My Tough Girls
by Sauron Gorthaur
The dratted bee was back. It buzzed annoyingly just outside the window, the constant droning sound vibrating in Bog's ears and inflaming his headache. He gritted his teeth, resisting the urge to yell at it or fly out the window to chase it off from the hollyhocks it was currently enjoying. Instead, he leaned his forehead against the wall, tapping his long fingers with nervous energy against the fairy granite.
He'd paced, he'd sat, and he'd paced some more. What he really wanted to do was stretch his wings and fly out into the clear summer morning, shedding the claustrophobic confines of the stone palace and emptying his mind of the innumerable worries, doubts, and fears assailing it. But he could not bear the thought of leaving, not when the summons could come at any moment now. So he'd had to content himself with his restless pacing, his wings fluttering and buzzing with agonizing impatience. Occasionally, a fairy turned the corner at the far end of the hall, but one look at the scowling, pacing goblin king was enough to make them do a very abrupt U-turn and vanish as quickly as they'd appeared.
At least it was better than the ante-chamber. If he'd had to hear one more "Oh, stop your pacing, your feet are going to wear right off" from his mother, he was fairly sure he would have lost it, thrown all caution to the wind, and barged right in, fairy customs be damned.
It had come as a shock that morning to learn that unlike goblins, fairies didn't consider it proper to have the father present at a child's birth. His initial reaction had been the seething desire to wring the neck of whatever idiotic, pompous fairy had come up with that one.
He'd submitted to the request to wait outside however without a fight, even though he found himself sullenly wondering whether the custom was even legitimate or if the fairy midwives had told him that simply because they were afraid he would hurt somebody if he was present. The thought of not being at Marianne's side, to hold her hand and give her what support and comfort he could, was excruciating, but his wife had far too much on her mind already to worry over him making a scene and causing a disturbance with a possible breach in fairy etiquette.
So instead, he was stuck here, alternating between pacing and banging his head forlornly against the wall.
"You know, son, Marianne isn't the first woman to ever bring a child into this world," Griselda had said on one of the occasions when he'd snarled at her for nagging about his pacing.
"I've reason to suspect this child won't be like most fairylings," he'd growled back at her.
"And what exactly is your worrying going to do about it?" Griselda retorted with barely a pause for breath. "I'll tell you what it'll do. Bring you to an early grave, that's what it'll do."
"Fine! I'll wait in the hall!" Bog stormed, and that was what he'd done.
He lifted his head from the wall. "Oh, go on. Shoo, shoo, shoo!" he exploded at the bee. "There's plenty of flowers on the other side of the palace where I can't hear you. Go shove your fat head down one of those!" The bee gave him an indignant buzz and toddled off, its fuzzy body wobbling through the air until it vanished from his line of sight. He returned his head to the wall.
"You're not going to feel any better yelling at bees, you know," Griselda's stringent voice, only slightly muffled by the door, reached him.
"I'm fine, Mother," he shouted back.
"You're not banging your head on the wall again, are you?"
He banged his head on the wall. "No."
"Good. Because I'm sure your wife prefers you with your head still attached to your shoulders. By the way, this nice fairy lady here says Marianne's asking for you."
Bog slammed the door open so quickly that he nearly bowled over both his mother and the nervous fairy woman who'd been fluttering on the other side. "What? Where? Where's Marianne? Is the baby here? Is everything all right?"
The fairy had to swallow several times before plucking up the courage to answer. "E…Everything's fine, Your Majesty. Princess Marianne is in excellent health and good spirits, and the baby…she's just fine."
"It's a girl?" Bog's voice dropped down to a hoarse whisper, his eyes going wide. "I…I have a daughter?"
"I'm a grandma!" Griselda crowed from behind him, but Bog found himself staring blankly at the ornate door on the opposite side of the room. Paralysis seized him, freezing him to the spot, unable to do so much as twitch a wing. He was vaguely aware that he was breathing harder than he probably should be.
"Well, are you going to get your spiky carapace in there to meet my granddaughter or not?" Griselda said, giving him an encouraging jab in the back.
"Oh right. Right, right…" He shook out his wings nervously and dusted self-consciously at his abdominal scales. His shoulder spurs flared as he took a deep, steadying breath. A very deep, very steadying, very slow breath.
"If you don't get in there this instant, I'm going to drag you in by your wings," Griselda threatened.
"All right, all right, I'm going!" With an irritated glare at his mother, he started towards the door. His stomach was performing cartwheels and his mind seemed fuzzy and distant. Dazedly, he glanced at the other half of his family, who were seated quietly on the far side of Griselda. The Fairy King looked tired and nervous, but Dawn, sitting beside her father and holding his hand, offered Bog a reassuring smile when he looked in their direction.
He curled his claws around the door handle then found himself staring apprehensively at them. What was he going to say? What in the world was he supposed to do? What if Marianne wanted him to hold the baby? Panic clawed up his throat. He wasn't made for this sort of thing! He didn't know much about babies, but he was pretty sure you were supposed to keep them away from hard pointy things with spines and claws.
He was also pretty sure he met all of those criteria.
Maybe he should have padded his exoskeleton first or something.
He coughed loudly, clearing his throat, shook his head in a last attempt to dispel the nervous fog, then pulled open the door.
Inside, it was dark, with a thick catalpa leaf curtain over the window and a few amber lanterns glowing from wall sconces, but the dim light felt more natural and comfortable to the goblin king than the bright sunshine of the hallway. Several fairies moved about quietly in his peripheral, but he had eyes only for Marianne.
He winged to her side, dropping down soundlessly beside the canopied rose bed and brushed aside the gossamer curtain woven from downy milkweed silk. "How you doing, tough girl?"
Marianne turned to him, her whole face lighting up with a smile that made his legs wobbly and his heart beat at a giddy pace. She looked worn, but the small hand that slipped into his was as steady and strong as ever. "There you are! I didn't think they were ever going to let you in. Stupid customs."
Bog couldn't help letting his lips twitch at that. "We'll make sure to get that changed before the next time round. Being princess has got to count for something around here, eh?"
"You would think," Marianne muttered, but then both their gazes were drawn down to the little bundle of pink rose petals tucked against Marianne's chest.
"So, this is…?"
"Bog, meet Rosalind."
She turned the bundle in her arms and Bog found himself looking down at a little pink face and two tiny hands peeking out from the petal blanket.
Brown curls clung to the baby's head, but Bog could see small vestigial crest plates like his own above her closed eyes. The shape of her face was far more Marianne's, but her nose was sharper and her ears shorter and thicker than a regular fairy's. Her tiny fingers ended with even tinier grey claws.
Bog felt his breath catch at the back of his throat. "She's beautiful," he breathed, unable to take his eyes off her, mesmerized by her sheer smallness and the captivating combination of his features and Marianne's in a single face. "She's perfect."
One of the midwives approached from the opposite side of the bed with a damp towel, but Marianne shooed her away. "Thank you very much for your help, Clara, but the Bog King and I would like some time alone with our daughter."
Silence enveloped them like a soft cocoon. Gingerly, Bog settled himself on the edge of the bed, still staring enraptured at the face of the little girl in his wife's arms. Marianne squeezed his hand. "Why don't you hold her, Bog?"
Bog pulled away automatically, his fingers twitching uneasily. "Oh, er, don't know if that's such a good idea…"
"Is the fearless Bog King of the Dark Forest going chicken?" Marianne teased with a smirk. "Afraid of a little baby?"
"No!" Bog retorted indignantly. "Of course not. It's just…" he gestured vaguely at the baby, "…I don't want to hurt the wee thing, is all."
Marianne rolled her eyes at him. "You're not going to hurt her. I cuddle with you every night and you haven't impaled me with anything yet."
"I, eh, I guess that's true." Bog scratched awkwardly at his neck. Cautiously, he held out his arms in what he hoped was a good baby-cradling position. Marianne leaned over, her arm brushing gently against his for a moment, and slipped the bundle into his waiting hold.
The baby was lighter than he would have guessed and looked even smaller in his arms than she had in Marianne's. The rose petal blanket was as soft as velvet against his rough hide. She looked so delicate and tiny that he found himself hardly daring to breathe for fear of disturbing her as he drew her to his chest. With a soft gurgling sound, she stirred slightly and her little fists opened and closed. Her eyelids flickered.
Bog swallowed, his nerves returning as submerged doubts resurfaced. What would his beautiful little daughter think when she first opened her eyes to see him looking down at her? Even the goblin children of his own realm hesitated at the sight of him. As for the fairy and elfish children… Even after all this time, even as he'd tried his best to appear unintimidating throughout his courtship with Marianne, he was still a frightening sight for far too many of the Fairy Kingdom's residents.
He shifted his hands uncomfortably as a brief memory flashed through his mind. He'd been on his way to visit Marianne, his heart bubbling with eager anticipation and happiness, when he'd happened across a small group of elflings playing by the stream. One elf child had fallen, skinning her knee on the rough stones, and subsequently began wailing loudly. Without a second thought, he'd flown down towards her, but he hadn't even gotten out the words "You all right, lass?" before she'd frozen at the sight of him. Then, with a little wail of terror, she'd bolted after the other children, skinned knee forgotten before the horror of his approach.
The look of fear and revulsion that had been stamped across that little face haunted him for days, sinking him back into a bitter mood of angry self-loathing that even Marianne had struggled to drag him back out of.
He looked down at Rosalind's sweet, chubby face. Great, he thought morosely, I'm going to traumatize my own daughter before she's ten minutes old.
She squirmed again, mewling quietly, and Bog's chest tightened with worry, his breath struggling up his windpipe. Rosalind's hands twitched, her head shifting positions, then with a wide yawn her eyelids flickered open. Bog found himself looking back down into a pair of large, round eyes studying him with intense curiosity and calm wonderment, eyes of the clearest crystal blue.
Awe trickled warm and soft through his heart. "Will you look at that? She's got my eyes," he whispered, wonder heavy in his voice.
"She's got your exoskeleton too."
With exaggerated care, Bog hooked one claw over the edge of the blanket, peeling it down. Sure enough, at the base of her throat was the start of a plated collar, currently as soft as wet cardboard, though he knew that within a few hours it would harden to the consistency and protection of tree bark.
"I bet she'll have my wings though," Marianne said, leaning back into the mound of pillows behind her.
"No, I guarantee she'll have my wings. Sure thing."
"If I'm right, you have to sing karaoke at the next festival. And it has to be "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch."
"Deal. But if I'm right, you have to do it."
Bog was distracted at the sudden sensation of little fingers patting at his sharp chin. Rosalind had pulled an arm free and stretched it out to its limit, batting clumsily at his face. He leaned closer, fascinated, and with a happy cooing sound, she got ahold of his nose and began tugging it gleefully. As she did so, an enormous smile split across her face and she gurgled delightedly, all the while staring directly up into his eyes.
There was no fear in her expression, no revulsion, no horror. Instead, she gazed up at his face as if he was the most wonderful sight to which she could have ever wished to open her eyes.
The tightness in his chest slowly slackened, but there was something strange happening with his eyes. They felt taut, like something was pressing against them from inside his skull, and they were…moist. He lifted one claw to his cheek and brushed at the moisture oozing out of his eyes, only for it to be immediately replaced by more.
"Bog? Bog, are you crying?" Marianne asked with fond amusement in her voice, even though her own eyes seemed distinctly misty as well.
"No," Bog choked, even though he knew he was. He pressed a hand over his lower face, eyes streaming, his chest overflowing with a warm fullness. Gently, he unhooked Rosalind's fingers from his nose and let them curl around one of his claws instead. Her grip was surprisingly strong. "You're going to be a tough, wee thing, aren't you, Rosalind?" he cooed to her, his voice subconsciously rising several semitones. "Just like your mother, eh?"
Marianne made room as he gingerly stretched out beside her, tucking the rabbit down blankets protectively around her and slipping his arm around her shoulders to cradle her against him. Rosalind nestled in the shallow valley formed between her parents' bodies, still clinging fiercely to her father's finger. "I think she approves of you," Marianne said, wrapping her arm around them both and snuggling closer into Bog's chest.
"Aye, I think so too," he murmured back, rubbing the base of her wings tenderly and eliciting a content moan from her. He laid his cheek against the dandelion fluff of her hair, looking down at both of them, drowsy euphoria eclipsing his thoughts.
"You have to help her when she starts molting though," Marianne murmured, sounding equally drowsy.
"Agreed. As long as you take the responsibility for telling her about the birds and the bees. I'm not doing that."
"Fair enough. And equal shares for singing her to sleep at night."
He kissed the top of her head. "As you say, my queen."
He listened as the breathing of his wife and his daughter evened to the slow, tranquil pace of slumber. Rosalind's grip on his finger slackened and her tiny hand slipped back down onto her mother's chest. He bent down to press a soft kiss to her downy head as well, a fondness so intense that it almost hurt swelling in his breast. He watched them both through eyes hooded with content sleepiness, a smile softening his face.
"Looks like I've got two tough girls now," he whispered.