Epilogue

I loved Ivy, and I loved the baby growing inside her belly.

I could finally be with her the whole time, unlike when she had Sage.

Like me, Sage loved the baby before it was even born.

Ivy made him a big part of bringing his little brother or sister into the world.

“Can you just poop it out already?” Sage demanded. “I’m tired of waiting.”

“You and me both, twerp,” Ivy said. “If only.”

But I didn’t mind the waiting. After so many years alone, I’d wait as long as it took.

And when the baby was born, I loved her even more. Ivy named her Wren, because I always reminded her of a bird, and we lived in a forest.

Sage loved Wren too, and she loved her big brother.

Sage visited almost every day, and Ivy was happier than ever.

Even when Sage got older, and Ivy was afraid he’d be “too cool” to play with his little sister, he never stayed away. He loved Wren with his whole heart.

Sky and Papa Fox offered to paint all of us together over the years, so Ivy and I would remember how Wren and Sage looked as they grew up. I’d never forget, even without the portraits, but I liked having them anyway.

Humans didn’t have words for a family like ours, but we didn’t need them.

Family
Is
The warmth you feel
Together.

Chapter 90: Ivy

Last time, I’d made my decision about the baby all by myself–well, with my parents’ help, I guess? But this time would be different. This time, I told Cirrus.

“I’m sorry,” he said, which I totally didn’t expect. I thought he’d be like, ecstatic? “I didn’t mean to.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said. “Well, I mean, it was your sperm, but like, on steroids or whatever. But…do you want the baby, Cirrus? Like, do you want to be a dad?”

“Yes,” he whispered, so softly I was afraid I’d imagined it.

“What–what do we tell Sage?” Why did I care what a kid thought? Even if he was my brother. But for some reason, I felt like…how did I feel?

“He’ll be happy,” Cirrus said, “but maybe sad too.”

Why would he be sad about becoming an uncle? What wasn’t Cirrus telling me? It was comforting, being in his arms, knowing he wanted this baby too–did that mean I wanted to be a mom, finally, even though I swore it so wasn’t my thing? Why now?

“Are you guys gonna do it right there,” Sage asked, like a tiny stalker, “or can I stay?”

“Sage,” Cirrus said, but I couldn’t deal with this right now. “You can always stay.”

I took a deep breath. “Hey, I kind of need to talk to the little twerp. Sorry–just the two of us, I guess. I have a lot to say.”

I was worried that Cirrus might be hurt, like I’d left him out, but he wasn’t. He’d probably had a lot of talks with Sage too, so now it was my turn–and unlike me, Cirrus didn’t have anything to apologize for.

“I understand.”

“I didn’t sneak into your boat-house and eat all your cupcakes and use your girly deodorant,” Sage said. “So you got nothing on me, sis.”

“What–ugh–” But I didn’t say anything else, instead waiting for Cirrus to leave.

“Okay,” I said, when Sage and I were alone. “Can we talk, seriously? Sister-to-brother, I guess.”

“You’re already talking.”

“No shi–obviously. But… Ugh, why is this so hard?”

“Because you let the same stupid thoughts fill up your brain for yearssss,” Sage said, “and now it feels like your skull’s gonna explode.”

I just…looked at him. How much did he know? How much had Cirrus told him? Or…had he always known? When I’d been pregnant with him, I could read minds. When he was born, I lost that power.

But what if I hadn’t lost it–what if it just went somewhere else?

I lowered myself to the dock–god, that’d be hard once I got bigger–and he did too. I prodded his maybe-telepathic head. “I’m pregnant.”

“No duh. I already know.”

I held my breath–and then exhaled. “How?” Were my thoughts flowing from my brain into his? Weird power, courtesy of a demigod like Cirrus?

He scooted so that he wasn’t facing me anymore. “Because you’re extra fat.”

“…I’m not showing yet, but thanks.” What did I say now? How could I apologize for something like that? “I’m sorry, Sage. I should’ve been a better sister to you.” Or a better mother. “But I was so young, and…” I was so confused. “And Mom and Dad were able to be there for you–unlike me.” I didn’t know anything, I was scared, I didn’t have Cirrus… “I know there’s no excuse, but…”

“You can’t change the past,” Sage said, “unless you’re a secret time traveler. So just be a better sister from now on, okay? You don’t have to be my mom or anything–I already have one. But don’t act like you hate seeing me when you don’t, and don’t stay away from me for no reason…”

“Deal,” I said. “You can come here whenever you want–I’m going to need like, a ton of help when I’m pregnant. I’m taking a break from acting, so I’ll be here or with Mom and Dad pretty much all the time.” The flowers that sprang up behind me in the human world would be too much of a bitch to edit out in post-production, so I was on indefinite maternity leave. “And I want my kid to know their uncle.” Or big brother.

“You do…?” Why did he sound so surprised?

“Of course I do. And, like, you’ll be even closer in age than you and I are, so you’ll practically be like a big brother.”

He threw his arms around me. “I’ll be the best big brother-uncle ever. You’ll see, Ivy.”

“I know you will.”

And just like that, all my pregnancy-related fears evaporated. Like I’d gotten Sage’s permission to learn how to be a mom for the first time–like it mattered more than I knew.

After spending some more quality brother-sister time with Sage, I found Cirrus napping in his forest hut. “We’re doing it,” I said. “The parent thing, I mean. It’s happening. If you want?”

“We can have the baby?” he asked. “Can it live here in my forest?”

“Sure–but we’ll have to take it to the human world sometimes too so our kid’s not a really weird little shut-in. I bet Sage will kidnap his new niece or nephew and teleport them all over the world without our permission anyway.”

“He probably will,” Cirrus said, not sounding worried at all.

But I wasn’t too concerned either. I was tired, but I was happy–and hopeful.

This time, I knew we made the right choice.

Chapter 89: Cosette

Things changed after the truth came out between Rowan and me–like my color palette–and yet some things stayed pretty much the same.

It was way easier than I thought going back to being ultimate BFFAEs.

“This is really nice,” I said, “actually being able to talk to you and all.”

“I think so too,” he agreed. “I’m glad you forgave me…”

“I can’t believe Rosaline was my mod too,” I said. “I always thought I annoyed her.”

Rowan obviously hadn’t wanted to narc on my sister like that, but we’d decided not to lie to each other ever again, even about little stuff. And that wasn’t so little.

“She wishes you were closer,” he said, “but she doesn’t know how to change things. I can relate…”

Rowan had been in love with me for years and years, and I had no idea. But now I knew–and he knew how I felt too.

“I love you, Cosette,” he said, like he was afraid I’d forgotten. My memory was pretty bad sometimes, but I wouldn’t forget that.

“For all eternity?”

“For all eternity.”

Things felt so right with Rowan. Comfortable, but not in a boring way. I loved spending every moment I could with him, just like I had when we were younger.

I also liked how he was naked all the time–and he always wanted me. Always, even if I wasn’t wearing lingerie or anything. He liked me the way I was.

We had lots of fun together, whether we were playing games together or making out or finding time alone in the park.

I didn’t feel self-conscious with him at all, not like I had with Xanny. I knew he wasn’t thinking about Rosaline when he was with me, not even a little bit. I could see it in his eyes–and feel it everywhere else.

We were going to be together for all eternity.

I went to his soccer games whenever I could, watching him catch balls for hours. I used to think soccer was kind of boring, but now I thought Rowan was the best goalie there ever was, so it was automatically amazingly interesting.

I still had my whole streaming career, but it was a lot different now. No more lingerie–I still liked looking pretty, but I didn’t want that to be the only reason people watched me. I wanted them to watch for me–and my video game skills.

Not gonna lie, I lost a lot of subscribers, but I didn’t mind. I had more fun streaming this way, and I wasn’t worried the whole time about nip slips or uneven makeup or anything.

Plus Rowan was moderating just from one room over, and he could come in afterwards and tell me how much he loved my stream.

We got to play video games together again, finally. We did everything together, just as BFFAEs should. But we were more than BFFAEs too.

And he still let me ride him around for old times’ sake…or maybe he just really liked it. But one time, he lost his balance…

We could both laugh about stuff like that. That’s how we knew we were supposed to be together.

“Love you, Row-Rave,” I said through my laughter.

“Love you–too…”

Well, it turned out the reason he lost his balance wasn’t because of a curse or clumsiness or anything, but because I was pregnant. (Don’t worry, I’m a vampiress–and the baby’s dad is a tree, so the baby was fine!) Something about the hidden extra weight messed up messed up his BFFAE calibrations or something, maybe.

And soon the weight wasn’t hidden at all.

“It’s gonna be a big one,” I said, his hand on my belly. “Maybe even two.”

“I’ll love whoever you bring into this world,” he promised.

And he did.

It turned out I wasn’t the only one pregnant–Rosaline was too. Now, when she called me, I actually picked up, because she was my sister and all. And she joined social media after her daughter was born, but only to post pics of her new family–and they were set to private for everyone except me and our parents.

Having a baby at the same time as my big sister really brought us closer together. It didn’t feel weird that she was with Xanny after I’d been with him–it kind of felt like I’d just been holding him for her, maybe, and she’d been holding Rowan for me. No big deal.

And it meant our kids could have playdates all the time–it could be hard to have ones for supernatural kids.

“They really get along,” I said. “Maybe they’re destined to be BFFAEs.”

“That’s a distinct possibility,” said Rosaline.

Rowan and Xanny were getting along again too–it was like everything was going back to the way it was supposed to be.

Hopefully our kids wouldn’t make the same mistakes we did.

But even if they did, I knew they’d figure things out.

Chapter 88: Sky

Orlando was late. I’d asked him to meet me at a very beautiful place I’d found, where few humans roamed, and he promised to meet me there.

And then I heard footsteps. I eagerly turned toward the sound.

“Orlan–” The name died on my lips. Once, I might’ve screamed, but his face was familiar to me even now.

He looked…different. Sapped of color.

“…My apologies for my late arrival,” he said, his voice even hoarser than usual. “As you can see, I…” He trailed off, offering no further explanation.

“Orlando, whatever has happened to you?”

“I’m unraveling entirely,” he said, “at long last. Shadow consumes me…”

I attempted a smile. “But you’ve no reason to disappear,” I said. “Lyanna may be gone, but…she’s part of me. Surely that’s enough?” My voice rose and cracked.

“So I had hoped,” Orlando rasped, “but it would seem I can no longer exist without her love to sustain me. I don’t want you to watch my descent into shadowy oblivion, weasel. But I needed to bid you farewell–and apologize for being unable to protect you any longer.”

“You mustn’t go,” I said. “I–”

But he was already leaving…

“Farewell, Sky…” The wind carried his hoarse apology to me.

But I chased after him. “You can’t leave me alone, Orlando. You can’t.”

“Pah, you have no use for me,” he said, “not if you continue to grow stronger. Learn from your sister. Be wary of men with pretty faces. Live, Sky. Live.”

I threw my arms around him. “I won’t let you go. I refuse.”

But I wasn’t strong enough to hold him upright when he collapsed in my arms. “Orlando? I won’t leave, even if you pretend to do such a thing…”

He was pretending, wasn’t he? He’d never leave me like this. He promised to watch over me until he faded away…

“I’m sorry I’m not her,” I whispered. “I’m sorry I’m not the Lyanna you remember…”

His eyelids slowly fluttered open, and he managed to gaze up at me. “You didn’t have to be,” he rasped. “I loved you as you are now.” Why loved, not love? Was he so set on disappearing?

But before I could demand an answer, he lost consciousness again. And no matter how many times I tried to rouse him, his eyes wouldn’t open once more.

“Don’t go,” I whispered, even as his body seemed to become more and more insubstantial beneath my fingers. Solid flesh became more like gossamer…

And then he was gone, and I was alone. Pain stabbed at my heart–worse than any pain I’d ever known. Worse than finding out who I truly was, of a life lived and lost…

Sobs wracked my body–and rain poured from the sky. “Please,” I gasped. “Please, please, please. I love him…”

Raindrops mixed with my tears, indistinguishable from one another.

I cried and cried until I was certain I’d drained every bit of moisture from my body. I never stopped calling his name, even when my voice became as hoarse as his. I refused to believe he’d never come back.

And then…I couldn’t believe my eyes.

“O-Orlando…?”

The rain stopped, and I wasn’t certain which of us lacked the strength to stand, but we both found ourselves tangled together on the ground.

“I heard your cries from the abyss,” he murmured, his voice clear and melodic. As pretty as he was. “You called me back, little goddess.”

“I’m hardly so powerful,” I whispered. “Not like my sister…”

“Shhh. Let me hold you. Please. Just for a moment…”

But it was far longer than a moment–and I had no intention of complaining. When at last we both had the strength to stand, we took succor beneath the shade.

“I feel rather strange,” Orlando said. “This is certainly unexpected.”

“You’re quite handsome…”

He snorted. “Of course–I’m fae. After so long existing as…” He shrugged helplessly. “A shadow of my former self, I suppose,” he finished wryly.

I kissed him. He was simply too pretty not to, and I loved him.

“Sky,” he breathed. “Do you always do as you please?”

“I do now, I think. After so long being afraid. I don’t want to be afraid anymore.”

He took my hand, and he looked very much like a prince of the fairies, even though I knew he was no such thing. “Are you dazzled?” he asked.

I gazed shyly up at him. “Quite.”

He laughed. “I remain yours to command,” he said, “until I fade away.”

But I didn’t want to think so far ahead; there were things in the near future I wanted to address first. Before anything else, I wanted to go home–not to the little house in Sulani, but to the realm of the fae. I’d been away from my parents for too long, hiding among humans.

The fae realm was as beautiful as ever…

And my parents were quite surprised to see me–with the exception of Papa Griffin, who could see the future.

Had he known to expect me–and the guest I brought along? I wasn’t quite sure what to say–nor did Orlando, who had been reluctant to come but agreed to remain at my side regardless.

“Hey, Sky,” Papa Griffin said. “We missed you. Orlando, you look good, I guess.”

“What is he doing here?” Papa Fox demanded, glaring at Orlando even as he directed his questions at me. “Why is he with you? And what did he do to make himself look like that–a fae glamour?”

“Fox,” Papa Griffin said. “Why don’t you ask him stuff while I talk to Sky? Don’t scare him away though…”

“He’s our guest,” Mama said softly, recovering from her surprise. “Our daughter coming home can only be a wonderful day.”

Papa Griffin found us a place to talk in private, though I couldn’t help but worry about Orlando.

“He’ll be okay,” said Papa Griffin. “Fox won’t hurt him or make him go away.”

“But he hates his father…”

“Nah,” he said. “Fox is mad and hurt, but he never wanted Orlando to die. I knew you’d save him.”

“Is that why you–why you told me the truth, all those years ago? About who I was? So Papa Fox wouldn’t lose a father…”

“It’s part of the reason,” he admitted, “but it was mostly for you. My daughter. I knew you’d remember Orlando one day–and that he might be gone when you did.”

“I was afraid of him for so many years,” I said quietly, unsure how to feel. “I was afraid of everything. But…I think I’m glad things turned out how they did, even if it was hard for me. I still have so very many years left to make up for the sad ones.”

“I’m sorry, Sky,” said Papa Griffin. “I never wanted to hurt you–or Fox. But it was the only path I saw that could fix things. Otherwise you’d both be sad for a really long time…”

“It’s okay,” I whispered, and it was. “Thank you, Papa Griffin.” I was sorry I’d never appreciated him enough in my youth–but I’d never make that mistake again. He loved me, I knew, just as much as Papa Fox.

Orlando and I decided to live in the realm of the fae, not far from my parents. It was strange, getting to know each other once more–as new people entirely. The next couple of years passed in relative harmony.

And soon, my sister had two new little people for us to get to know as well: my niece and nephew. Who would’ve thought my sister might wed the Sun King himself?

It was like something out of a human’s fairy tale… They both looked so very happy, despite the strange match. (My parents had been equally shocked, if not more so–but Mama hadn’t been upset, as Rain feared.)

“Careful not to drop her,” I said to Rain.

“Don’t worry,” Rain said, “she’s durable.” Her husband only laughed.

Our friend Lyra’s vampire husband, however, would’ve been horrified had anyone made a similar remark about their own twins, who were my niece and nephew’s frequent playmates at the temple. Lyra’s children were both slippery and prone to biting.

Small children, I’d soon discovered, were quite exhausting. Had Lyanna thought the same, or had she fully embraced motherhood then? She had loved her children; I was certain of that if nothing else.

After our visit, Orlando and I recovered at the water’s edge.

“Do you wish to be a mother again?” Orlando asked, as though he’d read my mind.

“I know I’m not Lyanna any longer, not truly, but…I feel as though we ought to make things up to Papa Fox and Clemmie first.”

Clementine was kind to me whenever I saw her (though she still didn’t let me call her “Aunt Clementine” just yet). She was far more wary of Orlando, albeit civil; one day, I hoped she’d truly warm up to him, but I wouldn’t push her. “And,” I continued, “I rather like it being the two of us for now…”

“I have much to atone for,” Orlando agreed, “and I intend to do so. Perhaps one day I’ll be fit to be a father–but until then, I shall enjoy your company alone.”

It wasn’t quite a fairy tale ending, not like Rain’s, but we’d both fought so very hard for it, and it was ours.

And there was always the future.

Chapter 87: Anders

I rarely took my work home with me these days, in contrast to my time as a general practitioner–though my current patients were always able to reach me in the event of questionable swelling or similar complications. But Ivy’s unexpected news…would it add to her unhappiness?

“You are sad, my handsome dead fish doctor?” Lyra asked, catching me quite by surprise.

Ivy hadn’t informed me of her decision, nor had she inquired about additional resources or a possible referral. This time, I was far more concerned about her mental health than a potential adoption on my or Caspian’s part. …However, this wasn’t my burden to carry, as much as I cared for my honorary niece–and she hadn’t appeared particularly troubled.

“I simply need to learn how to separate myself from my patients,” I admitted, “even now.”

“This, I do not understand,” Lyra said, “but I am sure you make them all very pretty.”

“But is that enough?” I wondered aloud. “It’s my duty as a physician to minimize pain…”

“You are always worrying about others,” Lyra said, “and so I will worry about you this time, yes? I know how to make you feel better, I am thinking…”

“Ah, and how precisely would that be…?” I asked as she laughed.

“Let us go swimming,” she said. “We will *dolphin noises* in pool, yes?”

I could hardly argue with such a proposition now, especially not after Lyra agreed to ingest an enchanted fae water medication formulated to prevent any relapse of her illness.

We changed into our swimsuits–although not without some eager pawing on Lyra’s part–and ventured outside to enjoy the night.

“My doctor, he looks very handsome in the water,” she said. “It is terrible tragedy you were not born merman.”

“I thought you rather liked me as a vampire–fangs and all.”

“You are like saltwater bath after trip to mountain lake…”

I assumed this was something refreshing–though I was rather fond of mountain lakes myself. My hands wandered to the ties securing her bikini top in place…

“I hope you’ll join me in the water,” I said, once part of her swimsuit had fallen away.

“This, it is very good idea.” Lyra slid into the water as gracefully as an otter, though she was far lovelier.

I would love her for eternity…

Her skin was delightfully warm wherever it touched mine–and it touched in a great many places.

Afterwards, we simply gazed at one another, content. My heart throbbed as though it were a living, beating thing.

“I ought to pay a visit to your parents,” I told her. “It’s only right…”

“Why is this? You are wanting to brave ocean for me?”

More like braving her mother… “Because I intend to ask them for their blessing,” I said. At her look of confusion, I elaborated: “To marry you. I…I don’t think they could keep me from doing so either way, but I’d like to let them know at the very least, before the wedding.”

She was pleased, even if she didn’t see why an adult mermaid had any need for such a thing. She was still a mermaid princess, and a king would likely appreciate a show of respect from his future son-in-law. Ellie, of course, was a wild card, as ever.

Fortunately, I was a vampire and had no need to breathe underwater.

“Guess our daughter totes has a taste for eel,” Ellie said.

Lyra’s father only looked amused. Like Lyra, he seemed to be a rather easygoing sort.

“Ah, thank you for permitting me to visit your kingdom,” I said, “and I’d be honored if I could–”

“He is wanting to marry me,” Lyra interrupted, “and I am wanting to marry him also. If you do not let me do this, I will never return to ocean again.”

“Ideally, we’d like your permission and approval, of course,” I added.

“Damn,” Ellie said, “guess we can’t say no to that. How about I take some time to chat with your future groom alone?”

This was it–Ellie was going to feed me to the sharks.

But she seemed remarkably sanguine–rather than murderous–when she led me away to speak in private.

“Listen, Andromedon,” she said. “Sorry for giving you so much shiz back in the day–for realsies. I hated how much you and Daddicus worried about me–I hated anybody worrying about me.”

“Irritating you was never my intent,” I said. Making her like me was, to no avail.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I swore I’d be a chill mom, and I wouldn’t worry like my dad no matter what issues my kid had, but it’s different when you’re a parent. Guess you’ll find that out soon enough.” She grinned at me. “So thanks for looking out for Lyra.”

“I love her,” I said softly. “I’d like her to live a long, happy life with me…”

“You’re a good guy, Androbat. I know you’ll take good care of her, even if it’s weird af that you’re my age and dating the daughter of somebody you touched butts with.”

“Indeed.” And that was all that needed to be said on the matter–like Ellie, Lyra’s father was similarly pleased that their daughter had found someone to make her happy.

Lyra and I were married in an enormous underwater ceremony less than a month later. It was, without a doubt, the happiest day of my life. “I hope you enjoy life on land,” I told my new wife.

“My husband, he is always at my side,” she answered. “It is impossible to be unhappy, yes?”

I certainly thought so.

Besides, water was all around us–and I’d take every precaution against the sun in order to enjoy it alongside her.

Once, I’d felt a great sense of trepidation about getting a late start in life. Would I ever be a husband and father? Would I be successful in my career? How long would it take?

Now, such questions were irrelevant.

I’d waited precisely the right amount of time to begin a new life with the woman of my dreams…

Chapter 86: Ivy

Sage’s birthday month eventually ended, but my time with Cirrus didn’t, even without the little twerp around to force us together. I missed Sage when he went home–even though he could drop by without warning whenever he wanted.

But now, I had Cirrus.

I always thought it was cheesy when some idiot in love swore up and down that they’d “never felt like this before,” despite probably saying the same damn thing every time they fell for someone new.

But I could confidently say I had felt like this before–just once. With Cirrus.

Maybe it was just relief at being free from Elian? Nostalgia, from the one time I was happy as a teenager?

…But no. I knew it was more. I didn’t just love Cirrus–I felt at peace in his arms, free from all my real-life stress.

Careful not to wake him, I rolled out of bed. He’d kind of set up a shrine to me and Sage on one side of his cozy little one-room forest house.

Did he think about us every day? I knew he loved Sage–as more than a cousin. He had to.

How often had Sage come here? …Should I have gotten pics of all three of us together during Sage’s birthday, maybe?

So that’s why my violin had disappeared–not that I’d been looking for it. I’d never played it again after…after I got pregnant. God, I’d always hated playing that stupid thing.

I picked it up, along with the bow, and made my way outside, keeping my footsteps as soft as possible. What had come over me? But I found the perfect place to play…

It was a nice violin–and in surprisingly good condition. Had Cirrus taken care of it for me…? It wasn’t the violin’s fault that I’d hated it all those years.

Did he hold it and think of me? Like, literally see memories of me playing or whatever. I knew he had weird demigod powers. Maybe he touched it whenever he missed me…

This was such a beautiful place. I could live here forever, probably? Sulani was beautiful, but this place had like, zero tourists, unless you counted me.

“Ivy,” Cirrus said, gazing down at me with an unreadable expression on his face. “I was afraid you left.”

“I wouldn’t,” I said. “Not without telling you.” Never again. “Want to listen to me play? If I can even remember how to, anyway.”

“Yes.”

I sat up, and he sat across from me. And then I began to play…

Cirrus sat and listened, obviously riveted, I guess. But I wasn’t sure if it was because of me or because of the music. I could probably play Mary Had A Little Lamb on the kazoo and he’d still eat it up.

Maybe it was the magical forest, or maybe it was my enthusiastic audience, but…I thought my music was beautiful too. Maybe I’d never really hated playing the violin–just practicing and practicing for hours and playing for an audience I never gave a shit about.

I loved catching glimpses of Cirrus’s face… God, he was adorable. Like a puppy watching me make dinner or something.

And when it was time to go home, I kissed him goodbye. I didn’t want to go, but this made it a little easier.

But home, sweet home didn’t feel so sweet anymore. The beautiful sunshine and the ocean just…couldn’t compare to being near Cirrus. God, was I an idiot?

I was already thinking about the next time I’d get to see him…

I was so lost in thought I didn’t notice the ultra-strong scent of flowers nearby. And not like, normal Sulani flowers…

I turned around.

A path of flowers trailed behind me, in the exact same place I’d walked. Forest flowers–not tropical ones. And they were sprouting from the wood itself–and sand too. How?

But this wasn’t the first time something so weird had happened to me. “…Oh, SHIT.”

I tried calling Uncle Anders, but he didn’t pick up–he had to be working. So I headed for his plastic surgery clinic. I tried not to look behind me.

I told the receptionist that it was a major emergency and that Uncle Anders had botched a boob job and a butt job and that they were all about to fall off and I was totally going to sue if I didn’t get to see him right away.

…God, why did this feel so familiar?

“This is quite remarkable,” Uncle Anders said, after he stopped protesting that a pregnancy test was too far outside his new specialty or whatever. “Your implant should’ve prevented any such pregnancy–it’s entirely effective against fae pollination, so to speak. Of course, every method and device has failure rates, but this…”

His scientific interest didn’t bother me this time, not like it had back then. “It worked just fine against Elian, but…” I sighed. “My partner wasn’t fae. He’s kind of a demigod? Can I sue the manufacturer of the implant or whatever?”

“I suppose you could try,” said Uncle Anders, “but demigods are exceedingly rare and may have been listed as incompatible within the fine print. You’re a statistical anomaly, getting pregnant with not only one but two demigod partners–”

“…It’s kind of the same one,” I admitted. “Sage’s bio dad.”

His eyebrows shot up. “I–I see. Ahem.” I had to give the guy credit–he tried really hard to put his professional mask back on. “I imagine this would be quite interesting to a number of my colleagues, especially those involved in supernatural fertility…”

“Thanks, but if they want to start extra-effective demigod sperm banks or whatever, they can do it without me–or Cirrus.” I’d told Elian that I might want to be a mom some day, but that was a hypothetical–and distant–future. Not now. “I just…what do I do?”

“That’s entirely up to you, Ivy,” he said. “You’re an adult. You have options.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I guess I do.”

That was a first–and this time, I was going to make a different choice.

Chapter 85: Rosaline

Every question may have an answer, but on occasion, the querier may be wholly unprepared for that answer.

Via email as well as in person, I had demanded many answers of Xanrathos’vel; however, I was unprepared to discover the extent of his inspiration behind Rosamund, the heroine of his novels.

He had fixated on me not because of my beauty, as I had assumed, but because of my intelligence and strength. I had saved him from his seven sisters, an insignificant event in my own recollections, but cause for eternal gratitude from him. I had instilled in him a love of reading without ever intending to.

I had misjudged him greatly, then and now. He saw me not as a brainless beauty, as Rosamund was portrayed on the covers of his novels, but a woman he respected and admired.

After he made these confessions to me, assuming that I was an anonymous stranger, he sent a number of frantic emails begging to meet in person. I assented, naming a library with lax communication rules.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t meet him until the next morning. I was uncharacteristically excited when I went to bed that night…

We would meet, and I would reveal myself, and he would be delighted to see me after so many years apart.

The next morning, I headed off to our appointment a full hour earlier than necessary. Our meeting place was a magical library, where the presence of a demon would be unremarkable.

I took a seat at a table in the back and waited, still in disguise. The continued deception would prove unnecessary, but as a writer of fiction, he could appreciate a dramatic reveal.

I pretended not to notice his arrival, despite his heavy footsteps.

When I caught a glimpse of his face, he was clearly displeased. I looked forward to changing his dark expression.

He slid into a seat next to me. I could feel the ferocity of his glare on me, so different from the adoring looks of our adolescence. “What do you want?” he demanded. “To keep those emails from getting out. Money? A book deal? A demonic summoning?”

“I was hoping for something else entirely,” I said, in very good spirits.

“Do tell,” he muttered. “I have books to write, you know.”

I slowly unzipped my hoodie and removed my sunglasses, but he didn’t notice, instead ranting about readers feeling entitled to his time and work.

He was taking far, far too long to notice my dramatic reveal…

At last, his complaints and lecture ceased, and the removal of my disguise had its intended effect. “…Rosaline? Is that you?”

“Indeed. Your eyes do not deceive you, Xanrathos’vel.”

“What–what are you doing here? You read my books? I never thought–” He looked away. “Oh. You hate my books. That explains a lot–your voice sounded so familiar…”

“Once, I judged them to be unworthy of the paper on which they were printed,” I admitted, “but that was before I read them. Now that I understand the author’s reasoning, I’ve grown to appreciate some of the artistic liberties you’ve taken with demon culture–and with Rosamund.

“I guess I can’t lie now, since I already told you the truth,” he said. “I based Rosamund on you. I’m sorry–if you want to sue me, I understand. You can have all the proceeds from my novels, whatever doesn’t go to my agent and publisher…”

“I don’t want to sue you, Xanrathos’vel.”

“Then what–”

“I want to get to know one another, as I failed to do when we were younger. I regret now that I misjudged you, assuming you were attracted only to my appearance.”

“You’re beautiful, don’t get me wrong–but that isn’t why I liked you…”

“So I’ve learned in my correspondence with you.” I crooked a finger at him.

He looked momentarily confused. “Are you planning to disembowel me with your index finger? That’s what my sisters would do…”

“No. Come closer.”

He obeyed, and I lifted my hand to his hair. “That feels…nice,” he said.

I was in complete agreement. “I suppose a demon has few opportunities to enjoy a gentle touch,” I said. “Or peace and quiet.”

“I can’t get enough of the peace and quiet on the Surface,” he said as my fingertips brushed the line of his jaw. “And I can’t say I hate that either–your touch…”

My hair fell in a curtain over his face, hiding my lips from view when I pressed them against his forehead.

His hand flew to the spot I’d kissed him. “Did you–did your face fall on my forehead? I’m sorry, Rosaline–”

I knew he was far from inexperienced, and yet such a small gesture had elicited such an intense reaction. I believe words such as “cute” or “adorable” should be reserved for puppies, and yet I didn’t know how else to describe his boyish charm at this particular moment…

“It was intentional, Xanrathos’vel.”

“…You’re holding my hand. Am I–dead? Is this some kind of eleventh hell torture, making me feel like my lifelong dream has come true?”

I laughed. “I can feel your pulse. Rapid, yes, but not alarmingly so.”

“I know it’s probably wildly inappropriate to ask, but…would you like to get out of here? I think we’ll get kicked out if I do what I want right now…”

How had I never noticed how striking his violet eyes were? “I would love to,” I murmured.

We ended up in a hotel, though not before I stopped for a few…necessities. The hotel room’s fiery color scheme was appropriate for the mutual mood we now found ourselves in…

Now, I found myself on the receiving end of something I had never experienced with Rowan: passion. I thought it was impossible–indeed, part of my curse–to be attracted to a man who was attracted to me in turn, but the heat consuming me from within was proof to the contrary.

No man–or demon–wanted me as intensely as the one before me now…

I was reluctant to tear myself from his embrace. “I’d like to change into something more appropriate for the occasion,” I said.

“I don’t care what you wear, Rosaline,” he said, eyes never leaving mine. “I just want you.”

But I wanted our first time together to be memorable–and in something other than I might’ve worn with Rowan.

However, Xanrathos’vel’s reaction to my change of clothing was…unexpected.

“Rosaline, what–where did you get that–”

“In a costume shop we passed on the way here,” I said. “I thought it might be appropriate for a necromancer lusting for a demon prince…”

“I don’t know if ‘appropriate’ is the word I’d use…”

“…Am I behaving like an imbecile, Xanrathos’vel?” As I had with Rowan…

“No, no,” he reassured me–but then the direction of his gaze was reassurance enough. “I think Rosamund should wear something like that in an upcoming scene. I’ll have to commit it to memory before I take it off…”

If Rosamund grew tired of her demon prince avoiding consummating their relationship and took matters into her own hands, I would gladly take credit for the inspiration behind such a scene.

He wouldn’t be able to resist her for long…

Was this how it felt, to desire someone and be desired in return? To have your yearning met with the full force of another’s? To think of nothing and no one else–and know they did the same?

“Rosaline,” he growled. “Rosaline, Rosaline, Rosaline…” No other name belonged on his lips.

And no one else belonged beside him.

Some questions were worth answering at any cost.

Chapter 84: Cosette

Rowan had lied to me. For years. What kind of BFFAE did that? I knew I wasn’t half as smart as Rosaline, but did he think I was stupid?

I was cursed, not stupid–there was a difference. Formerly cursed.

Or maybe I was still cursed and just didn’t know it? Or it was a relapse, or…

Did one of my fangs suddenly feel kind of crooked when I poked it with my tongue?

I had to get out of there. Everywhere I looked, there was proof of Rowan breaking every BFFAE rule there was–or maybe there was just one big rule, and it was to not lie to your BFFAE for years and years.

I went home–well, to my new home, which was right next to my traitor BFFAE.

Should I hide in a bush and jump out and yank on his antlers? I didn’t know how you were supposed to punish a BFFAE in this situation.

But I didn’t really want to hurt him. Not like he hurt me. It wasn’t a physical pain or anything–it was way, way worse.

But I had to confront him. Maybe I could hide all my weird feelings from Xanny, but I couldn’t do it with Rowan. Not anymore. Not when I knew he could talk back, not when he’d watched my every move for a whole decade and even saw my “chest-fruits.”

How should I handle this? I kind of wished I could ask Rosaline. Did she know? Did she even talk to him anymore?

But weirdly, I didn’t feel threatened by her anymore, not like I did with Xanny. Not after I saw all those limited edition body pillows of me in Rowan’s house–he had to be my ultimate fan.

And one in his bed too, which made me think he was more than just a fan…

Why’d that make me feel like bats were fluttering around in my stomach? I was supposed to be mad at him and all…

This was too confusing!

I’d always asked GoatBallz if he’d be my number one fan.

For all eternity, he’d said. Straight out of the BFFAE code. How could I have been so stupid?

I decided to text Rowan, telling him to come over once he was finished kicking balls around. We had a lot to talk about.

I waited and waited, but I finally got a response. He was coming. I told him I left the door unlocked for him and everything, and then I lay–okay, sat–in wait.

“…Hey, Row-Rave.”

“Cosette,” he whispered, even though I knew he could TALK. He’d talked when I wore all that lingerie for him, and when I just needed someone to talk to…

I stood up and faced him. “My BFFAE,” I said, holding out my arms. “That means best friend for all eternity, remember?”

“What’s wrong?” he asked. He always knew somehow. Always–whether it was on the computer or in person.

“Nothing’s wrong,” I lied. “I just really need a hug from my BFFAE.”

I wasn’t ready when he actually gave me one…

This was too weird. Why wasn’t I mad at him? Well, I was, but I liked feeling him against me even more. His rough bark, his mossy scent, his antlers poking me…they were all so familiar. Could a hug feel like home?

“I missed you,” he whispered against my ear.

Missed me…like my number one fan, or my BFFAE, or somebody else?

I pushed him away from me. “I don’t know who you are,” I said. “You lied. You LIED to me, Rowan.”

He was so surprised that he didn’t speak in a whisper when he answered. “What do you mean…?”

I felt half my age, because I was almost crying. I was too old to cry. Only cursed people cried. “I know you’re G-Goatballz. I know you can talk. I know…” What did I know?

His arms wrapped around me from behind, but I wasn’t having it. “…I love you, Cosette. I’ve always loved you. From the moment we met. From the moment you smiled at me…”

I could’ve wriggled out of his hold. I could’ve yelled at him and called him all kinds of names.

But I didn’t. It just…felt right, his body against mine. I didn’t feel lonely anymore, even if I was mad.

So I did the only thing that came to mind…

I broke free and then threw myself at him, trying to knock him down.

But he’d always been really good at catching me.

“I never meant to let it go so far,” he said softly. “I…I never loved Rosaline–only you. I wanted to make you smile. I wanted to do everything for you, Cosette. Everything. And then it was too late to tell you, and…I missed my chance. I couldn’t bear the thought of making you sad or angry.”

“I think I understand,” I said. “Kind of. I never stopped regretting making you get with Rosaline. Never. But right when I started to figure out how I felt about you, it was too late. I messed up. I guess we all mess up sometimes, cursed or not…”

“I’m sorry for hiding the truth from you,” he said. “I should’ve told you. But I didn’t lie about being your biggest fan, or your best friend for all eternity. I want to make you happy. More than anything.”

“Then kiss me, Rowan,” I whispered. “Right now.”

I didn’t have to ask twice.

It took ten years longer than it should’ve, probably, but this was exactly where I was supposed to be…

Chapter 83: Rain

The Sun King taught me a lot–not how to fight him better, but how to lay in the sun or whatever.

The sand was hot, and some of it went up my shorts, but I could kinda see why he liked it. It wouldn’t burn me since I was so strong–not like a weak human.

“You’re even hotter than the sand,” I told him.

His smile didn’t make me want to punch him in the face anymore. “You like that, little hurricane mama?”

His hand was really warm. All of him was really warm, I guess. I pulled myself into his lap–the only thing between us was the towel around his waist, but I wasn’t gonna yank it off or anything.

“I don’t think I hate you anymore, Sun King,” I said.

“Rad,” he said. “Think I’m starting to look forward to your next storm. Can’t have sun without rain, yeah?”

I had to go check on Sky after that, but she wasn’t home. I knew the Sun King couldn’t have kidnapped her, so she was probably okay. Maybe she was even having fun somewhere.

So I went back to the temple that the Sun King liked the most.

“He better not have run away again,” I mumbled. “I’ll find him, wherever he goes.”

But he found me instead. “Hey,” he said, weirdly quiet. “You came back.”

“So you won’t get lonely,” I said. “I don’t break my promises. Ever.”

“I’ve been a bad dude, hurricane mama. I hurt your whole family–the people I loved most in the universe. I almost hurt you…”

“But you didn’t,” I said, taking his hand with both of mine. “Hurt me, I mean. You could’ve blasted me with a giant fireball, but you shot it into the sky instead. And Mama and her parents are the only ones who can forgive you for what you did before that, but I can decide to give you a chance if I feel like it.”

He smiled, but he still looked sad. “I’ll be cool, chilling and making the humans happy. You don’t have to stick with me.”

“I know,” I said, “but I want to. Maybe it’s my mission now. To make sure you don’t do any more bad stuff. And that you don’t get sad all by yourself.”

He leaned forward so that his forehead was touching mine. “Got some really gnarly thoughts right now, little hurricane mama. About how I’d like to share a beach towel with you…”

I wasn’t sure if I kissed him or he kissed me, but like a lot of stuff that happened in the past, maybe it didn’t matter.

“Whoa,” I said, like he liked to say. “I’ve never done that before.”

“Hope you’ll do it again,” he said.

I hoped so too.

Chapter 82: Sky

I dreamed of Lyanna more and more, but the dreams no longer struck me as nightmares.

However, this time, Lyanna was in distress. “I’m trapped. Please help me,” she pleaded, pounding against an impossibly large glass jar.

“I don’t know how,” I said. “This is only a dream.”

“It isn’t,” she argued. “I’m part of you, but you keep me bottled up. I know you love Fox and Clemmie and Orlando too…”

“Papa Fox, perhaps…” It was true, however, that my heart felt unburdened after meeting with Clementine, and that I hoped to grow closer to her as her niece if nothing else. “And I suppose Orlando isn’t quite as fearsome as I once thought…”

Lyanna tried desperately to push against the walls of the jar, perhaps to tip it over, to no avail.

“I’ve been here for so long,” she whimpered. “It’s so dark, and I’m so alone…”

I knew what it was like to be lost in the darkness–and to be so very alone. But what could I possibly do to help? Rain would’ve known. And it was only a dream.

“It’s more than a dream,” Lyanna said. “I’m woven into your subconscious, your soul. But you have to want to help me first.”

“I do want to help,” I argued. “But how?”

Lyanna slid down the glass, sitting at the bottom of the jar, delicate pink fabric pooling around her. She didn’t answer.

“I think I’ll fade away,” she said at last, in a small, scared voice. “Would you prefer that I disappeared? I know that I’ve caused you so much trouble…”

“I don’t want you to disappear.” The words left my lips before I could even think very much about them, but I knew they were true. Once, I had lived in fear of this stranger in my body…but now, I realized that she was as much a part of me as my heart. Fox had loved her, and so had Clementine, once, and Orlando…

And then her entire body began to glow faintly–and float.

She rose above the lip of the jar, then drifted to the other side, smiling warmly at me.

“I think we would’ve been great friends,” she said, “if I hadn’t been reborn as you. But I guess that’s an easy thing to say…”

“I think so too,” I agreed. “I would’ve liked to meet you…as my grandmother, I think. Or as a friend.”

I held my arms open, and she stepped into my embrace. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “I’m so sorry for so many things. Please help me take care of them…”

I knew of whom she spoke, and I would’ve helped even if she hadn’t asked, I thought. “I shall…”

And then I was alone, but not truly, because I knew Lyanna was within. Perhaps not as a separate entity, someone I kept bottled up, but part of the whole now.

I had accepted her.

When I woke, I felt a strange sort of…nostalgia? I longed to see Orlando especially–or some small fragment of Lyanna did, perhaps. It didn’t truly matter, not anymore.

When I visited Orlando that day, I brought the painting I’d done of him, based on my dreams of the distant past.

“I no longer resemble such a man, weasel,” he said. “I don’t think I could take on that appearance again if I tried…”

“What if I painted you as you are now?” I wondered aloud. “You have your charms, even if it’s taken some time for me to see them.”

His laughter was brittle, like rocks grinding against one another, but it no longer frightened me. “Pah. Ridiculous. Who would want to gaze upon this image for years to come?”

Fae were vain creatures, I knew, and his appearance likely bothered him, even if he’d never mentioned it before.

“I would,” I said softly. “You let Lyanna paint you, didn’t you? It’s only fair. And isn’t it your sworn duty to let me do as I like until you fade away?”

“It’s my sworn duty to protect you,” he grumbled. “…But I suppose I never could gainsay you, weasel.”

I told him to stand and strike a fitting pose. The sun was too bright for him to cast many shadows today, I noticed.

There was nothing quite as soothing as painting…

“How long must I stand like this?” Orlando demanded, already ruining his pose.

“Until I’m finished.”

“This sunlight is murderous.”

I smiled behind my canvas. “A painting’s subject isn’t supposed to complain, not when the artist is putting so much effort into her work.”

I listened to a litany of complaints over the course of the next several hours, but they felt familiar. Comforting.

And I was eager to show him my completed work…

“Your styles are different, somewhat,” he said, smiling, “but I feel as though the essence is the same. You paint a fine portrait, weasel.”

“…Thank you.”

I hoped to paint so very many things Lyanna had held dear–because I now treasured them as well.