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Though he had already made up his mind even before coming to the North, Vahn would be lying if he said Sandora's words weren't compelling. He still felt that she deserved a normal childhood, but, instead of looking down on her convictions and telling her she wasn't old enough to be doing the things she had already been doing for more than four years, he answered, "Sure thing. There are a few specifics we'll need to work out but I have absolutely no issues with accepting you as one of my wives."
Feeling the tensions drain from her body, a sigh beyond her years escaped Sandora's throat along with the words, "Thank the Gods…" in a profoundly relieved tone. Immediately afterward, however, a faint blush colored her cheeks as she looked up at Vahn and added, "Though I suppose it would be more befitting to thank you…?"
Shaking his head, a wry smile developed across Vahn's face as he extended his left hand, palm up, towards Sandora. She was a little confused by his actions, but, after a moment of silence, the color of her cheeks became noticeably ruddier as she tentatively overlapped her hand with his…
"This is entirely the result of your convictions. You have worked hard to reach this point in your life, Sandora. From the moment onward, allow me to help carry your burden…"
Using his free hand, Vahn traced the base of Sandora's ring finger. The moment he did so, a golden band that radiated a distinct red hue manifested into existence. The most eye-catching thing about it, however, was the brilliant red gemstone embedded in what appeared to be a coiling Salamander. Not only was it mesmerizing to look at, but, gazing deep into the gem's structure, you would find a slit-like pupil staring back at you, as, rather than a simple ring, the band wrapped around Sandora's finger was the prototype for an artificial Zanpakuto Spirit.
Though her body began trembling when she saw the ring manifest around her finger, it wasn't fear that Sandora was feeling. Instead, an exhilaration unlike anything she had ever experienced surged through her body as her Spirit Energy had increased by a factor of ten in an instant.
Guiding Sandora's chin so that she was staring at him rather than the ring on her finger, Vahn's expression softened as he teased, "A paltry trinket compared to the person wearing it…"
Blushing a luminous shade of crimson that extended all the way to the tips of her pointed ears, it was Sandora's turn to catch Vahn by surprise as she suddenly closed her eyes and puckered her lips. She had interpreted his act of touching her chin as an indication that he was about to plant a kiss on her lips. As a result, Vahn suddenly found himself in a rather precarious position as he was just about to broach the subject of letting Sandora spend a few years in one of his Actualized Worlds…
(*Just get it over with. It will be a lot easier to reason with her once she is convinced of your mutual affection. If you pull back now, needless doubts will permeate her mind. She may be a capable ruler but she is still a child. She is bound to read too much into things if you hesitate over something as trivial as a kiss.*)
Though he smiled wryly within his mind, Vahn didn't attempt to argue with Sis's words. Sandora may be able to conceal it from others but he could sense the loneliness she kept hidden within the deepest recesses of her heart and mind. The only person she truly trusted was herself, but, due to her age, she wasn't nearly as confident as she pretended to be.
People who presented themselves as 'perfect' were often the most afraid of making even minor mistakes…
After a long period of deliberation, at least from Vahn's extremely skewed perspective of time, he finally lowered his head to plant a very chaste kiss on Sandora's lips. Her aura practically exploded, but, before she could reciprocate, Vahn pulled away with an apologetic smile on his face as he said, "We still need to discuss a few of the specifics regarding our engagement…"
Opening her eyes, a mixture of confusion, doubt, and mild disappointment could be seen reflected in Sandora's dark-blue irises. The crimson hue that had spread through the entirety of her face took mere seconds to recede fully as the serious expression she had worn during their initial introduction promptly returned.
Understanding that he had actually made things worse, Vahn caught Sandora off guard by exhaling a clearly exasperated sigh. Before she could read further into it, however, he earned a surprisingly adorable yelp from the too-serious Princess as he snaked his hand around her back and placed it on her exposed side. This was already far beyond Sandora's expectations, but, instead of stopping there, Vahn pulled her onto his lap in a single, smooth, remarkably practiced motion.
Tensing to the point that she could humble a statue, Sandora dared not look directly into Vahn's face. The blush she had previously suppressed came back with a vengeance. Instead of stopping at the tips of her ears, however, it spread down into her neck before gradually permeating through the rest of her body like a potent flame.
Further exacerbating Sandora's condition, Vahn placed his hand on her exposed, surprisingly taut abdomen. Sandora may have the appearance of a young girl but she was still descended from a Pure Blooded Dragon. Her skin was remarkably soft but the muscles concealed beneath were as firm and flexible as augmented graphene fibers.
Internally shaking his head, Vahn channeled calming energy into Sandora's body as he said, "Don't misunderstand. I'm not trying to be contrary or deceitful. I just have a set of principles that prohibit me from engaging in salacious or inappropriate acts with those I perceive as minors. You are a very mature young lady, but, as much as I respect and admire what you've been able to accomplish over your eleven short years of existence, you are simply too young. Wait a couple of years, and, even if your features remain exactly the same, I will be more than willing to meet each and every single one of your expectations…"
Punctuating his words, Vahn lowered his hand ever so slightly to Sandora's lower abdomen. He was still channeling calming energy into her body, but, understanding the implication behind his words, Sandora swallowed so hard it produced an audible gulping sound.
"I…I understand what you're trying to say…but…but I…"
Though her expression appeared remarkably calm, Sandora's mental and emotional states were a complete mess. She had absolutely no words to describe what she was currently feeling, so, after failing to assemble something more profound, she just lowered her head and asked, "How long is a couple of years? As one of the last Salamanders, everyone is anxious to see me produce offspring. I would like to put their hearts and minds at ease…not just for them, but for my own sake…"
In response to Sandora's words, Vahn surprised her yet again by pulling her into his embrace and simply holding her for the better part of three minutes. It broke his heart that Sandora genuinely believed the things she was saying. Nearly everything she did was for the sake of others, yet, much like his past self, she had convinced herself that it was necessary for her own happiness. Unlike him, however, she had been shouldering everything on her own. She was completely miserable, but, for the sake of 'everyone else', she maintained a smile and kept telling herself that everything would be okay so long as she kept trying her hardest…
Confused by Vahn's actions, Sandora didn't immediately respond to his embrace. This was actually the first time she had ever received a hug. She may have received one when she was an infant, but, as great as her memory was, she couldn't recall events that had taken place before she was seven months old. Since her mother had died shortly after birthing her, Sandora's only memory of being held was when she was being breastfed by her Nursemaid.
Realizing that Vahn may be the first person that held her in such a caring and tender manner, a hint of moisture developed across Sandora's eyes before she closed them and snuggled a little closer to his warmth. Her crown and horns ended up poking into him more than a few times, but, instead of complaining or admonishing her, Vahn just wrapped his arms around her even more firmly until the only thought in Sandora's mind was how comfortable it was to be held. That and one other thing…
Noticing Sandora was beginning to nuzzle against his chest, a wry smile developed across Vahn's face as he slowly released her from his embrace. When she looked up and noticed this, a look of shame immediately marred Sandora's countenance until Vahn affirmed, "You have done absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. I just didn't want things to get out of hand before we had the chance to talk…"
Though she was still incredibly embarrassed after being caught burying her face into Vahn's chest and inhaling his aroma, Sandora managed to adopt her characteristically serious expression as she said, "I understand. Though I may need to discuss it with my brother and the Elders of Salamandra, know I will do everything in my power to abide by your conditions. Tell me what I must do."
Resisting the urge to sigh and comment on Sandora's sudden change in demeanor, Vahn planted a kiss atop the too-serious redhead's crown before proceeding to explain her options. He advised her that the 'correct' choice was to continue living as she had been. He explained his ability to change a person's race and even revealed that he had removed the tumors from her brother's lungs. In other words, there was no need for her to bear the burden of her entire species. Even if she waited tens of thousands of years to have children, there was absolutely no chance that her species and bloodline would be wiped out.
As surprised as she was by the revelations about her brother and Vahn's abilities, Sandora insisted that he explain the rest of her options. She actually knew about Sarina and Nono, so, even if Vahn failed to broach the subject himself, Sandora was prepared to mention it. If he refused, she would simply enter a different Game Board. Her age had always been a point of controversy so now was as good a time as any to do something about it.
Fortunately, the very next option Vahn brought up was using his personal Game Board to both accumulate experience and increase her strength. The third option was entering into one of his Actualized Worlds but that was easier said than done. It was also the least expedient method to achieve her goal, so, while Sandora could appreciate Vahn's desire to let her experience a normal childhood, she ultimately chose the second option. The only caveat was that she wanted to enter alongside him so they could get to know each other better. She didn't particularly care about the Dungeon or joining any Guilds. Even if they spent the entire time isolating themselves somewhere in the mountains, she wouldn't mind.
Though Vahn agreed to allow Sandora to make use of the Game Board, the notion of spending five-to-six years in complete isolation with a promiscuous Dragon girl didn't exactly bring him peace of mind. He knew exactly how persistent a girl like Sandora could be, so, while he was willing to enter alongside her, he insisted they either join separate Familia or invite a few others to enter the Game Board with them. This caused a rather adorable pout to develop across Sandora's face, but, after a long period of deliberation, she eventually accepted. So long as she didn't have to enter the Game Board alone, she was satisfied with any arrangement Vahn could think of. She just didn't want to be alone…not again…
(A/N: Alternate Titles: 'Vahn be like, "Well, well, well…if it isn't the consequences of my own actions. It's been a long time…"','You better keep giving that girl hugs…','Lots and lots of hugs…')
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