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.


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