The day Dino met her, he honestly never expected anything to happen. The woman who owned this particular horse ranch was very selective about who bought her charges. It had taken him months of several deals just to get the address of the ranch and be allowed to look at the animals in question.
And that was just to get ON the property.
When he saw the horses, the animal lover in him fell in love with them immediately. They were immaculately cared for with love and affection. Some showed signs of past abuse, but they were clearly loved now.
This was before he saw her.
One look at the young woman tending the massive palomino stallion with the shiny coat he fell in love. Not with the horse, though it was clearly a handsome specimen, but with the woman.
She was young, not even in her twenties. Late teens at least, with thick red hair that flowed down her back and ended in playful curls. It was almost the color of a dark red, almost black color. Her skin was lightly tanned, though Dino noted a few scars that she didn't bother to hide. Like the ones that went down her back almost like she had been hit with some sort of sharp spikes from a tail. Her eyes were a green he could only liken to fresh grass, and kind. But there was a sadness and wariness in them that made him want to know who had hurt her so badly that she had almost closed herself off to everyone save animals.
But it was her smile that did him in. He knew he would kill if it meant that smile was aimed at him... for him.
It took him a few moments to realize there was something nuzzling his hair.
The sound of a light, tinkling laughter drew him in.
"It seems the Herd Master likes you," she said, giggling.
Dino turned to face the 'alpha' horse, or "herd master" as they were sometimes called.
It was a pure white stallion with almost an almost ethereal silver man and tail, and hooves that shone under the light. All it was lacking was the horn and he'd swear it was the perfect representation of an actual unicorn.
The horse was nuzzling his hair, almost affectionately.
"I'm Harmony. Are you from the Chaivarone family?"
"I'm their boss," he openly admitted. The idea of lying never once occurred to him.
Harmony smiled at him and he almost had trouble breathing. How the hell was she doing this to him so easily? Reborn would be appalled.
"Well if he likes you, then I suppose I could trust you with my herd. But only if you pass a small test of course. Quest is a very good judge of someone's true character, however I prefer to know that the people who will be buying from me actually know what they're talking about."
"I completely understand," said Dino.
And he did. Horses had been something of a hobby of his...right up until he started making a lot of money on horse trading and to a much lesser extent, horse racing. He had a natural eye for horse flesh, one that Reborn had fine tuned one he realized Dino's ability to discern whether a horse would be worth the effort.
Ironically his love of horses made it a lot easier for him to rebuild his family fortunes and make a nice, clean profit that the cops couldn't investigate them for.
That wasn't to say he didn't have a few criminal activities, but he made damn sure that any money laundering through specific stables was kept firmly in house. It was hard to dispute a large order of hay, after all.
Small, steady doses were almost impossible to notice...and it had gotten Reborn's open approval at the deception, since Dino preferred to buy local when he could.
Dino looked over Harmony's charges and noticed something odd.
"It's almost like you have several different herds."
"I do. One is a specialty stock that you'd need certain clearance for, and even then I'm extremely picky on who is allowed to buy them. The one I normally sell is the one that sticks closest to the main house, while the third and fourth herds stick closer to the forest which is unilaterally off limits to everyone. Even I don't go in there without precautions. There is an unofficial fifth herd, but thankfully it's empty at the moment."
"I take in abused, neglected and abandoned horses. Especially from the disreputable racing tracks. Needless to say they need a lot of specialized care, which is why they're the unofficial herd. I keep them separate until I'm certain they can be rehabilitated. I hate having to put them down," said Harmony scowling.
"I hate the disreputable tracks, they're always about money and never about the animals," said Dino in honest disgust.
His territory took up the majority of the legal horse racing tracks, and he made damn sure they were at least semi-reputable. The owners all knew he had a zero tolerance policy for abuse or neglect of the animals and if he heard even a whisper of it happening he would investigate. He wasn't above shutting a track down until he knew the animals (and to a lesser extent the racers) were in acceptable condition.
That usually coincided with an abrupt "change in ownership" that generally went hand in hand with someone being iced as a warning to the others.
"I have the distinct feeling you're going to be one of my rare repeat clients," she said with a smile. "That is, if Quest doesn't chase you off by making you bald first."
Dino lightly bopped the horse before he brought out something far more interesting for the stallion to chomp on. Quest accepted the bribe of the green apple eagerly and lost interest in Dino's hair, to his relief.
All in all, he rather enjoyed meeting Harmony.
And if he happened to schedule his purchases so that he could meet her personally, well he doubted anyone would comment. At least he hoped they wouldn't.
Later that night...
Romario watched his young boss with a slight smile on his face. Dino had perked up considerably since he met the owner of the most reputable and sought after horses in the business. The Marauder's Ranch was almost impossible to get in, but if you earned the favor of the owner then all the animals you bought from them were hard working, well loved, and were the best behaved. She never sent out a sick animal, and if you had to let the horse go she would buy them back for a decent price.
She also took in abused horses, and rehabilitated them to the point that they rarely had issues with humans.
It was no wonder his boss fell for her, and hard.
The only issue he could see was that she was a civilian and they had absolutely nothing on her background save for when she first opened the ranch.
For now he'd keep his silence and hopefully encourage his boss to go for it. He hadn't seen Dino this happy since before Reborn showed up and he was still several people away from being stuck as Decimo.
Harmony was a little baffled as to why Dino had come back. He claimed he was planning to buy a few more horses from her (and had already picked up the ones he paid for a week ago personally) but somehow she had the feeling that wasn't what he was really doing.
And then Firenze clued her in when she made a comment about it. The centaur herd had been rather agreeable when she told them what she was asking of them and why. Once they realized she only wanted them to act as the 'guardians' of the unicorn, pegasus and rarely the "unofficial" fifth herd which consisted of horses that needed time away from humans, they were quite happy to leave the Forbidden Forest behind.
Mostly because she made it very, very clear to the head centaurs that she would leave the entirety of the forest to the centaur herds, and focus more on the main areas of the ranch. Anyone stupid enough to go in without their prior permission was not her problem and she made it clear with a series of signs in several languages that the forest was off limits to unauthorized personnel and that anyone stupid enough to go in without permission from the owner would be dealt with accordingly.
Underneath it was a note in big, easy to understand words that stated without any sympathy that if you went in without permission, they were not legally responsible for anything that happened, so don't come whining to her.
Firenze had found it very amusing, and it had done a lot to soothe the anger of the less friendly centaurs like Bane. The fact she kept out of their forest made the herd happy. Especially since the only thing she asked of them was something they didn't mind doing in the first place...I/E guarding those who needed protection from humans.
Firenze had chuckled when she made a comment about Dino's behavior, before he told.
"The young stallion is courting you," he said with amusement.
Harmony's face went into shock. Then she tilted her head.
"Quest made a comment about how his men all call him 'Bucking Bronco' or 'Bucking Horse'. And he acts more like a gangly colt than a human, one who leads the herd but is awkward away from it."
Harmony snickered at that. She had already experienced the "infamous" klutziness of Dino when he tripped and knocked them both into a water trough. Fortunately she liked to keep those cleaned, so they just got a little wet and he apologized profusely.
The thing was she had no idea how one was supposed to react to being courted.
"For now simply accept his feelings towards you as genuine and allow the stars to fall where they may," said Firenze. "I have not seen many human courtships, but this one at least does not have the feel of being star-crossed like your parents."
"He's got the blessing of the lead unicorn, which is more than I can say about the last set of admirers I had," said Harmony. "That's good enough for me, even if I am uncertain how I'm supposed to feel about that. I have no idea what love is."
"Albus was wise in many things, but he extended himself too far for too long," said Firenze shaking his head.
It was part of the reason why the herd agreed to move along with the unicorns and to a lesser extent the thestrals. Though most of that herd stayed in the school as they pulled the carriages, the ones who hadn't been trained in that way had gone with Harmony to her new home and stayed primarily with the pegasus herds. She bought a lot of fresh meat from the butchers, though they thought she was spoiling her guard dogs. That or she liked meat.
The centaurs were glad to be well away from the English fool's reach, especially since it was clear that Albus was too far gone in his own sense of accomplishment to see reason. He would be dead long before he realized the error in his judgment when it came to Harmony... especially when it came to things such as her living conditions and her 'safety'.
Though by unanimous agreement, Firenze was now the "spoke-centaur" for the herd. Harmony didn't interfere with their herd politics and they let Firenze deal with the only human they could reasonably tolerate. As long as the horses were happy, both sides could care less what the other got up to on their own lands.
"Stupid Dino, I heard you've been visiting a certain ranch with increasing frequency of late."
"GAH!" yelped Dino, tripping on his own feet. Reborn always did enjoy causing that reaction. "Who told you?"
"I am all knowing, Stupid Dino."
And by that, Reborn meant Romario called him and mentioned it at one point. Dino seemed to making some headway at least, because the girl hadn't chased him off for visiting simply for the sake of seeing her. She clearly figured out what was going on, but was content not to bring it up.
Naturally Reborn was very interested in meeting her. Dino might be running his familigia full time now, but he was still Reborn's student. It wouldn't do for the klutz to marry the wrong person and bring it all crashing down.
Not that he was worried about that. This "Harmony" seemed to be the sensible sort and ran a tight business. She was making a lot of money despite the amount it cost to maintain a ranch that large and only selling her animals to a select few who had earned her favor.
He just didn't want to see Dino hurt. Not unless it was from his chaotic behavior, that is.
Dino groaned. He was going to get whoever told Reborn about his interest in Harmony. Bringing in his former tutor was just not fair.
"I want to meet her."
Dino had a sudden, worrisome thought.
"No chaos around the horses. She's very protective of them and she might kick me out and ban me if she even thinks I have any control of your actions."
Reborn smirked at him, which did not do anything good for his mellow.
However what Dino thought would happen and what did were so far apart it wasn't even funny. Well it was, but only after the fact.
Harmony took one look at Reborn who played up the "I'm just a cute little toddler card", then at Dino. Her expression was flat and unimpressed.
"Really? Does he actually think I'll fall for his baby act?"
Reborn looked at her with interest.
"It's not like I have any say on what he does or where he goes," said Dino helplessly.
"I believe you. He practically radiates arrogance and smarm, except I'm betting he has the skills to back it up. I'll allow you here so long as you do not harm or startle the animals. And if you go into the forest you're on your own... I have no say in what happens to trespassers," she said bluntly.
"While your curse seems odd, it's no concern of mine," she said dismissively.
Reborn's attention was immediately on her the second she said the word "curse".
"How do you know it's a curse?"
"Real infants would fidget wearing those sort of clothes and there's no way they'd be able to maintain their balance like you do on his shoulder. Plus that much self-confidence only comes from an adult, and I can feel the energy coming off that pacifier of yours. I have no idea what that thing is, but I know it's cursed just from the feel of it," she said flatly. "If you want to know what really tipped me off, it was the eyes. They feel far too old and tired to possibly belong to a child."
Reborn stared at her, saying nothing.
"Stupid Dino, if you don't marry this girl I am going to make your life a living hell all over again," said Reborn, going to inspect the ranch. He wasn't much of a horse fan, but there was something off about this place.
Dino and Harmony blushed at the way Reborn had more or less given his blessing in such a back-handed manner.
"So who is he?"
"My former tutor," said Dino, still blushing. "He wanted to meet you after one of my men mentioned you offhand. How did you know he's not a toddler though?"
"Again, it was the eyes that tipped me off. If you look at them, and I mean really look, you can see how tired and old he is. Real children still have a sort of 'innocence' and a sense wonder...but he's seen far too much and has come out rather apathetic about it all," she replied.
Dino made a note to actually LOOK at Reborn, or at least meet his eyes.
He was fascinated when he saw the exact same thing she did... Reborn was tired and rather apathetic about the world in general, though he tried to make up for it with his chaos. It was rather sad, actually.
Oddly, he seemed to gain a bit of wonder and amazement after they left the ranch. Like he had seen something that had given him a bit of that old spark of magic back, though it wasn't enough to overcome decades of experiences and far too many kills.
Dino wouldn't find out until long after the fact that Reborn had stumbled into the pegasus/thestral paddock and ended up meeting Quest...without the spells on his horn to keep it hidden from normal humans.
The unicorn had taken one look at Reborn and nuzzled him, allowing him to sit on his back while he 'inspected' the herds. Yes, he was a killer, but there was still some good left in him. Though it was mostly because of his Flames. Suns were primarily healers after all, and his was particularly strong even if he had gone a different way.
Just seeing a unicorn and it allowing him to touch it had done wonders for his mood. And brought up a lot of questions he didn't want to answer just yet.