20 juin 2015

Chapter 23

              "I'm awfully sorry for this. Truly," is all Peter manages to say, as his face sinks even deeper with embarrassment.

            "Why? What kind of a place is this exactly?"

            "One I'd rather we didn't cross, if we had the choice," he replies blankly. His discomfort is so hilarious to me for some reason that I suddenly feel braver, and fully disposed to tease. 

            "Are you sure only one vial would be enough?" I ask, and hear Vlad slightly choke on his drink.
            Peter's eyes gleam for a short second, reminding me of that dangerous side to them, which I saw in Sam's thread shafts. I'd probably be less brave with that version of him, if I ever had the chance of meeting it. 
            "Just...chug it," he throws, with aligned eyebrows.
            "You sound impatient," I push, and am quickly interrupted by the most spectacular laugh; one of a female Aelfric who's possibly listening to every word. Her closeness makes me nervous, so I grab the thin goblet and make one shot of its bitter contents. Ew.
            "Bravo!" I hear the laughing Elf say, as she steps from behind a red flower, clasping her hands and tilting her head to the side, as she slides towards us like someone who's just left a hellishly wild waltz.
So there’s the famous Pi, at last! And man, does she know how to make an entrance! She's sporting a long, hourglass-shaped, flaming red leather gown, which is all contrast with her alabaster skin, but in perfect harmony with her scarlet hair and lips. Her reddish eyes should probably be shocking to me, but they’re so utterly beautiful that it's hard to find fault with them, or with anything else for that matter. And it’s clear by the way both Vlad and Peter are embezzled by her, that they don't seem to find any either. I quickly realize this person's Talent might just be her impersonating every male Aelfric's – and female too? I'm not too clear on Elven homosexuality yet – ultimate object of desire.
I, however, experience a different and somewhat surprising effect of it: the minute Pi's gaze meets mine, my entire being is, instead, abruptly riveted by Peter’s presence at my side. It’s like something has suddenly triggered my hormones and steered them in his direction. His simply being there now makes me feel all... hot and bothered. I turn to him for relief, only to get more reason to be nervous: his eyes are boring into mine so intensely that he looks like he's incapable of turning away.
            I’m sure it’s her! How is this woman doing that?!
            "So I guess it's red for you, Peter?" she winks, not caring for any formal introductions.
            Not taking his eyes off of mine, my green-eyed Elf draws in a deep breath, and very reluctantly blurts out, "Damn it Pi, no!"
            "Okay then, but your Energy is saying the very opposite of that," she teases with hardly concealed pleasure. "Fifth Vessel to the right," are her last words to him before all her attention veers to the remaining member of the group.
            "Vladimir," she bows, with a flirty grin.
            "Lady Pi! You look lovely," Vlad curtseys, and then just stands there, gaping. The awkwardness is palpable, but the landlady feels no rush in taking him out of his misery. She even indulges in a lengthy staring match, like a predator eying its prey. Then, suddenly, she pounces, for lack of a better word, on a surprised Vlad, hitching her legs around his waist, and laughing – that spectacular laugh again – as he holds her and all but runs into the thick petal forest.
            The minute they disappear, Peter's features relax, and he exhales to regain some composure. I too need a minute, mostly to understand what just happened. However, I am hardly given the time to. Making sure we don't establish full eye contact again, Peter firmly grabs my hand, and marches east.
            "What's going on?" I ask.
            "Not here," he whispers, and keeps up the military stride all the way to an open white flower. "Hop in," he commands while almost indelicately hoisting me up. I grab on to the petals – and they really do feel like organic, live ones – and climb into the giant thing, landing on a gooey flurry of transparent, liquid-filled spheres. It feels like sitting in the bubbly bit of pearl milk tea.
            “What the…!”
            “Wait, hold on,” Peter cautions while lithely lifting himself up and slipping into the flower. And in a now familiar fashion, he raises his palms. The very same second, the petals slowly come to life from all sides, and gradually close up on us, like an engulfing cocoon. I observe the sheer height and graceful movement of those things before realizing, nervously, that for one, this is the only time we’ve been alone since the similarly-coloured brooding bubble; and second, I’m still really, really mad at him.
            He’s perceptive enough to feel that, so he looks at me carefully, fumbling for a neutral way to start the conversation. When he finally finds one, he uses his soft, tentative voice.
            “If you sit on the sides, your clothes would remain dry, more or less…”
            “You’re sitting in Ambrosia. It’s wet. Erm… sorry about that.”
“Ambrosia? As in… the food of the gods?” Of all the things he could be apologizing for… But I’m intrigued enough to digress to this.
            “Yeah,” he smiles, and I notice the return to Human informal speech, “Remember when we told you eating was a… baser need for us? Well, erm… this is what we eat. And we don’t need to; we only do it for pleasure.”
            The P-word quickly sends me back to that strange state of spontaneous arousal we were both in a few minutes before.
            “What is this place?! Please, no more vague answers,” I demand.
            “Well… Pi has this talent for reading our Energy. Not in the general sense, but more on the… physical attraction level.”
            My lips mime a capital “O”.
            “She can guess any sort of… sexual connection between Aelfrics, before they themselves are aware of it. And then she...,” he pauses awkwardly, “she boosts it. By a lot. She gave us a tiny sample of that, back there.”
            “Oh, great!” I panic, “So she knows about us!”
            “No, she knows I’m dying to, erm…be with you. Physically. That’s perfectly normal here,” he shrugs. “She doesn’t know I love you, though...”
His voice falters on that last part, and I can’t help but look away and expect to blush. This is the second time he’s said it, and I instantly realize I’ve never said it back. Hm! Must be a “there’s more at stake for me if I said it, since I’m obviously the one who loves you more” sort of counter-reaction. Good thing he doesn’t wait for my reply.
“Pi has a white and red flower system: all flowers – or Vessels – here are essentially white, and meant to close up and give intimacy to any two or more Aelfrics.” Or more?! My, my… “If you close the Vessel and choose for it to remain white, it means you’re only here for a private chat. But if you choose red, you’re allowed not only to enjoy the Ambrosia, but also to profit from Pi’s potent Talent which automatically provides the crimson hue for a perfect setting, and the necessary irresistible urges to put the Butineurs… in the mood.”
“Butineurs?” I know the French meaning of the word, as I know it could have a pretty sexual connotation.
“Yeah, like, er… bees collecting pollen. It’s the term to describe anyone who enters a red Vessel,” he shrugs again, trying his best not to sound embarrassed. “Don’t worry, I told her white.”
I give him a tiny smile, and move to the sides of the flower, so as to stop crushing Ambrosia bubbles with my butt.
“So now you know why I was a bit reluctant about getting you food from this Realm, as this is the only kind available,” he says softly, and yet manages to get on my nerves again. If this is him justifying why he went to my Garden without me, he’s going to have to do much better than that. “Look, Lily, I don’t expect you to understand, but you were dying on me. Or at least that’s what it looked like. I still don’t know if your morphing has given you our considerably longer lifespan, but… Either way, I had to do something! And telling you about it would have been too great a risk...”
“Um… are these Vessels soundproofed?” I ask calmly.
He raises an eyebrow, pauses for a worried second, then nods.
I’ve never, ever yelled at anyone before. Ever. Peter’s eyes grow darker, and in a familiar second, his shoulders seem to take on those sculptural pre-self-portrait curves.
“Tell me, Lily,” he tries to remain unmoved, “would you like to get us both killed? Because if I do take you back there and risk you revealing all our secrets to the Garden Folk – through both your skin and your words – while standing Danielle up on her invitation to meet you, and taking our chances with all the current Sentinel checks, that’s exactly what will happen to us.  Look,” he huffs and slides his fingers through his hair, “There’s no less brutal way of saying this: YOU. ARE. NO. LONGER. HUMAN!!!” He grabs my wrist, and lifts up my forearm. “Here, do you see this skin? This skin is AELFRIC. You are AELFRIC. We’re one and the same. And I have bound myself to you, so I’ll be damned if I do anything that could put you in mortal danger!!!”
He rambles on, and I stare at him, livid. What’s the point of discussing freedom with one’s kidnapper? He loves me, and I him. But he has no idea how deeply and undeniably Human I am, and will always be.
Something seems to hit him mid-sentence, and his anger abruptly deflates into what looks like weary sadness. "Oh...," he breathes, "Apologies. I keep forgetting your first Lume, and how clear it was that we don't see eye to eye when it comes to this...bond."
"How do you mean?"
"Lily, I know that given the choice, you wouldn't be here. I've always known it, and it makes perfect sense. You're also aware of why we had to get you here and how, with a suspecting physician at that hospital, as well as an exceedingly perceptive investigator for a father, your skin would soon have told a rather intriguing tale! Not to forget the coincidence, for lack of a more logical term, of our meeting on two separate occasions in the Garden, and my being drawn to where you were both times. Yes, both. Did I ever tell you that? I wasn’t supposed to be on that train, just like I was never meant to go on one more mission to that hospital! I'm still figuring out the why and the how. I mean, in retrospect, your metamorphosis had already begun after the assault, so maybe it makes sense that I was led to the hospital..."
"Really? Why?"
"Because Aelfric Energy draws us all together, wherever we are. Haven't you felt that yet? But the first time I saw you, on the train, when you were still one hundred percent Human... Something had drawn me there too!"
Fate, maybe? He should ask his Elders if that exists.
"And you drew me," I smile, tenderly. I see how tortured he is, and hate it. He pauses, and his weary eyes smile back at the pun.
"It can't have been Aelfric Energy there too! So what was it? What is it about you, you beautiful, fragile little thing, that got me on that train? It took everything I had to get off, leaving you there. My Human mask kept falling, and I kept putting it back on, and pointlessly denying what my mind was telling me, over and over again: Your place is with her. She is your One. I knew I was in trouble, so I ran. I even came back here, to clear my head, and remember that my kind don’t believe in such a connection. Yet, the minute I went back, your Energy beckoned me to the hospital. The most confusing thing! I felt the same bond to this barely-living, silent girl staring at me from her hospital bed, as I did on the train with Ember Girl; and I went crazy thinking how I could feel that for two Humans at once!! Without the portrait, I would probably never have found out you were one and the same…”
"Ember Girl?" I smile.
"Yeah, it’s your hair…erm… I really wanted to give you a name, for my memories," he almost blushes.
His memories… So I wasn’t the only one fixated on him back then. Heart pinch.
"The rest you know... All this to say: to me, Lily, you're inescapable. You feel you're the only captive here, but that's not entirely true. You feel like running, as I did. But I couldn't, for the life of me, stay away. So for goodness sakes, am I alone in finding it humanly... elvenly impossible to be away from you? Just… tell me, would you run anyway, if you could? And would it be easy for you to keep running?"
 That’s it, all masks are down, and this man is, in a dignified and frankly angry way, demanding to know if I loved him.  
Yes, I do. And it would kill me to be away from him... But yes, I would still run.
Though for now, all I care about is never to see that deeply anguished look on his face, ever again. I slide my knees through the gooey Ambrosia and all but throw myself into his arms. He lets out a surprised huff, then slowly exhales. He pulls me closer against his chest, and his lips frantically look for mine.
I'm shocked that, with all this passion we've both been fighting, this is only our second kiss. And it feels like it's making up for all the missed ones. Good thing my new skin can take this, because it goes from a tender to a wildly intense embrace in a matter of seconds. And slowly, a heat wave washes over us, multiplying our nerve endings by a million. It's so brutal and overwhelming that my hands cling to Peter's shirt, as if in need of a lifebuoy. He obliges and imbeds his fingers into the skin of my back to prevent me from slipping away. He then pushes his entire body forward, melting into mine. I fall back into the wet Ambrosia, and he follows. The impact of the fall suddenly knocks a modicum of sense into us, and we both make a superhuman effort to stop. This isn't normal! In the tiny second we manage to take a breath, Peter's eyes pop out and he asks, alarmed, "Did you taste the Ambrosia?!"
"No! Why?" I ask him while trying to release my leg from under him, to hitch it over his. He closes his eyes, clenches his teeth and mumbles, "Look around you."
Unhappy with the distraction and totally wrapped up in that irresistible searing surge coming from my very insides, I reluctantly look away and... The entire flower is, from the bottom up, turning a fiery shade of red.
That does it for me. The simple thought that this isn't our own passion making us do this, but a rather cheap Elven trick, one we didn't even ask for, puts an abrupt stop to it. I lay my palms against Peter's chest, and he utters a frustrated groan as he tears himself from me and rolls to the side. We both have great trouble controlling our breathing. A difficult minute later, he raises a hand, and the petals softly open at the top, allowing him to roar out, "Piiiii-IIIIII!!!!!"
"Not me dahling!" We hear her faint voice from far away, "You went into the wrong Vessel!"
The petals gradually go lower, and so does the heat.
What... the hell... was that?!
I look to my right, and find Peter's eyes watching me carefully. Surely he must know he wouldn't have such a powerful hold on me if I didn't love him, despite Pi's incredibly enticing Talent.
"Yep, I'm pretty sure we went into the fourth Vessel instead of the fifth," he smiles apologetically. "I'm... sorry," he winks, and I laugh. No he isn't, but I know it wasn't on purpose.
On a more serious note, though, woah! Would things be like this with him, sans Pi's mind tricks, I wonder? Now that my body is no longer subject to awful chafing and allergic reactions, I would love to have a normal, enjoyable instance of love-making – for once in my life, and the first time in this new one – and find out. But staying here and doing it the "bordello way"... not my thing.
Huh. Figured out what sort of place this is after all.
"Come," Peter says, and does a sort of side flip out of the flower. Wow, canned energy much?!  He reaches up to grab me, and I flirtily slip right into his arms. He warily looks around, making sure we’re alone, then smiles cunningly, and starts removing Ambrosia from my hair. Then from my attire, taking his time in places where there wasn't much goo in the first place. I pout, playfully, but let him do it. It's not every day that I get to have any sort of physical contact with this person. As soon as he's done, I reciprocate, and make sure I miss none of it. At one point, I look up and see his eyes searching for my lips again. Okay, maybe I should stop. As I lower my hands from his chest, he grabs on to one of them, and offers a mischievous grin. "You wanna get out of here?" he asks, but doesn't wait for an answer. He just starts running, dragging me along.
"Oi!" I blurt out, but can't help giving in to his infectious enthusiasm.
We giggle like children as we run through the thick red and white forest, and Peter simultaneously manages to send two Lumes, to which he whispers, "Thanks Pi, luv!", and "Vlad, meet us in the next Space when you're, er, done!" And we keep on running, happily yet awkwardly, as neither of us is quite over that very potent mood we had just been in.  And the feel of my hand snuggled up inside his, isn't really helping.

            What feels like an eternity later, – Man, how many flowers do these people need?! – we finally reach the outskirts of Pi's Space. The second we get there, Peter feels me pulling on his hand as I stop dead in my tracks and inhale sharply.
            Without preamble, there we were, face to face with what I could only describe as the Enchanted Forest from every childhood tale I could think of. Utterly gigantic, eternal-looking, aligned trees draw the limit between Pi's Space and this one, and we look no bigger than ants in their shade.
            Green and copper brown are the dominant colours, apart from the small firefly-like specs of light floating among the branches. I know they're not Lumes, and quickly realize that the owner of this Space must have gone through great lengths to find decorative elements... Very earthy and earthly ones.
            Guilty for the forest! I remember Peter saying, comically raising his hand.
            With huge eyes and barely concealed excitement, I turn to him. "Is this yours?!"
            His huge, smug grin confirms it. I squeak like a teenager. "Okay, wait, wait, I got this," I say proudly, and close my eyes to concentrate.
            A few long seconds later, I open them to see a considerably tiny, hourglass-shaped Lume bobbing in front of me. Yay! I did it again! I look at Peter, and the Lume follows my stare, gently gliding to him. He bows his head, greets it like a guest, and pushes it into his ear. Shaking his head in wonder, he can't help but ask, "How are you doing this?! Making a Lume with just your thoughts?! And... wait," he listens, "did I just hear... ‘Does one need an invitation to one’s own home’?!" He whispers, incredulous.
            "Well, in a way, this is also my birthplace. I was supposedly ‘made’ here, wasn't I?" I tease. Okay, I'm so going to hell for this, but I'd do anything to go in there!
            He bites his lip, looks around to see if no one from Pi's Space is watching, then gives me a last, cheeky glance before swiftly sweeping me off my feet and shooting forward into the woods, Vlad-and-Pi style.
            In a matter of seconds, we're completely engulfed in a fairy-tale-like world of baobab-sized fir trees, mysterious rays of sunshine seeping through the canopy, millions of tiny fireflies feeling right at home, and bizarrely warm grass "carpeting" everywhere, going up each and every giant tree trunk. The scent isn't quite accurate – it smells more like church incense than that delicious, musky wood aroma – but it's obvious Peter has worked hard on it.  I also notice a lot of effort in the creation of shrubbery and flowers, although it's clear the Supernatural has had its way with them, especially with those too-perfect, spotted red mushrooms. What's next? Unicorns?
            Oh Peter... you really are a gentle geek. No wonder everyone knows how obsessed you are with the Gardens!
            "Are you ready?" he asks, not even out of breath from carrying me and sprinting for the past few minutes. I fumble for an answer but don't really need one. He's already started running again, and doesn't stop until we're right underneath what I guess is this Space's jewel: a humongous and breath-taking white waterfall. A very quiet waterfall, as I didn't even hear it coming. It’s of the most luminous white I’ve ever seen, and the waters beneath it are so clear and reflect the smallest gold or bronze gleam in the forest. Oh wow...
            I slip out of his arms, and my feet don't even make a sound against the velvety grass ground. I take a few steps forward, and still can't find the words for this. The waterfall flows down a rocky and mossy hill which, I must admit, is very realistic in its design. There's a certain cathedral feel and awe to this place, especially if one has a strong enough heart to look up and try, just try, to see how high those trees go. And amidst all this grandness, I could hear myself breathe. I don't think I have ever, or will ever see a place as magical as this one. 
            "Lily...," I hear him whisper behind me.
            "I know you carry many of this Realm's secrets already... But can I trust you with yet another one?"
            "Of course!"
            "Okay, but first, we'll need to jump in," he challenges.
            "Jump in? You mean in the water? Um... Do you know just how much effort Sam put into these clothes?! They're supposed to be my royal hearing attire!" I pout.
            "I’m sorry, you’re absolutely right! Just take them off then," he grins. He's clearly enjoying this.
            "Oh you're so paying for this, Alberic," I grumble. "Okay, just...turn around! You're not watching me get naked! I'll tell you to move as soon as I'm in the water. And these are non-negotiable terms!"
            "Okay, okay!" He holds out his pacifying palms, but makes sure I hear the playful disappointment in his voice. "Here," he turns, "though, I hope you don't mind, I'd also like to keep my Garden disguise dry. Is that okay!"
            And just like that, with his back turned to me, he starts undressing. I'm halfway through untying my shoelaces when my fingers start lingering there, and my mouth slacking at the sight. First, it's the Lumberjack shirt sliding off those eerily strong shoulders that keep betraying his real nature. He's kept enough of his original olive tone not to raise suspicion, and the perfect smoothness of his skin makes me weak at knees. He then undoes his belt, and stops. "You're awfully quiet back there, Lil!" he teases.
            I groan, which makes him laugh out loud. I hate him right now! Has he no consideration for my frustration? Apparently not, as his jeans soon hit the ground, revealing... Wait, what is that exactly?... Are those… Star Wars boxer shorts?!
            "What?" he asks, stopping all undressing activities.
            "Nothing! Nice shorts, Luke."
            "Well, if you don't like them...," he briskly pulls them all the way down. 
            Good thing he can't see my jaw hitting the ground, as he very confidently prances towards the small lake underneath the cascade and soundlessly dives in, splitting the water into two spray-less folds. 
            I take the rest of my clothes off in double the speed, and run to the water before he’s had time to peek. The big smile he gives me as soon as he turns around, shows genuine excitement. He looks so happy to have me here, and he wears this smile so well that a tiny voice in my head makes me feel like I'd do anything to keep it there.
            "We'll have to dive under the cascade. Are you ready?"
            "Sam also spent hours on my hair, but...what the hell. Let's do this!" No going back now.
            He reaches out for my hand, and we swim – well, he swims, I glide along – until it's time to take a deep breath and dive in. Frankly, I do get a little scared at first. It's a huge cascade, and the direct impact of the water might hurt! But one glance from Peter reassures me, and we both wade in at the same time.
            Less than a second later, we simultaneously emerge on the other side, in a sort of wide, mossy cave, with the waterfall behind us. Except that, on this end, I can hear it loud and clear!
            "It's only muted on the other side!" he reveals, guessing my thoughts. "This is my hideout, but ironically, there's no hiding or concealing of any kind here. I try to keep everything genuine, like the Garden sounds of the water"
            "And yourself. You've taken the fake glasses off!" Pity, that's what remained of the earthly Peter I knew. Although this one, with the huge naked eyes and the beads of water rolling down his face, makes my heart want to thump its way through my chest.
            "If I had the choice, I would be the Garden Peter for you forever," he whispers.
            I stare into his eyes and know he means it, although he's light-years away from living up to it. Or else I would simply ask him to take me back home, and to stay there with me! Sweet Peter... Would he accept to pay the same price I did?
            I see a small mimic of disappointment at my silence, but he decides not to pressure me.
            "Come, we should climb up there," he points to a small plateau halfway up the cave wall.
            "What, in the nude?" I blush, and he rolls his eyes then smiles.
            "Again, I promise I won't look," he indulges, and reaches for my hand.
            He steps out of the water first, and I'm again treated to a full view of him. My goodness, I don't think I'll ever get over how heartbreakingly beautiful he is.
            The climb is rather easy, although a few times, Peter can't help but peek to see if I'm okay, at the risk of breaking his promise of discretion. It's uncomfortable at first, but I gradually feel less awkward as we go along, as if this nakedness were almost as normal a state for us as being fully clothed. No hiding or concealing here.           
            Once we've reached the rocky platform, Peter faces the wall, raises his hand, and with a graceful stroke, draws the number "8".
            "Wait... Number 8… You drew it on the necklace, in the portrait!" I say, shyly. I still find it awkward to discuss such an intimate memory of ours. He turns around, surprised, then remembers he shouldn't be looking at me. He comically hides his eyes with his palm, and asks, "You figured it out!! Did you read everything in that necklace?"
            I softly remove his hand off his face, but he tactfully keeps his eyes in mine. "Yes, Leetah8. Leetah, like the ElfQuest character," I say and suddenly notice his taking a deep breath, and stifling a genuinely happy smile.
            "I can't believe you know it!"
            "I didn't, before that necklace! And what of the number 8? I know it's one of the meanings to the name Tam... So I just figured that you meant to write Leetah and Tam, you know, to confirm their Recognition..."
            Okay, this is getting really embarrassing. I can't just force this man to admit his necklace meant he'd experienced Recognition for me!
            "So you did figure it out! Every time I mentioned the 'bond' between us, Recognition was exactly what I meant. Despite my people’s innate inability to comprehend what love is, it’s still the biggest lesson I’ve learnt in the Gardens. So far, I’d been able to comprehend it, more or less, and to yearn for it. Then you come along…You’re it, and there's no fighting it for me. This also leads to a more obvious meaning to the number 8. Turn it around and you get the Infinity symbol. Erm… this might sound like a cheesy heart carved in a tree, but the necklace simply reads 'Leetah and Tam', or ‘Leetah Forever’..."
            The second I mean to react to these words, a deep rumble coming from the cave walls startles me, and soon, a tiny slit draws itself over the platform, slowly growing bigger. A soft and hypnotizing light shines through it, and gets wider as the opening reveals more of what's behind it.
            "The forest is just a façade. This is my real home..." Peter says, but at that point, I'm too shocked to look at him.
            I suddenly feel him leave my side, and yet I linger there, frozen, staring.
            A minute later, I sense his presence again behind me. He lays a very soft cover over my shoulders, and encircles them with his arms, laying his cheek against my ear.
            "What do you think?" he whispers. 
            Two big, fat tears roll down my face.
            "I... I love it!" I choke, wondering why this sight is making me so emotional.

The answer should be obvious, though. So I just let the tears flow down.


Chapter 22


            The voice sounds like it's coming from the bottom of the sea, and yet I recognize it. But my eyelids... They're too heavy.

            "Lily, can you hear me?" the voice urges.

            It takes everything I have to unglue my eyelashes, and the first thing I see gives me a small but much-needed boost: an extremely worried, human-looking, bespectacled Elf. 

            Oh, so he's back now? Just like that?! I give him the most vitriolic and hurt glare I can muster. Despite how relieved I am to see him, I've never felt more like his hostage than I do know, while he's free to come and go to my world as he wishes. 

            He ignores me, and discreetly reaches for my cheek. But just as I attempt to turn away, he insistently lays his palm on my lips, and jams something into my mouth. Something small, round and melty. 

            Is this...? ...OH. THANK. GOD. FOR. CHOCOLATE!!!

            It will definitely not give me all the strength I need, but I dare hope that in a few minutes, I'll be looking less like a vegetable.

            I also quickly understand that my emotions are secondary right now, and that I should make sure none of the others sees what he gave me. I try not to chew, and look at him half-gratefully, blinking once. This brings a very fleeting smile to one corner of his mouth, and still, it's enough to get some of the breath stuck in my throat. I love you, you son of a bitch.    
            "How long was I out?" I whisper groggily.

            "Long enough to worry the hell out of me," he says, with a cautious look in his eyes. If he thinks he's forgiven, he's way off. I give him an indifferent frown and look away.     

            He huffs lightly, and turns towards the others. "See? She's alright! Nothing to get worked up about!" 

            "But who's to say she won't lose the Energy like this again?" Indya questions him, too formally to reassure. 

            She's on her guard, and her distrust automatically sends her back into the non-accomplice group. My goodness... What an idiot I've been! I've felt too relaxed around her and her unsettling humanity, and even let her into my head, without knowing if she could rummage through it. And now there she is, doubting and inquiring... I should stop thinking that everyone here is like Sam, and would still be on our side if the secret were out! Stupid, stupid...

            Peter stands up and turns his back to me. "She's no Invalid, Indy! She's...still taking form. I've also made some changes to her drawing, as I said I would. Besides, you've always known my Talent applied gradually, so why would it be any different with her?"   

            "Because she's just been accused by a student, Peter! If the least discerning see this, what do you think the Elders will perceive, regardless of the truth?"

            I hear no ill intentions in Indya's voice, despite the questioning. It sounds more like protectiveness; the really adamant kind. Next to her, Vlad and Dem look pensive but clearly unwilling to get in the middle of this. Chloë, however, peeks from behind Vlad and waves at me. Wait... where is Nirav?

            "The one you call 'least discerning' has been evading us and skillfully tempering his every gesture, when we've always known he took after Corbin! What gave it away at last?"

            "He spoke about it, in Pi's Space..."

            "Oh.... so much for discretion! Since when does Pi divulge anything that is said or done there?" They all share a wink-like glance.

            "She didn't," Dem finally steps in. "His Butineuse did."      
            Oh for Pete's... That's it! I'm done not understanding!!! With a side-wrenching effort, I sit up and ask, without preamble, " 'Scuse me! Anyone care to tell me what is going on?" 

            Heavy silence. Exchanged looks. 

            "Who is Corbin? And what did Akäar take after him?" I insist.

            I know who Corbin is; Sam told me. I just want Peter to finally speak about his estranged brother. He turns around to face me, with a wary frown. "Corbin is an Aelfric who left nothing but destruction and smoke in his path, a few Raedes ago."

            "How? And most of all, why?" I push. I've got him talking now, and I'm not letting go. 

            Sensing Peter's stress, Vlad steps in and in a second, puts on his historian's mask. "It was a very dark time for the Aelfric kind, as everything revolved around the Gardens and what our role was, relatively to their inhabitants. It was more of a grey area then, than it is now." I feel he wants to look at Peter to confirm the jab, but he's conscious enough of how Indya and Dem would perceive it. "We had already piled on a series of unfortunate experiences with them, so the general tendency was to reduce our function to one of mere observation. Some Aelfrics, however, disagreed..."

            "They wanted more interference?" Careful Lily, don't get too brave.

            "It's not that... The most dangerous things our kind has done throughout the Raedes, have all stemmed from good intentions. And the intention was to embrace the Indigenous people - as an inferior species of course - but a cherished one. To teach it what we know, and give it a taste of our culture, intellect, values.... The most ardent supporter of this cause was Corbin. He saw no point in observing the Garden Folk if we were to leave them to their ignorance and wait for them to gain knowledge at their own rhythm. What is their reason for being, if not advancing and transcending their feeble nature? We were never given the actual reasons why the Great Elder created the Gardens, but they seemed obvious to Corbin. Why wait for the Garden Folk to take the fall into darkness, and then choose to remain good? This detour was at the heart of every Garden trouble we've ever witnessed, and Corbin found that absurd.                                        
"So he tried everything. He pleaded with the Elders, developed his Talent enough to be a worthy Herald one day, and rallied a large number or Aelfrics who were under his charm... He had a way of defending his views which was terribly convincing. At one point, he even managed to have a voting majority on the Council which comprises all our living Elders.                                                             
"Only three resisted him: Danielle, Elyä and Onnica; and they took action rapidly. Elyä asked that Indya be substituted by Peter as a Herald, for the obvious reason that new Heralds could not be replaced before a minimum of five Raedes. This helped them gain time, and they also knew that Corbin would never hurt Peter, as they were close friends."

            Brothers. They were Brothers. How could you not know what that means?!

            "Onnica, on the other hand, entrusted Nirav with a Key, without which the passage to the Gardens would be impossible. A Key that only Nirav and the Herald can identify."  

            "But what's to say that Corbin wouldn't exert his 'charm' to pressure Nirav or Peter?" I ask, with a heart thudding so fast it's pushing against my ribs. They're finally telling me everything!!

            "Well, that's what Danielle did. She had Peter make the sacred oath, the same one you did when the Sentinels were here, which makes it impossible to lie..."

            Then how come I could lie while swearing to it?... Although, technically, I'm not an Invalid. I'm just... hungry.

            "She also knew how attuned Peter was to Corbin, and how it was unlikely he would fall for any of his tricks. As for Nirav, he was given a very good reason not to be intimidated by Corbin..."

            Is he seriously making pauses to increase the suspense? Spill, you blond blabbermouth!!! "And what is that?" I inquire with hardly concealed frustration.

            "Danielle made him an Elder."

            Ah!!! Well... that sure explains it!... The way Peter walked on eggshells around him, and why he could never express any anger towards him. And that's probably why Nirav's so tall. But... I can't believe this! From the very first second I was brought to this land, I've been in the presence of a member of the Elders Council. That same Council that will probably sentence me to death! Not only was he there all the way, he also went to Earth to get me... risking his own position, and probably his life too. I must really remember not to slip up about Nirav and Vlad tagging along with Peter on that fateful night... 

            Suddenly, a very dark thought hits me: what if Nirav has been reporting to Danielle all this time?!... What if he's the one responsible for her knowing about me and sending me the Lume to the brooding bubble?... No. No, no, no. I refuse to think that, although it would also explain why Peter was uncomfortable anytime Nirav got too close to me... No, the thought of him betraying us is just unbearable. I really wish I could confront him somehow! But all this talk about the tall Elf, when he's not even here to give me one of his dark yet understanding looks. Where is he?!  

            Oblivious to what's going through my mind, Vlad continues the story.

            "Corbin was invited to speak to the Council again, and was told about the changes. He...didn't take it well. You see, he had a very peculiar Talent. He could build things just like the rest of us... Except he did it with his eyes. All he had to do was concentrate, and the invisible Energy would flow from his eyes, to the Matter. It was quite remarkable, as he could create material and move the earth at will, without raising a finger. But this time... he was furious. Furious enough to reveal something he'd been hiding from us. His Talent had grown, so much so that all the Energy of his anger, all the power of it, was concentrated in his eyes. The second he lost his temper, his eyes went completely black, and an instant later, a searing jet of dark smoke came out of them, and filled the hall. We...," he stops for a heavy minute, "we lost many Elders."

            "I'm so sorry..."

            "The grief is still present, although we're glad many escaped. Danielle, it pains me to say, was the sole survivor who was wounded, but not enough to make her an Invalid. Everyone else who'd ever faced the scorching Smoke, was killed."

            My heart drops. Not out of sympathy for them, but from a vague memory I kept from my days as a Human: "Lily, you know there's still a place for people like us," the song went. Us, assault victims. These lyrics got Peter to confess to me, in very Human terms, that his mother had been attacked. His mother. ...Danielle!!!  

            "Before we could all catch our breath and think of what to do with Corbin, he had already sown terror, Fumes and destruction on his path. Regardless of being invited in or not, he went through the Spaces looking for the Key. He first targeted Indya's former Space - the one right next to mine - and it is now in Fumes. He knew that Peter would never give him the Key, so he hoped to find out more about it from the previous Herald, obviously. He found nothing, and ended up letting his anger explode again, completely annihilating her Space and life's work. Luckily, Indy was here, at the School, and she's now practically living in it with Dem, as she has yet to rebuild a Space of her own.
"Corbin then went to a few of the deceased Elders' Spaces, desecrating them as he went, and hoping to find more clues there. His desperation got him all the way to Nirav's, where he came across a rather major hurdle: Nirav's Space is an infinity of wind and ice, and this considerably weakened Corbin's fire. He finally found himself forced to retreat to his own Space, as the Sentinels had closed in on him from all sides.                                   
"He put on a very long and violent fight, and many were burnt, until Peter stepped in. He made a drawing that was meant to render Corbin powerless. However, just as it was starting to apply, the unthinkable happened: in a final, desperate act, Corbin filled his own Space with Fumes, burning himself in the process. And this was the end of it."         
            I gaped at him, eyes wide open... It was all I could do.

            "These incidents were sufficient to bring most Aelfrics back to the principle of reducing our interference in the Gardens. However, from time to time, young and foolish ones, who weren't even born when this happened, pretend to understand and sympathize with Corbin's ideas. This in itself is reason enough for the Sentinels to take them in. It should explain what happened to Akäar, and why it had to be so brutal. Do you understand now, Lily?"

            "Y...yes, I do. Erm... thank you," I mumble, and suddenly notice Peter's eyes boring into mine. He can see how this is overwhelming for me - and for him too I reckon - and decides to put an end to the conversation.

            "Thank you, Vlad. Dem, Indy, I think we have profited too much from your gentle hospitality, and I'm sorry for the Sentinel Check... I think we should move along now, so as not to put you in that same, delicate position again, should they return. Thank you, so very much."

            For some strange reason, both professors automatically turn and look at me, with a tinge of regret in their eyes.

            "We are sorry, young one," Indya says, "You don't deserve this. In normal cases, we would have made sure your education were completed. Or at least some of it."

            I smile and shake my head softly, while trying to stand up. One tiny chocolate was definitely not enough. Out of nowhere though, Dem appears at my side and helps me up, taking advantage of the closeness to give me one more forehead-to-forehead moment. "We are here for you, don't forget it. I am here for you," he says that last part slowly and clearly.

            Still lost in thought, I smile to both and thank them, then realize that Dem had passed my hand over to Peter, for support. I'm still too mad and too weak to forgive my green-eyed Elf, but touching him again, with finally a good excuse to do so, feels like being home. I stretch my other hand out to Chloë and she willingly grabs it. She's never really burdened by anything, is she? Peter and Vlad say farewell, and we all start walking away from that colossal megalopolis of a school. 


            A familiarly awkward silence weighs on the four of us as we walk past the last megastructures, and reach a sort of dusty no man's land. Peter hasn't let go of my hand, except to slip me a few more chocolates. I could give him a hard time about each and every one of them, if I weren't so friggin’ hungry. I do, however, decide to break the silence once I feel that the school is too far behind for anyone to be eavesdropping.

            "Where is Nirav?" 

            "I haven't got the slightest," Peter replies, "He sent me to the Garden, waited for my return, wished me, ...us good luck with Danielle, and went his way."

            "How does that work anyway? The return trip I mean? Are you able to communicate with him all the way from the Garden? In all cases, it doesn't sound like him to just leave," I throw, with as dry a tone as I can manage, "I rather imagine you two having a strong enough disagreement to drive him away once and for all."

            "You seem to think you know him so well," Peter says icily. "Then it must have been quite the surprise for you to find out he was an Elder, wasn't it? If you really knew what that meant, you would surely realize how much he's already done for us, when he shouldn't have. The way I see it, he's probably getting ready for the Council meeting. You could see him then, sitting in his high chair, and acting all Elder-like, as he should. Just make sure you act as if you didn't even know him, unless you would like to put him in as much danger as we are in."

            I let go of his arm. Besides him not answering the first set of questions, I know his words make perfect sense, and I would do anything to keep Nirav out of trouble. But if I didn't know any better, I would think most of that was the rambling of a jealous guy. I'm no big fan of childish outbursts of jealousy, especially when I'm the only one whose anger is based on real reasons here. Oh, and I'm not done questioning him.

            "They said you were 'attuned' to Corbin, and that you were close friends. Were you also a supporter of his cause?"

            Peter's face darkens, and I know I'm pushing him to the very limits of patience. Good. Because I'm eons beyond mine. 

            "Yes, of course I was, but I'd never reached the same level of radicalism he approved of. And all it took was living with the Garden Folk to realize that they were not an inferior species. Not entirely. I suppose Elyä knew I was too close to being one of Corbin's followers, and giving me the Heraldry must have been her way of saving me. It did."

            Huh... He might be over the idea of teaching us lowly Humans how to live, but he sure still believes in interference, obviously. 

            I'm temporarily distracted by the first patches of colour appearing in the horizon. As we walk on, I realize they might be flowers. I could just reach out and pick them, but I've learnt to beware of optical illusions in this world. A few more steps forward end up giving me confirmation: they really are flowers, of probably gigantic proportions. They're mostly red and white; the white ones are either open or closed, whereas the red ones are all closed buds and... sort of glowing from the inside. It's nice, but I don't yet see the use of living among giant flowers.

            We end up reaching the border of the Space, and I get a neck ache from looking so far up to see the sheer giganticness of the strange flowers. They have no stalks or leaves, but seem to rather spurt right out of the ground itself. Still not seeing the point though.

            "Vlad, you know Pi's got a thing for you. How about you send her a Lume?" Peter teases, while Vlad rolls his eyes so wide it's comical. Soon, his lovely snowflake-shaped Lume bobs up and disappears between the flowers. He then kneels and looks Chloë in the eye.

            "Okay, you little monster, you know you can't go in there, don't you?"

            The tiny Elf kicks and glares at him, but he's completely unmoved by it. So, in her desperation to stay with us, she grabs my forearm and hides behind it.

            "Come on... you know you need to go now, little one. I'm sorry," he insists. 

            Chloë squeezes my forearm tighter, expecting me to stand up for her. But since I have no clue why this is forbidden, I don't dare. I so hate letting her down though...

            I bend down and carry her, then whisper in her ear that it will all be alright, and that we might see each other soon. Not that I really believe it, but I want to so bad that I'm willing to lie. She puts her forehead on mine, and for the first time ever, I hear her tiny voice say, "I like you!"

            "I like you too sweetie!" I choke, and put her down before any actual tears reach my eyes. No need for this sort of trouble again. She stares at me for one last second, then goes to Peter and gives him an actual high five. I giggle, although he must really stop teaching her Human things. Finally, she goes to Vlad, looks up at him, and suddenly raises her Vans-clad foot and brings it down, with all her tiny power, on his toes. He pretends it didn't hurt, but it's obvious it did, and Peter and I tactfully choose to laugh out loud. My laugh fades quickly though, as I see my little Chloë walking away from us, without even looking back. 

            Goodbye, little one...

            A short minute later, a strange sight makes me focus again. I was expecting a Lume - probably red - to appear in return for Vlad's, but instead, I'm surprised to see three very fine, small silver goblets floating towards each one of us. Too hesitant to touch the one intended for me, I give Peter a puzzled glance.

            "Erm... It's not mandatory... but I really think you should drink it," he says, seeming positively uncomfortable.

            "Why? What is it?"

            "Uh... it's... Well, it's... sort of like... contraception."

            My eyeballs pop out.