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Gwyn and Veximarl spent the afternoon working on defenses and then threw snowballs at each other like they were children. Afterward, he escorted her home and made his way back to the Toval estate. Saying only brief greetings before he made his way to Zaniyah’s room.

Zaniyah was usually the first back from her missions. The second was Chickadee, who always had a briefing with Horsetalon before he was allowed to return. Alton often arrived right before or just after dinner and Sybil came between two to three hours after that.

Being the first ones here, Chickadee and Zaniyah usually spent their time reading until Veximarl returned. Then they would give him their mission briefings for him to pass on to Vincent before they’d hang out together until dinner. Both of them were sitting on Zaniyah’s bed, reading from the stacks of journals they had lying on the sheets.

Veximarl immediately felt disappointed in his squadmates, but now was not the time to scold them. “You told me before that Alton had two separate styles of journals. One was his actual day to day activities and the other set was specifically to keep track of all the girls he was dating at once, correct? What topics they liked to talk about, what music they enjoyed, how best to court them? That’s really what he wrote down?”

Zaniyah nodded and held up the one she was reading. “Yeah. I figured he would’ve been more of a slut and slept with a lot of them, but he doesn’t even bother to write down anything juicy. It’s like he figured these were going to get stolen at some point.” She held out a journal for him to take. “It’s been loads of good for helping us understand why outlanders are so dumb.” Chickadee nodded along with her statement.

Veximarl was taken aback by this revelation. He hoped Alton didn't have a journal about Sybil. Having that sort of information written down about one’s self seemed… Violating. Incredibly violating.

“Before you ask, Alton totally has one about Sybil.” Zaniyah pointed to Chickadee, who held up the book he was reading. “He keeps it hidden underneath his practice armor.”

“Don’t read that!” Veximarl walked over and snatched the book away from Chickadee, hiding it inside his jacket while the blacksmith made grabby hands. “Sybil is your friend. I will not have you ruin her privacy.”

“Alton is our friend,” retorted Chickadee. “We still read these.”

“Yeah!” Zaniyah nodded. “This is his fault for writing it all down in the first place and putting it where we could easily find it.” They only had to invade his room and dig around his closet in order to get to them. “They were all lying out there in the open where anyone could get to them.”

Veximarl hesitated. “... I’m not comfortable with we simply seem to be brushing aside the fact that he forced Sybil into marriage.”

Zaniyah let out a snort. “They’re not actually married. There’s gotta be a wedding for that to happen. It’s just stupid contract stuff so Alton can bully around nobles. Sybil would say something if she was actually upset.”

Veximarl shook his head. “I’ve noticed that there are times where Sybil hasn’t said anything at all. However, I will resign to the fact that she won’t be available to talk until this evening. For now, I need to read one of those journals. The one about how to court a proper woman.” They stared blankly at him. “... I-I need it,” he repeated in a quieter voice.

Dropping the book she had, Zaniyah put her hands to her cheeks. “Veximarl likes a girl?!”

“Nothing of the sort!” He exclaimed that, but his face was red at the thought. “I have a date.” Zaniyah squealed. “In a public setting and without any privacy! I require knowledge on how to act appropriately as a date in a public setting!” Chickadee nodded along, totally believing his excuse. “It’s for a friend. I am doing this for a friend and I-I will not have either of you tease me about this!”

Zaniyah waved her hand about like it didn’t matter. “No, no. I got this... I got you, Vex. We’re good. I know exactly what to do.” She picked up a journal and flipped through a few pages. “Alright. See this page? Do exactly that. Practice on Chickadee so you can do it all loosey goosey and chill.”

Suspicious, Veximarl took the book and gave it a once over. “Alright.” He sat down on the edge of the bed and Chickadee got himself into position. The fact that Chickadee was so willing to help was also suspicious, but he let it slide.

“In the case of Debra, she’s an older girl but prefers to be treated like a young schoolgirl,” read Veximarl. “Be authoritative and treat her firmly. A friendly scolding or a remark that she’s being cute is enough to send her swooning. She’s most fond of light touches and eye contact.” He looked up at Zaniyah. “This seems unnecessary to practice. All of it is written down in a manner that is easy enough to understand.”

Zaniyah folded her arms and frowned in a scolding manner. “You need to be able to walk up to the girl you like and confidently say, ‘I’m going to teach you how to kiss me properly.’” Veximarl let out a sputtering cough and looked away from the pair.

Clearing his throat and rubbing at his cheeks for a moment, Veximarl kept reading. “Stare at her in the eye and grasp her firmly by the chin, like an older gentleman would with a pupil.” He looked up and noticed that Chickadee had already moved closer. His scarves had been yanked off in a hurry. Veximarl put his index finger underneath his chin and lifted it up so they were looking at each other. “I-I need to te-teach you to kiss me properly.”

Zaniyah rubbed her hands together. “... And?” She asked as she looked between them.

Veximarl quickly removed his hand from Chickadee’s chin. “It states that this Debra prefers a slow tongue. As though it were a worm looking for a fish to bait.” He looked over to Chickadee as the mage leaned in closer. Chickadee’s eyes closed and his lips puckered slightly. “I am not doing that,” replied Veximarl.

“Why not?!” Exclaimed Zaniyah. She then cleared her throat to calm herself down. “ I think it would be good practice if you were to-”

“I do not need that sort of practice,” replied Veximarl sternly. “Both of you should give me your daily reports without any sort of objection while I look through these texts.” He then proceeded to sit on the edge of the bed and half listen as they told him about their day.

They had done what they do every day. Slaughtered tainted beasts. Trewarne and Dodo would work towards preserving the bodies for harvest while Horsetalon focused on dealing with locals. Any time that wasn’t spent doing that was focused on combat training.

It didn’t feel all that different from being at Braytons. Dodo had always been a father figure to Zaniyah. The man took her in, taught her how to use an axe, and treated her like she would be a future daughter-in-law. That would have been her life if she and Chickadee didn’t make it into Braytons. Which would’ve been awkward, considering Chickadee’s preferences. Not to mention that she was crazy about Vincent, so double awkward there.

Chickadee had been training with water magic as of late. The abundance of water in the area had made it easier for him, but he still struggled a great deal. He usually became distracted and would watch Naiov attempt to train Anais. Pegasus took Trenchall everywhere and did all the talking with people, but he neglected everyone else, often leaving Naiov in charge of the first years.

Naiov had become focused on spreading out Anais’ abilities. He wanted to see if her magic could be used on people. Training mostly involved him yelling at her until she was about to cry, and then getting angry and storming off until he calmed down.

There were plenty of rumors of Clay Regions shoulders being able to use mind magic during the Southern War. Many speculated that it was the work of necromancers controlling the dead, which further added to the region’s aura of evil, but Naiov was convinced that it was more than likely due to people who had powers like Anais.

“I said to relax!” He exclaimed loudly.

Chickadee had been sitting against the side of a tree, watching the scene unfold before him. He had an ice orb floating above his hand that he was shifting into different shapes. It was a basic meditative exercise but he also found it incredibly boring.

“I’m t-trying, but it’s hard when you’re yelling at me!” Anais’ voice came out in a squeak and she winced as Naiov lifted up his hand as though he were about to strike her. “I’m sorry!”

“Try it again.” Naiov lowered his hand. He sighed deeply and tried to void his mind of all thoughts. “I am making myself vulnerable and open. Focus your magic on me.”

Anais stared at him. Her cheeks became redder with each passing moment. “Alright... “ A few minutes passed where nothing happened.

“What are you doing?!” Naiov’s eyes snapped open.

“I keep trying to explain, b-but I don’t think you understand!” Anais’s voice was quivering, which was actually normal for her, but it was trembling more so than usual. “I don’t control animals. I mentally ask them to do something and they have a choice. I don’t know how to make one of them obey me. I think they just do what I ask most of the time because I make the requests easy to understand.”

Naiov shut his eyes again. “I will make an attempt to listen for a request.” Again, a few minutes passed. “... Why am I not sensing anything?”

“It has to do with primal instinct, I suppose? It’s not like happy or sad, it’s more like hungry or anxiousness or-”

“Lust? You want to do me?” Naiov opened a single eye and stared at her judgmentally. A loud gasp came out of Anais’ mouth and she covered it with her hands to muffle the sound.

Chickadee frowned at the reaction. “Don’t tease her.”

“Sure.” Naiov turned his head towards Chickadee. “I’m the one teasing her,” he said in a completely flat tone. “Try it again, Reese. Be less of a pervert about it this time.”

“I am not a pervert!” Her voice came out as a squeak again but this time Naiov laughed it off rather than get mad at her.

Chickadee couldn’t understand flirting. Even as he looked over Alton’s journals, it didn’t make sense to him. Maybe it was a way to use someone or a way to make oneself feel less lonely. Was it about the company? Or maybe it was what Anais hinted at. Merely a primal instinct that people were tapping into instead of love.

It reminded him of what happened the year before. When he was expelled from Dogfall, and the brief relationship he had. He found himself wondering if he should contact Ruven, who should still be at the college. There would be plenty of time for Chickadee to talk to him if he truly wanted to.

“Was there anything abnormal about your schedule?” Veximarl’s question snapped Chickadee to the present. The blacksmith blinked a few times as a response.

“No. We had meditation work. That was all.” He gave half a smile as Veximarl nodded. Both he and Zaniyah went back to their reading and Chickadee glanced between the two before staring down blankly at his own journal.

There were a lot of times where Chickadee felt like an outcast. He would sit near conversations, but there would always seem like there was a bubble around them that he couldn’t break through. Either he couldn’t contribute, or he felt like he’d be interrupting.

Then there were the other times where he would watch a man and a woman together. They seemed so far out of his reach. Sybil was always nice and invited him to group outings, but he also felt guilty for intruding. Vincent and Zaniyah. Alton and Sybil. Even Veximarl had Tish with him whenever they had gone somewhere as a group. Those were special moments for them and he had no right to be there. He needed to know when to take a step back, and...

He shouldn’t have kissed Alton.

But he wanted to try it. His heart wanted to try something risky, just for the sake of feeling that rush. To have that special connection with someone that he wouldn’t dare to share with someone else. Sure, Ruven and Gower were certainly men that he had been with, but that wasn’t… It wasn’t the same as what the rest of his friends had experienced. Chickadee wanted to know what innocent love was like.

Being with men wasn’t wrong. Loving a man didn’t make him broken in any way, but it did limit his options. He let out a sigh. Maybe he should contact Ruven after all. There was that event coming up at city hall… Not that Ruven would go as his date, but he might feel secure enough to go if Ruven were also to attend.

Looking through Alton’s journals made him wonder what he had been missing out on. Seeing Veximarl fluster about finding someone knew was making Chickadee feel anxious. Actually, he wasn’t anxious. He was jealous. Even livid at the idea that someone like Veximarl could so easily stumble upon what Chickadee had been wanting to find for himself.

Maybe he should find a way to somehow put himself out there. As long as he stayed the quiet one, he was never going to figure out if there was someone out there that was willing to make him feel complete.

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About the author

Adelaide West

Bio: Author of the Grimstone Series and Duck and Wolf.

I have a Twitter. I check it often, so I guess tag me anytime you want. I just don't post very often. @AdelaideGWest

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