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Growing up, Kongpob’s mother had warned him against shapeshifters, crafty and clever creatures that coaxed you into deals with hidden consequences. Never speak or make a deal with a shapeshifter, his mother had told him, and when he was young, Kongpob had promised her this easily.

He had thought that would be a simple promise to keep, but then, he’d never known shapeshifters could be like Arthit.

~

The first time Kongpob met Arthit, it was hot and humid, the sun shining so brightly the world looked oversaturated with light. He was sitting by the still pond, stretching out the time before he returned home. He skipped stones and watched the ripples that appeared each time he threw a pebble into it. It made for a soothing rhythm, taking his mind off of his worries at home.

“Oi, stop throwing those damn rocks!”

Kongpob startled, the next stone in his hand slipping through his fingers as he searched for the voice. He didn’t see anyone, though he looked everywhere around him.

“Hello?” he called out tentatively, half expecting to receive no response. Right as he was beginning to think he’d imagined the words, someone answered.

“I’m right here,” a voice said, sounding annoyed. Kongpob turned so fast he almost slipped on the grass, glancing behind him. He blinked when he caught sight of a fair skinned man scowling at him. Where had he come from? Kongpob noted absently that he was beautiful. There was a certain elegance to the way he stood backlit by the sun and head held high, but there was also something different about the stranger. He just wasn’t sure what it was.

“Oh. Uh, sorry?”

“You should be. You’re disturbing everyone here.”

His eyes. That’s what it was. Unnaturally large and golden, the pupil strangely large the way a frog’s would be.

“Everyone?” he asked, only partly aware of the conversation. He had never seen a shapeshifter before. He’d never thought one would look so human.

“Everyone,” he said stiffly.

“Right. Sorry,” he said, and took a step forward. The other man immediately stepped back and turned, somehow disappearing right before his eyes.

“Wait!” Kongpob called out, but it’s useless. The other man was gone.

~

The next day Kongpob found himself once again by the pond, an incessant curiosity drawing him back to the pond and its occupants.

As he approached he paused in surprise when he caught sight of a woman. She was unfamiliar, dressed in dull clothes and face hidden by a thick curtain of black hair. More interesting, she was talking to the man from yesterday. Taking a few steps back, Kongpob moved behind a couple of bushes to watch what happened next. His view was partially obscured so he couldn’t see either of their faces clearly, but he could hear them easily.

It didn’t take him long to realize that the woman was making a deal. His eyes widened and he watched with an equal mix of fear and excited curiosity. He’d grown up hearing stories of shapeshifters, the deals they offered that always backfired on the humans who made them. And yet, the deal he was watching now looked incredibly normal. Disappointingly so. Just two people talking.

His legs were starting to cramp from squatting for so long when the woman finally stood. She didn’t look any different, but there was a small smile on her face as she brushed her dress off. Kongpob stiffened, leaning closer to the ground as she stood and left without any goodbye. As she passed, he heard her say, “I can’t believe I just made a deal with toad.”

Toad? What toad? He stepped out from behind the bushes and glanced over at the man he’d come to visit. The other man didn’t seem to have noticed him yet; he was scowling at the ground and Kongpob could hear him grumble, “I’m not a toad.”

“Oh do you prefer being called a shapeshifter?” he asked, partially curious, partially to let the other know he was there. Kongpob grinned at the way that the other man startled.

His features immediately shifted into a scowl as he turned to face Kongpob. “I’m huma- I’m not a toad,” he snapped.

“You do look a bit too human for that,” Kongpob conceded easily. He stepped closer until he was a few feet away from the man, settling onto a rock across from him.

“I really look human to you?” the man asked skeptically, staring at him warily.

Kongpob nodded. “Yeah. You’re definitely human looking.”

He looked up and down the other man’s body, noting the distinct lack of any toad-like features. Save for his eyes, which he stared at until he realized and abruptly looked away.

“Most people see me as a-”

“A toad,” Kongpob supplied and was met with a scowl.

“There’s a difference between toads and frogs,” the other man corrected, and it seemed to be a sensitive subject so Kongpob shifted topics.

“Sorry,” he said quickly. “But you don’t look like either.”

“What do I look like?”

“Human.” Beautiful, Kongpob wanted to say, but if he really was a frog it felt strange to say so. Besides, he didn’t think that was what the man? frog? shifter? wanted to hear from him. Instead he opted for neutral but boring details. “Nearly my height, dark hair, pale skin.”

“Oh.” The word was so soft he almost missed it, tinged with surprise and longing.

“Is that not what you expected to hear?” he asked. There was no answer so he tried a different question. “There’s no one else that can see you?”

“No.” It was a short, terse answer that offered no further information.

Kongpob hummed thoughtfully. “Guess I’m special then,” he said lightly.

This seemed to get a reaction, as he was met with a scrutinizing expression. It was, if Kongpob were honest, a little intimidating.

“Are you a Seer or something?”

Kongpob blinked. He supposed he should have thought of that. He had always been able to see a little more than most people. His father was a yeoman and Kongpob was set to follow in his footsteps, but his mother’s side of the family was more eccentric. His grandmother was a Seer, and though her daughter hadn’t inherited the gift, Kongpob had.

“My grandmother actually,” he informed him. “Guess that’s why. Or are you a special kind of shapeshifter?”

He hesitated for just a moment before answering. “No,” he said shortly and stared at Kongpob suspiciously. Then his expression shifted, as though he was waiting for something.

It was a little strange, but Kongpob ignored it in favor of continuing to sate his curiosity. “What’s your name?”

He was met with a confused expression. “Why?”

“I’ve never met a shapeshifter before.”

“I’m sure they’re grateful,” was the snarky remark. Kongpob graciously ignored it.

Instead he smiled brightly and said, “My name’s Kongpob.” When it became clear no answer was forthcoming, he prompted, “So, are you allowed to tell me your name?”

“If you know I’m a shapeshifter, why give me your name?”

Kongpob tilted his head and laughed lightly. It was an old superstition, to avoid giving your name to shapeshifters. Kongpob’s mother had always warned him against it, but his grandmother had simply shaken her head and told him it was the deal to worry about, not his name. He remembered the way her mouth had twisted into an odd smile as she told him that the fae drew power from names, but shapeshifters wove words into magic.

How strange, for a shapeshifter to sound like he didn’t know this.

“Well it seems like a fair exchange,” he said. “My name for yours.”

A long silence followed his words, and he knew he was being studied, scrutinized, but for what he couldn’t tell.

Then, eventually, “Arthit.”

Kongpob smiled. “Arthit. I like that name.”

~

The next day, Kongpob was impatient to finish his training, eager to see Arthit. M and Oak noticed, and during their break were quick to interrogate him with raised eyebrows and knowing smiles that he was quick to dismiss.

“It’s not a girl,” he said for the third time.

The three of them were gathered by the large tree stump in the corner of the yard. It used to be a towering maple but after the storm two summers ago, it had been reduced to a mere fraction of its former glory. Still, it was large enough for them to lay their practice swords on and so they always came to it during their break. Across from him, M looked unconvinced.

“Then why the rush to leave?” M asked, and Kongpob wished he wasn’t so quick to notice Kongpob’s change in mood.

“I’m just a bit tired,” he said.

Oak muttered an agreement, sinking lower from where he was propped up against the tree stump. “Yacht really is pushing us today,” he complained. “My ankle is still sore from last week.”

“I thought you said it was getting better,” M said, looking concerned. He reached over to examine Oak, effectively distracted and Kongpob breathed a sigh of relief. The topic was dropped and they fell into a discussion about the best way to take care of sprains until Yacht called them back.

The sun was hot against his back as he went through the new drill the rest of the day, and he could feel a familiar ache in his arms and wrists. Despite this, at the end of the practice, Kongpob was full of energy as he said his goodbyes.

It was normally a long walk back to his home, part of the reason he was prone to stopping by the pond before continuing on his way. Today however, he had a different reason to stop there, one that quickened his pace until he saw the familiar lily pad covered pond.

“Hello?”

He didn’t see anyone besides himself, and wondered if Arthit had already moved on from this spot. Kongpob moved to sit on the largest rock just beside the pond, glancing around the area as he did.

“It’s me, the guy from last time,” he called out. “The one who didn’t make a deal.”

There was no answer and he frowned, calling out for a third time.

“Stop shouting!”

Kongpob whipped his head to the side and grinned when he caught sight of Arthit scowling at him.

“Do you always have to be a disturbance?” Arthit asked, crossing his arms.

“You’re here!” Kongpob said. He was pleased at that, although there was no real reason for it.

“I wish I weren’t,” Arthit said, and he sounded grumpy. It was so at odds with the stoic, smooth tongued shapeshifters Kongpob grew up hearing about that it made him smile wider. “You’re here again.”

“So are you,” Kongpob pointed out. He leaned back on the rock, placing his palms on the rock behind him.

“I live here,” Arthit said haughtily, and Kongpob filed that information away for later questioning.

“I visited here before you,” he said.

Arthit narrowed his eyes but didn’t say anything.

Kongpob forged ahead anyway. “Why’d you come here?”

“This is a wishing pond,” he said as though it should be obvious. “And it’s quiet. At least it is when people aren’t throwing rocks in the pond.” Arthit stared at him pointedly. Kongpob ignored it.

“Do a lot of people come by to make wishes?”

“Some,” Arthit said. His expression morphed from irritated to confused.

“What do people usually wish for?” Kongpob asked. It was something he had often wondered, and who better to ask then Arthit?

“Money,” Arthit said after a moment. “Power. To be loved. A cat, once.” Kongpob laughed at the last one, surprised. Arthit’s lips quirked up slightly at the corner, as though he was trying not to smile. Then the expression was gone, replaced with a careful curiosity. “What would you wish for?”

Kongpob hesitated. “I don’t know.”

“Everyone wants something,” Arthit told him. Then, for the first time, he moved closer so that he was standing in front of him. “Whatever it is, I can give you it. All you have to do is tell me.”

Kongpob stayed silent. There were several things he could wish for, small, unimportant things. But he was less interested in what the shapeshifter could do for him than what he could learn from Arthit.

Arthit huffed after several seconds and then turned, starting to walk away. Kongpob panicked.

“Wait!”

Arthit paused.

“I’m very indecisive,” Kongpob said, trying for an earnest expression. “Perhaps you should tell me what others have wished for, in case something sounds appealing.”

Arthit narrowed his eyes. “That’s not how this works.” Despite his protest, he didn’t try to leave.

“You’re very bad at convincing me to make a wish,” Kongpob said. He smiled when Arthit scowled at him.

“Most people don’t need to be told what to wish for.”

Well, that was true enough. But then, Kongpob liked to think he wasn’t like most people. Or at least, not like most people who interacted with Arthit.

“Tell me what the last person who you made a deal with wished for,” he said. “Maybe then I’ll know what to wish for.”

Arthit stared at him with narrowed eyes, scrutinizing him for so long it made Kongpob wonder what he was looking for. Then, right when Kongpob thought he was about to try and leave again, he began to speak.

Kongpob listened intently as Arthit talked, weaving a tale of a woodcutter and his wife. Of how they made a deal with him to grant three wishes of their choice. The man asking for food, and the woman, in a fit of irritation, wishing for the food to be stuck to his face. With a single wish remaining, they had only been able to return the husband back to normal before Arthit left. Throughout the story, Arthit was careful to never say what their payment had been. By the time the story came to a close, the sun was nearly gone, and Kongpob’s jacket felt all too thin for the night air. Despite this, he smiled when Arthit finished the story.

Halfway through his story, Arthit had decided to sit across from Kongpob, and it was from there that he asked, “Do you know what you want now?”

“Not yet.” Kongpob smiled. “Maybe tomorrow.”

~

As soon as he could, Kongpob came back to the pond the next day. His arms were sore and his stomach demanded its next meal, but he didn’t want to risk missing another meeting with his newest acquaintance. This time, Arthit was already in sight, and Kongpob wondered if he was waiting for him.

“It’s you,” Arthit said. Kongpob couldn’t decipher his expression. “Do you have a wish?”

“Not yet,” Kongpob said. He sat down on the rock he’d chosen yesterday. “Perhaps another story could help me.”

Arthit pursed his lips but eventually nodded. Again, he moved to sit across from Kongpob as he began to tell his tale. This time, the story was about a mermaid, a creature he'd heard of but wasn’t sure existed. Arthit tells him about her wish to become human for a princess she’d met as a child, and despite his careful avoidance of the mermaid’s payment, Kongpob was again enthralled by the story.

When the story was finished, Arthit crossed his arms and pinned Kongpob with a hard look.

“Well?”

“You’re a good story teller,” Kongpob told him honestly.

Arthit huffed, but Kongpob thought he seemed pleased at the compliment. “Do you have a wish yet?”

“Not yet,” he said.

Arthit didn’t look surprised.

~

“You’re back,” Arthit said. He looked equal parts amused and irritated as he said it.

The sight made Kongpob smile as he settled onto the now familiar rock. It was rough beneath him and still slightly damp from this morning’s rain, but the grass was too muddy for him to sit elsewhere.

“I am,” he said.

“I don’t suppose you have a wish to make?” Arthit asked, but it sounded more perfunctory than anything else.

“I’m still thinking of one,” Kongpob said. Arthit looked entirely unconvinced. “Maybe you could tell me another story.”

“Why?”

“It could give me inspiration,” Kongpob said easily.

“You shouldn’t need inspiration to know what you want,” Arthit pointed out, though he sounded more exasperatedly amused than anything else.

“Maybe I want to know about the people you’ve made deals with,” Kongpob said, perhaps a little too honestly. When Arthit didn’t answer, he added, “Maybe you could tell me about the person that asked for a cat.”

Arthit shook his head, but then nodded. He moved to sit across from him, and began to talk about the man who was searching for a familiar. The even, soothing rhythm of his voice set Kongpob at ease, and silently he wondered what other people would see if they were to walk by now. Him nodding along silently to thin air? Or would they glimpse Arthit as a frog, hear a strangely human voice, and know they were listening to a shapeshifter?

Well, he supposed that didn’t really matter. Not when Arthit was talking to him, and Kongpob knew what he was and what he was saying. He shifted in place, listening to Arthit continue speaking as the sun began to set. There was the beginning of a night’s chill seeping into the air when the shapeshifter finished his story.

“Do you know where they are now?” he asked.

Arthit shook his head. “No.” Then, “Do you have a wish?”

“No.”

“Of course not.”

Kongpob smiled brightly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

~

As the summer passed, Kongpob made a habit of going to the pond and visiting with Arthit. Although his friends and family noticed his strange new interest in visiting the pond and seemed mildly confused, none of them tried to stop him from visiting. Kongpob doubted this would be true if they knew about Arthit. Thus, he kept their visits to himself, and was quite pleased with the thought of being the only one who knew so much about Arthit.

For instance, despite being a shapeshifter, Arthit was surprisingly human. During one of his visits, Kongpob had managed to coax him into conversation. He’d discovered that Arthit had a fascination with the game horseshoes, and it amused Kongpob greatly to think of a frog attempting to play.

With each meeting, Arthit seemed to warm up to him, and through persistent prodding Kongpob learned several other facts about him. Arthit liked the color red, had a preference for the autumn months, and had never traveled outside the kingdom he’d been born in. He’d also noticed that Arthit was very careful to avoid talking about where he’d been before coming to the pond, and also carefully deflected or simply ignored any questions about the subtleties of making deals. In fact, at some point, he’d stopped asking if Kongpob had a wish and Kongpob’s visits had evolved into talks.

Once, Kongpob brought a small snack that Arthit had immediately recognized.

“Is that a rambutan?” he asked, an eager expression on his face.

Kongpob nodded, holding out the fruit. “Do you want some?”

Arthit’s excitement dissipated, disappointment clouding his face. “It’s probably not a good idea.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I forget sometimes. Since you don’t look,” Kongpob gestured vaguely.

Arthit shrugged. Kongpob sent him a sympathetic look and lowered his hand, quietly setting the fruit aside. Next time he’d make sure to eat beforehand. Quiet fell between them, and Kongpob looked up to see Arthit staring longingly at the rambutan.

“I used to eat them a lot,” he said quietly, almost wistfully. “They were my favorite snack.”

Kongpob turned that piece of information over in his mind. He thought about their second meeting, how Arthit had never quite seemed comfortable being labeled a shapeshifter. Of how Arthit never spoke about how he made deals and his reluctance to talk about his past. Without his permission, the question tumbled out.

“Were you always a shapeshifter?” he asked curiously.

Arthit stiffened at the question, and his expression closed off as he crossed his arms.

“What?”

“Were you always a shapeshifter?” he asked again, softer this time.

Arthit looked away, glancing into the pond and biting his lip, momentarily distracting Kongpob. Then he turned to look at Kongpob, tilting his chin up.

“No,” he said at last.

The easy admittance startled Kongpob. “What happened?” he asked carefully, not sure of how far he could push.

Arthit frowned, shifting from where he was sitting at the edge of the pond. Kongpob smiled, trying his best to convey reassurance.

At last, Arthit said, “Do you know the difference between born and made shifters?”

That was not quite the response he’d expected. Especially because, “I didn’t know there was a difference.”

Arthit smiled, but it was faint. He sat up straighter, turning to look at Kongpob intently. “Born shifters have control. When they shift, what they shift into.”

Kongpob nodded. That made sense; it was what he’d grown up hearing about shapeshifters after all.

“Made shifters are stuck in one form, making deals until they can transfer it to someone else,” Arthit continued.

Shapeshifting could be transferred? The concept was unheard of and if it had come from anyone else Kongpob would have laughed. Yet there was no hint of a joke on Arthit’s face.

“You have to stay a shifter unless you can somehow transfer it to someone else?”

Arthit nodded. Several questions popped up at that piece of information but Kongpob focused on the most relevant one.

“Why haven’t you transferred it?”

Arthit stared at him incredulously. “And leave someone else stuck like this?”

His tone was chastising and Kongpob ducked his head briefly. He hadn’t thought of it that way.

“There isn’t another way?” he asked.

Arthit stiffened, glancing away. “There’s one.”

“What is it?” he asked quickly. If there was some other way, why was Arthit still stuck like this? Did he want to stay a shapeshifter, or was it too difficult to do?

Arthit didn’t answer.

~

“What about you?” Arthit asked one day.

Kongpob looked over at him from where he was lying on the ground, arm behind his head. Arthit was sitting where Kongpob usually settled, resting comfortably on the rough stone and looking at him curiously.

“What?”

Arthit gave him an unimpressed look. “You’ve asked me about my stories, my life, but you haven’t told me anything about you.”

Kongpob grinned. “Are you trying to learn about me, a mere human?”

“Never mind then.”

“Wait, wait!” he said, laughing lightly as he scooted closer to Arthit. “What do you want to know?”

“You said your grandmother was a Seer,” Arthit said immediately. “Is everyone in your family a Seer?”

“No, just her,” Kongpob said. “But my older sister and I can see magic. We’re not really sure why our mom can’t though.”

Arthit nodded, looking like he had a dozen more questions about that, but his next words were unexpected.

“What are they like?”

Kongpob blinked.

“My family?”

“Mhm.”

Kongpob smiled a little, turning to fully face Arthit. The grass itched beneath him and he knew there would be grass stains on his shirt later but the sight of Arthit’s face made up for it.

“They’re…,” he paused. He wondered what to say that could encompass who his family was. His mother, with her superstitions and hugs and knack for knowing what to say whether it was a joke or comforting word. His father, who taught him how to wield a sword and indulged him in all of his childhood whims. His sisters, who teased him and played with their dog and sided with him against the world.

“They’re some of the best people you could meet,” he said after a moment. Arthit listened intently as he talked and Kongpob found himself sharing stories he hadn’t thought of in years.

“They sound very warm,” Arthit said quietly. Kongpob nodded in agreement.

“What about yours?”

Arthit’s expression turned wistful and a little sad. “I haven’t spoken to them since before I became a shapeshifter.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” Kongpob said quietly. He reached out in an attempt to comfort Arthit before abruptly pulling back.

Arthit shrugged and then cleared his throat. “It’s fine.” There was a beat of awkward silence before he continued. “Anyway, I wanted to ask about you.” He tilted his head toward the sword lying beside Kongpob. “You always have this with you. Why?”

Kongpob smiled wryly. The sword had been given to him as a child, in preparation for his future. The son of a yeoman, he and the children he grew up with had been training since a young age to hopefully join the palace’s royal guard. He traced the hilt absently as he explained this to Arthit.

“You have your life planned,” Arthit said quietly. He was staring at him with an expression Kongpob couldn’t quite read.

“You could say that.”

“But that’s not what you want,” Arthit said, and Kongpob let out a soft huff of laughter. How perceptive.

“It’s an important job,” he said, though there was little real enthusiasm in his words.

“Just not the one you want.”

Kongpob shrugged, not bothering to try and correct him. It was, admittedly, not the job he wanted. But it was one that could provide for his family, and one that he would be good at.

He was brought out of his thoughts by Arthit. “What would you choose to do? If you could?”

The question caught him off guard, and he found himself searching for an answer. He’d never thought of another future, not since he was a child.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. It was strange, to say he didn’t know what he was going to do. For so long he had known his plans that saying otherwise felt off. “I used to dream about traveling the world but now… I’ve been so focused on training that I haven’t thought of anything else in a while.”

He looked away at the last sentence, a little embarrassed at the admission. He tugged at the grass beneath him until they came loose, dirt clinging to the loose strands.

“Maybe you can do both,” Arthit said, and Kongpob looked up at him. Arthit shrugged. “Travel and be a guard. Plenty of people who need a guard travel, don’t they?”

It was, Kongpob realized, an obvious observation. Still, it was one he’d never thought about. He grinned, shaking his head with a soft laugh.

“I suppose that’s true.”

~

There was a night chill in the air that made Kongpob pull his jacket tighter around him as he made his way to the pond. Despite the late hour, he was wide awake as he made his way to Arthit, hoping the other was still awake. Save for the lamp in his hand, it was dark as he stepped into the familiar grassy area.

“Arthit?” he called out softly. It sounded loud in the night’s stillness. He squinted and then a shadowy movement from the corner caught his eye, Arthit coming into sight. It was too dark to clearly see him but Kongpob found himself smiling widely.

“What are you doing here?” Arthit demanded, sounding confused. “You don’t visit at night.”

“I’m fine, I’m sor-” he started and then paused. “What do you mean I don’t visit at night?”

He peered closer at Arthit’s face, lit by the soft gold of the lamp light. It was hard to tell but Kongpob was mostly sure the other was embarrassed.

“Do you keep track of when I visit?” he asked, unable to keep the glee out of his voice.

“What are you doing here Kongpob?” Arthit snapped and Kongpob smiled.

“I wanted to see you,” he said. “I missed our meeting today.”

He’d planned to see him after finishing the day’s training with Yacht, but they’d had extra work in preparation for the annual visit by the royal guard. In his excitement over meeting Arthit, Kongpob had forgotten that it was nearly winter and time for the choosing ceremony. Their town was well known for producing young men who went on to serve the royal family as soldiers or guards, and each year were visited by the captain of the royal guard to choose several to take back to the king for training.

“It’s fine, I didn’t expect you to always be here,” Arthit huffed.

Despite the joking tone Kongpob felt compelled to reassure him. “But I want to be here, whenever you need me,” he said earnestly.

In the dim lamplight he saw a pale pink suffuse Arthit’s cheeks as a shy smile covered his face. It was adorable. He had the unexpected urge to pinch the other’s cheeks, just to see if they were as soft as they looked. His hand was already outstretched when he abruptly pulled back. He’d forgotten, again. Arthit’s human body wasn’t really there. Kongpob lowered his hand quickly, hoping Arthit hadn’t noticed. He wondered if Arthit would ever be able to return to being human, if Kongpob would ever be able to reach out and touch him.

“Do you think you’ll ever be human again?” he asked without thinking.

Arthit’s smile froze, and Kongpob wished he could stuff the words back into his mouth, make the smile come back.

After several long moments, Arthit shook his head.

Apparently, Kongpob wasn’t in control of his mouth because he kept going. “Why not?”

“You do remember when I told you how difficult it is to become human again?” Arthit asked. His expression was a mix of sadness and irritation, and it elicited a familiar longing to reach out and comfort him.

“I remember you didn’t tell me what the second way was,” he said, because it still bothered him. He wanted to know everything, about shapeshifters, about Arthit. “I didn’t ask then because you didn’t want to tell me. I won’t ask now either.”

There was a visible loss of tension at his words. “But is it really so impossible for you?”

He wasn’t sure who he was asking for, him or Arthit.

“I’ve never met another made shapeshifter who returned to being a human,” Arthit said softly. He sounded lost and a little hopeless, distinctly unlike his usual self. Kongpob adored the sound of Arthit’s voice, but this particular tone made him ache.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t,” he said fervidly.

Arthit shrugged, hunching in on himself where he sat. “Even if I did, I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Kongpob stared at him in confusion. Arthit shook his head, a bitter laugh twisting his face.

“I’ve been like this for years,” he said. “I don’t know where my family is or what I’d do.”

His words were forlorn and tugged at Kongpob’s heart, prompting him to say, “You could stay with me.” Arthit’s head snapped up to look at him, eyes wide. “I could help you find your family again, get a job, whatever you need.”

Arthit stared at him with a disbelieving expression. He shook his head. “That’s too much to ask of someone, especially when it has such a low chance of happening.”

“But I want to,” he said earnestly. He sat up straighter and leaned in toward Arthit. The words came tumbling out of his mouth, a truth he hadn’t recognized until now. “Arthit I want to, I lo-”

“Kongpob.” Arthit cut him off sharply, a flash of something like panic in his eyes. It wasn’t enough to deter Kongpob. He needed to say it, to know that Arthit knew.

“Arthit let me say-”

“Don’t.” Arthit’s tone brooked no argument and Kongpob flinched at its coldness. “It’s late, you should go.” Arthit’s voice was softer now, but no less commanding.

Kongpob swallowed. He thought briefly about arguing, about staying and shouting loudly enough for the town to hear, so loud Arthit couldn’t ignore him. Except. Arthit didn’t want that. Didn’t want to hear what he must know Kongpob would say. It was that realization that made Kongpob stand up, a cold that had nothing to do with the night air creeping beneath his skin.

He tried to nod, to say goodbye normally, but his body refused to work. Moving robotically, Kongpob walked in a daze until he returned home and slipped into his bed. Despite the warmth of his home and bed, he spent the night cold and thinking of Arthit’s panicked eyes.

~

The next day he woke up with the remnants of dried tears on his cheeks. He swiped at them roughly, reluctantly pulling himself up into a sitting position. Flashes of Arthit’s face played in his mind and he covered his face with his hands. For several minutes Kongpob remained in his bed, and it was only the sound of his mother calling his name that finally made him get out of bed.

Breakfast passed in a haze that didn’t get any better as the day went on. Yacht seemed to notice his lack of attention, chiding him several times during the day. Kongpob apologized each time, but by the end of the practice session both he and Yacht were grateful it was over. As he started on his walk back home, Kongpob hesitated, staring in the direction of the path to the pond. His gaze lingered on it but eventually he turned away, choosing to go down a different path to go home.

The next few days passed in the same manner. Kongpob woke up and went through the motions of his day, part of him still stuck in that moment with Arthit, in that split second before Kongpob’s botched confession and realization lit up Arthit’s eyes. In that split second before the panic had set in, there had been something else there that he couldn’t identify. It haunted him, left him wondering and pathetically dreaming.

Even a week after Kongpob had stopped visiting Arthit, that aching feeling hadn’t gone away. Sometimes, he wondered if it would have been better not to visit that night. The thought circled around his head as he ate robotically before bidding his mom a goodbye, heading to M’s house. M didn’t live far, and it wasn’t long before he was walking beside M on their way to Yacht’s.

“You’ve been weird this week,” M said. His voice was careful, and Kongpob wasn’t sure if he was grateful or annoyed at his friend’s worry. He didn’t think he’d been that obvious, but then he supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised. M had always been observant.

“Sorry,” he said after a moment.

M frowned at the response, nudging him slightly. “Don’t apologize. I’m just saying. Oak and I are worried about you.”

“It’s nothing, I promise,” he said.

“Kong.” M stared at him with a deadpan expression. “We’ve known each other for years. I know when something’s bothering you. What’s going on?”

Kongpob hesitated, looking at M’s open, concerned face. This was M, his best friend for years. Every other time there was something he didn’t talk to his family about, M was the first person he went to.

“You can trust me,” M said, and he looked a little hurt at Kongpob’s lack of response.

“I know that, I do trust you,” Kongpob hastened to reassure his friend. M’s expression smoothed out a little at that, but he still looked confused. “It’s just.” He paused, steps slowing. Beside him, M matched his pace.

“I don’t know how to talk about it,” he said truthfully. He wasn’t sure how to explain that he’d been talking to a shapeshifter, much less that he was- Well. it was just a lot to explain.

“Does it have something to do with wherever you’ve been going after training?”

Kongpob glanced at him, surprise flashing across his face. How did M know-

“Don’t look like that,” M said, rolling his eyes. “I told you, I know you. And you’ve been hanging out less with me and Oak.”

Kongpob grimaced. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

M shrugged. “I just figured you found a girl but didn’t want to tell us.”

“Not exactly,” he said. M raised his eyebrows. They walked in silence, the trees providing light shade against the harsh morning light. They were nearly to the training grounds.

“It wasn’t a girl,” he said at last.

“Oh.”

Kongpob glanced over at M, inspecting his reaction. M looked surprised, but it didn’t last long, curiosity soon taking over.

“So, you… were with someone. It was just a guy not a girl,” he said slowly.

“Sort of.” An image of Arthit’s smile flashed across his face, immediately followed by the memory of their last meeting. “But we had an argument so it’s not really important anymore.”

“It sounds like it’s still important to you.”

Kongpob didn’t answer. M sighed as they turned the corner, the training grounds coming into sight.

“Kong.” M stopped walking, catching Kongpob’s wrist and stopping him as well until Kongpob looked at him.

“I don’t know what happened, and I know you’re not big on sharing your feelings, but if you decide to, I’m here.”

Despite the constant ache in his chest, Kongpob smiled. M’s words were comforting, a soothing balm against the sting of Arthit’s words. He nodded, giving M a nod as they started walking again. As they entered the training grounds, M quickened his pace when he caught sight of Oak. Before M could get too far Kongpob called out for his friend.

“M.” M turned and Kongpob gave him a small smile.

“You’re a good friend.”

~

Despite his talk with M, Kongpob’s mood didn’t change as the days went by. He was still despondent, a beat behind everyone else. His family had noticed, and though he assured them it was simply stress from the approaching choosing ceremony, watched him with careful, concerned eyes. However, it wasn’t until a fortnight after his last visit to Arthit had passed that he was really confronted.

Oak and M had dragged him to the large tree stump they went to during their breaks. Kongpob stared at them as the two of them exchanged a look before they seemed to come to a decision, Oak nodding decisively as he turned toward Kongpob.

“Okay your moping is just sad now.” Oak slammed his hand against the tree stump to emphasize his words. Kongpob jumped at the sudden motion, staring at Oak in surprise.

“Oak!” M hissed but Oak ignored him in favor of looking at Kongpob.

“Look,” he said, and his tone was a mix of exasperated and concerned, “you’ve been like this for over a week and you still haven’t told us what’s wrong.” The concern shifted into a pleading look. “We’re your friends Kong. Why won’t you let us help you?”

“I’m sorry,” Kongpob said. Over the past few weeks, he had become familiar with those two words, an automatic response when people told him he’d been acting strangely.

“Just let us help,” M said, and Oak nodded from where he was sitting beside him.

Kongpob hesitated. He wanted to tell them, to share all of his thoughts and worries and the stories about Arthit he’d kept locked up for so long. He wrestled with the decision for several long moments before finally nodding. It was almost too easy, telling the two of them about Arthit. Oak and M listened intently, thankfully staying silent as Kongpob relayed the events of the last few months. When he finished, M looked stunned while Oak was squinting at him in confusion.

“Wait, so he’s a frog?” Oak asked, and the incredulity in his voice made Kongpob laugh for the first time in days.

“No,” he said quickly, because was weird to think of Arthit as a frog. “Well, technically right now he is. But he’s a shapeshifter, and he looks human to me.”

“Right, your grandmother,” M said, coming back to the conversation. Kongpob nodded.

“So, you haven’t gone back since?” Oak asked, looking at him shrewdly.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“He doesn’t want me there.”

M and Oak exchanged looks, some sort of silent conversation taking place that Kongpob couldn’t understand. After a moment Oak reached over to pat Kongpob on the back.

“I-” he started but was interrupted by the sound of Yacht calling out their names.

Kongpob stood up immediately at the sound. He’d been off during their practices, and he didn’t want to make Yacht’s job any harder by being late. Before he could go Oak reached out to grab his wrist.

“Kongpob,” he said seriously. “I don’t know anything about Arthit, but I know you. You should go talk to him. Make things clear between you. Otherwise you’re just gonna keep being distracted all the time.”

~

Oak’s words stayed with Kongpob the rest of the day. It was good advice, but he couldn’t bring himself to follow it. He hadn’t visited in so long, and if he did now he wasn’t sure how he’d be received.

To his surprise, his friends didn’t ask him any more about Arthit after that. They seemed to have come to an agreement not to ask him more questions. It was strange, considering how invested they seemed previously, but Kongpob decided to just appreciate the understanding.

This turned out to be a mistake.

He’d let M persuade him to walk home, and been distracted enough that he didn’t realize where they were headed until the pond came into sight.

“M,” he said suspiciously, turning to face his friend.

M was already backing away, a grin on his face. Kongpob scowled, reaching out for him when he heard saw movement from the corner of his eye.

“Kongpob.” The sound of Arthit’s voice made him freeze.

“Talk it out, I’ll see you tomorrow!” M said quickly, taking advantage of Kongpob’s shock to run away. Depending on this conversation went, Kongpob was going to kill him or owe him for the next year.

“Kongpob.”

Kongpob swallowed, lifting his head before steeling himself to turn around.

“Arthit.” He stared at the other warily, torn between staying and running back home.

“Don’t leave, please,” Arthit said quickly, moving closer.

“You told me to go home,” Kongpob said bitterly, unable to stop himself.

“I didn’t mean not to come back.”

Kongpob looked away, staring at a patch of mud on the ground. There was a small worm struggling to cross it.

“You planned this with M?” he asked, still watching the worm.

“He came and talked to me. I asked him if you wanted to talk to me.” Arthit’s voice sounded shaky, and it was this that made Kongpob look over at him.

“Why?”

“I wanted to see you,” Arthit said earnestly. Kongpob hated how easily those words soothed the hurt that had gathered beneath his chest.

“I don’t want to see you,” he lied.

“Kon-”

“You know what I wanted to tell you.” Kongpob couldn’t bring himself to say the words this time, couldn’t hear Arthit telling him to leave a second time.

“I know,” Arthit admitted.

“Why didn’t you let me?” he demanded, finally stepping forward to stand in front of Arthit.

“If you did tell me, what would change?” Arthit returned. “I’m not human, remember?” he asked bitterly.

Oh. Kongpob felt his bitterness immediately fall away at the question, understanding immediately what Arthit meant. You are human, he wanted to say, but knew that would mean little to Arthit.

“It’s not impossible for you to be though,” he said. “And if there’s a chance, even a small one, why not try? Why not let me help you?”

“Because you can’t.”

Kongpob flinched at the certainty and coldness in those words, but pressed forward. He had to make Arthit understand he was serious, that if this was what it took, he would do it.

“You don’t know that.” He moved closer, keeping his own expression as open and earnest as possible. “Arthit. Please, let me help you,” he said. Kongpob watched Arthit’s expression soften ever so slightly before the other shook his head.

“I can’t promise you anything.”

Kongpob smiled, hope bubbling in his chest. It wasn’t a no.

“I don’t need you to,” he said. “Just let me help you. That’s all I want.”

Arthit stared at him uncertainly, scrutinizing him. Kongpob waited, heart pounding as he waited for Arthit’s answer. Finally, the shapeshifter nodded.

“Okay,” he agreed softly.

~

Despite Arthit’s agreement that Kongpob could help him, Arthit still refused to tell him the details of how to return to being human. When he asked, Arthit simply told him that it required the help of one of the royal family and thus was nearly impossible. Instead, Kongpob found himself going through any book he could find with information on shapeshifters and struggling to remember anything his grandmother had told him.

It became a habit to bring his latest find and read it aloud to Arthit, making note of any potentially useful information. Once, after the sun had gone down and it was too dark to read, Kongpob had asked the question on his mind since their reconciliation.

“Are there any deals you can’t make?” Kongpob asked, and Arthit’s gaze immediately sharpened.

“I thought you didn’t want to make a deal,” he said, staring at him warningly. Kongpob ignored this.

“I said I didn’t know what I’d wish for,” he corrected.

Arthit’s gaze didn’t waver as he stared at Kongpob. “Whatever it is, it’s not worth the price.”

“What if I wanted to wish for you to be human again?” Kongpob asked.

Arthit inhaled sharply, eyes widening. Then he shook his head firmly. “No.”

“But-” Kongpob started.

“No.” Arthit cut him off. “Don’t do that. I- It won’t be worth it for me if you’re the one who has to pay the price.”

Despite his disappointment, Kongpob couldn’t help the warmth that spread through him at Arthit’s declaration. I knew you liked me, he almost said, but quickly bit down on the words. Not yet.

~

Consumed as he was with the search for Arthit’s return to being human, Kongpob didn’t realize how soon the annual visit by the royal guards was until two weeks before. Yacht was on edge, increasing their training in preparation for their arrival and impending choosing ceremony. Each day was more exhausting than the last, and by the week of, he was grateful for the required respite from all participants in the ceremony.

Kongpob spent the days leading up to the ceremony preparing with M and Oak, both of whom were far more excited than Kongpob. Although he didn’t find the prospect of being a royal guardsman exciting, for M and Oak the idea was a childhood dream, just within their grasp.

When the small delegation sent to choose among arrived, both M and Oak were quick to drag Kongpob to the inn they were staying at. For some reason, there was a larger crowd than in previous years. It wasn’t until Oak had managed to squeeze to the front of the mass to discover what was happening that they realized why. This year, the royal guard had been accompanied by the youngest princess. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence - it didn’t happen often, but there had been times in their town’s history when the prince or princess would visit their town.

And yet, when Kongpob finally caught sight of the princess, his first thought wasn’t of her famed beauty or a desire to speak with her. His first thought was of Arthit. Kongpob immediately thought of Arthit, his ‘impossible’ solution. He had to tell him, to let him know as soon as he could. Although he wanted to go to Arthit the moment he heard, there were other tasks he needed to do.

Instead, he had to wait four days before he was able to finish preparations for the ceremony. Time passed in a blur of practiced speeches and mock sparring, and discussions of what to do if they were chosen filling the gaps between any other activities. It wasn’t until the day before the ceremony that he was able to find time to visit Arthit.

That night, as soon as he was Kongpob rushed to the pond. He was eager to see Arthit after so long and tell him the news, nearly running only to stop in surprise when he arrived. His mouth fell open when he realized that the princess was standing beside the pond, staring into the water. There were, surprisingly, no guards or other form of protection. Kongpob glanced around but didn’t see anyone else. Apart from Arthit. Arthit was standing beside her, a strange look on his face, part disbelief and part something like hope. Kongpob didn’t like it.

After a slight hesitation, he started to step forward when he caught sight of Arthit looking at him. Kongpob stared at him in confusion when Arthit shook his head. They stared at each other for a long moment before Kongpob nodded, staying in place just in time to hear-

“Do you wish to make a deal, princess?”

Kongpob’s eyes widened, instantly going to the woman standing beside Arthit. It was only now that he realized she was scowling, arms crossed as she peered into the water. Was this what Arthit needed to do? Simply make a deal with one of the royal family?

“Fine!” she snapped. “I just want my toy back.”

Her tone was petulant and unworried, and Kongpob wondered if anyone had ever warned her about making a deal with shapeshifters. Regardless, it would have been too late for her to take her word back now, so she would have to go along with it. He watched as Arthit nodded, eyes flashing a bright gold. The princess shivered suddenly and then jumped backwards as Arthit dove into the pond. He resurfaced quickly, a golden ball clutched safely in his arms.

“Your Highness,” he said, handing the toy to her. She snatched it immediately before turning and beginning to walk away.

“Wait, princess,” Arthit called out.

The princess stopped briefly, looking back over her shoulder disdainfully.

“You have yet to uphold our deal,” Arthit said. Kongpob frowned.

“You must take me as your companion,” Arthit said, moving nearer to her.

Kongpob’s heart dropped at his words, a sudden, irrational surge of jealousy coursing through him. He’d spent weeks coaxing Arthit into conversation and now Arthit was asking someone else to be his companion?

“You? A companion?” She laughed and Kongpob wanted to scream at her, for laughing at a prospect he would have begged for. “No. I refuse.”

She turned again, stalking off into the distance as Arthit watched. The small part of Kongpob not focused on Arthit was impressed at her courage in refusing a shapeshifter so bluntly, but the rest of him needed to talk to Arthit. As soon as she was out of sight he stepped out from behind the bushes to stand in front of Arthit. Arthit’s eyes immediately met his.

“Kongpob.”

“Are you really going with her?” Kongpob blurted out, unable to stop himself.

“I am.” Arthit was calm, so calm that it infuriated him.

Why her, why not me he wanted to say. But he bit it back, instead saying, “She didn’t seem to want you as a companion.”

“She made a deal. I will be her companion.”

“So you’re really going to leave?” he asked again. You’re going to leave me? he didn’t ask, because that would be unfair and too much like something they weren’t. He couldn’t ask the other to stay for him.

“I am.”

“Oh.” Arthit had said it so easily, so decisively. Kongpob swallowed and briefly wiped his hands against his pants. “It’s because you need someone from the royal family to turn you back into a human?”

Arthit nodded and Kongpob relaxed slightly. He didn’t ask if Arthit would return to this town, to him. It would hurt to hear he wouldn’t, but it would hurt worse to hear him promise and wonder if he meant it.

“Kongpob.” It was quiet, but immediately captured Kongpob’s full attention. “Tonight, will you visit?”

“Yes,” he said quickly.

Arthit nodded, a small smile briefly brightening his face. It eased some of the tension in his shoulders, and Kongpob let out a sigh of relief. He wasn’t able to stay as long as he wanted, but some of the weight on his shoulders had lifted by the time he left.

~

“Arthit?”

The lamp Kongpob had brought revealed only a sliver of his surroundings, but it was enough to catch sight of Arthit sitting at the edge of the pond.

“Kongpob.”

Arthit smiled a little nervously and Kongpob was quick to return it. He made his way over to sit beside him, setting the lamp between them. As he did Kongpob glanced around, but the little clearing looked deserted.

“I thought the princess would be with you,” he said.

“Not tonight,” Arthit said, but he sounded distracted. His eyes kept darting to a spot just to Kongpob’s left, and Kongpob glanced over in that direction. He couldn’t see anything, but it was too dark to know if he was missing something.

“Arthit?”

“I wanted to give you something,” Arthit blurted out.

Kongpob blinked.

“What?”

“It’s over there,” Arthit said, and nodded toward his left. Kongpob hesitated and then pulled himself up, grabbing the lantern.

“Where?”

“Behind that pile of plants.”

Kongpob crouched down, bringing the lantern closer to the ground. It took a few tries, but eventually he found the pile of nearly dead plants. They looked like they’d been there for a while, and he looked back at Arthit skeptically.

“It’s in here?”

“Beneath actually.”

He reached out and dug around in the pile, grimacing at the way the roots seemed to cling to his hand. Something hard and oddly angled brushed against his hand and Kongpob pulled it out to see a gear. Bringing it closer to his eyes, he studied it in the dim light. It was a simple chain bracelet, a gear hanging from the middle. It was surprisingly heavy in his hand.

Kongpob gave it a cursory clean by wiping it against his pants before walking back over to Arthit. He held the bracelet out so that it hung between them.

“You wanted to give me a bracelet?”

He thought he saw Arthit flush. Normally, that would make a little thrill go through him but it was overshadowed by the other things he noticed. There were lines of tension along Arthit’s shoulders, and his hands were fidgeting at his side. His eyes though, were what gave him away, always far more expressive than Arthit knew. They were conflicted, dim but with a determination he hadn’t seen before. Kongpob supposed he might look like that too if he were in Arthit’s place. He tilted his head in question.

“There’s a… superstition I grew up with,” he said. Distantly, Kongpob was fascinated to know that shapeshifters also believed in superstitions, but he filed that away for later as Arthit continued. “Gears are good luck to us. The people I grew up with collected them hoping they would change their direction in life.”

Kongpob listened intently, running his fingers over the edge of the gear.

“This one was a gift from a friend. He’s a witch,” Arthit said. “He said it would…” A pause made Kongpob look up at him. “He said it would help me.”

Kongpob immediately shook his head. If it really was some sort of good luck charm, he couldn’t take it. Not when he didn’t need it.

“If that’s true, you can’t give it to me.” He held the bracelet out, trying to give it back to Arthit. Arthit shook his head.

“Take it, please.”

“But if it can help you then-” Kongpob started but he was cut off.

“Take it,” Arthit said firmly. “It’s useless unless it’s with you.”

The certainty in his voice caught Kongpob off guard. “What does that mean?”

Arthit hesitated. “Where I grew up, we had this tradition. Our gears were our hearts.” His eyes locked with Kongpob. “I want to give you my gear.”

“Oh.”

Oh. Kongpob swallowed, the gear suddenly much heavier in his hand.

“Please take it,” Arthit said softly.

A little dazed, Kongpob nodded. He slipped it onto his wrist and immediately felt as though all the air in his lungs had been sucked out. He wheezed, leaning forward to try and gulp in air. His heart pounded so hard it felt like it would punch a hole in his chest. There was a strange clicking sensation in his chest, once. Twice. Three times. The air rushed back into his lungs and he could finally breathe again, though his heart was unnaturally heavy.

Gasping for air, he turned to look at Arthit.

“You have my heart,” he said, and perhaps Kongpob would have found that romantic in any other moment but his chest felt swollen and he could hear the blood rushing through him as though it was a river.

“Arthit?”

“Please take care of it,” Arthit said softly, and Kongpob stared at him with wide eyes. “Please.”

Kongpob still didn’t fully understand what had happened, but he nodded. When Arthit used that tone, with all its helpless desperation, he would have done anything Arthit asked him to.

~

After his visit with Arthit, the next day was a blur. He dressed automatically, slipping into the carefully chosen clothes he’d chosen and making sure his sword had been cleaned. He met up with M and Oak, walking with them until they reached the training fields for the assessment.

The actual assessment was quick, a haze of sparring and showing off his skill with a bow and then his dagger. Important as this assessment was, the whole time all he could think of Arthit, and the way that his chest felt too heavy. Even when he attended the choosing ceremony and his name was called, he wasn’t fully there. The soft clapping and feeling of M’s hand pressing him forward were the only things tethering him in place as he accepted the offer.

Later, after the ceremony and after he’d received the message of when they were set to leave, he collapsed onto his bed. He was exhausted, and unusually dazed. It felt a little like those days he’d avoided Arthit, except now he felt a physical exhaustion. Kongpob pressed a hand to his chest, rubbing at the spot over his heart, and wondering if he was simply imagining that it seemed to pulse harder than it normally did.

Our gears were our hearts. I want to give you my gear. Arthit’s words replayed in his head. Even now, thinking of them sent a slight heat to his face. Kongpob gently turned the bracelet on his wrist over, absently tracing its edges. As he did, he swore the heat in his chest grew. He shook his head. Whether that was true or not, he needed to rest. If not for his journey tomorrow, then so that he would be ready to look for Arthit.

The princess’s companion he might be, but Kongpob wasn’t going to let him disappear so easily. Should his plan work, he’d be put to train with those who assigned to guard the princess, and talk to Arthit when he could.

~

The sun was hidden beneath a thick layer of clouds, making the air chilly and uncomfortable to shoot in. Despite this, Kongpob and the others he had been grouped with continued their practice session.

“You seem eager to be near the princess.” The sound of Tew’s voice broke Kongpob’s concentration, sending his arrow flying to the side and missing the target. He turned to look at his training officer, unease filling him.

“Sir?” he said carefully.

“Wad mentioned you’ve asked about her before.” Tew’s tone was light, but his eyes were sharp, scrutinizing Kongpob so intently it made him nervous. He swallowed. If it weren’t for the way Tew was looking at him, he’d laugh at the implication. Kongpob had no interest in the princess beyond her connection to Arthit.

“Sort of. I was curious about her companion,” he said.

Tew’s expression didn’t change, but the intensity of it lessened.

“Her companion?”

Kongpob didn’t answer immediately, working to frame his words so that he didn’t appear too eager or suspicious.

“I heard she has a talking frog as a companion,” he said, which was true. Rumors had flown as soon as he’d arrived at the castle with the rest of the guard. Although he hadn’t seen the princess, and consequently Arthit, since their arrival, he’d heard plenty. It seemed the princess had no problems complaining about her companion, and many servants had often heard her shouting at Arthit. “I was curious about him.”

Tew’s eyes searched his face, and Kongpob looked back at him, trying to project his sincerity. After a moment Tew nodded.

“I was curious about her companion too,” Tew said eventually. “But that’s not something you need to worry about.”

“Yes sir,” Kongpob said quickly.

Tew nodded. “Stay focused on your training. It wouldn’t be good if it seemed you had too much of an interest in the princess.”

Kongpob bit back a smile. “Yes sir,” he said again, and Tew stepped back.

“I’m glad you understand.” Tew straightened, gesturing at the target. “Now show me how you’re doing with this.”

~

This became a regular routine for Kongpob, one that was reminiscent of his time under Yacht’s instruction. Each day he followed a strict training routine that left him exhausted by dusk and with little time to look for Arthit. Luckily, he was in the same group as Oak, and although their breaks were short, it was comforting to spend them with a familiar face.

Oak often spoke about the girl he met when in the kitchen, and during the times he didn’t Oak came up with elaborate, often ridiculous plans on how to meet Arthit. None of them were useful but they did make Kongpob smile, and for that he appreciated his friend.

Still, he spent his small amount of free time looking for ways to come across the princess. He thought about talking to one her many maids or simply waiting in a place he knew she would be, but discarded them both. There was no guarantee either would work or that word wouldn’t get back to Tew. At one particularly low point, he considered one of Oak’s plans. In the end though, none of Oak’s elaborate plans or his own were needed.

The next time he saw Arthit was purely by chance, when he heard the princess screaming as he walked toward the armory. He caught the sound of Arthit’s name and his heart immediately sped up. Without hesitation he changed directions, heading straight toward the sound of the princess’s screams.

It took him a few tries to locate the room, finally entering to see the princess standing in the middle of what looked like a tea room. In a split second he noticed three things: Arthit was sitting on the small settee with an unconcerned expression, the princess looked ready to kill, and neither of them seemed to see him.

“You’re a pathetic little creature and I will not stand having you around me anymore,” the princess snarled. Her eyes were cold and furious, and before Kongpob could react she was reaching forward. In a single swift motion that looked far too easy, she picked Arthit up and threw him against the wall.

Kongpob’s heart stopped.

“Arthit!” The name escaped from his mouth without thought and he rushed forward, only able to see the awkward angle Arthit had landed in.

Distantly he was aware of the princess behind, asking him questions. He ignored her in favor of kneeling down beside Arthit.

“Arthit?” He reached out, hands fluttering uncertainly over Arthit’s arms. It all looked wrong and broken but there was no blood, no cracked bones. “Answer me.”

There was a pained groan and then Arthit’s eyes fluttered open. They were wide and panicked, and any comforting words Kongpob would have said stuck in his throat when Arthit began to glow. There was a sudden blast of heat and he closed his eyes. At the same moment his lungs seemed to stop, the air disappearing from his body. Kongpob wheezed, clutching at his chest. It pulsed beneath his chest, a cracking sound emanating from his chest. A sharp pain shot through him, as though his heart had finally been released after years of being suffocated.

The world came back into focus one sense at a time. He became aware of a hand in his his, the metallic taste of blood, the sound two voices speaking at once. In the background, a woman’s voice. In front of him, Arthit saying his name in a low, worried voice.

“Arthit?”

“Kongpob.” Arthit’s voice was rough but relieved.

He slowly moved closer, placing a shaky hand on Kongpob’s face. Both of them inhaled sharply at the action. Kongpob stared at him in shock. He’d wanted this for so long that he wasn’t entirely certain it was happening. Kongpob reached out, placing a hand over Arthit’s. It was warm and soft and human.

“Are you okay?” Arthit asked gently, and Kongpob let out a disbelieving laugh.

“Am I okay?” he asked, tightening his grip on Arthit’s hand. He was really there, fully human and able to touch. “You were thrown against the wall. I thought you were dead.”

“So did I,” Arthit said shakily. Then he smiled, bright and a little stunned. “But I’m here, I’m here. I’m human.”

Kongpob laughed, perhaps a bit hysterically as he nodded.

“You’re here,” he agreed, and then pulled Arthit in to kiss him. It was an impulse, a need to touch the other to ensure he was real, that he was flesh and blood and soft in his arms. It was the single wish Kongpob had made, granted in full and then some. Arthit let out a little sigh when he pulled away, and Kongpob savored the sight of him instinctively still leaning toward him.

“What just happened?” A shrill shout broke the moment and Kongpob startled at the sound. He’d forgotten about the third occupant in the room. Both he and Arthit turned to look at her. “Why aren’t you a frog anymore?”

Kongpob exchanged a look with Arthit, and the two of them laughed. Kongpob leaned close to Arthit, gently pressing his forehead against Arthit’s. He listened as the other man spoke, a soothing rumble that set him at ease. There was so much to explain, to think about in the future, but right now none of that mattered. Right now, he was here with Arthit and everything else could wait.