Part Two
by ArgoForg

Author’s Notes and Assorted BS for Part Two: Thanks to everyone who told me how much they enjoyed part one of Origins and told me if I didn’t get out part two soon they’d hire a hitman to take me out. You’d be surprised how much something like that spurs me on. Actually, part one was very well-received, and that in itself is usually enough for me to at least consider putting together part two. I will offer a warning, however… Part Two is quite a bit longer and even less ASFR-like than Part One, if such a thing is possible. Right now, I feel like I’m huffing and puffing along, trying to keep pace with the characters, and if something ASFR-ish happens, I’m more than happy to scribe it down. Otherwise, I’m just happy to be churning out 3 pages a night, and I’ll gladly let the length and chapter endings sort themselves out later. So consider yourself duly warned. The only other warning I offer here is one you should be accustomed to by now if you read anything: Take nothing for granted.

Special Thanks go again to everyone who appears in this story, for either giving me the okay to play around with your own character a bit and welcoming him or her into my imagination or for at least pretending I did. Again, I’ve tried to keep those characters’ motives, reactions, dialogue and such at least fairly close to what I’ve seen in their role-playing sessions in #asfr or in stories about them. And once again, if I’ve goofed somewhere or made your character do or say something that he or she would never say or do, you have complete permission to take Paris and bastardize him in your own stories. I’ll probably welcome it, in fact, with Paris being the right bastard he is, anyway.

Also, special thanks go out to my select group of pre-readers and editors, for telling me what I’ve done right, wrong, or very wrong in this part and in part one. You people know who you are. Getting the seal of approval from you is always what makes stories like this worthwhile.

And one more little bit: Thanks to Ruckus for extra editing help, and not forcing me to work on another deadline while I was working on this story. And thanks as well go to ShortDog, for getting me a copy of Word97 with a "Save to HTML" function so I didn’t have to cut and paste, then go through and highlight every bit of italics, underlining, font changes and list function and change them manually. If not for you, I would still be sitting in front of Netscape Composer in a puddle of my own drool and wondering why I have to write epic thirty page chapters with massive internal dialogue. Thanks a bunch, you two!

And for all of you who read this and wonder what it’s really like in #asfr on Sandnet, get yourself an IRC program and join the fun! Sit around, chat, get hit by a stray blast from a sonic pulse rifle… it’s all worth it. Actually, it is great fun, and I highly recommend it. You can meet some pretty decent folk there and watch these sorts of stories develop firsthand.

But I’ve prattled enough. Go ahead… this is what you were looking for when you loaded this, anyway.


I.    Prologue: The Fabric Torn
Somewhere else...

    The barrier had been breached.
    Picture an infinity of Earths and Earth-like dimensions— parallel universes, to use a term that has already been overused but serves its purpose here.  Each dimension is marginally different from the one before, following a slightly different set of rules than those we hold as true.  Each revolves around a marginally different sun, third in a host of ten planets marginally different from those we know as real.  Each of those Earths exist in the same spot occupied by the Earth we know as ours, but each along a slightly different vibrational frequency than ours, so that they can actually exist at the same time, in the same place, but without our knowledge.  Now imagine each of those countless alternate Earths are separated by an impenetrable barrier, separating each and every dimension from one another, bottling up that Earth’s reality and separating it from the others.
    For eons upon eons, since the very conception of time and space, the barriers had stood between the different realities, separating the various realms from their dimensional cousins.  No one asked what the barriers were composed of, how they were created, or who brought them into being.  The very reason why they were there seemed justification enough not to question them at all: the barriers held in each realm’s reality, kept it from infecting the others.
    Many had found ways to circumvent the barriers or transport themselves from dimension to dimension without physically going through them.  The Worldtree was a conduit, for instance, between what we know as Earth and the near-Earth realm of Faerie.  The Astral plane is merely another Earth-Realm situated so closely to ours that people have been known to travel to it through simple meditation.  Some even claim that Heaven and Hell are merely alternate Earths which depict, respectively, the paragon of peace and goodness and the lowest brink of war and chaos.
    From time immemorial, people have found their way from dimension to dimension, skirting the barrier and finding themselves in an alternate representation of the world they know as true.  And though those travelers might have had a different concept of what was ‘real’, that alternate Earth’s reality remained constant.  Therefore, the barriers holding in each Earth’s reality remained intact.  This led every magus or quantum physicist worth his salt to agree that it in all cases, reality would always remain stable.
    But now one barrier had been breached, sending minute fractures along all the barriers it touched, which passed along those minute chinks to those barriers they touched… like a chain with one link split, soon the every barrier began to feel the strain of that one crack.  And ever slowly, around the leak, realities were trickling through, and around those realities, possibilities were beginning to assert themselves.  The trickle continued, unabated, and like a stone that wears down as water passes over it, the barrier through which it came slowly began to wear away.  Spidery cracks began to form around the leak, and pressure began to build…


Randall McAffee was already in a black mood, and the news his secretary passed on to him didn’t help matters much.
    "Love of God," he spat.  "Davis called in again?  That’s what, five times in the last month?"
    "Six, sir."  His secretary nodded. Rhonda was a middle-aged woman, who had spent ten years learning that Mr. McAffee would curse, bitch and moan about whatever he could at that particular moment.  Hardly a day passed without her hearing a profanity from Mr. McAffee’s office.  Why she even stayed here in the ad agency was beyond her.
    "Six?  Why is he even working for us when he takes six fucking days off in a month?  Why haven’t I gotten rid of him yet?"
    "Probably because you don’t do any work short of complaining," Rhonda said beneath her breath.  She needed a vacation, she decided.  Not just away from the job, but away from Davenport.  Maybe just out of Iowa altogether.
    "What’s that?"  McAffee glared at her.
    "I said, ‘Probably because of his work at campaigning,’" she said smoothly, looking up at him.  "I mean, he’s pulled ads for four companies we never thought we’d have.  Including those latest Proctor and Gamble spots."
    He glared harder, then turned away and stalked back into his office.  Seconds later, she heard him spit something out, and begin another profanity-laced tirade.
    She walked to the door of his office.  "Something wrong, Mr. Mc—"
    McAffee was red in the face.  "Damned right something’s wrong!  This coffee tastes like shit!  Who put salt in the sugar bowl?"
    "Who did what?"  She asked, her voice bordering on incredulity.
    "Put salt in the sugar bowl in the break room," McAffee growled.  "Get me a new cup, will you?"
    Rhonda mimicked him the entire way to the break room.  She reached a finger inside the sugar bowl there, tasted it.  Sweet, certainly not salty.
    "He’s cracked."  That or he just absent-mindedly used the salt shaker when he was making his morning coffee.  Either was a sound guess.
    Sighing, she emptied the coffeepot in the sink and filled it at the tap, muttering.
    "The bastard’s finally lost his head," she whispered, shaking her head.  "I don’t know why I bother putting up with…"
    Her voice trailed off as she watched the water.  It just didn’t look quite as clear as tap water she was used to seeing.  And it smelled strange, too.  Almost as if… she couldn’t quite place it.
    "What the hell?"  She said, wondering.  Was there a bum pipe in the building?  Hesitantly, she dipped a finger into the coffeepot, and lifted it to her lips.
    She spat.  The taste helped her recognize the smell: brine.  McAffee, a near-chain smoker, probably couldn’t smell it, but she could… it was as if the water came from the ocean!
    "Salt water!"  She declared, stunned.  But the water for the entire building came straight through the water treatment plant from the reservoir outside town.  And a small freshwater stream fed the reservoir, so it was impossible that the water running out of the tap was seawater.
    She stared at it, felt the brine assail her nose.  Absolutely impossible.

* * *

ATHENS, Greece – (Associated Press) Three thousand years of erosion finally brought down what invasions by Romans and Turks could not.  One of the support columns for the Temple of Athena Nike, one of the longest-standing architectural marvels of the ancient world, collapsed today, injuring two archaeologists and an anthropologist who were working on the site.  Luckily, no one was killed, and all three were released after examination.
    The temple itself has been closed off to tours and digs, pending work to stabilize its structure. Sources in the archaeological world are confident that the temple can be saved, but the loss of even that single column is a horrible blow to scientists and history lovers alike.
    "It’s sad, very tragic," said Dr. Julien Andropolous, the lead archaeologist at the site.  "The column had just been bracketed, re-mortared and shored up just a week or so ago to prevent this sort of thing. The odds are very much against a column or a structure falling once we use modern-day science to attempt to save it..."

* * *

CHICAGO – (Scripps Howard Wire Service) Call it the luck of the draw, twenty-four times. After eight weeks with no winning ticket matching the six numbers drawn, the Illinois Lottery’s number combination for Friday matched an astonishing twenty-four separate tickets.  Twenty-four lucky lottery players will split the thirty-five million dollar jackpot. State officials claimed that most of the winning tickets were sold inside the state of Illinois, but eight tickets were sold in towns close to the border, including two each in Indiana, Missouri and Wisconsin. Stranger, more than half the lottery tickets we’re Quick Picks, chosen at random by lottery computers.
    Lottery officials were as baffled by this coincidence as anyone. "I’ve never even heard of anything like it," said Brian Lansing, an Illinois Lottery executive. "The odds of twenty-four people even getting the same numbers is remote at best... but for those numbers all to hit... Well, the odds jump into the astronomical. The possibility of such a thing happening is hard to even fathom..."

* * *

WAYERTON, New Brunswick – (Associated Press) Experts say the possibility of sextuplets alone is staggering, but that didn’t stop Hettie.
    Hettie, a dairy cow belonging to Mr. and Mrs. James Bolliver, successfully had the octuplets Monday, after she was originally believed to be infertile.  All eight calves and mother are in fine condition...

* * *

MILAN, Italy – (United Press International) Three passenger flights narrowly avoided colliding into one another when all three planes incredibly ran out of fuel and were forced to abort their usual flight paths to make forced landings near Linate International Airport.
    A computer error in the tower had somehow lined all three jumbo jets on flight paths that would have caused them to collide, and air-traffic controllers did not realize the mistake until too late.  However, all three jets —two of which were Trans-Atlantic flights— ran low on fuel, forcing them to abandon their flight approaches and averting potential disaster.
    Passengers of all three flights have called their narrow escape a miracle. "What do you think the odds are of all three planes running empty like that?" Asked one...

II.    Reprise: Five Days
Nova-Phoenix brushed his cheek lovingly with one hand, so soft a caress he couldn’t rightly say he felt it.  Her long hair fell forward, dangled tantalizingly before his face.  Her body was poised above him, lithe and sensuous, clad only in barely-concealing linen. Paris looked up at her, trembling in the sight of such perfection.  Around them, the lazy grasses in the Elerian Fields waved in the morning breeze, as if bowing to them.
    "I’ve known this day would come," she whispered to him.  "Ever since I met you, I could feel the Bond calling to me."
    Paris started to ask what she meant by that, but before words came out, she pulled his face to hers and kissed him passionately.
    She broke away for a moment, smiled, and looked at him through half-lidded eyes as one hand reached down to tear open his tunic.  He gaped at her, longing.
    "Paris, let us have this night together.  Let me be your every desire."  Her hand found the clasp of her linen garment, drew it aside and suddenly she was astride him, naked and beautiful.  He wanted to see her bared, the perfect form stripped of all its covering, but she gave him no chance.  She leaned close to him, kissing him, running her hands on his bared chest.  He wanted to do the same for her.  He wanted to feel the warmth of her skin beneath his hands, but he couldn’t move or speak.  He was paralyzed, in a state of total bliss.
    Her lips sought out his ear, nibbled on the lobe.  She whispered to him.
    "I want to fuck you like an animal."
    He blinked, felt his face redden.  He only knew a scant few people who even used that expletive— including his father— and certainly hadn’t imagined that Nova would be among them.  "You want to what? "
    "I want to feel you from the inside."
    He started to sit up and respond, but she bore him back to the ground, delicate hands tugging at his breeches even as she kissed his neck.  Paris couldn’t think straight.  There was a pounding in his head, reverberating in his skull.  She was touching him in ways he couldn’t imagine, let alone visualize, and it seemed like her hands were everywhere and he couldn’t figure exactly what she was going to do next because he had never, really, well… Did she just say something about bringing him closer to his god?
    "Ahuh!"  Paris gasped and sat bolt upright, finding himself covered from the shoulders down by a length of white linen.  He quickly blinked fatigue from his eyes, assessing his new surroundings.  He was in the room now, lying on the couch.  He heard a loud, strange sort of noise throughout the room, like a mixture of a reed pipe and a piece of metal being filed; a man’s voice talked rhythmically along with it.  The man’s voice sounded insanely familiar.  Memories slowly began to make their way through a sleepy haze.  A dream, he realized, dropping his face to his hands.
    "You’re awake," a voice said, from behind him, close to his ear.
    He yelped, jumping off the couch and whirling around at the same time.  Nova sat on the couch— thankfully, she was fully clothed— and looked at him with her head cocked cutely to one side, her orange-red bangs artfully falling over one eye.  She blinked at him, curious, and pursed her lips.
    "What is it?"  She asked.  She had to speak up to be heard over the clamor.
    Paris wasn’t at all sure whether to sag with relief or become even more tense when he saw who it was.  He settled for rubbing at the bridge of his nose.
    "Nova," he murmured finally. A dream, idiot, he reminded himself, although he felt the color rising to his cheeks at the very thought of the vision.  He raised his voice.  "Sorry.  You… you startled me, that’s all.  I’m fine."
    She listened, nodded.  "If you say so, Paris.  I’m sorry if the music woke you up, but I was cleaning up around here, and music seems to help the work more tolerable.  Call it human influence."
    He squinted, could not make any music out through the rhythmic pounding and scratchy voice of the man.  "Music?"
    "Nine Inch Nails," she said, laughing.  He saw now that her head was bobbing fractionally to the beat of the noise.
    "I... see."  He listened to it, experimentally, trying to find a beat or a tune to the music that would move him the way some of the Sestrey’llania music did.  All that accomplished was to give him a headache.  He had heard a little bit of this noise-music before; it seemed Pantherr enjoyed it, too.  Paris couldn’t rightly say he liked it any more than anything else he’d heard since coming to the Earth-Realm.
    "Pretty Hate Machine wasbetter, of course," Nova offered conversationally as she picked up a small black box from the table and touched a stud on it.  The noise’s volume lessened dramatically, to Paris’ grateful surprise.  "But your father loved this song."
    "I’m very impressed," Paris grated.  He rubbed at the sleep-gum in his eyes and scowled inwardly.  Bet he never looked like hell warmed over right after waking up, too.  Face it, the son of a kelmarin can’t do any wrong in your eyes.
    "Anyway, I was just about to wake you.  You’ve been out for quite a while.  People will no doubt be stopping in here in an hour or so, so I thought I’d give you the opportunity to clean up a bit and have something to eat."
    Paris nodded.  Nova had been very good at waking him over the past few days before each evening’s usual get-together in the ASFR room.  He wasn’t truthfully sure what made him so tired night after night, but since coming to the Earth-Realm, he had slept a lot later than he ever had in Faerie.
    He blinked a couple times to clear his eyes, and tried to gauge the sun before he realized he was still inside.  How long had it been since he’d seen the sun?  He cursed inwardly; there were no windows on any wall that he saw— artificial sunlight lit the room from the ceiling.  How can Humanae live without seeing the sun?
    "What— " he croaked.  He cleared his throat, tried again.  "What time is it?"
    "Four in the afternoon, this time.  I just awakened twenty-five minutes ago myself.  I don’t bite, by the way."
    "You don’t… oh.  Sorry."  Paris sat back down on the couch, next to her.  He rubbed at his disheveled hair.  "Four in the afternoon?  Eresilimon.  I don’t think I’ve ever slept that late in my life.  In Faerie I was often up with the sun."
    "You had a late night again," she smiled, touching his hand and patting it.  The back of her hair —usually free-flowing— was bound in a ponytail, which did not at all diminish her beauty.  Paris again found himself getting lost in her violet eyes, and tore his gaze away from her face with effort.  Five days had passed and still nothing had changed.  She could still enrapture him with a look.  There is something cosmically unjust about the fact she can look like that this soon after waking up.
    "I’d better, uhm… bathe," Paris said after a lengthy pause, getting up from the couch.  "Magick works for some cleansing, but I’m starting to feel grimy.  You have a place for bathing around here?"
    "Of course," Nova smiled.  She pointed to an undistinguished door on the closest wall.  "Shower and tub are in there.  Towels are in the closet inside.  Would you like company?"
    "No! "  Paris burst out, flushing, then forced himself to lower his voice.  He exhaled.  "I mean, no… thank you, but I’ll manage."
    "All right."  Nova said, apparently nonplussed.  Paris slowly realized there had been no coyness to her tone of voice; the question came to her as smoothly and innocently as if she’d asked him if he wanted assistance drawing water from a well.
    She continued as she stood and brushed the hair from her eyes.  "Call me if you need anything."
    "Okay," he murmured as he entered the bathroom.

Paris found the towels with no problem, and it only took him a few minutes to figure out how to turn on the shower.  He stripped down to nothing and stood under the cascade of warm water, letting it wash the travel dust from his body.  If only it could have been that easy to wipe clean his mind, he mused.
    The more he tried to put her out of his mind, however, the less luck he had.  She kept tugging at his conscience, her violet eyes and flame-red hair finding their way back into his mind’s eye, the soft touch of her skin on his burning at his hand like a contact poison, the smell of cherries even when she wasn’t breathing near him.  He couldn’t get his mind off the curves of her small body, and he blushed as he thought of it.  The music was only partially the reason he had awakened from that dream... put simply, the dream could go no further because he had absolutely no idea what happened next.  He had once held a Sestrey’llania woman, reclined with her in the shade of a tree and kissed her, but neither of them had even loosened the clasps on their clothing, and it had never progressed much past kissing.  Compared to Paris, his father was probably utterly worldly.
    It would never work out, the rational portion of his mind screamed.  I mean, you have the blood of the fey-folk running through your veins... you could never introduce the Bond to a machine!  It hurt him terribly to even think of her like that, as a machine.  She was real to him, real flesh concealing real blood, concealing real feelings and emotions, despite the fact she had removed some of her hatches before, let him see the wiring and ‘servomotors’ beneath her artificial skin.  Still, to think of her using the same term he would for... say, a wheat-thresher, seemed absurd.  But his rational mind rallied.  And besides, she obviously would throw you down in a heartbeat the moment Father walked into the picture! He shook his head morosely.  If that was the case, his rational self reasoned, he should just put her out of his mind— at least in the manner he was thinking of her. It would only lead to bad feelings… if it hadn’t already.
    The rational portion of his mind kept throwing out those arguments, hammering his conscience with cold, blunt reason.  And finally, he began to wear under the assault:
    I need to face it... Faerie-kin and Androids don’t mix. Just like Faerie-kin and Humanae.  Of course, going by that line of reasoning, he shouldn’t even exist then, being the son of a Humanae magus and a Sestrey’llania woman.  And the idea of Feyfolk and Humans falling in love was a staple in Faerie myth.
    Okay then... just like Faerie-kin and Wyrms.
    Well, maybe not that either.  There were also a lot of myths about elves and dragons getting along, even becoming fast friends... one or two even hinted at transformed dragons falling in love with elflords, and…
    Paris blinked, and then slowly his lips curled into a smirk.  Shades of the Nine Hells, he thought, shaking his head, she has me so riddled that I can’t even come up with a decent analogy!
    Paris sighed, and numbly let the water glide down his body as he stared at the floor.  He was a magus who was starting to come to terms with the amount of power he could control.  He was the son of a Humanae magus and a Sestrey’llania elfwoman who practiced magick herself, both of whom had been on adventures many Humanae could never even dream of.  He was a half-elf, a fey-child who had seen sights in Faerie that would boggle the most clear-minded of men— and had not only survived, but thrived.  He could call upon the power of magick while in Faerie; he could make the improbable possible and the impossible merely the unlikely.
    And here he was, standing under a stream of warm water, driven to confusion and inactivity by a boyish infatuation?  To someone he had only known a few days?  The very thought was absurd.  Was it really an infatuation, then?  Or was it something deeper?  He shook his head and turned off the water flow.  What is happening to me?

She stared at the door of the bathroom a long time after he closed it.  She finally brushed a lock of hair out of her eye and picked up the jewel case for Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral.  How appropriate, she mused.  That pretty well described how she felt right now.   She had been through enough emotional turmoil in the last five days to give a normal human whiplash.
    She hadn’t reacted to his rebuffs, at least openly, had forced her face to remain placid and calm when he flinched from her touch and all but shouted that he didn’t want her to join him as he bathed.  But she could feel, deep with her neural pathways and emotional subroutines, a sense of pain at his rejection.  She couldn’t understand why for five days straight now he had exhibited all human symptoms of a love-struck boy and had still shied from her.  And that in itself caused her to feel all the more forlorn.
    The damnable thing was, she knew she shouldn’t feel such a thing.  She was not prone to giving herself to the pleasure of the moment and latching onto someone that easily, at least not lately.  She’d known too many people she cared about that had left her in an untimely fashion to open up emotional ties like that again.  She could understand that he was a fairly handsome sort, in an exotic, otherworldly sort of way, but that did little to explain her feelings.  In fact, her ability to be completely unswayed by a person’s physical appearance had been programmed into her, unlike human women, who could not help but be affected by what their eyes told them.
    His eyes.  She couldn’t shake the memory of his ice-blue eyes, staring at her.  There was passion behind those eyes, she could tell, a sense of drive there that she had seen lacking in many humans.  She had seen that once in Argo, before the accident that had grafted the Medusa Shades to his eyes… she had seen it when he held her.  Now she found herself pondering what it would be like to be the object of the passion she thought Paris capable of.  And to some small effect, that bothered her.  It made no sense for her to feel such a connection to a person after such a short time.  She had barely met him, when it boiled right down to it.  Truthfully, she didn’t know him at all, beyond the fact that he was Argo’s son.
    She wondered if that had something to do with it.  Certainly, she could see more than just a token physical resemblance between Paris and his father.  Both were men driven by a love for magick.  She could somehow sense that Paris was a man that was tortured by inner demons, like his father was.  She remembered what Paris had said that first evening, when she had murmured that everyone she cared about left her. I won’t.  If he could have only realized how much he had sounded like his father when he said that!
    Just because her brain was artificial— a high-tech primary central processing unit, in all actuality— didn’t mean she had no subconscious.  Could it be that subconsciously, she was trying to fill the hole Argo had opened when he left… with his son?  Or did she find something genuinely attractive in Paris?  And did it matter?  Assuming he even gave a damn for her, would he leave her like so many others—
    She heard a sharp snap, looked down at her hands.  The jewel case was broken in her hands, a jagged crack tracing the clear plastic from one side to the other.  She looked at the broken plastic, blinked.  The tactile sensors on her fingertips should have warned her that she was exerting that much pressure, shouldn’t they have?  Did she have some sort of malfunction?
    She closed her eyes and ran a quick diagnostic.  Streams of information began to compile, checking data from her primary processes and sub-processes and feeding that data into her CPU.  She scanned through the information quickly for error messages and warning tags, and within moments had found her answer.
    There was no malfunction.  A warning had been fed from the tactile sensors in her hands, and now resided in her system memory: it stated that the object she was holding would break shortly given the stress her hands were applying.  And she had completely ignored it because she was preoccupied thinking about something… someone else, which should have been impossible.
    She set the broken pieces of the CD case on the table and sat down, dropping her head to her hands.  What is happening to me?

Paris stepped out of the bathroom, having cleaned and changed into a set of clothes he’d brought along.  He saw Nova finishing up some repair work, and swallowed once, hard.  Then he made his way over to the couch, set down his knapsack and pulled forth the Tempora  Arcanum. He cast one last look at Nova, felt the swell of longing in his chest, and forced himself to study.
    Nova was replacing one of the air-purifier’s filters when she heard Paris open the door to the bathroom and make his way across toward the couch.  She closed her eyes, then resolutely forced herself to finish the repair job and not look back up until she’d finished.  As she twisted in the last screw to the metal plate, she gazed over at Paris, and sighed to herself.
    She passed him on the couch as she made her way back toward the lab and tool room.  Sitting cross-legged on the couch, he looked up as she approached.  Her eyes met his; his met hers.
    "Hello," he said with a fractional smile.
    "Hey," she responded, with one of her own.
    The greetings were perfunctory, uneasy and over far too quickly… but neither would admit to it.  They were also the only words they said to one another until people began to arrive in the ASFR room that evening.

III.    Realizing the Impossible
No place he’d ever called home had felt so hollow as when Argo opened the door to his old one-bedroom apartment on the west side of Indianapolis.  The key still worked; he had forgotten about the time differential between Faerie and the Earth-realm.  Good thing he had paid for his apartment so far in advance… it would have done him no good to come back to find himself evicted.
    In the Earth-Realm, it had been a little more than six months since he’d last set foot in his apartment. In that time, in Faerie, he had spent over a hundred years— longer than most humans lived— just studying, training and having adventures humans were probably never meant to have.  Hell, in that time, he had found a wife, had a child.  He felt his chest constrict at the thought.  Would he ever see them again?  Would they understand why he left?  For every hour he spent in the Earth-Realm, days and weeks were passing in Faerie, probably erasing memories of him from their minds.
He cursed and made his way toward his bedroom, stopping in the compact bathroom to lave his face.  He looked in the mirror and watched his lips curl into a thin smile.  One thing he would have to admit, spending time in Faerie certainly added a timeless quality to one’s looks; he had been there over a century and looked no older than when he left the Earth-Realm.  Neither had it impaired his memory, as far as he could tell.  He found his comb in the medicine cabinet, right where left it a hundred seventeen years— or six months, depending on your point of view— ago.  He brushed through his hair once, and scratched at his goatee, expecting to see the first onset of grey hairs somewhere.  Nothing.  Just flowing, healthy dark hair.  It was just as well most people in the Earth-Realm didn’t know about the Feylands…  the elves would just as quickly become overrun by rich Hollywood types who didn’t want to shell out money on plastic surgery to protect their youth.
    Memories flooded back to him as he looked inside the cramped bedroom.  His Notre Dame posters still hung on the walls, untouched.  One drawer of his dresser still remained open, a pair of white socks peeking out over the edge of the front.  Two large bookshelves, lined with everything from dictionaries and thesauri to manuals on primitive Earth-Realm magick, stood against one wall, collecting dust.  His computer still flashed with the same screen-saver he’d set there more than six months ago.  He remembered spending interminable hours in this room, reading, writing, surfing the net.  It had been this room where he’d first found the directions leading him to the ASFR room, where in turn he had then spent much of his time before disembarking for Faerie.
Christ, don’t start thinking of that.  Just what he needed: to clutter his head with thoughts and old memories when he needed to be clearing it to prepare magick in the Earth-Realm.  As if it wasn’t hard enough to call up magick in a world accustomed to science and technology, he mused.
    He dug under his bed, finally finding the small box he had placed there before travelling into Faerie.  It was a simple, unassuming cardboard box, which had once been used for some of his clothes when he first moved to the west side.  Now it held a large stack of handwritten and printed notes, along with a couple slender books he had found while delving in metaphysical bookstores— books by authors he felt had a better handle on Faerie and on possibility magick than anyone on the Earth-Realm probably gave them credit for.
    He sat cross-legged on the floor and opened one of those books, searching.  Grummet’s Lives of the Fey told him nothing, nor did Medici’s The Call of the Faerie or Branham’s Exploring Possibilities.  He threw out a few choice curses.  He was hoping these books would have helped him. Argo himself had no notes which would help him here in the Earth-Realm; everything he had written on the subject had remained in Faerie with—
    Don’t think on that now. Clear your mind, dammit.  He scanned through the next book, Through the Worldtree, by Cedric Tamylin:
    "Fithnaheyin: (lit., ‘That which cannot be’) The Fithnaheyin is an abstract subject in Faerie, an abstraction of impossibility.  From what we are led to believe, the Fithnaheyin is the embodiment of all things which cannot be, and is therefore what we draw from when we attempt to use magick which alters reality as we know it.  For example, if a magick is cast in which we cause water to flow uphill, we draw from the Fithnaheyin, as it is impossible in our world for water to flow upwards…"
    "No, no," Argo murmured.  "You have it all wrong."  The Fithnaheyin is not an abstract concept, and we certainly don’t draw from him.  And that’s the whole problem, damn it all.
    "What the—"  Argo looked up, expecting to see the lamps in his room dim somewhat, or the light through blinds on his windows darken momentarily, but nothing of the sort happened.  He looked around his room, shrugged, and then looked back at his book.  And then he looked back up at his wall, a double take.
    My poster.
    Argo looked at one of his Notre Dame posters, the one he had put up less than a year ago in Earth-Realm time.  It was a montage of images, with Notre Dame Stadium most dominant, and overlaid on the bottom was the famous stylized ‘N’ and ‘D’, the Fighting Irish leprechaun and the years of each national football championship.  Argo knew that poster almost like he knew his own name, even after so many years, and he could tell something was amiss.  He looked closely at the years of the national championships: 1924, 1929, 1930, 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1966, 1973, 1977, 1988 and… 1994?
    "What the hell?"  He whispered.  Argo remembered the ’94 team.  He had a lot of their games on videotape; it was very nearly an undefeated season.  After beating Florida State to take over the number one ranking in the nation, they had lost their last game by two points after a last-second field goal by Boston College.  If not for that field goal, they probably would have won the National Championship.
    But they hadn’t won it.  He remembered that much.  And he knew that poster had never before listed 1994 as a year they had won a National Championship.  So why was it showing it now?  Such a thing was im—
    His eyes widened.
    He closed his eyes, cleared his mind, and let his aura reach out, searching.  Almost at once he felt it: magick, in the air, far more than he had felt before in the Earth-Realm.  That too was impossible, unless what he feared was true.  He steeled his mental defenses, sought out the origin of the magick.  An astral form of himself coalesced into being, and followed the trail of magick through the ethers…
    Right to the one place he most expected and most feared it could have come from.  His astral form stopped before the barrier.  He saw the crack in the barrier, the magick flowing from it like sap from the Worldtree.  Not just magick, either… possibility magick.  He saw that almost immediately.  Possibilities were enacting themselves all around the trail, subverting reality.  All at once he understood: it wasn’t the lights he had seen flicker.  It was reality itself.
    The possibility magick seemed to notice his presence, leapt from the trail to his astral form before he could react, latched onto his subconscious.  Alternate realities began to explode before his vision, things that could never be suddenly coming to pass in an eyeblink…
    "Lieutenant Forgeuzev!"  The commander shouted.
    Argo blinked, studied his console.  "Four raiders, sir, point oh-oh-two.  Standard gamma formation.  Getting a read now, should have a lock shortly."
    Commander Chezrith smiled, wolflike.  "Let’s make those green-skinned sons of bitches think twice before attacking the Commonwealth again.  Lieutenant, as soon as you have a lock, fire at will."
    "Aye, sir."
    The console beeped insistently as the firing switch flickered red.  Argo stabbed at the button.  The great guns of the UCS Ajax responded instantly, particle beams lancing out and immediately inflicting two direct hits on the Kei’thall raiders.  One raider ship disintegrated instantly, the other lurched slowly and began to drift.  The other two sailed cleanly around the beams, returned fire.
    The Ajax shuddered under the blow.
    "Screens six and eight taking heavy damage, sir," reported Vengeance from the ops chair.  "Another like that and—"
    Her console exploded, throwing her to the ground, deadweight.  Argo looked at her.  Vengeance’s pale skin was scalded— burned almost a bright red— by the blast, and shrapnel from metallic sheeting from the console had embedded itself in her, almost covering her whole body in a silvery-blackened sheath.   It was likely the sharp piece that had impacted with her forehead that had killed her, though; her eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling.
    "No…"  Argo whispered.  He felt a blood-red haze seep into his vision.
    "Lieutenant Forgeuzev!  Argo!  Keep firing, damn you!"
    "Firing."  Argo’s voice was edged as he obeyed.  He pressed the firing switch repeatedly, long after the last raider had been blown into particles by the Ajax’s deadly beams.  He swore and cursed, and finally, the bridge crew had to sedate him and seal him in his quarters.  And still the bloodlust continued.
    The Kei’thall would pay dearly for the death of his friend, he swore.  To hell with his own life; he would lead a suicide mission into Kei’thall territory if such a thing was possible...
    No… this isn’t right….  He struggled at the assault, felt the possibilities grab at him, more insistent.
    "Father!"  Paris yelled at him, awash in the glow of youth.  "Look at this! I can see forever up here!"
    Argo looked up, smiled.  The boy was in the fifth branch of the tree, higher than he had ever climbed in his life, looking out over creation with a sense of wonder that so often becomes jaded with age.  They grew up too fast these days, he reflected.  If he’d had his druthers, Argo probably would have kept him eight years old forever.
    "Be careful, up there, Paris.  You know how your mother worries."  Worries was an understatement.  If they had to replace the servos in Paris’ legs again from a fall like he had last time, she’d probably blow a circuit yelling them both.
    Argo opened the hatch on his arm, tapped out a key sequence on his actuators, enabling his visual circuitry for record capability.  Other fathers still videotaped their children, why not him?  He looked back up.
    Paris was hanging from that fifth branch, struggling.  What had knocked him over?  No time to figure.
    Argo launched himself toward the foot of the tree, moving with the footspeed that only an android could muster.  Servomotors clicked and hummed as they burst into motion in his legs, data streams fed themselves into his primary CPU, gauging distance from his visual feeds and tensile strength from the tactile sensors in his arms and hands.  Paris was fairly light for an android; even from this height, Argo could probably catch him without doing serious damage to his artificial ligaments and the pain-inhibitors in his arms.  Not that that would have mattered, anyway.
    The boy fell, giving a shortened shriek as he let go of the branch, but Argo was there in a heartbeat, catching him and cradling his fall.  The servomotors in his arms whined insistently but held firm.  He made a mental note to run a diagnostic later, but that could wait.
    Paris was breathing in a manner that bordered hyperventilation.  His cheeks puffed with each breath, his eyes shimmered as if he was holding back tears by the slimmest of margins.  Argo held the boy close, smiled.  Data streams flashed in his optic sensors.  The boy was fine.
    "Hey now, little man, you’ll have to quit scaring me like that," Argo said comfortingly.  "You’re all right now.  Be careful of those high branches next time, huh?"
    The boy drew away slightly, and his eyes seemed to look inward, scanning.  He blinked and Argo could almost hear the visual receptor iris beneath Paris’ synthetic skin.  After a moment, the boy nodded his affirmation.  "I will, father."
    Argo smiled wider and rubbed the boys head lovingly, pushing a hank of red hair from his eyes.
    "I swear to you," a familiar voice said behind him, "someday he’s gonna blow out his primary matrix in a fall like that."
    "See?  I told you she’d kill us," Argo said to the boy, smiling.  It was a joke they often shared among one another.  "Better run before she gets you."
    Paris howled in mock fright, barely keeping from laughing as he ran off, the pain and anxiety forgotten— pushed off into a subroutine to remember later.  Servos whirred and hummed almost imperceptibly as his legs flailed in long, exaggerated strides.
    "And you all but tell him it’s all right," she said, curling an arm around him.  "It’ll be a wonder if we don’t have to replace his chassis before he’s nine."
    "Shh," Argo whispered, holding Nova close.  He kissed her, felt his oral receptors register: cherries.  He never tired of that.  "Don’t say such things, dearest.  I’ll always watch out for him.  After all, he is our child."
    He felt, calm, at ease now, as he usually did whenever he found himself with his wife, his family.  He had never thought such peace and happiness was possible.
    "Stop it!"  Argo yelled, clutching at his head.  The possibility magick was burrowing there, calling forth his most ardent desires, his worst fears, and enacting them.  He felt himself drawn into reality upon reality, felt his resolve weakening before them...
    He felt blood trickle into his mouth as he skidded along the ground, and grimaced at the sickly salty-metallic taste.  His leather jacket cushioned him, for the most part, but pain burst in his head as he felt the ground explode around him.
    Move, man, move!  He pulled himself to his feet, lurched out of the way as Creysari’s eldritch bolts cascaded around him, scorching the grass.  Argo’s own magical shield was long shattered, and he somehow doubted the elflord would give him time to construct another rune-sigil.
    The young elflord advanced upon him, sneering.  His eyes glowed with magical power as he pointed at Argo.  "Human trash, I will end your pitiful life for what you did to my sister."
    "What I did to your sister?"  Argo exclaimed, half aghast, half biding time.  "I loved her, Creysari, and she loved me!  I offered her—"
    The next arcane blast from Creysari’s hand blew through Argo’s midsection.  Leather, skin and muscle shredded under the magical assault, ribs and vertebrae splintered and cracked.  Again Argo spilled to the ground; he watched numbly as his lifeblood wet the packed dirt, and thought through the haze:  my legs.  I’m done.  Can’t feel my legs.
    A shadow crept over him.  Creysari.  The elflord’s face was drawn with hate.
    "You offered her nothing, you worthless son of a kelmarin.  No good standing, no cultural ties, nothing that an elven woman should want.  And yet, may the gods have pity on her, she still cared for you...  What did you offer her?  Banishment, exile from her realm, her place in the great forest of the afterlife...  you offered her naught but pain and misery.  How did you repay her love, human filth?  By letting her die!"
    Argo winced— partially due to the pain, but even moreso from the ring of truth in Creysari’s words.  An inky blackness began to descend over his vision.  The blood puddled beneath him; he tasted it, smelled it, felt it.  His life was ebbing.
    A tear tracked down his cheek, mixed with the blood from his nose and settled on his lips.  He realized he couldn’t fight the darkness any longer.  He felt himself drawn into it, and then all feeling was gone.
    "I’m sorry, Auerenelle," he whispered, his last words, and then—
    —I’m not dead, he thought numbly as he lifted himself from the ground.  Stray laser blasts were riddling the ground still, one left an imprint in the ground not two feet from him.  The beams illuminated the moonless night, cast a macabre glow that was amplified by the light of fires from nearby buildings.  Some had burned themselves out, and merely smoldered, a grim reminder that life would never be the same for the EarthGov citizens who watched as their world fell.
    Argo stayed low to the ground, crawling along the ruined, desolate landscape, sometimes over the bodies of unfortunate comrades.  The laser fire was lessening.  Shock troops would be here in moments, transported down by the motherships above.  He saw his blaster rifle, scooped it up and found cover behind the remains of a brick wall.
    He felt something flaccid and fleshlike against his arm and looked down to the ground.  He nearly vomited.  There, right next to him was a leg, barely connected to its dead owner by a length of stringy tendon.  He gulped down air as he realized the owner.  It was Lieutenant—
    —Sil! Watch the flank!"
    The succubus nodded, grinning like a fool, and called forth an enchantment from the depths of the abyss.  Undead hands burst forth from the ground of the ASFR room, grabbing hold of the legs of six of the oncoming cyborgs, refusing to let them go.  Slowly, they began to draw the ’borgs down through the floor.
    So this was the Master’s game, was it?  Unleash some soulless constructs to try to steal the minds and free will of the flesh-creatures in the room?  Already Pantherr, Android-69 and Nova-Phoenix had fallen victim to the cyborg’s probes; they stood, mute and glassy-eyed, awaiting instruction.  He saw, out of the corner of his eye: Vengeance morphed her arm into a pulse cannon, and blew away two ’borgs before she fell under their assault.  The cyborg pressed the nodes of two probes into her forehead and her thrashing stopped, her eyes immediately grew blank.
    So that was the Master’s game.  He smirked, removed his sunglasses.  His ebony eyes glowed white hot as he focused on the oncoming attackers.  They had optic sensors; they could see.  They were his.
    "Come on, you good-for-nothing piles of scrap—
    —you deserve this, you worthless excuse for a magus," Paris screamed, unleashing a bolt of the pure white light at his father.  Argo gazed at his son just before the magickal energy struck him full in the face, incinerating his head and killing him instantly.  He saw his son cradling a broken form; a person, he believed.  His mother, possibly.  But Argo never saw who and he never truly cared all that much—
    —Argo sighed happily and flipped the TV on with the remote.  The game was on, finally.  He lifted the bottle of beer and popped off the top—
    —and the Earth heaved a last plaintive last groan before exploding—
    —beat them once at Gettysburg, surely we could—
    —with this ring, I thee wed," he—
    —Don’t do it, it isn—
    Argo screamed, a scream torn from the very depths of his soul, and his astral form returned to him with a blow like a sledgehammer.  He gasped, heaved a few deep breaths before he could even force himself to blink.
    His first line of thought was: The barrier.  Possibilities leaking in, reality becoming warped.
    His second line of thought was: Ohhhhhhhhhh, this is bad.  Not just forgot-to-add-oil-to-the-car-bad, but end-of-absolutely-fucking- everything-bad.  And I might be responsible for it?  I am in some serious trouble here.
    He stumbled back to his feet, brushing the hair out of his eyes and massaging his temples.  He could still feel the possibility magick, brushing at the back of his mind, begging him to release it… begging him to make those possibilities real. You can have anything... anything!  Just wish for it, exert your will...
    No, dammit.  He couldn’t afford to think like that, especially not now. It had taken almost every vestige of will he had to break free from the flickering realities.  Even now, he could see some of those realities in his mind, and he could sense a part of him that was hard-pressed not to surrender to some of the more pleasant ones.  But he couldn’t; they weren’t his realities.  Well, not his him’s realities, at any rate.  Christ, even the idea of reality-hopping gives me a headache.
    The crux of the matter was, without a doubt, he was in way over his head.  He needed some serious help.
    Unfortunately, he could only think of one place to go in order to get that kind of help. And he would almost rather die than go there.  Or more correctly, he amended, go back there.

* * *

The man had once been named Lawrence Michael Evans. He was an up and coming hotshot lawyer in the So Cal area, recently adding his name to the prestigious firm of Watley, Marshall and Evans after a series of seven straight wins in the districts and two in the Alameda County courts.  He was a boss to a twenty-something secretary and staff of six legal aides. He was twenty-eight years old, unmarried but an eminently eligible bachelor.  Many women, in fact, were taken by his rakish good looks: wavy brown hair framed a square-jawed face and drew attention to his piercing grey eyes, and racquetball and weight training every other day had honed his sturdy physique.  He was a man who had aspirations, goals and plans for his life, and the prime one was to end up on top of the world.
    And now, he was the human host to Fithnaheyin, who would be happy to put Lawrence Michael Evans there, even if it turned out being a world of ash and ruin.
    Fithnaheyin recognized the need to take a Humanae host early in its travels to this Earth-realm, and not just for the protection that a Humanae’s frail body offered its shapeless form.  Although it would need no help following the Possibility Magus, whose magickal stench clung to Fithnaheyin’s nostrils like that of a spoiled fruit, it realized that this was the Possibility Magus’ home and that this was a stranger world than the one it had known before.  By just following him blindly, Fithnaheyin would have no doubt stumbled into whatever traps the one called Argo surely would lay for it.  Not that it would have mattered, granted, but Fithnaheyin was in no mood to give the Possibility Magus any sort of upper hand— a long time ago, when the Children of the Fey had imprisoned it, such overconfidence had been its downfall.  Furthermore, whether they realized it or not, Humanae had bodies that were naturally adept at wielding magicks, much like their fey cousins.
    It had taken little effort to consign the soul of the one called Lawrence Michael Evans to oblivion, and take its place.  It had taken a slight bit of time to adjust to the rigors of the Humanae form, but Fithnaheyin had all the time it needed.  It had taken a bit more time to ensure that it was not interrupted in its work, but Fithnaheyin had all but relished that part of the chore.
    In the one called Lawrence Michael Evans, Fithnaheyin found a host whose mind would prove beneficial in acclimating it to this strange Earth-realm, and a body that would allow it passage among the Humanae relatively unnoticed.  Already, with help of the Evans-mind, it was forming plans on how best to proceed in finding the Possibility Magus.  Not where he was now, but rather where he would be.  That was the key, he decided.
    The door to the office was nudged open slightly, and it looked up from the desk at the intrusion to see a young deer look up at him from the doorway.  The Evans-mind recognized the doe as formerly being Katherine, one of his legal aides.  Evans had always seen Katherine as a naïve sort, not really conscious of the fact that many times, the best money came from defending those who really didn’t deserve to be defended in the first place.  Fithnaheyin thought her new form suited her innocence well.
    In fact, the Evans-mind would have found all of his co-workers’ fates to be somewhat ironic.  Sheila Pournelle, his attractive brunette secretary, had lusted after Lawrence’s wallet as much or more than she lusted after him personally.  She stood just outside the doorway, forever locked in a smiling, seductive pose, the light glittering off her solid gold body.  Directly under her feet was the two-dimensional, flattened form of Lyle Mackinally, a legal aide who felt that everyone in the office walked all over him.  As a floor mat, that would be the case from now on.  Aaron Lindsley, another legal aide, had constantly bored Evans with details of his hunting trips.  Now, it was his head which hung on the wall, sightlessly staring into the room from its place on a nameless wooden plaque.
    But there was no time for gloating over magickal creativity now.  Fithnaheyin had work ahead of it.  It growled at the doe and cast a simple flare magick in her direction to send her scampering off, then it tapped on the ‘computer’ on Evans’ desk.  The Evans-mind told it that the place called Internet would be as good a place to start as any.  Information could be found there— both legally an illegally— on a good many people, if you had the right access.  And the host mind of the Humanae had all the access it would need.
    Fithnaheyin delved into the Evans-mind and pulled out the information he needed to learn how to get to this Internet.  And then he smiled, the lips of the Evans-thing curling back.  It had the time, it had the means, and soon, very soon, it would have the knowledge.  It would find the Possibility Magus soon enough, and it would destroy him.  There would be nothing the one called Argo Veseyez Forgeuzev could do to stop it.

IV.    Reflections
Paris watched her out of the corner of his eye, and kept a pro forma smile plastered on his face as he mingled in the ASFR room.  He had a gnawing feeling everyone he talked to was seeing right through the mask of happy complacency he was putting on.  He was sure that everybody looked at him and saw a young man who was trying far too hard to mask what was obviously on his mind.  If they saw the surreptitious glances he sent Nova’s direction, they probably wouldn’t even wonder twice about what was on his mind.
    And that scared him more than he cared to admit.
    He blinked.  "I’m sorry, what was that?"
    Pete smiled and opened a hatch on his abdomen, extracting a bottle of beer, which he held in mock salute to Paris.  His formal designation was Android69, but in Paris’ current state of mind he wasn’t sure if he wanted to think about the word ‘android’ for a while.  "I said, ‘you look preoccupied, my friend.’  Is something wrong?"
    Paris shrugged, lifted his wineglass to his lips and drained some of the red liquid.  His fourth tonight.  The wine wasn’t helping; it never did.  Damned stuff was too watered down compared to what he drank in Faerie, he decided.
    "Maybe.  Just a lot of stuff on my mind."
    "We never would have guessed," chuckled a voice from the ceiling.
    Paris looked up.  Crouched on a rafter was Pantherr, who dropped down to the floor beside the two and stretched himself to his full height, a full head taller than Paris.  Pantherr had once described himself as a winged anthropomorphic nanitical feline.  Out of all that, Paris still only understood the words "winged" and "feline".  The feline part was rather self-explanatory: Pantherr looked almost like a bipedal version of his namesake, with the exception of pair of large, cherubic wings that extended from the small of his back.  From what Paris had been told, his entire body was composed of robots and chipsets smaller than the eye could see, like Vengeance.  Nanites, something like that.
    Pantherr folded back his dove-like wings, grinning ferally.  Actually his grins almost all looked feral; it was just his animal-like nature.  "You have the look of someone deep in thought and not at all happy about it."
    "You can talk to us," Pete added, smiling.  "Especially if it will help."
    "I—"  Paris swallowed as Nova walked across his field of vision to hug Vengeance, who had just entered the room.  Her eyes caught his as she led the chrome woman over toward another couch, and he felt his face burn.  "I can’t.  Really.  I appreciate the sentiment, but…"
    Pantherr’s eyes flitted between Nova and Paris, and his toothy smile became, if possible, wider.  "Ahh, I see.  The young half-fey has a taste for cherries, eh?  Or have you already tasted the fair fruit, Paris?"
    "No!  I mean, no, that’s not it at all…"
    Pete looked up at that.  His eyes widened.  "Get out, Paris!  You mean, you and Nova have actually…?"
    "No, Pantherr’s just saying that," Paris said, his face in his hands to cover his blush.
    Pantherr chuckled again.  "Say what you want, Paris.  This body can smell pheromones, detect slight emotional changes…  and right now, your androgens and adrenal glands are lighting up like a Christmas tree just thinking about her."
    "My what and what are doing what?"  Paris blinked in confusion, and drank another swallow of wine.
    Pete followed suit with his beer, said nonchalantly: "He means you’re having sexual thoughts about her."
    Paris nearly choked on his wine.  "I—"  He sputtered, could only croak out that word.  The rest was lost in a fit of coughing.
    "I didn’t say that,"  Pantherr remarked as Android69 clapped Paris on the back to relieve the spasms.  For once, Pantherr had the decency to look scandalized.  "I said his androgens and adrenal glands were noticeable.  For the unenlightened, that merely means that the thought of her provokes an emotional response.  It’s obvious he cares about her, based on that."
    "That and the fact you’ve been here for the past five days watching him splitting time between fall over himself getting her to notice him and shying away from actual contact with her. And the fact that you just saw him turn beet-red when she looked at him."  Pete smiled as Paris began to breathe normally again.
    "Details," Pantherr said smoothly.  "But I wouldn’t have drawn that sort of a conclusion on him until I smelled the scent of his pheromones.  That made it pretty unmistakable."
    "You don’t have to talk about me in third person," Paris snapped.  "Are you saying that it’s obvious…  to everyone that I’m in…  that I’m preoccupied with Nova?"
    Android69 looked at Pantherr.  Pantherr returned the glance.
    "Pretty much." Android69 said.
    "Anyone with eyes, at least."  Pantherr added.
    Paris groaned.

"Does he often spend that much time hiding his face like that?"  Vengeance asked.
    "I’m surprised he’s not permanently red for as much time as he spends blushing."  Silvera remarked as she saw the half-fey drop his head to his hands again and mumble.  She, Vengeance and Nova sat on the other couch, treading a fine line between watching the three menfolk with rapt attention and making a show of appearing uninterested in what they were doing.
    Nova smiled halfheartedly.  "He certainly is shy about a lot of things."
    "Not like us, eh?"  Vengeance winked and sipped at her sangria, then continued: "I mean, sure, we all have our own little secrets, but we’re all very open with one another, am I correct?"
    "Meaning?"  Nova’s eyebrows rose a fraction.  There was unmistakable innuendo in Vengeance’s words, and Nova didn’t miss it.
    "Meaning," Sil said, smoothly interposing herself between Nova and Vengeance and dropping a hand over Nova’s shoulder like a best friend, "that for five days straight, we have been witness to the Paris and you exchanging pleasantries.  Now we also know that for five nights straight, for want of a better place in the ‘Earth-Realm’ to stay, he’s stayed here, in this room."
    Nova nodded.
    "With you.  Alone."
    Nova nodded again.
    "So we want the dirt.  And quit nodding."
    "Dirt?"  Nova felt her lips curl upward.  "You want dirt?  What would you like me to make up?"
    "Make up?"  Vengeance asked, craning around Silvera to see Nova.
    "Yes, make up.  Because otherwise, there hasn’t been anything happening here short of him falling asleep next to me the first day he came here."
    Silvera’s jaw dropped.  "Nothing?"
    Vengeance looked more bemused.  "At all?"
    Nova shook her head.  "Not a thing.  In fact, sometimes I think he believes I have the plague.  Sometimes he shrinks from my touch as if he’s afraid of catching something.  Truthfully, since that first night, I don’t know if we’ve really ever connected.  I don’t think he’s all that fond of me."
    Silvera began to laugh.  Vengeance hid a smile.
    "What?"  Nova asked, confused.
    "Come on, Nova.  Are you seriously telling me you can’t see it?"  Vengeance took another drink of her sangria.
    "See what?  Talk plainly!"
    "Wake up, Nova.  Venge and I have seen him doing everything but waiting on you hand and foot.  He stares at you like a ten year-old with his first crush, fumbles his words whenever you talk to him, and turns the color of a fire engine if you even casually touch him."  Sil smiled at her.  "It’s almost painfully obvious.  He’s so smitten he probably can’t think straight when you’re in a five-mile radius of him."
    Nova shrugged slightly, looked away.  "It’s not all that obvious.  I don’t see it."
    "Because you’re at the center of it," Vengeance reasoned.  "Evidently, you care about him, too.  You’d have to be blind not to see that.  Otherwise it wouldn’t bother you that he’s sending these mixed signals.  See, you’re blushing just thinking about it."
    "I am not,"  Nova retorted, ashamed to find out in a quick diagnostic that Vengeance was right.  "It… doesn’t matter, anyway.  I mean, he’s a half-fey, and I’m an android."
    "Like that’s ever stopped anyone in this room," Silvera said with a smirk.  "It sounds to me like you’re grasping at straws to find reasons for something between the two of you to fail.  Of course, then again, how do you know he’s not doing the same thing?  But I saw the two of you that first night, Nova.  He cares for you, and unless I miss my guess, you feel the same way.  Why you’re both fighting it is beyond me. "
    The words struck home to Nova.  She remembered a thought she’d had earlier: Would he leave her, like everyone else did?  Was she really searching for a reason not to get involved?  Was she secretly hoping he wouldn’t care for her, to spare herself that pain again?  She looked over to Paris, saw the young man caught in a diatribe between Pantherr and Android69, and she made an instant decision.  She stood up.
    "Where are you going?"  Silvera asked, lifting her wine goblet and looking at Nova curiously.
    "Over there," said Nova simply.  "I have something to do."
    "Like what?"  Vengeance inquired.  From the smile on her face, Nova could tell she had a few ideas; it would have been funny to see the look on her face if she realized they were all wrong.
    "What I did the first day he was here," Nova replied as she walked away.  "I’m going to learn about his past."
    Vengeance blinked, then shrugged.  "Not what I would have suggested, but then again, some bots have too much subtlety."
    Silvera tasted some of the blood-wine from her goblet.  "I’m surprised the word the word subtlety is even in your vocabulary.  It’s not something you regularly employ."
    "Too much work," Vengeance smiled.  "So what do you think, Cyrano… should we find a seat closer to the action?"
    "Of course," Silvera grinned, raising her wineglass to clink Vengeance’s.  "After all, Christian and Roxanne make quite the cute little couple."
    Laughing, the two made their way to the other couch.

"I don’t care how many drinks you’ve had," Pantherr snapped, then licked one paw irritably.  "If you start sing-songing ‘Paris has a girlfriend’ again, I’ll unplug your Maytag-refrigerator ass."
    Pete crossed his arms defensively, scowled.  "Can you say ‘Holy hypocrites, cat-man?’  Your concern for his well-being sure didn’t stop you from asking him when the big date for the wedding was."
    "Concern, hell.  Your singing just gets on my nerves.  You can’t carry a tune."
    "Big talk from a walking robotic ant colony."
    Paris sat with his head down, peeking every so often in between his fingers at Pantherr and Android69.  So far, their insults were remaining light-hearted, but both had been drinking somewhat, and Paris had no idea how— or if— each was affected by alcohol.  Therefore, Paris had been more than content just to shut up and let them throw slurs back and forth while he concentrated on preparing to cast a defensive spell.  But suddenly, the talk from both ends abruptly stopped.  Paris peeped between his fingers again, saw nothing to one side.
    "Hello there, Nova, my friend," Android69 said warmly from the other.
    Paris nearly bit his tongue.
    "Hello, Pete," Nova returned as Paris lifted his head.  She motioned to him.  "I was wondering if I could borrow Paris for a while, if the two of you are finished with him."
    "Of course," Pantherr grinned and made a courtly bow and gesture to offer his seat, then jumped up into the air and extended his wings to let him glide back to the rafters.  Nova smiled her thanks and sat next to Paris.
    Paris could not help but smile reflexively as Nova seated herself.  He forced a coy tone as he remarked: "Borrow me?  That certainly sounds interesting."
    "Nothing that interesting," she said in an undertone, then raised her voice to a little more normal tone.  She gazed at him steadily.  "Just wondering something..."
    Paris floated momentarily in Nova’s eyes, immersed in a sea of violet, inhaling cherries.  He surfaced quickly, mentally chastising himself: why in the name of the gods do I lose all coherent thought just being near her?  Aloud, he asked her, "Wondering what?"
    She seemed about to say something, then hesitated.  "You know the story you told me the first night you were here?  The one about Argo going back to Faerie?"
    A voice inside him laughed at his naivete.  Tell me more about Argo, he saw Nova tell him in his mind’s eye.  He carefully controlled his voice, did not let his disappointment show.
    "Yes," he said, in a voice a couple steps above a whisper.
    "Tell me... "  She said, and again she paused, for just a moment.  Then she leaned close to Paris and curled her hand around his.  "Tell me...  when do you enter the story?"
    He looked at her hand, felt the warmth it gave him as she offered a gentle squeeze, and smiled as he returned it.  He could think of no words to describe the feeling the simple touch gave him; perhaps there were none.  Again he marveled at her; it was something he found himself doing a lot— he had known her only five days and already it seemed she never ceased to amaze him.
    He cleared his throat, looked down to the floor and tried to collect his thoughts.  "I...  I wasn’t around for quite a while yet, actually.  When my father came back into Faerie, he met the three Sestrey’llania women, turned one to stone and had the magickal duel with the other.  It was actually quite some time, albeit time in Faerie, before he... well..."
    He looked back up and was somewhat startled to find that a small crowd had gathered around the couch.  Android69 and Nova were watching him with undisguised interest, and Silvera and Vengeance watched from behind them.  Even Pantherr, up on his customary rafter, appeared to be drawn into the tale Paris was telling.
    "Go on," Nova urged gently, her fingers intertwining with his.
    For the first time all day, Paris found himself relaxing into an easy smile.  And why not?  This was his favorite part of the story, the part he begged his father or mother to tell him almost nightly when he was young... before Argo had disappeared.  Of course, there were portions of the story that he hadn’t learned about until he was older, but then again, that was to be expected— even among the fey, whom many humans consider rather free-minded morally.
    "Well, Argo and Auerenelle began to live together in her home, teaching one another their particular magicks… and slowly, something began to happen…"

V.    A Power Stronger than Magick
    "In my world it is sometimes referred to as the Golem Theory; it’s one of the building blocks of possibility magick."  Argo Veseyez Forgeuzev said in a didactic tone.  He sat cross-legged on the wooden floor of Auerenelle’s home, where he had been living for the past four weeks.  He wore a pale green tunic and tanned buckskin breeches today as he taught the elfwoman; he felt more comfortable in this casual homespun attire than his robes or the doublets he’d worn while in Avalon.
    Auerenelle nodded.  She sat across from him on the floor, watching him intently.  Over the three weeks, Argo had tested her, assessing her ability to comprehend and prepare herself for casting possibility magick.  Thus far, Argo could not help but be impressed with her poise in the art of magick.  She had been open-minded yet steel-willed, the two most basic requirements for accessing possibilities.  She also had a remarkable ability to clear her mind of everything except the magick, a skill taught to her by her first magickal tutor.
    Of course, her magickal adeptness was hardly the only reason he was impressed with her.  Argo had been around the fey in Avalon before, had seen the ethereal beauty of some of the most elegant elven women— beauty that was unattainable by mere mortals or Humanae.  Auerenelle was not quite in that class, but her exotic looks were complemented by a youthful, innocent charm that Argo found refreshing and attractive.  In some respects, it almost embarrassed him that he found himself attracted to her, especially on the nights he woke from dreams in which she had dropped all pretense of being chaste or demure.  As much as those thoughts aroused him, they also somehow struck him as terribly crass and impure.
    He shook the thoughts out of his head, forced himself to think of magick and nothing but.
    "The Golem Theory in simple terms means that every decision you make splits reality into different tangents... different paths.  Say, for instance, you’re lying in bed in the morning, deciding whether to sleep in or get up and start your day."  He held his hands together in front of her.
    "You decide to wake up and get out of bed.  As soon as you make that decision, reality is split into two separate courses, like a road that forks."  He separated his hands demonstratively.  "There is the reality where you woke up... we’ll call it reality A, and the one where you slept in, or reality B."
    "Okay," she said.  "Golem Theory.  That’s not too hard to comprehend."
    "Yeah, it’s cake so far."  Argo smirked.  "Okay, now try to follow me here: In both realities, there is an Auerenelle... a ‘you’.  Since what we know as ‘you’ decided to wake up instead of stay asleep, then the awake one, or the you in reality A, is the ‘real’ you.  The other you— the one in reality B— is called a golem."
    Her voice didn’t sound quite as certain.  "All right... I can understand that, I guess."
    "Now the idea is that for every decision you’ve ever made, ever since conception, you have created these splinter realities that are slightly different than what we know as real... each populated by these various golems.  The entire basis of the Golem Theory is the assumption that you can change reality by accessing these different golems; in effect transporting the ‘real’ you into the reality that golem exists in."
    Auerenelle’s eyes glazed.  "Come again?"
    "Okay, maybe if we think of it another way."  Argo rubbed his goatee between his forefinger and thumb.  "Imagine this: your place in reality is like… like a tree, that’s it."
    "I’m not understanding," she said as he got up from the floor and motioned her to follow him outside.  She did, to find him standing in front of a great elm.
    "You see, as you start life, you are like the trunk: straight, going only upwards.  But at the moment you make your first conscious decision…"  He gestured to where the first limb split from the trunk.  "An alternate reality is created in which you made a different decision.
    "Now, that branch is still made of wood, right?  So that is still you, but not the ‘real’ you, like the trunk is… it’s a golem— an offshoot of you, just like the branch is an offshoot of the main trunk.  So we go up to your next decision, and again, another reality is created, and so on and so forth, as you go through life.  Are you following me so far?"
    "I think so.  So each time I make a decision, I create another alternate reality.  But I don’t remember those realities because I’m not me in those realities, I’m a golem?"
    "Exactly.  Each of those golems goes through their lives as you do, making decisions that create new realities and spawn new golems.  So by this time in your life," he said, waving an arm to encompass the whole tree, "these various realities are like this.  The very tip of each branch is another you, at this exact moment in time, in another reality."
    Auerenelle nodded, looking at the tree with interest.  Argo was surprised, but pleased; it had taken him several days just to comprehend the enormity of the Golem Theory, let alone put it to use.
    She turned those exotic, blue-green eyes to him, her lips pursed.  "So how do I… access… these golems?"
    "Carefully," he grinned.  "Actually, for anyone who already uses magick, it’s not all that difficult.  You merely have to clear your mind of all thoughts— my mentor called it ‘finding the center of calm’.  Once you’ve done that, you focus on one singular golem... you envision the decision you’d like to change, and bend your will toward fusing yourself with that golem, changing that decision.  If we go along with the tree analogy, you’re attempting to turn the branch into the trunk."
    "That sounds pretty abstract," she said doubtfully.  "Isn’t there more to it than that?  I mean, plenty of people have made decisions they would have given anything to change... why don’t they just spontaneously change from force of will alone?"
    "Believe it or not, because most people don’t realize that everyone has that power.  So many people have been brought up to believe that reality is always constant and stable, not able to be shaped like a lump of potter’s clay.  Truthfully, if I hadn’t happened upon you, you probably wouldn’t realize it, either.  That’s not a knock against you, just a statement of fact...  knowledge in itself is half of the actual power."  Argo sat in the grass, patted the ground beside him.  As she hesitantly knelt on the ground, he continued. "Part of the beauty of possibility magick is its simplicity.  Sure, there are theories and laws and conjecture on possibility magick, like the stuff I’m teaching you, but on the whole it’s remarkably easy...  you decide on the result you’d like to have and access a possibility that will achieve that result."
    "Like when you turned Failina to stone?"  Auerenelle’s lips curled upward; there was levity in her tone.  The passage of weeks had turned what had seemed a desperate plight into a laughable memory to her.  From what she had told Argo, the whole experience had been rather humbling to Failina— who now did whatever Auerenelle asked without question, for fear that her sister would bring Argo with her when she visited.
    "Well, that’s a different magick altogether."  Argo shrugged, felt himself redden.
    "Your eyes," she nodded, looking at him intently.  "You haven’t said much about them.  Were you born like that?"
    "No, they became this way after an accident in the Humanae realm.  I can still see fine, things just look a bit darker."
    "And you can turn people to stone by meeting their gaze.  Like a basilisk, or a gorgon."  She shook her head and said, with a hint of sadness, "I feel for you, living with such a curse."
    "A curse?"  Argo nearly laughed aloud.  "I’ll be the first to admit, sometimes these eyes make reading by candlelight a pain, but I’ve never thought of them as a curse.  I mean, a few years ago, I would have given anything to have—"
    He stopped abruptly, self-conscious of where the conversation was steering him.  He stood, walked a step away from her.  The branches of the elm stretched out above him, made him think: How many of my golems don’t have these onyx eyes?  How many of them would be repulsed by the thought of having them?  "Forget it," he finished lamely.   "It’s not important."
    He felt a slender hand on his shoulder, turned.  Auerenelle herself seemed a little shocked at the forwardness of the touch, but she released his shoulder slowly.  "You would have given anything to have what?  You can tell me, whatever it is."
    "Can I?"  He grinned without humor.  "If you only knew.  Auerenelle, there are things about me that would shock and surprise you, if not outright disgust you.  There are things I could tell you that would doubtlessly make you wonder what kind of an outlandish freak I am."
    "Besides the fact you’re human?"  She mused, with a half-smile.
    "I’m not kidding."  He looked away toward the ground suddenly, embarrassed; spied a small stone on the ground, picked it up and threw it.  "I wish it was easier for me to tell you..."
    "So instead you’ll just let me die of suspense?  Fah, I see how you are," she said playfully.  But at the look of pain on his face, her tone softened, became more serious.  "I understand if you don’t want to tell me, Argo.  But truthfully, in this time studying together, I’ve gotten used to your little human nuances and habits... and none of them have bothered me at all.  In fact, I’ve actually grown fond of some of them."
    Argo cast a doubtful look at her.  The elfwoman smiled at him, seemed to fight herself and then reached out to grasp his hand in both of hers.  Satin had never felt as smooth to him as her skin did; down was coarse by comparison.  "I can’t imagine anything that you could say would appall me or make me think of you as a freak."
    He dropped his gaze, slowly found her eyes again, exhaled heavily.  "I’m aroused by the thought of women turning to stone."
    Auerenelle blinked, the smile faded into a faint moue.  Her voice lowered in tone.  "I’ll admit this much, I certainly wasn’t expecting that."
    "You see what I mean?"  Argo let his hand fall from hers, offered her a wry grin.  "I can almost see the words ‘what kind of freak are you?’ ready to roll off your lips."
    "I was not going to say that," she declared petulantly, shaking away the stunned look.  "But I’d like to hear more.  For instance, what exactly do you mean?  Define ‘aroused’."
    "Christ," Argo swore, flushing.  "Do I have to spell it out, Auerenelle?  Aroused.  Excited.  Turned on."
    "By a woman turning to stone," she said dubiously.
    "Aroused in a sexual manner?"
    "Yes!"  Argo said, wishing desperately that he could just sink into the ground.  "Can we just get back to the Golem Theory?"
    "It bothers you to talk about this?"  She asked.
    "Yes.  No."  Argo kicked at another small rock, and sent it flying.  "I don’t know.  I sometimes wonder if it’s normal, that’s all."
    Auerenelle covered her mouth quickly, smiling beneath her hand.
    "What is it?"  He asked.
    "It’s ironic.  Think about it, Argo.  You have the eyes of a gorgon.  You’re a human, spending time in Faerie and being trained in the use of magick by a Sestrey’llania.  You already make use of a form of magick that you say can make the impossible possible.  And you worry about being normal?  Each of those things are hardly ordinary, but they’re each uniquely part of you."  She sat back down in the grass, wrapped her arms around her gowned knees and rested her head there, watching him through the veil of honey-blond hair.  She was quiet for a long moment, then added, "I think I’d prefer different and interesting to normal any day."
    Argo thought about what she said, nodded.  Then he considered the tone of voice she had used in her last remark.  He looked at her from the corner of his eyes.  "Was that a backhanded way of asking me out?"
    She lifted her head and regarded him with a confused expression.  "What do you mean?  We’re already outside."
    "Nothing," Argo grinned.  "Forget it."
    She shrugged her shoulders and watched him intently.  "I guess if you’re thrilled by the thought of women becoming statues, those eyes would be an asset after all.  Do you know why it excites you so?"
    A faraway look came to his face; he paused thoughtfully before responding.  "You know, I’ve given that question a lot of thought before, and I still don’t know that I could narrow it down to any one answer.  You would think I would have some idea...  I mean, I’ve known about this little quirk since I was about ten or eleven...  But I’ve never been able to pin it down to one thing.
    "I mean, part of it probably boils down to a sort of domination fantasy, because transforming someone to a statue is like the ultimate form of bondage.  But a lot of it also has to do with the idea of just worshipping the feminine form, and the idea of capturing perfection in a single frozen moment and placing it on a pedestal.  And there’s something darkly fascinating about an innocent woman held captive in a pose of surprise or even dread fear."
    Auerenelle raised an eyebrow.  "An innocent woman, in a pose of dread fear?"
    "That bothers you."  He could tell from her tone of voice.
    "I’d be lying if I said it didn’t.  I could almost understand where you were coming from until you said that.  It makes it sound almost evil."
    "Evil?"  He laughed weakly.  "I’ve never thought of it as that.  But I guess if I were to look at it from your point of view, I could see where you might get that idea.  But you have to think it through, too.  Fear would be a pretty natural expression."
    "What do you mean?"
    "All right, assume for a moment that you’re my ‘victim’."  He mimed quotes around the last word.
    "How charming," she remarked, and stuck her tongue out at him.
    "All you know is suddenly you’re finding it harder and harder to move.  Your legs feel like lead weights and your whole body is starting to feel stiff and immobile.  You feel a tingly sensation start in your feet, which begins to move up to your lower legs.  Looking down, you see the color fading from your legs, and the skin is becoming white and marble-like, and worse still, the effect is moving upwards, and you realize you have only a few scant seconds before you will be completely turned to stone."
    "All right."
    "Now, you have no idea whether this is temporary or permanent, but you’re inclined to believe something like your body turning to stone is permanent.  For that matter, you’re not sure if something like this can be reversed.  You might be cursed to be a stone statue forever, unmoving, never to see or speak or even move again.  This goes through your mind in one moment.  Now, given that, can you imagine what your expression might be like?  Shock, disbelief, fear, something in that range, probably...  they’re all pretty well interconnected, anyway."  He shrugged.  "That’s why I say it’s natural to have a fearstruck expression."
    "I guess I can see that.  You obviously think about this more than just a little bit."
    Argo made his way over toward her and sat down next to her in the grass, black eyes taking hers in.  There was no hint of rebuke in the aquamarine orbs; she had merely stated fact, nothing more.  Slowly he nodded.  "Probably more than I ought to, really.  But in some respects, I can’t help it.  This fantasy is as much a part of me as possibility magick is.  I can’t deny my quirks just because they’re... well, quirky."
    "True," Auerenelle agreed, resting her chin on her arms and looking out over the field of green.
    "You’ve gotten awful quiet.  Should I be worried?"
    "Hmm?  Oh, no, you’re fine...  I’m just thinking about what you said."
    "Oh.  Well, thanks, by the way."
    She stared at him, bewildered.  "Thanks?"
    "For listening.  For being non-judgmental.  I can’t count the number of people in the Humanae realm I’ve told this to who either laughed or asked if I was on crack."
    "On crack?"
    "Sorry.  Humanae reference.  They’d ask if I was not right in the head," he amended.
    She waved him off and smiled.  "It’s nothing. I enjoy listening to you.  You’re a very interesting man... even for a Humanae. And besides, I already know you’re not right in the head."
    He laughed, as did she.  Auerenelle’s hand dropped, quite possibly by accident, onto his, where it lay in the grass.  And almost as if by instinct, Argo grasped it.  The two looked at one another as their laughter faded and a light breeze blew across the field.
    There are events in everyone’s life which they know they will never forget.  That much is evident.  But there are stories, memories and images within those few moments which actually create and define them, as well.  And although those images may not seem on the surface as important as the moments or the events themselves, they become indelibly etched in the minds of the people involved.
    Argo knew he would remember her eyes, a more crystalline bluish-green than anything he had ever seen; like they were the sea on a calm, sunny day, and he was drowning in them.  He would remember the fresh, natural smell of her, jasmine and lilac and dew on the morning grass.  He would remember raising a hand and feeling the softness of her cheek, like rose petals on a bed of feathers. He would remember the delicate points of her ears, peeking through the wavy strands of golden hair.
    Auerenelle knew she would remember his breath, the slight smell of clove, which he had taken to chewing on occasion.  She would remember his hair, dark and lustrous and tousled as the gentle wind blew strands of it before his eyes.  She would remember his long, slender fingers, curling around hers, the smoothness of his uncalloused hands.  She would remember his mustache and goatee, tickling against her skin as he drew close.
    And then their lips touched, and there was no thoughts of what would be remembered and what wouldn’t; there was only the moment and the two of them, and anything beyond that seemed rather secondary and unimportant.
    Argo couldn’t begin to think of anything but her in the first place.  He was acutely aware of her body, right next to his, but he was only vaguely aware of his hands roving over it, as if of their own volition.  He felt the world tilt, and grass prickled at his neck, but he didn’t know if he had pulled her to the ground or if she had pulled him; all he knew was they were suddenly lying side by side.  Her lips were warm and sweet and eager, and her tongue touched his tentatively, as though asking to be granted passage.  He held her close, let one hand glide along her side, past the curve of her small breasts, down to her hip, feeling the warmth of her body through the material of her summer chemise.  Her fingers slowly followed back and forth along his jawline as he covered her mouth with his.
    He couldn’t say when the kiss broke, exactly; the whole thing happened in sort of a transcendental haze.  He knew only that he could have remained there forever, just lying next to her, gazing into the depths of her aquamarine eyes.  He felt her hand on his, and saw a shy— perhaps even melancholy— smile make its way to her lips.
    "Where do we go from here?"  She finally asked.
    Argo touched her cheek, was startled at the way she seemed to have to fight the urge to pull away from his touch.  "What do you mean?  I think we’re progressing fairly well."
    She sighed, ever so slightly, and sat up, smoothing the folds in her linen summer dress.  Her face was composed, but she did not look at him.  "It’s not that I’m worried about the way we’re progressing, it’s the fact that we are in the first place."
    A vaguely unsettling feeling drew over him.  His brows furrowed.  "What do you mean?"
    Auerenelle looked at him, her eyes liquid with emotion for a moment before she covered them with one hand, feigning tiredness.  "This… these feelings I have.  They seem to go against everything I’ve been taught, everything I was raised to believe.  You’re my magickal tutor.  On top of that, you’re a Humanae.  It defies all of that for me to have any feelings for you at all.  And yet I know I do.  So why is it I look at you—"
    Her voice dropped; her next words were so quiet that Argo had to strain to hear them: "—and I can’t help but surrender to them?"
    He sat there for a long moment, thoughtful.  "And this is a bad thing?"
    That actually elicited a genuine smile from her.  She stood up and smoothed her dress again, then extended a hand to him.  "Come.  Will you walk with me?"
    Argo quirked an eyebrow, and took her hand as he stood.  He dusted the seat of his breeches.  "Of course. Where are we walking?"
    She inclined her head in the general direction of the cottage.  "The pond."

VI.    The Bond Forged
The pond was a small freshwater pool that was located about a half-mile behind her cottage.  It was surrounded on three sides by trees and thick brush, offering a secluded bathing spot within fairly close proximity to Auerenelle’s home.  A path led from the cottage to the one unobstructed side, worn from her daily treks to bathe, swim or just think.  They’d followed that path, side by side where they could, he behind her where they couldn’t.
    Argo had been there on several occasions to bathe and thought it a wonderfully pristine place, and apparently, Auerenelle thought the same— she had told him that she spent time there often, just taking in the atmosphere and clearing her mind.  In his mind’s eye, Argo could see her sitting there in the early morning in the same pose she was in now— sitting along the grassy shore and staring out over the crystalline water— and just taking in the atmosphere.  The image was an appealing one, but Argo was not entirely sure whether it was the beauty of the landscape or the beauty of the elfmaiden that caused his heart to race more.
    "What do you know of the Sestrey’llania?"  She finally asked, looking at him from the corner of her eyes.
    He shrugged slightly and toyed with a stick he found on the ground.  "Not much, sad to say.  A lot of what you haven’t told me firsthand… well, it’s mostly just rumor and hearsay.  Your people are sometimes called ‘the enlightened ones’.  Your lineage places you all as distant relatives to Auberon himself.  You are more adept in the so-called ‘cultured’ magicks than most other feyfolk.  Your people make up most of the ruling council of Avalon proper, and they have minor nobles and rulers scattered over the lands from the Adashai Sea to the River of Mourning."
    She smiled.  "I was speaking more of our customs and legends than anything socio-political, but go on."
    "I haven’t seen many of your customs," he admitted.  "You’ve told me a little about the feast of Hathneweir, and the celebration of Springstide…  But I couldn’t begin to recount your legends."
    "The legends and myths of the feyfolk are numerous enough to fill the great library at Avalon.  Each fey culture has its own legends on the creation of the world and the separation from humankind; each culture has its own heroes, some cultures even have beliefs on how the world ends," she replied, and interlaced her fingers before looking at him evenly.  "But each fey culture’s legends and stories are inherently different from one another.
    "The Âquer’kal recite the tale of the slaughter of their kinsmen at Rel-Al’Tul and lionize Ehs’shtat, who reputedly ate his first three female children to urge his wife to bear him a son.  The sylvan Moril’anthi sing the stories of the Great Tree Spirit and the Wolfling Trickster, and of the great hero Silminicien, who could make the flowers weep with his song.  The warrioress Clythea is in many Sidhe legends, not for her brawn, but her wits; it is said she bested the four-headed Shuerax by confusing each head with a different riddle.
    "But there is a common thread in almost every fey culture’s legends: a fascination with the Humanae. Vyllinia, an Moril’anthi girl-child who is ridiculed by her brothers, leaves the land of Faerie and meets a human man who befriends her.  Eventually, after many adventures, the two fall in love and raise a family.  The Úmanyarili fondly remember their great prince, Vircheran, who shunned all noble women of his lineage after seeing a human princess in the lands beyond the barrier.  Even the prideful Âquer’kal say that the great warlord Kefaernôl was the offspring of a fey queen and her human slave.  The love stories of human and elf— whether they end tragically or blissfully— have counterparts in every elven civilization."
    She took a slow, thoughtful breath and turned to look directly at him.  "Except one.  The Sestrey’llania have no such myths or legends.  Not that it’s never happened— I’m sure it has and, for that matter, it still does— but it’s something that most Sestrey’llania consider too unconventional for their delicate sensibilities."
    "Delicate sensibilities.  There’s a term I used to think I’d never hear associated with elves," Argo smirked.  "Before I first came here, I always believed elves to be one big free-love culture."
    Auerenelle bristled.  "I’m not sure exactly what you mean by ‘free-love,' but I can assure you that all elves do not have the same view on everything, anymore than all humans do.  Statements like that are ignorant and bigoted."
    "Easy, easy," Argo held up a placating hand, surprised at the disturbed tone of her voice.  "I said, ‘before I first came here’.  I like to think I’ve learned a bit since then."
    As quickly as the tone came, it left her completely.  "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap…  What you said just reminded me of…"
    She colored and trailed off, her face dropping to hide behind a cascade of honey-colored curls.  After a few tentative starts, he reached out and grasped her hand, let her gaze draw upward to his face.
    "Of?"  He asked.
    She paused before speaking, either getting her thoughts straight, or steeling herself to tell him.  Her aquamarine eyes seemed to search his for long moments before she turned her body so that she sat face to face with him.
    "Though Auberon’s reach itself may not be long, his influence upon his bloodline and people is.  The Sestrey’llania are one of the most prideful of fey races, and rightly so, if you listen to some of us talk.  After all, we are the blood-brothers and sisters of the Lord of the Fey himself.  In the histories, we sometimes even refer to ourselves as the ‘True Ones.’  No doubt many of those you saw in Avalon think of themselves as the gods’ most perfect creations."  The sarcasm was thick in her voice.
    Argo nodded, remembering some elves he’d seen in Avalon who refused to talk to him solely because he was human.
    "That’s the very reason I live here.  My father and brother are the same way.  My father very nearly sent me to Avalon when he found out I was friends with an Úmanyarili girl.  I was always considered somewhat of a black sheep in my family because I tended to look past such things.  Living with my father and my brother with the views I hold proved impossible.  They don’t even acknowledge me anymore, and we are probably all better off because of it."  She glanced away, and Argo could tell from the emotion in her voice she didn’t believe that.
    "I’ve never had problems like that with my own family, but I can understand what it feels like to be alone."  Argo said quietly, hoping to be comforting.
    "I thought you might," she glanced at him, smiling sadly.  Her slender thumb glided over his knuckles.  "We are very similar, you and I.  I feel a sense of… of kinship… with you.  That is why I must tell you that I lied to you."
    "You did?"
    "Yes.  Well.  Stretched the truth, rather.  When you asked me if would put me out having a Humanae staying in my house, I said it would not bother me at all."
    "And it does?"  Argo asked quietly.
    Hesitantly, she nodded.  "Yes. It does bother me."
    Then she averted her face again, letting her hair fall and mask her eyes.  "It bothers me that I can’t fall asleep without seeing your face in my dreams.  It disturbs me that I can find myself longing for the touch of a human when I have never even felt the touch of another fey.  It frustrates me that I asked you to stay to teach me your magick, and when I look at you, magickal knowledge somehow seems small and insignificant.  I turn to water inside when you look at me.  It’s as though you are in my every breath, my every heartbeat, and though I want to be scared by it, though I want to recoil from it, I cannot force myself to."
    Argo, who had been about to comment when she’d first said yes, suddenly found himself sitting there with his mouth half-open.  In a small voice, he said, "Are you saying what I think you’re saying?"
    "I…  I think I am," she admitted.
    He lifted aside her hair.  Her eyes clung to his as soon as the veil of gold was spread.  He searched them, and found the feelings he had for her returned there.  He lost himself in the aquamarine depths, and gradually, he felt a warm glow emanating from somewhere inside him.  That same warmth was reflected in the smile which came almost immediately to Auerenelle’s lips.  Her voice was soft— almost shy— as she spoke again.
    "I love you, Argo Veseyez Forgeuzev."
    The words were spoken quietly, so much so that Argo wondered for a moment if he had really heard them.  But a feeling swelled in his heart, a feeling of conviction that he could feel touch his soul.  A feeling that told him that she had indeed said those words, that she meant them implicitly.
    Comprehension and wonder dawned as he realized that he did, as well.
    "And I love you, Auerenelle."
    He meant it, beyond the shadow of a doubt.  And he could see from the light in her eyes that she knew he did.  She reached up to him and touched his cheek to draw him close, and he needed no urging.
    Then they kissed and touched, soon they pulled each other to the ground.  There they made a bed of the grass and leaves, and she tugged at his tunic as he found the clasps of her dress.  And this time, when the kiss broke, there was no talk of fathers or races or magick; instead, the sounds which caused the birds to take flight from the branches of the surrounding trees were more primal than any words but no less impassioned.
    And as they made love, Argo could feel excitement coursing through him; excitement and a deep underlying sense of love and awe.  He could sense those in himself, and improbably, he could feel it in her, as well.  When her passion brimmed and she released, he felt the exultation and the joy empathically, as if her feelings and awareness had somehow become his.  He closed his eyes, envisioned their minds and emotions and beings becoming intertwined— like a rope made of two separate strands, made stronger by their unity.  He dimly realized that she was somehow magickally touching him inside, in his heart and his soul, just as she was allowing him to touch hers.   That was the first clue to Argo that he was really in love: he was laying bare a place more intimate than the most taboo of physical areas to her, and his first impulse was to smile.

    Sunlight fell through the screen of branches and warmed them as they rested upon the warm grass afterward.  Their clothes were nearby, discarded haphazardly in the fire of ardor.
    Argo looked to her, lying next to him, her honey-gold hair disarrayed and a drying sheen of perspiration casting a shine to her apricot skin.  Her arm rested on her hip, her hand trailed smoothly along his bare side.  Her eyes gazed intently into his, knowing even as she did that it would take only the slightest bit of will from him to turn her stone.
    And yet, he didn’t.  Not that he couldn’t, just that he had no will to.  And he couldn’t help but believe that she knew that as well as he did.  His heart soared just looking at her.  She was the most beautiful thing Argo had ever seen.
    "Tell me what you’re thinking, beloved," she said, her fingers drifting down to tousle the light brush of his chest hair.  It was a movement that was tremendously forward for her, but it merely underscored the fact that she was a lot more comfortable now.  Whether it was their lovemaking that was responsible for that, or something else, he wasn’t quite sure.
    Beloved, she said.  He had never been called that, not that he could remember.  And she meant it.  He could tell, in some unspeakable, instinctive way, that she meant it with the entirety of her being.  The feeling it gave him was wonderful.
    "What just happened to us?"
    At that, she smiled, and her cheeks reddened ever so slightly.  "I thought it was rather self-explanatory."
    He grinned at that, but slowly let it fade.  "No, I have a fair idea about that.  I meant during it.  I felt something, inside me."
    She nodded, understanding.  Her smile beamed radiant.  "I wasn’t sure if you would feel it, as well.  There is a Sestrey’llania word for it that will mean little to you.  Most in Faerie simply call it ‘The Bond.’"
    "The Bond?"  Argo echoed.  "I’ve never heard of such a thing."
    "That’s surprising," she said as she traced his pectoral muscles lightly and propped her head up.  "To some extent, all fey have the ability to bond with their chosen love.  How the bond is established differs slightly from clan to clan; for some, a first kiss initiates the bond, in some clans, the lovers undergo a magickal ritual.  Sestrey’llania are fortunate enough to be able to chose with whom they bond."
    He nodded.  "But what is it?"
    "The Bond?  It’s hard to explain.  Our souls have touched."
    He felt a surge of happiness and warmth inside him and for the first time, he began to realize: it was not just his emotions he was sensing.
    "You mean—?"  He began, struck with wonder.
    "Part of my being has been transferred to you, part of yours to me.  It is the ultimate joining of two beings.  I will feel your emotions, you will feel mine.  In effect, we complete one another."
    A sense of awe overcame him.  He was fairly sure it was his own.
    "I should have said something earlier.  I merely thought, with all the time you’ve spent in Faerie, you would have known…"  Her eyes dropped; she felt mortified, and he could feel her embarrassment. "I’m sorry."
    He smiled, touched her cheek, smiling like a fool.  "Don’t be sorry.  We’re truly soulmates, then, right?  I told you I love you, Auerenelle.  To be able to complete you is more of a gift than anything I could have ever hoped for."
    It was the truth.  He meant it totally, and he knew Auerenelle could tell that as she looked up at him and her lips pulled up slightly at the edges.  The thought that he could feel her love for him at any time— and draw from it— was a prospect he probably would never have turned down, if she had asked.  It came as a shock to him that he could admit it, but he was becoming more and more aware that he had never loved anyone as he had the young elfwoman.
    Just as he was becoming more and more aware that his home was no longer on the Earth-Realm, but here in Faerie.  And for once in his life, lying there in the grass and feeling everything Auerenelle felt, Argo Veseyez Forgeuzev could honestly say he had never been more content.

In the Earth-Realm, clocks ticked and bells chimed the passing of hours.  Sunlight begat shadow and the moon rose and fell, in keeping time with the days.  The days became weeks.
    In Faerie, the months and seasons passed like flickers in a strobe.
    Auerenelle taught Argo about the creatures, customs and myths of the fey.  She explained the more difficult laws of ritual magick, showed him the rudiments of sigilcraft and rune-casting.  She taught him how to speak the Tongue of the Ancients, a Sestrey’llania tongue that predated humanity by several thousand years and enabled the most powerful of spells.
    Argo in turn taught Auerenelle about the theory of multiversal unity, Eobard’s laws on time-space displacement and Minor’s notes on creating possibilities.  He told her stories of his homeland, of the histories and beliefs of various places in the Earth-realm.  He demonstrated the techniques of meditation, and how they could be used to clear the mind for the use of magicks.
    And as they passed their time together, the love that had bloomed between them grew steadily stronger.  The Bond between them taught them as much about one another as words and stories ever could.  He felt her pain, her joy, her bliss, she felt his.  They spent the days together learning from one another as they walked in the fields and wilds, or dallied in the shoppes in Avalon.  When the sun fell and the stars glanced out over Faerie, they lay in one another’s arms and had eyes for only one another.
    Their love for one another continued to grow, and still the seasons passed onward…

It was cloudy but had not yet rained that morning, and from the smell of the air, Argo didn’t believe it was going to.  He wouldn’t have believed that after a few short years in Faerie, he would have learned to predict the weather merely by the smell of the air and a casual glance at the sky.  But then again, a few years ago he probably wouldn’t have believed himself if he knew half of what would happen to him when he returned to Faerie.
    He sat at the table of the cottage he and Auerenelle had shared for so long, and studied the book before him.  It was one of the works Auerenelle had brought with her from her studies in Avalon, a few years before he met her.  This particular one dealt with sigil-weaving, a form of casting Argo had been learning recently.  He knew how to cast the spells from sigils created by others already; sigil-weaving would allow him to create his own sigils to create whatever effects he desired.  The prospect was a daunting, yet potentially very rewarding one.
    He followed down one worn parchment page with his finger, murmuring the names of the glyphs and syllabic formulae he found there, committing it all to memory for future reference.  Auerenelle would be pleased when she returned, he knew, to find that he was progressing farther in the book, especially considering how much trouble he’d had learning the rudiments of sigil-craft.
    She’d been gone since before he awakened that morning, leaving a note for him in her stylish, tightly rounded handwriting explaining that she would be gone for the better part of the morning.  She’d traveled off to Avalon, she’d written, choosing to follow the magickal paths rather than make the two-day walk.  She hadn’t revealed why exactly she was going there, but Argo figured in truth it wasn’t any of his business anyway, or she would have told him.
    He trusted her unequivocally; and she had given him no reason not to.  After all, the same bond which connected their souls let him feel whatever she did.  If anything was truly amiss during her trip, he would be the second person to realize it, shortly after she herself did.  So far, he’d felt nothing out of the ordinary from her except for the surge of warmth that he’d felt during his breakfast an hour or so previously.  From the feeling, Argo wondered if she might have found herself a new dress in one of the clothier’s shoppes; she had groused good-naturedly about not being able to find anything in her wardrobe for the Springtide Festival.  If she found one, Argo could reasonably expect to see her coming in with it shortly.  On the Earth-realm, something like that might have caused a disagreement directly proportionate to the cost of the dress.  Luckilly, that was not the case here.
    Magick was a wonderful thing, taking into account that it basically was the economy of most larger cities in Faerie.  Shopkeepers in Avalon, for example, rarely charged for most goods, since it was merely a matter of creating more magickally.  Anything that a shopkeeper could not create he might offer a trade for, but otherwise, money was almost unheard of in the capital city.  To a degree, Argo could understand that.  After all, a monetary or barter system could hardly be instituted in a place where so many people could magickally create gold or goods for trade.
    Argo just hoped this year’s Springtide Festival wasn’t a reproduction of last year.  He was not at all overjoyed at the prospect of meeting Auerenelle’s brother Creysari again.  The haughty Sestrey’llania had made clear his disgust with Argo, and for that matter, his displeasure with his sister for being seen with a Humanae— Auerenelle had simmered, but still could not bring herself to tell Creysari that she and Argo had bonded.
    He smiled— not at the memory, of course, but at a familiar feeling that coursed through him.
    "You’re back early," he grinned, turning in his chair just as the front door was opening.  The Bond had never yet been wrong; it made sneaking up on one another all but impossible.  Sure enough, Auerenelle entered her cottage.  She was wearing a pale green traveling dress and had no packages or pouches that he could tell.  She returned his greeting with a wide smile of her own.
    "It took a lot less time than I thought," she said, making her way to the table and pecking his cheek.  "And you, my love, are curious."
    Argo bit off a reflexive "No I’m not."  Of course she would know he was curious.
    "A bit," he admitted.  "I thought sure you’d gone to Avalon to do a bit of shopping.  Did you not find anything?"
    Again, he felt the barest wave of warm joy fill him from her link to him, which only increased his curiosity.  But she was covering it well.
    "A bit, here and there," she said, covering a grin that would have done the Cheshire Cat proud.  "I saw Failina in the dressmaker’s shoppe."
    "Oh?  How was she?"
    "Fine.  She has a new beau now. Melantheras, I think she said his name was.  The son of one of the courtiers.  She went on for nearly on hour trying to tell me everything about him."
    "Beaus. Lovers."  Argo made a mock-dismissing gesture, kept a light, joking tone.  "Who can figure them, anyway?"
    "She asked how you were, by the way.  She’s really warmed to you."
    "Glad to see someone has," he smiled.  It was surprising, given what had happened the first time they’d met, that Auerenelle’s sister had come full circle and now was giving him ringing endorsements.
    Her melodious voice turned sly.  "Are you saying that I haven’t warmed to you yet, dear Argo?"
    "Not at all," he said, reaching over to grasp her hand.  He never got tired of the velvety feel of her skin or the touch of her fingers on his.  He looked into her exotic eyes, sensed his love for her returned through their bond, felt something else— another feeling beneath that surface.  It was warm and joyful.  He frowned politely.  "You’re awfully happy.  What is it, love?"
    "Oh, fie, beloved.  You would have found out soon enough."  Auerenelle's joy seeped into him, boundless.  "I went to Avalon to see Enafaela."
    "Enefaela?"  His frown deepened at the unfamiliar name.
    "They call her the Herb Mistress.  A ritualist and midwife of no small repute."
    "A mid—" Argo felt his jaw drop.  He was speechless.
    She beamed, her joy slowly overpowering his amazement.  "Yes.  I… wasn’t at all sure, at first; we’ve been rather preoccupied with our… lovemaking.  But in her own words, ‘In the passing of a year, you shall bring forth a son.’"
    "A…"  His mind was stuck in a fugue state.  A son.  Our son.  I’m going to be a father.  A boy, from the union of fey and human.  A son.  Our son.  A slow smile crept onto his face.
    "Argo?"  Auerenelle was talking.  "Are you okay?"
    He pulled her to him and kissed her.  His love, delight, and awe washed over her, causing her to gasp even as her lips pressed to his. Again she asked:
    "A rgo?"
    Tears sprang, unabashed, to his eyes.  He could no more control them than he could the torrent of emotions she was feeling through the Bond.  "I’m happy, beloved.  Deliriously happy.  I want to go out and dance a jig on the roof, I want to transport myself to the Seelie court and announce it from the spires of their palace.  But right now I’ll settle for telling you I love you."
    She smiled and kissed him lightly on the lips, and sat on his lap, curling around him.  "Beloved?"
    "You do realize that this means you won’t be able to turn me to stone again for a year or more, right?"
    Argo smirked, his mind spiraling.  "I’ll get by."
    A son.  I’m going to have a son.

    He was right.  He always liked that part of the story.  Some things, he mused, just never changed; hardly a difficult admission from one with the blood of the fey coursing through his veins.
    "That was beautiful," Nova remarked, smiling broadly as Paris bowed his head.
    He looked up at the others.  Most of them nodded and smiled as the story ended, then went back to their own little conversations.  Nova continued to watch him intently.  He could not help but feel the blood pound in his head.
    Damn it all, why does she have to be so beautiful?
    "I…"  He swallowed, suddenly finding his mouth dry.  "I always hoped I would be able to Bond like my father and mother did.  I hoped I would find someone like…"
    Like you, he thought.  But he couldn’t say it.  He was surprised to see a tinge of red touch her cheeks as well.
    "Have you ever thought about something like that, Nova?"
    She bit her upper lip, looked from the floor to his face, then back to the floor.
    "Can I talk to you?"  She asked suddenly.
    "Talk?  I thought we were—"
    "Not here," she murmured.  "There’s a back room.  It’s more quiet.  Paris, I like you.  More than I should.  But there are things you should know about me."
    His face betrayed his awe.  "Uhm… Okay.  Let me get something to drink.  I’ll meet you back there, if it’s all right."
    She nodded and was gone.
    Paris made his way to the mini-bar and poured himself a glass of wine with trembling hands.  He tried to keep his stomach calm, and failed terribly.  He didn’t care.  He wasn’t quite sure whether he should feel like he was on top of the world, or about to die.  Paris, I like you.  More than I should. Eight words, nine syllables.  And he wasn’t sure how to take them.  He wanted her more than anything, and yet, he feared giving himself to her, more than he feared anything.
    Face it, Paris.  You just don’t know the first thing about love, and here’s where your inexperience shows.
    He thought that and was about to turn for the back room when he saw the silhouette in the doorway to the ASFR room.

VII.    The Return
    The room was exactly as he remembered it, which only increased the sense of nostalgia he’d felt pinching at his gut ever since landing in the department store a few days before.  Display cases and pedestals stood in various areas, waiting to be filled.  He could see control panels on the wall next to framed portraits and loose circuitry boards.  Even with industrial air purifiers filtering the air, he could smell the remnants of herbs and potions, and the heavier odors of burnt plastic and solder.  A doorway in one wall led to the lab; he remembered that much , having spent a lot of time there conducting experiments in alchemy.  He could almost mentally mark off the paces from where he stood to the mini-bar, where the serv-droid probably still kept a tab for him.  Farther in front of him, he could see the arrangement of chairs, sofas and tables that marked where most of the people in the ASFR room tended to sit around and have conversations or liaisons.  He’d had a few of both there himself.  It almost made his heart clench with longing to find this place and see that it was so similar to the way he had left it.
    Almost.  There was a sense of home in this room, but at the same time Argo had to admit that it was a home that was as alien to him now as the abandoned apartment in Indianapolis.  Although that didn’t stop the memories from flooding back to him, it lessened the pain they caused as well as the desire to create new ones.
    He didn’t want to be here, in all honesty.  It wasn’t that he disliked this room or any of the people he remembered in here.  That was far from the truth, as a point of fact— some of them were his closest friends before he gone to Faerie.  He knew that part of his reluctance to return to the room stemmed from the fact that he had left it so abruptly.  There would be questions about where he went, why he never returned, what had happened to him.  For the most part, he could deal with those.  But he wondered how he would react when he saw her for the first time.  He couldn’t deny that she still occupied his thoughts, flame-red hair flashing through his mind the same way it had once flashed through his fingers.  Years had passed in Faerie, and still he found himself thinking about her more often than he would ever care to admit— which not only confused him but worried him.  He longed to see her almost as much as he wished she wouldn’t be here.
    But Argo also longed to see his family again.  He had found sleep virtually impossible over the past few nights without the touch of his wife, the feel of her slender arm curling around his back as she drifted into sleep.  The smile in her eyes seemed incredibly distant from him now.
    No time for that now, he chided himself.  Get sentimental when the job is done.  He swallowed, forced the images, the memories and the fears away, and he walked further into the room.   Toward the collection of seats.  Toward the individuals he saw sitting there, talking and carousing with one another.
    It didn’t take long at all for them to take notice of him.  Argo heard a couple gasps of astonishment, and a fresh smile came to his face as he came closer, saw a couple faces he recognized.  Silvera and Vengeance sat next to one another on a couch, looking up at him as he approached.  Argo could also see another android sitting on the couch across from them, a male he didn’t recognize.  Nova was nowhere in sight, but Argo wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or chagrined at that.
    "Hello," he finally ventured.
    "Argo," Vengeance said quietly, lips curling up ever so slightly.
    "Yes," Silvera echoed, her voice pitched low as well.  "It’s, uhm, good to see you again."
    His heart sank.  There was a definite coolness to both greetings.  The warmth he remembered in their usual hellos was nowhere to be found.  They wondered where he had gone, he knew; they wondered why he had left them without any explanation.  That had to be it.
    "I’m sorry it took me so long to come back," he started.
    Sil shook her head, looking at him oddly.  Like she didn’t want him to talk?  Surely his absence hadn’t affected her that much, had it?  Something about the way this whole scenario was playing out struck him as wrong.  He looked at Silvera and Vengeance’s faces carefully, trying to figure out what they were thinking.  Their eyes didn’t have the look of scorn he would have expected from such an icy reception.  So both of them were restraining themselves for some reason.
    But why?  Alarms sounded in his head.  "What is it?"
   "Father."  The voice sounded from behind him.  The single word was rimed with frost, disdainful as an epithet.
    Father?  Argo whirled.  The man he saw as he turned was half a head shorter and a tad more wiry than Argo.  Ice-blue eyes greeted his with the chill of their color, beneath dark brows that were swept upward in hatred.  The man’s dark hair fell past his shoulders in waves.  Argo started as he noticed the clothing the man was wearing: a simple tunic and set of breeches, both of Sestrey’llania design.  He looked close, saw the telltale points of his ears poking through the mass of black.
    The man’s thin-lipped smile was cruel, his voice dripped bitterness.  "Welcome back, father.  Come see what I have learned while you were gone."
    Father.  The word again, coupled with the image before him, broke through the haze in his head.  He stepped back a half step, stunned.  His mouth moved once, twice, before any sound came out.
    "Son?"  Argo whispered.  "Paris?"
    He would have said more, but there was no time.  A bolt of jagged white eldritch energy hit him hard in the chest before he could call up a reflective spell, and threw him a full thirty feet into the back wall.


To Be Continued...

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