John didn't know why he adopted the half-grown kitten. She just stood there one day, crouched between the science buildings and the church. When he passed her, she yowled. Without thinking, he bent down and picked her up. Had he spent some thought on it, he might've spared himself a sizeable collection of scratches. As it was, he hastily set her down again.
"All right," he said, crouching down and looking into her eyes. "What do you want, then?"
The cat stared straight back, her eyes an eerie green in the oncoming dusk. Or rather the ever-present dusk. It wasn't exactly the most pleasant part of year in Antarctica. John fished around in his pockets and found a crumbled cookie and a few receipts left from before he moved. Nothing that would be very helpful with the cat.
He looked towards the dorms and his pleasantly heated room. He eyed the cat. It wasn't far, but it was also cold enough that he was wearing a ski-mask. With a sigh, he wriggled out of his outermost jacket.
"If you move, I'm leaving you," he warned the cat. Then he threw the jacket over her.
She struggled. She yowled. John ignored both, sprinting as fast as he could over the icy ground. His breath tinkled in the air, his skin was prickling. If he didn't get inside, he'd get frostbite. He threw himself at the door, pushed the handle down with his weight, dropped the cat and quickly slammed the door shut. Once, twice, he shivered, eyes closed.
The cat meowed impatiently. When he looked at her, she'd wriggled herself out of her prison and sat staring at him again. John fished up his jacket and sighed. "Fine. Come on then."
He'd always had a tendency to pick up strays.
The wind was icy cold and even more so when his clothes were in tatters and he was bleeding and covered with burns. He stumbled along after Hellboy, who was carrying Liz. Apparently dying took a lot out of you. She'd collapsed in the middle of their post-battle kissing session, eyes rolling back. Almost dying took a lot out of John too, but Hellboy wasn't in love with him so walking it was.
He had to stop to rest against a huge mausoleum, holding his side and trying to breathe against the pain, the wind slamming into his lungs. Hellboy disappeared into the heavy snowfall. John hoped he'd find his way out without his back to aim for.
After a minute, John started moving again. Stopping had been stupid. His muscles ached and he was cold enough it was hard to make his body obey. His mind was going fuzzy. John stared into the whitewhitewhite snow. Survived the battle but couldn't get back. Wouldn't it be ironic?
He closed his eyes, just for a second.
"Boy Scout. Hey."
John blearily tried to look up, tried to find the energy to listen. Adrenaline crash, something in his head supplied. Stupid to have one in a blizzard.
"Myers." Something -- someone -- slapped his face. "John. John!"
He managed to wrangle his eyes open. Hellboy was staring down at him, not looking the slightest bit cold. He actually looked worried.
He didn't realize it was he who spoke until Hellboy's face changed into a mask of relief.
"Life is unfair, Boy Scout. Now stay awake til I get you out of here."
John blinked as the world wobbled, then again as he realized that Hellboy was carrying him at a fast clip, the world actually blurring. Or maybe that was him. "Not a girl."
Hellboy actually chuckled under his breath at that. "Don't I know it."
John didn't think he was supposed to have heard that. There was something familiar about the tone he'd said it in. His eyes slipped shut. Ah, right. It was the way he'd spoken when Hellboy returned to them after the fight. Like when he talked to Liz.
He didn't remember anything after that. Judging from the doctors said when they listed his injuries, it probably wasn't a bad thing.
John named the cat 'Ella'. He'd seen the kind of creatures that inhabited the research facilities here. He knew Hellboy's story. 'Ella' seemed a lot safer than the more accurate alternatives, which he tried to explain when he talked to Liz over a safe network connection the next day.
"They caught a twelve-legged, twenty-foot centipede with tentacles the other day." John tried not to remember how the thing had impaled one of the soldiers, how he'd been sucked up and into the tentacle before it was cut off. They hadn't recovered much to bury. "We think it's native to Earth though. It doesn't have the same genetic footprints as..."
Liz interrupted him, staring at something behind him. "Are you turning into him?"
"What?" John said reflexively, then turned around. Ella had jumped onto the table behind him, staring directly at Liz. She was licking a paw, claws spread wide and sharp. "No!" He tried not to look too sheepish. "She's Ella."
"Ella." Liz's voice was dry.
"Well," John hedged. "If I named her 'Huntress' or 'Claws' I was kind of afraid she'd..." He couldn't come up with something that didn't sound utterly stupid so he let it drop.
"Eat you in your sleep?" Liz suggested. "She looks like she's thinking about it."
John had entertained the thought. Acknowledging it seemed a bad idea however. When he cut the connection, he slowly turned around. Ella hadn't moved an inch since she'd appeared. Somehow, she managed to look as if killing him wouldn't be any trouble at all. It was creepy.
"Stop doing that," he told her.
Ella yawned and jumped down, wandering off to her food bowl with her tail straight up. John stared after her. He'd been working too long within this agency if he was starting to wonder if Liz was right.
Antarctica. The word kept repeating in his head as he stepped out of Manning's office. John just knew it had something to do with Hellboy. Ever since they'd gotten back from Russia, he'd either been surgically attached to Liz or lurking along in John's footsteps. John'd learned to look up, thank you very much, and a large red being with a tail jumping from building to building was hard not to spot. When they spoke, Hellboy always seemed to be annoyed but he still sought John out. It was weird.
John glanced at a huge clock someone had put up between two doors. Cat feeding time. He gingerly stretched a little, trying to decide whether he'd need help lifting stuff or if his ribs had healed enough.
The trolley waited for him outside the kitchens. John set off at a decent clip, whistling to himself as he went. As he neared the door to Hellboy's quarters, he had to quickly sidestep as Liz stormed out, flaming blue and narrow-eyed. When she saw him, she slowed a little.
"I'm so sorry about Antarctica." It came out between clenched teeth, but John appreciated the sentiment. "I tried to talk him out of it." The glare she threw back over her shoulder was everything but nice.
"Thanks." John gave her a lop-sided grin. He knew he looked cute like that. Like a floppy-eared puppy, a girlfriend once had said. It usually worked well calming people down.
Liz flamed a little less blue, the fire stuttering over her skin. "You'll keep in touch?"
"Of course." John didn't hesitate. His attempt to court her might have gone down in flames - no pun intended - but he still genuinely liked her.
She flashed a tiny smile at him, barely more than a quirk of her lips. "Feel free to kick him from me. He's being an idiot."
Liz continued down the hallway at a slower pace as John started pushing the cart again. He only had a moment's warning before the door slammed open. Reflexively, he threw himself backwards with the cart, forgetting all about his ribs. Hellboy stalked out of the room -- going after Liz, John guessed -- only to freeze when he saw John.
If John hadn't been too busy being bent over and gasping and desperately wishing he'd just let the cart go to its death, he would've commented on the look on Hellboy's face.
"You all right?" Hellboy sounded as if he had to choke it out. He made an aborted move to help John up, snatching his hand back almost before they touched. The skin still tingled in his wake.
"Fine." John had to force it out, anger and a flare of attraction fighting it out in the pit of his stomach. Tomorrow someone else was definitely bringing the cart. Or Hellboy could get it himself. It wasn't as if the stupid door could really hold him. And he was sending John to Antarctica.
"I'll take the grub."
By the time John had gotten himself upright and opened his mouth to protest, the cart was gone and the battered door closed.
Examination room 3163 was John's favorite workplace. His co-workers, mostly recruited from places like the Army and the Marines, thought him slightly nuts for it. John didn't blame them. If the choice had been something other than 'catch saw-toothed arctic turtles with poisonous shells or dissect a dead arctic turtle,' he'd certainly not have gone for the dead turtle. As it was, it was oddly reassuring to see the things they caught chopped into pieces and with their innards taken out.
He tried not to think about Nazi guy with the sand too much.
"What do we have today?" Cary Minnows snapped on her gloves as she walked into the room.
John looked up from his clipboard. They didn't have much use for an FBI agent's skills out here, so he'd ended up being the right-hand of whoever needed him the most at the moment. "Specimen 306b."
Cary gave him an look as she tied her protection gown on.
"Also known as penguin on acid with lots of tentacles," John relented.
"How long do I get you today?" She was already elbow deep in the penguin thing.
"Lunch." John tried not to look too close. "Half-day."
She hmmed. John sighed. Half a day off and he knew exactly how he would end up spending it: entertaining Ella and watching the TV signal they pirated from McMurdo. He was turning into something pathetic.
As lunch came around, John had long since abandoned the clipboard and was weighing slippery, pus-colored innards before dumping them in containers. The penguin didn't really look like a penguin anymore -- actually it didn't look much like anything at all.
The last piece of...something glopped to the bottom of the jar. John switched out his gloves, closed the jar and shoved it into the refrigerator. He glanced at Cary. "Should I send someone in to replace me?"
She waved a hand. "I'll be fine. Just tell them to clear some space in the freezer for later."
John nodded even though he didn't think she could see it. He dumped his protection gown in the 'used' bin and took off.
Ella waited for him at the door to the barracks. There was an expectant look in her yellow eyes, her tail swishing sharply behind her. Dog-like, someone that didn't know her might've said. Hellboy-like, John described it. Definitely up to something.
"Did you sneak into the kitchen again?" The look she gave him said paragraphs. Maybe a few pages.
"She's waiting to accompany you to your caller." The guy in charge of the vid call equipment stuck his head out of the monitor room with a grin on his face. "From back home."
John looked down at her. She looked back, unimpressed. "You're a very strange cat."
If Ella had been human, John just knew she'd be rolling her eyes. She set off down the corridor, heading for their room. He hastily peeled off his outerwear and stuffed them into his locker. "Who is it?" he asked the guy.
The guy shrugged. "The red one."
John froze. Hellboy? He hastily scrambled after Ella, finding her already perched on her favorite spot within good reach of the camera. "Poser," he muttered and gave her chin a scratch as he scrambled to accept the call.
The screen turned briefly black, then turned on. Hellboy stared back at him, something unreadable in his eyes. John didn't know what to say and he couldn't look away. A few seconds passed, then Hellboy's eyes went to Ella, moment lost. "Aww, she's beautiful!"
John didn't know whether to feel deflated or amused. "You called to see my cat."
Hellboy flashed him a grin, earlier tension gone. "I'll let you see mine."
Hellboy's tail came into the view, wrapped carefully around a slender tabby. She hissed at him, then caught sight of John and looked straight at him. Ella jumped onto the arm-rest and balanced over to nudge the screen. The tabby nudged back.
"This is bizarre." John didn't realize he'd said it before he had.
"They're making friends!"
Hellboy looked delighted. John's brain fizzled out. First he sent John to Antarctica. Then he called him to meet his cat.
"You're driving me insane," he told Hellboy. Then he quite calmly reached out and severed the connection.
Ella turned to glare at him.
"Oh, forget it," he told her. "I'll call him some other time."
Ella didn't look like she believed him. Smart cat.
John didn't know who was more surprised -- him or Hellboy -- when he turned the corner of the hangar at the airport and came face to face with Hellboy about to climb onto the roof. He looked at Hellboy, then at the tail of the supply plane he was catching, just visible behind him. Liz stood at the gaping doorway into the cabin. Even from over here, John could see that she was pissed off.
"Really." John couldn't actually find the words. He gestured at Hellboy, the building. The ladder. "Really."
Hellboy hopped to the ground, looking for all the world like nothing was wrong. "Lovely view from up there."
John stared, shook his head. "You're amazing."
"Well, thanks!" Hellboy grinned, preening a little.
He gave up. Liz had jogged over to them during the exchange, glaring at Hellboy. "Told you he'd catch you."
"Only 'cause I let him."
"Only 'cause you didn't think he'd be early." The look she gave him was exasperated. John didn't envy her all the time she'd spend with his snark and impulsive ideas now that they were together. Well, maybe he envied her a little. OK, a lot. Liz gave Hellboy a look. "You might as well come with this time."
Hellboy swept out his hand elegantly, tail flipping up to rest over his arm like a waiter's towel or something. "After you."
Liz rolled her eyes. John went past them both, ignoring the prickles that came with being followed.
A short conversation with the captain yielded an approximate flight time. John decided he might as well stash his things and headed off to the cabin door. Liz and Hellboy were waiting, the former giving the latter a look that actually appeared to be making him uncomfortable. John wondered what that was about.
"We're leaving in ten minutes," John told them, hefting his backpack higher. "I might as well get inside."
Liz nodded with a small smile. "Take care of yourself. Stay in touch."
"I will." Spontaneously, John leaned over to kiss her cheek. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hellboy freeze and bristle. Jealous bastard. Acting on impulse, John stepped over, tiptoed, and gave him one too. When he stepped back, Hellboy's mouth was hanging open (was that a heated look in his eyes?) and Liz was smirking. "Goodbye."
Then he hastily scuttled up and out of the way before Hellboy regained his composure. Before they caught him looking flushed. He wasn't a school girl, damnit. As he sat down in the seat the captain had indicated, John smiled to himself.
It had definitely been worth it.
The next morning John woke and immediately realized two things: one, Ella had definitely grown a size overnight, and two, sitting on his chest and staring him in the face as he blearily woke up was the most cattish thing she'd done in forever.
"Ella?" he mumbled. He could see his alarm clock behind her swishing tail. Seven in the morning. About when he was supposed to get up.
A sharp claw to his sternum brought his attention back where it should be. Ella looked at him, then at the computer. A light went up. "Oh no. I'm not calling him at seven in the fucking morning."
Ella jumped off him and onto his desk chair. Then she stared some more. John got out of bed, skimmed into his clothes and escaped from the room. The science building had showering facilities. Only halfway there, fully woken up by the wall of cold air, did he realized he'd just been chased out of his own room by his cat.
"You need to have your head looked at," he told himself. The passing scientist looked like he agreed. "Oh God, I am turning into him."
Cary didn't look overly surprised when he showed up in her workroom at the early hour, just pointed him at a gown and started him off on more goopy stuff. John worked in silence for a while, then cleared his throat a bit sheepishly.
"Are we sure Ella isn't an alien?" God, it sounded exactly as stupid as he thought it did.
Cary didn't even look up from the carcass. "Yes. Definitely native to Earth. Likely a British Shorthair that sneaked onto a plane in Christchurch."
"She just seems to...grow."
"You're welcome to bring her over. I doubt we'll find anything new though."
"Never mind then."
John couldn't shake the feeling that something was odd about her, however. When lunch came, he walked back to the dorms and carefully opened the door to his room. Ella meowed questioningly at him from her perch next to the radiator. She was still bigger, John noted, but she looked like a normal cat.
"You're going to drive me insane," he told her and stepped fully into the room. He was pretty sure it wasn't his imagination that she looked smug at that.
Acting on something he didn't care to identify, John sat down by the computer and started up the Skype-clone they used for secure vid calls. He skimmed down the contact list. He wouldn't be on, he was pretty sure about that. Not in the middle of the night in that part of the US.
There was a dull thump as Ella jumped onto her perch behind him. Her opinion on whether he should call certainly was evident. Without thinking, he clicked.
It took a few seconds for someone to answer and when he did, Hellboy looked curiously...curious. Almost as if he'd gotten something he didn't expect to get and felt guilty about it.
"Didn't think I'd call?"
It was so easy to fall into banter for some reason. Maybe it was the distance.
"Who could resist me?" The grin Hellboy shot him wasn't quite genuine, but John's smile wasn't either. There was still Antarctica between them. "Is that Ella behind you? She looks bigger."
John didn't look over his shoulder. From the look on Hellboy's face as he watched her, she was doing something he didn't want to know about. "She is."
"Sure she ain't an alien?"
"Doc says she isn't. They ran her through all the tests."
"The tests say I'm part goat." The disgusted look on Hellboy's face was so funny John had to look away to not laugh out loud. "Yeah, just laugh, why don't you. Hurt my feelings and all."
"Sorry." Not that he really was. He tried to quench his grin. Suddenly, he was feeling lots more relaxed about his. "How are things?"
As Hellboy told him about a flying 'hen crossed with a condor and about twice as fat' they'd caught the other day, John leaned back in his chair. He didn't know why Hellboy had called in the first place, didn't know why he'd called Hellboy. But maybe this distance was good if he wanted a friendship. And he really really did.
From New York to San Francisco. From San Francisco to Christchurch. From Christchurch to McMurdo. From McMurdo to Top Secret Research Site. By the time John arrived he wanted to collapse and weep. As soon as he got inside, that was. If New York had been winter-y when he left, Antarctica was, well, Arctic. He'd heard the pilot mention something about -30 and then promptly stopped listening. It seemed better for his mental health.
They gave him a room that looked like an average dorm, assigned him a guide and let him dig under his covers and go to sleep. When he woke up, they were buried under a blizzard and down a generator in the dorms. The heat was a priority and only the desk lamp worked. John lay and stared at the ceiling. This was going to be his home for who knew how long.
Anger and heartbreak mixed uncomfortably in the pity of his stomach. John glared up at the ceiling. No. I'm not letting him do this, he thought to himself.
He turned and went back to sleep.
Ella continued to grow. By the second week she was as large as a Golden Retriever and John finally gave in and brought her to Cary. A multitude of tests and an impressive collection of scratches later, Cary looked rather smug and held out the results to John.
"Still a normal cat. The tests that take longer might dispute that of course, but I doubt it."
John looked sceptically at Ella. She was sitting all prim and proper at the top of a cabinet, having escaped as soon as Cary finished taking her last blood sample. Her head hit the ceiling every time she moved. "That's not normal cat size."
"Her tests say otherwise." Cary looked rather amused. She wasn't the one that kept waking up from almost being squished. "She might be a crossbreed of some kind. Or there's something about the environment down here that makes animals grow. Penguins aren't supposed to be more than 120cm or so and that carcass they brought in the other day was almost 160cm."
John winced. He'd been with the group that brought in the penguin. They'd found it almost two kilometers from the base, dead. Shredded. With things in it that made the eggs laid in Hellboy back then look benign. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what had killed it.
"What do I do if she keeps growing?" he complained. "She's already taking up most of the room."
Cary gave him a look. "I'm not your pet consultant. Figure something out." She lifted a chart demonstratively. "Now, take Ella and scram. Some of us have work to do."
Ella jumped down from the cabinet in a show of cooperativeness for once. The thud was loud. She walked to the door, looked impatiently at John. "Coming."
Later that night, John brought up Ella's size with Hellboy. They'd talked thrice since that first time, once with Liz joining in. John had noticed they weren't holding hands or even sitting that close. He didn't ask. Didn't dare ask. This evening, Hellboy was alone.
"If she grows larger she'll be able to take down one of those mutant penguins herself," John said, having told him of the giant they'd brought in. Hellboy told him of the giant cockroach with the lethal backspines he'd fought the other day. In hindsight, he should've known that Hellboy wouldn't be surprised by Ella.
"She's a growing girl," Hellboy said when John mentioned her size. He leered at the huge feline resting her head on John's shoulder. Maybe she thought she was a dog. That'd explain the size at least. "Gotta be able to defend herself."
Ella purred, loudly enough there were some feedback over the system. John winced at the noise. They really needed to make earphones in Hellboy's size.
"You are fine, aren't you?" John said, looking at the bandage that took up most of Hellboy's torso. A dozen of the spikes had gotten to him. Had he been human, he'd be dead. He shivered. Ella softly bumped her nose against his cheek. "Thanks," he murmured to her.
"Could bring down one of those penguins without breaking a sweat."
"Not very hard in this weather."
"You know what I mean."
Sirens blared at Hellboy's side of the screen and a door slammed open somewhere in the distance. John nearly jumped out of his skin but Hellboy didn't seem fazed at all.
"Oops, gotta go! Duty calls."
He was gone with a swish of his tail. Didn't even stop to turn off the vid cam. "You think he'll be all right?" John asked Ella, reaching over his shoulder to pat her head.
She meowed doubtfully.
"I know. But at least he survives."
John didn't like to think about the fact that one day he wouldn't.
It took a week before John talked to the New Jersey branch of the BPRD. Not for lack of trying on their part - he'd just been...busy. If you could call having a crash course in defending the facilities against a hoard of four-legged things that looked like they should've fallen into pieces at any moment being 'busy.' Quite a welcome - clad in full Arctic wear and sneaking around with harpoons to catch stray uninvited guests. They'd even found one huddling in an abandoned container three weeks later.
On the seventh day, John stood bent by his bathroom mirror and inspecting his frostnipped nose. Even with a covered face, moving around in -50 weather took its toll. Seven days spent mostly outside and he was starting to feel like he'd never become quite warm enough.
"Myers!" Someone knocked at the door. "Call for you."
John swore. He'd forgotten to turn on the computer again. If he had, they could've reached him privately instead of having to use official channels. He could only hope it wasn't his mother. She didn't know he was in Antarctica (confidentiality clauses -- he could talk to her whenever he wanted but not tell her where he was) and things might get sticky if she saw things she shouldn't.
"Who is it?" he shouted back. "Tell them I'll call back in a sec."
"New York office. Someone called Liz."
John froze. Then hit his head on the shaving mirror as he straightened up. "Fuck."
He hastily shuffled into his room and booted the computer. Tucking his hands into a pair of fingerless mittens, he waited for the computer to load. The moment he clicked his way into the program, a window popped up to tell him there was a call. He accepted and Liz popped up on screen, a smile on her face that faded as she caught sight of him.
"John? You look awful."
"Thanks," he said dryly. Frostnipped, flaming skin and shadows under his eyes. He knew how he looked. "Always such a flatterer."
Liz ignored the snark. Probably used to it. "What happened?"
"Antarctica. It's very cold down here." John held up his gloved hands. "Nice, aren't they? Keeps me warm."
"It's that bad?" The look on her face said there might be yelling in Hellboy's future.
"Not really. You get used to it." John shrugged. He couldn't mention the homesickness to her. The way he'd kill for a mild chill instead of biting cold, friends instead of strangers. "How's the significant other?"
Liz's face shut down. "Fine." With an effort, she wrangled her face back into friendly. "So, tell me what you've been up to?"
And that really summarized their relationship pretty well, John thought to himself. Small talk and lies. Always the outsider.
"...the little buggers don't leave anything behind." Hellboy sounded almost fascinated and most definitely less disgusted then John would've preferred, talking about the most gruesome death he'd heard of. "Slime and the stuff they don't like, nothing else."
"How nice." John tried to quench his rolling stomach. This wasn't what he'd expected when Hellboy called out of the blue on his lunch break. His toes curled as his head provided him with a graphic visual of how the auction house might've looked. Ella meowed at him, looking up from where she warmed his feet under the desk. She was too large for her usual perch now. "I'm fine," he told her.
"Is that Ella? You've been keeping her from me."
"Not as much keeping as not being able to fit her into the screen," John said and threw a pointed look down at her. He was sure she had something to do with it. If she could, she would've grown out of pure will just to spite him.
The visual wobbled as Hellboy poked at the camera. "Can't you grab it and show me?"
John looked at it doubtfully. While it was detachable, the cable wasn't exactly long. With a sigh, he pushed himself out of his chair. Ella gave a woeful sigh as he nudged her with a foot. "Up," he told her. "Hellboy wants to see you."
Her ears perked and her tail lashed once. Carefully, slowly, she got to her feet and stretched languorously. She was starting to look more like a large lynx than a cat. After a short tongue bath she deigned to jump into the chair. Hellboy's sharp inhale was most gratifying.
"She's grown." He sounded almost reverent.
"You could say that."
John watched as Hellboy made kitty noises at Ella, her meowing and purring back. It was adorable. After a while he went to sit on his bed however. Hellboy liked his cat better than him. His life was turning into that of a pre-teen girl.
This was the fourth month they'd been talking. John spoke to Liz maybe two times a week. Hellboy, maybe once if he was lucky. When Hellboy did call he really wanted to talk. It was weird. Every time John accepted a call from him, surprise that he answered seemed to flash over Hellboy's face before it settled into some sort of pleased look. He'd mentioned it to Liz once, but she'd done that freezing thing and changed subject. Things between the two of them...John wasn't sure they were very well.
Ella jumped down from the chair, swishing her tail. She sat down next to it and stared at him.
"Come out, come out wherever you are!"
He really did have a bad sense of humor, John reflected as he retook his seat. "Had a nice chat?"
"Great one, thanks." Hellboy looked thoughtfully at him, expression at odds with the lightness of his words. John realized that maybe talking with Ella had been a cover for something else. "Something's going on over here. I don't know what. They're sending over some bigwig. Things are changing, I can feel it. Keep an eye on things there, right?"
"I doubt anything will," John began.
There was something hard, something ungiving in his voice. As if they actually were...what? Friends? Lovers? "I will," John said, cutting off the line of thought. "You too."
The connection broke. What was going on?
He was back in New York. There was no wind and the sun shone warmly above. The entrance hall was empty of people, including the guard. It didn't occur to him to wonder where they were. The elevator went down soundlessly, sending him straight into Hellboy's lair. A large cat lay on a high shelf, her legs dangling. Her eyes were half-shut.
Hellboy stood by his bed, looking at him. The strange look was replaced by warmth and affection. "I've missed you."
John broke in a smile and walked quickly towards him. The walls shimmered and...
...were covered in slime. John slipped, falling down. He realized he was lying in greenish goo, that the thing lying over there was...
...Ella licked him in the face. Her tongue was raspy and her voice low and husky. "Stop dreaming. They get in through dreams. The stupid boy might be clear-sighted enough to try." She hesitated. "Of course, I doubt he has the mind for that. His sister on the other hand..."
His sleep was dreamless.
Ella started to follow him around, seeming not content with staying in his room. John could understand that. It couldn't be very nice being the size of a cougar and shut up in a room as small as his. That no one protested said more about what kind of place he worked at than anything. No one except Cary, who set up strict rules as to where Ella could be in the room and what she could be doing. Ella seemed to actually listen when she listed them -- she certainly followed them.
Something was stirring out there. The troops brought in more and more specimens and a surprising amount of them alive. The cages were full and after the fourth carcass was brought into Cary's room, she snapped at them that she wasn't a machine.
New York appeared to be similarly occupied. Somehow, he still received calls every day. It was as if he was their chance to look away from the mess that was their current lives. John didn't know whether to be flattered or frightened.
"There's a weird human-like creature," Liz told him one night, tucked deep into her armchair. "Almost like Hellboy. He says he's an Elf." She looked down for a second and when she looked up again there was something scared in her eyes. "He intends to wipe out humanity."
"Don't they all?"
Liz shook her head. "Not like this. Not like..." She didn't mention her killer. She never had. "He could actually do it, I think. The will. I don't know if we can..."
She'd had to go then. The unsaid hovered in John's head, echoed in the past.
Hellboy was more straightforward -- when was he not?
"...some bastard named Nuada. Has an Elven army." Something flashed over his face. "Some of them eat cats, you know? I'd've beaten them just for that. How're things at yours?"
"Busy." John had gotten used to the subject changes, the sharp turns. "Something seems to be making the critters anxious. They're working us to the bone."
"Shouldn't be too hard with your body. You're scrawny." Hellboy looked him up and down pointedly.
John tried hard not to flush. "Says the walking concrete block."
"Who's the one that don't get beat up all the time?"
Hellboy laughed, real affection in his voice. "Gotta go, Boy Scout. Take care."
There hadn't been a return of that intensity he'd shown after the tooth fairy fight. In a way, it seemed as if he was intentionally avoiding it. If not for Liz, John wouldn't have known something was going on. But something was going on, and Hellboy was...what? Protecting him? Annoying him? There were all kinds of answers to that question and none of them obvious.
Then again, he had his own questions, and they didn't even seem to have an answer.
"You humans are so fragile," Ella said, then licked her paw so she could swipe at her ears. "One bad dream and your minds shatter. I have better things to do than babysit the dreams of younglings." She paused, one hind leg stuck straight up. "Of course, it's entertaining occasionally. That dream you had about Hellboy, the elevator and his coat - quite inventive."
If John had been awake, he would've flushed. This was a dream though. Emotions seemed...distant. Things seemed to spin away and freeze at will, never standing still, never growing solid. He saw things, heard things. It was almost like he was in between...
Ella swatted at him, paws soft and claws withdrawn. "Stop that! I didn't go through all this trouble to have you go looking for them."
"I need to know." He heard himself speak but couldn't feel it. It was as if it was another part of him.
The noise Ella made would've been a sigh had she been human. "You're lucky I like you. Even though I wish I'd never met you. Pets can be so demanding in these times."
A spot in front of him swirled and he could see. Could see Hellboy wandering through a strange world with Abe and someone with a dome for a head. Could see them talking, fighting, glaring. Could see a slender woman with white hair join them, fall in love, warn them. Could see the fight. Could see Hellboy die--
"Attention please. Emergency routines have been activated. Please proceed to your assigned post."
John jerked awake to flashing red and echoing speakers. It took a second or two to fully wake up, then he quickly pulled himself upright. Ella hissed at him. He spared her a glance as he pulled on his clothes, freezing for a second as he realize she'd grown again. Should she want to, she could probably bite him in half.
"You and I are going to have a talk later," he told her and half-ran towards the door. As one of the people with at least some combat experience, he'd been posted on the outside.
Ella followed him. Was it his imagination, or was she growing as they moved? He couldn't spare the time to look closer. "Stay," he told her as he yanked the door open. She ignored him, bouncing ahead. John froze again. She hadn't had that thick a fur coat two seconds ago.
"Hurry up!" a solder yelled at him, shoving a rifle into his hands.
He stumbled along as quick as he could, slipping over the ground until he reached his post. Far from the actual weak points, he didn't really expect anything to happen. Ella was waiting for him, bloodied to her elbows. The blood was green. That didn't bode well. Nor did the fact that she was taller than him at the shoulder.
She looked at him. Then the earth shook and opened up beneath him.
It was pitch black. Not a hint of light, of anything at all, just a solid dark wall. John blinked once, twice. It didn't make a difference. He could hear a steady dripping somewhere, along with the clinking sound of claws on stone. It had to be Ella. He really hoped it was Ella.
Something hit his foot. John swore, grabbing for it. Definitely Ella. Nothing else would dump a sack of something that was very heavy on him. It suited her sadistic little mind perfectly.
"Where have you taken me?" John shouted at her. There was no doubt now that something was strange about her. Hah. Take that, Cary.
Ella pushed him in the back and sent him sprawling. The rifle scattered away across the ground. John doubted he'd ever find it again without a light. A second later, the sack landed on his back, knocking the breath out of him. "Fine. You want me to open it? I can do that."
He fumbled for what he thought was the top. It seemed to be tied with laces or something. He stuck a hand into it, felt around. A lighter. John shook it slightly. Barely any gas left. Next to it was dried...moss? Something. Maybe she was intending for him to make a fire.
Ella closed her jaws around him like a recalcitrant kitten.
"Ella?" John wiggled in her grip. He was starting to sweat. "What are you doing? Let me down."
She must've grown again, because he couldn't reach the ground even when he stretched. After a moment, he became aware that they were moving. It wasn't the normal bunch and release of a cat's gait, but a smooth floating. As if she noticed that he had noticed, Ella sped up until the wind beat against him with a force that ought to have left bruises. It was impossible to talk, impossible to keep his eyes open. In that moment, John was more scared than he'd ever been before. There was nothing he could do. Nothing but hold and hope.
John woke up to Ella nudging him with a careful paw. From his sore side, it'd taken a good amount of time before he did so. He sat up, carefully. His whole body was stiff and he was bathing in sweat. It had to be over 20 degrees, even at night wherever they were. He gingerly peeled off his Arctic wear, piling them next to him.
Carefully steadying himself on Ella (God, she had to be the size of those gigantic draft oxen by now), John stood up. The sky was clear and scattered with stars. They appeared to be on a rocky islet a distance off the shore of what seemed to be a larger island or mainland. Judging from the temperature, they sure weren't in Antarctica anymore. What had happened?
He turned to stare at Ella, stomach curdling. She stared back, then purred softly. The sound vibrated through the air, seemed to settle in his spine. All of a sudden, it was hard to think, hard to worry. She's doing this to me, he thought. Then thought was gone.
There were flashes of feeling, of memory. Making a fire, grilling something small and lean, eating it in crunchy chunks. Ella purring, looking at him, watching him.
He slept again.
The next time he was aware, John was on Ella's back. It was beyond him how he stayed on, beyond him what the fuck was going on and certainly beyond him to stop it. She hadn't eaten him yet and they had lived together for several months. That had to mean something.
There was nothing to see around him. Only the pitch dark wall of nothingness. He could hear things occasionally though. Voices, creatures moving.
"The King is dead," said one of them.
"Nuada is King," another said, then, after a pause. "A pity."
"A joy!" a third said. "We shall once again rule this place, not be hiding below cities in these horrid holes."
A fourth: "You don't remember. Nothing can be gained from waking the army." A hopeless noise. "Nothing at all."
John tried to put it together. Hellboy had mentioned Nuada, hadn't he? He was the one they were fighting, the one Liz was so afraid of. Who were these people to talk of him? Who was Nuada?
The numbness must've still been in place, because he wasn't surprised when Ella spoke in reply to his unvoiced thought. That, or he'd just gotten used to her secrets.
"Nuada is King of the Elves. Currently." She made a snorting sound. "He's attempting to kill Red currently. Doing a mess of it, as usual. That boy has no sense of discretion or political intrigue. Always goes blundering straight in."
"He's trying to kill Hellboy?"
"And succeeding, I'd say. If Red doesn't get rid of some of those heroic tendencies of his, he'll die." Ella actually sounded sad about that. Did she know him? "In either case, we're putting an end to this. I thought Red would manage, or that the girl would have the sense to simply destroy her piece. Sentimentality. Always their greatest fault."
"Their..." John said.
A white light. A pang of fear, of exhiliration, of worry.
The world went from black to...
...full of colors.
Time seemed to stop. John slid off Ella's back, falling into a heap on the cavern's floor. He could see and would never forget what he saw.
A series of platforms. Spinning wheels. An army of living metal staring down at two combatants. Hellboy and Nuada. Liz, Abe and the dome-headed person watched from the sidelines. A woman --Nuada's sister? Nuala? -- stood above them. There was a knife in her hand as she watched them fight.
Time spun. Everything seemed to move faster than light. John took a breath and then--
Hellboy walked away from Nuada, lying behind him wounded and defeated. Then, a knife -- the twin of the one Nuala carried not far away. John threw himself towards them -- Hellboy couldn't die, he couldn't...
"No." Ella caught him by his shirt, yanking him back. "Her. I'll take care of the brat."
John didn't know why he obeyed, but when he saw her raise the knife towards her own chest there was no hesitation.
The knife clattered across the floor. He landed heavily across her, sucking in a breath as they hit the floor. She blinked at him, then paled as she looked over his shoulder. John rolled onto his back, blinking in the direction he'd come from. Ella had intercepted Nuada, sending him sprawling much like she had John. She stood above him, more a monster than a cat, hissing down at him.
"Calm down, boy. Red beat you, fair and square." Her voice seemed to come from nowhere - her mouth certainly didn't move.
Nuada's face was contorted by his anger. "What is fair when the vermin have taken our lands, our future! Changed has to have. They're killing the green, raping the Earth with their machinery and smoke--"
"Oh shush." Ella's voice was cold. Nuada's mouth snapped shut. Nuala made a surprised noise next to him. John more than half-agreed. Nuada didn't seem the kind that could easily be quieted when he got going. "Listen to me: should you continue in this fruitless pursuit, I will close the gates. All of them. You might think that you don't have anything left -- I will leave you nothing. Then you will know what it feels to have nothing."
When Nuada didn't answer and his face relaxed, John guessed what Ella'd done for him -- taken away the edge of his emotions. Nuala struggled up beside him. "I must go," she said, half to herself, John thought.
"If there's anyone who can talk sense into your brother, it's Ella," he told her. I should know, John added dryly inwardly.
Nuala looked down at him, a puzzled look on her face. "Ella? Is that what you call the gatekeeper?"
"She pretended to be my housecat."
She didn't look very surprised, but rather bemused. "Ah. You have been blessed, then."
"That can be discussed," John muttered and looked down at the scene beneath them. Nuada had calmed down and Hellboy had walked over to the rest of his little gang. As he watched, Liz melted the crown into goo and dropped it to the floor.
With an inward sigh, John decided that he probably ought to go down to the rest of them. He pushed himself off the floor.
And fell. The world spun around him.
The world went black.
A red face hovering over him. Worried eyes. A woman's voice close to him.
"What's wrong with him?"
"I brought him by the faerie roads." Ella, John's mind supplied. Even half asleep, he remembered her. "They're not meant to be travelled by mortals."
John stopped paying attention to them as Hellboy touched his temples with his hands and looked into his eyes. Had they touched in a non-hostile environment? He wasn't sure. It scared him how much he liked it.
"Wake up, John."
John woke up with a jerk. His head slammed hard into Hellboy's forehead.
"Ow," Hellboy said mildly. "So that's how you're thanking me from waking you from your beauty sleep."
John blinked at him. Hellboy's expression changed into one of concern. "Hey. John. You all right in there?"
"I'm here," John said inanely. "You're here. It wasn't a dream."
"So says that cat of yours, yeah." Hellboy seemed to think John'd been lying down long enough, wrapped an arm around him and helped him to his feet. John had to lean on him to stand and Hellboy automatically shifted to accommodate him. "Grown a bit since I last saw her, hasn't she."
With a bit of effort, John found his equilibrium again. Hellboy seemed hesitant to let him go. "Everything all right? Nuada...?"
Hellboy snorted. "That one ain't gonna do anything to hurt anyone for a long while. Ella's got him covered." He nodded over to a trio made up of the siblings and Ella. Nuada looked dazed. John could just imagine what Ella was doing to him.
Hellboy looked at him with something intent in his eyes. John swallowed hard, suddenly weak at the knees again. Hellboy nudged them around until they had their backs to Liz, Abe and the stranger. He looked awkwardly down at John. "The four of us are quitting. The BRPD."
Hellboy shrugged. Evasive, John thought to himself. As usual. "It's time." He looked at John through the corner of his eye. "Maybe..."
"Liz?" John suggested. He tried not to let his face fall at the thought. Curse the genes that made him an open-faced fool.
"We're not." The vehemence was surprising. "We were, but it didn't work out." And then, wonder of all wonders. "You know why."
And he did, John suddenly realized. It had been there, right in front of him. "You..." he couldn't get his mouth to work.
Hellboy smirked. "Nice to know I can make you speechless."
John hit him. Hard. Hellboy didn't even bother to pretend to be hurt. Instead he just watched John with those intent, heated eyes of his. Waiting. John gave up and yanked him down.
He'd kissed Hellboy once before. It was nothing like this time. Couldn't be like this time, not when Hellboy grabbed him and hauled him close the second John initiated the kiss. Not when he got to know the taste of him, the way it was effortless and hot and addictive all at once. This was to be devoured, to devour in return. This was how finally tasted.
When they walked out into the sunshine on the great island, the squad of soldiers combing the hills couldn't see them. Liz took point as they set out towards civilization. Abe and Nuala walked behind her, Ella and Nuada only a step behind. Hellboy stalked a few yards back, unwilling to keep his eyes off Nuada and equally unwilling to leave John to himself (he might be exaggerating his dizziness, just a bit).
"This plan of yours won't work," John told him, heart still doing some sort of irregular step dance every time Hellboy as much as glanced at him. He had the feeling it'd continue doing that for a long time. "A yacht with seven people and a huge cat?" He shook his head.
"We'll make it work." Hellboy flashed him an impish grin. "If it doesn't, we'll feed Nuada to the sharks."
John rolled his eyes. "I haven't missed this part of you."
"Aww, but you did miss me!"
"Barely. I missed Abe more."
Hellboy laughed and threw an arm around John's shoulders.
They crested another hill. A beginning and an end.