can feel what might be a hiccup under his palm. He prays that it isn’t a silent sob.

“Um,” he continues, his other hand pressing into the floor to fidget, but several fingers slide unsteadily when his hand finds the cooling scale instead. He glances at it quickly after compensating for his wobble. “It was the same then as it is now, my darling Wren. I will never take your freedom away. Not on purpose, not through magic or on threat of my life, not even if there was another great war tomorrow and this was all we needed to somehow end it. Never. Your will is your own and I don’t want it under my command even if I never intend to make use of it. Do you see now why I reacted as I did? I- I know your intention was pure hearted…”

He trails off because somewhere in his gasping speech, words breathily stumbling after the next, Wren has turned back to face him. He catches sight of her mossy green eyes when a lively flare of fire licks up and catches the glossy unspilled tears below them.

Lip quivering, Shy falters. If he wasn’t so well read, he’d swear up and down his grandmother’s Heart Tree that his heart actually broke in that moment to see her watching him in such a vulnerable, wounded way. He isn’t even aware of his hand moving to catch her tear with his thumb until it’s warm and wet and stroking the salt stains on her freckled cheek.

“I’m so sorry,” he mumbles hoarsely, trying his damndest not to cry along with her.

It’s so frustrating keeps returning to his mind like an annoying mantra. He bites down on the inside of his lip. She has always been so inquisitive to him teaching her the human ways as best he can, but he’s sorely aware once again that he has no business trying to teach some things that are beyond his own comprehension.

It’s so frustrating that he can’t help her to understand that the countless warnings the fae folk gave her would not be necessary where Shy is concerned because he would never willingly hurt his beloved friend.

It’s so frustrating to him that he has no words to tell her why he can’t allow them to hold hands within the city, why she can’t spend every waking moment together, why he had a separate bedroom, why she had to hide what she truly is from even his parents, what the real reason is that his face heats up when she catches him looking at her a moment too long.

It’s so frustrating to Shy that, even out on their own in the expanse of the forest where they came into adulthood together, he can’t allow himself to kiss her. To hold her and fall asleep with her human body. To explore her beautiful freckles with his lips and map out their constellations with his teeth and tongue.

It’s so frustrating to be in love with a dragon.

And he can explain none of this to her, especially now.

Her forehead thumps into what passes for his bicep. He can feel the heat from her flushed face through the fine fabric of his sleeve. There’s a soft, choked mewl that falls out of her when he slings his arm around her, welcoming her into his embrace. Being permitted to comfort her this way brings a rush of relief through him that feels just like being able to breathe again after coming up from underwater. His arms clutch at her shaking form and enshroud her. She’s impossibly soft. He quickly realizes that’s because the cloak - his cloak that he gave her to wear - slid down from her shoulders and now he’s touching her bare skin directly.

His head jerks and he gulps, a hand leaving her to hastily pull the cloak back up around her. But in the process of leaning over her shoulder to lift the fabric, she’s welcomed right into his chest and burrows her face right above his heart.

His ears ring. They’ve never embraced so close in the years of their friendship. Gods’ treetops, he’s never held anyone this way before. It’s a struggle that hits him entirely unaware that he’s meant now to keep a firm head on his shoulders and maintain some semblance of dignity between them. How in all the world’s forests is he supposed to do that when there’s not but some thin layers of material between them?

It’s her hands that snake behind his back and close around loose folds of fabric, her unsteady breathing hot against his chest, and her wild hair that spills from burst hair ties and catch every licking finger of firelight… all of this that’s so very here and now that drives any questioning from Shy for this moment. He carefully combs his fingers through that radiant hair and loosens the remainder to spill down the dark cloak. Despite having touched it before, it delights him once again to feel just how silky soft her curls are as they pull through his fingers and untangle with every soothing pass.

His chin comes to rest on the top of her head, and he whispers soft sweet nonsense sounds to try and urge calm through his beloved friend. Shifting her weight over his knee, he welcomes her completely into his lap. Her nose fills with the musk of his salty sweat, the remnant of cypress and peppercorn and honey present and familiarly her prince’s scent. And there’s the taste of that wonderful drink in the air every time his hot breath spills down on her from the top of her head, that delightful stuff that tastes of fire down her throat and leaves her fingers warm. How she wishes she could have one more of those again right now, or maybe to taste his breath to steal it.

That must be what those partygoers were doing, she reasons - they were surely sharing the delightful drink between their mouths.

Shy’s combing fingers slow. The fire has died down again and he blinks more quickly to focus on the shape of her in the dimming light, as close to him as she is, curled in his lap and entangled in each other’s arms in a once desperate bid for comfort. It’s so easy for him to dip his chin and press his lips into her hair. Too easy. He does it without thinking, a second and then a third chaste kiss. Her usual smell - the leather of her dragon hide and warm smoke and the tang of heavy metals in her blood - is so very faint in her human form that he’s actually surprised by the way her hair smells, struggling to classify it. It’s another heartbeat or three before he finds the words almond and cinnamon floating in his thoughts, followed quickly by oakmoss and rain . He breathes it in greedily, his cheek tickled by errant curls.

Neither is sure how long they sit there, wrapped in each other’s arms, but when Wren finds her voice again it is thick from crying and disuse. She clears her throat forcibly, drawing back to their identical regret. But Wren’s face is twisted in such offended disgust with her own throat, pawing it and furrowing her brow, that Shy’s lips split into an adoring smile to bear witness to her learning yet another human quirk such as this.

She clears her throat again as if warning her voice to behave or there’d be consequences. He breathes a quick laugh through his nose.

“It’s pointless to tell you what you already know,” she tests her voice, no longer croaking like her first attempt. “You have filled books with notes about me, so I’m sure you have new ones now that mark my slow progress at understanding peculiarities of being human.”

Shy holds back a grimace. In fact, he hasn’t written much of anything since winter enveloped the capital city a moon ago and his duties as prince once again took to the forefront of his priorities. He doesn’t dare tell her as much. He’s sure she already feels his absence sorely, as their autumns have always been exclusively theirs when he came to visit her, whereas the winter has left her much to her own devices.

Instead of saying any of this, he bids her to continue opening up to him with another brush of her coiled hair through his fingers.

She can sense that something’s amiss with his non answer, squinting a dissenting look up at him in the dim light before pressing on. “Well. I think that I should have discovered what the… human equivalent of my gift to you would be. I have thought there must be something… something worthy of you and the importance you have in my life.”

“That,” and she turns her head, a hand moving from his back to the scale lying cold now on the floor at his thigh, gingerly lifting it to bring between them, “is what I meant this to be for us. A symbol. Not power. Protection, and promises."

She sits comfortably in his lap, fitting there like she was always meant to. Shy had never thought to ask back then how she came to have this specific human form or if she’d always had it, but right now the selfish thought crosses his mind that maybe it was made for him all along. He knows it’s a silly and improbable theory, but here with her in his embrace he indulges himself with it.

“You are my human,” she states firmly, dipping the scale to press the top tip into the space between his vest buttons. From his perspective, she is silhouetted by the dying fire, rimmed with a red glow and looking as ethereal and beautiful as the day he met her. “You don’t want to wield control of me for that, and I love you all the more to hear you say this. But you are aware that this only devotes me to you further, correct?”

Shy’s head is swimming. He can hear the woosh directly in his ears from his frantically beating heart. The quick question of whether his senses are playing tricks on him flashes through him as he gulps uselessly at the lump in his throat. That word. Of course she must know what it means, but she can’t know its significance said between two unrelated humans. If she did, she wouldn’t have said it, especially not to a prince.

But she is not a human by birthright. She never grew among them to learn what he now realizes are countless societal subtleties, ones impossible to compile in a list to prepare to teach her. He knows. He tried exactly that, once.

The back of a cool hand presses briefly to Shy’s forehead, dabbing and moving to smooth hair out of the way to try again. Concern enters Wren’s inhuman eyes. “Are you unwell? Your face is full of fire again.”

He takes her other hand and moved it to his face, clasping both of her cold hands to his cheeks with a steadying exhale. Her mouth hangs slightly agape as she watches him help himself to her chill, her concern growing. He had explained once that he reddens not because of heat, exactly, but because of reacting to circumstances, and at the time he’d just finished yelping at her that it wasn’t proper for her to remove all of her human clothes to swim. She had snapped back at him asking if he wished her to drown from the weight of them, and then loudly pointed out the way his face was burning. There was to be no swimming in their secret pond that day.

“I’m fine,” he whispers breathily, still recovering from being taken off guard. He swallows several times, and he’s positive now that he’s absolutely sober thanks to this surprise. Was it really a surprise? He can’t gain control of his thoughts long enough to sort this out, nor does he have the time to spare right now in this moment.

She watches him with suspicion, but presses her fingers into his thin face to help leech away the heat for him. The skin is rougher on his jaw, she notes, and she wonders if someday he will also cover his face in hair like his father the king. Her nose slightly wrinkles to think of him hiding his beautiful face with hair.

“Perhaps the time hasn’t come just yet for a human to wear their dragon’s scale,” she continues, more to herself than him as she muses aloud to work through this puzzle. Her gaze snaps up from his jaw to his dark eyes unnervingly. “But it will forever worry me when we are parted to leave you unprotected. My heart is promised to you, my human. If something were to happen to you…”

She trails off because he has moved his hands to her wrists, gently lifting them from his face, his thumbs brushing the soft vulnerable undersides. The sensation is so abruptly pleasant that Wren’s breath catches, pupils dilating beneath rapidly blinking lashes. This night is so full of overwhelming new experiences that she can no longer hope to classify all of them, forced to just cope in the moment, if at all possible to cope at all. This one wipes her trail of thought blank from her mind and leaves her feeling dumb, her heart unexplainably racing in her chest.

“Nothing will happen to me,” he promises in a low, reassuring tone. His eyes don’t leave hers as he turns over one of her hands and replaces his thumb with his lips, briefly kissing that impossibly soft skin on her wrist where the frantic beat of her heart is thrumming near the surface.

So very vulnerable, these humans, she thinks, and that makes her all the more anxious for his safety.

“You can’t know that,” she responds sharply. To her regret, that tone was the wrong one to use, and the prince draws away from her wrist, placing and abandoning her hands in her own lap like he was bitten.

“No,” he concedes, his eyes flicking away toward the fire’s glowing embers. It’s barely enough to see by now.

They sit in extended silence. Wren’s cold hands clench and fidget, and there’s a tremor against her ribs that unnerves her further. She’s losing him. With every moment that he doesn’t accept her pledge, with every second of silence driving a wedge between years of friendship, the human dragon is pushed further back into the pit of despair she was so recently helped out of.

“I want to pledge myself to you,” she finally blurts out, firm in her decisiveness. She even gives a slight nod to show her finality.

His eyes finally pull away from the embers, shining like melted cocoa. “What?”

“Me, to you. I give myself,” she explains, picking the scale up from her lap and tossing it aside to the floor without breaking her gaze. “I’m your gift.”

She can see his pulse quicken in his neck, his collar loose and turned down. He’s ruffled and half composed, a departure from the poised prince in the ballroom of a party. She realizes only now that he left his mask somewhere before coming to find her, and, feeling a little foolish to still have hers on top of her head, unties it from her tousled curls and throws it in the direction of her scale.

This only floods Shy with more questions, more mental words of warning, fighting internally against himself all while his heart threatens to stop all together as he mistakes this gesture for one of undressing. Suddenly, he’s painfully aware that a beautiful woman is sitting in his lap, where she’ll notice something that will raise questions from her that he’ll be too mortified to answer.

She’s about to -- I can’t let her go through with this. Shy’s Adam’s apple bounces as he gulps, his face heated in a blush again. She’ll know I want to, but it’s more complicated than that, it’s just not a possibility that I court anyone outside of a politically beneficial match, and besides that, she--

But his thoughts are cut off by Wren speaking again. She holds her head high, her shoulders dropping and his cloak sliding from them to reveal a colony of freckles beneath the errant ends of frizzy fiery hair.

“I wish to be…”

“My wife?” he squeaks, questioningly cutting her off.

“... your knight,” she finishes, then cocks her head in a way reminiscent of her animalistic dragon manner. “What?”

“What?” he echoes, blinking several times as an ember dims and the room grows darker.

“... knight,” she clarifies, brows furrowed in puzzlement. “To protect you and be at your side always. Why did you think—”

“Forget I said anything,” he interrupts hurriedly.

She scrutinizes him with the most penetrative narrowed eyes Shy has ever fell victim to. They’re dashed slits broken by cutting pupils, and if the prince wasn’t already certain after several experiments in their earlier years to test her for mind reading magic ability, he could swear she is rifling right through his thoughts right now. Just in case, he tries to make his mind blank again with absolutely no success.

“Shyler,” she clips brusquely, her chilly hand accenting the biting retaliation when it slides against Shy’s neck. She pulls their heads together, bumping foreheads, giving him no chance but to meet her eyes. “Prince. I can’t succeed in protecting you if you insist on keeping secrets from me.”

She releases his neck and their heads drift apart, though remain closer than they had a moment before. “Ever since I’ve lived amongst your people… no, this started before. This autumn, when we reunited, you have sometimes looked feverish and ill and your words are broken or come out falsely. If… if you no longer trust me, speak that true now so I may leave.”

Her voice is sharp and tries to be firm, but regardless of her intentions, Shy can hear the uncertainty and hurt clearly. A pang of guilt strikes him as he bites back a panicked laugh as realization dawns on him. She’s confused because she doesn’t recognize…

He takes the hand that she touched to his neck and laces his fingers into hers. She looks down at them, puzzled. Squeezing heat and reassurance into her hand, he dips his head to search for the words he’d assumed he would never allow himself to say.

But she deserves the truth, and her confusion is unfair.

“Wren, darling, I trust you explicitly with every part of my soul.” It’s not true, but it sounds poetic, so he smiles nervously before correcting himself. “Well, no, but, I want that to be true like it once was. You’re right. I have been… dishonest, in a way.”

He weighs that out with a slight tilt of his head left then right then left again, eyes everywhere but on her so the sight of her expression doesn’t choke him out of his confession. “It hasn’t been on purpose. I think it’s something all humans do whether they mean to or not. I haven’t been ill or trying to lie, Wren, I’ve been blushing red in my face because I’m embarrassed and my heart is going faster. It happens to you too, by the way,” he points out very gently.

She pats her face quickly with her free hand with a look of mild horror that draws a soft chuckle out of Shy and is followed by a scowl from her.

“How about... we put it this way.” Wren recognizes the prince’s academic voice, lifting her head alertly in readiness to learn and be taught by her human. She doesn’t expect to be posed a question. “When you said... that you loved-” and he trips over the word breathily, “- me... when we spoke of the function of your gift... what did you believe that meant?”

She’s almost offended when she realizes what it is that he’s asked her. Blinking pointedly several times, she clenches her hand in his and loosens it in disbelief.

“It means that I love you,” she hisses with sharp annoyance. To her further dismay, she can now recognize what Shy pointed out; her face grows hotter. “You are my human, my very favourite human and friend. I -- I have known for a long time that I am devoted to you as the fae are to their bonded and partners. Are we not partners? Do you not -- is this what you want to tell me?”

Nearby, the scale glows brighter. It catches Shy’s attention, but not as quickly as he spots the nearly dead fire flaring up with Wren’s emotions.

“Hush!” he soothes her hastily. “Wren, my dear heart, calm down! I said none of that! I was just asking you a question.”

He sandwiches her captured hand and squeezes, whispering soothing sounds and leaning to nudge her with his forehead, something he’s adopted from her dragon form’s comforting nudges over the years when he was particularly upset or angry. She gulps up deep breaths of air and the light begins to dim again in the room, soothed back to a dull gleam by the time her breathing is steady again.

“There you are again, sweetling,” he sighs, tilting his head just enough to pull them apart and give her an encouraging smile. “You’ve come back to me.”

She returns his smile with a sheepish one of her own. Her features are drawn with hurt and sorrow, and she hunches forward as if he’s dealt her a carving blow to her heart itself.

“I’m sorry.” Wren licks her dry lips with a slide of her tongue out then slowly in, replacing her tongue with her fanged teeth against her bottom lip, tearing the chapped skin red and raw. “What is your lesson’s meaning? What was I supposed to learn?”

“That, first of all, not everything I say to you is necessarily a lesson ,” he chastises teasingly, tapping her nose just slightly with a single finger. “I don’t know everything and I’m not qualified to teach you like a scholar. I simply... was curious what you meant before I made an idiot of myself and rushed ahead to say things that can’t be unsaid, all because I thought that when you said you love me, it’s in the way that humans mean it.”

Anticipating her curiosity, he cuts her off as her mouth hangs open to ask him the follow up question. “Human love is a complicated series of emotions and actions and thoughts and feelings. There are so many books written on the subject in my family’s library that they span multiple walls of collections, and still I don’t think those begin to scratch the surface of complete understanding. It’s not like maths or the study of nature or the cooking books. There’s no formula or recipe to follow to determine if you have it or feel it. And I can love my family and I can love my friends and I can love the wife I will someday have, but the love I can feel for those people is very different.”

His smile is fond, but Wren can see some sadness in it, particularly behind the prince’s eyes. “I think I was only trying to determine what type of love you have for me, Wren, dear. That’s all I meant,” he concludes, his voice barely over a whisper.

Wren presses her free hand over her heart, but quickly switches it to her neck, fingers probing and feeling for that thumping of her heartbeat. It thrums under her fingers, and quickens when she lifts her eyes to admire the prince. Determining that her very brief experiment was conclusive and proud of herself for remembering Shy’s lessons on scientific experimentation, she nods firmly at him.

“Yes, I know that now.” She reaches up and tucks a strand of hair behind Shy’s ear. That flush of red across his face is barely discernible in the low light, but for the second time in as many moments, she’s chuffed with herself for taking Shy’s lessons to heart so quickly. A blush. She likes the way it looks on him.

“And I also know that I do love you,” she proclaims firmly. She lifts her shoulders and puffs her chest in certainty, her chin jutted up and forward. “I love you as my friend and family. I don’t know what it feels like to have a wife, but I’m sure I can learn to love you as my wife, too.”

Shy can’t help it. He laughs. He laughs and pitches forward with a groan, lifting a hand to rub his forehead and straining eyes.

“Oh, Wren,” he chuckles hopelessly, shaking his head. “What am I to do with you?”

Her belly flares with anger, though she’s starting to recognise the feeling overall as embarrassment. He doesn’t allow her to tug her hand out of his, instead giving her a counter tug to pull her into a loose hug.

She huffs into his neck, displeased but placated. His chuckles trail off and leave him with a smile as he rubs her shoulder and back, their entwined hands trapped between them. It feels so natural to hold her this way, and privately he enjoys the reality of her being small enough like this that he can manage that feat of having her in his lap. Because, if he’s honest with himself, he enjoys a parallel thrill when she curls around him as a dragon.

“I don’t know why that’s funny to you,” she grumbles into his collar.

His fingers catch coiled hair and brush it from her bare shoulder. Her skin is cool, and the idea of warming her by bringing her up into the bed behind him prickles his skin with a heady, unquiet caution. He can’t let himself dream of being with her like that when it’s not a sustainable possibility. His parents would never approve the match, and he couldn’t bear to think of losing his most cherished friend to impulsive desire.

Yet, his body doesn’t get take the warning of that message all that seriously. He thumbs her bare shoulder, tracing a circle into her smooth freckled skin, tickling her judging by the reaction of a shiver drawn down her spine.

“I’m sorry for laughing, dear one. It’s only that you used the wrong word; if we were courting and then married, you would be the wife and I the husband.”

And, like that, saying the words aloud instead of his mind after all this time trying to avoid considering this very topic at all making his desire suddenly very, very real. No one else would ever mean as much to him as his beloved Wren does. It’s impossible to think he could fit another person into his life when she already consumes such a large place in his heart.

In her own way, Wren is coming to a similar conclusion. She doesn’t have the vocabulary to understand how she’s feeling and what she desires, but through the pieces that she’s scavenged through him, the reality of it is clearing in her mind like watching through silver as it’s polished.

“But, you know what I mean,” she insists, her nose brushing Shy’s neck when she tilts back from her place against him. “I want us to be like the pairs at your costume dance. I can be at your side always and protect you, and I can be with you in a way that feels.. nice. Like it does now.”

He shuts his eyes as his heart once again picks up speed, barely stifling a groan. His thoughts have begun to slip, to make him consider her just for a moment in the position of his wife.

His thumb drawing circles on her shoulder is replaced by his lips, warm and satin and pleasant as they indulge in tasting the salt of her skin. She shivers, fluttering in his arms and his lap and sending searing white through his thoughts at the feeling. Dangerous , he warns himself. You’re in very dangerous territory now.

“Wren,” he gasps out, lips just breaths away from her neck, “Oh, my love. It does. It does feel nice. It’s only that it’s... too complicated to explain why it can’t happen... Between my parents’ expectations for my suitor to be someone who’ll secure us politically... and then there’s the part where no one else knows what you really are…”

“Prince Mason knows,” she interjects weakly, shifting her cheek, greedy for his warmth when she’s already so cold.

“He does?” Shy’s alarm doesn’t last, though, and his shoulders ease as quickly as they tensed. “Well, he may only be eleven summers of age, but he knows when to keep a secret, since I never knew that he knew.”

She picks at a button on his vest, sullen and hurt. When she picks up her voice to speak again, it’s barely louder than a mumble and half as ethereal as she often can sound. “Even if I were to stay like this forever, you wouldn’t have me at your side, then.”

“It’s not my choice,” he deflects, his own voice crumbling to hear how much he’s hurt her with the truth. He presses hurried, apologetic kisses into her neck, combing her hair out of the way until his lips find her ear.

“I would marry you without hesitation, Wren,” he whispers, adjusting his hold on her voluminous hair to keep it out of the way of his frantic, needy declaration. “You’re my best friend, and the most beautiful, captivating, clever person I’ve ever laid eyes on. Of course I’d give anything for the privilege of saying those vows to you, my sweet dragon. But I have no freedom at all to give you that promise... as much and as often as I could tell you love you, it’s only going to hurt both of us for me to do that..”

She whimpers tiredly, her spirit broken and her body fatigued from lack of heat urging her to hibernate. Warm tears wet the fine fabric of the prince’s shirt. His arms tighten around her, the silken dress gliding through his hands like water and rippling in a way reminiscent of a night sky reflected in a rippling stream.

“Let’s get you warmed up.” He finally concedes defeat to the chilly room and loses the excuse to hold her in his lap much longer, lest he soon be responsible for the dead weight of a hibernating dragon. He’s positive he doesn’t want to find out if she might revert into dragon form once her temperature drops too low.

She protests in a wordless and distant whine, clutching the finery of his clothes and refusing to budge from his warmth.

He rolls his eyes at her stubbornness, one of many traits that he actually does love in her. Right now, though, he’s glad she isn’t paying too much attention to his struggle, endeavouring shakily to rise to his feet while carrying her. It’s a very lucky thing that the bed is so nearby, for he just barely makes the heavy steps before collapsing onto her bed along with her as he sets her down.

“I’ll just be a moment, just a moment,” he coaxes, prying her fingers from his shirt and vest with great difficulty. Free of the weight of her, his useless lean muscles aching already, the prince revisits the fire to attempt some simple magic of the human variety.

“Get something warmer on, darling,” he instructs without daring to look back in case she already had this idea. She didn’t, as it turned out, from the sound of her groan muffled face down into the blankets of her bed. “Quickly. The fire will warm up fast, but it’s not instant, and you’re much too cold for my liking.”

By the time he has the fire roaring, happily fed beautiful dry logs, Wren has reclaimed Shy’s cloak from the floor and joined it with several knitted blankets into a cosy nest around herself. Along with the room’s bright glow, Wren too seems to have life breathed back into her anew, because when the prince cautiously peeks over his shoulder, she is watching him studiously and alertly from the cosy bed.

It’s a welcoming sight.

Too welcoming, in fact, if his reaction is anything to go by. Because, before he can stop himself to overthink it, he crosses the small space between them, leans down, and kisses her.

Chapter Text

The kiss catches them both off guard.

Bundled up in furs and blankets as she is, Wren can do little more than sit in stunned silence at the sensation of Prince Shyler’s mouth against her own. Her musing was not very accurate; while she can certainly tell he’d recently been drinking, she can’t exactly taste it, nor does this ritual appear to have a practical application. But judging from the way her chest clenches in what she can only describe as delight and yearning, her human form seems to realize more than her head does.

By the time she struggles to free her hands, he’s moved away from her and parted their lips. Recognizing the flighty look of shock on his face, she snatches his wrist before he can make a run for it.

He looks from the door to his arm and only briefly daring a peek at her face before his eyes flit away again. His feet dance on the spot with a surge of anxiety, his desire to flee made very obvious. Wren’s stubbornness as well as her newly discovered fascination with touching him intimately win the silent battle. She tugs his arm firmly but questioningly. He folds in on himself, his resistance collapsing like a castle of cards, letting himself be led to her side and sitting on the edge of the mattress.

“Please don’t leave,” she begs him in a strange and breathless voice he barely recognizes.

His own breathing is strained - and not the only thing about him that is, if he’s honest - and his head swims with warning chimes and rational objections that are actively being shoved underwater by his love and yearning.

Her fingers loosen around his wrist but don’t fully let go. He turns away from her for a moment, sitting and taking in the renewed fire for a moment’s clarity. He can feel her eyes on him, but he tries his best to ignore them and debate as objectively as he can with himself in silence without the influence of however her face might look in this moment. It’s extremely difficult to do that, however, when she moves her hand down from his sleeve cuff and laces their fingers together slowly and studiously as they had been just minutes earlier.

Minutes. Was that all it had been when he still had the willpower to not kiss his best friend? Was it only minutes ago that she had been angry with him and that he was afraid she’d never forgive him for turning down her gift?

She sits patiently and silently by his side, the blankets melting off her shoulders into a curved pile in the middle of the bed. Trying not to worry about what the prince is thinking about, she concentrates on the shape of his face from the side and illuminated by the warm firelight. A long, sharp nose. Dark hair to his shoulders that looks like the night’s sky, like the ink of his books and his letters. Strong eyebrows atop kind and wondering brown eyes, ones that right now look wider and distant. Soft thin lips that she now knows feel so nice against her own.

She rests her chin on his shoulder, leaning into him with such love in her heart for this man, love that pushes out what worry she feels over his extended silence.

Wren presses her cold nose into the hot skin at his neck and nuzzles him, much in a way expressing the same gesture as a quick kiss were she still in a dragon’s body. Her eyes shut as she feels him move. A pang of fear bubbles in her chest. She doesn’t want this to end, but if it must, she wants to remember this feeling for as long as possible. He might never give it to her again.

Two heavy thuds on the floorboard, one not long after the other, draw Wren’s inhuman eyes open. Her body is still braced for disappointment, but she looks down in confusion.

Shy’s feet finish pulling out of his boots, now long and limp shapes on the floor by her bedside. He shifts his weight more fully onto the bed and folds his legs in his favourite sitting style, the crossed-legged one that took her an embarrassingly long time to learn how to mimic when their friendship was still new. She mirrors him now, too, and lifts their entwined hand to rest it on her knee. Her eyes lift to his to study him for clues on what else is next.

To her immense relief, he smiles at her.

“Sorry for.. everything,” he murmurs, smile turning sheepish. He runs his free hand through his hair. “I guess I couldn’t help it. Really, I’m surprised I managed as long as I did.”

“Is it supposed to happen for longer?” she asks, her misunderstanding causing him yet another hot blush across his cheeks.

“Well, yes, it can, but no, that’s- I meant this evening, here, just now?” he babbles, turning in place and shuffling his weight to face her so he doesn’t have to talk down on her at his side. They’re almost of equal height, and here on her bed and accompanied by only blankets and a reinvigorated fire, they’re equals in every other sense now, too. “What I meant was, I’m supposed to avoid giving my heart to anyone who wasn’t selected by my parents to be my wife, but now I suppose I’ve properly lost now.”

Wren doesn’t completely follow the conversation, only experiencing the sting of his blind following of his parents’ rules and noting the way he’s suddenly uncomfortable while talking to her, something she hasn’t seen from him since their first meetings. Her stomach twists, and she clutches his hand as if fearing he’ll drift away.

“I’m sorry too,” she whispers urgently. She curls into him, abruptly aware of the loss of insular heat the blankets gifted her and seeking it out from his body. Where their hands are entwined, he responds with a simple rhythmic brush of his thumb against the back of her hand and gifts her with a simple reassurance that this is okay and welcome. Her colour shifting dress flows over her knees as her legs drape across his lap greedily.

“What do you have to be sorry for?” he asks surprise. A thrill sparks through her to hear the catch in his voice, and another brings a grin to her face that she barely hides with the tilt of her head against his chest. His fingers pull down at the fabric that rides up and exposes her legs, and every accidental brush of his fingers against their soft curves is a delightful lick of flame in her chest.

Greedily, she reaches out with her magic and pulls the fabric higher to her knees. When Shy catches sight and remedies the exposure more frantically, she erupts into the giggles similar to a naughty child delighting in the success of a prank.

The thing that’s very different, however, is that she’s acutely aware that this specific euphoria is something she’s never experienced before. So when he sighs in exasperation when he realizes what she’s done and reprimands her in growls that remind her about propriety, it intoxicates her so completely that the woman who is also dragon loses her grasp on her magic for a moment, tussling his hair and her dress and his sleeve with a breeze like a warm breath from summer herself. Her magic swirls down her arms in hot tingles as she swats harmlessly at her prince when he ejects her from his lap and onto the pile of furs, her fingers hot and veined, her nails sharper and thickened.

She laughs again, slithering on her back, the sleek fabric of her dress providing no resistance against the soft furs. Her hair tosses around her in a halo of coiled fire. Shy is breathless as he leans over her, his breaths heaving as he spares just a moment to admire her in the middle of their playfight.

“You’re very naughty,” the prince chastises her, hunched over her with his weight heavily balanced on one arm and one knee that sink into the feathered mattress as he tickles her arm. “I can see why Jayne complains about you to the other servants. You must give her such a hard time--”

“I do not !” she interrupts in an indignant shriek that’s full of chest heaving laughter. Goosebumps raise up on her arm and she twitches to notice them, the sensation clashing with the magic in her veins that it almost drives it back down into her, shying away as if ticklish itself. She jerks her chin up at the ceiling, stubborn and proud with no reason to be. “... She’s just very good at doing everything wrong!”

He shakes his head disapprovingly, though his smile is vivid and unshakeable. But she doesn’t see it for long, for he leans his weight closer to her and peppers kisses into her skin where her hair touches her forehead and where, if she were a dragon in this moment, great twisted ivory horns would meet her face. For an idle moment she actually wonders what that would feel like, if it would feel even a fraction as good in her natural form as it does when she’s like this.

Shy drops his weight onto his arm and lies next to her, his body thin and not much longer than Wren’s, but solid and angled and different from her own. “You should give her another chance,” he lectures softly, smiling down on her, much closer now. “I selected her myself, you know that? I thought she could handle you. I see now the error of my judgment; it actually is a punishment to have to put up with you...”

Wren hisses offendedly, and her playful swatting is dodged because the prince knows that hiss and what comes right after it. He grins down on her as she scoffs and tries again with her other hand. He dips away and laughs, catching her hands before she gets any other ideas and escalates their playfighting. There had been many, many bruises while she was figuring out the limits of what constituted real and play, so he preemptively collects her hands and kisses the knuckles as if soothing a separate entity.

Mollified, Wren relaxes into the furs and mirrors his smile as his face draws away from her hands.

For a moment, they are both silent and transfixed on the other, so filled with wonder at the new way their eyes can appreciate their closest friend. Both experience the faint worry that their heart’s drumming is as audible aloud as it is in their own ears.

It’s distant footsteps down the hallway that draw Shy’s attention suddenly to her door, his face blanching with worry. Pursing her lips, Wren’s eyes flick over the lock, and with an invisible reach of her magic, the device shudders across and secures the entrance. She lifts her chin in triumphant bragging, but when the colour doesn’t come back to his face, she tries to pet his cheek to coax its return.

“My human?” she whispers, puzzled and concerned. The knuckles of her fingers sweep across the rough bristle of his stubbled jaw and press cool against his cheek. Her vibrant green dragon eyes, wider and awake with the heat in the room and the added heat of his body against hers, search his earthy human ones for an answer for an unasked question.

Slowly, achingly, his senses come back to him and his shoulders sag with evaporating tension. His returning smile, still a portion worried, does do the trick in answering her to a satisfactory degree.

Her fingers move up from his face and into his hair, those lovely inky wisps that flow down from the top of his head like a river running in opposing directions. She delights in the feeling of the soft locks through her fleshy tapered fingers. The idle question of whether humans, like dogs or wolves, might enjoy a scratch on the head crosses her mind, and she hums a tune she heard earlier in the ballroom as dragon nails take shape at the end of human fingers.

He had taught her that experiments were critical for learning something new. So, she experiments. Her nails lightly scrape against his scalp as she combs through his hair, gentle and slow, her concentration fixed on ensuring that her nails are a rounded tip instead of a sharp one. She licks her lips, the tip of her tongue poking out the middle as she focuses her attention on this one task, this experiment in pleasing him.

His shoulders hunch and his head dips forward. Her heart thrums in brief panic that he suddenly took ill, or that she somehow nicked him with her claws and he’s bleeding out. But the delighted groan that follows sets her nerves on fire, her chest rising and her heels grounding into the furs beneath her, and something human inside of her inexplicably knows this is a very good sign.

Shy gasps deeply, and in the next moment his lips crash down against hers, hungry and seeking to reciprocate this sweet, rapturous pleasure he’s experiencing at the mercy of her fingertips. Every graze of a nail that draws a shiver down his spine, every scratch that sends the roots of his hair bristling in goosebumpy delight, every agonising pause between her strokes wherein he deeply misses her and longs for the next touch like it will kill him to be without it, all of these sensations new delights to the prince.

And they’re ones he insists on worshipping her for giving him. For these gifts… why in the gods’ beautiful earth would he ever say no to them? Any and all rational reason to refuse them is long cast aside.

While instinct tells her she enjoys this, Wren puzzles out the function of tasting each other’s lips. Her best guess now is that it’s a possessive marking of territory. From Shy’s soft growls and his hot red skin, she also experiences a thrill of fearing him, something she’s never perceived under normal circumstances even when they didn’t know each other. But it’s not a normal fear. She struggles to put words for it, both from a lack of vocabulary to describe it and in the very distracting nature of it all.

Shy’s knee bumps Wren’s thigh; Wren’s hip jerks against Shy’s wrist and nearly knocks his weight off of it. The two young adults crash and bump into one another feverishly with a lack of coordination akin to dancers improvising their steps to music they’ve never heard before the performance.

When the friction of their lips and their clothed bodies pressed against one another becomes not enough for the prince, he snarls and pushes his way down her. She cries out, mainly in surprise rather than pain, though there’s some of that too when his teeth sink into her neck. Both of her hands clutch at his hair, smoothing and petting and scratching and grabbing, latched as she is onto the one thing she knows he enjoys very much and responds to viscerally.

“I love you,” he grumbles into her neck after a curse. His hot nose nuzzles against the sting on her neck and she can feel steam from his breath gathering there when his heavy breathing heaves.

Taking his cue, her petting becomes calmer, her nails retracting, her concentration blessedly free to take in this wonderfully strange position they’ve found themselves in. He lies on top of her, not at all heavy, not painful or awkward. No, he seems instead to complete her in a way, their bodies made for one another when they’re not bumping flailed limbs.

She returns his words. “I love you as well,” she whispers. For as absurd and new everything feels to her while walking as a human, Wren is oddly confident that those words are true. Navigating the heat and electricity and percussion of the human body is an exhausting task. But Wren knows her heart, her true heart, and it doesn’t change, not really. It knows for certain that she does love him, completely and eternally.

He laughs in breathy delight, still planted against her neck. With great difficulty, he lifts his upper body and pulls away. She misses him immediately. He misses her just as fast.

“I think I’ve... always loved you,” he muses, his breathing still erratic. He balances unsteadily on an elbow, freeing his other hand to hopelessly try to fix her tangled hair.

“You have?” she questions, tilting her head to welcome his fingers, the faint thought of his reaction to hers bubbling up. Her draconic pride swells to compensate, smoothing over any doubts she made audible. “Of course you did. I am what you were looking for, sprung from your books to living proof.”

He snorts softly and rolls his eyes, his fingers working through a knot in the coils of her hair. “Modest as ever, sweetling. There was that, yes. But I didn’t love you because of what you are.”

He fixes his eyes on the knot, his dark brows pushing together and creasing his forehead briefly before he surrenders to the hopelessness of her hair. It behaves much better when wet. But he’d never tell her that, and besides, were he to propose she wash it now, it’d seem the most improper suggestion. He feels himself redden as his imagination betrays him and his thoughts spiral into wondering what she looks like now beneath the colour shifting gown.

He had once invited her to swim with him in the lake and she had sprung into the water without removing any of her clothing and nearly drowned. When he made sure her lungs were clear of water, he frantically scolded her for not letting him explain that they had to remove their clothes to swim. And so it was his fault that the next time swimming arose as an option for their entertainment, this time in a much shallower river, that she tore off all of her clothing in a hasty pile in the grass before dipping into the water. He only caught sight of her from the back before clamping a hand over his eyes and correcting loudly that she was supposed to leave her small clothes on, to which she retorted that none of her clothes were small except for her stockings.

The back of her had fueled many, many of his subsequent adolescent dreams. That was a secret he would certainly take to his final resting place.

She watches him patiently. It didn’t seem to matter how long she would spend studying his face, because it would find a new way to change and surprise her. Such a range of variety these human faces have to express themselves, and even the gentlest of changes could mean something completely different. The fae were much more straightforward, at least when it came to their stony countenances, and before the prince had stumbled into her life, she had only studied the humans from a distance where they would remain unaware of her. Here, lying so near to him, she can spend an eternity admiring every crease and twitch and wrinkle and flex that happens in his face. Someday, maybe he will teach her the words to describe more of these faces. For the time being, she invents ways to categorise them.

At first, he’s lost in his head and concentrating, a muscle in his jaw shifting and his brows pressing and creasing, and she decides to name this “hassle”. It’s something she’s been called many times, and it seems to fit here. But hassle softens into warm, the one where his face heats reds and his eyes are unfocused and his mouth tries to hide a fond smile but the very corners betray it like a dragon who doesn’t tuck her tail in when playing the child human game “hide and find”. (That comparison is certainly not one she knows anything about personally.)

And when her admiration turns more tactile and she cups her hand to his cheek, her perpetually cold hand soaking up his warmth, his expression changes again. His eyes find her as if she hasn’t been right in front of him this whole time, focused and fond and lidded. The tip of his long beaky nose scrunches as his lips pull tight into a smile that keeps his lips pressed together and sharpens his chin. She names this one “pranks”. It’s exactly the way he looks right before he chooses to spring one on her.

“You’re awfully quiet,” he laughs, tickling behind her ear with a light flurry of fingertips. “You aren’t starting to hibernate on me, are you? I thought the room was warm enough now to keep you awake.”

She tugs his cheek between pinched fingers and messes with his face like trying to mould mud. She clicks her tongue against her teeth in a scoff. “I’m being patient. You were explaining! If there was anything you drilled into me, it was to have patience and let you explain things. So I am . And you’re not ,” she chides. “Your words have to be spoken for me to hear them, my human, I cannot hear your thoughts!”

They had at one time tried to see if she could, though.

“Fine,” he sighs, as if she’s asked of him some grand favour. She shuffles closer, easily gliding across the furs with no resistance from her dress or skin, and he’s thrown off by the closeness of their bodies. Clearing his throat, he brings his hand to her hair again and chooses a portion already untangled to repeatedly comb his fingers through. Too many of his parts are demanding his concentration, least of all the part he prays to the gods of the Whisperwoods she doesn’t feel through the fabric of her dress and against her thigh.

With a quick swallow, he continues hurriedly. “I didn’t fall in love with you because you’re a dragon, dearling. It’s because... in those first few moments that we spoke... yours was the most interesting voice I’d ever heard. Your voice... and the sharp insolent things you said to me. No one had ever spoken to me like that before, and I knew that here was someone who wasn’t afraid to... tell me the truth. To speak to me not like I was a prince, but because I’m me.”

Her body is delightfully warm. Her fingers leave his cheek, no longer needing to leech his warmth, and instead move to his hair to reward him for such lovely words. In fact, the face he makes when scratches his head, the one where his eyes drop back before shutting and his breathing hitches as if trying and failing to cage the growl living in his throat, she names “reward”.

He curses under his breath at the lightning bolts of pleasure that jolt through him with every scratch of nail to his scalp. Wren hoots with delight to hear him say such a naughty word, knowing from him only that it’s a forbidden and impolite one and one she was warned never to say. But here he is with his princely glamour faltering and she’s the one who caused it. Impishly, she tries to make him say it again, or worse.

With a pang of panic that she’ll drive him past a threshold he knows he can’t come back from, Shy tugs her hand from his hair and kisses her fingertips, both trapping her hand to give himself some respite and also worshipping her appropriately in return.

“I want this always,” she whispers suddenly, pleading. “Please. Please let us always be together like this.”

He stills.

Reality begins to sink in and push out all of his impulsive yearning and casual affection. Though he still holds her hand near his face, his fingers stiffen not unlike the way they are inclined to when he’s doing formal greetings and kissing the back of a stranger’s hand.

And she can feel how this was the wrong thing to say, witnessing his face move from “reward” to something she regretfully can name as “responsibility”. She hates that face. It drains away the colour and heat, it whitens his beautiful dark eyes into needle pricks, it turns him away in shadow to a place unreachable to her coaxing. He’s slipping through her hands like water she’s trying to carry away from a stream. Yet she always tries to take it, to carry it away, and is always surprised when it drips through her fingers and leaves her with nothing.

“Forget that,” she commands keenly. Her magic doesn’t bend will - her disappointment at the results of that experiment with him was palpable - but she can hope that it will scare away “responsibility” somehow. “I am no one, so what I want doesn’t matter. Let’s just sleep now.”

Her suggestion does throw him off kilter. He sets her hand down on the furs in what little space remains between them, neatly patting her fingers.

“Not dressed like this we can’t. We’d ruin our fine clothes if we sleep in them.” He allows himself the indulgence of admiring the way she looks in her masquerade dress while lying on her side. Though it had once belonged to the queen, he could never picture his mother wearing something so youthful and elegant. Logically he understood that his mother was once young as he is, but the gown had seemed magical to him when he first stumbled across it years ago, and now he could never pry apart the definitions of magic and Wren from the entanglement they’d inflicted in his head.

“Then we’ll just remove them,” she goads, and the magical breeze ruffles the ends of her gown once again.

Shy gives her a warning look as he pins the seam against her calf.

“That’s improper. For some reason, that’s a lesson that doesn’t seem to stay in your head, my silly dragon.” The spark of an idea flickers through him and turns up the corners of his mouth. His voice lowers in a way he makes sure she can still hear but is deceived to think he didn’t mean for her to. “Honestly, how does she expect to be my knight if she can’t remember and follow simple instructions...?”

And like that, something flickers to life in her. She scrambles to sit up, which doesn’t prove easy as her palms slip against furs and weight sinks into the feather filled mattress. He fights to keep the fond and triumphant smile at bay.

“I can follow instructions!” she chirps, her ovaled pupils dilating in her excitement. “Tell me what to do with my dress. How do I take it off and still be proper for you?”

Whatever he had anticipated her reaction to be, he hadn’t expected her to word it just so . Immediately shifting his weight on his hip, he clutches at his thigh and squeezes in a vain attempt to lessen his discomfort at the tightening of his small clothes.

Floundering for an appropriate answer, he finally babbles, “Well you just have to use the dressing screen to switch your outfit. Honestly, I’m sure Jayne taught you this already. And anyway, I should probably go because my own sleeping clothes are in my own room, and this being yours, I can’t be expected -- or allowed! To sleep here! I--”

She has slung her legs over the side of the bed already. He watches her helplessly, for once wordlessly obedient, leaving him to squawk out excuses amid the furs and blankets while she leaves him to undress behind the screen. The side of her body is illuminated and casts long shadows up the wall, choking the words in his throat as he watches her silhouette begin to shed the gown.

A few more choked partial words accompany unblinking stares at the undressing shadow. It’s the sound of fabric gathering suddenly in a pile on the floor that forces his eyes to snap away. He grinds his palm, slick with sweat, uselessly into his thigh, the trick he’d learned when his body started to leave boyhood absolutely failing to work now. Gulping, it’s absolutely not his brain that makes the next few decisions for him that follow.

Cloak, vest, silken shirt, fancy trousers, stockings, and mask are moved into a tidy pile on a chair near the fire. He glances at her shadow, this time to gauge her progress rather than to simply admire, though in truth he does that too. Left in just a simple shirt and unflattering half trousers, the prince feels hideously exposed and undoubtedly disappointing to behold. His arms wrap around his middle in a self conscious hug against his ribs. Blinking several times, and with another rapid glance to be certain that, yes, the door is still bolted, he hurries back to the bed before he can change his mind. Because at this point, changing his mind would mean he would bolt from the room dressed as he is, and that might actually be more embarrassing than being caught in his current situation.

Diving under the blankets and shifting to leave the furs piled on the other side of the bed, Prince Shy practically hides himself from view. In truth, Wren pauses when she steps out in her simple nightgown and doesn’t immediately see him, her heart sinking to think he left her without a good night wish. Her posture brightens when she realizes he hasn’t, though, sending a pang of guilty longing through Shy to witness this abrupt change in his beloved friend.

She walks soundlessly to the empty bedside, her eyes never leaving him, curious and gleeful and flared as always with a bit of mischief. “Are you cold, my human? Why are you hiding like I do from the chill?” She sits. “I thought your people pride themselves in living well through this season.”

“Just come to bed and get your sleep,” he grouses, rolling on his side to give her only a view of the back of his head. Wren watches him curiously without moving for half a minute before sorting out the blankets the way she likes them, unable again to read his mind and discover that he’s not at all mad at her, he’s angry with the fire for backlighting her and outlining every line and curve of her body through the cotton of her night dress.

He stares at the shadows moving along the far wall as moves along the feather bed into her place, their shadows becoming one as she lies next to him. Tonight he will absolutely, certainly never be capable of sleeping.

“There’s not enough space for me to sleep,” she protests, puzzled by his rigid lying position. She thought that a human bed was always wide enough to curl up and sleep as she naturally always had. But now there’s only room for her to copy the plank board straight position he lies in, or curl up half across him in her normal manner.

“What do you mean?” He rolls onto his back and blinks at her. She sits up, resting with a palm sinking into the mattress, assessing the situation with the same scrunch to her face as she does when she’s trying to figure out one of the puzzles he challenges her with.

“Is that how humans sleep?” she asks, gesturing with her free hand at his shape that’s rounded by the blankets.

He gives an exasperated exhale. It’s so easy for him to forget that, as brilliant as she is, she was never brought up to learn the cultural and societal rules and mannerisms that humans adopt in early life. He never thought to show her how to sleep in a bed, for instance.

“Lie down,” he instructs softly, turning the rest of the way over so he faces her.

Giving him a dubious look, she slithers beneath the blankets and rests her head on the mattress. She lifts it again and adjusts, mirroring him to set it down on her pillow instead. She huffs in a way that Shy knows that were she in her dragon form, a little puff of disapproving smoke would curl from her nostrils.

“It’ll get more comfortable,” he assures her quietly. His hand moves beneath the sheets and brushes her arm, finding her elbow first and following it blindly to her hand. “I promise. And sleeping like this will mean you won’t wake up sore, and maybe your hair won’t need so much work done to it to keep it tame.”

This draws a deep frown out of her and a breathy laugh from him a heartbeat following. He squeezes her hand. Her eyes narrow to slits, trying to ascertain whether to believe him. But as quickly as her doubt comes, so too does it slide away, especially when she squeezes his hand in return and drags it to her hair.

“But, I like it very much when you fix my hair,” she protests, her voice warm and thick with flirtatious energy she isn’t aware is there. But the prince is very aware. He inhales deeply, his fingers loosening from hers and playing with the curls at his fingertips, and his toe brushes against her ankle.

“Turn around then,” he instructs breathily, and she does as told, rolling and shuffling and catching a fur that starts to slide from the bed. His hand free to move deep into the thick twists of her flame coloured hair, and so they do, lost in the volume, finding indulgence in the intimacy of doing something for her that she enjoys.

“Close your eyes. Don’t fight sleep if it comes.” Because it won’t be coming for me , he doesn’t add.

She responds with something of a purr, which really just spurs the infatuated prince on. He can’t help but wonder if she does know exactly what she’s doing to him; the fae folk might have raised her, but he’s heard the stories, he knows the warnings of how they take lovers and leave poor lovestruck humans wanting and listless back in the mortal realm until they were swallowed eagerly by death for desire of nothing else. But never did the stories say anything of a dragon possessing this ability. None of the written tales ever mentioned the dragons of old and their riders entangling in any degree of romantic affair.

And yet there is something of a thrill to that, for the young prince to stumble across the threshold and himself claiming a remarkable first.

His hands remain confined to her hair for the first little while, loosening half disembroiled braids and carefully detaching knotted coils from one another. Her hair is very fine, and impossibly soft, and so thick that he can enjoy pushing through it and feeling a spring back of resistance as it bundles.

Her breathing slows, but he can tell she’s not quite coaxed to sleep yet. Shifting haltingly he doesn’t startle her and erase the progress, Shy practically stops breathing himself entirely as he pulls near to her back. His face and ears burn hot when the thought flickers across his mind to note how their bodies could fit together so beautifully as they’re almost of the same length of body. It’s exactly that thought that blocks off any possibility he’ll let them touch like this at all. He’ll explain most things to his beloved friend, but the fine points of sex would not be one of them if ever he can help it.

Clenching his thighs together with futility, he placates himself by dipping his head down and kissing her warm neck for the briefest of moments as he pulls her hair out of the way. It springs back into place along her shoulder moments later once it flicks out from beneath his fingers.

“I like your touch very much,” she murmurs, her legs suddenly gliding against one another as she shifts her weight sleepily. “I love you in many ways, my human.”

The prince’s heart races, and he’s sure that if she doesn’t hear it, she’ll definitely be able to feel it pound against his chest with what little distance is left between them. His hands move from that space to her sides. The gap closes. His skinny arms tuck around her stomach, so very shaky in his nervousness, no less so once he clamps his hand over his other wrist to lock them in place. His chin rests just so against the warmth of her freshly kissed neck. His cheek sinks into her hair and uses it much like a pillow, which is a good thing because he left his own behind him now that they embrace down the near middle of her bed.

“I love you too, my sweetling. Go to sleep.” He can’t help the words. He isn’t sure he wants to ever stop telling her how much he loves her anymore. That deep set distress that warns him what a bad idea it is to let himself love a woman he likely cannot wed, nevermind one as fascinatingly inhuman as his beloved dragon, is absolutely drowned by a monsoon of relief and delight that this feels so very right.

And, as it turns out, he was wrong about the sleeping.

When her breathing slowed again, when their bodies begin to warm one another, when his thumb strokes her soft belly through her night dress, so then did he lose his thoughts to the idea of lying with her like this every day as if it’s the most natural thing in all the world. He doesn’t notice at all when his thoughts melt into dreams, sweet dreams filled by her and only her, and the life they could enjoy together, if only they would never leave the other’s arms.