Author's Note: So...this happened instead of another chapter for my other story. I blame a lack of sleep and too much Christmas music. This doesn't fit with the pacing I had planned for Ebonsong, but I wanted to write it anyway. This can be read as a stand-alone, and it's AU where Ebonsong is concerned. This is mostly just silly and rom-com tropey.
The scene at the end is new territory for me as far as writing goes, so comments about what worked and what didn't would be massively appreciated.
Khadgar rematerialized in the center of Lunarfall, and immediately strode toward the partially completed town hall with Cordana at his heels. The Warden hadn't really believed his claim that he had real business with Ashen, the death knight commanding the Alliance garrison. Too many of his visits to Lunarfall had been timed to coincide with meals—including the current one. He liked food, and Ashen had somehow ended up with one of the finest cooks ever assigned to a military campaign. Stopping by and staying for lunch—or dinner—also gave Khadgar an excuse to enjoy Ashen's company.
Not that Cordana or Ashen needed to know that.
The archmage followed the sound of voices through the short entryway into the well-lit hall, blinking for a moment as his vision adjusted. The elven death knight was standing behind a table at the far end of the hall, flanked by Lieutenant Thorn and the garrison architect, Baros Alexston. A smile tugged at the corners of Khadgar's mouth at the sight of her.
A long, silver-blue braid slipped forward over Ashen's shoulder as she swept a hand down at a spread of papers on the table and gave Baros and exasperated look. "Maybe we should invite the Iron Horde while we're at it? It would be a truly historic occasion—the first conflict ended by eggnog," the death knight said acerbically, velvety voice reverberating faintly. Baros held his hands up in surrender.
"Am I interrupting?" Khadgar asked in puzzled amusement.
Three sets of eyes focused on him. "No," they chorused.
Ashen flashed a dimpled grin at Khadgar, who couldn't help grinning back. "That's the first thing we've agreed on all morning," she told him laughingly. "Baros was just arguing in favor of having a band here for Winter Veil. I have to draw the line somewhere."
"It's not a real Winter Veil party without music, Commander. I didn't have you pegged for a barbarian," Baros tossed back at Ashen, who lifted a brow at him.
"Where were you planning to put a band, Baros? I suppose we could hang them from the tree the two of you are insisting on. Maybe stack them with the barrels of cider—"
"From what I remember about the last party in Lunarfall, you likely won't need a band to have music. Any plans for 'Light-forsaken death swill' this time, Ashen?" Khadgar asked, fighting down a smirk.
"No," the death knight answered vehemently, making him laugh. "That stuff was liquid evil in a barrel. I'm still amazed your innards survived."
Khadgar took a breath to reply, only to be interrupted by the piping voice of Luuka, Ashen's unofficial ward. The draenei orphan and the elven death knight were an unlikely pair, but Khadgar thought Luuka had flourished under her care. Ashen handled Luuka with a blend of rules and cheerful anarchy, and—since he had little experience with children—Khadgar found it baffling and entertaining in equal measure.
"Archmage!" The young draenei boy ran into the hall and danced around Khadgar excitedly before dashing over to Ashen. "The party will have presents!"
The archmage coughed to cover a laugh as Ashen caught her young charge with a fond, somewhat exasperated expression and set him next to her on the table. She produced a wrinkled winter apple with an impressive bit of sleight of hand before offering it to Luuka. "If you couldn't tell, someone thinks presents are the best part of Winter Veil," Ashen said drily.
Luuka beamed at her as he took a huge bite of the apple she'd given him. With his cheeks puffed out comically, the boy looked over at Khadgar. "You'll come to Winter Veil with us!"
"Khadgar may have other plans, Luuka. Why don't you ask him if he'll come to the party," Ashen suggested.
"I did!" Luuka protested.
"I'll be there," Khadgar replied, smiling when Luuka cheered in response. With that settled, the boy hopped off the table and skipped out of the hall, munching on the apple as he went.
"What brings you to Lunarfall, Archmage?" Ashen asked once Luuka was out of sight.
"Lunch," Cordana volunteered, prompting a wave of chuckles from everyone except Khadgar.
"I have a lead for you to track down in Gorgrond," Khadgar told Ashen with a beleaguered sigh. "I do work occasionally, thank you," he said over his shoulder to Cordana.
The corners of Ashen's mouth twitched as she moved around the table and came gliding toward him. "Then perhaps we should discuss this lead of yours…over lunch," she offered, somehow managing to keep a mostly straight face.
Khadgar eyed her from beneath lowered brows, but was betrayed by his mouth curling upward at one corner. "If you insist," he answered with mocking graciousness.
Ashen's answer was a brief grin as they walked out of the hall together. As they crossed the open square and headed for Lunarfall's inn, Khadgar gave the death knight a sidelong glance and lifted a brow. "So, what's Luuka getting for Winter Veil?"
"The toymaker in Stormwind usually has a clockwork train set on display," Ashen murmured softly, glowing eyes shifting briefly to make sure Luuka wasn't within earshot. "I plan to send for one when we order the decorations and other supplies."
Khadgar nodded. "He'll love it, I imagine."
"I hope so," Ashen replied as they walked into the inn.
"Pfft. He'll love it, Ashen. Who doesn't love trains?"
Grumbling expletives under her breath, Ashen hurled another fistful of mistletoe into the crackling fire in her study's hearth. The flames devoured the plant eagerly, making sizzles and pops as it consumed the leaves and waxy berries. She had seen the list of decorations and other supplies they ordered a week ago, and nowhere on that list did she recall seeing copious amounts of mistletoe mentioned.
Ashen wasn't sure who was responsible, but there was mistletoe cropping up everywhere in Lunarfall. Most of it seemed to appear with suspicious consistency in places she frequented. There had been mistletoe over her chair at the command table in the town hall. She had found another bunch over her study door just a few minutes ago.
It had been puzzling, at first. Ashen had simply taken the stuff down and tossed it in the nearest fire. The mistletoe just seemed to magically reappear afterward—every single damn time she took some down. She would have turned a blind eye if the offending plant was only appearing with the decorations in Lunarfall's town square. If her soldiers wanted a bit of harmless holiday fun…well, it wouldn't hurt morale any. The mistletoe had no business in her study or her war room, though.
Ashen picked up another large clump of mistletoe just as a surge of magic flared against her senses. Khadgar's presence was unmistakable, even before he fully materialized in the middle of her study. The resonant hum of the mage's power reminded her of the ocean—deep and vast, calm but filled with the potential for devastating fury. Goosebumps prickled over her skin in response to the raw magic.
Khadgar's timing also seemed to be a magic unto itself—he tended to turn up when she was at her most ridiculous.
Her desk was still covered with mistletoe, and the white flash of Khadgar's teleportation was blinding in the haze from the plants already consigned to the fire. Ashen watched the light around Khadgar fade, along with his smile of greeting. His faintly luminous blue eyes widened and he huffed, grimaced, and then started coughing. The mistletoe haze had a slightly medicinal and altogether noxious odor…and the mortal mage really didn't need to be breathing it, if she had to guess.
After a moment of waving his hands in a futile attempt to ward off the smoke and fumes, Khadgar reached for his magic. Holding up one hand, he drew a lazy circle in the air with the other, drawing the miasma into a rotating orb. He quirked a heavy steel brow at her as he lobbed the knot of magic and smoke out the open window, where it promptly unraveled. Khadgar was staring at her with an expression of mixed curiosity and mirth, clearly waiting for an explanation. When she lifted her shoulders in a shrug, the leaves of the clump of mistletoe still clutched in her left fist tapped against her knuckles.
I don't have an explanation that makes this look any less crazy. Today is the gift that keeps on giving, Ashen thought in amused resignation.
"Strangling the shrubbery didn't work, so you moved on to ritual burnings? Whatever did the greenery do to you?" Khadgar asked, eyes glittering with laughter.
Ashen shook the mistletoe at him, feeling the oblong leaves slapping at her fingers as she did so. "It has been invading my workplace without my consent," she replied. The quirked brow lifted higher as arcane blue eyes shifted from the offending bit of greenery to her face and back again. "You have no idea what this is, do you?"
"It's something green, leafy…and completely inedible, if the smell is anything to go by." Khadgar answered wryly.
"This is mistletoe. I trust you're at least passingly familiar with the Winter Veil tradition?"
The mage blinked at her, both brows lifting. Khadgar was silent for a long moment as his expression shifted to something she couldn't decipher before settling into neutral affability. He rubbed at his jaw and finally offered, "I don't think I've ever seen mistletoe before. There's usually at least one entertainingly salacious story mentioning it every year in Dalaran…but I'm not in the habit of examining ceilings or doorways at parties."
Ashen shifted her hold on the clump of mistletoe so that it was dangling from her fingertips so he could see it better. "Forewarned is forearmed," she told him drily. "If you're planning to put in an appearance at the festivities here, you might want to start eyeballing the doorways."
Khadgar's eyes gleamed as the corners of his mouth curled upward. She watched as his mouth flattened in a line before twitching into another smirk. When he spoke, he had apparently lost whatever battle he'd been having with himself. "Do you have something against kissing, Ashen?"
She gaped at him speechlessly, and he gave her a lopsided, toothy grin. The longer she stayed silent, the more that infuriating grin grew. Every answer that came to mind was something she probably shouldn't say. The answers started at 'no' and ended somewhere between 'it's complicated' and 'wouldn't you like to know'. Ashen refused to acknowledge that evil little voice in the corner of her mind that kept suggesting she wipe the grin off his face by offering to demonstrate exactly how unopposed she was to kissing—or possibly just demonstrating sans explanation.
How to make a mage run away like his hair is on fire, in other words.
"I have something against being pranked with this stuff!" The death knight managed finally, as she felt her face warm.
Khadgar shrugged his broad shoulders. "Can't say that I blame you. So that's what you meant when you said it's invading your workplace."
"Yes. 'Invading my workplace' sounded marginally less insane than 'I'm being followed by a plant.'" Ashen gave the clump she was still holding a dirty look, then gave it a sling out the open window.
Khadgar laughed as he watched it sail out of view. "Who's trying to prank you, then?"
It was Ashen's turn to shrug. "Probably Lieutenant Thorn and Baros."
"Baros I could believe, but Thorn? The worgen that never, ever smiles?" Khadgar asked incredulously.
"Thorn does smile," Ashen countered.
"I've never seen her smile."
"And since you've never seen it, it clearly doesn't happen?"
"Clearly," Khadgar confirmed with a slow smirk and waggle of his brows that made Ashen want to laugh and throw something at him.
"I can probably prove it—the guilt, not the smiling," she clarified as Khadgar lifted a brow and started to speak. "If you're game to test a theory?"
"Do you know what I want for Winter Veil? Well, any time of the year would do, I suppose." Khadgar set his mug on the corner of Ashen's desk and settled comfortably into his chair, watching as she glanced up and lifted a brow. He took a moment to stretch long legs out and hook one booted foot over the opposite ankle before continuing. "I want you to be wrong about something, just once. Not anything that would endanger lives or set our campaign back, mind."
Khadgar had agreed to participate in testing Ashen's theory. He had rather gamely teleported from her study—which occupied the topmost floor of Lunarfall's inn, along with her bedchamber—down to the town square. His part of the test was simple enough: go into the town hall, tell Thorn why he was there, and pay attention to anything out of place. All he'd expected was to get a scouting report and have something to tease the death knight about when nothing came of her suspicions.
But damn it all if Ashen hadn't been right.
The mage had spotted a bit of mistletoe dangling from a beam near the end of the command table. Thorn and Baros had converged and herded him under it while he asked for the scouting report Ashen had promised him. The pair had turned their gazes to the entryway when Ashen arrived, at which point Khadgar had wrapped a bit of magic around the mistletoe and stolen it. (He still had the stupid thing in his belt pouch.) Ashen had gotten a similar treatment, and Khadgar knew from the expression on her face that she was aware she was being hustled to stand next to him. The clincher had been the brief flash of confusion on Thorn's and Baros's faces when they realized the mistletoe was absent.
Now, they were safely ensconced in Ashen's study once more, mugs of ale and the remains of lunch occupying one side of her desk. Ashen studied him, flicking that raised brow a bit higher. "Careful, Archmage," she cautioned. "You could turn a woman's head with your convoluted, back-handed flattery." Khadgar picked up his mug and lifted it her direction in salute, entertained by her familiar, wry bite. "I'm sure you'll get your wish sooner or later. I'm hardly infallible," she continued absently, attention turned back to the stack of correspondence she was sorting.
"Perhaps 'eerily accurate' would be a better description for you than infallible," Khadgar allowed, drumming his fingers against the side of his mug. "There's really only one answer to this mistletoe thing, you know: turn the tables on them."
"Too bad I burned the rest of the mistletoe before joining you below, I suppose." Ashen's tone was so full of 'sorry, not sorry' that Khadgar chuckled.
"I can conjure some. Probably," he added as an afterthought, straightening in his seat as he considered it. He'd come to Lunarfall for information as well as a bit of a chat with the commander, and he'd gotten those things and a side of shenanigans and magical challenge. It was a good day. "Lend me your tactical expertise. If we're going to stage ambushes with this stuff, when should we do it?"
"The party, naturally. Plenty of distractions," Ashen answered amiably as she opened a sealed missive, brows drawing together almost imperceptibly. Khadgar set his mug back on the corner of her desk as she dropped the letter and shuffled through her stack of correspondence. Three more letters were opened, scanned, and dropped on the desk before she sighed quietly and propped her chin the heel of her left hand.
"What's wrong?" Khadgar asked after a moment. If he'd needed confirmation that he spent entirely too much time staring at Ashen, this would qualify; the disappointment on her face was all but imperceptible.
"Nothing that's world-ending," Ashen replied after a long moment. She shifted in her seat, dropping her hands to the top of the desk and twisting her fingers together. The fidgeting was so unlike her that Khadgar was tempted to lean forward and still her fingers with his. The urge was so strong that his hand twitched on the chair's armrest. Ashen stopped twining her fingers together after another couple of moments and met his gaze. "I tried to find one of those train sets for Luuka. Apparently there aren't any to be had."
Khadgar released a breath he'd been holding. "From the shop in Stormwind, or…?"
"Anywhere on Azeroth." Ashen gave a defeated half-shrug. "Not that I tried reaching through the black market to buy one from the Horde. One of the notes I got back from a toymaker in Kalimdor said I should've ordered the toy months ago."
"Months ago, you weren't caring for a child," Khadgar countered mildly. "I wouldn't worry about not finding a train set. Luuka adores you, Ashen, and he'll be thrilled with whatever you give him."
Several moments of silence passed. Ashen studied the pile of letters on her desk as if it held the secrets to the universe, and Khadgar studied her in turn. That haunting gaze finally met his. "Thank you, Khadgar," she said simply.
"But?" He prompted, feeling that he was only getting part of her reaction.
"But it's not really about the toy," Ashen admitted. "Luuka has been through a lot in the past year: the deaths of his parents, hiding in the mines in Tanaan…I don't know specifics of what he saw before we found him, but from his nightmares I can make some fair guesses. I know I can't fix it. I know I can't reach into his mind and take his pain and fear away. He's a tough little survivor—I know all of that," Ashen told him, voice low and earnest.
"I wanted to give Luuka a moment of—of wonder," she continued, looking away as her velvety, echoing voice colored with emotion. "So that someday, when he looks back, he'll have a point of light in midst of the darkness. The train was a means to an end—the only idea I could come up with. I'll think of something else."
Khadgar stared at Ashen, utterly transfixed. Silvery blue hair was escaping from her braid, framing her lovely face in lazy twists. With her gaze lowered to her desk, the dark blue-purple, tapered marks trailing from the outer corners of her eyes to her jaw strongly resembled tear tracks. He'd thought her beautiful from the first moment he'd seen her—but the truth was that he would have eventually managed to discard his fascination if all Ashen had been was a pretty face and attractive figure.
A moment of wonder.
Ashen was brilliant—ruthless on the battlefield, decisive and commanding. She had endured torment of a sort that broke the soul, stripping away everything but agony. No one would have grounds to blame her, had she been bitter, twisted, and filled with malicious rage. Instead of being broken…she was perceptive, tenaciously hopeful, and compassionate. Ashen was funny, often wry, frequently kind. She was warmth where there should have been ice, good where there should have only been darkness. She was so entirely unexpected that Khadgar had no defense against the surge of longing in his chest.
Luuka has you…and you're so much more than a moment of wonder, Ashen, Khadgar thought as he swallowed. Something of his thoughts must have been visible in his expression, because Ashen's brow furrowed when she looked up at him a moment later. He cleared his throat and gave her a crooked half-smile. "I imagine there are plenty of things from Azeroth that would seem magical to him. I recall being quite fond of picture books at that age."
The smile Ashen gave him made warmth creep up the back of his neck. "He has a few books, but that's an excellent thought." She flicked a brow upward and gave him a mischievous grin. "So, conjured mistletoe? I have to see this."
Khadgar blinked, both relieved and surprised at the shift in topic. "Now?"
"Why not?" The question was accompanied by an innocent expression that Khadgar didn't trust even a little.
Conjuring mistletoe proved to be more complicated than Khadgar had anticipated—mainly because Ashen expected him to meet her ridiculously exacting standards. 'Green and leafy' didn't cut it, and Khadgar finally gave her an irritated look several conjuring attempts later. "Alright, so I'll need to practice," he grumbled. At least he still had that bit he'd swiped from the town hall he could study later.
Ashen—sassy, infuriating creature that she was—had the temerity to laugh.
When Winter Veil arrived two weeks later, Ashen had to admit that Baros Alexston had outdone himself. The garrison architect had insisted that no one would be able to decorate 'his' town properly, and then eagerly taken on the task. Lunarfall had transformed from a busy, under-construction martial settlement to a festive village filled with sounds of merriment. Strings of lights and other baubles graced the buildings around the square, and a large conifer occupied a place of honor at one corner. The festivities would kick off with the lighting of the tree.
The brief reprieve would do good things for the garrison's morale, Ashen was certain.
Luuka was clinging to her right hand and bouncing up and down excitedly. Someone had produced a crate of winter hats, and her young ward was wearing a green one. It was too large, and flopping about madly as he hopped up and down. One small hand smacked down on it to hold it in place while the bouncing continued. Ashen smothered a laugh.
"How much longer?" Luuka demanded for what must have been the twentieth time.
"Just a few more minutes," the death knight responded. People were still trickling into the garrison, and food was still being placed on tables. The traffic from the inn to the various trestle tables was slowing, which meant 'just a few more minutes' was more accurate than the last time she'd said it.
A brief, familiar flare of magic heralded Khadgar's arrival a few moments later. Ashen was aware that the mage was working through the crowd toward her, but kept her attention either on Luuka or the activity in the square. It was probably her imagination, but as Khadgar drew closer Ashen was almost certain she could feel the weight of his gaze along with the call of his magic. Luuka asked to go closer to the tree, and Ashen distractedly released him as she felt Khadgar stop nearby.
"Good evening, Ashen," Khadgar rumbled from behind her. When she turned to face him, she was surprised to discover he was alone. Accurately interpreting her expression, Khadgar shrugged slightly. "I offered Cordana an evening off."
It was a bit shocking that Cordana had taken him up on it, but Ashen kept that thought to herself. She smiled at Khadgar by way of greeting, and the corner of his mouth curled upward as he stepped closer. Blue eyes flicked to the top of her head, then back down to meet hers again. "Nice hat. You look very festive," he teased.
Ashen shook her head, then reached up and caught said hat as it threatened to slide off. A blur of white and red filled her vision as the puff on the end of the hat fell forward into her face. She heard Khadgar chuckle, and suddenly she could see again. Khadgar was holding the end of her hat pinched between his thumb and forefinger, grinning at her. "Luuka made me wear it," Ashen confessed, prompting the mage to chortle softly.
"Speaking of Luuka," Khadgar murmured as he flipped the end of her hat back over her head, "Have you given him his gift yet?"
"Not yet." Ashen eyed Khadgar curiously. "Why do you ask?"
It never failed to amuse her that a convincingly innocent expression was not one of the powers at Khadgar's disposal. "No reason aside from idle curiosity."
Before Ashen could question him further, the warm, golden light from the lamps and lanterns dotting Lunarfall's town square dimmed, prompting the crowd to settle into something closer to quiet. In the deepening darkness, Khadgar's eyes were suddenly luminous with power as he blinked in puzzlement. Ashen grinned and motioned for him to follow her, then moved closer to the edges of crowd. She stopped walking when she had better vantage of the tree, and felt Khadgar's arm brush her shoulder as he stopped next to her. Baros welcomed everyone, then rather unceremoniously signaled for his aides to light the tree.
Khadgar leaned closer. "Shouldn't you be up there saying something suitably cheerful?"
"I gave myself a night off," she retorted, smirking.
Ashen glanced over at Khadgar when he bumped her shoulder again. The mage had stripped off his heavy leather gloves, and tucked them into his belt as she watched. He gave her a conspiratorial grin and offered her his arm. "In that case, let's beat the rush to the booze, shall we?"
Ashen shook her head at him wryly, one hand over the stupid red hat as a preemptive measure. "Not the food, just the alcohol?" She accepted the proffered arm, and Khadgar covered her hand with his briefly, pulling her closer and tucking her hand into the crook of his arm. Ashen pointed in the direction of one of the tables, and they started skirting the crowd.
Khadgar looked down at her with a sly smirk. "I'll get around to that eventually. Besides, the tankards will make useful props for an illusion of innocence—assuming you're still up for the shenanigans we discussed?"
"Illusory innocence is the only kind you have," Ashen couldn't resist observing. "And yes, I wish to see this conjured mistletoe of yours."
Khadgar waggled his brows at her and winked. "It's nice to be appreciated," he snarked back at her. "Just you wait, woman. You'll find no fault with my mistletoe this time! I practiced."
Ashen gave a helpless snort of laughter, remembering the failed attempts that had littered her desk that afternoon a couple of weeks ago. He had conjured a variety of convincingly plant-like objects, but none of it had come close to resembling the type of mistletoe that was taking over Lunarfall.
They made it to one of the tables with stacked mugs for the nearby tapped kegs. Ashen pulled her hand from Khadgar's arm and passed him an empty mug, then took one and filled it with cider. When she glanced back at him, Khadgar was holding his empty mug and watching as the lights decorating Lunarfall's structures flared to life. Multi-colored light glinted off his unruly silver hair as he turned back to her.
"Your architect went all out for this, didn't he?" Khadgar observed as he turned his attention to the various kegs. Ashen nodded as the archmage selected a spiced wine and topped off his tankard. When he lifted the mug and sampled the wine, Khadgar made a soft hum of approval that Ashen found somewhat distracting.
Luuka came to her rescue before she could scold herself. The boy came barreling toward them, waving a red winter hat with one hand and holding the hat on his head in place with the other hand. "Archmage! You came to the party!"
Khadgar gave Luuka a warm, lopsided smile as the boy came to a bouncing halt before them. "I promised I would, so here I am," the mage answered affably.
A beaming Luuka thrust the red hat toward Khadgar. "You need to wear this," the boy told him seriously. The small blue face turned to Ashen. "Doesn't he?"
Khadgar made a slashing gesture across his throat with an index finger, eyes widening. He shook his head at Ashen and somewhat desperately mouthed 'no' at her. When she pressed her mouth in a flat line to squelch a rising tide of mirth, Luuka's eyes narrowed and his gaze snapped suspiciously to Khadgar. The mage quickly shifted to a more neutral expression.
"Why does Khadgar need that hat, Luuka? Maybe he doesn't want to wear one."
"Yes, he does," Luuka scoffed at her. "He needs to match you." On that note of awkwardness, the boy shook the hat adamantly at Khadgar, whose eyes had widened again in surprise.
It only took Khadgar a moment to realize the easiest way to deal with the situation was to accept the hat. Ashen bit her lower lip to keep from laughing as he slanted a helpless, slightly bemused look at her. Khadgar passed her his mug, then turned his attention to Luuka and sank to one knee. Luuka wasted no time in reaching up to put the hat on the archmage's head. Small fists gripped the white trim around the hat and yanked it down. Khadgar endured the process in good-natured silence, even managing a smile for Luuka's benefit when the boy stepped back and beamed at him. The display of amiable patience tugged at Ashen's heart, even as she tried not to laugh.
"Thanks for the hat," Khadgar told Luuka politely, giving the boy a pat on the shoulder.
"You're welcome!" Luuka chirped happily. He looked up at Ashen. "I'm gonna go play. Do I get my present soon?"
"Play for awhile, then we'll open your present," Ashen answered, reaching over to straighten the floppy green hat. Luuka went bounding off with a whoop of glee, and Ashen turned her gaze back to Khadgar.
She felt the corners of her mouth turn up in a suppressed smile as Khadgar stood and brushed off his robes. When he caught her gaze, his heavy brows lowered. The mock glower was rather spoiled by the hank of silver hair the hat was flattening over his left eye. Khadgar looked rumpled and faintly ridiculous in the combination of his armor and bright red hat. The corners of her mouth twitched, and the archmage's luminous blue eyes narrowed in warning.
"Nice hat," she told him, voice vibrating with laughter.
"Ashen." Khadgar drew her name out in a forbidding tone, but there was a smile lurking in his eyes.
"You look very festive."
"Luuka made me wear it," he retorted drily. When she started laughing, Khadgar gave her a slow grin. "And since Luuka's not looking, I suppose I can take it off."
Ashen shook her head as he reached for it. "Only if you want him to magically appear and demand that you put it back on."
Khadgar gave her a disgruntled look, sighed, and left the hat where it was. She handed his tankard back with a sympathetic smile. Khadgar knocked the contents back and filled his mug again before stepping closer. Wrapping the fingers of his free hand around her elbow, Khadgar pulled her into step with him. "Well, we've got our props and silly hats. Shall we get on with the shenanigans?"
Ashen walked with him, laughing softly. Khadgar glanced down at her, eyes crinkling about the corners as he smirked. "We shall," she agreed.
It didn't take long for the Winter Veil festivities in Lunarfall to reach full swing. It was a good thing, in Khadgar's opinion—it meant that they wouldn't have to wait before starting to prank the would-be pranksters. He needed the distraction; the carefully wrapped gift he'd brought with him was currently burning a hole through its pocket dimension. Khadgar was capable of patience when it was required. That said, if he had to wait much longer to offload the gift there was a fair chance he'd be bouncing with Luuka-style impatience.
Boing, boing, boing, Khadgar thought wryly.
Ashen tilted her head toward him, drawing him from his musings. "There," she said in a low tone, directing his attention into the crowd with a slight nod.
Khadgar tracked her line of sight and grinned when he saw a flustered Baros Alexston trying to talk to a rather forbidding looking Lieutenant Thorn. He rubbed his hands together in glee, then laced his fingers together and cracked his knuckles. "I almost feel bad for him," Khadgar told Ashen with a smirk. He quirked a brow. "But only almost."
The death knight made a sound of amusement as he drew on his magic and carefully conjured a bunch of mistletoe. Khadgar added a ribbon and a couple of other flourishes, then held it up for Ashen's inspection. "Suitably festive," she decided. "You really did practice."
"Only because someone is incredibly picky," Khadgar shot back, grinning.
"I shouldn't have said anything." Ashen turned wintry glowing eyes on him and flicked a brow upward. "Instead, I should have let you conjure a bunch of broccoli over their heads and wonder why they looked confused."
"I think I hate you a little," Khadgar told her laughingly. That earned him a dimpled grin and a salute with the mug she was holding.
Shaking his head, Khadgar wrapped the conjured mistletoe in magic and watched it bob gently over his palm for a moment. A glance into the crowd revealed Baros and Thorn were still standing together where Ashen had spotted them. It was simple enough to teleport the small bit of mistletoe over their heads, and the brief flash of light as it popped into view was enough to draw their gazes upward.
"Here we go," Khadgar muttered to Ashen, who smothered a laugh.
A few moments later they were both laughing. Baros worked up the nerve to lean close to Thorn and press a kiss to her cheek. The lieutenant blinked, then gave the architect an incredulous look. Baros tried to say something—which involved a good bit of hand waving—but was interrupted when Thorn lost patience with him and kissed him soundly. That done, she turned and marched away, leaving a very gobsmacked Baros staring after her.
"Do you think we get a pass on being unprofessional because they started it?" Ashen wondered as they watched Baros scramble after Lieutenant Thorn.
"Absolutely," Khadgar answered cheerfully.
Ashen started to snicker, and poked his arm before pointing back into the crowd. When he looked up, Khadgar realized that the floating mistletoe hadn't gone unnoticed by the party…and the brave—or slightly inebriated—were taking advantage of it.
He started laughing. "I guess I'll just leave that there, then."
Khadgar left the first bit of conjured mistletoe suspended near the tree, and ended up conjuring a few more bundles to dangle over the heads of unsuspecting, but likely looking couples. He told Ashen it was to camouflage the fact they'd rather deliberately staged the encounter between Thorn and Baros—but it had more to do with the fact that he simply enjoyed Ashen's laughter and wry commentary. The highlight of the exercise with conjured mistletoe, in Khadgar's opinion, was catching Vindicator Maraad talking with Yrel. They didn't notice the mistletoe immediately, so he helped matters along by hollering at Maraad.
All in all, it was a very good evening.
Khadgar wandered Lunarfall with Ashen, sampling the various drinks and snacks on offer. The Alliance garrison was packed with people; the invitation had been extended to the draenei, and Khadgar even spotted some of the Shadowmoon exiles in attendance. Luuka darted through the crowd with several other children, face alight with happiness. The sight of the boy reminded Khadgar of the box he had yet to give Ashen.
As their wandering took them to the fringes of the merriment, Khadgar stopped walking and shifted to face the death knight. She looked up at him with a questioning smile, one hand coming up to hold that silly red hat in place. After trying to find something to say, Khadgar gave up with a slight shrug and held out his hands. The shiny, silver-wrapped box materialized across his palms in a shimmer of light and soft puff of sound. Ashen slowly lowered the hand that had been holding her hat down, glowing eyes lingering on the box before lifting to his face.
Khadgar cleared his throat, suddenly sheepish. "This is for you…to give to Luuka."
Ashen's held him with her gaze for a long moment as understanding bloomed across her face, then slowly reached for the box. It was as if handing her the box had summoned her young charge, because the next thing Khadgar knew, there was a child-shaped blur springing around them. "Is it time for presents?"
"Happy Winter Veil," Ashen confirmed with a smile, offering him the box.
The child-shaped blur promptly became a dervish made out of excitement and bits of silver wrapping paper. Khadgar alternated between watching Ashen and watching Luuka—both expressions were rewarding. Luuka finally got the lid off the box and lifted the train engine nestled inside with surprising care. The wide-eyed, wondering awe on the boy's face made the archmage grin, and he glanced at Ashen—only to find her watching him. The death knight's expression softened, and her slow smile made Khadgar's heart trip into a faster rhythm.
Unaware of the unspoken exchange between the adults, Luuka examined the engine for a few moments before peering into the box again. It didn't take him long to figure out how to connect the sections of track and hook the other cars to the train engine. When Khadgar finally managed to look away from Ashen, he was surprised to see the boy rapidly putting everything back in the box. The small, blue face turned up to Ashen, shining with enthusiasm.
"This is amazing!" Luuka left the box sitting on the ground and hurtled himself at Ashen for a hug. "Thank you!"
The death knight's smile widened as she hugged the boy back. "You should thank Khadgar. He found it for us."
A moment later, a startled Khadgar received an exuberant hug from Luuka. "Thank you!" The boy repeated. Luuka beamed up at him before moving away to pick up the box with the train set. "It's the best thing I've ever seed!"
"Seen," Ashen corrected gently, grinning.
"Seen," Luuka repeated dutifully, carefully enunciating.
"You're welcome," Khadgar chuckled. Luuka promptly took off for a group of other children not far from the brightly decorated tree, arms wrapped awkwardly around his box. Ashen stepped closer to Khadgar, and they watched as the boy set the box down before his group of playmates. After a moment of excited chatter, the children opened the box and started assembling the set, with each child getting a piece to contribute to the effort.
"You didn't have to do that," Ashen told him softly, prompting Khadgar to shift toward her and meet her gaze. The quip on the tip of his tongue vanished at the warmth in her expression.
Khadgar rubbed the back of his neck for a moment, winter hat sliding forward over one eye as he did so. "It seemed important to you," he said finally. It was true, and simultaneously more and less than he wanted to tell her. "And the train's not new," he rambled awkwardly. "It's a set an acquaintance's children had outgrown. It's been cleaned and repainted…and I enchanted it so that it puts out steam as it moves on the track—"
"Khadgar," Ashen interrupted. "It's perfect. Thank you."
The archmage nodded, wondering if he'd ever stop feeling a jolt of pleasure at the sound of his name wrapped in that velvet voice of hers.
Ashen's attention turned to the group of children near the tree for a moment, and Khadgar took advantage of the opportunity to study her features. They had stopped under the eaves at an undecorated side of the inn, leaving them partly in shadow. It was somewhat rare to see Ashen without any armor or weapons, and between that and the way the colored lights scattered through the square made a glinting halo around her, Khadgar had a difficult time tearing his gaze away. He really, really needed to stop dwelling on…well, on everything where she was concerned—
A brief flicker in Khadgar's peripheral vision made him blink and look up. After a moment, he saw it again; a glint of light on something hanging over the edge of the low overhang that wrapped the inn. It took him another moment to realize what the thing was.
"Ashen." The death knight turned to face him and tilted her head slightly in silent inquiry. "Are we standing below your study?"
Artic, glowing eyes blinked once, then narrowed. "Yes. Why?"
Khadgar cleared his throat, trying to hold back a looming wave of hilarity. "Look up."
Frowning, Ashen glanced upward. "Oh for—Arthas's atrophied ass," she swore, planting her hands on her hips in exasperation.
Khadgar started chuckling, only to have the chuckling build into guffaws that felt like they were coming from the depths of his soul. Dangling over the edge of the overhang—right above Ashen's head—was a very familiar sprig of oblong leaves. He reached up and pulled it free. The mistletoe was a bit worse for wear, with the leaves wilted and drooping. It was, however, clearly recognizable as the bunch Ashen had thrown out her study window in a fit of pique.
The expression on Ashen's face was priceless, and the entire situation hit Khadgar's finely honed sense of the absurd. He rolled the stem of the mistletoe between his fingers, spinning the leaves at her teasingly. "All your efforts to avoid this stuff, all those ritual burnings in your study—"
Ashen huffed and made a grab for the mistletoe, but Khadgar used his height to advantage and lifted it out of her reach. Glowing eyes snapped to his face and narrowed.
"—and yet here you are, caught under some mistletoe—"
She was fast, and alarmingly agile. Ashen closed the distance between them and went up on her toes, nearly snagging the mistletoe from the hand he was holding aloft before he stepped backward. He lifted it a bit higher, just because he could—and because he hadn't been able to resist needling Ashen since the moment he'd met her.
"—with nothing to blame but that fiery temper of yours."
The mutinous expression on Ashen's face did nothing to dampen Khadgar's mirth. He chuckled as she tried to take the stuff from him again, standing on her toes and stretching, bracing her free hand on his shoulder. Grinning, Khadgar waggled his brows at her. He knew he should probably stop goading her, but where was the fun in that? Most of the fun of ribbing Ashen was in knowing she'd swing back at him, all fire, sass, and biting wit. The other aspect that appealed to him was the unpredictability of her return salvos.
"If I didn't know any better, I'd think you arranged this as an attempt to steal my virtue," Khadgar continued.
The noise Ashen made in the back of her throat landed somewhere on the spectrum between laughter and utter exasperation. "You don't have any virtue because you're a very bad man," she snapped, making another failed grab for the mistletoe.
Khadgar laughed. "Aw, now, now, Ashen. You're really quite fortunate to be caught under this with me instead of—"
"I'm fortunate?" Ashen echoed, brows lifting. The look on her face likely meant he'd pushed her far enough that he was about to see a flare of that marvelous temper. She was still standing all but pressed against him, one hand still stretched toward the mistletoe he held tauntingly out of reach. She settled back on her feet, but didn't move away. "Perhaps you're incredibly unfortunate to be the one that caught me."
Khadgar blinked at her for a moment, lowering the mistletoe slightly in surprise. When she lifted her hand again, he quirked a brow and lifted the plant out of her reach once more—only to freeze when her fingers brushed his jaw.
Ashen's touch trailed from his jaw over his cheek, rasping faintly over his ever-present stubble, before her fingers slid slowly into his hair. A ripple of goosebumps swept him as her fingers curled in his hair, nails lightly grazing his scalp, and her other hand came up to cradle his face. When she leaned up and slowly brushed her mouth over his in a tantalizing caress, Khadgar stopped breathing for a moment.
He inhaled sharply as heat shot down his spine and desire flared magic-bright in his veins. Khadgar was dimly aware of the low sound of want he made as his hands found Ashen's waist. He pulled her against him with one hand pressing into the small of her back and the other sliding slowly up her spine. For a few rapid heartbeats, he returned her soft, almost hesitant kiss.
It was either an eternity or a moment later that Khadgar found himself looking down at Ashen's upturned face. The surprise he felt was mirrored in her expression—in the slightly parted lips and wide, glowing eyes. Khadgar traced her features with his gaze for another long moment, then pulled her up on her toes as he speared his fingers into hair, gently tugging to angle her face up. He heard her breath catch as he covered her mouth with his own. Everything else fell away in the searing need to taste her, to render her as breathless and speechless and moved as she made him.
Khadgar kissed Ashen with an intensity born of months of longing and shared laughter, hardship, and heartache, channeling everything he'd wanted to say and lost to sheepish, guarded silence through his touch. Her hands were in his hair as she met his demand with her own and melted into his embrace. Wonder bloomed alongside his hunger as Ashen made a faint, breathless sound of pleasure.
It was give and it was take. It was demand and surrender, need and tenderness. It was heat and the tangled dance of mouths and tongues. It was pulling her close and being pulled close, and feeling it wasn't nearly close enough. It was desire that went deep enough to smolder in his soul.
It was magic of a kind Khadgar had believed would always be out of reach.
They were parted by a need for air. Khadgar couldn't hear anything but their harsh breathing and the pounding of his heart as he framed Ashen's face with his hands. He could still taste her as he leaned his forehead against hers—sweetness and a zing of magic. Ashen raked his hair back with her fingers before covering his hands with her own. For the space of several heartbeats, they stood breathing each other in, eyes closed.
When Khadgar opened his eyes, he found both winter hats were gone—dislodged by questing hands—along with the mistletoe he had been dangling just beyond Ashen's grasp. He hadn't been aware they'd moved, but he had Ashen caged between his body and the inn's wall. Ashen gave him a slow, warm smile as he lifted his head and blinked down at her. The corner of his mouth turned up in response, and he traced the tip of an index finger down the tapered marking at the outer corner of her eye.
"I got what I wanted for Winter Veil," Khadgar observed on a surge of humor, deep voice husky. He dragged the pad of his thumb over Ashen's lower lip, eyes dropping to follow the motion.
Ashen drew in a shaky breath. "You wanted a kiss for Winter Veil?"
"I've wanted to kiss you for months," Khadgar answered bluntly. He grinned at the disbelief and surprise on her face, and added, "Since the first time you sassed me, to be precise. I told you I wanted you to be wrong about something, and you were. You called me unfortunate…but I'm truly lucky to have trapped you under some mistletoe, Ashen."
When Ashen responded by kissing him again, Khadgar decided he rather liked Winter Veil mistletoe traditions.