((this fic on my OC and PastelApocalypse's, with Pastel much welcomed editing ))
Sarghress Fortress, days before the Puppeeter incident
The Val Sullisin'rune male was reluctantly making his way to his new training ground, pausing with a deep sigh and a huge temptation to walk away, back to his clan's dome.
But Zareh knew it wasn't a good plan.
Life at the Sarghress fortress wasn't nice, but life at the dome was a true gilded cage. And nowadays, the gild was very damaged, especially for a male of no real status, just one of the countless grandsons Ash'waren had.
At the dome, he was but a privileged nobody.
Here, he was a home-guard, patrolling the streets of the Sarghress and Sullisin'rune territories.
He got to wear armor, hold a spear and sword--to lead his squad to protect the commoners, his nobility and "natural charisma" awing said commoners.
Except his own mother insisted on him being enrolled as a simple grunt, and as it was quickly confirmed once among the mercenary clan, Sarghresses were not ones for giving instant promotions to Val-borns just because they were Vals.
But on second thought, it wasn't a bad thing.
Being a simple grunt meant having a way less risky position and leaving responsibilities to the squad leader!
Except he had no more squad leader.
Nor squad, in fact.
War being war, more than one squad had ended with so many casualties it couldn't quite be considered a “squad” anymore, and that was exactly what had happened to his own.
But unlike what usually happened to teamless grunts, Zareh wasn't reassigned to a new squad nor sent to the front.
Not Zareh Val Sullisin'rune.
For strangely, after Mommy dearest had ranted that her son was still too much a “pampered weak young lad” despite two years in the army, he'd ended up enrolled for renewed training!
The mismatched eyed Sul stopped again, playing nervously with his long dark blue hair.
The front sounded terrifying, especially after seeing comrades slaughtered by Sharen dragons and demon summons. But to get back to drill exercises?
Yet, there he was. A dusty round space circled by various buildings from barracks to workshops, and even a laundry room.
A small group, all in black training gear, was already there. That group consisted of less than a dozen people, and mostly males.
Zareh looked at them.
They all looked rather intimidating, like thugs fresh from the street. Yet, he sensed no ill-intention from any of them.
"It's an honor to meet you all, I am Zareh--” He bowed and paused. Should he introduce himself as a Val from the start? That could raise a social barrier and isolate him from his new comrades. Besides, he didn't feel quite like a noble right now. “From the Sul clan, if my eyes hadn't screamed so already!” Zareh instead concluded, pointing to his golden and green mismatched eyes.
"You're an empath?” A short haired woman, with a scar-covered face asked him.
"Oh of course!” Zareh replied with his signature fox-grin before he changed for an overly sorry expression “Er, but I'm not quite the best trained in that field.”
The woman looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
"Oh, but worry not, I'm still an empath, and most assuredly a soldier!”
The doubtful expression remained on the woman's face.
"As in even now, I feel from you a need for affection, a deep set desire for a handsome young man to wrap his arms around your hips, Miss--” As he was talking, he moved forward to embrace the woman. And met her palm on his face, as she bluntly pushed him back.
"I hope your a better fighter than you are an empath. And friendly advice, Zae. Keep the flirting off training time. Or else the instructor will be terrible.”
"Terrible?” Zareh asked, forgetting to correct her understanding of his name.
"Absolutely so.” Another trainee confirmed.
"Merciless.” Yet another added.
"You'll have your sweat hauled from your very bones.”
Zareh looked at them in horror. This sounded even worse than he thought it'd be!
"I... Wish I was sent to the front, instead of facing Quain'tana's servant again!” A giant male whined.
Poor Zareh was in disbelief! Even that humongous oaf was scared!
"Quain'tana... The instructor is...” He did not dare to finish.
With a sigh, the woman he tried to hug a minute ago tapped Zareh's shoulder in welcome to their Hell.
Was it too late to turn and run?
Zareh knew it was, and that his mother would never forgive him if he did, no matter what lies he could come up with.
But even so... She already considered him a disappointment, didn't she?
Zareh instead turned, considering dashing far from the training ground and his new comrades until he saw another trainee joining them.
Although, that newcomer was so small he could honestly have been there already, fully hidden behind the others!
The thought made Zareh giggle, quickly lightening his mood.
But then, he began to worry. Such a tiny little thing, here? To be trained with them, by the monster he'd just heard of? It was going to be terribly hard for him, but for that little thing? With those cheeks Zareh already wanted to pinch, and that fluffy hair he was already struggling not to rub?
Aw no! No!
And those big glasses weren't doing much to hide those beautiful blue eyes nor the oh so serious expression. Zareh was now sure of it; he had a duty as a Sullisin'rune knight to protect that adorable shrimp!
Taldrin looked back at the now hopping up and down Sul noble, making weird “aw” noises.
For what he gathered of this new trainee, Zareh Val Sullisin'rune likely was lost in some daydreaming fantasy.
Taldrin had been warned not to expect much from the Val, save for laziness and a lack of professionalism. But he couldn't help to wonder if the Val had never met anyone's expectation because he was truly a spoiled lost case, or if it was because no one had expected anything from him from the beginning.
And judging from the friendly behavior of Zareh, Taldrin's guts told him it was more the later.
In fact, the Sul was even a bit too friendly, now leaning a bit too close to Taldrin's face.
"Hey there, you're here for the training?” Zareh chirped, near baby-talking to Taldrin.
Zareh was taken aback by how formal Taldrin was, such a serious disposition to such a meek looking man was unexpected--how adorable!
"Look, you seem very determined--these young Sarghresses, so enthusiastic about changing the world!--but really, you should just avoid this one!”
As Zareh tried to pinch Taldrin's elusive cheek, the latter wondered if the Sul was seriously trying to have the training session canceled.
"You see, this instructor is likely a hulking, brutish gorilla.” Zareh went on, making his own summary of the previous chat.
"Oh, you sweet thing! My apologies, of course you've never gone to the surface and even less likely have you heard of a gorilla! You know of the Nal'Sarkoth's haledris? Now imagine these haledri, but standing on two feet and having hands!” Zareh explained, quite proud of his comparison.
"I'm a bipedal haledri...?” Taldrin asked in total disbelief.
Zareh sensed with his empathy a rising anxiety from his co-trainees but he ignored it, too busy displaying his immeasurable knowledge to the cutie.
He also misheard the “cutie”'s reply.
"Yes! Exactly that! They're most likely a terrible “bipedal haledri”, what a clever little tiny one you are! An elfoïd haledri, with scary big teeth and a foul odor! So you understand now: you must escape that monster of an instructor while you can! I'm sure they're an absolutely heartless bitch!”
"...” Was all Taldrin could reply to his new trainee.
"But awww, you're so cute! If you want, I could teach you a bit of blade wielding! And look, I'd even be willing to treat you somewhere once we're done here, if you'd like? I think you'll find a kind, educated prince much better that a mean, stinky gorilla!”
The level of anxiety reached such a high level that Zareh couldn't ignore it any longer.
He finally noticed how pale the faces of his co-trainees turned.
"Please stop... We all beg you to stop insulting the heartless gorilla-haledri in his face!” The short-haired woman pled desperatly.
"...” Was again Taldrin's reply.
Zareh looked at Taldrin and at his co-trainees in turn.
"What? He? No! Eeeeeeh?!” He took Taldrin's face in his hands with a pained breath, “You're too mini and cute to be a gorilla!”
"St'a't runnin' ” Taldrin started, before pushing off Zareh's hands. “First lesson, have reliable information, the lack of it will be deadly in conflict. Now start running. Five tracks. With twenty push-up after it.”
"What? Wait! No--Seriously?” Zareh simply stared at Taldrin in disbelief.
"Start now, or I make it eight tracks.” Taldrin replied, as deadpan as he'd been since he'd arrived.
"YES SIR!” With that, all but Zareh started to run. The Sul had a moment of hesitation, first believing it all was an elaborate prank.
"You've gotta be kiddiiiiing!” The Sul complained as he understood it really wasn't any sort of joke and hence tried to catch up.
To Zareh's surprise, Taldrin ran with them, and did all the exercises on top of demonstrations and helping.
After that, they spent hours practicing hand-to-hand combat, with Taldrin proving very demanding but always taking care to correct his trainees mistakes before again practicing too.
Once it was finally over, Zareh felt a throbbing ache across his body, exhausted as if he'd expended all his mana. He'd no idea he could even feel that tired.
But then, despite his sore body, he still couldn't agree with what had been said about Taldrin earlier. Or with what he'd dared say out of ignorance.
Zareh had long trained with his mother, and it was a whole different affair. With her, he was always too slow, too weak, too this and never enough of that.
Yet on the other hand, though Taldrin was cold, the mini-guy had took time to show, explain and correct. So much so that in the end, Zareh felt he'd done a good job and could be proud of himself.
Something he'd never really experienced before.
"I'll see you in two days. Keep practicing in the meantime.” Taldrin announced. “Well done.” And he left.
"Wait!” Zareh painfully arose back to his feet, limping after him. “Please wait!”
Taldrin stopped and looked at the Sul.
"I'm...” Zareh tried, panting heavily “I'm sorry I called you those things, you're not a gorilla, nor a bitch or whatever I said, I'm an idiot sometimes, and just sorry okay!”
The small Sarghress nodded quietly.
"Oh, Really? You forgive me?” Zareh suddenly looked all hyped. “No bad blood, I'm completely forgiven?”
Taldrin nodded again.
"Aw come on, say it or I'll fear you're just trying to shoo me away!” He tearfully insisted.
"Are you... Giving me puppy eyes?” Taldrin couldn't believe it, was this Sul really crazy?
"Yes! My heart is so hurt, I can't bear to hear any less than you accept my apologies, I- Ah”! Zareh covered his face with his hands, his dark blue hair flowing freely as he started crying, leaning against a nearby wall.
"Wh-WHAT?” Taldrin was highly confused at such an over-reaction! He quickly looked around for any help, but only met a few disapproving glances and people starting to gossip.
“So sad, who could believe such a small man could make so many trainees cry?” Taldrin was sure he'd heard them whisper!
"Stop crying already! I made it clear I hold no grudge against you! There's no “bad blood” between us, as you put it!” This was only deeply confusing him, and beginning to get on his nerves too!
"R-r-really?” Zareh again asked, now just sobbing a little.
"Really YES! So quit it already!” It'd been so long since Taldrin had actually lost his cool and composure! What an annoying Sul! He made a few steps toward the crying Val, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"That still sounds like you're angry!” Zareh replied with renewed tears.
Oh that infuriating Sul! Taldrin felt his forehead vein swelling from the annoyance.
He took some quick deep breaths to calm down.
"Yes, really yes. No bad blood.” He confirmed again, with a more collected voice.
A huge, satisfied fox grin formed on Zareh's dissimulated face.
"You've no idea how happy that makes me!” He dropped his tearful acting, suddenly pinning his tiny counterpart against the wall and lifting up Taldrin's chin. “Besides, tiny, you still owe me a date, remember? So if you were mad at me, it'd be quite awkward.” All his tears were far gone, if they ever truly were a thing, and instead he was all confidence and seduction.
"Since when do I owe you-”
Zareh pressed a finger on Taldrin's lips.
"ShhShh there there. You do!--because I promised to show you how much of a kind, educated, generous, and of course lovely prince I am, my sweet, tiny piece of chocolate.”
"I'm not a piece of choco-”
Zareh pressed a second finger on Taldrin's lips.
"ShhShhShh. When all I can think of is tasting those lips, you must be the most delicious and alluring of chocolates.”
Ooow, the pain in all of Zareh's muscles made it so hard for him to focus on his moves of seduction. But the sight of a slightly blushing Taldrin was oh so worth it, or at least that's what Zareh hysterically cheered in his mind.
"Besides, it's our duty. You know how important duty is, don't you?” Zareh went on, looking all deadpan.
"I don't see how it is our duty to...”
"It is, look. Your Illharess is paired with mine. The potential heir of your clan is also paired with a potential heir of mine. It's all about same-sex couples with size-differences tying our clans together, a tradition of sorts. And we have to honor that centuries-old tradition. For it is our duty!--our duty to go out for cake and walk hand-in-hand with the most passionate of good-bye kisses! Followed with even more dates! IT IS OUR DUTY! Don't you get it?” Zareh made this whole passionate and convinced speech, progressively leaning closer to Taldrin.
"You make no sense!” Taldrin tried to counter, suddenly all flustered.
"I know, but you have a good sense of duty, don't you?” Zareh asked, leaning even closer.
"Then it's settled. Tomorrow, same hour, I come to pick you up and give you the best date of your life.”