Actions

Work Header

Loving The Alien

Chapter Text

:::

Khira Li Lindemann sat in her apartment, dark blue eyes staring at a place somewhere above her father’s shoulder. Where she shared her half-sister, Nele Lindemann’s shapely and sleek build and expressive hands, in her eyes and mannerisms, she was 100% Richard Kruspe’s daughter. And like her father, she had a quicksilver temper that could go from cool to near-manic rage in a heartbeat. At that moment, her temper was simmering at “’nuclear meltdown.”

“I wish you or Onkle Schneider would have said something to me earlier,” she groused, pointedly not looking at her father. “Your love life isn’t my business but…I wish you’d said something and I didn’t have to find out that my dad and one of my honorary ‘uncles’ are sleeping together. And then I find out not from either of your but from Onkle Till that you’re sleeping with the same woman on top of that.”

Richard sighed heavily and rubbed at eyes that were bright red with exhaustion, lack of sleep and more shed tears than he thought one human body could produce. He flopped back on the couch, one arm thrown over his forehead, idly noticing that the slight tremor in his hands he’d developed since the scandal of his relationship with Christoph had hit the news was growing in intensity. He was running on fumes and knew it. “I said I’m sorry, baby girl, and I mean it. It’s just…we were waiting for the right time to say anything and I guess the asshole who took and sold those pictures of us picked the time. How many times do I have to tell you I’m sorry?”

 “Oh Vati, it’s okay,” Khira Li said, standing up from her seat and crossing the room to hug her father. “I’m not mad at you or anyone, just a little disappointed. You know how I feel about Lilly and Uncle Schneider.”

 “I was trying to protect you,” Richard sighed, resting his head against his daughter’s shoulder. “I didn’t want you to find out about me, about us, this way. I wanted to tell you so many times but I didn’t.”

 Khira Li tightened her hug as she dragged a blanket from the back of the couch and around her father’s shoulders. “I know, I know. Why don’t you crash here for an hour or so? You look like you’re dead on your feet.”

 “Bless you sweetheart,” Richard mumbled, kicking his boots off and curling up on the sofa. Khira Li tucked a couple more pillows under his head, snuggled the blanket up under his chin, and pressed a kiss on his forehead, a sad smile crossing her face. Richard had fallen asleep the second his head touched the pillows, and she knew from long experience that nothing short of a fire alarm would wake him up. She padded out of the living room and into her bedroom, shutting the door quietly behind her. Pacing slowly back and forth across the carpet, she pulled her mobile out of her pants pocket, typed out a quick text message to Lilly and Schneider, letting them know where Richard was, then dropped down on her bed, massaging her temples wearily.

 “Oh Vati...” she sighed. A single tear slipped down her face; more would have followed had her mobile rang with the tone she'd assigned to her half sister. Pushing the tear away, she answered, forcing her voice to be steady.

 “Khira! I'm so glad I caught you! Is Onkle Richard all right? Is Lilly all right? And Onkle Schneider?” Nele exclaimed. “I overheard Vati telling you about some of the mess that’s going on.”

 “Vati is asleep on my couch and as far as I know, Lilly and Uncle Schneider are okay. He sneaked over here, past the press, earlier today. He's running on his last nerve to say the very least,” Khira replied, stretching herself out on her bed and curling up under the blankets. “I don't know what else to say other than that. Has anyone from the press or the fans bothered you?”

 “Nope, not a one,” Nele replied. “And God help them if they do. Vati's declared war on any of them that show up at my house or his...or anyone's, for that matter. If you need somewhere to hide out, my house is always open.”

 “Same here,” Khira replied, hearing a soft whimper coming from the living room. “Schiβe, I have to go, Vatti's having a nightmare.” Clicking the phone off, she shoved it into her pants pocket and ran for the living room, coming to a stuttering stop next to the couch where her father lay, twisted up in the blanket and covered in sweat. She reached down to shake him awake, only to draw her hand back when she saw her father's wide open eyes. Instead of their normal dark blue, they were a twisting, swirling sphere of chaos, shades of blue, green, copper, scarlet and silver that saw nothing and everything, set in a pale skinned, much younger face that she barely recognized as her father. As she looked at Richard, scared out of her mind and unable to move, he came awake with a choking gasp, grabbing her wrist in a grip of steel. She tried to pull back but couldn't budge Richard's grasp at all no matter how hard she tried.

 “Vati! What in the world...damn it, you're hurting my arm! Let go!” she yelled, struggling all the while. Richard said not a word, just stared up at his daughter with his unworldly eyes. A ragged, painful breath tore its way out of his chest, and he gasped, “Khira, I'm sorry...”

 Light flashed before Khira's eyes and she screamed...

 ...She was standing on a beach she didn't recognize, the sky above full of multi-colored stars that made no recognizable pattern. At her feet, a warm surf lapped the shoreline, filling the air with the scent of salt water, tropical flowers and the odd scent of ozone. She spun about on her heel, staring at the landscape around her. Dunes thick with sea grass rose up to the sky, a pathway lined with faintly-glowing rocks meandering up and around their edges. There was a faint reddish glow at the edge of the horizon; in that glow Khira could see dolphins leaping happily out of the water.

 “This isn't the way I wanted you to see this,” Richard's voice echoed from behind her. Khira turned and saw him running across the sand to catch his daughter up in his arms. “Oh sweetheart, are you all right?”

 Khira pushed back from Richard anger snapping in her eyes. “What in the fuck is going on? Where is this? What have you gotten yourself into?”

 “One question at a time, “ Richard said, loosing his grip on Khira's arms. “Uhm...this is going to take some explaining.”

 Khira sat down on a boulder that had conveniently popped up behind her with a huff of irritation. “It had better be good or I'm going to forget you're my father and beat the shit out of you.”

 Richard sat at his daughter's feet, scooping up a handful of opalescent sand and letting it slip through his fingers, gathering his thoughts. “Remember when you were a little girl and your favorite bed time stories were about warrior queens and magic lands?” Khira nodded warily, not sure where Richard was going with his story. “I remember you said you would give anything to be a warrior queen with a magical sword, out to save your kingdom and riding a white horse with wings, do you?”

 “Yeah,” Khira replied, smiling quietly at the memories her father's words invoked. “I was one of the biggest geeks in my classes growing up because I'd rather read about women warriors and magic than who was the boy band of the week.”

 “Well, it's...” Richard began, rubbing his nose and trying to figure out how to explain the changes that had come over himself as well as the rest of the band. “Uhm, keep that in mind,” he continued, laying a hand on his daughter's cheek and reaching his talents out. Khira's breath caught in her throat as her father's magic caught her up and held her close, just as he did when she was a baby. She saw everything he could do, everything he had become; tears gathered in her eyes as she saw the torture and horror he'd gone through at the hands of the mad doctor, the bravery Lilly had shown defending him and the rest of the band, and everything he'd experienced since then.

 ::I can give you all of this:: Richard said, his voice warm and soft in her mind. ::You can say yes or no, it's your choice. You'll pass whatever changes happen on to any kids you have, though. And you're going to live a long, long time. You'll see things that will make you laugh, you'll see things that will scare you shitless and...oh baby girl, I wish things could have been different. But it's your choice in the end::

 Khira looked at all the memories, everything her father showed her, pressing her hands to her face with a sobbing gasp. “Dad...Vatti, why didn't you tell me about this? Why didn't you tell me how you and Lilly really met? Why didn't...”

 “Would you have believed me?”

 Khira opened her eyes and grasped her father's face in ice-cold hands that she forced not to shake. “Yes, I would have. You could have told me the moon was made of green cheese and mice lived on it! You've never lied to me. You've never kept anything from me that you shouldn't have! I believe you. And yes, I want the magic. I want to be a warrior queen, for real.”

 Richard laughed and hugged Khira to him, saying, “When did you get to be so grown up? So wise, so...much smarter than your old man?”

 “Oh, I've been pretty good at hiding it but you would have seen it eventually,” Khira laughed, hugging him in return. “Now, show me how to do all this...magic.”

 Richard smiled at Khira and kissed her cheek. “You are so, so brave, little one. You’ve always been braver than me, than anyone I know.”

 “I wouldn’t say braver than you. I couldn’t have left my homeland like you did, not knowing where you were heading or if you’d get there alive. I’m just too stubborn to be afraid.”

 Sniffling back tears, Richard took Khira’s hands and said, “Think of some place that always made you feel safe when you were scared. Lock that place in your mind. Close your eyes and take a deep breath.”

 Khira did, and when she opened them seconds later at Richard’s command, she saw a white horse with opalescent wings running across the sand towards her, its mane and tail streaming out behind it. She stood up, hands covering her mouth and knees shaking as she watched the fantastical creature come up the beach towards her. The horse came to a sliding stop right in front of her and whinnied, rising up in a rear with its hooves raking the sky. When it came back down, the horse moved so it was right next to the rock she had been sitting on, and gave her a Look.

 “I think someone wants you to hop on and go for a ride,” Richard said solemnly, but humor sparkling in his eyes at the same time. “I take it this is one of the things you thought of?”

 “I…oh Vatti, it is…”Khira stammered, running a trembling hand down the horse’s snow white hide, marveling in its softness and the baby powder like scent of its skin. “What’s your name?” she asked.

 ::You called me Swanwhite when you were little:: the horse said, settling its wings carefully. ::I think that will do nicely. Have your father help you up on my back and we’ll go for a little run, and perhaps when we come back, he’ll want to try?::

 “Me?” Richard squeaked, stepping nervously away from the winged horse. “I can barely sit on an old pony that's lame in three legs and missing a fourth!”

 ::Well then, you'll just have to hold on tight:: Swanwhite replied, moving its wings so Khira could boost herself up behind them. Once she was settled to both hers and Swanwhite's liking, she leaned over the mare's neck and whispered “Let's go!” They were up the beach like a shot from a cannon, leaving Richard to grope for the rock and shakily sit down. Woman and horse splashed through the warm ocean water, blonde, curly locks mingling with pure white mane, Khira's laugh riding over the waves as clear as a bell.

 Richard sat, eyes watering, as he watched his little girl fulfilling one of her childhood dreams. He was lost in thought when Swanwhite came to a prancing stop in front of him; looking up, he saw Khira leaning down, holding her hand out.

 “We won't let you fall off,” she said, a big smile crossing her sea water-damp face. Her curls were a tangled, soaked mess, blue, blue eyes now the color of the sky at noontime. Swanwhite eased one of her wings behind Richard and ushered him up to the rock he'd been sitting on, using it as a guide so he could clumsily pull himself up behind Khira. She tugged at his hands until they were resting lightly on her waist, saying, “It's just like when you're riding behind someone on a bike.”

 “The last time I rode a bike was I don't know how long ago and the last time your Uncle Schneider took me out on his motorcycle I almost had a heart attack!” Richard protested, shifting his behind until he was sure he was as comfortable as he was going to get. “If I fall off, can you make it so I land in the water and not on a rock or the beach, please?”

 Swanwhite nickered softly and began strolling up the beach. ::You won't fall off, Richard. Not off of me::

 Father, daughter and mare paced up the beach, the sunrise breaking over the horizon and guiding them home.

 :::

 Khira opened her eyes and found herself sitting on the floor of her apartment, leaning against Richard's knee. Looking up at her father, she saw silver tears glistening on his face; she came to her feet in a rush and hugged him as hard as she could.

 ::So I'm a telepath and an empath now?:: she asked, slowly gaining confidence in her ability to speak without saying a word. ::Is that all or am I going to wake up one morning with antennae, green skinned and googly eyes?::

 ::Holy shit, no! Just the empathy and telepathy. That's all I was at the start, everything came later. I don't think you have any of my necromantic talent, thank heaven, but I've got the feeling you'll be a very strong empath down the road. You might be able to do stuff with fire, like your Uncle Till can, but I can't tell. Lilly can, she's the best at seeing what talents someone is going to develop:: Richard replied, seeing his child's 'thread' of light weaving itself into the Changeling bond, marveling at how it fluctuated from blood-red to a silvery gold as it seated itself firmly. He knew the others would know immediately what had happened, and braced himself for the wordless storm of emotions that crashed into them.

 ::Is that...is that everyone else?:: Khira said, eyes widening as she “saw” what Richard was seeing for the first time. ::How in the world do you people stay out of each other's heads? I mean, it's great to be able to talk like this but I certainly do NOT need to know about what you, Lilly and Onkle Schneider get up to!::

 Richard bit back a snort-giggle at his daughter's astonishment [and somewhat prickly tone] and quickly 'showed' her how to keep her thoughts and emotions private and how to keep others out of her mind. ::There you go. Easy-peasy.::

 ::Khira Li?:: Arielle's voice came, startling her. ::How in the world did you...did your father have anything to do with this?::

 ::Richard, if you didn't ask this child for her permission...:: Lilly groused, followed by five more variations of “If you didn't ask nicely you're going to be sorry.”

 ::Hold on a second!:: Richard yelled. ::Yes I asked nicely and yes, this was wholly Khira Li's choice. What do you think I am, some kind of arrogant asshole, just come charging in and forcing my daughter to do something she doesn't want to do?::

 Silence, then, ::Arrogant as the day is long, yes. An asshole...well, that's debatable. What phase is the moon in?:: came Schneider’s acerbic comment, well-flavored with impish humor.

 :Gee, thank you so much Christoph!:: Richard grumpily replied. ::I thought you loved me::

::I do, I'm just being truthful. Well, Khira, what do you think?:: Christoph asked, all innocence and cheekiness.

 ::It's...different:: Khira replied. ::I'm going to need some time to get used to all this but...I think it's doable.::

 Richard simply hugged her and said, “That's my baby girl.” He thought everyone had gotten their say in when Till protested, albeit sleepily, ::HEY! She's half my kid too!::

 ::Uh....wait. What?:: Lilly said, Till's comment throwing her off. ::She's always been half my kid:: Till replied smugly. ::Actually, she and the other youngsters have always been half everyone's. So to speak::

 Ollie's amused snort broke up the resultant laughter. ::I don't know about the rest of you but I'm going back to bed. I think Paul fell asleep on us and Flake's chomping at the bit to be off doing whatever weird shit he does at night besides sleep::

 ::I'll have you know I'm in the middle of a dinner date with my daughter and the…ahem…boy… she's interested in:: Flake replied acidly. ::He’s shaking in his shoes. He's convinced, and I didn't say a word, that if he puts one toe out of line I'll rain fire and destruction down on his head. If I sneeze, he's going to faint.::

 ::Go pay attention to your daughter, Flake, and please don't torment the poor boy:: Richard replied. ::But if he does start something, tell him I know where we keep all of our pyrotechnic stuff and I won't be shy about setting him on fire from a distance!::

 ::And I know exactly where the good old “Büch Dich” dildo is stored:: Till said as he dropped out of the conversation, leaving the rest to laugh at his and Richard's comments.

 

Chapter Text

:::

Christoph dragged himself into his practice room, bone-tired and bleary-eyed. He hadn’t slept properly in days, depending on massive amounts of coffee, tea, and energy drinks to keep him going when his Changeling-enhanced endurance flagged. When he did manage to close his eyes, he would fall asleep for maybe an hour before something either outside or in his dreams woke him up and set his nerves on fire. Rather than subject Lilly and Richard to his increasingly bad temper, restless tossing and turning in bed, and growing paranoia, he’d crept out of Richard’s apartment late at night several days ago, and gone to ground at his home in the countryside, pulling all the drapes, turning off both his house and mobile phones, and pulling himself as far out of the Changeling link as he could without causing any further alarm. He knew he was wound as tight as harp strings; even his yoga practice brought no relief.

 Still dressed in the tattered, all but worn to rags jeans and over-sized, bleached out t-shirt he’d found at the bottom of his laundry basket when he’d arrived home three days earlier, he wiggled his bare feet into the square of plush carpeting his drummer’s stool sat on. Pulling a new pair of drumsticks out of the pouch that hung to the right side of his snare drum, he twirled them though his fingers, breathed in deeply, and began working his way through his usual warm up. Usually, he could let his mind half-drift off as it did when he was warming up and not mess up his concentration, but today, his hands and feet stumbled more and more frequently the longer he played. Finally, when he’d messed up to the point that he was coming close to screaming, he flung the sticks across the room, swearing mightily. Slumping down over his kit, Christoph dug his mobile out of his pocket, saw that he had six new messages waiting for him, and let the phone drop from his fingers, too tired to read them.

 He dragged himself from behind his kit and flopped gracelessly onto the small futon he kept in the room for days when he was working and didn’t want to leave the room but still needed a comfortable spot to sack out on. Four of those six messages were from his beloved little sister, Constance, the other two from Ollie and Paul, frantically calling to see if he was all right. That he refused to see or speak to anyone, even his sister, would tell anyone who know Christoph intimately that he was not in a good state. He sat up slowly after a couple of moments of fuming and grumping, folding his long legs into the lotus position and letting his hands drape over his knees. Closing his eyes, he began breathing the way he had been taught in his yoga classes, steadily and carefully breathing out all the stress, grief, and nervousness, and breathing in nothing but calm and quiet. He hadn't been able to get to this point in days and that he could at last soothed him.

 He had reached a point where he knew he could either fall asleep or move into the physical part of his usual yoga practice when suddenly, a tearing, sharp, lance of agony raced up both of his arms. He came out of his trance with a yell, examining his arms to see what had caused the pain and seeing nothing. Struggling to calm down, he ran his fingers up and down the skin of his inner arm, and when he pulled them away, he could see a “shadow” of a wide open, bone-deep cut running from his wrist to the inside of his elbow and “feel” the slow, ticklish drip of blood running down his arm.

 

“What the…” Christoph muttered, touching the ‘bloody’ surface but not feeling anything physically. As he laid his fingers on his wrist again, the agony came back stronger than before. Choking back a scream, Christoph realized the pain wasn’t coming from him, it was coming from someone within the bond. It was coming from someone who was so broken, so lost and so fragile, one little thing would push them over the edge, and something had at last. He flung himself to his feet and all but broke the studio door down in his haste to find his sneakers and car keys, heart pounding and hoping against hope that he wasn’t too late. As he sped up the narrow, winding road that led into the city, ignoring the increasing pain in his arms, he hoped he wasn’t too late…and scared to the bone that he would be.

 :::

 Constance had called Richard that afternoon in tears, begging him to do anything he could to get her brother to call her, if only for a couple of minutes, or even answer the e-mails she had sent. “Is he mad at me too?” she said, her voice cracked with hours of crying. “I don’t know what I did if he is mad at me. He's never shut me out so completely in all our lives.”

 “No, no, no, Constance,” Richard soothed, struggling to keep his own hurt and sorrow at bay. He was angry at his lover for leaving without a word in the middle of the night and not returning any attempts at communication, but poor Constance didn’t need to know how mad he was. Biting back an aggravated sigh at Christoph's unusual selfishness, he continued in as soothing a voice as he could, “You didn’t do a damn thing. He sneaked out of here in the middle of the night two days ago and hasn’t called, e-mailed, nothing, since. I think he wants to be alone for a little bit, that’s all.”

 “I can’t believe our own parents have all but disowned him,” Constance growled. “We’ve been around people of all genders, sexualities, races, since we were babies and they have the nerve to get angry at Chris because he’s in a relationship with you? I don’t understand it, Richard, I really don’t.”

 “I don’t either. At least your parents talked to him. My mother slammed the phone down on me when I tried to talk to her and told me via Khira Li that it would be a cold day in hell before she spoke to me again. Not like I didn’t expect it from her, but… If I could change anything, I would unless it meant losing him. And that’s not going to happen if I have any say about it,” Richard replied, leaning back in his office chair and staring sightlessly at the ceiling. “Do you want me or Lilly to come over?”

 “I’ll be fine, but thanks for the offer,” Constance replied, her voice somewhat steadier. “I’ve got a bunch of things to do around the house anyway. I’ll put on some loud music, drink some wine, and hope for the best. If you or Lilly need anything, please let me know, all right?”

 Richard agreed and rang off, tossing his phone onto a pile of invoices for some new amplifiers with an aggrieved hiss. “We can’t sue the fucking magazines that printed those pictures, they won’t tell anyone who took them or who they were bought from, and nothing in the mags are close enough to be called slander,” he growled to himself, aggravatedly tapping his fingers against his knee.

 Marley leaped from the couch where she had been napping and onto his desk, trilling out a warning ‘chirrup’ to let him know she was coming. Pacing across the marble top, she sat down in front of Richard, folding herself into a ‘cat loaf’ shape. She considered her words carefully, then said, ::So, there is nothing legally that can be done, correct?::

 “Nope, not a thing,” Richard replied. “Management’s been on our lawyers asses for days and they can’t find any loopholes they could use. So we’re pretty well stuck with the entire world knowing something very personal that's not really their fucking business in the first fucking place.”

 Marley gnawed at a claw on her left front paw, the crunching sound loud as thunder in the enclosed space. Richard winced, saying, “Marley, that’s nasty! And it sounds painful too!”

 ::No more painful than you cutting your fingernails:: she replied, renewing her efforts on the offending nail. ::Besides, the top layer was coming off and rather than snag it on something and hurt my toes, I’m chewing it off now:: Richard sighed at Marley and brought the sound up on his stereo system by tapping a button on his laptop, ignoring the fact that he'd brought up Emigrate's “Eat You Alive” album. Slumping back in his chair, only half listening to the music coming out of the hidden speakers, he put his socked feet up on the desk and stared at the ceiling.

 Marley continued her work on her claws, then suddenly sat up, eyes wide and ears perked to hear something only she could. Richard slowly put his feet back on the floor, feeling Marley's nervousness running along his skin, hitting the 'pause' button on the music player with a hard tap. He laid one hand on her back and strained to hear the tiniest noise when the young cat began to growl. Jerking his hand away, he barely missed being scratched by her sharp claws; Marley leaped off the desk and landed halfway across the room, pawing at the door to be let out.

 ::Hurryhurryhurryhurry!:: she screamed, physical voice as plaintive as her mental one. ::RICHARD, HURRY!::

 “Marley, what's wrong?” Richard asked, running to the door to let the frantic cat out before she could do damage to herself. As his hand touched the doorknob, Fiona's feline scream of agony from the hallway nearly shattered the windows; Richard felt a blazing, tearing, burning sensation rip up his arms. He managed to stay on his feet even though the agony made his head ache and his stomach roil. He tripped through the doorway and stopped only inches outside his office, going to his knees beside Lilly where she lay on the carpet, curled around herself. Richard tugged at her shoulder to turn her over, and with growing horror, saw the deep, ragged cuts going up both of her arms from the wrist to the elbow, the red sheen of exposed tendons and white of bone stark against bloodless flesh.

 “No...oh fuck, no, Lilly...” he whimpered, not realizing that he was kneeling in a pool of his beloved's blood as it soaking into his jeans and the beige carpet below her. “Lilly...what have you done?

 No answer, not even a hint of response in their private bond. Richard flung himself down it, searching for the tiniest spark of Lilly's heart and soul and felt....nothing. She was dying, and knew he could try to stop her passing away by using his nascent necromancer's talent, but at the moment he was too lost, too full of grief to think of what to do, where to begin.

 “No. I won't let you go. You can't leave me!” Richard screamed, pulling Lilly's lifeless form to his. He sobbed uncontrollably and would have broken down completely had a frisson of unworldly cold not touched his heart. He looked up slowly, knowing deep inside what he would see---Who he would see.

 Lady Death had come.

 She was as legends described Her, coldly beautiful and as deadly as winter, skin the color of moonlight and eyes black as space. Dressed in head to toe black robes, a silver-bladed scythe hanging from Her belt, She was as tall and as thin as Ollie. Pushing back Her hood, thick waves of pewter grey hair cascaded down from the tail it was tied in and lay like silk upon Her shoulders. She knelt next to Richard, robes soaking up blood that hadn't migrated into the rug or Richard's jeans, and said softly, “Hello Richard. I am so sorry about this.”

 “Please...please don't take her from me,” Richard begged unashamedly, not even flinching at the fact that he was talking to Death in Her physical manifestation. “We've gone through so much together, she nearly died for me once already. I can't let her go, it's not her time.”

 Lady Death sighed and laid a cool, gentle hand on Richard's shoulder. “How do you know it's not her time?”

 “Because...I can't lose her. We can't lose her. Christoph and I…we love her so much. This will break his heart and you'll be coming for him, then me. Please, I don't care what price I have to pay but don't take Lilly just yet. I'll do anything you ask.” He huddled at the Lady's feet, one hand crumpling the hem of her robes as touched his head to the floor. The Lady looked down at him, grief and regret in her eyes, and began to speak when Christoph's voice echoed through the apartment.

 “Take me instead. Please.” 

 He'd managed to somehow get in without alerting anyone; Marley and Fiona were huddled on the hearth, shaking like leaves and didn't move to greet him like they usually did as he tottered blindly into the room. “Richard and Lilly have been together forever. I've only been lovers with them for a short time, and...they deserve to be happy.” With his waxy, pale skin, blue-green eyes wild and circled in red, hair a rat's-nest and clothes hanging off of his body, Christoph looked as if he'd risen from the dead himself.

 “Chris, liebling, please don't...” Richard pleaded, holding a shaking hand out to stop Christoph from coming closer. He ignored the hand and went to his knees in front of Lady Death, bowing his head and holding his trembling hands out to Her. “I'll go with you willingly and I'll be your slave till the end of time. I'll do anything you ask. I'm begging you, please don't destroy them, this life they've worked so hard for.”

 “But what about you, little one? If I take you in Lilly's place, what will your death do to your family? You have a sister, will your passing not hurt her? And why would your death mean more than someone else's?” the Woman asked, gently lifting Christoph's chin so she could look into his tear-reddened, heartbroken, green-blue eyes.

 “It will hurt,” Christoph replied. “It would hurt a lot of people. But this... what she's done, is all my fault.”

 “What?” Richard asked, grasping Christoph's free hand. “Sweetheart, what in the world are you talking about? I didn't sense anything, only that Lilly's been worried about something and wouldn't tell me what it was. I didn't know she was suicidal!”

 “She said something to me a couple nights ago while you were asleep and we were sitting out in the garden. She said that she felt some days like she was coming apart again and that she was so tired of it all that dying looked liked the best answer to everything,” Christoph replied. “I could tell she was upset but not to the point that she'd hurt herself. If I'd been thinking, I'd have said something, asked Lilly to explain what she meant. But I didn't.”

 Lady Death slid Her fingers through Christoph's dark curls and caressed his cheek. “Lovely child, so brave and bold. You would honestly give up your own life for hers? Even though you are not her only lover?”

 “Yes,” Christoph replied without hesitation. “I would for her and for Richard without a thought.”

 “And Richard, what about you? Would you do the same to save Lilly and prevent Christoph from sacrificing himself?”

 “Yes. I would, but… I would so lonely I'd end up throwing myself off of the tallest building in Berlin or OD-ing on the first thing I could get my hands on,” Richard murmured. Christoph made a pained, broken noise and choked out, “But I'd be alone again. I won't be alone like I have been ever again. I wouldn't live long if you and Lilly both were gone. It wouldn’t be worth it.”

 “I came close to taking you early on in your life when you fled from the East to the West,” the pale Woman said to Richard. “I stayed my hand then because I could see what your life would be like even with all the bad times you would endure. I saw what a bright spark your heart was, how much you still had to give the world, how deeply you love those close to your heart. I've never regretted that decision.

 “But... I promised myself that the moment you stopped being that person, the moment you let the cruel, vicious part of your soul that wouldn't hesitate to destroy everything you loved do what it wanted, that part of you that came from all the sorrow and darkness you grew up with and endured, I'd come for you and your end would be horrible. That you would give your life not only for Lilly but for Christoph without a moment's thought tells me a great deal. Having said that, I think I need to speak to the cat-children before I make my final decision.”

 Richard sagged over Lilly, Christoph crouching over him as if he could protect his lovers with only his flesh. They clung to Lilly's cold, almost lifeless form, tears flowing silently, ready to accept whatever Lady Death would grant them or take from them. She observed them for a time, then turned to Fiona and Marley who were still huddled on the hearth. “I have never received bad advice from cat-kin. What say you, you defenders of heart, hearth and home?

 Fiona stood up slowly, nudging Marley to do the same. They walked towards Lady Death, heads held high, eyes bright and the willingness to defend their human “parents” even to the death like armor over their fur. They nodded at the Woman; Marley said, ::They've been dealt a cruel hand, Dark Queen, but you know that. Lilly and Richard brought us out of the snow one night when we'd been left to the mercy of winter, and have loved us as much as any human can love a child of their flesh. Christoph has been all but abandoned by his kin because he loves them both. They need one another, milady. The world needs them still. Not just their fans, but the rest of the band, their heart-kin::

 ::We ask that You be merciful, Lady of the Dark Moon, and stay your hand:: Fiona said. ::Please. They're imperfect but they're ours, our family, our parents. We can heal their physical hurts but if one of them dies, it won't matter. We cat-kin have never told You a lie, we have never given You ill council. If anyone should pay the price for what has gone on here, it's not for Lilly, Christoph or Richard to pay::

 Lady Death nodded, touching Her folded hands to the middle of her forehead, lips and heart, bowing to the kittens in a deep bow of honor and respect. “So say you, so shall it be. I do ask for one thing before I go from you, Richard, and you, Christoph.” Nervously, Richard eased Lilly to the floor where the kittens snuggled close to her, pulled Christoph to his feet and together they stood before The Lady of All Souls, clinging to each other's hands but bravely facing whatever she would ask. A smile crossed her beautiful, radiant face and she said, “A kiss from each of you is all I ask. Not your lives, nor your souls, just a kiss from two lovely men.”

 Christoph slid his fingers free of Richard's and took Lady Death's cool, elegant hands. Pressing a kiss to the backs of them, he cupped her face in his hands and kissed her slow, deep and long, pulling her chilled form to him until her arms were wrapped around his waist. When they parted, her cheeks were blushed pink and she had to catch her breath before letting Christoph go. She smiled shyly at him, then turned to Richard. He gave her his most cunning, mischievous and sultry smile, kissed her hands the way Christoph had, and leaned up to press a kiss that went from hesitant and unsure to dark, long and dirty. The Lady gasped when he let the tiniest bit of his fangs touch her lips; one of her hands slipped up his back to fist in his hair while the other clung to the front of his shirt.

 When they parted, her face was scarlet and she held onto Richard and Christoph's arms for a long time before she was able to stand on her own. She shook her robes out and tucked her pewter silver hair back into its sleek tail before saying, “I am well satisfied. Marley, Fiona, you are tasked to heal Lilly's wounds. Richard, Christoph, I task the two of you to care for her until she is completely healed. It will take a long time for her heart and soul to heal, and in that, my lovely Christoph, you will have the biggest part of. And you, Richard, are to give him all the help, love and strength he will need. And know this, I will come if you need my help.”

 Humans and cats nodded; with a final raising of Her hand in blessing, the Queen of Everlasting Night faded from view, the last trace of her presence a cold wind that blew through the apartment and left the windchimes in the kitchen window ringing. Christoph crawled across the floor to pull a knitted throw that Lilly had made from the chair it was over and dragged it back to tuck around Richard and Lilly. He rested his forehead against Richard's shoulder, drained from his effort. Richard wriggled one hand free of the blanket and reached up to touch his face, whispering “Thanks,” as he did.

 Shaking themselves from their trance, Fiona and Marley turned their attention to Lilly; patting her arms gently, her bloody skin quickly healed under their soft paws. When the cats moved away to check their handiwork, all that was left were pale, silvery scars that stood in place of the awful injuries Lilly had inflicted upon herself. They were faint enough that it would take a sharp eye to see them; in fact, they looked as if they were months old, not moments. Christoph and Richard stared in wonder at what the cats had done; they’d never revealed to their humans that they could heal.

 ::There, that should do it:: Fiona said in a pleased but exhausted voice. ::Now, if nobody minds, I think I’m going to go lie down::

 ::Me…me too…:: Marley echoed, beginning to stumble across the living room floor and sinking to her stomach only inches away. Christoph was on his feet the second she laid down; scooping her and her sister up, he said, “No, I’m gonna take you two into the kitchen and feed you till you pop. Then you can take a nap.”

 Neither cat protested, so with a look over his shoulder to make sure his lovers would be okay without him for a while, he took the exhausted cats into the kitchen and hand-fed them warmed up spoonfuls of chicken noodle soup. Once they’d declared themselves too full to move, Christoph carried them back into the living room and made a nest for them of all the blankets in the room to snuggle them into. While they wearily patted their bed into shape, he went into the bedroom and dug Lilly’s heating pad out of its spot in the bedside table. Turning it to its lowest heat setting, he wiggled it carefully underneath the blankets making sure it wasn’t too hot first. Fiona was already asleep; Marley rubbed her soft, furry face against Christoph’s hand and said, ::Bless you. We’ll be all right, we’re just completely out of energy. Do you need anything?::

 “I’ll be all right,” he replied, tucking a piece of blanket under the kitten’s chin. Marley closed her eyes and with a purr that faded into a tiny snore, fell asleep. Christoph smiled weakly and made his unsteady way back to where Richard still huddled over Lilly. He was trembling, cold and slow to respond when Christoph touched his shoulder and whispered his name.

 “Chris? I'm so cold,” Richard sighed, nuzzling his lover's hand with his nose. “I don't think I can stand up either. Are the girls okay?”

 Christoph kissed his forehead gently and said, “They're fine. I've got them bedded down on the couch, tummies full and a heating pad underneath them. I don't think they'll be waking up any time soon, they're completely worn out.” As he spoke, he felt his knees begin to wobble; with a muttered curse, he turned what could have been a bad fall into a controlled folding of his legs and down to the floor, landing with a grunt. Even that tiny amount of effort not to fall took the last erg of energy he had; reluctantly he allowed Richard to ease him down next to him and Lilly where the three of them lay in an exhausted heap.

 “Well, this sucks,” Richard mused a few moments later. “We can't stay here in the middle of the floor, but I can barely think straight, much less have the energy to stand up. And you don't either, so don't even think of arguing, my dear Doomie.”

 “Wasn't entertaining the thought,” Christoph muttered. “Getting cold down here too. Uhm...yeah. You're right. This sucks.”

 ::It's a good thing I have keys to everyone's houses, else I'd be explaining to the police and your neighbors why I'm picking the lock to your place::

 ::PAUL?? What the...where are you?:: Christoph exclaimed. He tried to stand up but Richard somehow managed to pull him back down; he gave up and laid his head on Richard's shoulder, panting from that small amount of exertion.

 Warm laughter was both verbal and mental. ::I'm right outside Richard's door, silly. Hang tight for a second, okay?::

 Christoph tried to laugh but couldn't; he closed his eyes and clung to reality as best he could. He barely roused when he felt someone lift him upward and carry him to bed, and before he could protest being somewhat-roughly stripped to the skin and rubbed down with warm, fluffy towels, he was tucked up nice and warm beside Richard, who was weakly arguing with Flake, and losing.

 “Richard, for the love of all that's holy, if you don't shut up and lie down and stay down, I am going to come in there and gaffer tape you to the bed!” Flake yelled, stomping into the room. He looked as horrible as Christoph felt, his bright blue eyes swollen and red-rimmed, dark circles enhancing the blue. With his platinum hair scraped back in a tight tail and dressed in black jeans and a tight t-shirt that emphasized how skinny he'd become, Flake was as far from his bookish, somewhat-geeky personality as possible. “As much as that would probably turn you on, believe me, it's as far from something I want to do right now!”

 “You don't have to yell,” Richard whimpered, burrowing down into the covers and hiding his head under a pillow. “I just want to know if Lilly's okay.”

 “Arielle and that doctor we met in Ireland are with her,” Flake replied, coming into the bedroom and shutting the door quietly behind him. “I'm not quite sure of all the details, but I guess Till and...Siobhan? Yeah, Siobhan were on a date when this...when Lilly...we felt her…” He broke off, stared at the ceiling and and bit his lips, hard, obviously forcing himself to be calm. When he'd gathered himself, Flake continued, “Anyway. Siobhan must always have her doctor's kit with her because they came right here from wherever they were at and didn't stop at the hospital. Paul and Arielle got Ollie and I from our houses and we were a few minutes behind.”

 “What are we...” Richard began, only to break off coughing. Flake handed him a bottle of water and helped him sit up to drink, then eased him back down. “What are we telling Siobhan? ”

 “Till told her something but I don't know what it was,” Flake said, seating himself at the foot of the bed. “She's treating Lilly for blood loss and hypothermia, or she was when I got chosen to keep an eye on you and Christoph. Now that you both seem all right, I'll go check on Lilly. If I see one toe out of the bed from either of you, you're both getting gaffer taped to the bed. Understand?”

 Christoph snort-laughed weakly and said, “I'll keep Reesh in here even if I have to sit on him, which would be very nice in other circumstances. Reesh, do you promise to behave?” A soft, whistling snore met his question, which made Flake smother a laugh and say, “I think that's a yes. I'll be here in a heartbeat if you need me, okay?” Christoph nodded and closed his eyes, seeking sleep but finding it difficult. His mind kept racing with what Lady Death had told him, that he was going to be the biggest factor in Lilly's mental and emotional healing. He had absolutely no clue what She'd meant, and he was too tired to think rationally about it. With a grunt of effort, he rolled onto his other side, facing the bedroom window, and stared at the sliver of moon that was veiled by high, wispy clouds.

 ::I think...I think it means you might understand what Lilly's going through somewhat better than Richard does right now:: Ollie said gently. Christoph tried to sit up but was carefully 'pushed' back into the covers. Ollie's mental chuckle warmed him deep into his bones and he smiled wearily. ::Yes, Mum. I'll stay put. I'm not sure I get what you're saying. Richard was there with her, he knows everything. We all do. Why would I be any better at understanding what she's going through or how I'm going to be able to heal her?::

 ::You told me that playing “Frau Schneider” made you understand women a bit better:: Ollie said. ::That, and growing up with a force of nature like your sister. Richard started Lilly's healing process but she still needs help. Whatever inside your heart that's made you understand women on another level that the rest of us men don't is what she needs. That, and someone who can be a neutral third party but not. Does that make sense?::

 Christoph frowned and began nibbling on his thumb where a hangnail had begun to form. ::I've been as much a male chauvinist pig as the next guy. I can't see where I'd be any better than, say, Arielle. Who's female. I'm not::

 ::You're pretty well balanced between male and female, I have to admit:: Ollie replied. ::And don't deny it, we've had this conversation about gender or lack thereof I don't know how many times. As sweet and cute and submissive as Richard can be, he's not...he's not you. You don't remember, but when the rest of us saw how well you took on The Frau, it was spooky. None of us could have put that costume on and made it work. No one. You did::

 ::Oliver Riedel. I'm a bit too old to be having concerns about my gender identity, don't you think?::

 ::Christoph Schneider. Don't be an idiot, and don't question me. I've noticed it since we first met. You've got this uncanny ability to fix hurts. If I wasn't the mediator in our worst fights, you were. And you were always the person who could say the right thing to stop our fights, mend our hurts. That's your biggest gift. You fix broken hearts:: Ollie chided gently. ::Try to take a nap or at least lie there and let your brain idle. Okay?::

 Christoph sighed, muttering to himself about nosy friends and annoying people as he closed his eyes and yawned. ::Thanks, Ollie:: he said.

 ::Not a problem. We'll be here when you wake up::

 

 

Chapter Text

Cold darkness shot with agony, sorrow and rage. A feeling of loss, of eternal solitude, of never being whole again. Fear of what had been, fear of what could be. Fear of waking and sleeping, fear of the darkness of self that will not go away. And at the bottom of it all, shame that the worst outcome to this had happened, shame that the self-control, so hard won, hadn't been enough in the end...

 Lilly woke with a start, feeling something warm lying on her forehead and a calloused, rough hand holding one of hers. She blinked sleep-sand from her eyes and stared around, unsure of where she was. The warmth on her forehead was from a hand belonging to a woman with raven black hair cut into a sharp-edged, chin length bob that highlighted brilliant, knowledgeable green eyes. Moving her head seemed to take ages, and when she was able to focus her eyes again, she saw a man sitting on a chair next to the bed she lay on, bright, inquisitive blue and grey eyes liquid with....tears? She knew him as well, knew him as well as she knew herself but again, she was too exhausted to come up with his name.

 “Welcome back,” the woman said, smoothing Lilly's sweat-soaked, tangled hair from her face. “Do you know where you are?”

 “I...I'm not sure,” Lilly replied, trying to sit up and failing; it was as if an elephant was sitting on her. The man who'd been holding her hand let go and placed it on her shoulder, saying, “Hey sweetie. You gave everyone one hell of a scare, but you're going to be all right.”

 “What did I do?” Lilly whispered, seeing/feeling the hurt in his eyes. “Did I hurt someone?”

 The friendly man bit his lip and smiled wanly, obviously not wanting to say yes or no. “Well, not really. You're not quite back with us, are you? You don't remember me, do you?”

 Spicy red roses...the bright and exotic flavors of Russian tea...brisk, rushing wind over the steppe..bright laughter and joy and love and... “Paul? What...what...?” Lilly struggled beneath Paul and the black-haired woman's hands, trying to move but only managed to shift herself a millimeter. Panicked, she tried to scream but only a hoarse croak came out. She felt something warm and comforting ghost across her mind and she snatched wildly at it, seeing Paul's eyes go white around the edges from the sheer power of her terrified mind. ::Till, Ollie, I'm gonna need a little help in here!:: he yelled, his own consciousness starting to grey out around the edges. The black-haired woman lightened her grip and said soothingly, “It's all right Lilly, you've been quite sick and you don't have the strength to get up right now. It'll pass, I promise.”

 “No! Let me up!” Lilly screamed, beginning to tremble and sweat in fear. She tried not to but her broken heart and soul remembered being held down, tied down against her will, violated over and over, left alone at the end. It told her that he'd been betrayed and now was back in his lab, waiting for him to come back and hurt her again with either needles or his flesh.

 :He's here, he's here, he's here...: she sobbed through the Changeling bond, trying to smack Paul and the lady doctor's hands away. Her hard-won self-control over the anger, darkness and hate she'd locked inside her psyche began to crack; memories she'd thought exorcised came roaring back in a floor she couldn't stop. A cry that sounded like a dying animal tore its way from her chest; Paul caught her face between his hands and almost shouted, “She's not lying sweetheart, you've been sick. Listen to me, all right? I'm here, we're here, and no one is gonna hurt you. Okay? You can't get up right now but you're not tied down, no one's coming to stick you with needles again. Never, ever. I promise.”

 Suddenly Lilly's eyes went blank and unseeing, and her body began to shake and twist in the teeth of a seizure, her scream cut off into a gasp. Paul let go of Lilly and grabbed the black-haired woman's arm, saying, “Siobhan, I think you'd better get out of here. I've seen her do this before and you're not safe.”

 “What...what do you mean, not safe? She she's having a seizure, Paul!” Siobhan snapped. “In case you forgot in the last couple of hours, I am a doctor even if I haven't finished my residency yet!”

 “Believe me, you don't have the medical training for this,” Paul hissed in return, dragging Siobhan out of the spare bedroom and all but throwing her at Till, who caught her arms and spun her across the room. “Ollie, get in here. Till, you do...something. Tell Flake to...'cover' Chris and Reesh as best he can and hold the fuck on.” With Ollie almost running over him, Paul hurried back inside and took Lilly's hands, folding himself onto the bed next to her with his head on her shoulder. Ollie pulled the chair Paul had been using back to the bedside, laid one hand on Paul's knee and the other on Lilly's shoulder. Without even thinking of the danger they were getting into, they plunged down into the weird otherness of their bond, weaving a 'web' of their own souls to drop over Lilly's to hopefully quiet her and stop the seizures.

 It worked, but barely. Ollie felt his physical self grow cold as he saw the damage Lilly had buried so deep inside herself. It was still an oozing, agonizing wound that chuckled evilly to itself as it gnawed and clawed its way out of the prison she'd created for it. It had no real form, just an amorphous blob of sickly bruise-colored stuff that wiggled and moved in ways that made both Ollie and Paul nauseous to look at it. It smelled like roadkill and when it 'spoke,' its voice sounded far too much like the insane scientist that had kidnapped Lilly and Richard a couple years previous for their liking.

 “Well, well, well. What do we have here? Knights in shining armor, come to rescue the princess? Sorry boys, this isn't a princess, just a cheap piece of ass with a few tricks. Nothing worth your lives,” it said. “From the looks of things, little prissy miss hasn't fixed herself up so well, has she?”

 “Oh shut up!” Ollie snapped, staring with a mixture of horror and rage at the blob as it rearranged itself into something that had a vaguely female shape. “Lilly, listen to me! This isn't you! Whatever has you convinced that you're not worth anything, it lies! Come on, wake up!”

 “She doesn't hear you,” the blob said, finally deciding on looking as much like Lilly's adoptive mother as it could. It wasn't quite successful and fluctuated between the tall, grim-looking woman and its original blob-shape, but it was enough to make Lilly's mental world tremble. Paul could feel her mind burning its way through the net he and Ollie had made; it was sapping their strength away slowly like a tiny crack in an earthen dam allowing water to dribble out a bit at a time. ::Ollie, we've either got to get out of here or do something to shut that...thing...up. Either way, if we don't Lilly's going to flare out and it won't just be us dropping dead from an aneurysm, it's going to be everything alive for hundreds of miles::

 “So boys, I take it your little stopgap isn't working?” the beast-woman said, strolling towards the men, twirling a wooden spoon in her fingers. “I used this on her hands when her penmanship wasn't up to my standards. I used this on her head when she came home with less than perfect grades. I won't bother with what the good doctor used on her to teach her that she's nothing but a useless little whore. Perhaps you should have left her to die in that basement. Perhaps you should have said 'No thanks, I don't want to become some freak of nature that if scientists and governments discovered would die in a lab like a poor little mouse.' Perhaps you should have cut your losses and left her to die. It would have made getting your precious Richard out safely.”

 Paul stepped forward and snatched the wooden spoon from the woman-beast's hand, snapping it in half before flinging it away. “You had no damn right to abuse a little girl that way! You set her up from the get-go to be hurt and I think that Lilly did an excellent job putting your abuse and jealousy behind her! She's not weak, she's not helpless, she's got bigger balls than most men do that think they're the biggest bad-asses on the planet! This is a woman who was willing to trade her life for ours, willing to die so we could get out of that hell house, willing to die so we could get Richard back. Never asked for a goddamn thing other than that we respect her wishes if it all went tits up. I'm proud to know her, I'm proud that she's like a sister to me and I'm even prouder that she's been able to fall in love not once, but twice, with two of my best friends in the world.”

 “Paul, we need to hurry,” Ollie whispered. “Till made Siobhan fall asleep, so we've him and Flake on the outside but if we don't get going soon...”

 “You're not going anywhere,” the monster said, rearranging itself once again into a tall, dark, gender- less being. “I'm almost strong enough now to get out of this mental cell and when I do, I intend to have a little talk with my creatrix. I'll need all the strength I can get to finish my transition, and the power you two have will do nicely to help me get out of here.”

 Paul and Ollie turned and began to run for the 'door' that they'd created for themselves that would immediately take them back to reality, when someone came running through, holding a wicked-looking sword that was keen enough to cut the wind and make it bleed in one hand, and a quarter staff in the other. Dressed in his stage gear from the “Reise, Reise” tour, black eyeliner smudged around his eyes until they stared out of his pale face like blue-green pools of madness and curls barely contained by a ponytail holder, Christoph looked every inch the vision of an apocalyptic warrior-mage.

 “Chris?” Ollie said, confused and more than a little scared. The look he saw in his long-time friend's eyes was terrifying and for a moment, Ollie thought Christoph would turn that madness on him just for speaking his name. “It's okay Ollie,” he said, giving him a warm grin. You and Paul get out of here but keep the door open for me. Tell Flake and Till to try and keep Richard safe, I can hear him at the top yelling his head off about being left behind but he's not strong enough to help out.”

 “Do what?” Paul said over his shoulder as Ollie began dragging him to the doorway. “Christoph, what are you going to do?”

 “Fix this mess once and for all,” Christoph said as he stalked towards the monster. He stopped within a sword's length of the creature and said, “I should have taken care of you when I had the chance.”

 “Oh? And when would have that been, little zwitter?” the creature mocked, seeing Christoph flinch at the word. “Ah, forgive me. That's not the proper term for what you are. A freak of nature, an embarrassment to your family....oh, there's so many things I could say but I won't because time's running short. Now, please enlighten me as to when you could have...'taken care' of me.”

 “I accidentally got stuck in one of Lilly's nightmares not long after we met and she changed us. I saw you locked away in your prison and I recognized what you were---all the negative thoughts she had about herself, all the psychological damage she'd locked away to survive what happened to her in that crazy doctor's house, all the shit that she thought would make her less than perfect in our eyes, in Richard's eyes. I had the same “monster under my bed” once. I was ashamed that I liked dressing up like a woman, I was ashamed that I had sexual feelings toward Richard that hadn't died out even though I tried to deny them. I was angry that I wasn't the son my parents had wanted, even though I'd tried to be so in their eyes, failed. Between some hard soul-searching and falling in love with Reesh and Lilly, I finally had the strength to face the things that made me so miserable and get rid of them.”

 The monster shook its 'head' slowly. “You can't fix this poor creature. She won't let you and you'll die in the end.”

 Christoph turned away from the beast and yelled into the emptiness around him. “Lilly, beloved, do you want to spend the rest of your life afraid of this...this thing? Afraid that you'll lose your self-control and let it out to destroy everything and everyone you love? I can fix this if you'll let me!”

 ::No, I don't. but...lover, I don't have the strength left to do what needs to be done:: Lilly murmured. ::Please...please fix this::

 “You heard the lady,” Christoph said, sheathing the sword over his back in one graceful movement as he stepped into the first form of the quarter staff workout. He caught the monster across the middle and it folded with a violent “huff” of air as it went to its knees. It staggered upright, snarling, and brandishing claws that would have made a mountain lion happy. Christoph danced away from their sharp edges, keeping the iron and wood staff between himself and them. He knew that one good blow from the talons would put a deep groove in the wood that would eventually crack and break off, but short of the beast suddenly making them able to cut iron he had a dependable weapon. Burying that thought as deeply as he could in case the monster could read his mind, he forced the creature back against the 'box' Lilly had stuffed it into.

 “Aren't you going to let me beg for mercy?” the creature whimpered, crouching at his feet. “Whatever did I do to you?”

 Christoph didn't hesitate. While he was basically a peaceful person and was not a fan of hunting, he'd learned a few things from Till's memories of his own hunting trips, and one dark memory of Richard's about a rabid dog that had run wild in his part of New York City when he'd lived there. He'd seen the melee between the skeletal, slavering and insane creature and two police officers, and the sadness in their faces when they had to put the poor dog down had haunted him ever since, for at the end, the dog had whimpered and tried to crawl to them, only to fall back into madness and charge the police officers. The sound of two gunshots echoing through the night, and the dog's screaming had haunted Richard for days, but rationally, he knew that it had to be done. With the point of the quarter staff at the monster's head, Christoph pulled the sword from over his back and said, “You didn't do a thing to me. But you can't let a rabid dog live no matter how awful you feel for it.”

 The sound of the silver-bladed sword carving through pseudo-flesh was as a whisper on the wind. The creature shivered and unraveled into tiny sparks of black fire that winked out as they hit the ground, then vanished, leaving nothing behind. Once he was sure the creature was well and truly gone, Christoph turned around and began running for the 'doorway,' knowing he had only seconds to get out of the weirding place in Lilly’s psyche and back to reality before his own mind and body tried to shut down on him. He hit Ollie and Paul as he crossed the 'threshold' and they burst back into the real world, coughing and gasping from the effort of moving between the worlds so quickly. Once he was sure his friends were all right, Christoph let himself drop into a dreamless, deep sleep.

 Paul opened his eyes and saw Ollie leaning on the edge of the bed, shaking with the effort to hold himself up; their eyes met and they grinned weakly at each other. Lilly was still unconscious, but her color had come back and she was no longer racked with seizures. Helping each other to rise, they staggered out of the room and flopped down in the living room floor, unable to go further.

 “Hang on a moment,” Till said, rising from where he'd been sitting next to Marley and Fiona. He hurried into the kitchen and returned with two mugs from which the wonderful smell of strong coffee well-laced with whiskey flowed up with the steam. Carefully handing the mugs down to them, he went back into the kitchen and came back with a huge bowl of trail mix topped with gummy bears. “Sorry, it's all I could find on a moment's notice,” he said, sitting down on the floor between Ollie and Paul so they could lean on him. Paul snatched a handful of the gummy bears up and shoved them into his mouth, shoving the bowl over for Ollie to scoop up his own handful.

 “Don't apologize, we need the sugar, alcohol and caffeine right now,” Ollie mumbled around the nuts and chocolate he'd chosen. “Has anyone figured out how to explain this mess to Siobhan?”

 Till picked a few gummy bears out of the mix and nibbled at them before saying, “I hate to lie to Siobhan, mess with her memories, especially after she dropped everything she was in the middle of to come over here...”

 “It can't be helped,” Flake said as he came out of the main bedroom, his hands wrapped around his own mug of coffee. “If you don't want to re-arrange her memories, I will.”

 “No,” Till sighed, pulling himself slowly to his feet. While he hadn't been in the middle of the melee, he'd been channeling his own psychic strength through Christoph, Ollie and Paul, while Flake kept him from burning himself out. He was as tired as he was at the end of a show, sore, and seeing double where he'd buried himself so deeply in the bond. He walked slowly across the room, kneeling next to the chair he'd deposited Siobhan in earlier. He stroked a few strands of her hair from her face and said softly, “Siobhan? Wake up before you put a kink in your neck.”

 The next thing Till knew, he was sitting on his behind, holding a hand to his cheek where Siobhan's hand print flared against his face. She was sitting up, green eyes blazing, swearing at him in rapid-fire Gaelic. Till blinked at her, stunned that he hadn't seen her move, and stammered, “What the...what the fuck was that for?”

 “Ye gurt fool, what d'ye mean, messing with my memories?” Siobhan snapped, her voice thick with her native accent. “I should hammer ye clear to Hades for that! Bad enough that I let ye catch me off guard and knock me arse over teakettle, but there's no way I'll let ye do that again, Till Lindemann!”

 Paul and Ollie were leaning on the doorway, trying not to laugh at the shocked look on Till's face. Flake wasn't as able to do so and giggled the entire time he helped Till to his feet. “I think she likes you,” he murmured, earning himself a growl and a raised middle finger. Turning to the fuming woman, Till said, “You shouldn't be awake yet. You've got twenty seconds to explain what the hell is going on or I'm going to throw you out the window.”

 Siobhan stood toe to toe with Till, which would have been funny at any other time as she was a couple inches shorter than Paul. She wasn't going to give him an inch, and she fairly crackled with anger...and a familiar 'scent' that everyone knew. Flake's eyes widened, and before he could stop himself he blurted out, “You're like us!”

 “Sort of, but not quite,” Siobhan said, not taking her eyes off of Till. “My family intermarried with the Fair Folk many years ago; my family were hearth and woodland witches and would have been burned at the stake had we not. They gave us protection, taught us how to use our human magic and added to our knowledge, and when things got bad, hid us from the hunters. We made it so their bloodlines wouldn't die out because human-Fair Folk breedings almost always result in a healthy child. The Fair Folk in my family's part of Ireland were badly inbred at that time and only two children had been born in the past hundred years.”

 Till was moving very slowly away from Siobhan, hoping she wasn’t planning to smack him again. “I had no clue you weren’t human. It’s not like we know who’s human and who isn’t!”

 Siobhan made a grumbling noise at Till and sat back down in her seat. “I’m sorry, my mum always said my temper would get me in more trouble than a cat in a pet store. And I’m sorry I didn’t say something sooner, but I’ve just not had the time.”

 Arielle, who had left before the madness had happened, eased herself into the apartment,saying,"Is it safe to come in, or do I need to hide in the basement?”

 “It’s okay, Ari, come on in,” Paul said from his spot on the floor. Arielle rushed in, shedding her lightweight jacket, and went to her husband’s side. “What in the hell happened? I was on my way back from the market when the kittens told me to stay put, there was something going on and that you and Ollie were okay but were going to try and help Lilly.”

 Paul yawned and laid his head on his wife’s knee. “We did, but it was Christoph who saved the day. Can I tell you about it later? I’m still awfully tired.” Ari sighed in resigned irritation at her husband, who had fallen asleep almost in mid-sentence; Ollie chuckled and said, “I’ll tell you.” Laying one long finger against Arielle’s forehead, he showed her the entire battle from start to finish. When he was done, Arielle stared down at Paul with wide, startled eyes, then back at Ollie, who simply nodded. “And what in the world was Siobhan yelling at Till over?” she asked, after she’d had a few moments to digest what she’d seen.

 “Oh, Till put me to sleep and then thought he’d mess about with my memories and I smacked him for it,” Siobhan said wryly. When she saw Ari’s confused look, she said, “I’m half human and half Fair Folk. Your talents, magic, whatever you want to call it, doesn’t work on me like it would a full human, so I was only out for a couple of moments. I was playing possum when Till said he’d have to play merry cob with my memories so I wouldn’t know about the lot of you. If he had, I’m not sure what would have happened, and besides, you don’t do something like that without permission.”

 “If I’d have known you weren’t a hundred percent human I’d have asked!” Till snapped. “Like I said, it’s not like there’s a directory of non-humans out there to consult!”

 “There probably should be something out there like that,” Flake said musingly. “Something that normal humans can’t get their nibby fingers into. We’ve met a couple of non-humans recently and they knew who we were but we had no clue about them. Except for the dolphins who recognized Till as non-human but wasn’t sure where he was.” Ollie rolled his eyes; knowing his friend as he did, Flake was already figuring out ways to pull some kind of database or directory together. Ari hummed to herself and murmured, “There's always the Dark Web, private servers...”

 Ollie looked up from his contemplation of his coffee with a “huff” of sound and clambered to his feet. “Uh...does anyone know if there's somewhere a little more private around here?” he asked, a bright red blush covering his face. Paul, who had managed to sit on the coffee table raised an eyebrow at his friend's distress and began to tease him when he stopped, coughed and said, “There's a lovely park at the back of the building. Arielle, would you like to take a walk down there, maybe wander down to Ex Libris for a bit? And the rest of you are invited.” Flake's ears were scarlet from embarrassment, he had his sneakers on and was out the door before anyone could blink twice.

 Siobhan covered her mouth to hide a smile; for all that the band seemed so world-weary and jaded, the simple idea that three of their heart-siblings winding up for a wild ride in the sheets amused her to no end. Taking Till's hand, she said, “Come on big boy, let's go for a ramble. I'm sure there's a coffee shop somewhere that we can occupy for a bit.” Till snorted and stood, saying, “That sounds like a great idea.” He peered over his shoulder and said to Fiona ::Are you two going to be okay? Things might get a bit...::

 Fiona sneezed and replied, ::We'll be fine. We’ll just go into the laundry room and take a nice, long nap::

 ::If you're sure, little one:: Till said wryly. ::I keep forgetting you're both pretty magical in your own right::

 This time he got two sneezes from each kitten, which told him he was worrying for nothing. Stopping long enough to ruffle the cats' ears, he followed Paul, Ollie, Arielle and Siobhan out the door, hoping that his blushes would ease quickly just in case they happened to come across any fans. He could just imagine the pictures and stories that would run rampant over the Internet.

Chapter Text

:::

Richard had planned on thoroughly telling Christoph off for scrambling off into the maelstrom inside Lilly’s psyche and leaving him behind but the second Ollie, Paul and Christoph had come hurling out of it, the resulting explosion of psychic energy had knocked him completely out. When he came around, Christoph was deeply asleep, the apartment was quiet, and Lilly was nowhere to be found. He took a panicky breath, forcing himself to be calm, and cautiously ‘peeked’ around the edge of the remnants of the ‘web’ Ollie and Paul had created to protect Lilly from mentally annihilating every living being for miles around. Lilly was snuggled beneath the covers of the spare bed, arms wrapped around an old teddy bear she had had since she was a child. It was well-loved and somewhat worn, its leather nose long fallen off and replaced by long stitches of black embroidery silk in the shape of a triangle, and button eyes while old, still shone brightly. Richard had been amused that she had carried it with her on both legs of the tour, always unpacking it from her backpack first thing and making sure it was safely tucked away in the backpack before they left either the tour bus or hotel.

Till had snagged an all-access pass from Emu at the very beginning of the first leg of the tour and had sneakily managed to hang the pass around the bear’s neck one evening when Lilly had been napping and accidentally left the bear sitting on the top of Richard’s wardrobe case. Till tucked it into bed with her and had forgotten about it until several hours later; Lilly had caught him alone and hugged him as hard as she could and left a smacking kiss on the tip of his nose. When she was done, she said nothing, just smiled at him shyly and sprinted off, leaving Till to stand in the hallway, shaking his head and grinning to himself. It had taken her a couple of months before she’d admit to have been carrying the bear around from the beginning of the tour in her backpack and even longer to tell them that his name was Teddy Bear. Simple, to the point, and wholly Lilly.

The bear, instead of the nondescript t-shirt Lilly had put on him, now had on a tiny Rammstein t-shirt; that had been Flake’s contribution after he’d had pointed out that everyone else on the crew had a Rammstein shirt but the bear didn’t, which wasn’t fair. When Lilly saw the shirt on Teddy, she’d laughed so hard she’d gotten hiccups. Flake had tried to keep a smile off of his face but in the end he’d started snort-laughing and given himself away. Richard had no clue who’d tucked the bear in with Lilly but he had a sneaking suspicion it had been Flake. For all that he pretended to be hard-hearted and eternally grumpy, it wasn’t hard to crack that shell if you were the right person.

Richard would have lain in his warm nest of blankets next to Christoph longer but his bladder decided it needed attention; with a sigh and crossed fingers that he wouldn’t stand up and immediately end up face-planting on the floor, he shoved the blankets away and slowly wriggled out of bed. Once on his feet, he had to grab the carved post at the top of the head-board; a wave of dizziness and nausea threatened to drop him on his behind. Several deep, ragged breaths later, Richard was weaving his way slowly across the bedroom floor, gritting his teeth against the pins and needles feeling from his hips clear to his toes from being flat on his back for too long. He managed to get everything done, hands washed and back into bed before Christoph stirred, rolled over and buried his face in Richard’s neck.

“Hey,” he muttered, curling around Richard and slinging a leg over his hip. “Is it over?”

“Far as I can tell, yeah,” Richard replied, shifting around so Christoph’s thigh wasn’t lying so heavily over his hip. “You okay? The next time you decide to go somewhere like a bat out of hell, do take me along. You could have gotten lost in there, even died.”

“ I'm fine,” Christoph sighed. “I knew what I was doing, or at least I had a good idea of what needed done.”

“Bullshit, Christoph, you didn’t know what you were going to do!” Richard protested, weakly smacking his partner on the shoulder. “I know you way too well for that! If you ever, ever pull something that dumb ever again, I’m going to kick your ass from here to Antarctica and back!”

“What was I going to do, Richard? Lilly was coming apart at the seams, mentally, and she was having seizure after seizure. Paul and Ollie had their hands full, so did Till and Flake, and you weren’t in any condition to help out!” Christoph argued. “If I’d pulled you along with me, you’d have died from the strain on your heart and brain from what you went through earlier. The only reason I was in better shape was because I haven’t been here helping you keep Lilly from going insane. Whether you realize it or not, that’s why she didn’t crack until today. You on your own when she’s stable, yeah, you’re okay. But when she started to fail, it took both of us to keep her going. You were almost completely drained by the time She showed up. I don’t know why you couldn’t tell how weak you were getting but there you are.”

Richard’s spluttered protest died on his lips. “Wha…what the hell? Once again, thanks for leaving me out of the loop, asshole!

Christoph sat up, blankets pooling around his waist. “I wasn’t keeping you out of the loop, jackass! I thought you knew how to keep an eye on yourself by now! Christ on a rock, Kruspe, you can be so fucking dense sometimes, you make my head hurt!”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Richard growled, sitting up himself even though the sudden motion made him dizzy. “I make your head hurt? What about all the dumb shit you’ve gotten into over the years that I’ve pulled you out of? I won’t mention what happened today, but damn, Schneider, this is just like that time in North Carolina where you got drunk and tried to pick a fight with a biker that called you a flaming queer because of that horrible striped shirt you used to wear!”

My horrible striped shirt? Oh that’s precious, coming from a guy who used to wear shirts that looked like he’d stolen my grandmother’s living room curtains and made ‘em into a shirt!” Christoph snapped back. “And I wasn’t going to pick a fight with him, that was Paul! Not only are you being a nag, you’re losing your damn mind on top of that and can’t remember shit!”

“That’s it!” Richard yelled, grabbing one of his pillows and firmly walloping Christoph over the head with it. He sat there for a second, stunned, then snatched up one of his and returned the wallop, adding a whack across Richard’s chest, knocking him backwards into the bed. Chaos ensued as the men proceeded to beat each other senseless with every pillow on the bed, only stopping when a choked-off giggle stopped them dead in their tracks. Looking up, hair mussed and bits of fiberfill from one of the exploded pillows floating in the air like snowflakes, Richard and Christoph saw Lilly standing in the doorway, face scarlet from holding back laughter and her eyes twinkling. “I so need a camera right now!” she snorted.

“Lilly! You’re okay!” Richard yelled, shoving Christoph off of his lap and bounding out of the bed to wrap his arms around her and swing her about. “Hey, be careful, you’ll make me puke!” she cried, dropping her head to rest against Richard’s shoulder when he set her back on her feet. Christoph was a bit gentler with her, he carefully put his arms around her waist and hugged her from behind, burying his nose in her hair. The three of them held each other for a time, saying nothing. Lilly leaned away from Richard to sniffle and wipe her nose on the back of her arm, earning an “Ewww!” from both men. She smiled wanly and said, “I’m…I’m really sorry about this…what I did.”

“Why didn’t you come to Reesh or me and tell us what was wrong, or that you weren’t feeling so hot?” Christoph asked, easing away so he could gently pull her (and by that token, Richard) backwards and onto the bed. She laid her head against his shoulder, cuddling Richard under her arm and bit her lip, thinking. “I don’t have an excuse. I was stupid, trying one more time to be all “miss tough as nails” and I failed. I really fucked up. All I can say is I’m sorry and I promise I’ll never do that again.”

::Youd better not!:: Marley yelled, flinging herself into the bedroom, her sister hot on her heels. The kittens landed next to Christoph and piled into Lilly’s lap, purring loudly. ::You scared us, you scared everyone and made them cry!::

“You’re in for it now,” Christoph said, stroking Fiona’s tail and under her chin. “Nothing like a smart-ass cat to put you in your place!”

Lilly gathered the sisters into her lap, kissing the tops of their heads before settling them back between herself and Christoph. “I’m sorry. I can’t apologize enough, but I’m sorry.”

After several moments of cuddling the kittens and more apologies being made, Richard asked, looking about with a confused look on his face, “By the way, where’s everyone gone?”

::Out:: Fiona said innocently, hopping off the bed and leaving the room with her tail high in the air. Richard tried to catch Marley as she sailed off the bed, saying, ::Dont you three have some making up to do?:: The door closed silently behind her, leaving the three people to look at each other in confusion.

“Since when did those cats learn how to close doors?” Richard asked. “More to the point, how long have they been able to open and close LOCKED doors? Because I know Till put them in the laundry room and locked it for their safety.”

Lilly chuckled and clambered her way up into the bed, throwing handfuls of fiber fill into a nearby trash can. “They're cats. They'll never tell. Now, whoever was responsible for the pillow explosion, clean it up or you'll be sleeping in the kitchen or laundry room.”

Christoph began piling handfuls of fiber fill into the pillow form it had come from, plucking pieces of the fiber from his hair as he did so. Richard dug under the blankets and found a sizable handful; he met Christoph's raised eyebrow with one of his own. “Don't ask me, I have no idea how that ended up under the blankets. Is this from one pillow? I don't remember any of 'em being so fluffy.”

“Dunno. I think that's the last of it,” Christoph replied, carefully folding the top of the now-full pillow form over and placing it on the floor on the other side of the trash can, out of harm's way. He slid back into bed and pulled Lilly to him, the slow rise of lust nibbling along his nerves. He glanced over her shoulder and saw Richard's eyes darkening as well as the slight bulge in his baggy pajama bottoms. A shiver of want shrilled along the bond Richard shared with Christoph, the urge to take and be taken amplified a thousand-fold.

::Are you sure?:: Richard asked him privately. His nervousness was palpable, a scent like crushed roses and old leaves filling Christoph's nose. ::I mean, I can wait or go take care of myself, let you have some time with her.::

“Don't you dare leave this room, Richard,” Lilly said quietly. “You either, drummer boy. I have something to tell you both, something I should have told you a couple months back.”

Christoph's stomach began to churn, Richard went white. They could only guess what Lilly was going to tell them, none of it good. Sensing her lovers' fear, she kissed each of them and said, “Nothing bad. More like...game changing. It seems that the Changeling virus has a mind of its own, because I've started having a period again. Everything I had removed has grown back. All of it. And as far as I can tell, I'm fertile. Not for long, probably no more than two or three years before I'll go through menopause. But yes, there's the chance I can have a kid. Or kids.”

The look on Richard and Christoph's faces was comical. “I...I never expected...I mean, I thought you were...you had...” Richard stammered, trying to make a coherent sentence and failing. Christoph sat silently, blue-green eyes wide and unblinking. Lilly poked him in the ribs until he looked at her and she said, “You okay, Christoph?”

“You can have a baby.”

“Yes.”

“My baby.”

“Well, if your sperm is the first to the egg, that's how it goes.”

“But...a baby, Lilly. You’d be willing to have a baby with me. Or Richard.”

Lilly turned a belly laugh into a cough, trying desperately not to insult Christoph, who was obviously having trouble getting his head around this new development. He flopped back into the pillows, still staring at the ceiling; Richard shook his head and said, “If you don't want to be a father, sweetheart, you don't have to be.”

“That's the thing,” Christoph said quietly. “I do. Not to have some copy of myself out there in the world, not something to show off as a trophy, not someone to fulfill my dreams. I...I think I'd be a decent father. I'm just scared.”

“Hey, that's okay,” Richard said, reaching over to run his fingers through Christoph's hair and kiss his nose. “I was scared shitless when I found out I was going to be a father for the first time. I wasn't expecting to be a father so early in my life. Poor Till, I chewed his ear off for three hours asking him how he'd handled being a single father, how he'd coped with being so young and a father, all that shit. I was terrified I'd do something horrible to Khira Li, that she'd end up as fucked up as I am and she turned out just fine.”

“And it's not like I'm going to get pregnant right now,” Lilly said. “I can tell when I'm fertile and when I'm not. And I'll probably be able to tell when I conceive too.”

Richard stretched out next to Christoph, laying his head on his knee, a thoughtful expression on his face. “What if...what if you could be able to have genetic material from two fathers, like a cat, and pick what traits you want from that? Or...twins, but two separate fathers? That would be so cool!”

“Oh come on, Reesh, that's a bit...wait,” Lilly said. She furrowed her brow in thought for a moment, then said, “I can do it. I know I can. We'd have to...erm...well, I haven't been with both of you yet. But that's how it would have to go.”

“We don't have to decide right now, do we?” Christoph asked, voice trembling slightly. “I'm still getting my head around the idea that you're able to have a baby, and I'm sure Reesh is the same way.”

“Absolutely,” Richard replied, relief evident in his voice. “Nothing to say we can't practice, though.”

Lilly blinked back tears and leaned over her beloved men, trying to hug them both at once. “Thanks for not completely freaking out. I was so scared one or both of you would throw a fit and tell me to fuck off. That was one of the reasons I was so depressed. Well, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, really. Before I knew it, I was standing in the living room with a paring knife in my hand, wondering how much better this world would be without me. And the rest...is the rest.”

“Sweet girl, you know me better than that!” Richard exclaimed, grasping her chin and gently shaking her head. “Remember what you said when the three of us decided to give this a go? That if it was to work out, we'd have to be open and honest with each other, no matter what? And how much I agreed that you were right?”

“Me too,” Christoph said, playfully biting her shoulder. “I'm kinda disappointed that you didn't let us know earlier but that's the past. I'd never do something that mean to you. Or Reesh.”

Lilly closed her eyes and cuddled down between the two men, the last of her tears drying on her face. With a wicked laugh, she purred, “I put a couple new bottles of lube in the bedside drawer last week. Unless you two have been up to something, they should still be unopened.”

Rolling her over onto her back, Christoph returned the grin, quickly shedding his pajama bottoms and helping Richard strip Lilly of her faded, red sleep shirt, then his own pajama bottoms. Lilly stretched luxuriously, like a cat, and surrendered to her lovers’ whims. There was a short argument between Richard and Christoph over who would get to kiss her first, but it ended in giggles that soon turned to whispered gasps and soft cries of lust.

Richard eased back against a pile of pillows, idly stroking Lilly’s hair as she and Christoph clung to one another, kissing every inch of skin they could get to, occasionally wandering off course to lick, kiss and nibble at whatever part of Richard they came across. He found one of Lilly’s hands and twined his fingers with hers, trembling with the force of not one, but two people’s desire and affection catching him up and carrying him away. Had he not been changed as he had been, he was sure his heart would have exploded, he was so lost in emotion.

Christoph urged Lilly's knees up and lay between them, wringing a shriek out of her when he ran his tongue up into her wet heat. Richard screamed, arching his back against the sensation of the wonderful wickedness Lilly was feeling and let himself get lost in the multiple sensations that danced their way through their three-way bond. He felt her laughter swimming in his veins and laughed aloud; Christoph looked up, puzzled, and he waved him back to what he'd been doing with a snicker that trailed off into a gasp.

Christoph backed away before Lilly could reach her peak, making her growl angrily at him. “Why are you stopping, you little shit?”

“Because I want to fuck you till you scream,” he purred, roughly shoving her legs higher to where Richard could grab one leg behind the knee while he slid his palm under her thigh. Lilly opened her mouth to protest and cried out when Christoph slid home into her, his answering gasp almost matching hers. Richard whimpered and laid his head against Lilly’s shoulder, mesmerized by the way his heart's desires moved with each other, the scent of female musk mixing with the sharp heat of male skin, the vanilla-sugar near taste of the perfume Lilly wore, the green, herbal scent of whatever shampoo Christoph had used, the sweltering heat of love and bliss, the play of shadows and light over their skin. And through all of it, words in three languages and none, verbal, mental and physical, lips and tongue and fingers and breath.

Christoph leaned over Lilly, eyes locked to hers. “Scream for me, pretty girl. Tell me how much you like me fucking you, you know how much you want to,” he purred, lowering himself enough to brush a feather light kiss on her lips. “Come on, baby, tell the world how much you want me...”

Lilly caught Christoph's face between her hands, lips trembling as she tried to find her voice. “What about you screaming for me?” she husked. “I've heard you scream onstage, now do it for me, come on, Christoph!” She moved underneath him, arching her back, nails slashing furrows down his back and curving over his hips. Lost in her completion, losing his own control and taking Richard with them, Christoph gave Lilly everything he had.

When he could see properly again, Christoph slowly flopped down onto the bed, soaked with sweat, bloody and exhausted. Richard hopped out of bed and padded quickly to the bathroom where he grabbed a pile of towels from the cabinet, quickly wetting a couple of wash cloths with warm water before he left. He threw the towels on the bed, handing one of the wet cloths to Lilly and used the other to carefully sponge Christoph's back free of blood. When he didn't move, Richard continued cleaning him up, laying kisses between his shoulder blades and along the backs of his knees.

Ach, that tickles!” Christoph chuckled, voice muffled by pillows. Lilly plucked a dry towel from the pile and used it to carefully dry the spots Richard had wiped clean, stopping a couple of times to kiss him long and deeply. Once the two of them were clean and dry, Richard laid a clean towel on Christoph's side of the bed so any further bleeding he might have would be soaked up by the material. Lilly scooped up the used towels and tossed them in the hamper nearby, then rinsed the wash cloths out with warm water, bringing them back and stowing them on the top of the hamper for further use. She slipped back into bed, nuzzling softly at Christoph's hair and working the tangles out of his curls. “Gonna live?” she said.

“Leave a message at the beep and I'll get back to you,” he muttered, pulling a pillow over his face. Richard snorted at him and tugged the pillow away to rain kisses upon his face and neck. “You're such a goofball,” he said, tweaking Christoph's nose. That earned him a one-eyed glare as Christoph had slung his arm partially over his face, but a kiss from Richard and Lilly made him smile again. “I love you both so very much,” he murmured. “And I’m so damn happy I could pop.”

“Me too,” Richard said, stretching out along his side while Lilly snuggled up against his back.

“Lilly? Are you okay, sweetheart?” Christoph asked. “I didn't hurt you, did I?”

“Not a bit,” she replied, her voice content and drowsy. “It's all part of the healing process as far as I'm concerned. We should start calling you “healer of hearts” instead of “Doom.”

“I kinda like that,” Richard said as he stroked Christoph's face. “Christoph, Healer of Hearts, Drummer and Sometimes Very Pretty Lady.” Christoph swatted Richard's hip, playfully, and said, “Enough or you're going to embarrass me so much I won't be able to look at myself in the mirror.”

:::

Lilly was in the kitchen, mixing Fiona and Marley's dry kibble with warm chicken broth when she heard the soft, syncopated knock on the apartment door and the mental scent that was uniquely Paul's. Placing the bowls into their slots in a holder that kept them from skidding across the floor and collected any stray pieces of food, she wiped her hands on her jeans and hurried to answer the door. Paul was leaning on the door-frame, his usual bemused expression on his face combined with a touch of embarrassment. “Hey, uh, Arielle left her mobile here and..uh...”

“Come in you idiot,” Lilly said, pulling Paul into the apartment and hugging him tightly once he was inside and the door locked. “Ari did no such thing. You've drawn the short straw to come and see if the three of us are still alive and fairly unmarked.”

Paul made a noise that could have been a squeak or an exclamation but what came out was an odd combination of both. “Damn it, Lilly, we did nothing of the sort!” he protested.

“Sure. And I'm the Queen of England. You can report back to the rest of the world that we're fine, I'm fine, the kits are fine,” Lilly said, hands on her hips and trying to glare at her friend. Paul shook his head, giggling, and said, “Yeah, I lied. And yeah, I got the short straw as it were. Till, Flake and Siobhan went to some coffee shop to discuss things, Ollie got a call from one of his hiking buddies to plan out their next trip to wherever, and Ari wants to go home and try on the new dresses I bought her and the little one. So here I am. Are you sure, absolutely sure, you're okay?”

“Yes,” Lilly replied, hugging Paul again. “Without what you and Ollie did, what Christoph did, hell, what everyone did, I wouldn't be. You'd better get going or Ari's going to head back to where you got her dresses and buy some more.”

Paul rolled his eyes comically and said, “All right, I'll get going. And you get some rest, all right? Make those two hedonists in the bedroom leave you alone once in a while, yeah?”

“Get going, Landers!” Lilly growled, playfully shoving Paul towards the door. With a last quick hug, he was heading down the hallway at a bouncy trot, stopping to wave goodbye as he hopped into the elevator. Lilly shut and locked the door, leaning against it and laughing to herself. “Silly man,” she said to no one in particular, “what about me leaving those two hedonists alone once in a while so they can get some rest, eh?” She made sure the kittens were happily consuming their dinner, promising them a long playtime in the tiny garden outside the kitchen the next morning, and made her way back to the bedroom where Richard and Christoph were napping.

She stopped just inside the room and spent a few moments simply watching them sleep, curled around each other like the kittens did when they slept, and felt her eyes water. They were so gorgeous together, like light and shadow, so eternally different and still so alike. Shedding her jeans and t-shirt, she joined them after she'd had her fill of staring at them, resting her head against Richard's shoulder and listening to the two men breathe. They looked absolutely innocent, the way they had looked before adulthood and the big bad world had gotten to them.

Suddenly, she couldn't get enough of lying there next to Richard, she wanted him on top of her, inside her, any way she could have him. Beginning with the point of his shoulder, she began licking and scraping her teeth along his skin, careful to keep her fangs pulled back so only their sharp tips were bared. Down along one of the long muscles in his shoulder she went, leaving a damp, raised, red trail as she went, then up along his spine to the back of his neck, where she caught the nape of his neck in her teeth and bit down slowly and cautiously until she heard his breath hitch and a shudder run through him. She'd slid her arm over his waist as she'd tightened her bite; when Richard flinched his way out of sleep, her hand found the silky softness of his member and she wrapped her fingers around it, making tiny circles up along the big vein at the back. This pulled him completely awake and he moaned quietly, hips moving involuntarily in the circle of her fingers.

“I want you Reesh,” Lilly whispered in his ear, voice rough. “I want you on your back, looking up at me. I want you so much I can't think straight.”

Richard did as he was asked, hissing when he had to let her move her hand so he could roll over. When he was in place, Lilly swept down on him and kissed him, hard, hands grasping his biceps and nails digging in. He clung to her, returning her heated kisses, stretching up to lick a long, wet line up her throat and leave a tiny love bite where her neck sloped into her shoulder. As it had happened earlier, Richard lost himself totally in the moment, not realizing when Lilly had mounted him and taken him so deep inside he momentarily stopped breathing. A sharp bite on his shoulder brought him back and his eyes popped open to see Christoph watching him like a cat watches a bird fluttering on a nearby tree branch.

“You look so damn gorgeous when you're fucking,” Christoph purred, biting Richard's shoulder again and making him yelp. “And sometimes onstage, you get the same look on your face and you have no damn clue how bad I want to jump over my kit and fuck you right then and there.”

Richard had long lost his ability to think straight; he only stared at Christoph and keened his frustration and trapped lust into the dim room. Lilly grabbed one of his hands and dragged it between her legs, showing him where she wanted to be touched; Christoph soon had one of his fingers busy next to Richard's. The three of them trembled and shook, desire, love and soon sweet release catching them off guard.

This time, cleaning up was sketchy and clumsy but filled with humor, kisses and the occasional bad joke. As Richard's shower wasn't big enough for three, he and Christoph surrendered the shower to Lilly first. While she cleaned up, the two of them changed the bed linens (discovering that two, not one, pillows had been victims of their earlier pillow fight) and invited the kittens into the room so they could join the cuddle pile in bed.

Lilly reappeared not long after, damp, red hair braided into a long tail down her back, smelling sweet and warm. The men didn't take long in their shared shower, arguing playfully over who was taking up the most space, whose shampoo smelled the best and who was using the most hot water. Lilly buried her face in Fiona's fur to try and not laugh, but she did. “Men are silly,” she said to the cats. “Can't live with 'em and you can't sell them on Ebay either.”

::Ah, but think of how boring life would be?:: Marley said wisely, licking a paw and smoothing it over an ear. ::It's the same in the feline world, except when the males get snarly, we just wallop 'em over the head and send them off to do something useful, like catch mice or beat the neighbor's tom up::

“I highly doubt Reesh or Chris would take that suggestion seriously,” Lilly said, lying back on the freshly-plumped up pillows. “Although, it could be a useful suggestion when they get to disagreeing in the studio over something. Instead of hunting mice, perhaps after a big, big rainstorm when the ground is wet and muddy...mud wrestling. Mud wrestling Rammies...now that would be something to record and keep for bribery purposes!”

::Or secretly put up on the Internet:: Fiona ::Wouldn't that make some of the fans insane?::

::I wouldn't want to be near Till if he found out:: Marley said in alarm. ::I get the feeling he wouldn't be too happy being seen with his face shoved in the mud and Flake riding him like a pony::

::You never know, he might actually like the idea and stick it in the next tour:: Fiona giggled. ::Well, why not? He had a foam dick-cannon the last time, why not mud wrestling?::

Lilly could do nothing else but shake her head and stomp her mirth down, not wanting to let Christoph or Richard in on what she and the cats had been discussing. She was half asleep when they came to bed, not hearing Richard whisper to Christoph, “I'd like to know what's put that big smile on her face.”

“If you have to ask, you really, really need help,” Christoph teased as he kissed Richard's nose.

Chapter Text

As soon as Paul, Arielle, Ollie, Flake, Till and Siobhan made it to the street, they split up, hoping to put as much distance between themselves and the oncoming emotional hurricane in Richard's apartment. They'd locked themselves down as firmly as they could but being several streets away wouldn't hurt. Paul, Ollie and Arielle chose to stop at Ex Libris, while Till, Siobhan and Flake continued down the street.

As they made their way through the late afternoon crowds, Till leaned over and said softly into Siobhan's ear, “What about your family? Where are you really from?”

“It'll have to wait till we find somewhere a little more private,” Siobhan replied. “Or less crowded. It's a long story and I think you'll both need something caffeinated before I'm done.”

“Oh, I think what you have to tell us will keep us both wide awake,” Flake said dryly, pulling his ponytail tight before the wind could catch up the loose hair and send it flying over his face. To everyone’s amusement, he hadn’t cut it for well over a year, choosing to keep the ends trimmed and bleached platinum blonde. Siobhan had to admit, the color looked excellent on him as it made his ice blue eyes stand out even more so. She shot him a quirky grin, which he answered with a chuckle and nod.

They finally found a little coffee shop that was attached to a book store that neither Flake nor Till had ever been in; they made their way inside, gently ‘pushing’ people’s attention aside. Siobhan went to the counter and ordered herself a strong black tea, with coffee for Till and Flake, then they made their way into the rear of the shop where there was a grouping of chairs and a couple sofas, half hidden by a wall of plants suspended from the ceiling in planters hanging from long, silver chains.

“You asked about my family,” Siobhan said, easing herself into one of the many soft, squishy chairs that were scattered around the tiny coffee shop she, Flake and Till had found. She set her teacup aside after taking a quick sip, then said, “I’d have to look up the records, but I believe my maternal line on both sides of the family began marrying into, or having children with, the local Fair Folk tribes in the fourteen or fifteen hundreds. Because we were so isolated, we didn’t start to feel the effects of the witch hunts until the big witch trial in Würtzburg. That was around 1630, which was close to the end of the trials. People from that area started fleeing for their lives and many of the witch families took them in as well as some of the Fair Folk tribes that were small on members.”

Till sat back in his seat, feeling his blood run cold. He’d read about the massacre in Würtzburg and the images his fertile brain had come up with haunted him still. “Weren’t there witch hunts and trials in Scotland and Ireland?”

“Several, but not as large as Würtzburg or the Salem trials in the United States,” Siobhan replied. “For some reason, the Church wasn’t as apt to monkey with the countryside folk; I’m thinking my Fair Folk relatives might have had something to do with that. A word in a high-placed priest’s ear, a visitation that could be taken as a sign from God, whatever. We had our brushes with witch hunters enough, I can tell you. Whatever happened, a decent number of cross-breed families lived, prospered and carried on their bloodlines to this day. The little village I was born in is wholly half-human, half Fair Folk blood.”

“So, the Fair Folk are what, fairies? Wood sprites or something like that?” Flake asked, ice blue eyes alert and intent over his cup of coffee. Siobhan shook her head, saying, “Nope. Elves.”

“Please tell me they’re not like ‘Lord of the Rings’ elves, all pretty and pristine and shit,” Till snorted, rolling his expressive green-blue eyes. Siobhan shook her head and bit her lip to keep from giggling when Flake put his cup down and rolled his eyes at Till’s comment as well as the tiny ‘snap’ of psychic energy that made Till jump and growl at Flake.

“Carry on, milady,” Flake said, shooting Till a look that said he was to sit still and keep his mouth shut. Biting back the giggle fit, Siobhan continued, “Some of them were, some of them still are. The very old ones look just like what Tolkien envisioned, us younger ones aren’t so pretty or as powerful. My great, great, grandmother, Eloise, was one of the most powerful water witches of her time; it was said if she wanted to, she could have called all the water out of the seas and drowned everything on dry land. She was the midwife everyone for four counties called for help when a baby and mother were in trouble and it was said any woman who took her training under her could bring a baby back from death, no matter if it was human, Fair Folk or half-breed. She was said to be the most beautiful woman in either realm and when she married my great-great grandfather who was purely human, it broke a hundred hearts.”

Flake pushed a strand of his hair out of his eyes and said, “So, how much of you is human and how much is Fair Folk? If that’s rude, I’m sorry. I’m curious.”

“I’d estimate I’m about eighty to eighty-five percent human,” Siobhan replied. “Mum is a full blooded human, Da is almost completely Fair Folk. I’ve inherited both of their healing skills, that’s for sure. The only reason I don’t use anything but mundane medical skills is the same reason you folk are hiding yourselves in plain sight. I don’t want to end up in some laboratory, being dissected alive for some twat in white scrubs to see how fast it takes me to die.”

The three of them sat quietly for several minutes while the coffee shop filled up with customers, making it difficult to hold a private conversation. Flake muttered to himself and popped out of his chair like a rabbit out of a hole, making his way from the coffee shop into the attached bookstore. Till raised his eyebrows at Siobhan and said, “We’d better follow him or we’ll get left here if he stomps out.” They followed Flake and a moment later, were settled in a private nook between three huge bookshelves, the carpeting, books and furniture soaking up every little noise.

“So, I guess the next thing is how did you all become…what do you call yourselves, ‘Changelings’?” Siobhan asked. Till looked at Flake, who made a ‘go ahead’ gesture; Till made himself comfortable on the small sofa he’d chosen and said, “It started about a year ago when Richard didn’t show up for our pre-rehearsal dinner we always have when we get back together to get back in our touring mindset…”

An hour later, Siobhan’s head was buzzing with the story Till had just finished telling, with Flake adding little details and such here and there. She’d suspected that there were humans in the world who had psychic talents, but between modern science attempting to explain it away as just bunk and the Internet making the world a smaller place every day, she’d given up on trying to find any. That there had been a person who had more than likely accidentally found a way to combine viruses and untested drugs to force a human being’s body to evolve in such a way stunned her. The information had to get back to her kin, and soonest. She knew no one in her family would ever use the information in a harmful or libelous manner, but they needed to know what had happened. As she tried to decide the best way to ask the Changelings for their permission to do so, Till said, “I don’t mean to sound like I’m a psychopathic killer, but if you ever tell anyone about us, I’ll come after you. I swear I will.”

“Don’t be stupid!” Siobhan hissed. “I’d no more spill your secrets to the world than you would mine! If I didn’t understand your feelings, I’d smack you upside the head and one more time to make it stick!”

Flake grabbed a throw pillow from the floor next to his chair and buried his face in it to stifle his howling laugh. Till kicked him in the leg, which produced nothing more than a muffled “Ouch, fucker!” and more laughter. When he was able to control himself, Flake dropped the pillow into his lap and chuckled, “You’ve got to keep this woman, Till, and if you don’t, I will!”

“Shut your face,” Till growled, smacking his friend in the arm. “There’s a lady present.”

“I don’t see Schneider anywhere,” Flake said, to which he got another smack in the arm followed by the pillow he’d been holding thwacked over his head. Siobhan’s face was turning red from keeping her giggle fit as quiet as she could; never in a hundred years did she suspect these two supposedly stoic, humorless Germans were currently hammering each other with pillows and swearing to call down all kinds of disaster on the other’s head. Exhausted at last, they sat, panting, grinning at each other so brightly it was as if the sun had come out in the room. Siobhan let her head roll back against her chair, silently laughing at them. She started to speak when her mobile chimed softly with the tone she had assigned to mean she was needed at work, and right now.

“Damn, I’m needed in the emergency room,” she muttered, pulling the phone out long enough to answer the text, then shoved it back into her pocket. “I’ve really got to run, I’m sorry. I hope Lilly is going to be all right and if something comes up, and if I’m not tied up at work, I’ll come to help out.”

Till stood and helped Siobhan out of her chair while Flake scooped up her bag and handed it to her with a flourish. She gave them both a quick hug and smile, and was out the front door of the coffee house, hailing a cab as she went. Flake leaned on the doorway of the bookstore, looked back at Till and said, “You’re smitten. Admit it.”

“She’s...interesting,” Till admitted, pulling his sunglasses out of his shirt pocket and dropping them on his nose. “Come on, Beaker, I feel like a beer or two before I head home. First round is on you.”

“Hey!” Flake protested as he followed his friend out the door Siobhan had left through. “I don’t mind buying the first round but…Beaker?”

Chapter Text

A week after her suicide attempt, Lilly was slowly able to hobble from the bed to the living room, albeit hanging on to either Richard or Christoph, or when they were out, someone from the band, Arielle Khira Li or Nele. She didn't like having people hovering over her constantly, but the first time she'd tried to get out of bed by herself to go to the bathroom and had fallen changed her mind. On the days the weather was warm enough, she'd slowly make her way out to the tiny garden outside the kitchen and bask in the sun for an hour or so, Marley and Fiona keeping her company along with whoever was over to visit.

Today, Nele had come over with her son, Fritz, and the three of them were sitting in the sunlight enjoying the last few days of summer. Fritz was sitting on a cushion from one of the chair, leaning against his mother's knee and reading a book of fairy tales that Lilly had given him as a Christmas present. He was as passionate about reading as his mother and grandfather was; given a book or an e-reader, he would sit quietly for hours and lose himself in words and pictures. He was still as rowdy and active as any youngster his age but he was very well mannered and adored Lilly and the cats. Marley was stretched out in the sun at his side while Fiona lay in Nele's lap, eyes half-opened and idly watching the birds fly by.

Lilly was sorting through her stash of glass beads, planning a necklace to match an outfit Khira Li had shown her. She'd mentioned that nothing in her jewelry collection looked good enough to wear with it, so Lilly had told her she'd go through her beads and see what popped up. She'd found enough beads in graduated shades of green and blue to make a necklace of a decent length, and had found a handful of bronze metal beads to alternate to make the necklace a bit longer so Khira Li could double it if she wanted, as well as highlight the greens and blues.

“How are you feeling?” Nele asked, looking up from her book. “You've got most of your color back and you're not as wobbly on your feet as you were a couple days ago.”

“I'm doing okay,” Lilly replied, putting the beads aside and cracking her knuckles. “I'm taking my weight in iron supplements and I've eaten enough red meat to feed half of Germany. Poor Chris, he can barely stand to be in the house when it's steak night. As much as I don't want to admit it, I'm getting a bit tired of red meat!”

Nele laughed, saying, “I can imagine. Right after I had Fritz, I had to take all these vitamins and supplements because I was a bit anemic and I wasn't making enough milk for him. And I didn't have weird cravings when I was pregnant, I had them after. Then I ate so much fruit it wasn't funny. I think I ate a whole orchard's worth of apples in one sitting!”

 “By the way,” Lilly said quietly, after a moment, “thanks for coming over. I know you've got a million other things you need to be doing, and you've got your little buzz bomb here to keep an eye on.” Fritz looked up, grinned, and said, “I like coming over here, Lilly. Mum doesn't mind either.”

 Nele ruffled his hair and gazed down on her son indulgently. “You like to come over because of Marley and Fiona...and because Lilly always has those cookies you like so much!” Fritz simply grinned at his mother and went back to reading. Nele bit back a laugh and went back to paging through the book she'd been reading while Lilly smothered a giggle behind her hand and went back to sorting beads.

 “Nele? Lilly? Fritz? Anyone home?” came Richard's voice from the kitchen. Fritz put the book down and flung himself through the door, yelling “Uncle Reesh! Uncle Reesh!” He pounced on Richard, who made a strangled “oomph!” and caught the boy up, swinging him around and saying, “Hey there, squirt! You're getting so tall, you're gonna be taller than Ollie before we know it!”

 Nele stood up to hug Richard, surreptitiously keeping an eye on Lilly as she struggled a little as she stood up. Richard saw the direction Nele was looking in and quickly moved to hug her, supporting her as she gained her feet.

 ::How are you doing love?:: he asked, feeling her tremble slightly. Tightening his grip on her waist, Richard felt Lilly settle herself a bit more firmly against him before answering. ::I'm...okay. Sitting in the sunlight has done me some good but I'm still cold most of the time:: Lilly replied, basking in Richard's warmth. ::Having Nele and Fritz for the afternoon has been lovely. Where's Christoph? He left early this morning before I was up and didn't tell me where he was going. Was he with you?::

 :: I ran him out to his house so he could pick up his car. He and Constance are visiting a couple of their cousins, and she's going to drop him off here this evening, probably late:: Richard replied, easing Lilly back into her seat and sitting down on one of the stone planters. ::He's still not dealing with his parents turning their backs on him very well::

 “How is Schneider getting along?” Nele asked, tucking her book into her satchel and taking a final sip of her tea. “The last time I saw him, he looked horrible. Dad said his parents disowned him, or something like that?”

 “He has his good and bad days,” Richard replied. “He's with Constance right now, visiting relatives. She's been trying to keep him from confronting their parents but I get the feeling that before the year is out, there's going to be one awful set-to between them and it's not going to be pretty.”

 Nele frowned, eyes going dark like her father's did when he was angry. “I'll never understand people. How can you turn your back on your child like that? I mean, Schneider's not a child any longer; it's his life and his decisions. It's cruel.”

 “I know,” Richard said, plucking a weed from the planter he was perched on and tying it into a knot. “My mom told me through Khira Li that my name is mud in her household for the rest of my days. And to add insult to injury, Khira Li's mother did the same thing. We haven't seen each other in years, much less spoken to one another, and she's pis...er, angry at me.” He caught the amused look in Nele and Lilly's eyes when he managed to choke back the swear word; he did not need Till coming hell bent for leather after him for swearing in front of his grandson.

 “I hope this blows over soon,” Nele said as she packed her things away in her bag and gave Marley and Fiona both pats on the head. “Come on Fritz, we'd better let Richard and Lilly have some private time together.” Fritz hopped to his feet and went to Lilly, who hugged him soundly, then over to Richard who did the same, dropping a noisy kiss on the boy's head. “Behave yourself, all right?” he said.

 Fritz grinned at him as he took his mother's hand. “I will. Or I'll try to.”  Lilly smiled at him and hugged Nele, who ran her hand over her hair and murmured, “Be kind to yourself. Let this pretty boy wait on you hand and foot, okay?”

 “He's doing a good job,” Lilly said just as quietly. “Thank you for keeping an eye on me. You and Fritz, you made my day. If you see your father, tell him we're doing all right for now.”

 “I will,” Nele replied, following Richard through the kitchen door and to the apartment door. Lilly couldn't hear what he said, but she had a good idea that he was thanking Nele for her time, and probably being reminded to take care of her. Closing her eyes, she reached out and found Christoph's presence in their bond, sensing that he was hurting deep inside but being around family who didn't care a tinker's damn about his personal life was helping soothe the ache.

 ::Hey love-of-my-heart:: she said. ::You doing okay or do you need rescuing?::

 ::I'm all right:: Christoph replied, mental voice tired and flat. ::Constance has been a great help, getting me out to visit some of the family that are halfway decent humans, but I'd rather be home with you and Reesh and the girls. I'm more than certain that five seconds after we've left, my parents are going to get rather nasty phone calls from these relatives and oh, to be a fly on the wall!::

 ::It still puzzles me why this has set your parents on their ear:: Lilly said. ::They didn't get too upset when you joined Rammstein, they never said anything about the videos, The Frau, none of that, I'm guessing::

 ::They saw all that as a phase:: Christoph replied bitterly. ::Once the band got big I think they realized I wasn't going to ever have a regular career like they'd wanted me to, so they got used to it. I did get some flak from them over the “Mein Teil” video, but mostly for the scene at the end of the video. And then bringing The Frau back during the “Made In Germany” tour. When they called me out for being in a triad with you and Reesh, I blew up at them, told them how I'd like dressing up like a woman from time to time, how I'd tried to play the red blooded, hetero male and gave up on it. I tried to get them to understand how unhappy I'd been and it went over their heads::

 ::Oh sweetheart:: Lilly sighed. ::Come home soon::

 ::I will:: Christoph murmured, the sensation of a kiss brushing her cheek as his melancholy presence faded into the back of her mind. Richard saw the sad, exhausted look on her face and rushed to her side, folding Lilly into his arms. “Is Christoph all right? Does he need us?”

 “No, not at the moment. He says between his sister and his half-decent relatives he’s doing all right,” Lilly replied, resting her forehead on Richard’s warm, broad chest. “As much as he needs other people supporting him, I’d much rather he be here with us, not out there.”

 Richard made no comment for he felt the same way. Even before the virus changed them all so radically, the six of them had always relied heavily on each other when things went bad. Even when Richard had left to live in New York City, even when they fought like cats and dogs over nothing, even when it seemed that there was no longer any common ground between them, in the end, they’d still turned to each other. And now, knowing how much his heart’s other dearest love was suffering and not being there to help both angered and saddened Richard. He didn’t begrudge Christoph’s sister her time with him but…but.

 “If you don’t mind, I’m going to go back outside for a while,” Lilly said softly. “It’s not too hot today and the sun’s in a perfect spot where I won’t need any more sunscreen. And it’s the perfect light for me to work on Khira Li’s necklace.”

 “Oh, I’d forgotten about that!” Richard said, glad to have something to fix his mind on other than what Christoph was going through and his own agitation. “What did you decide on? Can I see it?”

“Of course you can!” Lilly said with a smile, going back outside and pulling her chair a few feet away from the edge of the garden wall, just enough so the sun wouldn’t be shining fully on her. She held up the containers she had put the beads she’d chosen in for Richard to look at; he plucked one of the bigger, heavier beads out of the mix and held it up to the light. “Whoa, that’s gorgeous! Is it some kind of gemstone?”

“Nope, cracked marbles,” Lilly said. “I saw the how-to video on YouTube one night and decided to try and make some. It’s not hard, you heat a regular glass marble up in the oven, then plunge them into ice cold water to make them crack. I picked out the ones that didn’t break and had a guy who did hand blown glass put the holes in them so I could either string them or make them into hanging beads. I even set a good dozen of them in pendant settings; they’re still wrapped up in tissue paper in my supplies drawer. I’ll get them out later and show them to you, if you want.”

“Absolutely!” Richard said, picking a green bead up and gazing at it in the light. “It looks like there’s a vine growing inside this one.” He handed it to Lilly who took a look and agreed. “It does, doesn’t it? That’s the neat thing about cracked marble, you never know what it’s going to look like.”

“Did you ever think about doing something like this for a living?” Richard asked, after a moment of picking through the beads and admiring them. “You’ve obviously got the talent for it.”

“Nah. This is stuff I did to relax when I was working almost seven days a week,” Lilly replied, screwing the lids onto the containers full of beads to keep curious kitten paws from knocking them over. “I’ve got two full years’ worth of jewelry I made and never did anything with. You’ve seen the drawers all my craft stuff is in; almost all of it is stuff I started and didn’t finish, supplies and kits to start and bits of other things. I could never do that for a living.”

Marley, who had taken over the chair Nele had been sitting in, said, ::You could make Sister and I pretty collars::

“Yeah, I could, couldn’t I?” Lilly said. “I’ll see what I can come up with after I finish Khira Li’s necklace. It’s going to take me a bit of time as I’m going to put knots in between every bead like you do when you string a pearl necklace. If the thread breaks, you won’t lose all the beads, just one.”

“Were you…were you still wanting to go back to work in a hospital?” Richard said as he lifted Marley out of her seat and sat down. “I’m not trying to bring up bad memories or anything, I was just curious.”

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Lilly said. “Not very seriously, mind you. I thought once you boys decided to start putting the new album together, I’d start looking again. I might ask…what’s Till’s girlfriend’s name? Siobhan? I’d ask her if there was anything available where she works.”

“Dunno if I’d call them boyfriend and girlfriend just yet,” Richard snickered. “A blind man could see how hard Till has fallen for her but Siobhan’s not giving in just yet. They’ve been out on a total of four dates, three of which were interrupted when she got an emergency call from her hospital. He said that the last date they went out, they argued for an hour and a half over modern medicine's influence on literature since the 1700’s. And if that’s not a title for a thesis, I don’t know what is!”

“Did she smack him?” Lilly giggled, imagining Till and the feisty Irishwoman arguing with one another in the middle of a fancy restaurant. Her memories of Siobhan were spotty and she didn’t know much about her, only that she was from Ireland and had moved to Berlin to finish her schooling. She had heard, however, that Siobhan had walloped Till several times for being an idiot, and he’d let her.

“Nah, but she threatened to pull his tonsils out through his nose,” Richard replied, his bright laughter echoing off the walls of the garden. “I don’t even know if Till has his tonsils any more but the threat’s a good one!”

:::

By the time Christoph returned to Richard and Lilly’s apartment, he was exhausted and totally wrung out. It was close to midnight and he’d protested his sister driving him clear into the city, instead of dropping him off at his home, but she’d argued him down, saying, “You’re so tired your eyes are starting to cross, your hands are shaking and you haven’t answered the last two things I’ve said.”

“But…”

“You might be my elder brother but that doesn’t mean I can’t kick your ass from here to Leipzig and back,” Constance threatened. “You need to be with Lilly and Richard, not moping around your place. And it’s a lot easier for the press to find, I might add, even if your nearest neighbors do live two miles away.”

Christoph had relented and said nothing more, just laid his head back against the bolster and closed his eyes. After several minutes of silence, he said, “I never thought our parents would do this to me.”

“I didn’t either,” Constance replied, her voice edging on a growl. “All those years with the gay rumors, you guys doing stupid stuff on stage, and they shrugged their shoulders and went on. Do you want to know what I think?”

“Yeah.”

“They probably think you’ll never have kids, since you're with Richard. No matter what they've said otherwise in the past about it, they want grandchildren, biological ones if possible, adopted if not. After all, you're the only in the family who could carry the Schneider name on.”

Christoph muttered to himself as he knuckled his eyes. “Damn them. All right. I’m going to tell you something and please keep it secret. Please.”

“Richard is pregnant?” Constance said, deadpan. Christoph looked wildly at her, made a spluttering sound and began to laugh helplessly, not bothering to stop the tears that streaked over his cheekbones, nor the resultant hiccups he inevitably got. Once he was able to get himself under some control, he gasped out, “No, he’s not! Uh…we’ve talked about it, Lilly, Richard and me. If she can, Lilly’s going to try and have a baby. With me. Eventually. Someday.”

Luckily, the streets that led into Richard’s neighborhood were relatively empty that time of night, for Constance hit the brakes on her car, bringing it to a skidding, squealing halt. She stared at her brother with wide, startled eyes, gaping like a fish on land for several seconds, trying to process what he’d said, when a car behind them honked their horn and startled her into driving again. Once they were out of traffic, she pulled the car into an empty parking spot, threw the ignition into ‘park’ and whirled to face Christoph.

“You…how long were you going to keep this from me?” she said, voice shaky. “It’s not my business but…Christoph, are you sure? You’re not doing this for any selfish reason, and Richard is all right with it?”

At that moment, Christoph dearly wanted to tell his little sister everything that had happened in the past couple of years but he knew it would cause more trouble than it was worth, at least at that moment. Instead, he reached over and took one of her hands, saying, “Not for any selfish reason. And yes, Reesh is perfectly all right with it. Like I said, we talked about everything that could go wrong, every good and bad thing we could think of. And it’s going to work out. I swear it will.”

Constance squeezed his hand and smiled at him through a mist of tears. “I'll be behind you all the way, Chris. Every inch of the way, no matter what, for you, Lilly, Richard and my niece or nephew.”

When he let himself into the apartment several moments later, Christoph paused only long enough to stop by the big couch in the living room that the kittens were asleep on to give them a quick ruffle of their fur and a whispered “Good night,” and kick his shoes off. He stole through the quiet, darkened apartment, shedding his clothes as he went, heading for the bedroom and solace. He slipped into the bed behind Lilly and curled around her sleeping form, burying his face in her hair. He was awake long into the night, thinking over what he'd told Constance, what his family had said, and what the three of them had discussed.

Do I really want to help bring a child into a world like this? Christoph thought. Am I grown up enough to be a good parent to a daughter or son, or am I just wanting this for some stupid reason I'm not admitting to myself? Are any of us ready?

It was close to dawn by the time Christoph managed to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

Summer was languidly easing into Fall; the lush greens and shimmering, hot afternoon skies edging into the bright shades of red, gold, brown and copper slowly replacing the green and the evenings becoming cooler. Richard woke one morning to find every flower and plant in the garden outside the kitchen door rimmed with glistening silver frost. With a head to toe shiver, he decided against going outside with his breakfast coffee and instead wandered into his office where he tapped the space bar on his laptop and brought the Net up to see what was going on in the outside world. He was deeply into reading the news when he felt Till politely 'tapping' at their bond.

::So, how many body parts did you freeze off during your swim this morning?:: he teased, sensing Till's shivering.

::Oh shut up. The water in the pond was just right, I'm shivering because I asked Siobhan if she'd like to come over today and she said yes. To say our last few dates have been one fuck up after another is an understatement. She said she's got the next couple of days free and wanted to get out of the city, so I asked her if she'd like to come out here, maybe drive around the country and she said yes. Reesh...I'm nervous as hell. She's told me all about her family; she's got three brothers that I swear to God could twist me up into a ball without breaking a sweat. If I piss her off too badly, she kinda hinted they'd be more than happy to beat the shit out of me:: Till replied. ::I haven't even met them and they're already wanting my hide nailed to their living room wall!::

Richard couldn't help it, he leaned back in his chair and began snort-laughing. ::Oh Till, you poor, poor thing!:: he laughed, knowing if Till had been in the room he'd be running for his life. As it was, Till 'pinged' him, hard, making Richard yelp and rub the side of his head. ::Come on, Till, it's funny!::

::It. Is. Not. Funny. For the love of little green hamsters, Reesh, put yourself in my shoes!:: Till replied, with some heat. ::And on top of that, she said her father's eager to meet me...and I'm not sure I want to know what their definition of 'eager' is. She said her mom's half in love with Ollie, wants to take Flake home and feed him till he pops, says Paul can't be half Russian because he's too happy, and thinks you and Schneider are cute as puppies. Me? She's, and I quote, “reserving judgment until she meets me.”::

Richard completely lost it at that point. He threw back his head and howled with laughter, more than happy for once that he could pull Till's chain and get away with it. He could feel his best friend's dismay, embarrassment and nervousness, something he didn't see so much these days. It had been quite awhile since he'd dated a woman like Siobhan, especially one that took the title of “ball buster” proudly. Flake had commented that if they were living in ancient times, Siobhan would be up there with the famed Irish warrior queen Boadicea, scaring the shit out of all and sundry that tried to invade her home. Everyone found it amusing that Till was so smitten with Siobhan and was trying his hardest to be on his best behavior around her.

 ::Guess someone showed them the video from “Fish On”?:: Richard said, unable to keep from teasing Till further. ::Or maybe “Pussy”?::

 ::Please do not make me drive over there and wallop you in the head with a brick:: Till replied, somewhat wearily. ::I've been up all night over this. Do you think I should cancel, or maybe...::

 ::If you do I'm going to come over to your house and hit you with a brick! Till, you like Siobhan. She likes you. The only problem here is that you haven't had a woman in your life for a long time that won't take your shit and won't hesitate to call you on it. The only person I know who can boss you around better than your mother is Lilly. I've seen her read you your pedigree up and down and you stand there with your hands behind your back, agreeing with her and looking like a kid who's gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar. You mentioned to Christoph once that you wished there was someone out there like Lilly for you, and I think Siobhan is that person:: Richard replied. ::Look, if you two don't work out, at least you tried. Now go to bed for a couple of hours or you're going to be in no shape to go anywhere, much less show Siobhan around your place::

 Till sighed. ::Okay. And thanks. Do you think I'm being an idiot?::

 ::Not a bit. You're nervous, that's all:: Richard replied affectionately. ::Now, do I need to give you the birds and the bees talk, young man?::

 Till's resulting laughter warmed the bond like sunlight. Without saying another word, he dropped out of the bond, leaving a frisson of mischief and excitement behind him. Richard shook his head, drank the last of his cooling coffee and muttered to himself, “You're head over heels for the girl, my dear Till. You just haven't realized it yet.”

 :::

 Christoph was sprawled across the living room floor at his home, basking in a pool of sunlight as he paged through the strategy manual for his newly-installed copy of “Brutal Doom.” While he could have as easily tabbed through the manual on his laptop, he'd printed the multi-page document out, preferring the printed page over a computer screen. With his glasses shoved up on his head holding his below shoulder-length, thick waves of pure ebony hair back from his face, he looked more like a college student than a nearly fifty year old, world-weary rock star. While he no longer needed the glasses, he used them as a hair band to keep his hair out of his eyes while he made his way through the owner's manual. A CD of fan-created remixes of the songs from the “Made In Germany” album played softly over the house's sound system, creating the perfect background noise for exploring the newest version of his all-time favorite video game.

 He was studying the section on “New Enemies” when his mobile phone chimed into his concentration. He recognized the ring tone as Paul's; without taking his eyes off the manual, he clicked the phone on and held it away from his ear, knowing from experience that Paul tended to be a bit enthusiastic and loud when he was in the middle of creating something. He'd mentioned to Christoph a week previous that his weekend away with Arielle for their anniversary had knocked the cobwebs out of his creativity and had sent him a couple rough versions of some guitar work he'd come up with.

 “Doomie! I mean Schneider! I mean....are you busy? Because if you are I can call back but oh my God, I'm gonna pop if I don't tell you what I've come up with Richard and you didn't tell me that you had the new “Brutal Doom” and if you do we've gotta deathmatch some afternoon and hey I hope I didn't interrupt anything but...”

 “Whoa, Paul!” Christoph snort-laughed. “Take a breath in there somewhere or you're gonna pass out from a lack of oxygen. Yes, I have the new game, I'm reading the manual right now. You'd said something last week about you and Reesh having a brainstorm session soon. I take it what you're babbling about is the result?”

 “I'll e-mail it to you in a minute. Chris, I haven't had this kind of creative fire since the last album!” Paul said happily. “If we can keep this up we'll have the new album out in six months, not six years!”

 “If we do we'll cause heart attacks and strokes throughout the fandom,” Christoph said wryly. “Anything less than a year to get it all done and we'll not only set a new record for us, we'll be responsible for a thousand people dropping dead for no apparent reason.”

 “And we'll get sued again,” Paul replied, just as dryly as he  could. “Oh well. Have you spoken to Ollie lately? Or is this when he was planning to go hiking in the Harz Mountains?”

 Christoph wriggled into a sitting position and tapped his laptop out of 'sleep' mode so he could look at his calendar and not have to move from his spot in the sunlight to check the spiral-bound date book he kept from habit. “Yeah, he left a couple days ago. Haven't heard or felt anything out of the normal from him. Why, is your Spidey-sense bothering you?”

 “Not particularly. I had this weird dream last night that he was talking to a mountain lion. But there's no mountain lions in Germany, they're pretty much confined to North America and Canada,” Paul replied. “I was going to tell him about it for giggles and shits.”

 “What did you eat before you went to bed?” Christoph asked, amused. “Because if I remember right, pizza and anything full of garlic makes you dream weird shit.”

 “That's the thing,” Paul replied. “I didn't. Wait, check that, I did. I had a couple of those molasses-spice cookies that Lilly made. But nothing heavy. Oh well. Besides gaming, have you been up to anything worth discussing?”

 “A little,” Christoph said, rolling over onto his back and shading his eyes from the sunlight with the game manual. “Been listening to some of the music we liked as kids, a couple of the remix albums I got from Ollie, and some other stuff. I've got some ideas but nothing more than a couple minutes of work.”

 “Maybe if you, me and Reesh get together for an afternoon we could come up with something,” Paul replied with a yawn. “Excuse me! I was up late last night. I got to reading a couple of books I borrowed from Lilly and before I knew it, the clock on my phone was saying it was three in the morning and I'd started reading around ten. Then once I got to sleep, I had that weird dream about Ollie and the mountain lion.”

 Christoph snort-laughed at Paul, saying, “Go back to bed, stupid. You're getting punchy---or more than you usually are.”

 “Yeah, you're right. You and Richard figure out when you guys want to get together and I'll be there,” Paul replied, wishing Christoph a good evening and ringing off. Dropping his phone back onto the carpet next to him, Christoph tried to go back to reading but found himself unable to get back into the groove. He sat up with a grunt, twining his hair into a knot at the back of his neck and lifting his arms into a long, bone and joint cracking stretch. Restless, he went into his bedroom, changed into a pair of heavier jeans and sneakers, and pulling a lightweight jacket on, made his way outside and began walking down the road that passed his house.

 The sun was beginning to set over the nearby hills, and the light breeze that ruffled his hair smelled of wood smoke, dying leaves and from farther away, the scent of horses and their barn. He'd walked close to a mile by the time the restlessness had abated, so with a slight smile on his face, he began making his way home. He was close enough to see the backyard of his house when he spotted a car he didn't recognize cruising slowly by his home. Ducking behind a tree, he watched as the car went by, his virus-enhanced senses telling him that the person inside the car wasn't lost, but looking for him, and they weren't exactly nice people.

 He'd had a few fans find his home in the past but they'd always been respectful, something he liked and he knew his neighbors appreciated---and he didn't want to expose them to whatever or whoever was behind the wheel of the black car. Swearing under his breath, he looked up, saw that there was a branch close enough for him to reach, and with a mighty jump, grabbed the branch and swung himself up into the tree. Perched on the branch, he watched the car go by under him, pulling every bit of his 'self' in tightly as not to be seen or sensed physically or psychically.

 What the hell? Christoph thought to himself. I thought we were on safe ground here at home! Anger boiled through his veins as he watched the black car speed up and vanish down the road; he waited several minutes longer before stealing down the tree again. Once on the ground, he took off at a sprint, heading for home and hopefully safety. Not until he was behind locked doors, huddled inside his studio with one of his quarter staffs at his side and a couple of knives from the butcher block did he reach out and find Richard's presence in their bond.

 ::Richard!:: he yelled, trying to keep from worrying his partner but unable to do it. ::Reesh, you aren't out by yourself, are you?::

 ::No, I'm here at the apartment, what's wrong?:: Richard replied. ::What's happened? Are you all right?::

 ::I was out walking and on my way back, I saw this car I didn't recognize in front of my house:: Christoph explained, nausea making his stomach roil. ::The people inside was looking for me.  I thought we were safe here!::

 Richard swore mightily for a moment, then snapped his attention back to Christoph. ::Pack your shit, you're coming back here till we figure out what the hell is going on::

 ::But this is my house!:: Christoph barked. ::These bastards aren't going to chase me out of my own home!::

 ::Baby...please don't argue:: Richard pleaded. :: It'll just be for a couple of days, if that long. We'll get on Managment's ass in the morning, have them talk to the police. We'll come up with something to tell them, all right?::

 ::It's not fair:: Christoph murmured softly. ::I really thought we'd be safe here, that nobody would suss out that we're not wholly human any more::

 ::We don't know that:: Richard replied soothingly. ::Stay put, wherever you are, and I'll be over to get you in a bit. Let me round up Paul and Emil, see if Till's about. Flake's in Scandinavia with Anne, and I know Ollie's unavailable. Okay?::

 ::Okay:: Christoph replied, curling further underneath the quilt he'd snatched from his bed on his way to hide. ::Never thought I'd be hiding from more than overenthusiastic fans and pissed off fathers, yanno?::

 Richard's laugh was brief and tinged with bitterness. ::Me either. I love you, do you understand how much?::

 ::Love you too, Reesh. Let me know when you're close, all right? I don't think you or anyone with you would want six inches of tempered steel in your gut or a chunk of oak upside the head::

 ::That would ruin my day for sure. I'll be there soonish::

 

 

Chapter Text

Till stood on his front porch, arms folded tightly over his chest, eyes narrowed against the bright sunlight, rocking back and forth on his heels every few seconds. If anyone had seen him, they'd swear he was brooding over something but in reality, he was nervous as a cat, for Siobhan had agreed to spending a weekend at his farm. She'd been working seven days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day for a couple of months and had told Till that she needed to get as far away from the city as she could on her precious 4 days off. He'd shyly offered his home as a retreat and her reply had been enthusiastic.

“You, my dear Herr Lindemann, are a lifesaver!” she'd said one evening when she'd had a few moments to sit down and bolt down her dinner as well as spend a few moments on the phone with him. “Do I need to bring anything?”

“Other than yourself and warm clothes, nope,” Till replied, nervously tying a piece of fishing line he'd found stuck inside a book as a bookmark into knots. “The days are supposed to be warm but the evenings are getting chilly, and you're probably not as immune to the cold as I am.”

“You'd be surprised, what with growing up so close to the shore as I did,” Siobhan replied. “But I'm not about to go jumping in your fish pond like you do every morning!” Till had agreed that not many people were as enthusiastic about swimming in a pond when it was cold enough to see your breath, and by the time Siobhan's break had ended, they were both laughing and looking forward to the weekend.

 Now, Till stood in the warm sunlight, forcing his nerves down, feeling the sharp burn of tequila in his gut that he'd knocked back in an attempt to settle himself somewhat. He was a moment from throwing his hands up and going back into the house when a tiny car came puttering down the lane. He took one look at the cheery yellow and scarlet paint job and began snort-laughing, shaking his head in amusement. He had no earthly idea what kind of car it was, and wondered where in the world someone would manage to find paint that bright. The car shimmied to a stop and Siobhan hopped out of the driver's seat, throwing her hands wide and yelling, “Please don't laugh, it's not my car!”

 “Where in the world did you find that...thing?” Till asked, trotting down the stair-steps to greet Siobhan with a hug. “That paint job alone is probably illegal.”

 “One of the doctors I work with restores cars, and this is one of his experiments. I have no clue what she's cobbled together from and the paint job was his daughter's idea. She's roadworthy, goes up hills like a mountain goat and passes big trucks like they're sitting still. Her names Phoebe.”

 Till gave up trying not to laugh and ended up leaning on a nearby tree. “Phoebe? That car has a name? Who names their cars?”

 “Don't tell me you didn't,” Siobhan said, pulling a pair of large duffel bags out of the back of the car and slinging one of it in Till's direction. He managed to catch it despite laughing his head off and began walking back to the house, saying over his shoulder, “I didn't name mine but Schneider named his car 'Lucy.' God only knows why. Come on in, I've got coffee and tea ready and I managed to whip up a cake without covering the entire house in flour.” Siobhan followed him inside, stopping long enough to leave her sneakers at the door and give Till her coat. As she followed him into the kitchen, she commented on how homey and comfortable his house was, from the dark, hardwood floors to the high, arched ceiling that was painted a glowing eggshell color. “This is not what I expected out of you. I figured you'd live in some moldy, freezing, spooky castle with a moat and suits of armor everywhere.”

 “That's my summer house,” Till said, grinning slyly at Siobhan, who made a face and snort-laughed. “What, you don't believe me?”

 “If you were any more full of it, your eyes would be brown,” she countered, taking a seat at the huge table and curling her hands around the mug of tea Till offered her. “You do not know how much I need to be away from that hospital and the people I work with,” she sighed, taking a deep sip of the warm liquid and letting her head drop back against the back of the chair she sat in. Till joined her with his own cup of coffee and handed her a plate with a large chunk of Black Forest cake, a silver fork perched precariously on the edge of the plate. “That bad?”

 “I have had days where I'm not sure if I'm coming or going. I like my job, I like most of the people I work with but not having more than a few hours away from the hospital has worn me down to nothing,” Siobhan replied, nibbling at a forkful of cake. She gave Till a look of amazement and said, “This is great! I figured you were a decent cook but this is really good!”

 “Siobhan, I was a single father for several years and I've been on my own for most of my life. If I didn't know how to cook, I'd starve to death, or die of scurvy or some weird medieval disease,” Till replied with a raised eyebrow. “We're all decent cooks in one degree or another. Ollie and Flake are damn good dessert makers, I'm kinda good with everything. Schneider's our vegetarian, so he comes up with some...err...interesting things, Richard and Paul are “throw it all in the pot and see what happens” kind of cooks.”

 “I'm able to slice bread without cutting my fingers off,” Siobhan said, all but purring over her slice of cake. “My mum, bless her heart, gives me all kinds of grief about not being able to cook well but I tell her I'll either find a delivery service or a good man to cook for me.” She looked over at Till through her thick fringe of black hair, green eyes twinkling. “So far I haven't found either.”

 “Siobhan Danahur, are you flirting with me?” Till asked, all innocence. “I thought your version of flirting was kicking me under the table and hitting me with pillows.”

 “I might be,” she replied, looking as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, an impish grin on her face. Taking a last swallow of her tea, she laid her napkin on her plate and said, “Enough of that. Show me around this gorgeous farm of yours, Till. I need to walk around and breathe air that's not stuffy and antiseptic.”

 “Absolutely,” Till said, collecting the dishes and cups. When Siobhan went to help, he shook his head, saying, “Nope, you're my guest. Go put your shoes and coat on and I'll be out in a second. The dogs might be out; they're all bark unless I say something.”

 “Oh, I didn't know you had dogs!” Siobhan exclaimed. “What are their names, in case we do run into each other?”

 “They're both boys, brothers out of the same litter. The brindle is Oscar and the all black one is Thor. A friend of mine volunteers with a rescue society in Schwerin and they were the last two puppies. It was so sad, no one wanted them. He was going to take them home but I took one look at them and it was love at first sight. They're good boys, just a bit enthusiastic. I have no clue what breed they are, probably a mix of shepherd and hound, as far as I can tell,” Till said, stowing the dishes in the sink and following Siobhan to the front of the house, sneakily admiring the way she moved in her tight jeans and thick sweater, both a faded shade of blue and black. Her black hair was slicked back, away from her face to show off her high cheekbones and the tiny silver hoops she had in her ears. When she sensed Till watching her, she turned around and smiled gently at him, the smile growing wider when she saw him blush scarlet clear to his scalp.

 “I'm not that interesting, Till,” she said. “I'm just a doctor, albeit one that's only half human. Nothing really special.”

 “Oh but you are,” Till breathed, slowly reaching out to brush a strand of her glossy hair back from her eyes. “You caught my attention the second you walked into that bar back in Ireland and I've been thinking of you ever since.”

 Siobhan closed her eyes and rested her hands on his chest, not pushing him away but not allowing him any closer. “Let's see what the weekend brings, yes? You're wanting to jump hurdles when you're not quite learned in how to jump tiny fences.”

 “What is it with you Irish people and horses?” Till snorted, pushing the front door open and stepping onto the porch behind Siobhan. “Just about every Irish person I've met has some kind of thing for horses, even if it's thinking they're pretty.”

 “Well, some say it's because Mannan MacLir, God of the ocean, created horses from the first waves that broke upon the beaches of Ireland at the beginning of the world. Both sides of my family have had their hands in the horse business for years; I'm the first child who didn't go into veterinary medicine. My sisters and brothers did.”

 “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” Till asked as they made their way across the lush, green lawn and past the huge garden, now ready for the last harvest before autumn's kiss brought their growing time to an end. Siobhan began to speak when the sound of happy barking came from their right. A pair of large dogs came galloping out of the forest, stopping only when Till shouted something in German that she didn't catch. They sat down in front of him with a sneeze and a last bark, watching Till and waiting for him to speak. Stepping to the side, he said, “Oscar, Thor, this is Siobhan. She's a friend.” Both dogs seemed to give her the once over, and sensing that she was friend not foe, laid down on their stomachs and gave her doggy grins.

 “Hello boys. You're quite handsome,” Siobhan said, nodding to each of the dogs. She held a hand out for them to sniff, and once this was done, they flanked her, pushing Till out of the way. “Oh, so that's how it is, now?” Till mock-scolded, ruffling Oscar's ears. The dog seemed to give him a look that said “But of course!” and matched his stride to Siobhan's. Till rolled his eyes and said nothing, just laughed to himself.

 The four of them spent the rest of the afternoon wandering all over the farm, stopping occasionally to admire the view or take a moment's rest. Oscar and Thor made their own little side trips along the way, always returning with wagging tails and happy faces. Till could sense that the second they'd entered the huge, wild wood that bordered the paddock that Siobhan's tension began to fade. For all that she seemed someone who'd never feel comfortable outside the city, he could see that she was just like him. She was more alive here, less civilized, and the notion that she might be the woman he'd been looking for made him dizzy. He was only half listening when Siobhan said, “You asked how many brothers and sisters I have; I have five brothers and three sisters. I’m the baby of the family. Mum said she wanted to call me “Quits” when she found out she was pregnant with me.”

 Till turned around, somewhat confused at the change in conversation. He looked at Siobhan, one eyebrow cocked and puzzled, until she said, “Are you all right? You look like I’d suddenly started chanting and waving my arms around.”

 “Uh, it’s nothing. Ten kids? Damn, I would have gone insane with that many siblings around. I have an older sister, and five unofficial brothers that try my patience on a regular basis.”

 Siobhan laughed at Till as she reached over to pat his shoulder. “And I’m sure you try their patience, Till. It’s nice having older siblings but they can be quite overprotective at times, which is why I’m glad I’m here and not back home. They’d have swarmed you like bees over a flower, asking you a hundred questions about your intentions towards me, especially my brother Declan. He’s as tall as Ollie and built like a bloody tank.”

 By this time, they’d come to a spot in the path that wound through the woods that was blocked by a fallen tree. Till had intended to come out and cut it into bits so the path could be used again, but for now, its sturdy, nearly flat side that was facing up made a perfect place to stop and sit down. Gesturing for Siobhan to sit, he joined her, cautiously reaching for her hand. When she didn’t pull away or smack him, Till took a deep breath and said, “I’m usually a little more…uhm…forward about things. I didn’t just ask you out here so you could get away from the city for a few days. If you…if you’re…I’d really like to…”

 Siobhan leaned over and grabbed the back of Till’s neck, pulling him towards her before he could be startled and move away. “The answer is yes. And right here, right now would be lovely,” she breathed against his lips, before pressing a hot, needy kiss to them. Till almost bit his tongue in surprise, collected himself and returned the kiss, pulling Siobhan closer and clenching the back of her coat. When they separated to catch their breath, she laid a hand on Till's cheek and said, “Will you let me in? Or is it too early for that?”

 Till slowly, carefully, let his shielding down, watching the world around him for any signs of something (or someone) that shouldn't be there. He could sense Siobhan watching as well, waiting for him to let her know it was all right for her to reach out and let their minds mesh. As soon as his shields were down, he closed his eyes and reached out, holding his breath, and waited.

 ::OH!:: Siobhan exclaimed, her mental voice like a cold spray of sea water scented with rosemary and lemon balm across Till's mental landscape. ::Goddess, I've never seen anything like this! You 'see' each other like this? This is so awesome!::

 ::You mean you and your family aren't linked like this?:: Till asked, ardor muffled with surprise and curiosity. ::This is the way I've---we've---always 'seen' one another.  Lilly says each of us has a specific 'scent' to our links; I haven't quite grasped what they are yet::

 ::And all of this is due to a virus?::

 Till nodded, cautiously exploring being in a link with someone not of the original seven of them. ::The working theory is we all had a talent or talents all along, and for some reason the virus that Lilly and Richard were infected with woke them up. We're all telepathic with each other, empaths to one degree or another, and we can 'feed' each other physical and mental energy. Paul and Ollie are the absolute best at it. Flake can 'read' the history of anything he touches and he's got a photographic memory. Schneider is telekinetic and found out not long ago that he's some kind of soul healer type.  I've got an affinity with fire and water, Richard and Paul only have the fire affinity. Which is good, considering our show. And Richard...well...he's a necromancer.::

 “A what?” Siobhan said aloud, her hands suddenly clamping down on Till's. “Do you know how bloody rare a gift that is? I hope to all the saints that someone gave him a very intensive training on that, because necromancers tend to either go mad or misuse their gift!”

 “Oh, he got a very good education in that, let me tell you,” Till replied with a snort. “You'll have to let him tell the story, it's quite a good one.”

 “So what about Lilly, Paul's wife and Richard's daughter? What can they do?”

 “Lilly has all the talents we do; her empathy is damned strong and it's given her trouble in the past even though she taught me how to leash mine before I went insane from hearing every living thing's thoughts. She doesn't have any kind of water or fire talents that I know of. She can sense what talents a person has the potential to use and she can 'wake' them up. Paul's wife, Arielle, has the same exact talents as Paul does except she can work with water only. And Khira Li...I don't know what she can do yet,” Till explained, absently running his hand over Siobhan's knee. “It's been a rough road and there's been times that I'd gladly chuck it all and be normal again. But you've seen how the virus has changed us, none of us look a day over twenty, all of our screwed up bones and joints are brand new and more than likely, we're going to live quite a lot longer than we would have. And that's a decent trade off as far as I'm concerned.”

 Siobhan put her head on Till's shoulder with a happy sigh. “I'm sure once I get to know everyone better they'll tell me their stories. Now, if you're still so inclined, I'd like to pick up where we left off.” Till laughed softly and turned to kiss Siobhan again, this time letting her mind touch his first. Need, lust and curiosity bloomed between them; Till stopped long enough to murmur a few words to the dogs for them to go and wait for them at home. Siobhan moaned softly as his warm, strong hands slid up under her sweater and over her breasts, down along her spine and skated the waistband of her jeans. She hadn't been with a man in a long time, much less one who had the same mental talent as she did, and the sensations flooding her heart and mind were almost overwhelming.

 Till wanted to howl his delight to the skies. While he had an idea what being with a psychically-gifted person was like thanks to the links he shared with the others, it was nothing like the real thing. Siobhan's mental landscape was barely tamed and as fierce as a winter storm over the ocean. Headstrong, proud and humble at the same time, she reveled in her uniqueness, and had only shown her hard, stubborn side as a way to keep others at arm's length until she had determined if they would be safe to befriend and not betray her or her family. She had cried herself to sleep many nights, jealous of the relationships her siblings, relatives and friends had with their loves, and had cried even more so since she'd met Till. She had wanted desperately for their friendship to work out, sensing a kindred spirit, and had hoped that perhaps that friendship would blossom into something else.

 “Don't cry lovely one,” Till murmured, brushing a tear from Siobhan's face. “I'm here, you're here and it's all right.” Siobhan's reply was purely mental; she dragged Till into her psychic landscape as she tore his clothes from him, hers following behind. By the time he realized what was happening, she was kneeling before him, bare skin dappled with shadows and light, the scent of her perfume and arousal heavy on the air. Till clasped her hips in his hands and plunged into her as deep as he could go, his breath stolen by her tight, burning heat that locked around his flesh and wouldn't set him free. Urged on by her choked off, breathy moans and her mind screaming his name, Till loved Siobhan with everything he had, barely able to keep his fangs and claws sheathed. He didn't want to hurt her but it was so, so difficult not to give in and mark her as the beast inside him wanted.

 “I know what you want,” Siobhan cried, arching her back and pushing herself as far into Till's lap as he could. “Please, oh Goddess, please Till, bite me, scratch me, mark me, make me yours...”

 ::I don't want to hurt you!::

 ::You won't, Mo chride, A rúnsearc, A rún mo chroí...::

 Till bared his teeth, growled softly and nuzzled Siobhan's neck, licking her sweat-damp flesh and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He felt her rushing towards her peak, and the second he senses she was lost in her hunger, bit down close to her jugular vein hard enough to barely break skin but enough to bruise. His nails dug tiny holes in the flesh of her hips; he clung to his mate as she went over her peak, pulling Till along with her. He couldn't do more than breathlessly whisper her name and hold Siobhan in his arms; they collapsed to the mossy forest floor, sweaty and shaking.

 ::Sweetheart, are you all right?:: Till finally managed to ask.

 ::If that's what sex with you is like normally, I think I could get to liking you quite a bit!:: Siobhan replied, giggling softly when Till kissed the back of her neck and shoulders. They eventually untangled themselves and dressed quickly against the evening's oncoming chill. Hand in hand, they lazily made their way back to the house, the dogs acting as if they hadn't seen the humans in years. Siobhan fed them as Till carried her duffel bags to his bedroom, and once the dogs were taken care of, he led her into the bathroom where they showered together, playing in the steam and soapsuds like children. Clean, warm and dry, Till carried Siobhan to his bed and curled around her, a soft smile on his face as he drifted off to sleep.

 

Chapter Text

It's three in the morning and I'm wide awake, watching the largest moon I've ever seen travel slowly across the pitch-black sky. Tucked up in a warm feather bed, sweet-scented blankets pulled to my chin and a banked fire burning in the little fireplace across the room, you'd think I'd be out like a light but I'm too wired to fall back to sleep. Between the events of the other morning and the result curled up beside me in bed, I'm not going to find sleep till sunrise, if then. I look over my shoulder and can't keep the smile from my face. I've had my share of gorgeous women in my bed but this one is oh so special in more ways than one. From her warm, golden skin to her leaf-green eyes, to her thick mane of reddish blonde hair that falls over her face as she sleeps, this woman has caught my heart like no other. She makes a purring noise in her dreams and rolls over on her back, the combined moon and firelight making her skin glisten; she opens her eyes and for a second, her eyes reflect the light like a cat's.

 Which makes sense, because this pretty woman lying next to me is the first shapeshifter I've ever met, a feline shifter, to be precise. She wakes fully at last and turns to me, pressing little kisses and nips up my arm, over my shoulder and neck. “Can't sleep?” she asks, her German very much like Richard's, well-flavored with an American accent. “I didn't wake you up, did I?”

 I wriggle about so I can kiss her properly and nuzzle her soft, herbal shampoo scented hair. “No, I was just watching the moon...and you.” She laughs softly and slips her arm around my waist, pulling me closer so she can nip my chin and lower lip. “If you're not sleepy, would you be interested in another tumble in the sheets?”

 “Oh, I could be persuaded,” I reply, kissing her again, feeling her silky skin against mine, her sharp-nailed fingers carefully drawing patterns on my shoulders and chest as I urge her to lie on top of me. We fit together so well, both physically and emotionally. So much more than any woman has with me, even the mother of my daughter, Emma. No one has dug a hole in my heart and settled in like we were together from the beginning like this woman has. I want to cry but I don't; instead I focus on my feline-beautiful partner, losing myself in her scent, our scent, the tiny noises she makes as I push up into her, the way she purrs as we make love, and the way she breathily calls out my name.

 When we are sated and sleepy, I say, “Stay with me.”

 “Well, I don't intend on going anywhere at the moment, it's almost five in the morning,” she replies, cuddling me to her. I make a rude noise and say, “Longer than that. Stay here in Germany with me.”

 “Ollie, you know I can't,” she replies, a hint of sadness and regret in her voice. “I'm only here for two more days then I have to go home. I've got so much shit going on in my life, this was only a short vacation. I'd love to but I can't.”

 “Please...please, Amelia. I'll do anything if you'll stay,” I beg, biting my lip to keep the tears at bay. I hate crying but right now I want to cry until I can't anymore. I'll literally do anything to keep this woman with me and I mean it. Amelia sighs and sniffles, resting her chin on the top of my head. “Ollie, I want to, believe me. But you know my job is quite important to me and so is my family. Why can't you come spend time with me?”

 “Because we're right at the beginning of working on the new album,” I say. “But...I'll figure something out, promise,” I murmur. It's not much of an answer but right now it's all I have. Amelia has nothing to offer and soon drifts off, leaving me to stare dry-eyed into the night.

 :::

The Harz Mountains in the fall are some of the loveliest country I'd ever seen and I'd promised myself multiple times over the years that I'd return someday to camp out in its autumn splendor, if only for a day or two. Till, Richard and I camped out in these mountains several years ago, only in the middle of spring, and we had a blast. Anyone who thinks Richard is a spoilt diva has never seen him on a camping trip, he completely lets himself go and gets scruffy, messy haired and as dirty as he can get. He's hilarious and one of the best hiking companions you can ask for, besides Till. We camped out for a week and a half, three of us stuffed into a tent meant for two people, washed up in a stream coming from the mountains that was so cold even Till would hop in and out of it with a shriek, ate like we were starving and the last night we were out, laid out under the stars, sharing a bottle of wine that Richard had hidden in his backpack. I had so many pictures from that trip, it took me well over two months to get them all looked over and printed out.

 I'd been lucky to get a reservation at the tiny hotel at the base of the mountains; it was one of the popular ones and I'd decided on the trip at the last moment. The time for us to get together and start throwing ideas around for the next album was only a week or so away and I figured a couple days in the mountains would clear my head and put me in a good mood for working. Our last album had been both a lot of fun but a holy terror to do and there was no way I wanted to go through that again. We said that every album, though. So I packed up my car with everything I needed and a bit more, and on a bright, cloudless morning, set off for the town of Thale. It was a gorgeous place, and the drive from the edges of Berlin to the mountains had my spirits light as air in no time. I checked in shortly after noon, dropped my stuff off, and wandered through the city until evening came, playing the tourist and loving every second of it. It was wonderful to be anonymous, not one person came up to me and said “You're the bass player from Rammstein!”

 That night as I was stretched out on my bed, flipping through my copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, something 'tickled' me in the back of my mind. I didn't recognize what or who it was and clamped my shields down hard and tight, feeling the faintest sheen of sweat break out all over me. The 'touch' was human and not at the same time, the unknown part so elusive I couldn't even begin to figure it out. Moving as quietly as I could, I reached down and found my backpack where I'd dropped it next to the bed and worked the pair of knives Till had given me for a Christmas present several years before. They were much nicer than the folding knives I'd carried for years on my hiking trips, stayed sharp even with little maintenance, and I'd found out by accident that they were perfectly balanced for throwing. I didn't want to lose them if I had to throw them but better they end up saving my skin than not. Huddled up against the headboard, I strained my ears to see if I could hear anything outside my room or outside the hotel and let a tiny bit of my shielding down.

 Nothing. Not even the faint whisperings of the local animal life. Disgruntled, I stowed the knives back in their pockets, and flopped back into the bedclothes, irritated that I'd overreacted and lost my place in the story. I couldn't get back into reading again, so I got ready for bed, but not before making doubly sure all the windows were securely locked, as well as the door. I was really tired, so sleep came quickly but not the memory of the 'tickle' I'd felt.

 The next morning, I decided to eat breakfast at one of the pretty little shops just down the street from where I was staying. As I was walking back to the hotel to pick up my gear and head up one of the many hiking trails, a flash of that mysterious mental ‘tickle’ hit me hard, making me stumble slightly. I caught myself against a post, disoriented and confused, and when I looked up again, my eyes locked with those of a lovely woman standing across the street from me. She was about Paul's height, maybe a bit shorter, her reddish-blonde hair back in a tail that flickered against her shoulders when she moved. She had on baggy trousers and a sweater over a shirt, a lightweight jacket tied around her hips, with sturdy hiking shoes on her feet, all in shades of grey and dun. Even with the clothes hiding her form, I could tell she was muscular and graceful in the way of a dancer or someone who did martial arts. We stared at each other for a couple seconds, then I had to look away, my usual shyness making me blush. When I looked up again, she was gone and I cursed my stupidity all the way back to the hotel.

 The trail that I chose ran along the Bode River and from the way the trail was trampled down, it was a popular one. I wandered along, taking the occasional picture, stopping every so often to look at a bird or whatever caught my eye at that moment. I wasn't in any hurry; if I didn't reach the end of the trail before it was time to turn back, I didn't mind. I met few people along the way; by the time I reached the halfway mark, it felt like I was the only person in the world. I found a shady nook at the side of the river where it thundered over the rocks and made a deep pool at the foot of the falls nearby, and sat down to eat the lunch I'd bought at the cafe on my way back to the hotel. I was comfortable and somewhat sleepy, which meant that if I wasn't careful, I'd drop right off to sleep which wasn't safe. It wasn't unusual to run into animals larger than a squirrel, but I had no intention of meeting them. However, I was dog-tired from getting half-scared out of my wits the night before, the warm sunlight and delicious lunch made me even sleepier, and before I could catch myself, I was resting my head against my backpack, hat pulled over my eyes to block the sun.

 I don't know what woke me; I couldn't have been asleep that long. As I came up from a deep sleep, an awful smell came flowing into my nose, making me cough and gag. Something told me to move slowly and carefully; I peeked out from under my hat and saw why. Not fifty meters from where I was curled up and hidden by a pile of rocks, was the biggest black bear I'd ever seen. It was pawing through the leaf litter, making little grunting noises, and it seemed like it was paying no attention to me. I knew better; Till had told me bears were always aware of what was around them and I'd be lucky if it went on its way and left me alone, especially if it was hungry. I watched it search for food for several minutes, trying to figure out how to slip away unnoticed, when it turned around and I could see its face.

 White streaked with red foam was running down its muzzle, obviously the source of the stench that had woken me up. I knew without any other signs that the poor thing was rabid, and that upped the danger potential of my situation. Rabid animals were unpredictable in the first place, a rabid bear more so than others. I didn't know if I could 'blur' its sight the way I could a human's but it was worth a try. Making sure I had everything packed away and ready to go, I pulled my knives out of the backpack and secured them on my belt. Taking a deep breath, I reached out and delicately brushed the edge of the bear's mind.

 The bear reared up on its hind legs and made a noise that was half growl, half scream. Its tiny eyes gleamed with madness and I knew my touch had pushed it over the edge into mindless rage. Hoping I was a bit faster than it was, I burst out of my hiding place and began running as fast as I could down the trail. I tried to think if I'd seen any places that I could get to fast, like a cave or a shallow water crossing, but my brain wasn't cooperating, it was babbling at me a mile a minute on how stupid I was being. There was no way on this earth I could outrun a bear, even with being a Changeling, and the bear's violent response to that tiny touch said its mind was so far gone nothing I did psychically would help. I could hear it crashing through the brush behind me, growing closer by the moment.

 And that's when disaster hit. I tripped over my own feet and went tumbling down the path, coming to rest at the edge of a steep cliff that ended in sharp rocks at the bottom. If the fall onto the rocks didn't kill you, the climb back up might. Gasping at how close I'd come to falling over the edge, I totally forgot about the bear...until I heard it scream at me. It was galloping towards me, red rage in its eyes, everything about it telegraphing its need to tear me into small pieces and then eat me. I tried to remember what I knew about rabid bears but nothing came to mind. I grabbed my knives and got to my feet, testing their weight in my hands and hoping that I could put one in the bear's eye before it got to me. It was close enough to me when it stopped, went to all fours and began walking towards me very, very slowly, as if it knew I had no way out other than over the edge. It was growling constantly at me now, saliva dripping rank and bloody to the ground, its eyes swollen and completely insane.

 I lifted my right hand up slowly, measuring distances, the wind and how close the bear was, and sent the knife flying swiftly into its right eye. The bear reared up, screaming and pawing at its bloody, mangled eye socket, and when landed on all fours again, it came at me like a shot. I threw my second knife and managed to bury it in the bear's muscular shoulder but that didn't slow the damn thing down one bit. Helpless, scared out of my mind and knowing my death was on its way, I closed my eyes, not wanting to see how I was going to die.

 Oh my friends, my brothers, I am so sorry... I thought. Lilly, Arielle, all you ladies, my little girl, I'm so sorry...

 And then I heard something I hadn't heard since I'd vacationed in the Appalachian Mountains several years ago---the blood curdling scream of a mountain lion. Once you hear it, you never forget it. There were no big cats like it in the mountains here, the biggest feline predator being the lynx, and a lynx does not scream like that.

 My eyes popped open and I looked up to see the tawny form of a full grown mountain lion hurtling down the path where it hit the rabid bear in the side and sent it tumbling away from me. The bear got to its feet and flung itself at the big cat, who evaded its filthy claws and teeth with little effort. It slowly drew the bear away from me and the moment I saw an opening, I dashed by the combatants and halfway down the path where I stopped and turned to see the fight. Once I was safely away, or so it seemed, the mountain lion began circling the bear, swatting at it and pushing it closer and closer to the edge of the cliff. The dirt at the edge began crumbling away under the bear's weight; I could see that in a moment or two the edge would collapse completely, taking the bear with it. I held my breath, feeling deeply sorry for the bear, scared that the big cat would turn on me next and fascinated by the fight going on in front of me.

 Suddenly, the cliff edge let go and the bear went with it, its death scream loud enough to be heard miles away. The mountain lion was fast, but not fast enough as the cliff edge began to crumple, causing it to try and scramble away from the edge. I didn't need Paul's ability to see the future that the cat would be the next to fall to its doom; I was already running before I thought of how dangerous the cat would be. A second before the dirt and rocks let go, I threw myself at the big cat and knocked it away from the ledge, sending us tumbling across the forest floor, safely away from disaster. The cat hit its head on a log and was stunned, I hit my head on its muscular shoulder and I saw stars. We lay there in the leaf litter, groggy, and in my case, panicking because I knew I wasn't steady enough to get up and run from the lion. Right from the frying pan into the fire!

 And that's when things got even stranger. The lion began shivering all over, head thrown back in a soundless scream as it writhed in the dead leaves. I tried to back away but I was frozen in place, an unnameable force keeping me glued to the ground. The lion moaned in pain, the sound so human it almost made me sick. With one final convulsion that seemed to tear skin from bone, the lion's gold and dun form rippled and became that of a naked woman. Shocked, I stared at her, trying to realize that she and the lioness who'd saved my life were one and the same. I crawled to her side, hoping that she wasn't hurt and when I rolled her over, I got the second shock of the day, for it was the same woman I'd seen earlier that day in the marketplace!

 We stared at each other for what seemed like forever, her gorgeous eyes full of pain and terror, obviously groggy from hitting her head. I pulled my long-sleeved shirt off and wrapped it around her not out of any idea of modesty but because the forest floor was cold and she'd begun to shiver. I helped her to sit up and lean on the log she'd collided with, after a few minutes she seemed more alert and had stopped shivering. She looked up at me with the loveliest leaf-green eyes I'd ever seen and said slowly, “Spreicht du Englich?

 “Ja. Spreicht du Deusch?

 “Yes, well enough to get by,” she said. Her voice was low, somewhat husky and tinged with a hint of an American accent which made her German interesting to listen to. It reminded me a lot of the way Richard sounded since he'd returned from America and hadn't lost that touch of an American accent he'd acquired. She smiled at me, a blush heating her cheeks and said, “I'm Amelia Tyler. I think I know you...uh...Ollie. Oliver Riedel, am I right?”

 I nodded and said, “That's me. I've met fans in some strange places but this has to be the weirdest of them all!” Amelia smiled shyly at me and said, “I can imagine. Uh, it's getting cold and I'd really like to get dressed. My clothes are in a blue backpack not far up the trail, can you get them for me, please? I promise to tell you everything as soon as I've got some clothes on.”

 “Sure, I'll be right back,” I replied and ran up the path, finding the backpack wedged into the crotch of a tree. I had it down in seconds and was back within a couple minutes to find Amelia sitting on the log, dressed in my shirt which made a lovely dress on her. I could tell she was quite cold for there was a pale blue tinge on her lips and toes; I handed her the pack and said, “I'll turn around, okay?” Rustling noises and the occasional muttered curse word told me she was dressing; she soon spoke my name and I turned back around as she was putting her hair up.

 “I owe you an explanation,” she said quietly, sitting back down again. From the way she moved so stiffly, I knew I'd hit her pretty hard and she'd landed roughly. “Shit, but I haven't hurt so much after a shift in a long time. I'm out of practice shifting back and forth so fast.”

 “Well, my hitting you like a freight train to keep you from going over the edge of that cliff along with that rabid bear couldn't have helped a lot,” I replied. “It's going to get colder soon, if I help you along, do you think you could walk?” Amelia nodded and let me help her to her feet, wincing and hissing all the way. Once she was steady on her feet, we began making our way down the path, slowly. She had to stop several times to catch her breath against the pain she was in; I asked her if aspirin would help but she shook her head no. “Shifting pain doesn't last long but until it fades, it's a bitch. I'll be all right in a little while.” By the time we reached the trail's starting point, I had my arm around her waist, guiding her along as well as helping her stay upright. There was a conveniently placed bench nearby and I helped her to it, her painful sigh telling me she was at the end of her strength.

 “I'm not looking forward to walking back to my hotel,” she said with a grunt, pressing a fist into her back. “It's not far but the way I'm feeling I could lie down here in the middle of the street and not mind if someone ran me over.”

“Where are you staying?” I asked. When she told me the name of her hotel I smiled and said, “I'm staying there too. Sit tight, I'll go get my car and take you back there. Will you be okay, it might take me twenty minutes at the least.”

 “I'll be fine,” Amelia said, reaching out and taking one of my hands. “You're my knight in shining armor, Ollie. I'm not going anywhere.” She gave me a brilliant smile that warmed my heart (and other parts of me) and I was off, running back to the hotel at top speed to collect my car and get back to her as fast as I could.

 When I got back, Amelia was cradling a cup of what turned out to be hot chocolate that she'd gotten from a nearby street vendor; the rich, sweet scent of the drink filling my nose and chasing away the last of the rabid bear's stench. Her color was much better and she wasn't trembling any more, but I could tell she was still sore. I got her settled in the car and had us back to the hotel in half an hour, where I helped her out again and carried her gear to her room, which was coincidentally right across the hall from mine. Once inside, she slowly dropped onto the bed with a groan. “Dear Lord, I am so racked up I'm going to be days getting unknotted. And I thought I was in better shape than that.”

 “Is there anything I can do?” I asked. Amelia rolled on her side to look at me and said, “I've got a half full jar of bath salts in the bathroom. Could you run me a really hot bath and throw those in?”

 “Sure. Too bad there's no hot tub or sauna here, those would do you a world of good. I've got something a bit stronger than aspirin, if you don't think the aspirin is going to be enough,” I said, going into the en-suite bathroom and turning the water on in the huge tub. As it filled with hot water, I found the jar of bath salts she was talking about and tossed them into the water, the sweet scent of mint and the sharper tang of eucalyptus filling the small room. They dissolved quickly, turning the water a milky green color with a veil of white foam over top. I went back out and found Amelia wrapped in a fluffy white bathrobe, half-curled up in the overstuffed chair by the bed. “Right about now I'd take medicine from the devil himself if it made me stop hurting,” she said. I still had my backpack with me and found the tin with the pain medicine Lilly had found that worked on us Changelings and selected two of the tablets, snagging a bottle of water out of her pack on the way.

 “This is what I take when the regular stuff won't do the trick,” I said. “Prescription only from my doctor and you can only take 4 pills a day or you'll get horribly sick.” I handed Amelia the pills and water; once they were down she gave me a grateful smile. “Thank you for everything.”

 “I should be thanking you a hundred times over!” I said. “I was going to be eaten by a rabid bear, after all.”

 Amelia made a face as she stood up, wincing at her over-strained muscles. “It’s a good thing I was late getting started on my hike,” she said. “I saw the bear going through the trees but I didn’t think it was close enough to cause any problems. I heard it crashing through the brush, saw you running hell bent for leather past where I was sitting and…well, shifting was the only thing I could think of doing.” She turned to me and said quietly, “You haven't said anything about that.”

 “I...I'm not going to say anything to the person that saved my life just now,” I replied. I so wanted to tell her my own secret but I bit my tongue. Instead, I smiled at her and said, “I won't tell anyone, I promise. Besides, I'm a rock star, I'm used to seeing strange things.”

 “Are...are you sure?” Amelia asked, her skin paling under her light tan. “Look, I need to get in that hot water before I stiffen up any more. I'll tell you about myself, but it'll have to wait.”

 “Not a problem,” I said, standing up and taking her arm. “At least let me help you into the bathroom, you're going to fall over if I don't.” Amelia smiled up at me and let me guide her into the steamy bathroom, closing the door behind me as I went back into her room. “I'll be back in a bit,” I called over my shoulder, heading back to my room to clean up and give Amelia some privacy. My fingers tingled from touching her arm; I didn't know if it was an aftereffect of whatever power she used to shift, my talents recognizing someone like myself or what, but I knew she wasn't the source of the weird 'tickle' I'd felt earlier.  With a sigh, I stripped out of my dirty gear and got into the shower, wondering what I was getting myself into.

 I was drying off when I heard a tap at the door, followed by Amelia saying, “Ollie? Can I come in?”

 “Give me a second,” I called, dashing out of the bathroom and struggling into the first clean pair of pants and a shirt I put my hand on. Taking a deep breath and settling myself, I opened the door and saw Amelia standing there, hair pulled away from her face and dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, the pale pink material setting her beautiful green eyes and glowing skin off beautifully. “Come in,” I said, stepping aside, her perfume teasing my nose and putting a shiver up my back. She smelled like spices and a dusky musk with a hint of the bath salts she'd used.

 “So, I owe you an explanation,” Amelia said, sitting down on the couch and waiting for me to find my own seat. “You promise you won't tell anyone about me?”

 “And I said I wouldn't,” I growled, fixing her with a glare that made her sit up straighter and watch me warily. She pulled her legs up underneath her, folded her hands into her lap and said, “Okay. I'm sorry about that. I come from a family of cat-shifters in the States. We're mostly in the Appalachian Mountains, but we have clans up in New York state, out West and a few in Canada. I came over here to meet with a group of shifters from Europe and when I was done, I decided to take a few days off before I went home. I'd always wanted to see these mountains, so I took a chance that I'd be able to get a room here at the hotel, packed my stuff up and here I am.”

 “How many kinds of shifters are there in the world?” I asked, leaning forward in excitement. “Are they just feline, or are there bear shifters, canine shifters...”

 “Whoa, Ollie!” Amelia said, holding her hands up with a laugh. “You're going a mile a minute there and my German's a little rusty. You want to know about us? You're...you're serious.”

 Embarrassed at myself, I blushed and looked at the floor. “Sorry about that,” I said, switching to English. “Yes, I'm serious. I've always been fascinated by stories of people being able to change into animals and...well, do you blame me?”

 “Not a bit. What do you want to know?” Amelia said, relaxing back into her seat. With the last rays of the sun's light shining on her hair and turning it shimmering red, making her skin glow and deepening the green of her eyes, she was the most gorgeous woman I'd seen in a long time. “What, what is it?” she asked, looking curiously at me.

 “No...nothing,” I said, trying not to blush. Amelia reached over and tipped my face up to make me look at her...and I was lost. Lost in those green eyes, lost in her scent, her lovely voice and the magic that she used to shift into her mountain lion form. “Uh...where are your people from?” I stammered.

Amelia smiled slyly at me and sat back in her seat, knowing exactly what effect she'd had on me. “We're a combination of Native American, First Nations and some from Ireland and Scotland. That much I know. We're born this way, we can't turn anyone into a shifter by biting them like the legends say we can. My great-uncle and his wife keep all the information about our families but I've never taken the time to read through all of them. They were the ones who asked me to meet with the European shifters, to see who we might have in common and exchange information,” she said. “We've lived alongside humans for thousands of years, and no one's the wiser.”

 “How have you managed to stay under the radar?” I asked, thinking of our own struggle to keep what we were secret. “If some government agency found out...”

 “Hiding in plain sight and being more paranoid than the average conspiracy theory nut,” Amelia said.  “We learn from the time we're old enough to understand that we have to keep what we are secret, how to keep our shifting skills under control so we don't accidentally shift under pressure. Among other things.”

 “Doesn't it get old?”

 “Well, it's either that or end up in a laboratory somewhere. We try to live as normal of a life as we can and we're close-knit. It's not bad,” Amelia said, reaching back to let her hair out of its tail. “We don't have kids or marry outside of our clans...not often. Too much paperwork.” She tried to smile but it faded as quickly as it had arrived.  Her loneliness was as palpable as her perfume; she wasn't happy about the few choices in partners her semi-restrictive lifestyle offered and it warred with her cat-self's need to be independent. I could sense she wanted to talk, needed to talk, so I said, “How about I have dinner delivered up here and we spend the evening in? That is, if it's okay with you.”

 “That's an excellent idea, Ollie,” Amelia happily replied. “I figured you wouldn't want to be overrun by fans but I had no idea how to suggest we stay in.”

 “Is there anything in particular you want?” I asked, clambering to my feet to search through the pile of paperwork on the desk nearby to find the menu from the hotel's small but well-recommended restaurant. “The restaurant has just about anything.”

 A very faint brush against my mind...::You, naked, and in my bed.::

 It took every bit of self-control and poise I had not to react to what I'd heard from Amelia. Instead, I pasted a tiny smile on my face and said, “I'm thinking their elk stew looks good, and everything that goes with it. And the wine they recommend to with it is a decent one, I've had it before,” I knew I was babbling, trying to cover up nervousness with chatter but I was never good at it. I dropped the paperwork back on the table, falling into an awkward silence.

 “Sounds good to me,” Amelia replied, getting up and coming to my side. “What do they have for dessert?” Her voice was husky, warm and comforting, with more than a hint of desire in it.  It woke something in me that was hungry, wild and the only way I was going to silence it was in bed, with Amelia. I turned to her, laid my hands on her shoulders, moving slowly so I wouldn't startle her. I leaned down and brushed my lips against hers, whispering, “I think I'd like you for dessert.”

 “Great minds and all that,” she purred, sliding her hands up under my shirt, running her sharp-nailed fingers up my spine and back down. I stumbled backwards towards the couch, taking her with me. She landed on my lap, straddling my hips, clenching my face in her hands.

 “Can we postpone talking about ourselves till later?” I asked, kissing her nose. “And dinner?”

 “If you don't, I'll paddle your ass,” Amelia murmured. “I hate to sound like a groupie but I've had the worst crush on you since the first time you guys came to America.”

 “Me? Why not Richard, or Till?” I said, drawing back in surprise. Yeah, I had my share of female fans but nothing like those two did. Amelia snorted and nibbled my chin, saying, “I like bass players, for one. Second, and I hate to use a cliché, but you silent types are the most interesting...in more ways than one.”

 “Interesting? I'll show you interesting, woman!” I replied, standing up swiftly, keeping Amelia balanced in my lap as I moved. She squeaked, threw her legs around my waist and hung on, her bubbling laughter filling my ears. I carried her into the bedroom and dropped her on the bed, losing my shirt and jeans somewhere in the middle of things. Amelia stripped herself quickly, pressing me back into the mattress, her green eyes taking on a feral light as she stared at me. “I promise I won't change in the middle of things,” she said. “I've got enough control for that. So don't worry that I'll turn into my lioness self and bite your bits and pieces off.”

 “I wasn't thinking of that,” I said, sliding my hands over her hips and down across her behind, urging her to move against me. If anything, I was thinking more about keeping from infecting her with the virus inside me, not knowing what it would do to her----or what she'd do to me if I did. Paul had explained to all of us how to keep the virus locked down during sex, something he'd found out when he'd accidentally infected Arielle. Had he not 'touched' the link that the virus tried to make between him and Arielle, she'd had never become a Changeling like the rest of us. He'd been curious, and while it would have been a disaster if Arielle wasn't the person she was, it had taught us that we had more control over what it could do than we thought. I locked the virus down tight, keeping one corner of my brain on guard, and gave in to the lust I was feeling for the beautiful woman on top of me.

 I don't remember all of what we did that night. I remember we did stop long enough to eat dinner, then we were twining around each other again, half-insane with desire and not caring if we wore ourselves down to nothing. When we were finally sated, I carried her into my bathroom and washed us both down in the huge shower, knowing if we tried to soak in the huge tub, we'd fall asleep. By the time we were dried off, Amelia was wobbly with sleep and I wasn't far behind her. My bed was a half-ruined mess, so we put on just enough clothes to be presentable in public and sneaked into her room.

 “Stay the night?” she asked, shedding her clothes and sliding into her bed. “Please?”

 “Absolutely,” I replied, undressing and joining her under the soft sheets. A quick check told me despite the bites and scratches she'd left on me and I on her, neither of us were infected, so with a happy sigh, I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.

 :::

 When we're both fully awake the next morning, I'm still undecided as to what I want to tell Amelia about me, about the band, about the virus that's changed me so much. I'm working up my courage when she swears quietly and snaps her laptop shut, startling me out of my thoughts.

 “What's the matter?” I ask. “Bad news?”

 “I got an e-mail from one of the wolf-shifters I met the other day. There's a warning going out to all shifters to keep their eyes open and be extremely watchful because there's someone spying on us. They're not sure who or what they are, but people are showing up in places they shouldn't be, watching every move one of us makes. Damn it!” My stomach clenches and goes sour at Amelia's news and I growl under my breath. What if it wasn't the shifters these mysterious people were after but looking for us Changelings?

 I have to make a decision, and right now. I close my eyes and 'yell' through the bond, ::I'm kind of in a situation here and I need help!::

 ::Ollie, what's wrong?:: Arielle says. ::Where are you, what's wrong?::

 ::OLLIE!! Are you okay?:: Richard and Till's combined sendings deafen me and I wince away from their touch. Schneider's voice is soothing and eases the 'burn' it leaves behind. Lilly, Flake and Paul are a second behind in their questions; I nearly have to yell at them to make myself heard.

 ::I'm fine, I'm fine! I think I might be in the middle of a...situation:: I say. ::There's someone here in Thule that might be looking for us. And I met a shapeshifter here, a mountain lioness. She saved my life. And they might be looking for her as well::

 ::A shapeshifter?:: Flake says, his sending bright yellow and hard as ice. ::You're kidding! So werewolves are shifters, not monsters? That's...that's great!::

 ::Saved you from what, Ollie?:: Till asks. You can take Till out of the mountains, out of the wild, put him onstage with fire and loud music, but he is still a hunter at heart. I let him 'see' the sick bear, my knives in the bear's eye and shoulder, Amelia in her mountain lioness form racing past me to knock the bear over the ledge, my knocking her away at the last second to save her life. ::Thank God I never, ever hunted lions:: Till says, shaken. ::I'd never want her mad at me in either of her forms. What do you need?::

 ::I want to tell her about me. About us:: I reply. ::She trusted me with her secrets. We talked about trying to find more people like us, right? Especially after Siobhan came on the scene. Amelia's people need to know about us::

 ::So why are you asking us for advice?:: Richard says, his mental voice shaky and worried. ::Sounds to me like you've made up your mind::

 ::One heart, one soul, to the end:: I replied, sensing his nervousness, and Lilly's soothing mental touch coupled with Schneider's and Paul's. ::I wouldn't do anything that would put any of us in danger. I wanted to make sure telling her about us was okay with the rest of you first::

 ::Do it, Ollie!:: Arielle says excitedly. ::Tell her. Tell her and her people she's not alone, they're not alone::

 ::You need to tell her everything, Ollie:: Paul's voice comes as if he was at the bottom of a well. A cold shiver goes up our spines; we all recognize that voice from the first time Paul's ability to see the future awoke. When it’s something that is an absolute future, Paul drops into a trance and his voice, either mental, physical or both, sounds like this. ::There's things coming, people coming, that we'll need each other to survive. Tell her everything, from the beginning::

 I drop out of the link with a gasp that I cover as a sneeze. Amelia shoots me a look, saying, “Ollie? Are you okay?:

 “I'm...I'm just fine,” I reply, patting the couch cushions next to me. “Amelia, sit down, could you? I've got something to tell you.”

 “You're married. Oh my God, I have fucked up...” she says, collapsing to the cushions. I take her hand and say, “No, no no! Nothing like that! Amelia, you trusted me with what you are. You're taking on faith that I won't go blabbing you and your people's secrets to the world. Well, I've got a secret too. Can you trust me a little bit more?” Amelia nods, warily, meeting my gaze squarely and bravely. I lay my hands on her head, rest my forehead against hers and say, “Close your eyes and think of some place, some thing that makes you feel safe.”

 And I take her in.

 ...We are sitting on a boulder at the edge of the forest in our Changeling dreamscape, Amelia and I. I can smell the ocean that lay on the other side of the sand dunes, hear its whispering against the shoreline. Amelia looks about, startled, and before I can stop her, shifts into her lioness form. She huddles against the ground, growling, liquid green eyes glaring at me and telling me I'd better start talking and fast. I don't move, I speak quietly and slowly. “What I showed you...it's all real. What I've become, what the rest of the band has become, and a couple others, it's all real.”

 Amelia stops growling and stands up, pacing away from me to look around. She goes to the top of the dunes to look at the ocean, then trots past me to look at the forest with its huge trees that sparkle with thousands of prisms that catch the sunset's light, the huge paddock with its herd of black, grey and white horses, one of which has huge silver-white wings folded against its sides. It snorts at Amelia, who makes a chirping noise back; the horse nods in return and goes back to cropping the green grass at its feet. Amelia wanders back and forth for several moments, chuffing as she does, as if she's talking to herself or to the world around her. When she comes back she's human again, dressed in the jeans and t-shirt she had on earlier, hair falling in her face. She sits down next to me again and leans against my shoulder. We sit without speaking for long moments, then she says very quietly, “This is beautiful. Where is this?”

 “This is...well, this started as a place in Lilly's dreams, and now we all share it. It's our safe haven. I brought you here to show you what I am,” I say, reaching out for her hand. She clings to it, trembling all over. “Someone intentionally created a virus to turn a human being into what your friend Lilly is? What all of you are now?”

 I nod. “And he's deader than a door-nail too. He was an evil, evil person and deserved to die a nasty death. We've been floundering around ever since, trying to figure out what we can do, how to not infect others, if there's more like us out there. We met a kitsune in Japan and the lady Till is seeing is half-Elf, half-human.”

 Amelia's eyes widen when I tell her this and she smiles brightly. “There's Elves out there? And...Ollie, this is...” She wipes a tear out of her eye and kisses my shoulder. “How much of this can I tell my family?”

“All of it. Paul has the ability to see into the future and he saw something big coming that us non-humans are going to need each other for,” I reply. “He didn't know what it was, but it's going to be big.”

 Amelia nods, cups my face in her hands and kisses me deeply. “Can we go back? I need to get in touch with my parents but after that, I think I'd like to spend the rest of the day in bed with you.”

 “Sounds like a plan to me.”

 :::

Two days later, we're standing outside the Security area at Berlin-Tegel. Amelia was originally going to drive herself to the aiport but I insisted on doing it, wanting to spend as much time with her as I could. I learned a lot about her in those last couple of days together, how she loved her job as a biologist with the National Park Service, working in the red stone wilds of Red Rocks State Park in Colorado, how she'd grown up in the mountainous part of Virginia with her sister and brother, learning how to shift properly, how to hunt in her lioness form, how to keep her cat-self from coming through. She was smart, funny, athletic and wonderful...and I was going to lose her. She didn't want to leave the States, I didn't want to leave Germany, and she had family commitments that she couldn't get out of. I'd tried to keep from overhearing her discussion with her mother two nights earlier, but it had been heated and a comment that she was all but bound to have children with another shifter had popped up. I'd been angry  that her family was trying to tell her what to do, but I kept it to myself.

 “We can work this out, Ollie,” she says to me, breaking into my thoughts. “You can come visit me, I can come visit you...”

 “I heard what your mother said the other night,” I confess. “I don't blame her for it, I mean, how many mothers would like the idea of their daughter getting involved with a rock star?”

 “Ollie, that's...she's concerned. Once I talk to the clan council, she'll come around,” Amelia says, gripping my hands. “It's not like she's planning to marry me off to someone I've never met! I'm willing to try and make this work if you are.”

 The boarding call for her flight home interrupts me, so I lean down, kiss her soundly and hold her close for the last time, breathing in her perfume and wanting to scream. “I'll call you when I get to London, and when I get home, all right?” she whispers in my ear. When we part, silver tears make her eyes luminous and round, and it takes everything I have not to run after her and beg her not to leave. It hurts so much, more than anything I've ever felt, and driving home was difficult because I have to keep wiping tears out of my eyes.

 When I get home, Flake, Paul and Schneider are waiting for me. They say not a word but follow me into the house, where Schneider produces a bottle of vodka, hands it to me and says, “We can't get shitfaced anymore but this'll help the hurt a little.” I sit down in my living room, swallow half the bottle and say, “It hurts. This hurts so fucking much.”

 And with my friends around me, I tell them about Amelia, about her family, her smile, her bravery. And when I run out of words, I curl up in a ball on the couch and cry myself to sleep. I'm glad Emma is with her mother for the next couple of weeks, I'd hate for her to see me like this. She's exactly like me, sensitive, quiet and gentle, my crying fit and depression would hurt her badly.

 “You'll work it out,” Flake assures me, tucking a blanket around my shoulders. “Now go to sleep. It'll be better in the morning.”

 Two Weeks Later

 I'm sitting in the studio at Richard's apartment, half-listening to him and Paul playfully squabble over something related to the song we're supposed to be working on. I haven't paid much attention to anyone these past several days, going through the motions of life, lost and adrift. Amelia has been too busy to talk, so we e-mail each other several times a day. Her messages are usually full of photographs of the areas she's working in, of the plants, trees and animals she watches over, but only once did she mention our tryst in the mountains. A letter arrived for me at our management's office yesterday; in it was a photograph of a mountain lion lying under a tree full of apple blossoms and a sticky note on the back with “Amelia” written on it. I knew it was a photo of her; I took it home, found a frame large enough to hold it and put it by my bed. Emma asked me why I had a picture of a lion next to my bed and I made up a story about seeing it on the Internet and liking it. “Pretty cat,” she said, kissing me goodnight and trotting off to bed.

 The sudden silence brings me out of my momentary funk. “Huh? Did I miss something?” Paul and Richard are trying not to laugh; Paul takes pity on me and says, “Look behind you.”

 “If Mohamed cannot go to the mountain, then the mountain shall come to Mohamed,” a familiar voice says, making me spin around in my seat. Paul rushes to grab my bass from my hands as I launch myself from my seat to grab Amelia up and hug her as hard as I can. Flake and Schneider are leaning on the door frame of the studio, grinning at us, while Till stands behind them not smiling, but quietly beaming at me.

 “How...when did you get here?” I ask once we stop kissing each other. “I didn't know you were coming over!”

 “I wanted to surprise you!” Amelia says. “I told you once I talked to the clan council that my mother would be all right. I'm now one of the liaisons between the American and European shifter communities. I have to attend meetings and such every few months, and this meeting is in Berlin. So...here I am. I asked Till if he could get my ducks in a row for me and he did.”

 ::You were miserable, Ollie:: Till says to me privately. ::A blind man can see how much you and she should be together. So I meddled::

 ::Till Lindemann, have I told you how much of a genius you are?:: I reply. He snort-laughs quietly and shakes his head. ::Remind Siobhan of that the next time she calls me out for being an idiot. You're family. Families help one another.::

 I let the guys introduce themselves around, standing with my hand on Amelia's back as if she's going to vanish if I don't. Lilly and Arielle arrive next to meet her, both of them excited as if it were Christmas morning. Things start to settle down when we hear loud meowing coming from outside the door; Schneider opens it to admit Fiona and Marley, who are almost fully grown now. They walk into the room like queens, intent on meeting this new person, especially one that is a cat-shifter. They stop just out of harm's way, look Amelia up and down, and Fiona says, ::Mountain lion?::

 “Yes, little sister,” Amelia replies. “I'll shift if you want me to.”

 ::Nah, we believe you:: Marley says closing the gap between herself and Amelia, with her sister following. They bump their heads against Amelia's ankles, saying, ::Welcome to Germany, sister-cat::

 Amelia purrs under her breath as she kneels down to pet the girls on the head, saying, “Later on I'll shift for you and we can go on a hunt, if you wish. Your Uncle Till gets the first hunt, though. I promised to go hunting with him if he could get me on the fastest plane over.”

 ::I owe you, Till:: I say.

 ::Bullshit. You'd do the same for me. Now you two kids go over to your house and settle in. She's going to be here for a month and we're far enough ahead that unless something happens, we won't need you for a week or so. Shoo!::

 Since I am a smart man, I grab my lady love around the waist and say, “We've got our marching orders from Till and I'm not going to tell him no.”

 “Then let's go,” Amelia replies with a purr, nipping my earlobe as she does. “We've some catching up to do, and I believe I'd like to meet your daughter.” The last thing I hear as we leave the apartment is Schneider's “Be home before midnight, young man and no inappropriate behavior in public!”

 “What in the world is he talking about?”

 The elevator dings and I escort Amelia inside, snort-laughing all the way. “I'll have to tell you about it when we have a chance to sit down for a moment. It's a long, weird story.”

 “Are you involved it it?”

 “Up to my eyeballs, dearheart,” I reply as I escort Amelia to where I've parked my car. Her luggage is already tucked away in the back, which tells me she's more than interested in staying awhile. “I'm not a half-bad cook when I put my mind to it, and I think you’ll like my house.”

 “And I've got a few things in my carry-on that you might like,” Amelia replied with an impish smile on her face. Coupled with the sparkle in her eyes, that tells me all I need to know. Heading out of the city, I can't stop the goofy smile on my face, nor the happiness that fills me up and makes me feel like nothing can go wrong ever again.

Chapter Text

Christoph paced back and forth through Richard's apartment, agitation written in his every move. Marley and Fiona had retreated to the laundry room, figuring it would be safer than anywhere else in the apartment, Richard was a tense ball of nerves on the couch, and Lilly was sitting across from him, a red flush on her face. After watching her lover wear a hole in the carpet for ten minutes, Lilly stood up, grabbed Christoph's arm and snapped, “I don't care how pissed off you are, you are not going to keep this up! Sweetheart, as soon as the management company figures out how to approach this, they'll do something.”

“I got chased out of my fucking house, Lilly!” Christoph yelled, not bothering to keep his voice down. “It's bad enough there's assholes out there who're probably waiting for one of us to fuck up and show our talents to the world so they can stick us in a lab till we die, but they're putting my neighbors in the line of fire too! I bought that place specifically because it was off the beaten path and now...oh, fucking forget it!” He turned and stomped into the spare bedroom, slamming the door behind him and locking it, as well as shutting off his part of the private bond he shared with Lilly and Richard.

“He's going to make himself sick if he doesn't settle down,” Richard grumbled. “Hell, he's going to make me sick if he doesn't settle down. How in the world are you not wanting to puke, Lilly?”

 “I've got a strong stomach and a high tolerance for male hysterics,” Lilly replied, making her way into the kitchen. Setting the kettle to boil, she pulled a container of instant green tea and ginger out of its spot on the counter, spooned three heaping tablespoonfuls into a large mug, and once the water boiled, poured it over the powder in the cup. Dropping a spoon into the hot liquid, she carefully carried the mug of tea to the spare bedroom door and set it on the floor. “Your tea is outside the door if you want it, Miss Hissy Pants.”

 “I am not being Miss Hissy Pants!” Christoph yelled from behind the door. “Lilly, it's not funny. I'm scared to death and you're being a bitch!”

 “I am not, Christoph Schneider! I'm just as afraid as you are, but there's nothing else we can do. Till asked Siobhan to contact some of her relatives that live around here to keep watch over everyone, and you know they're better than any security person on this planet. If you keep on like this, you're going to be so sick you'll be living in the bathroom for a week,” Lilly snapped back. “Now drink your tea and settle down or I'm going to come in there with a syringe full of horse tranquilizers and stick it in your ass.”

 The door opened a crack to show one green-blue eye and a tendril of black, curly hair. “You wouldn't.”

 “Try me, Curly Sue. I'm in the mood right now for a fight and you've pushed just about every button I have!” Lilly yelled. “I swear to God, I thought Richard could be bad when he gets in a snit but you've got him beat any day of the week!”

 “What is it with you calling me every name in the book?” Christoph ranted.

 “Because if I don't, I'll lose what's left of my temper and beat the shit out of you!” Lilly hissed. “Fuck this noise, I'm going to go take a walk. Reesh, if you can, talk some sense into...Chrissy, please do.”

 The hated nickname spurred Christoph into yanking the door open, hurdling the mug of hot tea and getting right into Lilly's face, crowding her against the wall. “You'd better thank every God ever thought of that I love you and I was raised not to hit a woman!” he growled.

 “So does that mean I can't hit you?” Lilly sneered. Richard gasped, the rising anger waking his childhood fear of his parents having knock down, drag out arguments in front of him. Years had passed and he'd thought he'd grown out of the fear but it lingered like a bad taste in his mouth.  He leaped from the couch and in three long strides, was at Christoph's side to yank him away from Lilly, and to shove her away from him.

 “Will you two shut the fuck up?” he yelled. “One more second of you two going at each other like this and I'm gonna pitch both of you over the garden wall and to hell with whoever's out there!” Christoph struggled against Richard's vice-like grip on his lower arm, only to find himself suddenly pinned to the floor on his stomach, face pressed into the carpet and Richard still holding his arm but now sitting on his hips. “Normally this would be the start of something wonderful,” he snapped, “but you know I can break your damn arm if I want to, Chris. And you, Lilly, stop antagonizing him.”

 Christoph tried to wriggle free; Richard bore down on his arm slightly, making him yelp in pain. “Damn it Kruspe, I need that arm!”

 “Nah, you don't wank off with that hand,” Richard replied cheerily. “Now. Settle. The. Fuck. Down.”

 “Fuck you Richard!

 “If you settle down, I might. Please, love, you're going to make yourself sick, if not trigger a migraine. Please?” Richard begged. At long last, Christoph sighed and relaxed; Richard rolled off of his hips and up onto his knees where he wrapped his arms around his lover. “I know you're scared. I know you're angry. Please don't take it out on me, on Lilly. On the bloody carpet, for that matter.”

 Christoph sighed and rested his head against Richard's shoulder, murmuring shyly, “I'm sorry Lilly. I'm sorry, Reesh. I'm such an idiot.”

 Lilly joined them on the floor, wrapping her arms around Christoph from the other side. “You're an idiot sometimes, but right now you're terrified. I'm sorry too, I didn't mean to pick on you like I did.”

 “Lilly-love, do you have a list somewhere of mean things you can call Reesh and I?” he said softly. “Because Miss Hissy Pants is a new one.”

 “If I told you I'd have to kill you,” Lilly snorted, pressing a kiss to Christoph's cheek. “Drink your tea, all right? This mess will blow over in a couple of days, you'll see.”

 :::

 I'm cold. Why am I so cold? And...where am I?

 Christoph cracks open matter-coated eyes, wincing as a few eyelashes peel off. He blinks until he can see somewhat clearly, but nothing makes any sense. He's lying on his back in the middle of a dimly lit, white-tiled room, the sharp sting of antiseptics making his nose itch. There's an underlying tang of something rotten as well; it takes him a moment to pinpoint it as old, decaying blood. Trying to lift his hand up, he finds that he's shackled to whatever he's lying on and panic sets in. He jerks at the leather cuffs, struggling to pull his hand free but the cuffs are pulled tight. His ankles are shackled as well with the same type of leather cuffs, only these have a short length of chain attached that rattle noisily.

 “Hey!” he yells. “What in the fuck...”

 And stops.

 It's not his voice.

 A terrified look downward...

 He's not himself.

The sight that meets his eyes is of a naked, voluptuous female form, tattoos winding and twisting up and over arms and legs. Instead of screaming, Christoph shuts his eyes again and whimpers. The whimper eventually becomes a scream of rage that echoes back from the sterile walls and nearly deafens him. He jerks harder against the restraints, swearing at the top of his lungs but his struggles only earn him deep abrasions, bruises and strained muscles. It is at some point another anomaly about the body he's inside makes itself known by sending a burning, tearing pain up his spine. With a gasp, Christoph looks down again and realizes that the body he's stuck in is very, very pregnant...and very much in labor.

“I think she's awake now, doctor,” someone says from outside the room he's stuck in. The name makes Christoph moan and try to curl in on himself; he remembers far too well what the madman did to Lilly and Richard. The wooden door in the opposite wall swings open with a groan and creak to reveal the mad doctor as he was before the viruses and drugs he'd experimented on himself took hold. He's hardly one whose appearance causes any alarm, from greasy, no-color hair chopped short, the pale skin of a person who hardly saw sunlight, bad teeth and acne worse than he'd ever seen on a teenager, but the air of both arrogance and the willingness to hurt anything smaller or weaker than they are oozes out of his pores like cheap perfume.

Dressed in blood-spattered, wrinkled scrubs that might once have been green, a surgical mask draped around his neck, the doctor comes into the room with a woman who looks like a refugee from a zombie film. She staggers along behind him, blind, white eyes staring out of a bloodless face, matted, grey hair pinned up under a nurse's cap, her old-fashioned uniform covered in filth, blood and other unnameable stains, her oddly-white shoes making an awful squeaking sound as she moves. She smiles down at Christoph, revealing a mouthful of teeth that a shark would be proud of, and says, “It's all right sweetie, just a little longer and you and your baby will meet each other for the first time.”

“What...what the...?” Christoph stammers, looking wildly about the room, eyes finally seeing a heavy surgical light over his head, the reflective surface polished to a mirror-bright sheen. What meets his eyes shocks him half into catatonia, for staring back at him is Lilly, her too-thin, bruised and battered body strapped to a rusty hospital bed, long red hair in greasy locks around her face. She is heavily pregnant, and as he watches with horror, the baby inside moves, pressing a hand against the walls of its temporary home. The agony puts his back into an arch and he keens, feeling over-stressed vocal cords fray and bleed. The nurse grabs one of his arms in her foul, clawed hands and coos at him, the gentle words given a lie thanks to the growling, hoarse voice that they're spoken in. “Settle down, all right? If you don't, we'll have to give you a sedative.”

“Let...me...GO!

The sedative arrives in a needle so sharp it would cut the wind if it could and big around as a drinking straw, its narcotic bliss knocking Christoph into a twilight place where he can't move or speak, only feel the increasing pain and pressure as the thing inside begins to move about to make its appearance in the world. Locked into this body, unable to do anything, Christoph begins to slide slowly into madness.

This is what Lilly lived through, almost died from, he thinks groggily. And from the looks of things, I ain't coming through this at all...

“Now push, honey, I know you can hear me, but you have to push, okay?” the mad doctor says, smacking Christoph on the face. “If you don't push, I'll reach up inside your filthy hole and drag that hell-spawn out. Got me?” Christoph manages to work up enough saliva to spit in the doctor's face; the man laughs and wipes the spit from his face with his surgical mask. “Still got some piss and vinegar in you, old girl? You're going to need it.”

Painadpainandbloodandtearingandpainand...

(Christoph, wake up)

"Come on sweetheart, your baby's almost here..."

...bitingandcuttingandtearingclawsteethnailsfireburnburnburn...

(Christoph, wake up!)

...hurthurtburnburnscreamscreamscream..

(Chris, wake up...wake up...!)

“It's a girl!” the zombie nurse cries, holding a bloody bundle up for both the doctor and Christoph to see. It's every monster baby he's ever seen in the movies, read about, ever had a nightmare about. Its black eyes are malevolent and aware, its teeth as shark-like as the zombie nurse's, its skin corpse-white under its coat of gore. The only other color on its squirming, hideous body is a cap of rusty-red hair that as it dries, becomes a brilliant red. “Wouldn't you like to hold her, honey?” the zombie nurse says, pushing the monster baby at Christoph, who is still caught in the narcotic's grasp. He can only whimper and shake as the nurse holds the child closer, cooing at the baby, saying, “She's yours, Lilly. All yours.”

The monster baby's eyes lock with Christoph's and it smiles, an evil, horrible smile as it reaches towards him. Its claws are onyx and look as sharp as knives; he knows without needing to touch them that they are. Unable to move away, he can only stare in terror as it stretches its gore-stained hands towards him.

Maaaa...maaaa....

He finds his voice at last, and shrieks as insanity pulls him under.

(Christoph, wake up! Please!)

:::

Richard was jerked out of a half-doze by the blood-curdling scream that came from the bedroom. He had been working hard since early that morning, trying to get Till's lyrics to fit with the music he had in mind but neither were wanting to cooperate. Lilly had gone out shortly after breakfast with the kittens to visit Khira Li, while Christoph had pleaded a headache and gone back to bed. The apartment had been quiet, barely any sounds making their way through the heavy, plate glass windows, and the sound of Christoph screaming his head off was as loud as sirens. Knocking his chair over as he leaped for the door of his office, Richard ran for the bedroom, kicking the door half off of its hinges to get to his mate. Christoph was wound tightly in the bed-sheets, soaked in sweat, eyes wide open and seeing nothing. Lost in his nightmare, he didn't respond when Richard began yelling his name, pleading for him to wake up. Desperately, Richard dropped all of his shielding and shrieked at him with both voice and mind, cut off by Christoph's final, heart-wrenching scream. He came wide awake, clinging to Richard, staring wildly about the room and still lost in his dream.

“It's okay, it's okay, I have you,” Richard murmured, pulling his terrified partner into his arms. “You're all right, it was a just a bad dream, it's all over, I love you sweetheart.” Christoph said nothing, burying his face in Richard's shoulder and shaking. Once the paralysis of the nightmare let go, he fell into a boneless heap and began sobbing hysterically. Richard could do nothing more than hold him tight, whispering soothing words over and over, rocking him back and forth. Slowly, painfully, Christoph's tears abated and he lay exhausted against Richard's chest.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Richard said softly.

“It...it was horrible,” Christoph whispered. “I don't know if I can talk about it or where to start. And I don't want to show it to you either, you'll have bad dreams too.”

“Are you sure? If it was that awful, maybe telling or showing me what happened will make it easier to deal with,” Richard replied, smoothing his lover's sweaty hair back from his face. “If you want to, that is.”

Christoph remained quiet a while longer, fighting with the need to tell Richard what he'd dreamt and not wanting to find himself in the same spot, holding Richard while he fell apart. “All right,” he croaked, swallowing hard against a raw, sore throat. “Just...just don't let Lilly know about this.” He caught Richard's mind up in his and bracing himself for the worst, let him see the nightmare.

He'd never heard Richard scream, wail and beg so hard in all the time he'd known him but by the time he shook his lover out of his experience, Christoph was sure he'd never, ever want to hear it again. Tears didn't come easily to Richard, and every sob that tore out of his chest broke Christoph's gentle heart. He held him as tightly as he could, slowly lying back into the covers so Richard could curl himself tighter into his embrace. It seemed to take forever until he finally relaxed and lay limp against Christoph, breath hot against his chest, warming the tear- and sweat-soaked t-shirt he wore.

“Sweetheart...” Richard whispered, fingers wandering shakily up his side. Indigo and cobalt eyes met greeny-blue, then their lips met. Christoph knew exactly what Richard needed, what he needed at this moment, and was more than willing to give and take. They shed their clothes in between kisses, hands sliding over skin, fingers twining together, through silky hair, limbs pressed together and voices barely above a whisper.

“I love you so much,” Richard sighed, stretching out on the pillows as he laid a hand against Christoph's cheek. “And I'm so, so sorry went through that.”

“I'm okay now,” Christoph replied, leaning down to kiss him. “And I know what I need to do.”

“What's that?”

“Lilly asked me the other day if I'd made up my mind fully about the two of us having a baby together and I told her I still wasn't sure. I am, now. I want her to have a child that wasn't created through rape. I want...I want her to never have that nightmare again. I know that came from her memories. I want to raise a child that’s loved and cherished .”

Richard smiled and hugged Christoph to him. “You'll be an excellent father, I've always thought you would be. But I want one thing.”

“What's that?” Christoph replied, resting his head on Richard's shoulder. “And Lilly will have to agree with whatever it is.”

“I want to name the baby. Boy, girl, I don't care. But I want to name it,” Richard said. “I asked Lilly when we started talking about children that if you and she decided to have a baby, I wanted to name it. She said she was fine with it, as long as you were too. We were going to talk to you, soon.”

“As long as you don’t come up with some whacked out name like, oh, Zena Appleblossom, I’m more than happy to let you do the naming,” Christoph replied, peppering Richard’s chest with tiny kisses and nips. Words were no longer needed as they made love in the late afternoon light, their shared affection and happiness washing away the last bits of Christoph’s nightmare.

:::

“Have you seen anyone strange around your apartment lately?”

Lilly looked up from where she was sitting at Khira Li’s kitchen table, putting the finishing touches on the necklace she’d been making. “Not counting your father and Christoph, no,” she replied with a snort. “Why, is there something going on?”

Khira Li sat down across from her, a closed-in, troubled look on her face. “I’m not sure. For the past couple of weeks, there’s been these two men all in black, black sunglasses, the works, sitting on the steps of the apartment across the street. And a couple of days ago, they were sitting across the street from where I work. I wouldn’t have paid attention to them but there’s something about them that gives me the creeps so bad. I know Siobhan’s asked some of her family to watch out over us since Uncle Christoph saw that black car near his house but these people don’t “feel” like Elves. It’s like they’re not…it’s like they’re not there, psychically. I can’t feel any of them at all.”

Alarm was an electric current through Lilly; she dropped the half-finished necklace back into its box and set it aside, hands shaking. Fiona and Marley came skittering from the living room where they’d been bird watching, chittering in distress. Marley hopped into Lilly’s arms while Fiona sat down in Khira Li’s lap. “You couldn't sense anything about them? That's...the fellow who was Art's assistant on the last tour was like that. Flake said people who present that way are called “nulls.” They haven't bothered you, have they?”

Khira Li shook her head. “Not once. They just watch me and once, one of them smiled at me. Not a mean smile, an ordinary one. I think that was scarier than being stared at. Who are they?”

“I have no clue,” Lilly replied, a slow rage bubbling in her gut and burning away her previous fear. “But I'll tell you this, if any of them even think about laying a hand on any of us, they're going to have me to answer to and I'm not going to be gentle with them.”

“Do you want me to tell my father or do you?” Khira Li replied, absently petting Fiona. “He's gonna blow sky high whoever tells him.”

“I'll tell him tonight when I get home,” Lilly replied, picking the necklace she'd been working on back up and glaring at it. “I don't have to tell you to be extra careful and if you don't feel safe here, you know we have a spare bedroom.”

“Oh, don't worry about me taking care of myself,” Khira Li snorted. “Uncle Till taught me how to handle knives when I was younger and I've taken martial arts lessons in the past. Believe me, if I throw a knife at someone, it's going to hit the mark.”

“Have you figured out what you can do, what talents you have?” Lilly asked. “I can look but I thought you'd rather find out for yourself.”

“Besides the telepathy and empathy? I've got a touch of telekinesis, so when I say what I aim for I can hit, I'm not bragging,” Khira Li said. “I haven't mucked around much with anything else. I know I can manipulate fire like Uncle Till, which is kinda cool. I'm not growing fangs or claws, though.”

“If you develop more talents, let me know,” Lilly replied, handing the completed necklace to Khira Li, who gasped as the light caught the beads and set them glowing. “Lilly, this is beautiful! I knew the green beads were lovely but they're even lovelier with the brass beads. Thank you so much!” She slid Fiona from her lap, hopped from her chair and hugged Lilly as hard as she could. “I can't wait to see how my dress looks with this!”

“Well, you said you wanted something simple but elegant,” Lilly said, returning the hug. “I've had those beads for ages, it's about time they got used. Your father spent two solid hours looking at each and every one, then when Christoph came home, he dragged him out into the garden to show them to him. Funny how a cracked marble could be so fascinating to him.”

“He can be such a little kid sometimes!” Khira Li laughed. “When I was younger, we were in this huge toy store in London and I swear he was more enthusiastic about the toys than I was! I guess when your childhood was as awful as his was, when you're grown up and can enjoy things for yourself, you do it.”

Lilly nodded, absently rolling a single bead back and forth between her fingers. “Except for Ollie, none of the band had much of a childhood, really. I didn't, and I always thought that if I ever had a kid, I wouldn't spoil them rotten, but they'd have everything I didn't.”

“I think you'd be a great mother,” Khira Li said. “I've seen how you are around Fritz, Emma and Lily. Did you and Dad ever talk about adoption?”

“We did for awhile,” Lilly replied. Given that opening, she said, “I've got something to tell you, but it has to be kept under wraps right now.”

“Ooo! A secret!” Khira Li cheered, bouncing up and down in her seat (which reminded Lilly of her father) and clapping her hands. “I promise I won't say a word. What is it?”

“You know how the virus makes us heal a lot quicker? Well...all of the bits of my lady plumbing that I had to have removed have regrown. I can have a baby, but I'm only going to be fertile for the next couple of years. So...your father, Christoph and I have decided that we're going to try and have a couple of kids.”

Khira Li sat, stunned, bright blue eyes wide in her lightly-tanned face. She started to speak a couple of times, stopped, then managed to choke out, “You...you're...Lilly. Oh my God, I don't know what to say!”

“Yeah, your father and Christoph had the same reaction when I told them,” Lilly replied. “I was used to the thought that I wasn't ever going to be able to have a kid long before what happened to me. I'm still kinda confused about how this happened, but if I was going to have a child with anyone, it would be with your father and Christoph.”

Khira Li looked away, not wanting Lilly to see confusion, nervousness and a touch of jealousy in her eyes. She loved Lilly dearly, especially since she had not only saved her father but had given him back the spark of happiness he'd been missing for several years. She was terrified that something horrible would happen to Lilly, and she was afraid that a new child would take her father's affection and attention away from her. The second that thought popped into her mind, she felt ashamed. When she looked back at Lilly again, there were tears in her eyes. “I'm sorry, Lilly. I'm so happy for you but...”

“It's okay if you're jealous or scared,” Lilly replied, reaching out to take the younger woman's hands. “I understand. I didn't expect you to be all gung-ho over me telling you this. I'm not having a baby with your father for any other reason that I love him and I want to raise a child that's wanted, loved and cherished. Same for Christoph.”

“I'm scared something will happen to you,” Khira Li said in a soft, aching voice. “You've made Dad so happy, you've made everyone so happy. You're like my sister. I'm so afraid that you'll get pregnant and...”

“Oh sweetie,” Lilly said, pulling Khira Li to her and letting her sniffle into her shoulder. “I'm going to be all right. Don't worry, I'm not going to croak just yet and leave your father and the rest of the band on their own. Someone needs to keep them in line.”

Khira Li's laugh was broken and shaky, but she did laugh. “You do a very good job at that,” she replied. “I saw you and Uncle Till having an argument once and he backed down really quick. He doesn't do that often.”

“I think Siobhan's taken that job over now,” Lilly said. “At least I never walloped him in the head with a pillow or a shoe. I was very tempted more than once, though.”

And with that comment, both women broke into gales of laughter, the solemn moment gone for good.

:::

Later that night, Christoph was watching Lilly playing with Fiona and Marley while Richard was rattling pots and pans around in the kitchen in the process of making dinner. He reached out and touched his private link with Richard, saying, ::I think it's time I asked Lilly the Big Question. Especially after the news she told us about someone----or someones----following Khira Li::

:Give me a moment to get this spaghetti out of the water and I'll be in:: Richard replied, nervousness tinging his mental voice. Christoph was just as nervous, knowing that in the end, having a child with him was Lilly's choice and she could either accept him or turn him down.  Dish towel thrown over his shoulder, Richard joined Christoph on the couch, reaching over to give his shaking knee a gentle squeeze. ::Go ahead Doomie:: Richard said, his use of Christoph's nickname making him smile, ::Ask the pretty lady if she'll consent to having a baby with you. Or I'll ask for you::

Christoph shot Richard a dirty look and thumped him on the knee. ::Open your mouth and I'll shove a boot down your throat:: he snapped. He took a deep breath, gathered up his courage and said shakily, “Lilly, I need to tell you something.”

Lilly looked up, startled at the tone of Christoph's voice and said, “Beloved, what's wrong? You're white as a ghost.” She sprung to her feet and sat down on the couch next to him, wrapping her hands around his arm. “And you're shaking like a leaf.”

“Lilly, uhm...remember when we talked about you and I having a baby, and I said I wasn't quite sure if I'd want that? Well...ah...I've thought about it and...I want to. I want you and I to try and have a child together. I mean, it's your final decision and everything but...” Christoph stammered, wringing his fingers together so hard it was almost as if he was trying to make them into knots. Lilly grabbed his hands and whispered, “You...you're sure, Lilly? Absolutely sure?”

Christoph leaned over and gently kissed Lilly, resting his forehead against hers with a sigh that ended with a sniffle. “Yes, yes I am. I'm scared shitless, though.”

Richard got up from his spot on the couch and knelt at their feet, trying to hug both of them at the same time. “If you weren't scared I'd say you were an idiot. I do have to ask for one thing, though.”

Lilly tipped her head to the side, a questioning look on her face. “If you want to be in the room when we try, you're more than welcome,” she said, winking at Richard, who laughed and said, “I've already asked Christoph, and he said it was your decision. I want to name whatever you have, and yes, I promise not to give it some kind of weird name.” Lilly frowned at him for a second, then replied, “Okay. You can name the baby. But...what about its last name? I don't know if we want to let anyone know that Christoph and I have a child but...damn. What do we do? I don't like hyphenated names, myself.”

“It's whatever you want to do,” Christoph replied. “If you want our little one to have my name, then there you go. If not, that's fine with me. I'd like if you did give it my last name, though.”

“Then we're agreed,” Lilly said, dashing tears from her eyes and letting both of her men kiss her till she was smiling again. “Now, I'm starving, Richard made dinner and we need to tell the kittens about this,” she said, prying herself out of the cushions. Marley and Fiona came running from their perch in the spare bedroom window at Lilly's whistle; they sat quietly at her feet as she told them the news.

::A KITTEN!!:: Fiona yelled, dancing around the three not-humans' feet and purring loudly. ::You're having a baby! Oh, the things we'll teach it and we'll guard it with our lives!::

Marley snorted and expressed her congratulations by gently rubbing her head against Lilly and Christoph's ankles, spending a few extra seconds stropping her length around Richard's ankles. ::I'm very glad for all of you. This does change things but what is life without change?::

“So...you're on board with this?” Lilly asked, reaching down to pet each cat on the head. “I know cats can be upset when a baby comes into the household.”

::Ah, but Lilly-mum, we're not ordinary cats:: Fiona replied, stretching her neck up to get more petting. ::A fully Changeling baby. This should be interesting.::

:::

Three months later save for Siobhan, who had to work a double shift at the hospital and Amelia, who had returned to the States, everyone else who was a Changeling was sitting around Richard's living room, wondering what in the world he'd called them in a near panic about. Till, who was eyeing Lilly suspiciously, earned a kick in the shins from Paul, who said, “Stop staring, Till! You're making me nervous!”

“You're pregnant, or you're going to be,” Till said, tipping his glass of wine at Lilly, who winced and shook her head at him. Till put the glass down, smacked his hands on his knees and shouted, “I knew it, I knew it! You owe me twenty Euros, Ollie!”

“Ah shit!” Ollie replied, fishing his wallet out of his pants pocket and handing the money to Till, who pocketed it with a snort. Everyone else stared at him with wide, confused eyes; Ollie sighed and said, “When Till told me we had a meeting at Richard's and it was kinda important, I jokingly said it was to announce that Lilly was pregnant. I didn't honestly mean it, Till!”

“Yes you did!” Till replied, grinning an evil grin at the other man, who simply shook his head. “So. When is the little one due, and all that?”

Khira Li and Arielle gave Till a look that had it been a laser beam, would have obliterated him for jumping the gun on the news. Instead of becoming annoyed, he snort-laughed at the two women, getting a kick in the knee from Khira Li that Paul hadn't kicked. He yelped, grabbed his knee and tried to glare at her, but the look dissolved when he saw the amusement in her eyes. ::Sorry, it had to be done:: she laughed. ::And besides, I didn't kick you that hard, Uncle Till::

At this point, Richard and Christoph came out of the office, both of them looking slightly nauseated and pale, but very determined. Carefully chivying Lilly into her favorite chair, they sat on the arms, looked down at her and nodded. Lilly took a deep breath, smiled, and said, “Christoph and I...we're having a girl. In the spring, as far as I can estimate. And her name is going to be Isabell Irulan Schneider.”

Flake, who'd been watching Marley and Fiona sitting in the living room window, caught the merest hint of smugness and amusement from them. ::Anything we should know, little ones?::

::Nope. Just that we were hoping you'd bring the treats you promised if your guess was right:: Marley said. ::Those really, really lovely, hand made cat treats you promised.::

Flake tapped his jacket pocket and made it rustle softly. ::I never go back on a bet. Now, you're sure Lilly is okay? Really okay?::

::She is:: Fiona replied, washing her sister's ear. ::We've suggested she talk to Siobhan about being her doctor as going to a regular one would be dangerous. We've got some contacts to call if help is needed. Now, Stork-Flake-also-Christian, why are you so worried?::

::I don't have the talent for seeing into the future like Paul does:: Flake replied. ::But something tells me this little girl is going to change not only us, but a lot of people. And I'm not sure if those changes are going to be necessarily good ones. It seems as if every time we turn around, we're finding more and more non-humans, more creatures out of legend and fairy tales, and I'm scared. What does it mean?::

::If we knew, we'd tell you:: Fiona sighed, hopping down from the window ledge and crossing the room to hop into Flake's lap. ::As long as you have each other, there's no future that you can't handle. Now, say something nice and congratulatory to the mum and dad to be, and hand over the treats::

Flake bit a giggle back as he dug the bag out of his pocket containing the treats he'd wagered and fed one to Fiona. As she nibbled it down, he joined the others in congratulating not only Lilly and Christoph, but Richard as well. In any other time or place, their decision would be considered mad, but in this time, in this place, it was a chance for celebration and happiness.

For now.

 

Chapter Text

::::

Paul and Arielle’s daughter, Lily, was searching through the big bookcase in the library for a book of fairy tales when she came across a nut-brown cardboard box, tied with silk ribbon the shade of rich cream. The box was fairly heavy and she was careful to ease it onto the floor as not to jar anything inside. Slowly untying the ribbon, she opened the box and found two large piles of neatly-arranged photographs, a leather bound book with “Paul and Arielle” done in gold leaf on the cover, a spray of carefully dried wildflowers that while faded, still held a ghost of their scent, and a scrap of cornflower-blue silk that was wrapped around a tiny silver coin, long faded with age, a pair of creamy colored pearl earrings, and a tiny golden band that had once been carved with flowers. She placed everything but the photographs and the book aside carefully, and began looking through the photos.

“I've never seens these pictures before!” she said to herself. There were pictures of the entire band, a couple of relatives she’d met once, and some other people that she had no idea who they were. She stopped to read some of the inscriptions on the backs, peering closely at a few because her father’s handwriting could be difficult to read, and with a start, realized it was only a few days until her parents’ anniversary. Her father hadn’t said anything and neither did her mother, but Lily knew if it was her anniversary, she’d want someone to mention it!

Putting the photographs back into their neat piles, she opened the book and saw a photo of her parents on the first page. She’d seen a copy of it in Paul’s study in a heavy silver frame; it was a black and white photograph of her father boosting her mother up in the air, her long hair flying around her face and both of them laughing at something behind whoever had taken the picture. It was one of her favorite pictures of them, along with one her “Uncle” Ollie had taken when neither had been looking; in it, they were rubbing noses in an Eskimo kiss, the Eiffel Tower rising up behind them.

As she went through the book, reading congratulatory messages here and there, she spotted a picture of her half-brother, Emil, dancing with her mother. Thankfully their relationship had never been filled with the usual tensions that sometimes happened between half-siblings, which had pleased both their parents. He looked so grown up and classy in the black suit he wore to match Paul’s, and Lily smiled when she saw how much Emil looked like her father had when he was younger. She hadn’t seen Emil in a couple of months as he was busy with his own life, but he had promised her that he’d be free soon and wanted the two of them to spend an afternoon in Berlin as they had when they were younger, only without their parents this time.

She closed the book and nestled it back into the box, slowly replacing the lid and retying the ribbon, when an idea hit her. Quickly replacing the box in its original slot, she sat down on a nearby chair, pulled her mobile out of her purse, and began quickly typing Emil a message. When she was done, she sat gazing out the window, a soft smile on her face.

Lily was still there when Paul came home from an afternoon at Richard’s house, working on a song that he and Richard had come up with during the last tour. While words were usually Till’s job, this time they had come up with the music and lyrics together, and wanted to present an as polished as it could be version to Till within the next few weeks. Neither of them would be too offended if their singer ended up revising or not using their lyrics, but they’d both agreed that if anything they’d give Till a starting point.

“Hey kiddo!” Paul said, placing the case holding one of his beloved Les Paul guitars on the couch and heading over to hug his daughter. “What’s got you staring out the window so intently?” Lily started, not hearing her father, and almost upset the chair she was sitting in as she hopped out of it. “Hi, Daddy! When did you come in? I didn’t hear you!”

“I just walked in the door and saw you staring out the window. Anything I should know about?”

“Not a thing. Uhm…have you and mom planned anything for your anniversary?” Lily asked, hoping her father’s unnatural curiosity wouldn’t give him a hint as to what she wanted to do.

“Hmm. Not that I know of,” Paul said. “I’m sure we’ll do something since I’m home for once. Nothing grand, though. Not that your mother wouldn’t like it, it’s just that we’ve done the same thing year after year and…well, you know how old people get into a rut.”

“You and mom are not old!” Lily chided, shoving her father’s shoulder playfully. Paul tousled her dark red hair, so much like her mother’s, and said, “I’m going to raid the fridge, do you want anything?”

“If you’re going to make one of your grilled chicken sandwiches, I’ll be right behind you!” Lily said, reaching for her phone as it rang and buzzed on the table she’d left it on. Paul raised a fatherly eyebrow and said, “Ten minutes, okay?”

“It’s Emil,” Lily said, “And I’ll keep it under ten minutes, I promise.”

Paul nodded and headed towards the kitchen, wondering what in the world his offspring were up to.  He had spoken to his son earlier and he’d mentioned getting a text message from Lily but hadn’t said anything else. With a sigh, Paul put the whole thing behind him and began busily rummaging through the fridge for the makings of a sandwich. When Lily joined him a few moments later, she had a sly smile on her face and a sparkle in her eye that told Paul she was up to something. Rather than spoil her good mood, he chose not to say a word to her, his fatherly senses (as well as his Changeling talents) telling him she and Emil had a surprise up their sleeves.

That evening, when Paul was stretched out across the bed next to Arielle, nose buried in a book, he remembered the amused, cunning look on Lily's face earlier that night. He laid the book aside and sat up, watching Arielle as she ran a brush through her hair, the warm bedroom light turning her bright red hair blood red. She looked over her shoulder at her husband and said, “You've got that look on your face, husband. What silliness are you up to?”

“Not me, our daughter and Emil. I think they're planning something for our anniversary. When I got home this afternoon, she had a phone call from him and our wedding box was sort of out of place on the bookshelf. And no, I didn't go snooping in her head. She asked if we'd planned anything to celebrate and I said I didn't know. Did we?”

Arielle was braiding her hair back for the night, her eyes staring off into the distance, thinking. “No, we really hadn't planned anything. Why don't we wait and see what the kids come up with? I get the feeling they might come up with something better than we could.”

Paul hopped off the bed and went to Arielle, putting his arms around her and kissing the back of her neck. “Wife of mine, you're bloody brilliant. Have I told you that lately?”

“Not lately but you can make it up to me by giving me a back rub. Work was rough today and I feel like I'm in knots,” she replied, leaning back into Paul's arms. Resting her head against his chest, she closed her eyes and reveled in both the physical and mental bond they had. Their marriage had been rocky at first and they'd fought as much as they'd loved, but in the end she didn't regret any of those days. She'd counted herself lucky that Paul had only strayed a few times, unlike some of the men she knew (and that included her unofficial 'brothers' in the band).

Reaching up, she wrapped her arms around Paul's neck and let him pick her up, carrying her to their bed where he helped her out of her nightshirt and rubbed a warmed, herb-infused oil into her back. Drifting away with the scent of mint and lemon balm in her nose, Paul resting his head on her chest, Arielle wondered what their children would surprise them with as an anniversary gift.

::::

Three days later, Paul and Arielle came home from running errands to find Emil and Lily waiting for them on their front stoop. They were grinning from ear to ear and looking like two cats that had gotten into the cream and caught a couple of birds as well. Paul barely waited for the car to stop before flinging himself out and running across the lawn to pull the children into a bear hug. Arielle leaned against the side of the car and watched the three of them chattering away like magpies, waiting for them to slow down before she joined them. Emil half-lifted her off her feet in a hug, saying, “I've missed you Mum! I've been so freaking busy lately I haven't had the time to get more than a couple hours sleep!”

Arielle laughed and hugged him back, happy as always that Emil had insisted on calling her his mother from the beginning of her relationship with Paul. “It's good to see you too, sweetheart!” she replied. Lily was leaning against the front door, obviously itching to show her parents what she and Emil were up to. Chivying them into the house, Emil stood back next to Lily, muttering something in her ear as Ari and Paul dropped their bags in the library and rejoined them in the living room.

“All right you two, spill it,” Paul said, biting a grin back. “The last time I saw that look on your faces, you were trying to explain how you'd both managed to get up in the old apple tree at your Uncle Till's house when neither of you were tall enough to get to the lowest branch that even your Onkle Ollie couldn't reach, and there wasn't a ladder or step stool anywhere in sight.”

Emil blushed and Lily snort-laughed at Paul's comment as did Arielle, remembering how terrified the adults were for the two active, curious youngsters, and how hard it had been for them not to show it. It had taken both Till, Ollie and Paul cobbling together a ladder, and then Till coaxing Lily and Emil out of the tree, promising them that they wouldn't get their behinds paddled once they were down. Lily plucked a large envelope from a side table and handed it to Arielle, saying, “Emil and I got this for you and Dad. Not anything fancy, but...happy anniversary.”

With Paul perching himself on the arm of the chair Ari had sat down in, she carefully peeled the wax seal on the envelope and pulled a heavy, caramel-colored piece of paper out. She opened it, read the contents and caught her breath, handing it to Paul who had a similar reaction when he read what was written on the paper.

“I...I...this is wonderful!” Arielle said, popping out of the chair and hugging the children. Paul sat, stunned, grey-blue eyes wide and bright. “Do you know how hard it is to get reservations at Floria's, much less get reservations at The Cairad?” he stammered. “I tried three months ago to get a table at Floria's and they had a five month waiting list!”

Lily smiled at Paul, her dark blue eyes sparkling; Emil's blue-grey eyes, so much like Paul's had a bemused expression in them. “We have our ways, dear father, we have our ways,” she said.

“But this…three days and nights at The Cariad, anniversary dinner at Floria’s…” Ari said. Both hotel and restaurant were quite expensive as well as exclusive, and how Emil and Lily had pulled off reservations at both was nothing short of magical. Saying nothing more, she hugged the children again, this time dragging Paul into the hug.

::When did our kids get to be so grown up and more mature than we are?:: Paul asked.

::Ive not a clue. Dont let on, though, theyll never stop teasing us:: Arielle replied.

::::

The day of Paul and Arielle’s anniversary dawned bright, clear and warm. Paul had cleared his calendar of all band-related business and was doing some last minute laundry and packing while Arielle was at work. He’d gone into the city shortly after Arielle went to work, stopping at Richard and Lilly’s apartment on the way to ask her for advice on a present for Ari. Lilly had been playing with the kittens in the tiny garden just outside the kitchen; she sat down on one of the huge, stone planters and began idly plucking the dead blooms from the tiny white and pink rosebush she’d planted there early in the spring.

“Why don’t you get her something unusual?” Lilly asked, piling the dead blossoms in a pile next to the rosebush. “I’m going to assume you’ve gotten her the traditional gifts in the past---jewelry, clothes, flowers, that sort of thing.”

“Yeah, I have. I got her a custom-blended, just for her perfume last year and I’d do it again but the shop that made it went out of business, damn it all. I’m stuck,” Paul replied, reaching down to lift Fiona into his lap. “Got any ideas there, small one?”

::Not that a human would like.  I don't think Arielle would appreciate a box of mice:: Fiona said, folding herself into Paul's lap. ::Wait! Have you ever written a song for her?::

“Fi, that's a great idea!” Paul exclaimed, lifting the young cat up to plant a kiss on her nose. “I've got some bits and pieces of lyrics that I started but didn't know what to do with! You're brilliant!”

Fiona licked Paul's nose and jumped down into the pile of faded rose petals and bits of plant that Lilly had been working on, rolling over and over in them and purring. ::What can I say, I come from a line of very intelligent cats::

Lilly snort-laughed at Fiona and dangled a bit of mangled rose petal over her so she could bat at it. “I think you'd better get home and start working on that song, or you're going to be standing in line at the florists five minutes before they close!” she said. Paul hopped off the planter, thanking Fiona again and telling Lilly to remind Richard and Christoph that they had a meeting to see whether they were ready to start throwing ideas around for the album the following week, and for the name of her favorite florist shop.

When Arielle got home from work that afternoon, the house was quiet, the afternoon sun filling the interior with warmth and...rose perfume? Hanging her things up in the foyer, she walked into the living room, saying, “Paul? Are you home?”

“In the kitchen honey,” Paul yelled. “I've got everything but the last bits of things packed; could you pop into the bedroom and make sure I got everything packed that you needed?”

“Sure,” Arielle said, making her way towards the bedroom, noting that the scent of roses was growing stronger and stronger the closer she got to their bedroom. She opened the bedroom door and stopped dead in her tracks, eyes wide, unable to say a word. Paul came up behind her, sliding his arms around her waist and resting his head on her shoulder.

“Paul! This is...oh...” Arielle sighed, twisting in his arms to kiss him soundly. She wiggled out of his embrace and half-danced into the room to the bed, which was covered with roses in shades of red, from an innocent pink to the deep maroon-near black of the Black Baccara. In the middle of the carpet of roses were two white roses, twined together and tied with a length of creamy white silk ribbon. Lying underneath them was a folded piece of paper; Arielle opened it and seeing Paul's handwriting, turned and said, “It looks like...is this a song?”

“Well, the lyrics,” Paul replied, joining her beside the bed. “I don't have any music for it, not yet. I wasn't sure what to get you beside the usual, mundane stuff. I asked Lilly if she had any ideas and Fiona came up with me writing you a song. I had bits of lyrics here and there, so...there you are. I'll come up with the music later; I wanted you to have this now.”

Arielle read and re-read the song, a single tear sliding down her face to splash on the paper. Paul, confused by her tears, said, “Oh my God, it's awful, isn't it?”

“Paul Heiko Landers, don't you ever say that about your music!” Arielle scolded, folding the paper up and shoving it into her bra to keep Paul from snatching it out of her hand and tearing it up. “That is the most beautiful thing I've ever read! Don't you dare take that and throw it away when I'm not looking!”

“But...why...why are you crying?”

“Because you are so wonderful, so...you silly boy. Did you think I wouldn't like it?” Arielle said, picking up one of the roses and bopping Paul on the nose with it. “It's one of the loveliest things you've ever given me, besides your heart.” Paul blushed so red, his cheeks were close to the color of the rose Arielle held. Pulling her into his arms, not caring that they were squashing the flower between them, Paul kissed Arielle deeply, hands scrabbling to pull his shirt off without breaking the kiss. Arielle let the rose drop to the floor as she helped Paul out of his jeans, her clothes following his into a pile on the floor.  Heedless of the thorns that might be on the roses, Arielle pulled Paul onto the bed, clinging to him, kissing and nipping at his skin, murmuring heated words of love and lust in his ear.

“Good thing I had the florist de-thorn all of these or we'd be getting piercings in places we really wouldn't want,” Paul sighed, lying on his back, the scent of crushed roses, Arielle's perfume and the wild, warm scent of their combined lust making him dizzy. Arielle purred at him, leaning over to lick a trail down his chest and without warning, began licking his member in long, languorous stripes. Paul's breath caught in his throat and he grabbed handfuls of bedding and flowers to keep from arching up into Arielle's mouth. She wanted control this time and he was more than willing to give it to her; Arielle knew everything Paul liked and used them on him ruthlessly.

“Ari, I'm close, so close,” Paul gasped. “Pull back or I'll...”

Arielle chuckled and pulled away only to slide up Paul's body, swing a leg over his hips and sit down on him slowly, teasingly, making Paul scream in sheer delight. If there was one thing he especially liked about being connected to Arielle on a psychic level, it was being able to feel what she did when they made love. He grabbed her wrists, holding them against his chest, and thrust up into her, wanting so much to roll them over so he could be on top. Instead, he raised his knees up so she could rest against them, letting go of her wrists so they could clasp hands.

“God, I love you so much,” Arielle sighed, letting her head roll back so her hair cascaded over Paul's knees, almost reaching the bed. “You look so good lying there under me, I could do this all day.”

Paul smiled up at her, reaching a hand up to stroke her face. ::Ich liebe dich, Königin meines Herzens,:: he whispered. ::Forever, always and beyond forever::

Up, up, up they went, slow, lazy movements increasing as their bodies writhed on the bed, and Arielle cried out, voice sweet and ringing with joy and desire. Paul's cries were ragged and soft as he fell with her, momentarily losing consciousness. When he came around only seconds later, Arielle was leaning over him for a kiss which he gladly gave her. They parted soon after, reluctantly, and lay sprawled on the bed of roses, holding hands once again.

“That was intense,” Arielle murmured, once she had her breath back. Looking over at Paul, her heart melted as she took in the serene smile on his face and the lazy, contented look in his eyes.  She loved that look, that unmasked, wholly ordinary face that while it was there for others, this version was so much more, so much only hers. Paul rolled onto his side so he could kiss her again, reaching over her head to pull a handful of rose petals out of the pile. He scattered them down her body, keeping a couple back to put on her forehead. Arielle giggled and dug a handful of petals out from between them, lining them up down Paul's free arm and hip. “There. Modern art at its finest!” she laughed, taking one petal and balancing it on his nose.

“Marry me all over again?” Paul asked after they had lain in comfortable silence for a while.  “With all the bells and whistles we didn't have the first time around?”

“Hmmm. I'll have to think about that,” Arielle replied, pushing some of her hair from her eyes. “I thought our wedding was just fancy enough.”

“I did too, but I thought you might,” Paul replied, booping Arielle on the nose with one of the rose petals that he'd laid on her chest. “Hey, what about one of those hand-fasting things Ollie told us about? One of the guys who used to be on the sound crew when we were in the US for the LIFAD tour and his boyfriend did that since they couldn't get legally married. He got invited to the ceremonies and said it was beautiful.”

“I've read about them and they sound wonderful,” Arielle replied. “I could go for that.” She carefully piled the roses Paul had dropped on her into a heap above her head and kissed him soundly. “We'd better clean up and leave, our reservations at the restaurant are for seven and we need to check in at The Cariad by five. It's three now, and it'll take about an hour to get into the city.”

Paul groaned and began prying himself out of bed, sending a shower of petals to the floor. As he sat up, he saw something shiny poking from under his pillow. He pushed the pillow aside and found a tiny silver box, tied with a piece of black ribbon. It was barely larger than a ring box; he slid the ribbon off and pried the lid open, finding a heavy silver ring tucked into the heavy white velvet that lined the box. Lifting it out, he turned the band over in his fingers, watching the soft bedroom light playing over the intricately carved knotwork design that was etched into the metal. He slid it onto the middle finger of his left hand, next to his wedding band, and smiled.

“Look at the inscription inside,” Arielle said from behind him. Pulling the ring off, he tipped it into the light until he could read what had been scrived inside:

“Mine, forever and a day, to the moon and back. Ari.”

They were a little late arriving at the hotel, somewhat flushed and giggling like teenagers. Their sweet, charming behaviour made everyone that saw them smile, and the few fans who came across them simply laughed and left them be. They checked in, and once upstairs in their huge, elaborate suite, fell onto the giant bed, eager to devour one another again.

:::

"When did you get that dress? I've never seen it before.”

 Arielle turned away from checking her makeup in the mirror that was hung over the huge dresser, the hem of her calf-length, heavy silk, forest green dress swirling around her legs. The hem of the skirt was embroidered lushly with thick satin ribbons the same color as the dress while faux pearls the color of pewter were scattered across the bodice, which was cut low enough to show off her pale skin and the strand of pearls she'd inherited from her great-grandmother that she'd clasped around her neck.

 "This? I've had it for years. I bought it when you and I went to Scotland right before Lily was born. I stuck it in the closet and  forgot I had it. I found it when I was digging through the closet looking for my suitcase,” Arielle said, holding her arms out to the side to show herself off better. Paul wolf-whistled at her, saying, “You look gorgeous! Are you sure you can be seen out in public with a ragamuffin like me?”

Arielle rolled her eyes and smacked Paul's shoulder. As was his usual, he was in head to black, the only color being his silver earrings, rings and the sleek pelt of his dark brown hair. “Don't be a brat, or you won't get any dessert.”

 “Is that what we're calling wild monkey sex now?” he teased, hopping away from another swat. Still grinning at his wife, Paul put his mobile phone, room key and a couple other bits he carried with him in his pockets while Arielle found her shoes and put them on, taking one last look in the mirror to make sure everything was buttoned and zipped. “Come on monkey boy,” she said, taking Paul's arm as they headed for the door, “Let's see what else our cunning offspring have planned for us.”

 Late that night when they returned to their hotel room after a wonderful dinner and an evening of sightseeing, Paul unlocked their hotel room door, stopping Arielle before she could enter. Holding his arms out, he said, “May I carry you over the threshold, Frau Landers?”

 Arielle stepped gracefully into his embrace, saying, “Why thank you, Herr Landers. Such a gentleman you are.” Paul pushed the door open with his shoulder and carried her clear into the bedroom, where he carefully deposited her on the bed before running back out to shut the door. Pulling off his jacket, Paul saw a huge centerpiece of roses, lilies and tiny sprigs of baby's breath on the large table in the middle of the room that hadn't been there earlier. A card was lying nearby with their names on it; he opened it and laughed happily at the inscription. Arielle, who had taken her shoes off and was unwinding her hair from its braid, came into the room, saying, “Honey? What's...oh! Is that from you?”

 Paul handed her the card as he leaned down to take a deep breath of the roses. “Nope, for us from the rest of the 'family,' he said.  Whoever had ordered the centerpiece for them had convinced the florist to draw a couple of paw prints on the card to represent Marley and Fiona along with the other signatures; the heart-felt touch made him smile and tear up a tiny bit. Arielle leaned against the sofa and sniffled, blinking her eyes hard to stop any tears from falling. “If you'd told me ten years or so back that I'd have a family of the heart, I'd have magical powers and married to someone like you, I'd have thought you were drunk.”

 Paul went to his love's side and wrapped her in his arms, saying, “I wouldn't change a thing. Even with all the fights, the sad times, the scary times, I wouldn't change anything.”

 “Take me to bed,” Arielle whispered after a time. “Take me to bed and make love to me until we can't move any more.”

 Remembering a line from a favorite book of his, Paul bowed over Arielle's hand, smiled broadly up at her and said, “As you wish.”

 And they did.

Chapter Text

My name is Jennifer Lorenz.

Call me Jenny, bitte.

You look at the few photographs of me that the public has seen and you wouldn't believe that I'm not 100% human. I'm as normal as can be---dark blonde hair, dark blue eyes, middling-average height and build. My husband, bless his dear soul, calls me 'elegant' and 'swan-like,' our children call me Mum and tell me I'm pretty.

If any of them knew the truth.

You see, I'm as far from human as can be, and still look human. My people have roamed this planet almost as long as the Fey Ones have, and with their help, sometimes, we engineered the descendants of the humans that walk on this world today.

What are we?

Well, we're not angels, far from that. We are simply another branch of the tree that the Fey Ones, the shapeshifters, magic users and some humans come from. We had our own time of evolution, of growth and change, and had we not taken the route we did, to look human and still keep our gifts, we probably would have faded into legends, if we were that lucky.

We intermarried with some human bloodlines, we created others and a few...yes, a few were…culled. There's some out there today that I wish had been culled for all the disaster and conflict they've caused through the years. But that was never my job, and I'm glad for it. For all that I can be cruel, vengenceful and heartless, I wouldn't want to make the decision to destroy an entire civilization. It's not in me, never has been.

My family raised me to honor what I am while hiding it at the same time; had I not grown up in a town full of my kind I would have had a hard time assimilating into the human world. You learned almost from birth how to act, how to hide what you really were behind layers and layers of glamourie, and to never, ever, let those masks down. And you never let anyone human into your life as more than a friend, maybe a lover. Nothing more permanent.

By the time I was out on my own, I could move between my family's home and the human world with ease. I always thought I'd end up either married to one of my far-kindred or to one of the young men I grew up with, but Fate, being the fickle lady she is, had other plans for me.

:::

I was working for a friend in her flower shop one chilly November afternoon, helping her with the oncoming holiday rush, when the door of the shop opened, setting the bell over it to chiming. A blast of frigid air set the flowers and decorations around the shop to waving and bobbing, and I was reaching over the counter to grab a basketful of ribbons I’d been making into bows when I looked up and into the most icy-blue eyes I'd ever seen. They were half-hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses, and the person who lifted the off his face and up into his messy, dark blonde hair that looked like it had been haphazardly cut off with gardening shears, was a person I knew well.

How could you live in Germany and not know who Flake Lorenz was?

While I wasn't a avid fan of Rammstein's music, I'd been to one of their shows with some others from my small circle of friends and had quite liked the lanky, somewhat graceful, somewhat clumsy keyboard player who was ever at Till Lindemann's mercy. I knew the whole thing was an act but I still had to catch myself from gasping when I saw him dragging Flake across the stage at the end of a leash, a ball gag in his mouth and looking like he wanted to be anywhere but on that stage. All you had to do was look at the right moments in time to see that he was having the time of his life being the singer’s chew-toy.

“Do you want a hand with those?” Flake said, a tiny smile at the corner of his mouth. I nodded and corralled the handful of bows I'd snagged and dumped them into the basket, while he rounded up the remainder and deposited them with their fellows. I nodded my thanks, put the basket under the counter where they would be safe, and said, “Good afternoon. What can I help you with today?”

It turned out he was on his way to meet up with the band in a restaurant down the street from the shop, and had wanted to bring a bouquet of flowers along as a present for Till to pass along to his daughter, Nele, as a congratulations on her work at school. “I should have done something sooner, but I forgot, and I'll have to do a lot of apologizing to her the next chance we see each other,” he said ruefully, a slight blush coming out high up on his cheekbones. “But she knows how tightly wrapped she has her Onkle's heart wound around her little finger.” It didn't take long for me to pull together a  bouquet that met with his approval and wrap it up, and once he left with a somewhat bigger smile and softly spoken “danke,” I found myself staring at the door, wondering what in the world about Flake's eyes that had caught me so hard.

He wasn't conventionally handsome, like some, but there was something in his eyes, something that I sensed was hidden under his skin, deep in his bones. The friend I was working for called him “geeky cute” and I had to admit, she was right. Long, graceful, pianist's fingers, blue eyes both wide and secretive at the same time, he looked more like he'd be found with his nose stuck in a dusty old book than up in front of ten thousand screaming fans.

Time passed and we met again through friends at a party around New Year’s, and this time I was quick enough on the draw to ask Flake if he'd like to meet me some afternoon for coffee, as we had a lot of the same interests and a noisy party wasn't exactly the best place to discuss things and be heard. We met, had a very enjoyable afternoon together, and the next thing I knew, we were spending a lot of time with each other, when he wasn’t on the road or in the recording studio and I wasn’t busy plowing my way through my my own career. I won’t go into details about the first time we slept together, but I will say that breaking a bed frame and having to go buy a new once wasn’t exactly part of our plans!

We’d both had relationships in the past that hadn’t ended well, so naturally it took over a year before we even talked about an engagement, much less getting married. I was content with the way things were going and wasn’t really looking for things to change when Flake dragged me away from my work for a weekend. We went up into the Austrian mountains, and standing in a field full of sweet-smelling, gloriously colored wildflowers, my dear-heart knelt down, took my hand and asked me to marry him. I could only nod, for the word “yes” was stuck in my throat, and when he placed my engagement ring on my finger, I burst into tears. It was a simple rose-gold setting, with an emerald-cut opal in the center and three small diamonds on each side. It was obviously hand made just for me, and that made me cry even harder.

 “Oh shit, it’s too big? Too small? Wrong color? ” Flake babbled, holding my hand up and examining it from all sides. “Please don’t cry…what’s wrong, Jenny?”

 “It’s…it’s beautiful, Christian, I sobbed, slinging my arms around his neck and hugging him to me. “It’s perfect. I’m just…I’m so happy, you have no clue how happy I am!” We held on to one another in that alpine field for what seemed like forever, and when we finally let go, Flake led me to a rock outcropping near a tiny brook and sat down with me. Still holding my hand, he said, “I’m not easy to live with, you know. I’m picky, I can be surly and I’m opinionated. If you want to back out, say yes, and I'll…ooof!”

 It’s hard for a man to natter on about matters you are already aware of when you’re kissing him senseless. Especially when you knock him off a rock, pin him to the ground and kiss him senseless.

 And then make love to him in the warm spring sunlight, your bed a soft mass of green grass, alpine flowers and moss.

 Our wedding was intimate, just the two of us, his daughter Anne, my friend Teresa who ran the florist’s shop I’d been working in when we met as my witness, and Paul witnessing for Flake. He cried almost as much as I did that day, I remember, and before we left for the party that Richard and Till had insisted on giving us, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You’ve made my best friend really happy, Jenny. You’re the best thing that’s happened to him in quite a long time. He lets you call him by his birth name and I didn’t get to do that till I’d known him a couple of years. And he still gives me this hurt look if I slip up and call him that in public! So yeah, you’ve made him very happy.”

 “Well, do we have your blessing?” I teased, gently poking Paul in the ribs with an elbow. He hopped away with a bubbling giggle and said, “Absolutely. It’s about time someone came along and made a respectable man out of him.”

 And so our married life began. It wasn’t easy at first as the band was back out on the road not quite a month after our wedding, but we managed a honeymoon at some point in the tour. We fought about stupid things, about important things, but we always made up. There were groupies everywhere, and I know there was a time or two that Flake wobbled off the path of marital faithfulness, but didn’t fall clear into cheating. I was busy at home and at school, we were head over heels in love with each other, I liked everyone in the band quite a bit, and all was well until the afternoon my mother called and asked me if we'd planned on children.

“I...what? Mother, that's a little too personal if you ask me,” I said, easing myself onto the sofa, knees a bit weak from the abrupt start of the conversation. “We haven't, really. Christian already has a daughter, Anne; we get along very well. Why are you asking?”

 “Daughter, he's not like us. Do you realize what a child born from the two of you will be like? Half human, half one of...one of us? The family was all right with you marrying but a child, that's courting disaster,” my mother said. She'd only met Flake once, and that was the day before our wedding, and had excused herself from any family get-togethers since then. She’d refused to come to the wedding, much less the party, and any communication from my father came through her, what little there was. It was more than troubling, and any time in the past that I’d asked her why she was so formal, cold and distant with us, she’ d managed to change the subject and I forgot what I’d asked.

 I sighed deeply, rubbed my forehead with my knuckles and said, “Mother, this is not the old days where bloodlines had to be examined and studied to an inch of their lives before a couple could have a child. We don't go before a council of elders to ask for permission to marry or have kids. You and Father didn't.”

 “That's because he's one of us. Child, please, think this through. Are you ready and willing to raise a child that might go mad before its fifth birthday because of the things it can see and hear that no one else can? A child that's gifted in anything they set their hand to, no matter what? Or die before it's born?”

 “Or a child that might not have a gift at all. A child that might be as normal as anything or anyone can be? Mother, I'm not going to live by outdated rules that no one's followed for years. If I fall pregnant, then so be it,” I argued. “I want to live a normal life. I want to grow old with Christian, travel all over the world, and if that includes a child or two, then so be it,” I snapped. I was tired of being told that I'd ruined my life by marrying a human, I was tired of living by outdated, moldy old rules that meant nothing to me now.

 I wound up to argue some more when Mother said, “If you do, Janiffer nic Donah ap Rhone, if you have a child with this...human, then I will cut you off from this family. From your people. Forever. Is a human's child worth that much to you? Is he worth it?”

 “Yes, Christian is worth everything to me. You've been against us being together since the day I told you I'd found my heart's love. You were mad at me because every man you paraded in front of me I turned down. You wanted alliances. I don't. I've seen what using people as pawns does and I'm not going to be one of yours. You should have stayed a judge and never married father, never had me. Goddess knows your heart is still hard enough for the job.”

 We had more angry words to say to one another, but in the end my mother had the last word. She told me that I was no longer one of her bloodline, no longer welcome in our homeland, and that no child of my marriage would be recognized as any of her kin. I managed not to cry while we were talking but the moment I slammed the phone down, I curled up on the couch and cried my eyes out. I wasn’t a big fan  of crying and had tried everything I could not to, but the idea that I had cut myself off forever from everything I knew, everyone I knew hurt so much. I cried till I was too tired to do more than lie on the couch and stare at the wall and thought I was done, but something would remind me of my childhood and the tears would start all over again.

 When Flake came home that evening from doing some work on one of his beloved classic cars that were stored downtown, he found me still curled up on the sofa, a small trash bag full of tissues at my feet and three empty tissue boxes piled on the coffee table. When he saw my red, almost swollen shut eyes, scarlet nose and ratty hair, he ran to my side, asking me what was wrong, and for the first time in our marriage I had to lie to him. Dredging up my courage and praying this was the last time, I said, “I'm fine sweetheart, just fine. Just finished a sad movie on the television, nothing more.”

 With a frown, my husband raised my chin up with a finger, ice blue eyes unblinking like a cat's, and for a heartbeat I was afraid he'd seen through my lie and was going to lecture me. Instead he sighed, kissed me gently and murmured, “I'm sorry liebeling. Anything I can do to help?”

 “Well, if you're not busy...” I laughed gently, wrapping my arms around his neck and pulling him to me for a long, deep kiss, knowing sex would distract both of us from my misery. It did the trick, and that night I conceived our first daughter, Marie, and it was with great pleasure that I sent my parents a birth announcement, hoping my mother would relent at the news of her first grandchild.

 Flake's family were ecstatic, the band just as happy, and mine...I never heard from again.  Not even after we had another daughter a few years later that we named Alyssa, after my father's mother and I’d reached out to them in a letter, hoping time had mellowed my mother’s anger.

 It hadn’t.

The letter came back to me, unopened, and “no such addressee” scrawled across the envelope in heavy black ink. I tore it into tiny pieces, threw it in the trash, and that night, since the girls were at a friend’s house for a sleepover and Flake was on his way back from the States as the tour was coming to  a break before starting up again, I pulled almost every bottle of alcohol out of the cabinets and got blackout drunk. When I woke up the next afternoon, the sight of myself in the bathroom mirror and  the headache that threatened to make my skull explode made me swear never to drink like that ever again, but it kept me from hurting.

I watched my girls like a hawk as they grew, hoping I didn't see any sign of the insanity or sickness that my mother had said would appear in a half-breed child. I could see hints of some kind of talent that looked nothing like my own talent, but I was never able to get a handle on it long enough to examine it. I saw some of the same talent in Anne, but again, it was too faint to register.

And strangely enough, once I had that odd talent's 'scent,' I discovered it was not only in Anne, Marie and Alyssa, but in my husband as well...and then in the rest of the band. Since I was cut off from my family and all of my friends were human, there was no one I could turn to with my questions. So I tucked them away and tried to pretend that I wasn't a child of one of the oldest races on earth, that if I wanted to, I could snap my fingers and kill every living thing in a hundred miles. I could manipulate time and space, I could bring the dead to life again, among other things. I tried to forget who I was. I told myself so many versions of the truth, told the same things to other people, I sometimes really did forget what I was.

A couple years after Alyssa was born, something...strange happened. Flake and the rest of the band had gone to America for a week for some reason I was never quite sure of, and when they came back, they'd changed. Oh, not in a drastic way that someone would casually notice and make mention of, but in a way someone who was intimate with them would notice.

Christian's hair, for one, was a lot longer than it had been before he'd left, for one, and he looked like someone had taken an eraser and wiped away the few lines he'd gotten over the years. The most stunning part, however, was how much bluer his eyes were, and how if I looked long and deeply enough, I could see other shades of blue, green, gold and silver in there. If he caught me at it, he’d look away and insist I was staring at him. After the first couple of times I learned how to look without being caught, because I knew how much he hated being stared at.  I was going to let the matter drop, but then I met the woman who was now the band’s tour doctor for the new tour’s Stateside run…and obviously Richard’s lover. They certainly didn’t act like it; I’ve never seen a man chase a woman like Richard did and not-chase her at the same time, and it was funny.

I’d invited the band, plus Arielle, Paul’s wife, to a dinner party at our house a week before the tour was to pack up and head overseas. Richard had asked very politely if he could bring Lilly along, not wanting to overstep any boundaries, and I’d nattered at him for being so silly. “She’s a friend of yours, Reesh, of course I don’t mind!” I’d said. “Besides, I’d like to meet the woman who’s going to be responsible for patching my husband up from Till slinging him around the stage by his hair!”

When Lilly walked into the house that evening, one arm looped through Richard's arm and the other through Till's arm, the sheer force of her gifts almost flattened me. Her talents were barely contained; how she could bear to be around people without layers of shielding I had no earthly idea. I'd be writhing on the ground, bleeding from my ears, if I'd been as 'naked' to the world as she was. I itched to ask her a million questions but instead, I bit my tongue and smiled at her when Richard gestured at her and said, “Lilly Bailey, this is Jennifer Lorenz, the lady who keeps our Flake in line. Jenny, this...this is Lilly.”

Lilly swallowed hard before she shyly extended her hand for mine. For all that she looked like the human incarnation of an artist who painted the kind of women you saw on the covers of fantasy novels, she was a scared, shy and sad little girl inside. I felt horrible for her and extended a breath of my shields to cover hers, which immediately set her at ease. She made no comments about it, which told me everything; she had no clue how thin her shields were. She was struggling to learn about her talents all on her own, and thank all the gods and goddesses ever thought of, she was doing okay.

The moment our fingers touched, I realized that she hadn't been born this way, she'd had her gifts forced into working. I can't tell you how I knew, I just did. The violation and pain she'd lived through made me nauseated and enraged; I had to excuse myself and stumbled off to the bathroom where I locked the door and slumped to the floor, shaking, gagging and sweating.

“Jenny? What's wrong?” Flake said, softly tapping the bathroom door. “Are you sick? You went running out of the living room like your behind was on fire.”

“I'm...I'm fine,” I said, dragging myself to my feet. “I'll be right out.” I ran a brush through my hair, slapped some blush on and went back out to rejoin the party, glossing over what had happened as best I could. Thankfully Paul and Ollie were able to keep the conversation going anywhere that territory, and by the time the party wound down, I'd all but forgotten what had happened. I was putting the last of the wine glasses in the sink to wash them in the morning when I heard Flake pull one of the kitchen chairs out of the table and sit down. Wiping my hands on a towel, I turned around and saw him staring at me, big blue eyes hard and unblinking. I leaned against the counter and raised my eyebrows, saying, “Well, what?”

“Don't tell me you're all right, woman. I know that face and you're hiding something,” he said, shoving his glasses up on his head. I tried to think of something to say to deflect his temper but the second I looked in his eyes, I blurted out, “How long have you not needed glasses? And why did you come back from the US with longer hair?”

Christian reared back from me like I'd slapped him. He jumped up from his seat and headed for the stove, then swore quietly as he rinsed out two of the wineglasses I'd put in the sink. He fumbled around the collection of bottles and plucked out one of the white wines we both liked and poured our glasses full. Handing me one, he sat back down and gestured to the chair next to him. He took a long drink of his wine, sighed and said, “Sit down, Jenny. This...this is going to take some time. And you probably won't believe me.”

“Try me.”

:::

It was four in the morning by the time he'd had told me the entire story, from Richard going missing, to their going to rescue him from the insane scientist who had kidnapped him and Lilly,  and the exchange of blood that had woken their talents. They'd always been there, he said, and whatever combination of drugs and viruses the madman had used on Lilly and Richard had combined and woke them up. He was exhausted, paler than milk and leaning against the table by the time he was done; he looked at me and said, “That's all there is. If you want a divorce, I'll give you one without a fight.”

“Oh sweetheart,” I sighed, taking his empty glass and mine and putting them back in the sink. When I turned back to face him, I let my glamorie fall away to show my love what I really, truly was. Flake stood up, slowly, never looking away from me, and stammered, “Schiẞe. You're a bloody fairy queen. When were you gonna tell me this?

“Never. And it would have stayed that way,” I replied, moving slowly out of the kitchen and into the living room, knowing that Christian was working his way up into a flaming rage and not wanting to contribute to it. We'd always been open with one another, was this going to be the thing that killed our relationship?

“Jenny. Please. Stop,” I heard Flake say and I stopped, leaning against the wall and not facing him. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sound like I was mad at you. This is just such a shock, that's all.”

I turned around and said, “And when were you going to tell me what happened to you, the rest of the band? You could have at least told me some of it. I worried about you, you idiot! What if you'd been killed by that crackpot? What would I have told the girls? Your mother?”

“I don't fucking know, all right? Look, I've gone about this all wrong. Let's start this over. You're some kind of...Elf, fairy, mystical creature and I'm a Changeling. Bet your mother never saw that coming.”

“How...how did you know my family and I were on the outs?” I gasped, stumbling back to the kitchen and flopping down in the chair I'd vacated. “I didn't tell anyone!”

“You didn't have to,” Flake said, coming up behind me and rubbing my shoulders. “You were crying in your sleep one night and I peeked at your dreams. Your mother should be glad I haven't shown up at her house with one of Till's flamethrowers and Schneider's quarter staff that's got iron inside it. Talk about xenophobic, human-phobic...whatever-phobic.”

“Once upon a time I thought her way of thinking was right,” I replied, leaning my head to the side so he could get at the sore muscles in my neck. “Having a mother who was a judge for years and having her point of view shoved down your throat from the time you're old enough to understand what's going on screws your head up nicely.”

“A judge? What kind of judge?”

“Same as a human judge. Our people don't have a lot of crime but when we do, we seem to mess up in a big way,” I explained. “She presided over a lot of other cases, but when the big ones came up, she was always elected to preside over them. Father was a consultant on some domestic case when they met, and all this time I believed they were in love. I'm starting to think that it was more a marriage of convenience because I never got the feeling from them like I did from some of my friend's parents, that they cared about each other. They were always so formal around each other.”

We were quiet for a few moments, Flake rubbing my neck and me lost in bitter memories. I wanted to get up and go to bed and started to rise, when he pulled me around and into his arms. “Can I show you something?” he asked. I nodded, and in a breath, the world went away...

...the beach is bathed in starlight, the scent of the ocean strong in my nose and brine on my tongue. I look down and see that my toes are buried in white sand, bare, and the hem of my  pants bagging around my ankles. I raise my eyes and see a huge sand dune in front of me, thick stems of sawgrass poking through the sand, their grey-green stems straight as spears. A path of sparkling light meanders around and over the dunes, leading somewhere beyond them. A warm breeze sets the grass to waving, tugging the sleeves of the baggy, silk shirt I have on. I reach up and find my hair is loose, fingers catching on something soft and cool. I tug at it and a huge rose blossom falls into my hand, its petals the color of a dying fire. It smells so wonderful, nothing like any rose I've smelled.

“This is the Dreamscape,” Christian says, standing up from a rock he's been sitting on. The breeze ruffles his bleached-blonde hair, while the starlight picks up silver highlights in it. He looks nothing like the person the fans see, he is more like one of my people, willowy, power contained with will and temperament. He puts an arm around my waist and continues, “Originally, this was Lilly's safe place. As we've come into the bond, it's grown and expanded to include our safe places. Now that you're here, there'll be a place that's yours. If you want it.”

“You have no clue how like this place is to where I'm from,” I choke out past a throat grown thick with tears. “If you tell me there's animals here that can talk to you, I'm going to faint.”

“Well,” Christian says, a worried look on his face, “there are. And please don't faint.”

I manage not to faint but I'm quite woozy and find myself deposited on a rock, my husband kneeling at my feet, chafing my hands and staring at me. “Does your homeland look like this? I thought you were from Hanover?”

“The slip-gate to where I'm from is at the very edge of the city,” I reply. “I convinced you that was where I was from. I've lived in Berlin for about twenty years or so. And I'm only a couple of years older than you are.”

“A slip-what?”

“It's a wrinkle in the fabric of space-time that separates this world from mine,” I explain. “There's places like it all over this world . There's certain times of the year the gates are easily opened by anyone, like at Halloween; that's why you hear stories of people suddenly disappearing and never reappearing, or reappearing years later but thinking they've only been gone a day. Legends have their roots in reality.”

Christian sits down beside me on the rock, looping one arm through mine. “Have your people always been here?” he asks.

“We've been here almost as long as the Fey Ones---the Elves,” I explain. “We've intermarried with some human bloodlines, influenced some, culled others. And don't wince at me, my family had nothing to do with that. We don't have a name for ourselves; the Elves call us the Elderkin, and that works for me.”

We're quiet again for awhile, listening to the distant surf wash up on the shore, the rustle of the saw-grass, and the near-inaudible hiss of sand across the dunes. “Did I figure into any of your plans?” Christian asks, voice almost hidden by the sounds of wind and surf. “Did your family send you over to chase a skinny wraith of a rock star and seduce him away?”

If I weren't captivated by the scenery, I'd laugh, but instead I sigh and say, “No. I left home because I wanted to see what this world was like. Once I was here, I didn't want to go back, and I believe my father talked my mother into letting me stay. She probably thought my infatuation with this world would pass, but it didn't. When I met you, I didn't have anything in mind other than wanting to see who you were underneath that mask you show the rest of the world. I didn't expect I'd fall in love with you, much less marry and have children with you.”

“If your family insisted, if they said they'd take you back right now, all you had to do was leave me and the girls, would you go?” Christian asks me, his voice so full of hurt I can taste it. “Because if they insist, I'll let you go. I won't keep you a prisoner.”

“No, no, no...” I whimper, curling into Christian's shoulder. I begin to cry, the feeling of having to give up all these things, all these people I love like a burning knife shoved into my guts. “I won't leave. My parents had their chance and they blew it. I'm never going back, ever. Not even if they got on their knees and begged.” We hold each other, sobbing, squishing the rose between us. “If I left you, my heart would break and never mend,” I cry.

Eventually we manage to get ourselves under control, albeit shakily. Christian takes my arm and leads me up the shining path so I can get my first look at the ocean I've been hearing. The sun is beginning to rise over the horizon, painting the velvet-black sky with every shade of red, orange and pink I've ever seen. I catch my breath as a pod of dolphins fling themselves out of the ocean, chattering happily and playing int the surf. The thunder of hooves catches my attention and I spot a small herd of horses led by a pure white horse with outspread wings leading them down the beach. They race past us, whinnying, tossing their heads, hooves throwing up sand and water as they pass. They make a sharp right and vanish around the largest sand dune on the beach, leaving us alone again.

“What do you want to add to the Dreamscape, Jenny-my-swan-queen?” Christian breathes in my ear. “We've got a dragon, a Hobbit house, winged horses, but there's still room for more.”

 I spend several moments contemplating the scenery, trying to figure out what I can contribute. It comes to me at last, so I close my eyes and whisper my contribution to the winds. I hear my mate's indrawn breath of surprise, and when I open my eyes again, one of the sand dunes is covered in roses of every shade of red and pink ever thought of. Their scent merges with the ocean's; we breath deeply and I say, “They're sea roses. They'll only grow near the ocean, and they bloom almost all year. My grandmother lived near the ocean and I spent every summer with her. That's my safe place, my happy place.”

 “They're perfect. And beautiful, and unique. Just like you,” Christian murmurs in my ear, folding his arms around me and resting his chin on my shoulder.  I laugh softly and reply, “Just like you too.”

 

Chapter Text

Autumn's grip had taken hold fully with its cold nights, frost-killed leaves that fell from their parent trees like snow, and the lonely calls of birds heading south for warmer weather.  The sunlight that was once hot and feisty was still warm but growing weaker as the days passed, and decorations for the coming Halloween season began appearing everywhere in the city and around the countryside.  For those who celebrated the old holiday either for fun or faith, it was an exciting time of year.

Till and Richard were sitting in front of a crackling, simmering fire in the fireplace that kept his office warm even though he had central heating and air conditioning. Richard was staring at his sock-clad toes, half asleep, while Till was reading an old, dog-eared copy of Alice In Wonderland/Through The Looking Glass. he'd bought for Nele when she was small and had read the story so many times over the years he was sure he'd memorized it. Now, that same story was the inspiration for a song that had been bugging him for days. A steno pad with his cramped, messy writing was on his knee, the pen he'd been using shoved behind one ear. He'd outlined how he wanted the song to go, now it was just a matter of getting the words to fit the framework. He'd hit a sticky spot and rather than sit and fume over it, he'd put his work aside and was now simply enjoying the story of Alice and her bizarre adventures in Wonderland.

“Damn, I want to know what Lewis Carroll was on when he wrote this,” Till murmured, half to himself and half to Richard, who only grunted in reply. He was stuffed full of steak, twice-baked potatoes that had been laden with cheese, garlic and onions, a huge salad that contained every last vegetable that had been growing in Till's garden before the last cold snap of the year, and a chocolate chip cheesecake that they'd made earlier in the day. A soft noise made him raise his head from the pillow he'd stuffed behind it and he saw Marley and Fiona stretched out on the hearth, their tummies full of their own portions of steak. Nearby, and full with their own dinner were Till's dogs, Oscar and Thor, who were snoring like drunken sailors on shore leave.

Till had insisted that Richard and the cats spend the weekend with him while Lilly and Christoph were away at Siobhan's family's “safe house.” When Richard arrived with the cats stowed away in their carrier, he'd been worried there would be war between the huge dogs and the smaller cats, but Marley had insisted on her and Fiona to be let out of the carrier in the yard . Oscar had been the braver of the two dogs, padding carefully up to the cats, who sat as still as statues in the cool morning sunshine. Thor was not quite as sure about them, following his litter-mate's lead in greeting the strange creatures. There had been sniffing on both parties' part, some quiet grumbling, muttering and tail twitching, but in the end, the dogs looked at the men, sneezed, and were off with the cats bouncing along behind them. Till, who had held his breath the entire time, pulled in a huge lungful of air that had a huge laugh in it. Richard looked at his long-time friend, eyes wide, and said, “You're just gonna let them go off like that? Aren't there things out in your woods that eat cats?”

“And be back for supper, you goofy kids!” Till yelled at the retreating animals' backs, getting a pair of tail twitches from the cats and a deep “mooph!” from the dogs. Turning to Richard, he slung his arm over his shoulder and said, “I pity anything larger than Oscar or Thor if they run into Fiona and Marley. They'd either send them back to their mothers with newly ripped assholes, or they'll drag whatever messes with them back here and demand I make dinner for them from the carcass. They'll be fine. Now come in, I've got a few ideas I need to throw at you and a bottle of hard apple cider Siobhan's brother-in-law sent with her the last time she visited. I haven't opened it yet, so I can't tell you how much of a kick it might have.”

 Marley rolled over on her back, paws in the air, and cracked open an eye to look at Richard. ::That was a wonderful dinner. If I ate like that every day, I'd be as big as a house before long::

 ::I'm glad you insisted we come over to Till's while Chris and Lilly are otherwise occupied:: Richard replied. ::I'd be going out of my mind worrying about them when I wasn't eaten up with curiosity at how things were going.::

 ::You truly aren't bothered by Lilly having a child with another man, even if he is your heart-mate and brother-kin:: Fiona said, flopping onto her back with a grunt. ::Huh. You've come a long way, especially for a male with your personality::

 ::I've...grown up a bit. Besides, I love them both. It took quite a lot of soul-searching and sleepless nights, but I know I made the right decision. And it's not like Chris can get pregnant::

 “Dear Lord I hope not!” came Till's snort-laughed reply. Since no one had bothered to keep their conversation private, he'd been listening the whole time, albeit distractedly. “If we males had to carry a baby to term, the human race would go extinct. I will never, ever, understand how the fuck you can go through the pain of labor and not kill everyone in the room.”

 “Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs,” Richard murmured, pulling his legs up underneath him. “At least that would be me. So. Till...do you think I've made the right decision?”

 “Now's not the time to be asking me, Richard! Of course you made the right decision, you idiot,” Till said, swatting Richard's knee with the book he'd been reading. “Lilly told Nele and me that you two had talked about having a baby after this first one is a year or so old. Is that still your plan?”

 “As far as I know it is. But if Lilly has one tiny spot of trouble, I'm going to tell her that the plan is a no-go.  I've got a wonderful kid; I'm not one of these guys who thinks he has to sire five or six kids to prove his dick works,” Richard said with some heat. “Lilly told me a horror story about this woman who came into the emergency room she worked in; she'd had eleven kids and was pregnant with twins. I don't remember the details, but she lost both of the babies during labor and when Lilly asked her what she was going to do next, she said that she was going to start working on getting pregnant as soon as she got out of the hospital. Not because she wanted to. Her husband was making her; they were members of some weird religion that said you had to have as many kids as you could. It didn't matter if your wife killed herself having the kids, you just kept on fucking her to get her pregnant again as soon as she delivered. And from what Lilly told me, even if they weren't into some weird religious shit, her husband was the kind of guy that thought if he didn't have more than one or two kids, it reflected badly on his masculinity. I will never, ever, do that to her.”

 “Easy there Reesh, I know you wouldn't be an asshole like that,” Till replied. “I was just curious. Lilly is going to be fine. She's literally healthy as a horse and between you and Schneider, she'll be pampered so much she'll be sick of it by the time the baby comes.”

 “It was nice of Siobhan and her family offering their safe house for them,” Richard replied, as he wriggled around in the chair until he was more comfortable. “And they made life hell for anyone who might have decided to follow them.”

 Till snort-laughed and said, “I'd challenge anyone to try to get within a kilometer of that place without setting off alarms in a hundred places. I know when she took me up there for a weekend, she got several phone calls asking her who she was with, how we'd gotten there, the whole kit and caboodle. And they knew she was going to be at the house! I got the feeling that if I'd tried to do one thing to her she didn't want, I'd be magically strung up by my balls before I could blink.”

 :::

“This is a summer house? Holy shit.”

 Christoph and Lilly were standing in front of a house that if it hadn't been pointed out to them, they wouldn't have seen. Made from local wood and stone, it blended into the surrounding forest, even the short driveway seeming to magically appear out of the field of yellowed grass. It was no larger than Paul and Arielle's home, but it seemed much larger, especially if you looked at it from the corner of your eye. It was a marvel of architecture and would have given any of the fancier houses the Christoph had seen over the years a run for their money.

 “Not so much a summer house these days as a safe house,” Siobhan said, leaning against the hood of her rather battered Land Rover. “My mother's family built it at the end of the First World War, hoping that it wouldn't ever be used as more than a summer home. We were wrong. It's still a summer home but it's loaded with alarms, both magical and mundane, and has its own way of protecting itself. Ask Till about that one. He'll never go pulling at a tree's branches again.”

 “Oh no,” Lilly said, hopping up on the Rover's hood. “What did he do?”

 “Well, I brought him up here over a weekend and the idiot didn't listen to me when I told him not to take firewood from a live tree. He yanked on a pine tree branch and the tree swatted him across the woods and right into a brier patch. I had to pry him out, and if that wasn't enough, a couple of squirrels started throwing rotten nuts at him until he begged for mercy. I don't think he's going to forgive me for laughing at him and not protecting him from squirrely wrath,” Siobhan explained, 'showing' Lilly and Christoph what she'd seen. The three of them began laughing; Christoph ended up rolling around on the  damp grass, hiccuping and giggling until Lilly and Siobhan had to haul him to his feet and make him hold his breath to stop the hiccups. “I'm gonna tease him about being beaten up by a tree for the rest of his life!” he howled, leaning his head on Lilly's shoulder while he clung to Siobhan's arm. 

 “I hope you can run faster than I can,” Siobhan said, patting Christoph's hand. “I didn't make it halfway through the woods before he caught up with me. He threatened to spank me; I was just quick enough to convince the forest that he was teasing and not serious. I don't know what he did to apologize to the forest that time. He went out after we had dinner and was gone for about a half an hour and when he came back he was pale and quiet for the rest of the evening. Whatever he did, the forest must have accepted it because when we left on Sunday night, it felt sad.”

 Lilly sighed, saying, “Just when I think there's nothing magical left in the world to find out...Siobhan, I don't know how to thank you and your family for insisting that Chris and I come here and not stay in the city. Poor Reesh, he's going to be rattling around in his apartment the entire weekend worrying and being envious that he's not here with us.”

 “Marley, Fiona and Till will make sure he's not bored. Till asked them over to his house for the weekend and he's got a full schedule for them,” Siobhan said. “I never pegged Richard as having some of the same thoughts about children and marriage as most of my kin do. There's no triads in the family any more but there were, once.”

 “Me either, but then again I never thought he'd be comfortable with the idea that Lilly's going to have my child,” Christoph said, pulling himself up onto the hood of the Rover and sitting lotus-fashion. “Or ever admit he was bisexual and it wasn't a phase.”

 “What about you?” Siobhan asked. “Your family is pretty traditional, and you told me how your parents haven't exactly been happy about you and Richard, much less you and Lilly, and the three of you being lovers.”

 Christoph's handsome-pretty face went hard and closed, a look that Lilly knew was the only way he was able to deal with his parents' disapproval. “I had trouble with being bi myself when I hit my twenties. And then there's the whole cross-dressing thing which was fun, is still fun, but I couldn't ever convince my father otherwise. Richard is the only man I've ever been absolutely intimate with; falling in love with him gave me the strength to make peace with being bisexual. If I didn't have him all these years, even if was friends with benefits, or just best friends, he's been one of my anchors. When he went to New York to deal with his addictions, it half killed me that I couldn't help him, that he went to someone else, somewhere else. Of course, once I got over being hurt, I realized he had to do it or we'd have buried him  within a year or two. And I'll never give him up ever again. Even if it means my parents will never speak to me again, I won't lose him. And I will not give Lilly up either.”

 Siobhan nodded, the force of Christoph's emotions hitting her like a sledgehammer. She'd tagged him as a strong empathic healer the moment they met; if not as strong an empath as Till was, his talent wasn't anything to sneeze at. Those who were powerful healers of hearts and souls were usually the ones who hurt the most; Christoph was no exception. Siobhan had sensed Till's empathy was so strong it muddled any inkling that he had any healing talent, but he had it. No wonder some fans told him his lyrics, his poetry, healed something broken in themselves. With a silent prayer to her Goddess, she thanked Her once again for bringing the Changelings into her life and that the child she knew would come from Lilly and Christoph’s night together not be the harbinger of troubled times to come. “Come on in, let me show you the place,” she said, pushing off from the truck and gesturing for the couple to follow her.

 :::

 The sound of the front door clicking shut behind Siobhan startled Lilly out of her musings. She'd kept the tour of the safe house short, showing Lilly and Christoph the highlights of the place and where all the mundane things like paper towels and soap were kept. She’d hugged them both as she left, wishing them luck and telling them that they had the house for the entire weekend. Now, save for the faint sounds of the few birds that hadn’t left Germany for the winter outside and the soft pad-pad-pad of Christoph’s bare feet across the living room floor, the house was quiet to physical ears. To Changeling ears, the house fairly hummed with layers upon layers of Elven spell-work to keep the house and the surrounding area safe and protected. Lilly knew if she stepped outside and walked back to the main road, she would be unable to locate the house, as it blended right into the surrounding terrain with no little magical help.

 “Is it me, or does the house seem like it “recognized” us?” came Christoph’s voice from the living room, which was separated from the large, professional kitchen that Lilly had been exploring by a half-wall. Tucking a cookbook that she had been flipping through back into the tiny library shelf located underneath one set of cupboards, she walked into the spacious room, smiling to herself at the sight of her lover sprawled out on a huge, squishy couch, the soft, suede-like material of dark green setting off Christoph’s glossy black curls and pale skin. He held out an arm for her to snuggle into; once she was comfortable, Lilly said, “No, it’s not just you. The house----hell, everything around this place for a couple of miles----recognized us. I don’t think it’s because we were with Siobhan, I think what we are is so close to Elves and half-Elves, this territory saw us as safe. I’m sure that’s why the forest didn’t do more to Till than pitch him into a thorn bush for him yanking on a tree branch. If he wasn’t a Changeling, I don’t want to imagine what the forest would have done to protect itself.”

 “Ugh. I can imagine it but I don’t wanna,” Christoph replied with a shudder. “I've seen some pictures he's brought back from hunts and...ugh. Nightmare fuel for sure.”

 “Siobhan's perfect for him, though,” Lilly replied after a few quiet moments. “Till was raving about the fishing weekend they went on with Ollie and Amelia when she was over to visit a couple months ago. They were up in the Scottish Highlands, I think, and Till said he wasn't sure who was the more competitive fisher, Siobhan or Amelia. Of course, she was in her mountain lioness form, so...”

 Christoph laughed and nuzzled Lilly's shoulder, imagining the half-Elven woman and the huge female mountain lion standing hip-deep in the cold Highland water, arguing over who was going to catch the most fish. He'd not yet seen Amelia in her other form, but the few pictures Ollie shared with him, as well as a shared memory or two, were good enough.  While Amelia was lovely in both forms, Christoph had to call himself biased as he thought Lilly was beautiful no matter what. The virus had made her into what she'd wished she looked like, and it had brought a beautiful soul out of its mundane shell.  That she partially his didn't matter; his heart was more than big enough for her and Richard's love and affection.

 As much as he'd wanted Richard to come with them, he'd had kissed him gently, sweetly and deep, and refused. “This weekend is for you two. Not the three of us.  Later on, perhaps, but not now. I'm going to spend the weekend at Till's, take the cats, and that's all I have to say on the subject,” Richard had said. Christoph had pouted as prettily as he could, but in the end, found himself lovingly booted out of the office and into the bedroom so he could pack what little he'd need for the weekend.  By the time he and Lilly were ready to meet Siobhan and some of her family outside the city, his apprehension and slight moodiness had lifted; the kiss he shared with Richard was simple and quick. They'd hugged each other so hard he was afraid their ribs would crack, and Richard whispered in his ear before they parted, “You and I are going to have a weekend to ourselves very soon. And oh, the things I have planned to do to you, my lovely one...”

 Christoph shuddered at the memory of that dark, deep voice in his ear, that hot breath against his skin, and felt a twitch in his groin that made goose-pimples come up on his skin. He didn't have to work too hard to imagine what Richard was going to do to him, nor what he would do in return.

 “You okay sweetheart?” Lilly asked, feeling the shudder that swam through Christoph's skin. He said nothing, simply leaned over and kissed her, tracing the line of her jaw with the very tips of his fingers.  “I'm fine,” he whispered, “just thinking about something Reesh said earlier.”

 “Oh? Anything you want to share with the class, Herr Schneider?” Lilly replied, a mischievous smile curving her lips. “Or is it something for a boy's ears only?”

 Christoph snort-laughed and pried himself out of Lilly's embrace, stood up and held his hand out for her to take. “Let's take a quick stroll outside before it gets dark,” he said. “I know we're here for the weekend but...” Lilly nodded, knowing that it wasn't just a walk he needed,  Christoph was wanting to scope out the landscape and make sure for himself that they were truly safe from anyone who meant them harm, no matter what Siobhan had said. Pulling boots and heavy jackets on, the pair slipped out the mud room door and into the tiny herb garden, then out the back gate and into the forest proper. Moving silent as cats, they followed what looked like a game trail through the tall trees, stopping occasionally to watch a bird or two flit through the trees or admire the late autumn landscape.

 After a half hour's walk, they came upon a huge clearing in the middle of the forest, where at the center was a huge cairn made of carefully-placed rocks of all sizes, colors and shapes. Christoph suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, one hand flung out to keep Lilly from going into the clearing. “What...what is it?” she whispered. “Is there someone out there?”

 ::Stay here:: Christoph warned, fixing Lilly with a gaze that was both feral and terrified. ::That's the heart of the forest out there, and it wants to talk to me. So to speak. And I don't dare tell it no:: He was paler than milk, shaking from head to toe and obviously struggling with something that was trying to psychically and physically drag him from the safety of the trees.

 “No, Christoph!” Lilly snapped, grabbing his jacket sleeve and jerking him backward. “You can't just go running out there! It could be a trap for all we know! And what in the hell is the heart of the forest?”

 “I have to Lilly, please,” Christoph begged, trembling, eyes going wider and white-rimmed. “If I don't, we'll have to worry about more than being thrown into a bramble bush!” Lilly caught the edge of his fright, nodded, and stepped away, biting her lip and hyper-aware of everything around them, from the scent of the air to the sound of the forest around them. Christoph turned, kicked his boots off, handed his jacket to Lilly, and slowly approached the huge cairn, hands clenched at his side. Once he was at the foot of the stone pile, he reached a cold, shaky hands out to one of the stones and touched it, murmuring, “I'm here. What do you want?”

 Lilly pressed her back against one of the huge trees that ringed the clearing, then slid downwards to kneel at its foot, eyes locked on the distant figure of her mate. She desperately wanted to run to his side, wanted to face whatever had called him from her side, but something held her still. ::Whatever you are, whoever you are, please don't hurt him:: she pleaded. ::We don't mean you any harm. We're not humans. We're here because we need a safe place for the moment. Please, I'm begging you...::

 Warmth flooded her veins; it felt as if the forest was laughing gently at her.  A sensation of being held in loving arms surrounded her, and Lilly relaxed into it with a sigh, knowing that her sweetheart was in safe hands. This was the force that protected this land, the same presence that had stayed its hand when Till had ignored Siobhan's warning about the trees and instead tossed him into a bush and had squirrels throw nuts at him. Had it wanted to, it could have destroyed him without much effort. It was exactly what Christoph had called it, the “heart of the forest,” and it would be here long after everything remotely mortal was gone. Suddenly tired, she closed her eyes, curled up in a space between a pair of the tree's roots that bent out of the ground like the handles on a basket, and drifted off to sleep.

 Christoph was staring sightlessly at the cairn, the only thing keeping him on his feet the sheer power that had snagged him like a fish in a net the moment he'd touched the stone in front of him. The same force that had taken offense at Till's yanking on the tree branch delicately cradled him in its power, carefully paging through his memories, his personality, making sure to not hurt him with its unrestrained power.  It had taken note the second anyone who was not like the Elves had stepped foot on the edge of its territory, but it hadn't realized that the male it was inspecting, nor the woman it held in a  deep sleep at the edge of the clearing weren't human.  They hadn't been born that way, as their kind had been long ago, but had been artificially made that way. The entity that was called the Heart of the Forest took note of this, and carried on with its examination.

 The knowledge it had gained from its contact with the male----Christoph, he was called--- was instantly shared with every living thing for miles around, its 'stamp' of approval there for all to see. This was to extend to not only the two Changelings it held, but to their kin and anyone who was like them.  They were to be protected at all costs, and anyone---or anything---that meant harm was to be dealt with without mercy. Satisfied with what it had found, quickly as it had caught Lilly and Christoph, the presence let them go, gently lowering him to the ground and waking Lilly with a careful twitch of the tree roots she was leaning on.  She sat up, looking around wildly, then saw Christoph curled up at the foot of the cairn, black hair splayed about on the green grass.

 “Christoph!” Lilly gasped, stumbling out of the forest and across the clearing, heedless of whatever or whoever might be watching, and knelt at his side, fingers finding his strong, steady pulse at his throat. He made a noise that was a cross between a grunt and a cough and came to, one hand reaching up to grasp Lilly's. “Shit. How did I end up flat on my ass?”

 “I don't know,” Lilly said, helping Christoph to his feet and across the clearing. “One second you were standing there and the next...I don't remember. Come on, get your boots and and let's get back to the house. Siobhan says it's safe here and I believe her, but I'm not taking any chances.” Christoph shoved his feet hurriedly into his boots, shrugged his jacket on, and taking Lilly's hand, they half-ran back to the house, not noticing the large number of sparkling, multi-colored and multi-shaped eyes that watched them go.

 ::

 It took Lilly and Christoph close to an hour before they felt they could breathe freely and not jump out of their skin at every little noise they heard. Daylight had quickly given way to dusk moments after they'd arrived back at the house, while the edge of a fat, full moon began to peek over the treetops. Although their enhanced senses told them they had nothing to be afraid of, they made a tour of the house together, making sure doors and windows were locked tightly and curtains pulled.

 Back in the kitchen, Christoph set the kettle to boil for tea while Lilly poked through the fridge trying to think of what to throw together for dinner. As he set a white, heavy, stoneware teapot onto the counter to fill it with hot water before making tea, Christoph found himself gazing at a calendar tacked up on a cork-board nearby. He snort-laughed and said, “Did you know it's Halloween?”

 “Honestly? I forgot,” Lilly replied, standing up from the fridge with her hands full of ingredients for salad and sandwiches. “I wasn't allowed to go trick or treating, so the date didn't mean a lot to me until I got older. You guys don't celebrate it, do you?”

 “Nah, not that much. We've done some shows on Halloween and gotten into some crazy shit,” Christoph replied, filling the ceramic tea ball he'd found in one of the drawers with tea leaves and latching it tightly. “We did a show in the Midwest one Halloween and we came close to making ourselves sick on all the candy the promoters left out. Of course we drank way too much on top of that which didn't help matters a bit. I couldn't look at certain kinds of candy for a year or two after that.”

 Lilly made a rude noise at Christoph's comment, spearing a few slices of cucumber on the tip of the knife she was using to cut up ingredients for salad and handing them to him. “Serves all of you right, treating good Halloween candy that way. While you're waiting for the water to boil, could you put a few vegetable burgers in the microwave? Salad, veggie burgers, and there's a cake in the fridge for dessert. How does that sound?”

 “Perfect,” Christoph replied, crunching happily away on the cucumber slices as he pulled a bag of veggie burgers out of the freezer, wrapped them in paper towels and set them in the microwave to heat. Within a half hour, they were sitting down to dinner in the cozy breakfast nook that stood just off of the kitchen, with music coming softly from Lilly’s laptop. They didn’t speak much, still shaken somewhat by their experience in the forest, and were still somewhat quiet as they washed up the few plates and bowls they’d used. Lilly made them each a cup of green tea with ginger, and after snapping off the lights, followed Christoph into the living room. He’d commandeered her laptop and was going through his e-mail, the glow from the screen making reddish highlights come out in his hair and bringing the deep green out in his eyes.

 “Thanks for the tea, m'love,” he murmured quietly as Lilly handed him his cup. “You don’t mind me using your laptop? I brought mine but I’m too lazy to go dig it out of my stuff.”

 “Not at all,” Lilly replied, drinking half of the fragrant liquid down in one go. She placed her cup on a nearby table and stretched out on the couch next to Christoph, head propped on his hip and eyes half closed. He laid his hand on her shoulder and took a thick chunk of her hair from its loose braid and tangled it through his fingers, admiring the glossy sheen that rippled through the hair as he moved his fingers. He’d always thought Lilly’s hair had a life and mind of its own and seeing it shimmer in the dim lights only enhanced that thought.

 “Anything interesting going on out there in the big, bad world?” Lilly murmured, half between sleep and wakefulness. Christoph grunted and clicked out of his e-mail, then shut the computer down. Placing the laptop on a nearby table, he yawned, pushed his hands through his hair and said, “Nothing really. Paul and Ollie sent me a couple of files they've been working on to stick some drum lines to, couple of e-mails from management, and a stack of junk e-mail as tall as a house.”

 Lilly sat up, slowly, reaching out to snag Christoph's hands and pull them up to her lips. She kissed them, saying, “Well, now that we know the world is still out there, how about we go investigate that hot tub in the master bath?”

 “I like how you think,” he replied, freeing a hand to run his fingers along her cheekbones with a smile that was half innocent, half sinful. “What is it with you and water, anyway? I thought Till was crazy about water, but you've almost got him beat.”

 “Hey, I'm a Pisecean, we're supposed to love water,” Lilly snort-laughed, standing up into a languorous, sensual stretch. Christoph eyed the pale expanse of skin that was revealed by her shirt riding up and felt his lust wake and rise. He stood up as well, slipping his arms around her waist to pull her into a deep, hot kiss. Lilly leaned into it with a sigh, weaving her fingers into the belt loops of his jeans, rising on her tiptoes to press her body into Christoph's. Their shared bond warmed with their desire, their skin rippling with shared emotions; Lilly pulled her lips away and said, “Take me to bed, pretty boy. I think the hot tub can wait a bit.” With a happy chuckle, Christoph picked her up and carried her into the bedroom, carefully placing her on the bed. Shooting her a heated, sly look over his shoulder, he unbuttoned his heavy denim shirt and slowly shrugged it off, letting it slither down his arms and drop to the floor with a soft 'thump.' Lilly propped her head up on one hand and half-closed her eyes, settling in to watch the show.

Moving soundlessly across the floor, Christoph turned the lights down until the room was shrouded in shadows, then went about clicking on the tiny LCD candles on that sat on the chest of drawers, a big table next to the window and grouped across the now-cold fireplace's mantel. They flooded the room with pinky-golden light, warming the shadows just enough. Turning back to Lilly, he unbuttoned the top of his jeans and purred, “What'll you give me if I take my pants off?”

 Lilly grinned at him, tipping her head to the side to admire his candle-lit enhanced form, running her eyes over his graceful, hard muscles, the light dusting of dark hair that ran down from the middle of his chest to disappear into the waistband on his jeans. He'd taken his hair down from its tail and shook it out around his face, a few curls falling down to veil his eyes. Lilly sighed happily, pretended to think about it, and said, “I could trade you a kiss for it.”

 “Just a kiss?” Christoph teased, resting his hands on his hips in a show of feigned irritation. “I'm cheap but I ain't free, pretty lady.”

 “Okay. Two kisses then?” Lilly countered, thoroughly enjoying the game. Christoph snorted and turned his back to her, haughtily. “You're busting my balls, woman. How about two kisses and you take your top off?”

 “Take my top off for just two kisses? Oh sweetheart, I'm not easy either,” Lilly giggled, kneeling up on the bed and twining a strand of hair around her finger. “You're gonna have to work for it.”

 Christoph winked at her, coyly biting one of his fingers on one hand while the other slid down his chest and over the fly of his jeans. He palmed at the mounded material, a sigh of barely-restrained lust hissing out between his teeth, head thrown back and hair rippling down his spine. When he looked back up, Lilly had stripped completely bare and was staring up at him, all innocence, her flaming-red hair a veil across one shoulder.

 “How...how did you manage to get out of your clothes so quick?” he asked, blinking at the sight before him, admiring the bright colors of the tattoos than ran from just below her breasts, down her hips and the outsides of her legs. The designs were of fancifully designed fish in an array of colors, as they swam through many kinds of water plants, accompanied by dolphins, otters, and starfish. He'd never been one for heavily tattooed or pierced women before, but on Lilly, the tattoos and piercings seemed appropriate. Her most recent addition was a navel piercing; a banana barbell with tiny pearls rested like tears against her pale skin. That had been a gift from Till, who'd gone along with her and gotten his left nostril pierced. If there was anyone in the band that could be her partner in crime when it came to poking holes in their skin, it was Till.

 But these thoughts died away as Christoph gazed at Lilly, knees trembling slightly as he pulled his jeans and underwear off. He could feel the weight of her flesh against her bones as if it was his own, feel the wet heat between her legs and the animal lust that was nibbling along her nerves. Lilly sighed and let her fingers trace the outline of her collarbones, rolling her head back to expose the fine lines of her throat; a definite sign of her submission to him. Christoph slid onto the bed to run his lips up her neck and catch her lips under his. She pulled him down onto her, wrapping arms and legs around him, whispering what she wanted in his ear, nails tracing patterns along his arms and back. Christoph caught his breath, knowing the damage her nails could do if she was startled or angered, and not caring one bit. He nipped her throat, nuzzled the mark, and inched his way downward, kissing and licking, stopping at her navel piercing to lick a circle around it. They were both close; much more foreplay would make her too sensitive and him spill his essence across the bed.

 ::On your knees, Lilly-love:: Christoph whispered, moving away enough for Lilly to do so. Once she was settled, he knelt up behind her, took a firm grip of her hips and sheathed himself in her tight heat in one long slide. Lilly cried out, dropping her head down until it touched the bed, her moans and screams going from somewhat quiet to loud enough to wake the dead. If there was one thing he adored about her and Richard was that they were both loud, both screamers, and towards the very end of things, either went totally limp and unable to move, or thrashed about wildly, biting and scratching at whatever they could reach. And from the looks of things, he was going to end up bruised and bitten this time around. But he loved it, craved it.

 Lilly was lost in their twinned desire, her rational side obliterated by the sheer force of their lust driving them towards their orgasms. She didn't care that their coupling was most definitely going to result in a child, didn't care that some believed a child conceived on Halloween was either cursed or blessed with powerful psychic gifts, didn't care for anything past the feel of her mate pressing her into the bed, his weight holding her down, the scent of sex and perfume filling the air and the sound of their voices rising rapidly in sheer lust.

 “Chris...Christoph, oh God, oh fuck, I'm so close,” Lilly screamed, nails tearing the blankets to ribbons, her fangs cutting holes in her lower lip. “Please...please...come in me, bite me, drink me...” He needed no further urging; taking a deep breath of her scent, so sweet and bitter and musky, Christoph reared back and at the same time he plunged his teeth into the left side of Lilly's neck, he spent himself inside her. He hung on, clinging to his mate as she writhed and wept beneath him, hips firmly seated in his lap. Her blood was spicy-sweet with a hint of iron-sweetness that hadn't been there before. Clinging to the last of his strength, Christoph stayed on his knees, not wanting to collapse on top of Lilly and squish her. The longer they stayed in this position, the better the chances she would conceive.

 And then...he felt it the same time Lilly did, a faint sensation of two things clicking together, like two pieces of a child's building block toy, a strange fluttering and dancing sensation deep inside.

 They'd done it.

 He and Lilly had created a child together; now it was time to sit back and let Nature take its course as the zygote began to divide, copy and multiply. Except for interfering if the growing baby was in grave danger, all three of them had sworn they would let Lilly's pregnancy go along as if she was completely human. Christoph pulled out of Lilly, wrapping her in the tattered remains of the blankets and rested his head against hers. They were both chilled and exhausted, but not so much that they couldn't smile up at each other and exchange a few kisses.

 “We did it,” Lilly whispered in a voice full of happiness, curling closer to Christoph and yawning. “How do you feel?”

 “I should be asking you that question!” Christoph replied. “Seriously, though. how do you feel? Are you all right?”

 “Everything, all at once. I'm so tired I can't begin to figure out what's the strongest. I'm going to take a nap, I'm just all done in,” Lilly yawned, stretching catlike in her mate's arms. Christoph found himself yawning and replied, “ Me too. Do you think we need more blankets? We've kinda made a mess of these.”

 “No, we're fine. You're drooling, you're so tired. If I let you out of this bed you'll just crash around the house and get lost,” Lilly said, wrapping an arm around Christoph's waist and snuggling close. With a laugh, Christoph made sure the blankets were tucked well around them and drifted off to sleep.

 The Halloween moon, full and voluptuous in the black velvet, star spangled sky, sailed on toward morning, lending its light to celebrations of the season, both human and otherwise. When it gave way to sunrisde, it found them still curled around each other, Christoph’s hand lying protectively over Lilly’s hand, which she had placed on her stomach. The tiny embryo was still too new to be more than a blip on her parents’ psychic “radar” but it was happily working away, its genetic code telling it what color its eyes would be, what its hair would be like, how tall it was.

 And in nine months or so, the world would find out how powerful this child would be.

Chapter Text

:::

The clock is slowly ticking its way towards midnight with a new year waiting in the wings. We're gathered at Till's house, all of us, even the kittens who aren't babies any more but the cat version of teenagers. Amelia surprised Ollie on Christmas Day by showing up on his doorstep, a huge blizzard right on her heels. Siobhan managed to swap holidays with one of her friends so she could spend New Year's with Till; we didn't think she'd be able until the last moment. Nele came with Khira Li, so the house is full to the rafters.

 I've been sitting next to the fireplace for awhile, curled up on the hearth rug with Marley and Fiona snuggled against my stomach, while Till's dogs occupy a huge pillow nearby, eyes at half mast while they watch the ebb and flow of people around them. Richard is telling some hilariously funny story at the moment, with Till and Flake adding commentary here and there, and had I not been there when the event he's describing happened, I'd be paying attention. But I'm more interested in watching Lilly as she laughs at Richard, her lovely face flushed with humor and eyes sparkling. She looks over at me for a moment and winks, saying to me privately, ::You're not being slandered...yet::

 ::Give him time:: I reply. ::You should have been there, though. The wardrobe crew was days in getting the stains out of Till's pants::

 Lilly's eyes widen for a moment, then she shakes her head. ::Never a dull moment with you boys around, is there?::

 ::Told you I wasn't a fan of dull:: I say. ::It's almost midnight, better tell Motor Mouth Kruspe to finish his story or no one will ever know what happened::

 “Hey, it's nearly midnight!” Amelia shouts, jumping up from her seat near me, bright eyes  twinkling. She kneels next to me, grabs my hand, yelling, “Up, up, up, Christoph! It's almost the new year and you're sleeping!” I take a moment to put the cats up on a chair, out of harm's way because they're sleeping and could care less about silly humans celebrating another year's change. I join Richard and Lilly around the table where we gather up glasses of champagne (save for Lilly, who accepts a glass of white grapejuce, not only due to her being pregnant but because she hates the stuff)and we watch the clock tick away the final moments of the year. A second before the clock chimes midnight, I meet everyone's eyes; a spill of emotions between all of us flashes from heart to heart, touching even Nele's, whose soul has the potential to be like the rest of us, but unawakened.

Arielle's quick, sharp eyes catch the flicker of the clock on Till's living room wall changing to midnight and yells, “Happy New Year!” She knocks back half of her champagne, grabs Paul by the front of his shirt and kisses him, hard. When he staggers away, laughing uproariously, she tugs Ollie by the hand until he leans down and lets her plant a kiss on his cheek. We pass kisses and hugs around for moments, and when I'm finally holding Richard and Lilly in my arms, it's well past midnight, the new year well on its way.

 “Did you make a wish at midnight, sweetheart?” I ask Lilly, who smiles a Mona Lisa smile and kisses me. Richard leans his head against my chest and sighs, “I did but I've totally forgotten what it is. Well, hopefully it was a good one. What about you, Chris?”

 I hug them both to me and murmur, “I don't have to wish for anything. I have it here.”

 Late that night, the three of us are snuggled up in bed in one of Till's guest rooms; Richard and Lilly have long fallen asleep and I'm almost there. My hand is lying protectively over Lilly's still-flat stomach, and I can feel our daughter drifting safely inside her protective bubble of fluid and flesh. She's growing rapidly; had Siobhan not asked to be Lilly's doctor once she'd announced she was pregnant, we wouldn't know how quickly Isabel is growing. She's growing quicker than a half-breed child, and might make her debut much earlier than the estimate of her birth in July. But for now, all's going as it should, and that calms me.

 We've been hearing more and more stories of mysterious people being seen near non-human places, like outside the town Amelia's family lives in, and just recently Khira Li told me that she'd been followed a couple of times by nondescript, psychically “null” men that when spotted, smile genially at her and vanish. I haven't seen any of the men who  chased me out of my house, possibly due to the wards set up around my home. They sprang up just as Richard was picking me up that scary afternoon; I don't know exactly who put them there but I'd bet Siobhan and one of her many relatives had something to do with it. In fact, all of our homes have those same wards around them.

 Arielle, Flake and Kieran, one of Siobhan's uncles, have put together the beginnings of a network that will serve as a way to link all of us non-humans together. So far it's running on a private server that's behind a firewall I'd challenge any hacker to try and break. I haven't looked at it yet but from what I'm told, those few outside our little family think it's an excellent start.

 I don't know what kind of world my daughter will come into. I don't know if she'll be born into a world at war, a world that would rather kill off those they don't understand, or a world that'll accept her, and those like her. All I know is that I'll fight tooth and nail for her, for Richard, for Lilly, and for the rest of my kin, Changeling or otherwise.