Bonus Chapter: Liliruca's Test
"Dinner for Two" was going to be a one-shot, but I wrote a sequel and didn't want to post a whole new fic when an extra chapter would do. This is more action-oriented than the original story. Enjoy!
A black mist coalesced on the blue stone floor. Red lights grew from shining dots to burning orbs as humanoid shapes emerged from the mist, surrogate limbs branching into claws, crown-shaped heads enclosing scarlet cores.
"War Shadows," Bell Cranel drew the Hestia Knife in reverse-grip. "This is it, Lili!"
Liliruca Arde held her ground behind him, shaking, knuckles white from her hard grip on a large, iron sword. The weapon, a Welf Crozzo creation, was taller than her. As the Shadows encircled them, Bell lifted Lili's sack off her shoulders and backflipped some twenty feet away.
"Wait, Bell!" Lili turned in a circle, closing her blind spots. "What are you doing?"
Low-level monsters were stupid. Riveria Alf of the Loki Familia had a theory: the crystals inside dungeon-dwellers were both heart and mind. Large crystals, the kind you'd find in Minotaurs and Golems, allowed greater tactical awareness. Small crystals, like the ones in War Shadows and Dire Ants, were much like snail brains. War Shadows would attack the closest target they could reach. At six yards, they ignored Bell and focused on his supporter.
"Remember everything I taught you," said Bell. "Watch their moves! Dodge their attacks! Parry for the upper hand and strike!"
When Lili joined the Hestia Familia, her new Goddess looked at her stats for the first time and was surprised to find a skill: "Artel Assist." Born of a child's unbreakable will to live, the skill allowed her free movement when carrying lots of weight. Even when Lili's giant sack was full, she had no trouble running, and during Bell's martial training, they found another use for this skill: she could swing heavy, oversized weapons like twigs.
"I'm scared!" Lili froze up. The Shadows drew closer, forming a tight circle around her.
"Think of something important to you," said Bell, making a megaphone with his hands. "Always worked for me!"
Lili's thoughts went back to their first night at the Hestia Familia mansion. Under the covers, in their King-sized bed, she listened to Bell's heartbeat. Curtains blew as cold wind roared outside, but in bed, they were warm, and they were one. Turning to her love, she saw him sleeping, smiling, fading, decaying until she held nothing, cold and alone.
She snapped back from the horrible day-dream.
"That's right," Lili whispered. "That's why I have to get stronger."
Her blade burst through a Shadow, turning it to mist, and she somersaulted through the break in their ranks.
"Gotta do it," Lili caught a claw with her hilt and pushed it away. Another leaped, but she raised her blade high, knocking it back. "Gotta do it. Gotta do it. Gotta do it!"
Lili charged toward the Shadows still clustered nearby. She lifted her blade, leaped, and swung in a great circle as she fell toward her foes. For a moment, the world was still. She heard a "psh-psh-psh-psh-psh" as five War Shadows exploded into mist.
The last two flanked her. She dropped her sword.
"Cinderella's got some strong words for her prince," muttered Lili. Sharp wolf-claws glowed and solidified on her fingers, and she leapt at the closest Shadow. It slashed at her, painting her forehead red, but she held onto its crystal core with one clawed hand. Pushing off against its misty chest, she soared over and around its head, etching a half-circle in the orb. The Shadow exploded, and as the final foe drew near, Lili kicked backward with all her might, sending it spiraling into the dungeon wall.
"Woo-hoo!" Bell's clap echoed across the floor.
"You dummy," Lili ran to Bell and pounded his chest plate with her fists. "Don't you ever abandon me like that! Especially not without warning!"
"I would've jumped in if you were in danger," Bell poked her dog-ears, and Lili recoiled. She grumbled, fists balled, until her claws pierced her gloves and she yelped like a puppy. They both laughed.
"Wasn't I awesome?" Lili's tail shot up and wagged. "Did you see the part where I was parrying? What about that kick?"
"You were very awesome," Bell patted her head. When he lifted his gauntlet, it was stained red. "Wait, Lili, are you hurt?"
"I'm fine. Pet me more," She wrapped her arms around his belly (eye level for her). "Praise me more."
"You ARE hurt," Bell brushed through her curly, red hair and saw a deep gash. Blood streaked down her face. "I did this too soon. We should have trained more."
"Bell, a little blood is just part of -" Lili tasted iron and gagged.
They heard footsteps and reached for their weapons. Voices echoed through rocky tunnels. Familiar voices.
"Damned elevator," said a low voice. "You'd think we could have a maintenance crew down by now."
"Crystal engineers aren't combat ready," replied a higher voice. "Escorting them to level ten will take some time with the ropes cut."
Bell and Lili saw the grey wolf Chienthrope, Bete Loga, turn a corner, followed by Loki Familia's tactician, Finn Deimne. Even for a Prum, he looked young.
"If I'd known about it, I could've brought them down in heartbeat." Bete snarled. He stopped mid-step. No way.
"Bete, Finn!" Bell waved, and the groups rushed toward each other.
"Well, if it isn't the Tomato Kid," said Bete. "What happened? With that growth, I figured you for floor 50 by the year's end, but you're up here piddling around with the weaklings."
"Bell's training me on low-level monsters," Lili picked up her sword and ran her finger across the edge. "He's a great teacher!"
"Bete, isn't that his supporter?" Finn tugged at Bete's arm. "She looks familiar, but I can't place her."
"I wanted to become stronger," Lili raised her free hand, flashing a diamond ring. "So my Bell doesn't have to worry about me all the time."
"NO WAAAAAAAY!" A sudden gust of disbelief blew Bete backward. "So THAT'S why we haven't seen you guys. You really did it now, kid! Are you even old enough? Is SHE even old enough?"
"Hey! I'm not some kid, I'm a Prum," With a gesture, Lili dispelled her fake ears and claws. "I'm 16 now, and Bell's got just a few months left."
Neither Bell nor Lili had noticed, but a figure behind Bete and Finn had stayed quiet the whole time. Now, seeing Lili's ring, her lips moved, but no sound came out. Bell saw her first and dropped his knife. Aiz Wallenstein took a step back.
"Aiz," said Bell. His voice cracked.
"Cranel," Aiz's hands were shaking. Aiz, the Sword Princess, had lost her famous composure.
Lili locked arms with Bell and scowled at Aiz. Loki Familia's legendary expedition to floor 60 had taken nearly a year, and in that time, Bell had worked harder than ever. By day, he trained Lili in the dungeon and on the city walls. By night, he snuck down to the middle floors for a few extra Valis. Last week, he'd finally gathered enough money to purchase a grand mansion for Goddess Hestia... and a ring. He used to think about Aiz constantly, but these days, with so much to do, she rarely crossed his mind.
Bell pulled Lili close, but she wasn't at his side any longer. He was holding thin air. He reached for his weapon, but it was on the ground behind him. Too slow. An explosion rocked the dungeon, and a golden blur soared past him.
"Lili!" He turned to find a crater in the dungeon wall. After the dust cleared, Lili was lying against it, bruised. Aiz looked down her nose at the Prum girl.
"Stand," Aiz commanded. "Raise your weapon."
"Aiz! Are you insane!?" Bete lurched forward, but Finn held him back. "Wha- dude, aren't you gonna tell her off?"
"Later," Finn shook his head. "This is something Aiz has to do."
Bell dashed toward her, only to get a heel in the face. He gritted his teeth as he landed on his back and slid. Damn! Even now, he couldn't touch Aiz. Did she really think Lili stood a chance?
His supporter slowly rose to her feet, an iron grip on her sword. She saw two of Aiz - wait, no, three - and could hear Bell yelling for her, but she couldn't make out what he was saying.
"Why?" Lili coughed blood. "Why are you...?"
Aiz twirled, and her foot caught Lili's cheek. Lili flew back into the wall crater with another crash.
"You want to protect him?" Aiz was completely monotone. "Stand."
Lili tried to stand, wondering why she was following this bully's commands. She made it halfway and fell forward on all fours.
"It's as I thought," said Aiz. She turned and started walking back toward Bell and her group.
Lili was leaning on her sword's handle, wobbling. With significant effort, she righted herself, knees near buckling, and pointed the blade toward Aiz. From this distance, Bell saw her clearly. Her whole body was soaked in blood, but she really was standing. He cried out for Aiz to wait, but the Sword Princess turned and dashed before he could make a sound.
"That girl's got a death wish," Bete slapped his forehead. "You sure you wanna marry her, Tomato Kid?"
Imperceptible to the keenest observer, a tiny hint of a smile made its way across Aiz's face as she drew her blade and swung at Lili in one breath. Listening for the sound of steel on skin, her hint disappeared. She heard nothing. Her arm moved on its own to block a large, metal blade at her side. Forced back but standing, Lili was panting hard.
"I think you don't care whether I can protect Bell or not," said Lili. A flurry of lightning strikes struck the supporter, but she dug her feet into the ground and held her blade wide to block. Even with Artel Assist, she couldn't swing half as fast as Aiz. If her sword were any smaller, she'd be dead already. "I think you're just jealous."
For the first time since the gods created the world, Aiz looked not just angry but furious. She was red in the face, and her teeth were bared. She plucked her tiara and tossed it aside, letting her hair blow in the wind of battle. She baseball-slid forward, knocking Lili into the air. Time slowed to crawl.
So this is how Bell does it.
Lili watched herself float above Aiz, already recovering for another strike. She could see the sweat-drops on the swordswoman's face, the dust on the ground, and the cruel glint in her eyes.
Midair, Lili struck the ground with her sword, balanced a hand-stand on its handle, and pulled it back into the air as she back-flipped onto her feet.
Aiz seemed to flash-step, clearing distance without actually running. This time, she wouldn't miss. With a wide, diagonal strike, she tore straight through Lili's -
"Hmph," Finn folded his arms. "Aiz wouldn't normally fall for that twice. I almost didn't catch it the first time, but her eyes are much faster than mine. Either she's holding back or your supporter somehow threw her focus."
Bell stood frozen. He hadn't just taught Lili well. She'd been learning from him long before their training started.
From the corner of Aiz's eye, a red-eyed rabbit morphed into a Prum. She reversed her lunge with a dash in the other direction, but it was already too late. She'd violated rules one and two of combat: always cover your blind spots, and never get cocky.
A heavy swing broke the air, and the Sword Princess watched with awe as blood escaped her. It was just a tiny cut on her chin, but it was beautiful. She hadn't seen her own blood since achieving level 6. The little supporter's skill was lacking, but her passion was incredible.
"Pbbt! Pbbbth!" Lili blew raspberries. "Loser!"
"Hm?" Aiz slid to a stop.
"I called you a loser," Lili grinned. Blood trickled down her teeth. "You can hack at me all day, but you still lost. You're used to solving all your problems with a sword, aren't you?"
"Not over yet," said Aiz. She raised her sword.
"It is," Lili laughed, almost maniacally. "In here, in the dungeon, you're God. You and all the other adventurers I used to hate so much. Still hate, mostly. When we walk out, you'll go back to being a timid girl, alone and uncertain, and I'll still have Bell. You LOST!"
Aiz's face went blank again, and after a pause, she nearly lunged again but stopped when she heard a "DING."
"Guys, they finally got it working!" Tiona and Tione waved from the dungeon elevator on the other side of the hall. "Hop on in!"
Aiz felt a cold hand on her shoulder.
"That's enough," Bete walked her down the hall past Lili, a stunned Bell, and her disappointed tactician. "We're going home."
Slowly, deliberately, Lili hobbled to Bell's side and collapsed.
Red streaks coated the sky as the sun grew tired. Bell, Lili, and Goddess Hestia had the best seat in the house - or rather, on it. Their legs hung off the mansion roof as they sucked on salty ice cream. Lili, patched with a hundred bandages, leaned into Bell's lap and drifted off to sleep. Her ice cream fell out of her fingers.
"Goddess," Bell broke the silence.
"Don't," Hestia stared off into the distance, deep in thought.
"I broke my promise," Bell ran the back of his hand across Lili's cheek. "I promised to protect her."
"Bell-kun," Hestia finished her ice cream and dropped her stick off the roof's edge. "Deities have forever to get over stuff. Decisions feel meaningless unless a mortal is involved. Between two humans, though, they can have consequences right up until you die."
"That's pretty introspective for you, Goddess," Bell managed a weak smile.
"I'm feeling introspective!" Hestia pointed a finger to the sky. "The point is, Bell-kun, you decided on your supporter. I really hope that makes you happy, but never forget there are consequences. You'll live with them forever."
A few minutes passed in silence. Shop lights flickered off, and storm windows swung shut around them.
"I really did love her," said Bell, looking away. "Wallenstein."
"And I really do love you," said Hestia. "There's more than one kind of love, and you're not limited to just one. You know?"
"I think I know what you mean," Bell picked up Lili's ice cream stick and dropped it with his. They landed criss-crossed on the street below. "With Aiz, it was different. She was the legendary hero I wanted to be."
"That's not really what I meant," Hestia sighed. Rejected again. "I think you're getting it, though."
"Lili, though," Bell bent forward and planted a kiss on her cheek. "I want to see her smile. Waking up next to her is the best part of my day. Seeing her safe from Soma Familia was worth all the Valis in the world."
Goddess Hestia jumped to her feet and walked back toward the stairs. Bell started to turn but stopped when he heard Lili whimpering in her dreams.
"As a teacher," Hestia put her hands on her hips and stared out at the starry sky. "Did she pass, today?"
"Yeah," Bell watched Lili's tail wag. "With extra credit."
"Hee..." Lili grinned. Those ears weren't just for show.
As the last traces of sunlight left Orario, Bell got up and carried his fiancée to bed.