“The Trouble With Pixies”

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Once upon a low and nearby time, in the kingdom of Neverwasnia, lived a big, strong young fellow called Rick Botham. Rick did not dislike being big and strong, but he never worked at getting that way; it just happened. Everyone assumed, because of his size and strength, that he would be an athlete – a wrestler or a footballer, perhaps. Though certainly capable of athleticism, he preferred science to sport and spent as much time as he could in the study of biology and botany, often through a microscope.

His parents insisted, however, that he maintain his physical vitality along with his mental agility. Rick was very much the dutiful sort, as well as quite respectful of his father’s authority, as well as his father’s willingness to take off his belt and put it to good use on his children’s backsides when he thought they needed it. His mother, too, was adept with hand and hairbrush when dealing with disobedient children, so Rick was quite pleased to pursue a suitably active agenda when he was not steeped in textbooks and microscope slides.

The boy was born fifth, directly in the center, arrival wise, of nine children. With four brothers and four sisters, two of each, younger and older, his was scarcely a quiet home life. For that reason, as well as his love of botany, he found great pleasure in being out of doors, and he often ran for exercise on the paths in the forest near their house, the same forest where he found his study samples.

Since there were so many mouths to feed, there was little money in the household for education, so Rick worked hard and won a scholarship to Libris University in Athenias, the nearest town of any size to his rural home in southern Neverwasnia. He earned his botany degree in due course, but research jobs were few and hard to come by. Such entry level employees earned little, in any case, and since he had student loans to repay, the scholarship not covering his living expenses, he got a job as a lumberjack, just to pay the bills while he decided what to do next.

Lumber jacking is rough work and often dangerous, especially if the boss insists that speed is more important than safety. Rick’s boss, Peter Quints, was not like that. As a result, his crew had the least time lost to injury of any in the forestry division of Rood Mechanix, Ltd.

All through his first summer after graduation, Rick worked hard, felling and dragging trees out of Hermia Woods, not far from Athenias. The vast forest lay far to the south of Neverwasnia, near the coast. The lumberjacks harvested a great deal of Pinus pinaster, maritime pine, along with Fraxinus excelsior, ash, andPinus sylvestris, Scotch pine, all of which grew in the company’s several area leaseholds.

When he was not felling, stripping, or hauling trees away to the mill, Rick spent a great part of his off hours in the company nursery, helping to nurture the next generations of trees to be felled, stripped, and hauled away to the mill. He worked ten days on, followed by five days off. The days on, he slept in the dormitory at the lumber camp on the leasehold, and most of those days he and the crew worked from sunup to sundown.

His days off, he slept at his longtime student lodgings, a bed-sit with en suite in a big house near the Libris campus. However, on most of his days off, Rick usually could be found at the nursery. He had no car, but friends would give him a ride, or, if he were in camp, he could simply jog the two miles or so to the nursery compound.

Since Rick kept in very good physical shape by wrestling a thirty-eight pound chain saw for hours at a time, day after day, until it felt no more cumbersome to him than the foil in the hand of a fencer, a two-mile run barely made him sweat. He considered that issue every time he went to the nursery, where he invariably came into contact with Emily Hippolyda, an intern working on her doctoral dissertation. The head of the lab was Dr. Derek Theseum, whom everyone called Dook. He was a rumpled but hearty old geezer who had taken an instant liking to Rick, because of his helpful attitude and eagerness to learn.

“Hey, Rick,” the man said one afternoon when his crew had knocked off early and Rick visited the lab. “How are you?”

“Just great, Dook. Do you have anything for me?”

“I do, indeed. Miss Hippolyda has prepped some slides for a new hybrid experiment. We’re trying to isolate a beetle-resistant variant in the pinaster genome.”

Rick gasped. “How exciting! Let me at ’em.”

Dook laughed and led the young man into the lab. Miss Hippolyda stood, or rather towered, since high heels made her slightly taller than Rick, by a wide window in the main lab, her full lower lip caught beneath straight, white teeth while she held up a pad and tapped the keyboard with a long, elegant finger. She was Rick’s age, but looked younger, though not as young as she might have without her severe spectacles and serious-business lab smock. The white jacket hung open to reveal a smart and stylish sweater that presented her pert breasts to perfection, and a short-ish linen skirt that hugged a trim waist and flared past artistically rounded hips.

Rick tried not to stare and, after some exertion, managed to look at anything in the room except Miss Hippolyda. His experience with women was limited, romantically speaking. He talked easily to anyone and everyone, including most women, although he had a strong aversion to any sort of intimacy with the fairer sex. This unfortunate, or fortunate, depending upon one’s viewpoint, state of affairs was due to his parents’ strong conviction that physical relations outside the bonds of marriage were strictly taboo. There had been lectures on the topic from his father as soon as he approached puberty, and very dramatic object lessons even before that.

By the time he had turned eight years old, Rick had seen his two older brothers and an older sister severely punished when they were caught in somewhat compromising situations with members of the opposite sex. Well, in fact, he had seen only the results of those punishments, the red welts on his siblings’ behinds made by their father’s belt. Their father had shown his other children the dire consequences of disobedience by way of warning. After such pointed examples, Rick had made a conscious effort to avoid attractive women, and had thus far managed not to succumb to that form of temptation. He considered Miss Hippolyda to be so far beyond his reach as to be completely safe, though he could not avoid feeling the thrill of possibility every time he came near her.

Rick blushed when she turned her pale blue eyes toward him.

“Oh, Rick, hi!” She smiled, and blood pounded in his ears. “Come and look at this before his lordship puts you to work.”

Willing the jitters out of his knees, he hurried to follow her. She strode toward a table in the corner and nodded at a large sample dish. Puzzled, he peered down for a moment, then took a pencil and prodded the sample.

“A, uh, suh-snake skin?”

She nodded and leaned over beside him to peer down, her delightful scent filling his nostrils. “A shed snake skin, not to put too fine a point on it.” With a wink, she turned to him. “Care to venture a guess as to the species?”

Swallowing twice to force saliva into a dry mouth, Rick managed a smile. “It-it’s only a g-guess, but from the dark coloration and light b-banding, uh, could it be a m-mokasen?’

“Sure is.” She squeezed his shoulder, and Rick’s heart soared like a hawk. “Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen, as a matter of fact.”

Dook peered down and clicked his tongue. “Swamp adder. The venom paralyzes its victim. They do not tend to range this far east, ordinarily.” He went to pull a big box of slides from a drawer and set it on a nearby table, then motioned Rick over. “Usually they inhabit the cypress swamps in the southwest.”

Miss Hippolyda nodded. “This was found just ten miles from here, not far from the Royal Park boundary. There are a lot of spring-fed bogs in those lowlands.”

The doctor smiled and faked a shiver. “And that place is spooky enough without adding poisonous reptiles to the mix, let me tell you.”

She laughed, a luscious, light, and lovely sound to Rick’s ear.

“Sir, you are supposed to be a scientist. How can you lend any credence to that superstitious malarkey?”

“Yes, well, we might know all about mitochondria, and DNA, and genomes, but let’s face it – we don’t get out much, and when we do, our noses are about two inches from the ground, or a tree, or a flower, and we don’t look around to see the big picture out there in the woods as much as we might. There’s a lot more in the heavens and on earth than is dreamt of in your science, missy.”

Dook winked, and Rick smiled, but Miss Hippolyda snorted.

“You’re just teasing me, Doctor, and that isn’t nice.”

He shook his head. “I assure you, I am not, young lady. I have walked into that Royal Park, as well as others, and I felt something in those woods that I feel nowhere else.”

“Oh, really?” she inquired archly. “As if some ghoulie, or ghosty, or long-leggedy beastie were about to devour you? Sir?”

The doctor smiled. “Have it your way. That is, until such time as you walk into one of those nether realms yourself.”

Dook winked, and Miss Hippolyda wrinkled her nose at him most charmingly. Rick’s heart swelled when she turned from the doctor and rolled her eyes at him.

“Come on, Rick. I’ll show you what we’re looking for in these slides, since his lordship has taken leave of his senses.”

“I heard that!” Dook chuckled and wandered off, his fingers busy on his own pad.

Miss Hippolyda sighed. “Sorry. You know how he is. Anyway, here are some printouts to show you the outlines we’re trying to match, so you can sort these slides and pick out the ones that closest fit the profile, right?”

He nodded, breathing deeply of her scent as he took the papers from her, then studied the printouts for a few minutes while she set up the microscope.

“Th-these are fascinating,” he said as he peered through the eyepiece.

“I hope so,” she replied. “So have you ever been into one? Into a Royal Park?”

“Um, not actually into. C-close to one a few times.”

She chuckled. “I used to live not far from one, up north, and my sister and I always dared each other to go in.”

Rick turned. “D-did you?”

“A little ways once, but we didn’t go far before we ran back home.” She sighed and shook her head. “I know we just psyched ourselves out, little as we were, and I give Dook a hard time about it, but he’s not far wrong. Those places do feel different. I found that snake skin when I went to gather samples near the boundary a week ago.”

“Wh-why?” Rick gritted his teeth, irritated at the constant stutter.

Miss Hippolyda shrugged. “I’m a scientist.”

He laughed. “Come on. T-tell me.”

She grinned. “Did you ever hear of Lord Garou?”

“Uh, yeah, I think so, b-but ages ago, in elementary school. Sounded like n-nonsense to me – werewolves in the forest, and all that?”

“Yes, absolutely. But I overheard a conversation about exactly that at a dinner a few weeks ago, and it reminded me, so I went to look.”

“And?” He mentally patted himself on the back for the definitive delivery.

“Well, Dook’s right. It does feel funny inside the park.”

“You s-said you found the skin outside the boundary.”

“I said near the boundary. I didn’t mention a side,” she said with a small giggle. “That park is spooky, it really is. But there is such a marvelous array of flora, one couldn’t help going quite a ways into it.”

“You, you went on in?”

“Well, not that far, half mile or so, perhaps. But it was so lovely, in spite of the uneasy feeling I had. Then, after a while, I remembered how off limits and illegal and everything it was even to be there, and I felt quite the criminal as I was walking back.” Her sly wink made Rick blush. “Do not tell his lordship I broke the law, or he will have my hide.”

“Oh, oh, gawds, no, I would never, ever …”

She smiled and pointed, and he gratefully stopped blathering.

“So do you understand what you’re looking for in the slides, Rick?”

“Oh, yuh-yeah, sure. No wuh-worries.”

“Good.” She patted his hand. “I’ll leave you to it, then.” As she turned, she snapped her fingers. “Oh, there are three more racks of slides. Shall I get them for you?”

“N-not necessary. I, uh, saw where he got these.”

“Excellent.”

Rick forced himself to concentrate on the slides, grateful for the distraction, even though her scent lingered, reminding him, in unguarded moments, of her ever-so-close presence, her touch, her smile, her laughter.

And what could she have meant, that Dook would have her hide? Was he that sort of boss with her? Rick could not imagine anyone taking exception with anything Miss Hippolyda did, or said, or thought, let alone telling her off for it. Though he could imagine himself sitting for hours, or days, or years listening to her talk, he tried hard not to at that moment. Instead, he focused on the slides, marking a choice few for later study, as instructed.

When he finished, he tidied a bit around the lab, then took leave of Dook, but he did not see Miss Hippolyda again. Her scent was fresh in his nose, however, and he still felt the touch of her hand on his. He ran, full bore, the two and half miles back to camp, hoping to sweat the memory of her out of his head.

Evening chow had finished by the time he got back, but Rick was not hungry. Wibbler, an assistant cook and the camp hustler, had opened his informal canteen out back of the mess hall, where he charged twice what they would have fetched at a bar in town for tins of cold lager. He was doing quite well, as usual. Rick stopped to say hello on his way to the bunkhouse.

“Hey, Galileo!” One of the men on his crew waved a frosty tin at him accusingly. “You been out to that nursery again, ain’t you?”

Rick laughed easily and nodded. “I have, yes. Why?”

Why? That’s what I want to know! Don’t you get enough of trees? Cutting ’em down, cutting ’em up, and dragging ’em around all day, every day?”

“I guess not. Don’t you like trees, Starling?”

“No! Mow ’em all down! Let the gawds sort ’em out, that’s what I say!”

Beer sloshed from the tin when the man waved it about, and the other men laughed uproariously. Rick laughed, too, but noted that Quints, the crew boss, pulled Wibbler aside, presumably to tell him that Starling had had enough.

“Hey, Wibbler,” Flute said. “You got us this beer, now when can you get us some women?”

Wibbler scoffed and made change for Flume’s two-tin purchase. “When East Aridia freezes over, mate, that’s when. After transport costs and incidentals, I barely make a thaler supplying you lot with brews, never mind doxies. You want a beer, Rick?”

“No, thanks. Any iced tea going?”

“My eyes!” Wibbler cried, and rolled his. “See what I mean, lads? With boy scouts like this one that they’re hiring these days, I’d be cutting me own throat bringing girls out here.”

Shug dropped his empty tin in a trash barrel and reached into his pocket. “The sort of girl you’d fetch along would probably cut it for you for nothing, Wibbler. Give me another can of that horse whizz.”

Rick smirked and shook his head as he headed for the shower shack. He read in his bunk until lights out at half past nine, then finally fell asleep after tossing and turning for a while, though he saw Miss Hippolyda’s face in his dreams.

Next day, the crew were rousted even earlier than usual, and Quints made sure the cooks were up well before that, so there was a hot breakfast of pancakes and scrambled eggs for all hands, along with pots of steamy black coffee. Their crew truck was the first loaded, with the tool wagon hitched on behind. The sun had just broken the horizon when they pulled out onto the graveled road. Conversation was minimal, as the crew sat back, quietly digesting breakfast and saying little until the truck left the gravel track and hummed onto a paved road.

“What’s all this, then?” said Flume, the biggest and most aggressive of the crew. He was crotchety by nature, and worse when he had drunk a large amount of beer the night before, and he broke wind loudly as he sat up to glare at the boss. “Where the devil are we going, Peter Quints?”

The boss grimaced and waved a hand in front of his face. “We’re going to work, my lad, so never you mind. And if you’re going to keep up that foul stench, hang your butt out the back, will you?”

Starling laughed and waved a hand at the fumes as well, but then leaned forward. “He’s rotten, boss, Flume is, but he’s got a point. We never go out on the main road. What gives?”

Quints rolled up the canvas flap draped across the rear of the three-ton truck, and shrugged. “We’re going to the edge of the leasehold, lads, that’s all. Just a quicker way to get to it.”

“East we’re headed, then? What’s over there, boss?” Shug demanded. “Them pines in amongst the bogs ain’t near big enough to harvest yet, are they?”

There came a general hubbub of voices as the men demanded information, but Quints ignored or deflected their questions until, twenty minutes later, the vehicle left the main road at a gravel turnoff. Rick peered out the back of the truck as they rolled slowly along, and shook his head as he recognized the area.

“Shug’s right, boss. Nothing out here but pulpwood. We could get that anywhere.”

“Shut up, Rick.”

He frowned and sat back, then sat up again when the landscape changed dramatically. The foliage became denser and greener, and the going slower due to the undergrowth, and Rick scowled hard at Peter Quints, who pointedly turned away.

A couple of hundred slow yards later, the truck came to a stop, and Quints ordered the men out. Rick got his saw and other gear from the tool wagon, and buckled on the heavy belt and leather suspenders that helped support the huge power saw, then checked to make sure the saw’s fuel tank was full. The rest of the crew likewise prepared, while Stout backed their mule, a thirty-horsepower Alice-Chambers tractor, off the wagon. Quints stalked in an ever-widening circle around the truck, looking at trees, scribbling in a spiral-bound notebook, and muttering. The men exchanged a few glances but said nothing while they geared up. Finally, Quints returned.

“All right, lads, here it is. We’ve got a special order for live oak boughs, big and curvy, the bigger and curvier the better. Like a dame.” He smiled wanly, then fluttered his lips when his jibe fell flat. “So, uh, I’ve scoped out a couple dozen prime specimens already, and we should be able to knock off a little early today, if we knuckle down and get to it. So, Flume, I want you and Rick to …”

“Boss, we know where we are,” Rick said. “And you know where we are. And none of us is happy about it, least of all you. So, why? Why are we in a King’s Deer Park, about to poach the king’s property?”

Quints laughed, loudly and nervously, then cleared his throat. “It’s all right, lads, it is! We’re authorized! We’re under orders from the company, and the company cleared it with, with, uh, whoever you clear these things with. So, it’s all right. Really.”

Rick shook his head, and Starling grunted.

“The company and the king can go to blazes, Peter Quints,” Starling said. “What about Lord Garou? I was raised in these parts, and ain’t no good ever comes from traipsing across land belongs to one of them, never mind cutting down his trees, for the gawds’ sakes!”

Stout nodded. “I heard the same, Peter Quints. It’s a parlous fear, messing about in land that’s got their mark to it, and, by the gawds, I feel that mark all about me now! I ain’t dragging no boughs out of Lord Garou’s woods, no sir.”

“Ha!” Flume yanked the cord, and his saw engine roared to life. “Listen to yourselves, you bunch of whiney titty babies!” he shouted over the noise. “Didn’t you hear the man? We’re authorized! All of that monster in the woods crap is just to scare kids with, so grow a pair and let’s cut some trees. I do love the smell of fresh cut oak in the morning. It smells like money.“

Quints nodded hard. “Yes, yes, did I mention? There could be a bonus for everyone if we wrap this up in one day.”

Stout, Starling, Shug, and Rick exchanged glances. The first three shrugged and smiled, but Rick shook his head.

“I never heard of anyone getting permission to take timber from …” He stopped and scowled when Flume grinned and gunned the saw engine to drown him out.

“Right!” Quints shouted. “We’ll need both ladders and some extra tow chain. Let’s get to it, lads!”

Rick sighed and frowned as Quints led the crew to a huge specimen of Quercus neverwasnia, the coastal oak that kept green leaves all year round. This one had a bole four feet in diameter, with huge, thick boughs spreading in all directions, beginning ten feet up the trunk, and reaching a length of thirty or forty feet. The pre-curved wood was perfect for the ribs, rails, and fancy work of wooden sailing craft. Prized for centuries by shipwrights, it could be steamed and bent to shape. When seasoned and dried, it wore like iron, impervious to rot and insect infestations. It still found a ready market, with the growing popularity of retro-style yachts for the rich and famous, and Rick grumbled as he clamped on his ear protectors and climbed the ladder set against the side of the two hundred year old behemoth. He sighed and started his saw.

Sawdust spewed for long moments, then the twenty-foot branch, a foot thick at its base and curved in a perfect sine wave, dropped to the ground with a crash and a shower of dark green leaves. He kept going, sending long, thick boughs plummeting, until the tree was no more than a ten-foot trunk with a few scraggly limbs sticking out its top at odd angles. Although he knew, scientifically, that he had not caused irreparable damage to the majestic being, and that, in a hundred years or so, the tree would recover and be even more splendid than it had been before, still, he felt like a burglar skulking away from the scene of his crime as he descended the ladder.

Starling cut his assigned tree in a similar manner, and Flume’s hearty and annoyingly jovial shouts of “heads up!” echoed through the woods. Shug trimmed the boughs while Stout hitched the cleaned timber to the mule in order to tow it out for pickup by the stacker truck. The crew all happened to be on the ground an hour later, with none of the saws going, and no conversation. A quiet chug-chug came from the mule as it idled a few feet away.

For a moment, no one moved, though everyone looked around. Then Shug frowned and his head jerked quickly left. Rick screamed when the man’s head spun back the other way, a great, bloody gash from his ear to his nose. Shug fell to his knees, gasping, and Flume raised his saw blade, his eyes wide with fear. Something yanked the saw from his hands and sent it flying, and Flume screeched in pain as claws ripped his shirt as well as the flesh beneath. He raged and flailed his fists, and Rick ran toward him, but a huge something smacked into his forehead, and dropped him in his tracks.

From flat on his back, Rick rolled to his feet and went for Peter Quints, who had dropped to the ground, blood oozing from a dozen cuts in his face and arms. Rick pulled him upright and pushed him away.

“Fly, you fool,” he yelled, and turned again as Quints ran toward the truck.

Stout and Starling were on the ground, too, and Rick grabbed his saw from where he had dropped it. He screamed and grunted as he waved it back and forth over them.

“Get up, you idiots! Move! Flume! Back to the truck! Go!”

He thrust at a light blur in the air, and steely claws ripped into his shoulder. Screaming louder, he spun around, keeping the heavy saw in front of him while Shug, Stout, and Flume hobbled away. They shrieked as big gashes appeared on their backs and legs, hurrying them along, and Rick ran after them, bellowing in righteous anger.

The heavy saw leapt from his grasp and sailed away, and his cap floated to the ground as nails raked his head and face. Blood poured over his tightly closed eyes, and iron jaws clamped his throat. He managed to grab handfuls of thick fur, and brought his knee up sharply into something tough but yielding. The iron jaws loosed, and he fell backward into a black pit of nothingness.

Rick still lay on his back when he came around, but there was so much pain he durst not open his eyes. He reached up to check the damage, but a gentle pressure prevented his arm from moving.

“It’s all right,” a soft, feminine voice said.

Somehow, Rick knew to agree with her, whoever she was.

“What is?” he said, only it came out as the merest whisper of a grunt.

“Sh. Don’t try to talk. We are still healing your neck.”

He opened his mouth again, but gave up and simply nodded. Soft hands covered his throat with warmth, then moved up his face, down his chest, and along his belly. His eyes refused to open, and slowly he realized that there was a bandage across them. There were others with her, with his ministering angel, and he heard but could not decipher their conversation. He longed to see who was taking care of him, and to know who had saved him from what should have been death at the hands of …

Unconsciously, he shook his head, drawing a soft shush from his angel. What had attacked him? Could that nonsense about Lord Garou be the truth, after all? A werewolf that moved faster than human vision could track, mauling and devouring whatever and whomever it chose? The scientist in him detested the notion. But the injured, the nearly deceased, the scared half out of his mind by rampant, senseless violence individual he had become was required to consider the possibility.

So why was he not dead? He shuddered at the thought, then fought to regain the moment, the current moment, the secure moment, when there were soft hands upon him and soft voices all about him, and he sighed. Female softness that was not female hands covered his chest, and Rick faded into blessed oblivion.

Untold time later, he climbed once more into the real, as much as he could perceive it. Horrific scenes, partly recalled, partly embellished, that had played in his unconscious head, were scattered and shattered upon firm and lovely feminine suppleness. He drew deep breaths, delighting in the sweet though somewhat musky aromas about him. There were strong floral notes, along with rich loam and deep earth scents. The girls, the feminine touchers who attended him, soothed him, healed him, all smelled vaguely of honey and of something airy and light – cherry blossoms, or oleander. No. Vanilla, but an ever-so-light touch of it, like bougainvillea in full bloom on a hot and steamy day.

The pain was less now, less generalized. He felt ache and sting in his arms, chest, face, neck, skull, belly, but not the overall clenching agony of before. Hands, more than one pair, he was sure, tended each area, but one pair alone he felt most keenly, most tenderly, most assuredly. He had isolated her scent now, and knew it was she, and she alone, who caressed him, healed him, helped him the most, not only with her hands, but also with her whole self. Slowly, it dawned upon him that she pressed her body to his, her flesh to his, her nakedness to his, and his throat stung when he moaned in recognition. Once more he dropped off, secure in, though overwhelmed by, such unbelievable medical care.

His dreams at that point had nothing to do with pain or horror or shock, but with softness and security and delight, and he awakened with a smile on his lips. A smooth hand upon his cheek assured him that everything still was, in fact, all right, and, after a few moments of preparation, he attempted a question.

“Who?”

The word clunked from his throat like a stone dropped onto gravel, but he understood it and hoped she would, too. He was instantly rewarded with a gleeful giggle that lit up his heart like holiday fireworks.

“I am called Amber. You are called Rick. You are safe now, Rick, and you are healing.”

His voice gone after the single, successful effort, he mouthed a “thank you” and was rewarded with a light, gentle, but nonetheless supremely hot and delicious kiss from her lips to his. Then, once more, the warmth of her nakedness pressed against his, only now the bit of light material, which had thereto covered him from the waist down, disappeared. Instead, smooth, warm, feminine legs wriggled and squirmed on top of his. His maleness responded, hardening and lengthening, pressing into flesh other than his own for the first time. Somewhere in the dim and far-off distance, Rick heard a warning bell sound, but it was scarcely loud enough to intrude upon his rapture. He let go, and let her, and an instant later, his manhood slipped joyfully, lovingly, deliriously into the wet tightness between her thighs.

She sighed and giggled when he entered her, a luscious sound to his ears, and all his pain disappeared in the ecstasy that enveloped him. There were other sounds, other voices, round about him, at the edge of his notice, but his universe had shrunk to include only him and her, a girl whose name he had only just learnt but who had become the most deliciously adorable being in existence. He longed to hear her voice once more, and reached up with both arms, ignoring the agony of the movement to his torn shoulders. Grasping her to him, he thrust upward with his hips and moaned as he expanded inside her. Joyous, breathy squeaks and squeals filled his ears, and his heart nearly burst with gladness.

Then, with a terrible, audible, glorious shock to his system, he climaxed, and she held him gently but firmly while he lunged and panted for breath, shooting his essence far into her before he faded to semi-consciousness. Vaguely, he felt her move aside, and quivered at her kiss to his lips, a kiss that was repeated dozens of times down his chin, and neck, and chest, and belly. Soft lips and tongue bathed the retiring instrument of his passion, and he sighed into a deep sleep.

He awoke to the aroma of hot nourishment, and remembered then, dimly, that the same heated goodness had been given him at some point before. His head lay cradled in the crook of a soft arm, and he eagerly drank from the spoon as it was presented to his lips. The liquid went down more easily with each swallow, and he searched his memory for a clue as to the taste. Mushrooms, he decided, very tasty ones, finely minced, in a broth of some flavor he did not recognize, though the scent seemed familiar.