10 avr. 2016

Chapter 24


"I made most of this myself,” he says, sounding more excited than I’ve ever heard him. “I tried to reproduce everything as accurately as I could. You know, I would have loved to have the ‘real thing’, and though I’ve managed to smuggle a few small items over the Raedes, transporting stuff over here can be…a little tricky,” he confesses.
Both his breath against my cheek and his endearing enthusiasm would have had a powerful effect on me, if I weren’t so busy gawking at this… this… eerily realistic replica of a human apartment.
Here we are, after what’s felt like weeks of basking in the Aelfric supernatural, standing at Peter’s ‘front door’, on top of a majestic set of white marble stairs, overlooking what could only be described as a colossal city loft. At first glance, it comes off as a long, outright rectangular, windowless space, with a chaotic mix of every style of interior design there is. For a Harry Potter fan, this is just the kind of secret room you would conjure out of a wall, and store everything that’s dear to you in it.
It starts off with a living-room-like corner, furnished with a lonely, single grey sofa which looks like it’s been bought from a twentieth-century online catalogue, and plenty of fluffy, colourful cushions here and there. Everything here must have been designed for one… Next to the sofa is a massive, rustic chimney that’s probably never been lit. And on the stone mantelpiece, a thin ivory vase with etched tribal motifs bearing a bouquet of the most beautiful green roses, as well as one less glamorous item: an opaque tray containing – wait, are those… eyeglasses? There’s a whole bunch of them there, disposed loosely in the tray.
Why does this still shock me? After all, I mustn’t forget: my boyfriend is a fake. Even I don’t know what he really looks like, were it not for that fleeting image I saw in Sam’s threads. And although I’m sure Peter fancies himself the Elven Clark Kent, I know that if the glasses worked on me, they surely must have worked on others of my kind… But I digress. I focus back on the apartment, and notice that, in order to separate the different areas, Peter’s disposed several, beautiful folding screens of pastel colours, which add an airy feel to the whole thing. Could it be Sam’s influence to have these, instead of walls? Hmm… I wonder if she’s ever been here. Or, even more, if he’d ever brought her to Pi’s. I quickly shake my head to cast such thoughts out. Not sure I want to get into them right now, so I bring my attention back to the apartment.
The first screen I see bears extremely elegant drawings of male and female Aelfrics, clad in traditional Asian costumes and performing daily chores under pink cherry trees in bloom. I know he could draw portraits of inhuman accuracy and realism, but here it’s obvious he’d wanted them more stylized than anything, which must have been quite the out-of-character challenge for him.
Further into the apartment, I notice a varnished Art-Deco buffet filled with delicate china that looks more decorative than adapted for any form of eating or drinking; a regal, Medieval-looking round table with a unique high wooden chair; a drawing table like the ones architects use, but minus all the adjustment nobs and screws; a tiny silver fountain – not a basin; an actual bird fountain, like the ones you see in the park, or a smaller version of the one in Tom Hank’s living room in Splash; and an intriguingly shut, Baroque ebony closet that’s wider and higher than any I’ve ever seen.
The walls – yes, plain, good old fashioned walls – are simple and off-white, which only helps increase the contrast with the dozens – or is it hundreds? – of framed drawings, all with white strokes over a black canvas, hanging from floor to ceiling. Are all of these his?! A vast majority look like portraits, which is far from surprising. Though… who are they of? This would require a closer look, but I’m almost sure the subjects aren’t all Aelfric.
And the ceiling…What in the…! It’s so bright and warm that it takes me a few seconds to be able to look up at it and figure out what it’s actually made of, with its beautiful, recognizable green hue.
“Is this, erm, a whole ceiling of your Lumes?!”
“You can already distinguish my Lume?” he smiles. “Yes, these are all my mine. A million, nine hundred and seventeen of them to be exact.”
“But… why so many? Is it just because you like it bright in here?”
He plants a soft kiss right under my ear, then reluctantly leaves my shoulders for my hand, dragging me deeper into the apartment. My bare feet quickly recognize the beautiful feeling of walking on warm carpets – Oriental, by their divinely ornate aspect.
“I do like it bright in here, and despite my knowing everything there is to know about Energy, I must admit I could never really re-create electricity! And that’s just driving me crazy! You, however, know me better,” he smirks, “You know I wouldn’t make over a million Lumes just for their glow now, would I? So, any other theories, Miss Brandt?” he challenges playfully.
“Well… Lumes normally carry a message. Maybe you’ve generated messages that you just ended up keeping to yourself?”
“A million, nine-hundred and seventeen hesitations? That’s an awful lot, even for me. Think harder,” he teases. “You, of all people, should be able to figure it out.”
“Argh! Okay… They’re messages that you’d rather keep to yourself… Maybe, like, reminders? Ugh, I don’t know! More clues please?”
He nods with a widening grin, and heads for the massive baroque closet. Once in front of it, he stops me to build up some more on the frustrating suspense.
“As I said, during my missions, I’ve managed to sneak a few small things through from the Gardens. Yours, specifically. Small bits and pieces I’ve had to get gradually, and to reassemble on this end. Things that need electricity, unfortunately, so I’ve had to get that too, somehow…”
As he says these last few words, I hear the two heavy ebony doors creak and scrape as they open up to reveal another breath-taking collection that’s probably also in the millions.
“Woah!! Are these…CD’s?!”
“And cassettes, yes. And this is the jewel of my collection,” he says as he points to a locked rectangular case on the middle shelf. He then proceeds to opening it, and I hold my breath, although I have an inkling as to what it might be.
I grin as soon as I get confirmation: inside the case is a sort of Nineties design, silver stereo, a bit scratched in a few places, and possibly missing a couple of pieces, as some cables are visible on the sides. It’s got a double cassette deck, and a disc player on top, just like those Erik had, back in the day. But what really gets me giggling is what’s right next to the stereo.
“Hahaha! Don’t tell me this is a car battery!”
“Hey, no mocking!! It took me five Raedes and a fair amount of lying to get this!” he huffs, half-seriously miffed.
“Sorry, I really don’t mean to mock any of this!” I say genuinely, wiping the last, lingering tear off my cheek. “This is just so… Human, and I miss it.”
He tilts his head for a second, then takes a step forward and delicately puts his arms around me. I gladly snuggle up against his bare chest, which suddenly makes me more aware of the fact that I have a cover around me, and he doesn’t.
“Does it work, this homemade radio of yours?” I ask, hoping for a distraction.
“Of course it works!” he throws, slightly offended. “So… have you guessed what the Lumes are for then?”
Hold on. If he’s mentioning this in the same conversation as the radio, there must be a connection. I pull my cheek off his chest for a second, and it suddenly hits me. “Oh God!! The messages you’d rather keep to yourself… they’re songs, aren’t they?”
He smiles and gives me a very quick, proud peck.
“Yes, Ma’am. Before I actually came up with my smuggling plans, and as I was toying with the idea of how to rebuild a radio without tools and without electricity, I actually captured some Garden songs I liked inside my Lumes, and brought them back home with me. But the sad thing is, I could only listen to these songs once after that, as the Lume would be consumed. It was too frustrating and ephemeral for me, and I needed the option of unlimited listening. Well, relatively, as the battery is bound to die on me someday soon,” he frowns.
I listen to him with an endeared grin, as he reminds me of the Muggle-obsessed Weasley dad from Harry Potter. I don’t even have the heart to suggest he smuggle some blank cassettes, push the Lume into his forehead and hit Record on the radio. Wouldn’t want to point out how, in spite of all this, he doesn’t have many Human reflexes. Or maybe he’s that picky on audio quality? Either way, I really feel like hugging him right now.
“Does Nirav know you’ve been using him to sneak these in?” I joke, but quickly regret it as I see a fleeting dark look in his eyes. He really, really doesn’t like talking about him, does he? “Nevermind that; tell me,” I swiftly change the subject, “What’s on those CD’s?”
“No, you deserve better than the CD experience. Here,” he suddenly kneels down, and carries me at the waist, lifting me up closer to the ceiling. “Reach out and pick one Lume, any one.”
“No, wait!” I protest, “If I listen to it, it would be gone forever, or at least until you’re on a mission again, wouldn’t it? I don’t __”
At that moment, a gut-wrenching idea hits me: after Danielle’s through with us, would Peter still be allowed on any of those missions?... And if not, how would I ever see him again if I, you know, manage not to get executed, then find a clever way to escape an entire species that would try to stop me, and end up going back home, somehow?
“It’s worth it though. You’re worth it. Come on, I’m curious to know which one you will pick…”
I put one palm on his cheek and smile, and reach up with the other. I then push the randomly chosen Lume into my forehead and wince. Geez, I’ll never get used to how unpleasant that feels at first; but I wouldn’t want to listen to the song alone.
It starts off with a very soft guitar intro, followed by a few notes on an accordion.
“Well, what do you know!” Peter whispers as he slips a hand to the small of my back and starts swaying gently. “You picked an English singer living in Paris. How convenient,” he winks.
Then the first lyrics go, Greener than blue…, and I already know I love it. I put my cheek back against his soft chest and close my eyes. This is so much better than Pi’s Space… No gooey aphrodisiacs and creepy arousal Talents… Just the two of us, hidden in a place that is most probably unknown to anyone else – except perhaps Sam… – hugging and painfully aware that we can’t do that whenever we wish, outside this Space. My mind then wanders off to what awaits us next, and panic when I realize that we might be reaching Danielle’s soon, if not next…!
What?!... No!... I’m not ready!!!
Oh God… What will happen to us? To me? Will our cover story hold against the Queen whom no Aelfric can lie to? Will the Elders Council give us a chance to defend our case at all? Or will we watch them, powerless, as they issue the worst of sentences against our alleged treason? And will Nirav just sit there with them, coldly deciding our Fate?
Somehow, Peter senses my stress, lifts my chin up, and looks at me inquisitively.
“Is this the last Space, before…?” I’m not sure how to complete this sentence.
 Greener than you, the song goes again.
We stare at each other, and realize that in the worst of cases, these might be our last moments together.
Next thing I know, we’re kissing so hard it hurts, and holding each other so tight, as if desperate not to have anything separate us. Each of our kisses is a plea, and they’re just not enough. We almost fall to the ground, in our urge to melt into the other, and stay there for as long as we possibly can. 
In the midst of this crazed outburst, I feel Peter pulling me even further into the apartment. He then tears the cover off of my shoulders without the least bit of delicacy, and stops for a breathless second to ask me, “I would like to look at you, and touch you now. Would that be okay?”
I’d thought we were actually past that, but I do appreciate the, erm, “tact”. I take a step forward, and make sure every inch of me is feeling his body heat. He inhales sharply, and opens his mouth to say something, but no words come out. He then encircles me with his arms and pulls me as close as his strength allows, and I sense us both falling sideways.
We land on what feels like a bed of warm nursery cotton, and I sigh. The sound somehow pushes him over the edge, and his fingers start exploring, skilfully and passionately, every bit of me. I’m suddenly self-conscious: this man has probably had a very, very long time to practice this – and only this – whereas I’ve had nothing but extremely awkward human experiences with it, which normally ended up in both physical and emotional pain. I have nothing much to offer him, do I?
“Hush,” he says between two kisses.
“I didn’t say anything!”
“You’re thinking so hard I can almost hear it! And besides, some muscles under that beautiful skin of yours contract when you do. So hush, it’s my first time making love, and I need to focus,” he teases.
“Your first t… – Right!” I snort.
He stops and looks me straight in the eye. “You should listen better. I didn’t say I was a virgin. I said it was my first time making love. As far as I know, the nuance exists in your world too, doesn’t it? Now, may I?” he asks with an insolently polite smile.
“My apologies,” I almost blush, and laugh nervously as his hands go on making my every skin cell combust. Then, one providential realization ends up putting some of my insecurities to rest: in the midst of all this passion, I suddenly grasp an innocent undertone there…. It’s as if every touch, every stroke, every kiss he gives me, were like a romanticized gesture straight out of a teen Rom-Com. This isn’t to say that it is cheesy, but rather, that it stems from a total idealization of what making love is really like. He must have fantasized about it several times, and was too receptive to how them earthly movies portray it. This puts me at ease with my equally lacking knowledge of… anything sexual really. It’s also sort of…empowering. And I suppose what makes me let go completely, is the pleasant thought that if the waterfall is soundless on the outside, it could only mean that no sounds made here, however loud, would ever leave the apartment.     


The first thought I get, upon opening my eyes, is: it’s nice to finally be sleeping by choice and not by passing out, for once. But… do Aelfrics sleep at all? I haven’t seen any of them do it, so why do I?
I try to ponder on this, though I’m quickly distracted by the mere thought of what I’ve – what we’ve just done. I hear myself exhale, lengthily. I’ve never been kissed, or held, or touched like this before. I’ve never felt so…quenched, and so unburdened by my abnormality. There’s no soreness, no shame, and no never-agains to speak of. Just a feeling of blush-inducing bliss, and frankly, some achy joints. 
I flex all the muscles I can still feel, as my hand reaches for Peter’s, but it’s nowhere to be found.
I sit up, confused. I’m sure he hasn’t left me here, but couldn’t he have stuck around for a “morning” cuddle or something? … That’s a must in Rom-Coms, isn’t it? Also, incidentally, there isn’t much I personally wouldn’t do to stay here, in this bed, all curled up against him, and delay our royal encounter indefinitely.
My feet touch the vibrating ground, and I get the same shiver I had the first time, in the brooding bubble. The bed is twice as big as any king-sized one I’ve seen, and twice as comfy. It even has a specific, homey, ‘jasminy’ smell Peter must have worked on. The rest of the room is just as chaotically decorated as the rest of the place: the wall behind the bed is completely covered with a heavy, dark blue curtain, embroidered with hundreds of tiny silver stars. And on the opposite end, separating this bedroom-like area from the remainder of the apartment, is another folding screen, decorated with a lovely ink wash painting of a lilac-coloured rising sun. On the side, a single, large sliding door looks like it would open to a huge closet. I stare at it with a hesitant yet mischievous smile. Would it really be considered indiscreet of me to have a quick look inside, and see just how Human Peter’s wardrobe gets?
I decide that he would require a lot more to genuinely be mad at me, so I delicately reach out and slide the door open.

Woah… this is definitely no wardrobe!

The initial shock is in the sheer size of this… this hall-like space-within-a-space. It’s like stepping straight into a historical library. The lights here are dim, and seem to be coming from hundreds of fireless candles disposed almost everywhere, and casting a tiny, yellow light, enough not to plunge one in total obscurity. It takes a considerable amount of squinting, as I look up, to notice the massive, dark stone arched domes above. The rest is nothing but thousands, or maybe millions of small wooden shelves, and parchment. Scrolls: rolled, folded, hung, laid carelessly or disposed decoratively… as far the eye can see.
I take a few steps forward, and feel really conscious of the total, heavy silence. Even my breathing seems to disturb the thick air. I try to inhale more softly as a strange feeling of doing something wrong starts creeping in on me. Maybe I shouldn’t be here.  
And yet, some morbid fascination keeps me going, delving deeper into this murky hall-like drawing shrine, where every paper appears to have its designated chapel-like space. I’ve never thought of how awe-inspiring it is to be in the midst of so many works of art, on something as ephemeral as paper. I should perhaps go to the library more often.
The second shock comes from a sudden and strange compulsion I get to concentrate on one particular row of drawings, disposed vertically to the right, under an overcast archway. Perhaps they’re just too delicate or precious to roll up and slip onto a shelf, but I suspect it’s also because of that compelling Energy they seem to have. The mere sight of them automatically ignites my Super Senses, even before I’ve figured out what they actually represent.
My Super Senses have become the most reliable way for me to realize how nervous I am. But it’s also a rush suddenly feeling and comprehending ever speck of Energy around me. Whatever this Talent of mine is, I wonder how I could possibly utilize it. For now, all it’s showing me is the lack of dust in such a space, when it would be full of it back on Earth, as well as this silence not really being…silent. It is heavy for sure, enough to make my ears ring, but there’s something behind it, something faint that I couldn’t possibly perceive without the aroused perception. It sounds like a soft rustling of tissue and metal, and it seems like it’s coming from the same room, although I can see no one else there. It starts to freak me out, so I focus back on that intriguing row of hung portraits, and try to figure out why it felt so chilling even before I’ve had a closer look.
I step forward and try to make sense of the first drawing. It’s not exactly a full portrait, but rather a fragment of a cheek, with an ear and some locks of hair. It’s like Peter has chosen not to focus on the entire face. It’s beautiful, and yet, something is repelling about that ear. It’s perfectly drawn, though at the center of it, the black hole is not quite right. I try to screw my eyes and figure out why. However, the more I look at the spiralling hole, the less easily I can breathe. The ringing in my ears gets louder, so much so that I shake my head and gather all my strength to look away. If I didn’t know any better, I would say these drawings have a much more powerful… magic than all the others in this room.
My morbid curiosity takes over again, and I find myself masochistically looking back under the archway, and reaching out to the reveal the second drawing in the row. It’s also an incomplete one of a nose arch, an eye staring straight at me, and to the left, a horrible, horrible gashing scar. I inhale sharply and take a step back. What the…?! Why would Peter even draw such a thing? This new surge of emotions only increases the eerie senses, and I hear what was first a soft rustle become a very clear scraping and scratching. I look around, alarmed, and still see nothing but inanimate drawings. I really need to get out of here.
And yet… maybe one more drawing, just to prove how fucked up I really am. I reach out and move much further in the line, to the very last of those drawings. And boy, do I really wish I hadn’t. 
A pair of eyes. That’s all there was. A pair of savagely mutilated, gorily gouged eyes, which instantly give me a violent shock. So much so that it only takes a second of looking at them for me to just… unravel. Has Peter really done this to someone? And why do these pupil-less eyes seem like they’re perfectly capable of sight? Why are they looking at me as if they know me? The effect of their icy stare is such that what I’ve so far called my Super Senses go on wild overdrive, and what’s always triggered them, that feeling of panic, becomes the complete opposite: my thinking brain shuts down, and I am all Senses and Perception.
The low, ruffling sound I heard before turns into the main ambient noise, and as I twist around to find its source, I clearly see a luminous silhouette standing only a few meters away. A silhouette I now know well, with its bulky armour and its pointy helmet.
A Sentinel!
The instant I look at him, he seems to swerve towards me, but doesn’t appear to really see me. I can’t make out his features, but his thin silhouette glows brighter by the second. Is he in another dimension? Or… a pocket room, like what Vlad has in the Mausoleum! He’s right there in front of me, but in a hidden chamber. And I can see him, through the optical illusion.
I stare, and my unbearable terror is muted by the absence of my thinking brain. The thought of the Mausoleum reminds of the very first “trick” I did when I stepped out of the Brooding Bubble, with the vibrating ground. And just like that, I feel myself gradually lifting off and floating as I did with Dem, and with the blood thirst of a predator, I pounce towards the ground and imbed my fist in its strange matter.
A shattering shock-wave unfurls towards the Sentinel, who literally flies backwards, lands with a bang, and his heads pops up to look straight at me.
I know I haven’t neutralized him, and that it would take him a couple of seconds to overcome his surprise and step out of the pocket room to come after me, so I run like hell.
I run back to the closet-like door, into the bedroom, past the folding screen, then through the cluttered apartment. Peter is nowhere to be seen, and I’m too deep in my supernatural trance to worry about that. I just fly to the main door. I mean I actually run so fast that my feet take off and I’m lithely gliding through the air, but my brain doesn’t find it strange. I can already hear the Sentinel approaching fast, and I reluctantly stop at the door, wondering what it would take to open it. No knob, no mechanism, just a plain white door.
Oh what the hell…
I just aim and punch it, hoping the same ripple would happen with anything other than the ground. And it works. The door undulates and simply pops into dozens of smaller fragments, and I’m suddenly back in the cave. The waterfall is painfully loud, but I can still hear the Sentinel’s footsteps behind me.

He then screams out, “Lily! Stop!”

The voice alone breaks my flight, and my breath hitches in my throat. I turn around and see the armour, the tree on its chest, the helmet with the two leaves… all worn by none other than Peter. 

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.