Twisting his torso, Nuada swung his spear out and down. His feet turned in the same direction, making a full rotation with his body. He kicked out with one leg, his momentum pulling him into a leap. He landed and rotated some more so his spear was now in position to disembowel someone from below.
There was no one to gut. There was no one at all.
Muscles burned as he moved from defensive stance to lightening strike and back again. His whole body protested every moment he made but he did not stop. Spinning and jumping his way from one end of the room to the other, he pushed himself through his growing fatigue.
It wasn't enough though. He just couldn't lose himself in the burn of exercise. The conversation he'd had with his sister repeated itself over and over in his head.
I heard your turmoil, Brother.
Turmoil? He supposed that was true. He'd been in turmoil for months now. Gritting his teeth, he used the wall to facilitate a backflip. There was no spring in the floor here but he still managed to string together a series of flips, using only one hand to push off the dirty stone as he kept a tight hold to his spear.
Did you have another argument with John Myers?
No one should think it odd that he argued with John. It was well known that Nuada hated humans. He had an acid tongue when he chose to employ it.
However, Nuada usually felt it was beneath him to speak with his human coworkers at all. Only John had ever been worth the effort. Nuada wondered how he could be so blind for so long.
I . . . You haven't shielded your mind very well. I know your intentions.
It was a measure of his desperation that Nuada had not immediately told her to mind her business. He should have. It was deeply personal, and he had no desire for her to see how he was failing. To see him be vulnerable.
You are courting John Myers. Her tone had been so very hesitant, her expression wary. Nuada could just imagine the hard look that must have been on his own face. His sister, to her credit, had not backed away. It has not been going well.
That was an understatement if ever there was one. Nuada had given John the usual Elven Courting gifts. A small seeing stone, his royal signet ring, honey cakes -- he'd even asked John to accompany him to the Elven solstice festival. John had refused all of them save the honey cakes, which he had shared with Liz. Nuada was embarrassed that he had not immediately realized John had no idea what the gifts truly meant. Why should he?
Pushing away the hurt from the initial rejection, Nuada had spent more time than he'd ever cared to researching human courting rituals. It had taken him a few false starts before he'd determined which rituals were applicable to John.
Slicing the air with his spear, Nuada made a quick flurry of swipes before tucking and tumbling on the floor. He came out of his roll, kicked off the wall again, and slammed his spear down hard enough to crack the stone.
It wasn't nearly enough to distract him from the confusing tangle of emotions. After all his hard work -- spending so much time immersed in human rubbish -- John still hadn't seemed to understand what he was on about. A request to share a meal out in public, an offering of beer, an indication that he was willing to attend a "motion picture" -- none of it had gotten him anywhere. John appeared completely oblivious to Nuada's intentions.
Anger, frustration, disgust -- Nuada nurtured his wounded pride. It did not prevent him from trying again. And again. As much as he wanted to hate John just as he did all the other humans he was forced to work with, Nuada could not shake the desire he had for the man.
It was pathetic, really.
I know this is serious for you. I have felt your hurt. Time and again you have made yourself vulnerable and gained nothing for it. But I know your interest is not in vain. I know why you have not given up.
Yes, Nuada had felt John's eyes upon him. He knew John found him attractive, at least physically. It would be so much easier to bear John's rejection if he felt that there was no hope in his suit. He just didn't understand why John kept refusing him when every other signal the man gave him was inviting.
Why did Nuada's courting gestures always end in arguments?
You will not succeed.
Nuala's pronouncement had been so firm, her expression so grave, that Nuada was still shocked by it. He'd stood frozen as she took all the time in the world to weigh her words.
In your mind, you have accepted that you love John. That alone was a hard-fought battle, I am sure. You say you love John. You do not say you love a human.
Fury, only recently banked, flared anew. Nuada smashed a fist into the wall, the sharp corners of the crumbling stone biting into his skin.
John Myers is human. You love him, but you love him in spite of that fact. So long as that remains true, he will never accept your suit. He knows that you cannot truly love him if you cannot accept who he is.
Dropping his spear, Nuada smashed his other fist into the wall. Alternating from one hand to the other, he continued to punch against the wall, delighting in the sting of cuts and the pounding pain that radiated up his arms from the blows.
Right now, he does not see your courting for what it is because he cannot believe you would court someone you hate. When you have made clear your intentions, his refusal will no longer be a product of ignorance. Even if he loved you with all the passion of his soul, he would still refuse you. He respects himself too much to tie himself to someone who hates what he is.
His knuckles were bruised and bloody but that didn't stop him. A vicious part of Nuada delighted in knowing that all the damage he was causing himself he was causing to his sister too.
He refuses you as much for your sake as his own. You love a human. If you cannot accept that fact, then your happiness will be marred. John does not desire your misery any more than his own. It does not matter what gift you give him. So long as you do not accept who he truly is, your courting will be in vain.
One last brutal punch exploded the stone into fragments and left a sizeable hole. Nuada was breathing hard and he rested his forehead against the wall. Whatever energy had kept him going melted away and he felt utterly drained, both physically and emotionally.
For a moment, he was granted the relief of blankness. His mind floated and there was nothing but his sore muscles vying for his attention.
A quiet chirp interrupted the quiet. Nuada frowned, not at first recognizing what it was and trying to ignore it. The chirp continued though.
We're leaving, brother. Answer your communications device.
His sister's voice in his head was calm and remote but Nuada flinched in surprise to hear it.
Turning, he found the communication device the BPRD had given him on the table where he'd left it. It was chirping steadily. Irritated, Nuada pushed the button and said, "What?"
Agent Clay answered with his usual unflappable demeanor. "We've found the evil porcupines' nest. We're rolling out now."
The device beeped, signaling that Agent Clay had turned it off on his end, which didn't give Nuada a chance to respond. Still annoyed at the interruption, Nuada nonetheless grabbed his shirt. He was duty-bound to serve the BPRD as long as his father willed it. That included hunting down "evil porcupines".
Nuada made a face just thinking about it. Hellboy couldn't be bothered learning the proper name for the creatures. Nuada did not think the creatures resembled porcupines at all, but they could throw needle-thin spikes from their backs, which was similarity enough for Hellboy. Now, it looked like the rest of the BPRD had taken up Hellboy's name, so "evil porcupines" they were.
Pulling on his gloves, Nuada grabbed his spear from the floor. He willed it back to a size he could carry at his hip, and then used magic to teleport himself to the BPRD's garage.
Everyone was already in the garage and employed in the various tasks involved in preparing the two disguised garbage trucks.
"Hey, Your Worship," Hellboy called out from his assigned truck. "Glad you could finally make it."
Finding Hellboy's taunting to be beneath him, Nuada did not respond. He spotted his sister standing by the other truck and made his way to her side. She was holding an oversized book in her hands, which he immediately identified as one of their mother's spellbooks. However, that didn't interest him as much as the state of her hands. She had wrapped cloth around her knuckles, and Nuada felt intense shame sweep through him when he saw the cloth was stained with her blood.
"Brother," she said when he approached. There was no censor in her voice or expression, though Nuada felt there should be. He wanted to apologize -- as he should for such a childish display -- but when he opened his mouth, nothing came out.
At that moment, John appeared from inside the truck. "It looks like Abe restocked the . . ."
He trailed off when he saw Nuada. Nuala turned slightly, smiling warmly at the human. "Thank you, John. I anticipated that he would but I thought it best to check."
"Er, yes." John sounded thoroughly distracted, and Nuada tried not to read too much into it.
He noted John's eyes stray to Nuada's gloved hands and then glance to Nuala's bandaged ones. For a moment, concern and irritation warred in his eyes as he worked to determine what had happened. Of course, since it was John, concern won out.
"Okay, ladies and gentlemen," a voice called from across the large garage. "Let's get this caravan moving."
If John was going to say anything, the moment passed. He shrugged and then gestured for Nuala to precede him into the disguised truck. Nuada followed after.
After a relatively short ride, the garbage trucks arrived at their destination. Their quarry had ended up in the usual decaying remnant of the city's days-gone-by, which was always where their missions seemed to take them.
Nuada scowled to see it. Another example of humanity's wasteful expansion.
"Okay, there are at least two of these suckers," Hellboy was saying as they all gathered near the factory entrance. "If the spell works the way Abe says it does, then this should be a piece of cake."
Crossing his arms, it took great restraint on Nuada's part not to comment.
Hellboy took his gun out. "I'll take the west wing. You got the east wing. Is that okay with you, Your Worship?"
Nuala, with her usual sense of diplomacy, spoke before Nuada could. "We will need a few minutes to cast the spell, but you are correct that Abraham and I will need to locate ourselves on opposite ends of the structure."
Shrugging, Hellboy gave a little nod and then headed inside the structure. Abe and Liz followed him with a half dozen agents in tow. Extending his spear, Nuada waited for Nuala and John to enter the structure. When Hellboy turned left, they turned right. Nuada kept a sharp eye out but he could sense that their quarry was not near them yet.
Beside him, John had his gun out and was also looking around warily. He must have known from their previous encounters that his gun would be ineffective but Nuada had learned not to discount John's creativity when in a pinch.
"There's a hall this way," Nuala said. "I will begin the spell here."
"It will attract our quarry to us." Nuada looked at John, who nodded his understanding.
John and Nuada took up defensive positions in front of Nuala, who stood in a corner. She opened up her book to the correct page. Her soft lilting Elvish was a balm to Nuada. He could just imagine how Abe was butchering the same passage wherever he and Hellboy had ended up.
It did not take long before a distant crash reached their ears. Nuada had no doubt Hellboy had not waited for their quarry to approach but had sought out the "evil porcupine" to fight. Nuada shifted slightly, anticipating trouble.
As his sister continued to weave her spell, Nuada could feel the air shift and saturate with her magic. He could feel an evil presence approaching rapidly, and he began to move his spear into a circle.
Needle-sharp quills hurtled at them from the shadows, but Nuada blocked them with ease. All the agents who had accompanied them, save John, began shooting in the direction of the quills. It did no good but Nuada had learned there was little point in trying to stop them.
Another barrage of quills was thrown at them. They came with such force that Nuada could feel the blow all the way to his shoulder as he again blocked them. Redirected, they still had enough momentum to hit the wall like a hail of bullets.
The air was filled with gunfire and his sister's chanting but Nuada could still hear a crash in the distance. He paid it no mind. Hellboy was likely making the situation more difficult than it needed to be, but Nuada was sure Liz would keep him in check. Whatever chaos Hellboy was unleashing, Nuada trusted that it would remain in the west wing of the factory.
His hope was in vain though. The porcupine-creature had begun to come closer to them; close enough that Nuada could see it. Just as another onslaught of quills was unleashed at them, Hellboy crashed through the wall nearby. Nuada only barely blocked the quills as Hellboy slammed one porcupine-creature into the other one, sending quills flying in every direction.
"Red!" John called. The quills could not dent Hellboy's tough hide but they did ricochet off him. Unlike Nuada, Hellboy made no effort to direct the quills safely away.
"Retreat," Nuada told the agents. "It's too dangerous now."
There was intermittent gunfire as the agents obeyed, looking for better cover. John, naturally, did not budge. He kept himself between Nuala and the evil porcupine.
Both creatures had turned their attention to Hellboy, who was struggling to keep hold of one. The other one turned and set off another round of quills.
"Hellboy, watch out!" John's warning came too late.
A few of the quills tangled in Hellboy's coat, but most bounced off violently. Nuada moved to block what he could, but the quills were no longer concentrated and several slipped past him. Right towards John and Nuala.
Nuada turned, heart in mouth, to find John was no longer standing beside him and that his sister had stopped reciting the spell.
He found John crouched down, back turned toward Hellboy and the evil porcupines. Nuala was safely tucked in the circle of his arms. To Nuada's horror, he could see no less than two dozen of the needle-like quills sticking out of John's back. Even more worrying was one sticking straight through his neck.
For a breathless moment, Nuada thought John had been killed so he was startled when John said through gritted teeth, "Finish. The. Spell." He was careful to keep himself perfectly still so as not to shift any of the quills sticking out of him.
Nuala's hands were shaking as she reached for the spellbook to finish the spell. In that instant, Nuada was able to move past his fear and realize that he did not feel any pain through his bond with his sister. None of the quills had penetrated deep enough to harm her, which meant that perhaps they had lost enough momentum not to have seriously harmed John either.
Nuada couldn't be sure of that though, and he immediately moved in front of John and his sister. He was just in time to block another volley of quills inadvertently directed their way by Hellboy.
Behind him, Nuala began chanting again. He could feel new purpose in her as she tried to weave the spell as quickly as possible. Hellboy's fight was moving away from them now, giving Nuala the space to finish the spell. Nuada could just make them out at the far end of the hall when his sister spoke the last words in the incantation.
There was a shriek and hiss as the evil porcupines dissolved back into the muddy substance they were made from. Nuada waited only long enough to be assured the threat was over before turning and dropping on one knee to inspect the damage.
To his relief, the quill in John's neck had perforated just under the skin. It went all the way through but Nuada was fairly confident that nothing vital had been punctured. Nuada carefully grabbed the needle to pull it out.
"Be careful," his sister said. "The quills are toxic."
"Great," John muttered. Nuada glanced at the quills littering John's back. None of them seemed too deep but it was hard to tell. He supposed he could leave them be, but the quill in John's neck was too precarious to Nuada's mind.
"Hold still." Nuada's tone was quiet. With one hand, he gripped John's neck to help keep him motionless as Nuada carefully pulled the quill out. John made a face but obediently didn't move a muscle.
Even as Nuada finished removing the quill, it blackened the edges of his glove. He wasn't sure what kind of toxin they were dealing with, but it made him deeply uneasy to think of this quill having been inside John.
"He needs medical attention." Nuala had slipped from John's grasp to kneel on the other side of him.
"Hey, is Myers--" Hellboy said, finally moving to their side.
Nuada spared a glare his way, feeling this was all his fault. He didn't bother to say anything though. Turning to his sister, they wordlessly communicated their intentions. Nuala grabbed John's left arm while Nuada held his right one. Together, they teleported him straight to the medical wing at the BPRD.
The BPRD doctors were used to all manner of weirdness, and wasted no time in jumping to help John out. Nuada was gently but firmly pushed aside as the doctors worked to cut John's shirt and jacket off so they could see what kind of damage they were looking at.
Nuada moved to the wall where he could observe without being in anyone's way. He was too worried to be bitter that his sister was allowed to stay at John's side. Once John's shirt had been removed, Nuada had an unobstructed view of John's back. Seeing the reddened skin swelling under each quill, Nuada did not begrudge John his sister's presence.
"They're not too deep," the head doctor said as he used a large hemostat to grab hold of a quill and pull it out.
A nurse approached Nuala. "Do you know what kind of toxin they're coated with?"
Nuala shook her head. "I'm afraid not."
"It doesn't look like more than an irritant," the doctor said, pulling another quill out.
John was holding Nuala's hand. There was nothing visible, but Nuala's knuckles were still raw from Nuada's earlier beating. Through his bond with his sister, Nuada could feel the involuntary squeeze John made as each quill was carefully pulled out.
It did not take too long to pull out all the quills. Thoroughly cleaning each puncture was another matter. John held himself stiffly as the doctors worked, offering a reassuring smile to Nuala when he noticed her concerned expression.
Nuada could not bear to watch any longer, and teleported himself away.
It was late when Nuada returned. The entire BPRD was quiet; only the nightshift was wandering around. No one was near the infirmary.
Nuada found John had been given a private room. Glancing past the doorframe, Nuada could see John propped up with pillows so he was lying more on his side than his stomach. Nuada hesitated, not wanting to disturb the other man's rest. However, it was soon clear that John was actually still awake.
"Can't sleep?" Nuada asked, coming in.
John opened his eyes and turned his head. "No." He pushed himself up into a sitting position. "It's not itchy exactly but . . . it's uncomfortable."
"But not dangerous?" Nuada kept his tone casual as he moved closer to the other man.
John shook his head. "The doctors didn't think so. They only wanted to keep me here just in case." He shrugged and then winced. Gently, Nuada grasped John's chin and shifted his head so he could look at his neck. A large patch covered the entrance and exit wounds, but did not hide the swelling along John's jaw.
"I have brought an Elven cream that may help the discomfort."
John gave him a surprised but grateful look. "Great. Anything to help would be awesome right now. The doctors didn't want to risk any of the usual stuff since they weren't sure what they were working with here."
Nuada handed John the small jar of cream so he could use both hands to carefully peel away the patch. The two little wounds were an angry red against John's pale skin. Taking the jar back, Nuada opened it and collected the cream onto two fingers.
"It may burn or sting at first," Nuada warned.
"Okay." John held himself stiffly as Nuada gently dabbed the cream onto the wounds. John hissed softly but otherwise did not react. Nuada paused. "No, it's fine. Just . . . a bit of a burn, like you said."
The sensation appeared to pass though, and John sagged in relief when the numbing effects of the cream began to work. He flashed Nuada a bright smile, clearly relieved. In response, Nuada could feel a flutter in his stomach. He quickly shifted around the bed so he could repeat the process to all the punctures on John's back.
"Hellboy said the evil porcupines were taken care of," John said conversationally as Nuada worked.
"You would not have been injured if he had taken more care," Nuada said.
"Well, you know how Hellboy is."
"Unfortunately." Nuada disliked how quickly John was to excuse his friend. If the quills had kept their original momentum, John would have been skewered. If the toxin was a little more potent, the poison would've killed him. Hellboy was lucky indeed, and Nuada wondered how long that luck would last.
John likely guessed his thoughts, and the silence that descended was strained. Even as he gently dabbed at each wound, Nuada privately cursed himself. Why couldn't he ever find the right words with John? Why did he always mess it up?
"There." Nuada considered reapplying the bandages but then thought better of it. "Perhaps it's best to let it breathe for a bit."
"It feels much better already," John said.
Nuada walked around the bed again so John did not have to turn his neck to look at him. "I'm glad."
The silence this time was awkward as Nuada searched in vain for some safe topic but nothing came to mind. John looked to be in similar straits. Finally, Nuada said, "Thank you for protecting my sister."
"Oh, of course." John looked slightly uncomfortable, but Nuada had learned over the last year that John didn't really know how to accept a compliment. "I'm glad I was there to do it."
"Yes, you . . ." Nuada had no idea what he was going to say and the words dried up on his tongue. He looked into John's open expression and felt afresh just how much he loved this man. Rather than providing him solace, his feelings only reminded him of his sister's earlier words and all the failed attempts he'd so far made to win John's hand. He sighed. "I owe you an apology."
John looked surprised. "For what?"
Not knowing how to explain, Nuada said nothing for a long moment. His sister's words echoed in his head. You love a human. Nuada could not meet John's eyes but he felt his gaze as Nuada looked around the small room as if the answers he needed were hiding in the shadows.
"I have nursed a grudge against humanity for thousands of years," Nuada finally said. "Because of battles fought long ago and my own wounded pride, I have not been open to associating with your people. I have not been willing to admit to any positive attribute among you, even when . . ." Nuada finally turned to look John in the eyes, "There are some who are deserving of my respect."
John was watching him with wide eyes, looking both intrigued and confused as Nuada spoke. He didn't say anything, no doubt unsure where Nuada was going with this and not wanting to derail him.
Nuada almost wished he would.
Sighing again, he turned away. "I have been unkind to you and the other agents here. I have dismissed your achievements and refused your aid. I know that I have said things about humans that have hurt your feelings. I would apologize for all of that."
Eyes flickering toward John, Nuada tried to gauge John's reaction.
John was frowning. "What . . . Why are you bringing this up now?"
Nuada could only shake his head. He returned to John's side and again gently grasped John's chin. This time, instead of examining the wound on his neck, Nuada let his fingers slide along John's jaw and up his cheek.
"I have lived a very long time as humans measure it, and I have never before had cause to question what I believe. I have never desired to make peace or even find friendship with your people. Not until you. For you, I would lay aside my resentments."
John's eyes widened further as he listened. He made no move to stop Nuada as Nuada's fingers slid over his skin. For his part, Nuada had been living with the desire to touch John for months now and he took great pleasure in finally having his hands on the other man.
"You are so very human, John. I don't think you realize just how human you are." Nuada gave a humorless chuckle. "But then why should you?"
"Nuada?" The way John whispered his name made Nuada close his eyes briefly. When he opened them again and all he could see was the way John was looking at him, Nuada knew what he had to do. He intensely disliked being vulnerable but he weighed that against how much he wanted John Myers as his mate and there was really no choice.
"You would not be you if you were not human, and I do not desire you to change. That is not who I love." There was a sharp intake of breath from John. Nuada plunged forward before he lost his courage. "You have my heart, John Myers. If you want it."
John stuttered for a moment, clearly shocked at Nuada's admission. He did not remove himself from Nuada's touch, and Nuada held onto that as he waited for something more coherent from his beloved human.
"You mean that, don't you?" John sounded utterly stunned.
"I would not say so if I didn't."
"I . . ." John was clearly at a loss for words. After a moment of struggle when nothing came, he made a frustrated noise. To Nuada's surprise, John reached out to fist Nuada's shirt in his hands and haul him close for a fierce kiss.
John's shock shifted to Nuada, who took a moment before he could respond. He hadn't expected this, but he was soon kissing back just as enthusiastically. His hand made an aborted move to clutch John to him before he remembered John's injuries. Instead, he shifted between John's legs and let his hand fall to John's hip.
This was everything he wanted. He'd been holding a part of himself back, he realized. Uneasy with the object of his affection, he had not fully surrendered to his desires.
Not so now. Finally having John in his grasp, Nuada knew he would never let go.
When they parted, John rested his forehead against Nuada's. "Okay. That's . . . Okay."
Nuada smiled and pressed another quick kiss to John's lips. "I should let you rest and recover."
"Yeah, I, ah, I need to think about this." In contrast to his words, John's hold on Nuada only strengthened.
"I can apply the cream again tomorrow," Nuada offered.
"Okay." John untangled one hand from Nuada's shirt just so he could tangle it in Nuada's hair instead. Having seen John's eyes stray to his hair on more than one occasion, Nuada's smile widened but he welcomed the feeling of John's fingers sliding up to gently brush along his scalp.
Nuada closed his eyes to better feel John's touch. Feeling a gentle tug, Nuada let himself be drawn into another kiss and he decided that being in love with a human wasn't so bad after all.