Curled up by the fireplace in the small cabin with the puppy asleep on her lap and the empty pizza boxes set by the door from the victory supper, Fenlin was praying to whatever nearby spirits that her mother would let it go.
“It’s a puppy,” Milliara said, the shudder audible through the phone. Fenlin could feel Rahlen’s silent laughter through her back, where she lay into his chest. “Not just any dog. No, not a… a… small one with small teeth. He got you a war dog.”
“Mom they’re just pets,” Fenlin said, rolling her eyes. Her bandaged hand was resting on the round belly of the sleeping pup, and the steady rhythm was calming in a way she couldn’t quite describe. “They haven’t been war dogs since, I don’t know, a hundred years or so ago.”
“Right, because that makes them safe,” Milliara grumbled. “I love you kid, but you know how I feel about dogs. This is going to be the perfect way to keep me from visiting every weekend.”
Fen couldn’t help but smile at the gudging defeat in her mom’s voice. She’d complain about the dog, sure, but Fenlin couldn’t really blame her mother for being afraid of adult mabari. The Halamshiral riots had been violent, and Orlesian Police hadn’t hesitated to use dogs against the protestors.
“He’s just a little potato of a puppy mom,” Fenlin said. “And I’ll be training him every chance I get to be sure that he’s obedient and well behaved.”
There was a long pause on the other line.
“What, the dog or the boy?”
Rahlen couldn’t hold the snort of laughter back at that, and honestly, neither could Fenlin.
“The dog mom, Rahlen’s a friend. Besides that’s his coach’s job.”
“Uh huh,” Milliara didn’t sound convinced. “I’m surprised giving someone a mabari isn’t an ancient Ferelden proposal or something. Look, I heard him, I’ll let you go. I’ll be cheering you on tomorrow from over here, and Fen?”
“Yeah mom?” Fen asked, ears a bit warm.
“You were wonderful out there tonight. I’m really proud of you.”
Fen smiled down at the dog, and swallowed the warm lump in her throat.
“Thanks mom. I love you, say hi to Auntie for me.”
“I will. Love you too baby.”
Rahlen waited until Fen hung up and set the phone aside before grinning down at her.
“Are you sure you just meant the dog?” He asked, arching an eyebrow. “Your mom’s got quite the sense of humour, doesn’t she?” He shifted, laying further back on the couch and wrapping his arms around her to pat the puppy.
“She does,” Fenlin said. “She’ll come around eventually to me having a dog. It’s just, something I’ll have to help her adjust to. I think seeing how well behaved mabari can be will help. It’s just going to be a lot of training.”
She sucked on her lower lip, watching the little dog (well, relatively little, the pup was already larger than some of the toy Orlesian breeds) sleeping, his comically large paws twitching as he dreamt.
“Rahlen,” she said, glancing up at him. “We are friends, right?”
“Of course,” he said, tilting his head at her, eyebrow arched. “Is this because of the puppy? I know you’d never pay the adoption fee yourself, and the dog was pretty intent on finding you again. Plus,” he shrugged. “I know you have anxiety, and having a dog might help with that. Especially when you’re away from your family like you are here.”
Thinking about that, it made sense. Maybe she’d let her mother get a little too far into her head, Fen reasoned. Her mother certainly had a knack for doing that to everyone who ever met her.
“Gotcha,” she said. There was more on her mind to ask, but she wasn’t sure how to even formulate the questions she was struggling with. Were they actually just friends? It was one thing to hang out and pay for coffee from time to time but a puppy was… big. Right? Or was this just a Ferelden thing that she was having culture shock with?
“Something up?” he asked.
“Hey, if you ever start seeing anyone just tell me, okay?” She said, looking up at him. “I mean like, beyond casual dating, if that’s even possible for you. I didn’t mean that to be rude,” she added, rubbing her face. “I’m not making words good sense.”
“Well you should probably head to sleep soon, free skate tomorrow,” Rahlen agreed. “But if you mean, if I start seeing anyone and want to be exclusive with them, to tell you?”
Fen nodded. “Yeah, that. So that I don’t embarrass myself by sending you a selfie or something.” Right. That was the reason, good job covering your ass, Fenlin.
“Yeah, of course,” Rahlen said. “I don’t see it happening any time soon, but you never know, right?”
“Right,” she said with a nod.
“Hey, same deal, yeah? I’d hate to make the poor guy jealous,” Rahlen said with that borderline obnoxious smirk. Fenlin rolled her eyes, and pushed up off him. The puppy whined as it was woken up, and hopped off her lap with a thud.
“Looks like he needs to go out,” Rahlen said. “You go to sleep, I’ll take him out and be back soon.”
Fen nodded, and had to stifle a yawn. “Kay,” she said. “Don’t get eaten by wolves.” Standing, she shuffled over to the bed and kicked off her heavy wool socks before she crawled under the covers. She //was tired, and didn’t even hear Rahlen open the cabin door before she was fast asleep.
“This is so weird,” Fenlin said as she bounced from foot to foot, waiting for the gate to open and let the skaters out onto the ice for warm up. Rahlen was next to Dorian, holding the puppy now known as Potato in his arms.
“That I need to share the Kiss and cry with a dog and your ….‘friend’? Yes, quite,” Dorian sniffed, as though she hadn’t caught him giving the puppy a pat just five minutes ago.
“No I meant going last,” Fenlin said, reaching over to rub the puppy’s face. The dog immediately started licking at her fingers happily. The women ahead of Fen kept stealing glances back at the dog, or Rahlen, the expressions ranging from melty awwws to jealousy and that was a whole new weird experience too.
“Warmup will begin now and last for six minutes,” the announcer said over the intercom. Giving the dog a last pat, Fen smiled at the two men and headed out onto the ice. Rahlen had been right last night. Having Potato nearby helped her from focusing too much on the routine and getting too nervous about the competition. Now that she was out on the ice, and the dog was back by the boards, Fen could feel the stress creep back in.
But it didn’t have a foothold like it usually did.
Fenlin didn’t watch the other skaters. She was curious as ever, but the thought of watching them before her own skate just made her stomach twist into knots. What if they were flawless and she got scared? What if they fell and she got over confident?
Instead, she listened to music and played with the dog, at least until Dorian nudged her and motioned for her to follow him to the boards waiting area.
“Be back soon,” she said to the puppy who was whining. “Sorry.”
Rahlen smiled, giving her arm a small squeeze.
“Knock ’em dead.” Nodding and taking a deep breath, Fenlin pulled off her jacket and handed it to Dorian. Sparkling and white, her dress glittered like fresh snow. Her makeup was lighter, soft and romantic while fabric flowers were pinned into her hair. and Fenlin rolled her neck once before stepping out onto the ice.
Taking up her position on centre ice, she glanced over to where Rahlen was standing by Dorian, holding Potato up so the dog could see where his Person had gone.
She couldn’t help but smile. The effervescent music started and Fenlin closed her eyes, letting the melody carry her through her opening steps. This routine was less of a ‘risk’ than her short program, the music and costume more approachable to classical skaters. But the feeling, that same feeling of being out in the forest with fresh snow falling through the trees and being breathless and happy, that’s what she wanted to skate.
Light on her feet, Fenlin skipped through the footwork section effortlessly, but it was the jump sequences that were her weak point. They always were in competition, and as Fenlin approached her first combination, she took a deep breath and pushed the thoughts of failure to the side.
The first triple was fine, the second turned into a double. She’d lost too much momentum on her first jump. But, she’d landed it, and landed it cleanly.
There were other jumps to attack, to land. She just had to skate clean and she’d place in the top three, she hoped. Maybe she should have checked the scores after all…
No. Stop. She told herself, spiraling into a sittng spin. Focus on the routine, the music and worry about the points later in the kiss and cry with Potato.
God he was cute. The dog, but, also Rahlen.
She under rotated her axel, but held onto the landing. There was only one more sequence left to get right, and Fen focused on the music and the feel of the ice under her. As she approached them, Fenlin cleared her mind of the worries and thoughts that had been intruding. They could wait, the jumps couldn’t.
This time, she landed both clean. She could feel it, the ease and speed carrying her in an arc out of them, arm lifting up gracefully as she glided into her final step sequence into the flying sitting spin, straightening up and pulling her leg up into a v-spin for the finale, stepping out into her final pose only as the music’s playful notes faded away.
Glancing over at Dorian, Rahlen and Potato, she swallowed hard, breathing heavily as she stepped out into her curtsies. No blood this time, but no flawless skate either. But.
She’d done it, a competition with no falls, no panic attacks. Hands trembling, she bit her lip and skated over to the boards. The Jacket and blade covers went on first, followed by her stealing her puppy back from Rahlen and kissing his forehead.
“That was great,” Rahlen said, beaming.
“You under rotated a bit, but you pulled it back,” Dorian said, pulling Fenlin (and by Potato by proxy) into a hug. “You’ve got a solid chance at first. Monpetit had a good skate but you’ve got a damn good chance with your presentation marks.”
The volunteers ushered the four of them to the kiss and cry, and Fen waved Potato’s paw at the camera man who had stepped in to film them.
Waiting for the marks let all the shunted stress crawl back. What if her last jumps had only felt okay and were actually terrible? Chewing on her lip, she patted the puppy, letting the wiggly and happy dog help keep her centered on the moment instead of retreating into her own head.
Rahlen and Dorian hopped up to their feet, and Fen had to hug the dog tight against her to keep Potato from jumping off her lap in excitement too. Looking up at the marks, her mouth fell open. Sure, it wasn’t her best skate, but… but it had been good enough.
“You did it!” Dorian said, hauling her to her feet. “Kaffas! I knew you could.” He hugged her, and then it was Rahlen’s turn, pulling her into a tight hug.
“You did so good!” he said, rocking her from side to side before he let go. “Keep this up and You’ll be kicking ass all the way to the Grand Prix.”
Things were blurred after the announcement. She was dragged in front of reporters and large cameras with bright lights and microphones being thrust at her face. Potato leaned forward, trying to bite at one of the fuzzy covers.
“Sorry,” she said, readjusting her grip on the puppy who immediately turned and started licking at her face.
“What’s your puppy’s name?”
“Are you and Rahlen Theirin officially dating now?”
“What changed since last season?”
“One at a time,” Dorian said, holding out his hand. “Start with the puppy name. It’s… it’s charming.”
“This is Potato,” Fen said, feelng her ears start to burn. At least with stage makeup on her face felt hot but they wouldn’t see her cheeks flush beet red. “The owner of Potato’s mom said he imprinted on me?” She glance at Dorian and then shrugged. “I… I was surprised, but he’s really sweet.”
“But Theirin gave him to you?”
“Uh,” Fenlin said. “Technically. Yes. Sort of. The breeder had Rahlen’s number so he called him to get a hold of us.”
“OH! So there IS an us?” A reporter said.
“What? No, I mean, we’re friends?”
“But surely he’s told you that it’s an ancient Ferelden custom to propose by giving a mabari puppy?”
Fenlin stared, eyes wide, then turned, squinting to try to find where Rahlen had gone. “Where’d you go? YOU said that was a JOKE!” she said, eyes adjusting quickly and finding the man leaning against the hallway wall. He lifted his hands up.
“I thought it was a joke!” He called back.
“How long have you been together?”
“Did you meet at the gala?”
“Was it love at first sight?”
“That’s enough,” Dorian said, stepping between Fenlin and the cameras, and waved at them to head off. “They’re just bloody friends, you heard them.” He muttered something in Tevene under his breath, and Fenlin was pretty sure it wouldn’t be something the reporters would be able to run on television.
“Huh,” Rahlen said, walking up to stand next to Fen as Dorian chased off the lingering reporters. “That… is something I didn’t expect. I guess Dad hadn’t been joking about that.”
Fenlin just stared at him, eyes wide. Glancing down he laughed, and patted Potato’s head.
“Sorry, I’ll make it up to you with one last dinner before I have to head out tomorrow?”
“Fine,” she muttered. “Really, though, thank you. For Potato and all the support. It helped. A lot.” Rahlen just smiled.
“Go shower, I’ll take Potato out to play so he doesn’t get in your way.”
Fen kissed the mabari’s forehead before setting him down and passing Rahlen the leash.
“Sounds good. Won’t be long, try not to accidentally propose to anyone else while I’m busy, okay?” She said, some of her humour slipping back after the shock of the reporters had gone.
“No promises,” Rahlen said. “C’mon Tato.”