Epilogue

Unlike Griff, I couldn’t see the future. I knew my mother was fading, but I never expected her to go so suddenly, like a flower wilting overnight.

My aunt and grandparents’ grief was difficult to watch.

I was fortunate to have Griff and Lani. I couldn’t imagine ever losing either one of them…

But my father…who did he have? His pain was too raw for me to be able to gaze upon it for long.

She was my mother, and yet…I felt like her loss belonged to him most of all. I didn’t know how to talk to him, to comfort him. I didn’t think I could help.

As in life, he rarely left her side…

Clem came much later…and she wasn’t alone. I knew that fae–but the words he spoke to her now were as soft and gentle as rose petals.

I wanted to talk to her. I did. But as with my father, I didn’t know how. So she left, and we grieved separately.

Griff, Lani and I all had interests and obligations of our own, but we agreed that although we each might be alone on occasion, we’d ensure that no one would ever be lonely. When Lani was with her family, he made sure to stay with me…

Griff was strong. Stronger than me. But he could be gentle when the situation called for it.

And less gentle when it didn’t. “I’ll kiss you because Lani can’t right now,” he said. “And you need it, I guess.”

I laughed. It felt good to laugh. “You’re too kind, my prince.”

His lips weren’t as soft as Lani’s, but I enjoyed them all the same.

But when I got to spend some time alone with Lani, I only wanted to show her my smiling face. Not because I didn’t want her to see my pain, but because it helped, seeing her happy and carefree. So much of her shyness around us had dissipated over the years…

I was grateful, because her bare skin was the perfect canvas.

“It tickles,” she said. “It’s hard to sit still…”

“I’m almost finished, my love,” I promised.

“There’s a couple like us in this story,” Lani said. “Well, not a couple, because there are three, and two of them are women, but…they all love each other.”

“I’ll have to read it myself,” I said. “Or you could read it to me while I bathe…”

“…I thought you said fae can’t bathe alone or they’ll turn into flower petals and fly away at the first breeze.”

“That does sound like something I’d say.”

Fox–”

But she was always very forgiving when I kissed her–or maybe she only forgot why she was scolding me in the first place.

“I should use you as my canvas for every painting.”

“But then they won’t last forever,” she protested, “and I love the beautiful things you paint.”

She never believed me when I told her how beautiful she was, thinking me a flirt.

“I’m sad Griff is elsewhere today,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean I won’t take full advantage of our time alone together…”

But my favorite times were when all three of us were together. My cares always seemed to melt away…

…Even if my loves didn’t always appreciate my sense of humor or wilder romantic overtures.

But we always appreciated each other.

It was only natural to make our bond official, even if it made us an oddity among the fae…

My prince and husband; my lovely, tender-hearted wife…

I married them both, envisioning an ever-blooming daisy chain instead of cool metal bonds that constricted too tightly.

Life is a cycle. Vibrant blooms withered, only for new life to replace them once more.

And three blossoms sprouted from two life-granting seeds…

Our poor, slender wife, carrying both husbands’ three babies at once; she wouldn’t let me paint her then, even if I’d thought she never looked more beautiful.

But she let me paint her after they were born, if they’d sit still long enough for me to capture them.

It didn’t matter how much they moved, because I’d forever see them in my mind’s eye. Each one was etched upon my heart, regardless of who sired them.

Griff was a more nervous father than I, though he tried to hide it in front of Lani.

“I see a garden,” he said, “but I don’t know what it means. My visions are usually clearer…like watching dumb human TV, not weird symbolic stuff or whatever.”

“We’re surrounded by beautiful gardens, Griff. We’re fae.”

“But our kids are more. I want to know what the future holds for them, I guess.” He looked over at them, where they played under Lani’s intent supervision. “I see a garden cast in shadow… One corner is completely charred, but then it storms and a single green sprout pushes its way through the wet ashes.”

He took a deep breath. “Another has two beautiful flowers wrapped around each other, so tightly it’s like they’re choking each other, until one flower finally dies–but then a new flower blooms nearby. And in the other, there’s a little bird trying to find a seed that rolled out of the garden, but it’s too far away and the bird keeps crying…”

“That’s enough, Griff.”

“But what if it means something terrible? What if it’s something we can fix if we know about it?”

“We’re parents, not prophets–even you, my prince, who sees glimpses of the future. Let’s enjoy this time we have with them now. A fae king and a vampire queen, her human sister and a fae duke…if our parents had listened to the warnings, we never would’ve been born.”

“But your mother–”

“My mother loved who she loved, despite the consequences. I think we should grant our children the same right. They’ll make their own mistakes, in love and in life. We can only be there for them when they do.”

Yes, I’d treasure this time with our children…

And tend to this beautiful garden, with such precious blooms.

The future would come, as it always did, but I would live in the present with the ones I loved.

Chapter 104: Sly

“Doubt I’ll ever see her again,” I said. “But it was kinda funny, yeah? Her walking into the shop outta nowhere. Finally got to apologize, all these years later…”

“You never know,” Cas said. “She might come back! You said she really really likes flowers, right?”

“Likes flowers–and hates me. But hey, that’s one thing that belongs in the past that can stay there now, you know? Don’t have to think about it anymore…”

But I did think about it. Cas probably knew it too, even if he didn’t bust my ass over it. I had a lot of cousins, and if you asked me a few years ago which one I thought I’d ended up closer to, it definitely wouldn’t have been Aunt Daisy and Uncle Leo’s youngest kid.

Didn’t think we had anything in common. When we first started hanging out, I made sure to call him COUSIN real loud, in case anybody thought we were fucking. But somewhere along the way he went from cousin and life coach to the best damn friend I had.

“I sooo want to get Hammy something,” he said. Hammy? Hope the guy likes his nickname. “Do you think he’d like anything here?”

“Uh, maybe if he really likes ducks. You know this place is a tourist trap, yeah? Shit’s expensive. Why shower him with crap?”

“…Things haven’t been going so great with my parents,” Cas admitted. “I thought they’d be sooo happy I finally introduced them to my boyfriend, and Anders was totally okay with it, but even my mom doesn’t think it’s such a good idea, and I don’t want Hammy to feel bad about the past…”

Guy punched his brother and his dad and Cas was still into him. If it was anybody else, I would’ve told him his boyfriend was bad news, but I’d learned to trust his judgment. If he said somebody was good people, I believed him.

But… “You ever think that people can’t change? That a shitty guy’s just shitty forever? That maybe all he’s learned to do is hide his shittiness?”

“Not if he tries,” Cas said firmly. “And Hamlet Richardson has come soooo far. He thought he couldn’t, that it was all over for him, and now he’s pulled his whole life together. He thinks I was the one who did everything, but you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help himself.”

That’s probably what I liked–and envied–most about Cas: his optimism. Some people just saw the world as beautiful, no matter what. Everybody had redeeming qualities, if you asked him.

“You know you’re an adult, yeah? You can fuck whoever you want–tough shit for your fam.”

“But they’re important to me,” he said, because that’s the kind of guy he was. Mom probably wished she got a son like him. “I want them to love him as much as I do, or at least not be sad about it.”

“Hey,” I said. “Think my mom worked with him on some show way back when.”

“Blood and Bishops,” he said immediately. Probably memorized his guy’s entire filmography. “It was the inspiration for his current vampire lord role.”

“Yeah, well, my mom mentioned he was a good guy.” Had she? Shit, I shouldn’t have tuned her out so much over the years. “Aunt Daisy loves her and Uncle Leo’s kinda afraid of her, so maybe I can ask her to talk to ‘em about what’s-his-name–”

Hamlet Richardson.”

“Yeah. But if he’s as a good a guy as you say”–damn, how I wanted that to be true–“then I’m sure it won’t take long for your parents to come around.”

“…You really think so?”

“Damn right I do,” I said. I wanted to see the world–and the people in it–like he did. Maybe everybody really did deserve a second chance…

But I couldn’t blame Clementine for not thinking the same. Why would she ever come back? I’d treated her like shit. Worse than shit. I wouldn’t come back either.

And then the chimes on the door jingled. “Oh,” came a familiar voice. “I guess you’re open?”

“…Uh, yeah, it’s sunny, and, uh, people buy more flowers when the weather’s good…”

She laughed. “Wow, who knew you were such a flower-selling expert?” Was she making fun of me?

“…Did I sound like an idiot?”

“No more than usual,” she said cheerfully.

Shit, was she flirting?

Damn, had she always been this pretty? I should’ve asked Cas for more of his fancy-ass shampoo before he left. Keeping curly hair long was a bitch.

She acted like she was just here for the flowers, but that was fine. “Those are on sale,” I said.

“Oh? Which ones?”

“…All of them?”

She turned around to smirk at me. “You’ll so go out of business if you run it like that.”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take, ma’am.”

Ma’am? Seriously?” She laughed again, then studied the flowers I’d spent hours setting up. “…Nothing’s really grabbing me right now, but maybe I’ll come back another time.”

“Come back whenever you want,” I said, “but don’t forget your lady-wallet next time.”

“…I think that’s still just a wallet, Sly. Or maybe you mean purse? But yeah, that sounds like, obscene. But I’ll be back. Maybe.”

Somehow I knew she’d come back. And the next time, I was ready for her.

“It, uh, reminded me of you,” I said as I held out a flower.

She gave me a skeptical look. “…Do the petals remind you of a vagina or something?”

“Nah. It’s just pretty. And you’re pretty, so…” Shit, was that too much? I didn’t want her to think I was coming on to her.

“…Thanks, Sly. It is pretty. And I love the scent. It’s weird how scents can remind you of old memories so strongly, isn’t it? It’s almost like we’re back in Flora Appreciation with you as the TA…”

I watched her face as she inhaled. Shit, if I’d only met her now instead of back then…maybe I wouldn’t have fucked everything up.

But it was too late now. A flower was all I could give her–and a years-late apology.

“Hey,” she said, “do you think maybe we could like, go out sometime? For coffee, I guess? And like, there’s some stuff I want to talk to you about, maybe. Not a date, but like, as friends?”

“…I can do friends. Uh, not do them. Do friendly shit with friends.”

Ended up going someplace quiet a couple days later, where only the locals really went–no tourists or overpriced coffee.

“You look kinda different,” I said. Couldn’t call her hot, because friends didn’t call friends hot unless they were chick friends.

“It’s been a while? And I cut my hair, I guess. Well, not myself, obviously.” Was it supposed to be obvious? For all I knew, chicks had magic hair-cutting secrets.

Damn, this was awkward. I wanted to apologize again, but once was enough, yeah? Or maybe it’d never be enough no matter how much I said it. I wanted to ask if she had a boyfriend–not that it mattered, because I’d already blown my chance. Was she happy? Couldn’t be worse off than when she was with me…

“…Am I boring you, Sly?”

“What? Shit, no. I just…it’s weird, you know? I can’t stop thinking about…everything. I’m sorry, Clem. I know it’s not enough, but…I’m sorry.”

“…Then make it up to me.”

“How? I’ll do anything.” Shit, now was not the time to be thinking about the start of a porno.

She held out her hand. “Sniff my wrist,” she said. “Okay, I know that sounds weird, but like, I’ve been experimenting with perfumes since I was studying abroad? It’s interesting how places can smell so different–not just the fae realm and here, but different countries too.”

Yeah, she didn’t have to ask me twice to get me to smell her skin. “…That’s real nice,” I said as I breathed in.

She withdrew her hand too soon. “Well, I was thinking about starting my own business maybe, instead of getting some job I hate? I could use a guinea pig, plus someone to supply me with rare flowers and help me with the business side of stuff…”

“Shit, I’d be happy to help. One business owner to another.” I reached out to pat her arm, before remembering that I shouldn’t be touching her.

“Thanks, Sly. I appreciate it.”

But of all the people out there–and all the people who weren’t shitty–why come to me?

But as the days went on, we spent more and more time together. Not just talking about business stuff. Almost-naked time.

As friends.

“You eat the tuna,” she said. “I’m like, going to die of mercury poisoning if I eat any more this week.”

Damn, if she was my girl, I could make a tuna-eating joke. But she wasn’t, so I didn’t. “Uh. Sure. There’s a turkey sandwich with your name on it.”

Shit, why did this feel like a date? Had to be the almost-naked thing. It was hard to look away from her, but I did. “So, uh, ocean’s real pretty this time of year.”

“It is,” she agreed.

So we just…watched it. Like it was a movie or some shit. For some reason, it wasn’t boring.

I coughed. “Uh. Sorry. Sausage fingers.”

“…It’s fine.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

And it was.

…But things almost got kinda weird when Clem decided to give me a hug in the middle of some impromptu guitar-playing. (Luckily, my guitar provided damn good coverage.)

“I’m really glad I ran into you again,” she whispered.

I patted her awkwardly on the back. “Yeah, what’re friends for?”

And for a while, our friendship was nice. Real nice. Even helped Clem get her perfume shop up and running…right next to my flower shop. (The rent was cheap.)

“Oh my god,” she said. “Do you ever feel like you’re just…playing at being an adult? Like everyone will figure out the truth before you can hide all the evidence that you have no idea what you’re doing?”

I wanted to lie to her. I was older. A man. I should know my shit. “…All the damn time.”

And suddenly her face got real close to mine.

“…Thanks, Sly. For everything.”

It was a friendly kiss on the cheek. Friendly.

Because we were friends now. We cared about each other. Wanted the other to succeed, to be happy. Maybe it wasn’t as much as I wanted…but it was more than we’d ever had before.

And who the hell knew what the future might bring?

Chapter 103: Clementine

My time studying abroad was like the weather there: sunny and mild.

Connor wasn’t the first guy I dated after Sly, but our relationship was like the weather too. It was simple. Predictable. Easy. I liked him and he liked me.

“Are you a fruit?” Connor asked.

Was it my orange dress? Maybe I should’ve worn another color, but it looked good on me. “Don’t you dare say orange.”

“Because honeydew you know how good you look right now?”

I stared at him incredulously. “Oh my god. Seriously?”

“Orange you glad I didn’t say orange?”

“I was, until you said that.”

He playfully dipped me back. “Because to me, you’re a fineapple.”

At least he couldn’t make fruit puns when he kissed me. I really liked the way he kissed. He was just so…sweet, I guess? Like, in everything he did.

…Yeah, so maybe I had a type: big and hairy, with glasses and a weird fixation on my fruit name.

But like the sunny weather, I knew our relationship couldn’t last. I couldn’t stay away from home forever. He wasn’t there for much longer either. Still, it was nice? Like a long vacation, where I could forget everything for a while, before I had to grow up and get a job.

He was nice enough to drop me off at the airport when I finally had to go back home–and kissed me goodbye. We’d agreed not to do the long-distance thing, so it really was goodbye.

It hurt, but like everything else, I knew the pain was temporary. Goodbye, Connor. Goodbye, endless sunshine. Goodbye, fantasy.

It was sunny back home too, but was it morning or evening? Ugh, jet lag. It was so loud here. I wished Connor was here to pick me up–I didn’t want to bother Grandma and Grandpa.

I decided against heading straight home. Maybe to extend my vacation a little bit? I remembered the beach where I’d sold flowers for the summer way back when–a quiet place. More touristy now than I remembered, though.

I didn’t mind being on my own. It was nice sometimes, to be able to think and relax.

But when I was wandering around, I stopped short. Was that…?

He turned to look at me. Didn’t he? Was it him? That guy I’d…spent a couple hours with by the beach? Did he live around here? And had he not learned how to button his shirt in the past few years? But beach-y people were like that…and so were fae.

I didn’t believe in fate, not really, but it was like…a weird coincidence? Maybe it was a good one, something to help me get over Connor.

“Hey,” I called out, and then I remembered I didn’t even know his name.

He started walking away. Did it get darker all of a sudden?

And then came the torrential downpour.

Luckily, there was a cute little flower shop right nearby–at least the flowers would be enjoying the rain. It was open, so I decided to duck inside to escape. Maybe I’d run into that guy again if he’d done the same? Not that it really mattered.

“Oh my god, that storm came out of nowhere,” I said.

“Feel free to hide out here till it passes,” said the cashier. “…Wait, Clementine?”

“…Sly?”

He was like, almost unrecognizable. Long hair pulled back into a bun, some stubble-beard thing going on, no more piercings…and just the expression on his face.

“Guilty,” he said. “So, uh, you been doing all right? Haven’t seen you in a while…”

This was so awkward. “I’ve been studying abroad. And I’m about to graduate, I guess? So, um, you work here?”

“…I own this place,” he said, a shy smile spreading across his face. “I, uh, really like flowers. A lot. Didn’t think I’d end up a businessman, but here I am.”

“The flowers are really pretty,” I said honestly, “but this doesn’t seem like you? I mean, not the you I knew…”

“Don’t think you ever really knew me, Mang–Clementine. Don’t know if I knew me either. Or maybe I was just afraid to admit what I liked. And–” And who he liked? But he didn’t finish that thought. “My life coach has been helping me with that.”

“You have a life coach?” My words came out more condescending that I meant–and it was too late to take them back.

“To be honest, he’s my cousin. Tried going to therapy at first, but I just…couldn’t get over the whole spilling my guts to a stranger bullshit. Cas knows his shit–helped me figure out a business plan when he was shopping for flowers for his mom. Aunt Daisy owns and runs her own restaurant, so why can’t I make money off of what I’m into too?”

This was seriously more than he’d ever talked about himself like, ever. I didn’t even know he had a cousin or an aunt. Or that he actually liked flowers. And therapy? Wow.

“You went to therapy? Why? Are your parents okay?”

“…Yeah, they’re fine. They really liked you, by the way. Mom gave me shit for messing everything up.”

“You didn’t–”

“Yeah, I did,” he interrupted. “I messed up bad. I made my shit your shit. Never liked a chick as much as I liked you, but… Cas says I worry too much about what people think, you know? That I shouldn’t fuck around with somebody’s heart just to feel like more of a man or whatever. So, uh, I guess it’s too late, but…I’m sorry.”

I didn’t know what to say. His words were what I’d needed to hear years ago. Was it too late now? How did they even make me feel?

Maybe he wasn’t the same person he was when we were together. I knew I wasn’t. “It’s never too late for an apology,” I decided. “…Thanks, Sly.”

“Hey, I know the weather’s real bad, but I’m running a business here, lady,” he said suddenly. “You gonna buy something or what? A man can’t survive on flowers alone.”

I stared at him…and then burst into laughter.

“…How about I throw in some nice tiger lilies with any purchase,” he said. “Color reminds me of you.”

“I can’t say no to free flowers.” I turned away from him and drifted over to the flowers lining the opposite wall. The smell reminded me of him, but I decided not to tell him that.

Outside, the storm raged on, but it was cozy and soothing inside the shop.

My days of blissful sunshine are over, I thought as I breathed in deeply.

For some reason, I didn’t mind.

Chapter 102: Rexx

At last, I reigned as a king of hell. The ninth, not the tenth, but it’d do until Velvet and I wanted more.

It was difficult for her mother and brother to visit, flammable as they were, but Val and Belle came over when they could–and even Belle’s dog, who Velvet was very fond of.

“Velvet can’t…actually still speak with dogs, can she?” Val asked. “And I haven’t read any studies about dogs’ inherent abilities to sense pregnancy…”

“Dogs are very intuitive animals,” I said. Velvet wasn’t a dog anymore, but that intuition remained. “And she says Gaston told her that Belle is one hundred percent pregnant. Sorry.”

“It’s not that I’m…not amenable to children,” he said dazedly, “but I suspect her father will be less than pleased should she give birth prior to marriage…”

“He isn’t even a demon, Val. How scary can he be?”

“…His methodology and knowledge of torture rivals that of the queen of the eleventh hell.”

“That bad, huh?” I let out a low, appreciative whistle. Belle came from good stock. “I take it my tips have been helping? Apparently I should’ve introduced you to some contraception that burns away any chance at accidental spawn.”

“Belle has…been extremely appreciative of my new techniques,” he admitted. “However, I think she would take issue with the application of fire near any of our reproductive organs. What of you and your queen? Belle tells me she’s very eager to raise children of her own, and you no doubt desire to strengthen your hold on the ninth hell’s throne.”

“I haven’t…with Velvet,” I mumbled.

“I’m well aware this is outside the bounds of our usual conversation, limited as it is, but…why not? While staying at my lair, you defiled the premises with no fewer than two hundred thirty-six partners, some of them simultaneously, not to mention the students in your office and classroom. This behavior is out of the ordinary.”

Who knew the guy kept count? He did like meticulously organized records of everything, though. “I know. I just… It’s not the right time yet. And she’s with me because she has no choice. If I break her heart…she’ll never be able to forget it, not when she has to look at me every day. I’ve broken so many hearts, and I never really cared…”

I looked over to where she chatted happily with Belle. Seeing her friends and family brought her so much joy…and seeing her in the “queen of hell” outfit Belle had picked out for her brought me a lot of joy too.

Things would’ve been easier if Val and I had switched partners. He and Velvet were both innocent in their own ways, easily pleased if they got the one thing they wanted. I’d thought Val would never want anything more than peace and quiet for his research, but I couldn’t blame him for falling for his student…

But Velvet… Could she ever really be happy here? She would’ve been better off with Val, so close to her family, not hidden away in the depths of hell. We rarely had guests that I didn’t have to kill, but she loved to socialize.

“…Did I make the right choice, Val? Saving her?”

“It was a high price,” he said. “But I think I would’ve paid the same for Belle…though I do wonder if she’d come to regret it.”

Velvet might’ve been better off if she’d remained a dog, with a dog’s wants and needs and understanding of the world.

Our friends had to leave altogether too soon. But they had lives up on the surface, lives far from us. Should I have tried to be satisfied with a life up there too–to try to deny my demon heritage? My deal with the warlock who’d summoned me was never meant to be a permanent arrangement.

Velvet always looked happy when she was at my side. Maybe this was enough. Would continue to be enough.

“They can come back whenever they want,” I said, “and I think Belle was really happy to learn about her impending spawn.”

“Gaston says it’s a girl,” Velvet said. “If I had a girl pup, they could play together… They could be like me and Belle.”

I tried to keep smiling. “They could be.”

But when we were alone in the bedroom we shared, I decided to be honest with her.

“Velvet…you know I’m a fire demon and incubus. I’m impulsive. I do whatever–and whoever–I want. I’ve never cared about the consequences…burn it all, I’ve never even thought about them. But now…now, I need to.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because forever’s a long time, and I want to be sure. Before we…mate, or have spawn, or make any big choices that involve both or either of us. But when the time comes, I hope my choices bring you only happiness.”

As she fell asleep beside me a short while later, she whispered, “You always make me happy, Mr. Ashes.”

That night, I had the most vivid nightmare of my life, showcasing my own personal hell…

There was no escape.

But when I set my eyes on my queen’s joyful face…the torment faded, and the nightmare morphed into a manageable dream.

Yes, I would make her happy.

Chapter 101: Velvet

While I was living with Mr. Ashes, new life sprouted back home…

I finally had a littermate! His name was Rowan, and he was a good boy, oh yes he was.

He had a lot of tree in him like Dark Lady Mother!

And Dark Lord Father played with him, the way he had when I was a pup.

But that was a long time ago. I wasn’t a dog-ter; I was a witch and demoness.

While I talked to Dark Lord Father, Mr. Ashes talked to Dark Lady Mother.

Of course Mr. Ashes was nearby. He could go a little farther from me as time went on, but he still had to stay close.

“Your mother and I were hoping you could stay longer this time, Velvet,” said Dark Lord Father.

“It’s hard to leave your kingdom too long when you’re a king of hell,” I said. After graduating, I’d helped Rexx conquer the ninth hell and ruled as his queen, but it meant I was far from my parents and littermate. “But I wish we could stay, oh yes I do…”

He set Rowan down and let him talk to sticks. If I were a dog, I would’ve chewed the sticks, but I wasn’t. “I’m grateful toward that demon for saving your life…but this is a dark, terrible price. Perhaps too dark and terrible even for my tastes. There are few things crueler than keeping a daughter from her father.”

I tried to be happy, because I could tell he was really sad. “But we’re here now,” I said, “and now we can spend lots of time together! And I can play with Rowan while you go on a date with Dark Lady Mother…”

“I wouldn’t be averse to that,” he admitted. “Even all-powerful warlocks need to make time to unwind with their lovely tree-wives…”

But Dark Lady Mother seemed even sadder than Dark Lord Father. “My daughter…”

“Don’t be sad,” I said.

“Are you…happy?” she asked. “So far away…where flowers don’t bloom…”

“I’m happy with Mr. Ashes. He gave up so much for me…”

“And how much…have you given up for him?”

I smiled at her. “It was a demonic pact, Dark Lady Mother. I’m trying to be a good girl when I’m near him. I’d ask to stay longer, but I don’t want to ask for too much…”

“Don’t forget…to be Velvet. You’re…my daughter. Your heart beats…and longs for more. When you want something…ask.”

“I will,” I promised, but I told myself I had everything I wanted. I was alive, and I was with Mr. Ashes. Sometimes, I got to see my family and even Belle and Gaston too.

“If my daughter is happy…I’m happy.”

I could be happy for her, especially when I got to play with Rowan! He liked to climb trees like a cat, because he was half-tree too.

“Look how high up he is!” I said to Rexx.

“Is he going to fall?” he asked. “I don’t think dryad spawn are as durable as demon spawn…”

Demon spawn… Would Mr. Ashes ever want to mate and have pups someday?

When I was with Rowan, I knew more and more how badly I wanted some. At least eight.

“He likes you,” said Mr. Ashes. “You’re a natural with spawn.”

“He’s my littermate, oh yes he is. Of course he loves me.”

“Weren’t you technically born from different litters?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “That’s what he is to me.”

“…He is cute, for something so flammable.”

So we both played with Rowan! But we couldn’t play with him forever, not when we had the ninth hell to go back to.

Mr. Ashes took my hand, but only because he didn’t like having to use a leash. “…I’m sorry we couldn’t stay longer. I know you miss them.”

“It was enough,” I said, “seeing them for as long as I did. And I have you, Mr. Ashes.”

“You do,” he said in a low voice. “For eternity.” I couldn’t tell if he was happy or sad about it.

But he didn’t let go of my hand.

When dogs are around the person they love, they forget all their sadness. I wasn’t a dog anymore, but all my sadness soon disappeared…

Chapter 100: Caspian

For butler academy graduation, I had to wear black, just like everyone else. It made me sooo sad, but I was working on a line of colorful print butler uniforms that I hoped would catch on in the greater butler community. There were so many things I wanted to do with my life.

I lived by myself now instead of with Mom and Dad and Anders. It was nice having my own apartment, like I was a real adult for the first time…but also lonely.

But when I talked to Mr. Richardson, I never felt lonely.

And then he asked if I wanted to come over. He hadn’t done that in a long time. He had to know I was sooo in love with him. If he hadn’t noticed, Ellie probably would’ve told him by now.

But he still wanted to see me. And I wanted to see him. So bad. It hurt, when I stopped being his butler intern and didn’t have an excuse anymore, so I kind of sort of made up the Post-Butler Internship Continuing Satisfaction Program. If he knew it, he was way too nice to say anything.

It was strange, going back to his old house, the one I’d gone to so many times as a kid…

I wanted to dress up more instead of wearing some old clothes, but…then he’d really know what I was hoping for. What I wanted more than anythinggg else. But I still put a lot of effort into my hair. Did he like my hair?

“Caspian,” said Mr. Richardson, “you’re earlier than I was expecting. Sorry, I look like such a dad today.”

“You are a dad, Mr. Richardson.”

He let out an awkward chuckle. Was he nervous? “Well, I’m definitely old enough to be your dad.”

“But you aren’t my dad.”

“Could we maybe…stop saying ‘dad’?”

That was fine with me too. I thought he was really really youthful looking, especially now that he got back in shape (even though I liked him when he was softer too). He was happier–he was acting again. I loved seeing him happy.

I wanted to kiss him.

But instead we just had lunch together. Instead of bringing stuff from Mom’s restaurant, we ate really light, since Mr. Richardson was always health-conscious now.

“Sorry about this,” he said. “I would’ve liked to take you someplace nicer, but some paparazzi are actually interested in me again. I wouldn’t want you to get caught up in that or for people to get the wrong idea…you’re not a public figure.”

What wrong idea? “I don’t mind,” I said, “as long as I’m with you.”

“…You’re a good kid.”

I winced and took a bite of my meal. But then I smiled at him again. “It’s really good to see you back here, instead of that apartment.”

“This place is too big, with Ellie gone,” he mused. “But now she visits me–I even met her boyfriend. And it’s home after a long day on set. I have something now…a lot of things. And I wouldn’t have any of them without you, Caspian.”

“It was my job to help, as your butler intern. Former butler intern.”

Our meal was pretty quiet after that. I just…I wish I knew how he felt. Would he tell me if I asked?

But after we cleared our empty plates, there was only awkward silence. It felt too early to leave…was that what he wanted?

I wasn’t in uniform. I wasn’t his butler intern anymore. I wasn’t Ellie’s teenage friend anymore.

He wasn’t dating anyone… I read every single gossip column about him online, even the comments on forums for fans of his new show, and there wasn’t even a whisper of him being with someone else. (Some fans shipped him with his vampire hunter actor co-star, but they did have good chemistry.)

He was looking at me, wasn’t he?

I closed the distance between us–and now I was looking back at him. He didn’t look away.

I reached out for him.

“Caspian…are you sure you still want this? I’m…probably not the man you think I am.”

“I’ve never stopped wanting it…” Even when he punched Anders, I probably still wanted it at least a little. “And I love the man you are.”

He closed his eyes. I touched his face. How long had I wanted to do that? How long had I loved him? Maybe it was just a crush once…but now I knew I loved him.

And for the first time, we kissed.

“You’re so eager,” he said, laughing.

“I waited a long time, Mr. Richardson.”

“Hamlet. If we’re doing this…it’s definitely Hamlet.”

And we did do this. On the counter. Dad and Anders sooo wouldn’t approve.

“I want to look at you,” Hamlet said. “You’re beautiful. All of you, inside and out. You’re just…I don’t think I deserve you.”

But he was showing off his body again, after hiding it for so long. He wanted me to see it.

“I want to look at you too,” I admitted, “sooo much.”

“God, I–what am I doing?”

“Me,” I breathed.

And he did. The counter was cold, but I didn’t mind. It felt way too good…and I was finally with the man I loved.

But immediately afterward, he started worrying again. I didn’t know which was more soothing: the warm water or his arms.

“I…don’t know if I can do the dad thing again,” he said. “If…if you want kids someday.”

“We can get a dog,” I said cheerfully. More than anything, I wanted him.

“I don’t know if I can keep up with you. I’m getting older.”

“I’ll help you stay in shape.”

“Your parents won’t like this at all… I punched both your dad and your brother. And I’m your parents’ age.”

“They’ll come around–and they’re very forgiving.”

It took him a while to think of another protest.

But he had a lot of worries weighing on him, even when there was only room for our two bodies in the tub. “It’ll be hard for you, dating a celebrity… There’ll be so many rumors about both of us.”

“I don’t mind, as long as I have you.”

I didn’t want him to be ashamed or afraid to be seen with me in public. I wanted him to know I could confront any problem at his side–and give him all the love he deserved.

I’d never let go of his hand.

Hamlet Richardson, my boyfriend. Let the world see us together.

Chapter 99: Belle

Some things never changed with mon professeur préféré. Oh, how his snores were music to my ears!

But now, I found different ways to awaken mon amour from his deep slumber…

“Belle…”

Oui?”

He gently extracted me from his lap and stood. “Miss Blackwell-Straud, how many times have I instructed you to conduct yourself in an appropriate manner while on Institute grounds?”

I’d only failed his class three more times before finally succeeding on the fourth attempt. I was to graduate quite soon.

“Must we wait, Valerian? Wouldn’t you rather like to defile your desk together?”

He stalked over toward his desk. “I have important documents on my desk.”

“…More important than me?”

He was silent for a time, and then: “Nothing is more important than you.”

When I embraced him from behind, I felt his hand on my arm. His gestures were subtly affectionate, but affectionate all the same.

“…After the graduation ceremony,” he murmured.

Such a stickler for the rules, mon amour. Impatient as I was, that day eventually did come, and my first destination was a certain necromancer’s lair–and bedroom.

“…You wouldn’t rather wait?” he asked. “For something more…extravagant. Suitable for you.”

“Non, this is quite suitable for me, thank you. I have you–what else do I need?”

“More excitement, perhaps…” He was already quite excited, judging by his heartbeat.

“I’ve waited for so very many years,” I said. “Do you truly have no idea how my excitement has swelled, mon chéri?”

“Your father…won’t disapprove?”

“I’m a woman grown,” I protested, “and Papa cares about my happiness above all. Didn’t your meeting with him go quite well?”

“…I survived.”

“You wouldn’t have, if Papa didn’t like you. Now come…”

I pulled him–quite forcefully–toward the bed and climbed atop him. Let him know of my amour through my passionate kiss!

As I moved downward, he seemed increasingly tense. Were my lips much too cold?

But he didn’t actually protest until my lips drifted ever lower…

MISS Blackwell-Straud.”

“Is something the matter?”

“I…I…how do you know how to do these things you do? I’ve never encountered a woman so lively…whose fingers and mouth move with such certainty. I…I feel like a bumbling fool beneath you.”

“Valerian, non. I knew little of the practical applications of amour until I asked for thorough lessons from my sister. She’s a romance novelist, you know. But I do plan for us to learn as much as possible together…”

That seemed to put him at ease…as did some of the things Ophelia taught me, including how to be mindful of a vampiress’s fangs against especially sensitive flesh. I’d certainly have to thank her later. Valerian had never relaxed so much in my presence!

Though he seemed rather shocked when my robe fell away and I encouraged him to touch me more.

His hands gradually grew bolder. “…You’re far softer than any corpse.”

“I should certainly hope so.”

As an instructor himself, Valerian responded well to simple directions. And I responded well to him…

Afterward, he was stunned into silence, only his labored breaths filling the air.

“Was it worth the wait?” I whispered.

He offered me a small, pleased smile. “…Entirely.”

Je t’aime, mon professeur préféré