Part IV

Marianne's anticipation for the night to come was a warm, soft bloom unfurling in her stomach that sent tingling tendrils all the way down to her fingertips and her toes. Her heart raced with eagerness. Perched on top of an old tree stump on the border between the Fairy Meadows and the Dark Forest, she pondered how Bog would respond to what she had planned for him, yearning with all her heart that he would enjoy this special night as much as she hoped he would.

They had agreed to meet at the border at moonrise. Marianne had arrived first, just as the silver light of the moon was peeking through the dark branches of the forest, a pack slung around her middle containing everything she'd need for the night. Every shiver of shadowy movement beneath the trees, every rustle and buzz, set her heart thumping with expectancy, her entire body aching with the desire to see him. No more than a few minutes could have passed however before the familiar whir of dragonfly-like wings brushed against her senses, and then Bog was materializing from the darkness of his realm to land before her, the arch that led back into the forest framing him and the moonlight glancing with a hoary glow off his carapace.

Marianne felt her cheeks flush at the sight of him. "Hey," she said.

His fingers crackled as he squeezed them around the shaft of his scepter. "Hey."

She brushed a strand of hair back behind her ear. "So, are you ready?"

He swept his lithe body into a graceful bow, one hand extended in invitation. "The stage is all yours, Princess. Lead the way."

She opened her wings, and smiled at how his eyes strayed to the purple canopy. Taking his free hand in hers, she squeezed it. "This way, Your Majesty."

Together, they took to the air and the night wrapped itself around them.

The place she sought was one of the few in her own kingdom that she had yet to share with her lover. She had been there just a handful of times herself, only during the day, and never for the reason that drew most of her folk to its embrace.

The stream that flowed through the middle of the Fairy Meadows cascaded down several steps into a small, intimate pool surrounded by luminous moonflowers that were just beginning to open when Marianne and Bog arrived. On the far side of the waterfall, a smooth, mossy slope led directly down into the clear water. Several paces from the water's edge, a large, flat stone covered in creeping moss lay dark and still in the moonlight. The chirr of summer insects mixed lazily with the sensual patter and ripple of the water, sending shivers down Marianne's spine as her feet touched down on the soft, sandy earth.

It was a favorite haunt of young fairy couples, especially on nights like this when the moonlight was bright and the air was cool after the day's heat. Once, Marianne had fostered the hope that Roland might bring her here some evening at a full moon, but as she led Bog down towards the pool she found herself grateful that the magical place was unspoiled, a white parchment on her heart where she and Bog could write their own story.

She glanced over at her lover, curious to see his first impression of the place. He looked intrigued, as he always did when she showed him some new facet of her kingdom, his eyes glancing back and forth to take in the whole scene, his lips parted slightly as he breathed, the tips of his fangs glistening. Sensing her observation of him, his gaze flickered back to hers, his head tilting slightly with cautious curiosity as he awaited her lead, clearly unsure what she had planned.

She slipped her hand up the rough scales of his side and slid her fingers over his lower back in a loose embrace, then pressed a soft kiss to his shoulder. "How do you feel about taking a dip?"

He eyed the water and then her, a question clear in his raised brow. Slowly, he leaned his staff against a stone and approached the pool, his feet making a soft crunch, crunch in the sandy soil, then he waded in until he was up to his middle. He turned then, ripples of dark, star-studded water swirling around his waist, his wings trailing behind him like a gossamer cape. "You joining me, tough girl?"

Marianne felt the urge sweep through her to chase him out into the water, throw herself onto him, and feel the glorious moment when they both plunged sideways, clasped in one another's embrace, even though, like most fairies, she could barely swim and her wings would be sodden and useless for hours afterward. She resisted, returning his playful smile instead. "I have a few things left to get done before I give you the night of your life. Wet yourself all down, and enjoy your swim. I'll be right back."

He sank languidly backwards until he was floating in the undulating water. His voice was nothing short of a purr. "I'll be waiting."

The scenic romance of the pool was one of the reasons the place made a perfect destination for a moonlit date. The flat, mossy stone by the bank was another. But it was the third reason that Marianne sought out now.

The scent of lavender sprigs wafted through the tall grass, guiding Marianne to a small, nearby grove filled with the purple stalks. Reaching into her pack, she pulled out a glass jar she'd brought with her from the palace and set it on the ground beside her. She paused for a moment to close her eyes and take in the night, the soft brush of the evening air, and the heady scent of the flowers surrounding her. Carefully, she drew her sword and opened her eyes, weighing the familiar heft of her blade lightly in one hand, then let it flick out, severing one of the lavender stalks.

Several large aloe plants squatted at the edge of the grove on the far side of the lavender bushes. Marianne's sword flickered out again, slicing off the tip of one of the bulging leaves. Carefully cradling the oozing leaf so as not to waste any of the creamy gel inside, Marianne flitted back to her jar and the waiting sprigs of cut lavender.

Though the idea of sharing this place with Bog had come to Marianne that morning, carrying out her plan had required a few questions, which she had put to Griselda that afternoon once she'd left Bog's chambers. For fairies, the aloe gel made a soothing salve that softened a fey's skin to silk and eased the tension of wound-up nerves and muscles. However, Bog's chitinous scales were a different story.

Still, Griselda's eyes had lit up as Marianne explained her idea. The Queen Mother had looked on the verge of giving Marianne an enthusiastic goblin hug. "Oh, I think that's a lovely idea, sweetie," she'd gushed delightedly. "That boy isn't going to know what hit him. If he wasn't already smack-gob dizzy, head-over-heels in love with you, he'd have no chance."

Marianne opened her mouth, but Griselda tapped her lips before she could take in a breath to speak. "The salve probably won't have the exact same effect on him as it would on you, dearie, but it certainly won't do him a lick of harm. I used to use a salve like that on him all the time when he was molting as a baby, and it took care of the itching and dryness every time."

She shook a finger meaningfully at Marianne. "I can guarantee the only thing you'll have trouble with is that boy going all shy on you when you let him in on the secret, but don't you dare let him weasel his way out of this one. Lordy knows just how much he needs the truth about himself knocked into that thick pinecone of a skull!"

Marianne could not help but smirk at the memory. Finished, she scooped up the jar and flew back through the tall grass to the pool.

Bog was swimming in leisurely circles, wings beating lightly at the water, his body dark and graceful in the moonlight. Marianne paused at the edge of the clearing, the jar clutched tight to her chest, mesmerized by the sight of him as heat rose in her cheeks and breast and a thrill quivered through her core. Just then, Bog glanced up and his eyes fell on her. He rose to his feet, the water gliding off his scales in a thousand silver rivulets. Wet, his carapace looked darker than usual, almost black, and the water droplets clinging to his wings made them glisten as if they were encrusted with diamonds. Marianne felt her heart leap into her throat at how beautiful he looked.

She swallowed, suddenly feeling flustered. "I'm all ready, Your Majesty," she said, brushing her hair back self-consciously. "Time for the main event."

He waded out of the water, shaking himself, wings flared, sending the droplets flying. He looked mildly unsure of himself now as he approached her, his fingers twitching uncertainly as she reached out to take him by the hand. His claws brushed against her skin as their fingers twined.

Spreading her wings, she rose into the air, fluttering backwards and pulling him along by the hands towards the mossy stone. His expression had melted into something vulnerable and shy, but there was trust in his eyes as he kept his gaze locked with hers, allowing her to pull him forward. When they arrived, his eyes traveled over the stone and the glass jar, and she saw the moment when they went wide and impossibly blue with understanding. A flicker of nervous apprehension and embarrassment crossed his face and his eyes dropped down. His hand tugged a little against hers, as if his instinct was to pull away and step back.

"Ah…Ah dorn't…ye dorn't have to do this fer me, Marianne," he said in a small voice, his accent thickening with nerves. "Ah wouldnae ever ask fer somethin' like this."

"I know you wouldn't." She leaned in to kiss his cheek. "That's why I'm doing it." When he started to protest, she put a finger on his lips. "Please let me do this for you, Bog. I messed up big time yesterday, and I left you feeling miserable and alone as a result. Let me make you feel wonderful now."

He closed his eyes and cupped her hand with his own over his cheek, pressing his face to her skin. She could feel him trembling as he turned his face to kiss the inside of her palm. She wrapped her other arm around his neck, leaning in close to him, her body pressed against his. "Come on, Bog King," she whispered to him. "Let me give you this night."

"All right," he said hoarsely. "I'm yours, Marianne."

She laid him gently down on the stone, settling him onto his stomach in the soft padding of moss. Even so, his feet still hung off the end, but they both laughed shyly over it before adjusting themselves into mutually comfortable positions, Bog with his head propped up on a roll of moss so that he could breathe easily, Marianne kneeling beside him on the ground.

She unscrewed the glass jar, releasing the sweet smell of aloe and lavender. She dipped in both hands in turn, until every finger was dripping with the aromatic cream, then turned back to her lover. She paused for a second, feeling her heart skipping a fevered beat in her chest and throat, allowing her eyes to slide down the entire length of his body, taking him all in. They had cuddled, kissed, and flirted, but she had never touched him quite so intimately as this, and her nerves hummed inside her with anticipation and uncertainty.

Slowly, lovingly, fingers tingling and heart racing, she set to work.

She started at his neck, working the lotion into every scale and curve of his long, lithe form. She took her time, caressing every ridge of him in turn and sliding her slender fingers up and under each joint of his scales to rub the oil into the sensitive places where his plates joined to his body. She could feel the rippling musculature underneath his second skin as her fingers dug down, kneading and stroking in turn to make sure he felt it throughout his whole frame. Her fingers glided and rubbed over the magnificent curves of his shoulder spurs, causing them to flare and rustle, then slid slowly over the layers of his collar and the back of his shoulders underneath the spurs. Down her fingers worked, and she fondled the bases of each of his wings and stroked down the entire shaft to his wingtips, and he shuddered long and slow when she took extra care to rub firmly down each joint of his spine.

At first, she could feel the tension in his body, taut as a bowstring as she stroked him, and he was stiff and nervous under her fingers, twitching every now and then whenever her hands glided over a particularly sensitive spot. From her position behind him, she couldn't see his face, but it was clear he was uncomfortable having his body under such close scrutiny. Still, he lay prone and compliant for her and she did not stop, but caressed him gently, loving him with her hands and fingers and pouring out her adoration for him with every touch. Slowly, as the oil did its soothing work and Bog began to let down his guard, she felt him relax bit by bit until he was entirely limp and tranquil under her administrations. She smiled and leaned over him, kissing him between his wings until he shivered and whimpered with pleasure, as she continued to stroke up and down his sides.

Once she had finished with his back, she returned to her place by his head. He was resting his chin on the edge of the stone but he pushed himself up and looked at her when she knelt before him. His eyes were wide, and he had an almost bewildered expression on his face as he gazed up at her in awe. She drew her fingertips along his jaw and he closed his eyes with a shuddery breath, leaning into her touch. "How is my king doing?" she asked fondly as she continued to pet his face.

His eyes flickered open, and there was a childlike wonder in them. "I've never felt like this before," he whispered. "No one's ever done anything like this for me."

She kissed his forehead. "But you like it?"

He touched her cheek, eyes glistening. "You make me feel like the stars, Marianne."

She smiled, nuzzling her face against his. "Well, we're only half way done. Will you roll over for me, please?"

His brows rose in surprise for a moment, but soon he was maneuvering himself onto his back with her help. His wings were not as flexible as hers, but they managed together to get him into a comfortable position flat on his back. He looked nervous again as she began to massage the lapels of his carapace. His throat bobbed under her fingers as he swallowed. Now that he was on his back, he was able to watch her work, and she was very much aware of his awed gaze as she lavished attention on his body.

He gave a little twitch as she slid her dripping fingers down between the folds of his collar. She glanced up at him, still rubbing him lightly. "Does it feel good?" she asked him.

He blushed, lowering his eyes. "Aye, it feels wonderful."

"But?" Marianne urged gently.

He shifted, looking embarrassed. "I've never been comfortable in my own skin," he admitted in a barely audible voice, "not even as a child. And I've never been so aware of my skin as I am right now."

Marianne smiled fondly then leaned over to peck his lips and rub her nose softly against his thin cheek. "You've got nothing to be ashamed of."

He nuzzled her back, his long nose and the sharp line of his cheekbone rubbing against her face. "I know. I know it, Marianne, but twelve years and more doesn't vanish in a heartbeat." He smiled. "Even if that heart is beating fit to burst." He paused for a moment. "Which it absolutely is."

She spread her fingers over his chest, and even through the tough chitin of his second skin, she could feel the throb of his heart underneath. She looked back at him with eyes of liquid honey and starlight, taking him all in. "You're the most beautiful creature in the Forest," she whispered, meaning it with every fiber of her being.

He blushed furiously, eyes instantly dropping away from hers. His fingers worked nervously, helpless without his staff to clutch. "Being 'not hideous' is one thing," he muttered, clearly embarrassed. "Being…that…is something else entirely."

Marianne smirked, pleased at seeing her darling goblin so sweetly flustered. "Yes, it is indeed something else entirely," she conceded with a coy twist of her lips.

He put a hand over his face, covering his blush with long fingers. "Anyway, I can't be the most beautiful creature in the Forest, 'cus you spend most of your time there now too."

She laughed and kissed the back of the hand that was still hiding his face. "That's the corniest line I've heard from you in a while, you handsome cheeseball." She pulled on his hand. "Now lay back down and behave yourself for two seconds, won't you? I still have your entire front to finish."

"You're the one who started it," he mumbled under his breath, but he relented and settled himself back down. "But OK, Your Highness, if you insist."

"That I most definitely do," Marianne purred in his ear as she started up again, kneading her fingers into his chest plates. He gave a sharp gasp of pleasure, his fingers curling tightly into the moss beneath him, his eyes fluttering closed.

She worked leisurely down the sharp angle of his chest, over the intricate layers of his collar and down onto the slope of the overlapping scales that covered his stomach. Gliding her fingers carefully over the hard, sharp spurs that curved back from his hips, she slid her hands down the outside of his thighs and rubbed the muscles of his shins and dragged her nails over the thorny casing of his calves. His eyes remained tightly shut, fingers digging down into the padding of his resting spot, his expressions flashing from pleasure to bewildered happiness to a serene contentment that made Marianne's insides turn gooey and warm.

Finally, she reached the very end of him. Dipping her fingers into the creamy gel one last time, she rubbed it all over his large, flat feet, massaging each of his clawed toes until they curled of their own accord, then stroking the tip of her fingers down the arch of each foot, which made him shiver and dig his fingers deeper into the moss. At the very end, she leaned over, cradling his foot, and kissed the bridge of it, sealing this gift that she had given to him.

"All finished," she whispered.

He sat up, still looking half in a trance, and ran his fingers over his chest and stomach, pleasured surprise registering on his expressive face. "I'm so soft," he said in a voice filled with such amazed wonder that Marianne could not hide her pleased smile. "I haven't felt this soft and loose since my last molt." He looked up at her, a shy, boyish grin crossing his face, the moonlight giving his blue eyes a silvery sheen. "I can already tell I'm going to sleep better tonight than I have in years."

He reached out and took her hand, cradling it with tender bashfulness. The skin along his cheekbones flushed a deep crimson yet again as he swallowed. "If you like, I can…I mean…would…would you like to take a turn now?"

Marianne smiled thinly. Without warning, she plopped down across his lap, hooking her fingers over his shoulders between his neck and spurs, legs straddling his hips. Hmmm, he was right, she thought as she settled herself, he was softer than she'd ever felt him before, and dear skies but he smelled good.

She traced her fingers along his neck. "Not tonight," she answered him gently. "Tonight, I want this all to be about you, to show you how I really feel about you and how much I love touching you and seeing you and just being here with you." She leaned forward, wrapping her arms completely around him and reclining against him until they were chest to chest, her head tucked under the sculpted curve of his jaw. He responded by slipping both arms around her middle, cradling her closer to himself. She melted into his embrace. "However, some other night, I am totally going to take you up on that offer."

His laugh was warm, like sunlight trickling over her shoulders. "I'm already looking forward to it."

They remained in their embrace for a long, slow measure, neither willing to break the moment, both savoring the company of their beloved, no kisses or caresses needed beyond the beating of two hearts as one. But finally, Marianne pulled away from him and stroked his jaw, fingers sliding up and down the thorny slope. "I want you to see how you look," she said.

The uncertainty instantly returned to his eyes, and his fingers twitched against her back. "I don't know…"

She put her fingers over his lips, silencing him. "I do." She slid off his lap and pulled him up after her. His eyes were wary, but he made no protest as she led him back towards the water.

They stopped at the water's edge, and Marianne pushed him forward until the soft ripples from the waterfall lapped at his feet. She stepped up beside him. "Look," she urged softly.

He stared down at his reflection glimmering in the water below them. His carapace gleamed with a silver-grey glow, the oil giving him a glorious, glossy sheen, backlit brilliantly by the moonlight streaming through the tangled branches above the hollow. He swallowed. "I- I look… I look…"

Marianne put a hand on his arm and rubbed him gently, leaning into his side. "Beautiful," she whispered. "The word you're searching for is beautiful."

He looked at her then, his eyes brimming with shy gratitude and adoration, his cheeks still flushed that perfect crimson tint. "Yeah," he said bashfully. He swallowed again, clearly overwhelmed. "Yeah."

She rose on her tiptoes to kiss his jaw then leaned her cheek against his. "Go ahead and say it," she encouraged in a quiet voice.

He looked back down at his reflection, at their reflection. "I look beautiful," he whispered in an awed voice.

"Yes, you do," she answered with a smug smile.

He squeezed her hand and met her eyes in the mirror of water. "We look beautiful," he whispered.

"Yes, we do," she said, and this time, when she turned her face up to his, it was his lips she kissed, long and sweet and deep. He enveloped her in his arms, stroking a hand down her shoulder and past her wings, and kissed her in return with blissful abandon.

When they parted for breath, she pressed her face to the side of his neck, heart reeling with love, and he held her to him, his whole frame trembling with the strength of his ardor. "You didn't have to do this for me," he whispered. "I'd already forgiven you. You didn't have to do this to make me love you."

"I know," she replied firmly. "I did it because I wanted to do this for you. Because there's no one else in my life like you and I wanted you to feel special. Because I wanted you to be able to see yourself the way I see you every day. Because I'm madly in love with you, Bog, and I don't want you to doubt it for a second."

He made a choking sound and pressed his face to her hair, and the feel of his jawline and the ridge of his cheek and the curve of his nose against her was intoxicating. "Thank you, Marianne," he choked out, voice thick with stunned emotion. "I-I don't have words to thank you enough for this. Just, thank you, thank you so much, and I love you, tough girl."

"I love you more."

"I love you most."

They both giggled. She cupped his face in her hands, rubbing along his cheekbones with her thumbs, and he held her tenderly around her waist as she stared deep into his eyes. The water rippled at their feet like liquid silver.

They sat down together at the edge of the water, feet dangling into the pool, cuddled in one another's arms. He rubbed her back gently, their faces leaned together. The unusual softness of his scales mingled with the sweet scent of aloe and lavender, overwhelming Marianne's senses with a rush of pleasant sensations.

After a while, Bog shifted, turning himself to face Marianne, eyes lowered self-consciously. He squeezed her hand. "Thank you again," he said softly. "I…you have no idea how much this has meant to me."

He turned his head, looking out over the water. "Last night, I…I didn't know I could hurt that much." His fingers curled into a ball in his lap. "I knew deep down that you were just angry, that we'd both said things we shouldn't have said, but I was so afraid. I…I was afraid you had said what you really felt, deep down. I was afraid that what I'd feared all along was true: that you were just putting up with me, with how ugly I was, and that you were finally getting tired of me and couldn't bear my hideousness any longer."

His eyes squeezed shut with pain. "I felt so ugly again, and it was all the worse for having thought for a little while that maybe, just maybe, I wasn't so disgusting after all. It's always hurt – thinking I was hideous – but to hear you say it…" He swallowed painfully. "It was like having my world torn to pieces, like having my scales pried up one by one and ripped off. I thought you'd never want to see me again."

His voice broke, and when Marianne looked at him, there were tears streaming down his cheeks. Her heart lurched, and she realized there were tears pouring down her cheeks as well. She huddled closer to him, and he wrapped his arms tightly about her, pressing his face down into her hair, trembling all over. "I'm so sorry for doing that to you, Bog," she whispered hoarsely. "I'm so sorry."

He cupped her face in the palms of his hands, his face still wet with tears. "I know," he said, "and I forgive you. It's all in the past now. And this night has made up for the last one in every way." He kissed her softly and she sighed against his lips. His claws tickled against her cheeks. When he pulled away, he leaned his forehead against hers. "I've never felt so beautiful and loved as you've made me feel this night, Marianne."

She smiled through her tears at him. "Then let me make you feel this way every day as long as we have together."

He smirked and bumped his nose against hers. "Who's being a cheeseball now?"

She laughed and wiped the tears off his cheeks. "Oh skies, I love you so much, Bog."

They watched the water fall over the rocks with its musical burble until Bog gave her shoulders a fond squeeze. "I suppose we're going to have to finish that conversation about the festival sooner or later, aren't we? I promise I'll listen to whatever you have to say this time around."

"And I promise I'll consider what you're offering this time around," Marianne answered, squeezing his narrow waist in return. "A collaboration between the two kingdoms is going to shake things up no matter what we do, and we might as well figure out how to take the plunge. But let's not let all of that get in the way right now."

"No, not right now," he answered, smiling. "Now, I suppose, there are much better things to do."

She tapped his nose. "Exactly."

It was not long at all before Marianne and the Bog King were lost to the world in a passionate lover's kiss.

Tea Blend