(Note to readers potentially confused by the cover image: there's an FFN internal error that keeps switching the story's real cover with one of my old avatars. In case you see some poorly-drawn red person, the true, chibi-style cover I drew for Hearthstop may be seen here at this internal link: imgurDOTcomSLASHqYottFeDOTpng - replace DOT and SLASH with appropriate characters. FFN doesn't normally allow external links, but I think they'd be OK with this exception while their servers are having issues.)
Hello! This is my second Danmachi fanfic. You could say it's a "sequel" to my first one, "Dinner for Two," as it takes place directly afterwards, but the relationship between Bell and Lili takes a back seat to a much bigger plot, and you don't need to read the original to understand the story (previous deviations from canon are briefly explained as they come up). I considered adding additional chapters to "Dinner for Two," but Hearthstop is different enough from the simple BellxLili romance story to be an entirely new fanfic.
The story will have four large chapters split into three "sides" for a total of twelve smaller chapters. Side A will focus on Hestia Familia's version of events, Side B will focus on Loki Familia's version, and Side C will be an additional story showing how minor characters in Danmachi are affected by the circumstances.
Chapter 1A: Letter From the Editor
On Tower Orario's distant rooftop, a small flame burns eternal. Winds blow, rains fall, and winter sets in, but this tiny flame burns strong. Few citizens know of its existence. Fewer still know this little flame grows smaller, weaker, colder every day, and one day very soon, it will finally flicker out.
Do you know where monsters come from?
Did your grandfather ever tell you?
Bell Cranel flipped the note over, and again, and once more. He held it up to the crystal lamp: no secret message. Those really were the only words on it.
"Eina, what's this all about?" Bell pocketed his letter and started grabbing crystals from Liliruca Arde's giant sack. "What did this person look like?"
"You know, it's strange," Eina Tulle put her hand to her chin and looked up. "Even though he was here just a few minutes ago, I can't remember. It's like he was never here to begin with. I told him we're not a courier service, but he wouldn't listen. Anyway, it all worked out since you showed up so soon after he left."
The exchange counter lady placed Bell's crystals on a big scale, weighed them one by one, and tallied up something in her notepad. She handed the adventurer boy a large bag of gold, coins jingling as he shifted his weight to carry it.
"Bell, don't tell me it's a love letter!" Lili snatched the parchment from Bell's hands. She read it over and paused, deep in thought.
Beside them, a burly man with a barbarian outfit and a beard you could keep a cow in slammed a small crystal on the other counter. A guild serviceman weighed his crystals and handed him a tiny pouch of gold and a receipt. The barbarian slammed his fist on the counter.
"What do you mean '900 Valis!?'" His hair was frayed and his armor was singed. "Can't you see this is a top tier crystal? Come on, just a few thousand more! What's wrong with you greedy bastards!?"
Misha Flott, a pink-haired girl about Eina's age and her best friend in the Guild, watched the scene and sighed.
"Third time today," Misha ran her hand through her hair. "Glad I'm not working exchange."
"Yeah," Eina nodded. "They're even more desperate than usual. I wonder what's going on."
The large man grabbed the iron grate separating him and the exchange man, ripped it off its foundation, tossed it aside, and leaned over the counter. Eina covered her mouth.
"You think you can just rip me off, don't you?" The Soma barbarian reached through, clutching the serviceman's collar. "Whassamatter? Scared of adventurers? Maybe starting to rethink your offer?"
"Bell, don't!" Lili saw Bell reach for his knife and grabbed at his hand. "Let's just go, alright?"
Bell tugged his hand from Lili's grasp and lunged at the barbarian, knocking him off his feet with a kick. The exchange serviceman fell backward and gasped for air.
"What's your problem, kid?" The barbarian wheezed and rose to his feet. "This is a private transaction. Stay out of my way!"
Bell gripped his knife in reverse, assumed a defensive stance, and watched the barbarian dash out of the guild, leaving his gold behind.
"Was I really that scary?" Bell sheathed his knife. "Oh."
Aiz Wallenstein, the Sword Princess, walked in looking despondent, followed by Riveria Alf, her right-hand mage. Bell realized the man hadn't run from him at all. Aiz shot a silent glare at Bell and Lili before dumping her crystals on a counter.
That's right: several weeks ago, Bell and Lili had bumped into Aiz Wallenstein, Bete Loga, and Finn Deimne in the dungeon. The Sword Princess, renown for her composure and grace, had seen Lili's engagement ring and grown furious. She'd forced Bell's fiancée to fight her, and since then, a silent tension stirred between Hestia and Loki familia.
"It's as I thought," said Riveria, shaking her head. "Less and less each time."
Aiz hung her head and left the guild as quickly as she'd entered. Riveria stopped and thought for a moment before following her out.
"Eina, I shouldn't pry, but why is everyone so frustrated?" Bell turned to the half-elf at the counter. She adjusted her glasses and leaned back into her chair.
"From what I've gathered," Eina crossed her legs and folded her arms. "There's been a shortage of monsters in the dungeon. Their spawn rate's decreasing, so adventurers' returns on investment are decreasing as well. Of course, people like Wallenstein blame themselves, as if working harder will change anything."
"Spawn rate...?" Lili stared at the letter again. Who was this "H" person?
"My oh my, Miss Supporter, you've done well."
Goddess Hestia dismissed the status interface and jotted some stats down on a piece of paper. Lili turned from the pillow to look.
"Heee! Rank A! Rank A!" Lili's tail wagged furiously. "Bell, look, look! I got Rank A in Vitality!"
Bell's life had changed a lot in the last year. He'd paid off his supporter's debt to Soma Familia, found a streetside mini-mansion for Hestia, and proposed to Lili by moonlight. Hestia had even begin to accept their engagement. Still, seeing them lying on Hestia's bed, bare-back, staring soulfully into each others' eyes... the whole situation bothered her more than a little.
"That's great, Lili!" Bell gave her a thumbs up. "You've been working really hard, so I'm not surprised."
Even though they slept together, Bell still turned red at the sight of Lili lying shirtless on the bed beside him.
"Now, Bell-kun, it's your turn!" Hestia leapt across the bed and smashed Bell's face into his pillow. "You'll have PLENTY of time to ogle that thieving dog, so don't get so excited!"
Goddess Hestia pricked her finger and let a drop of blood fall on Bell's back. His status tattoo glowed, and the numbers engraved within rose into the air, shifting and sliding. Strength: 332. Dexterity: 681. Vitality: 194. The process continued like this until Hestia swiped the interface away, and the tattoo on Bell's back warped to reflect his new status.
Today, only his Strength ranked up. Hestia knew this would happen, of course. When Lili stole his heart away one Spring day, Realis Phrase disappeared. Hestia made Bell promise to bring her happiness by buying a house Hera herself would envy. This promise briefly brought Bell's skill back, but she underestimated how quickly her "Little Rookie" could gather crystals. When the Familia moved in to Apollo's old mansion, and Bell proposed to Lili, his skill disappeared, and his stat growth slowed to a crawl.
Hestia handed Bell his stat sheet, and he turned it over a few times, frowning. She crossed her legs and put her hands on her knees behind him.
"Bell-kun, at this rate, Miss Supporter will catch up to you," The little Goddess smirked. "If you don't work harder, you might even fall behind!"
"Eheheh," Bell waved his hand dismissively. "To be honest, I thought this sort of thing might happen. After all, Lili and I fight side by side now."
"That's right!" Lili sat up and pumped her fists. "With Artel Assist and Welf's sword, my Bell doesn't have to protect me all the time."
"Hmph," Plan status: failure. Hestia hopped off the bed as Lili fastened her bra and Bell pulled his shirt back over his head. "Anyway, what do you two want for dinner?"
Lili shouted "beef soup!" over Bell's cry of "omelette!" Hestia skipped away, leaving them alone.
"I think she's finally warming up to me," said Lili. She pulled her shirt back on and laid back on the bed. "Even though she still calls me 'Miss Supporter' and 'that dog.'"
"Ah, she doesn't mean disrespect!" Bell laid back as well and wrapped an arm around Lili, pulling her close. "My Goddess likes nicknames. For example, it makes no sense to call me Bell-kun in an English-language fanfic, but she wouldn't be comfortable just calling me Bell."
"You're probably right," Lili sighed. "Anyway, expecting her to be completely fine with all this is a bit much."
"What do you mean, 'all this?'" Bell raised an eyebrow.
"Think about how she feels," Lili said. She was more perceptive than usual today. "Your Goddess loved you for a long time, hiding her true feelings for your sake, only for some little Prum girl to show up out of nowhere and steal you away. Not only that, but we're gonna get married and have eight kids and grow old and die together. Hestia will have to watch all of it and find some way to keep living afterwards. I bet she's thought about all this before, but it wasn't real until now."
"I think I knew that, in the back of my mind, but I couldn't see my Goddess as anything but a sister," Bell shrugged. After a moment, he shot up from the bed. "EIGHT KIDS!?"
"Shh, shh, shh," Lili pulled him back down and placed a finger on his lips. "Let's just enjoy the quiet while it lasts."
"Ha-ha-ha! Your pouch is looking pitiful, lass!" "You too, Boss? So it's not just a fluke." "Maybe someone's going through and stealing our kills before we show up." "At this rate, I'll never be able to afford that lotion for the Missus..."
A tall figure in a white cloak walked through the crowd outside Tower Orario, concealed in silence amongst a cacophony of frightened voices. Locks of teal hair hung below a white hood. The mystery person turned to the sky and stared. Tower Orario reached up into the clouds and disappeared.
Magic drew on divine power, valuable reagents, and environmental factors, but most importantly, magic drew on the user. A spell strong enough to affect the whole dungeon would shrivel its caster like a prune. Even a ritual of hundreds could not sustain such vast power.
So what sort of spell was weakening the dungeon, and who was its caster?
Bell and Lili turned blue as Goddess Hestia set the table. She wore a "HEARTHMASTER SUPREME" apron with little hearts around the words.
"Isn't that what you wanted?" Hestia sat bowls and forks - forks!? - in front of them. "Miss Supporter, I hope you don't expect me to be your maid-cook once you marry my Bell-kun. This is just a treat for two soon-to-weds!"
"I hadn't thought about that," Lili's face fell and hit the table. Her domestic skills were Rank F.
"Goddess, would you want us to move out?" Bell picked at his soup. It wasn't as bad as it looked.
"Move out!?" Hestia leapt from her seat and wrapped herself around Bell like a Facehugger. "Leaving your Goddess all alone in this big, empty mansion! I might turn turn to dust from despair or become some wretched alcoholic, turning naughty tricks in town for attention and ale! Oh, what a horrible thought!"
"G-G-G-Goddess, please!" Bell flailed. His chair wobbled. "In that case, I won't ever leave you!"
"Ehhh? 'Never?'" Lili glared at Bell. "Bell, you would force your poor Goddess to be a live-in aunt for eight teething Half-Prums?"
"EIGHT?" Hestia felt herself turn to stone and shatter into a million pieces. "Eight little doggy-eared Bell-kuns?"
"No matter how you look at it, this isn't normal dinner conversation!" Bell pushed Hestia off him.
"Miss Supporter, I thought you had put on a couple pounds, but to think you would shamefully deflower my precious Bell-kun even before your wedding-!" Tears streaming down her face, Hestia reached into a cabinet and pulled out three bottles of "Cooking" Sake.
"That's NOT what I meant!" Lili bared her fangs and tried to suck her belly in. "And you can't 'become' a wretched alcoholic if you already are one."
"Tell me one thing, Miss Supporter!" Hestia opened a Sake bottle and gulped the whole thing in one go. She slammed the empty bottle on the table, clinking omelette soup bowls, and started on another. "Why do you wear that fake Chienthrope outfit even in the privacy of our home? Even with Soma Familia paid off?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Lili's puppy ears shot up. "Bell likes me better this way."
"Eheheheh," Bell blushed and sunk into his chair.
"So you used Bell-kun's weakness for cute animal girls to seduce him!?" Hestia popped open her third bottle, wishing she had stolen some cat ears back when she worked at a costume store. "I never stood a chance!"
"Also, Goddess," Lili drew closer to Hestia and grinned evilly. She slid her fluffy tail up and down the Goddess' arm. "My 'fake' Chienthrope form is fully functional, even when it comes to 'that,' you know?"
Hestia flipped her bowl. In slow motion, omelette soup barrelled toward Lili's face...
"I'm sorry, Sir, but I can't help you," Eina Tulle counted change as the sun set outside the Adventurer's Guild. "I don't know any more than the adventurers know, and they're all as confused as you."
"Ma'am," The white-cloaked figure's voice was soft but serious.
"Hm?" Eina stopped and looked up.
"It's Ma'am, not 'Sir.'" The cloaked woman extended her hand. "Reverend Eria, travelling priestess."
"Oh, sorry," Eina very hesitantly took Reverend Eria's hand and shook. "Do I know you, Reverend?"
"No," The priestess turned and walked to the door. "If you learn anything, please let me know."
Reverend Eria tossed a small notebook Eina's way. Eina noticed faint runes engraved on the cover.
"A two-way notebook?"
In the dark of night, as rain drummed on the roof and mice chattered on the floor, Bell carefully extracted himself from Lili's dreamy grasp, hopped off the bed, and felt his way to Goddess Hestia's room. His footsteps echoed like thunderclaps in the great, empty mansion.
By magic lamp light, Hestia thumbed through a colossal book: "Rejected Waifu Recovery Manual: Moving On After He's Moved On!" She heard footsteps and hurled the book at a wall, frantically reaching around for a pocket-knife under her pillow.
"That's as far as you go!" She rolled out of bed and waved her knife around with wild abandon. "I-I'll have you know I've got several Level 5 adventurers in my Familia who'll hunt you down if you do anything! Oh - Bell-kun."
"Sorry to trouble you, Goddess." Bell sat on the foot of Hestia's bed.
"N-no trouble at all," Hestia breathed a sigh of relief. "But Bell-kun, this isn't like you. Rendezvousing with your Goddess in the middle of the night? Keeping a girl 'on the side?' What would your supporter think? Buuuut, since you're already here..."
"What in the world are you talking about?" Bell furrowed his brow. "Anyway, I couldn't sleep. Something's been bothering me."
"Remember what I told you that day? You can tell your Goddess anything. That's a benefit of joining Hestia Familia." Hestia sat down next to him. For a moment, Bell realized his Goddess was beautiful. No surprise, really - even Loki was stunning in her own way - but with her hair down, and in those white pajamas... he shook his head and dismissed the thought.
"Goddess," Bell handed her the strange letter he'd received at the Guild. "Where do monsters come from?"
Great God Zeus, high above in Heaven, looked down upon Creation and slapped someone on the back.
"Amazing, isn't it? Look at this, lad," Zeus spun the Earth and pointed to a small, stone circle near a continent's edge. Tiny beings marched into the circle through a little gate. "They're all working together to make this place beautiful. 'Orario,' they call it. I dream of flying down there and telling them how proud I am."
"Best we not interfere," said Zeus' companion. His voice was deep and his words were calculated. "Isn't greeting them in death enough?"
"About that," Zeus folded his massive, hairy arms. "Remember when you missed last month's Denatus?"
"I see," Bell stared at his feet. "I guess there's some things off limits even to gods."
"Yeah," Hestia cross her legs. "Despite all our powers, we're not omnipotent, omniscient, or other omni-things."
"Wait, 'all our powers?'"
"I shouldn't say this, Bell-kun, but even in this world, gods can cheat," Hestia smiled and leaned her head against Bell's shoulder. "We can raise your stats and levels as high as we want and level cities on a whim."
Bell's mind flashed back to his unusual growth spurt.
"Goddess, don't tell me you-"
"Nope," Hestia nuzzled Bell's arm. "That was all your skill. Besides, I'd get sent back to Heaven for sure if I didn't follow the game rules."
"Game rules? Skill?" Bell reached a hand around to the tattoo on his back. "You mean 'Argonaut?' But my growth spurt started weeks before that!"
"I lied to you, Bell-kun," Hestia yawned. "Didn't I tell you deities are a pack of fun-starved hyenas? I couldn't let anyone find out about such a powerful skill."
"But then," Bell balled his hands up in fists. "Why did it stop?"
"Realis Phrase," Hestia's voice trailed off as she recited the skill description. "Accelerates growth of user. Effect increases with intensity of feelings. Effect lasts while feelings remain unchanged."
A minute passed in silence as Bell thought hard. Finally, he whispered to himself: "Aiz."
Hestia snored, sound asleep. Bell lifted her up, carried her to her pillow, and pulled the covers over her. He stopped in the doorway before heading back to his room.
"Sleep well, Goddess."
He wondered: did gods dream?
In the dark hours of the morning, as even cicadas slumbered, a knock echoed through the Hestia Familia mansion.
"Myeh," Lili tossed and turned. "Gotta rest up for th' cerrmony. Let the Goddess get it."
"Oh, yeah. Weddin'," Bell yawned. "I almost forgot thass today..."
"Don' even joke about forgettin' stuff like that," Lili elbowed him half-heartedly.
Bell rubbed his eyes, rolled out of bed, slipped into a white bathrobe, and walked down the hall to the front door. When he finally cracked the massive door open, a woman in a great, white cloak stood in front of him. Behind her, a slender, fire-haired girl shivered in the night, eyes shut tight.
"Trouble stirs," Reverend Eria pulled her hood back, revealing two long, thin, elven ears. "We request sanctuary under your Familia."
"Riveria? Goddess Loki?"
Bell had a sinking feeling he was going to be late to his own wedding.