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In Another's Eyes

Chapter Text

Week 1


Week 2


Week 3

Well, at least there's something fun going on...

Week 4


Week 5, Part 1

Just another day at the LEP. Life in Haven could be called "varied," but it could also be called "monotonous." Run around for a few millennia and even the most abnormal start to a day could be repeated hundreds of times, making it seem rather passee.

But Corporal Grub Kelp rather liked passee, and he certainly did not like abnormal. Abnormal put him in front of massive Eurasian bodyguards with nothing but a little gun to protect himself. Sure, that gun could burn a rhino to a crisp on the right setting, but you had to shoot the rhino before it got to you.

So Grub enjoyed his normal life and he enjoyed his desk job. Perhaps not the best paying position in the LEP (that had to go to his older brother, Commander Trouble Kelp), but enough to get by. Besides, there were certain perks to his office. Established territory, recognition (even if it was negative), privacy...yes. Office work was good.

So, one day shortly after the Haven tourist season had petered out, Grub Kelp arrived at the front steps of Police Plaza exactly five minutes before his shift began, humming to himself and surveying the comings and goings of the officers. The first members of the graveyard shift were already on their way out (Grub frowned at this, but said nothing, as their early departure no longer impacted his own work) and their replacements were staggering in.

Loitering near the front doors was Lieutenant Lili Frond, flirting rather noncommittally with the visiting Chix Verbil, all while glancing around for her easy exit: her boss, Holly Short. The youngest Frond had joined Major Short in recent years, acting as the secretary to the Commander's new second-in-command. This meant waiting to ambush the hard-to-find Recon officer, who seemed to spend as much time out of Police Plaza as in it. An odd achievement for a position that should have resulted in 95% paperwork and 5% coffee breaks.

Lili responded to a comment from her green-tinged flirting partner with a soft laugh and a flip of the hair. Grub couldn't help but be captured by the flash of her blond locks in the bright lights of the front doors. She was certainly the most desirable female in the LEP, regardless of what species you pursued. Rich, famous, drop-dead-gorgeous. And, like almost every other woman in the LEP, completely oblivious to Grub's presence. He sighed sadly.

She looked down the marble staircase, eyes momentarily alighting on Grub, causing him to miss a step and drop his data tablet. He cursed, praying that nothing had been jostled too badly. Once he had confirmed that his prize was in full working order, he remained crouched and looked up to Lili, giving her a shy grin, tucking a bit of his loose hair (Mommy had been insisting he get it cut, but he'd evaded shears so far) behind his ears.

But her attention was already far past him, if it had ever actually fallen on the tangerine-haired corporal. She smiled widely, not even bothering to say goodbye to Chix as she trotted down the staircase, her own tablet held firmly to her chest. "Holly!" She cried, waving, both enthused to see her boss and thoroughly annoyed with her very existence outside of the office. Given the choice, Lili would have probably handcuffed Holly to the desk so she could keep track of the woman. "I really need to give the Atlantean ambassador your answer today. Will you be going to the Koboi hearings or no?"

Passing by Grub's right side, Holly Short ascended the stairs to meet her secretary. She looked at the tablet presented to her and frowned. "Is this really necessary? It's Koboi. We shouldn't even be having this conversation, just yet. Doesn't she have a few good centuries before her first hearing?"

Lili flipped her hair over her shoulders, but it immediately fell back onto the tablet when she nodded. "Technically, yes, but this isn't about parole. It's the hearing for her smuggling charges."

Holly rolled her eyes at this. "Smuggling. Lili, can you tell me how long she is sentenced for?"

Lili responded with no hesitation. "Five thousand years. Three thousand with good behavior."

"And how old is she?"

"Two hundred."

"And how long do pixies live?"

"At the outside, eighteen hundred years."

"Then bug me if she is about to get out alive, will you?" Holly seemed about to say more, but she stopped, covering her mouth with the back of her hand. She recovered quickly, shaking her head to get back in order.

Lili, however, was all too attuned to her charge, if a little short on tact. She tilted her head a bit, studying the smaller elf. "You look horrible."

"Thanks," Holly muttered, continuing her ascent to work. "It's great to know I fall afoul of your expectations."

Lili trilled, following Holly up the stairs, flipping through the many discussion points on her data tablet as she filled the woman's schedule with the new information. "Holly, I always expect you to fail in that respect."

Grub, who had watched this short interchange from his crouched position on the stairs, finally stood, but he didn't make it very far, as his ears soon picked up a distant and exciting sound.

From the street came an engine's roar, followed by an alarming shriek. Grub turned to see a blue and silver magna-bike running free. It came down one of the streets perpendicular to Police Plaza, brakes squealing as it drifted around the corner. With a new squeal, this one of protesting wheels, the bike took hold again and shot the last few dozen meters to a set of reserved parking spaces in the very middle of the foot of the stairs. There didn't even seem to be a second's slow-down. One second the bike was moving at ludicrous speeds, and the next it was parked perfectly and purring like a very satisfied kitten.

LEPTraffic officers eyed the driver, but quickly looked away. Rookies could deal with that one. Trying to ticket her was something of a rite of passage for the stupider cadets.

Engine turned off almost reluctantly and kickstand put in place, the rider swung her leg off the cycle, taking a moment to lean against the bulky side and straighten her black riding pleathers. Matte black. She liked that color.

Careful of any snags, she leaned her head down and slid off her helmet. Long silver hair cascaded out. For a moment, it distracted everyone outside Police Plaza with its shine. Not so much the silver of age (six hundred wasn't all that old, especially for an elf), but more in the sense of the metal.

Wing Commander Vinyáya flipped back her head, long, straight tresses arcing in the air and settling without a single tangle onto her back. Still, she ran a hand through her hair, fluffing it up to get rid of the last moisture from that morning's shower. She looked up the stairs and beamed.

Grub once again felt his heart seize. His knees felt weak.

"Major Short, Lieutenant Frond!" Vinyáya called, trotting up the stairs and past Grub to meet the other two main women in the LEP. "I presume you finally have that little Atlantean trip worked out. Not going?"

Holly shook her head, then winced. "Oh...uh...yes, Wing Commander. I thought I had better things to do with my time."

"Which is exactly right," Vinyáya said, stepping to the other side of Holly, though she addressed Lili. Holly was a responsible officer and never backed down on her commitments, but it was always best to work through her handler. "I need to speak with you about that goblin girl we picked up last year. Scree. Some B'wa Kell members were talking about her up at Howler's Peak. She might be a bit more important to us than a simple foster case. I've heard the word 'captain' and 'Scree' said together too many times for it to be a slip of the tongue."

Lili looked intrigued, writing down a few notes, but Holly couldn't be bothered, it seemed. She was holding her stomach and shaking her head, swallowing often. "I...okay. Scree. Got it. We'll see what goblin family took her in."

"Excellent. Oh, and speaking of better things to do with your time..." The silver-haired elf looked over her shoulder, gaze darting up and down Grub's body. "Are you going to stand out here gawking at the girls, or are you going to go in and push some more papers around tonight, Corporal?" She added a sneer to the word "papers," and it was obvious that, even if she hadn't been several steps up on Grub, she would still be looking down on him.

Grub gave a little start. He hadn't realized that he was staring. He tried to fight down a blush and failed. Seeking to preserve a little of his dwindling pride, Grub looked steadfastly at the ground and ran up the last of the stairs, slipping past the three high-ranking women and into Police Plaza.

Grub wasn't exactly a bad officer. As it happened, he was considered one of the force's greatest assets in one aspect of the job: desk work. Following his brother's unexpected promotion to commander, he had enjoyed a little extra attention from some of the lower-ranked officers looking to get a few perks through a connection to the head of Recon and Retrieval. However, this attention soon petered off when they realized that Grub wasn't so willing to pass on their good wishes and requests to his older brother. So, here he was, still corporal, still mostly ignored, and years past his last field work, stuck in an office.

All things considered, he was quite pleased with things the way they were. Let his brother run into battles and get his face smashed in by raging demons. Trouble was there for the action. Grub was there for the paycheck. Not that he disliked his job. He was right where he wanted to be, supporting the LEP his father had so loved, all without actually fighting.

Grub entered his private office (a small affair, but its windows had long ago been boarded over, giving him a lovely bit of privacy most officers lacked) and sank into his chair, taking a moment to just lean back and enjoy his office. Then, with a few quick clicks, his data tablet synched up to the LEP wireless systems and began loading his workload for the day. He spent the first fifteen minutes weeding through it and returning a few stacks of paperwork to the more negligent officers. He spent a considerable amount of time trying to decide if he should make the Operations Booth sweat a bit before processing their latest stack, then grimaced and put it at the top of his to-do list. It was best not to antagonize Fowl. He had a wicked sense of humor and plenty of ammo on Grub.

Thus, Grub Kelp began his work day by once again wishing great destruction down on the head of Artemis Fowl and his inability to knock.

Grub Kelp was a precise person, and exactly two hours into his shift he rose from paperwork and grabbed a thermos from under his desk, ready for his coffee break. It was in the break room that he received his second irritant of the day.

He glared down at the coffee pot, then at the fairies that stood about the room. "Who," he snarled, "was the last person to get a cup?" Grub tended more towards high-pitched whines and mumbles, but coffee was one thing his coworkers knew better than to mess with. Not so much because of Grub's posturing, but because Trouble was known to stick derelict fairies on chute-watch for a month whenever he received the megabyte's worth of formal complaints from his little brother.

Across the room, the male of the pair leaning his back on the counter and the female sitting behind him, legs to either side of her partner's waist, Artemis Fowl and Holly Short looked at their cups in great concern, obviously trying to remember if this latest travesty was their fault. Their expressions soon cleared, however, and they switched attention to Lili Frond, who responded by pulling a tea bag out of her cup. Attention again transferred, this time to Ash Vein, who muttered "Decaf, doctor's orders," and trailed off into a series of curses upon the physician's entire bloodline.

Out of the corner of Grub's eyes, he caught a green flutter. Turning, he glared at the ever-mooching Chix Verbil, who was hovering a few inches off the ground and trying to hide an oversized coffee cup behind his back.

Target thus identified, the attack on this derelict sprite was about to begin when the corporal heard a disgusted sigh from back in the direction of the other fairies.

"Drop it, Grub. I'll make a new pot." Holly pushed Artemis away, sliding off the counter. However, her good intentions were cut short when her feet touched ground. With a low moan, Holly swayed on her feet, a hand flying to her brow. "In a minute." She leaned back against the counter, soon after supported by the concerned fairy Fowl.

"Holly, what is..." Artemis paused, reaching up to place a hand on Holly's forehead. "You're hot."

She grinned at him, ready to make a joke, but it soon slipped away as she groaned again. "I've not been feeling so well," she admitted, placing a hand on her stomach. "A bit sick, actually."

"Sick," Artemis murmured, frowning. "I thought fairies didn't get sick. Symptoms?"

"Oh, we get sick." Holly assured him, though perhaps "assured" is not the best word. "Especially when we're low on magic. I should have let the medics heal me after that last mission..." Artemis grew a bit more concerned at her words, but the woman's swaying seemed to have abated. Still, Artemis did not let her go, prompting her on the symptoms. "Er...dizzy, tired, achy...ugh, nauseous. Definitely nauseous."

Artemis put a finger under Holly's eye, pulling down a bit to get a better look, making sure her vision was clear. "Huh. If I didn't know better, I'd say you had the flu." He frowned at this, obviously trying to remember something. Something very troubling.

Holly leaned back, freeing her eye and rubbing at it. "I'm fine. I'll see a doctor after my shift." She stood straight and began to cross towards the coffee pot.

Fowl turned a fiery glare on the young corporal.

Grub sighed, holding out a hand to stop her. He was not going to let Fowl build up a vendetta over some coffee. Besides, it would be nice to stick Chix back up in the chutes for a while. He'd been sitting pretty up in E1 for too long. Grumbling a bit and slamming the supplies around, Grub refilled the pot and pressed "On." Despite many previous admonitions that a watched pot does not boil (or brew), Grub crossed his arms and stared at the coffee, urging it to go faster. This fiasco was not coming out of his break time, that was for sure.

He was just pouring his first cup when two highly unrelated things happened, though these highly unrelated thing were about to form a very painful connection.

Firstly, there came a light tapping from the hall seconds before Wing Commander Vinyáya appeared in the doorway. She took one step inside and froze, torso angling back as if avoiding an attack. She covered her nose and glared around the room. "All right," she hissed, voice dulled by the pressure on her nostrils, "who let Mulch in, this time? Didn't you all get the memo about him not being allowed into the Plaza?"

At the same moment that Vinyáya arrived, Major Short again slid off her place on the counter, a hand flying to cover her mouth and another clutching her stomach. She looked about the room in a panic, then at the Wing Commander in the door. Her eyebrows lowered in sudden determination and Holly charged.

Vinyáya realized what her subordinate intended a moment too late. Holly elbowed the older elf to one side and dashed out of the room, making her way quite swiftly down the hall. Artemis followed her, only just in time to see his lover crash through one of the bathroom doors. Soon after, everyone in the break room heard wet splashes and further groans as Holly dedicated the contents of her stomach to the great porcelain god.

There was more groaning from Vinyáya, who was rubbing her chest and glaring at Fowl, as if he had been the one to elbow her aside. "Explanations, Fowl. Now." She winced, holding her chest even tighter, actually whimpering.

Artemis looked to Vinyáya, eyes wide in an appeal, then back towards the women's bathroom and the forbidden territory therein. "Holly said she didn't feel well, and she's running a temperature. Could you...?" He waved at the door, then coughed. Holly may have been the only person inside the facilities, but there was a sort of psychological forcefield keeping him from entering a woman's restroom.

Rolling her eyes at the young elf, Vinyáya stopped rubbing her chest. For a moment, it seemed she was about to refuse and enter the break room. Then her nose again wrinkled at the smell and she stepped back. "Very well, Fowl." With a shake of the head and a small sneeze to dislodge whatever scent was bothering her, the silver-haired elf entered the restroom.

Moments later, her booming Commander's voice filled the halls. "FOWL! Get your car, NOW!" Seconds later, Vinyáya was barreling out of the bathroom, Holly limp in her arms.

Artemis was frozen for a moment, then he burst into action, disappearing down the corridors towards the Ops Booth. Vinyáya took a more direct route to the exit, trusting the former human to reach her on the front steps soon.

There was a stunned silence as everyone in the room tried to figure out what had happened.

Lili was the first one to understand, though her reaction was perhaps not the type one would typically expect. With a screech, she took to her feet. "Her five o'clock with Cahartez!" Then she was gone, leaving Chix and Grub to stare at each other for a bit before the sprite shrugged, took the last bagel, and left the room.

Grub stood there for some time, a bit flabbergasted by the events. Fairies did get sick on very special occasions (mostly dealing with a lack of magic, as Holly had said), but throwing up was a rare reaction, and passing out was almost unheard of, except for the most dire of diseases. After taking a few seconds to look around for any approaching break room visitors, Grub took an entire box of alcohol wipes from the supply counter, tucking it under his arm and taking his full thermos of spicy coffee back to his office. If Holly, the master of healing, was getting sick, he was not going to let any germs near him.

The incident soon passed from Grub's mind. During his next break, this time for lunch, the corporal sat on the fronts steps of Police Plaza, head bobbing along to the sound of his latest album, which blared through his earbud headphones. He almost missed Vinyáya slipping back into the building. She noticed him, however, and gave a little start when his eyes fell on her. She clutched her work jacket tighter to her chest before going inside.

Grub paused mid-chew to consider this, one ear twitching. Then he shrugged it off and continued eating, putting it down as just another instance of the women of Police Plaza acting insane for the day. They were often wont to do so. Soon after, he dusted the crumbs off his slacks and went back in to finish his shift.

This time, Grub did not have the opportunity to get back into his flow. Just as he had finished removing yet another few hundred pages of paperwork sent to him by shirking workers, there came a soft knock. Grub frowned and was about to say he was busy when the knocker opened the door of their own accord and slipped inside.

Grub felt his chest tighten at the sight of Wing Commander Vinyáya, who was looking through the diminishing crack in the door to see if anyone had noticed her entrance.

"Er...uh...Wing Commander?" He said, actually somewhat pleased at his eloquence. Usually all he could get out when she entered his office was a little squeak and a few nods.

The elder elf turned to him and began to massage her temples with the middle finger and thumb of one hand. The other was clutching tightly at something rather small, squeezing every so often, as if she wanted to crush the object.

"Are you..." Here to see me? Grub's mind rushed forward, though luckily the thoughts were a bit too fast for his lips to keep up. Of course she wasn't here to see him. Now was not the most 'convenient' time of the month for her, to put it delicately. He tried again. "Are you going to...tell me what is wrong with Major Short?" That seemed intelligent enough. He congratulated himself on this miracle of coherent conversation.

Vinyáya shook her head, but she seemed to be addressing his assumption of subject, still taking the time to answer his question. "She was a bit low on magic and seems to have picked up a bug. Nothing a quick jolt from a doctor wont fix, and she can top up on magic tomorrow night." The commander crossed the room, movement lacking all of the customary sway that always focused attention on her tight legs and hips whenever she was in this room. She was walking like someone without a ride home from a marathon.

"That's not why I'm here." She leaned over the desk, using the hand that had recently been comforting her poor head to support her weight. Her other hand, still clenched tight around its contents and now shaking slightly, moved across the desk until it rested perfectly between the elves. With a deep breath that snagged and juddered, she opened her hand and lay the object out on the desk. "What," she whispered, tone sharp and tense, "do you have to say about that?"

It didn't take Grub long to realize what it was. There is perhaps some cosmic rule that such an object should be identical across all civilizations, even if they are thousands of years apart, developmentally. It looked like a small, flat, white plastic pen. One end had a few small ridges for a grip, while the other end was (mercifully for Grub's sense of hygiene) covered in a purple cap. In the very middle, looking cheerily up at Grub Kelp, was a window displaying a blue plus sign.

Grub looked at it for about a minute. Then he looked at Vinyáya, trying to determine if she was screwing with him. Then he looked back down at the object between them. Then he looked at Vinyáya's stomach. He could feel her ire rising at this slow switch of focus and knew that something had to be said. Something suave. Something intelligent. Something reassuring.

Grub shot his fists in the air. "I finally did something before my brother!"

Chapter Text

Week 5, Part 2

Vinyáya was morally opposed to murder, but she suddenly found that she could make an exception.

"That is what you have to say?" she said, voice low and icy. "You're proud because you did...this before Trouble?"

Grub suddenly realized what he had said and lowered his head slightly, looking up at Vinyáya like a wolf cub appealing to its alpha. "I mean...yes?"

Vinyáya stared at him. She really didn't know how to respond to that. At least he was being honest. Still, it was about time she slammed the real meaning of this situation home. "Corporal. I'm pregnant."

Grub poked at the test with his stylus. "I assumed that's why there is a plus sign."

" are the father."

Again, Grub was nonplussed. More poking, trying to distance the test from himself. " wouldn't be in here if I wasn't, would you?"

Vinyáya reeled back. He was taking this far too well. She was pregnant. Grub Kelp had managed, against all odds and the inclinations of the universe, to breed. "Aren't you going to freak out at some point?"

Grub looked down at the pregnancy test. "Eventually. And I'd appreciate it if you'd take that away. I'm not sure I've got enough sanitary wipes to handle something that gets peed on."

"..." The silence itself seemed to be a pronounced word in some foreign language, the sound translating roughly to "Are you kidding me?" After a little time trying to figure out the best way to respond, Vinyáya settled on the obvious tactic: violence. She snatched up the test and threw it at Grub's head. "D'ARVIT, I'M PREGNANT, YOU IDIOT!"

Grub ducked, then yelped as the stick still managed to graze his hair. He felt a crawling sensation start at the base of his spine, moving swiftly up until it began to itch at his poor, defiled scalp. He began to rummage under his desk, taking out some of the alcohol wipes and cleaning his dirtied locks. "I get that, Wing Commander. I don't see that there's anything we can do to fix that, now, so..." He halted his scrubbing and took away his hands. There seemed to be some foaming agent in the wipes, as there were very tiny bubbles in his hair, turning the locks a slightly brighter shade of orange. "I you want something about it?" He swallowed, eyes darting down to the elder elf's stomach, then back up to her face.

Vinyáya couldn't help but think he was trying to remain neutral in this particular question, but there was no masking the pleading in his eyes. At this, a little of her anger abated and she was back to her normal calm and cool self. "I..." She also looked at her stomach, though with a significant amount of resentment that Grub completely lacked whenever he glanced in that direction. "No," she finally said, shaking her head. More modern fairies like Frond and Short may have had fewer reservations, but Vinyáya was an older breed of elf. Let the kiddies do as they pleased, but she couldn't bring herself to end any life, especially one so defenseless.

Grub seemed to relax immediately, again scrubbing at his hair. The alcohol in the wipes had mostly dissipated while he was waiting, so now he merely used them to take off the suds, leaving his normally loose hair sticking up in large spikes. "Well, in that case, what do you want me to do?"

This was perhaps the weirdest moment in Vinyáya's life, and she had spent the last 500 years heading Section 8. Weird was sort of in her job description. Except for a little hygiene freak-out, he was acting like they were merely discussing a trade of shifts at work. So she just said the first thing that came to mind. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Seeming genuinely confused about what he was trying to say, Grub tapped his fingers on his tablet. "Well...I'm supposed to help, right?"

Vinyáya took a step back, keeping one foot forward so her body was at an angle, presenting the smallest target possible. "You...NO!" She shook her head, long silver hair flying about.

Grub frowned down at his tablet, finally putting it aside and giving the woman his full attention. "Why did you come in here, then?"

Now that was a good question. Vinyáya frowned, taking a few more steps back. "I...I thought you should know. You would have noticed, eventually."

"Thank you for your faith in me. I imagine a big, pregnant belly would have tipped me off." He sighed and stood, walking around his desk so he could stand before Vinyáya, who managed to keep herself from backing off any further. He didn't get too close, but still closer than she would have liked. He rubbed at the back of his neck. "Wing Commander. As little as you want my help, that is my child. What do you want me to do?"

Vinyáya considered this, then shook her head. "Corporal, I know what your paycheck looks like. You can't do anything for me that I can't do myself."

"I didn't mean money." Grub looked a bit downcast after he said this. "I'll work on that, though. What else?"

Vinyáya examined Grub and tried to think of something suitably cutting to say, but nothing came to mind. Grub had not been the best field officer during his time helping his brother with Retrieval, though he was prone to bragging about his few encounters in battle ("few" being the Butler showdown). Now, with a life behind the desk, he was also almost morally opposed to volunteering for something he really had no interest in. If he was offering now...

"I...fine. Whatever. Though I doubt I'll think of anything." She sighed, burying her face in a hand and shaking her head at the acquiescence. "I suppose it's the least you could do after fucking everything up."

Grub blinked, then tilted his head to the side. When he spoke again, it was with his customary tone. The one that protested being blamed for anything, even if it technically was his fault. "'Fucking everything up?' Wing Commander, just because the birth control didn't work doesn't make this all my fault."

Vinyáya could feel the heat rising along the back of her neck, but the blush that came forward was not from the embarrassment of how she had got into this position (or any of the other several dozen position that could be accomplished with a desk and swivel chair) in a physical sense, but more a blush of shame as to how she came to be there in a biological sense. She swallowed, still looking steadfastly into her hand. "I guess."

It didn't take any particular skill to catch the slight strain in Vinyáya's voice. Grub leaned forward, which caused Vinyáya to let go of her face and lean back. He studied her expression, then his jaw dropped open a bit. His eyes widened in shock at the revelation that came to him. " aren't on anything, are you?" He looked outraged.

"Yes, I am!" Vinyáya snapped, poking him in the forehead to push the male back.

"Oh, no," Grub shook his head, "there is no way we are that unlucky. What did you do?"

"Look, I was on a mission with Short a few weeks ago, if you recall. I didn't exactly have room in my field pack for personal items. I was a few days late, that's all!" Vinyáya protested, now adding a shove at the male elf's chest so he was forced to back away several steps. "It's not like you've never been late!"

"I haven't." Grub snapped, leaning against his desk and propping himself up with one hand, the other now running through his hair in a distracted fashion, grabbing at it so tightly that the woman was surprised he wasn't wincing. "Every new moon at midnight, just like the doctor told me. Couldn't you have waited until it was safe?"

She snorted. "I didn't see you pushing me away."

"I didn't know!" Grub held his hand out to Vinyáya, not sure what the futile gesture was intended to accomplish. "Gods, Vinyáya, as many 'missions' as you seem to go on? It was only a matter of time before you got knocked up!" Then he seemed to freeze, realizing what he said. The term had not been the most delicate. There would be pain, soon. He sensed it.

Instead of returning to a rage (she left such outbursts to the impulsive Major Short), Vinyáya turned icy. "A matter of time, huh?" She turned and walked to the door, grasping the handle hard, wishing she could squeeze the metal tight enough to leave an imprint. "Well, no need to worry about the statistics, now. It's too late."

She opened the door, but paused, glaring over her shoulder at him. "Oh. And you will address me as 'Wing Commander,' Corporal. As I have told you many times." That said, she slipped out of the office, slamming the door behind her.

Chapter Text

Week 5, Part 3

Originally, Grub Kelp had been elated about his brother's promotion to Commander of LEPRecon and LEPRetrieval. Everyone in Police Plaza had commented about the little brother getting a bevy of perks, including the best field assignments. Of course, the field assignment thing had proved a bit poorly-aimed, as all Grub had wanted to do in the days after Ark Sool resigned was enjoy a string of shifts behind a desk, working on the Hybras mission from a safe distance. Commander Kelp had been more than willing to let Grub do so, as most of the other officers were buckling under the strain of setting up the demon evacuation.

However, things did not proceed as planned after Hybras returned. Except for getting a full-time desk job after the reinstated Holly Short had tormented him for months, followed by his own small office after the cubicle pranks became too much, Grub Kelp enjoyed no perks for being associated with his elder brother. In fact, he wasn't even sure if the office advancements were a result of their association or the fact that Trouble Kelp did not have the same short fuse and exploding responses at Julius Root had, making it easier for Grub complain, rather than simply bearing up under any downsides to the job in order to avoid a 100-decibel lecture. Grub Kelp rarely saw his brother at Police Plaza, and he even more rarely saw the Commander in his office.

Today, however, was different. Grub needed to talk.

When he approached the pink-haired pixie receptionist, Grub tried to stand as tall as possible, which did at least get her attention. Grub may not have been in any way strong, but at least he had some height. This made him more gangly than anything, but it was worth the attention. "I need to speak with Commander Kelp. Immediately." He tried to boom this out, but his height did not correspond to a deep voice, making this effort ludicrous.

Luckily, the pixie did not laugh, merely looking up at the tall elf and squinting behind her horn-rimmed glasses. "Do you have an ap-poin-tah-men-tah?" She said the last word in far too many syllables, moving her lips in an exaggerated fashion, leaning over the desk and resting her chin in one hand. She tapped her stylus on the desk, looking insubordinate and bored with the elf's presence.

Grub did not like how things were going. "Just tell him Corporal Kelp needs to see him."

"You'll need an appointment," she said, though this time with less pronunciation.

Sighing, Grub leaned over, resting his forearms on the desk, allowing him to look straight into the receptionist's face. "Tell him it's about the coffee."

She blinked at this, then flipped her stylus about a few times before jotting a note on her inlaid desk tablet, flicking the mini-document behind her, in the direction of Trouble's office. There was a short pause...

Then Trouble Kelp's door crashed open. The Commander glared across at his brother, trying to cow him into leaving. When Grub merely straightened up and waved, showing a lot of friendly teeth in his smile, Trouble scowled deeper and pointed behind him into his office.

Grub strode in, trying not to saunter. It really would not do to saunter, at the moment, given Trouble's evident irritation. Without being asked, he sat in a chair, but he didn't relax. This was going to be a rather intense conversation, so he sat up straight, focusing closely on his brother as he took the larger, cushier seat behind the Commander's desk.

Trouble groaned as he sat, though not from stiffness. Just anticipation of a conversation that he had gone through far too many times for his own good. "Corporal Kelp, how long does it take to brew—"

"That's not what I'm here for, Commander." Grub broke in, raising his head in an effort to look more official than he normally did in his little complaint interviews.

Trouble paused at this, looking his brother over. Initially, he felt relieved. Then he remembered that his brother was still there, and his concern increased. "Then what is this about? I am supposed to meet with the Council in an hour and I really need to prepare my notes before they jump on me about budgets."

Grub did his best to contain a wince. Budgets. That was already a mark against him in this conversation, and it hadn't even truly begun. "This will be quick. I need to be entered in the next exam for a promotion."

Trouble stared at his younger sibling, eyebrows raised. It took him a while to process this comment. Then he began to laugh, falling back in his chair, which proceeded to rock as he continued laughing. "You...need...PROMOTION? Funniest...ever." The chair squeaked with each burst of laughter, adding its own inanimate mirth to the commander's hilarity.

Grub sulked. He should have really expected this, but he could always hope that his older brother would take this conversation seriously. Grub pouted, his normal whine sneaking into the voice that he had tried to keep so neutral. "Trubs...I'm serious."

"And so am I," Trouble responded, managing to finally control himself, though now he was leaning back in his chair, his legs crossed. "What in the world makes you think you, you don't deserve a promotion. What makes you think you need one?" He rested his head on the back of the chair, smirking, waiting for what was no doubt going to be another hilarious response.

Grub bit his lip. His first argument was not going to be the most convincing one, given that almost every officer used this excuse when pursing a promotion. "I need the money." It was true. He was going to need a lot of extra money, soon.

Trouble did his best to not laugh, though his shoulders shook and he squeaked a bit. "What, is Mommy raising your portion of the rent?"

There it was. That entire "still living with Mommy" thing. Grub wanted to sulk, but he could not sulk right now. This was serious business. He had to get this done, and going into a funk was not going to help Trouble's mood. "No," he said, working up his courage. This was it. There was only one thing he could say to convince Trouble: the truth.

Vinyaya was going to be pissed.

"I need it because...I..." He swallowed. "I'm going to be a father."

This finally seemed to get through to Trouble, but it was obvious that his mind was following two paths. In one, he was growing steadily angrier at a lie manufactured to obtain his sympathy. In the other, he was giving his little brother the benefit of the doubt. Not that the benefit of the doubt was particularly good for Grub, as Trouble fixated on the one fact that would make Grub's complaint true. "A father. Really. You got...laid?"

Grub blushed. "I...well, yes, I suppose." He scowled and seemed to shrink in his chair. "Do you have to say it that way?"

Trouble snorted. "Yes. actually had sex. How in the god's names did you manage to pull that one off?"

Well. There it was. The incredulity. "It wasn't that hard." At his brother's smirk at this choice of words, Grub finally did descend into a sulk. "You know what I mean!"

Trouble sighed, nodding, obviously trying to accommodate this utter destruction of his worldview. His brother. Had sex. With a woman. "D'arvit, Grub. You have the worst luck ever."

Grub had to jerk back at this, confused. "How is that bad?" He had never seen it as such. In fact, he quite enjoyed it.

"Well, it is technically possible to conceive at one go, but damn...sorry, bro."

That was it. Any male, even one on the bottom of the social ladder who was accustomed to such jibes, could only take things for so long. Grub had just been bitched out by Vinyáya, and now he was getting nothing but sarcasm from his brother. Enough...was enough.

With a small explosion, Grub took to his feet, slamming his hands on the desk so hard that it shook, making everything on its surface rattle. "You know what? It's VINYÁYA! We've been doing it for ten years, in my office on LEP time!" He glared down at his brother, panting heavily, murder in his eyes. "Now, what do you have to say about that!"

Frankly, Trouble looked a bit green. He looked at his brother, mouth hanging open and small choked sounds coming out. A muscle at the corner of his left eye began to twitch. Eyes darting around just the tiniest, not really looking at anything, but trying to not look at his little brother so he could hopefully avoid imagining the younger elf and the wing commander on a desk. Trouble focused on his tablet. He picked up a pen and tapped it on the screen, trying to think of some sort of document he could bring up that would distract him. Grub, however, wasn't moving, and Trouble guessed that this meant he wasn't either.

Finally, he sighed, shaking his head at the only conclusion that had occurred to him. He began writing on his tablet, transcribing his words into a memo to Foaly. "I's time I looked into putting cameras in the offices."

Chapter Text

Week 5, Part 4

Trouble Kelp wasn't willing to do his brother too many favors, but he did agree to one: despite the fact that the deadline to apply had passed, Trouble squeezed Grub in for the upcoming captain's exam. It meant skipping lieutenant altogether, but that position had just passed and the pay raise between corporal and lieutenant was not significant, in any case. Then Trouble had told Grub where the study materials were kept and sent the younger elf on his way, all the while interrupting every third sentence with "Vinyáya? Are you...sure?"

By the time he was done, Grub was pretty tired of assuring Trouble that, yes, he was sure Vinyáya was the woman he had been sleeping with for the past ten years and who had just come into his office to inform him that she was carrying his child. Very sure.

When the next day came, Grub arrived at Police Plaza several hours early, sequestering himself in his office. The exam was to be held in three months, which should initially seem like plenty of time to prepare. Except for the facts that: a) Grub had not been in the field for ten years and was fairly certain that he couldn't shoot a parapalegic troll at ten paces, b) he had barely squeaked by into corporal, and c) most elves took three years to study for the intense exam.

If the test booklet had been a physical document instead of a data crystal, it would have been about six thousand small-print pages worth of material. It actually took Grub's tablet a few minutes to load, during which time his situation finally began to sink in. His hands began to shake, spilling his morning coffee over his fingers.

A father. A baby. A father to a baby. Against all logic (and perhaps a few LEP betting pools), Grub Kelp had not only gained a significant other, but was going to have a child. Well... he thought to himself, "gained a significant other" might be a bit generous to me. He had no illusions as to why Vinyáya had visited him for all these years.

His study document finally finished loading, the front page displaying huge text proclaiming it to be the "Lower Elements Police Captain's Exam Study Materials." Below it, at the beginning of the document proper, were the words "You've thought it over, and now you think you're ready for..." Then the text broke off, continued past the edge of his tablet.

Ready for what? He sighed, thinking back on a few moments with Vinyáya over nine years ago, several months into their liaisons.

Vinyáya pulled at her skirt, straightening out a few wrinkles and pulling it further down her sculpted legs. Then she did the same to her shirt, finally ending by sweeping her work jacket on and flipping her long hair out of the back.

She did this all while facing away from Grub, who was sitting in his office chair, hair a mess and shirt lost somewhere under the desk. The young officer watched her back, but looked away when she turned to say her goodbyes. Despite this evasion, he managed to blurt out: "Wing Commander? Are we...together?"

She rolled her eyes and rested a hand on one hip, her body going into sharp angles as she looked down at the disheveled elf. "We're the only ones in this room, aren't we?"

"That's not what I mean," Grub grumbled, looking at his hands, which were wringing themselves on his lap. "I mean...this. What we've been doing. Are you...are we...together?"

There was a short pause. Vinyáya snorted. "Seriously? Gods, you are so..." She shook her head, letting the sentence end, unable to really describe what he was. "No. We are not 'together.' You"

Grub flinched, finally managing to look up at her with wounded eyes. "Fun?"

Vinyáya nodded, smirking, as if she had just given him a great compliment. She reached up, combing long, thin fingers through her shining hair. "Don't be so down about that. You're not half bad at this. If you weren't good, I wouldn't have come back."

"Oh." Grub's eyes darted to her feet and he bit his cheek.

She gave a disgusted tsk and stepped forward, placing a thin hand on Grub's head and ruffling his hair in an affectionate manner that Grub was more prone to associate with comforting a foolish puppy than a disappointed lover. "Get over it, Corporal." She gave a harder shake, slightly jerking his head about, and slapped his cheek once, though not enough to sting. "Can't you just go with this?"

He didn't respond. He just let her slip out of the door, leaving him with only the dim hum of the desk lamps as company.

Once alone, Grub clenched his teeth and hands, trying to release some of the tension that flowed through his body. Then, subsiding almost immediately, he crouched under his desk and began searching for his shirt.

Grub was finally brought out of his recollections by the distant sounds of other LEP office workers arriving at Police Plaza. He shook his head to dissipate the last of the memories, though his body now felt like a rather large weight had been placed upon it, draped over every inch of his flesh as it tried to pull him further towards the center of the Earth. He removed his hands from the coffee—which was now half out of the cup and quite cool—flicking them to remove some of the chilly liquid. With a deep sigh, he began looking for a towel to clean off his desk before it became discolored by the spill.

Chapter Text

Week 5-Part 5:

Grub stayed up all that night going through the exam outline and making notes for what he would need to work on before the test came around. Each item on the list filled him with a bit more dread and, by item 23, he began to have some serious thoughts about just giving up and looking for a second job. Sadly, the LEP was demanding and didn't even leave enough free hours for a part-time position. If Grub was going to get any extra pay, his was going to either find a completely new career or get a promotion. He didn't like his odds of getting a good letter of recommendation from any of the officers.

So, rather extensive study list folded up in his back pocket and data tablet already on and displaying the test document, he walked into the LEP without bothering to watch exactly where he was going.

This proved to be a mistake.

"Grub! You jerk!"

Grub started, the tablet flying out of his hands, shooting forward a few feet and forcing Grub to jump after it. He managed to clip the edge and awkwardly juggle it between his hands until he got a good grip. He stooped over, hyperventilating a bit as he contemplated dropping his prized possession again, then finally swallowed and looked up.

Major Holly Short stood not six inches from him, obviously only held back from punching by the knowledge that he would probably hit her back, but instead with far too many formal complaints than were strictly good for her career, rather than his fists. She bent over slightly until their faces were close enough that her spiky red hair brushed his, and hissed out her words. "You have ruined everything."

Grub backed up, holding the tablet behind his back to protect it from attack. "W-wait! I was being careful! Vinyáya was the one who made the mistake!"

Holly looked up at him, then stood straight herself, eyeing him. If she were a cat, her ears would be flitting in all directions, searching for whatever outside clues she could use to understand what he was talking about. "I meant the paperwork for Artemis's surface leave. He and I have to go up for the Ritual. You didn't approve his visa and the shuttle leaves in an hour." She squinted at him, already curved upper lip curving just a bit more. "What are you talking about?"

This was bad. This was very bad. What did he mean? "Er...the...the cameras going in the officers?"

Holly shrieked. "That was you!" Then she recalled his first reaction. "Vinyáya?"

Grub stepped back again, his voice matching Holly's in shrillness. "No! I didn't mean—"

But it was too late. Holly was rushing down the corridors, calling out to the Wing Commander. Once Grub realized what was about to happen (at least in the sense that Vinyáya was going to find out that he had spilled some of their very sensitive information), he rushed after the female, cursing his weak spine and under-exercised legs. He was lucky enough to have longer legs than Holly, but she made up for that advantage by not being a complete weakling. She wrenched open Vinyáya's office door about ten seconds before Grub could get to her. By the time he also stood in the doorway, she was around the woman's desk.

Vinyáya seemed to be moving a bit slow today, or perhaps that was just shock at the sudden entrance of her coworker. She looked up at Holly, mouth open and ready to demand what was going on, when Holly dived full-force into her rant.

"D'arvit, Vinyáya! Artemis and I aren't going to be able to get away with anything now! Why did you have to tell the Commander?"

Vinyáya was, understandably, not amused. She had been in the upper ranks for centuries, and, as much as she liked the new second-in-command, she still saw her as something of an inexperienced upstart. Most especially when she was being yelled at. "Tell...Trouble...what?" Then she noticed that Holly was not the only person in the room. She slitted her eyes at Grub.

Grub was filled with the sudden desire to barricade himself in his office. Unfortunately, he was fairly certain Vinyáya had made a spare key in the last ten years, or at least knew where one was kept. She had the annoying (but, he had to admit, kind of pleasant) habit of "visiting" him whenever he was facing a deadline, when the door should have been locked.

"About what Grub was doing in his office!" Now Holly was also glaring at him, looking disgusted.

Vinyáya obviously got where Holly's mind was going the second the words were said, though her ire was only removed from Holly, not from the corporal. She continued looking at him in a way that promised much, much pain and sadness.

Grub was a bit behind the times, but he was catching on incrementally. What he was doing? Didn't she mean they? Then he understood. Grub sputtered, shaking his hands at the two women, trying to negate the idea. "No! It wasn't like that! I wasn't alone! Tell her, Vinyáya!"

Vinyáya's glare towards him darkened as Holly again focused on the wing commander. It took the major a moment to realize what was being said. When she did, her jaw dropped. "You...I"

Vinyáya sighed, sitting back in her chair and crossing her legs, thin, manicured fingers twining on her lap. She still radiated malevolence towards Grub (and the young male was fairly certain he was going to wet himself any second now), but she was neutral (and even a bit bland) towards Holly, allowing the woman to come to her own conclusions and respond in whatever fashion best suited her.

Holly looked between Vinyáya and Grub several times. Each time she looked at Vinyáya, her expression seemed to indicate belief. Then she would look at Grub and be overcome with incredulity. Each time she did a circuit, the certainty and uncertainty increased just a fraction. Finally, it seemed to hit the breaking point as she was looking at Vinyáya.

Holly's hands flew to her eyes, the balls of her palms digging into the sockets. She gave a strangled scream, shaking her head and clawing at her hairline. "OH, GODS! THE VISIONS WONT STOP!"

Without bothering to look about (certain she would see Grub standing at the door, and that was not an option), Holly crashed out of the office.

Grub watched her go, ears perked to see if she would say anything more descriptive for the other officers and ruin his situation even more. When she did not, he pulled his head back into the office and looked at the wing commander. "Er...isn't she overreacting a bit?"

Vinyáya shrugged. "I'm not sure. I might be a bit distressed if I found out a coworker sleeping with someone so close to death."

At first, Grub thought she was alluding to her age, which was a rather disparaging statement for her to make. She was only six hundred, which was barely approaching middle age for an elf. Then he realized she was talking about him. He felt his stomach turn over and considered following Holly in screaming down the corridors.

"What did you tell Trouble? I just got the memo about the cameras, as well. I highly doubt the Council will approve the expenditure, but..."

Grub wanted to laugh at this (an insane, terrified laughter, admittedly), given that she was on the Council and would probably be the one to really make that decision, seeing as it concerned the LEP, but he thought better of it. He was fairly certain now was not the time for levity. "He wanted to know why I needed a promotion, and—"

"A what?" Vinyáya snapped, looking at him with much more scrutiny than before, though no less venom. "Why do you need a promotion?"

He really wished she wasn't mirroring his own brother's words so closely. It was kind of unnerving. Was this going to be the reaction everyone had to his studies? "I need money. For the baby."

"For the..." Vinyáya needed quite some time to process this, and all the while she shook her head, muttering under her breath. Finally, she went on with "I don't need money, Kelp. I'm fine with what I get from the Council and the LEP. What I need is for you to keep your mouth shut about what is going on."

Grub wasn't sure if it was wise to do so, but he decided to point out the flaw in her argument. "Wing can't exactly hide a baby. Someone is going to find out about the time you, oh, start going into labor."

"I wasn't talking about having the baby," Vinyáya said, rolling her eyes. "I meant you."

"Me? What about..." Grub halted, the words dying in his throat, leaving him cold inside. He understood. "No."

"No? 'No' what?"

"You..." He spoke through clenched teeth, walking slowly up to her desk and doing his best to look strong. He wasn't sure if such an effort would work on Vinyáya. Actually...he wasn't sure he could convince anyone in that way, but he had to try. "You are not going to keep me out of this."

"I don't see how you have a choice in the matter," she breezed, swiveling her chair back and forth a few inches and resting her head on the headrest. "Do you think anyone is going to believe that I actually slept with you? You?"

No. She was right. No one would believe something like that from him. Perhaps not even if Vinyáya herself said it. After all, why would the stunning, strong Wing Commander go after the gangly Corporal Kelp? Grub himself had his theories as to why (mostly relating to an ability to learn rather quickly and general enthusiasm), but sometimes he woke up in the morning and wasn't really sure that the affair had been going on, despite the ten years that had passed since its inception. "Vinyáya—"

"Wing Commander," she hissed, eyes narrowing.

Grub could feel his heart racing, ready to leap out of his throat and present itself in front of the silver-haired elf as a throbbing mass on her desk. "I...Wing Commander...please." He met her eyes. "It's my child."

"True," Vinyáya nodded, picking up her data tablet and sweeping a long finger across the surface, bringing it out of sleep mode. "But it's my decision, isn't it? Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do."

What kind of argument was there against that? Vinyáya was right: This was entirely her show. If she wanted a co-star, she could bring him in. If she wanted a solo act, she could get him bounced off stage. Yet there had to be something he could do, even if he couldn't think of it at the moment. "This isn't over."

She groaned, setting the tablet back down and burying her head in a hand. "No, Kelp. I really doubt it is. You never could let something go. Will you be submitting a formal complaint to your big brother?"

He flinched, but did his best to recover quickly. There was nothing he could do at this moment, so Grub slunk out of the room, mind racing for some way he could convince Vinyáya to at least acknowledge him as the father, if not seek him out for help. Wasn't this a bit turned around? Weren't women normally trying to convince the man that he was the father?

Behind him, he heard the "ba-doop" of an incoming e-mail.

About fifteen seconds later, Vinyáya burst out of her office, only a few degrees away from spitting fire. "Kelp!"

Grub felt his heart stop. Oh, gods. What did I do?

The woman charged down the hall, pushing Grub aside as she passed. "KELP! I'm going to kill you!"

At first, Grub thought she had just overshot, aim muddle by rage. Then he realized that the woman was careening down the hall...straight for the Commander's office.

"Oh," Grub murmured, slowly grinning. "Sweet." He began to amble down the hall, content to let his lover tear into his brother for whatever he had done this time. It wasn't that far between the two offices. Grub would be there soon enough.

Chapter Text

Week 5-Part 6:

When Grub finally poked his head into the commander's office, he wasn't sure if he should feel amused or sympathetic.

Trouble was leaned over his desk, both elbows on the surface, holding his cheeks in cupped hands. His expression was blank except for a slight raise of the eyebrows that showed some interest, but not that much, all things considered. He seemed a few moments away from yawning, actually, and that did not seem to be helping the mood of his "conversation partner" in the very least.

Vinyáya was screaming into his face, words no longer coherent, and only a few degrees of rage away from actual spittle. She looked like a guard dog kept on its chain too long, finally coming across the opportunity to scare that damn neighborhood kid with the skateboard. A pity that the kid had the full measure of the dog's chain.

Trouble looked past her, ignoring the woman's efforts to get back in his face, and focused on Grub. "Come in and close the door, will you, Bro?"

Grub retreated a step, really wanting to close the boor between himself and the two commanders, but then thought better of it. He might escape whatever confrontation was about to happen, but he certainly wouldn't escape his brother's wrath later on. Unless Vinyáya actually killed him...but he didn't really relish that idea. Too much.

So Grub entered and clicked the door closed, locking it as well, then faced the raging female elf and her nonplussed victim. "So..."

"This brother of yours," Vinyáya snarled, making "brother" sound more like "murderous traitor" than was strictly necessary, "just sent out an office-wide memo"

Grub now was fairly certain he should have run. Entrails would soon coat the walls, if this was true. He liked his entrails. He liked them inside, and in the proper cavities and orientations.

Trouble just yawned, patting at his mouth in a delicate manner. He then spun about his computer screen so it faced them both. "If you didn't rush into things so quickly, Wing Commander, then you would notice that the only person who received this draft of an office-wide memo...was you."

Vinyáya tilted the screen up and studied it. What she saw did nothing to appease her. "So you...taunted me? Threatened me?"

Trouble looked to the ceiling, considering this. Then he nodded once, smiling. "Right-o, Arnica!"

Grub looked at his brother and scowled. Arnica? No one called Vinyáya by her first name. Honestly, he would have been unnerved to learn that her own parents used her first name.

Vinyáya didn't seem to appreciate this, either. She spoke in a tone that was almost identical to the one she had used with Grub only minutes ago. Just with a bit less venom. "What the hell did you just call me?"

"Arnica," Trouble repeated. At her continued incredulity, he hummed, as if musing further. "I suppose 'Vin-Vin' would also work."

"No," Vinyáya said, taking several deep breaths, fighting to regain her control. Losing her temper was never as effective for her as it had proved for some of the other commanders and seconds. "It would not work. You will address me as Wing Commander."

"No," Trouble said, "not so long as you have that." He pointed at Vinyáya's stomach.

Vinyáya looked down at her stomach, frowning, as if it was the source of all of her problems. Then she looked at Grub, remembering that he was technically the source.

Grub smiled, hoping it was a winning one.

It, apparently, wasn't. She pointed at the computer screen, growling. "What do you have to say about this?"

Grub knew it was a stupid thing to say, but the words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. "Wow. You actually want to know my opinion?"

Both of the commanders looked shocked at this small retaliation. Before either could dwell on it too long, Grub stepped closer and read the memo. He had to grin. It was a standard "milestone" announcement, meant to keep the office workers generally up-to-date about the marriages, births, and so on of their coworkers. This one was a pregnancy announcement. Then he read the text:

Trouble Kelp and Arnica Vinyáya would like to announce that they are expecting their first child. They are expecting it to be born near blah blah blah...


Grub had never wanted to hit his brother so much. He could feel rage rising up in his stomach, fueling the fire that tensed his arms and fists. "You and Vinyáya? You bas—"

"Hold it!" Trouble shouted, looking genuinely alarmed. "No. We've never been involved." He was actually backing his chair up, which would have made Grub proud if he were thinking coherently. "You should be thanking me."

"Thanking you?" Grub shrilled. "For what?"

"For getting the Wing Commander here..." Trouble smirked, already feeling he was back in control of the situation, "to think things through."

Perhaps it was the rage, but Grub just didn't get it. He looked to Vinyáya, who seemed rather pale at this conversation. "What is he talking about?"

Vinyáya sighed and the exhale seemed to take all of the wind, rage, and energy out of her. She collapsed into a chair, hanging her head, long hair covering her face. There was enough emotion in her normally cool tone to give a few clues, however, and the tone at the moment was dejected. "Corporal...think for a moment about what would happen if the Commander claimed he was the father."

Grub thought about it, but he found he really couldn't think long, as about all that came to mind was It's not fair! Trubs steals everything I want and never even leaves me his seconds! Rather than voicing this, he just glowered until someone gave him more information.

"What," Vinyáya drawled, rolling her hand in the air to urge his thoughts on, "would they say about me?"

"That you...slept with Trouble?" Grub didn't even like to say that. It was as if voicing the possibility could make it happen. He glared at Trouble.

"Noooooo," his brother said, finally grinning again, in spite of the threatening looks coming from both of his guests. He really liked this entire "artful manipulation" thing. No wonder Fowl did it so often. "They would say she was sleeping with...the Commander."

"My career," Vinyáya moaned shaking her head, "would be ruined."

Grub blinked. He got it...somewhat. "But you got your position before Trouble got his."

"But," Trouble said, holding a finger up like an inventor who had just had his breakthrough, "if she is willing to sleep with the current commander..."

"Oh..." Grub didn't smile at this, even if his brother was so obviously amused. Implicating Commander Root and his predecessor, Commander felt dirty. " didn't send it." He was glad of that. Grub had the feeling that the LEP would easily believe Trouble claiming he had fathered Vinyáya's child (hell, Grub was surprised he wasn't a father already, given all of his conquests), but they would never be convinced that it was actually Grub once the message was sent about the two Commanders. Even if he managed to prove things with DNA tests. And charts. And any other sort of evidence he could bring forward.

"That's the point," Trouble said, exasperated with his younger brother (not that this was an uncommon state). Really, had he no political inclinations? No wonder he'd languished as a corporal for so long. "I can send this out at any time."

"Any time?" Grub asked, wondering if he could guess his brother's password and delete the file. He was not going to let him parade as the father of Grub's child, that was for damn sure.

"Any time...that the Wing Commander does something completely out of line." He held up a hand, asking both of the other elves to keep their protests in check while he went on. "Do not think this is some plot to get you in our clutches, Vinyáya. This is for...civility."

"Civility," Vinyáya hissed, finally looking up, teeth bared and looking remarkably viper-like. "Why, by all the gods, do I have to be civil?"

"Well," Trouble said, choosing his words quite carefully, although he was sure they would still enrage the woman. "A child's parents shouldn't fight, correct?"

"We wouldn't fight. You can't fight if you don't talk. I don't intend to let the corporal to be involved in my life in any way."

Grub flinched. That was still such a...terrifying idea.

"Ah..." Trouble shook his head, benevolent, yet quite smug. "That is precisely what I am talking about. You see, Grub came in here yesterday—shortly after you talked, I imagine—and told me about this development between you two, and asked about being promoted to captain, so he could assist you in at least a financial sense. Now, I must say, I was...astonished."

"I've got to say," Vinyáya sneered, cutting her eyes at Grub, "I'm surprised, too. I didn't think he'd actually try to be responsible about this."

Grub sulked.

Trouble did not.

The Commander sprang to his feet, startling the paired elves. "Wing Commander! You obviously have not been talking with my brother during your little 'meetings' in his office, or else you would know him better. He may be a complete and total prat and a pain in all of the LEP's collective asses—"

Grub scowled, but didn't deny it.

"—but he certainly not irresponsible. In his twenty year career, he has never called in sick to work, and he is rarely late. He consistently finishes his assignments ahead of schedule, under budget, and with the lowest error rate of any officer. He has never even been noticed by Internal Affairs, barring a brief interview after the Fowl Siege—where he was commended for following LEP regulations by not surrendering his weapon when asked to by Butler, I might add—and when Opal Koboi escaped, where he was similarly acquitted, due to the intricate nature of the Brill brother's plans.

"He explained this entire little affair to me—once I managed to get over my shock—and I was impressed at how he handled things. A ranking officer comes up to him and says she is going to do a series of...rather indelicate things to him, and do you know what he did?"

Vinyáya was too flabbergasted by this lecture to respond with anything except a shake of the head.

"He stayed late at work to make up for his lost time, and then he complained to Fairy Resources so much that he managed to see a doctor that night and got proper contraceptives." Trouble laughed, shaking his head in continued disbelief. "Dear Frond, he's boring as hell, but he is certainly not irresponsible. It strikes me, Wing Commander, that you are the one who did not do her part to prevent this pregnancy, making the only truly irresponsible person in this office you."

Vinyáya was silent a long time, staring at Trouble. Them finally, she looked to Grub, raising her eyebrows. She seemed to be deciding what to focus on, and what she finally alighted upon surprised everyone in the office (including herself). "You...stayed late at work? Gods, Corporal, you are so lame."

"See," Trouble said, shaking a finger at the Wing Commander. "That's what I am talking about! Would it kill you to say something nice? Or at least productive?"

"I believe there have been far too many productive moments between us," Vinyáya said coolly, finally collecting herself and leaning back in the chair, crossing her legs and folding her hands in her lap. She looked back to Trouble, deciding he was the one she should be working with in this situation, regardless of Grub's position in the goings-on. Trouble was the one with the power. "Fine. He is trying to become financially solvent. However, I do not need nor want his money. I can take care of things on my own."

"Well...I..." Grub swallowed when they turned back to him. He was really not liking all this attention from the Commanders, even if one of them was (most likely...he wasn't really sure) on his side. "I figured it was only right for me to help you, if I'm going to be involved in—"

"No," Vinyáya said, raising a hand to stop the young man before he went on. "You are not going to be involved in anything. I told you already. I shall be dealing with things on my own."

"Things?" Grub spouted. "This is not a thing, Vinyáya. This is my...our child. Like it or not, I will be involved."

She stared at him. " wrong with you, Corporal? Why do you even want to do this?"

Grub did not speak. His eyes flickered to his brother, who squeezed his lips together, effectively forbidding a response.

"He has his reasons," Trouble supplied before his often-dense younger sibling could make the mistake of going on. "That is not the issue. Will you allow him to help you with this child?"

"No!" Vinyáya snorted without hesitation.

Grub whimpered. "You can't do that!" He paused, then appealed to his brother. "R...right?"

Trouble thought about this, then sighed, sitting back in his seat. "Technically...yes. If you want to be in the child's life, you need to establish paternity. That can be done with simple tests of course, but the Wing Commander will ether have to agree to that test, or you will have to go to court to demand one. I've never heard of a judge denying one for such a simple case as this, would still take months to even get into the system, then possibly years get through trials and win limited visitation. In essence...this is Vinyáya's call."

Vinyáya smirked, well aware of these facts beforehand, but glad someone else realized what was going on and who was in charge.

Grub was, of course, not so pleased. "But...but that's not fair!"

Trouble nodded, but he also shrugged. "In your case, perhaps not. But in others...not all men are good men, Grub."

"But..." Grub hung his head, question barely peeping out. "I'm a good man...right?"

Trouble didn't even need to think about this, but he responded slowly, a half-smile on his face. "If you aren't now, I think you're getting there. Which is really why I called you both in here."

"You didn't precisely call us," Vinyáya pointed out, not liking where this was going.

"True," the Commander agreed, tapping the side of his screen to draw their attention back to the unsent memo. "My brother has stepped up to the situation in a manner that I find quite commendable. I would hope that, for any other couple, you would agree that the father was being responsible by doing what he is doing. So...I propose a compromise."

Grub wasn't fond of compromises. He rarely found himself satisfied with the results.

"Being...?" Vinyáya said, likewise skeptical.

"The exam is in about three months." Trouble began, pulling up a calendar with a few quick taps on his keyboard. "The test is rigorous to begin with, but taking it with so little preparation, and after so long out of the field...I don't think it's ever been done before. If Grub manages to get this promotion, then it will be because he put in an exorbitant number of hours on studying. If he manages to pass in three months..."

Vinyáya frowned. "Then I tell everyone he is the father?"

"No," Trouble said, shaking his head, completely disappointing his younger brother. "That would be too easy. I was merely going to say that his success would show an amazing dedication to the cause. He has shown no desire to become a captain until now, so it is obvious that he is only doing this for yo...ur child." Trouble barely managed to connect the words in time to avoid embarrassment all around. "And, if he passes, you can take that into consideration when you tell everyone that you are pregnant, and decide if you want him to be known as the father. I will not force you to admit it, but I will force you to give him the chance to prove himself."

"A chance," Vinyáya said, looking quite bored. "That's all? Fine. I'll agree to that." She smiled a little, her thoughts all too obvious. Regardless of whether Grub managed to pass his exam, it would just be a matter of her claiming the child was the result of a one-night-stand, and she would be off the hook until after the birth. Even if Grub fought for acknowledgement as the father afterward, she would still have the excuse to back her up later on, when people asked why she slept with him. DNA was undeniable, sure, but no one needed to know about her being rational during the entire process.

"Well...not all." Trouble hedged, suddenly looking nervous. He locked gazes with his younger brother, who was obviously confused, as well as disappointed that things were not going his way. "Regardless of if you tell the world at large, you will need to tell one other person about the child. If you wait until after the birth to do so, then...the shit-storm will be immense."

Grub paled. Then he whimpered. Then he began to tremble, shaking his head. "Oh, no... Please, Trubs, no!"

"Yes," Trouble confirmed gravely. "And don't call me 'Trubs.' This is one thing you can not put off, and you know it."

"Nooooooooo." Grub backed up until he knocked into the closed door. He closed his eyes tight, in much the same way a little child will use a lack of sight to convince themselves that the bogeyman can not possibly get them.

Vinyáya now looked genuinely alarmed. She glanced between the brothers, expecting some genetic-defect-related doctor's visit. As time went on and neither of the brothers revealed the true source of their nerves, she thought it best to just come out and ask. "Who? Who do I have to see?"

Trouble shuddered, suddenly looking very similar to his distressed little brother. A bit shorter hair and a lack of muscles, and they might actually be recognizable as siblings. "The most terrifying woman in the Lower Elements."

Grub let out a long groan that was halfway to a sob. "Mommy!"

Chapter Text

Week 6-Part 1:

After discussing locations, it was decided that meeting "Mommy" at her (and Grub's) house would put Vinyáya at too much of a disadvantage, while meeting at Vinyaya's would lead to similar inconveniences. Given the occasional penchant for the fairy paparazzi to follow either of the Commanders on a slow news day, meeting in public was also out of the question. So, in the end, they settled on a dinner at Trouble's apartment. It was a small bachelor pad, but the kitchen was passably useful, and the dining area large enough for four, if they squeezed in.

Grub arrived with Trouble and set to work with his less culinary-inclined sibling as his assistant, relegating the elder elf to the task of preparing a salad while he focused on the main and side dishes. Grub moved easily in the kitchen, but the second he stepped out of it to cool off, he would begin to shake.

"This is not going to end well."

Trouble looked up from the tomatoes he had been cutting, and whistled between his teeth. "Nope."

"You are supposed to reassure me." Grub pointed out, taking deep breaths to calm his frayed nerves. It wasn't helping much.

"Well, you're not giving me much to work with here, Grub." Trouble tossed the tomatoes in and began to mix the salad about, adding in oil and vinegar as he did. "Vinyáya is older than our mother, so she's not going to like that. She's above you in the LEP, and mother doesn't even approve of dating within the LEP, much less with such a difference in positions. Then there's the rumors about her bloodline..."

Grub groaned, knocking his head into a wall. "Don't mention that, please!"

"Oh, like mother doesn't know that about Vinyáya. Everyone has suspicions about where she got that hair." Trouble shook his head, putting the over-sized fork and spoon he was using with the salad down on the counter. "I mean, Grub...if you wanted to pick someone to piss Mother off, you picked a real winner." He gave his brother a thumbs-up.

"I didn't pick her!" Grub protested, reappearing in the kitchen to tend to the Alfredo sauce. "She picked me."

Trouble stared at the future father. "That still confuses the hell out of me."

Grub just glared at him and ordered Trouble to add some walnuts to the salad, which the commander dutifully did.

When Vinyáya arrived a few minutes later carrying a small box containing a cake, the corporal stared at the item as it was placed on the counter, wrinkling his nose.

"Store-bought?" He said it in much the same manner that humans would say "Nazis?" He lifted the lid off and sniffed at the baked good.

"Oh, excuse me," Vinyáya snapped, snatching the lid back and replacing it. "I just find myself a little short on baking materials, at the moment. Not everyone has a stocked pantry and smashing apron."

Grub looked down at his apron, which displayed puppies frolicking with kittens in a field of tulips. He looked up, dignified. "I think it's cute."

"I think it's something a unicorn would throw up."

"And I think," Trouble broke in, stepping out of the kitchen and supplying Vinyáya with a stack of plates and utensils, "that you should set the table. Mother will be here any moment. Make absolutely sure you set it the 'proper' way." He said this with air quotes.

Vinyáya blinked, trying to decide if he was serious. "Is that really necessary?"

"Yes," both brothers responded at the same time, Grub looking alarmed at her question.

After a pause and a shrug, Vinyáya got to her task, glad she was required to attend so many formal functions for the Council, as it had taught her (second-hand) how to set up a table. She had just put down the last wine glass when the buzzer rang.

Grub nearly dropped the pasta he had been straining, only saved by his brother, who put a hand under the steaming colander to halt its descent. Once Grub had a firm grip, Trouble took his hand away, shaking it and flooding the injured skin with blue sparks to heal the small heat blisters. "D'arvit d'arvit d'arvit!" He flexed his hand, then dried it off on his black jeans. "Okay. Calm down. Nobody panic." He looked about quickly, ponytail flying. "Grub, sauce the pasta. I'll get the door. Vinyáya..." He looked to the Wing Commander.

She tilted her head and crossed her arms, waiting for whatever command he would dare give.

"Er...stand there and look pretty."

Vinyáya blinked. She wasn't sure if she should be pleased at such an easy task or insulted at it. In compromise, she uncrossed her arms, though she now clasped her hands behind her sea-green wrap dress, looking half military and half casual, but all unapproachable femininity.

Neither of the brother's paid her much notice, except for a brief blush from Grub, who proceeded to put his hands on his cheeks. Feeling the warmth there, he dove head-first into the freezer. When he came out, he was back to normal shades and went about portioning the plates.

Trouble approached the door, stopping a moment to tug at the ends of his turtleneck shirt and tighten his ponytail before putting his hand on the knob. He paused again, taking an incredibly deep breath. Then he wrenched the door open. "Mother! You're here!"

Vinyáya frowned. Her parents had passed a few centuries ago, but she had always greeted them with something along the lines of "I missed you!" Not "Oh, gods, you've arrived!" Her frown soon disappeared, replaced by a gape.

The woman who walked into the apartment was...stunning. There was no other word for it. She was tall (only a few centimeters below the similarly gifted Kelp boys) and lithe, with one of those figures that would make all but a supermodel descend into rage over the unfair disparity in female anatomy. Her hair was red, glossy, and well-tended, most of it allowed to fall freely around her shoulders. The woman wore a black cocktail dress and one of the largest trios of diamonds Vinyáya had ever seen (and she spent most of her social nights with the Council or on Principality Hill), one at the tip of either ear, and a final one (this twice as large and light green, which shocked Vinyáya, as the color was even a rarity among the gem-filled Lower Elements) dangling just below her collarbone. Her shoes were unnervingly high-heeled, but the woman didn't seem to falter a moment, despite the fact that she was unable to correct her balance much, due to carrying a vase full of blue tulips.

Vinyáya shot a glance at Grub's apron. The man noticed her gaze and looked down, but he seemed to be in control enough to avoid a second blush. He ripped the item off and threw it into the cabinet under the sink.

"My baby!" She crooned, leaning into her eldest. They placed their heads side to side and made a loud "mwah!" noise (Trouble flicking his eyes to Vinyáya, who only rolled her eyes). When they pulled away, Trouble now holding the flowers, she grabbed the man's shoulders and held him at arm's length, looking him over. "Oh...honey. You still have your hair in that ridiculous ponytail?"

"It keeps it out of my face, Mother." Trouble replied, smiling a little, though it didn't extend very far along his face.

"Well, short hair would do that, too. You should really consider getting it cut. Your father went through his entire time in the LEP with a buzz-cut, and it did his career wonders. The Commanders really took notice of that clean-cut elf." She let her hand hover near her mouth, which was set in an almost impish grin as she mentioned the deceased officer.

"Mother," Trouble replied, shaking his head, smile even more pained than before, "I'm the Commander, now. There's nowhere above to go."

"Oh, but honey! There's always the possibility of getting on the Council."

Vinyáya did her best to hold in a snort, instead turning it into a cough. Even Root had barely begun to be considered for the great conical hat, and that was after nearly fifty years as Commander. Trouble shouldn't be looking forward to a position any time soon.

The cough seemed to catch the woman's attention. She leaned to the side and caught sight of Vinyáya. Her eyes darted back to her son and she grinned. "Trouble...honey, is this the reason you invited me over? Are you already being put in a seat!" She began to bounce.

Vinyáya tried to avoid staring at the mother's chest. It was very distracting, even to her. Gods...this woman is younger than me, isn't she?

"No," Trouble said quickly, breaking away and taking long strides into the dining room. He placed the vase on the table as the centerpiece and returned to the entryway, standing beside the female officer. "Something else, mother. Let me introduce you to Councilwoman and Wing Commander Arnica Vinyáya. Vinyáya, this is my mother, Hibiscus Brenner."

Both women clasped hands and shook. Vinyáya did her best to avoid a reaction to the name, but her eyebrows raised, despite herself.

Hibiscus trilled out a laugh, patting the back of Vinyaya's hand and squeezing it between her own. "Oh, I changed it back, after the divorce. I just hated having two plant names."

Vinyáya nodded in agreement, but wasn't exactly sure what she was agreeing with. This woman reminded her of some of the better actors on the Hill. If she was going to keep this situation from growing awkward, she was going to have to use her own social skills. "It's wonderful to meet you, Ms. Brenner. I'm afraid your sons haven't sufficiently prepared me. What is it that you do?"

Hibiscus looked at Trouble, pouting. "You didn't tell her? Well, I feel so special, now!"

Trouble grinned sheepishly. Out of sight of his mother, Grub flinched.

Ms. Brenner turned back to Vinyáya. "I'm the manager of PPTV's style and entertainment programs."

That explained her attitude and attire, at least. Hibiscus looked like she had stepped right out of a fashion shoot, as would be expected of a woman in her position. The 'entertainment' part, however... Vinyáya barely contained a twitch. 'Entertainment' never meant 'amusement' in the television and film industry. This woman headed up all the broadcasts on celebrity news and gossip. Which meant Vinyáya was one of her biggest targets.

The manager seemed to realize what was going through the woman's mind, as she cooed and tutted, shaking her head. "Oh, no worries, Councilwoman. PPTV has had nothing but good things to say about you for decades. Besides, nothing we say here will go beyond this apartment, unless you allow it. Deal?"

Behind his mother's back, Trouble nodded violently.

Vinyáya did as well, though much more slowly. "I will hold you to that, ma'am."

"Oh, please," the woman gave the officer's hand a final shake before letting it go. "Call me 'Hibiscus.' I would hate to be called 'ma'am' and 'miss' all night! Now, if you'll excuse me, I do believe I gave birth to another son. Where is he...?" She tapped off, drifting into the kitchen, where she began the loud and drawn-out process of greeting her youngest, along with similar complaints about the length of his hair.

Vinyáya watched her go and, once she was out of sight, grabbed Trouble's upper arm and pulled him close, hissing. "You never said she was a reporter."

Trouble leaned down, voice very low, making sure his mother's sensitive elven hearing wouldn't pick up the conversation. "You never asked, and I knew you wouldn't come if you knew. Besides, you just got her word that she wouldn't say anything, and that is far more than I had hoped for. You are golden."

"Golden!" Vinyáya snapped, tightening her grip on the man's arm. "Golden would be if she was a deaf-mute. This is plutonium. The gossip columnist, Kelp!"

"Hey," Trouble twisted his arm, leading to a brief martial arts battle as both officers fought for either freedom or a tighter grip until he finally managed to release himself. "Just trust me on this. She wont mention anything we say here. It's part of her professional code. Now, she might change her focus on you in her reporting, but..." He shrugged.

That didn't sound all that reassuring, but Vinyáya had to go with it. If she didn't, it would be one inter-office memo, and then all of Haven would know, and they would know the fabricated, much-less-flattering version of what was going on. "Fine. Just...fine." She really didn't have much room for a witty comeback, so Vinyáya wandered into the dining room and took a seat at the glass table, long nails drumming the surface.

Trouble came in soon after, claiming the seat to her right. Grub and Hibiscus soon came in with two salad bowls each, setting them on the table, Grub sitting across from Vinyáya with his mother to his left.

The dinner conversation was swift, but predictable. Hibiscus was wild for news on how her sons were doing in the LEP, and prodded Vinyáya for the information she was just sure (she said this with a little giggle) they were hiding. Vinyáya managed to provide a few details (mostly on Trouble's involvement in the various Fowl capers), but she kept tight-lipped for the most part. Grub certainly wasn't a part of her normal work day (well...except for one portion of the day, and she doubted that could be considered 'LEP business') and most of her time spent with Trouble was on top-secret missions.

Vinyáya had to admit that, while the conversation wasn't to her liking, the food was amazing. The first bite of the fettuccine was shocking enough to make her choke, but not from an obstructed airway. She wasn't fond of the mental images conjured up by the term "like an orgasm in my mouth," but it was a fair description. She stared, wide-eyed, at Grub, who smiled and gave her a little nod. After that, she did her best to not wolf down the food, though a glance from Hibiscus told her she might not be succeeding. Still, the officer tried. She may have been "eating for two," but she wasn't going to allow herself to balloon up on delicious...delicious pasta.

At the end of the meal, Grub carried in the cake Vinyáya had brought. She stared at it a minute and had to put a hand over her mouth to hide her wicked smile. He had transferred it onto a rather nice serving plate and proceeded to drizzle on what appeared to be chocolate syrup and powdered sugar, making it appear that the item had been home-cooked and decorated on the plate. Trouble also smirked, but Hibiscus didn't seem to notice the general amusement, taking over the task of cutting and serving.

Just as they were about to tuck into the final dish, Trouble laid his fork across his plate and took a deep breath. "Mother...there is a reason Vinyáya is here."

Hibiscus also put down her fork (followed by the last two dinner guests, both looking significantly less at ease) and folded her hands on the table. She was almost still, but Vinyáya felt a little tremor in the table caused by the woman's jiggling leg. She expected something, that much was obvious. "Yes? To what do I owe the pleasure of getting to see my sons of an evening?"

Both of the boys looked at Vinyáya. She glared between them. They did not respond. This went on for quite some time, with Hibiscus glancing around, her smile growing wider all the time.

Finally, Vinyáya broke. She needed something to distract her, however, so she took the napkin in her hands and began to twist the ends slowly. "I...that is your son and I...we..." She took a deep breath. "We're going to have a baby." She smiled slightly, trying to look confidant.

There was a very long pause.

Hibiscus shrieked. She leapt out of her seat, circling around the table to hug Vinyáya to her chest, momentarily suffocating the startled woman. "I knew it! I just knew it! Oh, my dear, congratulations! I am so excited, I can not even begin! I have been waiting to be a grandmother for such a long time."

"Um...thank you, ma'am." Vinyáya tried to smile wider, but it was weak. At least the woman wasn't ranting or begging to be allowed to do a TV special.

"Oh, this is wonderful." It seemed that the grandmother was the one taking on the pregnancy glow. She held Vinyáya out to give her an inspection, as if sizing up her child-bearing capabilities, and gave a satisfied "Ah!" that seemed good-natured and somewhat relieved. "After all this time...and you!"

Grub lowered his head, grinning.

Hibiscus surged forward and wrapped her arms around Trouble. "After all this time, you finally managed to find the right one!"

Grub slammed his forehead on the table.

Trouble, understandably, utterly freaked out. He stood up, dragging his mother off the ground before she let his neck go and fell onto her unstable feet. "No! It's not me!"

"Not you, honey?" Hibiscus blinked, smile faltering. "But she said..."

Then she froze.

Vinyáya felt her heart-rate double. She darted a look at Grub, who also seemed halfway to (or perhaps only a fraction distant from) a panic attack. He was now sitting straight, but his eyes were wide. Deer-in-the-headlights eyes. Deer-just-obliterated-by-a-semi eyes.

Hibiscus took her seat. She didn't look at any of the other dinner partners. She took up her fork and took in a mouthful of cake. She hummed, nodding at the flavorful baked good, and finally spoke. "I suppose you'll be needing money, then."

Vinyáya balked. If this woman was the head of the society columns, that should have been the last thing she said. "No. I am quite prepared in that department. I have my LEP and Council salary, after all." Not to mention the Section 8 paycheck, which was roughly the same as the other two combined.

"No, no." Hibiscus waved her fork-filled hand at this. "It's only right that we put in half of the money."

"I don't see how you're going to do that," Vinyáya replied, also taking up her fork. She felt the sudden urge to be similarly armed. "The LEP health insurance is quite good. I wont have to pay anything."

"Yes you will," Hibiscus countered, taking another bite before continuing. "I helped Grub look into the options last open-enrollment. The LEP doesn't cover abortions."

Vinyáya's fork clattered to the plate.

"Now, I know a very nice doctor off Amythest St. Very discreet, very affordable. He does this all the time, and you'll be back at work by the next day." Hibiscus scraped her fork on the bottom of the plate, scooping up the raspberry syrup and last crumbs, popping the fork into her mouth and sucking is clean. "I assume this is a new development? It's a bit harder on the body in the second and third months, so you might want to schedule things on a weekend, if you're worried about missing work. And tell him I sent you, if he gives you any problems with making an appointment."

Vinyáya had to take a drink of water to steady herself. Then she shook her head. "No, you misunderstand me. I am not getting an abortion. I am having this child."

"Oh, don't be silly, dear." Ms. Brenner shook her fork in the air, chuckling. It sounded like fine silver bells. "This is serious."

"I know it is serious, Hibiscus. I have made my decision."

At the sound of her name, the woman cringed, but she did not retract her earlier offer to use the familiar word. "You are not...having a child with my son."

Vinyáya clutched at the glass, fingers squeaking on the condensation-covered surface. "Yes, I am." Gods...did I just say that?

Hibiscus turned to her youngest. "Grubby, dear. Tell her you aren't. You have a say in this, right?"

Vinyáya could see Grub's pulse in his neck, and it was going at an alarming pace. He swallowed and flicked his eyes away from his mother. "We are—"

"Look at me, Grubby," Hibiscus exploded, causing her son to focus on her completely.


"Finish your sentence, dear. 'We are not having an unwanted baby.'"


Vinyáya closed her eyes and lowered her head. She should have known this was how it would end. He was just too...easily manipulated. After all, it had been one of the reasons she had chosen him as her partner. A weak spine was just so much easier to bend into the positions she wanted.

Grub swallowed. Then he spoke at a slow pace, voice soft, never looking away from his mother's eyes. "We are having this baby. It is wanted. I am happier than I have ever been, Mommy."

Everyone looked at Grub, astonished. Even he appeared surprised, turning an unnatural green shade as his mother narrowed her eyes.

"No..." she growled, taking a deep, steadying breath, though it did little to alter her faltering composure. "You are not having some...some...part-human beast with this woman!"

Vinyáya felt the familiar rage building in her. Part-human. She stood slowly, still holding onto her glass, intending to fling the cold water into the woman's face. "How...dare you. I am not part-human. The Vinyáya's have no record of interbreeding with the Mud Men, as you should know!"

"Oh, I'm sorry," Hibiscus said in that cutting tone that said she was not sorry at all. "How far back do those records go again?"

"Fifteen generations!"

" that all?" The natural red-head smirked. "The Brenners and Kelps both go back about forty generations.'re just a bit murky, then. Not full of mud."

Mud. Vinyaya's hand began to rise, water at the ready.

Grub bolted around the table, yanking the water out of her grasp and immediately backing up. Which was perhaps wise, though it did not spare him from the glares of both women.

Hibiscus clutched at the table, addressing her son, even though she was glaring at Vinyáya. "Didn't you know, Grubby? I mean...that hair."

Grub looked at Vinyáya's silver hair. A half-elf would have a lot of human features, but someone with only a tinge of human ancestry would also only have a tinge of human traits. A slightly above-average level of aggression. A rounding to the ears. An eye color out of normal fairy shades. Rumor had it that, in Vinyáya's case, it was hair that changed color to the silver-grey of an old human woman when she entered her sixtieth year. For over five hundred years, she had dyed it regularly. It was only shortly before the Hybras incident that she had finally given up on hiding and allowed her natural color to come out. "Yes, Mommy. I knew."

Vinyáya did not appear grateful at the admission. For him to say he was aware of her questionable bloodline was like a sprite saying he was aware that other fairies didn't have wings. Everyone knew. It was mostly ignored, given that there was no proof, but it was times like this that fairies looked a bit more closely at each others ancestry. "Why would you be okay with this if it had been Trouble, but not for him?"

"Trouble knows what he is doing. Grub is still so..."

"Easy to manipulate?" Vinyáya supplied.

"Hmmm." Hibiscus gave Vinyáya a slit-eyed, sideways smile, then turned back to her son. "Honey, I doubt you were thinking of her genetics when you were...involved." Hibiscus waved her hand at the idea. "I doubt this was planned, correct?" At the general silence, she nodded. "As I thought. Well, this is easy enough to fix, as I said. You must want that, right, Grubby? Having a child with...her will be terribly difficult. Don't you think?"

"I...yes." Grub nodded.

"Well, there you are. Just tell her that you don't want that burden, and I'm sure she will agree." She looked to the wing commander. "Being a single mother is just so hard, I can assure you. I raised these boys on my own, after their father left us and died in action." She sighed, almost seeming sad, but Vinyáya was no longer convinced. "So, Grubby, tell me what you want to do."

Grub looked at the ground. It would be hard for him, as well. Not just in the normal sense of how parenting is difficult. This was parenting in a practical war zone. The conversations he'd had with Vinyáya in Trouble's office and tonight were the longest exchanges he had ever had with the wing commander. In fact, each one was longer than their collective conversations in the LEP. She didn't want him, and he wasn't even sure if she would allow him to be recognized as the father without a huge battle. Just getting his promotion so she would consider his involvement was going to take more out of him that he had ever thought he would have to give. It would hard.

Grub cleared his throat and looked at his mother. Locked eyes with her and felt a chill run down his spine at her smile. It was so soft and loving. The smile any mother would give to her youngest child, even when he has gotten himself into a fix. Especially when she could solve his problems with a short phone call, an appointment, and a modest check.

Finally, still looking at her, heart breaking, Grub spoke. "I want to move into my own apartment."

It was the last thing anyone expected, but, to almost everyone's credit, they didn't gasp in horror. Hibiscus, however, let out a bark of laughter, which she tried to cover up by placing a hand over her lips. "Your own apartment, Grubby? Why would you want that?"

"Because I don't want my child to be around someone who wants them dead." Grub almost shouted, but he couldn't bring himself to truly yell. He was a quiet elf, and even this was a lot of emotion for him to be letting out at one time. Especially when it was against his mother.

Across the table, Trouble began to grin. He nodded in approval, fist lightly pounding on the table. "I think that is a wonderful idea. It's about time you grew up."

"You may think it's a wonderful idea," Hibiscus glared at her eldest, "but I think it is utterly ridiculous. Grub, how are you going to afford an apartment on a corporal's salary? You can barely afford what you pay me every month."

"That's not true," Grub said, wishing he could pull out his tablet and bring up his finances for a more concrete argument. "I've been able to put aside some money every month, so I can pay a few month's rent without problems. Plus, I'm going to be taking the captain's exam soon, so I can afford a nice place with no problems, once I pass."

"Once you pass," Hibiscus pointed out, zeroing in on the most flimsy part of Grub's argument. She was getting back in control of the conversation, and that allowed her to think a bit more clearly. "In the meantime, even if you have a passable savings account, you wont be approved at any good facility when they see your current salary. You'll only qualify for a little hole in a slum, and then you'll be stuck there with at least a year's lease, toting around some child while surrounded by all of the thieves and ex-cons."

Grub was going to protest, but she was right. No apartment manager would let him in on the assumption that he would pass his captain's exam and be able to pay rent in the future. "I...I have time to look. I'll take a few days off work and find the right place. I could even get a room mate for a few months. There has to be somewhere—"

"There isn't somewhere that will have everything you need, darling; and do you really know anyone who would room with you, even temporarily? I'm sorry dear, but it's a harsh truth." Hibiscus tutted, as if she was also disappointed in the financial prejudices of real estate and choosy room mates. "Just think of this logically: where are you going to live?"

Grub looked at his untouched cake, thinking. Sparks Street, a loft of the Boulevard of the Kings, a closet in Amythest District...none of it would work. The only corporal he had ever heard of who kept their own apartment had been a younger Holly Short, and she had been living off her inheritance. He only had a few bars of gold in the bank, and that would get mostly eaten up by the deposit. He couldn't think of anywhere to go! Gritting his teeth, Grub closed his eyes and hung his head in defeat.

"He could stay with me."

Grub's head shot up again, but he couldn't breath.

Trouble seemed similarly astonished, not sure the words were correct.

Hibiscus was quickly losing her patience, drifting back towards rage.

Vinyáya seemed momentarily astonished, then smoothed out her napkin on her lap, trying to act casual. "I have my own place on the edge of Principality Hill. Not on the Hill, mind, but close to it. It's nearly paid off, and I've had no issues so far making the mortgage, but I imagine I'll be facing some higher expenses for the next few months, setting things up around the house. A little contribution towards the mortgage would be a huge help." She looked around in the silence, waiting for someone to give an intelligent response. In particular, she decided it was best to focus on Grub, as he was really the only one would could approve of this idea.

Grub just stared at her. He didn't appear to be breathing, still.

Vinyáya coughed, then decided to just move on. "Keep in mind, this is only until you get your promotion, and you will be paying me rent. You are a border, not a housemate."

Grub was turning a slightly blue shade.

"And if you tell anyone on the force that you are boarding with me, I will have you out on the street before the end of the hour. Do I make myself clear, Corporal?"

Grub nodded, then swayed.

Trouble leaned far across the table and steadied his brother. "Breath, Grub."

With a huge gasp, Grub complied. He placed a hand on the table to stabilize himself as he got his air back. "Th-thank you, Wing Commander. It would be...a huge help."

"I'm sure it would," Vinyáya said, not able to keep back a small smirk at the two brother's continued astonishment and Hibiscus's rising ire.

The Kelp brother's mother was getting some control back, having narrowly managed to avoid going into a rage, but she was no less irritated by this entire exchange than she had been when it began. Her youngest...not only moving out, but moving in with this...woman. She ran a hand over her face, and her irritation was immediately replaced by a bright smile, as if she had just switched masks with that movement. "Grubby, my darling, think about what you're getting into. Does this woman even like you?"

"No, Mommy" Grub muttered, eyes flicking to Vinyáya, then away. "That doesn't mean we can't share a house for a few months, until I can get myself on my feet."

"But, Grubby, can you imagine what it would be like to share a place with someone so overtly hostile to you?"

Very slowly, Grub stood and picked up his plate. He looked to Vinyáya and nodded at her full plate, silently asking if she was also done. She seemed as put off her food as him, pushing the cake towards him, allowing him to take it. He left the other two plates for his return trip and made his way around the table to move towards the kitchen.

"Grubby!" Hibiscus called after, voice going up a half-octave at his unexpected silence. "You didn't answer me."

Grub paused in the doorway, then turned to face the table. "Yes, Momm...Mother. I can imagine staying with the Wing Commander will be difficult. But I would rather live with someone hostile towards me than hostile towards my baby."


"My name is Grub, Mother!" Grub shouted bringing silence to the apartment. He turned away, moving into the kitchen. "You're the one who named me. Shouldn't you know that by now?"

Hibiscus sat at the table, making little choking noises, which slightly increased in volume as Grub came back and took away her plate, but did not result in any actual words. When she did manage to come back with a weak argument, Grub refused to answer, remaining in the kitchen to clean the dishes and package up the rest of the food. She continued trying until he handed her a plastic container full of pasta and silently led her to the front door, giving her a short nod before pushing her—as gently as possible—outside and closing the door after her.

This done, Grub stood in the entryway, breathing deeply, then turned and rested his back against the door, slamming his head against the thick wood. Despite all of the tension he had been containing for the last few minutes, he was smiling, hair resting over his closed eyes. "That went about as well as could be expected."

Still at the table, Trouble grinned, nodding in agreement. "Mother is going to be pissed at you for ages."

"Yeah..." Grub rubbed the back of his neck. "About that...mind getting her out of the house after work tomorrow, so I can get in and take my stuff? I'd rather no deal with all that again." At his brother's agreement, he sighed in relief, then looked to Vinyáya. "I...can move in tomorrow, right?"

Vinyáya waved a hand at this, momentarily causing Grub's heart to sink, then spoke. "Yes, certainly. Just have everything you need. I don't exactly have spare towels or an extra toothbrush lying around."

"Thank you, Wing Commander."

The woman picked up her water glass, swirling the inch of liquid left at the bottom around. She licked her lips, then took a small drink, trying to act nonchalant. "That is going to be intolerably awkward."

Grub wilted. "Living together?"

"Oh, besides that." Vinyáya frowned. "'Wing Commander.' I would feel like I was at work all the time. my house...just call me 'Vinyáya.' Acceptable?"

Grub looked at his brother, who raised his eyebrows, then looked back to his new roommate. "I...yes. Thank you. Would you call me 'Grub,' then?"

"No." At his beginning sulk, she went on, rolling her eyes. "'Kelp.' It seems only logical."

Grub jerked his head at his brother. "Then what would you call him?"

"'Trouble,' of course."

Grub opened his mouth to protest.

"Get over it," Vinyáya said, leaving the dining room and claiming her motorcycle jacket from the hall closet. She flipped it around her back, shrugging into both arms at the same time, and approached the door. When Grub didn't move, she rolled her eyes. "Don't think about this too much, Kelp." She paused a bit, letting the word settle in her mouth, then shrugged. "I really just did it to piss your mother off. I hate women like that."

For the briefest of moments, Grub considered defending Hibiscus. Or pointing out the hypocrisy of Vinyáya disapproving of her behavior. Instead, he nodded, embarrassed that he had thought to come to his mother's rescue after everything.

"Kelp..." Vinyáya began, trailing off as she crossed her arms and began tapping her foot.

"I-I'm sorry, it's just—"

"The door, Kelp."

The youngest elf stared at her for a moment, then realized what she was talking about. "Sorry!" He opened the door for the woman, resisting the urge to lead her out with a hand to the small of her back. Before she disappeared into the corridors, he burst out with "Vinyaya!" When she paused, he felt himself faltering. "I...t-thank you." He ran a hand up the back of his head, fingers mussing up his hair. "I can't even say how grateful I am. You' really saved my ass, there."

Vinyáya tossed her helmet between her hands and shot a smirk over her shoulder. "You cook like that," she pointed at the kitchen to indicate the dinner, "while you live with me, and we'll call it even."

Grub gave her the biggest smile she had ever seen on the inexperienced elf, and she had seen him in the middle of some rather good moods in his private office. "It's a deal."

Vinyáya gave the two Kelps a casual salute and popped her helmet on, walking off down the corridor.

Chapter Text

Week 6-Part 2

Grub had one advantage over the other officers's studying for the exam: he hadn't yet used up his allotted study hours. Officers weren't expected to do all of their preparation on their own time, and the LEP allowed for a few hours a week to ready for any promotion exam. As most officers took years to prepare, this meant that Grub could study for nearly his entire workday at the LEP, but he would still have to work past his standard shift in order to cover everything. Grub was not fond of being at work once his shift was over, but it was really his only option. So, early the next evening, he literally rolled off his brother's couch (being unwilling to return home and face his mother again), pulled on his office uniform, and staggered the mile or so the Police Plaza, where he took over a cubicle at the firing range for a few hours before the rest of the shift arrived.

He only halted when Captain Lili Frond came in, noticed him, and seemed to go into a computational breakdown at the sight. "Corporal...Kelp?"

Grub groaned, having been startled by her words, resulting in a wild miss. He slammed his head into the side of the cubicle. The training program he had actually managed to get thirty seconds into shut down at the miss, informing him that ha had failed. He was sure he'd been improving! "Yes, Lieutenant," he snapped, not at all willing to control his tone after so long shooting things. He hadn't held a gun in...gods, he couldn't remember. He hadn't bothered to keep up his skills since being placed behind a desk. It showed.

Without bothering to pick up a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, she walked over. Leaning over his shoulder, she looked at his scores, pushing a strand of hair behind her ears to keep it out of her eyes. "You're...shooting."

Well...people were going to find things out soon enough, what with him almost completely dropping off the paperwork scene for three months. "I'm studying for the captain's exam."

Lili stared at him. "Seriously?"

Grub squeezed the bridge of his nose and breathed in deeply, then nodded. "Yes, Lieutenant. I have been a corporal for the last twenty years. It's high time I went for a promotion."

"Huh," Frond said noncommittally, tapping through the results. She raised her eyebrows as she noted how long he had been working. "You...this is a lot of time in the firing range."

"Well, the exam is in three months."

Lili raised a well-shaped eyebrow. " do know it takes years to prepare for this, right?"

Grub clenched his jaw, bringing up another simulation. "I am fully aware of that, Lieutenant, but I need to pass the next exam."

"That's...insanity." When the man didn't agree, merely beginning to fire at the holograms, quickly missing three easy targets in a row, causing the simulation to end and dragging out an impressive string of curses from the corporal, she snatched the gun from his hands. "And especially insane the way you're doing it!"

Grub turned on her, reaching for the gun, but she held it behind her back and leaned against the cubicle wall to keep him from reaching around and taking it away. "I will do this my way, Lieutenant."

"No," Lili said, poking him in the forehead and pushing him back. "You will not. Not if you plan on passing, anyway."

"Oh, really. And what makes you say that?"

Smirking, Lili tapped her new acorns, which she had only earned herself in the most recent lieutenant's exam. They hadn't even managed to be marred by any dents or nicks, yet. "Just listen to me, will you? Despite what everyone says about my position in the LEP, I had to work for this promotion, just like everyone else."

Grub had to admit, this was a very compelling argument. Most officers were encouraged to pursue a promotion by a captain or major who oversaw their duties, the same higher officer mentoring them through their studies. Of course, most officers also didn't skip the lieutenant position, so that was just another one of the many things working against him.

Despite his agreement, Grub did not admit it to Lili. Instead, he tapped his control panel until the last routine was brought up again. "Sure. But that was to lieutenant, not captain. This is completely different." He held out his hand for the gun, which she finally, reluctantly, gave back.

"Not by much." Before he could get more than three targets into the practice round, Lili reached up, pushing on the barrel of his gun with a thin, finely manicured finger, ruining his aim and bring an end to the round. "Kelp, stop it. You're going about this all wrong."

Grub let himself slouch deeply, slamming into the side of his small cubicle. "Apparently. I suppose I should be coming in even earlier, so I can get work done without interference?"

"Nooooooo," Lili countered, her tone going through multiple sarcastic notes on that one word. "Ever heard the phrase 'work smarter, not harder'?"

"Can't say I have," Grub admitted, trying to look neutral even as his interest was piqued. "But, please, Lieutenant, tell me, how do I work smarter?"

Lili didn't even bother to be diplomatic and restrain her glare. After all, he certainly wasn't holding back his disdain, and she got enough of the from...well, just about everyone on the force, really. "It means that you find every corner you can cut and every advantage you could possible have...and you take them."

"So cheat, you're saying?" He slammed his head into the wall again. That was not the way to prove himself.

Grunting, disgusted, Lili threw a hand in the air, voice going slightly shrill. "If you're going to be like this, then forget it." She spun, long hair flying out behind her as she made for the door, her own practice session at the range forgotten.

Grub, to his credit, immediately realized that he had made a huge mistake. Taking one large step forward, he reached out to the female elf. "Wait! I didn't mean it like that!" He grasped at the air and almost cheered when he managed to make contact with something.

Lili froze, hair slowly drifting to rest on her back. As if expecting something completely different to be there—such as a fire-breathing dragon or a rotting ferret—she looked down at her hand, which was being held tightly by Grub's.

Grub followed her gaze and immediately blushed, removing his hand and holding it behind his back. "I...I mean...any help you could give would be...wonderful." He half-smiled, waiting for a beating.

Against her good breeding (which was telling her to leave the middle-class corporal to flounder on his own) and better judgement, Lili thought about the situation. "You'll be doing this instead of work, wont you?"

He nodded, trying to avoid looking ashamed. There would be a fair amount of chaos when the LEP at large realized that this was the case. They could easily survive for three months without him, but the other office workers would not be pleased with him. He was already anticipating many dirty looks. "I have to. I don't have the time to do anything else."

"No..." She held her hand in front of her, fingers jerking as she counted out something. "You have time for whatever Holly or I send you."

He tried to choke out a response, but was halted by a hand thrust to within a centimeter of his nose.

"Because I'll ask Holly about her exam and what she knows about the one coming up, and tell you where to focus." She took her hand back, crossing both arms in front of her chest. "And I'll coach you a bit, too. If you're not a complete ass to me, like you are to everyone else."

He flinched. I don't deserve that...right? "I just have to do your paperwork? That's it?"

"And be civil."

Civil. Oh, how the stinkworm turns. "I...okay." He nodded, ending by looking at the floor between their feet. "...thanks...Frond."

"Just make sure Holly gets her stuff back in a timely manner. You don't want to know how irritable she was about Artemis almost missing the shuttle." She shuddered at the memory. "Now, shoo!" She flipped her hands towards the door, urging him out. "You're useless here. Go."

Obediently, Grub surrendered his gun to the attendant and went to the door. Just before he was lost down the hall, Grub paused, glancing over his shoulder at Lieutenant Frond.

She was in the middle of claiming her gun, but wasn't paying attention to the attendant. Instead, she was looking at the exit. When Grub and she locked gazes, she gave a little start, whipping her head about and nodding vigorously at the irritated gnome.

Grub blinked, furrowing his brows and looking at the ground, as if this would bring him the much-needed answers. Shrugging, Grub walked off down the halls, glad for a chance to rest his already arching trigger finger and weary wrists. They needed to make those guns more ergonomic. He would have to talk to Foaly about that...

"My, my, my," Artemis muttered, looking over Holly's shoulder as they sat opposite each other at the cafeteria tables. "Now that is something I didn't expect. Kudos to him."

Holly, mouth full of tuna casserole and the fork that had brought it there, turned to look at whatever had caught Artemis's normally very undeterrable attention. She jerked her head back at the sight, returning focus to her lover with the food and utensil still in place, speaking around them. "So that's why she was asking about the Can't be. One of them must be drunk. I'm just not sure who."

A few tables away, Grub Kelp and Lili Frond sat side by side, looking through a pair of data tablets, flipping documents from one to the other and drawing connections between documents. Lili seemed to be—oddly enough, for her—giving him a lecture, which Grub was very interested in. Their lunches appeared to be long forgotten, resting to the side of their small shared table. Their heads were very close together as they looked through the small screens.

Artemis shook his head, digging through his own portion of food, picking out a chunk of fish. "I really doubt it. Drunk people do not study for LEP exams together. They tend to do things that are a lot more fun and require a lot less mental coordination...if a bit more physical coordination."

Holly nodded, finally swallowing her food. "Maybe...but if alcohol makes people act different and Lili is a bit trampy to begin with, perhaps it just makes her act like a scholar?"

Artemis waved his finger in Holly's face, scowling, but half-amused despite himself. "You really shouldn't speak about your own secretary like that, love."

"She went on a date with Chix, Artemis. Chix."

Artemis nodded, still curious as to how Chix had managed that. Apparently, things hadn't progressed much. Chix still hung about the LEP on his days off the surface and in Haven, but Lili was determined to avoid him. Artemis suspected Chix didn't understand that "hard to get" could be just a myth, and that Lili didn't have the heart to remove his testicles in order to free herself from his romantic advances. She would have to get over that. "You really shouldn't judge her by her romantic failures. You didn't have the greatest luck before, if I recall."

"Artemis," Holly said, sniffing, trying to be as dignified as possible, "just because I never had a long-term boyfriend outside Kudzu does not mean I failed."

"Then what is your definition of success?" Artemis said, truly agreeing with her, but not willing to let it all go at once. It was best to keep Holly on her toes. It made her much feistier, overall, and that was useful both for her field work and more interesting non-work activities. "At least Lili has left a better impression on most of her partners."

"Better or deeper?"

"I'm not talking about boot-prints, love."

"Regardless, that is just weird." Holly shook her head, then caught sight of Vinyáya walking though the cafeteria line. She whistled as the Wing Commander finished purchasing, calling her over to join their meal. "Hey, what do you think of that? Bizarre, no?" She jerked her thumb in the direction of the huddled pair.

Vinyáya began to put down her tray, glancing over. She jolted in surprised, dropping the tray the last few inches to the table, spilling water over her entree. She cursed, tipping the plate to drain it.

Grub looked up at the commotion and locked eyes with the Wing Commander. He tilted his head a bit, then shrugged and looked back to the tablet.

Vinyáya stared a little longer, then took her seat. "Very strange. I never thought the boy had it in him to go for Frond."

Artemis watched her closely, then took a big bite of his lunch. "It's always the quiet ones."

Holly nodded in agreement, eyeing her partner. "They would be the most dangerous."

He smiled happily at the sideways compliment. "Still, you really can't expect him to turn down a chance like that, if it means remaining celibate for the rest of his life."

There was an awkward silence as the entire table considered the youngest Kelp's supposed celibacy.

Vinyáya glanced over to the studiers, then back to her food, mixing together the various items. "I suppose you can't."

Several hours later, Grub Kelp was back in his office, following the study strategy Lili had laid out for him. She may not have been the smartest woman in the LEP, but she seemed to be a master of strategic planning. She claimed it was the result of arranging countless society events for the Frond family when she was fresh out of secondary education, but wherever she had developed the skills, they were phenomenal.

She had begun by showing him how the captain's exam was weighted, pointing out the emphasis on recitation of laws and accuracy in the shooting range. The had caused Grub much distress, given his poor performance, but Lili had then brought up the shooting range schedule, highlighting all of the blocks where the more sociable shooters—Commander Kelp, Captain Bodart, and so on—were known to practice. She then copied those blocks into Grub's schedule, instructing him to ask them for tips whenever he was on the range.

After that, she showed him a few memorization strategies, explaining that "you probably wont know a word of what your saying means, but you'll be able to recite it, and that's all they really want." Grub didn't think this was the most effective use of his time, given that it meant his skills would be practically useless, but Lili had just stared at him for a moment and asked when, precisely, he intended to recite the labor laws that were broken by a manufacturing company during construction of a new plant. Grub had reluctantly agreed.

The rest of Grub's schedule was filled in with the less-important aspects of the test (plus a small amount of time for actual work) and Lili handed his tablet back over, looking pretty much smug as hell at her skills. "Follow that, and you should be able to pass."

Grub had looked at the 14-hour days and nodded. Two hours of free time. Not bad, he supposed, though he was disappointed at the extra six hours he would need to spend outside of his shift. "I wonder if I could get these extra hours on my schedule as overtime...I mean, it seems only fair, right?" He looked to Frond, nodding already, thinking of how to broach the subject with his brother.

Lieutenant Frond laughed and rolled her eyes. "Good luck on that, Kelp. I'm sure your brother will just jump at the idea of you cutting into his budget like that."

Grub had scowled and gone to ask Commander Kelp about extending his hours...and was laughed out of the commander's office.

So, Grub had gone back to his own office and settled down for a one-hour memorization session, which was—predictably, all of the past events considered—broken up by the sound of a knock on his door. "Come in."

After a pause, as if the person on the other side was considering how wise it was to actually enter, the door creaked open and Artemis Fowl came in holding a large box. He kicked the door closed behind him, crossed the room, and set his burden down on the desk, panting a little. He wasn't as weak as he'd been on joining the citizens of haven nine years ago, but that box was heavy.

Grub stared at it. Surely Foaly didn't need that much equipment processed? "I'm sorry, Fowl, but all of my hours are devoted to studying for the next few months. Corporal Teak should be—"

"It's not paperwork, Kelp. Foaly already knows you're off limits for a while." Artemis slid the box across the desk until it crowded the officer's tablet to the side. "I told my mother about your situation and...well...she thought you'd appreciate these." He raised his hands in the air, silently asking, Women? What can you do?

Grub blinked at the box. " books. Great." As if he didn't have enough strategies to work with, thanks to Frond. And what good would Mud Man books be? It's not like they had the same laws. He flipped open the top of the box.

Staring back at him, the woman on the cover painted fairly well, but at that point where the "uncanny valley" took over, making the image unnerving to begin with (amplified by the fact that it was a Mud Woman holding a very round belly) was a book that practically screamed "What to Expect When You're Expecting." Mostly because that was the title.

Grub whimpered, pushing the book to the side, hoping it was just a title that Mrs. Fowl had included for her son (he'd heard she was bugging him about grand-kids, right?) and the study books were below. Instead, he came across pregnancy books and child care books and everything to deal with children. There was even a joke "newborn stress kit," including a few painkillers, a sleep mask, and earplugs. " did you...?"

Artemis snorted. "Kelp. Really." He thrust a thumb at his chest. The meaning was clear, even if he didn't say the words: "I'm Artemis Fowl."

Grub took a deep breath. "Right. Got it. Just...okay, what do you want?"

Artemis raised an eyebrow. "Whatever do you mean?" His voice was soft, almost girlish, and entirely full of fake confusion.

"Do you want me to continue processing the Ops Booth's paperwork while I'm studying, or is there something more manipulative waiting for me?" Grub rested his chin on the edge of the box, breathing in the musty smell of old books. It was somewhat comforting, at least, and he needed a lot of comfort for whatever was coming at him from Fowl.

Rather than hitting him with a huge workload, Artemis began to chuckle. "Oh, so nice to know what you think of me." He shook his head. "Look, Kelp...I don't expect anything from you. No blackmail, except..."

Grub steeled himself. He could actually feel the little gold he had in his bank account draining away.

"Don't screw up."

Grub's eyes shot wide. "'Don't'...where is Fowl, and what have you done with him?"

"Oh, so cliché," Artemis chided. "Look, this is not all altruistic. If you are a horrible father, Vinyáya will complain to Holly. And then Holly will complain to me. And then I will have to listen to her. I get enough of that with her job in general, and I really would rather I didn't spend another hour a day hearing about your latest parental failure. An hour with Holly that I could be putting to much better use. So..." He pushed the box forward again. "Get reading—and I will know if you aren't—and I wont tell the entire LEP that you've been screwing with Vinyáya for the past ten years, and that she's expecting your precious intestinal parasite. Okay?"

Grub picked up the first book and began to leaf through. He sighed. "Well...there go my last two free hours."

Artemis snorted and placed what he did sincerely hope was a comforting hand on Grub's shoulder. " time? Really? You lost that at conception. You just didn't realize it."

Not long after his shift at work ended, Grub Kelp, carried by a rather expensive and smelly taxi, arrived in front of Wing Commander Vinyáya's house and was duly floored.

Hibiscus had got off from the divorce rather well, with a house already paid off among her assets, and Grub had never had to face financial hardship there. This, though...this wasn't "close" to Principality Hill. It was practically on it!

Vinyáya's house stood at the very bottom of the upper-class incline, on a long street that bordered the main gates. It looked rather small, compared to the mini-mansions surrounding it, and it was the only one with just a ground floor, leading Grub to believe that it must be a rather old structure that was never torn down when this area of Haven was built up. However, it was well-tended, with no chips or wearing on the blue paint, a nice—if small—garden, and double front doors with stained glass windows.

Grub looked up at it and swallowed. Despite its clean and friendly air, he was not looking forward to approaching that door. This was dangerous. This was...forbidden, even if Vinyáya herself had invited him. He glanced up and down the street—as if expecting someone from the LEP to be watching him, or, even worse, the paparazzi—and approached, struggling with the large box and loaded messenger bag that made his steps wide and clumsy. Once he reached the door, he had to peer around either side of the box to find the doorbell, which he rang with his elbow.

There was tapping from the other side of the door that made Grub cock his head, angling his ear at the noise. Where had he heard that before...he really should take that sound recognition course his brother kept pushing on him.

Then the door opened.

Grub was again floored.

Vinyáya stood in the door, resplendent in a skin-tight blue-sequin dress, her long silver hair put up in a loose bun, with short, curled strands escaping to frame her face. She smiled at Grub, then waved him in. "Hurry!"

Grub obeyed, gaze dropping immediately to Vinyáya's well-defined rear as she turned and walked off. Which proved to be a bad move (if entirely worth it) when he slammed box-first into a wall before getting himself back together and entering a hallway.

"I hope you don't plan on bringing a mattress, because I really don't know where you'll put it. The garage is barely big enough for my bike, so that's right out."

Grub shook his head, then remembered that she couldn't see him. It was very hard to think, at the moment. He wouldn't need his mattress? "I was going to have to buy one, but I guess that can wait until I get my own place."

"Perfect!" Vinyáya opened a side door and turned on the light inside. She took another few steps down the hall, waving grandly at the room.

Grub entered, let his box drop to the floor, and looked around.

"Oh," he said, barely managing to sound neutral. There was only a twin bed. "I..." He wasn't sure what to say. Very close quarters...

"I'm at the end of the hall, but I tend to spend most of my free time in the office, which is the next door down. The other guest room is across the way, and the laundry is next to it."

"Oh," he said again, nodding. "Right. Down the hall. Got it." Guest bedroom. Of course. He had expected as much, until she came to the door in...that dress. Did sequin dresses get sold in a pourable form? There no other way to explain how well it fit. He was almost certain he could see her abs through the material.

"Is someone waiting outside to help you with the rest of your boxes?" Vinyáya peered back towards the entrance, her smile fading, high-heeled shoe tapping.

"No," Grub said, avoiding her gaze. "This is it."

She looked at the box and, while it was large, she could not imagine that this could really be it. "I didn't think you were so...spartan." She played with one of the longer loose strands of her hair, curling it around her finger and letting it pop off the end before catching it again and repeating the process.

"Not...really." Grub admitted. It was best to just get this out there, or else she would merely start to question him. "I only managed to get this packed before my mother arrived and told me to leave. She threatened to call the LEP if I didn't."

Vinyáya stared, stopping her hair play. " were just taking your things, right?"

He nodded, trying to not be offended by the question. It was the kind of thing an LEP officer called to the scene should ask. "Right."

"But...they're your things."

"Yes," he agreed, suddenly feeling the familiar sense of indignation rising within had only just managed to put that aside for a few minutes when the taxi finished its trip. "But it's her house. If she asked me to leave and I didn't, it would be trespassing, even if I was there for my things."

Vinyáya paused, obviously going through her mental law book, and nodded. "True. Been studying?"

"A bit," Grub understated, wanting to reach up and rub his sore eyes. He wondered if they were bloodshot from staring at screens all day.

"Ah. Well." Vinyáya frowned, searching for something to say. She coughed into her hand, then swept it down the hall. "Well...grand tour?"

Grub kicked his box further into the room and nodded. "Sure. Good idea."

The grand tour was rather short. While most homeowners will go into detail about every renovation they had taken to improve a home, Vinyáya just marched through the rooms and back yard, pointing out the important elements: recycling lounge, toilet pond, kitchen, living room, dining nook, and entryway.

It didn't take long for Grub to come to one very important conclusion: Wing Commander Vinyáya was not a home maker. He hadn't really expected her to be, but...well, he could feel his skin crawl at the surroundings. The house wasn't unsanitary, but the mess threw him off entirely. Clean dishes had been piled on the counter next to the dish washer, rather than put back in the cabinets. There was an enormous pile of laundry next to the washers, and he suspected that he would find a similar pile of clean clothing in Vinyáya's room. The living room was taken over by open movie cases, video games (Vinyáya was, apparently, a huge fan of the zombie survival genre), and quite a few stray socks. The dining room table was completely take over with letters, bills, and what appeared to be a quarter of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle, the rest of the pieces nowhere in sight.

Grub swallowed. "Er...nice place."

Vinyáya did not notice the strain in his tone, too busy looking towards the entryway. "Yeah, got it for a song. I'll buy groceries if you cook. Just leave me a list of ingredients you'll need and—"


Vinyáya's smile was back as she jumped towards the door. She paused at the entryway, looking back at Grub. "Don't worry about leaving the light on. I've no idea how long I'll be out."

Grub blinked. "...huh?"

Without giving an explanation, Vinyáya opened the door halfway, extending a delicately-boned hand. "Councilman Lope."

Grub didn't angle his head to look, instead retreating further out of sight. He didn't need to look. He knew what he would see. An older male elf with a dusting of grey at his temples and a set of shockingly green eyes that made his auburn hair pop into focus. And, if Vinyáya was anything to judge by, he would likely be wearing a suit even Fowl would approve of.

"Now, now, Arnica. Do we really have to talk to each other like we do at the Council? It may be the first date, but it's still a date."

"I suppose you're right, Aconite," she began, laughter in her words. The rest were lost as she clicked the door closed behind her.

Grub stared at the wall for a long while. A date. With Councilman Lope.

With a long inward breath, Grub Kelp collected himself. Things could not continue this way. It was time to do something about it.

Chapter Text

Week 6-Part 3

It was the best outing Vinyáya had been treated to in a long time.

Lope was a moderate on the Council, negotiating with the conservative Cahartez and liberal Vinyáya, and generally bringing the entire thing together as Council Leader. He was an older fairy—even compared to her—but he had lived a relatively good life, working entirely in politics, rather than the more dangerous LEP. He began as a representative for East Haven, a position that technically held no power, as the Council made all decisions for the small metropolis, but soon proved adept at swaying popular opinion about the Council's actions. Lope held the record for youngest fairy ever admitted to the Council, as the Haven leaders had quickly realized that having him among their ranks would make leading the city generally easier.

He wasn't universally loved, of course. No politician is. Things had changed with the arrival of the demons, who disapproved of the Council in general, favoring their own tribal leadership. There were calls for the elder statesman to step down—with subsequent calls for Qwan to step up in his place—but nothing was happening, so far.

Rather than talking politics, however, Lope seemed to be putting his every wooing tactic to very effective use. And he had plenty of them. He had never married, but there was not a successful female fairy over 300 (and quite a few under) who hadn't been seen on his arm at one time or another, and all sung his praises.

As with almost all dates, the night began with dinner. Vinyáya knew Reynard's by reputation, but she had never ventured into the place before, preferring a good three-item of Chinese over Italian, but she was pulled in by the soft (both in color and touch) decor, lilting music, and enticing scents. With her shining hair and dress, she felt she must stand out in the dim restaurant, but perhaps that was a good thing. It meant she would be the obvious focus of Lope's attentions, and what more could a girl ask for an a date?

"Tell me, Arnica," Aconite Lope said as their salads were taken away, pulling his chair closer to the table so he could lean over for a quieter bit of conversation. "I've been asking if you would join me for dinner about once a month for years, and you always refused. Why did you suddenly call me up and ask if I was free?"

Vinyáya twirled her glass—water, of course, and thank the gods he wasn't asking about that—and shrugged. "Call it...'taking advantage of new opportunities.'"

Aconite studied her, pursing his lips. "That excuse I certainly have not heard before."

"And it is all," Vinyáya said, taking a quick sip of water, "that you are going to get, I'm afraid. Let's say I didn't think it was fair to you for us to try a relationship before."

"For the last five years?" Aconite leaned in, voice low so the other customers wouldn't be able to pick up his question, and placed a hand over Vinyáya's. "Have you quit Section 8 or somesuch nonesense? Arnica, we need you there."

"No, no," Vinyáya waved off his conclusion, fully aware that a small pink tinge would be coming to her cheeks. Let it come. In fact, she tried to encourage it by breathing more shallowly than normal. "Just...I was...a bit too busy."

"And your schedule has suddenly cleared up?"

"...for the moment. Yes."

Dinner segued easily into dancing, with Reynard's hosting a live jazz and swing band (in only slight defiance of the Italian theme) for the night. Like many elves, Lope had a great love of music and had taken a goodly number of lessons. It was his attitude more than his moves that struck Vinyáya, however. They occasionally parted in spins and swing-outs, but he almost always held her close to his, preferring closed positions with an arm tight about her waist over the more flamboyant spinning of the youngsters that filled most of the floor. It was more than the closeness, however. His entire attention was on Vinyáya, the focus burning through her body in a way she hadn't felt since she was a young elf in the middle of the academy.

The only time he took his attention away from Vinyáya was when the floor was cleared and the band began to explain the rules of a dance competition. He nodded at each point, then looked to Vinyáya, who was not focusing on the announcement, but was instead looking wide-eyed at the front doors, which had just slammed open. She wasn't breathing.

He wrapped his arm even more tightly about her waist, pulling her to his trim chest. "Expecting someone?"

Vinyáya snapped her head to him far too quickly to be strictly casual. "Oh. No. Of course not." She looked back at the door from just the corner of her eyes, biting her lower lip.

Lope wasn't fooled so easily. He grinned, resting his forehead against hers. "Let me guess..."

Vinyáya prepared herself for the worst.

"Major Holly Short is going to burst in here any moment and spout off some flagrant lie about the LEP needing you somewhere, just like you asked her to earlier today, in case things went badly?"

"Oh!" Vinyáya shook her head. "No. Not at all."

"Then...a knight in shining armor, perhaps, here to rescue you from the old dragon of a Councilman who lured you away for the night?" For a second, the hand at her waist turned clawed, pressing into her skin, but Vinyáya's gasp was not one of pain. He chuckled at her reaction, letting go immediately and letting his hand curve naturally, cupping her waist.

"No!" Despite herself, Vinyáya's eyes flickered back to the door. Then she focused on Lope again, laughing quite convincingly. " Really, not at all."

"Good," he whispered, twining their fingers and kissing the back of her hand. "Because I truly would hate to lose such a stunning dance partner right before the competition. I might have to fight to keep you."

"No worries," Vinyáya said, voice just as soft as his as he led her onto the dance floor as the first entrants. "You have me."

"It is," he said, nuzzling at her ear, "a dream come true."

Grub buried his head in his hands. "This is a nightmare."

When they arrived back at her home, the cavern lights had been dimmed to encourage the People to sleep. It was difficult to keep a normal cycle when there was no sun or moon to guide you, so the entirety of Haven responded to the change in hours. Vinyáya knew she was going to regret staying out this late when her alarm went off, but she didn't really care. They didn't win the competition, but the focus of the entire crowd had filled her with a rush of adrenalin that stayed with her for the entire event. It was akin to being on a dangerous Section 8 mission, and she certainly wasn't in that position purely for the paycheck and duty to the People. She was intrinsically an adrenaline junkie, and it didn't matter where she got her fix.

When Councilman Lope finally pulled up in front of her house and parked, coming around to open her door and give him his hand as she stepped out, she suddenly felt like an adolescent being dropped off after a hot date. She clutched at her handbag, looking down, embarrassed despite her years. He was still an older man, even if she was a mature woman, and he was amazingly good at what he did. "Thank you, Aconite. It was...lovely."

Reaching out, he tucked a long strand of silver hair behind an ear, not altogether too careful of the tender piece of flesh. He smirked at his fellow council member's shiver, fully aware that the cavern wasn't that cold, then moved his hand down to trace her cheek. "Well worth the wait. At least for me. I have to know, long do I have to wait until the next date? Is this a once-in-a-decade event?"

"No," she smiled, leaning into his hand, eyes half lidded, and only partially from exhaustion. "I'm free after the meeting on Wednesday. Just...not so late." She felt like her voice must carry down this empty street and alert her neighbors (she never got along with the mini-mansioners very well) to this altogether sensational meeting of political minds. Still, logically she knew it was so low that the words would just barely drift between them, and the lights on the street were so far interspersed that no one would be able to pick them out as two members of the Council, unless they came equipped with night-vision goggles.

"Certainly. Anything." His hand descended just a few centimeters further until he placed his fingers under her chin, thumb rubbing on her lower lip. Slowly, he move in and gave her a soft, yet long kiss, lips barely parted, but still caressing her closely.

When they broke apart, Vinyáya hoped she wasn't panting. That would be so...unladylike. And obvious. "Thank you," she breathed.

He hummed a single laugh and kissed her again, this time shorter, to keep her from reacting too much. When they separated, he leaned against his car. "No. Thank you. For giving me a chance."

Vinyáya looked at the ground. " was worth it."



Lope squeezed her hand and, before they could get started again, he turned the woman to face her house and gave her a small touch on the small of her back to urge her inside, remaining by the side of his car, thinking that approaching the door (and the private rooms beyond) was a bit too risky for a first date.

Vinyáya silently (if reluctantly) agreed and walked up the winding garden path, pausing at the entryway, her hand on the cool wood. She looked over her shoulder.

Lope was still leaning against his little green car, hands in his trouser pockets, watching her. He gave an embarrassed smile and waved at the door, waiting for her to be safely inside.

Vinyáya finally allowed herself a full blush, unlocking her door and stepping inside. She quickly closed the door behind her and leaned against it, sighing. Wondrous... Despite the ache in her feet—which she tried to alleviate by kicking off her shoes—Vinyáya felt like she could walk on air. I should have done that a long time ago...

Every lamp in the house was out, so Vinyáya had to flick on the hall light to get to her room.

The sight was enough to stop her cold. When she recovered, she began to move about, turning on a light in every room and staring inside. She held herself like a soldier on point, ready at any moment for an attack. This was unnerving. It was unknown. It was...

Clean. Dishes put away, laundry done and folded carefully into a few baskets she wasn't even aware she owned, and her movies and games not only all put into their proper case (she routinely spent fifteen minutes tracking a game down to the correct case, as they leap-frogged into whatever was empty at the time), but on the shelves in alphabetical order. And...she could

She went back into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. She did a double-take. What had formerly been a fridge stocked with items she was fairly certain were all past their expiration date was now a fridge half-full of tupperware and casserole dishes. I even own tupperware?

She closed the door and backed away, as if a demon from another dimension would pop out and possess her. This was...

She stepped softly down the hall, again on guard. The main guest bedroom— No. Grub's temporary bedroom door was cracked, the light on inside. She paused, looking down the hall, as if someone was watching her, and pushed it open.

Grub was splayed on his back, data tablet whirring on his chest, mouth open and snoring. Only one of his legs was under the disheveled covers, the other hanging off the edge of the bed, and he hadn't even bothered to change out of his office clothes. Or perhaps he didn't even have a change of clothes, given Hibiscus's interference. Either way, it allowed him some sense of decency that a bare chest and boxers would have destroyed.

Vinyáya couldn't help it. It was a small laugh, but it was enough.

Grub jerked, one hand flying up to rub his face. He smacked his lips, frowning at the taste in his mouth from having it open as he slept, and looked between his fingers. With speed that was commendable in someone so groggy, he sat up. "Oh. Vinyáya. You're back."

"I'm assuming I am. I'm not entirely sure. Did my house get replaced while I was gone? It looks...different."

Grub yawned and flopped back onto the bed, rolling to his side and hugging the pillow to his chest. "Had to...clean... A mess... Everything but your room... Assumed I wasn't...allowed in there."

Vinyáya stepped back, feeling like she had been slapped in the face. She was about to snap back that he was absolutely right when she noticed that Grub had begun to snore again.

She watched him, brow furrowed. She had gone off for a night on the town and he had...cleaned her house. It was...the most...illogical thing she could think of.

What did you expect? For him to follow you to the restaurant and challenge Lope to a duel to protect your honor?

No. That was ridiculous. It wasn't Grub. Grub was...

You don't even know what Grub is. Besides good in bed. Or on a desk, actually.

Vinyáya clenched her fist. Great. Just what she needed. As if another life inside her wasn't enough, now she had a new inner voice emerging to torment her. Vinyáya shook her head, firmly throwing that voice off. With a last look at the elf cuddling her guest pillows, she shut off the light and closed his door, retreating to her own bedroom for the few hours of sleep she would enjoy before the harsh sound of her alarm came.

Chapter Text

Week 6-Part 4

Vinyáya. Seriously. Hated her alarm clock.

What felt like only seconds after she lay down, the digital tormentor began to go off. She promptly picked it up and threw it across the room, insulting it's lineage (she was still half-asleep, but remembered saying something about it's father being a toaster and mother being a faulty surge protector) as it crashed into the wall. Unfortunately, the clock was a sturdy, battery-operated affair, and she didn't even manage to make it land on the snooze button. So, groaning with every small muscle movement, Vinyáya got out of bed and kicked the beeping monstrosity, managing to turn it off.

Despite her foul mood and lack of sleep, Vinyáya was at least responsible enough to remain out of bed. Less from personal responsibility, and more from the fact that her secretary knew where she lived and was not above coming to her home and ringing the doorbell until she got on her way to the office. Pulling on a blue satin robe and trying to drag a hand through her hair, failing utterly to get through the tangles, Vinyáya staggered down the hall and into the kitchen. Where she paused, confused, before pulling the robe even more tightly about her body.

Grub looked up at her from his data tablet. He was leaned against the counter, munching on a scone that Vinyáya was sure had not been in her pantry and could thus only be home-made. He was already dressed in fairly nice slacks and a white t-shirt (his version of office attire), but he also seemed unprepared for the early sight of his temporary room mate. After taking a moment to shake his head rapidly, restarting his thoughts along a more tame track (Vinyáya made a mental note to get a more modest robe before she came home tonight, and possibly some pajamas), he nodded towards a small plate at the end of the counter, where another pastry waited. "Sleep well?" For it being so early in the morning, he was disturbingly cheery. He took another large bite, cheeks puffing out like a squirrel.

Vinyáya snarled at him. She did not talk this early in the morning. It was unnatural.

Grub, understandably, edged further down the counter. He swallowed heavily, pounding a fist to his chest to get the dough through.

Vinyáya began to slam around in the cabinets, growling as ferociously as a crack-fiend mama bear. "Where," she said before too long, "is the coffee machine?" He had put away every appliance. Even the toaster was out of sight, leaving her counters completely bare, but for a knife block (which he was keeping a close eye on). She wasn't even aware she had that much cabinet space. Whenever she tried to put something away, a dozen other items had to be tugged out of the cupboards, so he had either thrown a lot of stuff out or practiced some sort of Tetris-level storage ability.

"Third cabinet from the right of the sink. I thought you didn't drink coffee?" He bit into his pastry. Then, thinking of something, he spoke again, crumbs flying from his stuffed cheeks. "Be careful."

"Why," Vinyáya grumbled, glad that she had finally found her beloved brewer, as well as the grounds and filters, "do I need to be careful? I know how to make a cup of coffee." She slammed the machine on the counter, none too worried about breaking the appliance, though she did check to make sure the pot wasn't cracked by the move. Luckily (as she would have probably had a Vesuvias-level blow-up), it was fine, and she continued her preparations.

"I've been reading some books that Ar...a librarian recommended to me, and it says that drinking a lot of coffee could result" He turned green at this and put down his food. "How many cups do you drink a day?"

Shrugging, Vinyáya filled a filter with several scoops of grounds, shoving it roughly into the machine and tossing a few cupfulls of water in. "I just drink it when I'm really tired, and then...four, five cups?" She punched the "brew" button and stood back, tapping her foot as she waited for the life-giving liquid to flow.

Grub was staring at her, eyes wide in alarm. "Five...that is way too much!"

Hands on her hips, Vinyáya turned her head to look at her new roommate, though she didn't turn her chest from the counter. "Really. Your book told you this, I suppose?"

"Yes!" Grub reached for the coffee machine's "off" button, but found his wrist suddenly encased in a vice-like grip. His hand was swiftly pinned to the counter, the force of the transition sending a jolt of pain up his arm. He looked up and found his face so close to Vinyáya's that her hair brushed against his nose. He had rarely managed to get this close to the woman (at least as their heads were concerned) and was generally pleased when he managed to do so, but this time he was somewhat worried about her eating his face off. Her teeth looked rather sharp, at the moment, though he tried to appeal to his inner logic and remember that they were no sharper than any other elf's.

"Do not," she growled, "mess with the coffee. Ever." She ended the words with her lips raised in a full snarl. The bright lights of the kitchen flashed on her canines.

"But..." Grub whimpered, trying to tug his hand away, only to have the pressure on his wrist double. "The baby!" The smell of the brewing coffee suddenly seemed to turn sinister to him. He had always loved the drink, but now...

"I don't ca—" Vinyáya seemed to freeze. She sniffed once. Then again. Slowly, she turned her head to look at the coffee machine.

She pushed away from Grub, crashing to the opposite end of the counter, where she proceeded to throw up in the newly-cleaned kitchen sink. The sound filled the kitchen, competing with the perky percolation, interspersed with her inventive curses. "Make it stop!" she howled, then again heaved phenomenally.

Grub approached her back, hands extended, ready to sooth her. "It's just morning sickness. It happens. What should I—"

"NO!" Vinyáya shook her head, reaching up to clutch the faucet, as if that would keep her steadier than the counter. "The coffee! Make it stop!"

Grub halted his approach, ears twitching. "" He looked at the machine, mind working far too slowly for the situation he found himself in. "What is—"

"It smells AWFUL!" Again she vomited, crying out as if in true pain. "Please."

Grub finally got it. He swiftly unplugged the coffee machine and took the brew, machine and all, out of the kitchen's sliding glass door, all the way to the opposite end of the garden. He returned moments after leaving the machine on a bench and took a towel out of a drawer. He began to flap this around, driving the smell out of the kitchen.

In just a few minutes, Vinyaya's vomiting had finished and she slid to the floor, back propped against the cabinets, wiping at her mouth with the neckline of her robe. She smacked her lips at the taste of bile, but did not feel ready to make her way to the recycling lounge to brush her teeth free of the acid.

Grub leaned over her, turning on the faucet to rinse out the sink. He took two glasses of water from the cabinets, filling one with water, and dampened his towel. He sank to his knees in front of Vinyáya, handing her the glass of water. "Rinse," he stated, then held out the other glass. "Spit."

She complied readily, repeating the first two steps half a dozen times before her mouth felt reasonably clean. She accepted the damp cloth and began to mop the vomit away from her face, groaning as she noticed some in her long hair, which she squeezed through the cloth several times before she felt reasonably clean.

Grub, satisfied, rinsed out the glasses and put them in the dishwasher.

Vinyáya watched him, slowly regaining her strength. It had been...gods, decades since she last vomited, and she had forgotten how much it could weaken a body. Finally, when she felt in control, she decided to address something that had occurred to her the night before, but which she had not been able to ask the groggy elf. "You're some kind of compulsive, aren't you?"

Grub paused with his hand on the machine's door, frowning. "No," he said quickly, closing the dishwasher and sliding across the waterproof lock, starting the cleaning cycle. "No," he repeated, turning to the wing commander and holding his head high.

"Yes," Vinyáya returned, pushing herself off the ground and leaning against the counter for support. Her legs felt rubbery. Vaguely, she hoped there would be no secret missions to run off on today. She could do her duty, certainly, but it wouldn't be as pleasant as she normally found such outings. "I've never seen someone so...clean."

Grub seemed pleased at the words. "I like clean." He looked around the kitchen, smiling at his improvements. You could actually tell that the counters were black granite, now, and the dining room table (being no longer covered with detritus from every room) was faux-redwood, matching the flooring in the rest of the house, which was also perfectly visible.

"You like cleaning," Vinyáya countered, looking about the kitchen. "And cooking. And paperwork. And having everything in order at the LEP, or else you file another round of paperwork to make sure it's fixed. You have OCD."

"No," he said again, this time glowering. "Believe me, Dr. Cumulus will tell you. I do not. I just like order. I don't have a meltdown if things get out of order. I just..prefer they don't."

Vinyáya almost laughed, sure that he was making a joke, but choked it back. Choking it back proved to be a slight mistake, as she gagged, but did not bring anything up. "'ve asked?"

"Yes," he said once more, and began to wonder if he would be battling her on everything from now on. He didn't relish the idea, but also didn't doubt it was a possibility, and a dangerous one. That could easily lead to the Wing Commander doing something a bit more violent than roughly removing his hand from a kitchen appliance. He vaguely wondered if he could get hazard pay for the time he would spend in this house with her, then brushed the thought aside. "My mother thought I should ask."

"Your mother? Why did she suggest it?" Vinyáya could smell a win coming on. She pursued it relentlessly.

Grub sighed. "Well...she's a mother. You know...the kind of person that is supposed to be concerned over her child?" He tilted his head, eyeing her.

There it was again. How had he learned to make such simple, cutting comments? It was worthy of Fowl, yet he'd always been so...compliant when she visited him. Of course, he'd been mostly silent, too. Vinyáya began to rethink her decision to offer him a room. She wasn't going to keep taking this. He needed to be put back in his place, or else they wouldn't even last the next three days, not to mention three months. "I didn't ask for this child."

"You think I did?" Grub shook his head vehemently, leaning against the counter for support. It was the only kind he'd be getting here, after all. "I'm doing my best to make sure it is at least born healthy, if not...if not asked for." He closed his eyes, gathering himself together before continuing. "Which is why I tried to warn you about drinking too much caffeine, but it appears that your body has solved that little issue itself. Glad it's on my side."

Ah, yes. The vomiting. That little incident was itching at the back of Vinyáya's mind. "What...was that?" She looked at the sink and felt a roiling in her stomach at the memories. She hadn't vomited in a fashion that spectacular since her college years.

"Well, from what I've read," Grub said, tapping at his forehead, as if that would shake the knowledge loose, "pregnant women can become...sensitive to certain smells. It appears yours is coffee."

Vinyáya was horrified. It couldn't be true! Yet...her reaction a few days ago in the LEP break room... She hadn't been able to get past the front door. Something in there had been setting off alarms in her brain. She had assumed Mulch Diggums had weaseled his way in for a little fact-gathering on his latest case, since he always stunk up a room, and hadn't gone back to confirm this when Short wound up being ill. Apparently, the scent had instead been brewing coffee. "You mean to tell me...that the smell of coffee is going to make me sick?"

Grub nodded, picking up his half-eaten pastry again and walking towards the dining room table. "For at least the next few months, I think."

Vinyáya did not like the fact that Grub was telling her how her body was going to be acting. For the last several hundred years, she had been in near-complete control of herself, and now the presence of a child that was—well, she wasn't sure how big it was, at the moment, but it couldn't be too terribly developed—negligibly small was taking over. For a brief moment, she considered the alternative...then groaned at the idea. No. She was not...that wasn't her.

Pausing as he donned and adjusted his messenger bag, Grub inspected her. "Are you need some more help?"

"No," Vinyáya snapped back, holding up a hand to ward him off. "I'm fine. Go. It looks like you're about to head out. I can take care of myself."

Grub looked down at his bag, brow furrowed, then back up to the woman. "Really, I can be a bit late—"

"That has already happened to one of us, and being late is not turning out so stellar, so I'd rather you just go."

"Fine. Fine. if you need anything." He moved out of the house slowly, constantly looking back, all the time raising Vinyáya's ire (even if he did not realize it) with each small pause. Finally, he stepped outside, closing the door behind him, and began the trek to Police Plaza.

Vinyáya waited a few seconds, in case he would pop his head back inside for a further offer of help. When he did not, she calmly walked into the back yard, opened the door to the recycling lounge, and proceeded to retch for the next half-hour. In the most dignified manner possible.

Understandably, Grub Kelp did not come back to help Vinyáya, being ignorant of her plight. So he merely took off down the street, a pair of headphones tucked into his ears. He hummed along to the music, his footsteps matching the beat, and nodded his head in agreement with the bands, even when he wasn't really certain what they were saying. As he walked, he read from his tablet, eyes darting across the screen with commendable speed. He barely noticed the world around him, except to glance up at the gilded gates that marked the entrance to Principality Hill, smiling nervously at the guard who scowled at him. Then he turned a corner and was back down to the tablet and engrossed in his task.

Thus, he did not hear the fairy calling out to him from the street, car slowed to follow him as they tried to get his attention. After a good minute of unsuccessful calls, queries, and mild insults, the fairy gave up the polite approach and laid into the horn.

Grub shot into the air, hands scrambling to keep hold of his tablet. He landed in a crouch, arms tight around his chest and tightly securing his precious digital organizer, and spun to face his attacker.

It was a slick silver convertible, the roof down (as there wasn't really a need for a roof on a car in Haven, except to keep out noise and the occasional rockfall). At the helm, standing on the driver's seat so she could lean out over the windshield, was Lieutenant Lili Frond with an amused and annoyed look. "Kelp, what in the name of the old gods are you doing?" She tapped her manicured fingernails on the windshield, releasing an impressive drumming sound.

"Oh. Frond." He wasn't sure if he was acknowledging her or cursing at his discovery, and she gave a little smirk that seemed to say she was also uncertain, but warning him against the latter. He ripped the headphones out of his ears, tossing them over his shoulders. "Walking." He jerked his thumb behind, indicating the direction of Police Plaza.

"Well, duh. I meant what are you doing here." She waved back towards the Hill and surrounding communities. "I thought I always saw you walking in from the south of Haven, not the North."

"Oh." He was going to die. "I moved."


Grub nodded. "Uh huh." He wanted to smack his forehead, but that seemed like it would just further convince Lili that he was an utter boob. "Yes. I...yes." Brilliant evasion.

Lili studied him. "You are going to walk three kilometers to Police a full work day, including an hour workout...and then walk three kilometers back here?"


Lili's face lost a lot of expression. The strawberry-blond woman looked to the ceiling of the cavern (a reflex that the fairies hadn't lost, even after over 10,000 years under the ground and out of sight of the heavens), then she sank into the driver's seat. She pushed a button and the passenger-side door popped open with a pneumatic hiss. "Get inside, Kelp."

Grub stared at the door, as if it was some sort of decoy meant to disguise the mouth of a monster, which would slam down on him the second he went inside. Like an anglerfish. (Fucking anglerfish.) "I—"

Lili looked at him past the rear-view mirror, eyes thin slits. "I am not going to lose paperwork processing because you were a git and decided to exhaust yourself walking to work when you should have been studying. Get in the car."

"Yes, ma'am," Grub muttered and scurried in, buckling his seat-belt tight and settling in for the danger. Women in the LEP did not tend to drive safely. Not that they got into accidents, but he'd been in a car with Holly Short before. He'd almost needed a change of pants by the end of the day.

Either Lili was in a good mood or she was a naturally safe driver, as Grub only found himself whimpering a few times, and all because the other drivers on the road were exhibiting some early-evening rush-hour temper. He was disinclined to speak (beyond praying, perhaps) for the first part of the trip, but after a few minutes of silence as they waited in traffic on the outskirts of downtown Haven, Lili decided to force him into conversation so she could learn a bit more about what was going on.

"So...a new place? Why?"

"Oh...issues," Grub said, trying to be vague.

"Oh, yes. Issues. That explains everything," Lili said, her car coming to a dead stop, allowing her to turn in her seat and face him, manicured fingernails tapping the gearshift. "Let me guess...either you failed to pay rent, your mother decided it was time for you to 'become a real adult,' or she got a new boyfriend and decided to kick you out."

Grub had to smile at this. "Er...none, actually. I decided it was time to move out." After a moment, one of his ears twitched to the side. Gods, did everyone in Police Plaza know he lived with his mother?

Lili leaned back in her seat, head shifting up and down as she studied him. "So you moved down the Hill on a corporal's salary? Who's the kind heart?"

Damn. She was more observant than he thought. "No one. I—"

"Bullshit." Lili shook her head and edged the car a few meters further. "No one lives that close to the Hill unless they make a lot more than you, they inherited land, or they have a roommate."

"Oh? Then why are you living there?" He smirked at the rejoinder.

"Inheritance," Lili muttered, clawing at the rubber-topped gearshift, lips clamping down to a thin line.

Grub could have kicked himself. Inheritance. Of course. Lili Frond, the last of the main branch of the Frond family. The only one who hadn't been devastated by the Spelltropy plague, and only spared because she had been placed in quarantine along with all of the other new LEP recruits at the beginning of the outbreak.

"Sorry," Grub whispered, looking at his feet.

"Don't be," she said, the edge gone from her voice already, finally managing to get onto the main street approaching Police Plaza, inching their way toward the underground parking area. "You can apologize by telling me who is putting up with...putting you up for a while." She coughed.

"I...look, I don't think I can say," Grub admitted, blowing at a strand of hair that was getting into his eyes. "She would be pretty pi—"

"Vinyáya!" Lili shrieked, her attention so quickly taken away from the road that she nearly ran into the car in front of her, only saved by a gasp of terror from Grub. Honking horns surrounded them, but they could not drown out her screeches. "Vinyáya is letting you board with her?"

"What? No! Of course not!" Grub said too quickly to be believed, eyes widening in panic.

"Yes, it is!" Lili laughed, shaking her head. "She is the only woman I know that lives anywhere near the Hill that you have a remote chance of knowing. The Ice Queen? Living with you? What is going on, Kelp?"

He had to think of something, and fast. Something close enough to the truth that he wouldn't ruin his story by repeating it incorrectly at a later date, but also vague enough that the noble wouldn't guess the real reason for his temporary cohabitation. "I...Vinyaya...Trouble..." It was not coming. He was in so much trouble.

Lili watched him as much as she could without getting into an accident as she pulled into the parking structure and began searching for a free spot. "Hmmm...let me guess...Trouble and Vinyáya came over to your mother's house for...some reason," she went quite sarcastic on the last two words, smirked at the idea of what 'some reason' could be, wondering if she should be knocking on the two Commander's doors a bit longer in future, "and your mother ranted about how you haven't really done anything since you got into the LEP, but your brother is Commander, so she kicked you out to 'push you along.' You're going for promotion to captain so you can make ends meet, maybe move back home, and Trouble forced Vinyáya to take you in until after the exam, to make up for screwing things over. Right?" She finally found a spot and slid in, turning off the engine with a small flourish, as if stating "tah dah!"

"" Grub shook his head. "Not exactly. Vinyáya...volunteered to let me stay, and my mother is mad for other reasons."

Lili pursed her lips, gaze again shifting up and down Grub's body, making him feel more than vaguely uncomfortable. "So...not going to tell me the full story?"

He shook his head, unruly hair whipping about and falling into his eyes when he stopped. He didn't trust himself to speak. Speaking was not going well for him in general, these days.

She raised her hands in surrender and popped their doors open. "Fine. Whatever. Shoo." She flapped her hands at him. "I've got a busy day, and so do you. Be here ten minutes after the shift ends."

Grub popped the door open, then snapped about to face her, gaping. "What?"

She gathered a few bags from the back seat and bumped the door closed with her hip. "Like I said, I am not losing premium paperwork processing because you are too daft to bunk with someone closer to work. You're on my way. So long as you aren't an ass, of course, but doesn't that go without saying?" She watched him for a moment, then leaned against the side of the car, angling over her door so she could get closer to him. "Grub..." Her voice was light. Chiding and playful.

He swallowed. "Er...what?"

"I'm late."

"It's not my fault!" He barked, backing into the passenger door, heart hammering.

"Yes, it is," Lili snapped back, but without too much intensity. She flicked her hand at him. "Get out of the car, or I'll be even later, and you do not want to see Holly's reaction if I'm not on the office when she shows up."

Grub stared at her, mind frozen, and then got it. "Oh!" He staggered out of the car, slamming the door behind him and jumping rather high in the air when the car honked to confirm that Lili had locked it. "Sorry!"

She shook her head, smiling. "You are a spaz." With that, she turned and sashayed across the parking structure, hips at a natural sway that made her long, lightly curled hair drift about as if in a breeze.

Grub watched her go, feeling rather stupid. How the hell did he keep getting himself into these situations? With a long-suffering sigh, he followed after, taking out his tablet and continuing his reading.

Chapter Text

Week 6-Part 5

Grub hated working out. The LEP required him to partake in a half-hour of moderate physical activity a day, and he had so far fulfilled his obligation (with the standard pound of complaints every week) by going to the Police Plaza gym for a light jog. It allowed him to listen to his music or watch a short show, and no one (after the first three lectures to the entire LEP from the old Commander Root) bothered him about taking things so easy. This had never seemed like a problem before, but Lili...Lili had put weightlifting on his gym schedule.

Something was seriously wrong with that woman.

Now Grub was regretting the last twenty years of slacking. The half-hour jogs had given him some stamina and his gangly shape, but he was still among the least physically-fit officers in the force. Others may have had a more rotund build, but all of them could lift more, punch harder, and climb higher than Grub. He had barely squeaked by into the position of corporal on jogging. He had no idea how he was going to strengthen himself to survive as a captain.

So, in accordance with Frond's outline, Grub shortened his time on the treadmill to 15 minutes, but tripled his speed. By the end of his three kilometers of running, he was too exhausted to even reach up and hit the emergency shut-off switch. As a result, he utilized an easy—if painful and remarkably unintelligent—escape route: he stopped running.

Grub was shot off the back of the treadmill, feet moving faster than his torso until he was held at an alarming angle. What little breath he maintained at the end of his run was promptly lost as he landed hard on his chest, his fall only lightly cushioned by the rubber-padded floor. Grub whimpered and wheezed, curling up into a ball, arms crossed over his chest. "Mu...Mum...son of a bitch!" he finally gasped, blue sparks flashing in his eyes. He wasn't entirely certain if they were from healing or just the proverbial "seeing stars."

In the square of empty space that was surrounded by the ranged treadmills, stationary bikes, and other cardio machines, Trouble Kelp and Ash Vein (the sprite major who had lost out to Holly Short on the position of second-in-command to the new Recon/Retrieval commander) began to laugh. They were both shirtless—though their lower halves were decently covered in loose green LEP jogging pants—and displaying infuriatingly well-developed chest and arm muscles. The pair were juggling three medicine balls between them, letting out loud puffs of air with each catch. The floor around them was already dotted with sweat, and they had only arrived half-way through Grub's run.

Ash jerked his head in the corporal's direction. "The runt is going for the exam, I heard."

Trouble nodded, teeth gritted as he caught the balls. "Yep." He really didn't feel like elaborating. Vein was his best Recon officer, behind Short, but he was also his most troublesome employee. Even Chix Verbil didn't received as many complaints about his behavior.

"'d he fuck up?"

Trouble chuckled. "You wouldn't believe me if I was at liberty to say."

"Oooo...intriguing." Vein turned his head slightly, sizing up the young Kelp while still keeping an eye on the exercise balls.

Grub finally managed to collect himself, sitting up and shaking his head. He ran a hand through his hair, pushing it back from his eyes, but stopped mid-sweep. Slowly, he took his hand away and looked at his palm, which was now covered in sweat. "Oh...ewewew!" He flicked his hand and wiped it on the ground.

"Yo, Maggot!" Vein called.

Grub flinched. He really hated Vein. The sprite had only been in the Academy alongside him for one year, but he made his impression as the kind of upperclassman who expected the new students to run his errands and let him go first in any line. Things hadn't changed much between them. "It's 'Grub.'" The corporal stood, dusting off his chest, pulling at his shirt to un-stick it from his skin. Gods, he felt unclean...

"Hear you're looking for a promotion. What'd you do?"

Trouble rolled his eyes. He needed to distract Vein, or else this had a very high potential to end badly. "Hup!" he called, giving Vein a moment to react before he altered the range of his throws.

Vein sprang into the air, his wings beating furiously. With each catch, he dipped a foot or two, forcing his wings to beat even faster until the ball left his hands, empty for only a few seconds before the next weight came his way. This was a normal exercise between the two high-ranking officers, so it did not distract Vein for long. "I mean—huff!—you must have—haaa!—done something—woah!—pretty stupid."

Grub looked about the gym. Vinyáya hadn't appeared yet, but he wasn't sure about her daily schedule. Hers seemed...erratic. He had never managed to pin it down. She might be slated for a day in the office, then the wing commander would disappear with no notice, not even her harried secretary clued in as to where the elf had gone. She was always back the next day, and she often seemed...bright-eyed. Becalmed. It was intriguing, but utterly incomprehensible.

Seeing that the gym was pretty much empty, excepting some new recruits from Traffic, Grub decided it was safe to respond. "No...I'd say what I did was pretty clever." He looked to his brother, who was smirking, though he was also shaking his head.

"Oh, really? Seems to me—that the only thing—that comes out of you—grah!—is a wide variety—of failure."

Grub was about to snap back—probably saying something he really should have kept to himself—but was saved by Trouble's call of "Up top!"

Vein, distracted by his jibes at the young Kelp, did not react in time. One of the medicine balls crashed into his forehead, weighting him down. He fell the ten feet to the gym floor, bellowing in pain at a snap in his left wing.

"D'arvit!" Trouble grunted, dodging the ball that had been falling towards him and going to Veins side. He pulled the sprite into a sitting position and grabbed the tip of a wing. Stretching it roughly until the thin bones were in proper alignment, Kelp flooded the thick wing with magic. The wound healed instantly and Vein flapped his wing a few times to ascertain if there was any lasting damage.

Satisfied that he was not crippled for life (Trouble had a lot of experience healing sprites, from his long association with Vein and Verbil, and it had been a break, not a puncture, like Chix had suffered so long ago), Vein stood unsteadily, stretching the soreness out of his muscles and tilting his head to either side until his neck popped. "Gah...nice, you guys. Real nice." He brushed his hands along his buzz-cut head, getting rid of the gym-floor dirt.

"Just shut up, Vein," Trouble snapped, picking up two exercise balls and taking up position about two meters away from the sprite.

"No, no," the captain said, holding up his hands to ask his commander to wait a while. "Something is going on here, and everyone in the LEP knows it. Maggot is trying to do the impossible, and I think we all want to know why. Tell me...what has got you up in a lather?"

Corporal Kelp tried not to scream in frustration. The sprite would never give up, would he? Didn't he realize that he was asking about something extremely sensitive? Well...of course he did. That was just Vein. Grub had never met such an obtuse fairy in his life...excepting possibly Chix. "Nothing. It's just time for me to go for a promotion. I've been a corporal for longer than almost anyone on the force." His ears were twitching, picking up every sound. The pounding of feet on treadmills. The squeak of gears long in need of an oiling. The opening of the gym door and approaching light footfalls. Familiar footfalls...

"Oh, sure." Vein snorted, rolling his eyes. "Let me want to hide behind the Acorn Shield, but you're not high up enough to get away with anything? Or maybe you want to boss around a few subordinates? No, no! I got it!" He laughed, smacking his head at his own stupidity. "A girl. It's always a girl." He leered at the elf, waggling his eyebrows, but there was no typical male camaraderie in the gesture. "Tell me, what stupid woman did you manage to convince to fu—oof!"

A thin figure flitted past Grub's peripheral vision, hand clamping over Vein's mouth. Vinyáya didn't even break stride as she continued, tucking one shoe behind Vein's feet and pushing with all of her strength, sending the sprite crashing to the floor, where he landed directly on his folded wings. She gave Trouble a very quiet low-five as she passed and took her place on one of the treadmills without once looking back.

Vein was wheezing from the pain of again landing on his precious wings. He looked up at Trouble for assistance. "What is up with her, man?"

"Er...must be 'that time of the month.' You know how she is." Trouble shrugged and went to Vein's side, pulling him to his feet. "Come on, let's talk to a medic, this time for that bruising."

Vein nodded in agreement, whimpering as he was led out of the gym, muttering something about "crazy broads." He did not question Trouble about why he wasn't healing him directly. Whatever was necessary to beat a dignified retreat from the cold female.

Heaving a sigh, Grub walked to Vinyáya's treadmill. He stopped behind her, collecting his thoughts. "Er...thanks," he finally muttered, speaking softly so the rest of the gym couldn't overhear. Not an overwhelming show of appreciation, but it was all he could choke out.

Vinyáya barely flicked her eyes at him, but she gave the younger elf a small nod. She punched at the treadmill's buttons harder than was strictly necessary, speed rising so she soon broke into a jog.

Grub stared at her back. Then he nodded and walked off towards the free-weights, feeling lighter than he had in days.

One rep on the bench press later, that feeling was gone. "D'arvit!" He kicked his legs in the air, as if that would help him lift the ludicrously small load.

Vinyáya looked over at him and smiled, shaking her head.

By lunchtime, Vinyáya was dragging. The Gnommish letters on her screen were beginning to meld together (or else the goblins were whispering about a new rebellion involving nail-clippers in pudding...), and her secretary was being particularly irritating. In that he was breathing. She was just beginning to consider skipping out for the rest of the day when there was a knock at the door.

She hadn't even had a drink the last night, yet she felt like she had a hangover. No one had ever mentioned to her that pregnancy felt a lot like the night after a binge; if they had, she would have been a lot more careful with her reproductive tendencies. The officer remained silent, hoping that the intruder would leave, but the knock merely came again. Rubbing her temples with both hands, Vinyáya decided it was best to give in. "Enter," she said, in what she hoped was a deep, forbidding voice.

There was an awkward pause as whoever stood on the other end considered her tone. Then the door opened and Grub came in holding a thermos and a green box.

Vinyáya groaned. "Corporal...why are you here? This had better be good." She really didn't need rumors to start flying already.

He closed the door behind him, smiling nervously. "I...well, I thought...I just...ugh." He finished intelligently, knocking the back of his wrist against his forehead. Crossing the room, the male placed the thermos and box on her desk. He took several steps back, rubbing at his neck and inspecting the ground. "It's green tea. There's some caffeine in it—not as much as coffee, though—and it hopefully wont trigger your nausea. Just...don't drink too much. Please?"

Vinyáya stared at Grub for a long time, not sure how to respond. When she realized he wasn't going to make a move, the woman tentatively picked up the thermos, unscrewed the cap, and sniffed. It didn't do anything to her stomach, so she took a sip. Vinyáya wasn't lying all those years ago, when she said she preferred tea, and she was a fairly good judge of quality. Wherever he had bought the leaves, it was a rather nice blend. She savored the taste, breathing in the steam. She could already feel herself waking up and, while she was sure it was mostly a placebo effect, she appreciated it.

Slowly, she remembered that Grub was still there. Vinyáya set the thermos down, keeping her hands wrapped around the warm container. "I...thank you, Corporal."

He nodded, giving her a very small grin and two-fingered salute before slipping out of the office without further comment.

Vinyáya watched the door, wondering at the brief interlude. Then she sipped her tea again and let the caffeine truly seep in. She would have to look up what her limit should be, or else he was sure to have another panic attack. For now, she enjoyed the infusion and the calm it brought.

Some hours later, every muscle in his body ready to fall off and/or burst into flames, Grub dragged himself to the parking garage. Lili was already in her car, though the driver's-side door was open and she was sitting with her legs hanging out, adjusting her pantyhose.

Grub stopped in front of her, looking down, and gave a greeting. "Nnnnnnnnnnhiiii." It was reasonably coherent, given his day.

Lili jumped, not expecting such a bestial greeting. She recovered quickly, sitting straight and draping one arm across her steering wheel, ready to go. "Good workout?" she queried.

Grub just stared at her, not trusting himself to say anything competent or civil. Civil being very important, given that he was pretty sure a three mile walk back to his new home would kill him. So, slowly, he nodded.

Lili observed him for a while, then began to laugh. She covered her mouth with the back of a hand to be kind, but her eyes shone. "I...I'm so sorry. I'm not trying to be mean. Come on. Get in." She popped the passenger door and gave a little shove, opening it for the exhausted corporal.

Staggering like a drunk fairy, Grub walked to the other side of the car and collapsed into the seat. When the car didn't move, he looked about in confusion. He narrowed his eyes at his open door. Holding onto the seat with one hand, he leaned out over the ground and swiped his hand at the handle. He missed half a dozen times, leaning a bit further out after each try. When he finally lunged forward and caught the handle, he poised himself, hunched over the ground, and considered what to do. Sadly, there was only one thing he could do in this position. With a mighty heave and a tightening of his abs, Grub folded his body up and pulled in the door, the move accompanied by a short shriek that would have made a castrati envious.

Once the echo of the door slamming dissipated, he panted before sinking into his seat, flailing behind his back until he caught the belt and latched it into place.

Lili, who had, of course, been watching the entire thing, blinked. "Need a healing?"

Grub shook his head. "I am not getting less than 100 percent of the benefits of that...torture." He could certainly heal away the pain and torn muscles, but it would make the day completely pointless. Muscles were built by the body repairing damaged tissue, and that could only be accomplished through old-fashioned, magic-less healing, as fairy gifts returned the body to its original state, not an improved condition. Otherwise, every fairy would be a body builder.

"Well...make sure you get a good hot bath when you get home, or else your muscles will be too stiff to move," Lili said, starting her car. She stared at her wheel after she said this, mouth slightly open. Shaking her head to clear it, she began the tricky process of driving through Haven during the evening rush hour. She focused closely on the traffic, determined to avoid a nasty collision, completely forgetting everything but the shape of her car and how it fit among the other vehicles.

Several minutes later, the youngest Frond remembered that she had a passenger and should do the polite car host thing and ask him about his day. She turned her head a fraction, mouth open to begin her queries. Then she stopped.

Grub was leaned against the door, holding his bag close to his chest. He was breathing softly, though he jerked every so often. He frowned, as if the intense nature of his tasks had made its way even into his dreams.

Lili laughed silently, shaking her head, and decided to let him rest. The corporal would get used to his new schedule soon enough. In the meantime, he would need every second of sleep he could steal.

Half an hour later, Lili finally fought her way out of downtown Haven and coasted through the outskirts of the Hill, driving slowly as she looked for Vinyáya's house. She had only visited the place once, in order to deliver a package that Holly had assured her was very important and completely within her LEP duties to deliver (though she refused to explain what it was, only stating that she would kill Lili and then fire her if she peeked), but she did recall that it was the least imposing of all the houses in the area. When she finally found a likely candidate, Lili parked in front and looked at Grub, who was still passed out.

Sighing, as if highly put-upon by the procedure, Lieutenant Frond stepped out of her car and went to the front door. She rang the doorbell and then rested in the at-ease position, though her left foot tapped with impatience.

Not long later, Vinyáya opened the door and stared at her. "Frond. Is the gate to the Hills malfunctioning or something?"

"No, Wing Commander," Lili said, "I'm bringing home a little lost boy."

Vinyáya stared at her, then looked over her shoulder to the car. She went tense. "I...I..."

"I think what you're doing is great," Lili said, laying a reassuring hand on Vinyáya's shoulder (Vinyáya stared at the hand, but Lili failed to notice her astonished gaze at this touch). "I mean...I've met Ms. Brenner. She showed up at Frond family events and..." She let out a long, low whistle. "Grub wont tell me what you and Trouble did to piss Brenner off, but I can guess," she winked at Vinyáya, who took a step back, escaping the blond's grasp, "that it was interesting.'s real good of you to help him until he can do this on his own."

"I..." Vinyáya's expression cleared and she nodded. "I...right. Yes. It seemed...decent."

"It is," Lili affirmed, smiling with her entire face, even scrunching up her nose. "Grub may be a ponce, but...well, Hibiscus is just a bitch."

There was a pause.

Then both women began to laugh.

The ice thus broken, Lili trotted off and awoke Grub. Practically dragging him up the walkway before shoving him in the front door. Finding himself inside, Grub looked about, trying to remember why he would be brought to such a place. Eventually, he seemed to remember, or at leas this muscles did, as he staggered off to his bedroom. There came a loud thump, several long squeaks, and an impressive set of snores.

The women said their polite goodbyes, trying to avoid another descent into hilarity at Ms. Brenner's expense, just in case Grub heard and instinctively rushed in to defend his mother's honor. Then the door was closed, Lili returned to her car, and Vinyáya came into Grub's room, like a black cloud rising over a lone traveller far from civilization.

"What," she said, trying to be as calm as possible while also wondering exactly how to kill the groggy corporal without being brought to justice, "did you tell Frond?"

Grub jerked awake, rubbing at his eyes. He looked at his host a moment, then groaned, burying his head in the crook of his elbow. "Nothing. Just that you're letting me stay here for a while. Nothing incriminating."

"Nothing incriminating?" Vinyáya hissed, leaning over the foot of Grub's bed, digging her nails into the soft faux-wood material. "She seems to think something sexual is going on between Trouble and me."

"Oh," Grub muttered, about as far from caring as possible. "Want me to give her a call and set her straight on which Kelp you are fucking?"

Vinyáya etched eight deep, long trenches into the footboard. "No. That would be a lie, too. I'm not fucking any of you, now." Pushing off from the bed so that the head slammed into the wall, Vinyáya swept out of the room and into her own, slamming the door behind her.

Grub lay there a moment, frowning. Then he shrugged and rolled onto his stomach, pulling a pillow to his chest and spooning with the soft cushion. "Not like I didn't guess that a while ago..." He yawned widely and drifted off to sleep.

He would be in a horrendous mood when he woke up. The corporal had forgotten his hot shower.

Chapter Text

Week 7

Grub must have said something to Lili the next Monday, because—all previous experiences to the contrary—the last Frond didn't say anything that incriminated Vinyáya or the Kelps, though she seemed unable to contain a leer whenever she saw the two commanders talking. At first, Trouble had been confused by her reaction. Then Vinyáya, as blandly as possible, told him about the strawberry blond's conclusions.

Trouble seemed distraught. "She...thinks we...?"

Vinyáya nodded. "Yeeeeeep."

"Oh," Trouble moaned, slamming his head on his desk, "damn."

Vinyáya raised an eyebrow at this, but no further words were forthcoming.

Hibiscus was not so accommodating. After two weeks of silence on all ends, which no one (least of all Vinyáya) found reassuring, the wing commander arrived at her office one morning to find a data crystal with that week's tabloids resting on her desk. As a top official in the LEP and a member of the Council, she could not afford to ignore these sensationalist publications, though she did leave the grunt work to her secretary, Cirrus, who tagged any pieces that would be relevant to her. So, settling down with a mug of tea, Vinyáya began to flip through the gossip columns.

Ten minutes in, she spit out her current mouthful, but not from horror. Instead, she was roaring with laughter, and had to grab a handful of tissues to gather the tea that was now dribbling out of her mouth and nose, as well as the tears emerging from the corners of her eyes.

Her gnome secretary popped his head into the office, hands curling around the side of the door. He hedged a moment, biting his lower lip, before venturing a guess. "You've seen the Brenner piece?"

"Ah...yes." Soothing herself, Vinyáya melted into her chair. She felt a lot better than she had in several days. "Love it."

Cirrus looked like he wanted to close the door for what little extra protection it would provide him once the officer fully processed the text. "She...she called you..."

"The most manipulative bitch on the Council since Nan Burdeh, yes." Picking up her tablet again, Vinyáya began scanning through more of the article. "Oh, look. She says I have more aggressive tendencies than an average evasive of her." The rest of the article was more criticism of her political practices, along with the sudden development of her relationship with Lope. It was never actually mentioned the scandalous theory, but every hint at above or below-average behavior or physical attributes, like her hair, screamed of the media's typical dance done around unverifiable information; specifically, on her bloodline. No one, not even Vinyáya, had the full outline of her ancestry, so any claims brought against it would be slander. So sideways accusations and behind-the-hand smirks were what was left to Brenner.

Vinyáya practically crooned at the headline. "Most manipulative bitch since know, Cirrus, I think this Brenner might like me! I'm flattered!"

Cirrus decided to follow his normal strategy when dealing with his boss: he smiled and nodded, slowly backing away from the door, allowing it to swing closed on its weighted hinges and leave the woman to her own devices.

Week 8

Life began to settle into a pattern quite quickly. Lili picked up Grub before work, giving him a few minutes at the office before Vinyáya herself arrived. His day was filled with studying, marksmanship, and physical training, while the wing commander's was filled with delegation, debriefings, and sudden disappearances that left nearly all of the LEP utterly confused. At the end of the day, Lili took Grub back, though he had yet to remain awake during the trek. As the days progressed, he managed to retain a bit more energy until he was finally able to stay awake to a reasonable hour when at his temporary home.

Thus, about two weeks after moving in with Vinyáya, Grub was sitting in one of the living room chairs, going over the "What to Expect" book Fowl had donated to him, occasionally looking at Vinyáya, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor, wearing a microphone headset and holding a game controller, giving orders to computer-operated troops as they prepared to attack the necrotic hordes.

"Vinyaya..." he began, looking between her and the book.

She glanced at him, though she remained mostly focused on the screen. For being mindless beasts, zombies were clever motherfuckers and had to be carefully monitored. "Yes?"

"Um...I...can I ask you a few questions?, medical history? For the pregnancy?"

Vinyáya considered this, then shrugged. "Fine. What?"

"Um..." he began again, blushing. "Do you...drink a lot? Like...alcohol?"

Vinyáya shook her head. "Oh, come on. Everyone knows about that. Not since I found out, and one drink or so a week before that."

Grub considered this, reading on. He relaxed. " don't smoke, but do you spend time around smokers?"

Another shake of the head. "Not since Root passed away. The Council is a bunch of tee-totaling prudes, so no. No smoke."

"Good." He looked further. "Um...any...drug use?"

Vinyáya sighed, pausing her game so she could look Grub in the eye. "You mean besides the pound of cocaine I snort every night?"

Grub stared at her, mouth open in horror. "You..."

"No, Kelp," Vinyáya snapped, rolling her eyes. "No drug use. Not since my college days, and that," she said, jabbing a finger at him before he could ask her for details, "is my business. Anything else?"

Grub swallowed, looking down at a highlight where one glaring question waited. Well...he might as well ask this while she was already irritated at him. "Have you...have you ever had..."

Vinyáya tapped the side of her controller, impatient to get back to killing the undead. She loathed the undead.

"Have you ever" He cringed, holding the book before his face.

Vinyáya stopped her tapping. She almost seemed to be considering what her answer should be. Then she sighed, shaking her head. "No. As it happens, you have gone where no man has gone before. Or at least your little soldiers have. Congrats." She returned to the screen.

Grub's shoulders unwound and he went back to flipping through the pages, allowing Vinyáya to continue decimating the legions of Hell.

Then he read something that sent a stab of fear directly into his heart. He read on, and the knife twisted back and forth with each line, kicking his adrenalin into high gear. "V-V-V-Vinyáya?"

She did not respond, whispering to her comrades.

Grub couldn't take it. Video games and his own personal safety be damned, he had to know! Sliding off the couch, he grabbed both of her shoulders so the woman was forced to look directly at him, their faces centimeters apart. "Vinyáya!"

"What!" she barked, pausing the game before her troops became victims of the accursed villagers.

"How competent is your cervix?"

Vinyáya narrowed her eyes. "How what is my what?"

He repeated himself, this time a bit slower, but that didn't seem to clarify things for the superior officer.

Grunting, Vinyáya leaned over and plucked his book from the chair. She looked at the page he was on and read the section marked "incompetent cervix." Then she flipped through the book and looked at all of the other questions. She sighed. "Look, Kelp, I don't know. I haven't exactly quizzed my cervix on its abilities."

Grub whimpered. "You haven't?"

"No," she drawled, rolling her eyes. "I'm afraid I've been sticking to the more safe subjects, like what she thinks of the Tremors for Crunchball champions and how she likes her tea. Of course I haven't asked it! I'm sure it's quite competent. I bet it could change a flat tire and everything, so drop it."

"But...but...what if—"

Vinyáya covered Grub's mouth with her hand. "Kelp. Calm. The fuck. Down. I highly doubt that I have an incompetent cervix."

"Buh...dooo huuu nuuu?"

"No, I don't know, but..." She looked at him for a long while. Then she came to a conclusion. A rather obvious one, really. "You are going to be a spaz about this until every little bit of this book is covered, aren't you?"

He nodded, mumbling around her hand, but she ignored that. Whatever he had to say, she doubted it was something she wanted to hear.

"Fine. A good thing you lost it now, then. My first doctor's appointment is tomorrow after work. If you will shut the hell up until then, I will let you come with me and bombard Dr. Ginko with every little worry you have. But if you ask me one more damn question, you can forget about hearing anything about the pregnancy until someone comes into your office and tells you I just popped the kid out, okay?" She removed her hand.

"Okay," Grub nodded, but he was smiling.

"Good," Vinyáya said, turning back to her game and undoing the pause. "Now, DIE YOU ZOMBIE SCUM!"

The next day, Grub made his excuses to Lili, who seemed intrigued over why Grub would be going anywhere but home after work, though she didn't ask further. He met the elder female elf a few blocks away from Police Plaza, as she had instructed, in order to keep the trip a secret. With a baleful look at the magna-bike, which seemed to be growling a warning to the corporal, like a possessive Rottweiler, Grub swing himself on behind Vinyáya and tried to hold onto the bike without latching onto the woman driving. He doubted she'd appreciate her pillion rider turning into a clingy mess in more than one manner. She seemed to also realize this, for Vinyáya did not engage in her normal racing as she worked their way to the hospital.

Vinyáya had apparently been planning this trip carefully. Grub expected to spend the standard half hour waiting among the other expectant parents, perhaps getting in some pleasant gossip and commiserations, but the wing commander instead took him around to the back of Haven's main hospital, where they entered through an inconspicuous door and began to wind their way through a long series of dimly lit passages.

"Er...shouldn't there be a receptionist or something?" Grub asked, eyes darting about. He hated places like this. He was always expecting a perp to pop out and put a hole in his stomach with a softnose laser. For having so little involvement in the B'wa Kell Rebellion, he had some pretty vivid post-traumatic stress.

"Receptionists talk," Vinyáya responded, crashing through a door into another long, inconspicuous corridor. "Dr. Ginko is known for his secrecy. He sees a lot of the Haven celebrities and politicians. At present, I really don't need anyone knowing about this, so the back door it is. Much easier."

"Life would be easier in general if we had just used the back door," Grub muttered.

Vinyáya shot a startled look at him. "I would never..." She shook her head to dislodge the thought. "Men," she grumbled and pushed a final door open.

They came out into another corridor, but this was much more welcoming than the metal and concrete affairs of the back of the building. The walls were painted a soft green, with a faux-wood chair rail going all around to border the white and blue wallpaper below. The carpet was a light cream, the texture as soft as the color, which was also reflected in the frames of the many pastoral paintings that lined the walls. There were a few other doors in the corridor, but they were all closed, except for one at the very end of the hall, which opened into an office that seemed—if possible—more comforting and soft than the hall.

From within the office, there came a startled grunt. An old elf appeared in the door, his ginger hair streaked with grey. Many lines crossed his face as he smiled at the arrivals. "Ah, Miss Vinyáya. Right on time, most excellent. And...the father, I presume?" He looked to Grub, who squirmed, unsure of how to answer.

"Yes," Vinyáya affirmed, walking down the corridor closely followed by her nervous partner. "This is Corporal Kelp. He has a few questions for you."

Instantly, the doctor's face fell. "Oh," he said, looking the young elf over. "Oh," he said again, rubbing a hand through his short, slowly disappearing hair. "Right." He knew the look of this type. A fretter. Well...a few tests and a long talk would sort him out, even if it would be annoying as hell. There was one in every couple.

Ginko took a small packet from his office and handed it to Vinyáya, opening a door to a side room. "Please put these on, and then..." he walked a bit further down the hall and opened a second door. He bowed, waving the pair inside, "step on in and make yourself comfortable."

Grub and Vinyáya complied, separating briefly while the woman changed. Grub began to enter, but soon stopped in the doorway, staring at the seating arrangements. When Vinyáya finished changing into a thin green shift that barely covered her upper thighs on the front (and failed to cover anything on the back, unless she held it in place) and came in, he jabbed a finger at what seemed to be a normal examination table...except that it sported two long metal arms at the base, at the end of which were oven mitts. "What the hell is that for?"

Vinyáya poked at the mitts, frowning. "For me." She jumped onto the table, the paper cover crinkling under her, and crossed her arms, waiting for the doctor. She did not touch the metal arms further. In fact, she refused to glance their way.

Grub kept staring at them, trying to work this mystery out. When Dr. Ginko came up behind him and cleared his throat, Grub gave an apologetic bob of the head and went to one of the empty plastic and metal guest chairs. The rest of the office seemed quite comfortable, but these reminded him of seating in primary school. About as small, too.

Ginko sat in a rather posh faux-leather swivel chair and took a data tablet from the counter that lined one wall, which was covered in an organized variety of medical supplies. He tapped the surface for a few minutes, going through the records and forms he would need. Thus organized, he went to the top of his checklist and looked up at Vinyáya. "Now, you took a home pregnancy test about three weeks ago, but you haven't had a blood-based test, correct?"

"Yes," Vinyáya affirmed, crossing her legs and jiggling the one on top, impatient already.

"Then I'll be taking some blood to test after the exam," the doctor muttered, making a note to himself on the clipboard.

Grub frowned. "After the exam? Wouldn't you want to take blood before you did any sort of exam?"

Dr. Ginko looked at Grub over the rim of his glasses. "No...I would do the exam now, rather than making the coucilwoman wait while her blood work processed, then asking her back in here. Unless you have some sort of heretofore unknown medical degree that can convince me to act otherwise, I think we should continue with the appointment as scheduled."

Vinyáya smirked.

Grub glowered, grabbing onto the sides of his seat and lowering his head. He did not like this doctor. He began to consider formal complaints to the medical associations. Really, the physician's tone was unacceptable.

"Right," the doctor said briskly, flipping to his next page. "Medical major illnesses, it looks like. No known allergies, all of your blood tests have always been phenomenally well-balanced, so that leaves...the personal questions." He looked up to Vinyáya, who was staring him down. "The Big Three, as I like to call them. Any previous pregnancies?"

"Nope," Vinyáya said, leg jiggling a little faster.

"Frequency of sexual relations before the conception?"

Vinyáya actually blushed at this. "At least five times a week, except during menstruation."

Dr. Ginko gave a little start, flickering his gaze to Grub.

Grub couldn't help it. He shrugged and did his best to keep his lips from twitching.

With a cough, the doctor asked his last question. "Number of sexual partners in the past five years?"

There was a tense silence. Grub focused on Vinyáya, who had closed her eyes.


Grub again looked to the floor, but now he was smiling just a bit.

"Alright," Ginko said, setting his tablet aside and rolling his chair up to Vinyáya. He took a stethoscope from a drawer under the table and rubbed the metal end against his jacket. Despite this small gesture, Vinyáya still jumped as the cold metal touched her back. "Okay, miss. Deep breath in...hold it...and out. Give me another in...hold...and out..." His voice had taken on that wonderful soothing tone that every doctor maintains during this procedure. Outdated it may have been for the People, but the psychological effect of such soft talk accompanying a simple procedure kept it from being done away with, despite medical advances. "Very good. Now, the front," he mumbled, curling his hand around Vinyáya's side and placing the chest-piece on top of her left breast. "In...and out." He switched to the other side. "In...and out."

Grub watched this last part of the procedure closely. He really did not like this doctor.

"Excellent, as usual," the doctor complimented. He placed a hand on Vinyáya's knee and squeezed. "Hold still for a moment, please."

Grub really, really did not like this doctor.

Ginko lifted his hand off, tapping a few buttons on the side of the bed. He stared at the weight readout, then made a note on his tablet. An array of other standard tests came, mostly unobjectionable, though Grub frowned when the doctor pricked Vinyáya's finger and took a few drops of blood into a small tube. Following this was a blood pressure screening, a reflex test, and a quick look into Vinyaya's mouth and nostrils with a rather bright light.

When Dr. Ginko gingerly pinched the tip of Vinyaya's ears to hold her head in place while he looked inside the ear canal, Grub's clenched fingers began to scrape along the bumpy plastic underside of his chair.

Vinyáya glanced at him, eyebrows raised, while her doctor switched to the other ear. She mouthed "What?", but got no response from her sullen companion.

The doctor switched off his light, the loud click filling the room. "All good on the topside, my dear. Now...up you go." He patted at a spot further up the exam table.

Vinyáya forgot about Grub's reaction and glared at the oven mitts. "13,000 years ahead of the Mud Men in in civilization, but we don't have any better way than this, doctor?"

Ginko, who was busy putting on a pair of plastic gloves, smiled and shook his head. "I'm afraid that sometimes the simple ways are the best ways. Unless you want to ask that Foaly chap to build a little robot to do this?"

Vinyáya shuddered. "No, no. Fine." She pushed herself up the table, then paused, remembering Grub. She bit her lip, obviously about to say something. She even opened her mouth a few times, but nothing came, so she instead flopped back on the table and put her feet in place.

Grub almost fainted. That was what the metal arms were for? He looked at the ceiling, humming a little tune, trying to preserve some of Vinyáya's privacy. Not that he hadn't seen...that before, but...well, he saw it under very different circumstances.

Grub had nearly collected himself when he heard the doctor's chair moving, his ears triangulating just exactly where it was moving with little difficulty. "Now, this will be a bit cold," the old elf murmured. "And you might feel some scraping, maybe a little pinch. Just remember to relax."

Vinyáya gasped and cursed softly, the paper sheet under her crunching as she sunk her nails into the examining table.

Grub really fucking hated this doctor.

Luckily, Vinyáya made no more distressed noises, though the underside of the doctor's guest chair now had a deep set of grooves and Grub would have a nice scar on the inside of his cheek until his used a bit of extra magic to finish healing the wound he got keeping himself in check. With a final set of loud snaps, the doctor removed his gloves and tossed them into the trash. "All looks well, Miss."

Vinyáya sat up, wincing, and did not cross her legs again. "My cervix is competent, then?"

Ginko stared at her. "Your...what?" He tried to retain a polite doctor's tone, but utter confusion managed to sneak in.

Vinyáya pointed an accusing finger at Grub.

"It was in the book," the young elf muttered, not bothering to mask the glare he lay on the doctor.

"Hmmm," Ginko mused, holding out his hand, "you have it with you, I presume?"

Grub nodded and rooted about in his messenger bag, handing over the thick volume.

Ginko stared at it. "A Mud Man pregnancy book?" He was squinted at the pages. "You read English?"

"Yes," Grub said. "All of the LEP was required to learn after the Fowl siege. It's simple enough. You just learn how to pronounce the letters, then you say them in your head and the Gift of Tongues translates it for you. Chinese, now...that's a hard one."

"Hmmm." Grinko handed the book back and leaned back in his chair, surveying Grub. "I'm afraid I never learned. So, tell me, what exactly is concerning you?"

What followed was a three-hour barrage of questions (and answers from Ginko) on everything from the competence of Vinyáya's cervix (quite up to the task, Ginko was sure) to possible radiation from LEP equipment (a matter to be brought up with Foaly, but unlikely to be an issue, given the People's rigid nuclear safety standards), and finally to the health risks of eating a variety of insects.

"I mean," Grub sighed, thinking of all of the dishes he made with mealworms, "if sushi is a bad idea, then insects are surely..." He ground to a halt, looking between Ginko and Vinyáya, who were staring at him. "What?"

"The People have been eating from among arthropoda and the like for millions of years. You don't think we've...oh...adapted to them, by now?" Ginko said, finally letting blandness take over his cultivated physician's voice, along with his face.

Grub sulked. "I was just concerned..."

"Mr. Kelp," Ginko said, standing and offering a hand to Vinyáya, helping her to her feet. "Pregnancy and childbirth are among the most automated of life's events. So long as Ms. Vinyáya remains well fed and out of danger, things will progress with few difficulties to the fetus. If anything is going to go wrong, there is little we can do about it, at present.

"Now," he reached into a drawer and took out a small cup, handing it to the woman. "You know what to do."

Vinyáya glared at the cup for a while. Then she snatched it out of the doctor's hand, storming out of the room. Halfway out, she remembered the design of her current outfit and rearranged the back.

It was, of course, a bit too late for that. Grub was red to the tips of his ears as he followed the doctor back to his office, trying to not look over his shoulders. To keep himself occupied, he look around the walls, reading the plaques on various trophies, all topped with the same figurine: a gold elf in the middle of swinging a gold club. There was even a pair of crossed clubs hanging behind the doctor's desk, akin to the swords of a coat of arms.

Ginko put the thin tube of Vinyaya's blood into a machine about the size of a loaf of bread, flipping through the results. Next, he put another small vial in, though Grub was unsure where this had come from. He suspected it was a sample taken during the more distressing part of the exam.

Vinyáya came in not long after, back in her blue jeans and black pleather jacket, and slammed down her cup, now full of a bright yellow liquid.

Grub looked at this for a long while, then began to scoot his chair back.

Vinyáya sat in the chair next to him, rolling her eyes. "Compulsive," she muttered, just loud enough that only Grub could hear it.

Grub scowled, but said nothing, instead keeping a close eye on the sample. He only relaxed when the doctor took the cup and put it into his small machine.

Not long later, Ginko nodded, smiling. "Most excellent. Your nutrient levels are superb, Vinyáya. Really, I've not seen a mother with a more balanced system in all my career. Have you been consulting a nutritionist about what you should eat for the pregnancy?"

"No, I..." Vinyáya trailed off. She looked at Grub, who had the smallest of smiles. She scowled in return, and his face fell flat.

Ginko didn't notice this, merely going over the results further. "The CVS I took is promising, as well. We have a full genetic blueprint here, and I don't see anything wrong." He looked up at the parents, eager to do his favorite part of this type of meeting. "Would you like to know the sex?"

Grub's face lit up.

"No," Vinyáya said automatically.

Grub turned to her, squeaking, holding his hands out, palms up in confused supplication.

She looked back, challenging him to defy her. "I don't want to know."

After a few more choked noises, Grub slouched in his chair. He crossed his arms and refused to look at Vinyáya again.

Ginko wanted to slouch, as well, but he just went back to his readouts. No matter what the gender, the child-loving People always went nuts once they learned what to call their baby in place of "it." "Barring any adverse teratogenic influences, your child will have the correct number of toes, fingers, limbs, eyes, all that good stuff. In fact..." He flipped through the pages of data quickly, growing more impressed with every line. "Well, well. Someone has good genetics. It looks like the only 'defect' your child will have is a moderate allergy to cat dander."

A tortured moan filled the room.

Ginko and Vinyáya stared at Grub.

"Can you..." he whimpered, eyes wide and filling with tears as he gathered his words. "Can you fix it? What if they want a kitty?"

Silence filled the room for a long time, only broken by the young man's distressed squeaks. Slowly, Dr. Ginko turned to Vinyáya.

"Get him the hell out of my office."

"Gladly," she muttered, rising and taking hold of Grub's shirt collar. She dragged him out and back into the service halls without bothering to discuss further appointments. Once they were far enough along, she stopped, turning on him, still holding his collar so she could bring him close to her face. "What the hell was that about?"

"I just...I had a few concerns, okay?" Grub mumbled.

"Oh, really?" She snapped, hands on her hips. "An hour's worth of question? Anything you haven't addressed?"

"I...yes." Grub took a deep breath and, pointing back in he direction of the offices, announced, "I don't like that doctor."

Vinyáya stared at him for a long time. She unclenched her hands from the younger elf's collar, more letting him fall away (or even be flung) from her than letting him go. Very, very slowly, her voice even, she tried to reason with him. "Dr. Ginko is one of the best obstetricians in Haven, and he is discrete."

"Yeah, but he kept..." Grub stopped himself. Saying that a doctor in the middle of a exam was touching his patient would make him sound a bit paranoid.

Vinyáya was instantly sick of his sullen silence. "Look. Whatever your problem is, get over it. He is my doctor, and that is that."

"Yeah? And what if I don't want him to be?" Grub challenged.

Vinyáya postured right back, taking a step towards him and holding herself straight. "Then tough shit! You shouldn't even care about this!"

Grub also rose to his full height and, for the first time, he towered over his former partner, who had to tilt her head back to retain a proper glare. "Why wouldn't I care who is delivering our baby? It's not as if I'm going to get another chance at this!" Grub shouted. A second later, he shrank back, looking at the ground. "S-sorry. I didn't mean to yell." Biting his lip, Grub let his eyes flick up, but could not bring himself to raise his head.

Vinyáya stared at him. Then she began to laugh.

Grub watched her, wondering if he should start running. Maybe, with all his training, he could actually make it to safety. Or at least to within easy reach of emergency services. It was a hospital, after all.

She shook her head slowly, still letting out small bursts of laughter. "I can't tell if you're going to be the best...or the worst father ever."

"I...thanks?" Grub said, tilting his head to the side, unsure if he was being complimented or insulted. This, at least, was a feeling he ran across quite often. It was sort of comforting, actually.

With a long sigh, Vinyáya settled herself. "Dr. Ginko is delivering the baby. Discussion: over." She began to walk off down the hall. "Come on. Let's go home. I'm starving. What's for dinner?"

Grub decided that a strategic retreat in regards to the obstetrician thing was in order, at least for the moment. He followed after his partner and looked to the ceiling, considering things. "I was thinking breakfast for dinner. Mushroom omelet and banana pancakes."

Vinyáya gave a little "mmmm" at this idea, looking over her shoulder at her roommate. "You have me half considering keeping you around, just to have my own personal chef."

Grub smiled brightly and stood a little taller.

"You know..." Vinyáya continued, smirking. "If you weren't such a total spaz."

Grub frowned, following close behind the strutting woman. He should have known better by now...

Chapter Text

Week 9

Lili surveyed her tablet, sucking on the end of her stylus. Her eyes moved faster than most would have guessed they could as she scanned over the tiny words, but she was somewhat glossy-eyed, obviously not interested in the words themselves. The lieutenant scratched at her temple with the stylus as she spoke. "Third article of the Convict's Rights Decree."

Grub stared at her, his vision similarly unfocused but not for a lack of interest in the subject. He wasn't interested in anything at the moment, barring finding something nice and soft to lay his head on. Something nice and soft that wouldn't slap him, preferably. "Er...huh?" He wiped a line drool from the corner of his mouth.

"Third article of the Convict's Right's Decree, Grub! Come on!" Lili snapped her fingers in his face.

"Um...'all non-violent suspects are entitled to twenty minutes of monitored communications before they are placed in a holding facility, in order to perform any necessary legal and financial tasks.'" He blinked. "I think."

Lili popped him between the eyes with her stylus. "No, do not end with 'I think.' You will not write that on your test, so don't accidentally memorize it." She flashed through the materials and nodded. "Correct, otherwise. So, essay question: What does that mean?"

Grub stared at her.

Lili waited.

His head began to droop, eyes closing.


"What!" He yelped, sitting straight, looking around for the danger.

Lili groaned, massaging her temples. "What does the third article of the Convict's Rights Decree mean?"

He blinked rapidly and yawned. "Er...we'll let suspects have twenty minutes to talk to someone?"

Lili didn't move for a moment, then breathed in sharply through her nose, rubbing even harder. "And why do we do that?"

Grub squinted, tilting his head to the side. "So they can...perform any necessary legal and financial tasks?"

Lili glared at him. "Are you even trying?"

Grub dug his hands into his hair and rocked, forehead thumping into the small table between them, getting the attention of the other officers in the cafeteria. "Yes! I'm just tired, Lili!"

"Well, no wonder," she drawled, pinching his wrists, taking them from the corporal's hair and flapping his arms back and forth to display the lack of musculature. He did not resist. "You've barely exercised since you got on a desk. You're going to be wiped out for a while longer."

More groans.

She sighed, putting his hand on the table and covering them with her own. "You'll get over it in a few days. Don't worry."

Chin resting on the table, Grub observed their hands. After a moment, he looked up to Lili's eyes. "Really?"

Lili took her hand away and ruffled his hair. "Really. You should have seen how tired I was when Holly first started preparing me for my test."

"How long did it take you to get to normal?"

Lili thought back, puckering her lips as she remembered. "Six months."

Grub whimpered, curving his arms around his head to block out the light. "Can I die now?"

Lili picked her tablet back up. "Not until I say you can."

"The women in my life...are sadistic bitches." Grub muttered, then tensed as he awaited a smack for his words.

"Eh," Lili muttered, flipping through the document to a new study point, "that's our job, Grub. Get used to it. List the ten standard privileges given to all non-violent inmates, and the period of time they may exercise each privilege."

"Bitches..." Grub did his best.

Once again, Grub was asleep the entire drive home, and then only managed to drag himself into Vinyaya's house through sheer force of will. He got far enough inside to sit at the dining room table and lay his head down, taking the wide view of the various condensation rings on the old stone table.

Vinyáya was, as per usual, ignoring him to the best of her ability. She had been as nonchalant as possible during the doctor's visit, but there is still something awkward about getting a womanly exam with someone besides the doctor in the room. Currently, she was in the process of surveying the last of Grub's prepared dinners, trying to decide what the little parasite in her belly was demanding of her. Finding that nothing was particularly enticing, though also not particularly nauseating, she pulled an unsliced loaf of bread out and began to search for a knife.

She found it. Very quickly, but quite by accident. Vinyáya hissed, backing away from the drawer and holding onto her wrist to help slow the gush of blood from her thumb, which had been cut open from the ball of her hand to the pad of her finger. "D'ARVIT! What the hell!"

Grub was on his feet in an instant, by Vinyáya's side only another heartbeat later, calling out as he moved to her. "Put it under the sink!" He turned on the water and grabbed the wing commander's wrist, thrusting her hand under the cold water.

Vinyáya continued breathing in sharply through her teeth, though she was quickly getting her composure back. The cold water helped, dulling the pain enough for her to remember her healing magic. A veritable explosion of blue sparks shot across her hand, like a Fourth of July sparkler, closing the wound in a few seconds. Still, she kept her hand under the water, reveling in the cold, which seemed to wash away the memory of the pain as it also removed her blood in a thin pink swirl around the drain.

Gently, Grub turned her hand over, inspecting it to see if he needed to add in his own gift. The women of the Plaza were not known for managing their magic supplies very well. When he noted that the wound was gone, he rubbed his thumb along the thin scar. "Going to heal that?"

Vinyáya nodded and, with another short yet impressive series of sparks, the white line was gone. "That is...a lot of magic."

Grub nodded, moving her hand about again, making sure the last of the wound and mark were gone. "One of my cousins had a kid a few years ago. She was sort of clumsy during the entire pregnancy, but she had some massive healing magic. Apparently, you heal at double-time when you have a child to protect." He looked at Vinyáya and smiled, relieved that the crisis was over. "They didn't cover that in the book I've been reading, of course."

"Really? She looked away from his eyes and experimented with her mesmer tones, finding that she had a few extra notes in the normal mix. "Huh...looks like my magic in general is on high."

"Huh?" Grub murmured, eyes lidded, thoroughly addled.

Realizing that, despite lack of eye contact, Grub had been hit by her tone, Vinyáya frowned. "Wake up, Kelp." She snapped her free hand in his face.

"In order to...perform any...necessary legal and..." Grub shook his head, eyes clearing up. "Sorry. Mind not trying that again while I'm around?"

"Yeah, no problem." Vinyáya reached up for the faucet. That was when she noticed that Grub still held her injured hand. She stared at the light grip. "Kelp..."


"Let me go."

He stared at her, mouth slightly open, eyebrows furrowing. Then his noticed their hands and tore his away, burying it in his hair, little droplets of water running down his neck. "No touching?"

Vinyáya nodded. "No touching."

"Right." Grub looked at her hand again, then turned around, disappearing swiftly into his bedroom, ready to sleep all the way to the next morning. Studying be damned.

Grub groaned. She was so soft...that was the first thing he noticed. Softness, followed by her scent, which was a mix of vanilla and freshly-cut grass. He had no idea how she managed to get that scent, but he drank it in. Drowned in it. Like a Pavlovian dog, he would ache for her whenever she passed him in the hall, her particular perfume wrapping around him even as she never touched him.

At least not in the halls. In the sanctuary of his office, she melded to him. She wasn't the "Ice Queen" of the LEP. Not the hardened councilwoman. And...not his. Not really. But he could pretend.

Why she came to him that day, after all they had been through in the past few weeks, he couldn't understand. He didn't think she would want to come near him ever again, and had resigned himself to the idea. His body protested, sparking a skin-hunger that roared into life every time they brushed past each other in the halls. And, now, when she was here with him...alone and whispering, telling him she couldn't stand it, that she was wrong, could they please...please...please...?

He didn't need to be asked the second time. In fact, when she came into his office, like so many times before, he didn't need to be asked once. He wanted this woman. Every part of her. Parts he knew so well, parts she never let him touch, parts she never let anyone touch. He breathed this in her ear and she nodded, and that movement sparked their hands to fly across each others clothes, making them disappear like they were particularly well-trained magicians.

And skin and softness and vanilla/grass and his name barely escaping her lips, but it was his name and oh gods she had never said his name before, but he had imagined it so many times, his own personal fantasy. "Grub...Grub...Grub..."

He almost fell apart then, but he was well-trained. A good lover, and he knew it. There was no other way to keep her. Now, though, she was giving herself, and he held her tight, one arm around her waist, fingers digging into her hip, the other coming up to bury itself in her thick gold hair.

Grub opened his eyes. Blue looking back. Not dark grey. Blue. Not vanilla and grass. Chocolate and raspberry. Not cold silver. Warm gold. Pure and calling to him. Calling...calling...

Grub jerked awake, gasping. Had he...did he really...was that...? He sat up, accidentally making the covers shift across his body. He gritted his teeth at the movement, clutching at the mattress. Yes. He had dreamt that. There was no denying it. He ached. had been...she was...

His highly-sensitive hearing detached the sound of the front door's deadbolt being thrown back, even through the barrier of his own door. Perhaps the people on the other side were what had awoken him. They were being rather loud, in that obnoxious way that couples whispered when they are excited and think they're being stealthy.

As the door squeaked open, Grub finally began to make out what they were saying.

"—a lovely time. As usual. You are spoiling me, Aconite."

" it spoiling you if you deserve it?"

"Just be careful. You'll make me come to expect it."

"Then you will be right in your expectations."

A cessation of speech, accompanied by the whisper of cotton against satin, skin against skin, and words barely making their way out between lips, far too softly for Grub to understand. Then a few taps of shoe soles and high heels on tile.

A small inward breath. "Good night, Lope."


"I'm sorry, it's late. I have work in the morning. I should have been asleep hours ago, really."

A very short groan. "Right, right. I know." A little laugh. "Sorry."

"Don't be.'s late."

"When can I see you again?"

"The next Council meeting is tomorrow, so—"

"Arnica. When can I see you? I didn't just mess things up entirely, did I? I'm sorry, it was rash of me, I don't—"

"No! Not at all. Um...Saturday? I get off work at five."

"Excellent. I'll pick you up at seven. And I apologize for my behavior." Another of those soft brushes of skin. "But not too much. I won't lie, I do want you. Very much."

"Mmmm...well...let me think about that for a while."

"Ah...excellent. I would like you to think about it a lot."

A soft slap, but not skin-on-skin, more likely to his chest, and not out of anger. A light reprimand, and her tone had a smile intertwined with it. "Good night, Aconite."

A final brush and heavy breaths, and his voice was softly muffled by proximity to her lips. "As good as it can be. Until Saturday."

The door creaked again, and the handle clicked. At first there were no more footsteps for at least a minute. Grub couldn't help but listen, body tense. Would she open the door again? Would she call out to him, ask him inside, and would Grub have to sit in his room and listen as she...

As she called his name.

By the time Vinyáya sighed and began to move back to her room, Grub could no longer hear her. A pillow was wrapped around his head, held firmly in place over his ears. He curled into himself, taking in deep breaths on counts of seven, holding for another seven before breathing out. It made his head spin at first, but it kept ball in his throat from escaping, and Vinyáya did not hear him biting his lips to keep in all sound as she closed her bedroom door.

Chapter Text

Week 10

Vinyáya was accustomed to keeping secrets. It was one of the reasons she had been chosen to lead Section 8 on its founding over 500 years ago. It was also the cause of many of her problems, of course, but that was besides the point. Vinyáya kept secrets, and she kept them well. She not only had mastery over her most minute facial expressions, but had a surprising level of control over the more obvious involuntary reactions of her body. That was why it took Grub four weeks to realize that Vinyáya had morning sickness.

After a particularly intense round of partying, Lili Frond was running late to pick up her carpool-mate one Monday morning, and Grub was occupying himself with flipping through his Mud Man pregnancy guide, writing down a new list of questions to ask Dr. Ginko on the next checkup. Just as he was in the middle of reading about "pica," eyes wide in disbelief, tongue sticking out at the very idea, he heard what he had thus far missed when he left for work earlier than his roomie.

"Oh noooo," Vinyáya moaned from her bedroom. Then there was a thump as her feet hit the floor and she sprinted down the hall, past Grub's room, and into the back yard.

Grub look at his door, blinking. Moments later, he heard the distant, rhythmic sounds of gagging and liquid hitting the bowl of a toilet. "Oh," he said, eyebrows shooting up, and put his book down. Stepping into his slippers (which, in line with the general dignity of his casual clothing, were fuzzy penguins with enormous blue eyes), he followed after the wing commander, stopping a discrete distance behind her hunched backside. He looked about at the old cherry trees, which at least provided the backyard with plenty of privacy during this somewhat embarrassing moment. "So—"

Before he could continue, Vinyáya interrupted with an impressive stream of vomit.

Grub gagged as well, shoulders hunching, tongue curling out, and turned around to avoid the sight. When it seemed that she was done (or at least pausing to moan), he went on. "Morning sickness?"

"Go away," Vinyáya commanded, pulling her robe a bit tighter around her body. She had obtained a simple set of pajamas, but any bit of extra material between herself and her guest was appreciated. Especially when she was in such a vulnerable state, unprepared to see him at a time when he should have been in the car with Frond.

Grub shook his head, even though she wouldn't be able to see him. "You've been hiding this, haven't you?"

"I said," Vinyáya snarled, looking at him over her shoulder, her nails trying to dig into the porcelain and failing to get enough purchase to satisfy her need to claw something, "go AWAY!" That outburst proved too much. She turned back to the bowl and spewed once more.

Muttering about stubborn women, Grub disappeared into the house, but was only gone long enough to obtain a glass of water, a towel, and a stray hair tie. He got as close to the sick woman as he could without touching her, handing over the scrunchie first.

Without a word, Vinyáya gathered her hair into a loose ponytail and secured it, glad she hadn't soiled it during her internal upheaval, like she had last time he was witness. Then she accepted the glass of water, swirling it around her mouth. This proved a mistake when the water brushed the back of her throat and she addressed the toilet, spitting out water and more acidic stomach juices. There was no longer any food in this, at least, but that meant she was tasting the full, bitter force of her bile, which caused her to continue heaving for nearly a minute.

Wincing and breathing through his nose, Grub sat cross-legged at the entrance to the lounge, waiting for her to settle before offering the water again. " long has this been going on?"

Vinyáya, apparently deciding she was done, slammed the toilet lid down and leaned on it, ignoring the smell, which was being swiftly borne away by flushing water and spritzing deodorizers. "I don't know. A few weeks." She stuck out her tongue, wiping it on the damp section of the towel. She began to consider purchasing a tongue scraper.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Vinyáya waved a hand about to indicate the out-building. "Do you really want to have a heart-to-heart in the recycling lounge?"

Grub jabbed a thumb behind them, towards the house. "Do you want to go into the living room and puke on the couch? I could get you a bowl, but I am not cooking with it again, if you do."

"...point taken." Vinyáya said. After successfully swishing some water about her mouth, briefly lifting the toilet lid to spit it out, she deigned to speak. "It's just morning sickness. I can handle it."

" handle it by puking?"

She rolled her eyes. "I'm pregnant, Kelp. I understand it comes with the territory."

He looked down at his clasped hands, frowning. "Maybe, but...I want to help."

"Help?" She tapped her hand on the side of the toilet bowl, trying to look as casual as possible. She liked having firm territory whenever she spoke with someone, and if that meant she took full possession of the recycling lounge, she could do that. "What can you do to help me with this? Going to puke for me?"

Grub's eyes widened at the prospect and he shook his head. "I don't think that's even possible."

"'s not."

"Oh." He blushed, lowering his head. "Right. I know that. I was just saying..."

"Shouldn't you be heading to work?" Vinyáya waved towards the front of the house, both indicating it and dismissing him.

He shook his head, squirming in an attempt to further secure himself to the ground, in case she took more direct measures to remove him. "Look, I've been reading a lot, right? Maybe I've read something that will help."

"Oh, certainly," Vinyáya guffawed, getting even more comfortable. Her stomach was beginning to settle, but she didn't trust it quite yet. It always cleared up by the time she left for work (though she had once been forced to stop on the side of the road for a few dry heaves). "What great wisdom have you obtained about the secrets of pregnancy?"

Grub glared at her, but soon went deep into thought, brows furrowed, rubbing the back of his neck. "You're eating pretty well, but...I read eating something small when you wake up..."

Vinyáya growled at the very idea.

Grub scooted back a few centimeters. "Or not. You could eat something late at night, instead. Something that will stay with you through the night."

Vinyáya poked her expanding belly. "Oh, like I haven't been chowing at all hours already. Try again."

"How about...reducing stress?"

"I'm not stressed." Vinyáya said, shoulders shaking once with silent mirth at the very idea.

Grub's eyebrows shot up at this. "You're the Wing Commander. How can you not be stressed?"

She flipped her hand lazily in the air. "Been doing it for a few hundred years, haven't I? You get used to it."

"Just because you're used to the stress doesn't mean it isn't stress. Maybe you could—"

Vinyáya pointed a warning finger at his face, narrowing her eyes. She said nothing.

"...or not. Not is good." He bit a knuckle, back in thought. "Oh! Accupressure!"

"Accu-what?" Vinyáya sneering at the idea, working out what it meant a second after she had responded. "Not a chance. I'm not going to do some ridiculous holistic junk."

"It's not ridiculous!" Grub defended, eager at the idea. "People do it for all sorts of problems! Dwarves swear by it."

"Oh, dwarves. I hear they have great medical techniques, especially for elves." Having decided that she was done humoring him, despite the possible return of queasiness, she pushed off on the seat and stood, stepping over his legs as she left the lounge. "I'll deal with this, Kelp."


"I'll deal with it," she exclaimed, clenching her fists. "I can take care of myself. I keep telling you that." She began to walk away.

Grub looked at the floor. He spoke softly, almost too low for her to hear. "And I keep telling you that you don't have to."

Her steps faltered for only a moment. Then Vinyáya was at the back door and heading in to prepare for the day.

Grub heard a loud, familiar horn from the street. Sighing, he stood and walked out the side gate, joining Lili for their ride to Police Plaza.

Grub adjusted his thick-palmed gloves, looking first forward, then at Lili and Holly, who stood off the side of the blue exercise matt, watching him. "Er...are you sure this is the course? It looks...hard."

Holly, who had been wrangled into helping for the first few minutes of this exercise, rolled her eyes. "Yes, I'm sure it's the course." She painted towards the wall behind a long line of obstacles, including extensive stairs, zip lines, moats, extremely tall ladders, low ropes for tightrope walking, and other challenges. "See the sign that says 'Captain's exam course'?"

Grub glanced at a large sign adorned with bright red letters, as well as the dual silver acorns of the captain's rank. "Yes..."

"Then, yes, this is the course." Holly glared at Lili, tapping her foot rapidly. "I know I said the paperwork thing was worth it, but this is a waste of my time."

Lili, who—like everyone in the gym—was clad in baggy green exercise pants, though topping off with only a black sport's bra (Holly and Grub, being a bit more modest, wore fairly tight black shirts), waved at her boss in a manner that most officers would have found detestable in a subordinate. "Give him a chance. He's made a lot of progress." She focused back on Grub, picking up the whistle on a lanyard around her neck and holding it near her mouth, preparing a stopwatch in her other hand. "Ready?"

Grub crouched, one leg stretched far behind him, the other tucked under his body. He held himself up with splayed fingers and stared down the first obstacle: a brick wall twice his height. He had to wonder how pixies managed. He was one of the tallest fairies he knew, and it didn't look promising. "Yep."

With no further pause, Lili blew the whistle at full-force, making Holly wince and lean away.

Grub sprang forward. Of all the things he was prepared for in the test, running was at the top of his list. After all, it was the only thing he had done consistently for the past ten years (and, some might say, for his entire life).

However, jumping was not something he did that often.

Grub slammed into the wall, nose squashed in an instant, though luckily not breaking. The tips of his fingers managed to catch the lip of the wall, and he hung there, a meter or so off the ground, not moving. He wanted to figure out a dignified way to start over.

"Keep going!" Lili cheered.

"D'arvit," Grub lamented, obeying the woman by shifting his hands to get a better grip. Once he felt secure, he began to lift himself up, getting his legs under him and seeking toe-holds in the brickwork. After an intolerably long period, he managed to get his forearms under himself, legs fully extended to make his body a triangle against the wall. He knew he looked ridiculous and hoped no one in the gym had brought any sort of camera today.

He was just pausing for a break when he felt his body slip. "Oh...balls." Grub found himself unable to react as he fell away from the wall, arms scraping on the bricks before he crashed to the ground. He completely forgot to spread his arms behind him to take off some of the pressure, and he cried out as his spine took the full impact.

Holly smacked her forehead. "Lili...I don't want to be cruel, but I think your time is better spent stalking me instead of helping him." She looked to her side to give further orders, but found herself lacking one blond. "Lili?"

"Grub!" Lili shouted, dropping to her knees his side. She looked him over, but was satisfied to see no major damage, thanks to the safety padding. "Gods, that was..." She poked him, making sure the groans were not from any internal damage she couldn't see, but soon realized it was his customary exaggeration and complaining. "That was..."

The corporal looked up at his mentor, eyes unfocused. He waved. "What's my time?" Then he looked at his scratched arms. Grub frowned. "I'm bleeding."

Lili took his hand between her own, donating a few healing sparks. "That was," she shook her head, grinning, "the funniest thing I've seen all week. Come on. Up." Healing soon over, she stood, pulling the man with her.

He complied, unsteady at first, but gaining some equilibrium after bracing himself with a hand to the woman's shoulder. However, he was not quite right, looking at Lili and asking again: "What's my time?"

She laughed, leading him back to the starting point. "Let's just say you're not passing yet. Another go, okay?"

"O...kay." He nodded, crouched, and glared at the wall. He was not going to take shit from brick and mortar.

Lili trotted back to Holly, trying to look serious. As if this utter failure was normal for any officer preparing for the test, and should not be considered a portent of doom.

Holly was, understandably, not convinced. "He's not going to make it, Lili."

Lili paused, whistle held between her lips. Slowly, she turned her head to glower at Holly. She spoke around the plastic. "Oh, he'll make it. I'll make him make it."

Holly was not one to be intimidated, least of all by someone who fetched her lattes. "I don't see—"

Fweeeeeeeeet! Lili again blew the whistle at full volume, making Holly lean back, covering her ears.

Grub sprang forward, legs pumping twice as fast, now. This time, he measured the distance between himself and the wall, shortening his stride a meter from the face, legs tightening under him, and sprang. His hands got an easy grip, and he even landed high enough to hold his elbows at a square angle, chin catching on the lip of the wall. With a strangled cry, Grub pulled himself up, feet scrambling for grips to help him the rest of his way, and straddled the wall. He looked down the far edge and grinned, transferring the look to Lili, throwing his hands in the air. "I did it!"

Lili smirked at Holly.

Holly raised her eyebrows and leaned sideways to whisper at her secretary. "You know...he wont pass if he just sits on the first obstacle the entire time."

Lili's eyes went wide and she turned, shouting at Grub. "Go! Gogogo!"

He stared at her, hands slowly lowering as his triumph diminished. Suddenly, he jolted, remembering what he was doing. Pushing off from the top of the wall, the student landed running, off towards the next obstacle.

Holly shook her head. "I still say this is a waste of your time."

Lili shook her head, smiling as she examined the stopwatch, noting what obstacles Grub would need the most instruction on. "No...he isn't."

Lili put Grub through the obstacle course for two hours, only stopping when he fell over sideways while waiting for her whistle to sound again. After making sure that he was useless, she congratulated him, told him his progress ("You managed to finish the course three times! Excellent! Just...nowhere near the time needed to pass."), and went off to find the elder Kelp, who dragged his little brother into the showers until he had enough hot water blasted on him to straighten out. Then Grub sat down for the rest of his shift, which he spent on his memorization and Short's paperwork. At least Fowl and Foaly weren't depending on him, though he was sure their previous arrangement would kick in again once the test was over. Once more, he was asleep for the ride home, and thus did not notice Lili's wide grin and happy humming.

Vinyáya, accustomed to barely seeing the studious elf, thought nothing of not seeing him for the rest of the day, though she lamented having to eat leftovers. In fact, she barely thought of Grub that day, and she certainly wasn't thinking of him the next evening when, like clockwork, her insides decided to become her outsides.

During what she knew was merely a pause in her regurgitation, rather than the end, Vinyáya stood to wash her face at the lounge's sink. That was when she noticed the box.

It was just cardboard, but there was a slip of paper sticking out of the gap where the lip folded down, displaying the word "Vinyáya" in blocky letters. She stared at the cube, wondering how it had arrived there. Then, remembering the only logical source, she leaned back, looking out of the lounge doorway to see if Grub was waiting in the garden, about to explain. Remembering that he had left on time that morning, the wing commander returned to the box, staring at it for what was actually an impressively long time, considering she should have soon returned to vomiting.

Realizing she wasn't going to get any answers from a person (unless she gave the man's cell a call, and that was not happening), she flipped open the lid and looked inside.

The box contained only a few items: a bottle of mouthwash, a plastic cup, several hair ties, and a small plastic box. She picked this last item up, looking through the see-through bottom, trying to figure out what the yellow circles inside were. She then held it at arm's length, tilting her head as she realized there was another note on the top.

Sniff it.

She rolled her eyes. There was no way she was going to do that without a better explanation. She flipped the taped-on piece of paper back, wondering if there was more.

Don't roll your eyes at me. Just try it.

Vinyáya blinked. Again, she leaned back to make sure Grub wasn't secretly watching her reaction. Then, shrugging, she flipped the lid off and brought the box to her nose. It smelled...sweet. And very strong. Vinyáya winced, preparing to make a dive for the toilet.

Instead, her stomach rolled over once and went flat.

Vinyáya looked down at the medallions, not sure what had happened. After a moment, she poked her belly-button, and, finding there was no reaction, studied the box again. She gave it a longer sniff, trying to place the scent. A spice...she knew it...ginger? Picking up a sliver between her nails, she nibbled. Yes. Ginger. Tasting it seemed to ease her stomach even more than smelling had.

Vinyáya smirked. Well...he actually does know what he's talking about. Sometimes. Taking advantage of the rest of the care package, she cleaned her mouth of the taste of acid. Pocketing the ginger, Vinyáya made to leave the lounge.

Before she got far, she paused. Gradually, like a soldier inspecting the area for enemies, she returned to the sink. She picked up one of the hair bands, letting it rest around her fingers, which she spread to stretch the elastic and fabric experimentally. "Hmmm..."

"I'm gonna die, Lili," Grub insisted, backing away from the starting line.

"No, you're not," his coach insisted, pushing him back into position. He was getting stronger, but she still had a little more power behind her from preparing for her own exam. "Stop being so melodramatic!"

"I'm not being melodramatic! I can barely move." He raised an arm, as if to illustrate this. His muscles had lost most of their elasticity, making his movements as jerky as an ill-oiled robot. "Just give me a day off, please!"

Lili shoved harder, trying to make her self-appointed charge crouch so he would be able to sprint properly. "You don't have a day! You need to train every day if you want to pass, and that means today!" Finding him uncooperative, she kicked the back of one of his knees, satisfied when he sunk to the ground. She was less pleased as he tried to stand again, and solved this problem by the easiest means she could find. Wrapping her arms around his shoulders, the lieutenant attempted to wrestle him into position, straddling his back and growling fiercely. "I am not putting up with your shit, Grub!"

"Ah...admirable," a thickly-accented female voice called from behind them. "Though I would like to point out that you are already doing so by helping him in the first place."

Lili and Grub both blushed, whipping their heads about to see Wing Commander Vinyáya approaching, looking down at them with a self-satisfied smirk. Lili blushed over the position she found himself in. Grub blushed over what Vinyáya was doing.

She looked over the obstacle course, frowning. "Really? This is all you have to go through to become a captain? Standards certainly have fallen." She ran her fingers through her hair, gathering it high on her head, where she secured it with a black scrunchie, pulling it through several times until her hair was shining and tight, leading out to a prominent ponytail before falling towards the floor in one thick rope. "Pathetic, actually." She stopped at Grub's side, crouching down to a runners posture, staring down the wall.

Grub opened his mouth to protest, but was far too late. Vinyáya sprang, tearing towards the wall. In one smooth bound, she landed on the wall with her arms bent under her, flipping her body over the edge without a look back.

Lili glared in the out-of-sight officer's general direction. She didn't need someone else taunting Kelp. Vein was doing that well enough on his own whenever he showed up in the gym. "Just ignore her, Grub. She's being—yipe!"

Grub sank to the ground, pulling one leg under his body, the other ranged out as far back as it would go, holding himself up with outstretched hands. "Oh!" he said as Lili settled on his back and gasped, looking over his shoulder at the jostled woman, who still rode him like a horse. "Sorry. Are you okay?"

Letting go of his neck, which resulted in her sliding down Grub's back to crouch behind him, Lili nodded. "No worries." Then she noticed the male's ready position. She quirked her head to the side, eyebrows raised. "Ready to go, then?"

Grub nodded, focusing forward again, body tensing down. "I'm not letting her get away with that."

Laughing in approval, Lili scooted away from the suddenly determined elf. Taking a cross-legged position on the sidelines, she brought the whistle to her lips and blew.

Grub leapt after Vinyáya, eyes narrowed to slits as he prepared to attack the wall, but he was still smiling.

Chapter Text

Week 11

Of course, morning sickness is not the only early pregnancy symptom, and it was certainly not the only one Vinyáya had to deal with. Among the many lovely things Vinyáya experienced were: excess saliva, heartburn, the beginnings of food cravings, headaches, and, of course, a growing belly, which was already starting to make her nervous. It she began to show too much, the LEP (or, more likely the media) would begin to ask some uncomfortable questions that would be all too accurate. The most annoying symptom, however, was the fatigue.

Vinyáya had always seen pregnancy as a rather passive activity. After all, no matter what you do (unless what you do is destructive), the baby is going to keep growing. She couldn't have been more wrong. Her body was hard at work not only changing itself, but forming a little half-Vinyaya. Besides food, the one thing it wanted the most for this new life was a lot of rest, and that meant the carrier (namely, the wing commander) would have to join it in said rest. For the first time in over a century, Vinyáya found herself falling asleep at work. She even nodded off in the middle of a Council meeting, and she was only saved from voting without any idea of what she was voting on by the extended debate between Councilmen Gregor and Cahartez, which gave her the time to scan the notes and supply a wise "nay."

For the most part, no one noticed. Her secretary, Cirrus, seemed wildly enthusiastic about his charge's lack of initiative, often popping his head into her occupied office and returning to his chair to giggle in glee for fifteen straight minutes. After which he would peek again. Holly Short did seem to recognize her Section 8 boss's decline in missions, but that didn't bother her, as it allowed the major more time in the field, taking up the slack. Commander Kelp, of course, had an idea of what was going on, but he wasn't saying anything, and was duly (and discretely) shunting a portion of her workload elsewhere.

Predictably, it was Grub Kelp who couldn't keep his damn mouth shut. On one of their rare days off together, he kept watch on the clock, studying Vinyáya carefully when she appeared at past midnight, scratching her stomach and staggering in an uncoordinated, drowsy fashion as she entered the living room with a large bowl of cereal and her latest zombie survival title.

"I've been up for five hours," he said, putting a bookmark in the pregnancy tome and sitting up straight on the couch, crossing his legs to get them out of his host's way as she sat on the floor before him.

"That's nice," Vinyáya offered, frowning at the over-protective game packaging. She was still working off the last of her night's sleep, so her decision to gnaw on the corner of the game box—while not intelligent—was at least understandable. Though the growling was perhaps unnecessary.

"You were out pretty late for the Council." Grub went on, holding his hand out as an offer to take care of the box.

Vinyáya looked at his hand. "Governing you lot does take a lot of our time." She sunk her teeth back into the plastic coating, this time managing to get a canine into a folded corner, ripping the covering off like a velociraptor getting its first taste of game in months. She put the disc into her console and, as it loaded up and began to produce tortured screams and unearthly moans, she ate several mouthfuls of cereal as rapidly as possible, only pausing when her innards warned her that ingesting a little ginger would not save her from becoming too adventurous with food this early in her day. She swallowed and closed her eyes, willing her stomach into obedience.

"I know it does," Grub conceded, looking at his book, as if it would help. Finding nothing there, he focused on his room mate. "Two jobs is a lot, even if you aren't pregnant. Don't you think you should...take a..." He trailed off as Vinyáya turned to glare at him.

"No. I really don't." She picked her controller up and pressed "start," and the screen responded with a woman sobbing, begging for help, her cries soon transitioning to screams of terror. Vinyaya's pupils dilated and she grinned, showing off all of her shining teeth. She scooted closer to the screen.

Grub backed into the couch cushions, feeling his skin crawl at the sound. That was some very good voice acting. "Er...Vinyaya, I really thing you should consider taking some time off. You're putting a lot of strain on yourself."

"No," she said, with the air of someone talking to a child in the middle of a tantrum (said tantrum occurring in the middle of a store, where the child could not be conveniently corrected without many suspicious glares from other shoppers). "I'm used to this. I've been in even more stressful situations than this, many, many times." If he only knew about her Section 8 work...well, that would likely lead to an utter meltdown on his part. The demon crisis was over, but there were still a surprising number of occasions when official (semi-safe) LEP channels needed to be bypassed, and those situations often involved something sharp, explosive, corrosive, or any combination thereof. Vinyáya and Holly affectionately called these missions "downtime," but even the confidant Fowl had some misgivings about them. And Kelp...yikes.

"This is different," the man countered, wincing as the violent officer finished choosing her character attributes, beginning a FMV with a man immediately being buried under a sea of the undead. That can't be good for the baby... "You're used to some adrenaline, but nine months is a long time. You need to get extra rest."

Vinyáya didn't turn from the screen, only flicking her eyes over to her ex-lover. "Kelp?"

"Yes?" he said, hopeful.

"Shut the hell up."

Sulking, Grub picked up his book and retreated into his bedroom for a bout of studying away from a massacre of the legions of Hell.

While Vinyáya was dealing with a growing weariness, Grub was blessed with the opposite development: after weeks of training, his body was adapting to the strain. He had developed a little musculature, though only enough to take him away from "gangly" and into "normal." More importantly for his social skills, he was no longer falling asleep during his carpool with Lili.

Sadly for Lili's pride, he decided to spend one last evening resting his eyes before telling Lili that he was able to stay awake. Thus, she did not know to avoid singing.

Grub cracked open the eye nearest to Lili and studied her. She was smiling, fingers tapping along to the drum beats, nodding her head so vigorously that her hair began to obscure her face, forcing her to pause and tuck it behind her ears every few choruses. Whenever they stopped in traffic, she would begin a subdued air guitar accompaniment, only saved from the ridicule of her fellow drivers by the fact that she had the convertible's roof up. "Don't ask, don't tell, this could be our secret. And if you want, I know we could keep it close, 'cause we're the only ones who should know about uuuuuuuus." She said the last in a slightly out-of-tune held note, but it was respectable, overall.

Grub vaguely wondered if what he was about to do was a bad idea, but not for too long. Otherwise, he might have decided against it.

"This is wrong, and you know it," she went on, inching the car through traffic. "But I'm right, and you know it."

"If you agree, then just show it," Grub supplied in a somewhat flat voice, eyes still mostly closed. Despite a carefully neutral tone, he was smirking. His plan to pretend that he was singing along in his sleep was going to fail utterly, but the other half of his plan was a smashing success.

"AAAAAH!" Lili screamed, slamming her foot on the breaks. Behind her, a long line of cars also came to an abrupt halt, accompanied by loud horns and inventive cursing. "Smashing success" at least did not include an actual collision, but many fairies would feel a little ashamed as they passed Frond and realized whose ancestor they had just insulted in a rather sacrilegious fashion.

"You're supposed to be asleep!" Lili screeched, edging the few centimeters away that she could manage in the confined space.

"What?" Grub coached his face to make sure he wasn't grinning. 'Innocent' was the look he needed to go for. "Who says?"

"" Lili's mouth flapped and two deep red circles appeared on her cheeks. At a taxi driver's less-than-polite request that she make her backside move (accompanied by some choice words about his opinion of her intelligence and sexual practices), she began to inch forward. "You were always asleep before!"

"Well...I woke up." He shrugged, finally losing the battle against a grin.

Despite all sensible driving advice, Lili was still staring at her passenger. When her peripheral vision caught sight of the cars in front of her stopping, she also hit the breaks, though much more gently this time. "Stop it," she muttered.

Grub tilted his head to the side. "Stop what?"

Lili poked his cheek, putting his face slightly out of alignment. "Grinning. You look like your brother."

Leaning back, Grub stared at her. Then he flipped down the passenger mirror, studying himself. "I don't see it."

"Grin," Lili prompted. When he did, she waved her hands in front of his mirror. "No, wait! Don't!"

Confused, Grub asked, "Why not?"

Head sinking between her shoulders, Lili returned to watching the road like a good driver. "I don't want you to look like Trouble."

Understandably confused, Grub frowned. Normally, he was encouraged to look like the commander. Or at least to act like him. All things considered, it was a wonder he hadn't developed an inferiority complex. The fact that he really didn't want to get into the kinds of tricky situations that his brother routinely jumped into was one of the prime reasons he had escaped (major) mental issues. "Why don't you want me to look like Trouble?"

"Your brother is a jerk," Lili said without hesitation. At the stunned silence that filled the car, she jumped forward. "I mean...yeah, he's one of my best friends, but...well, he's a jerk." She shrugged. "You know what I mean."

"Uh...I think?" Grub wanted to defend his brother, but, he had to admit, Trouble had some bad traits, mostly involving the ease in which he jumped between beds and the difficulty he had getting into what anyone would reasonably dub a "relationship." Before he could adequately acquit his brother, Grub thought of something far more important. "Wait...aren't I supposed to be a jerk?" He'd heard that accusation enough.

Lili was blank for a moment. Then she blinked and looked at him. "Huh...yeah."

" I?" He played with the lap restraint of his seat-belt.

She held up her hand, index finger and thumb a small distance apart.

Grub sunk into his seat, crossing his arms.

"Oh, come on!" Lili pushed the man's shoulder, which didn't seem to help alleviate his mood. "Spend a few decades acting like the troll under the bridge, ready to eat anyone who disturbs your rest, and you can't blame the entire LEP for avoiding you!" When he did not lessen his disapproval, the woman squeezed his shoulder, trying to make up for the rough touch as well as the rough words. "For what it's worth you've been kinda fun for the last few weeks."

Now it was Grub who turned red, but he had a small, hopeful tweak in his lips. "Really?"

"...yeah." Sounding surprised, Lili gave another squeeze and returned her hands to the steering wheel. "...are you surprised, too?"

Grub laughed. "Oh, you have no idea."

With the next good song on the radio, the elven love of music overtook them. Lili nervously went back to singing, and Grub joined in. Neither had a stunning voice, but they could mostly keep in tune, and both had a good memory for notes and lyrics. By the time they arrived at Grub's stop, both of their throats were sore (their voices may not have been good, but that didn't keep them from being loud), and Grub was back to feeling tired, longing for a nap before his night-time studies. Despite this, Grub smiled at Lili and didn't leave his seat right off, enjoying the silence. "So...same time tomorrow?" He tried for the "Kelp grin," just to mess with her, but explicitly attempting it seemed to sabotage the move.

Lili put the pad of her index finger to her lips. "No...I don't think so."

Grub shrunk in his seat. "Lili, I—"

"Oh, shut up!" She giggled, ruffling his hair with both hands. "!" She leaned over his lap, grabbing the passenger-side handle and pushing the door open. She swiftly unclasped his seat-belt and proceeded to shove the unbalanced man out. "Go! Leave, you dork!"

"Okay, okay!" Grub laughed, barely managing to maintain enough balance to avoid falling, though he did not look very graceful as he did so. Turning back towards the car, he went back to his earlier concern. "You're still picking me up tomorrow, right?"

Lili thumped her forehead on the recently vacated passenger seat. Without looking up, she wiggled her fingers in a goodbye to Grub and grabbed the door handle, slamming it closed.

Grub waited until Lili drove off, watching her all the way to her turn at the corner. Swinging one leg out, he turned and walked to the front door, entering with a cheery "I'm home!"

He was greeted by a disgruntled moan.

Pausing, one foot in the air, Grub turned his head to the living room. The television was on, with the all-too-familiar sight of decaying armies on the screen. However, what was uncommon was that they were filling the screen entirely, with a dripping, blood-red "GAME OVER!" sign on the screen.

Just visible through the door was a thin-boned hand, formerly in possession of the game controller, but now laid out limply on the ground, twitching.

Grub felt his heart stop. "Vinyáya!" Adrenalin flooding his system, brain racing to remember where the house phone was kept, he rounded the corner into the living room.


Once again, Grub paused mid-step, giving himself time to fully take in the scene before him.

Vinyáya was lying on her side, one arm (the one with the controller) fully outstretched above her head, the other draped over her eyes. She was already in nightclothes, and her mouth was hanging open, her snores filling every corner of the room. Every so often, she twitched, smacking her lips and frowning. Then she was back to buzz-saw level breathing.

Slowly, afraid any further noise would finally succeed in waking her, despite the fact that she had managed to sleep through his yelling, Grub put his foot down. He studied the woman, smiling and shaking his head. He had warned her, after all, but would she listen...? For a brief moment, the male considered waking his housemate and urging her to bed, but decided against the plan. He knew her well enough. She would as likely stay awake just to spite him as actually go to bed. So, moving with as much stealth as he could muster, Grub went into the hall, coming back a few moments later with a spare pillow and blanket from the linen closet. He placed the pillow in front of Vinyáya's face, careful to keep it from touching her, but close enough that she would brush against it if she moved. Holding his breath, he unfolded the blanket and let the bottom touch the floor at Vinyáya's feet, leaning forward to lay the rest over her body. Lunging forward like a ice skater, he hit the power button on the TV and remained poised over Vinyáya, praying that she wouldn't react to the loss of tortured moans and bright light. Then he jumped back, landing cat-like, and darted into his bedroom, closing the door behind him.

Vinyáya did not stir for quite a while. When she did, it was only enough to encounter the pillow, which she grabbed, tucking one half under her head, hugging the other end, all without waking up. She would be sore in the morning, but she remained warm all through the night.

Chapter Text

Week 12

Vinyáya may not have been excited about the pregnancy, but she was at least responsible about the entire affair. Not responsible enough to immediately step down from Section 8 or join Grub in reading everything she could get her hands on, but enough to schedule regular visits with her doctor. Thus, four weeks after her initial meeting with the physician, she readied herself for a second check-up.

She made the terrible mistake of mentioning it to Grub.

He, predictably, had latched onto her until he got guarantees that he would be brought along. She assured him that it was just a normal checkup and ultrasound, but that did nothing to deter him. In fact, saying "ultrasound" was exactly the wrong thing to say, as Vinyáya soon realized. The corporal's eyes had gone wide at the magic word and he asked, breathless, about what data storage device he should bring to record the event. After she informed him that a) she did not know and b) she did not care, Vinyáya had gone off to her bedroom to get a good sleep.

She awoke to find Grub sitting at the kitchen table, omelets and toast already laid out for them both, and a dozen different standards of data storage laid out. One was even a complete external hard drive (about palm-sized, but still), and another was a Mud Man micro SD card, which Vinyáya decided she did not want to know the provenance of. Books passed through customs with no protests, but there was far too much invasive software on human storage devices to be allowed on fairy systems.

Walking up to the jumpy male, who was looking between each device in turn, Vinyáya pushed forward a small disk. "This will do just fine. Besides, it can play in data tablets, so you can spend hours crooning over the thing."

Grub looked up at her and grinned. "Thanks!"

Vinyáya rolled her eyes. Sarcasm is lost on this one... Rather than continue conversation, she sat down and began to eat.

While she wasn't willing to talk, Grub certainly was. He didn't even touch his food, going on at a mile-a-minute about what his book told him about this checkup, wondering how it differed from a real fairy exam, asking her if they could please find out the gender, and was the omelette okay? Because he didn't think he'd sauteed the onions long enough, and he really didn't like the taste of onions when they were undercooked, they were just too harsh.

"Kelp!" she finally shouted around a mouth full of food. Swallowing while he stared at her, the woman continuing before he picked up again. "I'd really rather not talk to you now, if you don't mind."

He looked at his orange juice, brows furrowed. " mean more so than normal?"

Vinyáya shot egg off her fork, hitting Grub between the eyes.

While Vinyáya lived almost on the opposite side of Haven from Police Plaza, nearly everything else she visited regularly was within walking distance, including her doctor's office. The trip wasn't long, so Grub was quite confused about why Vinyáya was walking so very fast, hands in tight balls at her side. He didn't comment, however, finding himself taking on an odd walk-jog gate to keep up with her. He was glad for his long legs in this moment, but they weren't quite good enough for the trip.

Once again, they took the back way in, and now Grub found himself actually jogging to keep up. The passages in the hospital were small, and too long a delay would allow the woman to disappear without a trace. He had no illusions about her coming back to get him if he fell behind. He managed the labyrinth with no incidents, and they were greeted in the brighter main corridor by Dr. Ginko, who was as cheerful as ever.

Until he saw Grub. "Ah. Mr. Kelp. How good to see you." He rocked back on his heels, as if already responding to a verbal assault.

Grub tried to smile reassuringly. He'd been reading fairy texts in addition to the human books. There were fewer questions this time. Fewer...but still some.

The doctor looked to Vinyáya, waiting for her to say that the man was just there as her escort, and he was not being allowed back into the office. Instead, she impatiently asked which room she had to go in, at which point the doctor grudgingly opened a nearby door, waving them in.

Shocking Grub, Vinyáya surged forward, laying back on the slightly curved table without prompting, and hiked up her shirt. She snapped her fingers at the doctor. "Let's go. I don't want this to take any longer than it has to."

Both men stood at the door for a moment, looking at each other in silent male commiseration. At her further urging, Grub shrugged and handed over his disk. "Will this work?"

"Oh," the doctor said, still somewhat put off, but took the disk. "Yes, of course."

"Sweet." Grub grinned and entered the room, scooting the extra chair forward until he was at Vinyáya's side. He steadfastly ignored her glares. He was building up an immunity. Very useful.

The doctor was well-prepared, but he still putzed around for a few minutes, all while urging Vinyáya (who was jiggling one leg rapidly) to wait just a little longer. Her leg stopped jiggling when he said, quite casually, "I'll need you to undo your pants and pull them a bit down, please."

"Can't you it here?" She ran a hand over her slightly expanding stomach, then poked it in a womb-ward direction.

"Do we need to go over female anatomy, Miss Vinyáya?"

She grumbled a "no," narrowing her eyes at Grub.

He looked to the ceiling and away, whistling. He managed to remain looking in the proper direction as he heard the sound of a zipper and shuffling. He even continued to keep his gaze away when the doctor informed her that she didn't need to lower her pants quite that far, as this wasn't a transvaginal ultrasound, merely transabdominal. He would regret that restraint, secretly, but was proud of himself. Once she was pronounced decent, Grub tentatively looked down and tried not to blush. He'd seen her in less. A lot less. He was not going to get aroused.

It took him some time to realize that the fluttering in his stomach wasn't desire.

For just a little while, she wasn't scowling at him, and it was...nice. Almost like he would hope such a moment could be. The room was dimmed, to make viewing the monitor easier, and it softened her harsh edges. The woman was reclining on the hospital bed, white shirt lifted off her stomach and lower garments down just enough to help the doctor, without revealing anything too embarrassing. In between the clothes, he finally got a good look at her belly. Normally flat and ribbed, it was rounding out, abs disappearing as she gained padding. She had one hand on her stomach, and that was also where her gaze was centered, thoughtful. She apparently, didn't look at this very often, either.


The scene was shattered as the doctor squirted clear goo low on Vinyáya's stomach. She gasped, backing up the bed. "D'arvit! That's cold!"

Chuckling, the doctor nodded. "Sorry. I find it's best to not make people over-anticipate that."

"I'd find it best if you would warm up that junk!"

"Now, now," he soothed, clicking the monitor on and making sure the analysis programs were started. "It's just a moment of discomfort, that's all."

"No, I agree with her," Grub jumped in. "You should keep that warm, if you know you're going to be using it."

Ginko rolled his eyes all the way to the ceiling.

"Thank you, Kelp," Vinyáya said, nodding once at him.

He beamed.

She stopped being so kind when the transducer touched her, spreading the cold goo further. More cursing, though admittedly light, and now she was at least glaring at the doctor, instead of her former lover.

Grub was going to attempt to continue supporting her in her anti-chill stance, but was stopped when the first images popped onto the screen.

His heart did an odd, painful triple beat.

Leaning over, Grub put his hands on the edge of Vinyáya's bed, squeezing hard as he leaned over to get a better look, not caring if she disapproved of this move. His eyes darted across the screen, trying to work out the grainy, shifting image.

His mouth went dry at what he saw.


Vinyáya could feel the tension in his body, even though they were not actually touching. She felt herself respond in a similar manner, made worse by not knowing what his problem was. "What? What is it?"

Reaching one hand completely over her body, Grub traced the shapes on the screen. "Is it..." He looked at the doctor.

Ginko looked back, eyebrows raised, not sure what the problem was. He'd barely had enough time to glance at the screen, too busy spreading the gel.

Swallowing, Grub went on. "Twins?"

Now Ginko was paying full attention to the screen, eyes wide. He leaned in, squinting.

Vinyáya closed her eyes, teeth grinding, and tried not to shake. "Oh, gods..."

Ginko began to laugh. With a slight motion, he adjusted the transducer. What appeared to be two globes was revealed to instead be two portions of one connected shape. Head and body. He moved the transducer around for a while, giving the parents a clear, three-dimensional view of the child from all angles, assuring them that there was only one fetus in residence.

Grub let his head hang down, breathing easily again. "Oh, thank Frond."

Vinyáya silently agreed, but did not make it known to anyone, having barely kept herself in check during the confusion. There was one party in this entire fiasco already freaking out at every opportunity. She didn't need to help him along. "All normal?"

With a few more adjustments, the doctor nodded. He began to trace the body, muttering more to himself than to his adult patients. "Head, chest, arms, should be developing individual fingers and toes, about now."

Grub nodded. He'd read that. "And nails."

Vinyáya rolled her eyes. "Great. You can go get a fabulous mani-pedi together once it's born."

Both of Grub's hands were again on the edge of the bed, though no longer clenching the mattress, and he drummed his fingers on the padding. "Not sure I'd approve of that for a boy." He tried to appear nonchalant as he addressed the doctor. "Do I need to be worried about that?"

The doctor opened his mouth, but was stopped by Vinyáya's growl.

"I told you, I don't want to know!"

Grub turned on her, and now he was the one glaring. "You don't even care, so why does it matter if you know or not!"

She leaned back into the pillow, the motion taking her stomach out of alignment, and the image of the child disappeared. The retreat was short-lived, and she surged back at him, making him back up twice as much. "Because I don't want to know and it is my decision, okay?" She focused her bared teeth on the doctor. "Are we done?"

He held the transducer close to his chest, like a protective medical amulet, some of the goo getting on his smock, turning it a dingy gray. "I...I just need to check the fetal heartbeat."

In a flash, Grub was leaning over the bed again, now in the opposite direction, getting in the doctor's face and grinning like a mad-elf. The image was amplified by his ginger hair, which was now long enough to get in his eyes, making him resemble a recently released prisoner, though he lacked the stubble necessary to complete the image. "Heartbeat? Can I hear it? Please?"

"Of...of course. We all will." The doctor nodded, placing the transducer aside. He waited for the father to get tired enough to move away, then pulled out a device that actually quite closely resembled a portable speaker. One end had a small speaker box, while the other had a flat microphone. "Everyone be quiet, please. As you can imagine, this, is very sensitive."

Grub nodded and tried to coach his breathing into a reasonable volume. He wondered vaguely if his own heartbeat, which surely must be loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, would interfere with the device.

Sighing, Vinyáya allowed herself to be subject to another prodding.

Never had the doctor had a greater fear that a woman's nethers would jump up and attack him. The wing commander was the sort of woman who inspired the term "vagina dentata." Still, he was a professional, so Ginko placed the mic on her stomach, pausing for the heartbeat.

There were some tense moments as he tried different spots on her stomach, frowning all the while. Just as Grub began to fidget, it came: a rapid thumping that sounded more like a tennis ball (or perhaps several tennis balls) being thrown at a wall than normal heart rhythms.

The doctor smiled.

Grub, for lack of a better word, melted. His lowered his head to rest on his hands at the edge of the bed, looking at Vinyáya's stomach. He could feel his heartbeat rising to match the baby's two beats per second, making his breathing come faster. It was an odd feeling, but pleasant. Very, very quietly, he whispered, "I've got to get me one of those."

"Oh, gods no," Vinyáya moaned, fidgeting away from the device. "You are not coming at me with one of those things at all hours of the day." When Grub opened his mouth to protest, she jabbed a finger at his face. "You know you would."

His eyes darted away, silently agreeing with her.

Over-excited father duly reigned in, Vinyáya turned to the physician. "Are we done here?"

Still holding the mic out, though now a bit above her stomach, the reception turned off to keep everyone from being deafened, he nodded. "I do need to do bloodwork, of course, but the ultrasound is done."

"Wait!" Grub sat up straight. "Did you get a recording of the heartbeat? Can you do that?"


"We're done," she barked, swinging her legs off the table, forcing the young elf to back away. She stood, not bothering to clothe herself correctly (no sense gooing up her jeans) and looked at the doctor. "Where?"

He seemed to understand immediately, pointing down the hall. "To your left, third door."

"Excellent," she said and darted out of the room, looking highly relieved.

Grub watched her go, blinking rapidly. "What in the...?"

The doctor chuckled, wiping off his equipment. "First trimester ultrasounds have to be done on a full bladder."

Grub blushed as he realized exactly why the mother had just left. "Oh." He looked down and did his best to not think about it. Unfortunately, thinking that you shouldn't think about something means that you automatically can not stop thinking about it, so his face grew redder and redder with every passing second. He could feel the increase in temperature up to the very tips of his ears.

"Ah..." Ginko shook his head at him, still supremely amused at the out-of-his-depth young man. "Wondering why she was so irritable this morning, I'm guessing?"

"Um..." Not really, no.

"I don't like him," Grub grunted, kicking a stone on the sidewalk.

Vinyáya, who was walking a few feet ahead of him, but still within reach with a normal voice, responded with similar cheek, but directed at the officer, instead of the doctor. "He's delivered hundreds of children, Kelp. And he's discreet, so I wont be outed before I have to be."

Catching up the the stone, Grub kicked it again, pouting when it hit a divide in the sidewalk, ricocheting into the street. "I still don't like him."

"Tough," Vinyáya snapped, already growing to detest this conversation. "He's my doctor, and that is that. I'm not having this discussion again."

Grub pounced off the edge of the sidewalk, tapping the rock so that it arced in the air, landing back on the path. He smiled at this, jumping back on and continuing his herding. "Well...once everyone knows, we could pick another doctor."

"No," Vinyáya said, walking faster, still not looking back at him, "we will not. For the matter, I will not. I've better things to do with my time than hunt around for another obstetrician."

Grub missed his next kick, but did not go back to try again, merely looking over his shoulder in a forlorn manner. "My mother went to Doctor Nesset. She raves about that woman. Have you heard of her?"

Vinyáya grinned, now finally looking at him. "Oh, yes. The misandrist. Really, Kelp, if she's the better option, maybe I will consider it."

Grub turned from his long-gone rock, eyes wide and smiling. "Really!"

"," she said and hopped off the sidewalk, crossing the street to her house.

Grub stood on the other side of the path, sulking for a while before he followed.

Chapter Text

Week 13

If there was one aspect of the captain's exam that Grub knew he was completely unprepared for, it was marksmanship. Up until two months ago, he hadn't picked up a gun in years, and even then he had never been a very good shot. It was here that the large majority of officers failed. Even Holly Short had nearly fallen afoul (no pun intended) of this, saved only by a loophole in the test wording. That loophole had long ago been closed, and now Grub was going to have to get through on skill alone.

"You are so fucked," Lili said, looking at his initial scores.

Grub hung his head.

"No, really." Lili panned through, tracing the line that marked his progress. It was barely rising. Clicking a few keys on the readout, she brought up a secondary line to show how he should be progressing. It was less than promising, to say the least. "Utterly screwed. You do have your eyes open during this, don't you?"

"I was never a good shot," Grub muttered, gently tossing his practice neutrino between his hands. Unlike the real models, this could only emit a bright light, which would be used to track his aim, though realism was added with a slight recoil, to mimic actual shooting. "I didn't exactly go out into the field that often."

Lili stepped back from the controls, shaking her head. " were at the Fowl siege. And in the middle of the B'wa Kell rebellion. Not to mention Koboi's escape. Didn't it ever occur to you that you're a flash-point for danger?"

Grub's eyes widened. "I...really?"

"Well...why not?" She leaned against the cubicle wall. "Excepting Root, Trouble, Vinyáya, and Holly, you've probably been in more danger than any other officer in the force."

Brow furrowed as he considered this, Grub scowled. " have I never been given hazard pay?"

Lili smacked her forehead. "You...utter..." She pointed one arm straight out, indicating the target range. "Shut up and shoot."

Still sullen, Grub complied, raising his arms and aiming.

"Wait, wait, wait!" The lieutenant cried in pain before he even got off a shot. "Oh, gods...what are you doing?"

Grub raised his head from the cradle he had made with his forearms. "Shooting?" He let the gun fall, scratching at his ears, wincing when he brushed his noise-cancelling headphones, letting in the sound of dozens of other guns going off at once.

"No wonder you're terrible!" Lili proclaimed, snatching the gun from his hand. "You look like you're trying to be a Mud Man action star. Where did you learn to aim like that?"

Grub winced. "Mud Man action movies."

She stared. "You're..." She did not finish the sentence, quickly realizing that he was serious. His love of human cinema was well known, so it made sense that he had learned more than a few bad policing habits from his favored flicks. "Okay...I need to break you of this. Watch." Turning to the firing range, she stood with her feet at shoulder-width, both arms stretched out in front of her, but slightly bent at the elbows. She tilted her head a fraction to the side, one eye closed, the other looking down the imaginary line between her eye and the sight. "Make sure to have your arms a little loose, so you can absorb the recoil, but not too loose, or it'll jerk back and smack you in the face." She held the pose for several seconds before tossing the gun back.

Grub fumbled it between his hands. "Don't the new neutrinos have less recoil?" He took her place in the middle of the cubicle, copying her pose as best he could.

"Well, yes. The difference between a bull troll charging and an adolescent. You're still gonna look like a moron if you get popped in the nose." She sunk to one knee, grabbing Grub's ankles and moving his legs a fraction further apart. She poked the back of his knee, and, finding that his legs bent, she grunted and slapped the front, locking his legs. A second poke found him strong, and she stood.

"I don't think I need to get hit in the head for people to think I'm a moron," Grub muttered, holding the pose.

Lili laughed lightly. "You have some major self-esteem issues, you know that?" She stood at his side, holding her chin in one hand, head moving up and down as she inspected the pose. Reaching out with one hand, she tapped the bottom of the gun, trying to move it into place. "Just a little...pah!" she cried out in disgust. "I told you, bend your arms!"

Grub raised his head, looking at her. "I am!"

"Well, I can't tell." She grabbed the top of the gun, tugging back to test his bend-ability. "You are going to dislocate a shoulder, or at least fall over." She continued tugging, his arms going between utter rigidness to far too loose. "Come on, you're not that dense. Just...oh, I give up!"

Grub started to put his arms down, head drooping. "Sorry, I just don't get it."

Lili stepped behind him. "That's not a good enough excuse." She put her arms out, grabbing his wrists and lifting him back into position. "Like I said, not too tight, not too loose." Briefly removing one hand, she tilted his head to the side, tucking her own in the other direction, allowing her to get closer, their cheeks resting together. Her hands slid up Grub's arms, training the gun at the firing range, pulling back on him a fraction, making his arms bend, but not collapse. "Think of...being a lead in dancing. You dance, right?"

Grub nodded, trying to control his heartbeat, cursing the automated muscle. Her head was far too close to his jugular and the pounding carotid artery beneath. She would surely be able to feel that. "Some. Ballroom. Mother made Trouble and I learn when we were little."

Lili nodded, satisfied. "Well, if you're too loose with your follow, she'll do whatever she wants. If you're too tight, she doesn't know what you want to do. So...tell the gun what you want it to do."

"...not smack me in the face?"

Lili tittered. "Yes, that would be a good order. Now..." She paused, eyes darting to the side, finally catching Grub's deep red blush. She took one hand from the gun, lightly smacking him across the head. "Come on, don't make this a stereotypical romance scene. I'm teaching you, not seducing you."

"Oh, r-really?" Grub swallowed, feeling even more heat rise to his face. He made sure to look directly at the firing range. He was not going to meet her eyes until he had some time to recover.

"Well, duh." Lili put her hands back into place, and smirked, the movement transferring from her lips onto Grub's neck. "When I seduce you, I promise you'll know."

The question was long-delayed, but it was bound to come up. After all, the subject had nearly been breached during the initial meeting with Dr. Ginko.

One day, Vinyáya came home late from work to find Grub splayed across her well-broken-in green couch, snoring like a lumberjack, a book open on his face to block out the light. She had rolled her eyes at him and walked back to her bedroom before something prodded her from the back of her mind. She came back, snatching the tome from his head and looking at the cover. "How did I forget about this...?"

Grub gave a last grunting snore, startled awake. He slitted his eyes open and, finding Vinyáya standing at his side, pushed himself onto the arm-rest, sitting up and rubbing at his eyes with two clenched fists. "Evening."

Vinyáya did not respond to the greeting, flipping through the pages, pausing every few moments to scan the text or inspect a picture. After about a minute of this, she tossed the book back, letting it fall on Grub's chest. "This is a Mud Man book."

Grub frowned. Picking up the book, he began flipping through the pages, trying to find where he had left off. The organization by weeks of pregnancy helped things, but he was still irritated at having to search.

"Kelp...why do you have a Mud Man pregnancy book?"

Grub pointed at Vinyáya's stomach as he continued to flip one-handed through the chapters.

"Let me re-emphasize that. Why do you have a Mud Man pregnancy book?"

"That's what I was given."

Vinyáya squeezed the bridge of her nose, dragging her hand back down until she put her fingers together, resting them over her mouth. She tapped it and breathed deeply. She must be logical about this. She could never pull off a perfect murder in these circumstances. That couch would absorb too much blood. "There is no way you got that at a library in Haven."

Grub held up the book, turning it about to give her a clear view. "What clued you in? The lack of a RFID tag or the lack of system stamps?"

Vinyáya decided to ignore this. Ignorance was bliss, but being confronted with your blissful ignorance was rather unpleasant. "Where did you get that book?"

Grub, finding his place, smiled radiantly, slipping a metal bookmark between the pages. "Fowl."

Vinyáya felt two temperatures explode in her chest: the fire of rage and the ice of fear. Like in many magic fighting games, fire turned out to be more powerful than ice. "You told Fowl?"

"No," Grub yawned, covering his mouth as he watched the woman.

"Then how does he know?"

Sinking back down on the couch, Grub yawned, giving Vinyáya the time to work out things for herself. When she did not make any progress, he relented. "He's Artemis Fowl."

Vinyáya paused. Blinked. Chewed on her lower lip. "Ah...right."

Grub blinked back at her, very slowly, ending with his eyes still half-lidded. "Can I go back to sleep, now?"

"Would you mind going to your room?" Vinyáya ventured, looking over her shoulder at the entryway. "I have another date tonight, and..."

Abruptly, Grub snapped. "What is wrong with you?"

Vinyáya stared at him. "What?"

"I get that you don't want to be with me, okay?" Grub arose from the couch, taking the few steps necessary to come up against Vinyáya's face. "Whatever. But him? You know not telling Lope about this," Grub thrust a finger at Vinyáya's stomach, "is going to end badly. Why are you doing it?"

Vinyáya took a step back, but merely to get enough space to bring the back of her hand up to her face. She began to laugh. "Wh-h-h-hy?" She could barely get the word out. "Why am I seeing him?"

"No! Why are you...why are you...d'arvit! Why do you have to treat everyone like your fucking toy?" Grub shook his head before Vinyáya could even protest. "I got myself into this mess and I am trying to deal with it, but Lope doesn't have a clue about what is going on. And the rest of the LEP? They're going to be blindsided by the news, especially when you finally take leave, so...why, Vinyáya? Just...why?"

"Why?" She repeated, putting her hand down. She took a step towards the man. "You want to know why I'm lying to everyone?" Another step, and now Grub had to move back, though he still glared at her. She was not glaring, though. She smiled in an almost sultry manner, a small laugh in her voice. "Why I wont tell Lope before everyone else learns?" Another step, and now Grub was looking behind him for just a fraction of a second, but enough to break his concentration. Vinyáya rolled her hips as she walked, a tigress on the prowl, with injured prey before her. "Why I don't want to tell anyone about you?"

Grub backed into the entertainment unit, the glass cabinets clattering. Realizing he was trapped before the advancing woman, his heart rate doubled and he stopped breathing.

"The deep...dark secret..." Vinyáya murmured, looking away from him, eyes closed, face crossed with pain. "The hidden part of my past that makes me...such a bitch?" She slowly turned her head back, eyes cutting into him. "Well...listen up..." Reaching out, she brushed his unruly hair away from one ear, leaning in to whisper. "There isn't one. No childhood abuse. No sexual harassment. No denied promotions because I'm a woman." She pulled away, sweeping her arms to the side, drawing her entire house (and entire life) into the conversation. "Just me.

"Now mind getting out of sight?" She turned from her opponent, waiving his presence off with a flick of her hand in the direction of the bedrooms. "Like I said, Lope will be here soon. I'll try to get him out as soon as possible."

"Don't bother," Grub retorted, pushing off from the cabinetry and shouldering past the wing commander. "I'm leaving."

"Oh!" Vinyáya chirruped, looking at the clock. "Excellent. Will you be home tonight, or do I have the place to myself?"

"Vinyaya?" Grub ventured, taking a black hoodie out of the closet by the front door.

"Yes?" she sang, growing excited at the idea of having her house to herself for an entire evening. Perhaps she could make this a stay-at-home date...and those always turned into something very interesting.

Grub pulled the sweater over his head until it overlapped his brown cargo pants. He grabbed his messenger bag from its place next to the door, tossing the strap on his shoulder. Grub opened the door and paused, looking back at his host. He spoke in a flat voice. "Screw you." Before she could formulate a response, he stepped through the door, slamming it closed behind him.

Trouble loved his little brother. Really, he did. Really.

He just didn't love it when Grub appeared on his doorstep after a long shift at work with no call to warn him.

"You know," Trouble grunted, crossing his arms so he could fill up the entire doorway, leaving no space for his thin brother (who, in recent weeks, had begun to at least fill out a little, thanks to his training) to slip through, "you should have called. What if I have a hot date in here?"

Grub leaned back, head snapping up and down one, eyebrows raised. "What? In that?"

Trouble looked down at his hot-rod bedecked pajama pants. He looked up again, scowling. "She could really dig cars."

Shaking his head, Grub decided it wasn't worth the pain of arguing. He'd had enough of that for one night. "Whatever. Can I come in or not?"

Trouble momentarily considered telling his brother "no." Instead, he rolled his eyes and stepped out of the doorway, not actually giving permission, but at least rescinding his position as guardian of the gateway. As he walked to the living room, he spoke aloud, not bothering to actually direct his speech at his brother. "Guess you'll be needing my couch for the night?"

Grub followed, glancing balefully at the sofa. It was brown pleather, which meant no breathing room between his skin and the material. He always woke up feeling like he'd bathed in salt-water after a night on the cushions. "Sadly, yes. I don't think I should go home quite yet."

Trouble flopped into his one armchair, laying with his legs draped over the side. "Exiled from fair lady's presence?"

"No," Grub droned, dropping his messenger bag to the floor and draping himself across the couch, the metal loops on his pants jingling, and leaned his back against the arm rest. "I left."

"Huh." Trouble nodded. "Good for you."

Grub's neck went limp, head falling so he looked at the ceiling. "Oh, yeah. Real good. She yells at me for thirty seconds and I run off. That's promising." He closed his eyes, letting out a long breath.

Trouble watched his brother for a while. He said nothing, eventually rising from his chair, disappearing into the kitchen. There was the suction pop of the refrigerator door opening, followed by a few clinks and another pair of smaller vacuums being released. When he reappeared, it was holding two amber-colored bottles in one hand. Stopping by the side of the couch, he stretched out his arm towards his little brother, twitching it in a silent offer.

At first, Grub was confused. He watched the bottle, not entirely sure why it was so close to his face. Realizing that he was to take it, he became even more confused, but reached out, accepting the chilled drink, letting Trouble return to his chair. For a while, Grub read the label, lips pursed. Then, when a shrug, he put the rim to his lips and tilted it back.

A second later, he began to sputter, pulling the bottle away and glaring at it. "What the hell?" He glanced at his brother, then at the bottle, spinning it around as he looked for more labels. "Has this gone bad or something?"

Trouble raised an eyebrow, shaking his head slowly. He took a long drag on the beer, letting his muscles go loose so he practically melted into the chair.

"Gods, why do people drink this stuff?"

Trouble waved his bottle at the younger elf. "Stop complaining and drink. You'll understand soon enough."

Scowling, Grub complied, taking little sips of the alcohol. He'd had spirits before, but they were mixers instead of beer. He really didn't see what the appeal was. For the first few tastes, he considered giving the bottle back, but decided to just wait it out. Grub could have gotten away with a refusal to anyone else, but Trouble was his big brother, and that meant he was accustomed to making his sibling do whatever he wanted, on pain of a noogie or similar punishment. So he let the silence stretch out between them, both occasionally drinking, Trouble making much more progress than his inexperienced guest.

Eventually, Trouble seemed to decide that it was time to move onto the next portion of their evening. He rested his half-empty bottle between his legs, draping his arms along the chair. "You should date," he said matter-of-factly.

Grub choked on his beer. Wiping the bitter brew off his chin with the back of his hand, he gaped at his brother. "Gods, Trouble, aren't you paying attention? She hates me!"

Trouble snorted. "I didn't mean you and Vinyáya. I meant you."

"Oh, no," Grub said, shaking his head, hands held up to ward off the idea. "That is not good times."

"Ah, come on. You just need to get back in the game." Trouble paused, considering this, then amended himself. "Or in the game for the first time, as it were."

Taking another swig of beer (he had to admit, the taste was growing on him...or the alcohol was dulling his taste buds enough to fool himself into thinking it was growing on him) to fortify himself, Grub again denied his brother. "No, I was in the game before. I was a pawn."

Trouble chuckled, pulling on his bottle until the last few drops trickled down his throat. He placed it at the foot of the chair and didn't bother to rise for another. The alcohol had been less about making his own portion of this conversation tolerable, and more about easing Grub into it. "You know, if I was Fowl, I'd make some sort of clever analogy about pawns being able to fight their way across a board and turn into rook or bishop or even a knight."

Muttering, Grub replied, "Or a queen."

"Hey, what you do in your free time is your own business, little bro. Just don't let Mother find out."

Grub paused in another gulp to look over at his sibling. There was no way to give such an accusation a dignified response, so he popped the bottle away from his lips. When he inspected it, the younger Kelp found that three quarters of the contents were gone. After a pause, and with a small shrug, he tilted his head back, swallowing the last. That done, he put the bottle on the floor, also not bothering for a second, and wriggled into the couch. This was a rather interesting feeling. A little tired, as he normally felt when intoxicated, but not warm, as he felt with hard liquor. Pleasantly muddled, he allowed the conversation to progress. "Just what Mother needs. More ammo."

"Hey, that's not fair," Trouble interrupted, scowling. "She hasn't printed a word about the pregnancy, and that has got to be killing her. The story of the decade, and she can't break it."

"No," Grub countered, waving a hand about in the air. He tried to focus on it, and decided that was a bad idea. It made his stomach do strange things. He let it rest with the other, crossed over his stomach. "She just rants about everything else." He closed his eyes, face tightening so that two lines appeared between his eyebrows. "Gods, she is still pissed at me, isn't she?"

"Dunno," Trouble said. "I haven't talked to her since the dinner."

Grub considered this. He let a very small smile come out on his face. "You sure that's a good idea? She could start writing about you next."

"Ah, what would she say? 'Trouble Kelp sleeps with another hot chick! Will he ever stop?'"

Grub laughed, tightening his grip on his stomach. "Ha! Like you would."

Silence for a minute. Then Trouble whistled softly. "I dunno. I mean...fatherhood is doing you wonders. Maybe it's time I considered it."

"Oh, yeah. Getting kicked out of two houses by two different women. Being a father is great."

"No, really." Trouble insisted. "Before all this started, I've got to say, I didn't really like you." An awkward pause, and he jumped forward. "I mean, I loved you, don't get me wrong. You're my brother, but you were kind of..." He chewed on his cheek, trying to think of something diplomatic.

"An asshole?"

"Your words, not mine." Trouble decided to move quickly, before giving his morose brother more time to sulk. "But, lately...well...I don't see you often, but I'm...glad to see you." Trouble chuckled. "You're actually starting to look kind of cool."

Grub raised his head, finally opening his eyes, and they soon went wide. "Really? Cool?"

Trouble held out his hand, index finger and thumb held a fraction apart. For a moment, you could see the connection between the commander and his good friend, Frond, even if they were on such polar opposites of the gender spectrum.

Again the corporal's head fell down, resting on the couch's arm. "Woah. How did that happen?"

"One of the great mysteries of the universe." His brother's ego thus bolstered to a reasonable level after what Trouble had no doubts was another intense confrontation with the wing commander, the elder Kelp decided his good deed of the day was done. He let companionable silence drift between them, indulging himself in the feel of slight intoxication.

At first, the corporal was also content to enjoy the relaxation, but it did not last forever. When Grub next spoke, he was so quiet that Trouble wasn't sure if he heard correctly, at first. Yet he did not ask his brother to repeat the words that slowly wormed into his brain, disturbing the tranquility therein. "Do you think... What would Dad say?"

Trouble mulled this over, trying to remember everything he could about their father. Even though the three Kelp boys had been close, Major Manfred Kelp had passed on so long ago... "I think...he would want you to do this. As far as what happened after Vinyáya told you, I mean." Trouble nodded once, and that movement solidified the conclusion in his mind. It was right. He knew it was. "You didn't expect something like this to happen, and you didn't want it,'re doing your best." He shrugged. "He'd be proud of you, I think, because...well...I know I am."

Grub said nothing. Possibly because the single tear that managed to escape the corner of his eye (which Trouble could tactfully ignore) would also be released in his voice. So they waited while the moment passed and Grub stopped swallowing down the tension that threatened to overtake him and spill over.

Once he was sure that it was safe to talk again, Trouble used that age-old icebreaker of men across the world: "Want another beer?"

Grub groaned. "Do you have something that doesn't taste like dog piss?"

"I'd rather not know how you can make that comparison..." Ignoring his little brother's scowl, Trouble swung his legs off the arm rest and stood, taking a moment to be still and re-acquire his balance. "Hang tight, let me get the rum."

"And coke!" Grub called after him.

Trouble turned, crossing his arms and glaring down at his little brother. "Real men don't cut their alcohol, Grub."

"Oh, really?" The corporal challenged, crossing his legs at the ankle. "Who says so?"

"Me," Trouble grunted, thumbing his chest. "I'm older, so I'm the one with more authority on the subject."

"Hah! Think again, Trubs. I," Grub replied, also pointing a thumb into his sternum, "am the one who knocked up a superior officer."

Trouble stared at him, blinking several times. "Are you—"

"D'arvit! Yes, I'm sure. Can you stop asking already?"

Trouble pulled at the base of his ponytail. "I'm just waiting for the universe to catch up and implode on itself, once it figures this out."

"Oh, it'll happen eventually. In the meantime," Grub pointed at the kitchen, deepening his voice as much as he could, "the rum!"

Laughing, Trouble followed his order. "Whatever you say, little bro. Just don't complain to me tomorrow if you have a hangover at work."

"Oh, no worries," Grub smirked. "I will."

Chapter Text

Week 14

"Bad i-deeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaa," Holly sang under her breath.

Lili shot a sideways glare at the woman, lightly backhanding her arm. "Shut it. He doesn't need your 'encouragement.'"

Just out of earshot, but rapidly approaching their circle, Grub Kelp walked, running his hands over his outfit. He hadn't worn one of these in years. If not for the fact that he ended his growth spurts right before entering the academy and succeeded—with the help of his enforced jogging—in keeping his general shape, the gi wouldn't have fit. It was getting a little tight around the upper arms, though, and that made him grin. Nothing was visible, but there was no denying that his time on the weights was having some effect. He no longer flailed about like an anemic 'tween, though he was nowhere near his elder brother's grunting displays of strength. He wasn't sure if he even wanted to achieve that level of physical fitness, but at least moving in its vague direction was a plus.

He was brought back to the gi—a white affair almost identical to the human martial arts outfit, and chosen because if its inherent usefulness in combat training—by his repeated fumbling with the belt. This had been something he could never understand, even when he did it a dozen times under direct instruction from a LEP teacher. Was is over and under, then under and over...or over and under, over and under...or under—

"Come here, you dork," Lili muttered, stepping forward.

Grub looked up, blinking. He did so a little more when Lili grabbed the ends of his belt, tugging him closer. She didn't address his face as she spoke, hands flying as she uncinched the tie. "I really don't get how guys can't understand this. Hello, just listen to the instructor. Under and over, then over and under." Finishing this mini-rant, she pinched the inner section of the knot, moving it in towards Grub's stomach before tugging the outer portion, leaving the belt at a perfect level of tension around Grub's waist.

Doing his best to avoid a sulk, Grub surveyed his two teachers for the day. Both had his same attire, but he had to admit that they pulled it off a lot better than him. Something about how the material flowed over their chests. Not tight (that would be a huge disadvantage, limiting some of their mobility), but well-curved. Feminine, despite the supposedly masculine activity they were about to engage in, and parted enough to see the black shirts they wore under the gi to hide their chests. He was momentarily glad he didn't need the extra cover. The uniform would be hot enough without a shirt on underneath.

Holly padded forward on bare feet, arms still crossed, eyes narrowed at her nervous student. She closely monitored his gi, but had no comment, possibly because her handler/secretary had just put in her own ounce of effort to making it acceptable. So, instead, she jumped right into things. "Forward stance," she commanded, her own feet angling into the proper position, though her legs were kept close together and she stood at full height, waiting.

It had been years since Grub used any of his LEP hand-to-hand combat training, but his muscle memory was good enough to remember at least this. Left leg forward and bent at a near right angle, his right leg shot back, foot turned out at forty-five degrees. He held his hands in fists near his waist and looked straight ahead. But only for about a second, after which his head tilted as he appealed to the women for confirmation.

Holly whacked him on the back of the head, no more or less gentle than any of his Academy martial arts teachers. "Forward. That's where your enemy is." She began to circle him, grumbling about being dragged into a futile exercise. Without pointing out exactly why she was doing anything, she began to prod at his position, using a foot to turn out Grub's own angled toes a fraction further, pushing on the back of his right leg to make sure it was strong enough to withstand an attack, and putting his fists at the correct place on his waist, tightening the angle of his elbow. When she finished this, Holly stood at his side, tapping her toes and thinking. She scowled. "Back straight, Kelp."

He complied, wondering if this was how an artist's dummy felt.

Holly did another circuit, accompanied by Lili. As they went, the Major pointed out parts of Kelp's stance, lecturing her secretary, who was rolling her eyes. Something was said about "for your own exam," letting Grub know that Holly wasn't satisfied with having the highest-ranked secretary in the LEP, pushing the woman further forward into her own captain's exam in a few years. Despite her dismissive looks, Lili took notes and even a few pictures with the small camera mounted on her tablet. He blushed at the idea of being held up as an example for another aspiring captain, but that was the only falter in his now-perfect stance.

After a while, it occurred to Grub that Holly wasn't just re-familiarizing him with the basics of the form, but also testing his stamina. His legs and arms began to burn from not moving out of the position that had once felt fairly natural. His right calf in particular complained at the stretching, and his mind seemed to be drawn into the aching muscle, making it all the worse. It was so simple. So fiendish. Fowl must have been rubbing off on her.

Just as he could feel a tremble building in his legs, Holly arrived at the front of her student and snapped her fingers. "Ready position."

Grub put both feet together, angled away from each other, and his hands remained at their position on his hips.

Holly snorted. "Back straight, Kelp," she commanded, stepping to his side and slapping the middle of his shoulders.

Yelping, Grub complied, going to his full height.

Stepping back, Holly's eyes went wide, as did Lili's. "Holy Frond, Kelp!" The major barked, looking up to his face. "How tall are you?"

He broke position, taking up one hand to rub at the back of his neck, slouching. "Er...115 centimeters."

Rather than responding to this impressive measurement, Major Short slapped his head again, much harder this time, and she had to stand on the tips of her toes to get there. "Ready position!"

"Yes, sir!" Grub squeaked, immediately back to his correct stance. He winced at the incorrectly applied title, but the female didn't seem to mind. Perhaps this was a quirk among the higher-ranked LEP females...them being Short and Vinyáya.

Lili tapped a stylus against her lips, taking a step closer, voice lowered in a conspiratorial manner that did not hide the words from her boss. "One hundred fifteen, hmmm? about we ignore those first hundred," she paused, eyes darting purposefully down before locking with his, "and discuss the last fifteen?"

Grub choked, even if it was only on air. "I-I-I—"

"Lili!" Holly snapped, grabbing the back of the blond's belt, tugging her away. "Stop it! Don't give him false hopes. It isn't fair."

Lili pouted.

Placing her assistant at a safe distance, Holly went around to Grub's front, also going into the ready position. "You remember simple sparring, correct?"

Nowhere near thoroughly chastened, Lili piped up. "Yes, simple back and forth. I do hope you remember that."

Grub felt a bead of sweat trickle down his neck.

Holly put two fingers to her eyes, moving them out in an invisible line to connect with Grub's. "Ignore her. She does this with everyone."

"Not everyone!" Lili protested.

"...everyone with a penis."

"Not..." Lili scowled and said nothing further.

"Simple sparring," Holly continued, as if a lascivious elf-ette had not interrupted her. "I'll step forward and strike at your face. Just go into a forward stance and do an upwards block, for now. Then I want you to step towards me and punch at my face. Got it?"

After a long pause to consider, Grub nodded.

"Okay." Holly put one hand forward and down, keeping the other at her waist to show which she would be attacking with. "And remember, my head is down here. Begin."

Holly could moving lightning fast, but she knew better than to use her normal speed with the rusty corporal. She felt ludicrously slow, but kept her movements in check, just in case he was even more out of practice than she had assumed. Grub responded well, moving his left leg back, the same arm coming up and across his chest, parallel to the ground, lifting her fist out of the way. After a moment's hesitation, he stepped forward again, right fist coming towards Holly's head at the same speed as she had used. Holly faltered at this, but only because it felt weird to exchange blows in this manner. Like taking an entire minute for a single step.

Once they rested, she nodded, bringing her hands back to her waist and going into the ready position. "Good. Faster, this time, and we're going to go until you do something wrong, okay?" Mentally, she tabulated how long it would take to get through all of the basics. There went her morning...Lili was so lucky she was irreplaceable, or else her pet project wouldn't get a second's worth of attention. "Ready? Begin."

They went back and forth for four turns before Holly called the exercise to a halt. Each punch had raised her ire, and now she looked ready to explode. Grub had noted her reactions, and he was waiting for the big unloading.

"What are you doing?" Holly demanded, poking at his chest.

"I-I don't know, Major."

"Punch me, Kelp. That's an order." She pointed to her face to indicate that she meant the command.

Grub stared at her and backed away a half-step. "What?"

Holly went after him the same distance he retreated. "Punch me. Go on, give it all you've got. Unless you have some amazing hidden Drunken Master kung fu up your sleeves, I'll be fine. So, hard and fast as you can."

"That sounds promising," Lili broke in.

Gritting her teeth and speaking around her clenched jaw, Holly once again told Grub to ignore the woman. She waited, chin raised, for the attack.

Grub didn't move for quite some time, hoping that Short would renege her command, or tell him she had been joking and you should never attack an undefended opponent. When she did not, he reluctantly took one fist from his waist, sending it towards the Major's head.

It was glacial. Holly actually had time to give it a withering glance. Then, she grabbed Kelp's wrist, spinning so his arm wrapped around her shoulders, and she bent over as she came to his chest. Her momentum added to his, flipping the male over her body so he crashed to the padded flooring. Holly stepped on his shoulder and began to pull.

Grub howled at the unnatural angle and stretching, slamming his other hand on the mat to indicate surrender. It was the only move he could still use, and it was ignored.

"What did I say, Kelp? All you've got. If that's it, then give up now, before you waste any more of Lili's time, and especially any more of mine!" Twisting once to bring her point home, Holly let go, stepping away from the conquered man. She waved her hand at Lili. "You do it, this time. Maybe he's just afraid of me."

Nodding at this rather good point, Lili stepped into her boss's place, waiting for Grub to stand again. He looked, if anything, even more terrified as the blond sunk into a forward stance, left fist angled towards the ground.

"Can we just skip this part of the exam?" Grub pleaded, slouching in a sloppy match of Lili's position.

"Oh, sure," Holly muttered, looking through Lili's tablet. "If you want to remain a corporal. A fail on any portion of the exam is a fail for the entire exam. Posture!"

"Balls," Grub muttered, straightening his back. He tried to plead with his eyes, willing Lili to understand that he didn't want to do this. When she did not respond, he moved his fist—even slower than he had with Holly—towards her face.

Lili didn't even bother to block. Instead, she ducked under his arm and within his reach, her chest brushing against his, then stepped again, bringing her knee up between his legs, stopping just a hair's breadth from the most painful attack possible. Her face was just as close to his as her knee was to his other parts, and she narrowed her eyes. "Don't you dare do this, Grub. If Holly is right and you are wasting my time, I will never forgive you."

Grub squeaked, too scared of injury to move. He nodded, skin all along his body tingling as their noses brushed against each other.

Smiling brightly, Lili also nodded. "Sweet!" She pushed his chest and was gone in an instant, back into her stance and waiting.

After taking a few seconds to reassure his nethers that they were safe, Grub got ready. When he attacked this time, it was much faster, though Lili still easily blocked.

Holly watched them exchange practice blows for a minute before stopping the pair. Brows furrowed, she grabbed Lili's arm, pulling her away. She did not take the woman's place. "Just move across the floor in forward stance and do some punches, Kelp. Give them everything you've got. I want you to do some ki-ais with them, too."

Head tilting in confusion, Grub got low to the ground. Feet sliding across the padded floor, legs weaving in a fraction as he as he stepped forward, he punched at the air, letting out small puffs with each blow. He ended with a "yah!" that he felt was particularly loud, though it would have been drowned out completely if paired with some of the calls from the other officers practicing in the brightly lit room.

Holly raised the corner of one lip. "What in the world?" She twirled her finger, indicating that he turn around. "Once again."

He complied, a little louder this time, and with a fraction more power to the strikes. It felt sort of good to yell like that. Yet, when he finished and glanced towards Holly, he felt his stomach sink.

Her mouth was open and eyebrows lowered. A second later, she squinted even more, clenching her fists. "I don't believe this!"

Lili also seemed perplexed. "What?"

"I thought he was just idiot..."

Grub sulked.

"But he just wont hit a girl!"

Lili snapped her head to Grub, matching Holly's outrage. "He what?"

Holly stepped forward, circling the officer. "Oh, he's not too good, his stance and speed tells you that well enough, but he just showed a lot more power in those two rounds than he did with either of us, and normally you give more effort when facing up against an opponent." She stopped in front of her temporary student. "Kelp, you do know I could kick your ass three ways from Sunday, at a conservative estimate, right?"

He nodded, face glowing with embarrassment. In fact, she had kicked his ass about five ways from Sunday—and on a regular basis—when she returned to the LEP after her Hybras trip. The stress of sparring with her was one of the reasons he finally got his desk job.

"So why are you holding back? It's not because you're scared, because there is no way you're afraid of Lili."

He didn't answer. That would surely mean another throw to the ground.

"You still have some sort of misguided chivalry towards us? When we could beat the shit out of you?" Holly poked his chest, trying to prompt his denial. "Well?"

When he did not respond, she stepped way, letting out a quick, disgusted breath. "Feh! Fine. I'll find you a guy to fight, if that will appease your ego." She looked about the room, inspecting each officer in the large space, immediately dismissing most. Very soon, she chuckled, ears practically curving into a demoness's horns.

If Grub had been aware of the other exercising officers and a bit smarter, he would have punched Holly in the face then and there, just to prove her wrong and avoid get a new partner.

"Vein! Vein, over here!" Holly called, waving the sprite Major in with her whole arm.

Vein flapped his wings once in acknowledgement of the woman, but did not stop his current kata. Grub recognized it as one of the forms his Academy teacher had shown on the first day to impress the new students; a long sequence beginning with a few simple punches, kicks, and blocks, along with several 90 and 180 degree turns. Halfway through, he exploded into a scissor kick, landing in a crouch, immediately turning it into a roll, springing up at the end to land back in forward stance.

From there, the kata began to get difficult.

All of it was done with lightning speed, no wing-work, and bellows that reached every corner of the gym. With each move, Vein's gi snapped, and almost every other move was accompanied by a sharp exhale, each series ending with a thunderous ki-ai. He ended the routine with a trio of tornado kicks, feet barely touching the ground before he sprung into the next, screaming with each leap, ending with a roar so loud that many of the surrounding officers stopped their own, much less complicated katas as they lost concentration. He remained crouched in a cat stance, breath held, both hands in blades.

Slowly, he let the breath out, bringing his fists together, head bowed as he let out the last of his energy. Then, spinning on his heel, he swaggered up to the training trio. "Yo, Short. What?"

"Come on," she said, waving him in, "give us a hand."

Vein walked past Holly, stopping in front of Lili, the corner of his mouth raised in a canine-displaying grin. "I'd love to give you a hand wherever you need it."

Holly coughed, grabbing the back of Vein's belt and forcing him into a spin. "No," she said, stopping him before Grub, "I meant him."

Vein glanced across at the male elf. After taking a while to process the sight, he held up his hands, stepping back. "Okay, not giving you a hand."

Grub looked relieved.

Holly shoved the sprite's back, but he was solid enough to only sway a centimeter. "He needs someone to spar with. Just a few minutes."

"Oh, no. You two deal with him." Vein was already moving to exit their small gathering, but Holly was at least strong enough to pull him back for a few seconds.

"Just a few minutes, Major. Out of courtesy."

Vein narrowed his eyes at Holly. He stepped away, rolling his shoulder to wrench it from his superior officer's grip. Grabbing the front of Grub's gi, he tugged the corporal along with him. "Fine, Sub-Commander. If you insist."

Grub winced as the sprite let him go and stepped away. Nothing angered Ash Vein more than being reminded that Holly had shot ahead of him in rank and "stolen" the position as his brother's second-in-command. "Thanks," he muttered at Short, who shrugged and crossed her arms, settling in to watch as Vein began to circle Grub. The elf responded by mirroring his stalk, wishing that Vein had decided to do formal sparring, rather than a full face-off.

Vein didn't even bother to maintain form as he and Grub circled, more strutting than keeping up a stance. He tugged on his black gloves, stretching his fingers before balling them up tightly, the pleather creaking. "So, Maggot, you never told me...who's the chick?"

Grub was focused on Vein's movements, crossing his legs smoothly and keeping himself at a uniform height as he maintained his distance. One hand was at his waist in a fist, the other forward in a blade, ready to block or strike (the latter much less likely)if he saw an opening. "What are you talking about?"

"Your promotion," Vein clarified, finally deigning to crouch, copying Grub's hand position. "What chick are you trying to impress with this?"

Grub swallowed. Vein was far too close to the truth for his liking. "I'm not trying to impress anyone."

"Oh, that's good," Vein drawled, stepping at double Grub's speed, forcing the corporal to scramble in order to keep their distance. "Because you're going to fail this test."

"No," Grub rumbled, getting his feet back into a strict position, tensing every muscle as he prepared for the real attack, "I am not."

"What? Because you have Frond helping you?" Vein glanced over at the blond, licking his lips, but his tongue stuck out mid-sweep. He gave Grub his full attention again and snorted. "Oh, no, don't tell me it's Frond. Oh, that is toooooo perfect."

It took Grub a while to understand what Vein was talking about. By the time he managed a sputtering denial, the sprite had already gone on in his conjectures.

Vein barked out a laugh before returning to the low voice that would keep the women from hearing their pre-fight psycho-out. "Maggot, you didn't need to do that, you know. Try to impress her."

Grub could feel heat in his neck and cheeks, and he wasn't sure what exactly was bringing it there. He knew Vein's words were working on him. His mind was racing, and he could feel his toes slipping out of proper alignment, going back to a more natural stance. Perhaps if he had a few decades of rigorous training behind him like the battle-crazed Vein he would have been able to engage in this banter with no issues, but he could not concentrate on proper form and the sprite's words at the same time. "Yeah? And what makes you say that? She never noticed me before."

"Oh, nooooo," Vein cooed, "I agree with you. She never noticed you, but you didn't have to work this hard." He chuckled, throwing his head back, as if seeking to toss his buzz-cut brown hair from his eyes. "She can be impressed by any man."

A haze descended in front of Grub's eyes. One second, he saw Vein clearly. The next, everything was red, and Vein had a shocked expression as his face came closer and closer to the corporal. Something buzzed in Grub's ears, but he could hear himself yelling, though as if at a distance or underwater. His fist came around and, finally, those years of training in the academy came back to him, and he knew his form was perfect, his fist tight, thumb over index and middle finger, the latter raised just a half-centimeter to make the initial point of impact a single bone against flesh, like a nail's tip cutting into wood. It hit Vein almost in the middle of his chest, just slightly to the left, right above the sprite's heart. He watched, satisfied, as Vein rocked back under the assault.

And then Vein righted himself before he had gone even ten degrees towards the ground. The major glanced down at his chest, where Grub's fist now rested, the knuckles pushing his muscles back as he remained tensed from the strike. Vein sucked on his lips, then popped them open with a long sigh. "You're supposed to retreat after you punch."

Grub stopped breathing, realizing what he had done, and his feet began to move backward. It felt like he was knee-deep in mud.

Vein grabbed Grub's wrist.

Across the room, Lili and Holly winced, holding their hands in front of their faces, as if to guard against the attacks being laid upon the male elf's head, torso, back, and legs. Lili in particular held her hands to her mouth, biting the ball of her palm to stop a moan of sympathy pain.

Thirty seconds later, Vein walked up, dusting off his hands before readjusting his belt. "Anything else I can help you with, ladies?"

Holly glowered, balling her fists. "Yeah. How about you fight someone who can actually defend themselves?" She took a step towards the sprite, going up on her toes, knees slightly bent, as she prepared for a strike from a somewhat modified cat stance.

Vein just laughed at her posture. "Short, isn't the proper phrase 'go pick on somebody your own size?' Oh!" He tutted, patting Holly's head, which only came up to his neck. "Sorry. How thoughtless of me."

Lili advanced to her boss's side, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, and both women began to stare down the LEP's best fighter. Holly was just slightly behind Vein and Commander Kelp in martial arts skill, but adding in a partner, while less than honorable, would lead to a satisfying victory. "I recommend you get out of here, before we decide to make this personal."

"Hah! And how would you do that, little princess?" He reached out, tugging a strand of Lili's hair, bringing her closer. "Got some royal bodyguards around to protect the last Frond's honor?" He twirled the hair about his finger, pulling the woman in by degrees. "Oh, wait. I forgot. The last of the royal guards were killed trying to heal your family of Spelltropy. My bad. I guess there's no one left to defend your honor" He winked. "Such as it is."

Lili snapped her head back, ignoring the pain as her hair was almost pulled out by the roots, and stood as tall as she could, her shoulders far back, chin high. "How dare you! Commander Kelp will hear of this, I swear, and you will be out of the force before you can say—"


Vein yelped as something crashed into his back, making him stagger forward several steps. "What in the yaaaaaah!"

Holly grabbed Lili's shoulders, moving away so they were out of range of the sneak attack. Lili's eyes were wide, still tinged with rage at the reminder of her family's death and the slight against herself, but she was soon grinning. "Yes, my minion!" She cackled, clawed hands raised, as if summoning more power for the battle. "Attack! Attack!"

Holly let Lili go and stepped away, eyeing her in alarm.

Grub, in the middle of complying with his tutor, only twitched an ear. He couldn't talk, far too busy keeping his mouth closed so his jaw wouldn't snap down on his tongue whenever Vein thrashed. He was practically standing on the sprite's back, leaning away at an acute angle, held in place by his grip on the major's wings, which he was tugging back as far as possible, the bone and sinew straining under the pressure. His nails dug into the leathery flesh between bone. He managed to speak around his closed teeth, and, while not too clear, it was understandable enough. "Take it back!"

"Get off!" Vein spun on one foot, completing several blurred revolutions in an attempt to throw off his attacker. His assault on the corporal had been devastating enough that he had dismissed the elf, but that was obviously a mistake. Kelp seemed to recover from attack much faster than almost any other opponent he had faced, and the elf was not above fighting dirty. Riding a sprite's wings like this would have immediately disqualified a fighter from any judged competition, for the very reason that it was shockingly effective. Vein liked to keep his wings open, like a peacock on permanent display, and that left him open to attacks like these.

"Take it back!" Grub repeated, stretching out his legs to put more pressure on the delicate wings.

"Graaaah! No! Let me go!" Vein reached behind his back, trying to catch Grub's feet, but the elf danced out of the way whenever he got close enough to touch.

"By Frond, I wont let go until you take it back!" Grub felt his nails breaking through Vein's skin, and he laughed. This was way too easy! And it felt great!

"Really?" Vein stopped his struggles. He looked over his shoulder, teeth flashing in the bright gym lights. "You're going to regret that."

Grub was highly attuned to getting the crap beaten out of him, and his body began to instinctively tense and relax in all of the appropriate places. His face fell. "Oh...balls."

Vein flapped his wings as hard as possible, not freeing himself from Grub's grip, but pulling the elf forward as they stretched out to his sides in a perfect plane. With a small leap, as if trying to fly, Vein was in the air, but curving backwards. He pulled his arms and legs close into his body, turning into a ball.

Grub realized what was about to happen about a millisecond before it did, but that was just enough time for him to realize how much it was going to hurt.

Vein landed on top of Grub, his shoulders sinking deep into the young man's stomach, head crashing into his sternum. His wings got an uncomfortable jolt, but nowhere near as traumatic as the one to all of the corporal's internal organs. He could feel the elf gasping under him, the little air he recovered dedicated to whimpers and wheezes.

True to his word, Grub didn't let his hands open, but they did loose strength as he tried to retain consciousness. Taking advantage of this before the corporal began to recover, Vein stood, wrenching his wings free. He felt a few tears as Grub's nails damaged them, but it was minor enough. Flapping once and folding his wings safely onto his back, Vein rubbed a hand across his mouth, removing some of the spittle that had collected there as he screamed. Looking over his shoulder, he smirked at his immobile opponent. "Little tip, Maggot: both of these chicks are out of your league, but at least one of them can teach you to fight. The other...well, everyone needs a little 'victory party' after their exam."

Holly watched carefully as Vein walked off with a little two-fingered salute, leaving Lili to drop by Grub's side and begin hunting down his wounds. He would need a trip to the surface to complete the Ritual after something like that, and the full moon had just passed. In fact, he wouldn't get the opportunity until after his test, which was just three weeks away. Grumbling, Holly kicked Grub's shoulder, barely tapping him with her toes, but enough to get his attention. "I'm impressed. You lived."

Lili shot Holly a look that promised harsh words later, but went back to her examination, beginning to sent blue sparks into Grub's stomach and chest.

Grub took them for a few seconds, moaning in a evocative manner as his internal organs were put to rights so he could breath. Taking a huge gulp of air to make sure he actually could, Grub grabbed Lili's hands, taking them away from his body. "Thanks, but that's enough. I'll lose the progress from my workouts this past week if you keep going."

"Grub!" she protested, keeping him down with a hand to his shoulder, which he quickly began to fight. "You're black and blue! Just let me get rid of the bruising."

"No, Lili," Holly commanded, grabbing her secretary's shoulder and pulling her away, her hand flying off as the woman twisted violently to escape her hold. "He's right. He can't afford to miss any of his training, and this will be a lesson to him, at the very least." She turned to Grub, who was doing his best to stand, and mostly failing. "Are you done, now? Will you stop being so 'chivalrous,' stop being an utter waste of my time, and actually fight?"

Grub stood fully erect, and that made his head spin. He closed his eyes in an effort to stop the dangerous motion, but found that merely made things seem unsteadier. Swallowing down his nausea, Grub nodded. "Yeah. Point made. Everyone in the LEP could beat me senseless, so there's no sense worrying about hurting you." He touched his lip, head jerking back and wincing as he found a cut there. It was no longer bleeding, but he had a good split that would ache for days, at the very least.

"I don't know about that," Holly countered, waving her hand flippantly. "Vein may have beaten you senseless, but you did get a good punch in on him. Even if he was at a disadvantage while concentrating on being a complete prick, there's not that many officers that could do that. You have...potential."

Lili grinned, elbowing her boss. "Told you so."

The LEP was under-staffed, over-budget, and equipped with guns and armor so outdated that Foaly actually winced whenever he had to suit someone up. It was always one crisis after another, and about a third of the populace was currently under treatment for stress ulcers. Despite what one may think about the ability of magic to maintain the bodies of the LEP, healing only went so far, especially when the body was damaging itself.

And it wasn't just the LEP that was under stress. The Council was also having to deal with several major crises over the past few weeks, as an Irish land development company finalized plans for ground-breaking near a trio of Ritual oaks in the north of the island. The Fowls were stepping up, on their elven scion's urging, to purchase the land, but there was little hope of success on a legal front, and even illegal routes were less than promising. The Council was forced to do double-duty on this problem: exercise every avenue they could to delay construction, as well as restructuring Ritual procedures to accommodate for the likely loss of these valuable sites.

Thus, Vinyáya was again running on fumes near the end of Monday, having lost her entire weekend to strategy and debate. She was to the point where she just nodded mutely as Cirrus followed her down the hallways, rather than zipping down a side corridor and losing the pesky gnome. Tea had ceased to fuel her, and a tentative approach on a brewing pot of coffee had sent her running towards the facilities, where she barely managed to avoid vomiting. Now her every step was heavy and the edges of her vision were getting blurry, as if she were staring through a steam-filled window. I' to...sit down.

"And Cahartez called," Cirrus said, chewing on the end of his stylus and jogging to keep up with his significantly taller manager. "He wants to talk to you about the Amber Moon case again. Something about extenuating circumstances, but he wasn't willing to go into much depth with me. He said it was very important you speak with him directly."

"No...there's been plenty of appeals already. The...C-Council can't listen to every little complaint. That's what the...the judicial system is for."

Cirrus hummed, nodding in agreement even as the sound was skeptical. "Yes, yes, but he is going to be miffed about this, and you can't afford to lose his vote on the Argyle Clause. The vote is next week, and—"

"Stop!" Vinyáya shouted, doing so herself, closing her eyes in an effort to keep a true darkness at bay. She just needed a few seconds to collect herself. "Tell him he has five minutes when I get home, and only five minutes. Say...say I've got..." She took a lurching step sideways, eyes shooting open to help her retain balance. "I've" The tips of her fingers and toes began to tingle. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of her mind, Vinyáya recognized that this wasn't a good thing, and she opened her mouth to give Cirrus orders. She could even hear herself speaking in her head, though Cirrus just stared at her, and he seemed to be moving so slow. And moving away...

"WOAH! Catch her!"

It was only when someone yelled those words that Vinyáya realized she had lost all strength in her legs. They were folding under her, and she was falling back, but it felt like everything was in slow motion, or even bullet-time. She could see individual strands of her hair drifting to cover her face, and it occurred to her that they should have been pushed away by her breath. That must have been what the tingling was. Her breath was shallow, and it was only when she thought this that the elf took a deep breath, but she was already past the point of recovery. She was going to hit the ground, and she was going to hit it hard, without even enough time to protect her head or stomach. Very, very distantly, she thought to herself, Well...this sucks.

Then something slammed into her, or she slammed into it, or perhaps they met each other at equal speed. Whatever she met, it wasn't strong enough to keep her upright, and she continued to fall, but now she fell on this object, which had some hard bits that dug into her, but most of it was much softer than the tile flooring that she would have met. The object cried out in pain and began to wheeze, trying to catch it's breath. A fairy, then, and not a terribly smart one, to get in the way of someone that it couldn't keep from hitting the ground. She wasn't complaining however. In fact, Vinyáya took a deep breath, reveling as her lungs filled to a proper volume, and choked out a few words. "You deserve a medal for that." It felt like such a stupid thing to say, but oxygen deprivation could do that to a girl.

"Well, that would be a first," her savior whimpered, rubbing a hand across his chest, where her head had impacted.

Vinyáya now had enough oxygen in her system for her brain to register the voice and commander her stomach to drop, which it did quite spectacularly. She tried to sit up, but found her muscles were still too weak to do anything more than squirm. "Get off of me, Kelp," she hissed, making sure the sound was only loud enough for him—and not the dozen or so approaching officers—to hear.

"Hate to correct you, but you're on top of me." Grub did her the favor of sitting up himself, pushing his clandestine house-mate's shoulders until she was also upright. When he next spoke, it was louder, for the benefit of the crowd, and there was that old sharp whine in the words. "A bit low on blood sugar, Wing Commander? Come on, let's go to the infirmary. You hit your head pretty hard, and I should know. It was my ribs you nearly broke." He managed to maneuver himself so he crouched on one knee behind her, tucking his head beneath one of her arms. Grunting, he pushed off against the ground, and was soon cutting his eyes sideways at her. "I'd appreciate a little help."

She glared back, and lightning crackled between their eyes, but Vinyáya rearranged her legs and pushed off along with Grub, trying to escape his grasp once she was upright. He refused to let go, however, though he did take her arm from over his neck, merely holding her against him at the waist. "I can get there on my own, now."

"Maybe," he conceded, stepping out and dragging the woman along, despite a sharp jerk away from him as they began to move, "but, like I said, I need to see about my ribs, now, so we might as well go together."

"People are going to talk, Kelp," Vinyáya said, angling her head just a fraction towards his to keep the dispersing officers from hearing.

"Talk? About us? You know, that's really not an effective threat against me."

"If anyone finds out—"

"You will deny everything and I'll see your ass in court for the paternity test. About right?"


"Yes, that is what the DNA will say." They were clear of the crowd, now, and working their way through the halls of the Plaza. Vinyáya had a fortuitous fall, in regards to proximity to nurse's office, and they had soon left the wider main corridors, entering a much quieter portion of the building. Not far off came the clangs of resetting weights and barks of exercising officers, but they were all but drowned out by the thickly padded carpet and twisting paths.

Vinyáya had only been in this section of Police Plaza a few times. Most often, if she needed medical help, she needed serious medical help, and it was off to the actual hospital. However, not every officer was so brash as she, and several (like Grub) were prone to small accidents and crises, like cuts and sprains. For this, the LEP had its own medical officer. While a full doctor, Heather White preferred her little corner of the world to be called the "Nurse's Office," claiming that fewer officers pestered her if they thought she was unable to help them with the things that actually were out of her job description, such as writing prescriptions and providing physical therapy. In all, the job wasn't that far removed from a primary school nurse's duties. Minor triage on things like broken bones, but more often she had to deal with black eyes, vomit, and "he started it!" claims.

Also, like all good nurses, she was remarkably friendly. There was a bell attached to her door, the jingle alerting her as Vinyáya and Grub walked in. She paused in the middle of a cup of ramen, chopsticks halfway to her mouth, yellow broth dripping to a wisely placed paper towel on her chest. She slurped up her lunch and set the rest aside, yanking the napkin off. "Councilwoman Vinyáya. I don't see you here that often. Here, take a seat, you look like you could use one." The woman, whose stature proclaimed her a pixie, while the small wings on her back said "sprite," pulled on a roll of paper, bringing a long sheet down over one of her salmon-colored beds, which she then patted noisily.

Grub helped Vinyáya (who was staring at the doctor's bleach-blond head) to the mattress, where she sat on the edge with her arms crossed.

His burden thus removed, Grub sought to do the same to himself, heading towards the door.

"Not," Dr. White objected, her hand snapping out to grab Grub's ear, dragging him back to sit on a second bed, this one having been covered in paper after her last patient left, "so fast, boy. Sit down for a bit and let me have a look at you." She weaved past him, the presence of two beds and three fairies, as well as all of her equipment, making the room feel uncomfortably packed to everyone but the doctor herself. "You've got a nasty cut lip, there, and a right shiner. Been fighting a troll?"

Grub licked his lip, wincing as that simple movement stung his wound. "No. Ash Vein."

"I do believe I was right the first time," White muttered, taking a handful of cotton swabs and a small cup of green goo out from her cabinets. She kicked it closed behind her, ignoring Vinyáya incredulous glances at her orange high tops and the green corduroys under her standard white doctor's smock. "That brute gives me more trouble than all of the other Majors put together, but injure his wings and it's wah wah wah, recovery time, extra painkillers, disability...wimp."

Grub smiled, but soon yelped as his lip was again pulled apart by the stretching. Dr. White was dedicated to the physician's ideals of helping all and doing no harm, but it didn't keep her from complaining about her more troublesome patients. On reflection, Grub assumed that White had similar words about his many visits, but he didn't really care. Not when she was coming at him with a healing salve.

Still muttering darkly about male sprites—having moved on from Vein to Verbil and their many compatriots—the half-breed began to dab at Grub's wounds with a goo-covered ball of cotton. Wherever she tapped, a white shimmer began to alight, the broken skin knitting together. It was far slower than his own magic, but also weaker, and thus unable to affect the building damage to his muscles. Grub sighed and licked his lip as the split came back together. Quickly, he jerked his head back, sticking out his tongue and dragging it along the collar of his office shirt. "Ugh, that tastes terrible."

White snorted and shoved a loaded cotton swab over Grub's left eye, making the elf bark in pain as his purpling bruise was hit. "It's not for eating, boy. Now, keep that one in place for five minutes, and your eye should be good as new." She jerked her head back towards the door. "Now scram. I need to speak with the Wing Commander privately."

Obediently holding the cotton and salve in place, Grub slid off the table, mumbling a sullen, still somewhat pained "thanks" to the nurse, and walked out, closing the door behind him.

He wasn't completely ready to leave, however. Leaning against the wall next to the door, he pressed his ear to the crack, schooling his breaths. It was unlikely that the doctor could hear him, since he could barely hear her, but Vinyáya...he would put no ninja-like skills past her, including super-hearing.

He was quite right to be so suspicious. Within the room, Vinyáya was glaring at the door, but tore her eyes away when Dr. White began to speak.

"You look quite pale, Wing Commander. A fainting spell, I'm guessing?" She sat on a small, circle-seated chair, spinning around several times to bring herself up to the elf's sitting height.

Vinyáya nodded, leaning back on one hand, the other dragging through the hair that would have been her bangs, if she had not allowed it to grow to the waist-length that the rest of her locks maintained. "I'm afraid I was late for work and skipped breakfast. I just need an energy bar."

"Oh, gods, no, don't eat that." The sprite/pixie snorted, crossing one leg over the other. "Those things are horrible for your health, really, and for a pregnant woman? Disaster."

There was a ripping sound as Vinyáya's hands tore apart the paper on her bed. Inwardly, she cursed herself for such an unrestrained reaction. The hormones were making her far too impulsive. She was starting to resemble Short. "A what?" she said lightly, smiling in a, apologetic, confused manner.

One of the doctor's wings fluttered and she laughed. "Tell me, Wing Commander, how long do you intend to hide this from the LEP? You've got to be at least three months along, so there's no denying that you know, and I highly doubt you're waiting this long if you intend to terminate. So...when do you tell everyone that you're pregnant?" When her charge did not respond, the pixie held out both hands, waving them frantically. "Don't worry about me, of course. Doctor-patient confidentiality and all. I wont say I know, even after everyone finds out."

This woman was far too casual about her revelation. There was no denying that she was utterly certain about her delicate state. Vinyáya switched her tone to deep and threatening. "How do you know?"

Dr. White laughed, the sound like fine music, and she took some time to recover. "Wing Commander, my family is the biggest bunch of breeders you've ever seen. I've got five little siblings, and two older, not to mention all of their kids, plus three of my own." She shrugged, clutching the sides of her small seat. "There's lots of signs, but the big glow."


A sharp nod. "You glow. Not all the time, and not when anyone is focusing on you, but I've seen it sometimes. When you're walking alone down a hall. The pregnant woman's glow."

"Great," Vinyáya muttered, looking at her arm, as if it would spontaneously light up. "I'm turning into a gods-damned firefly."

"Not nearly. And don't worry about that. Men never notice glowing, and the women in this building? A good majority of them haven't even held a baby. You wont be caught for glowing." Sliding off her chair, Heather White returned to her drawers, rummaging about until she came up with a sleep mask and a half-dozen cracker packets, which she handed over to her patient. "Listen to me, Wing Commander, and you'd better take this seriously. You need to take care of yourself, and that includes getting plenty of food and rest. Get to bed at a decent hour, and take a nap at least once a day. And don't let you blood sugar drop. If you faint again, I will be forced to break our confidentiality, for the health of the child, and there wont be a damned thing you can do about that, alright?"

Vinyáya grumbled, shoving the supplies in her jacket pockets, which bulged. What the other officers would think of her leaving the nurse's office with some hidden gifts, she had no idea, but it wouldn't be positive. "Fine. Can I go, now?"

"You can go home," the doctor said, taking a cell from her pocket and flipping it open. "You're not finishing the day here after fainting like that. Who should I call to pick you up? The father?"

Vinyáya looked away before Dr. White could see the alarm in her eyes. "I...don't know..." She trailed off. Grub didn't have a car, after all, and even if he did, it was far too soon for them to be seen together like that. If we're ever going to be seen together...

White flipped her phone closed, lowering it to her lap. The tension rolling off the gestating woman was thick, making her wings itch and flutter. "Wing there...something more to this?" Her mind began to race through the names of the strongest men in the LEP. Kelp, Vein, Bic, a large number of the new demon recruits...


"Was this...did you intend...were you...?"

"Oh!" Vinyáya shot her gaze back to the doctor, putting a hand out quickly. "No, no! Nothing like that. I just..." She put her hand back down, playing with the torn ends of the paper sheet. "I was...impulsive. It was a mistake on my part, nothing...bad on his."

White eased. "Then...the father? Should I call for a ride or no?"

Vinyáya took a deep breath. It's Grub Kelp. Imagine that. Sort of funny, really, in a weird sort of way. Haha. "It was a mistake. I...don't even know..." She trailed off.

"Ah..." White came to her on conclusion. The doctor twirled the phone in her fingers, ending with it flat in her palm, flipping it open with a thumb slid between the two halves. "Then I'm calling you a cab. You are not to ride when you've had a fainting spell. Period."

Vinyáya nodded in agreement, though there was some resentment in her for being forbidden to ride her beloved magna-bike whenever she wished. Logic and safety be damned, she hated cabs.

White flipped her hand at the door. "Go, go. There's always a half-dozen drivers around the Plaza this time of day. Someone will be waiting for you at the entrance."

First clawing at the bed in irritation, Vinyáya slid off. With no further word from White—who was already chattering away at a taxi-company receptionist—she opened the door and slipped out.

She noticed Grub immediately, and turned the full force of her glare on him. "You were eavesdropping," she said.

He shrugged, face neutral and unconcerned with her rage.

Vinyáya rolled her eyes, taking a few steps from the door to keep the doctor from overhearing. Grub followed her in silent obedience as they made their way down the deserted corridor. "I...suppose I should thank you. For catching me."

He said nothing, shoving his free hand—one still occupied in holding the salve to his black eye—in a pocket and veering off to the side and a little ahead, to keep any chance observers from immediately concluding that they were walking together.

"And...I'll be a bit more careful on the sleep thing. Doctor's orders."

"Glad to know you'll take someone's advice, even if you have to almost crack your head open to let the words in far enough."

Vinyáya's step faltered.

Grub stopped in front of her, spinning and holding a hand out to her on instinct. Seeing that she was only startled, not falling, he took it back, keeping it in a fist near his waist, as if he was again on the battlefield against his sprite opponent.

Taking a deep breath, recovering from another set of Grub's cutting words—gods, where did he learn to do that?—Vinyáya walked again, ex-lover following her lead. As the sounds of the rest of the LEP neared and a few officers could be seen flitting in a perpendicular corridor ahead, she spoke. "Look, Kelp...our deal is still on. I didn't kick you out." She held her hands behind her back, head high to keep any of the nearby officers from noticing this day's weakness, especially since she was going to have to leave early. "You can come home."

Grub stopped, forcing the woman to halt as well, to remain within the reach of his voice. He turned, eyes narrowed, and stared at her with his lips parted. He opened his mouth further, head moving forward as he tried to get the words out, but all he managed was a confused "Ho...?" several times. After a long pause, he drew himself up to full height, shoulders back, head tilted down a fraction to keep their eyes locked as he spoke softly. "I are supposed to call me 'Corporal' when we're at work, Wing Commander."

"I..." Vinyáya missed a breath, and felt her fingers tingle again at the loss, but quickly drove it away with her next intake. "True." She nodded. "Good evening, Corporal." Her goodbye thus said, Vinyáya strode away, explaining her faint to a few of the more concerned officers as she went.

Unseen, Grub watched her go, face still expressionless. Feeling a miniature wave of cold pass over his eye, he took the cotton swab and salve away, prodding it with his pinky to make sure that the bruise was gone. After only a moment in consideration about putting the last of the salve on one of his sore muscles for the fraction of healing it would give to his aching body, Grub crushed it in his hand, walking out of the side corridor and to the main hall in search of a trash can to dump the medicine before he was tempted again.

All day, he received astonished glances from nearly every officer he came across, and they puzzled him. Had someone somehow discovered his secret? Had Dr. White broken confidentiality in a moment of weakness? Had the salve done something to his face, and the doctor failed to mention the side-effect?

Finally, near the end of his shift, while passing by a trio of female LEPTraffic officers in a corridor, he finally heard the whispers that had been flying all through the Plaza, and he had to grin. He hadn't even realized he was still following Short's orders from the training that morning. A few hours of yelling, and she had broken him of one of his worst habits. Now everyone knew his big secret.

"Gods. When did Corporal Kelp get so...tall?"

Chapter Text

Week 15

"Hey, broooooo," Trouble said, pushing on the back of his younger sibling's head as he circled around him, placing a lunch tray on the opposite side of the table.

Grub, unprepared for the attack, buried his nose in what was once a bowl of cereal, but was now only a bowl of soy milk. He snorted the sweetened milk out, flipping his head back. "Oh, come on, Trouble!" He grasped at his hair, squeezing it to get rid of the liquid on the fringes, then flipped it back over his head. He was going to stink to high heaven by the end of the day. "Nice. Real nice. Mind dropping the assault next time, and just say 'hi'?" Wary of another attack, he pushed his forgotten food to the side.

Trouble, whose mouth was one-hundred-and-ten percent full of veggie-burger, chewed frantically, taking a large drink of water to help siphon the food down. After pounding on his chest a few times, he escaped choking and sighed in satisfaction. "Sorry. Not allowed. It's an older brother rule."

"And little brothers?"

"Get to annoy the shit out of their elders and betters."

"Am I doing well?"

"Superbly." Taking the time to actually spread his packets of condiments on the remaining half of his burger—having overcome the overpowering need to feed after he missed breakfast that morning—Trouble decided to move onto a new topic. "How's studying going?"

Grub glared at his tablet, which was turned off and sitting to the side, taunting him. "I can't concentrate today."

"Two weeks left, bro," Trouble said around another mouthful, though this time he had restrained himself to a normal-sized bite. "You can't go slacking off now. Vin wont let me come to your rescue, even if I would or could."

"I'm not slacking," Grub protested, "I just...ugh." He cupped his forehead with both hands. "I have a lot on my mind."

Trouble, who had not expected to engage in an extended heart-to-heart with his brother, couldn't help but want to avoid this conversation. He looked down at his food and sighed longingly. If he said the right words, Grub would let everything spill out, and he could continue eating meanwhile. just say the right words... "Like?"

Grub clutched at his hair, nearly pulling a good chunk out from the roots. "I just...remember two weeks ago, when I came to stay at your place?"

"Myef," Trouble said around his food.

"Well, you gave me some advice...said I should..." Grub removed one hand from his forehead, rubbing at his neck as he forced out the word. "Date."


"I just...I don't know, Trouble. It sounds...nice, but...well, there is the issueof my...issue," he waved his hand, urging his brother to fill in that blank. When Trouble nodded and took another massive bite (along with a quite clear "NOM!" sound), he went on. "I doesn't seem...fair. For her."

Trouble, finding that his input was needed, swallowed and swished water in his mouth before speaking. "It sounds like you have someone in mind."

Grub blushed. "I-I, n-no! I mean...I don't know!" he wailed, throwing his arms in the air, his head slamming to the table a second later. "If...when she finds out, she'll be so pissed at me...I'll lose what slim chance I do have."

Trouble nodded. "Understandable." At his brother's tortured moan, he went on. "If you go into this without her knowing."

Grub crossed his arms on the table, resting his chin in the middle so he could look up at his brother. "I can't tell anyone, Trouble."

"Not yet, no," the commander agreed. "But the exam is in two weeks, on Friday. The results come in on Monday. Account for a little time for...the third party to make their announcement, and then everyone in Haven should know, say, a month from now."

"...and then?"

"And then, when she knows..." Trouble grinned, and it was that same smug and provocative look that Lili had been so surprised to see on his sibling not long ago. "Then you pounce."

Grub frowned. "I don't think I 'pounce,' Trouble."

"No...I gather you jump on command, like a little circus poodle through a hoop."

Grub scowled and was about to protest when his brother reached over and dug a hand in his hair, ruffling it until the orange locks—which he now had to spend a considerable amount of time (for a male) setting into place to keep out of his eyes—were in complete disarray, half falling into his eyes, the rest sticking straight into the air. He accompanied this with a shrill "arf arf!" and snickers.

Blowing at his hair to get a clear line of sight, Grub glared at his brother. "'re an asshole."

"Noooooo," Trouble drawled, taking his final bite of food. Small crumbs spewed from his mouth as he spoke, making his finicky younger sibling back away from the table to avoid being hit. "I'm just a big brother."

Vinyáya took Dr. White's advice to heart. Not only did she bolt her office door at least once a day for a quick nap (though passing out bent over her desk was becoming increasingly difficult), but she also rested on the couch after arriving home for the evening. She wasn't one for decorative pillows, and had actually lost one of the pair that came with her couch (gods knew where, but she'd once had the oddest dream about flushing a sheep down her recycling lounge...), but found the remaining one quite useful in covering her eyes against the lights Grub would have to turn on when he arrived back at her house. He only needed one or two, but sudden lights were affecting her more, and headaches were becoming a common occurrence.

Her many years of combat training made her snap awake without actually moving when she heard Grub's key slide into the front lock. Vinyáya was completely conscious when the door swung open and Grub entered with a chipper "I'm back."

"Mph," the wing commander grunted, turning onto her back and draping an arm over the pillow to hold it more tightly against her eyes.

"Dinner in an hour," he went on, messenger bag thudding next to the door. His head soon popped into the living room to study her. "Okay?"

Giving him a thumbs up and another affirmative grunt, Vinyáya fought to regain sleep.

Unfortunately, try as Grub might to be quiet, the act of cooking is a rather noisy one. The kitchen was soon filled with the sounds of chopping, sautéing, boiling, and a teapot that wasn't so much whistling as screaming like a stuck pig (at least to the pregnant woman). Under all of this, but still audible, was the flipping of pages as Grub went through whatever book he had chosen to obsess over today.

"Week 15...week 15...hmmm..." He called out to her tentatively. "Vinyáya?"

"What?" she grunted, pressing the pillow tighter.

"Have you felt the baby move yet?"

"No," she said shortly.

Typically, Grub wasn't content to let that go. "Really? You could have started to feel it in the fourteenth week."

"Could have. Did not. Bed now."

"Fine, fine..." Grub went on cooking and flipping pages.

Vinyáya had just begun to enter a nice sleep when she again heard Grub's approaching footsteps. She coached her breathing, resolved to let him think she was unconscious. She even thought she had succeeded when he stopped at her side, not saying anything, and remained there for a half minute. Any moment now, she expected him to leave her in peace.

Then he poked her stomach.

Vinyáya shot up, hand flying to cover the assaulted area. "What the fuck, Kelp?"

Grub jumped back. "I was just checking!"

"Checking?" Vinyáya swung her legs about so she sat on the couch, leaning towards her guest. "Checking what? The tensile strength of my uterus?"

"No!" Grub protested. "I just...the book said the baby will sometimes move if you poke your stomach."

"Oh," she said neutrally, "really? Well, in that case..." Vinyáya lunged forward, hand shooting out. Her index finger dug into Grub's unprotected belly.

"D'arvit!" Grub jumped back again, clutching his abused abs.

"I am not," Vinyáya proclaimed, shaking her deadly finger at him, "some sort of Baby Alive doll! Poke me again, and I will bite your finger off."

Grub looks at his index finger, and then clutched it in his other hand, holding them close to his chest as he continued to back away. "Yes, ma'am."

"Oh, come on," Lili said, slamming her hand down on the desk between them. "Answer the damn question!"

"I don't know the answer, Lili," Grub snapped back, laying his hands palm-up on his desk in supplication. "I told you that already!"

She snorted in disgust. "It's an interview. So long as your answer doesn't make you sound insane, it's right. This is the easiest part of the exam! No one fails this."

"Yeah? Then why is it even part of the exam?"

"To make sure you're not insane!"

"Well, then woohoo!" Grub cheered, twirling one finger in the air. "I'm gonna fail, because I must be insane for trying to get this gods-forsaken promotion."

"You're not insane!" Lili shouted back.

Grub turned his head away. "Yeah. Sure."

Lili sighed, putting her tablet to the side. She moved her chair closer to the desk, leaning over to get closer to her student. "You're not," she softly insisted, "believe me." When he didn't respond, Lili reached out and covered Grub's hand with her own. "Listen to me, Grub..."

He didn't want to look at this woman, at first, afraid of the pity he would see written all over her face. So, instead, he looked at their hands. As he watched, she squeezed, that pressure pleading with him far more effectively than any words could. So, biting his lip, Grub looked up into Lili's eyes.

Her smile was small. Tentative. Yet utterly sincere, and that sincerity extended to her shining eyes and gentle words. "I know you can do this, Grub."

Grub could feel his face flushing. There was no way to stop it, and that knowledge made him redden even further, in a self-defeating loop. With an almost painful swallow, Grub turned his hand about so her palm rested against his. He curved his fingers to grip back, the warmth of her hand flooding up his arm. "Thanks..."

"No problem," Lili mumbled, and, for a moment, Grub thought he might also see a tinge of pink in her cheeks. But that couldn't be right. Lili didn't blush. She made others blush, and reveled in it. "Now...answer the question," she said, back to an interviewer's voice, tilting her head to him in a curious and prodding manner. "Why did you decide to seek promotion to Captain?"

Grub began to chew on his lip, trying to think of something. Something that wasn't a lie and that wouldn't get him in trouble for breaking his deal with Vinyáya. After what felt like an eternity, he smiled and looked into Lili's eyes. "My father. He would have wanted me to do this."

After taking the time to mull it over, Lili squeezed Grub's hand again. "You pass."

Chapter Text

Week 16

Grub's head felt like it was about to explode, and his every muscle didn't feel much better. After weeks of preparation, it was down to the wire. In one more week, he would stand for the captain's exam, and then...well, then things were out of his hands.

After another day of intense work at the firing range (the last subject he needed to really pound into, finding himself still several percentages away from a passing grade), Grub got his standard ride home from Lili. He bid her good night and walked slowly up the garden path, intent on a few documents the blond captain had written out for him to restructure his studies , he didn't notice that something was off until he tried to insert his key into the lock and found its way blocked.

He looked down, frowning.

A sticky note covered the deadbolt.

Grub looked at the note for a long time, then finally reached out and yanked it off the door, scowling. He read it.

His world shattered.


Sorry, I need the house for the evening. I'm sure Trouble can put you up for the night.


He knew what he would see when he turned around, but that didn't mean that he did so easily. First, he closed his eyes and said a silent prayer. Then he swallowed down his panic. He crushed the note in his palm. Only then did he turn around and see what he had missed while talking with Lili.

Councilman Lope's blue car waited at the curb, it's driver absent.

Grub stared at it a long time. He considered pounding on the door and demanding that Lope come and face him in a battle for the Wing Commander. He considered scratching at the door and begging Vinyáya to kick the other man out. He even considered just going up to the car and practicing his roundhouse kicks on the lights and side panels. After all, Holly had said he needed some extra practice on the move.

Instead, he dropped the crumpled note to the ground. Looking at the ground all the while, Grub walked back along the path and down the street, starting the long walk to downtown Haven.

A mile along the way, he was brought out of his re-running mind in a rather disconcerting fashion. It was like an odd echo of months ago, though this time he wasn't wearing headphones, merely lost in his thoughts. When Lili lay into her horn this time, Grub jumped twice as high and landed facing her in a perfect cat stance.

"Hey. That's an improvement," she said, nodding at his feet. "Holly will be pleased."

Grub took a while to figure out that the only thing attacking him was noise. Once he did, he stood straight and walked to the passenger-side door, kicking the front wheel sullenly as he passed. "I thought you were going home."

"I did, but just to get ready," she said, shrugging and holding a delicately-boned hand up, displaying a startling collection of silver and gold bangles, with another set of similarly-sized black loops hanging from her earlobes. Her hair, normally allowed to hang free, was now pulled up on her head, weaved into thick loops before it fell in loose curls over around her face and down to brush her shoulders. She was also wearing more makeup than she did at work, along with a much shorter (and phenomenally tighter) black skirt and a red off-shoulder tee, the material on its front low cut, with extra-loose material at the neckline that created the impression that just a little touch would make the top even lower. It was almost challenging you to make it lower.

It took Grub quite some time to realize that the front of the woman's shirt said, in curving silver script, "Princess." He wanted to laugh at that and ask her if she found it ironic, but realized that this would entail confessing that he had been looking at Lili's ample chest.

"It's Friday night. I'm going out. You?"

Grub looked back at Vinyáya's house. "Not...exactly." He turned back to Lili and smiled, kicking the ground in a long arc. "I'm afraid I've been...ousted for the night. Could you...would you give me a ride to my brother's place?"

Lili studied him. She snorted and shook her head, though she popped the door open. "Hell no. I mean, I could, look like shit. You've been pretty much studying nonstop for the past three months, right?"

Grub slid in next to her, rubbing a hand down his face, as if he could wipe away his mental strain with that movement. "There's a lot to do."

"Bad idea, Grubby boy." Lili clucked her tongue at him. "You need a night off. You are coming to the club with me."

Grub stared at her. "! I couldn't—"

"Shut the hell up, Grub," Lili broke in, looking at him sideways and smiling devilishly. "I don't have an escort tonight, and nothing makes me look better than a man in a uniform." Before Grub could say anything further, she dropped into gear and slammed her foot on the gas, tearing away from the Hills.

Lope nuzzled at Vinyáya's neck. His salt-and-saffron hair tickled her ears as he lightly nipped the gentle curve of her throat, tightening his arms about her waist. "Are you sure?"

Vinyáya purred, leaning against him, her hands resting on the top buttons of his shirt. "Entirely."

Smirking, Lope began to turn his bites into kisses, a hand grasping the zipper of the councilwoman's skirt, sliding it down in one smooth movement.

Things progressed from there in much the manner that you would expect.

It was...insanity. Grub had never been to a club before, and he had certainly never been clubbing with Lili Frond, the resident LEP party girl. She seemed to have all of the connections, completely bypassing the insane waiting line, only pausing to hug the bouncer, who affectionately ruffled her hair. An ex, she explained as they had approached, and one of the roughly two percent she left on good terms. As such, the man glared at Grub, though he backed down when Lili shook her finger at him and took the skinny elf's hand, pulling him inside the club.

Grub was glad he wasn't actually OCD, or else he would have had some sort of attack right away. The club was obviously a hundred people over the fire code, and three quarters of those partygoers were crowded onto the dance floor, grinding along to the music. Lili ignored the orgiastic mass, instead taking them to the bar, where she vaulted onto the counter, sitting cross-legged and leaning back so that she looked in past the ordering patrons. She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled, the sound cutting through the thick nightclub air.

Instantly, like a retriever responding to its masters call, a male sprite with a massive purple mohawk sprang into the air, looking up and down the bar. When he saw Lili, he darted over, fast as a hummingbird on speed, and crashed into the eld woman, wrapping his arms around her. "Calla Lily!" he crowed, shaking her back and forth. When he let go, the sprite remained hovering, looking the woman up and down, giving her a "mmm MMM!" of approval as he held both of her hands. "Smoking as ever. The usual?"

"Sadly, no," Lili sighed, jerking her head in Grub's direction. "Alcohol may be a bad idea tonight. I don't think Kelp could get me home safe."

Grub was mildly offended. "Yes I could!"

The sprite and Lili locked eyes for a few seconds, then broke unto unexplained and uncontrollable laughter. Only when the head bartender looked over did the sprite collect himself, slamming his hand on the table. "Okay! Something light?"

Lili nodded, looking at the array of drinks in the case behind the bar. "For me, yes. A Red and Black and..." She studied Grub, circling her finger in his direction as she thought, pointing at him as she came to her conclusion. "A From Russia with Love, with extra love."

The sprite saluted. "Oui, mon capitan!" Then he was off to mix.

Grub watched the sprite go, then looked to Lili. "Another ex?" he grumbled

Lili looked at him, eyes wide in shock. "What, Merle? Hell no!" She slid off the counter, taking an actual barstool as her own, patting her hand on the one immediately next to her until her guest took the seat. "The only time he got anywhere near two breasts was when his aunt's laying hen attacked him."

Grub stared at her for quite a while. Then he got it. "Oh!" He looked back at the sprite, who was busy juggling four brightly-colored bottles, pouring them one at a time (using one hand to toss the remaining three) until an entire line of shots were complete, at which point the bar crowd cheered and he took a mid-air bow. "Actually, that...makes a lot of sense." When Merle retuned with their drinks a minute later, Grub did what most straight men unconsciously (and unnecessarily) do in the presence of the other team's players: he tried to avoid looking nervous.

Merle looked him up and down, then snorted. "So not my type, even if you weren't off-limits."

Grub blinked. "Huh?"

Lili poked Merle in the side of the head, pushing him away. "Shoo! You're making things difficult."

"Oh, Calla Lily," the sprite chided, hands on his hips as he shook his head. "This is never difficult for you, so don't even start."

"Off!" Lili barked, though there was laughter in her command. The sprite complied, and the two elves settled into their drinks.

Once the loosening liquid was coursing through their veins (quite a bit more in Grub's, he soon realized), Lili gave a little sigh of satisfaction. She never allowed herself to get truly drunk, anymore, finding herself waking up in a few too many uncomfortable beds when she got trashed. Still, she enjoyed the relaxation that alcohol inspired in her. Especially when it made conversation easier. "So...," she began, smacking her lips, "living with the Ice Queen."

Grub was having a hard time determining if he was in adequate control of himself. The last thing he needed this late in the game was to say something to tip Lili off and break the unofficial contract between himself and Vinyáya. So, experimentally, he said, "Yes." Then, finding that his ability to retain secrets was still strong enough, he continued. "It's a good arrangement. I've got a few more weeks before my pay raise kicks in, but I'll be searching for new apartments once the promotion announcement is made."

Lili looked at him. "What? Even if you don't pass? Not that you wont pass! But, you know...contingencies."

Grub took another drink (wishing his martini glass looked a bit more masculine than Lili's highball) before responding. "I've got to. The Wing Commander wont let me stay. It was part of our agreement."

"Agreements change," Lili ventured. "Or they get new terms."

Grub thought about this, but shook his head. "Not with her."

"Hmmm..." Lili looked to the ceiling, then back at Grub, running the tall highball glass on her lower lip. "Then with me."

Grub blinked, taking a long time to process these words. Then he remembered their agreement. He laughed. Then he thought about the laughter. He should not have been this amused by her words. Whatever was in that drink, it was strong. "I take the test in seven days, Lili. I don't think you can really alter the study agreement, at this point."

Lili downed the last of her drink and slammed it on the bar. "True!" She nodded much more vigorously than was necessary, wincing as the somewhat harsh grenadine and coffee liqueur passed into her stomach. "But I can put in an addendum."

"Only if I agree to it," Grub countered, also finishing his drink, though he put the martini glass down somewhat more gently. He pushed it away with one finger, wanting to distance himself from the booze as quickly as possible, before things went wrong. "What are you proposing?"

Lili slid off her bar stool and moved to stand in front of Grub, hands on her hips. She leaned over so their faces were close enough to feel each other's breath. "I actually drive you to your brother's, once the alcohol is out of my system, if..."

Grub raised his eyebrows at the pause. "If...?"

"If," Lili said, taking both of the man's hands and pulling him from his seat, "you dance with me." She began to drag him to the floor.

Grub pulled back, suddenly realizing that he might actually be stronger than Lili. He stood straight, and found that her efforts could not make him move. It was gratifying, except that he couldn't escape her hands (he made a mental note to go over escape techniques before the test). "No! I can't dance!"

"Bull!" Lili laughed, throwing her entire body weight behind the tug-of-war, and making no progress. "You told me you could when I was teaching you to shoot!"

"That was ballroom dancing!" He looked to the massed clubbers. "I can't...grind. I don't have the rhythm!"

Lili frowned, halting.

Grub sighed in relief and stopped fighting.

With a mighty tug, Lili pulled the now-unprepared Grub until he fell into her, their bodies pressed together and their faces now so close that foreheads rested together, forcing them to look deep into each other's eyes. The only thing keeping their lips apart was a bare hair's breadth of air.

"Prove it," Lili whispered in challenge, eyelids half-lowered.

Grub swallowed. "O...okay."

"So..." Lope said, trailing his fingers along Vinyáya's leg. "Good?" He tilted his head—propped up with the other hand—so his hair fell across his eyes in an almost boyish manner, the look matured by a smug grin.

She smirked at him, pleased with life in general and ready to tease. "Not bad..."

Lope laughed, placing a hand on the woman's back and pulling her to him. "Oh, admit it, Arnica. You enjoyed that quite a lot."

Vinyáya continued to smile, burying her head in his chest, but said no more.

Grub failed to prove that he had no rhythm, though it took a quick lesson from Lili for him to fail completely.

"No," she whispered, taking Grub's hands, which had been dangling limply at his side, and placing them low on her hips. "Here."

Grub looked down and swallowed.

"And these," Lili continued, wrapping her arms around his neck, pulling his head down so their noses rested side-to-side. "Here."

"This is highly inappropriate," Grub whined, eyes darting about the club.

"I know," Lili breathed, moving her legs so one slid between Grub's, with one of his copying the position so that their hips fit together. "Isn't it great?"

Grub wondered if it was the alcohol that was making him feel so warm, or other things. A mix, he decided. He liked mixes. "Yeah." He tightened his grip on Lili's hips, bringing her closer as they moved to the music, grinding against one another. He began to feel dizzy with the liquor and the lights and this woman pressed up against him. Her mouth was covered in raspberry lipgloss and he could almost taste it. He could...her lips were so...almost...he wanted to...

Grub opened his eyes and immediately regretted the decision. He groaned, covering his face with a satin pillow.

His fingers scrabbled over the pillow's material. Satin. He owned no satin pillows.

Grub shot up in bed and looked down. No shirt. Covered in satin sheets. He lifted the sheets. No pants, though he maintained boxers.

Timidly, he looked to the spot beside him in the bed.

No one.

"...huh?" he said to the room at large. Then he looked around the room. It was...huge. The sort of thing you would expect from Fowl. Easily the size of any apartment he would be able to afford. At least the satin theme only extended to the bed, in the color purple, the rest of the room done in white marble floors and red walls accented with gold foil designs. Otherwise, it seemed a spartan place, except for a desk situated next to one of the many windows, though he suspected the plain-looking doors tucked into one corner would open onto the biggest shower and closet he had ever seen. Quarters like these demanded ludicrous amenities.

Grub wasn't tempted to explore, except to get himself back to decency. Moving quietly, he slid out of the bed and began searching the room for his clothes. "D'arvit," he hissed, lifting the bedskirts. Not an article of clothing was to be found. The closet proved empty, while the shower only had a pair of towels, and even the desk was bare (why he looked there, he wasn't sure, unless it was desperation).

Well...there was no denying where he was, so at least that meant he was close to his proper sleeping place. There may be some awkward questions to answer when the Principality Hill homeowners association came to Police Plaza with a video of him running barefoot and boxer-clad down the streets, but he could probably make it home before the Hill security guards caught him.


Grub opened the door in increments until he was able to stick his head outside. He looked up and down the cherrywood hall, studying the portoro marble flooring and cursing the lack of carpets. Carpets muffled footsteps wonderfully, and so would some paintings on these long halls. He hadn't seen this much wood used for construction in years. Still, he was an officer. He could do stealth...right?

Moving with exaggerated care, looking remarkably like an actor in a comedy trying to escape a similar situation, Grub made his way down the hall. He could see a pair of ornate carved-wood doors at the end. Freedom.

He passed out of the hall and into the grand entryway.

"Wow..." a voice said to his side. "You really suck at stealth. No wonder you didn't go for Recon."

Grub yelped, once again jumping into the air and turning to face Lili Frond, who was draped sideways on an enormous (almost human-sized) armchair. She waved at him with the spoon she was using to eat her cereal.

"Your clothes are on the statue of Anubis," Lili answered before Grub had the presence of mind to ask, indicating it with her toes.

"Oh," he replied.

"You seemed to think it was a coat rack." She stirred the cereal, blinking rapidly at her own odd words. "Though I've no idea why you put your pants and shoes on it, if you thought so." She shrugged and took another bite of breakfast.

"Oh," Grub replied again.

"You just," Lili began, then took a moment to be polite, swallowing her food. "You just heard 'your room is the third on the right,' saluted me, and stripped before going in and passing out."

"Oh," Grub said for a third time. Then, "Oh!" In his head, he praised the gods, promising to leave an offering at someone's temple.

Lili stared at him for a while. Then she gestured towards the newly-appointed coat rack. "Mind making yourself decent? I'm not fond of fish."

Grub looked down at his trout-covered boxers and flushed. He scrambled to the coat rack and was clothed in moments.

Lili looked up and away, as if putting on his clothing was a more personal moment for her guest than standing about like an idiot with no pants, and continued chewing on her granola.

Once back in his office clothes, Grub stood before Lili, rubbing the back of his head. "Er...I had fun. Thanks." He held out a hand, as if to shake.

Lili looked at it for a moment. Then she smacked Grub's hand with the curved back of her spoon. "You suck at this," she commented, drinking her cereal milk.

Grub stared. "At...what?" Oh, gods, did he...did they do it in her car or something?

"Girl friends." At his panicked look, she repeated the words with a pronounced pause between them. "You know. Girls who are friends. Without screwing."

"Oh." That was, apparently, Grub's favorite word of the day. "Yeah, I...don't have many."

"I think you mean 'any.' Or you didn't." She put her bowl down on the coffee table and pushed herself up on the tall arm rest, kicking her legs as she enjoyed being a head above Grub. He really was inconveniently tall, if you wanted to be superior. If you wanted other things, then maybe not, but that wasn't on the agenda today. "So, lesson one: stop being an idiot."

"I'll...try?" Grub half-smiled.

"Good enough. Lesson two: get sexier boxers. If you can't hold your liquor, I do not want to look at an entree. Black with flames are good."

"If we're not going, why does it matter if my boxers have fish on them?" He was briefly tempted to hold his pants away from his waist and inspect them. They didn't seem so ridiculous when he bought them.

"Because," Lili said, rolling her eyes, "everyone appreciates a good-looking package, even if they're not going to unwrap it."

Grub's eyes went wide. "Not going..." he began, but it was so lacking in air that Lili failed to hear.

"Now," the Frond heir pointed back down the hall of the family mansion, "the kitchen is the fourth door on the right. Eat quickly. We're going to the firing range.

Grub wilted. "'s Saturday. And I think I might be hung over!"

"Grub," Lili said, rolling her eyes. "If you don't know that you're hung over, then you are not hung over. As for Saturday, I pulled a few favors. Holly is going to give you shooting lessons. You still need to get your scores up another three percent."

Grub whimpered. "I think...this is the worst morning of my life."

Vinyáya slowly opened her eyes and looked over at the peaceful, still-sleeping face of Councilman Lope. He was smiling, one arm draped over her shoulders.

She carefully moved that arm aside and sat on the side of the bed, letting her hair fall around her shoulders. Putting her hands on her spine, she leaned back, groaning as she heard several popping noises. While this made her back unwind, tension was increased on her front in an altogether unfamiliar manner.

Reluctantly, looked down. There was no denying it, the bulge in her stomach was growing. She had taken to wearing thick jackets to work, and they were mostly effective in helping her avoid discovery, as the rest of her body remained as taut as ever. She knew this could only work for so long, though, and the point at which she would no longer be able to deny the change in her shape was rapidly approaching. In the darkness of her bedroom and the heat of the moment, Lope had failed to notice, but now Vinyáya slid out of bed to retrieve a thick bathrobe. The pink material looked horrific on her, but it hid her roundness.

Tugging the tie snug about her waist, she looked at Lope lying on his stomach, the covers draped over his lower half. He hadn't noticed the absence of a second warm presence in the bed. Vinyáya considered climbing back in, but how would she explain her desire to put the robe on? And how could she halt things if he awoke for a second round with the rising artificial lights of Haven streaming in through her bedroom window? Far too dangerous.

She needed to get out of there. She needed some time alone. Deciding fresh air would help calm her suddenly fraying nerves, Vinyáya made her was quickly to the front door.

Haven didn't have weather, but its temperature could vary, depending on what the nearby magma chutes were doing, and the air was pleasantly warm as she opened the door. The feel of it in her lungs instantly calmed the woman. No one was up this early on a Saturday, and the solitude wrapped around her. She sighed, relieved, and took a step out.

Vinyáya did an odd hop as her foot came down on something with pointy—though not hard—edges. Scowling, the woman looked down.

A crumpled sticky note waited on the stoop.

Carefully, Vinyáya sat and picked up the note, spreading it out over her knee. She saw her handwriting and flipped it over, expecting to see a reply. An insult. A threat. Something.


Vinyáya stared at the note for a long time. Whenever her mind went a fraction of an inch in one direction, it was as if something snapped the thoughts back to one simple word: Nothing.

Without thinking of what she was doing, Vinyáya spread trembling fingers over her stomach, feeling the undeniable roundness beneath her obscuring robe.

Inside, Vinyáya thought she felt a flutter of movement.

It was the worst morning of her life.

Chapter Text

Week 17

It was easily the most horrific six days of his life. Grub spent all of Saturday and Sunday in the company of Lili and Holly, taking test run after failed test run at the shooting range, interspersed with quizzes on Haven law and LEP procedures. His sparring with Holly was adequate, she claimed, but he noticed she kept looking at Lili and shaking her head after each set. Not good.

Monday through Thursday was nothing but shooting and quizzes, with Holly claiming that too much exercise right before the exam would tax his muscles, making it more likely that he would have problems. When Lili dropped him off at Vinyáya's on Thursday night, Grub was certain he would never be able to sleep. Instead, the second he settled on the bed for a breather between reviews, he was out, only waking again thirty minutes before Lili was supposed to pick him up.

Grub rushed through making an omelet for Vinyáya, and was out of the door at a run, two pieces of toast flopping in his mouth as he shrugged on his work jacket while also trying to keep his messenger bag from falling to the ground.

"You're going to do fine, Grub," was the first thing that Lili said as he slid into the car and began to cram his toast down like it would disappear if it was not in the protective confines of his stomach. It was also the second, third, and fourth thing she said. Around the tenth time she said, it, Grub was beginning to think she was trying to reassure herself, which did not reassure him.

The traffic that morning was horrible. They arrive at Police Plaza with little time to spare. Grub barreled down the hallways, bag slamming against his hip as he went, Lili trailing behind him.

"Grub!" she shouted several times, becoming more irritated with each repetition.

He did not slow down, which meant that he almost slammed into the line of officers waiting to take the exam. The pixie on the end glared at him, looking the annoyingly tall elf up and down. Then he noticed Lili as she joined them and his eyebrows shot up. He took another appraising look at the test-taker, wondering about the presence of Frond with this male.

"Your bag," Lili gasped, holding out her hand.

"Oh!" Grub took his messenger bag off and handed it off. "Thank you, Lili. I can't say how much I appreciate..." he stopped himself. Babbling. Now, of all times. He smiled instead. "Thank you."

"No problem." She gave him a little salute and began walking up the line of waiting officers.

Commander Verres—head of LEPTraffic—came out of the door at the end of the line and looked at the day's candidates, arms crossed and scowling. This was the most action-filled day of his year, and he milked it for every bit of anxiety it was worth. "Is everyone ready?"

Lili paused in her retreat, fingers tapping against Grub's bag at her side. She looked to Verres, clapping her hands together in a quick plea. "One sec!" She darted back down the line.

Grub felt at his pockets. Had he forgotten something? Some folded-up note or maybe writing on the back of his hand, anything that would get him disqualified? If so, how did Lili know?

She stopped in front of him, smiling wildly. Her breath was labored, making her face flush. "Stupid of me. I forgot to give you this."

Lili threw her arms around Grub's neck and kissed him.

Grub froze, staring at her, leaning back as Lili's entire body pressed to his. Then he closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around the small elf's waist, almost lifting his tutor off her toes as he returned the kiss. Grub groaned as their mouths parted a fraction and her tongue tickled against his. She tasted of raspberries. Gods, he loved raspberries.

"Ah HEM!" Verres coughed, tapping his foot.

Lili broke away, blushing, and backed out of Grub's arms. "Er...yes. Good luck!" She clapped him on the back and took off down the hall, leaving Grub to stare after while all of the officers who had witnessed the interchange stared at Grub, mouths open. Little Kelp and Princess Frond...blasphemy.

"Riiiiiight," the commander drawled. "Well...what are you all waiting for? I'd like to get this test done by the end of the work day, so MOVE IT!"

Grub barely kept upright, phenomenally dazed. The second he passed though the door, he crashed to the first empty seat he could find. After breathing in deeply through his nose, he looked at the front of the classroom. The whiteboard proclaimed that they were about to fall victim to the "LEP Captain's Exam: Part 1. Laws and LEP regulations."

Grub smirked and let the tension flow out of his body. He could do this.

If he could just stop thinking about how much his lips were tingling...

He left the regulations exam with a swagger in his step. His last review on confiscating smuggled items was entirely worth the lost thirty minutes of sleep two nights ago before.

He was less confidant about the physical exam. Half of the other candidates had passed the finish line before him, and the frowning face of the examiner as he vaulted the last wall was not very promising.

He took as many hits in the sparring match as he gave, so that seemed to be a wash, though Grub had to admit that he was proud of himself. He would have completely failed that portion if not for Vein's beating. It was a very odd thing to be thankful for.

The interview was nerve-wracking. Lili had tried to walk him through this several times, stressing that it was purely to test his mental stability. Despite this, all he could do was think They're going to find out! They're going to find out about Vinyáya and she is going to kill me! The fact that Councilman Lope had joined in as the government representative did not help. Grub had honestly been hoping for Vinyáya, or even the bristly Cahartez, not the man that was friendly in the sheets with the mother of his child. When Corporal Kelp was asked why he was seeking this promotion straight to captain, he had the insane urge to say, as casually as possible "Well, I knocked up your girl, so I need the extra cash. By the way, did you figure out that thing she does when you tug on both of her earlobes?"

He restrained himself. At the end of the interview, he snapped a salute, turned about, and promptly fell over his chair. When he popped up and scurried out, the laughter of the panel followed him for the length of the hall.

And then...marksmanship. Years ago, when Holly had been vying for her promotion, this portion of the exam had been technically impossible. She had been the only lieutenant to pass, and that was because she had destroyed the examining screen, taking advantage of a nice loophole in the rulebook (she seemed to do that a lot, noting how she got into Recon). Now the range was easier, but by no means easy, and it was here that half of the fairies who passed the other four potions of the exam failed. As the other other candidates lined up, flipping randomly assigned guns between their hands to re-familiarize themselves with the weight, Grub stared ahead at the screen, trying to remember the previous thousand times he had gone through the program. He was able to finish the exercise consistently, but had never managed to come in at more than 73% accuracy, and 75% was the passing level. He was not a religious elf, but he sent what he felt was a rather ironic prayer to Artemis and Apollo.

The elf took a deep breath and slid the noise-canceling headphones over his ears. Taking aim at the screen, he stood frozen, waiting for the signal.

It came as a series of beeps remarkably similar to the four starting sirens at a car race. At the last, higher-pitched tone, enemies began swarming onto the screen. He opened up with his tri-barrel blaster, filling the screen with flashes of light as the targets fell before him. His mind narrowed to a pinpoint, only allowing for instinctive aiming.

Ten minutes later, the last gnome fell and Grub allowed himself a deep inhalation, which immediately descended into hyperventilation. He staggered away from the screen, dripping sweat, and leaned against the back wall. He clutched at his chest, trying to breath regularly, his vision swimming.

The other officers calmly put their guns back in their hip holsters and looked at him, laughing amongst themselves, watching the Commander's little brother breaking down.

Done. Whatever the results, he was done. He felt a little panic over the idea of failing, but the biggest wash of relief he had ever experienced overtook that fear. Knowing that his work was over was one of the best feelings he had ever experienced. He could go home, fall onto his bed, and sleep until Monday.

The rest of the officers had filed out by the time he was finally in control and returned his gun to the front desk. Free of that minor burden, he straightened up and staggered out of the range, nodding at the officer monitoring this exam as he went. The pixie was stony-faced, like every other proctor in this process. He would have no clues about his results until Trouble called him into his office after the weekend was over.

Lili and Holly were waiting outside, the higher officer standing aloof, but Frond's eyes shone as Grub stepped out. She darted forward, grabbing his hands. "How did you do?"


"None of that, Lili," Trouble boomed out from the side, breaking them apart and wrapping an arm around his little brother's shoulders. "You've had him enough for the past few months. It's time for a boys' night out." He put a finger to Lili's nose, pushing her back.

Lili pouted, shaking her head to free it. "But Trouble..."

"I am not to be swayed," Trouble reaffirmed, steering Grub away from his friend. "Boys only. He'll see you on Monday."

Lili tried to protest again, but the brothers were already near the end of the hall, a dozen other officers now between them.

"Trouble," Grub said, his steps unsteady. "I just want to sleep."

"You will, Grub," Trouble whispered. "Just thought being at the Wing Commander's would be a bad idea."

Grub was about to ask why when they turned the corner and walked along the grand entryway to the Plaza. Then he understood.

Vinyáya leaned against the far wall, Councilman Lope standing in front of her, propping himself up with one hand next to her head. She was blushing and talking rapidly, occasionally averting her eyes, then looking back up at him, full of wickedness. Lope seemed to be responding to this without any concerns for the reports that would appear in the tabloids. He reached out, tucking a strand of Vinyáya's hair behind one ear, lingering next to the sensitive tip for longer than was appropriate in public before curving his finger under her chin, lifting it up so he could lean in for a long kiss. She opened her mouth to him immediately, grabbing the lapels of his jacket and pulling the man in tighter to her body.

"Oh," Grub muttered, leaning against his brother for support as they walked past. "Thanks."

Chapter Text

Week 18

Grub spent that entire weekend asleep on Trouble's couch, only waking to scarf down a sandwich before retreating to the lumpy cushions. Trouble, for his part, was quiet, turning away all well-wishers and after-exam revelers so he could keep an eye on his younger brother. He needn't have worried too much unless the mustard ran out, because Grub was far too involved in recovering to care about being alone or in good company.

When Monday morning came, Trouble finally shook his brother awake, handing him a clean office uniform. "I've got to be in an hour before you, to get the results for Recon and Retrieval," he murmured, mindful of the still-present bags under his sibling's eyes. "I'll see you in my office in a bit."

Grub sat up and clutched the clothes to his chest. He nodded.

Trouble looked at him for a long time, then shook his head, leaving the apartment as swiftly as he could. Grub was distracted by the coming results, but Trouble was also in turmoil. What would he do if his little brother failed? Could he force a double-promotion through? Or even just get him in as a lieutenant? What would the feminine side of their deal do in that case? Nothing good, Trouble was sure.

Grub took a long time getting started, and spent a good half-hour standing in the shower, shaking. Every one of his nerves was raw, the slightest prodding threatening to set him off. He thought about staying in and letting Trouble call with the results, but the idea of being alone when an apology and comforting words about trying next time came scared him. So he finally stepped out, getting dressed even before he was all the way dry. Then he grabbed a final sandwich and walked to Police Plaza, nibbling whenever his stomach didn't threaten to turn inside out.

He didn't bother checking out his paperwork pile, as he was sure that, after three months, it would be horrendous. Instead, Grub went to the hall outside Trouble's office, where the other test candidates were lined up, whispering amongst themselves. The confidence they had shown a few days ago was gone, and all looked a bit green, though the loud burps from a few showed that the tinge was more from a weekend-long bender than true nerves.

Grub slumped down to the floor, burying his head between his knees, and waited. Every few minutes, he dry-heaved, but nothing came up.

Trouble's secretary came out, popping a large sphere of bubblegum that perfectly matched her hair in color. "Abarat, Acacia."

An elf jolted and stood up, following the secretary into the office. He looked over his shoulder before he was out of view, giving his companions a quick thumbs-up. Most of them returned the gesture, grinning.

Five minutes later, he came out, eyes on the floor, and refused to glance their way as he walked down the hall as fast as his feet could carry him.

The entire hall grew tense at this ill omen. A class full of failing officers was not uncommon.

"Barrigan, Pyrite."

A pixie surged forward, steps clumsy. He didn't give a parting glance, but when he came out he threw his hands in the air. The hall cheered for him and the new captain swaggered off to his workstation.

It went like this for the next half-hour. Only about a quarter of the officers came out in triumph, and each failure made Grub clutch tighter at his knees. A quarter...there was no chance.

"Kelp, Grub."

At first, he couldn't get up, his knees jelly. A kind officer came over and hoisted him, slapping the elf on his back and murmuring encouragement. Once on his feet, Grub was able to stagger into the office, where he collapsed into the chair before Trouble, ignoring the bend in its back that made his spine groan.

Trouble watched him for a long time, then looked down at his clasped hands. "Grub, I just want to say that I am...impressed. I have never seen an officer more dedicated to this test. The progress you made these past three months has been...amazing." He paused, then gave a weak smile. "Dad would be proud of you, too."

Grub blinked, suddenly realizing that his eyes were on the verge of spilling tears. He didn't try to hide this, merely wiping at his eyes with his sleeve. "T-thanks."

"I know...the next year is going to be...hard on you." Trouble swallowed, looking away from his brother. "So I wanted to give you this." He opened a desk drawer and took out a small black velvet sack, laying it on the table in front of Grub. "It's not much, but it will help."

Grub stared at the bag, dimly hearing the clink of metal on wood through velvet. Gold, by the sound. Coins. He bit his cheeks, letting tears fall freely. "I...I don't need that. I'll be fine."

"Yes," Trouble insisted, pushing the bag further forward, "you do. Take it, just for a little while, so you can get all settled. Then you can give it back."

Grub considered throwing the purse at his brother's head. He didn't need Trouble's money! Instead, in the interest of diplomacy, he picked the bag up by its ties and stood. "Thank you, Commander." He turned and walked towards the door, letting the coins slap against his leg.

They felt rather...odd. A lot of bumps. Very pointy. Quite light, actually, and not jingling at all. That was just all wrong, unless his brother was a cheapskate, and Trouble was generous as a rule. Grub stopped at the exit and untied the strings, opening the bag. He stared inside.

Grub saw tarnished gold, his eyes following the curves of the acorns. He read the Gnommish letters at top panel: "Kelp."

Grub stopped moving and he stopped breathing.

Behind him, Trouble stood, the amusement finally escaping into his formerly serious voice. "They were dad's, and I used them at my promotion, too. It takes some time to get a set of engraved acorns, and I thought you'd like to have these for the ceremony, even if they're second-hand. You'll have enough to deal with, what with all the paperwork I'm going to throw at you...Captain."

Grub whirled, tears flying off his cheeks as he faced his brother. "I passed?"

Trouble grinned. "Barely."

"I PASSED!" Grub flew across the room, vaulting Trouble's desk, and slammed into his brother, arms wrapping him up in a crushing hug. "I PASSED!"

Trouble wheeze, backing up and nearly tripping over his chair. He brought his arms up to hold his brother, practically cradling him as he staggered under the sudden weight. "Well aware. Breath is nice. Necessary, even."

"Sorry!" Grub let his brother go, dropping back to the floor. "I can't believe...I..." He began to laugh hysterically. Not as in "laughing a lot," though he was doing that. As in "laughing like someone who has just lost his freaking mind."

Trouble grabbed his brother's office jacket lapel, pulling it to the side. "Give that here," he ordered, taking the velvet sack. Trouble fished the ancient acorns out, flipping the pin open. With great silent fanfare, he pierced the jacket, locking the gold into place on his little brother's chest. He let the jacket go and slapped Grub's shoulder. "There! Looks good. How does it feel, Captain?"

Grub nodded, as if that was a yes/no question, hiccuping out sobs. "G-great. I...I'm going to my office and faint, okay?"

Trouble gave his brother a thumbs up. "You go do that."

The actual promotion ball would not be held for another three weeks, but every officer could now see the list of fairies whom had past the captain's exam. Despite being primarily male, the LEP was populated almost exclusively by gossip-mongers, and these became hooked on the results and the recordings of the exam. A few of the more industrious picked through Grub's written portions, trying to find any evidence of tampering, and ranting that there was some sort of very clever conspiracy to hide this evidence in an undiscoverable fashion. These fairies were basically ignored or, if Lili, Holly, or Trouble were nearby, discretely smacked across the head.

Most, however, were whispering to each other in astonishment as they went through the results together. This was the case when Wing Commander Vinyáya entered the office of one of her subordinate pilots and found said pilot and one retrieval officer sitting behind the desk, hunched over it and watching a computer screen.

Vinyáya sighed. Her employees should have been better about making sure they were at least feigning industriousness, given that their boss was on the legislative body that could hit them with budget cuts if it decided the LEP didn't need as much money (and employee time) to perform its duties. "Lieutenant Clay, where are those reports I asked you to send me five hours ago?"

Clay jumped, his wings flapping in alarm, seeking to take him away from danger. His pixie friend didn't have such a convenient escape, but he also didn't have this woman as his direct superior, so he merely remained silent, praying for invisibility.

"Sorry, Wing Commander! I'll send those over in just a sec!"

"No hurry," she snapped, walking around the sprite's desk, pushing his chair aside with her foot so he drifted across the floor, spinning, his face more horrified with each revolution. "I must see what you found so fascinating that you wasted half of my workday. This should be interesting." Ignoring his protests, Vinyáya leaned over next to the pixie (who shrunk to an even smaller size) and inspected the screen.

It was a media player, and the video wasn't of the best quality, so at least Clay wasn't watching a blockbuster movie. In the middle was a single elf, though the elbows of two other fairies could be seen to either side. He wore noise-canceling headphones and held a tri-barrel blaster, staring down the firing range, where holographic targets would soon appear. Just as Vinyáya realized whom she was looking at, a countdown appeared in the lower-left of the screen, and she couldn't take her eyes away. 3. 2. 1.

The elf began to fire. Vinyáya noted a few errors in his posture that she was frankly horrified that Short hadn't corrected, but the male's focus never wavered. He barely twitched to aim, the holograms exploding into red sparks as each was hit. And each was hit, though a few took multiple shots.

The entire routine was only a few minutes long, and, by the time it was nearing completion, Lieutenant Clay had wheeled back over, curious about the recording. If the Wing Commander was entranced, it must have been amazing. He was disappointed. Except for the elf collapsing against a wall, nothing of note happened while Clay watched. He didn't even blow non-existent smoke off the gun in a show of badass-ery.

A few seconds later, text was laid over the screen: "Grub Kelp, Captain's exam. Marksmanship. Accuracy: 75.01%. Final result: Pass."

"Well, well," Vinyáya said, standing straight and resting both hands on her hips. "He did it." She smiled, shaking her head. "Huh."

Week 19

It took an entire week for Grub to catch up with his paperwork. Considering his three months of leave, with even more coming in because of his status as Captain Kelp, this was actually sort of impressive. If you were into the paperwork scene. During this time, he came in early, left late, and spent almost every hour at work in his office, including his breaks. Admittedly, there was a lot of avoidance behavior in this. Grub could tell that life was about to get a bit complicated. He had a feeling for these sorts of things.

After his weekend at Trouble's, Grub had gone back to Vinyáya's house, but this wasn't as tense as it might initially seem. Vinyáya was nowhere to be seen. If the tabloids were correct, she was sleeping a bit further up on the Hill, spending the nights with a certain Councilman. Grub scowled every time he saw one of the headlines (all of which, in his mother's characteristic style, insulted the Wing Commander's figure, hair, politics, and ability to keep her legs closed in a few short words), but said nothing.

He rarely saw Lili, as Grub was jogging to work and home on his own, now that he had less exercise to do while at work. The first day, he left a note for her on Vinyaya's door, explaining his paperwork binge, but he doubted it appeased her too much. Still, she never came into his office, busy herself with setting Holly up for the promotion ceremonies.

Trouble popped in every so often to ask if there had been any developments on the paternity front, but things had gone quiet on all sides. Vinyáya had never said when she would do the big reveal, and she had never promised to tell about it being Grub. Given the fact that she was so close with Lope, Grub wasn't all that hopeful. Telling the Councilman that she was pregnant with another man's child (even if it was conceived before they began seeing each other) was going to be tense enough. Saying she lived with the father (even if he would be moving out once his first full paycheck came in) was not exactly the best news to give to a lover.

So Grub entered his second week as a captain with a sense of dread covering him everywhere he went. Perhaps that was why he forgot to bring in his lunch on Monday. When he noted this, Grub began cursing, going on for an impressive length of time. Then he sulked into the cafeteria.

It was packed, and Grub was not pleased with the array of fairies he saw inside. Fowl, Short, Vein, Trouble, and, worst of all, Vinyáya. His eyes darted around and saw that there were a few small tables empty, so he picked up a tray, got his food, and settled down for a solitary lunch.

Just as he was opening his mouth wide to chomp into a particularly thick sandwich, he heard a soft, cool voice behind him. "Grub?"

Forgetting to close his mouth or put down the sandwich, Grub turned his head to see Lili Frond standing behind him, holding her own tray of food.

She bit her lip. "Er...can"

Eventually, he managed to nod. Then he remembered his mouth, closing it, and nodded faster.

Frond let out a long breath, but it didn't seem to remove any of her tension. She put her tray on the table, but to the side, allowing her to look at Grub without the interference of good. "Look, Grub...the kiss..."

The kiss. He set down his sandwich, also moving his tray to the side, but couldn't think of anything to say.

A few feet away, Vinyáya was standing from her place with Fowl and Short, holding onto an empty glass. "Be right back," she said and turned towards the juice bar.

Vein, who was at the table just behind, speaking rather loudly with Trouble, paused that conversation, looking back at the Wing Commander. "More smoothie? That's got to be your third glass this meal. You look like you're about to spring a leak, too!" He guffawed at his own joke, seeing as no one else was.

Lili rested both hands on the edge of the table, drumming her fingers. "I didn't want to say anything before the test. You had enough going on, but...I just wanted to..." She laughed, covering her face with a hand. "What in the gods' names am I doing?"

Vinyáya looked down at Vein, eyes narrowing. "Excuse me?" She really wanted that smoothie, if only to dump it over the sprite's head.

"Way water-logged, I mean," Vein said, as stupid about females as he usually was. He pointed towards her stomach. "I know women hate it when you talk about their weight, but you go on enough missions that you really need to watch it. You look like you're pregnant, Wing Commander!"

Lili slammed her hands on the table and continued. "I wanted to kiss you. A lot. For a while. You...I..." She turned crimson and looked down at the table space between them. "I really enjoyed helping you with the exam. And not just studying, I mean driving together, was" Her eyes darted up and she smiled nervously.

Grub was completely shocked by the revelation, but excited beyond belief. He scooted further up in his seat, leaning towards his companion. "Really? I liked it, too! You're just so—"

"That's because I am pregnant, Vein."

The cafeteria went silent.

Grub was frozen for a few moments. His mouth went as dry as Death Valley at noon, and his skin felt twice as prickly as it would if he were under that sun. The new captain turned his head to look at Vinyáya and Vein. His reaction wasn't out of place, as everyone was now looking at them, including Lili.

Vein shrunk away from the Wing Commander, hands held up, as if to ward off the responsibility that was obviously not his. A purely instinctive reaction for the bachelor major. "You...what?" He managed to remember that he had no part in the proceedings, so Ash asked what he felt was the next logical question. "Lope?"

Vinyáya sighed, rubbing between her eyebrows. "No, Vein. I'm four months along."

Vein gaped. "You...knew about this before you started dating him, didn't you?" He laughed, looking back at Trouble, who was obviously not as amused over the revelation. "Can you believe that! Who is the father, then, Vinyáya? Wait! Don't tell me...old Trub's here."

Trouble stood, eyes darting to Grub. "Shut up, Vein!"

"Woah!" The sprite held his hands up in surrender. "Cool it! Joking." He looked back to Vinyáya. "So...who?"

Everyone looked at her.

Except for Grub, who turned to Lili, grabbing her hand. "Lili, listen!"

She took her eyes away from the scene, blinking in confusion. He wanted to interrupt this level of drama for a conversation that could wait fifteen seconds? "Huh?"

"Lili, I—"

"Grub Kelp," Vinyáya said simply.

There was more silence in the cafeteria.

Except for Vein, who roared with laughter. "Oh, come on, Wing Commander! Who is it, really?"

Lili stared at Grub, breathing hard. Each exhale caught in her throat, making her entire body jerk.

"I'm serious, Vein. Grub Kelp is the father."

Vein stopped laughing and wheeled about to look at Grub. "Him?"

Everyone looked at Grub.

Especially Lili, though it was uncertain if she could see him through the tears brimming in her eyes.

"Lili," he whispered, squeezing her hand tighter. "Lili, I—"

"SHUT UP!" she screeched, tearing her hand away. "Just shut up, you bastard!" Lili sprang from the table, backing several steps away, nearly tripping over her feet as she tried to escape. "How could you!"

Grub stood, hand outstretched. "Lili, wait!"

Lili Frond spun and sprinted from the cafeteria, slamming through the double doors and into the halls.

"Lili!" Grub ran after, completely forgetting the scene that had just taken place.

Vinyáya stared at them. " the gods' names just happened?"

Artemis stabbed at his lunch, scowling. "Nothing major. Just your usual, of late. Not paying attention and ruining everything."

Vinyáya stared at him, uncomprehending. Then her eyes went wide as she looked back to the still-swinging cafeteria door. ""

Chapter Text

Week 19-Part 2

"Lili, wait!"

"Leave me alone!"

"Lili, please!"

"Fuck off!"

"Lili, will you just wait a second and let me explain?"

Lili Frond stopped at the entrance to Police Plaza, just before the glass doors would slide open. She allowed Grub to catch up to her.

"Lili, I—"

"Shut up!" Lili brought her hand about in a flash.

Grub staggered back, holding his cheek. The sound of her strike echoed around the wide entryway, held in by the closed glass front doors. Small blue sparks flew across his skin as a myriad of broken blood vessels under the surface instantly healed, though a bright red mark remained on his face. "Frond dammit!" Grub spat, turning back to face her, eyes alight with barely contained rage and pain.

Lili thrust a finger at Grub's face. "Don't use my ancestor's name in vain!"

He grunted, dismissing the heresy complaint, and took a step towards the woman. "Will you just listen to me?"

She backed away immediately, her hands up in defense, regardless of her so recently exercised offense. "Oh, like I haven't heard that before!" Lili was in full force, with decades of confrontation experience behind her. Every frustration she had gone through with the new captain over the past few months was straining against her thin restraints, making her rabid to storm right over him. "I can't believe you! I thought...I thought... You lied to me!"

He stepped again, but stopped when Lili brought up her hand, now clenched in a fist and obviously dedicated to his nose. He grimaced, taking the warning, though he refused to avoid her glare, trying to maintain that connection despite her reluctance. "I never lied to you!"

"Oh, really!" Lili laughed harshly, holding up her fingers to count off. "What about why you're living with Vinyáya? Or how about being single? Or not being a complete prick?"

"Yes, I am living with Vinyáya, that's the truth." He tried to keep his mind in order, well aware that Lili was going to claw away all of his arguments with ruthless fervor. "When my mother found out about the pregnancy, she freaked,and I had to move. Vinyáya has been letting me stay at her place until my promotion. Once my first check is in, I'm gone."

"Oh, sorry for you," Lili said scathingly. "Moving is so hard, especially when you don't get to live with your lover anymore!"

"She is not my lover!" He winced at the admission. Part of him had always hoped, but the note left for him those few weeks ago had brought him back to reality. "At least...not anymore. It was...just sex," he wilted at Lili's deepening glare, "and she started seeing Lope right after she told me about the pregnancy. Nothing has happened between us since."

Lili balked. "You...are you serious? " She'd heard a lot of lies in her time. She even let herself believe a few of them, but this...

"Yes, I am," Grub confirmed. "Look, I know it's hard to believe, but you can ask her yourself, now that everyone knows." He hesitated a moment, then took a few steps forward, stopping within arm's length. "Look...I couldn't tell you everything, but I never lied to you."

"No," she finally agreed, closing her eyes to hold back more tears. "You just led me along. Like everyone."

"Lili..." Grub looked at the ground. He felt like trash. She was right; he had let her believe that all was well, giving her no clue that there might be complications beyond just needing a promotion so he could move. He had been feeling things develop. 'Generally clueless' was Grub's normal state, but no one could make as many advances as Lili did and not get their point across. He'd diplomatically ignored them until things came to a head. Then...he'd gone too fast. Jumped forward and said he wanted the same things she did before she was even given the chance to know every one of the hundreds of strings now attached to him. Trouble had warned him about this. "I would have told you, if I could, but she was going say it wasn't me, and then I'd have to fight her in court. She agreed to think about saying it was me while I went for the promotion, but I couldn't tell anyone."

"You..." Lili stared at him, fingers flexing as she flipped between a desire to punch him and a desire to grab his shoulders and shake some sense into him. "You want this?"

He nodded. "With all my heart. If it was anything else, I would have told you. I did tell you everything else, and you know it!"

Lili thought back as far as she could. Every little talk and each vague fact. Every nervous jump connected to her each little flirtation. The pull she could feel between them and that inextricable wall that kept her from making any progress. It all made too much sense.

That didn't mean she could take it. "Sure, lie to me again," Lili muttered, turning to walk away.

"D'arvit, will you just stop for a minute?" Grub sprang forward, grabbing Lili's hand before she could get away. She wrenched against his grip, but he held on. It felt wrong to hold her back like this, but he couldn't just let her go. "Lili, I swear by the Book, I didn't want to hide this!"

She gasped, spinning to face him. Not all fairies turned to the gods, but all who still had magic considered the Book to be inviolable. Just as with humans swearing on their sacred texts (and more so, because the People could feel the magic that sprung from their tome), a vow on the Book was the ultimate show of sincerity. Lili had to pause.


He let his hand fall, though he still held hers. Now he cradled at the fingertips, rather than restraining her with all of his force, and his nausea at that move dissipated. "I...I get to be a father, Lili. What chance in hell did I have of that happening?"

She laughed quite softly, not so much making the sound as letting air leave her lungs in a staccato, almost choked rhythm. "True. How you managed to pull that one off..." She held up a hand to stop any explanation he may have been inclined to give, not wanting to contemplate the details. "Gods...the one guy in the LEP who doesn't think I want to jump his bones, and he's going to be a daddy..."

Grub flushed, eyes widening in alarm at her choice of words.

Lili sputtered. "No! I didn't mean..." She shook her head quickly, resetting the conversation. "It's not like that. I just...where did I leave off in the caff?" She bit her lip, running her unrestrained hand through her hair as she thought. "I was having fun with you. I...I thought there could be something there." She shook her head at the foolish idea.

"Why can't there be?" Grub whispered, doing his best to keep a whine from his voice, and not altogether succeeding.

"Grub...Vinyáya is having your baby."

Grub sighed. "She doesn't give a shit about me, Lili. She never did." The truth—not sudden, but unwanted and long-withheld in his mind—made Grub bite his cheek.

"What?" Lili snapped, narrowing her eyes. "So she was just using you for sex?"

"Er..." He blushed. It was answer enough, if Lili's intrigued (and now somewhat less incredulous) expression was anything to judge by.

"So...Vinyaya is having your child?"


"And you're living with her?"

"For just a few more weeks."

" thought I'd be okay with this?"

Grub shook his head swiftly. "N-no! I mean...I had hoped... I was going to ask if things could work out, once she told everyone. After I moved and everyone knew about the child."

Lili gaped. " were going to ask me if I'd date you, with all that baggage?"

He groaned, striking his forehead. "Look, you know me. I'm not the smartest elf around, okay? I just thought...if I had even a little chance, given everything...I wanted to at least ask."

"You..." Lili gritted her teeth, clutching at Grub's hand fiercly. "You thought so, huh?"

Grub tried to back away, but now he was the one being held, though he was able to drag Lili back a few feet with him, having finally gained at least that much strength. "I'm s-sorry, I didn't mean—"

Lili kept her hold, and now began to advance on Grub, who nearly fell down when he lost her counterweight. "If you thought you'd just waltz up and seduce me—"

"I didn't think I'd s-seduce you!" Grub said with a girly shriek.

"Whatever! If you really thought I'd want to be with you, after all of this, then just answer me one question!"

Grub shrank, putting a hand up to protect his face. "W-what!"

Lili squeezed his hand harder, took a deep breath, and blurted it out: "Can we go on a date?"

Grub blinked. He looked at Lili from under the guard of his arm, ears twitching as he tried to sense a hidden attack. "" He was hesitant, and ducked his head again, expecting the affirmation to be the cue for her to smash his face in.

Lili nodded once, firmly. "Monday, after work?"

Grub broke into a grin, standing straight. "Yes! I'd love to!" He suddenly went back to frowning. "Only...I kind of don't have a car or anything, so I'll be pretty lame." He rubbed at the back of his neck, grinning in a pained manner. Lack of a ride seemed like a deal-breaker for the stylish Frond.

Lili rolled her eyes, and it was apparent that she had—once again—been underestimated. "I can cover that." She paused, thinking, then went back to her stern tones. "And another thing!"

"Y-yes?" Grub squeaked, knees turning to jelly.

"Would you start carpooling with me again? I know you'll be moving soon, was nice." She shrugged. "And we'll be pretty busy for the next few weeks, with the promotion ceremony coming up. You can catch me up on everything during traffic. Tell me all about this..." She seemed to be stumbling on the words. "This...'pregnancy' thing." She rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue, as if she had a foul taste on the tip. "I swear, I pick guys in the worst situations. It's a talent."

Grub took a chance and picked up Lili's other hand, holding both tight. "I'd like that. A lot."

They were comfortably silent for a while, Grub no longer cringing, but standing at full height, enjoying the small connection as they looked at their clasped hands held between them.

Suddenly, Lili looked troubled again. "I...Grub?"

He could feel his ears tingling. Danger. "Y-yes?"

" more thing?"

"Okay," he whimpered. That deal-breaker had to be coming sometime. If not a baby or a car, then...what?

Lili took a step towards him, pulling up their hands so they rested between their chests. When she spoke, her voice was at a whisper. "Would you...kiss me? you do it this time, to give that a try?"

Slowly, he nodded. "I-I think I could do that." He pulled her a little closer until there was no space between their bodies, which had begun to tingle, anticipating a burst of lightning for either their presumption of being together or a perfect positive-negative match between them. Hesitantly, licking his lips first, breath erratic, Grub Kelp bent his head and kissed Lili Frond.

She sighed into the kiss, letting his hands go so she could lift her arms, encircling them around his neck. It felt...gentle. Nothing like the frantic pawing she was used to. And, being so restrained, it enflamed her. Lili was forced to break away, gasping, pupil's dilated. "W-wow! I can sort of see why the Wing Commander went after you." She put back on her coquettish behavior, fanning her face and winking when Grub flushed at her (only partially unnecessary) acting.

Grub coughed and looked away. ""

Lili glared at him. "Honestly, I find it hard to believe that she would put up with you being crappy."

"Oh!" He blushed. "Not the sex. I mean..." He needed to look at her for this, to make sure she believed him, because he sometimes couldn't believe it himself. "Vinyáya never let me kiss her."

Lili stared. "She...seriously?"

Grub nodded, solemn.

"Woah." She considered this. Then, smirking, Lili rose to her tip-toes, digging her fingers into Grub's hair to pull his head back down, and kissed the captain again, much faster this time, to avoid getting sidetracked. "Got to say, I kind of like that." Then she kissed him for a much longer period, ignoring the wave officers that came in through the front doors, deciding that melting into this was far more important than anything around them.

Special behind-the-scenes footage!

Ash Vein, sitting on a director's chair (his name was emblazoned on the back, showing that he wasn't intruding on his current Writer-God's perks) next to the current story's male lead—Grub Kelp—looked through his script and frowned. "Wait a second...what is this line about?" He ran a finger under the words as he read them aloud. "'By the way, did you figure out that thing she does when you tug on both of her earlobes?'" He looked to Kelp, who was also studiously going through his lines. "What does the Wing Commander do when you tug both of her earlobes?"

Grub chuckled, cutting his eyes sideways at Vein. "She starts to shield."

Vein frowned. ""

Sighing, Grub reached out, poking one finger into the side of Vein's head. He let his heartbeat rise, focusing extra bloodflow on his hand, which began to vibrate so fast that it disappeared out sight.

Vein's temple, up against Grub's rapidly vibrating fingers, began to buzz. "Ah!" He leaned sideways, freeing himself from the touch. "Don't do that! Why you'd make her do that, I don't—" Vein stopped, mouth open. It slowly began to morph into an enormous grin. "You mean...she shields around your...?"

Grub nodded, de-shielding and reading on. "You got it."

Vein howled with laughter, his following word both an exclamation of surprise and a congratulation to this resourceful elf: "DAY-UM!"

Chapter Text

Week 19-Part 3

Scientists debate as to whether it is possible for anything to travel faster than the speed of light. This is rather daft of them, as any high schooler or housewife can attest that one thing in this world not only travels faster than light, but leaves light in it's dust: gossip.

It was only a few minutes after Grub and Lili had finally broken away from each other and come to the sad conclusion that it was time to get back to work. Captain Kelp hadn't even made it halfway to his station when he noticed everyone in the Plaza staring at him, muttering key words like "Vinyáya," "pregnant," "Frond," and "you're shitting me" amongst themselves. He could feel heat rising up the back of his neck at their attentions, and did his best to act nonchalant. He took his tablet from it's clip on his hip and began to leaf through work even before he arrived at the safe confines of his private office.

Thus he was not watching where he was going and ran directly into another similarly-distracted elf.

"Woah! Watch it, will you?" Grub snapped, rubbing his abdomen, where the lower edge of his tablet had jabbed into him during the collision.

"I could say the same thing to you," the masterfully even voice of the other injured party responded.

Grub's heat was whisked away, as if by an arctic wind. He looked up, throat stuck in the middle of swallowing, at Vinyáya, who was also rubbing where she had been poked by her tablet, this being on her stomach. Grub stared at the mound, befuddled. It looked twice as large as he had seen it in the cafeteria, and he was fairly certain that it shouldn't have grown so much in the one hour since the big reveal.

The appearance was accounted for as Vinyáya stood straight, taking a deep breath and tightening her abdominal muscles. She went from bulge to bump with impressive ease, and stood with a hand on her hip, tablet tapping against her thigh as she studied the cause of said bump. "So...Frond," she observed, raising her eyebrows in a request for confirmation.

Grub finally managed to complete his swallow, and winced at the painful movement of his Adam's apple. Collecting himself, he nodded.

Vinyáya pursed her lips, thinking. "Not bad." She nodded, quite slowly, and her lips curved the slightest degree. "I'm impressed."

Grub's took a step back, unconsciously letting his feet fall into a shortened forward stance. Of all of the reactions he had expected the wing commander to have, this was somewhere near the middle of the list (the bottom containing tearful pleas to take her back, the top occupied by no response at all or loud derision). "Er...thanks."

Vinyáya shrugged and stepped to the side, weaving around the puzzled male. Before passed his shoulder, she paused, turning to look at her room mate. "Oh, Kelp?"

Grub's back crawled as he noticed all of the surrounding officers whispering at the exchange, as well as the bypassing of his rank. He clenched his fists, the fingers rubbing across each other with the help of a thick layer of palm sweat. "Y-yes?"

"Ask Frond about how to respond to paparazzi," Vinyáya suggested, frowning at her own tablet, which she had been watching carefully for any updates from Brenner. "There's no way you're going to escape their notice, now, so it's best to know what to do if they catch you."

Grub's mouth went dry. "R-really? But...why?"

Vinyáya threw her laughing words back at him as she continued down the hall. "Are you kidding me? We're the best drama to hit Haven since Fowl and Short!"

It took a while for Grub to really recognize the truth: he was dating Lili Frond. "Princess Frond" among the more traditional fairies. The most desirable woman in the entire Lower Elements. And that simple fact pushed one question before him. One question he was completely unprepared for.

Grub crashed into Trouble's office, hyperventilating as he slammed his hands on the Commander's desk. "Trubs! What the hell do you do on a date?"

Trouble blinked. He'd been surprised by the appearance, and would have been annoyed (well...more annoyed) if it was anyone else. He preferred to be properly attired when someone visited his office, which mostly involved removing his reading glasses and putting in contacts, if needed. So, with a dramatic sigh, he swept the glasses off, leaning over his desk. "Grub. A date. You're"

Grub rolled his eyes. "You're not that bad!"

"If I knew how to have a successful date, I might actually go on more than one with the same girl."

Sinking into the brotherly banter, Grub evened out, his breathing returning to a quickened, but not distressed rate. "And yet you still sleep with almost every single one of them..."

Trouble shrugged, sinking back into his chair. "What can I say? It's a gift." He tapped the glasses to his lips, thinking. It took him quite a long time to sort through his seduction repertoire and find something that wouldn't get the captain kneed in the balls. "I guess dinner and a movie is normal."

Grub considered this, then nodded. "Yeah...yeah! But..." He chewed his lip. "I can't afford anywhere really nice, yet..."

"Grub," Trouble said flatly. "Really. Really?"


Trouble threw an arm in the air, startling the younger elf and making him step back. "Cook the food yourself! Have a picnic or something." Trouble grimaced at the fluffy idea. "After romantic crap like that, she'll probably be all over you."

Grub flushed. "No! I" He put a hand to his mouth, clenching it as he sorted through his feelings. Soon, his eyes darted up and he whispered, "Can I say 'no'?"

Trouble rolled his eyes. "Yes, you can say 'no' to sex. At least on principle. Noting your current predicament, I have my doubts on your actual abilities."

Grub bit his lips. "I...think I can do it." He nodded to himself, not noticing his older brother's further annoyed looks. "But...the movie..." He scowled, then turned his attention back to the master. "What sort of movies does Lili like?"

Trouble shrugged. "Comedies, mostly. A little romance, but nothing too serious."

Grub pondered a while, then smiled. "The Case of the Amber Moon is coming out. It's supposed to be really big. Think she'd like that?"

Trouble nodded. "She's dying to see it, actually."

"Great! I better order tickets before they're sold out!" Grub dashed out of the office as swiftly as he had entered.

Trouble watched his little brother go, shaking his head and chuckling. " naïve."

A long pause.

"Wait. Lili?"

Trouble sprang to his feet, vaulting the desk. He caught up with Grub just as he entered the hallway. Grabbing the younger man's shoulder, the commander spun him around, taking the other shoulder in hand to bring his brother close, face-to-face. "Why are you asking about Lili?"

Grub puffed his chest out. "We're going out together on Monday!"


Grub searched his memory. "Do we know another Lili?"

Trouble's jaw dropped. " best friend Lili?"

Grub nodded rapidly. "Yep!" He laughed. "Wild, huh! Hey, gotta rush! Those tickets will go fast!" He slapped his brother on the back. "Thanks, again. It's gonna be perfect!" With a little brother's practiced twist, Grub broke free and jogged off down the halls.

Trouble stared after him, jaw uncollected. He wanted to call to the captain, but nothing was working quite right, mentally. After a very long time, this was what he managed:


Week 20-Part 1

Lili gasped, a hand flying to her mouth. "Oh, gods!" She stared at Grub. "You made this?"

Grub, mouth half-full of egg roll, nodded. "Yesh."

Lili moaned, putting a steadying hand on the picnic blanket. "Okay...okay...just...before I pass out from a food coma, are we doing anything else?"

Grub—currently sitting cross-legged on a red-and-white checked blanket in a woodsy section of Haven's main park—shifted to the side, taking two small slips of paper from his pocket. He handed them to Lili, whose eyes shot open as she took in the text. "Amber Moon at eight."

"Amber Moon!" Lili shrieked, turning the tickets over and over to make sure they showed all the signs of being real, from holographic stamp to micro-printed ink. "It's been sold out since opening day!"

Grub preened. "Which is why I got tickets on Wednesday."

Lili clutched the valuable admissions to her chest. "Grub...question?"

Justifiably proud of himself, Grub leaned back, propped up by one hand. He tilted his head in a prompt. "Yes?"

Lili bit her lip. "Can...can I keep you?"

Grub blinked, looking down as he thought about this. He shrugged. "Um...yeah, sure."

"SQUEE!" Lili pounced, throwing her arms around Grub's neck, making them both collapse to the blanket, her teal sundress billowing out to a dangerous degree before settling to decency in the aftermath.

At first, Grub didn't know what to do. Then, with a contented sigh, he let his arms drape around Lili's waist, holding her as tightly as he dared. "I did good?"

In answer, Lili kissed him, keeping it up so long that they had to shovel the feast down as they ran to make the movie in time.

The week passed and suddenly it was the end of the pay period. Grub opened his office mail to find his first captain's-level paycheck. He stared at the sudden jump in tax bracket, his stomach sinking. This...was it. Fiscal solvency.

It really sucked.

He waived Lili off after work, saying that he wanted to walk home. She reminded him of the lengthy trudge, but he just shook his head and refused to comment further. On the way, he made calls to a few of his apartment prospects, mentally comparing their pros and cons until he came to his final decision. As he walked down the last stretch of road, his temporary home looming in front of him, he made the final call, asking the apartment manager to wait for his arrival with paperwork ready.

He arrived back at Wing Commander Vinyáya's house, put his key in the door for the last time, and walked in. The exile passed his host—who watched him as he shuffled past, eyebrows raised curiously as she sipped a cup of tea—and entered the guest bedroom.

Where he froze.

There, arrayed about the room, were a dozen boxes and a few canvas bags filled with very familiar items. He took a few steps in and picked out a small plastic case from the top of a bag. He flipped it over, reading the title out loud. "Pom Poko...."

Grub turned to see Vinyáya standing in the doorway, watching him, still sipping her mug of tea.

He slapped the Mud Man DVD case against his palm. "These things. did you get these?"

She gave him dismissive shrug, but the wing commander was smirking, terribly pleased with herself. "I told your mother they were your things and you deserved to have them."

Grub shook his head, but now he was grinning with just a tinge of malice. "She must have been pissed."

Vinyáya considered this.

A few hours earlier...

Hibiscus Brenner had just settled down for a nice night of hot coffee, light jazz, and a long, tawdry romance novel when her doorbell rang. She sighed, looking down at the description of Perry—the time-traveling elf from the days of King Frond—and, most specifically, his naughty bits, and considered just letting the visitor ring. When the buzzing came again, this time in rapid three-push bursts that only had a few seconds between each, continuing endlessly, she put her tablet down, wrapped her thin bathrobe a bit tighter, and went to the door.

She opened it to find Wing Commander Vinyáya standing very close, as if her nose was formerly pressed against the wood. Her hands were held behind her back, putting her in the "at ease" posture, though she was undeniably prepared to attack. She got rid of her glare, as if it had been the presence of the door that offended her, and smiled radiantly. "Good to see you, Ms. Brenner. I hope I'm not interrupting anything."

Hibiscus did a small double-take, but managed to turn it into a roll of the eyes and transitioned to crossed arms. "Councilwoman. To what do I owe this pleasure?"

"I am here," the officer said, with all the calmness of a warrant officer trying to pass along the news that they were bringing in someone for a minor infraction, "for your son."

"Grubby isn't here," Hibiscus rejoindered, "last I check, he was living with some whore he picked up."

"Hmmm." Vinyáya closed her eyes and smiled, letting the comment melt off her like butter off a tilted, red-hot skillet. "I apologize. More accurately, I am here on behalf of Captain Kelp, recovering his stolen property."

Hibiscus felt an explosion in her chest. Captain! Her little boy had done it! He had clawed his way up two ranks in one go; a practically unheard-of achievement. Then she got to the part about "stolen property" and narrowed her lips to an invisible line. "I'm afraid you'll need to look somewhere else. Everything in this house is mine."

Vinyáya unclipped a mini-tablet from her belt, flipping her thumb across the surface to study a document. "I've got several statements from Commander Kelp that say otherwise, as well as access to the captain's purchasing records for the past few decades. They show what goods he obtained with his own earnings, nearly all of which are in this house." Her fingers itched, but she reigned herself in. "Now, we can do this the easy, diplomatic way and you let me inside to get his things...or...we do this my way."

"Your way," Hibiscus snapped back, hackles going down. Warrants. She would love to see the elder elf going before a judge for this.

Vinyáya shook her head, sighing, and took the other hand from behind her back. "Your son is going to be so mad at me if he finds out."

There was a mechanical hum and a rapid snapping from between them.

Hibiscus looked down to see a glowing buzz baton, electricity sparking off the forked end. She stared at it, then began to laugh shrilly. "Really, now, Wing Commander. You must be going mad with the hormones. Attacking a civilian." She did take a small step back, feeling the minute hairs on her stomach going on end, attracted to the current.

Vinyáya nodded, forlorn, and waved the tip of the baton back and forth between them. "Yes, I really must be...oh...what is the slang for losing your mind? Going...going..."

"Section 8," Hibiscus supplied.

Her heart stopped. It couldn't be...

Vinyáya nodded, tapping at her lips with the tablet. "Why, yes! I think you're right. I was always confused about that term, but you are completely right. I'm going Section 8." She smacked the buzz baton against the Brenner household's doorframe, leaving tow black divots in the ancient wood. "I'd like to come in and get the captain's things. Sound good?"

When Hibiscus didn't respond, Vinyáya reached out with the baton and zapped a loose strand of Hibiscus's hair, frying it instantly. It curled up close to the matron's scalp, giving off that particular nauseating smell that only comes from burnt hair.

Hibiscus trebled with rage. She could take the Wing Commander to court if she attacked, but that would not negate the pain of a few good whacks. That threat about the LEP special forces was not encouraging, either. However, Vinyáya seemed to be forgetting one very important fact about this situation, and that made Hibiscus smirk as she backed away from the door, waving the other woman in. "Very well, but I do wonder how you plan on getting all of my son's things alone."

Vinyáya nodded, chewing her lip, and shut the buzz baton off. She twirled it between her fingers like a baton before shoving it in her left hip holster. Arnica ran a hand through her long silver hair, blowing her cheeks out and seeming suddenly overwhelmed. Then, when her hand had buried itself at the back of her head, she winked. "You know...this was always my favorite command."

Vinyáya pointed her hand at the Brenner household, screaming two doubly-apt words: "MOVE OUT!"

Instantly, a dozen fairies in the beige overalls of the People's best moving service (well known for discretely relocating people when all the rest of Haven slept) sprang from the front of Hibiscus's house—where they had been hiding by leaning against the siding—and swarmed in through the door. They fanned out,pausing in front of every article of furniture, rifling through an extensive printout identical to the one on the commander's tablet, sometimes taking items and shoving them into a canvas sack over their shoulders. Like sadistic anti-elves of the anti-Santa. A full half-dozen of them went into one room at the end of a hall, coming out with full boxes. As they passed Vinyáya, each gave her a sharp nod in lieu of a salute (civilians they were, but everyone will respond to authority if it's well-exercised), then continued on down the street to an unmarked white van, which they filled in under two minutes. Then all piled inside and took off, wheels screeching.

Hibiscus hadn't moved during the entire operation. When all of the movers were gone, she looked to Vinyáya, not sure if she had just suddenly had a massive hallucination, or if a few dozen men had just ransacked her house.

Vinyáya gave a bright smile and waggled her fingers in farewell. "Tell Commander Kelp if we took anything of yours. I'd just hate to be accused of stealing." Then she spun on her heels and strode off to her magnabike, tips of her hair flicking like a cat's tail.

Vinyáya shrugged. "She took it rather well. Very pleasant."

Grub could tell something was wrong with this situation, but he really could not bring himself to care. All of the things he had spent the last several decades working for and collecting, first lost and now suddenly given back to him. He laughed. "Well, I'm glad I didn't sign the paperwork for that apartment, yet. I'll need more space for all of this."

Vinyáya studied the ground. Then she berated herself for the evasion and raised her head high. "It would be a terribly difficult move all of this, wouldn't it?"

Grub shrugged. "It might take me a few days. I'll pay another month's rent, if you want, so I can take a few boxes a day instead of exhausting myself in one big trip."

"I was...more thinking..." Vinyáya frowned, then just decided it was best to throw it out there. "You could stay. Just for a little longer. Until the entire 'baby' issue gets manageable."

The younger elf blinked. Then he tilted his head sideways, one lip lifting an increment at its edge, his ears twitching. "I...what?"

Vinyáya leaned against the guest room's door frame, really hoping that she looked cool and collected. "I've appreciated the extra money from your rent, and not having to clean has been nice...not to mention the food. You're...not a bad room mate." She watched his expression, which was slowly shifting from utter confusion to something she didn't recognize. "You would still be a boarder, not a permanent resident, but..." She let her hand rest palm-up in the air, as if the offer dangled at the tips of her fingers. "You can keep living here, if you want. Until taking care of the child gets easier...or until you really piss me off."

She had expected Grub to fall to his knees in thanks, but that wasn't what happened. He frowned, eyes flashing incongruously down the hall towards the wing commander's bedroom before returning to her. "I...I'll have to think about that. I'm really not sure...but I'll at least take the extra time to look for a better place."

Vinyáya opened her mouth, but shut it quickly, teeth clicking. "I...suppose, yes." Her carefully constructed offer thus left in limbo, she brought her hand back to her mug, clutching it with both hands. " unsatisfactory about the apartment you had chosen, if I might ask?" Inwardly, she frowned (outwardly, she drank the tea to keep her mouth in order) at the chit-chat. Despite living together for months, she hadn't made much time for commiseration with the other half of the parental equation.

"It was just a little one-bedroom," Grub answered, putting down his tanuki-starred DVD and rifling through the other imported (and thus quite expensive) movies. "I was going to stay in the living room, but with all this stuff, it would be way too crowded."

"In room?" Genuinely puzzled (and deciding puzzlement was an appropriate response), Vinyáya rested the tea on her stomach. Her toes curled as the warm mug heated her stretched skin in a delicious manner. "And the bedroom?"

"The nursery," Grub replied, letting out a small cry of triumph as he found all of his collection intact, including the few technically illegal copies (really, where were you going to find a legal copy of Mei and the Kitten Bus?) that he had briefly worried about being confiscated by their rescuer. He had half-thought the retrieval of his goods was merely to gather evidence against him, and the negation of this idea made him feel somewhat guilty. As a result, he left off on the search, giving his host his full attention. "I mean, the baby needs somewhere to sleep, right?"

Vinyáya's nails tapped against the mug. "Huh...yes, I suppose you're right. Thought I've heard of parents keeping the child in the bedroom with them."

Grub sighed. "I considered it, but it's a really small bedroom. I don't think it'd work. You might be able to pull it off here, if Lope is fine with it."

Vinyáya swiftly brought the cup up, drinking so deeply that a line of tea ran down her neck. She rubbed it away with her sleeve. "No, no, I highly doubt that."

"Ah...Lope's not too enthusiastic?" Grub was relieved. The notion of his child being in the same bedroom as the two council members as they...well, he didn't know when children began to understand such things, but he'd rather not pay that psychiatrists bill a few decades down the line.

"I...really don't know, but, again, I doubt it would suit him." She came to the end of her tea and felt a knot unwind in her stomach at the new escape possibility that a refill presented.

"Well...have you asked him?"

Vinyáya pursed her lips, eyes narrowing. "Aconite is currently on a diplomatic visit with the Atlantean ambassador. He's been very busy."

Grub was about to respond, but Vinyáya halted him by pushing away from the door frame, waving her cup. "I'm afraid I've work to do. Never a moment off, you know?"

"Yeah, sure." He looked about his crowded room, pondering. "I guess I'll have to do a little work in here, if I want to find the bed. Although..." He looked past Vinyáya, to the other guest room, which had remained closed for the entire time that he had been living just across from it. "I was wondering..."

Vinyáya followed his gaze and found herself completely not understanding what was interesting about the smaller guest room. Did he intend to take over the spot for storage? "What?"

"Well...I mean...I do have a lot of free time, now that I don't have to study, and the baby will need a place of its own here...unless you want me coming into your bedroom at all hours of the night when it cries." He manfully fought off a blush at that idea.

Vinyáya looked back at the room and tilted her head. "I'd rather you didn't..." Then she got what he was aiming at. "Cleaning, cooking, and now redecorating? Grub, are you sure you're not secretly gay?"

Grub tried to not be offended. He got that way too much from his brother when they were little (Trouble tended to shut up when Grub took the cookies out of the oven, but that did little to stop him the next time around). In answer, he pointed at Vinyáya's belly, which she had allowed to go unclenched in the privacy of her home, the bulge quite evident.

She poked it. "Yeah, yeah..."

Grub watched her prodding fingers, scowling. "Seriously, though. Where were you planning on keeping the baby?"

Vinyáya shrugged. "I dunno. I could just put the crib in the living room. No redecorating needed."

Grub snorted derisively. "That disaster zone?" Despite his best efforts, Vinyáya ruined his organization there every day she had off, and a good number times after she got off work.

Vinyáya scowled, suddenly rethinking her rooming decision. "I am a busy woman. I can't be expected to clean all the time."

"Fine, fine," Grub muttered. "But if I do stay, you can't expect to keep the baby in your bedroom, unless you plan on allowing me inside."

Vinyáya blinked at his choice of words, but the male wasn't looking at her, for which she was thankful. "I can see your point...but I don't have the time to get the extra bedroom ready."

"Of course not," Grub agreed. "I'll do all the remodeling, painting, baby-proofing, those sorts of things. Like I said, I have the time, now."

Vinyáya looked at him, trying to decide what was best to say under the circumstances. What came out was "A nursery..." The words were slow as she rolled them about in her mouth, tasting the softness. She grunted, not appreciating the verbal pallet. "Very well. Just nothing too...squishy." She shuddered.

"Squishy?" Grub replied, suddenly thinking of octopuses. Actually...octopuses would be a cute decoration...

"You know. Squishy. Girly. Regardless of gender, no squishy things." Vinyáya waved at the door, as if it would provide a few good examples of what she meant, instead of remaining a dark faux-wood portal. "Rabbits, ducks, puppies and kittens. Squishy."

"No squishies. Very well." Grub inwardly debated on octopuses, but didn't bring up the idea. Better to ask forgiveness than permission. "'ll let me?"

After a few more seconds to think it over, Vinyáya nodded. "I imagine it will keep you busy and out of my yes. Knock yourself out."

Grub clapped his hands together and rubbed them, looking remarkably like a mad scientist. "Excellent!" Then something seemed to hit him, twisting his face so much that one of his ears went briefly sideways, like a puzzled dog. "Oh...crud. Lili is going to be pissed."

Chapter Text

Week 20-Part 2

Artemis Fowl rarely got to speak with his family, given the Council's worries about exposing the fairy race (a rather apt concern, now that the twins were beginning to bring women back to the manor, expanding the possibilities of exposure dramatically), and Artemis was further irked by the fairy government's demand that he conduct all such interviews on a LEP-secured connection. So Artemis only got to speak with his family while at Police Plaza, and that meant he suffered through a barrage of interruptions during any given conversation.

This day, he was getting some rare extended time with Butler while the rest of the Fowls were out and about. He was enjoying catching his former bodyguard up on recent events—even if all Domovoi wanted to know about was how each detail impacted Artemis's physical safety—and was thus doubly irritated by the uproar that could be heard from the hallways. Especially when Butler began to look concerned.

"Artemis, is there some sort of goblin revolution taking place out there?" Butler's eyes darted to a space just beyond the right of his screen, where Artemis knew every gun but his guardian's trusty sig (which remained always in his shoulder or hip holster) waited in a locked case.

"No, no, old friend," Artemis said, holding up a staying hand. "Just gossip run rampant."

"Gossip?" Butler quirked an eyebrow. "Gossip in the LEP?"

Artemis laughed, the sound strained, going on for far too long. "Ah have no idea, Butler, really. Admittedly, it's rarely this bad. Extenuating circumstances, I suppose."

The idea that Artemis was actually up-to-date on whispers within the Plaza wasn't a foreign idea to the bodyguard. After all, this was the boy who had discovered another race based on a few bedtime stories. "What makes this especially loud?"

Artemis shook his head, lips twitching. "I believe you remember Wing Commander Vinyáya? She came to a few of the Koboi meetings. Head of Section 8 and a member of the Council."

Butler nodded in recognition. "Grey hair?"

"Yes, that's right. Well..." Artemis laughed again, more a quick exhalation than extended mirth. "She found herself with child a few months ago and has finally told the rest of the LEP."

Butler whistled. "We are talking about the same woman, right? About a hand taller than Holly, older woman, had a tendency to beat Commander Kelp senseless?"

"One and the same." Artemis smiled fondly as he remembered Trouble being abused for untrue comments about his impact on the Wing Commander's virtue. If he had only known the truth of what would happen between the woman and his little brother not too far from that future... "Everyone is mad to speak with the father, for details on the entire affair, but he is—wisely—hiding himself away somewhere today."

"Let me guess...Trouble actually did get to her?"

"Hah! Not in the least." Artemis paused, considering, and shook his head, disappointed to have to correct himself as he went on. "Or...not quite. The father is the Commander's younger brother. Grub Kelp."

Butler frowned, rubbing at the stubble on his chin. "Grub...Grub's ringing a bell, Artemis, but not very loudly. Help an old man out and remind me who he is."

Artemis winced at the reminder of his friend's advancing age. "I believe you encountered him during the siege. He was the last man standing of Retrieval One. Refused to give up his weapon."

Butler snapped his fingers, guffawing. "Yes! I remember, now! Well, good for him. Brave man. He deserves a good catch like that woman."

Artemis turned the corners of his lips up, but the angles were all wrong. "Yes...certainly. Brave... Heh... Ah! Speaking of brave men, Lucy sent me a message yesterday. Something about you meeting her newest other half? Some Arthur person?"

As planned, Butler growled in a possessive, fatherly manner, going off on an extended rant about the youngest Fowl's latest catch and his many faults. Artemis, busy with absorbing all of the details and determining if Butler was being unreasonable in his conclusions, was able to shove the image of the younger Kelp being a "brave man" into the back of his mind, where it belonged.

Grub sat at the cafeteria table, directly across from Lili, staring at his food. Hadn't he just been in this situation with her? Shortly before she left him in tears, soon following that with a rather painful slap? This did not bode well. He began to wring his hands, which he held between his knees. "Er...Lili?"

She had already finished her food and was idly flipping through some of the tabloids, looking for any articles on herself or the Grub/Vinyáya situation. From what little she had seen, the press was lauding his stepping up to fatherhood and attacking Vinyáya for getting pregnant to begin with, as if Grub hadn't been involved in the process. Typical, really, putting all the blame on the woman. Grub confessed that this was probably the work of his mother, who led the charge the very day that Vinyáya revealed her delicate state, having prepared her article months ago. Grub's attachment to Lili was only mentioned in a single line at the end of that column, proving the point that Ms. Brenner was ready and raring to go.


Finally distracted from her studies, the woman looked up. "Hmmm?"

"Er..." Grub sunk his head lower.

"...what did you do?" Lili monotoned, putting the tablet down and waiting.

"Er...I mean...I...Vinyáya is going to let me keep living with her." As his new girlfriend's look darkened, he jumped forward in his explanation. "Just for a little longer! At most until she can take care of the baby without my help."

That was about when the fight started.

Vinyáya called up a video feed on her computer, shoulders tense. It showed her secretary's office, with the gnome inside working intently on the initial scheduling and paperwork. He seemed to start at every little noise, darting his eyes to her door, waiting for his boss to make a break for it. His nerves had been frayed beyond repair long ago, and the knowledge that she carried a little elf was doing nothing to make him a reasonable person.

She rolled her eyes at his actions. Really, he did love the challenge of trying to keep her in check.

The Wing Commander slammed her fist down on the edge of her desk and a click came from the panel below (this part of the procedure always made her feel like she was back in high school, opening her locker). It opened to reveal a steel safe, which she unlocked with the gel-like palm scanner, revealing a matte black LEP jumpsuit, helmet, and fully-charged neutrino. Vinyáya was about to take off her shirt when her door was kicked open.

The attacker slammed her foot back down, fixing Vinyáya with the most deadly stare the commander had seen since Opal Koboi woke up in her cell after the capture in Italy. "YOU!"

Vinyáya blinked and stood back up. She was impressed, actually. She didn't think Lili had the strength to kick down a door. "Me."

Lili slammed the door behind her, leaving the off-kilter secretary to whimper and dart about, chewing his nails as he tried to decide if his boss needed help. She was the incredibly strong Wing Commander, but she was also pregnant and that was one angry Frond.

Vinyáya didn't have any similar nerves. She was Vinyáya. That was Lili. End of story. She sat on the corner of her desk, one leg crossed over the other. "I'm a bit busy, at the moment, Lieutenant Frond. Can you make your ranting quick?"

"YES." Lili snapped, crossing the room and slamming her fists on the desk. There was a series of cracks as every one of her knuckles popped in quick succession. "What the hell do you think you are doing to Grub?"

Vinyáya had expected this to be the subject, but she was still disappointed with the woman's single-minded focus on the male. "Nothing."

"Nothing." Lili leaned over the desk, getting so close to Vinyáya that the tips of their hair began to mingle. "Nothing? Then why are you trying to get him back in your...your...clutches?"

Vinyáya tilted her head, shoulders shaking, a tinge of laughter in her voice. "I really thought you were going to say 'in your bed.' That is what you meant, correct?"


Vinyáya held her hands out, palms facing Lili to lower her voice. "Temper, temper. I am not bringing Kelp back into my bed." At the glare, she went on in her councilwoman voice. "Or my desk or office chair or anything of the like. I simply offered my guest room for an extended period beyond our original agreement."

This was not the answer Lili wanted, though she wasn't exactly sure what answer she had wanted. Maybe a little cringing and backing down, a rescinding of the offer, but that was utterly unrealistic. So she continued seething, manicured nails clawing at the desk until one popped off, flipping across the room and skittering into a corner. "Why?"

Vinyáya groaned, rubbing the bridge of her nose. Really, she was on a schedule, here. She didn't want to pass on this assignment to Holly; she was already getting fewer missions as the Council and the other Commanders got nervous over her expanding stomach. A lack of missions tended to make her cranky. It boded ill for the rest of the pregnancy if she wasn't able to go out and shoot something. So, seeking to get Frond out of the office as soon as possible, Vinyáya deigned to explain. "He's useful."

"Useful? What use are you getting out of my boyfriend?"

Vinyáya clicked her nails on the desk, considering. "Cooking."

"...what?" Lili stopped leaning over the desk, instead rearing back to give herself a wider view of the Wing Commender and her preposterous statement.

"Cooking. Cleaning. Laundry. Grub gets a cheap place to live and the opportunity to be with his child regularly, and I get a clean house and much more free time." She shrugged, tapping her foot, her eyes darting to the clock on her computer screen. "He seems satisfied with the arrangement, I think."

She was, if slowly. " your personal maid?"

"Well, I haven't got him the frilly outfit yet..." At Lili's returning glare, Vinyáya shook her head, negating the statement, and also throwing off the verydisturbing image it created in her brain. "Joking, Frond. I have no interest in Kelp beyond keeping house and amiably raising the child."

Lili narrowed her eyes, lips parted a fraction, accepting but perplexed. "...why?"

Vinyáya laughed, hand flying to her mouth. "Gods, he's a total idiot. Why would I be interested in him?"

"I don't know," Lili responded blandly, raising her eyebrows, "what drew you to him enough to get knocked up?"

Vinyáya looked down at her desk, then back up at Lili, and smirked.

Lili blushed.

The Wing Commander went on. "As for why no more, well, you know...once bitten, twice shy."

Lili blushed further. Then she reached back into her ample supplies of indignation and reclaimed her glare. "So...nothing."

Vinyáya held up her hands in the traditional "zero" circle. "Zip," she said, with a popped "p" at the end.

For a long time, Lili seemed to be considering this. The concept of her new significant other still living with this woman was creating a sour ache in her stomach. She had already spent a good hour yelling at Grub, trying to get him to continue with his plans of moving out, but with no success. So Lili was forced to settle for facing off against Vinyáya, and that had turned out spectacularly.

"If I find out...anything has happened between you two..." Lili trailed off, hoping that Vinyáya would fill in a suitable punishment.

"You'll cry and scream at me until you realize I could snap your arm in three places before you could call for help?" Vinyáya supplied. She smiled brightly. These swinging hormones were actually quite nice. Now she had an excuse!

"Whatever," Lili muttered, standing back from the desk. "Just go off on your little secret Section 8 mission, then."

Vinyáya stared at her, now finally feeling some fear. "What?"

Lili rested a hand on her hip, rolling her eyes, and indeed all of her head and her shoulders. "Wing Commander. Really. I've been Holly's secretary for ten years. Don't you think I figured it out at some point?"

Vinyáya jerked her head at the door. "Cirrus hasn't."

Snorting, Lili said, "Cirrus is a masochist."

Vinyáya paused, mouth open as she let that sink in. "That...explains a lot."

"But doesn't it?" Lili smiled, then wiped that expression away, berating herself. Now was not the time to get all cheery with the woman. "So go on. I need to talk to Holly."

Vinyáya hesitated, analyzing tone. There was something not right here...but she soon let it fall away. Short would have nothing to do with the confrontation between Lili and herself, not wanting to slight either co-worker. Once Lili was out of the office, Vinyáya changed into her Section 8 suit, jumped onto her desk, and slid back a ceiling panel, pulling herself up and into the crawl-space with only a little difficulty posed by her expanding stomach. She didn't have much longer using this route...not good.

Grub had been conditioned to think that any instance of a woman coming into his office was going to result in much pleasure or much pain, so the arrival of Holly Short in his private room made him nearly wet himself.

"G-good evening, Major Short." He began shaking so badly that the items on his desk rattled and skittered across the surface. Holly scared the ever-loving shit out of him.

Holly pulled a chair out of the corner and set it in front of his desk, sitting down with her legs crossed, hands folded delicately on her lap. She had gained a few ladylike qualities in her last ten years with Artemis. Sadly, what most men tend to forget about ladies is that they are terrifying, vicious creatures when they want to be. "So. Lili tells me you're dating."

Oh gods. Ohgodsohgodsohgods. "Yes."

Holly nodded, rather impressed. No one expected Grub to have been knocking boots with Vinyáya, then directly moving onto Lili, both among the most desirable women in the LEP. It was sort of like the school mascot bagging the prom queen and cheerleading captain in the same school year. "Well. I want to tell you something."

Grub nodded. He was ready to agree with anything Holly said. Absolutely anything.

Holly ran a thumbnail under her other nails, cleaning them out. "Vinyáya may be the mother of your child, but you have agreed to engage in a relationship with Lili. If you go behind her back and pick up your sexual activities with the Wing Commander, I will rip off your ballsack, separate your testicles, ram one up your rectum, then the other down your throat, and push until they meet up in your stomach." She looked up, flicking a bit of dirt off her fingers. "Are we clear, Captain?"

Grub couldn't move for a long time. When he could, it was only a very small nod.

Holly clapped once. "Super!" She stood and walked out of the door without further comment.

Grub was glad he was still in his chair and not standing. It made fainting a lot less painful.

Chapter Text

Week 21

Final preparations for the promotion ceremonies took three weeks, despite the fact that the event had been scheduled for months. The new captains and majors needed their dress greens made or altered, and most were also demanding an engraved set of acorns, with little luck. Grub at least had both items already, having attended a few official functions with his older brother, along with his earlier tearful acceptance of his father's old acorns. Thus, he spent those three weeks doing his job and staying out of the way of the stressed-out higher-ups.

Lili, Assam, and Tuyet (Trouble's secretary) seemed to have the worst of it, careening about Haven to work out the final details; calling in to their charges to get final decisions and clarified instructions; and fretting about seating arrangements for the three hundred guests. Of course, the former two had extra problems due to the frequent disappearances of their bosses, leaving them utter messes by the end of every day. At least Lili had the benefit of knowing why Holly was often gone, but Assam could regularly be seen at the recycling lounges, dunking his head in a sink full of water. As they put in the final touches, handing over control to the event staff, Assam and Tuyet proclaimed that they were going to go to the first dive bar they could find and drink until they passed out. Lili looked at them longingly, her hair in disarray, and muttered that she had to attend the festivities. Her compatriots did not seem to envy her the participation.

At the Vinyáya household, there was an argument over use of the powder room, which Grub lost with impressive speed. Relegated to using a spare hand mirror, the new captain grumbled constantly, but not loud enough for his roomie to hear. She was already beginning to show signs of pregnancy temper (beyond her normal temper, of course), and he knew well enough to avoid angering any woman whom could beat him into submission.

Grub had just finished arranging his hair and brushing off his greens when the doorbell rang. Now confident in his position as actual resident, instead of tolerated and hidden squatter, he went to the door, opening it to find Lili. He remained standing in the doorway, his nails trying to dig into the knob. "H...hi."

Lili stood tall in a pair of clear shoes that brought her eyesight up to level with Grub's chin, instead of its normal position in the general area of his shoulder. Her dress was a shocking red, but rather tame compared to her normal style; it hugged most of her curves, but descending to her knees (instead of stopping somewhere just short of public indecency charges), with a slit on one side going up to mid-thigh. She took advantage of this slit, holding her leg out to the side, letting her silver handbag rest on the smooth mocha skin.

"Wow," Grub breathed, swallowing as he tried to keep his composure.

Lili blushed, touching her bun and dangling silver earrings. "Thanks." She lowered her lids demurely, glittering green eyeshadow highlighting the color in her eyes.

He took a jagged breath, reciting the Gnommish alphabet in his head to calm himself. She was far too good at knowing how to best present herself, and his relative inexperience with women was not making it easy for him to avoid looking like a babbling moron. Princess Frond was going to take a lot of getting used to. "Er...would you like to come inside?"

Her calculated movements faltered, eyes darting into the house, searching for its other resident. "Um...not really." She took a very small step back, trying to draw Grub with her. "Ready to go? We should try to get there before the crowd."

"Oh. Sure." Grub looked past his date to see that her car wasn't even parked properly, it's front angled several feet into the street in a premeditated effort to bypass any delaying protests he might make.

Grub paused in adjusting his jacket one last time, eyes sliding up the silver convertible and beyond. In front was a very familiar (and infuriating) blue car. "Huh...I guess Lope just got here, too." He finished buttoning the jacket, leaving the top clasp undone to allow his neck room to move.

Lili glanced over her shoulder at the car, shaking her head a fraction. "No. That was there when I got here, and I took a few minutes in the car." She blinked, squinting at the vehicle. "Is he still in there?"

Grub looked closer and saw the blurry form of a male elf in the driver's seat. "Yeah."

From behind him, Vinyáya popped her head out of the powder room, her hair—which was only halfway put up—swaying in a semi-tangled mess. "Lope? What's he doing here?"

"Councilman Lope is sitting in his car." Grub said, scowling at the stationary politician, who hadn't so much as looked at the house during the last minute of scrutiny. "Is he early?"

"Very," Vinyáya replied, struggling with her curled hair, managing to get the last bit up into the overflowing bun as she walked to the front door. "We don't need to be there for the ceremony prep, so I wasn't expecting him yet. Huh." She passed by Grub and Lili without further comment, approaching the car.

Lili followed Vinyáya's approach, her frown deepening. Suddenly, she turned to Grub and took his hand, tugging. "Let's get going! You can't be late for your own promotion!" Leaping off the steps, she landed expertly on her clear shoes, dragging her date along behind.

He followed obediently, glancing at the blue car right before he slid into his seat.

Lope was indeed staring ahead, and, though Grub could not see it, he was sure the Councilman wasn't blinking. When Vinyáya reached the car and tapped on the passenger side window, he took a long time turning his head to her. He must have unlocked the doors, as Vinyáya opened the passenger side and slid in, closing the door after her.

Grub wanted to keep watching, but Lili turned the wheel to it's limit so they swung about in a tight turn. She hit the accelerator and they were off, Grub whipping his head about to get one last look at the two council members before they were lost to sight.

"Aconite, you're early," Vinyáya reprimanded gently, flipping down the visor mirror and patting at her hair, popping her lips to inspect her hastily applied lipstick. "Do I have more time to get ready, or do we need to go now?"

Lope's hands squeezed the steering wheel, making a squeaking sound. "You're pregnant."

Vinyáya could feel her insides freeze. Lope had been on a diplomatic mission in Atlantis, as she had told Lili, and they had not talked since their last night together before his trip. The Council at large had been sent a few e-mails, but these were all business. This hadn't worried Vinyáya (or she hadn't let it worry her); they were both very busy people, and not every message could be a romantic ovation. "I...yes." She sat back, crossing her legs and resting her interlaced fingers on her lap. She resisted the urge to pull out the wrinkles in her tight blue dress. This outfit had been a mistake, it seemed, as it quite prominently displayed her rounding stomach. Apparently, the fetus had been obliging her by remaining mostly hidden during the first half of the pregnancy, but now it was surging out so fast she was already seeing a few of the dreaded "stretch marks." Luckily, she was able to get rid of those with a liberal application of magic.

Lope fell back in his seat at this admission, breathing out in a rush. "Five months, the media says."

She nodded, the loose strands of her hair whispering about her ears. "Yes. 21 weeks, actually."

"We've been seeing each other for...what...almost four months?"

Inside, she was tensing—except for her stomach, which was turning liquid, threatening to send a bitter stream of bile up her esophagus—but Vinyáya remained soft and serene in her attitude. She looked at her stomach, still somewhat perplexed by it's state, then back up to Lope's face, to make sure he didn't think she was glancing away in shame. "I found out a few weeks before accepting your offer."

Lope finally turned his head to look at her, and a less battle-hardened woman would have leaned away at least a fraction. There was a red rim about his eyes, along with a blue shadow under the lids. Every other time she had seen the man, he was almost a young adult in appearance, and at most middle-aged. Now he had lines in his face that she had never seen before, and Vinyáya was sure it was not a lack of makeup that did this to him. When he spoke, it sounded more sleepy than hurt or angry. "You live with the father?"

"Yes. Captain Kelp." The Wing Commander flitted her hand in the direction of the now-absent convertible. "He just left with his date, Lili Frond." She wanted to put extra stress on Grub's attachment to the royal, but kept her voice neutral. "We were never dating. Frond seems to be making a good impression on him, though."

Lope blinked once, eyes remaining half-closed as they rose again, and his mouth also only expanded to half-open as he spoke. "Get out."

Vinyáya felt her heart seize, her hands instinctively (and annoyingly, in her mind) rising to cover her vulnerable womb as she was hit by his sharp words. "Aconite, Kelp and I are not dating"

"Get. Out. Now."

Vinyáya did not move, except to clench her fists. "No! Why should I?"

"Because I told you to!" Even though the lock was already disengaged, Lope hit the button to unlock it again, making the mechanism click feebly.

Vinyáya sighed, slouching to make herself more firmly entrenched in the seat. She put a hand to the side of her head, letting her elbow rest in the curve between door and window, propping her up. "I admit, I should have told you earlier, but I wasn't telling anyone. It was an arrangement between myself and the Kelps, and I had to keep my word."

"Oh, yes, you always keep your word." Lope sneered. "In fact, I have to commend you. Every time the subject of abortion came up in legislation, you always said you could never do it yourself." He nodded to her, making it more of a seated bow. "You have some principles. Even if you don't have enough to keep yourself from getting into this mess."

"If I recall," Vinyáya hissed, hormonal rage rising, "you've also been involved in a similar process with me, of late." She could feel energy humming through her muscles, urging her to attack, but she kept her body still. Despite this restraint, she had lost her suppleness, going into a dangerous intensity.

Lope shuddered at the memory. "Indeed. A good thing that foolish young elf knocked you up first. I don't want to deal with some part-breed brat."

Lope's head snapped to the side in an instant as Vinyáya brought her hand about, striking his cheek with so much force that the sound of the slap filled the car for several seconds.

He took some time to remain off-kilter, a deep red mark rising on his cheek, blue sparks appearing at the edges and slowly making their way in. Then he began to turn back, forcing more magic through his system, it's glow highlighting his dark eyes. He lowered his brows, raising a hand to his cheek, which he rubbed experimentally. "I believe it would be best if you got out like I told you to."

"I was just leaving," Vinyáya muttered, turning in her seat. She had officially lost control, and yanked viciously on the door handle, smiling as she heard it crack. She kicked at the door, feeling a similar thrill at the groan of the overstretched gears, praying that something expensive and hard to reach was being torn asunder. "Have fun tonight, Councilman."

Lope chuckled, back to facing the street. "So diplomatic. Very well. I wish you a pleasant evening, Arnica."

Narrowing her eyes, the woman stepped out of the car. "It's 'Vinyáya.'" Using her stiletto-heeled shoe, the officer slamming the door behind her, thrilling as she felt the pop of the side panel going out of shape, though she was somewhat disappointed when the window didn't shatter under the assault. Ignoring Lope's barked protests about the damage, the wing commander walked back into her house, hips at full sway, and slammed that behind her, as well. At least she didn't have to worry about rushing her makeup. The issue of driving to the ceremony on her motorcycle while wearing a dress...that was a lot more troublesome.

For just this one night, new captains and majors were true celebrities in Haven. These fairies could now be given command of other officers, and the People were engrossed in watching them, wondering what sort of leaders were emerging this night. Only a dozen officers were up for promotion, which was about half of the normal output, so the media was in a frenzy to discover all they could about those that had made it. These fairies would be forgotten once the next society papers were out, but, for now, each one was under the closest scrutiny.

And none more so than Captain Grub Kelp, ex-lover to Councilwoman Vinyáya, now escorting Lili Frond, the closest thing the People had to a royal. The second her convertible pulled up to the valet line and the pair stepped out, the line of reporters surged towards them, mics outstretched. They pressed against the elves in an unseemly fashion, removing all notions of "personal space" in their panic to get that valuable candid picture or interview question. Grub looked dazed, but Lili just tucked her arm around his, pulling him close so she could whisper in his ear.

"Tell them you have no comments and you must get inside for the ceremonies. Look straight forward and a bit up. Never catch anyone's eyes, or they will latch onto you. Don't shove, but keep stepping forward. If you step on any toes, that's their fault."

Grub swallowed and gave a fraction of a nod, beginning the process of wading through the reporters. He found his height had some advantage, here, as it was impossible for anyone to meet his eyes unless he wished. He didn't have a particularly strong build, unlike his brother, but his chest was broad enough to clear a path for the woman who followed an inch or so behind.

"Kelp! Is it true that you are the father of Councilwoman Vinyáya's child?"

"Kelp! I've heard it's twins! Is that true?"

"Kelp! Rumors abound that this was a planned pregnancy by artificial insemination! Why would you leave the mother if this was true?"

Grub tensed at that last one, but Lili calmed him by stroking his hand, squeezing the fingers. "Wait until you read the conspiracy theories," she murmured, nuzzling into his shoulder.

"Frond! Why are you agreeing to date an expectant father?"

"Frond! Are you pregnant, as well?"

"Frond! Is Vinyáya acting as a surrogate for you and Kelp?"

Lili laughed at this, the sound like a crystal chandelier in a slight breeze. She waved at the last reporter, not giving him time, but showing her amusement at the absurd notion. "No comment."

"Frond!" Someone yelled, but it wasn't directed at the woman. It was an exclamation. "Is that Councilman Lope?"

Attention was divided in an instant, with the more politically-minded reporters dashing towards the car that had just pulled up.

Grub frowned, trying to keep his gaze focused forward. No succumbing to temptation. No allowing anyone to catch your attention. Be strong. Be strong.

"Councilman! Where is Wing Commander Vinyáya?"

"I'd imagine she is coming on her own," the politician responded evenly, more at ease with these insistent questions than either Frond or Kelp.

"Councilman! Why didn't you come together?"

He tilted his head to the side, pursing his lips as he handed his keys off to a valet. "Well...why would we?"

"All news sources indicate that you two are in a relationship, Councilman!"

"Well...then the news is a bit behind the times, eh? Go on, do your thing!" He flapped a hand at the reporters, weaving past the initial ball a he moved towards the entrance to the Haven convention center.

There were a few laughs at the urging, but the majority of the reporters were too busy trying to transmit the development to their editors.

Grub couldn't help it any longer. He whipped his head about to stare at Lope, finding him to be, indeed, quite alone.

The elder elf looked across at him and shrugged. "It appears the Councilwoman has decided to go it alone, as usual." He clapped Grub on the back in passing, not even bothering to wait for acknowledgement from event security.

"That bastard," Grub rumbled, barely loud enough for Lili to hear. He took a step towards the politician, fists clenched. "What the hell is he doing?"

Lili yanked on her dates arm, bringing him back around and grabbing on his chin to pull his face down to focus on her. "Calm down, Grub. You may have a paycheck that says 'Captain Kelp,' but you can be demoted damned easily if you attack someone with a dozen reporters ready to go wild over it!"

Grub narrowed his eyes at the blond, trying to jerk his head free from her grip. "You hear how fucking amused he is by this, Lili! What did he do to her?"

Lili was going to respond, but she never had the chance. At her shoulder stood a sprite with an oversizes microphone. Finding Grub looking in roughly her direction, she thrust the device over the elf's shoulder, screeching for a short interview. "Kelp! What do you think about this latest development between the Councilman and Vinyáya, the mother of your child!"

Grub seemed stuck, eyes wide at his mistake. Then he lowered his brows as he leaned towards the microphone. "I think Lope is going to regret this, and very soon." Then he was standing straight, tugging on Lili's arm to bring them inside the convention center.

Once free of the paparazzi and alone in the halls, Lili looked up at her date, horrified. "Did you just threaten Lope?"

"No," Grub objected, hand flying to his chest, as if he was shocked at the suggestion. "I mean, no one can prove I did, right?" He smirked.

Lili watched him closely for a long time, one corner of her lips raised, then shook her head. "You're an idiot, Grub."

He nodded somberly. "So I've been told."

When Vinyáya arrived, she did so in her normal fashion: weaving between cars on her magna-bike, charging to the front of the line, and stopping on a dime (if the People had dimes) before a stunned crowd. She took off her helmet carefully, patting at her hair to make sure it wasn't irreparably crushed, smiling when she found it perfect. Clipping the helmet onto one of the handles, from which she then removed a small handbag, Vinyáya surveyed the valets, all young fairies from LEPTraffic. "Well...any of you know how to ride one of these?" She patted the body of the bike affectionately, thrilling at its continued rumbles.

A green-haired pixie stepped forward, raising his hand. "I can, Wing Commander!" He looked both excited and terrified, eyes devouring the blue and silver frame. Taking control of that infamous would be like going out on a pony roundup and catching the phantom stallion.

"Don't scratch her, Sergeant." Vinyáya pulled one leg in close to her body, aided by a new slit she had made from the ankle-length bottom of the dress up to the joint between her hip and tight thigh, and dismounted. She barely managed to avoid giving the paparazzi a sensational photo, and smirked at the disappointed camera men. Tossing her keys to the trembling pixie, she strode towards the entrance. Her arrival had caught the media so off-guard that only one fairy managed to get a question out.

"Councilwoman! Why aren't you here with Councilman Lope?"

"Because he's an asshole!" she barked before her sense of diplomacy emerged, and then she was inside the building, berating herself. That would be all over the vids for weeks. She could see it now: "Pregnant Commander loses lover, loses another, and loses mind!"

She had taken her time getting to the convention center, with most of the guests already seated. As she walked towards the grand entryway to the ballroom, she caught sight of a small side corridor, where the ceremony stars were already lined up.

Grub was, of course, among their number, standing on his tip-toes, as if he actually needed to do that to be seen. Only one or two officers in line were taller than him, and one of those was a buck demon of nearly double the height of the pixie officers.

Finally locating his room mate, Grub made sure their eyes locked. He cocked his head to the side, brows lowered, asking a silent, concerned question

Vinyáya gave him a thumbs up and flash of blood-lusting teeth, waltzing past and into the banquet hall. She was ready for a pleasant night, recent dumping notwithstanding or even really mattering. A short ceremony followed by a sumptuous dinner and an evening filled with dancing. Vinyáya hummed to herself as she approached her table, eyes adjusting to the candlelight after the painful camera flashes.

Hand resting on the back of her chair, ready to pull it out, Vinyáya froze. It took some effort to get her mouth to work as she addressed the woman who was seated to her right, in the spot where Lope should have been located. Presumably, he had called ahead for an emergency seating rearrangement. Noting how the seats had been assigned, Vinyáya wondered if he had asked specifically for this new partner. "Ah...I did not expect to see you here."

Hibiscus Brenner looked up at her from the rim of her wine glass, which she had been fingering to make sing. "Why, Wing Commander! So good to see an acquaintance tonight."

Once again, Vinyáya was forced to recognize the annoying disparity in their ages. While she looked, at the very worst, like a human woman in her mid-thirties, Brenner was a perpetual twenty-six year old. Her hair blazed in the dim lighting, cascading down her bare shoulders, sneaking into the deep valley of her cleavage, which was precariously held in by the sweetheart neckline and string-thin straps of her black cocktail dress. Despite her own approaching maternity, Vinyáya held the firm belief that no mother should look so saucy.

The commander made a mental note to find out who had authorized the reordering of her table, followed by another note on blanking out the records on her neutrino when all was said and done. "Ms. Brenner. Shouldn't you be outside with the other reporters?"

"No, no," the svelte woman breezed, swirling her goblet, "I have some new blood out there. I'm here because my son is being promoted, you know. This seat...suddenly came up empty, and I just had to pounce on it." She took a sip of wine, studying the vintage with deep interest.

"Hmmm." Vinyáya pulled out her chair and took a seat, giving her store of manners a mental review before delicately placing her crossed palms on the table directly in front of her plate. One wrong use of the butter knife and Hibiscus would add "uncultured boar" to the list of insults in her next column. Still, she had spent years on the Council, attending high-class events. She could be completely elegant while still being a total bitch; it was one of her many talents, actually. "When was the last time you spoke with your son? A pleasant conversation, I hope?"

Hibiscus smiled back, mirroring Vinyáya's cultured mask of cheer. "Oh, we had our little disagreement, but that's behind us." The fact that it was only "behind" them because the issue had been solved by the Wing Commander invading her home, rather than a reconciliation, was not voiced, but the reporter did reach for her knife as she said the words, stabbing it into a piece of bread before filling the hole with butter. "And you, Wing Commander? How have things been between you and my son?"

Vinyáya was suddenly aware that everyone within a twenty foot radius was watching them, with varying degrees of circumspection. She took her glass, which had just been filled by a passing waiter, and played with the growing condensation at the waterline. "Ah...pleasant, I'd say. We just had another visit with the obstetrician. The baby is due in nineteen weeks."

There was a sudden flash in Hibiscus's eyes and she leaned over the table, completely forgetting her warm roll and almost knocking over her goblet. "Really? Boy or girl?"

Vinyáya was in the middle of a drink, but finished it quickly, patting at her lips with a napkin. "No idea. I declined to be told. Though I do believe Grub wanted to know. I'm just not sure I can trust him to keep a secret like that."

"I don't know," Hibiscus protested, eyebrows rising. "He seems to be fairly good about keeping secrets from people."

Vinyáya looked down at her plate, her lips beginning to twitch. "That he does."

Chapter Text

Week 21-Part 2

The promotion ceremony was short and well-organized; a true testament to the skills of Lili, Cirrus, and Tuyet. There was only one minor slip-up, if it could be called that: as Trouble Kelp put the Captain's acorns on his little brother's chest, he also reached up and ruffled the elf's hair, making him scowl at the ruined coiffure and glare at his brother indignantly. Then Grub was off to join the line of officers already served, patting his hair back into place, giving the Commander a few more dirty looks. Everyone laughed at this display, and Grub was soon becalmed, looking straight ahead, his chest puffed out like a strutting peacock.

He had noticed his mother and ex-lover seated at the same table during his entrance, but had only responded with a few rapid blinks, as if sure one of them were a mirage. Or a sign of the end of the world (a lot of those seemed to be popping up in his life, lately). Then he caught sight of Lili and was stuck on her for the few moments during the ceremony when he was not forced to look forward into a line of blinding lights that were augmented every few seconds by the camera flashes of the reporters.

Hibiscus and Vinyáya, for their part, did not disrupt the evening...much. Their dinner partners (Councilman Nicolai and his wife) kept giving each other pained smiles, scooting their chairs ever closer to each other (and, thus, further from the mothers), but there was no all-out brawl. When Vinyáya asked Hibiscus who had supplied her with that exquisitely bright shade of lipstick, Hibiscus bit her tongue and gave the name of the store, ignoring the unsaid adjectives in regards to the color. When a waiter accidentally inquired as to what vintage of wine Vinyáya would be drinking that evening, she protested that she was pregnant and couldn't possibly do something to hurt her child. What sort of mother would do something they knew would cause their offspring any sort of pain, by the gods?

Vinyáya was sure that there would be a very interesting society piece on her behavior in the next week's tabloids, but she really couldn't bring herself to care. Interestingly enough, some of the tabloids had begun to follow Hibiscus's treatment of the wing commander as a drama in and of itself. With any luck, that would encourage Brenner to be somewhat intelligent in her reporting. Of course, she was a Kelp, after all, even if formerly and just by marriage. She wasn't going to make any plans based on her hopes for the woman's circumspection.

When the meal following the ceremony was over, Vinyáya watched as the Nicolais left to take their places on the dance floor, deflating at the sight. She, like most elves, really did enjoy dancing, and losing a good partner like Lope was something to mourn, even if he was an emotional fuck-wit. She settled in for an evening of catty comments with Hibiscus, not altogether depressed over the coming battle.

Then came a deep, cheery voice that made everything seem brighter. "Ladies?" Trouble said, clearly asking many questions as he took one of the empty seats, spinning it around to sit backwards, arms folded lazily over the high back. "Enjoying your evening?"

Hibiscus chittered happily, laying a hand on her eldest son's upper arm. "Oh, Trouble, dear, it's been wonderful. Your brother was brilliant, and I've been having the most amusing conversation with the Wing Commander." She looked at Vinyáya, eyes narrowing a bare fraction, smile widening to an equal degree.

Trouble winced. "Great. Well. I'm afraid I have, once again, found myself dateless—"

Squeezing his arm, Hibiscus crooned. "Honey, it's okay. You really need to take some time off from dating, anyway."

Trouble frowned, thinking on this. "Perhaps you're right." He grabbed Councilman Nicolai's wineglass, downing the entire drink (only a large gulp, but one taken without any sign of strain from the alcohol) in an effort to wash the thought away. He tapped the glass back to the table and continued. "Be that as it may, I am not going to spend the evening sulking in my chair. So..." He smirked, extending his hand.

Hibiscus stood. "Oh, honey, I'd..." She stopped halfway up, the hand that rested on the table to steady her beginning to tremble.

Trouble was holding his hand out to Vinyáya, smiling roguishly. The Kelp grin, as it was famously known, and far more powerful from the originator of the move than from his little brother. "It wont be too weird to dance with the brother of your child's father?"

Vinyáya thrilled at the idea of pairing with one of the best dancers in all of the Lower Elements, ignoring the possible awkwardness of their filial relationship. She glanced at Hibiscus, ready to gloat, but found she couldn't smirk.

The woman was looking away from them, biting the corner of her lips. She sank slowly, trying to avoid notice from her presumptuous blunder, and took another draught of wine.

Vinyáya faltered, but only for a moment, and returned to Trouble's question. ", not at all." She placed her hand in Trouble's, rising in a long, elegant movement as she allowed herself to be led across the dance floor. Glancing back, she saw Hibiscus watching her eldest son walk away with the same woman that had taken away her youngest, twisting a napkin reflexively between her hands. For once, neither woman glared.

Every woman on the dance floor was glaring at Vinyáya. And, this time, it wasn't her fault! She was elated. Trouble had three well-earned aspects to his reputation: LEP playboy, hot-shot pilot, and best dancer the People had seen in centuries. Vinyáya was no klutz herself, and she was soon laughing in delight as she was swept across the dance floor, forced into a higher skill level by Trouble's powerful, inescapable lead.

"Thanks for not biting my mother's head off," Trouble whispered when he had pulled her back from a spin. "She's not the most pleasant woman to deal with, but she is my mother."

Vinyáya nodded, feet automatically moving in a complicated pattern, weaving along with Trouble's own nimble toes. "She is a challenge, I'll give her that. And she hasn't lightened up one bit since the dinner we all had."

"I don't know," Trouble hedged, lifting Vinyáya into the air, grunting as he realized he hadn't accommodated for her swelling stomach, resulting in a sloppy landing that thankfully did not lead to a spill. He hadn't dropped a partner in decades, and starting off with a pregnant woman wasn't an idea he relished. "She didn't say anything about...what she wanted, at first, did she?" He looked significantly at the other commander's stomach, shuddering at the idea.

"No..." Vinyáya paused as she was put into a long swing out, momentarily shocked at the violence of Trouble's tremor. Abortion wasn't the most tasteful idea to the People, but she hadn't anticipated him to be so shaky when mentioning it. "It's only," she started again, then waited while she was flipped to the opposite side in another sweep, "she still doesn't seem happy with how things are going. I sort of hoped she'd be over it, by now."

Trouble put both of his hands on Vinyáya's hips, pushing her in front of him as they took several steps across the floor. "Can't blame her. I think she thought Grub would be her live-in baby forever."

"Eek!" Vinyáya squealed as she was spun about and put in a quick dip, making sure to keep her knee bent so no one would get a thrill from a full split. When she was upright, she growled, warning Trouble not to try that again. She was unbalanced, of late, her center of gravity too off-kilter to do anything complicated, and Trouble acknowledged this with a nod. "Well, then she's kind of creepy."

Laughing, Trouble pulled Vinyáya into a slow side Charleston. "No. Just alone."

"Oh...but she has you to visit her, after all."

Trouble sighed, shaking his head and pushing on Vinyáya's back to make her step out for a half-measure, then pulling in again so she was back to the rhythmic moves. "No. I've refused to see her since the dinner, as well."

Vinyáya's gaze was drawn to Hibiscus, who was making herself busy pulling a piece of bread apart crumb by crumb, resolutely not looking at the dance floor, as if she found the wheat roll fascinating. "Why?"

"Solidarity." Trouble squeezed Vinyáya's hand, pulling her into a closed position as the song began to wind down. "Grub needs all the support he can get, and that means I can't give Mother the chance to rant. She needs to work this out on her own."

"But...then she hasn't seen either of you..."

Trouble was smiling down at the slightly smaller elf as they rocked back and forth for the final steps. "Keeping a parent from a child...I'm surprised you disapprove, Wing Commander."

The music was still in its last bars, but Vinyáya stopped their dance, looking away from her partner and instead towards the ground. "Low blow, Kelp." She pulled herself free of Trouble's hands, weaving her way through the dancers, leaving her partner on the floor.

Steeling herself for unpleasantness, she returned to the table and turned her chair so she could face Hibiscus, leaning with one shoulder against the side of the chair.

The society matron stopped focusing on her glass of wine, which she had been swirling for the past minute, and glared at the officer. "Seducing my eldest, now?"

"Oh, gods, no!" Vinyáya shuddered, fanning at her face, still blown from the dancing. "No offense, but he's not my type."

"What?" Hibiscus hissed, tossing back the last of the wine. "A grown man? Able to defend himself?"

"That is not a prerequisite of mine, no, and I believe that both of your sons have shown themselves up to the task of defending their own honor. They just don't want to." Finding her opponent less than amused, Vinyáya shifted to place an elbow on the table, leaning over so she could rest her head on her hand. Only five months into this pregnancy and she was already having issues staying still and comfortable. Not good. "Look, what is your problem with me?"

Hibiscus clutched at the neck of the wine glass, barely restraining herself enough to keep from destroying the crystal. "You seduced my son!"

"...besides that."

"Besides that? Besides that?" Hibiscus was working herself into a rather good rant, fueled by three months of seething, a life-time of snarky writing, and three cups of rather good wine. "You've ruined his life!"

Vinyáya, performing as she usually did when she was trying to remain as stubbornly casual as possible, began to play with the tips of her hair. "Really? How?"

"You're forcing him to take care of your brat!"

The pregnant woman actually winced at this repetition of Lope's words. Weren't grandmothers supposed to be doting wise-women who speculated on sex by asking about conception position and how the baby was being carried, all while making massive amounts of fetus-growing food? "First of all, I had planned on going this alone, but your youngest did insist on being involved, once he found out." She paused, suddenly realizing that Hibiscus might be able to solve the greatest mystery of the past few months. "Any idea why he'd do that? No offense, but your son isn't what I'd call a 'step-up' kind of guy, in general"

Hibiscus gave one of those polite society coughs that told you to drop the subject before you got bitch-slapped. "None. Whether he volunteered or not, you have still ruined his life."

Vinyáya began to laugh.

A passing waiter grew concerned for the fine glasswork Hibiscus held, stopping to ask if she would like more to drink. She seemed to note his concern, taking her hand away to twist her less-valuable napkin, only continuing the confrontation when her glass was full and the waiter had left. "What is so funny?"

"You." Vinyáya wiped at her eyes, taking away actual tears of mirth, rather than simply acting as if she was. That small cry was made infinitely easier by her only hours-passed breakup, but she was glad to find she hadn't descended into sobs once the dam was cracked (though certainly not broken). "Ruined his life... Ms. Brenner, do me a favor and look at your son."

With a confused scowl, the writer turned in her seat, scanning the dance floor. She soon found Grub near the edge.

He was standing up straight, except for his head, which was bent enough to rest his chin on the crown of Lili Frond. She was leaning against his chest, one hand playing with his new acorns, the other resting on his upper arm, which she also stroked, feeling the muscles that were just beginning to help truly fill out his form. He kept both of his arms about the blond's back, rubbing idly as they swayed. They did not look at each other, and this must have been out of self-preservation, as they were already displaying faces dyed a deep red from embarrassment, as the entire ballroom was glancing in their direction every few moments.

"Do you think," Vinyáya said, bringing her chair closer to Hibiscus so they sat nearly touching at their knees, allowing the commander to speak at a whisper, "that he would have gone for a promotion this side of the century if he didn't have a reason?"

"" Hibiscus picked up her newly filled glass of wine, but did not drink, instead looking into the dark liquid, searching for her reflection.

"Or that he would have succeeded for any other reason than a child if he did try for that promotion?"

The "no" was much quicker this time, and also quieter.

"Would he had decided it was time to move out?"

"Grub? No. He was always the one who loved being at home, taking care of things. A real relief to me, once his father passed and I had to go back to work. Trouble, now..." Hibiscus turned to Vinyáya, eyes shining as she anticipated talking about her boys. Then she seemed to remember whom she was talking to and turned back to the dancers. "Trouble always wanted to move out. He did it the second he got a big enough paycheck. Used to visit all the time, though..."

Vinyáya was prepared with one last question, and it felt the harshest in her mouth. "Do you think...if he hadn't been forced to grow up into...a good man...that he would have ever had a chance with a woman like Frond?"

Once again, Hibiscus was looking at Vinyáya, but now she was confused, not doting. "Aren't you jealous of her?"

Vinyáya jerked back, brows lowered. "Jealous? Why?"

"Well, you said it yourself: he's turned into a good man, and now she has him. Not you."

Despite herself, Vinyáya looked at the dance floor.

Lili lifted her head off Grub's shoulder, and they smiled at each other. Though she had to stand on the tips of her toes to do it, the woman reached up and kissed her date, turning it from a small brush to something much deeper as he tightened his hold around her waist, ignoring the press's rapidly flashing cameras and a few catcalls from a nearby table of other new captains who were a few cups too deep in their wine.

Vinyáya looked back to Hibiscus, shrugging. "No. Not really."

The experienced mother examined her opponent carefully, mentally tabulating everything she saw. She smirked. "You, Councilwoman, are not as good a liar as you think you are."

"And you, Ms. Brenner, are not as good a people-reader as you think you are. Now." Vinyáya stood, holding her palms out towards the other woman. "Stay there. I'll be right back." Then she was off with the speed typical of a skilled officer, leaving her dinner partner confused, but obediently still.

Hibiscus became even more confused, though her eyes flashed in delight, when Vinyáya returned one minute later. She brought with her Grub and Trouble Kelp, and "brought" was the correct term, as they were both wincing at the firm grip she had on their necks, their shoulders hunched to try and relieve some of the strain. Behind that trio was a scowling Lili Frond, who did not like the idea of her date being man-handled by such an inconvenient character.

Ignoring all protests, Vinyáya pushed Grub and Trouble into empty chairs next to their mother. "You three. Talk." Before anyone could defy her, the wing commander turned to Lili. "Lieutenant."

Lili opened her mouth, but was immediately steamrolled by Vinyáya proclaiming "Restroom! Girls...are supposed to go together, right?" She lowered her brows, genuinely unsure, having only recently been put into social situations with other high-ranking women, thanks to the recent rise of Short. Short, as it happens, was not a communal urination supporter, so Vinyáya only had a vague notion of the practice.

Lili blinked. Then she looked at the three related elves and got it. "Oh. Right. Restroom. Let's."

"Super!" Vinyáya hooked her arm around Lili's, dragging her away from the stunned family.

Despite the blond's willingness to leave the family alone, she was horrified to see that the bathroom actually was approaching. "What are you doing, Wing Commander?"

Vinyay grumbled, slamming the door open, startling a trio of women standing open-mouthed at the bathroom mirrors, trying to apply their mascara (Vinyáya had never understood that procedure, as the mouth was in no way connected to the eyes). "Little thing to look forward to when Kelp gets you in this situation: fetuses have a damned radar system installed so they can kick you right in the bladder." She let Lili go, prowling down the stalls.

Lili paled. "G-Grub and I aren't—" She was unable to continue as Vinyáya cried in triumph and shoved a door open and disappeared inside.

When Vinyáya exited again, she found Lili leaning against the long row of sinks, fist to her face and chewing on her thumbnail. The commander rolled her eyes and went to a sink two places over, to maintain her space, and began to wash her hands and splash water on the back of her neck, ignoring the detrimental effect it had on her appearance. It wasn't like she was going to pick up some hot elf for a one-night stand tonight. Unless they had some weird pregnancy fetish, and that just wasn't going to work for her.

After a few minutes of rest, with no calming on Lili's side, Vinyáya drummed her fingers on the black marble counter. "Frond, calm down. Kelp is not going to try to knock you up."

Lili stopped biting her nail, looking at Vinyáya. "Really? You're sure?" She looked at the ruined manicure, cursing. "D'arvit...I just had these done yesterday."

"I think one mood-swinging woman that's able to kick his ass is enough for him, at the moment." Vinyáya took a deep breath, then another and another. She moaned, putting a hand to her chest. "It's so hard to breath in there." At Lili's concerned look, she poked at her stomach. "Getting a bit crowded. Pushing on my lungs, the doctor says."

Lili stared at her, mouth slightly agape.

Realizing that she was actually—horror of horrors—discussing pregnancy symptoms, Vinyáya made a show of looking for a clean towel to dry off her neck.

Lili watched her for a little while, then she smiled. With a little careful maneuvering (necessary in her high heels), Lili vaulted onto the counter, groaning as her feet were given respite. She wriggled her toes, making sure to focus on the writhing digits as she spoke. "Councilman Lope..."

Vinyáya froze, then sighed, putting both hands on the countertop to steady herself. "Yes?"

Lili shrugged. "I never liked him, myself."

Vinyáya looked at her, brows raised in surprise. "Really. I thought everyone liked him. The voice of a moderate, sensible Haven."

Lili kicked her feet, rolling her eyes at the man's unofficial title. "Please. Sometimes 'moderate' is just another way to say 'spineless line-straddler.'"

"I..." Vinyáya tried to keep neutral, but soon she was chuckling and nodding. "Yes. I have to agree." Tentatively, she lay a hand on the woman's shoulder. "Thank you, Frond." She felt a current of electricity at the touch; a feeling she would have normally associated with sexual tension, but she was confident there was nothing of that variety drawing her to the Frond. Perhaps it was just the simple physical contact that she would have thought impossibly only a moment before.

Ever ready to return such favors, Lili reached up and covered that hand with her own, squeezing. "No problem. Just..." She scowled, eyes transitioning back to the fierceness she had displayed back in the Wing Commander's office. "Don't go around grabbing my boyfriend again. If you try to seduce Grub, I will kill you."

With a little jerk, which she stopped midair, transitioning to a smooth retreat, Vinyáya took her hand back, reaching up to pat her hair. "Fair enough, I suppose."

The female officers talked of nonsense things for the next half hour, each reveling in the opportunity to rest their already aching feet. When they left to find their companions again, they were shocked and dismayed to see Grub and Trouble standing alone.

Lili frowned. "Where's your mother? Weren't you talking things out?"

Trouble put a hand to his forehead, shaking it. "That...went about as well as you can imagine." At their puzzled look, Trouble jerked his head to the side.

Not ten meters away, Lope stood, surrounded by a few reporters and more than a few svelte ladies. His recent separation from the Wing Commander had done nothing to stymie his popularity, only making him available for pursuit. His gaze was roving about the potential conquests, giving them each a smile, but he focused the majority of his attention on one woman who was slightly older than the rest, but who also had the advantage of holding a microphone, backed by a camerawoman.

Hibiscus was tittering prettily as she asked Lope questions, laying her hand on her bosom and letting the fingers play there in a quite suggestive manner. This had the intended effect of drawing Lope's gaze down into the great chasm of her cleavage, at which point she would pat him on the shoulder with the microphone, pursing her lips in indignation at the lechery, but quickly transitioning to taking a sip from her flute of white wine before licking her lips and asking her next question. The odd rhythm of the interview was making Lope pause whenever he had to speak, but the sexual atmosphere was drawing him into Hibiscus, and they were a few breaths from being pressed together all along their flanks.

Lili scowled, clenching her fists and stomping a foot. "What? I thought she would have gotten over her issues! Ugh! I can't believe that stubborn—"

Grub held up a hand, signaling Lili to hold off, and then wrapped his arm about the woman's waist, pulling her close to help ease the potential sting of his wordless command. He was grinning like mad.

Hibiscus leaned into Lope, rising to her tip-toes to whisper something in his ear. Something that made his pupils dilate in an instant. As she pulled away, the reporter barely nipped the politician's ear (the sight caused both Kelp boys to gag, though they couldn't bring themselves to look away), but it had the intended effect. He leaned sideways, resting his arm around Hibiscus's shoulder and pulling her back to him. She laughed and accepted the clutch, gasping as he returned the favor of a risqué whisper and love bite. She seemed to turn gooey, all of her muscles relaxing.

Including the one that held her glass. For an instant, the wine rested at the precipice, its golden color catching and throwing the light like a yellow-tinted diamond. Then it was too late, and a thick stream fell from the glass, the entire contents emptying in a moment.

Directly onto the crotch of Councilman Lope.

He felt the cold of the chilled wine in an instant and sprang back, but it was far too late. His suit slacks had born the brunt of the assault, with a dark blotch and trailing line of wetness that looked—at best—a little embarrassing. Lope, now out of the direct circle of his admirers, looked down at his soiled outfit, making noises of choked outrage.

Hibiscus sprang back, screeching. "Councilman! I'm so sorry!" She turned to her camerawoman, mouthing something as she searched in the woman's camera bag, winking at the nervous-looking sprite while she took out a towel. Turning back to Lope, she continued her apologies. "I am so sorry. Let me get that for you, Councilman, I'm sure we can set this right in just a few minutes." She began to dab at Lope's groin, shaking.

Vinyáya had the distinct impression the convulsions were from withheld laughter. Instantly, Hibiscus earned a few dozen brownie points.

Lope pushed his helper back with more force than was really necessary. "I'm fine, madam."

"It was an accident!"

"I'm well aware of that," he growled in a not very convincing manner and stood, shaking his leg to get rid of some of the moisture, though it was obviously a lost cause. He looked at Hibiscus, eyes narrowed. After a long pause, he bowed at her, muttering wishes that she had a good evening, and took his leave, a few brave women trailing behind him for a few meters before giving up in a huff, turning to throw visual daggers at Ms. Brenner.

Hibiscus held out a hand after him, mouth open as if she wished to give some final apologies. When he did not stop, that hand fell to her side and she trudged off the floor.

Directly to the side of her sons.

Vinyáya was doing her best to withhold a smile. The paparazzi was everywhere, and the wrong expression would be the cause of much drama for weeks. "Lope doesn't look very happy."

"No," Ms. Brenner breezed, "I don't believe he does. A real pity." She paused, tapping her lips with one long, manicured finger. "If Chelsea managed to catch his expression, I believe I shall give her a bonus."

Vinyáya nodded curtly. "Oh, most definitely. A raise, even."

"Oh, quite!"

Lili rolled her eyes. "Aren't you two supposed to be the adults around here?"

"Miss Frond," Hibiscus rejoindered, fanning at her face, which was still flush with wine and a little action, "we're all adults here."

Vinyáya looked between the three family members, measuring their actions. She smiled in approval. "And...adults can work out their differences?"

Hibiscus let her hand fall to clasp with the other at her waist, wringing them together. "Yes...we came to an agreement, my sons and I. I will stop the exposés...unless you do something really news-worthy. Seriously, you can't expect me to pass up good drama, can you?"

"No. I guess I can't." Vinyáya shrugged, letting that small thing go. "And?"

"Well...the decision to go through with this...with the pregnancy, is your decision, and Grub does support you, so..." She nodded to herself, looking defeated, despite her calm words. "I suppose I'll support him supporting you."

Vinyáya held out a hand to shake. "That I can deal with."

Hibiscus looked at Vinyáya's hand for a while, as if not sure what to do during this little ritual. Then she looked at Vinyáya's stomach.

Vinyáya felt her infallible warning system kick in. No. This was not good. This was not good at all. She took a step back.

Hibiscus rushed past Vinyáya's proffered shake, placing her hands on the pregnant woman's belly. "And this means I'll get to see my grandchild!" She began to talk long streams of nonsense at the wing commander's torso, blowing raspberries at the swell.

Vinyáya looked down, eyes wide in panic. "Oh, no," she choked, feeling a sudden trickle of fear-sweat run down her back. "The belly-touching. It begins."

Chapter Text

Week 22

If not for the fact that fairies are nocturnal and such a phrase is rather nonsensical, it could have been said that they "danced until dawn." Even Vinyáya, lately so exhausted by gestation, was kept up late by Trouble Kelp, who had apparently decided to adopt her as his main partner for the evening, only relinquishing her briefly when the wing commander looked ready to faint, at which point he would be accosted by any number of other females in attendance (his mother and Lili included). Vinyáya didn't complain much, given what a catch her new partner was, but she was thankful when Trouble drove behind the bleary woman on her way home, and further blessed the gods when he merely gave her a wave and turned his car around once she reached the door, rather than making some sort of awkward advance. She'd been involved with one Kelp, and that was enough. A bunch of breeders, they were.

Vinyáya was awakened a few hours later by the sounds of Grub and Lili stumbling in, giggling madly and shushing each other, obviously quite drunk. To her great relief, Vinyáya was not treated to the sounds of the guest room's squeaky mattress, and Lili left a few minutes later, all in the house falling into deep slumber shortly thereafter.

The next day was Sunday, and one of the few weekend days that Vinyáya had not scheduled herself in for a half-shift at the Plaza. Actually...she had originally told Cirrus that she would be in to process some paperwork in peace, but he had glared, left the room, and come back ten minutes later with a note from Foaly, informing the workaholic that her access cards would be blocked until Monday morning, to make sure she didn't ruin herself with the ceremony combined with no day off that weekend. The note was doubly signed, with the second contributor being Doctor White, who told her, in no uncertain terms, that she would put in a recommendation to the Council to have the woman tied to her bed if she didn't rest properly. Vinyáya had tried to make a risqué joke out of that threat, but Cirrus was having none of it.

So Vinyáya did something she hadn't done in 100 years: she slept past midnight. When she awoke and realized this, she was particularly impressed, as her swelling belly made any sort of sleep quite uncomfortable. The only reasons for her awakening were her throbbing bladder and her stomach, which roared like a tyrannosaur. Despite this, she took another fifteen minutes to laze about, rolling side to side so the covers became tucked around her, turning the woman into a Wing Commander burrito. The warmth was working to pull her back into slumber, but something at the edge of her consciousness was whispering to her. No...not...whispering, precisely...singing.

Vinyáya's eyes remained slightly squinted as they opened, her ears twitching. No, that was not her conscious, or even her deep subconscious. She definitely heard singing, and nothing of any particular quality. There was also a lack of musical instruments to accompany the voice, and that could only mean one thing: it was not a recording. Someone was singing in her house. Given that her own lips were firmly closed, Vinyáya soon realized what this meant.

"Oh, I've gotta see this," she said, and slid out of bed. It was one of the cooler nights in Haven, given a recent lack of flare activity, so she took one of the dark blue blankets and wrapped it around her shoulders, taking a moment to purr in satisfaction as the warmth extended to her neck. Then, remembering her goal, Vinyáya picked up the bottom edge of the blanket in one hand to keep it from swishing against the wood flooring and alerting her quarry, and made her way into the hall.

Definitely singing, and not from the guest bedroom. From the secondary guest bedroom (having all of these rooms seemed like a good idea when Vinyáya had inherited the building from her parents, but she had run out of ideas for them quite quickly), where the door was cracked open. Her feet barely lifted the thickness of a piece of cardboard as the stealthy officer glided down the hall, making no sound as they fell, cat-like, back to the wood. She blessed her yearly maintenance on the house, which included a full oiling of the hinges. They were whisper-quiet as she put a hand to the door, pushing it open. Holding her breath, Vinyáya looked through.

Grub was dancing with a tape measure. Apparently, he hadn't had enough of swinging the night before, and was satisfying himself now. While he had undoubtedly been taking stock of the future nursery's dimensions (all of the furniture was now in the middle of the room, and there were a few pencil marks on the wall, the handwriting so minute that Vinyáya wasn't sure how anyone would find the notes useful), but had lost track of his project when he turned on his music. He had apparently splurged upon finding that he was no longer being forced to move and pay horrifically high rent, and was now sporting a rather massive set of over-the-ear headphones, his fairy player slotted into the side of a speaker. Vinyáya could dimly hear the music, now, and she had to admit that Grub couldn't carry this tune to save his life. The voice on the other end was far too smooth for his often-whiny, rarely deep tones, even if he was trying to deepen them as he sang, sounding like he was suffering from a speech impediment, rather than a recent surge of testosterone.

As she watched, Grub bounced along, at least keeping good track of the lyrics. He may have been a passable ballroom dancer, but Grub had obviously missed a lot of his brother's finesse, and dancing alone did not suit him. He was just a fraction more talented than the "funky chicken," but just a fraction.

It was unavoidable. Vinyáya giggled once. Her hand flew up to cover her mouth, irritated at the girlish noise.

Grub stopped dancing.

Whirling, Vinyáya disappeared back into the hall, flattening herself against the wall. Her heart hammered at the near-discovery. On her list of embarrassing things, being caught spying on Grub shot to the very top. Perhaps continued cohabitation with him was a bad idea...

Vinyáya waited for a full minute, giving her heart and lungs the time to slow. Then, taking a deep (but quiet) breath, she walked down the hall.

She got two steps before shrieking.

Grub leaned against the door frame, arms crossed, head tilted, and one of the biggest grins in existence splattered across his face. He didn't say a word, keeping his gaze locked on Vinyáya.

She also didn't say a word, feeling a thin layer of sweat spring to her palms. She was caught.

Grub raised his eyebrows at her lack of response. After a full minute of this showdown, he put his arm out to the side, grabbing the doorknob. Taking one step away from the frame, he shut the door, waving.

Vinyáya allowed herself to crimson after the door closed. Was a decrease in hearing a pregnancy symptom? After allowing herself suitable time to mentally abuse herself, Vinyáya moved on down the hallway and into the kitchen, rummaging through the kitchen cabinets for something easy.

A bowl of cereal (and a terrifying reminder that she had a baby that had lately begun to kick her in the bladder) later, Vinyáya was settling down for a day of relaxation. She'd decided to eschew the survival horror for once, instead occupying herself with one of the many books Fowl had recommended to her. Some sort of Mud Man historical romance, though one with a lot of fighting and political strategy. Still, Vinyáya wasn't sure how to feel about this "guys in skirts" thing, even if Fowl insisted it was some sort of special clothing called a "kilt" and entirely masculine. Vinyáya was a woman, and she knew a fashion-disaster skirt when she saw one.

Just as she had managed to enter the literary world, the gods of inconvenience decided to intervene. The doorbell rang.

Vinyáya waited for Grub to greet the visitor, feeling that she was far too firmly entrenched in the couch. At the second round of knocks, she realized that—while he could hear giggles from a few feet back—he probably couldn't hear knocking from a few dozen feet away. So, grumbling, Vinyáya rolled out of her hard-won comfy contortion and went to the door. She was ready for sharp words to whichever proselytizer or solicitor had decided to bother her on a Sunday, opening the door in a swift, almost violent manner.

"Good evening, dear," Hibiscus trilled, waving with her fingers.

Vinyáya stared at her.

Then she slammed the door.

A few seconds later, Grub popped his head out of the nursery, holding one headphone away from his ear. "Did my mother just get here?"

Vinyáya turned to look at him, blinking in a dazed fashion. "Why would she be?"

Grub walked up, taking the pencil out from behind his ears and shifting his headphones to rest about his neck. "She's got some old furniture from when Trouble and I were kids that might work for the nursery, and she's wants to help me find whatever else we'll need today."

"Why...would she do that?"

He laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. "She's pretty excited, remember? First grandchild and all. So, is she here?"

Vinyáya's eyes darted to the door and back. "Um..."

The knocking began again.

Grub raised his eyebrows at Vinyáya. When she did not react, he put out one hand, tapping it sideways in the air, urging her to move away from the door. When she complied, Grub reached to the handle, opening the door to admit Hibiscus. "Evening, Mom. You're here early."

"Oh, there was less for me to pack up than I thought," Hibiscus breezed, taking off her jacket as she stood in the entryway, hanging it in the closet. "Your father packed everything up quite well, but a few of those pieces just don't look stable anymore. I mean, they are over a century old. The crib is good, and I'm delighted to say your great-grandmother's ro—"

"Shhh shhh shhh!" Grub said, clearly alarmed, holding his hands down in an attempt to lower his mother's volume. He shot a look at Vinyáya, which Hibiscus followed.

"Oh, sorry, Grub. I forgot." She smiled at Vinyáya. "I'm afraid we're all quite forgetful today, aren't we."

Vinyáya opened her mouth for a suitable retort.

"Mother!" Grub growled lowly. He glared down at Hibiscus.

Her eyes went wide and supplicating, but to no effect. Reluctantly, she turned to Vinyáya, though her eyes would not rise to the woman's face. "I apologize. That was rude of me."

That was when things finally hit Vinyáya. The full events of the night before. Hibiscus was back in Grub's good graces, and that meant she and Grub were now back on speaking terms. Not "Mommy" and "Grubby" terms, but "Mom" and "Grub," (except when Hibiscus stepped out of line, and became a warning "Mother") and that meant...she could visit.

Internally, Vinyáya wailed. Outwardly, she waved a hand limply, dismissing the need to apologize.

"Now," Hibiscus said, focusing again on her son. "Show me this nursery. We've got a lot to pick up today, if you want it done quickly, and I need to get the lay of the land."

Grub—so often the authority on the coming child—bowed to his mother's experience in this matter, taking her down the hall to look at the quarters.

Vinyáya watched them go, shaking her head. least it wasn't Lili helping him out.

"You've got to be fucking kidding me," Vinyáya said a day later, looking into the second guest room.

Lili looked back at her, shrugging. "Roughly my thoughts, to be honest." She went back to scraping a wallpaper remover across the wall, gritting her teeth as she put her body weight behind the tool. "I thought we were going to the movies, but Grub said he needs to get this finished by Saturday, so here I am. The kid isn't due for, what, four months or something? Spaz." The last was directed at her latest conquest, who was sponging the walls to help the removal.

Grub kept his head low, looking uncommonly small. This illusion was partially due to his soaked state, which made his ratty t-shirt stick to his body, also turning his hair into something of a monstrosity. "You didn't have to, Lili. I didn't even ask you to."

"No," she agreed waving the flat tool in the air. "But I would only see you in the Plaza until this is done, and I'd rather not go that long, thank you." She dove at a particularly tough section of the wall, almost stabbing it.

Vinyáya looked between the two workers, trying to think of something to diffuse the awkwardness of this situation. She finally settled on this: "Okay, I'm getting out of here, now. Call me when things aren't bizarre."

Grub saluted her with his sponge, sending a torrent of water down the side of his face. "Will do."

As she went off to get her wallet and riding pleathers, Vinyáya could hear Lili giggling to Grub. "Hmmm...the house to ourselves. What do you wanna do?"

Grub sighed. "You're incorrigible."

"Of course I am. It's how I get what I want."

Vinyáya moved faster at those words, glad to vacate the house before Lili said anything that would stick in her head and ruin her for all time.

Two days later, the wallpaper was gone and the sanding was done (Vinyáya had again needed to retreat for this, discovering that the smell of ancient wallpaper glue was another of her nausea triggers). The room's old furniture was gone, and a mysterious pile of new furniture waited under a thick sheet, with post-its ordering "Vinyaya, do NOT look!" all over the covers. She complied, less out of curiosity, and more out of fear of Grub's whining wrath.

Vinyáya returned home after an extended shift (well...actually a normal shift paired with a short Section 8 mission) to find Grub in the room, as per usual. He was sitting on the floor, arms crossed while his eyes darted between two paint streaks on the wall: pink and blue. Grub chewed his lip until the occasional blue spark filled the air under his nose, all the while muttering.

Vinyáya leaned against the doorframe, watching his distress. When he didn't notice her for a full minute, she spoke up. "I never understood why nurseries should be so...bichromatic. Pink for girls, blue for boys."

"It's just how this is done, Vinyáya," Grub replied, not looking away from the swatches. He squinted each eye in turn, blocking one color at a time as he considered.

"Yellow is gender-neutral. Just do it in yellow."

"If you saw a grown man running about wearing bright yellow, what would you think?"

She considered this. "Good point. Just white, then."

"White is so boring." Grub crossed his arms petulantly. "Vinyáya...can't we..."

"Can it," she commanded, knowing full well what he was about to ask.

Grub drooped and he continued to glance between his samples. Vinyáya left him to it, locking herself in the office to complete her Section 8 report on a secure connection.

An hour and a few questions from Cahartez (the only council member who deigned to look at the report this late in the work day) later, she shut off the secure line. Already sick of the computer, she closed her laptop and left the room. Her stomach was—as always—rumbling, and she made her way down the hall again.

She was stopped in her tracks by a whimper from the nursery.

"Merciful Frond, save me," she whispered, but did make moves to save herself. Instead, Vinyáya went to the doorway, toeing it open to look in on her house mate.

Grub was now sitting with his knees tucked up to his chest, held in place by his arms wrapped about them. He had added another dozen alternating paint lines to the wall, and now he shot his eyes up and down the stripes. His pupils were dilated and he rocked back and forth.

Vinyáya tilted her head, inspecting the messy pink and blue lines. "Pink and blue? Are we having twins again?"

"No!" Grub cried, turning to her. A tear fell from each cheek, and his voice cracked as he dropped his bombshell. "Th-the baby is a hermaphrodite. But I'll still love it! Hir...Shi..." He tucked his head between his knees, moaning.

Vinyáya stared at him, mouth open. She licked her lips, trying to lubricate the path of her words, but there was no logical way to respond. A hermaphrodite? Grunting in disgust, she left her co-parent to his ramblings.

Grub continued to rock, containing most of his sobs. He could take this. Really. It happened all the time, right? No problem. Okay, so the birth announcements would look weird: "It's a BOTH!"

Vinyáya reappeared shortly, throwing something towards Grub. It landed on the floor, sliding the rest of the way to tap gently against his bare feet.

The captain stopped convulsing long enough to look at this unexpected object. Vinyáya's blue and silver military-strength cell phone. The screen glowed, showing a timer counting up, as well as a green phone off its hook.

"Doctor Ginko," she said to his unasked question. "You have my permission, but this room better be sealed tighter than the Depths, because I don't want to know, okay? Don't even mouth the gender around me. I can read lips."

Grub didn't respond to her. Instead, he picked up the phone with trembling fingers, fighting to keep it secure against his ear. "H-hello, Doctor."

Vinyáya shoved a finger in each ear.

She caught the word "hermaphrodite" on Grub's lips and rolled her eyes before closing them.

The laugh from Ginko's end was so loud she could hear it even through her blocking fingers, but his next words were sufficiently quiet. She imagined the conversation would be short, and waited for the phone to be handed back.

Thirty seconds later, Grub slammed into her, wrapping his arms around Vinyáya's torso. Her fingers were dislodged by his pounce and her instinctive reaction to defend herself. She managed to keep that in check, much to Grub's benefit. The wing commander looked down at her male companion.

He was still on his knees, making him quite a bit shorter than his former lover, and also somewhat hard to see beyond her rounding stomach. The captain kept his eyes closed, but his tears were soaking into Vinyáya's shirt, turning the pale blue to a deep navy. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you." He repeated this a few dozen times, hiccoughing through his crying.

Vinyáya looked up and down the hall, for the first time wishing that Hibiscus or Lili were in her inner sanctum. Even if it would mean facing them, it would also mean getting a little assistance. When she realized she would not be rescued, Vinyáya laid a gentle hand on Grub's head, patting him a few times. Wow. His hair is so soft...wait, has he been using my shampoo? "'re welcome. Mind not making me soggy?"

Nodding, Grub let go, sitting back to rest on his lower legs, wiping at his cheeks with the balls of his hands. He sniffled, but he was smiling, the force of his elation lighting up the entire house. "T-thank you. I...wanted to much."

"And I don't," Vinyáya reiterated pushing his shoulders until the father was back in the nursery. "Now, like I said, the Depths. Keep that door closed, and warn me if you're going to open it, so I can go hide." She paused, and smirked. "It might be a good idea to open a window as you paint. Though it would be funny as hell to see you high on paint fumes."

"Paint fumes just make me fall asleep," Grub laughed.

Vinyáya raised her eyebrows. "Do tell."

He smirked. "Not since my college days, and that," he shook his finger at Vinyáya, copying her stern look, making the woman return his laugh, "is my business. Now...if you don't mind..." He bowed his head at the wing commander, scooting back so he could close the door.

Still grinning, Vinyáya went back to her relaxing evening (including the second volume in her new favorite book series) as scheduled. "Utter spaz..."

Grub got a little mixed-up with paint fumes, but unintentionally, and he didn't pass out. He came out of the nursery far past his bedtime, wrapped in a spare towel to make sure Vinyáya did not catch any paint splotched on him before he showered off. He was also giggling a little, but that would soon dissipate, as he had the lovely experience of a paint fume hangover to face. His efforts to keep the nursery a secret were quite effective, and Vinyáya was actually impressed. She hadn't thought he was this good at self-control. She'd expected he would begin blabbing about "when she comes" or "what should we name him" the second he hung up the phone, but the child was firmly "it" and the nursery door was closed at all times.

Saturday evening, Grub staggered out of the former guest room, two bags of painter's tape and plastic covering for the floor in each hand (colors again hidden). He looked at Vinyáya and sighed, entire body heaving with the effort. "Done."

She looked up from her book and pursed her lips, nodding a few times. "One-week redecoration. Impressive."

"Unh..." was Grub's response, though he smiled as he staggered off to sort everything for recycling. He went straight from there to the outdoor shower, and then to bed, collapsing still-damp under the covers.

Vinyáya kept reading. Or she tried to. She was near the end of the book (though still at lest another half hour from finishing), taking in—with more than a little sorrow—the final moments between the protagonists. Their words of love, furtive hiding, and a final, frantic coupling before they were separated forever. Then these words from the soldier: "Name him Brian, after my father."

Vinyáya paused. Manfred...that is such a horrible name. If it's a boy—

She shook her head. If it was a boy. That Kelp had apparently managed to infect her with something other than pregnancy. She went back to reading, time in the novel flashing forward, and she (feeling quite stupid) made the necessary connection: She named the child "Brianna." Nice. Huh...I wonder how you'd turn "Manfred" into a girl's name.

Vinyáya slammed the book closed, then snarled as she realized she had just lost her place. For a moment, she considered finding the correct page and continuing, but suddenly felt like all of her strength was being drained away. Closing the book, she placed it on the floor, laying both hands on her stomach. She was tired, and the fetus appeared to be so, as well, going ahead of her into the land of slumber. The officer had little experience with children, and had been shocked to find that the baby slept, and even more so to notice that it didn't necessarily sleep along with her. So, when he was asleep at the same time as the wing commander, Vinyáya was thankful The little blighter could keep her up well into the night, if their schedules were off.

The little blighter...Mr. Little Blighter or Miss Little Blighter? Vinyáya scrunched up her nose, annoyed at her inability to keep her mind in check. It didn't matter. She didn't care. This was unplanned, and she didn't want to invest any more time and effort into this pregnancy than was strictly necessary. He would come when he would. Or she would come. Or...

"D'arvit," Vinyáya snapped, sitting up. This was ridiculous. It was going to come, no matter what. Did the gender even matter? No. It would be a baby, regardless of the arrangement of its lower regions. A baby she would rather not deal with. He was going to be enough trouble, as is. Or she...

"D'arvit!" she repeated, louder this time, and stood. She almost stormed across the house, then remembered Grub. He wasn't as high-strung in sleep as she, but a rampaging pregnant woman could wake the dead. Going back to her stealth walk—so often useful with Section 8 work, and now put to use in deceiving her house mate—she flitted to the hall, stopping in front of the nursery door. Her ears twitched as she listened for Grub's breathing, but it was low and even. He was not what you would call a "good actor," so Vinyáya was assured that this was true sleep. Closing her eyes, she reached towards the doorknob, easing the portal open. After slipping into the room, she placed her hand on the door to dampen the click of the lock as she shut the door behind her.

She stood in the darkness, eyes closed for several minutes, trying to talk herself out of this. It was...obsessive, really. Wanting to know what the gender was. Still, her hand reached out—almost of it's own accord—and flipped on the lightswitch, turning the back of her eyelids red. She waited again, wondering if Kelp had installed some sort of alarm on this room (she wouldn't put it past him), but he continued to breath regularly.

"It's just curiosity. No reason to not know, so long as you don't obsess. Open your eyes, look around for a bit, and go back to your book. Simple." She took a deep breath. ""

Vinyáya opened her eyes.

She fell back, thumping against the door, her hands flying to cover her mouth and hold in a cry of alarm.

Grub snorted in his sleep, muttered something about being free and not processing someone's paperwork any longer, then turned over and went back to dreams.

Before she realized what she was doing, wetness rolled between Vinyáya's index fingers and her cheeks, pooling in the crook of her thumb before falling to the floor. Blinking rapidly, she fought back further tears. She shook, breath ragged.

All the furniture was the same material, but that didn't surprise her. Of course Kelp would make it match, and the golden wood shone in the lights, suffusing the room in a soft glow. A crib—obviously old, and probably real wood instead of the fairy-made faux-wood that most of the rest of the furniture was made of—rested in the very center of the room, already made up in white sheets with—of all things—octopuses as decorations. The sheets really didn't match the mobile above the crib, which was done in silver stars and white LEP shuttles, many of which she had actually flown on surface missions (though some were quite outdated, and certainly beneath Section 8's notice). To the right of the crib was a changing station (definitely Vinyáya's least-favorite section of the room, though necessary), and to the left was a wide dresser, a trio of baby monitors (transmitter and two receivers) set on the top. Vinyáya was sure she would find it full of clothing if she opened a drawer, but that was too much for her. Too much energy. She felt weak. She needed to sit down.

And there was something for that. Head swimming, Vinyáya passed the crib to come to the window. Tentatively, she sat in the rocking chair, running one hand behind her along a quilt that had been folded over the back, melting into the soft blanket. It was a riot of colors, and Vinyáya suddenly wondered if this was new or a hand-me-down. She picked up a corner and brought it to her nose, breathing deeply. A moment later, she let it fall, turning crimson. The late Mr. Kelp must have vacuum-sealed it; one hundred years from its last use, but the scent lingered, and she recognized that scent, even if it had developed a musk and lost the baby softness. This had once belonged to Grub.

The weakness spreading to her entire body, Vinyáya let her hands fall to the arm rests, trailing her fingers on the sides, following the spiral path at the rounded end. She recalled Hibiscus's cut-off words. "Great-grandmother's..." rocking chair. Even in the cold of the Haven evening, this wood felt warm. As if it were still alive.

The room was sparse, at the moment. No pictures on the wall, and only the bare furniture she saw now. She knew more would be coming. Toys and a miniature washing machine for diapers and she didn't even know what else. Probably a baby defibrillator, Vinyáya thought, but the idea didn't seem funny to her, anymore. She felt a cold rush down her back, but pushed it away.

No pictures. No stuffed animals. No bottles or diapers or playpens. Just a crib, changing station, wardrobe, and a chair. And the walls.

Vinyáya looked around and lay a hand on her stomach, rolling her eyes when a kick greeted it. Great. It's up.

And then: He's up.

"Blue," she whispered, closing her eyes. Despite her best efforts, Vinyáya drifted off to sleep, nuzzling into the quilt. "Blue..."

Chapter Text

Special behind-the-scenes footage! (sorry, xybolic, not the one you think it is)

"Filming has been slow, lately," Trouble commented as he snatched a cookie from a precariously stacked plate on the dining room table of Ms. Heart's apartment. The domicile was suspiciously empty, but for the Commander, his little brother, and Fowl (who was steadfastly ignoring them as he stood by one of the counters, concentrating on preparing a sandwich without causing somehow setting off the testy fire alarm). "She ever going to get back to work?"

"Yeah, she told me she'd be on it soon" Grub said, flipping through a document on his data tablet. "She needs my story done by July 20."

Trouble paused his chewing. "You mean The Atlantis Complex release date? She already knew her stories would never fit into canon."

"Eh...more that she needs to finish it before the new book destroys her, emotionally."

"Emotionally?" Trouble blinked. "Why?"
"Haven't you read the first chapter?" At Trouble's shake of the head, Grub sighed, exasperated. "It looks like Colfer killed off Vinyáya."

Trouble's jaw dropped, cookie crumbs tumbling out and onto Kit's less-than-clean floor. "You're shitting me!"

"I shit not," Grub replied solemnly. "Read it, you'll see. Oh, and her name? Raine. Raine!"

"Yeah?" Trouble tapped a finger on the top of Grub's tablet, angling it down to read a bit himself. "Anything else of interest? rushing in, saving the day, getting the girl, as I should?"

"Er...not precisely. Kit thinks you're dating Holly." Grub pointed out an odd line, which Trouble studied closely.

Artemis looked up at the claim, scowling, and took a large knife from its wooden holder, slicing into a block of cheese as if it had personally offended him. Given that it was bulk cheddar, it probably had.

"Ms. Heart is so confident, she promised a 25,000 word Artemis/Holly smutfic by the end of September if she's wrong. You're either dating, on your way to dating, or Holly has a crush on you."

Very slowly, Trouble developed a smirk. "Does that mean she'll make a 25,000 word Trouble/Holly smutfic if she's right?"


Trouble and Grub turned their heads to look at the large knife embedded in the wall behind them, which still buzzed from impact. Then, slowly, they turned the other way, blinking as they took in Artemis staring them down, fists clenched at his side.

Trouble swallowed, grinning in what he hoped was a charming and disarming (literally) way. "Um...impressive, Fowl. Butler taught you to throw knives?"

"No. I missed."

Backing away, eyes never leaving Artemis, Trouble did his best to seem dignified. "I think I should go comfort Kit. She'll...need a strong man to help her through the loss of Vinyáya. Yeah."

"She already has a fiancé, Trouble." Grub reached up and yanked the knife from the wall, inspecting it with a dour expression. "And tell her to add a chef's knife to the registry. This set she has is deplorable."

"I'll...get right on that...Kit!" Trouble took the risk of spinning towards the door to the office, trusting that speed would help him escape a knife to the back.

Chapter 29: A Time I Would Give Myself Away

Week 23

Ah, pregnancy. A many-splendored, utterly confusing thing. Everyone is aware of the more common pregnancy symptoms: morning sickness, food cravings, mood swings, and the eventual emergence of a baby from a woman's nethers. Some more-knowledgeable people may also know of the less common, but still annoying symptoms: excessive salivation, flatulence, sped-up hair growth, forgetfulness, and a loss of physical coordination. However, there are some symptoms that even the most learned people do not expect to experience when undergoing gestation.

Vinyáya was not the most learned person, especially in regards to things fetus-related. Despite this, as she sat in her office, she was pretty sure what she was feeling was cause for alarm.

Unlike Short, who had taken great pains to keep her office as spartan as possible to avoid being shoved inside for more than her 50-50 schedule of office and fieldwork, Vinyáya wasn't an adrenalin junkie, merely an enthusiast, and she had set up her own quarters at the LEP to be as comfortable as possible. The entrance was off-center on the south wall, and she had placed a pair of cushy blue-velvet chairs on the other side of the door, with a small coffee table between them for her more casual visits. Both of the adjoining walls were covered in something of a checkerboard pattern, with alternating squares of books on shelves and hanging framed photographs (mostly of her favored officers, though there were the occasional pictures of herself with dignitaries). The back wall was entirely taken up by a single-pane window, overlooking downtown Haven, and giving her enough outside light from the city skylights to work by during the day and nourish her ficus, which was placed to one side of the window, growing vigorously.

It was the ficus that was causing Vinyáya concern. More accurately, it was how Vinyáya felt about the ficus. Even more accurately, it was how Vinyáya felt about the ficus's potting soil. This had never happened to her before, and she recognized that something hormonal must be the source. Still, she couldn't take her eyes away, and, fight though she might, the preposterous idea kept coming back to her. Again and again, becoming less absurd with each repetition. wouldn't be so bad if I just...a little...

Vinyáya licked her lips.

"I've gotta get out of here," she said to no one in particular (except perhaps herself, to make sure the point got across). Standing so abruptly that her office chair spun out across the room, hitting the wall with a thump and shifting of pictures (including one of a red-haired female elf standing with an insane grin before a crashed shuttle), Vinyáya stormed from her office.

Her secretary, Cirrus, looked alarmed as his charge made her way across his sub-office. "Wing Commander? Is there anything the matter?" He stood, body tense, as if ready to forcibly keep her in the office.

She waved him off. "Just a bit hungry, Cirrus. I'll be back in about fifteen."

The idea that a pregnant woman may leave her office to obtain food was entirely plausible to Cirrus, and he subsided, though his eyes flashed to the clock to make sure he knew exactly when "fifteen" ended and the fretting could begin.

Soon, Vinyáya walked down the halls in triumph, a bag of snap peas the source of her glee. A rotation of the sweetish vegetables had just gone into season in Haven, and this treat had driven all thoughts of dirt from her hungry mind. Now all Vinyáya wanted was to be safely back in her office, able to go through her duties and munch without interruption.

Of course, this wouldn't be much of a novel if things always went Vinyáya's way. So, instead, she came across the exact last person that she should have met if she wanted to get back without an incident. No, not Grub Kelp. Not Lili Frond. Not even Holly Short with two neutrinos and breathless words about a demon uprising they needed to quell before word got out to Haven's citizens.

Even. Worse.

Caballine squealed with joy. "Wing Commander!" She hopped, bucking her back hooves, and trotted up the hall, her husband following at a discrete distance. "Foaly told me the good news, and I was just desperate to see you! Oh, it's wonderful!" She tossed her chestnut-brown mane and tail, dancing so rapidly that only two of her hooves ever touched the ground at the same time, which sent her entire front bouncing in a rapid tempo that had already hypnotized Foaly.

Caballine was not daft. She had a thriving career in sculpture and still took on the occasional special report, when something caught her interest. She could only do these things if she had all her mental ducks in a row, and they were quacking along quite well. She was, however, the last sort of woman that Vinyáya should have been faced with: a future soccer mom.

As could be expected, Vinyáya did not say much of anything beyond "Good evening, Mrs. Foaly." Then Caballine was (as the humans say) off to the races.

"What are you, now 19, 20 weeks along? Longer? Twenty-three! Impossible! You're barely showing, and you're so thin to begin with! You should be popped out to here by now. When is the due date? Oh, not that is matters. Babies just never come on the day you expect them. They're always early or late. Flash was two weeks premature, but you wouldn't guess it by his pictures! Do you know the gender? I just had to know with Flash, I was so worried about getting all pink clothes—I was hoping for a girl—and then having to parade a boy about like a little cross-dresser! A good thing I checked, right? I wouldn't do it a second time, though. I want to be surprised. Do you plan on having any more? Oh, don't look like that! The first one always makes you think about the second! What about symptoms? Over the morning sickness? How about frequent urination? Food cravings?"

"Um..." Vinyáya, deciding that she would rather not discuss her bladder, went for the safer of two stomach-related questions, holding out the peas.

"Oh! I just knew it. A good thing yours are so normal! Let me tell you, I threw a shoe mid-way through my pregnancy, and Foaly had to hide it from me until I could get re-shod, I wanted to just bite down on it hard! I don't know what came over me, but I was obsessed. OH! But your belly is so cute like that! Let me!" Caballine tossed her mane back and danced forward, laying her hands on Vinyáya's stomach. Leaning over, she cooed at the fetus through the various skin and muscles between them. "Who is a cutie? You are! You are!"

Foaly caught Vinyáya's eyes and paled. He placed a hand on his wife's shoulder, trying to pull her away. "Caballine, dearest, I believe the Wing Commander has matters to attend to. We should—"

"Oh, nonsense!" Caballine straightened, crossing her arms as she glared at her husband. Interrupting a gushing mother is not the brightest idea. "She needs someone to talk to about this, and I don't see the rest of the LEP women showing any motherly intentions!"

"No, you're right," Vinyáya soothed, and Foaly was reasonably scared shitless (figuratively, thank the gods). She stepped towards Caballine, eyes going soft. "I mean, I'm just so curious! Tell me, Mrs. Foaly," she put her hands on the centaur's stomach. "How far along are you? Thirty-five weeks? Thirty-seven? Gods, you look ready to explode!"

With a shrill whinny, Caballine reared back, pacing away from Vinyáya's touch. "I'm not pregnant! I had Flash thirteen years ago!"

Vinyáya's eyes went wide and she put her hand over her mouth, speaking around the thin fingers. "Oh, dear. Does the baby fat really hold on for that long?"

Caballine goggled, choking out responses that were nonsensical even in her head. Her stomach had a small ball, it was true, but nowhere near that far into pregnancy, even by the somewhat longer centaur timeline. Finally, she managed "well, I never!" and spun on her hooves with all of the agility of a Lipazanner, tail flipping up to strike Vinyáya across the face as she trotted away.

Foaly groaned. "Caballine, wait!" He snorted at Vinyáya, who did not respond, and wheeled about, galloping to reach his wife's side. "Baby, love, my little pony..." He crooned all the way down the hall, to little visible effect.

Vinyáya threw her head high, shoulders going back. "Diplomacy" didn't necessarily mean "being nice," just getting people to do what you wanted. With a mighty crackle, she opened her bag of peas and popped a few into her mouth, chewing merrily as she returned to her office, only allowing Cirrus two minutes of intense fretting.

Week 24

Of course, just as you can not fool all of the people all of the time, you can not diplomatically tell everyone to stay the hell away from you every minute of the day. Eventually, it becomes necessary to speak with someone in close quarters.

Vinyáya preferred to keep such meetings as mobile as possible. Thus, many days after the fiasco with Caballine (which, Foaly informed the Wing Commander, earned him three nights on the couch and as many more without tender lovin', all of which he held her directly responsible for), Vinyáya paced along the halls of Police Plaza with Holly Short and their attendant secretaries, popping in on other subordinates as they discussed business.

"Koboi is making appeals again," Lili groused, and only partially because this was Opal's tenth appeal this year. She kept shooting jealous looks at Vinyáya's stomach. Despite the fact that she didn't want to be pregnant just yet, she firmly believed that the presence of that child in the Wing Commander's womb, instead of her own, was a travesty.

"Give her some more cardboard," Vinyáya suggested, not bothering to knock as she opened one door. "Tell her to make a pegasus, this time."

The pair of officers inside both looked up at the intrusion and odd orders, not the least bit shocked by their supervisor's sudden appearance, and neither showed any signs of guilt.

"Are the damage assessments from the Firebird back, yet?" Vinyáya asked smoothly, as if this was her true purpose for popping in.

"Not yet, Wing Commander," the pixie of the pair responded, "but the mechanics told me they should be done by the end of the shift."

"Excellent. Carry on." Shutting the door, the quartet set off again.

Now it was Cirrus's turn. "Lope has been seen with most of the conservative members of the Council. Whatever he's discussing, it's big."

Holly frowned. "Lope is swaying to conservative? Isn't he moderate?"

"No," Lili broke in, patting the clueless sub-major's back in an affectionate manner, "he's an ass. There is a difference, though Councilman Yenma might lead you to believe otherwise."

Looking between Lili and Vinyáya, brows furrowed, Holly tried to think clearly. She'd expected this meeting to be pure torment, given the two women's relationship, but they seemed...tolerable. Not friendly, precisely, but at least allied on most things. "What's the latest development with Turnball's—Vinyaya?"

Vinyáya had stopped in the middle of the hall, hand flying to her stomach. Staggering to the side of the corridor, she slammed her fist into the wall, cracking all of her knuckles, plus her wrist. She gritted her teeth, and her eyes seemed to fade in and out for several seconds. Then she shook her head, taking a deep breath, and was back in control. "Calm down, Cirrus," she said to her secretary, who was mid-way to calling 909. "The little sadist just kicked me in the kidney."

Holly watched Vinyáya, blinking slowly. "It's...kicking? You didn't mention that it was kicking already."

"Yeah, it is," the silver-haired woman responded, rubbing the tips of her fingers over another internal roundhouse. "For a few weeks. Gods, it's got some aim. That one got my liver, I'm sure of it."

A sharp keen filled the hall.

Lili looked sidelong at Holly. Then she sighed, raising her eyes to the tops of Haven. "I don't care that I just had lunch with Athena; there are no gods."

Holly held her balled fists before her face, trying to contain herself as best she could, and not succeeding very well. She bit her lips, eyes never leaving Vinyáya's stomach. Her eyes had to jolt around a fraction, as Holly was now engaged in a rapid bouncing, unable to contain herself when so suddenly reminded of Vinyáya's fertilized state.

She did not seem to be the only one. All around the quartet (quintet, if you count the fetus), fairies were stopping, watching the Wing Commander. Those that had been passing by when she announced her unborn child's status as a kung-fu master were telling new arrivals about the news, and it was like there was some sort of polarization between Vinyáya's womb and their collective gaze.

Vinyáya felt her heart flip over several times, more unease in her at this moment than she had felt in the last hundred missions she had undertaken.

Holly took a small step forward, then stopped, self-preservation instincts fighting with her desires. "I...Vinyaya...could I please...can I...touch your stomach?"

Vinyáya glared at Holly, rising from the wall, mouth open for a full-force scream.

With shining eyes, the short sub-commander looked up at Vinyáya, hands still clasped together, as if in prayer.

Vinyáya faltered. "'s just..." Suddenly, she screamed in frustration, fists crashing to her sides, causing everyone in the hall to step back a few paces. "Fine! Do what you must!" Before Holly shot forward, she held up her hand. "But only for three minutes! We have work to do."

"EEEK!" Holly pounced. As did the rest of the hall. Crossing her arms petulantly, Vinyáya fell back against the wall, allowing her stomach to be groped by fairies she barely knew.

"The indignity..."

Lili Frond was the only officer who held back, and she joined in mutinous grumbling, shooting glances as the veritable orgy of touching.

Vinyáya looked at her moonometer, urging it to go faster. The mechanical monster seemed to go at half speed, and she swore she saw the second hand go back once. Just as she was counting down the last ten seconds, Vinyáya heard the one voice she heard more often than any other, of late, and the one she least wanted to hear at that moment.

"What the hell?" Grub barked, looking down from a crossroads in the corridors to see his house mate being assaulted by a good two dozen officers.

Vinyáya opened her mouth to protest and give a quick explanation. Before she could do so, Grub shook his head, looking dazed, and mouthed something about tainted pastries as he continued down his hall.

Vinyáya squeaked in protest. "Wait, it's not...let me...oh, d'arvit, shove off!" She pushed away from the wall, elbowing aside the overly friendly fairies, forced to smack Holly in the forehead with her palm to get the major to collect herself and back off. "Dammit, I have work to do! Short!"

Despite their relatively equal positions, Holly sprang to attention, her old subordinate training kicking into gear at the authoritative bark. "Yes, sir?"

"Next week, we will go to Atlantis and deal with Koboi and Root, and they can choke on it if they don't like what we have to say. Got it?"

"Yes, sir!" Holly responded, not entirely sure what the convicts were supposed to choke on.

"And the rest of you! Get back to work, or I will suggest to the Council that the LEP has plenty of time to grope poor, defenseless pregnant women, and maybe a staffing cut would help lessen the extra hours. Am I clear?"

She was clear enough, all of the officers shooting off to their proper duties.

"Excellent." Vinyáya tugged at her work jacket, doing up an extra button to help hide her shape, even though it strained the fabric about her middle. Throwing her head back so metallic hair cascaded over her shoulders, Vinyáya took a cleansing breath. "Well. That wasn't so bad."

"Oh, not at all," Lili trilled, going to Holly's side, making sure the major was between herself and the Wing Commander. "I quite enjoyed it."

"Frond," Vinyáya hissed, making sure only their quartet could hear, "I will make sure your life is a living hell when you get knocked up, I swear I will."

Lili smiled, scrunching up her nose cutely. "Wing Commander, I look forward to it."

Naps, Grub decided, were the best thing ever.

He'd had naps before. He was quite a purveyor of them, actually, and frequently used his lunch break to snooze somewhere in the Plaza or the surrounding gardens of downtown Haven.

He had, however, never taken a nap with a woman before. That was pretty awesome.

It was the weekend. He and Lili had started out by enjoying the Frond mansion gardens, listening to the buzz of insects and twittering of birds (some of the few wild animals in Haven, allowed to roam free, to help with pollination and pest control) while Lili attended to some of the plants and fish in the reflection pool. Lili preferred to take on these tasks, though the People had long ago passed budget measures that would allow the Frond family grounds adequate care on the government's gram. It was about all she was confident doing, as far as home care went, and Grub suspected there was also something in the activity that gave her an industrious outlet without quite prickling her in regards to domesticity. Sort of like how Short was known to keep ferns and (it was wise to never mention this one to her face, just in case she stopped bringing the fruits of her labors to the Plaza) bake.

He had briefly wondered what Vinyáya did in this regard, before reminding himself that she did pretty much everything to keep Haven running smoothly, and then pushed the thought of his host away.

When the fish were all fed (and one had been pressed to Grub's unsuspecting back, making him yelp, squirm, and run to wash the slime off), the pair had lain down together on a lawn chair tucked among a copse of trees and rose bushes. Lili had quickly made the lawn chair go down to the last rung, and Grub thought she was about to make a move on him, but she had just tucked into his side (really, she demanded the tucking, grabbing his arm and wrapping it about her waist when he hesitated), hid her face in Grub's neck, and promptly passed out.

The hadn't done anything particularly strenuous that day. It was a weekend, and Grub had only been at the mansion for a few hours, and only awake for three more than that. Still, it was warm, the birds were cheerful yet soft-voiced, and there was something about holding another person—even if they had not been on holding terms for long—that soothed Grub. Within minutes, he was also sleeping softly, fingers twitching reflexively along Lili's waist as he dreamt.

And that put him where he was now. Almost simultaneously, he and Lili had woken up and come to awareness that the other was awake, all without words or movement. Grub continued laying still on the lawn chair, dwelling on the invention of naps.

Lili did not remain still for long. Her lips were the first thing to move and, since she had not moved her head, this meant her lips grazed along Grub's neck, first in light kisses and brushing, and then onto something more open-mouthed, with a little nipping and the barest tip of her tongue doing something obviously coordinated, though, whatever it was, Grub was not able to identify it, at first.

It came at him quickly, and Grub smiled, leaning his head to the side to give Lili better access. She was writing Gnommish characters with her tongue. That was pretty interesting. He'd never thought of doing something like that. It was a short sentence, and Lili repeated it over and over. Grub tried to concentrate on the shapes, getting the letters one at a time. 'U.' A missed letter. 'K.' 'M.' Another missed letter. 'F.' A 'U' again, then a 'C.'

"D'arvit," Grub hissed, filling in the last blank. He tried to sit up, but Lili laughed, putting a hand to his chest.

"I'm impressed. You got that rather fast." She pushed herself into a sitting position at his side and looked down at Grub through lidded eyes. She let up the pressure on Grub's chest and her fingers moved in five small spirals, going lower and lower on Grub's body.

"Fast. Yeah. Really fast," Grub squeaked, eyes darting down to the woman's descending hand. "Um...we're outside."

"No one can see us," Lili smirked, gesturing at the arboreal coverage with her free hand. "I promise."

"We're outside, Lili," Grub insisted, managing to push himself up and away from Lili successfully this time.

Or he thought he had been successful. Grub obviously hadn't thought things through very well, as his retreat to the top of the chair had merely meant that the top half of his body moved further away from Lili's hand. Which meant the lower portion of his body was much closer to said hand. Said hand felt friendly.

Grub yelped, then moaned, eyes fixed on Lili's still-moving fingers.

"No one can see us, Grub," Lili reassured, managing, through the haze that had taken over her brain, to find the correct zipper among the dozens on Captain Kelp's needlessly complicated cargo pants. "Trust me."

"I do!" Grub whimpered, but his hand had already shot out, grabbing Lili's wrist and pulling her hand away before things went irreversibly foreword. "I do. Really." He winced at the sudden pain in his gut, as well as instincts' relentless screaming. Really, why were the Kelps such relentless breeders? "I just...we're outside."

"Well, then let's go inside," Lili suggested, using logic that she felt was quite laudable, given that she had only been able to think of one thing since she had woken up.

Grub tugged Lili's hand to his face, putting it against his forehead as he took in a deep breath. After letting it go, he lowered the hand, kissing Lili's fingertips, and shook his head. "Don't kill me."

Lili groaned. He didn't need to say anything more. "Oh, gods, what the hell, Grub!"

"We've been dating for a month, Lili," he said reasonably.

"Yeah! And during that time, I haven't had anything between my legs that didn't run on batteries!"

Grub flushed. "B-batteries?" Before Lili could give him further details and perhaps shatter his resolve, Grub kissed her fingers again and swung his legs off the side of the lawn chair, standing. Before Grub turned to face Lili, he placed his hands in his pockets, pushing them forward to move the loose material away from his hips. It would be 100% obvious what he was doing, and that rather ruined the point of the deception in most cases, but he didn't trust Lili to not pounce on such a visual cue as would be presented should he not take this measure.

Lili's eyes narrowed and she leaned over the chair, putting her hands, splay-fingered, on the edge. She crouched, quite cat-like, and bit her lower lip, keeping her eyes locked with Grub's.

Faced with a woman ready to strike, Grub tended to say whatever came to his mind first. He was somewhat pleased with what came, this time. "You never gave me the tour of your house!"

Lili faltered, her tense posture loosening a fraction. "Huh?"

Grub shrugged, backing away a step. "I'd like to see it, and the neighborhood. I've never been to Principality Hill before. Not properly." He turned to the side, one leg out in a wide arc, and waited for his would-be lover to either go along with him or attack again.

Lili slammed her forehead to the bendy plastic of the chair, where it bounced once. "I...d'arvit." With a mighty heave, she stood, arms crossing, and took quick steps past Grub, ignoring his proffered arm.

Sighing at the shun, Grub followed, relieved when he was able to take his hands from his pockets and walk without difficulty.

They went through the glass and copper-framed garden doors, immediently entering the mansion's main corridor. Lili went ahead of Grub, pausing at the first door they came across.

"The first room is my bedroom," Lili said, nonchalant. Or as nonchalant as one can be when holding your arms behind your back and keeping in a very big breath.

Grub whistled as he walked by, keeping his eyes off the offered anatomy.

Bringing her foot back, Lili kicked the wall, looking down at her chest as if her breasts had just committed treason. Either these things weren't on, or something was seriously wrong with that boy.

Chapter Text

Week 25

It took less than a day for every fairy in the world to hear about the Wing Commander's scandalous gestation, but the reaction of some parties took longer to arrive than others. One sprite in particular had to wait nearly two months for leave from his post on the surface before returning to the Plaza for the full scoop.

Chix Verbil arrived in the LEP break room, seemingly out of nowhere, and slammed into his fellow sprite, Major Vein. He grabbed the superior officer's collar so tightly that the older fairy was forced to let out a blustery, choked breath. "Gods, tell me it isn't true!" His eyes were shining, either with madness (likely, considering whom he had attacked) or barely-contained tears.

Vein—best fighter in the LEP—wasted no time in breaking Verbil's hold (and nearly his wrists), hooking his foot on a leg of the next chair over, and sweeping it away from the table. With a jerk, he pulled it towards the lieutenant until the seat crashed into the backs of Verbil's knees, sending him crashing to his ass, where he remained, stunned, looking at the major, mouth slightly open.

Ash went back to gnawing on a particularly hard nutrition bar. "'Fraid so."

Chix slammed his head on the table, making the condiment and napkin dispenser in the center jangle. "This is a disaster!"

A large piece of the bar broke off in Vein's mouth, and he held it under his tongue for softening. "Eh, she ain't that bad, yet. And she's not your SO, anyway, so the Wing Commander wont bug ya too much."

Chix loked up, a dark line from the edge of the table crossing his forehead. "I don't mean her. I mean Frond! Gods I was this close to sleeping with her, I swear!" To illustrate his near-copulation, Chix held up pinched fingers, closing one eye as he focused on them. "Close. So close."

Vein grunted, sticking the bar into one side of his mouth, speaking around the granola and crinkling wrapper. "Just keep your place in line. She's bound to move onto the next fairy soon enough."

Opening his eye—making both go cross for a moment—the lieutenant snapped his attention to Vein. "I don't see you waiting."

Vein guffawed, then choked as granola flakes became lodged in his throat. The bar flew from his mouth, skittering across the break room table, leaving a trail of drool and individual grains. "Hah! Gods, you naïve mother-fucker." Vein leaned back in his chair, lifting his steel-toed boots to the table. "When the time comes, she'll be begging me. You watch."

"I just don't get it," Chix moaned, holding a hand to his forehead, as if that would help him think. "The Wing Commander hasn't dated anyone since before I even joined the Academy, and Lili? She hasn't actually dated anyone since...ever! What the hell does that runt have going on to catch them both?"

With her usual impeccable timing and minor cluelessness, Wing Commander Vinyáya sauntered into the break room, accompanied by the sharp smell of vinegar. The scent was explained by her current pregnant-lady snack of choice: a rather massive, dark-green pickle, which she was sucking on in a distracted fashion as she looked down at her digital tablet.

Vein and Verbil glanced at each other. Their lips twitched furtively as they tried to remain restrained. This proved an impossible feat, and they were soon wheezing as they breathed.

Vinyáya halted halfway across the floor, lips still wrapped about the kosher dill, and focused on them. Her brows were lowered, and she tilted her head to the side, mind flashing about as she looked for the source of their mirth. Then her mental image of the situation came to clarity. Growling, she bared her teeth, crushing down on the pickle with a crunch and snap that made both sprites go silent, slowly crossing their legs.

Grumbling darkly, Vinyáya went to the table furthest from the sprites and sat down in a corner chair to continue her reading. She hoped for a little peace during her short coffee break (thank goodness the smell-related nausea had abated). It was not forthcoming.

Chix was staring at her. Staring quite intently. Sort of the same look one would expect to see on the face of a man lost in a desert, who thought he might be seeing the mirage of an oasis, but has not yet lost hope or gained certainty. This included the lip-licking.

Thick shivers rolling across her skin, the Wing Commander glared at him, putting her tablet down. Crossing her arms—Chix's eyes got noticeably bigger—she glared. "What is so fascinating, lieutenant."

Chix answered without thinking. "Tits," he breathed.

Vein began to laugh again, even if he darted his eyes towards the door, evaluating his escape routes. Even he was scared of the battle-hardened woman.

Vinyáya opened her mouth, and it remained open, devoid of sarcastic, threatening comments. Slowly, her head fell to inspect her chest.

It stuck out just as much as her occupied stomach. Normally, she kept her buttons undone to a mid-point between collarbone and the shadow of her cleavage, but the expansion of her mammaries had come on so fast that she could no longer go that high, and had secured her shirt that morning to a point she would have normally thought to be more Frond's style. Even this was a stretch for the material, and it appeared that yet another button had popped loose since her arrival at work, revealing a brassier that—despite having enough engineering behind it to rival that of a suspension bridge—was made of hot pink lace. With a squeak of horror, Vinyáya redid the button and pulled her work jacket about her chest, crossing one arm over her stomach to hold it in place. Finding her audience was still in raptures, she let her voice go ice-cold, bringing in some of the tone she used in more intense Council debates and torture sessions. "If you two do not stop staring, I wont bother with a sexual harassment claim. I will castrate you with whatever tools I can find in this room!"

With complete faith that the elf could accomplish her goals quite handily, Vein and Verbil turned away, focusing solely on each other. Even with such a threat, Chix remained giddy, holding cupped hands in front of his chest, mouthing "tits!" with an enormous smile. Vein nodded, giving two thumbs up.

Chix had decided to visit the Plaza before the night shift would take their first break, so it wasn't surprising when another pair of elves entered the room minutes later. However, which elves wasinteresting to the lieutenant. Artemis Fowl and Grub Kelp (the latter still focused on some of the documents pertaining to their conversation back in the Ops Booth) were among the least-likely pairs Chix had ever seen, and their friendliness surprised the top-sider. Their talk was mostly business, certainly, but lacked Fowl's disdain or Kelp's whining.

Chix turned to Ash, blinking. At the major's shrug, Chix began to whistle the "X-Files" theme. (He'd grown fond of that show, seeing as it gave him something to do during the hours of nothing that his job entailed.)

Fowl rolled his eyes, vaguely recalling Juliet's obsession with the show, but Grub only looked confused, less familiar with this bit of human pop culture. Dismissing it, he took a seat while Fowl looked for a suitable tea to his mood, and, looking up to see Vinyáya reading, Grub grinned.

She seemed to sense the renewed focus on herself, glancing up to see her house mate. Sighing, as if greatly put-upon by demands of civility, she addressed him with a simple "What, Kelp?"

Grub shrugged, then jerked his chin at the commander's snack. "Still? I thought you'd have moved on by now. All the other cravings haven't lasted more than three days."

Vinyáya studied the preserved vegetable, nodding. "Soon, hopefully. We're almost out, and I'd rather not get another jar. I barely eat them, normally."

Drumming his fingers on the table, Grub thought, then grinned. "You could always make them last by mixing with other foods. Salads, sandwiches." He paused as Fowl took a seat across from him, accepting the mug of tea offered by the rather young elf. "Ice cream."

Vinyáya was no doubt about to make a masterfully sarcastic response, but stopped, mouth open. She lowered her gaze, studying her snack. She had never heard such a wondrous idea...

A second later, logic prevailed, washing away her delight. She narrowed her cat-eyes at the captain, teeth bared. "Kelp. Do not taunt the pregnant woman!" To punctuate her orders, she flicked the last bit of pickle at Grub, hitting him just above the shirt collar, adding in vinegar to whatever cologne he had donned that day. As he merely laughed, she stood, snapping the tablet to her side. "I. Am. OUT." She exited the break room with all of the grace that a pregnant woman can muster.

As Grub continued laughing, Fowl sipped his tea in a nonplussed manner. After his companion settled, Fowl put down the mug, settling a level, almost-emotionless gaze on his break partner, ready to go back to their discussion of updating sleeper-seekers. Grub failed to notice, most likely because Chix Verbil was already calling to him, waving an arm for attention from across the room.

"Hmmm?" Grub turned in his seat, mood souring upon sight of the the sprite. "Oh. Liuetenant Verbil." After a pause, he nodded, lips twitching as he remembered that he now outranked the older officer. It was a particularly effective balm to years of torment.

"How the hell did you do it?" Chix blurted out, leaning forward in his seat to get a closer look at the now-legendary elf.

Not having quite caught on to his legend, Grub came to what was a logical conclusion for him. "I studied a lot. Lili helped a bunch, too."

"Not that," Chix barked a laugh, causing Grub much confusion. "Vinyáya and Frond? What the hell kind of lies are you telling to nail them both?"

Fowl covered his face with a palm, head shaking as he wished to be elsewhere.

"Oh, he ain't lying," Vein drawled. "Those girls? They've just been scared off of real men, but don't have the guts to turn lez and fuck each other, so they decided to go after little Maggot, here. Someone to roll over and beg them for it."

"I didn't beg," Grub said through clenched teeth. His hands went to the side of the plastic chair, gripping it. He would either dig his fingers in, like he had done back in the doctor's office months ago, or fling the chair at the sprites and dive after to defend his honor. He had yet to decide.

"Oh, what?" Vein snorted, hands flapping in the air. "You're going to tell me the Wing Commander came down to your mother's house and asked if you could come out and play?"

"She never came to my house!" Grub spat out in a desperate gambit to derail Vein.

The major just flapped his hands again. "Fine, dragged you to her place and—"

"We didn't go anywhere!"

Vein paused, the wheels in his head almost visibly turning. Chix was also processing as fast as he could, trying to solve the new mystery. They both found solutions, turning their heads to lock eyes, but it was...impossible!

Fowl took another sip of his Earl Grey, reflecting that he really should have gone with something soothing, like chamomile, to help him cope with this fiasco. Airily, he explained it all to the incredulous officers with characteristic flair. "It was what you might call an 'internal affair,' I believe."

Grub shot Fowl a glance that clearly conveyed murderous intent.

Artemis sipped his tea.

Chix and Ash gaped. "You the Plaza!" Vein laughed, shaking his head. "No way. I don't believe it. There's nowhere you could get away with that. Believe me; I'd know."

"Oh...I don't know," Grub said, feeling a bit of devilry rise in him. Fowl was a very bad influence, as anyone who had been around Holly for the last decade well knew. "You could say I learned all the 'ins and outs' of the Plaza from Vinyáya."

Artemis raised an eyebrow, clearly impressed by the double-entendre.

The lieutenant bit the masterfully cast lure. "Really? Where?"

Grub tapped his chin, as if he had a long list of locals to pick from. "You know the chair in here that doesn't have a coaster? The wobbly one?"

The sprites both looked at each other, eyes wide. Simultaneously, they shifted their weight. Vein remained solid, but Verbil's chair tapped back and forth.

"Oh, gods!" Chix sprang from his seat, kicking it away. "You screwed on my chair!"

"What? No!" Grub laughed. Just as Chix pulled out a new chair, he spoke up again. "Way too unstable. She blew me on the chair; we screwed on the table."

Artemis later informed Foaly that the sprites turned a stunning emerald hue that would have attracted quite a few high-class sprite ladies, if they didn't look so horrified. They took to their feet, throwing disgusted comments at Grub as they literally flew from the room.

After waiting ample time for his tormentors to retreat, Grub broke down, guffawing and clutching his stomach. "Oh, gods, did you see their faces? Priceless!" When Fowl did not respond, Grub found he wanted to see if a similar reaction could be obtained from the normally unflappable elf. "Well...I didn't say which table..."

Artemis held the tea between cupped hands, elven bones delighting at the warmth. "You have never utilized the break room."

"Oh, yeah?" Grub challenged, slapping his palm to the table, as if staking a claim. "How would you know?"

"Well, for one thing, all LEP common areas have been under video surveillance for the past 100 years, after Warrant Officer Healy's successful harassment suit against Major Garret and the LEP. Quite expensive, that."

"So? Vinyáya is good with computers, you know. She could have just erased the footage, or made Foaly do it."

"Perhaps," Artemis admitted, raising his cup for another drink, but pausing just before it tipped to his quirking lips. "But your lies extend. She never 'blew' you, here or anywhere else."

Grub stared. "And how do you know that?" Perhaps there were cameras in his office all that time...

Raising one eyebrow, Fowl took on his full smirk, waiting.

Sulking, Grub swirled his tea. "Does 'I'm Artemis Fowl' have to be your response to that question every time?"

"If it is always the right answer..."

Very few mothers are actually thrilled about the state of pregnancy. There are upsides, like free reign to eat whatever you want, but the symptoms tend to even out the measure of pros and cons.

Then one must take into account the advice.

Vinyáya had encountered some of this from the father already, but she had quite successfully whipped the boy (figuratively, not literally, though the thought had crossed her mind on a few occasions) during their affair so that he backed down from most arguments. What goals he was determined to achieve were mostly done by not asking permission and instead finding a way to enforce the change (such as with her diet), or appealing to his new ally, Dr. White.

No. The problem was the rest of Haven.

Vinyáya saw the first signs of coming interference three days after the big reveal, when Cirrus flagged a tabloid cover and article for her study. It was a particularly unflattering picture of the wing commander exiting a coffee shop, sipping a steaming tea. She had just come back from an early-morning Section 8 mission, so her normally silken hair was frazzled from engine heat, with a smudge of engine oil marring her forehead. After that tense trip to the surface, she had been ready to relax, and wasn't bothering to hold in her stomach, displaying her new bulge to the world.

The wing commander could just imagine the editor's slavering glee when he purchased that image. There were flashing arrows everywhere, each with an all-caps question.




And the smudge: "IS THE FATHER ABUSING HER?"

Grub had screamed at a subscription agent for a half-hour straight because of that last one.

Her own doubts on fitness for motherhood aside, Vinyáya had been pissed. So pissed that, to avoid a slander suit, the tabloid was forced to issue a retraction in their next release. Sadly, the apology was at the very end of the issue, and in rather small print, leaving the entirety of the Lower Elements to chatter about the accusations and do their fair bit to protect the fetus.

No fairy would sell anything caffeinated to Vinyáya, Cirrus, or Grub, leaving all three stimulant addicts at the mercy of Holly Short (Frond refusing to buy for anyone but Grub), who had no caffeine-sense whatsoever. While no one would give her tea at a cafe, every barrista insisted on serving up the largest, most chocolate-filled pastry in the store to serve as baby food. Very soon, Vinyáya had to refuse these treats, lest she become far too close in shape to a novelty beach ball. The denials, again, fueled the rumors of malnutrition.

As for the charges of abuse, Holly stepped in with her own style of alibi. She waited until a chance encounter on the streets of Haven provided her with the largest possible non-LEP audience, and then set her plan in motion.

Her plan involved screaming at Grub at the top of her vast lungs (no one was sure about what, but offices and cameras figured prominently). For ten minutes. During which time Grub turned a variety of colors, dropped his groceries, and got progressively smaller until he crawled into his bags and commiserated with the wilting lettuce. A few videos of the encounter circulated the nets, and no tabloid ever mentioned the possibility of Grub being aggressive ever again. The next day at work, Holly put forward her apology by promising to never pick Grub for a sparring partner again, and he was much cheered.

So that left...the missions. While Vinyáya's section 8 jaunts were top-secret, it was common knowledge that the duties of Wing Commander occasionally took her into dangerous zones. The commandership was the odd catch-all of the LEP, handling the most dangerous criminals (such as Koboi) and all military-level engagements (or the theory of them, at least, seeing as the People hadn't had a war in ten millennium). Vinyáya had been shot twenty times in her five-hundred-year career (a dozen just grazes, of course), crashed three ships (two were totally not her fault), been forced to self-destruct one, and had most of her bones broken at least once. And that was only from her duty in the Wings. Section 8 missions were rarer, but significantly more dangerous.

So it was no surprise when fairies began to lobby for her removal from active duty. Not surprising, but not welcome, either. It wasn't like she got injured often. The last shooting had been a graze during the Rebellion, and the one before was 200 years past. Short had a much higher injury rate. Yet people would be nosy and insist that she was putting her child in the path of undue harm. Like she didn't know how to take are of herself!

When the move against her finally came, however, it was not from the direction she had anticipated. Milling about in her office one morning, Vinyáya received a message on her desk terminal, coming from one of her fellow council members.

D_Fletwind: Vinyáya, I think you need to watch this.

It had been followed by a link, which Vinyáya failed to click, initially.

A_Vinyáya: Duke, I'm busy. Give me the gist, will you?

D_Fleetwind: No. Just watch it. And don't scream at me.

Conference? And a request for no screaming from Duke? With rising dread, she clicked the link.

A window opened on the screen, buffering in a few seconds. The relatively slow load-time indicated that the feed was in high demand. It showed a familiar image: the front steps of Haven's City Hall, which housed the city's administrative workers, as well as the Council's office's and meeting rooms on the top floor. A podium was constantly set up for city services, including the LEP, to make important announcements.

And, if the figure ascending was any sort of sign, this was a very important announcement.

It was amazing how Aconite Lope could manipulate his perceived age. In personal settings, he held himself loose, letting a shine enter his eyes, fluffing out his salt-and-saffron hair to drift about in a youthful manner that would make even 100-year-old fairies flock to him. Yet, now, with the weight of his office in place, he shot forward in age, his true 837 years transforming to well over a millennium, yet without any loss of perceived vitality. Only a gain of power and wisdom. He seemed the true leader of the People in these moments, and even Vinyáya could still be impressed by his full impact as Head of the Council.

He began to speak, and the wing commander soon felt her awe drift away, to be replaced by the strong desire to kick him in the groin until he cried like a little girl whose ice cream has just fallen off the cone.

"I wish to comment upon the concerns raised by the citizens of Haven, in regards to the physical well-being of Councilwoman Vinyáya. Many of you—and several members of the Council—have begun to question how long the Councilwoman intends to keep up her full duties, and, as there has been no indication that she intends to put in for temporary leave, it has become more than apparent to me that measures must be taken to assure the health of both mother and child in the coming months. I would like to thank the People for showing the correct concern for this situation, and assure them that this issue will be brought up at the next meeting of the Council. Questions?"

The crowd of reporters began barking like chained dogs. The question and answer section went hot and fast, with Lope never losing his composure, even when some brought his motives into question.

Vinyáya sat stunned, her mind struggling to keep up with what had just happened. She had expected to be put on forced leave from missions soon. In fact, she kept a letter on her office terminal stating that she would be going on leave, though she never turned it in, merely updating the date every morning, in the off chance that the first demand for her notice would come in that day. The public display of her symbolic castration wasn't expected, though.

A_Vinyáya: Duke, do you think I can get away with murder?

D_Fleetwind: Lemme check...the wives say "not without our help." And I soundly refuse to let them get mixed up in this.

A_Vinyáya: Tyrant. I assume I have your vote?

D_Fleetwind: Of course. Although I'm guessing you missed something in that speech.

A_Vinyáya: What?

D_Fleetwind: "Her full duties." He's not just talking about the LEP.

Vinyáya swiftly rewound the video and felt a stab through her gut as she realized Fleetwind was right. Lope had never mentioned the LEP.

A_Vinyáya: He can't be talking about suspending me from the Council. Is that even legal?

D_Fleetwind: It is if there's a majority vote. You're the first woman to be pregnant while holding the position, so...

A_Vinyáya: That's it. I'm just going to go ahead and murder him. No worrying about hiding it.

D_Fleetwind: Great. And then the Fronds go back into power.

Massaging the bridge of her nose, Vinyáya cursed the current council makeup. Eleven seats had been established by the late King Gerrard Frond III, but the only time those eleven seats had been filled was during the Council's initial years. The wording of the fairy constitution allowed the Council to remain operational, so long as at least half of the Council was filled, and seven members were currently on the roster. A loss of even one member would be nearly catastrophic, and two would make the body's power null. Unless there was some sort of revolution to stop it, the Frond line (meaning Lili Frond, horror of horrors) would be put back into complete power over the People. The Fronds had never been bad rulers, but Haven and Atlantis were far too complex for any one fairy to govern. Especially if that one fairy was Lili.

It could take decades to get a fairy approved on the Council. Vinyáya had been working on adding Qwan since the warlock had been changed back from stone, and it still had not happened. Even her allies were reluctant to support the demon, as adding any member to the Council meant that individual power was significantly reduced. And, since she couldn't get any new members added to the Council, Vinyáya hadn't been able to gather any more allies. In fact, she didn't expect to successfully usher another member in until she herself was about to resign, and suggested her replacement.

Her replacement...Vinyaya had already hand-picked that elf, and was grooming her with the most subtle of gestures, but with this complication...the woman wasn't even starting her family, yet! Being placed on the Council when such a possibility as an enforced leave due to pregnancy was a possibility...and if there were no females on the Council...

"Hey, Wing Commander? Yoooooohoo?"

Vinyáya snapped out of her reverie to see Holly Short standing before her desk, slapping her thigh, as if summoning a dog, and giving her a very irritated look.

"That submarine isn't going to wait forever, you know. It's commercial."

A few steps behind though she was, Vinyáya stood automatically, taking her black pleather jacket from a coat stand, swinging it about her shoulders. "Submarine, Major Short?"

"The Koboi and Root visit?" Holly said in a sarcastic tone that implied Vinyáya really should remember. "Foaly has a sub waiting for us."

Vinyáya paused at the door. "Short, did you see the press conference just a few minutes ago?"

"Oh, yeah. What a dick." Holly flashed her teeth and—for a moment—Vinyaya began to wonder if Fowl really was some sort of bloodsucker, and he had converted the fairy to be the first wife in his legion of the damned. "I didn't hear him say you couldn't go on a mission, though. Not yet."

Laughing softly, Vinyáya said, "Too true. Perhaps you will be a bit more on top of things, when your time comes." Ignoring the younger woman's briefly puzzled expression, Vinyáya put her hand to the doorknob. "But it's not going to be that easy. Wait until Cirrus hears..."

"Oh, that's no problem," Holly chirruped as the door swung open, revealing the gnome guardian.

He lay across his desk, arms stretch out in front, head resting on one flabby bicep, massive gnome rear thrust into the air. Before him, brown liquid spread across the desk until it came to the edge. Here, it had once fallen freely onto the tile floor, but the deluge had since abated, now only coming in slow drips, making ripples flash across the middle of the room.

Looking at Vinyáya, Holly beamed. "I put a tranq in the coffee I brought!"

Vinyáya stared first at her drugged secretary, and then at Holly. "That is highly illegal, Major Short."

Holly clapped the wing commander on her shoulder. "You highly approve." She pranced to the door that led to the main hall, motioning for her superior officer to follow. "Come on. We want to be well out of here before the media descends, and that is going to mean I have to speed. I hope you had a light breakfast."

"Morning sickness," Vinyáya mourned, joining her.

"Oh, good! All puked out. Let's go, then."

As they put hands to the door, Vinyáya shot a sideways glance at her Section 8 assistant, holding up a single, thin finger. "I need to make one quick stop, before we leave the Plaza. Something...important."

Holly shuddered at the tone. Someone was about to become very unhappy.

"I shall preface this by saying that I am fully aware I am being irrational, as my hormones are completely fucked, at the moment." Vinyáya took a deep, centering breath.

Then she tightened her grip on the gi collar she held, pulling her captive close to her face and making him squeak in alarm, eyes bulging. "I blame everything that has gone wrong with my life on. Your. PENIS."

Then she let Grub go, allowing him to stagger back several paces, savoring the horror on his face. Brushing her hands off against each other, the Wing Commander turned to Holly and smiled, a pronounced bounce in her steps. "Okay, ready to go!"

For a moment, Holly did not move after the older elf, preferring to watch the woman from the corner of her eyes until the dojo door swung with her passage. Then she looked at the Kelp brothers, shrugging an apology, and whipped about, giving them a two-fingered salute as she jogged from the training room.

Trouble watched the exit, doing some minute adjustments on his giin an effort to give his little brother some privacy while he collected himself. The young captain had yet to move since his retreat from the slavering woman, and his own gi looked quite disheveled from the rough handling.

"Mood swings, eh?"

"No," Grub whimpered. "She just hates me."

"Oh, come on! That can't be true. She's letting you keep living with her, after all." Trouble stepped forward, adjusting his brother's uniform. "All of the Plaza gossips about you. Half of Retrieval has bets down on you two hooking up behind Lili's back within the month."

"W-what!" Grub squeaked, paling with great rapidity. "T-that's crazy! Why? No! I'd never do that to Lili!"

"And that's the right answer," Trouble said, patting his brother's shoulders, ending with a single shake. "Now I don't have to kill you." When Grub did not subside, he grabbed a fistful of the younger man's hair, jerking his head side to side. "Cool it, bro! The Plaza is just a bunch of gambling addicts, you know that. I mean, there's been a poll on when Fowl pops the question to Holly since the boy turned fifteen, remember?"

"Yeah. I lost two grams on last spring." He shook his head at Fowl's delays. No one had ever expected a human to take this long. It had seemed such a sure bet, too...

"It's just...Lili and I don't need that, you know?"

"Then ignore it," Trouble advised, sinking into a forward stance and motioning for Grub to follow suit. "Come on. You promised me you wouldn't get out of practice, now that you've passed the test."

Grumbling about unwise promises, Grub took his position and, after the polite pre-fight shouting, began to advance. He chose his attacks randomly, first punching at Trouble's sternum, then kicking at his thighs, and so on. Each blow was dodged or blocked with ease, irritating the captain. Trouble was among the best fighters in the LEP. There was no way Grub could land a hit, except perhaps a pity-punch. So, with half of his mind on the spar, he continued the conversation.

"I can't just ignore it, Trouble. Have you seen what they're saying about us? Lili and me, I mean."

Trouble grunted in acknowledgement, though his eyebrows quirked at the qualification. Reaching one end of the large dojo, he did a final block and came back with a shot to Grub's nose, pulling his punch a mere fraction of a second away from a full hit, knuckles brushing the tip of his little brother's nose.

The paused, eyes locked, a dim battle fire stirred even in the depths of Grub's eyes. Tension crackled in the air round them. Grub tightened his fists, preparing to strike back in defense.

Trouble flicked Grub's nose. "Beep."

Grub jerked back, hands flying to his face. "Oh, come on!" Grub rubbed at his nose, glaring at the older brother.

Trouble managed to contain his mirth quite well, considering how much he enjoyed tormenting the younger man. "You make this way too easy. Come on, my turn."

Grumbling, Grub got back into stance, nodding when he was ready.

Trouble moved swiftly, but he kept track of his brother's speed, pulling back so he only brushed the elf's gi or tapped against his skin. All the while, he took his own turn at talking.

"Learn to ignore them or learn to go with it, Grub. I know Lili. The girl has just about as much literal baggage as she has figurative baggage, and that's not including everything the press likes to say about her reputation. Ki-yah!" He ended with a powerful bark, a flat palm millimeters away from chopping into Grub's Adam's apple.

"Huk, yah!" Grub responded, pushing the hand away with a side block and stepping in with a bladed hand at Trouble's lowest rib. Unlike his brother, his aim wasn't perfect, and he accidentally poked the commander. "D'arvit! Sorry!"

"Eh," Trouble grunted, barely feeling the graze. "No mentioning Lili's reputation, then?"

Grub balled his fists, aspect darkening. "They wouldn't gossip about her so much if she wasn't a Frond!"

"Like I said, bro: deal with it. You think Lili and I would still be friends if it bugged me every time some tabloid claimed I was boning her up the butt?"

Grub choked and stared at Trouble, aghast.

"Oh, shut up! We never did, okay?" Trouble snorted at the very idea. When Grub continued to be horrified, mouth opening and closing like a cod out of water, Trouble rolled his eyes. "If you mustknow, the closest we ever got—and don't you dare tell Vein about this, or I will kill you—is dancing and...cuddling back at the Academy." He winced, anticipating.

Grub continued staring. ""

With the heel of his palm, Trouble popped Grub between the eyes. "Get back in stance, you dork."

"You cuddled?"

Trouble sighed. "And, apparently, I shall never live it down. Do I need to hit you again?" When Grub responded by scrambling back into stance, Trouble set himself up to block.

"I just..." Grub said, then sighed, the exhale turning into a sharp yell as he sent a roundhouse kick at Trouble's stomach, to be again blocked. "I didn't expect this. Dating is great, really, but Lili...gods." His face turned red, though more from memories than from exertion. Despite the sensitive nature of his last intense encounter with his love interest, he needed to tell someone, and his elder brother was the most logical choice. "Trouble, last Saturday she cornered me in her backyard and ordered me to fuck her! YAH!" Grub finished with a punch at Trouble's chest, stepping too far forward and wobbling as he tried to regain his balance.

"RAH!" First blocking with a roar, Trouble brought his fist about like a wrecking ball, sinking it into the side of Grub's jaw with a sound that was a mix of sharp crack and dull thud. There was the briefest of split-seconds as Trouble looked into his brother's eyes, the knowledge that extreme pain was on the horizon not quite processed in them. Then, it seemed he first began to move away slowly, soft strands of orange hair rising about Grub's blank face. And then the world sped up, becoming far too fast for Trouble to handle.

Grub flew back, slamming to the floor. His head rang with the impact, and he forgot to put his arms out to soften the fall. His head bounced twice on the padded floor before he curled up into himself and clutched at his jaw. He couldn't even think of a proper swear word, deciding to just yell incoherently.

"Oh, d'arvit!" Trouble supplied helpfully, kneeling at Grub's side. "Shit, Grub! Did I break your jaw?"

"No," Grub moaned, poking the side of his face to confirm this. "Not for lack of trying..." He shot Trouble a reproachful look.

"You wobbled!" Trouble protested quickly. "Here, let me help with that." Trouble extended a hand sparking with magic, but Grub knocked it away.

"'I'm fine. I'm fine, really. Done," Grub said, taking his hand away as his skin flashed through purple, dark red, brown, yellow, and back to untouched cinnamon. "I think I should schedule Ritual surface leave soon, though."

"Saturday is the full moon. I'll make sure you get a shuttle up," Trouble put in, by way of an apology, accompanying it with a crooked grin. "Or N°1 could give you a boost."

By the look on Grub's face, his skin crawled at the very idea. "I'll...take the surface leave. I think I need the fresh air, anyway. Clear my head."

"...of what?"

Squinting, Grub looked at his brother, thrown off by the odd question. "Huh?"

Trouble winced at his stupidity. Still he forged on ahead with his first thought. "Clear your head of what?"

Grub opened his mouth to respond, then closed it quickly, teeth clicking. Flummoxed, he shrugged and changed the subject. "I think I'm done sparring, if you don't mind."

"Yeah," Trouble offered a hand, pulling his brother up, then waved at the exit, also jerking his head towards one of the far, mirrored walls. "You go ahead. I'm just gonna do some katas, get in a proper workout."

For a moment, Grub paused, wondering if he should stick around to practice, as well. Deciding that a cold-cocking gave him a freebie for the day, he clapped his brother on the shoulder and made for the showers, hoping hot water would banish the last of the stiffness from his jaw.

Now blessedly alone, Trouble took a few breaths in through his nose, tugging his clothes into crispness as he walked to a mirrored wall, bare footfalls echoing in the empty room. He couldn't think straight, and hoped that the repetition of forms would loosen the knots and snarls in his head.

He settled on something simple, taking up a cat stance with his back to the reflective wall. It was a basic retrieval routine, meant to simulate an optimal capture. Starting with this stance (meant to be a drop from a roof, or being cornered by an over-confidant perp), an officer could disarm the runner with a sweeping kick, stun him with a cupped-palm strike to the ear (massively painful to the tender-eared People), tangle their arms together, spin, slam the criminal's chest to the wall, pin them with one forearm at the shoulder-blades, and cuff them. The best officers could complete the moves in under three seconds, and Root used to brag about getting his time down to two during his prime.

Trouble began slowly, letting his muscle memory awaken, analyzing each frozen step. Then, on the next round, a little faster, with no real stops, keeping his muscles tensed and burning. Faster and faster with each repetition, until he was a blur, completing fifteen sets in under a minute. Finally, he focused all of his speed for a final run, blasting though the invisible enemy, screaming at the mirror as he finished.

Chest heaving, Trouble stared at himself. His forearm was carefully in place before his chest, his front leg bent forward, intended to pin the back of the perp's knee, and his rear leg was out behind him in a locked line for strength and stability. Trouble's free hand was clawed and tensed at his side, the shape ready to grab his cuffs or give another blow to the ear. It was a perfect run. A personal best, even.

Trouble squeezed his eyes shut. "Idiot." His jaw tensed as he took spasmodic breaths, trying to contain himself. His chest heaved over and over, making his entire body reel.

"Idiot!" Fist clenching, Trouble slammed it into the reflection of his face.

The glass warbled and clattered ominously, but did not so much as crack.

Trouble thumped his forehead against the cool surface, eyes squeezing shut, head shaking slowly. "You...idiot..."

Chapter Text

A peek behind-the-scenes! (Are these annoying? Should I stop? It feels so...unprofessional.)

The woman that breezed in the front door, startling the cast out of their stupor and into half-wakefulness, had all the facial features most women would kill for: blue eyes, long lashes, bow-shaped lips, straight (and fairly bright) teeth, and a frame of soft, blond hair to bring it all together. Sadly, it was all placed in a face with a bit too much pudge for the large majority of the population, but that didn't stop Grub Kelp from taking to his feet and breathing "you're back..." as if a goddess had returned to Earth. She had gained him a fan base, after all. And gotten him laid.

"Yeah, sorry," Kit replied, tossing print-outs to everyone. "Honeymoon and all. Scripts!"

"What," Lili groused, looking at her duties for the day, "no souvenirs?"

Kit rolled her eyes. "No. But you'll be happy to know I had a plot explosion for your story. Outline should be ready by week's end."

"Oh, sweet!" Lili said, finally flipping through her script. "The one you talked about before was crap. What" She paled quickly as she read, looking up at her part-time controller. "You bitch."

"I know! Oh, Artemis," Kit grined wickedly as she handed a smaller piece of paper to Fowl, who nearly ripped it from her fingers as he petulantly took the scrap, having not received a script, and thus no work. "A scene for 'The Smut That Shall Never Be Written!'" She grinned at the working title given to her 25,000-word reward to her associates, should she be wrong on her predictions for the next book.

Artemis was about to make a sarcastic comment about perversions, but stopped, eyes flashing a half-dozen times over the few lines on the pages, needing to read as fast as he could for confirmation. Looking up, he pointed a threatening finger at Trouble. "You'd better not be dating Holly!"

Trouble frowned, holding out his hand for the scrap. When it was handed over, unlike Fowl, he needed only one reading to decide the writer was serious. "Oh, merciful gods. I've gotta see this. If I'm dating Holly, I'll kick my own ass!"

Lili held up her hand, and, when the prompt was not handed over, she snatched it from her friend. Again, only one reading was necessary before she turned shocked eyes to Kit. "You bitch!"

Holly, growing increasingly unnerved, slid over a few seats to look at the note over Lili's shoulder. She took two readings before her mouth dropped open. "" Her eyes flashed down to Lili.

Both elven females felt their eyes lock. A second later, they edged away from one another, looking to opposite sides of the room.

Kit smiled. "Great idea, huh?"

Artemis crossed his arms, breathing in steadily. "You...bitch." His eyes softened. "I think I love you."

Nose scrunching, Kit laughed. "I know."

Chapter 31: Make You Realize

Week 26

When Lili came into work on Monday, she was puzzled to find a single red rose, a pack of mini nuclear batteries, and a tiny card waiting for her on her desk. The card itself didn't enlighten her, at first. It merely said "I'm really sorry. —Grub." Lili tried to think of what Grub could have done that would warrant an apology, but not one that needed to be conveyed amidst prostrations and pleas for mercy.

When she finally got it, Lili called up Grub's office and proceeded to have a tirade. She was laughing with every other word, however, so he wasn't too worried.

Knowing the battle that lay ahead of her, Vinyáya spent most of the next week doing research, looking into the ways that different fairy groups—and even humans—treated pregnant women, especially in the workforce. She had also taken off Friday afternoon, intending to spend the time in review of her notes before going off to the meeting.

Unfortunately, Vinyáya had decided that a five minute power-nap would help her studying immensely, and had proceeded to be unconscious for three hours, only rising when she heard the clatter of a key in the front door.

She groaned, instantly recognizing her mistake. She hadn't even risen to pee or eat, which was a phenomenal achievement, of late. She was getting those prickly below-the-belly sensations, however, so Vinyáya rolled out of bed, donned a silk robe to fight off the evening chill, and made her way down the hall.

Grub was in the kitchen, standing before the open refrigerator and giving her untouched lunch a worried look. As the soft pad of his host's bare feet on the faux-wood flooring became audible, he looked up, head quirked to the side in question. He had long ago learned to avoid verbalizing anything when the woman had just woken up. The words she managed in return were universally filthy, and not a good filthy, like back in his office.

Raising her hand in an "OK" gesture, Vinyáya took the living room exit to the backyard. Her house was shaped like a plus sign, with exits on either the kitchen or living room wing, but none from the actual bedrooms. She had thought it a stupid design idea when she picked up the mortgage from her late parents, and she thought it was a criminally negligent one, now that she had spent several dozen trips walking sedately down the hall while she panicked on the inside. She vowed to get a contractor in to fix that, once things died down. Certainly before the next chi—

Vinyáya shook her head as she exited to her pine-filled garden. Bad thoughts.

A few minutes later, one bodily need taken care of, Vinyáya returned to the house proper, ready to take care of the second: hunger.

Grub was pulling something pre-made from the freezer, inspecting it for frost damage. "Something light, or something filling? I know you have the meeting tonight, so what would work best?"

"Liiiiiiiight," Vinyáya groaned, putting her hands behind her back and grasping her forearms, inching her fingers up until her muscles strained at the stretch, then turned side to side so her spine popped a few times. Her back seemed in a constant state of tension, lately, and it took very little to make a few dozen cracks ring out after a nap. "Maybe something to bring with. There's bound to be at least one recess."

"Can-do," Grub said, popping one dish into the oven and rooting about for fruits to cut up.

Smiling at the back of her personal chef, Vinyáya rose to her tip-toes, arms held high over her head, fingers lacing together. She seemed to expand into eternity, muscles burning as they reached their limit, seeming to gain a looseness even as they tightened from the flex. She began to lean backwards, using the couch as a support, more minute cracks going off.

Then, it happened.

It was like another one of the many pops along her spine, but this one was at her stomach. Almost impossible to feel, and only recognized because the elf was always so attuned to her body that alarms would begin to flash the second anything went wrong. She stopped stretching, falling to the flats of her feet with a loud "umph!" "Oh shit," she whispered, hands flying to cradle her stomach.

Grub stopped dithering with a peach, turning to look at his ex-lover. "Vinyáya?"

"D'arvit," she gasped, hands scrabbling over her belly. "Oh, gods. This isn't happening. This isn't happening."

"What? What isn't happening?" Grub yelped, dashing forward. He was forced to backpedal and add a few inches of distance to meet the measure of proper personal space as Vinyáya whipped open her robe, lifted her blue pajama top, and stared down.

"The little fucker just kicked out my navel!"

Grub glanced at the floor, half-expecting to see a brown button of flesh, sad and alone. Then he looked back up and had to bite his lip.

Rather than a shallow cup, Vinyáya now sported a small, twisted protuberance. It was a bit lighter in color than the rest of her skin, making it a beacon to the eyes.

Vinyáya poked at it, trying to put her body back into proper order. To no avail. It seemed like such a small amount of room to take up, but her child had apparently decided that it wasn't going to put up with the wing commander's belly button sharing its personal space. Despite the fact that her first trials proved that the thing wasn't going back inside, Vinyáya kept poking, biting her lip.

About a half-dozen prods in, Grub began to giggle uncontrollably. The dismay, the indignity—especially compared to the greater indignity of peeing more often than an alpha dog in the woods—was heart-wrenching. Or it would have been, if Grub was not completely aware of how swiftly the woman's mood would swing back from worried to wrathful.

He barely controlled his violent shaking in time to remove the squash bake from the oven, and even then he didn't stop giggling. He hadn't calmed down entirely until long after the councilwoman snatched up her meals and left, at which point he wiped tears from his eyes with a fond sigh.

Inspiration hitting him, Grub took his phone out and speed-dialed. When the other line answered, he spoke in a deep, whispered, conspiratorial voice. Like the kind one expects from a Soviet spy in Cold War flicks. "The Queen has left the castle, and the Princess can hold court."

Lili listened to this, then asked Grub what the hell he was talking about.

Grub wilted and spoke normally—with perhaps a bit of his characteristic whine. "Vinyáya left for her meeting. I have the house to myself, for a few hours. I thought you'd like to come over. Have dinner with me. Watch a movie, maybe."

"Oh." A long pause on the line, filled with a little static. "You're alone?"

"Well, yes," Grub said, taking two plates down and beginning to spoon squash in liberal portions.

" I gonna get laid!"

Grub sighed, laying down the ladle with a light "tink." "No, Lili. I don't think you are."

Grub had never let a woman down so badly. Which, considering the last six months, was really saying something.

One would think that having the Council at nearly half-staff would make decisions easier; fewer people to debate, fewer compromises, and all.

One would be wrong.

There were seven current members of the Council. Aconite Lope was Council Head, but that position granted little official authority, merely making him the Council's mouthpiece and vote-counter. Still it sounded good, and Lope had made more than one "Head" joke to a tittering female when he was new to the spot. Actually, he still made those jokes, come to think of it...

Second to him in authority and seniority was the leader of the progressives, Arnica Vinyáya. While Lope had been included in the Council when he became so well-loved among the People that it became somewhat dangerous to exclude him, Vinyáya was inaugurated because she "Knew Too Much." As head of Section 8, she was privy to some of the most shocking secrets of the People. Secrets even Artemis Fowl hadn't uncovered, for the most part. So, to keep her in line and make decision-making easier, the woman had been inducted when she was still only in her first century as an officer. It had caused quite a stir in the LEP. One elf had even been driven to smoke, it was said.

The Council featured one resident from Atlantis, though he attended most meetings via a secure video broadcast. This time, however, the drama was too good to miss, so Perry Scale, an Atlantean Sprite, had come in via submersible and the chutes, gills flapping wetly in the climate-controlled air whenever he got excited. Like most male sprites, he thought himself the hottest thing since magma chutes, and had been highly put out when his object of intense interest—namely, the wing commander—didn't long ago melt at his mere presence. Noting her swelling belly, he was now satisfied to have lost out.

Speaking of goblin fireballs, the scaly ones had their own representative on the Council. Diego Nyle was actually a grandfather to one of the B'wa Kell Rebellion's lieutenants, though he had long ago disowned the incarcerated soldier. For a goblin, he was quite intelligent, though that isn't saying much. And, like most goblins, he was just about as sexist as they come. A lost cause, vote-wise.

Then, of course, there was another tense enemy on the Council: Lucas Cahartez, the richest dwarf in all of Haven and leader of the conservatives. The dwarf had a particularly tense relationship with Vinyáya, turning to her at every opportunity for a few words on the Amber Moon case, and rarely getting those words. It was becoming quite pathetic, really. Eleven years, and not much change in the case, despite his constant appeals. Despite the fact that Vinyáya's hands really were tied, he still seemed to think that she was personally responsible for all his woes.

Aral Nicolai was the pixie Vinyáya had shared a table with at the promotion ceremonies and the Vinyáya-Brenner showdown had left him a bit nervous. Despite this, he was still a staunch supporter of the wing commander, and the third-most liberal council member.

And, finally, there was Vinyáya's staunchest supporter: Duke Fleetwind. There was something of a friendly rivalry going on between the two; Duke's full title was actually Councilman Chief Duke Fleetwind, head of the Lower Elements Fire Department, and they often bickered over who had a higher rank. Where Foaly was the exact opposite of what one expected when thinking of a centaur, Duke was not only the complete embodiment, but he also added in a few nice perks to the general image. A broad, dangerously muscled, tanned chest led into a glossy black Clydesdale body with a spotless white tail. His face was made of sharp lines only softened around his mouth, which sported a handlebar mustache and goatee that one would more expect to belong to a super-villain. It was roughly estimated that every woman that had ever been saved by the fire chief kicking down the door to a burning building instantly fell in love with the stallion.

A real pity, as Duke was fabulously gay.

Despite his orientation, Duke had two wives in his herd, both old friends from college: a pixie and a centaur. The couple had approached him to be the father of their children. All done artificially, of course, and the designation of "wife" wasn't even in a legal sense. The trio (now a quintet, as the centaur had carried twins) all lived together, and had found that their particular arrangement was just easier to explain with terms of matrimony. Duke was on the constant lookout for male members to add to his herd, but none had become permanent, as yet.

Despite Duke's declarations that "us girls have got to stick together," Vinyáya was the only female on the Council. She was sure of Duke and Nicolai's vote, and sure to not get Lope or Nyle. That left Scale and Cahartez as the real swing votes. Gaining at least one of them put Vinyáya in the clear, but the entire meeting was going to pit her and Lope against one another in a battle of charm, connections, and multiple veiled threats

It was Vinyáya's favorite kind of meeting.

The meeting began in the traditional manner: Vinyáya motioned for a debate on adding the demon Qwan to the Council, as a representative for his race, and was swiftly quashed with a two-to-five vote. Even Nicolai didn't consider the idea of lowering his share of power by adding a new member to the governing body. For the first time, Vinyáya really thought about why Lope was never one to vote in favor the discussions, and that led to a minor mood swing that almost made her burst into tears. She managed to suck them back down, however, and was soon her normal self.

A few small issues were brought up. 10,000 years of civilization more than humans, and the People still had plenty for the government to debate. A few property skirmishes were settled, some gold was sent to over-budget projects (a few other's being told where they could d'arvit themselves, diplomatically), debriefings were given on the LEP's (and Section 8's, secretly) planned raid on a suspected B'wa Kell stronghold, and a few minor awards were assigned to LEP and LEFD officers.

Vinyáya voted almost automatically during the proceedings, though she sat straight and spoke clearly. She did not want to give any indication that the pregnancy was taxing her. She saw Cahartez and Scale muttering in turns with Lope, and ran the edge of a fingernail across her desk, wishing her manicure held her favorite combat weapon: a simple set of short, spring-loaded blades that popped out whenever she flicked her fingers, the motion remarkably cat-like and entirely arresting to the eye.

Cahartez, she decided. She should have talked to him. Given some indication that she would side with him on a hearing about his pet case, and mention she could only do that if she had power. It was a damned fool mistake to make, not trying that track.

Vinyáya knew when her case was about to be announced. Lope cleared his throat, pausing until the Council's full attention was on him. He nodded graciously, laying folded hands on his desk. "As you all know, I have been the recipient of many concerned calls from the citizens of the Lower Elements, and even a few from those seated here," he said, looking about.

Vinyáya scowled inwardly. She imagined any comments from the Council weren't concerned in the least.

"I am, of course, speaking of our own Councilwoman Arnica Vinyáya and her progressing pregnancy."

It took great effort to avoid jumping to her feet and pointing an accusatory finger at Lope with a shout of "objection!" She remained silent. Watchful. A tiger in the shadows.

Disappointed at the refused sortie, Lope went on. "We can all be agreed medical research has shown that significant stress during pregnancy has a negative impact on the health of both mother and child." He looked about the circle of desks at the other members, though no one nodded. Either they hadn't bothered to research pregnancy much, not having the necessary inward bits, or they were avoiding any sign of supporting the council head. "Specifically, an increase in complications during gestation, and even miscarriage, if the stress is incurred early on or is great enough."

Duke was pacing with his back legs, mane tossing as he waited for the perfect opening.

"As I'm sure we are all aware, Vinyáya has possibly the largest workload of any fairy alive. Wing Commander, Councilwoman, and head of Section 8. It stands to reason that she is stressed."

"Only if you ignore the fact that she's been doing all three jobs for two hundred years, and has not shown any signs of stress for decades!" Delighted at his point, Duke kicked and grinned at his elven friend.

"We all know Vinyáya is a suitable operative," Lope retorted blandly, "but she is also an accomplished actress." Lope sounded like he was speaking to a mere thirty-year-old, not a three-centuried stallion of technically equal power. "That is why she was chosen to head Section 8 to begin with."

"Yes," Vinyáya conceded. "I do fake things rather well. Don't you think so, Councilman?" Vinyáya smiled sweetly at Lope, resisting the urge to wink.

Direct hit. Lope narrowed his eyes for just a half-second before putting back on his politician's mask. "And thus my point. The Councilwoman could easily hide any signs of distress. It is our duty to protect her and her defenseless child, should she be...concealing anything truly important." He returned the smile, though with a bit more rabid canine than tender feline.

Scale did not react, but Cahartez sat a little straighter. Vinyáya did some swift mental calculations. Would Cahartez oppose her because of the "irresponsible mother" angle? It was too vague of an argument and reaction to be sure.

"I would like to point out," Nicolai said, trying to look as tall as possible as the Council focused on him, "that you are suggesting we legislate not only Vinyáya's professional, but her reproductive fitness. It is a very slippery slope. If we put her on leave, then do we put every pregnant fairy on leave, as well? No woman of child-bearing age will ever have job security, if employers see her as a potential vacancy in the workforce!"

"We do not need to decide for all women," Nyle said reasonably. His tongue flicked out to clean an eyeball, somewhat damaging his politician's mien. "Just Councilwomen. Or Commanders in the LEP." He played with a ball of fire, rolling it across his desk, adding extra black marks to its already streaked glass surface.

"And if the fire department gets a female chief?" Duke clopped a back hoof in challenge. "And what of majors? And captains? How far down should this go?"

"Those are all preposterous arguments," Lope said evenly. "We are dealing with a very special circumstance. We can easily determine what happens in this one case and not assume it will start some sort of...avalanche!"

"'First they came for the Communists...'" Nicolai muttered.

Lope sneered at the reductio ad Hitlerum. "It seems apparent that none of us can be swayed on this most delicate issue. I move for a vote."

Vinyáya felt a flash of alarm go through her. They were still debating! He couldn't do that!

"And I," Cahartez harrumphed, "move for a recess."

"I second that motion!" Vinyáya snapped automatically, giving the dwarf a small nod. It was a blessing. A supportive one, or just tunnel gas that needed tending to at an opportune moment?

Lope did not respond, waiting for a second on his motion. When it did not come, the majority of the Council rising, he shot a rather non-diplomatic look at the dwarf and called for a vote to recess, which was met with resounding acceptance.

Vinyáya rose swiftly, leaving her desk and going to stand before Cahartez, who was taking his sweet time leaving, for someone who had called the recess. In fact, when Vinyáya caught sight of his tablet, he appeared to be playing a particularly complicated game of sudoku.

"Does this mean I have your vote?"

"There are better ways to spend your time than bothering me, Wing Commander," the dwarf muttered, adding a 3 to the board and swiftly placing it's companions in the proper spots as logic played out.

"But you stopped..." Vinyáya halted as Cahartez stood, muttering something about the restroom, and lumbered out.

She stared after him. What was a better use of her time? If Cahartez was on her side, then that meant the vote couldn't go through. She was safe, right?

There was a saying in the LEP, when trying to prompt someone during a particularly tricky tactical game. It was a new saying, but proving itself remarkably effective.


What would Fowl do?

Well, first he would act rather creepy and nigh-omnipotent, and then...

"Councilman Lope," Vinyáya called, putting a soft hand on Scale's shoulder to urge the sprite out of his private conversation with her target. "I would like to speak with you for a moment."

"And I would rather we didn't," Lope said cooly, trying to turn again to his possible backer.

"I suppose that is understandable," Vinyáya said, stepping between them. She drummer her fingers on the side of her neck, blowing out a frustrated breath. "I suppose what I have to say will wait until we reconvene, so we can discuss it before the entire Council."

Scale looked suddenly interested in what the woman had to say. "Perhaps right now—"

"That won't be necessary," Lope intervened, taking a step back, sweeping his hand out to urge her onward. "Are my chambers suitable?"

"Oh, quite," Vinyáya said, placing a hand on her ex-lover's shoulder and following him from the general chambers and into the private offices. She imagined how they looked and couldn't help but smile. Like reconciling lovers. Just another piece for her defense...

Lope let her inside his private room without comment, ignoring a pair of intimate green wingback chairs. Instead, he went to his desk, flouncing into the chair and leaning back, placing his loafers on the surface. "Well?" he finally said, waving a hand at her. "Quickly, Miss. I can't delay the meeting because of your prostrations."

Vinyáya wasn't sure which sparked her hormones more: "prostrations" or "miss." If there was one disadvantage to being single, it was high-and-mighty males using the latter term like it was a sign of failure. She managed to avoid a reaction, taking a seat at the end of the desk, rather than the opposing chair, smoothing out the shining fabric of her blue cocktail dress. Six months in, and she was spending an absolute fortune on clothes whenever she had a Council meeting or official event. Soon, she would have to take the dreaded trip to purchase...maternity wear.

That, of course, could wait until she handled this. Yawning briefly and patting her lips, Vinyáya made her lunge. "You will retract your motion when the meeting begins again."

Lope burst into instant laughter. He almost sounded unhinged, overtaken by the notion. He shook his head, flashing every bright tooth at the wing commander. "I will trust that is not all you intended to say. Please, make your threat. I retract, or else...?"

Shrugging, Vinyáya played with the ends of her hair. "Or else I have an absolute glut of free time, I suppose."

"What a tragedy," Lope muttered, closing his eyes, as if about to take a nice nap.

"Oh, I'll make the best of it," Vinyáya allowed. "Catch up on my reading, look for a copy of Silence on the Wind, schmooze." She clapped her hands. "I could finally spend a good afternoon with Hibiscus!"

Lope seemed bored out of his mind at this discussion of her social calendar.

"You met her," Vinyáya pointed out, making Lope blink slowly in disinterested response. "At the promotion ball. The reporter. Hibiscus Brenner, mother of the Kelp boys? She seemed quite taken with you. I suppose she'd jump at a chance to learn a bit more about you, perhaps do a nice exposé..."

Finally following the conversation with a degree of interest that Vinyáya found appropriate, Lope opened his mouth to give a warning.

"We could discuss the five years you spent routinely asking me to dinner, despite my not being interested."

"I never pressured you, if that is what you are implying."

"Or how you were demanding to fuck me from day one."

Lope leaned over the desk to get close to Vinyáya's constantly smirking face, the better to yell at her. "That is an exaggeration! I respected your refusals, and you willingly slept with me!"

Vinyáya hummed and leaned over until she almost brushed her lips against Lope's, their breaths twining. "How, once you had me in bed, you begged me to suck on your toes..."

"I did no such thing!" Lope shrieked, with all the vocal dignity of a pubescent at his first coed pool party.

"I know!" Vinyáya laughed, laying delicate fingers on her collarbone, as if to stifle her chest's tremors. "And I'm sure Brenner will suspect, but that won't keep her from including it in the story."

Teeth clenched so hard they didn't even open for enunciation, Lope said, "I will sue you for slander."

"And you will win, I suppose. Though Brenner will be let off for reporting the words of a credible witness." Vinyáya pouted, as if sympathizing with his loss. "And, as for me...well, I suppose I will have to wait another decade to pay off my house. Such a shame. I only have ten months left and all."

"And I will make you issue a public denial!"

"Oh, for certain!" Vinyáya chirped. "It might even get on the news a few nights in a row, if things are slow. But...I rather think every woman you woo from then on will be wondering. Is it true? Are you're going to ask them to..." She did something rather obscene with her tongue.

Lope stared at her mouth with a degree of interest Vinyáya did not approve of.

"And, then of course, there will be the newspapers," she said quickly. "Oh, they won't repeat the story," Vinyáya assured when it looked like Lope was about to interrupt. "Far too dangerous. But they won't really let the story go away, will they? It's just too good. I can just imagine the headlines now." She held her hands up, expanding them in the fashion of a producer trying to woo an actor with the image of their name in lights. "'Councilman Lope once again toes the party line.'" She looked at him, smiling. "Quite catchy, don't you think?"

"Do you really imagine," Lope growled, "that I am going to be intimidated by this threat?"

"Well, yes," Vinyáya said, sliding off the desk, pulling down on her dress as it drifted up her thighs. "Just remember: that is what I come up with on two minutes' notice. Give me until lunchtime tomorrow, and I can have something really juicy." She began to walk to the door, but paused, patting her lips contemplatively as she consulted the male.

"Which is worse for a man of your advanced age: a small penis or erectile dysfunction?" At Lope's shocked coughs, she tsked. "No, no, I think premature ejaculation really spans all ages. And it just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?"

Before Lope could give further threats, Vinyáya glanced at her gold and sapphire moonometer. "Oh, dear. Ten minutes are up. We wouldn't want to keep everyone waiting, would we?" Bestowing on him a smile so sweet it would rot a dwarf's teeth, Vinyáya pushed open the door.

She was immediately accosted by a high-stepping, panicky Duke. "Vinyáya!" He trumpeted, ears laid back. "You need to talk to Cahartez. I can't get him to say anything but 'does the four go here?' Damned Mud Man logic puzzle!"

"Easy, Duke," Vinyáya soothed, giving the centaur a brisk rub on his flank. "I believe an agreement has been reached."

"What? How?" Duke reared just as Lope exited his office. "Did you blow him for his vote or something?"

Duke was being flamboyantly overdramatic enough for Vinyáya to know it wasn't a real accusation, but it gave her pause. She gained a positively shark-like grin, playing her tongue against the back of one glittering incisor, catching Lope's eyes. "Now that would be an intolerable scandal, wouldn't it? The People would scream for both of our resignations if a nasty little rumor like that got out."

Lope paled, but drew himself up, stepping around Duke's flank and making his way to the Council chambers. He yelled back at them, for the first time in his life resembling a crotchety old man. "Don't dawdle, you two! Time is up!"

Duke watched the male's back, tail flipping furiously as he took in the barely restrained panic. When Lope was out of view, he turned to Vinyáya, shaking a finger in her face. "You, my dear, are evil."

"Oh, but aren't I?" Vinyáya held out her arm to the centaur "Shall we?"

Duke lay his fingers on Vinyáya's forearm, fanning at his face. "Oh, let's shall." Hips swaying to a degree most impressive on a centaur, Duke followed Vinyáya down the halls and to the chambers, giggling as Vinyáya kissed his hand and pulled out a chair, adding in a little batting of the eyelashes as he sat.

The chambers at large rolled their eyes at the interchange, waiting for the Council Head to call order.

Lope took far too long clearing his throat. Three tries, in fact, plus one squeaky false start before he choked out the proper words. "I hereby declare this meeting of the Council reconvened." A tap of the gavel. "As the first order of business, I rescind my motion on the matter of Vinyáya's leave from duties."

Nyle sprang to his feet, the ball of flames he had been playing with falling to the floor, where it caught a circular rug with the crest of Haven on fire. "Then I shall be the first to motion on the matter!"

Vinyáya stared at the flaming carpet, counting up in her head.

Taking up his chiefly duties, Duke yanked a fire extinguished from under his desk, dousing the rug with a jet streaming foam, a white fog spreading out to dim the lights of the room. Scowling, he turned to Nyle, sending a quarter-second puff at the goblin's smoldering hands.

Nyle hissed, plus-sign shaped, goat-like pupils flashing red.

Another burst of foam, this time to the mouth, cut off the challenge, to be replaced by cursing and tongue-scraping.

"Two point three seconds," Vinyáya commented, smiling when Duke snapped, having just missed a new record.

"It has been motioned," Lope intoned officially, ignoring the rather common emergency. "Who seconds this motion?"

Crickets were heard. Cahartez looked about, lips smacking at the carapaced intruders.

Lope looked to Cahartez, who leaned back in his chair, yawning at length. An appeal to Scale resulted in the sprite snapping his wings tight to his body. When he caught Vinyáya's eyes, they became locked for what seemed like several minutes. When Lope blinked at a bead of sweat as it neared his eye, Vinyáya smirked and turned her head away.

"Very well," he muttered. "The motion dies." An almost feeble tap of the gavel brought the discussion to an end. "Next on the agenda—"

"You know, we just talked about this," Vinyáya said, leaning over her desk and cradling her head with both hands, "but I'd like to motion again on the discussion of Qwan's Council appointment." She looked about the room, lips curled.

Duke, sighed, shaking his head at the repetition. Despite this, he took a breath, preparing to back her.

"I second the motion."

Vinyáya's cat eyes went a millimeter wider as she looked over at Cahartez, still sprawled negligently in his chair. At the dwarf's shrug, she glanced down, hiding the change in her smile.

"Very well," Lope said through gritted teeth. "It has been motioned and seconded that we discuss a new appointment to the Council. All those in favor, say 'aye.'"

As the votes came in, Vinyáya thought back to her earlier plan.

What would Fowl do?

Go for the throat and not let go until his opponent backed away, tail tucked between his legs, never to return.

One would have thought Vinyáya and Duke quite drunk, based on their volume as they recited the Ballad of King Frond. Vinyáya had taken a cab to the meeting, to avoid mussing her dress, but Duke insisted on giving her a ride home.

A literal ride.

She perched side-saddle, one arm curled around his shoulder to help counteract the rolling gate. Duke was, in fact, a little tipsy, having enjoyed a celebratory swig or two from his office stash, though not so much as to make him sway across the sidewalk. Just enough to make all his notes go flat, and for him to not notice.

"Brilliant. Bloody fucking brilliant!" Duke stopped in front of the little blue house, helping his companion slide off without the risk of twisting her ankle. Once the woman was down, he patted his flank back to glossy smoothness. "Qwan is going to be...ecstatic."

"Ecstatic?" Vinyáya barked a laugh, shaking her head. "He's going to be all solemn, and say it's an honor, and then complain that he has no time to train N°1!"

"Bloody. Fucking. Brilliant!" Duke did a little hop, kicking, then pranced in place. "Come on. Let's go in, have a little party."

"Duke, I'm exhausted. Qwan is going to call me the second he hears and ask a zillion questions, so I have got to get some sleep."

Duke pouted. "Spoilsport." He only brightened when Vinyáya grabbed his horns and pulled him down for a peck on the cheek.

"Now go on. Don't want those wives of yours thinking you and I are having a little office fling, now do you?"

"Oh, girl," Fleetwood neighed, bumping the elf with his rump. "You wish you could have all this." He let his hands flit down his chest, displaying his totality.

"Off with you!" Vinyáya ordered, slapping the offending rump, sending Duke in a bucking run down the street, booming with laughter.

Shaking her head, but smiling, Vinyáya walked up the winding garden path. Being as quiet as possible, she slid her key in, pausing to give her boarder a chance to settle (maybe it was time to get a quieter lock, in addition to new garden doors...), and then finally walked in.

She needn't have worried about the key. There was a movie menu repeating softly from the living room, masking her entrance. That would grate on her nerves quite quickly, so she first made her way to enforce silence.

Lili looked up from the couch, a flash of fear hitting her as the house's owner came into view, soon morphing into embarrassment as the older woman's eyes widened, taking in the scene.

Lili was lying on her back, pinned down by the unconscious body of Grub Kelp. He lay on top of and slightly between her legs, and her ankles had came about to hold onto his calves for stability once he had fallen asleep and begun to slip. She had never been in this position before, but Lili was well aware of what it looked like. A pity it wasn't what it looked like.

"I'm trapped," she mouthed.

Grub snorted in his sleep.

Vinyáya raised an eyebrow.

"Help me," Lili pleaded.

Vinyáya did her version of "helping" by walking around the glass coffee table to turn off the television, waving at Lili as she went back to the hall.

Keeping in a frustrated scream, Lili let her head fall back on the couch arm. She had never taken a boy home for illicit activities when her family was alive, but she suspected her current feelings would be appreciated by naughty girls everywhere.

From the kitchen, there came a sharp squeaking. Lili squinted, analyzing it according to the sound-recognition coaching Trouble had been giving her in preparation for her far-distant captain's exam. Mostly short squeaks, but also some longer ones that altered in pitch. It was...writing on a dry erase board! Lili grinned. Trouble would be proud.

Vinyáya reappeared in the living room a moment later, holding the board and waving it to make sure Lili noticed the message.

Rub his wing nubs.

Lili scowled and mouthed at her: "Why?"

Shrugging, Vinyáya tossed the board onto an armchair and breezed out of the hall. A few seconds later, her bedroom door creaked open, then closed again with an extra click as the lock was done.

Biting her lip, Lili considered. Wing nubs—the vestigial bones on an elf's shoulder blades—were generally neutral in feeling. For it to be a tip from Vinyáya, how irritated must Grub get when his were touched? Enough to wake him up and free her, it seemed. But too much to be worth the risk? It had been a nice night, and ending it with a fight over a little prodding seemed unwise.

Still...she could start with a soft touch, to test the waters. She really wanted free, after all. He was sort of lying on her bladder, and the couch was extremely uncomfortable, to boot.

Carefully, Lili wrapped her arms around Grub's chest, hands resting on the tough bits of skin near the ends of his shoulders. She considered her position and smiled. No wonder she felt like a bad little schoolgirl. Her skirt had even come up a bit when Grub shifted in his sleep, making it look like they were post-coital, instead of non-coital.

Experimentally, she did a single, circular test rub.

Grub's eyes tightened, fighting her touch and consciousness.

A little more pressure on the subsequent trio of rubs.

Grub moaned, shaking his head.

Clear progress. Throwing caution to the wind, Lili began to rub at his shoulders firmly and constantly.

At first, she thought nothing was going to happen. It would be just like the wing commander to give her false information. Then she felt a vibration against her chest. It took her quite a while to realize what she was feeling. Grub was...growling?

I guess he really doesn't like it. Well, only a little more and I'm—

"D'arvit," Lili whispered.

Grub had risen to his elbows, moving himself up Lili's body, and clamped his teeth in the curve of her neck. Pain briefly flared at the attack, washed away as his teeth gentled, soon replaced by a clever tongue that banished the sting with a trickle of magic.

As the tongue became merely a component in a series of kisses that transferred from Lili's neck to her collarbone and down to the swell of her breasts, the true measure of Vinyáya's treachery became apparent. She hadn't revealed an irritating spot, but instead divulged the secret switch that turned Grub on in the most positive sense.

Gods bless that bitch, Lili thought as she tried to stifle a moan. One of Grub's hands tugged at the collar of her shirt, pulling until his mouth moved to find something hard among the soft flesh, making Lili whimper and arch into him. His skills—Gods bless that bitch for teaching him to do that with his tongue!—were amplified by her months of waiting. She couldn't remember the last time this had felt so good.

The male's other hand pushed at Lili's leg, moving it higher up on his waist. When he was satisfied with the new position, his hand came back down her thigh, light fingertips raising goosebumps behind his touch as he came to his inevitable goal.

There wasn't much to the lace underthings, and he merely pulled them to the side, leaving Lili bare. She gasped at the shock of cold metal when his belt buckle and buttons pressed against her, but Grub's hand was already fumbling to remove the impediments.

"We," Lili began, the sound papery and torn away as she heard a zipper being swiftly taken down. Licking her lips, she tried again. "We should go back to my place. AH!" She whimpered as the kind lips were momentarily replaced by teeth, testing her limits. "Gods, Grub..."

Growl deepening, Grub looked up at Lili, eyes opening, but fuzzy. "You...heh," he paused, licking his lips and returning for a brush along the woman's curves. "You finally said my name..."

Lili's brows drew together. "What?"

Grub pulled away, glowing with happiness. He blinked down at her.


Grub's vision only took a second to sharpen as he came fully awake.

But it only took a half-second for tears to come to Lili's eyes. "Get off me, Grub."

He mostly complied, holding himself up with his arms. "Lili, what...oh." He looked down at the crux of their bodies, eyes widening as he took in the meager air between them. "Oh..."

"Get. OFF!" Lili jerked her body to the side, getting power behind her movements, and came back, fist slamming into Grub's lips.

His head snapped back, body following the momentum until he was overbalanced, falling sideways off the couch, head crashing into the corner of the coffee table. Red stars burst behind his eyes, veins of black on the edge threatening to overtake him.

Lili leapt off the couch and over the table, a blur to the man's distorted vision.

"Lili...wait," he rasped, the blackness being replaced by blue as he sat up.

She didn't even break stride as she leaned over to hook her long nails in a pair of sandals by the door. Not bothering to put them back on, she wrenched the front door open, dashing down the garden path, bare feet slamming into the paving stones with a noise like gunshots.

"Lili...wait!" Struggling to his feet and staggering, Grub ran pell-mell for the door. He arrived just in time to catch sight of Lili taking a running leap off the sidewalk, arms pinwheeling as her feet tapped lightly on the passenger-side door of her convertible, momentum carrying her past it to the driver's seat, where she slammed into the door as she settled. Grub dimly thought that Holly would be proud of the move—it was the kind you would expect from a gymnast, or a ninja—but the idea slipped away as the car roared to life, tires screeching as Lili J-turned back towards Principality Hill.

Finishing his re-dressing as he ran, Grub followed down the center of the street, legs burning as he pushed them past their limits. "Lili! Lili, please! Lili! WAIT!"

It was far too late, and he knew it, but Grub couldn't accept the finality until he came to the end of the street and looked about, the silver car long lost to sight. His legs were weak, and he didn't even bother to go to the side of the road before he crashed to his knees, crying out at the pain of impact.

Chest heaving, Grub fumbled in his pockets, taking out his cell phone and speed-dialing the fleeing woman. As he expected, there were two rings before he was sent to voicemail. On a second try, he was sent straight to the message box. Sinking further to rest on his calves, Grub tried to think logically. Help. He needed help.

He dialed the only number that came to mind.

Trouble answered, voice a low rumble, nearly drowned out by thumping club music that Grub knew would be felt deep in the commander's bones, wherever he was. "Grub, this had better be good. I am in tonight, and my date? She has a twin, Grub. Identical. Twin. Better. Be. Good."

Shaking his head, fingers pulling at his hair, Grub whimpered. "Trouble...I think I really fucked up."

Chapter Text

Behind-the-scenes (beware, TAC spoilers!)

In the living room of Mrs. Kit's flat, there were mixed feelings.

Grub was pouting because he had not made a single damned appearance in the book. But, as usual, no one was paying attention to him.

Holly, Lili, Trouble, and Artemis were all sitting at the coffee table. There were two bottles of alcohol on the table, and two glasses. The boys were the ones using the glasses, toasting freely.

"I'm not currently dating Holly!" Trouble cheered, clinking his glass to Artemis's, delighted at the author's technical loss of the infamous "The-Smut-That-Shall-Never-Be-Written" bet.

"And I," Artemis crowed, downing the glass of champagne without complaint about the five-dollar price tag and harsh palate, "am going to have a ménage à trois!" He added extra French to the pronunciation, and the boys clinked their glasses so hard that most of the wine spilled out. Truly, their cup runneth over.

Holly and Lili passed the bottle of tequila between them, glad that Artemis had discovered a delightful loophole on the alcohol problem: not asking a human if you could drink their spirits was a sort of theft, and theft of a human's drink was certainly not the same as sharing drinks with a human.

"It's okay, boss," Lili hiccoughed. "We'll get through this...together."

It was possibly the worst thing she could have said, and Holly took to her feet, going into Kit's office and slamming the door behind her.

On the couch, watching the kiddies, Vinyáya held up her head with one hand, leaning on the arm rest. She seemed the most neutral of the bunch. "No appearances, so likely dead...but no body found, so possibly alive..."

Then, she smiled. "But...zombies."

She could live with it, killed in the Ar ctic or not.

Chapter 32: I Know What's At Stake

Week 27

It didn't take long for Vinyáya to figure out why Frond was absent from Kelp's activities all weekend, and she was fully behind Lili's rage. Sure, it was flattering to know she had made such an...impression on the young man. At the same time, remaining involved with him was becoming far too complicated. Or far too simple. She wasn't really sure which.

Time passed quickly. Rising on Monday morning to the smell of activated yeast and cinnamon felt like a dream. She was warm and...light, somehow. She couldn't recall waking in the middle of the night, which never happened, of late. More than five hours of sleep, and she would either have to sojourn to the recycling lounge, empty the fridge, or have a brief and intense conversation with her wildly kicking fetus (said fetus wasn't a good listener, so this was rarely effective). But now she was relaxed, and the world felt soft and perfect and seemed to wrap about her like a blanket.

The scent of cooking cinnamon and apples enticed her, luring her from bed, and she followed the sinful pastry smell down the hall and into the kitchen. Her robe floated about her with each move, the silk tickling her legs with a sound like a sigh. She didn't feel hungry, precisely, but it seemed the thing to do.

Predictably, Grub was in residence, facing away from the door as he finished washing the morning's dishes. The sight of him made Vinyáya freeze, heart racing.

He wasn't...wearing a shirt. She couldn't remember the last time she had taken the effort to remove his clothes, and a lot seemed to have changed in those many months. There was some definition to his back that she had never expected, and his muscles could be seen shifting under the skin whenever he moved. And this was distracting, truly, but there was something far more puzzling. Something beyond the mystery of why he was bare-chested in the kitchen (very odd, as even being barefoot in the kitchen was against his nature). Something she had never seen before.

"Kelp...when..." She stepped forward, covering the distance between them. He did not react to her, and she stopped a pace away, fingertips tingling as she ached to touch the anomaly. Just an inch before she did, her hand jerked back, as if she had gone too close to a blazing fire.

Finally, she tried again. "When...did you get a tattoo?"

Grub looked over his shoulder, scowling. "Years ago. Don't tell me you never noticed." When she did not begin to immediately proclaim that she had noticed, he shook his head, burnt orange hair drifting about his eyes and brushing his neck. "Figures..."

"I...guess I didn't look much."

As he returned back to his task, she continued to examine the black ink.

It seemed like a homemade crest or coat of arms, the top bordered by a banner with the words "Lower Elements Police" in a stylized Gnommish script that could have been called Gothic, if the People had ever had such a period. Below it were two acorns, followed by a name: "Major Manfred Elric Kelp," to show that the dual acorns should have been rendered in gold, if any color had been used in their creation. Then two dates, separated by a dash, and, finally, in small type, a long list of awards and honors leading to the bottom point of the crest.

It was an impressive piece. Even though all of the ink was black, its intricate shading and size, covering almost all of the man's back, indicated that it took several sessions to complete. It was almost perfect, as well, but for a thin, jagged line at the bottom point, skittering off towards the male's hip.

Her fingers seemed to move of their own volition, pressing against Grub's back, right where the mistake began. A little jolt went up her arm, making Vinyáya bite her lower lip, eyes closing for a few moments as she waited for the feeling to disperse.

Grub tensed instantly, but did not move away, or even speak. He did, however, breath a little faster.

Composed again, Vinyáya traced the error at a glacial pace. "What happened here?"

"That's...where the artist started." She could hear the self-depreciating smile in his words. "I flinched."

"Hmmm..." She let her touch go back to the crest proper, following the curved outline towards his shoulders. "It's easy to get things like that fixed. They have a special laser for it. You can't even see a difference. Why didn't you have it done?" She almost expected the lines to feel raised or depressed, but there was no difference between the blackened skin and the natural bronze bordering it.

"'s a reminder." Grub sighed, dropping a dish back to the water, letting his head hang as he submitted to the contact. He wasn't shaking or moving away, but the muscles in his back twitched, and he steadied himself by putting his arms out on either side of the sink, keeping himself propped up, knuckles turning white as he gripped the stainless steel.

"A reminder?" Vinyáya asked, trying to read the dates. She knew they were dates, but why did her vision of them seem so...incomplete? So blurry? "A reminder of what?"

"To never..." Grub shook his head, loose hair shifting about his ears. "To never...d'arvit!"

He spun, grabbing Vinyaya's trespassing hand at the wrist.

She gasped, jerking back, but her arm barely moved. How had he become so strong? Even her standard hold breaks failed, and, when she stopped the physical resistance to switch to intimidating glares, Grub took advantage of the stillness, pulling the woman to his bare chest, free arm wrapping about her waist so she stood flush against him. She tried to gasp again as she felt a familiar tension between them, needy and pressed to her flat stomach.

Something was very wrong here...

She found she had never appreciated his height before. Vinyáya was tall for a female elf, but Grub stood over a hand higher, and she had the unfamiliar sensation of having to look up into a man's eyes, rather than at a level. When he spoke, it was in a deep, husky voice that made her knees weak, a region higher and between them going aflame at the undeniable lust in his words.

"I kept it to remind me to never flinch from something I want."

And then his lips dived, catching Vinyaya's. She tried to fight, at first, and made an odd squeak as his tongue forced her lips apart, entering her mouth and coaxing her to return the oral caress. She only seemed to resist a moment, and then it was too hot and too sweet and he must have been sneaking little bits of his cooking that morning because he tasted like cinnamon and apples and she moaned so loud she blushed, moaning again when he growled in approval, sucking on the tip of her tongue and flicking it with his own.

They broke off, panting, and Grub began to step forward, pushing Vinyáya before him, and there was no denying that his final destination was one of their bedrooms, where he would take her as he had done so many times before.

She couldn't let that happen. Not now. It would be...great, but now...?

Vinyáya dug in her feet, sending them both to a temporary stop. She was frantic, mind fuzzier than even her most inebriated moments as a college fairy, and perhaps that was why her words became so mixed up. She tried to ask the simple question: "Why do you want me?" Because why should he, after being treated as a toy, an enemy, a dog, a burden, a nothing?

What came out in a scream was so much scarier.

"Why did I want you?"

After an extended silence, while the words echoed about the house, he laughed. Grub released her waist, using a thumb to brush an unruly strand of hair from her eyes and behind an ear, then tracing down the tender ridge and beyond, soon exploring her lips, ending by holding onto her chin as he leaned in to touch their mouths together in a softer caress.

Vinyáya could not help but close her eyes and sigh into it, because, gods, he was pretty damned good at that. Why had she never tried this before? It made all of the right parts of her go tender, and she barely caught his answer when they broke off.

"Because, Vinyá know I'll never leave you."

She met this with a soft smile, eyelids fluttering open.

Then widening completely with a sharp intake of breath.

"I've got this, Wing Commander," the sprite—so long gone, but, gods, so familiar that she could remember even the little patches of missing stubble on his face where he was scarred from old missions—saluted as he backed away from her and towards the waiting pod.

Her mind reeled. Where had...what was...was he really...? "Lieutenant?" Vinyáya whispered, mouth going dry in the hot magma chute.

Her eyes drifted beyond him. Behind him. To the waiting pod that would soon fall towards the core in a smooth curve. Fall and fall and...

"Lieutenant!" She found she was yelling, even though she had not willed herself to do so. It was unstoppable. No. It had never happened. It wasn't going to happen. She reached out, catching the sprite's wrist.

A second later, she screamed and let go, staggering back. She held her hand up and saw the palm was white and red and black, instantly branded and blistered. At the tip of her ring finger, scorched bone peeked through.

That was when she began to scream.

Vinyáya was still screaming as she shot up in bed, on the verge of falling out as she struggled against the covers, one hand held out to her dream figure. She was panting, and it took several seconds for her to fully wake up.

A crash came from somewhere in the house, followed by pounding feet and a shrill call to almost match her own. "Vinyáya!"

She took a deep, painful breath. "What the fuck!"

The pounding steps stopped at her door, and the knob clattered as it was gripped, but not turned. "Vinyáya?" Grub ventured. "A-are you okay?"

"Y-yeah," she said quickly, wiping at her forehead. Her hand was slick as it came away, but so was her entire body. Including—she was horrified to realize—the throbbing area between her legs. She bit her lip to choke off a gasp as her body flared, still affected by the first half of her dream. "A nightmare! That's all."

"A...nightmare?" Grub said, and he sounded justifiably skeptical.

"Yeah. Just a nightmare. I'm awake." She tried to swing her legs out of bed, but froze as the blankets moved over her bare chest, forced to cover her mouth to stifle another moan. A fantasy that intense, and dream-Kelp didn't have the gods-damned decency to finish her off?

A moment later, Vinyáya's mind tripped as it realized she was wishing that dreams of Grub Kelp could make her climax in her sleep. She promptly decided to forget that she had ever had that thought.

"Do you...need help?"

Actually, if you wouldn't mind, come in here and "No! I'm fine. I'm awake, now. All's well."

"Oh...well, good." The knob clattered again as Grub let go, likely backing away from the dragon's lair as fast as possible. "Um...breakfast is gonna be late. I dropped it when you...when I heard you."

Vinyáya blessed his self-editing. She probably would have bitched him into a corner if he acknowledged that she was screaming in terror as she slept. "Yes. That's fine. I'll be out in a minute."

"Okay. Good."



Vinyáya was about to shout orders for Grub to stop being an idiot and leave her alone when she heard his retreating footsteps. She tried a brief breathing exercise to reclaim control of her body, but pregnancy hormones were having none of that. The fear of the latter half of her dream was subsumed by the feelings from the first half until her breathing increased in tempo and her blood ran fast and hot, making every part of her terribly sensitive. She needed a shower. Not a cold shower, though. Fuck cold showers. She needed something almost scalding hot on her back and a body-warm jets...elsewhere.

Resolving to take to cleansing measures (physical and mental) even before she ate, Vinyáya slid out of bed, wrapping her robe on tight to maintain some modesty. Her pajama bottoms still fit (if allowed to rest low, beyond the curve of her stomach), but the top was a lost cause, no button able to conquer her now globe-like breasts. She had meant to purchase the dreaded "maternity clothes" this weekend, but with Qwan's celebrations and interviews with the media on the appointment, it never happened. Now, even her red silk robe was getting tight about the chest. That should have been her first clue in the dream, she decided. The robe had fit. And her stomach hadn't been swelled!

And she had wanted Grub Kelp. Dreams did strange things, that was for certain...

Ready for some time alone, she prepared to move down the hall with as much dignity and nonchalance as possible. And did so, until she came across the laundry room door, at which point her peripheral vision sent an urgent message to her feet, bringing her to an instant halt, head whipping to look inside.

Grub finished removing his shirt and then froze, looking at Vinyáya. A long second passed as they stared each-other down, hoping the gods would be kind and make this moment disappear.

When it became obvious that the gods were—as ever—complete fuckwits, Grub clutched the shirt to his chest and stepped back. "V-Vinyaya!" His elbow jabbed a box of detergent on top of the dryer, knocking it to the floor, where it filled the air (and their nostrils) with a white, summer-rainstorm-scented cloud (if the packaging wasn't lying). Grub sneezed as he took another step, the backs of his legs crashing against a laundry basket, arms pinwheeling as he fell, landing square in the middle of the dirty clothes, sending up another lightning-scented puff.

"Breakfast!" He shrieked in a rather girly manner. "I spilled it! On my shirt!"

"I see," Vinyáya said, eyes trying to flick from the scene. She prayed for confusion of the strong scents in the air. The detergent and something on Grub—likely the cinnamon she kept smelling in her dreams—would hopefully combine to mask her musk. Elves weren't much better than humans at identification by scent, but even a dull-nosed human would get suspicious at her particular aroma, at the moment. And Grub? Not a chance in the world that he wouldn't know what was wrong with her.

She needed a distraction from her own thoughts, and decided to look at the timer on the washer, as if she actually did any of the laundry (honestly, she wasn't sure if she knew how the damned thing worked). That glance was a huge mistake. The washer—off kilter from being slammed into by the male—was thumping loudly. She remembered something Holly had once told her in a bout of happy-hour margarita silliness: the best part about moving in with Fowl was having a washer and dryer. They did far more laundry than was strictly necessary.

Whilst this thought crossed her mind, Grub managed to right himself, turning so his back faced his host, scrambling in the basket for something to wrap about his upper body.

Vinyáya's eyes flicked to the elf again, and she gasped. It couldn't be. It just...couldn't!

Then, she processed the sight completely. What the hell? Vinyáya tilted her head to the side, inspecting the man's back. "Um...Kelp?"

"Y-yes?" Grub squeaked, scrambling as he dropped a likely towel.

"When...did you get a tattoo?"

Grub shot up straight, looking at Vinyáya over his shoulder. "I didn't."

Pointing, Vinyáya said, "Then what the hell is on your back?"

Grub tried to keep turning and craning his neck to see his own spine, but was thwarted by anatomy. He grunted with each effort, grabbing at the muscles of his shoulder—nowhere near as developed as Dream-Kelp, Vinyáya was pleased to see...and then she remembered that she shouldn't remember that—in an attempt to pull his skin into view. "I don't have a tattoo! D'arvit, I knew I shouldn't have agreed to drink with Trouble last night!"

Vinyáya finally noticed the bloodshot quality to the young man's eyes and assumed—quite rightly—that his big brother had got the captain shitfaced for the express purpose of taking a little artistic revenge on the behalf of the offended Frond. Quite treacherous, but Vinyáya had to admit that she was impressed with the Commander's drawing skills. It was a cartoon, but with a definite style that showed Trouble had developed his own signature, and a sort of life and movement that was amplified by the shifting of Grub's back muscles.

"Grrr...what is it?" Grub finally demanded, though he still tried to see.

It was hard work to contain her laughter. "It, appears to be an ejaculating unicorn."

Grub froze, agape.

Vinyáya nodded in answer to his unvoiced question.

The sight of Grub trying to recoil from his own back finally made Vinyáya lose it, bursting into laughter, tears coming to her eyes. "Gods, you idiot! Of course Trouble planned to do something like that! He's Frond's damned champion!"

"I gotta wash this off," Grub whimpered, fingers twitching and shoulders hunched, as if the drawn spray was not ink, but instead real magical stallion essence. "Ew. Ew ew ew ew ew ew ew!" He didn't even bother to put his shirt on—perhaps to avoid tainting it with randy unicorn—as he sprinted down the hall to get at the bathing pond.

Watching him go, Vinyáya hoped Commander Kelp hadn't used permanent marker for the drawing. She needed to use the pond, and soon. The sight of the real Grub Kelp had done a lot to wash away the memory of her dream, but she still needed to do indecent things with the spray nozzle.

Lili had expected the roses to be waiting on her desk when she came into work. She had refused delivery on a bouquet at the mansion, along with deleting all of her boyfriend's (...ex-boyfriend's) messages, both text and voice. As apologies went, those sort of things were standard. Every man that cheated on her—And, gods, there were a lot. It seemed every male thought she was the perfect combination of slutty, dumb, and forgiving.—would start with roses, the more ardent eventually moving on the jewelry. The jewelry was always accepted. Then pawned for a shopping spree.

She liked to give the trespassers a little gift during these trips. Normally, some very nice lotion...and a box of tissues.

She could be sort of bitchy like that.

She did not expect, however, to see Grub in the office as well, leaning against her desk as he waited for her to arrive. She assumed the memory of Holly's threat would have warned him off. He was, apparently, twice as stupid as she had previously thought.

He looked up as the door clicked open, and the most complicated mix of hope, fear, shame, and supplication flashed across his face. "Lili, I—"

"Out," she snapped, high heels clicking in the sudden silence as she walked past, placing her keys and coffee on the desk as she sat down.

"I'm not leaving until you listen to me." Grub turned, pushing the trio of roses across the desk until they nudged the coffee mug, at which point he stepped back, hands sliding into his pockets.

Lili looked dispassionately at the barely blooming red buds. "Nice bouquet, but I'm used to a bit more when guys fuck up."

"I figured the size wouldn't matter if you were going to just throw them in my face. Also, three would hurt a lot less than a dozen." He smiled tentatively.

"Tempting. Real tempting. Lucky for you, I have work to do, so scat." She flipped her hands at the door before returning to her duties, bringing a tablet out from a drawer and booting. When he did not leave, she flicked again, jaw clenching as she tried to keep her rage in check.

He shook his head. "I'm not leaving until you talk to me."

"About what?" Lili snapped, slamming her stylus to the desk with a sharp crack. "About how you were thinking of Vinyáya when you were about to fuck me?"

"I was asleep!' Grub looked injured at the first shot, but he remained standing, prepared for a long and painful fight.

"Can't you have the common decency," Lili whispered, "to lie about it?"

"No," Grub shook his head head rapidly. "I am not going to lie to you. I didn't before, and I wont now."

"How honorable," Lili scathed. "Then tell me why you want to fuck that harpy."

"I don't!" Grub choked. "Gods, haven't I said that enough? I don't want to be with Vinyáya! I can't control my dreams! Haven't you ever had dreams about someone you shouldn't?"

Lili smirked, skin tingling in anticipation as she launched her return assault. It was irresistible. "Oh, you mean like your brother?"

Lili expected Grub's reaction would help her shattered ego. It was the exact look she assumed he would take on: reeling back, eyes wide a moment before narrowing as he steeled himself against a flash of anger, fists clenching at his side, and a small shimmer at the corners of his eyes a moment later, which he barely fought down before it resulted in tears. He didn't even try speaking, jaw twitching as his teeth ground together.

"You can go, now," Lili whispered. She had expected to feel satiated by the obvious pain she had inflicted. An eye for an eye. When she didn't feel anything, the adrenalin seemed to drain out of her and she looked back to her tablet. "I'm very busy today."

"I wont, Lili. I don't know how many times I have to say this: I don't want to be with Vinyáya. I want to be with you. What can I do to make you realize that?"

She clicked through a few files, pulling up the day's schedule. She did this automatically, and, all the while, a question formed in her mind. Slowly, she looked up to his eyes, and spoke softly. "Why wont you sleep with me?"

Grub paused. "I..."

"And why do you still live with her?"

His confusion was an elegant answer.

"Have you even looked for a new place?" Lili studied Grub's reactions, wondering if she could catch him in a lie, if he ever attempted one.

"It's just...going to be easier to take care of the child if we live together. You know that."

"Easier for you. I thought you were going to look for a better apartment, since you had more time, but you haven't, have you?" She paused, waiting for him to answer, but Grub just looked at the floor.

"That's what I thought. So you can say you want to be with me all you want. Because, whenever I drop you off after work, I know you're going home to her. Maybe not as her lover," Lili shrugged, "but, never came home as mine, either."


"Go," she whispered, letting her eyes fall back to the tablet, struggling to make sense of the Gnommish symbols. "Just...go. Please."

It seemed there was nothing left for Grub to say. He turned slowly, as if he hoped the delay would give Lili time to rethink her words and call him back, but she began to flip though her work for the day, letting him leave without protest, the door clicking softly behind him.

"I'd really like to know," Vinyáya said fairly randomly as she looked at a battle plan for the upcoming B'wa Kell raid, "why I get blamed for everything that goes wrong in that stupid boy's life."

Trouble hummed as he moved the red plastic elf that represented a Retrieval officer to a position behind three green Recon sprites. "Because you're a bitch."

Commander Verres of LEPTraffic coughed, poking at the blue magna-bike figure that stood in for his containment squad. If he had been a younger sprite, perhaps he would have been included in the conversation, but, being in his thirteenth century, he was far removed from the office's sexual politics. As a result, he found the entire affair fairly incomprehensible. The things these young fairies got up to, these days. The Wing Commander at least should have known better, surely.

Vinyáya glared past Verres, hitting Trouble with her gaze. "Commander. Do I need to file an incident report on your sexist language?"

"No," Holly said casually, putting a green figure that looked remarkably like a certain optically diverse elf on the roof of their target building. "Not if he's telling the truth. You're a bitch."

"Qwan?" Vinyáya appealed to the head of the telekinetic division.

"I find such language to be offensive to both genders, as well as morally repugnant," Qwan replied, using his powers to position three opaque purple warlocks at the likely exits.

Vinyáya smiled warmly at her new fellow councilman. "Thank you."

"Though, otherwise, I agree."

Vinyáya stopped smiling.

Verres began to make very quiet car chase noises as he drove one of his squad cars to the main roadway. If not for the dignity of his post, he would have avoided these meetings. He was practically useless, with Reconnaissance, Retrieval, and the Telekinetics on the case. He was practically an exclusive paper-pusher. In fact, he'd begun to wonder if he should court this scandalous Captain Kelp for another member of his office team. His magna-bike driving tests from back in the Academy hadn't been that bad, so he could probably hold his own back in the ranks of Traffic. Especially if he never had to actually ride a bike.

Vinyáya chose to ignore the motor-mouthing, waiting for him to park back in position, which he did, once her sour looks registered. That done, she analyzed the model. As the force's most battle-tested staff member, since the passing of Root, she was in charge of tactics. Luckily, after her centuries covertly running Section 8, she was a tactical genius of the highest caliber. She could even give Fowl a run for his money during a game of the fairy equivalent of 'Axis and Allies.'

"Not the skylight, Short. You know better than that. A forty foot fall, and all the while having to dodge goblin flames? No. Here." She moved the sub-commander's figure to a position halfway down the building, lengthwise. "Middle window, to get some height, and the glass will throw off their aim a bit. Not as flashy, but Fowl is less apt to seek revenge on me when your head gets blasted off."

Holly pouted and crossed her arms.

After making a few more adjustments, Vinyáya took a step back from the display and nodded "We'll need to adapt this as more intel comes in, but it's the best we can do. Scan." She said the last in a sharp, loud voice.

A blue matrix of light appeared on the table, rotating as it scanned up the models. In seconds, it was done, and a hologram appeared above the physical model, duplicating the setup. A pair of three-dimensional numbers were added in the air above the building, the first starting at "1" and the second at "100%." As the model began to play out, calculating the odds of success with that number of goblins in the warehouse, the officers took the opportunity to continue chatting.

"Lili's in a pissy mood," Holly commented to Trouble, who nodded.

"My brother did something stupid again."

"Ah," Holly said, not really needing the explanation. "Let me guess...a stern talking-to and commiseration over drinks?"

"Sure," Trouble grinned.

Holly tilted her head sideways, inspecting her boss's self-satisfied expression. "Masturbating troll?"

"Ejaculating unicorn, actually."

"Oh, that's new!" Holly cheered. "Got some pictures?"

"Yeah!" Trouble took his phone out, flipping through the images, bringing Holly much delight. Verres also leaned over, chuckling at the image of the passed-out younger Kelp's decorated back. Qwan grunted in disapproval, but his lips twitched when the phone was turned for him to see.

"Kelp," Vinyáya said blandly, "are you ever going to let that girl fight her own battles? You've been punishing her exes since the Academy." Vinyáya paused the simulation as success dropped below 90%, fiddling with the model before starting it again with success shooting back up.

"Nope," Trouble declared. Tipping the phone sideways and leaning towards Holly, he traced along the image. "This part was really brilliant. It's on his latissimus dorsi, so ever time he moves his arm, it looks like the stuff just flies out!"

"Nice!" Holly grinned but quickly sobered. "Vinyáya is right, though. You can't run in and coach the boy or avenge Lili every time something goes wrong."

"Oh?" Trouble said, suddenly snapping his phone closed. "Why not?"

"Because your brother is dating Lili," Vinyáya pointed out. "Not you." The simulation reached the warehouses capacity, success still at about 90%, and she nodded, satisfied.

"I am aware of that, Wing Commander."

"The point stands," Vinyáya said, shutting down the analysis. "You both are far too protective of that woman. Short, you can't always be Lili's guardian, and Kelp, you can't always be her avenger."

Trouble snorted, leaning back in his chair, arms crossing over his broad chest. "And if they break up and Grub is suddenly single again and sleeping just down the hall from you, then that is just so convenient, isn't it?"

Vinyáya pushed back against the table, sliding her chair away so her stomach could clear it without much effort. She gave a nod to Verres and Qwan, a little smile to Holly, and a longer stare to the Recon and Retrieval Commander. She sighed, shaking her head. " really have no idea what you are talking about."

After a long stare-down, Trouble tilted his head to the side. His mouth twitched, eyes turning flat and emotionless. "Actually...I really think I do."

Grub was leaning against Lili's car when her shift ended, looking at one untied shoe, as if contemplating the effort involved in fixing it.

Lili saw him from far across the parking lot—really, he was pretty obvious, being visible over all the cars—and steeled herself. If he was going to look for a fight, she wanted a swift victory. Her strides were long and came down sharply, the click of her heels echoing in the stone structure.

Grub looked up at the sound, swallowing as he caught sight of the woman coming down upon him. The worst part about the LEP, he realized, is that every woman in it may not be able to kick your ass, but they intend to give it their best shot.

"Grub," Lili snapped, taking out her keys and clicking the remote once, only unlocking the driver's side door (sort of a moot point, being that it was a convertible, and the top was down), "go away."

"I need a ride," Grub said, ignoring the command.

Lili felt her insides flare. The gall!

"It's in South Haven, on Lionel Court," Grub said, holding out his data tablet. "It's a long way, and I don't think I can run there before the landlord has to leave."

Lili stopped her advance only a few feet from Grub, looking down at the tablet. The top half of the screen was dedicated to a sideshow, showing rock gardens, underground parking, a pool, and the interior of a sparsely decorated apartment. The lower half was filled with text too fine for her to read easily.

Despite herself, Lili reached out, taking the tablet so she could read the description. It gave those standard phrases advertisers used to hype up what was essentially a featureless living space: "friendly staff," "located near major shopping areas," "flexible leasing options." Of course, Lili had never moved out of Frond Mansion, except for her university and Academy terms, when she stayed in dorms. Thus, the warning signs did not jump out at her. She merely scrolled through, silently reading. When she was done, she looked at Grub, awaiting an explanation.

"'re right," he said, hands going back into his pockets and shrugging. "If I want this to work I can't...keep going on like I have been." He met her eyes, trying to read the flatness. "And I'm sorry it took hurting you to make me realize that. And I'll understand if you don't want—"

"Get in the car, Grub," she ordered.

He complied forthwith, opening the driver's side door and clambering over the gearshift, cursing as he bumped his knee. He rubbed it disconsolately as he strapped in and Lili took her place again, inspecting the tablet's driving instructions.

The listing was in a part of Haven that she had never visited before, which boded ill for it's prospects. LEPTraffic officers were sent on a rotation through every street in Haven, having to complete at least one circuit before being considered for other sections of the LEP, but Lili was always a special case, and had been kept from dangerous areas while she did her very brief stint. Her mental map of the city had been mostly filled out thereafter by nightclub encounters that led to offers to "come back to my place, have a cup of coffee, and listen to the new Cosmic Nomads album." For her to not recognize a street was a very bad sign.

Lili almost refused to park outside the complex, but reigned her fears in. The neighbors were...less than savory. A few goblins bore the concave-curved pentagon of the B'wa Kell Triad (no one had corrected them on the meaning of "triad" back when the logo was picked), and clustered around a quarter of the stairways. Buck demons with the crescent moon tattoo popular among the fiercer members of their species were also prominent, and seemed to deliberately take up places at stairways across the street from the milling goblins. No one was making any hostile moves, though. Not even a derisive call across the traffic.

Noting her reservations, Grub smiled, pulling out his tablet and showing off the street's crime statistics. Lili was surprised to see they were akin to Fowl's neighborhood, and that was in a fairly boring suburb of Haven.

"It's mostly older bucks and goblins with little kids. It's...a stalemate, here. Sacred ground, of a sort. I think the women keep them in check with various threats."

Lili didn't quite find that comforting. "So they just go elsewhere to kill each other."

"No," Grub muttered, but said no more in defense of the standoffish neighbors.

The apartment complex itself was forgettable, with white-painted corridors that could have used a new coat about a decade ago. The scents of each resident's cooking had melded in the halls, making the two elves wrinkle their noses as they followed the pixie landlord up three flights of stairs. Once they came to the last landing, having climbed three flights ("Elevator's broken. She's testy, but we get her fixed within a day or two of every breakdown, so move-in wont be an issue. Most likely."), Lili felt her heart rate kick up. There was an echo of danger in her brain as the landlord made some assurances about major repairs and the apartment being "like new" before Grub had to do any paperwork. Something was wrong in the air.

When the door was opened, she understood what had set off the alarms.

It looked like a large and very thorough bomb had gone off in the small apartment. The smell of ash, smoke damage, and burnt carpet made her step back. Fire had never been a prime enemy to elves like it was to dwarves, but such a disaster area was intimidating to anyone.

Grub also seemed on edge, but he mastered himself and followed the pixie inside, looking slowly around. He only dimly took in the smaller fairy's repeated promises about paperwork. Instead, he analyzed the space, frowning at the miniscule kitchen, though nodding in approval at the two small bedrooms. The baby would need more space, so he could squeeze into the other room. It would only really fit a twin bed and dresser, but Grub wasn't too worried about mattress size and accommodating a guest in his sleeping quarters. His chances were looking pretty grim, on that front.

"What happened here?" Lili finally asked, laying a steadying hand on the door-frame so she could lift her stiletto heels high above the rubble as she entered. "A volcano?" Her heel caught on the very tip of some rubble, making it collapse in a sudden black puff. She jumped away, rather agile for being on heels, and stared at the spontaneous destruction. "Or a nuke?"

"Close," the landlord said. "The B'wa Kell. The last tenant in here was a fire dancer with the Haven circus troop. A damned good one, too. Could light her entire body up, make shapes in the air, the whole shebang. She was only holed up in here until she got the down-payment together for a place in the city center." He shook his head, shoving hands into his pockets. "Then the Triad courted her for a captaincy."

Lili raised an eyebrow. "A female in the B'wa Kell? And a captain?"

The pixie snorted, shaking his head, the small movement of his long hair making nearby mounds of ash puff into the air. "Daft, even if she was good with fire. A pretty goblin girl like that? She was less likely to be on top of a dozen lieutenant and more likely to be under a dozen, if you get my meaning."

Lili winced, all too familiar with the list of crimes laid against former B'wa Kell members. She found 'treason' to be the least troubling.

The landlord continued. "Well, I was going through all the proper avenues to get her evicted—illegal activities, after all, real bad for the neighborhood—and her cronies didn't take it kindly. Had the place ablaze and were about to move onto the neighbors when some of the Mooner bucks come in to calm things down in their own way."

Grub pursed his lips. "What do you mean, 'their own way'?"

"Er...not sure." The pixie rubbed at one ear, grinning maliciously. "Didn't ask."

Lili shot Grub an alarmed look. The face-off between the goblins and demons had begun within days of the return of the 8th family (with the dwarves having a small conniption, debating between the devil they knew and the demons they didn't). Seeing tattoos from both factions on the street was shocking, and now this story?

"So...doesn't this girl...this..."

"Scree. 'Captain' Scree."

"Doesn't she still rent this place?"

"After all this damage?" The pixie kicked at a wall, plasterboard crumbling in a minor explosion of white and black smoke, revealing the metal structure beneath. "Not a chance. She lost the appeals by not showing, and, if she does come back, the Mooners know her face. I'd imagine the Triad does, too."

"Well, the layout is good enough. Small kitchen aside." Grub took the few steps necessary to go between the two bedrooms and the postage-stamp sized shower cubicle. "No bathtub...that'll be difficult, when the baby gets older."

Lili turned to the landlord, giving him her brightest socialite smile, instantly bedazzling him and no doubt leading to a future late-night fantasy. "Could you excuse me for a moment? Thaaaaaaaanks, bye!" She shoved Grub into the shower, shutting the opaque door behind them.

Finding himself alone in the shower with Lili Frond, Grub jumped, backing up until his shoulders were jabbed by the nozzles, making him wince. He swallowed, trying to smile winningly. "Yes?"

"Are you crazy?" Lili hissed. "Even if this place wasn't a sty, it's a matchbox. Literally!"

"It'll be repaired before I rent," Grub patiently repeated the landlords words. "And my research shows this is a great investment. It's an up-and-coming neighborhood, with a lot of those demons and goblins out there leaving their gangs. With rent control, it'll be an amazing place to live in five to ten years."

"It's 'up-and-coming' because it can't fall any further down." Lili knew her wild gesticulations would be visible through the smoky glass, but apparently words weren't effective in communicating to Grub today, so flailing must be employed. "Ye gods, how long will repairs even take?"

Grub opened his mouth and, a split-second later, his brows lowered. He reached across Lili's body to open the shower door, popping his head out to address the pixie. "How long until it's ready?"

"I've got the best construction team in Haven for the job," The pixie crowed. "Friday four weeks from today!"

Lili leaned sideways, gifting the pixie with another smile. "Thanks. Just one more second." As she leaned back in, she yanked Grub with her, the door rattling ominously behind him, advancing a large crack at the top edge. "Oh. Four weeks. That's convenient."

"Actually, I was under the impression that it wasn't," Grub groused.

"I was being sarcastic."

"I know! I'm not an idiot!"

"You could have fooled me! How did you even get talked into looking at this tragedy?"

"Because it's what I can afford," Grub muttered, leaning against the wall, yelping as he jostled the knobs, releasing a splash of soot-clogged water onto his back before he scrambled to turn it off.

"That's a lie," Lili said, eyes narrowing, moving back to avoid any future sprays. "Holly had a place of her own as a captain, and it was small, but it wasn't a smokehouse."

Grub tried to pull his shirt around to brush off the ashes, but only succeeding in smearing them further and dirtying his fingers. He held them away from his body, grimacing. "Holly didn't have a baby, and the housing shortage wasn't nearly so bad when she got her place. No demons, yet."

Lili didn't bother to acknowledge the truth of his words. "Then what about your mother's place? She got over the pregnancy, right? And she has two extra rooms. She'd go crazy to have her grandchild under the same roof."

Grub bit his lip. "Yeah...she would, but..." He sighed, shaking his head. "That wouldn't really solve my problem."

"And the problem is..." Lili held out her hands, shaking them in a request for the answer. Wasn't it women who were supposed to dance around questions?

"I...need a place of my own," Grub began, a pink tinge to his cheeks. "A place to come home to at night. And..." Now he was definitely blushing, his face a brilliant red and his voice quite small and shaky. "A-a-a-a place where y-you"

Lili blinked and looked around the shower. Even when it hadn't been through an inferno, she imagined this was no intimate cubicle, but a daily struggle to move about in. "Grub...this place is horrible."

"But it would be mine," Grub protested, leaning forward for an instant, going back when Lili edged away from his advance. He looked at the quarter-inch of ash on the linoleum. "I...didn't think you'd really want to, would mean that, when I came home, I wouldn't be coming home to...anyone." He coughed, rubbing at the back of his neck, wincing as he remembered the ash. Sighing in defeat, he rubbed his hand on the side of his work trousers, leaving a smudge on the dark material. " wanted to be here when I came back."

Lili blinked. "I am so not moving in here."

Grub laughed. "I reeeeeally didn't expect you to." He sighed, rubbing his other sooty hand on his pants, then held them out from his body, waiting in the air between the two elves. "But...I was sort of'd come by on move-in day. Have dinner with me. And..." He swallowed. "And...not go back up the Hill that night."

Lili breathed in sharply. ""

Grub nodded.

"You...want to sleep with me?"

If possible, he turned even redder. "Uh...huh."

" four weeks."

Grub wilted. He began to babble. "Look, I know that's a long time, but it's the best I can do, and you're right and I really think it's a bad idea for me to go back other place if we do...something together, and I'm really sorry, but I don't want to have dreams like that, and I think moving away will stop them, and I've already had one dream about you, and that's a good start, and I'll get more batteries and—"

Lili crushed her lips to Grub's to get him to shut up.

When she pulled away many seconds later, he was grinning like an idiot. "Lili?"

She took his hands and then took a deep breath. She nodded. "Yes." Lili smiled and laughed. "Okay! Oh, gods, I don't know why I'm even agreeing to this, but yes!"

Shaking with small hysterical laughs, Grub wrapped his arms around Lili, tucking his head into her neck and breathing in her clean chocolate-and-raspberry scent. "Thank you...thank you...I'm so sorry. Thank you..."

" thing," Lili said, pulling back, though she did not leave his arms.

Grub's blush began to fade quite quickly as he approached a pallor. He was accustomed to extra conditions making his life a living hell, and he wasn't sure if he could sidestep any without ruining everything. "Y-yes?"

"You've had a dream about me?" Lili asked, smirking.

The blush came back. Grub looked as if he wasn't sure if he should be ashamed or not. "Uh...yeah."

"A sex dream?"

"Yyyyyyes?" He whimpered.

She considered this. "Before or after we began dating?"

He winced. "Um...before." He felt suddenly sleazy, which was something with which he was not accustomed.

"Oh." She thought for a moment. "Was it any good?"

"I woke up before I finished," Grub said without thinking. He took one arm from Lili's waist and slapped his hand over his mouth. Ruined. Everything, ruined.

Laughing, Lili peeled his hand away, kissing him again. When they stopped, she winked at him and purred. "I feel sort of bad...but I guarantee, that wont happen again."

He beamed. "Really?" When Lili nodded and winked, he did a rather coordinated turn, moving her back towards the taps (luckily not triggering them) and opened the shower door.

The landlord looked at them with great interest. Knowing Frond's reputation, he was likely wondering if they were shagging while he waited.

Still grinning, Grub asked the big question. "Where's the application?"

When the pixie dashed off to get the paperwork, unable to believe that he had managed to convince someone to wait in line for this heap, Lili looked at Grub quizzically. Believing every major question had just been answered, Grub copied her expression. "What?"

Lili reached around his side, tapping the man's back. "Swear toad orgy?"

Grub blinked. "Um...oh! No. Ejaculating unicorn."

"Oh, that's new!" Lili narrowed her eyes, smiling slyly. "Can I see?"

"That...would require me taking my shirt off."




Vinyáya was a bit put-off when Grub didn't arrive home a half-hour after her, as he normally did. The supply of leftovers was depleted after his weekend-long disappearance. As time dragged by, she eventually gave in to the demands of nature, ordering in from her favorite Chinese place. The food seemed oddly bland, and she only ate a quarter of it before shoving the containers into the fridge with a disgusted grunt.

Frustrated by the culinary failure, she went to the living room and fired up her latest game, wanting to distract herself from her long day in the office. Short had gone out on a Section 8 mission without consulting her. It was official. She wasn't on leave, but she was off combat duty for the duration of the pregnancy. And if she couldn't bust some heads in real life, she would have to do so in a digital environment, lest things become mighty unpleasant around here.

Grub appeared midway through a one of those stupid escort missions (really, when the Council finally approved her request to make a zombie apocalypse battle-plan, she would be making sure every Haven citizen knew to get moving and not tax the troops with rescuing them from their own moronic holing-up instincts), and Vinyáya did him the courtesy of pausing the game, pulling the headset down to her shoulders to talk.

"You're in late," she said, and then berated herself. It sounded far too accusing for a tenant-landlord relationship. He could go out and get trashed as he mourned his lost relationship if he so chose, so long as the rent was on time and the house stayed clean.

"Oh, yeah." Grub wouldn't look at her as he moved about in the hallway, taking off his messenger bag and kicking off his shoes. "Lili and I lost track of time."

Vinyáya blinked. "Lili?" She looked away quickly. There had been no need to repeat him. Stupid.

"Yeah," he said again, trying to sound light and cheery. "We saw Amber Moon again—Ratliff really does well as Diggums, you should go see it—and then we had dinner at this curry place near..." He coughed, walking past the doorway to the living room, heading to his bedroom. "Near my new apartment."

"Oh," Vinyáya said softly. "You're...moving. Congratulations. About time, huh?" She looked down at the controller, brushing her thumb along the buttons.

"Uh huh. Thanks. Hey, I'm wiped. You got dinner sorted yourself?"

She nodded. Then, remembering that Grub couldn't see her, she said, "Yes.

"Cool. I should have something ready for tomorrow's dinner, no problem. 'Night."

"'Night," the woman wished back. When she heard the bedroom door closed, she waved her hand at the television, the camera mounted within the screen catching the gesture and muting the volume from the television itself, sending everything to her headset. She put it back on slowly, wriggling the ear-buds until they expanded to fill her ear canals, blocking all outside sound and allowing her to take advantage of the 3D positional audio processing, and then adjusted the volume for a quieter assault.

Everything went wrong when she began the game again. Hordes of the undead came from every trail of the Amazon forest, and she watched as first her troops were set upon and disappeared, and then her charge, and then the camera zoomed out to show her avatar being torn limb from limb, its screams filling her ears.

A spray of blood hit the screen, oozing down until the words "Game Over" glowed at her in red and brain-gray.

She snapped her hand at the television, turning off screen and console in one gesture. Then Vinyáya sat in the dark for a moment before putting down the controller and removing her headset, tossing it onto the couch.

Tentatively, she spread her fingers across her stomach, feeling the tautness and fluttery movements beneath. It...her son was winding down. The spicy chicken had made him react quite a bit more than she expected, but now he was slowing. She would probably get a few hours that night where they both slept. That was a blessing.

She gritted her teeth as she used the couch to help her stand, legs wobbly from sitting too long. Down the hall she went, footsteps faltering a moment at Grub's door. Then she was past it, and at her own door, opening it and flicking on the light.

Vinyáya stared at her bed. It had never looked quite so...large before.

She shook her head.

Her dream had lied to her.

Of course he would leave. She had given him ever reason to do so.

Chapter Text

Week 28

"And watch out for that one," Corporal Vein muttered, jerking his chin in the direction of a passing female elf. "She may look all cute, but she will get you demoted to Traffic so fast, it's not even funny."

Vein's fellow sprite—an old roommate from the Academy, finally passed into the ranks of the LEP—craned his head to follow the she-elf's progress down the hall. She was flanked by a rapidly-speaking gnome, and was giving him curt answers, as if they should have been obvious. Her hair was long and he found it's every flick instantly hypnotizing. An almost...unbelievable red...

Then he caught the hint of silver at the roots. A dye-job. He scowled, trying to assess the elf. The true hair color and her body just didn't match. "How old is she?"

Vein laughed. "Not too young, not too old. Five-twenty-three." At his new comrade's puzzled expression, he leaned in close, though not bothering to whisper. In fact, speaking far louder than was really necessary. "She's supposed to be a bit...mixed-up, you know?"

From near the end of the hall, the woman's ears twitched and her head whipped about, red hair blossoming like a flame. Her glare was dangerous, dissecting the two sprites in an instant, and finding their component parts less than pleasing.

Nervously, the new officer raised a hand and waved. After a moment, he grinned and waved more enthusiastically.

The woman's eyes narrow further. With a dismissive huff, she turned and continued down the hall at double-speed, her attendant jogging to keep up.

Vinyáya did not wake up screaming. She must have been laying improperly as she slept, putting some sort of kink in her airways. Her vision warbled for a few seconds before solidifying and being replaced by a dull headache.

She sat up, cradling her temples, and managed to suppress most of a moan. It was less over the pain, and more over the dream. Or perhaps "dream" was the wrong word. A memory. Either way, this was the second time in as many weeks that her subconscious had done this. Perhaps it was a pregnancy symptom? She briefly considered asking her tenant at breakfast. He would surely know, but he also might want to know the contents of the dreams, and that was just not acceptable.

She reached blindly behind her, to the side of the bed, and picked up her alarm clock, bringing it close to her face for inspection. The red glowing numbers mocked her. Fifteen minutes before the alarm would go off. Not long enough to go back to sleep and savor those few minutes, but early enough to make her feel less than rested, though she had been having increased difficulties with that for the past several weeks, in general.

Grumbling, she decided it was best to get out of bed. She could have used the extra Z's, but she could also take some time going over the day's strategy meeting. Things were coming to a head, and she needed to be at that head.

"Okay, Team Red. Who do you have on the roster?"

Holly, leaning back in her chair, her feet on the conference table and bouncing to some unheard beat, looked down at her list, even though she knew the team by heart. "Myself, of course. Backup is Vein. Flank officers are Judas and Paprika. Then Green, Lucas, Alder, Frederick, and Lingon."

Vinyáya took a few moments to consider the crew. She frowned at Vein, as most women did, but made no objections, eventually nodding her approval. "Excellent. Blue team?"

Trouble took the tablet from Holly, earning a little glare from Vinyáya for not bringing his own equipment, and switched to his readout. "Myself, backup as Terragon. Flank Yasmin and Rowan. Marksmen Evons, Watercress, Carmichael, and Sadie."

"Not Watercress," Vinyáya said firmly, "he's been undergoing psychological treatment since the B'wa Kell Rebellion. Half and half, he'll go into a breakdown if a bunch of goblins are coming at him, even if he's got a working gun. Someone a bit more stable."

Trouble rolled his eyes. He'd gone through practically every officer in Recon and Retrieval to make a good team for this raid. His job was being made doubly difficult with Holly heading the physical attack, and him in the crew that would be waiting outside the warehouse. By all rights, he should have been the one starting the operation, but she had refused to be involved unless she got the maximum possible adrenalin kick. He really needed to give her more topside missions; having her own little bit of the surface in bed with her wasn't doing much, anymore.

So, as the linchpin of the operation, Holly got first pick, and Trouble looked to the remainders. Who...who...who...

On the side of Trouble that Holly did not occupy, Lili smirked. "Captain Kelp?"

"Let's also go with competent," Vinyáya sneered, flipping through the latest results from the firing range. "At least for the front lines. Or are you trying to kill off your suitor?" She ignored Lili's scowl, finally alighting on a top-ranking name. "Halberd. He's that new demon captain, right? Not one of the Mooners, is he?"

"Nope. Has a goblin wife, actually." Trouble shook his head. "Not sure if it will work, but I'll ask him. Her family doesn't seem to be involved in the Triad, but you never know. He might have some problems stunning goblins."

"Well, either way, run him through a few mixed-family sims, and check his reaction times. We need to know if any of our officers will hesitate unduly for any fairy family."

"Will-do, Wing Commander."

"Right." Briskly, Vinyáya moved onto the other teams, tearing them apart with brutal efficiency. The commanders were generally aware of her demands for operations such as this, but the woman was far more strict on the details than even the eldest of the leaders, Commander Verres. She had seen far too many fairies killed in action to allow even the smallest glitch to go by without protest.

Not everyone was feeling generous about her inspection. "She's a bit testy," Trouble whispered sideways to Lili, leaning towards the woman so she could hear him better.

"She's just bitter," Lili said, a twitch in her lips. She shifted closer, turning her head so she could whisper directly in Trouble's ear. "Grub is moving out."

Trouble whipped his head about, a spark of lightning going down his back as his nose brushed alongside Lili's just before she backed away to give them extra space. "I didn't know that. How did you know that?"

She blushed, tucking a strand of hair behind her pointy ears. "I took him to the complex and went on the tour with him. It's a dump, but he seems happy."

"Really?" Trouble scowled. "You went with him?"

"Yeah. I'll be helping him move. A few weeks from now, but better later than never, huh?" She laughed uncertainly. "He, uh...hasn't told you?"

"Not a word," Trouble furrowed his brows. "I'd expect at least a text or something."

"Maybe he wants to tell you in person," Lili said, suddenly worried she had spilled a secret, but Grub hadn't told her to hold off. "Or...maybe I just kept distracting him this weekend." She shut her mouth suddenly. The words had come out all wrong.

Again, the commander's head snapped about, eyes wide in panic. "You two...?"

Lili's nose scrunched up as she laughed, trying to dispel her tension. "We had a talk. A long talk. A...few long talks, really."

"Some yelling, I hope," Trouble growled.

"Stop it," Lili chastised, elbowing the male in his ribs. "I can take care of myself just fine. And I think we worked everything out. He agreed he needs to move out. I agreed to be patient, until he's got his own place." No sense telling the man what she was being patient for. As much as she trusted Trouble to not go postal on his little brother, she imagined he didn't want to hear about Grub's sexual future. Everyone in the Lower Elements had already learned far too much about the boy's past.

"Lili...look, this is none of my business, I know, but..." Trouble took a deep breath, rubbing a hand over his face. "I just...I probably shouldn't say this, with everything that's going on, but—"

"NOW, Frond," Vinyáya snapped, making both of the chatting elves jump several inches out of their chairs. She stabbed the tip of her stylus into the desk as she glared a hole through Lili. "Your team? Or are you just going to cobble together the booking officers on the day of?"

Before Trouble could try again (if he had possessed the courage to do so, which he did not), Lili pulled away, taking out her own tablet. At least she didn't have communal equipment with Holly and Trouble to spark more of the Wing Commander's ire. Pulling up her records, she read off the names. "Gilroy, Barrow, Jenkins, Ulfred, Kinsey, and Marrow." She paused, putting her tablet down. "Plus myself. And Captain Kelp, of course."

"No, find a replacement for Kelp," Vinyáya ordered swiftly, though her tone didn't have any emotional inflection to match the speed.

Lili flared. "What? Find a...he's the best office worker we've got! If you want us to process anything in a reasonable time—and by that, I mean before you go into labor—I need Kelp to help with booking!"

"And if you listened," Vinyáya snapped back, pulling up the already submitted rosters, "you'd know that Commander Verres chose him as a Traffic officer for the raid. least it isn't the front lines... Pick someone else, Lieutenant."

Lili stared at the text documents, which were being displayed on a rotating hologram, giving everyone a chance to go over the officers and give their objections. There, right below the commander of LEPTraffic, was one "Cptn. Kelp," along with a dozen other officers in squad cars and on magna-bikes. He seemed to have been assigned to a single patrol, which meant he would be doing bike-work.

The world seemed to go out of focus and stretch for a few heartbeats, with the only clear part of Lili's vision focusing on Grub's name. Field work? He was going into combat? Not that she had any worries about him being truly hurt in the action. The real danger would be faced by Holly and her team, and Traffic was merely there to catch the few goblins that might get through Trouble and Qwan's nets. If anyone needed to be worried, it was Verres, and his poor, structurally unsound desk. It would never survive the formal complaints.

She considered protesting, demanding that Grub be given to her squad. It was where he would best serve the People. He would take on about a third of the workload, all on his own. Processing the new prisoners would take hours after a raid of this size, and she wanted the best team she could get to help finish up. She was already looking at a double shift, if things went on schedule. And nothing is on schedule, when it comes to government work.

After a minute, Lili scowled and looked at her roster. "'m gonna need an additional officer, if I can't have Kelp. Bracken and Barley, I think."

"Just one more? Huh." Vinyáya made a note on her copy of the document and finalized the change. "Okay. That's the day-of team. Now, we raid on Wednesday, if all goes according to schedule. And, if the schedule goes off, it had better be because the goblins have had a change of plans, not because any of you or your officers are being procrastinators! We need to make sure there's also a few officers set aside for the weekend, to go through any critical leads we have that haven't been looked into by the end of work on Friday. If that means some of the new recruits need to stay and work overtime, so be it. But I want you to look at any officer with less than full-time hours first. No sense sending exhausted people into the field to mess things up. I'll make sure we have a judge or two in line to get warrants for forensics to search residences, if things look iffy, as well."

There was an extended silence as Vinyáya looked about, raising an eyebrow. "Well? Questions?"

There were a few. Mostly dealing with the Ops Booth team ("Well, of course Fowl and Foaly are going to be giving technical support. We've got Short going in, don't we? Those two wont leave her alone.") and hazard pay. When the last stupid question were asked (and the last few were rather stupid, one of particular interest from a dwarf that was curious about the lunch selections mid-raid, and if he could get out, because it was "mystery meat" day at the cafeteria), Lili considered rushing to Verres and begging him to pass on Grub, and give him to the team that really needed him. Surely there was a more promising officer than Grub-fricking-Kelp. But she held back, biting her lip as the Traffic Commander left the room.

Trouble came up to her side and paused. "Well."

Another long silence.

Trouble grinned, a bit more maliciously than any big brother should. "Holy shit. I hope someone gets Grub's reaction on camera."

Despite her loyalties, Lili concurred

An inter-office memo was sent to Captain Kelp within minutes of the strategy meeting's conclusion. At first, he was inclined to ignore the arrival beep, being in the middle of a particularly puzzling bit of data finding for the Ops Booth team, and having already tuned out a half-dozen other requests for help on the paperwork front. More work. Superb. Just what he had always wanted.

Then he saw the red-for-urgent tag on the message and felt his interest perk. No one used urgent designation for him, unless it really was urgent. He'd gone on extended tirades about this subject before, and had pretty much cowed the other officers into submission. Or at least annoyed them so much that they complied.

He clicked to open the memo.

Immediately, a yellow-tinged window popped up.

Clearance level 'Kindred' only. Please secure terminal and office before entering password.

Grub stared at the screen. Clearance? He'd never been given documents that required clearance before. Even on the Fowl case, he'd received all of his orders directly from his CO. 'Kindred' wasn't particularly high (the only lower level was 'Source,' and gods knew what levels were above Grub that he didn't know about), but the newly cleared captain felt a sudden surge of adrenalin. Pleasant adrenalin, in fact. He felt very...James Bond. Very...badass.

He tried to act nonchalant, leaning back in his chair, narrowing his eyes at the office door. Then casting about the office. Leaning back even more, he glanced down the long lines of his body, inspecting under the desk.

Finding no clever ninjas in wait, he sprang forward, pounding his password out on the keyboard, the racket so loud his ears twitched in tiny protest. There was a brief pause as the databases double-checked and then triple-checked his clearance, during which the mouse icon was replaced with a line of traveling hoof-prints

Then the file opened, and Grub's eyes flashed back and forth as he read, face lit with the backglow of the screen. It was a standard set of orders. In the top left, there was the standard LEP shield, with the silhouette of a wheel in the middle to designate Traffic as the originator. He raised his eyebrows at this. He had technically been in Retrieval for decades. The office squad, yes, but the Retrieval office squad.

Then he read the memo.

Seconds later, he crashed out of his office. "Trubs! TRUBS, you've gotta help OOF!"

Grub staggered back a step before falling directly and painfully on his tailbone, making him yelp, tears springing to his eyes.

"Careful, my boy," a jovial, grandfatherly voice said.

Grub looked up. Based on his reaction, one would have assumed he was suddenly faced with the Devil himself, in full demon aspect. "C-C-C-Commander Verres! I can't—"

"In your office, Captain. If you please." The sprite gestured at the door, tapping it with the end of his cane.

Grub scrambled to his feet, though he first shot back several feet as he failed to get his center of gravity underneath himself. When he was up, he jumped at the office door, slamming into it and making the nearby boarded-up windows rattle. His hands were sweaty, and they slipped on the doorknob for a full ten seconds before he rubbed them on his pants and used his shirt to grip the metal. Once the door was open, he nearly fell inside, spinning to face Verres, who walked in sedately, closing the door behind.

"Sir!" Grub yelped, holding his hands out in supplication. "You do not want me."

Verres raised his entire brow, looking for all the world like a dapper English gentleman that was about to lose his grip on his monocle. He soon smirked, wondering how often the young elf had made that argument with his romantic partners. Perhaps it made the women obstinate and insistent, rather than snapping them to their senses? "Really? Normally, Traffic is honored to have a Retrieval officer in a squad. And a captain? I can't recall an instance, and I've been on a good many missions." This was wild understatement. Verres refused to give his age, but by all accounts he was in his tenth century. His hair had thinned long ago, and was buzzed down regularly to remove the temptation to try a comb-over. He had spent a good many years riding the streets, and had one long scar on the left side of his face to prove it, along with a limp that required he use an azurite-topped walking stick whenever climbing a good number of stairs.

"I-hi-hi-hi-hiiiii..." Grub laughed, trying to look amused, but soon giving up, his face falling to blankness. "I'm the worst field officer ever."

"I am well aware, Captain," Verres said with a smile. It was good to see the young elf finally admitting it, after those years spent regaling the world with tales of his face-off with Butler. Before the bodyguard had been designated a friend to the People, he described the Mud Man as a twelve foot tall, razor-toothed, cannibalistic, and practically radioactive. "I find myself in dire straits, to be honest."


The commander iggnored the confusion. It was best he move through this quickly. The boy would catch up eventually. "What did you aspire to when you entered the Academy, Captain?"

Grub blinked, derailed. "Um...Retrieval One."

Verres smiled fondly. "Like your father and brother, yes. What about Short?"

"Um...LEPMarine, as a doctor, at first. Like her mother. Recon, after her first year."

"Miss Frond?"

"LEP...LEPRecon, too, I think."

"Pie-in-the-sky aspiration. Her backup was one of the surface containment squads. The telekinetics, if her Frond genetics ever kicked in. What about your roommate?"

"Retrieval, but what does that have to do with me joining the Wheelies! Or with me getting fried to cinders by a dozen goblins!"

"Stop being so over-dramatic," Verres ordered, momentarily losing the grandfatherly aspect. Then he was becalmed, sighing.

"No one aspires to Traffic." Verres shrugged, showing he was not so much insulted by the young officers as disappointed in them. "To be honest, I originally wanted to be on Kraken Watch, but after my first high-speed chase...well, that was fare more interesting than Old Shelly.

"...huh?" Grub said intelligently.

"Traffic is an...obligation, to most officers. Something between them and the 'real work' of the LEP." He shook his head. "Thus, I find myself with a deficit of...just about everything but the young and stupid, really."

"And...what?" Grub said, his attempt at a good question quickly bringing him to a vast space of mental wasteland. Perhaps if he had not just read his top-secret message, he would be able to comprehend the commander's musings, but that was a bit doubtful. The only thing he could focus on was how flammable hair was, and how his mummy was right about needing to get it cut. Before he ran aflame down the streets of Haven, looking like and screaming like a girl.

"Commanding officers, Kelp. Traffic gets every new, grand-standing Academy graduate, and someone needs to be there to organize their patrols, check their reports, and bring them to task when they do something wrong. People to make my job easier. And I think you would be a valuable addition to the team."

Grub stumbled through one pertinent fact, and then another. "But...the raid? And...organizing patrols? Like...subordinates?" He perked up at this idea. Then shrunk again as he thought of his inherent combustibility.

"Well, I can't just pull you from Retrieval with no explanation. So joining the Wheelies this once would be a sort of...trial run, I suppose."

Grub scowled. "And...why would I want to leave Retrieval?" Where his brother looked out for him? And no one had tried to kabob him for over a dozen years?

" see, as the large majority of my officers are fresh from the Academy, they come in at the lowest tier of the pay scale. So I have a small...a small budget surplus." Verres nodded in approval as Grub caught on and stood a fraction taller. "Retrieval has always been a bit more strapped on the budget issue, with all the equipment and containment. If you switch to Traffic, I can offer you an immediate raise of say...7.5 percent, plus the standard salary review after your 6 month trial period. If your work under me is as good as that under retrieval, I'd say you would qualify for the top raise then, and for quite some time afterward."

Grub did quick mental math. Overall, that would be an increase of about twelve percent, and it would come very soon after the birth. For a single father, it was one hell of an increase.

Still, he waited, chewing on the inside of his cheek. Not to see if there was a better officer; one little ride, and he would have enough extra dough for a generous car payment (and he would need a car, what with an infant to tote about). He knew his hesitations were irrational, but...he was an elf. An emotional creature. And Retrieval...

"...Captain," Verres said carefully. He knew well enough what was flashing in the man's head. His old hand shook just a fraction as he lay it on Grub's shoulder. "Your a fine Commander. Your father would have made one as well, if...well, if. And you have shown much improvement in these last months, if all the talk about the Plaza is true." He squeezed gently. "There is no shame in doing what you do best...even if it brings no 'glory.' Retrieval will keep you, certainly, but...Traffic would welcome you."

He patted Grub's shoulder one last time before taking his hand away, leaving it between them. "Think on it. And, either way...ride with us."

Not a command. Not a question. An invitation. And almost tentative.

Minutely, Grub nodded. He pulled himself together and slapped his hand to Verres's, shaking it strongly. His voice barely shook as he answered. "Y-yes, Commander. It would honor."

He was going to die.

"Woah," Lili said around a mouthful of buckwheat noodles. "I mean, I was in the meeting when Verres requested you, but...woah. You agreed?"

Grub shrugged, poking about in his own broth for the bits of seafood that flavored the dish. About them, the restaurant—an emulation of a variety of Asian cuisines from the surface, specializing in noodle and rice dishes—was filled with the low buzz of conversation, allowing them the necessary muddle of sound to freely discuss the operation. "I'm not sure I had a choice. I'm not on the injured list, so I've sort of got to go into the field if asked. Just no one has bothered in a decade." He frowned until he came across a tiny clam shell, which had opened in the process of cooking, revealing a bit of pink meat. He expertly grasped it in the chopsticks and popped it into his mouth, tonguing the meat free before picking the shell out again and laying it on the side of the bowl, looking quite content as he chewed.

"So...would you join Traffic?"

Grub tapped the side of his bowl several times, keeping it up as he spoke, though the cadence of his words and the tempo of his taps had nothing in common. "Well, my day-to-day wont change much," he said. "Just whose paperwork I'm doing. I guess I'd have some subordinates to order around." He grinned maliciously at the idea. "And I already help with some of the Traffic overflow, so I wont need much special training."

"Except getting used to a magna-bike and gun again," Lili pointed out.

"Yeah," he grumbled, darkening. "I'm a bit out of you think you could...?"

He petered off at Lili's own sullen rooting in her broth, and recalled why this was such a horrid thing to say. There had always been rumors about her test scores being falsified back in the Academy, but her mediocrity was mostly accurate. Except for biking. It had taken the woman weeks to go more than a quarter-mile without crashing in a spectacular fashion, and she never managed to get through an obstacle course without knocking over half of the penalty cones. The one time she had managed to get her gun out and shoot before she crashed, the instructor had been in physical therapy for an entire season, following the Rube Goldberg machine of friendly fire incidents. In the end, her father had given a good-sized donation to the LEP to have her car driving skills doubled, the extra replacing biking. There were still many magna-bikes in the LEP array that sported dents from her failures.

"You could always ask Vinyáya for help," Lili muttered.

Grub laughed dismissively. When Lili only stabbed at a prawn, rather than joining him and becoming her bright self again, he sighed.

Reaching across the table with his chopsticks, he pinched Lili's pouting lower lip, dragging her halfway across the table, where he met her with his own mouth. She was initially outraged at the treatment, but her prickliness soon smoothed into normal welcoming curves, letting their lips and tongues slip together, forming layers sweeter than anything Grub could make in the kitchen.

When they broke apart, Grub poked the blunt ends of his chopsticks on Lili's forehead, and they both smiled. "I can do this," he proclaimed with false grandeur, sitting back and sitting tall.

"I'm sure you can," Lili said with a wink that made Grub blush and grin in a lunatic fashion. While he was distracted, she dove her chopsticks into the man's noodles, coming up with a large shrimp.

"Hey!" Grub used his sticks to reach for the shellfish, but was blocked when Lili used her own utensils for an artful parry.

"Haha! It is mine! My father made me take fencing in high school! You shall never get it back!"

"Ah...if you have the art, then I'll just have to...fight dirty!" Grub picked up a noodle and tossed it at Lili's face.

She shrieked, raising one hand to keep the sopping noodle from impacting with her carefully applied makeup. When the danger had passed, she glared across at Grub, who had reclaimed his prize and was waving it triumphantly in her face. She pouted.

"Aw..." Grub crooned. "You are cute when you don't get your way."

The pout intensified.

Magnanimously, Grub held out his chopsticks, presenting the shrimp a few inches from Lili's lips. When she only looked down her nose at the tidbit, he let it bob, enticing her. "For the lovely one?"

Lili met Grub's eyes and smirked. There was really no sense in refusing the gift when he said it so aptly.

Lili slowly licked and parted her lips, mouth opening just wide enough to slide over the proffered treat, and then closed back down, wrapping gently about the enameled and decorated sticks. She made sure to keep her eyes on Grub's—his widening exactly as much as hers lidded—as she moaned in appreciation, dragging her lips incrementally off, leaving a thin line of pink lip gloss where she had been. She chewed slowly, eyes close as she let out another groan before swallowing and once again licking her lips.

When she opened her eyes, Grub was gaping at her, a flush rising to his cheeks as part of him realized that some of the surrounding customers had probably seen that little display. His chopsticks now drooped in what Lili suspected was a complete inverse of certain parts of his anatomy.

"I was wondering, Grub...this 'until the move' thing...does it apply to—"

She mouthed the last word. Based on Grub's whimper, it was obvious that he had worked the shapes out, even though he could not read lips.

Despite the fact that the letters "J," "O," "B," and "S" ended that sentence, the subject had nothing to do with their previous discussion on employment prospects.

Grub considered the question very seriously before he decided that, yes, it did apply to...those.

Lili shrugged. Then attacked Grub's meal again, this time stealing a scallop and popping it into her mouth before he had time to so much as blink.

This was too damned easy.

Chapter Text

Week 29

"This spot taken?"

Viny á ya looked up from her book to find one of the damned Traffic sprites sitting down across from her. He was quickly taking the items off his lunch try, perhaps hoping that the arraying of food would help entrench him in hostile territory.

"I suppose it is now," she conceded, going back to her book.

"Sweet!" The sprite began to eat heartily, though quietly. He didn't even go through the standard questions about what she was reading, which would have, of course, forced her to stop reading and explain about the lost Eighth Fairy Family at the exact last moment when she would want to do so. Things were becoming too tense, with the Section Eight missions going twice as often over the past few years as in her first three hundred years heading the organization. She was even considering taking on extra staff, if the Council agreed.

After a few minutes of the communal silence, Viny á ya surreptitiously looked about the cafeteria, frowning. There were plenty of seats available. In fact, a few were open next to Manfred Kelp and Julius Root, the two fairies vying for the position as next commander of Recon and Retrieval. Shouldn't this newcomer be sidling up to them for the favors they could give once the promotions were settled upon?

"Ah..." the new officer said as he licked the last sandwich juices from his fingers. He looked across at Viny á ya, smirking. "Well..."

She eased in some aspects, tensing in others. Here it comes, she thought, bringing up her mental defenses. He was merely making sure he didn't make an ass of himself on an empty stomach.

"Pleasure sitting with you. Gotta head out." Giving a casual salute for the casual setting, the corporal stood, gathered his empty food containers, and was gone from the table in scant instants.

Viny á ya looked across at his empty seat, blinking. She sat up straighter, casting around to follow his retreat, continuing to stare at the cafeteria doors long after he was gone.

"What in the world?"

She awoke groaning. Her back felt like someone was pushing their fists into it, with no thought to how it would rearrange her basic bodily structure. Another pair of fists had somehow managed to thrust past her skin, and were now clutching at her kidneys. Or perhaps those were her ovaries. It made a bit more sense, with the hormonal complications that had been hitting her of late, to be the latter.

When Vinyáya sat up, her head was swimming. A second later, the rush of blood made her brain throb, her eyes seeming to expand in their sockets. For a few seconds, she was sure that darkness would overtake her, and she would fall back to the bed and proceed to be unconscious for the next few minutes. Which would be kind of nice. Instead, the dizziness abated, though her eyes still felt uncomfortably large. With an extended moan of pain, she stood, letting another surge of blood attack her, and began readying herself for the day.

Despite herself, Vinyáya found that she was glad Holly would be taking on the point position of the big raid next week. Overall, she wasn't as skilled an officer as her senior, but Major Short had all the skills necessary to make the mission a success, minus the minor complication of a stomach roughly the size of North Dakota. The Wing Commander found herself baring her teeth viciously at the idea of Short having to deal with her own future gestational quarantine. Perhaps it was time to prod that Fowl boy into making some moves in that direction, just for a little revenge.

Shaking her head, Vinyáya began moving a bit faster. There was a lot to be done, if everything was to go off with minimal hitches, and that meant long, boring hours going over every report on the goblins and their allies from the last few weeks, in the off chance some little scrap of information could reveal a new, more advantageous course of action. Soon, though. Soon she could just...let go.

"D'arvit!" Grub brought his borrowed magna-bike to a stop, doing so a bit faster than was really desirable, with the result that he jolted forward a few inches, stomach thumping into the handlebars. His breath went half out, along with a little wince, and he paused, almost thrown off the front of the bike, and looked down. He felt a little chill run down the back of his neck. A few more miles per hour, and the head tube would have made quite sure that he was not going to be fathering any more children. And that, he decided, would be a travesty.

He'd arrived early to work on his driving, as he had since Verres waved the offer of a raise in front of his nose, so Grub didn't feel the need to look around the large underground practice arena before he dismounted the bike and kicked the stand out. No one else was about to tease him on his technique.

Taking a few steps back, he held his hands out flat, urging the bike to stay as it leaned over onto the triangular brace. He never expected that flimsy-looking bit of metal to hold up such a massive piece of equipment, but he hadn't had any embarrassing tumbles, yet. So, finding his ride was secure, he trotted back down his path, eyes scanning the ground until he came across the opaque Nimbus 3000, sporting quite a few scratches as it lay on the asphalt.

He leaned over to swipe it up with a disgusted grunt, immediately turning back toward his ride. This entire thing was ridiculous He was going to get himself killed. The last time Grub Kelp had been in action, he'd spent the majority of the time cowering behind his big brother. Admittedly, doing sweeps on a bike wasn't what most officers would consider action (after all, he was tasked with stunning from afar those perps that managed to get past the rather thick main defenses, not go into direct combat with anyone), but it was about 100% closer to the action than he would have preferred. For the past two weeks, he had been fervently cursing the name of Verres and his entire squadron, raise be damned.

It didn't help that he couldn't keep his grip on the gun, much less shoot it. Individually, he could do these tasks rather well. Riding through various obstacles? No problem, so long as he wasn't having to do any jumps. His street route for the raid was perfectly clear, so that wouldn't be an issue. Shooting? Not bad, though Short still laughed until she cried whenever she saw him in the range. Riding a magna-bike while shooting...accurately...without dropping the gun after every recoil?


Magnets, he decided. Adding magnets to LEP gloves and guns. That would be a perfect solution. He'd run that by the two techies, the next time he was called in for something. They might even listen to the idea for long enough to stop sneering. Or maybe not. One would think he'd get a bit more respect, after his promotion, but nooooo...

As he swung his leg back over the bike and settled in, tugging at his gloves to help his grip (as if that had any impact the last three dozen times he'd tried it...), Grub heard a distant roar. His ears twitched, narrowing down the source to the arena's entrance tunnel. Pulling back a velcro strip on his wrist, he squinted at the moonometer, which flashed in the long track lights. 9:15pm. The evening shift must have just finished their introductory gossip and decided to get down to training. This first driver would be followed by a few dozen other Traffic flunkies, and Grub did not fancy the idea of trying to recover his dropped weapon from a gang of testosterone-filled Wheelies. He imagined the scene wold roughly resemble a game of Keep Away in elementary school.

Holstering the gun, Grub kick-started the bike and veered off to the technical driving course. He didn't anticipate the need for fancy driving, but it couldn't hurt. Once a bit of time had passed from the arrival of the rookie Wheelies, he could make a dignified retreat. Maybe work on his standing accuracy in the range, or see if Fowl could whip up a solution to the recoil issue before next week.

Screwed. No doubting it. Screwed, screwed, screwed!

Week 30

Foaly and Artemis Fowl had, by now, gone through several major intelligence operations together, and had managed to establish that unspoken rapport and seamless movement about each other that made a few fairies think some sort of psychic bond had formed between the centaur and elf. During particularly intense moments, they could even be heard finishing each others sentences while they wheeled their chairs about the room, close enough to hand over documents and equipment without ever once actually touching each other. For a pair that had once been enemies, and then simply antagonists, it was a remarkable achievement.

Vinyáya decided to sit in the back of the Operations Booth. She hated to be relegated to such a position, but forcing herself into the middle of the action would just slow the techies down, and slow techies could get her people killed. In a raid of this magnitude, everyone had to know where they should be and what to do, and that meant allowing messages to pass about without interruption. In all reality, Vinyáya had only one job today. Giving Holly the go-ahead. From there, it was out of her hands. Every piece was in place, like a massive domino field, and she stood ready to tip the first piece over.

"Now?" Short said over Vinyáya's headset.

Fowl and Foaly, both of which were wearing identical headsets to her own and tapped into her communications, held up their fists. Military for "hold on," no matter what species was making the sign.

"Negative, Short."

"I'm getting antsy up here, Wing Commander."

She could imagine so. In order to keep any of the goblin sentries from noticing the officer, Holly and her squad had arrived the night before and attached camfoil-covered surveillance pods to the far sides of the area's stalactites. Holly had enough room to move from the exit door to the bathroom, and that was being generous. Fowl had informed the commander that he'd advised Holly to bring up a book or two to occupy herself during the 24 hour wait, but he'd found his bookshelf fully stocked and Holly's personal tablet on the bedside table when he came home. He supposed she could spend her time going over LEP information files (still read by the sweet voice of Lieutenant Frond), but he somehow doubted she'd been amenable to either option.

"Now?" Holly said again, and there was the flutter of artificial wings in the headphones.

"Sleepers ready to go. Timers set to fifteen seconds." Fowl turned in his chair and nodded to the Wing Commander. "On your go-ahead, Commander."

Missions where his woman was putting herself in danger: the only moments when Fowl was perfectly polite to anyone. Until they fucked up and Holly got injured, of course. Then he began plotting revenge.

"Alright," Vinyáya said, fingers tingling in anticipation. She held the moment out, savoring it. Waiting for some unknown sign that this of all moments was the perfect one. None came, and, when the tension was finally crushing down on her, making each passing instant a torment, she cried out. "GO!"

"FREEDOM!" Holly screamed just before hitting the button to open her soundproofed door. A little explosion before the silence before the storm.

Despite their generally violent nature, goblins shared much of their behavioral patterns with the rest of the fairy families. For example, they find it abhorrent to hold a meeting of any particular size without first sharing a few snacks. The warehouse—a structure that was still in use by a cell phone manufacturing company, and thus half-full of boxes, the other half full of the reptilian brotherhood—was filled with hissed words and clicking teeth as a light array of curries was sampled by all in attendance. The vole curry was the big hit that night. One of the goblins had managed to get their hands on a crate full of smuggled habanero peppers, and had dumped the lot into the catered container. It completely ruined the native taste of the curry, but it had the delightful result of making tendrils of smoke constantly leak from each goblin's nostrils.

In the midst of the chatter, Foaly did what is his general lot in these situations: he pushed the button.

Goblins are not terribly intelligent creatures, as we all know. If they had been, the sight of half their considerable number slumping to the floor, snoring peacefully, would have made them reconsider their options and vote on a swift surrender.

Instead, one goblin spent a good three seconds staring at the body of his recruiter before licking an eyeball and saying, a bit nervously, "Did the vole curry taste a to anyone else?"

At the word "off," the world turned to chaos. One of the windows on the long side of the warehouse shattered, admitting a figure all in black. It filled the air with glass and bright blue lines of light and heat. Wherever these lines went, a goblin went down, joining his companions in dreamland.

"LEP!" One goblin—a small female—screeched, turning from the larger males that surrounded her, leaping over a pile of broken boxes and going on all fours as she bolted for one of the open windows on the ground level.

The large majority of the goblins did not retreat. Instead, they snapped their fingers, the rough surface of their prints and nails grinding together, producing sparks, which they instantly expanded into fist-sized balls of flames. All took aim, and most wondered how they could convince everyone that their fireball was the one that had killed the stupid, lone officer.

And then the rest of the windows exploded inward.

There wasn't an officer for every window. In fact, no goblin could see the officers that did come through. Even the original officer was gone, hidden by shielding vibrations. It would wreck havoc on her aim, but aim wasn't precisely important when shooting fish in a barrel.

Goblins dropped by the dozen. Many were hit more than once, but the charges were all on the lowest setting. A little headache when they woke up, but that would be a secondary concern to the incarceration.

Eventually, the goblins' tiny brains recognized a no-win situation, and they began to flee the building. However, most failed to follow the female's example, instead taking the front door. Here they ran across a tightly packed semi-circle of warlocks, which surrounded the gang members in cocoons of magic, snuffing out their fires and soon sending them into a comforting slumber. Many of the younger goblins began to suck their thumbs. And a few of the older generals, as it happened.

Holly giggled with a sort of malicious glee that might have unnerved even Opal Koboi. She didn't get nearly enough action, these days. Well, now the dog had been loosed, and it was time for a little hunting. She zipped back through one of the ruined windows and into the streets. In the end, she would have the highest capture rate of any fairy in the mission.

Oddly enough, she would not be the one most talked-about.

Grub was scowling the entire time he drove his circuit of the streets, waiting for the action in the warehouse to trickle down to him. If it ever did. He would be fine if it didn't. He was the last line of defense, after all. If anyone got as far as him, then the other officers weren't doing their jobs. Although, noting his opinion of how well others in the LEP did their jobs, perhaps he should have expected there to be a stream of goblins to detain. It was more that he didn't want to consider this possibility.

Fowl and Foaly had laughed at the idea of magnetizing gloves and guns. How, they had queried, would you let the gun go, should you need to fight hand-to-hand? Grub had informed him that this was their area, not his. At which point Fowl had gone into a thirty-second explanation of where Captain Kelp's area was, and how to get back to it. That had resulted in a good twenty-page-long report to his brother. Mostly on how illogical it would be for him to become pregnant, and how being barefoot in the kitchen was unsanitary.

The damned techies never did anything useful for him, and after all his hard work for them...

"What?" Fowl said, one hand flying out to his keyboard and isolating a transmission with a few taps. "Yaxley, repeat."

Vinyáya tuned out the rest of the reports, focusing on the voice of a panicking sprite. "Repeat, suspect has evaded capture, officer down! Medical warlock needed in the third quadrant, officer down!"

"D'arvit!" The cry came from everyone in the room. As the techies began to scramble a med unit to the sprite's injured partner, Vinyáya zoomed her map in, eyes darting through the names of the Wheelies in the third quadrant.

"Herron, detain—"

A voice on the radio interrupted her. "Just passed, Wing Commander! Gods, he's faster than a sprite on a sugar high!"

"Logan, coming in from your right!" She could feel her nails trying to sink into the steel table, long tips bending under the pressure. "ETA three seconds!"

"Copy!" A new voice responded, deep and firm. "I see him! I—aagh!"

"Logan! Logan, respond!"

"I'm hit! Fireball to my right hand. Healing fine, but I dropped my gun. I lost him!"

"D'arvit! Whose next, whose next..." She followed the goblin's path, looking for the next officer. Next officer...

"Oh, d'arvit," she whispered.

Catching the dread in her voice, Fowl pulled up the same map and groaned. With a few taps, he was on the officer's radio, giving him fair warning.

"Kelp...try to avoid getting yourself killed."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Fowl," Grub muttered, eyes scanning the alleyways. The goblin could burst from any of them, and with little warning. They were the fastest of the People when doing things like fleeing from a prison sentence. He needed to keep moving. Swerving. Making sure he didn't present the goblin with an easy target.

He did a sweep of the street, passing the alleys, barely looking ahead of him as he focused his vision down each dark corridor, waiting for the telltale glow of a goblin's fire. He slowed down just enough at the end of each pass to turn the bike without toppling over or grinding his leg against the pavement. Soon...soon...

It came as Grub turned and was looking down the street, bursting out of the furthest alleyway. It was blazing, sending up every flame in its goblin arsenal to intimidate the officer. It was less like a lizard and more a bullet of flames. For a moment, there even seemed to be tooth-filled shapes in the fire, but they flashed out quickly; either a shock tactic or a hallucination.

Grub whimpered as he hit the accelerator and shot towards the creature. He really wanted his desk job back.

"FREEZE!" He projected his voice, trying to make it as deep as possible. Then, after a pause, he added "PLEASE," hoping the goblin would sit calmly and say that, gosh darn-it, no one had simply been polite about it, and he'd be happy to go with the nice officer and answer any questions he had.

As it happens, no. Not at all. The goblins every footprint scorched the earth, turning the street sticky and burning away the lane paint, leaving small islands of flame where it had been. It opened its mouth in a hiss that sounded like a sword dragged along stone.

"D'arvit," Grub snapped, drawing his right hand away from the handlebar, taking the clasped-on gun with it, and trained it on the goblin's head. A split second to aim. He fired.

The recoil tore the gun away from his grip, with no signs of improvement from his hours of training to keep the weapon. He followed it's path with his eyes, hoping it had been worth the loss.

He turned his head back around, begging the gods that he would see an unconscious goblin in the road.

"Oh...Mommy," Grub whispered.

Then he hit the breaks and braced himself.

She felt her heart stop at the words.


"Medic, Granite Street, NOW!" It took a second for the wing commander to realize she was on her feet, and the table was on its way to the floor, knocked over in her sudden rise. "NOW, gods dammit," she screamed when a warlock did not respond in the next second.

"I can't believe it!" Grub's voice came, hysterical. "He hit me...oh, oh gods, she hit me!"

"Don't move, Kelp!" Vinyáya stepped over the table, pushing her way between the techies to get at their displays. "Moving will add trauma to the wounds!"

"What? Why? I'm not touching her!"

Scowling, Vinyáya ordered Fowl to pull up the captain's helmet feed, but he had done so by the time she had the first three words out. Being a camera feed, she saw only what the officer saw, and he was currently whipping his head about, looking for the ambulance. "I said don't move, Kelp! Don't make your wounds any worse!"

"My wounds?" He laughed shrilly, head shaking, giving everyone in the room motion sickness from the change in view. "Not me! Her!" He finally brought his view into firm focus. "She hit me!"

Vinyáya stared, and her mouth fell open by degrees.

There was fire everywhere. The bike's seat and handlebars were burning green from the chemicals, and the rest of the street was interspersed with small yellow pockets, which were going out one by one. Laying on top of the bike, its back on the rear wheel, front claws digging into the engine casing, belly in the air, was a goblin. By the small red ridge on its nose and skull, a female. Her forehead was smashed open and bleeding freely, with a bit of white bone protruding. Doubtless she would need a warlock, and quickly. If goblins were more intelligent creatures, Vinyáya would have even been worried about the loss of some IQ points.

" the world...?"

"She just slammed right into me!" Grub explained frantically. "I didn't have time to stop! Gods, how stupid are goblins?"

She shook her head, massaging her temples. "Kelp!"



An awkward pause. "OH! Where are they...yes!" The officer produced a pair of vacuum-sealed restraints. He slipped them on swiftly, managing to avoid jostling the female as he did so. He yelped as the last one suctioned the oxygen away from the goblin's hands.

"D'arvit, Foaly! I told you these things have sharp bits! Ung!" He shook his hand and sucked on his pinkie. "Oh, damn, that stings."

Foaly looked to Fowl, rolling his eyes, and made a hand motion that involved a very limp wrist. Fowl nodded in agreement before returning to the operations, making sure a medic was on the way to take care of one massively injured goblin and a "wounded" officer.

Vinyáya took several steps back from the main screens, her hands waving about behind her as she searched for an empty chair. "Gods...dammit, Kelp." She let out a strained laughed and, finding her seat, slumped into it, digging a hand into her thick hair. The most overwhelming sense of relief filled her every cell. "You...are an idiot."

There was a sullen silence on the line.

Then, practically crowing, Grub responded with, "Yeah! But I caught her!"

Chapter Text

Week 30-Part 2

The goblins continued trying to escape for the next hour. Doubtless, a few got away, but the large majority were picked up by heavily armored LEP vans and taken back to the Plaza for processing. The operation was an enormous success. Most of the suspects would come off clean enough, this being their first foray into the dying gang. In fact, a large number of them would get away without even a sleeper-seeker, though their several hundred hours of community service would make an impression in the community. Both for the goblins themselves, seeing the dying gasp of their organization, and for the rest of the People, seeing the last of the threats put to work on their roadways. The bright pink jumpsuits worn by all service crews would also give the goblins plenty of reason to avoid the bad side of the law: pink just did not go with scales.

The Plaza was soon almost as chaotic as the warehouse, with a battalion of officers at the ready just to process the prisoners. They did the most cursory of check-ins, making sure none of the goblins had children at home or any medical problems that would require special care, adding their names to a list of the arrested to be posted on the LEP website for concerned family to search. In the next few hours, when things died down, they would be allowed their phone calls and assessed for bail, in the case of the newer offenders.

Despite the fact that the dangerous portion of the operations had concluded, Vinyáya found herself just as busy, directing the known B'wa Kell officers to more secure cells and making sure all of her underlings came back when they were supposed to. This was more of a chore than it should have been, as many a new Wheelie stopped on the way to pick up a celebratory bite to eat. These would be assigned to duty as walking, talking traffic signals, come morning.

Holly's arrival was met with a round of cheers, which she met with a smug smirk, soon wiped clean away as Fowl grabbed her and they disappeared to her office for a "debriefing." Adrenaline did wonderful things to an elf, as Vinyáya well knew. She was feeling it a bit, as well, and found herself scowling at the young elves. They could have the decency of waiting until their duties were over, but she was probably the last person that should reprimand a younger officer for engaging in an on-the-clock tryst.

A few minutes later, there was a smatter of clapping (not really applause, too tentative), muttering, and some laughs. Right ear twitching at the noise, Vinyáya looked up to see what officer was getting such a mixed response.

Grub caught her eyes as he walked into the main booking room, and he grinned. There was no goblin in tow, as some of the other officers had possessed, since his one capture had injured herself enough to need a trip to a warlock before processing. She would be in soon, but, in the meantime, Grub was enjoying the praise from the few officers that seemed to have forgiven him his years of being a prat. One even punched him on the right shoulder, which earned a yelp of pain. On that side, his suit had been turned from LEP green to road-pancake-black in one long skid where he landed after being flung from his bike. Undoubtedly, he would be needing another Ritual trip, but, for now, he had no gaping wounds and seemed willing to wait out the pain until a Medic could be cleared for his healing.

She had to smile. Such a huge change in attitude. Before, the boy would have been whining at top volume if he had so much as a stubbed toe. His stoic indifference was a blessing.

Pensively, Vinyáya looked at her hand, gauging her reserves of magic. It had been about a year since her last surface trip, but there hadn't been many injuries since. She was about half full. More than enough to take care of some bruising. And, well, he'd be insufferable eventually, so maybe it made sense to just bypass the Medics entirely...

"Grub, you moron!" A smooth voice made a bit high-pitched by worry called out.

Vinyáya's head snapped up, and she quickly looked away from the group of fairies, watching from the corner of her eyes.

"Thanks for the compliments on my catch, Lili," Grub muttered, but there was enough playfulness in his voice to keep his old whining at bay.

"Oh, shut up," the small elf growled, butting her head into the tall man's chest as she wrapped her arms about his waist. When his entire body jerked, she pulled back. "Sorry! Sorry. Magic all gone, then?"

"Yeah. I've never been that good at healing, and that was a bit of a fall." He said this in an almost nonchalant way, reminiscent of the star of Western movie saying that a bullet wound to the shoulder was just a flesh wound. The effect was somewhat ruined by his wincing.

"Here," Lili murmured, placing her hand high on Grub's injured side and stroking down slowly, flooding the bruises with blue sparks. When they had faded away, she looked up at her soon-claimed mate, smiling softly. "Better?"

"A lot," Grub whispered, lowering his head to pay back the favor with a kiss that made the surrounding officers cough and move away. They had plenty of time to do so, as the pair were soon leaning against a wall, with Lili pinned on the inside, only bowing to propriety in a small degree by making sure the wall was not in the main booking line, where everyone could see them. She really should have been helping with the processing, but no one seemed to have the heart to break them apart.


The light hand placed on the Wing Commander's shoulder made her jump and breath in sharply, turning to look at a frowning Major Short, Fowl standing not too far off, looking between the two women and the intimate pair across the room.

He had one eyebrow raised when focused on the superior officer, and did not quell when she glared at him quite fiercely.

"Dr. White caught up to me in the halls," Holly said, being her non-Fowl self and failing to catch the interaction. "She wants you heading home once the generals have been booked."

Scowling, Vinyáya shook her head. "No, I'm not leaving until the mid-ranked prisoners are processed, at the least."

"Um..." Holly looked nervous. Which immediately alarmed Vinyáya, as the spitfire was the last officer she would expect to show any nerves, besides herself. ""

Fowl rolled his eyes at his mate's reticence. "She said it was the order of a medical officer that you leave once the generals are booked."

He did not emphasize "order" in the least, but it was a jarring word to the Wing Commander, who had not been subject to anyone's whims since the bad days of Ark Sool (and most of those had been covertly bypassed) that it was practically a scream in her ears. She scowled and was about to give Fowl a message for Dr. White about where the doctor could place her orders (a location not considered sanitary by the medical establishment), but she took a few seconds to pause. Medical officers the world around had the authority to give orders to any officer, if the orders pertained to maintaining the health of their charge, and the LEP was no different. Disobeying Dr. White could very well lead to a Internal Affairs inquiry and a reprimand, which would be embarrassing beyond belief. Breathing out slowly, she nodded.

"Short, are you up to finishing the processing without me here to help?"

Holly greened at the idea of all that paperwork, but nodded. A few years in the position of a Major had made her a bit more tolerant of the boring parts of her job. "Yes, Wing Commander. Drive home safely." She went to attention, snapping a formal salute.

Vinyáya returned it, giving the junior officer a stiff nod. "I leave my post in your hands." They released the salute simultaneously, and the motion seemed to steal all of Vinyáya's energy. While she was performing in official capacity, she had been surrounded by the energy of her position. Now, going back to civilian-mode, she felt a little lost. Normally, when conducting an operation this major, she would work until everything was done, and would often wake up in her bed a half-day later, a bit confused about how she had got there.

After a few more moments pause, but before Short could cough formally to remind her of the order of exile, she turned and made for the parking structure. For some reason, she was sure this night would feel a lot longer spent home alone than in the chaos of the Plaza.

Lili had healed Grub, but any officer injured in action required an examination from one of the medical warlocks. More than one fairy had healed a visible major injury and considered themselves perfectly fine, only to discover serious internal damage long after a healing could be performed. With all the topped-off warlocks concerned with more major injuries, Grub Kelp found himself shunted off to his good nurse, Dr. White.

"Don't blink," she snapped, shining a bright light into his eyes. When he failed to comply, his nocturnal senses reeling at the beam, she placed a hand to his head, index and middle finger above and below his eye, forcing the skin to stay apart as she inspected for brain trauma.

"Ow ow ow," Grub whimpered, trying to close his eye and failing until the very moment the mixed-breed fairy pulled her hand away, and then he kept it tightly closed, twisting up half of his face. "Well?"

"Can you hear this?" The woman held a small speaker next to Grub's left ear, making it emit a very high-pitched tone.

"AH! Yes!" He leaned away from the noise, and was forced to yelp again and lean back when the microphone tested his other ear. "I didn't hit my head! Just sort of...skidded. I'm fine!"

"I know," White said, putting her equipment away. "But these are regulations." She said this in such an offhand manner that Grub was certain "regulations" was actually a stand-in for "a painful lesson to keep you hotshot officers from getting killed."

She proceeded to poke and prod him at length, making various parts of his anatomy flail about in defiance of his will. When she found his reactions on his formerly injured right side to be less than satisfactory, she rooted about in her cabinets, removing a stack of foil-wrapped packages. Handing them over, she said, "Sleep on your left side tonight, and put these all across your right. You've got a little stiffness, but no real damage. These will loosen you up and get you back to combat status."

"I sleep on that side," Grub protested.

"Not tonight you don't," White snapped.

"And I don't want to be on combat status!"

"And all of Haven dreads it, as well, but that's the job, so do as your told and come in tomorrow for a checkup. If you're all good, I can clear you for physical activity, but, for now, take it easy."

Grub suddenly sat up straight. "Clear, I'm moving in two days, I have to be cleared!"

"Then do as your told," White said sweetly, shoving the packages further into his chest, "and go home. You're done here tonight."

For a moment, Grub wanted to protest that they needed him in processing, but he was suddenly finding that good, sweet Dr. White was in no mood to humor him. She had seen enough rebellious officers for the night, and Grub decided to make a swift, dignified retreat.

He made quick goodbyes, and Lili looked devastated as she glanced past him at the downtrodden line of convicts. She would be busy for hours more, at least. It was a good bet that she and Short would be in residence until Haven began to awake from a very long, very cold night.

There wasn't much Grub could do. He considered offering to defy doctor's orders and help with processing, but about the time he had that idea, Dr. White came out to get her next patient and gave him such a glare that he was momentarily worried she would try to mesmer him into obedience. When she turned on her heels and marched back to her office, followed by a goblin with a nose that wouldn't strop smorking (he was saying something about "the best curry ever"), he sighed, leaning over to kiss just behind Lili's ear and whisper to her.

"Two nights," he said.

She smiled at this, squeezed his hands, and pushed off on his back, forcing him towards the exit.

Grub found that, once he left the crowds, he began to limp a little. He was less surprised about the limp—he had slid quite a few meters before coming across the convenient stopping point of a curb—and more about its sudden appearance. Posturing. It seemed more something his brother would do.

He had originally intended to catch a late bus to the outskirts of his suburb, but, on noticing the limp, decided to be a bit indulgent and call a cab. He was on the line with the receptionist as he descended the Plaza's front steps with great care, his grip on the handrail tight, as he found himself leaning a bit too much to the side on every step.

The receptionist had decided to put him on hold for the umpteenth time when he saw her.

Wing Commander Vinyáya leaned against the side of her magna-bike, rubbing at her face with one hand, the other inspecting her own cell phone. She was frowning, and would occasionally grip the phone as if it were a knife and stab at her thigh, glower deepening.

"Wing Commander?" Grub ventured, taking the last steps off concrete and standing a few parking spaces from her on the asphalt. It was late in the night for the People, and the lights about the Plaza had been dimmed, leaving only a few streetlamps and the distant Plaza building to see by.

She looked up, eyes flashing in surprise, but soon eased. "Ah. Kelp."

"Are you okay?"

The woman shrugged, sliding her phone closed and swinging one leg over the side of the bike, settling into the seat. "Simply tired. It has been an eventful evening."

Little alarms went off in Grub's worrier mind. If not for the call he himself was making, he probably would not have put two and two together, but, when he did, he jumped forward, grabbing one of the magna-bike's handles, startling the rider. "You were going to call a cab because you're tired?"

"No," Vinyáya cut back, pushing on the handle she held in an effort to dislodge the elf. An effort that failed. "I considered the idea and decided against it." Deciding to give Kelp a few more seconds to let go before she broke his grip—and perhaps his wrist—she took her helmet off the seat and popped it over her head.

"Then call. Hell, take my cab!" Grub said, waving his phone at her.

"I don't need a cab, Kelp. I am perfectly fine to get home."

"Vinyáya, you know yourself better than that," Grub said, trying to be even, instead of shrill or soft, both of which were tones he imagined would lead to complete failure. He aimed for a military-deep tone. Official. Perhaps that would be the most effective means of conversation with the higher-up. "If you were considering taking a cab home, then you aren't sure of your ability to get home safe. Call the cab."

Vinyáya kicked the stand back, leaning the bike to the side abruptly and effectively dislodging Grub's hold on the handle. "I will not!"

"Then let me take you home!"

She scoffed. "Oh, in your cab?"

"No," Grub said reasonably. "On that."

Vinyáya took a long moment to look along the path of Grub's outstretched finger and realize it was pointed directly at her magna-bike.

"Oh, no. Not happening."

"I am not letting you go home alone when you're not feeling well," Grub said, pressing a button on the handlebar, which made the rear compartment of the bike pop open as he moved to stand behind the wheel, reaching inside and shoving things about. "And, if you wont take a cab, that means I'm driving."

"I'm not drunk, Kelp. I don't need a designated driver."

"If you ride home when you're unsure of yourself," Grub said, pulling out a helmet and flipping it between his hands to inspect it for previous damage, "I will be calling Holly in to chase after you. You know she will."

Oh, she would indeed. Vinyáya dug her nails into the rubber grips of the handles. "Kelp...are you aware that, with just a little bit of reverse, I can make sure you don't father children on anyone else?"

Grub looked down at the rear wheel, placed inconveniently between his legs and close to his reproductive organs. He blinked several times. "Um...I...didn't know you wanted that honor to be exclusive."

"...honor?" She turned in her seat, looking at him in horror. "No, you...ugh!" Letting her head fall, she clipped her temple against the head-pipe, wincing. "Kelp...what do I have to do...?"

"Just let me drive, Vinyáya," he said softly. "We'll both get home quicker, and no cab fares, right? It's the perfect solution."

"Kelp," she said around the bike's metal frame. "You just crashed a bike."

"Technically," Grub hedged, sliding the helmet on his head, leaving the visor up, "she ran into me."

"How comforting." Very slowly, taking the extra time to stretch out her arching muscles, Vinyáya sat up straight. She raised her hands, as if surrendering to police custody. "All right. All right. Just get us home, don't scratch my bike, and let's never speak of this again."

"Thank you," he breathed. "Move back, would you?"

Grumbling all the while about horrible ideas, Vinyáya placed her hands on the seat and pushed back until there was ample room for another passenger to mount before her.

All too familiar with the Wing Commander's swift movements and penchant for great escapes, Grub made sure to begin by leaning forward to grab the clutch, so there was no way the woman could reverse past him as he tried to mount. She rolled her eyes at this, but inwardly applauded his foresight. If given such an opportunity, she likely would have taken it, pre-planned or not.

Then he moved to the front of the bike and swung one leg over, spending a few moments there inspecting the controls and feel of the machine, making minor adjustments. He finally snapped down the visor of his helmet and rested his thumb on the kill switch. "You okay back there?"

"Let's please not make me analyze my position, Kelp. Just go." Vinyáya held firm to the sides of the seat, hands as close to her body as possible. It had been ages since they were this close, and she was not liking where the night's adrenalin and her normal swing of hormones was heading.

Shrugging, Grub flipped the switch, squeezed the clutch, and hit the ignition. The magna-bike roared to life under him, making his teeth buzz for a moment before he clenched them tighter. He had to admit, being on a bike felt sort of nice. He didn't think it would fit into his coming lifestyle, but he could see himself enjoying a ride where he got the opportunity.

Keeping the bike in neutral, he pushed back, moving out of the parking spot and into position on the road. Once ready, he cleared his throat. Calm. Must be calm. "Um...don't you think you should hold on?" After a pause, he clarified, voice cracking like he had just begun to shift his vocals. "To me? So you don't fall off?"

The passenger was not touching him anywhere, but he could feel the tension overtake her body. "No," Vinyáya growled, digging her fingers even deeper into the gel seat. "I think not."

Grub considered arguing, but, wisely, thought better. He was learning, it seemed. "Just don't fall off." Switching into gear, he began the short trek home.

They went at a glacial pace, in Vinyáya's opinion. Admittedly, he took the quarter mile from the Plaza at the legal speed limit, which she tended to defy with great glee. There was no weaving between cars or making extra lanes along the dotted lines, as she was also prone to do. Overall, their styles couldn't be more different: she aggressive, he defensive.

Despite it being relatively late for the People, there were plenty of vehicles still on the road. Vinyáya felt her ears prickle as they roared up the on-ramp to one of Haven's three major freeways. The man was doing all the proper things for merging—liberal, but quick inspections of the traffic, signaling, increase of speed—but she found herself analyzing the many cars on the road. So, when Grub began to lean in to merge, she saw what he did not: a car coming up in his blind spot, far past the speed limit and not signaling as it snaked into the lane that they would be attempting to occupy in two seconds.

"Kelp, watch out!"

Wrapping her arms about Grub's chest to amplify her leverage, Vinyáya threw her body away from the oncoming car, forcing the bike to swerve back into the merging lane, making several cars behind them brake and honk their horns. The car that would have smeared them across the highway blared its own horn as it blasted past, as if they had been the ones in the wrong. The bike wobbled for several seconds before going smooth again.

"Oh gods...oh gods..." Grub huffed, hunching over before remembering that he still needed to merge, as the lines were quickly disappearing. "Ought to sic traffic on him. Almost killed us..."

Perhaps at one point, Vinyáya would have either agreed or told Kelp to pay attention as he finished the merging, but she found herself unable to break her silence. Or her grip. As they finally managed to successfully enter a lane and gained a firm sense of balance, she tried desperately to think up a safe and inconspicuous way to unwrap her arms and scoot back down the bike. She could always tell him to pull over, of course, but that would involve regaining her powers of speech and pointing out the situation.

She could feel his hummingbird-fast heartbeat under her hand. She'd felt it before, of course, but always in the context of keeping him in place, rather than holding him close. Fast, but strong, and regaining a normal rhythm as she continued to try and think of a away to let go.

And his scent...okay, so he needed a bit of a shower, after being shot across the asphalt and sweating it out for a good deal of the evening, but it was sort of...pleasant. Very male. His soap was a simple brand, with no added floral odors, and she could still detect it along his neck. He used a spicy aftershave, but just a diluted splash. Almost unnoticeable, unless you came very close. Every so often, the wake of a passing car would muddle the winds, and she caught a tendril of green tea from his shampoo.

And something else. Something so soft and distant that it barely registered. Sweet and tart. Probably a nice mix, normally, but Vinyáya's more instinctive side was what analyzed the scent. It was a very...female scent.

Grub had long-since put the near-collision behind in his mind, and began to veer off the highway, taking a tightly spiraling off-ramp that forced them to both lean into the curve, feeling the momentary increase in centripetal force. The ramp set them off an eighth of a mile from the Hills, and that little bit less from the house. In only a minute, they were there, waiting as the garage door rumbled open.

Grub turned in his seat to look at Vinyáya, making their helmets bump. "See! Was that so bad?"

"No," Vinyáya murmured, eyes half-closed. "Not at all."

For a few seconds, Grub stared at her. It was roughly the look a young rabbit would give to a rattlesnake. He had expected her to be indignant, but with her eyes narrowed like that and such calm to her voice, he began to imagine the great torments that would soon be his. He decided that putting as much distance as possible between them would be the best course of action. So, giving the engine a fraction of gas, he slid the magna-bike into the tiny garage, hitting the button to close the door even before they were fully inside.

He kicked out the stand and shut everything off efficiently, removing his helmet and taking a moment to shake out his hair before rising to dismount.

He slammed back to the seat with a loud "oof!" "Wh-what?"

There was a very strong arm still wrapped about his chest, nails digging into his jacket.

Behind him, Vinyáya's chest seemed to vibrate. Growling? Purring? Both?

"V-Vinyaya?" He said, the first "ya" going shrill. "Um...can I...please—"

"No," she rumbled, tone broking no argument.

Flight cut off, Grub's body switched to fight instincts. Not the battle part, but instead the sudden tension of muscles and rush of adrenalin that would make any pain felt a dull echo of its full force. Even while his body prepared, he made another bid at escapee. "I should go inside and—"

"Shut up," the woman commanded, the hand at Grub's chest pulling back until his spine arched.


"Now!" The order came so hash and close to his ear that he winced.

And then Grub felt warm, wet lips on his earlobes, and lost all sense of reality.

"F-fuck, Vinyáya!" His ear seemed to almost buzz, and there was no doubt this time: she was growling. Like a dog that had just discovered a meaty bone, and was warning all comers to stay clear, lest they leave limping.

Grub tried to lean away, but Vinyáya's arm was strong, keeping him to her chest. His strength briefly fled as she traced up the ridge of his ear with her tongue, finally stopping to nip at the tender tip.

"Oh...gods..." He found himself groaning, eyes closing for a second. She did this so rarely, and he loved it when she played with his ears. Her tongue knew the exact places to stroke or tickle or prod, just how to make him ache and beg...

Then he remembered himself and snapped his eyes back open, searching. A tool. An escape. Something.

Vinyáya was less concerned with her surroundings. She really didn't need any extra items for what her body had planned. Quite to the contrary. There should be a lot less stuff around here. Like pants. Pants should cease to exist. Not having any special telekinetic powers to force a total existence failure on the garments, she decided to do the next best thing. Grabbing the front loop of Grub' belt, she began to tug. With supreme efficiency, the belt came loose, the little clink of the metal confirming to her captive that things were getting out of hand.

With a little rush of blood to strengthen his fear and other more tangible things, Grub realized that the "situation" was just a few seconds, a button, and a zipper away from being in hand.

"V-Vinyaya!" Grub called out again. It was more an instinctive response than a cry of lust. His body responded with the typical male sexual autopilot, but his mind remained focused on a frantic search for an escape. The garage was too organized. Just a small space to keep the bike, plus some tools for its repair. There wasn't even a random box of old books lying about. It seemed that Vinyáya did not hesitate to toss things she had decided she didn't need. A fact with which Grub was intimately familiar.

So there was only one thing in reach. Well, two, really, but Vinyáya was not a good option. Although she was seeming better and better with each fumble and little suck on his ear-tip.

So that left the bike.

Staring at the controls, he tried to formulate a plan. He would never be given enough time to start the bike, or even get it out of gear in the hopes that movement would startle the woman. The headlights would only make the garage a little lighter. Something else. Some quick strike, before she reached her goal and tore away his resolve.

With a sudden flash of insight, Grub reached out, gasped the left handle, and hit the horn. And held.

The garage was instantly filled with the klaxon, reverberating in the small space, assaulting both elves' fine-tuned hearing.

"D'arvit!" Vinyáya howled, hands flying to her ears, trying to block out the pain.

Gritting his teeth against the pain and desire to let the horn go, Grub swung his leg off the bike, keeping one finger on the handle until his body was as far away as possible, then jerking it back and taking one jumping step to the door.

As the final echo faded, Vinyáya snapped her cat-pupiled eyes open, searing Grub with their grey depths. "What the hell was..."

She stopped.

It came at her like a tidal wave. Everything sucked out from under her one moment, and then crashing across her face the next. The man, standing as far from her as he could, face pale, shirt rumpled, trousers half undone, the belt hanging limply, tinkling with his every harsh breath. His eyes were wide, and she had the distinct impression that he wanted to stop looking at her, but didn't dare take his eyes away.

"Oh gods," Vinyáya breathed. "Kelp, I...oh gods."

He held up a hand to stop her repetitions. "Hormones. Just...let's say it's hormones, okay?"

She nodded dimly, wanting to just put in that it was also battle adrenalin and finally having a body to hold onto after the months of skin-hunger...but she stopped herself.

"Just...toss my bag over," Grub said, swallowing harshly as he tried to take a proper breath, "and I'll go get some clothes for the weekend. I'll be staying at..."

Grub thought hard. Trouble would kill him, even if he wasn't the one to make the advance. His mother...after five months living without her, not a chance.

"With Lili," he finally managed, ignoring the councilwoman's wince. "I' back for my stuff on Friday."

Vinyáya looked down at her hands, which dug into the padded seat, puncturing the thick gel in a few places. "Good idea," she said. "I...I'm sorry, Gr...Kelp."

Grub opened his mouth to speak, pausing for a second before he decided to say something else. "My bag, please."

"Yes, right." She took it out of the bike's storage compartment, holding it out. When he did not reach for it, she twisted her wrist, letting the bag go into a gentle swing. She released at the top of the arc, the bag falling neatly into Grub's waiting arms.

He stood still for a second, considering her. Wondering what he was supposed to do to make this all go away. When he realized that even Fowl could not erase the last few minutes, he left.

Vinyáya watched the close garage door for a long time. The only thing she could think to do...that she wanted to do...was just...madness.

Slowly, she hung her head until it thumped on the bike's control panel. "Oh...gods...what have I done?"

Four hours into processing, and the line was just starting to look reasonable. Not encouraging, but reasonable. Lili sighed, signaling for the next goblin to be brought up.

Holly was the one escorting, finding herself with little to do, once the big catches were gone. She made the fairy sit by pressing a hard hand into its shoulder. The chair screeched as it skittered across the floor a small fraction, and Lili winced. Her head hurt enough as it was.

"Your boy's capture," Holly said. "I figured you'd want to take this one."

Lili managed a weak smile as she accepted the data crystal and slid it into her tablet. She did like the idea. Working in tandem with Grub, making Haven a safer long as you weren't the one on a bike.

Holly remained at the bound goblin's side as the questioning began.

"Please state your full name," Lili intoned, trying to be moderately pleasant and completely official.

The goblin held her head higher, large spiny ears clasping tight to the side of her head. "Kitane Scree," she hissed, as all goblins must.

Lili frowned. Something there. Far back in her mind, tapping her mental shoulder for attention. She brushed it away. "How long have you been in the B'wa Kell?" This was something of a trick question. An answer of any term was, of course, a confession of involvement in a recognized dangerous gang, and a good two-thirds of the convictions tonight would come from this part of the interview alone.

Scree was a little wiser than her brethren. "The what?" She blinked, her third, transparent eyelid barely yellowing her eyes before it disappeared.

Lili shuddered. Next, the lizard would begin licking her own eyeballs. "What was your position in the B'wa Kell?"

The female gave her a smile. It was rather reminiscent of a t-rex. "Again, the what?"

Lili nodded. A clever one. Nice to see, in a frustrating way. Still, there was plenty of footage of this goblin going after a LEP officer at full flame. No matter what, she would be serving time, unless she struck a plea deal. And goblins weren't good on planning, so thinking up a plea deal was unlikely.

"Residence?" At the goblin's furrowed, confused brow, she clarified. "Where do you live?"

The puzzlement and irritation vanished. "The streets, man."

Resisting the urge to remind the goblin that she was a lady (though perhaps most of the Lower Elements would have said "lady" with a suggestive wink), Lili tried again. "What was the last place you...paid for?"

The goblin snorted. "Ain't gonna tell you that!"

Holly rolled her eyes and opened the goblin's jacket, making the lizard hiss in outrage at the exposure, even if her chest was as flat as the males of her species. Conducting a quick search, she produced a few coins, some crumpled papers, and a very worn wallet.

Lili took the wallet. She almost couldn't figure out how to unzip the packed thing, and then her desk was covered in a shower of cards, bills, and random papers as the satchel exploded. Lili rooted through and found the ID, inputting the information into her computer. "87 Lionel Court, apartment...3-B."

She stared at the address. She already knew it by heart. Even before the goblin had arrived.

"Lieutenant?" Holly inquired.

Looking up at Holly, Lili whimpered in her most supplicating fashion. "Do they have to?"

Grub had obviously disobeyed Dr. White's instructions, but it was the best he could do, without a bed. The wraps were on his side, but he had been getting his rest while sitting with his back to one of Frond Mansion's marble columns, using his change of clothes as a pillow.

He jerked awake at the first crunch of car tires on the gravel driveway, managing to stand—if a bit shakily—by the time Lili parked.

She seemed somewhat startled to see him. And not as pleased as he had hoped. He waited for her to join him on the top step, and they stood awkwardly in front of each other before remembering that they should embrace.

"I...bad news," Lili said.

Grub felt his insides freeze. Had Vinyáya told her...? No. As much as that woman had put him through, Grub did not believe she would tell Lili about the incident she had caused. She was full of anger towards him, but she wasn't vindictive over a refusal. That did not help him in calming down, but then, he had other problems that kept him off-balance. "What is it?"

"The goblin you caught..." At Grub's sudden squeak of terror, she jumped forward, laying both of her hands on his shoulders to keep him standing. "She's fine! All healed, and in lock-down, now. Just...her name was 'Scree'."

Grub's eyes flickered deep in their green depths. He was on the cusp of signifying the name, just as Lili had been. "Yes?"

"She...eventually claimed to be a captain." After giving him time to remember—which did not happen—Lili let the final fact free. "She just lost her apartment on Lionel Court."

Now Grub gaped. "Oh...oh, shit. There's no way. That's too big a coincidence!"

She shook her head. "Holly already sent out a pair of officers to see the landlord. It's her." Lili heaved a deep sigh, burying a hand in her hair and tugging. "They need to search the apartment for evidence."

"No! It was gutted in the fire," Grub protested, even though he was sure the woman had already used this argument on Holly repeatedly. "They wont find anything!"

"But if the residence isn't searched, her lawyer will argue that we failed to look for something that could exonerate her."

"She was at the raid, wasn't she? She almost killed me!" It was an exaggeration, perhaps, but his lady did not challenge it, having more important things on her mind.

"But it could still be used to argue reasonable doubt. Hell, given the state of the apartment, she could say she was kidnapped! They need to search."

"Oh, gods..." Grub slammed his head back into the pillar and winced. "Do they have any idea how long that will take?" Weeks, he imagined, with as many people as were captured that night.

"I pulled a few strings," Lili said. "The generals have to go first, but then they'll search her apartment. Monday, Tuesday at the latest."

"Oh, thank Frond," Grub said without thinking, but Miss Frond did not comment on the sacrilege "I don't know if I could have taken another week of..." He swallowed, eyes darting to Lili's face.

"Of?" Lili prompted. Her ears were tingling. A bad sign.

Grub looked at the space between their feet, eyes again darting up for just a split-second "I..." Gritting his teeth, Grub took one of Lili's hands. "I don't want to tell you this."

Tremulously, Lili said, "Tell me...what?"

Grub shook his head. "Just...let me tell the whole story, okay? Let me finish the story before you say anything. It''s not my fault."

Lili nodded, eyes wide.

Grub took a deep breath.

He told her.

Chapter Text

Behind-the-scenes! Again! This is getting kinda stupid.

"Hey, Grubbles," Trouble cheered as he walked into the break room (a.k.a. Kit's living room), holding the author's netbook. "One more chapter after this one, and you star in the longest Artemis Fowl fic on the site!"

"Grubbles" sat on the couch, staring straight ahead, eyes dead, another laptop open on his lap. It whirred ominously, though this was mostly because the fans were blocked by Grub's pants.

Trouble blinked and looked across the living room to Lili, who was humming nonchalantly. "What's up with him?"

She shook her head slowly. "He read something by one of the boss's friends. That Xybolic woman."

Frowning, Trouble sat next to his brother, taking the computer away. He scrolled to the top of the page and read quickly.

Three minutes later, Holly walked into the break room, maintaining the maximum distance between herself and her secretary. She only braved addressing her when she noticed Grub and Trouble Kelp on the couch, frozen, faces ashy. "What's up with them?"

Lili shrugged. "Fanfiction is a terrifying place."

"The hibiscus..." Trouble whispered. ""

Grub dissolved into sobs.

Holly scowled at Lili. "This is revenge, isn't it?"

The blond shrugged, playing with her hair. "Be happy I was so lenient. I was going to show them 'Compensation'."

Holly shuddered. "You evil bitch..."

Chapter 35: The Things We Wanted

Week 30-Part 2

They eventually moved inside. Grub had flitted about the kitchen like a hummingbird, preparing a pot of herbal tea in the hopes of calming Lili. The tea now sat cold on the table, not even flavored with the tiny pitchers of honey and milk.

Lili held her head between her hands, fingers tugging at bits of hair. "I told her I would..." She whimpered.

"I...don't think she was really thinking about what she was doing," Grub said, rubbing his neck.

Lili slammed her hands to the table, making Grub cringe. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"No! I just...I mean, she wasn't...planning it." He finished lamely, desperately wanting to look away, but forcing himself to face the argument.

"And would that have made me feel better if she had fucked you!"

"I wouldn't let her!" He sighed, shaking his head, "Look...that was...I didn't want that. And I'm not going back, even for a night. I...I hate to ask, but can I stay here? Just until the apartment is ready?"

Lili did not answer for a long time, and Grub began to worry that she was about to throw him out. He wasn't sure where else he could go.

Then she nodded. "Yeah..." She smiled. "Yeah, great idea. You can stay with me, and..." She sat up straight. "It's a great idea. Come on, let me show you where you can put your things."

Grub's eyebrows went up as they both stood. "Won't I be in the same room as last time?" He gathered his bag and the few items he hadn't been able to stuff inside. It was not enough to get through to Monday comfortably, but he would manage. He would buy some new clothes to avoid a return to the Wing Commander's house, if necessary.

Lili held out a hand and was soon twining her fingers with her partner's, pulling him after her down the wide, sumptuous main hall. There were stairs leading up to the unused upper floor, but she ignored these. She made for the back of the mansion. "No, not there. That's not the best guest room. And I want to be a good host."

"Oh...okay." Grub returned. He couldn't help but grin at this bit of socialite nicety from the woman who had done so much in the past few decades to piss off the upper class. If not for being the last major Frond, she would undoubtedly be hounded by the Principality Hill homeowners' association.

Then he noticed that they had passed all of the doors. All but one.

He craned his head about to look at the last guest bedroom. "Lili? Um...aren't I—"

"No," she said quickly, pushing in the last door. The most ornate door in this area of the mansion.

"Oh," Grub said dumbly. He finally understood.

Lili's bedroom was enormous, and it appeared she couldn't think of much to do with it. There was no television or computer desk. All of her books were in the main library, her clothes in the walk-in closet, and she had no space-intensive hobbies to speak of. There were a few random chairs that looked amazingly comfortable, along with other random bits of furniture, but the only thing Grub could see was the bed.

"Oh," he said again as he was dragged across the floor.

Then he yelped. Grub didn't even have time to look behind him. He felt the backs of his knees hit the side of Lili's bed, and then he tumbled over, arms flying behind him in an attempt to break his fall, losing grip of his bag. He instinctively braced for a rough impact, but he needn't have worried.

The mattress was phenomenally soft, covered in a thick, pure white comforter, headed by a bevy of puffy white pillows. It was undeniably a girl's bed, the canopy topped with gauzy curtains that would do nothing to block sight if they were drawn, but which still seemed to promise a welcoming envelopment to whatever inhabitants there would be.

Although..."girl's bed" was perhaps not the correct word, when Grub considered it. Woman. Undeniably a woman.

Lili proved this by following him onto the sheets, laying a hand on Grub's chest to push him further along in front of her until they were both completely on the enormous mattress, residing roughly in the center. Here, she took her hand away from his chest, dropping both hands to either side of Grub's waist. Finding her mate sufficiently immobilized, Lili swooped in, catching his lips with her own. Unlike the attack of hours before, he found himself responding to her, mouth opening and groaning at the touch of her tongue along his lips.

She worked quickly. To be honest, with the skill of someone well-versed in what she was doing. She focused on Grub, at first, removing his jacket and tossing it aside, then letting her fingers fly through his buttons, pushing the man's shirt off his shoulders, also letting that fall to the wayside, exposing a smooth, barely defined chest. Then she stopped working on him, advancing so that she straddled the male's hips, pushing his chest so he fell back on the bed.

Grub looked up at her, mouth open. He wasn't breathing. The white pillows pressed against his ears, dampening the sounds of the world, making Lili's soft laugh almost disappear. He could feel his pulse shooting up.

It was too soon. The apartment...

Lili had tossed her jacket aside when she entered the room, so that did not hinder her as she grabbed the bottom of her blouse, lifting it with both hands. As she passed her ribs, Lili tucked her fingers under the wire of her bra, removing both garments in one move. She threw them to the side, looking down at Grub as her hair fell back around her shoulders and slowly settling breasts, so soft and light, matching the shining nature of the room. Like a goddess of inescapable power, as she knew she always looked in these moments.

Grub moaned. "Frond above and below..."

Lili laughed, leaning down, resting her hands on Grub's shoulders, her breasts brushing against his chest. "I told you to never use my ancestor's name in vain."

He swallowed, taking his eyes from the most obvious center of focus and looking at Lili's face. "Sorry. It seemed appropriate."

She shook her head, and her hair fell further, brushing against the man's chest as she crawled back down his body. "It is not appropriate. I mean...I'm only above you, at the moment." She bit her lip, and her hands began to move further, past Grub's ribs, onto his stomach, which she found to be harder than she expected, though not visibly toned. "Although we can certainly change that. First, though..." She came to his pants, flipping the buckle open, popping the button free, and lowering the zipper with the same skill she displayed on his shirt. She made a mental note to be slower, in the future, but she needed this badly, so seductive undressing could be bypassed this first time.

Then the trousers were off and she purred low in the back of her throat, moving back up her partner's body, making sure all of her skin ran across just one very important part of his. She bit Grub's neck, revelling as he gasped at the slight pain, and then he did so again, louder this time, as her hands rested on the inside of his thighs and journeyed up. Up and up, over the edge of his boxers ("Oooo...chili peppers...not a bad choice."), and closer and closer, until she finally reached her goal.

Grub whimpered. "L-Lili! Wait a second, I...gods..."

Lili blushed. She hadn't blushed at this sort of moment in years. To keep the man from seeing the coloring, she continued biting and kissing his neck, murmuring around it. "We've been dating for over two months. Don't make me wait, please...I want you so badly."

Grub squirmed. "L-Lili, I—"

She sighed, fingers tickling expertly. "Don't worry. Just relax and let me...take care of you." She didn't feel the need to explain things, as her head was already moving down his chest, placing light kisses on each rib, tongue dragging across his abdomen. The boxers disappeared with one quick movement.

Grub got his arms under him, lifting his chest from the bed, scooting up the mattress until his back was against the headboard. "Lili, really, I think—"

"I've got it, Grub." She growled, grabbing his hips before they escaped, keeping her head close. Nuzzling.

"Lili!" Grub shrieked, grabbing her shoulders and yanking the woman up his body. "STOP!"

She gaped at him. "What?" She came to a conclusion and huffed in frustration. She felt almost insulted that he could be thinking she was that daft! "Gods, Grub, I'm not stupid! I'm on the pill, okay? On time, completely safe. Don't worry!"

"No, no!" He yelled, shaking his head. "I can't do this, Lili!"

She laughed. She couldn't move back down his body, so instead she shifted up, straddling Grub's lap, running both hands through his hair, brushing against his ears. "Oh, come on. I want it, and you've not gotten any in months, so I know you need it. Just let me..." She took one hand away from his head, letting it drift between their bodies, searching him out.

He whimpered, pushing her again, but what little strength he'd gained from his training for the exam was lost when faced with the persistent blond beauty. "Lili, please, I can't...oh, fuck!" His hips moved involuntarily, resulting in further unrestrained noises.

She gripped and purred when she felt the reaction. Just a little nervous, after all. Very, very soon, he would be putty in her hands. Or the opposite. "Of course you can! Why not?"

Grub closed his eyes and screamed."Because I don't love you!"

Lili froze.

As did Grub.

A full minute later, he swallowed, licking his lips. "Lili, I...I...I..."

"O...kay..." Lili said, dismounting gracefully. She moved several hands away, sitting with her back to the headboard, just like Grub, hands folded on her lap. She looked at the canopy of the bed, tapping her feet back and forth as she tried to think of something. She racked her brain for previous experience, and found that she had never come across a male that wasn't more than willing to bed her, love or no. In fact, love seemed a non-issue to them, most of the time. To her, as well, for the matter.

She finally began with "That'" Special? Honorable? Frustrating as hell?

"I'm sorry," Grub cried up, curling into himself, holding his head between his hands. "I just...look, I don't want to do that again! Without someone I know I love, I mean. I did that once, and I hated it!" He groaned, rocking. "Not that I don't care about you, I swear, I do, but—"

"It's okay, Grub!" Lili broke in, laying a hand on his back. "Really, it's fine." To be honest, her body did not agree with that sentiment. She enjoyed sex, there was no denying, and she was in the middle of an uncommonly long dry spell. Even before choosing Grub as a partner, it had been a few weeks since someone had caught her eyes. Being shot down...well, she was not pleased, on a purely physical level, but mentally she could control herself. For now.

She did her best to put him at ease. "Don't feel bad. I mean, after all of the guys who want to sleep with me, even though they don't even know me? It's...sort of refreshing." She would have preferred satisfying over refreshing, but Lili kept that tidbit to herself.

When Grub didn't respond, just slowly shaking his head, she went on. "We don't have to do this now. I can wait." She paused, thinking about how odd those words felt in her mouth. When was she last in a relationship where "waiting" was involved? For the matter, what was her last actual relationship? "We'll give it some time. We can date some more, get to know each other better, see what happens. I mean, love..." She laughed, but immediately regretted the sound when her proposed lover flinched. "It's not like they say in the romance novels and movies. It's not 'at first sight.' It...forms." She felt rather proud of that speech. It was the kind her mother would have given when middle-child Lili was just getting her feet wet in the dating pool.

"It won't," Grub whispered, getting even smaller as he knocked her reassurances aside.

"Oh, come on," she protested, running the risk of scaring him by leaning sideways and wrapping an arm around his shoulder, pulling him close to her body in the hopes that he would momentarily forget their state of dress and get comfort from being close to someone. "Why would you say something like that?"

"Because..." He raised his head, and their faces were close together, but there was none of the passion between them that she thought she had felt before. Instead, tears were in his eyes and streaking down his face. He looked ashamed, and then looked away. "Because...I don't think I can be in love with two women at the same time, Lili."

She frowned, mouth slightly open as she prepared to ask what he meant.

Then she understood, and her face loosened. "Oh...oh, Grub..."

"I didn't lie! I wanted to be with you! I wanted to be in a relationship with you!" He bit his lip, eyes closed, letting his tears fall on both of their exposed skin. "I know me. And I really like you, but...I can't stop. I want to stop, but I can't!" He sobbed, thumping his head back on the wooden bedframe. "I'm sorry...gods, Lili, I'm so sorry."

She wanted to be mad at him, and maybe a part of her was: the part of her that had told Lili that she couldn't wait until the weekend had passed to claim her new mate. She shook her head. "But...I don't get it. Why did you say you were ready once the move was done?"

"I thought...if I got away, if I was going away, and I wasn't going to be close to her anymore, I wouldn't feel this way anymore. Or I could just...force myself to do it. But it hasn't happened. I haven't changed." He groaned in pain, fists clenched. "The only thing that happened is that I...I wound up leading you on, and...I didn't mean to!"

Grub finally looked up, meeting Lili's eyes. She wasn't crying yet. That would come soon enough. Not as violently as the man was currently sobbing, but deep and destructive in it's own way.

"I'm sorry, Lili...I wanted to fall in love with much. You're amazing, and spending time with you has been wonderful. Falling in love with would much...easier."

She took her arm away, wrapping it over her exposed breasts. Exposed. Not bare. Not waiting. Not enticing. Exposed. Refused. And not on a physical level. In some way that was all the harder to overcome. Impossible to overcome.

"I am...such an idiot," Grub whispered.

"Yeah," Lili finally choked, eyes burning. "Yeah. You are."

Vinyáya normally slept quite deeply, but she didn't have long to get into her dreams when the front door opened, snapping her back into the waking world. She sat up, glancing at her clock. What in the world was going on? Who in the world would be coming home at this hour?


She flushed at why she expected her tenant to be gone. Then her curiosity was peaked. Why was he home?

After years in secret operations, Vinyáya was a master of stealth, and a rounding stomach wasn't changing that. She got out of bed and padded to the door, turning the knob slowly to muffle the clicks. Opening the door a fraction, she put her ear next to the crack.

"—really sorry...if there's anything I can do..."

Lili sighed. "No, it's fine. We're good, really."

Grub was silent for some time. Then: "So...are we still...carpooling together?" Nervous laughter, which died off quickly. "Heh...heeeeee..."

A similar pause. "I...that's not a good idea. Sorry, it's just..."


"Yeah. I hope you don't mind."

"No, no. It's cool, really. It's not that far. I mean...well...with traffic, walking might be quicker."

Bell-like laughing. "Maybe." Silence. "Are you...sure you want me to leave you here?"

"I...where else should I go?"

"Yeah...I guess you're right. Just...take care, okay? And...well, if you ever want to hang out...just come see me." A nervous cough. "Or, you know, if you need anything I can help with. Never know when connections up on the Hill will help you get in somewhere you need to go."


Shuffling noises. Patting. A hug, Vinyáya realized. More shuffling as they parted.

Lili coughed again. "Well...bye."


Footsteps. A car engine, which soon faded into the distance. The click of a door closing.

Vinyáya pulled her own door closed, easing the doorknob back into place, holding her breath as the final click came. Then she tiptoed back into bed.

She did not go back to sleep.

Vinyáya thought about what she'd heard for a long time.

Eventually, she smiled. And felt horrible for that smile. But she could not wipe it away.

Chapter Text

Week 31

Grub was scared out of his wits as he prepared to go into work on Monday. There were enemies everywhere. Lili could flip out in front of the entire Plaza. Holly could use her ninja skills to neuter him without warning, or proper anesthetic. His own brother could sketch mystical genitalia on his back or, even worse, his face.

Commander Verres was the least of his worries. Until Grub stepped into his private office and found the man waiting in the guest chair.

"C-Commander!" Grub snapped to attention, saluting.

"Yes, yes," Verres sighed, returning the gesture and setting the captain free. "Sit, please. I believe we need to talk."

Well trained puppy that he was, Grub did not mention that this was his office, and he should have been the one offering a seat, instead complying instantly. He broke out in a sweat as the pixie looked him over.

Verres was blank, and that made his little sigh unreadable. "I had to scrap that bike, you know. Do you have any idea how much an LEP-outfitted magna-bike runs?"

Grub was willing to bet it was more than his skin. "N-no, sir. But she..." He stopped himself when the commander's eyes narrowed "I...would rather it hadn't happened, but I can't change it, now."

"Odd thing to say," Verres mused, tapping a single nail on the metal frame of the chair, making it ring, the sound cut off when he left his finger pressed to the surface. "Is this generally how you react to things?"

Grub couldn't help but laugh. Oh, did he ever. Living with his mother for decades past his majority was not a wise decision, in retrospect. Becoming the least-liked fairy in the force outside of IA was certainly less than desirable. Stringing along the most amazing woman in all Haven, second-besting her to the cruelest choice he could make, both in the woman and for himself...

Grub let his eyes drop to the desk, and they were drawn by habit to the far corner, where a digital photo frame cycled slowly through his album of favorites. It was a small album. Only four pictures.

One was of his father, and he looked amazingly young. Grub reflected that this was mostly because he was so young when the picture was taken. About as old as Trouble was now. It was a formal shot, and the new major's hair was so crisp and flat on the top that you expected to be able to balance a pen on it's pointy end and not see it sink in.

The next picture also included the man, plus his two sons, all three piled into the front seat of the cherry red convertible that would one day be part of Trouble's inheritance. They all wore dark black sunglasses, trying to look cool and disapproving. Grub was failing terribly, based on his brightly shining teeth, though 30-year-old Trouble was on the verge of losing it, as well, his smirk showing faint echos of his wicked future.

Then a somewhat over-exposed shot of Grub wearing his first set of dress greens, flanked by his similarly-suited brother and formally attired mother. They stood in front of the memorial statue outside Police Plaza, and a crowd of other graduates and family members milled out behind them. Trouble was mussing up Grub's once-neat hair, his own chin-length shag and goatee making him still seem the more unkempt of the two. Grub was scowling at his brother, but his eyes shone with pride, despite the minor annoyance, matching the single gleaming bronze acorn on his chest.

The last was about as blurry as you could get and still identify the the image therein. On the top of the picture was a lot of text—mostly numerical, and all indecipherable. The borders of the image were a cold blue, reflecting the relative temperature of the area, which was fairly warm, but not quite so much as the center. Dr. Ginko had spent a good three minutes adjusting the settings to get that border, and then the yellow body floating within, surrounding a tiny flash of red for the fetus's heart.

"Sometimes," Grub finally answered, looking back at Verres. "Not always." He smiled.

Verres studied this contented look and snorted dismissively. Once he stood, he had to look down at the elf, and his frown seemed to deepen with the angle. "You do not belong on a bike, Captain."

Grub couldn't agree more, given his latest incident. He nodded a few times, leaving his head hanging at the end. "I understand, sir."

"So you'd better get used to your new desk, because I don't want to see you out from behind it again." He glared. "Ever."

Sitting up straight, eyes widening, Grub spluttered. "B-but sir! I thought...I mean...I crashed!"

The old man pursed his lips. "What part of my speech about needing office workers did you not understand?"

"I-I understood it all." His expression said otherwise. "I just thought..."

Verres moved towards the door, shaking his head, leaning on his cane a bit more than usual. "You're good at what you do, Captain. It would be a daft commander that would make you do otherwise."

At the wall, the pixie paused, seeming to be closely inspecting the office's slipshod alterations. He chuckled, turning back to the still-flabbergasted man. "Your transfer will take a few weeks. The office waiting for you is comparable, but..." He brought his cane back, rapping it against the boards, creating a hollow wobbling noise as the glass on the other side was also hit. "You will have windows, Captain. I suggest you complete whatever 'collaboration between departments' you have planned before the move, as I will not approve of that in my department."

Grub tried to assure the man that his "collaborations" were quite done, or that he was offended, or even that the sessions had proved very "fruitful," if he got the courage up to be cheeky. Instead, he blushed and nodded, rising to exchange the farewell salute with the man whom would soon be his direct superior

Once alone, he collapsed back to his chair, letting out a few strained giggles. He looked about the room, feeling suddenly wistful. He sort of wished he could take the commander's suggestion. He was going to miss this office.

Holly apparently waited to listen to the whole story from Lili before executing her revenge promise, as Grub managed to escape swallowing his own "equipment." Although he did almost have a panic attack in the break room, when her slitted eyes focused on him at his arrival. Grub beat a retreat even before his coffee was flavored. Then he spent the next half of the day wincing like he'd poured low-cost whiskey every time he sipped the black brew.

Holly gave some sort of abridged version to her superior officer, Trouble, and likely did so with a lecture on filial love and vandalizing other's bodies. Trouble said little to his brother that week, and the only thing that hurt the young man more than the silence was the looks Lili gave him whenever they encountered each other in the halls. Grub had a sudden and deep empathy with pond scum.

The Captain was so caught up in Retrieval's sudden decision to dump all excess paperwork on him—in some sort of effort to get the backlog done before he disapepared—that he failed to notice the missing call on Monday. Then Tuesday. Even Wednesday. He had the vaguest notion that something was off come Thursday evening, but only recalled what when the phone rang and he glanced at the number before pressing it to his ear. "Hello?"

"Good evening, Mr. Kelp! It's Jarvis, from Lionel Court, calling about your apartment."

"Ah," Grub replied neutrally, flicking his stylus between two fingers.

A pause on the line showed that the landlord was not so dense as to miss the tone, but the voice that responded was full of cheer. "I just got off the phone with your forensics team. They cleared the unit for rental!" He paused again, anticipating.

Grub studied his hands, considering this news. "That's good to hear."

"If you want, I would be happy to stay open late, so you can come by to inspect the unit and complete the signing."

Grub looked at his clock. He'd arrived early that morning, to minimize the time he spent in the Plaza with the four scariest people in all Haven (excluding his mother). He would be leaving early, as well. "That won't be necessary."

"Then what is the best time for you, Mr. Kelp?"

Running a hand through his hair, Grub sighed "I...was thinking." He swallowed, closing his eyes. This was, doubtless, going to be the stupidest decision of his life. It seemed those were being regularly surpassed, however, so he trudged forward. "I'm sorry," Grub said, shaking his head, even though the landlord could not see. "My circumstances have changed. I wont be moving. You can stop holding the apartment for me."

"Mr. Kelp!" The pixie squeaked indignantly, and he could be heard moving things about on his desk, putting them down with more force than was really necessary. "I have kept this apartment on hold for you for a month now!"

"No," Grub responded, feeling his hackles rise at the repetition of "mister," "you kept an unrentable ruin on hold. You lost no money by doing that. In fact, if you advertise this apartment today, I'm sure you'll have three renters lined up by lunchtime There is a housing shortage, isn't there?"

"You..." The sound the pixie made was so odd that Grub doubted even his well-trained brother could identify it. "You will lose your application fee, Mr. Kelp!"

He'd been having a hell of a week, so Grub was not in the mood to put up with such a ridiculous threat. That check had been cashed weeks ago, and he had long considered the money gone. Perhaps he was being petty, but petty felt good. "Oh, dear, a whole gram of gold. Well, just add it to whatever bribe you give to the city inspector to have him pass your 'testy' elevator. It looks like he's scheduled for arrival tomorrow." He was taking the phone away from his head to hang up, but quickly pressed it back. "And it's 'Captain Kelp,' civilian!"

The manager was shrieking as Grub took the phone from his ear, mouthing "bye bye" as he hung up. Before the pixie had a chance to call back, he hit the power button, putting his cell to sleep. He'd have to call the cell carrier to get that number blocked, no doubt. Tossing the phone to his desk, Grub leaned back in his chair to indulge in a little grin. Now he understood why Fowl enjoyed that kind of thing. It was a wonder that elf wasn't more cheerful, seeing how often he acted like an asshole.

Speaking of...

Grub picked up his office line and speed-dialed. When a female voice answered, he grinned. Maybe he could act charming like Fowl, as well.

"Winny! I haven't talked to you in a long time. How's the imps?"

The demoness Winifred did not answer at first, and Grub suddenly had the mental image of her taking the phone from her ear and looking at it and then the caller ID, to make sure she hadn't misunderstood her computer alert. "Um...just like their father. If it's not lightning, it's fire. Um...can I help you, Captain?"

Grub got the distinct impression that her "help" involved jackets that zipped up in the back. "I need to speak to your boss. Fowl."


Grub tapped the side of his nose. "An arrangement."

"Uh...huh. I'll see if he's available."

Grub was put on hold, instantly wincing as a recording of Foaly singing the latest Riverboat hit brayed directly into his ear. He'd hoped the centaur would have caught on by now as to why all his callers were so amused, of late. It was a whole month since Artemis had implemented the change, after all.

Speaking of the Devil (and, if anyone in Haven was the Devil, it was Artemis Fowl), the genius decided to show his tail, answering the phone with a sharp "What?"

"Fowl," Grub said seriously, dropping the charm and ignoring the rude snap. "What do I need to do to get a city inspector down to Lionel Court tomorrow?"

It felt damn good to be so bad.

Trouble Kelp was an almost daily visitor on Principality Hill. He'd long ago gained the privilege of being admitted on sight, and there wasn't a guard that didn't know about the elf, or speculate about just what exactly he and Lili Frond did when they were alone in that mansion. Most guesses would have made even Trouble blush. It was best he didn't know, though. He had a big enough ego.

So he was waved through the gates with no questions when he arrived on Friday, after his shift had ended. He'd been avoiding the mansion since Grub began dating Lili three months ago, as he long ago resolved to do whenever the woman got into a serious relationship, to avoid possible misunderstandings. Which meant that, during their entire time knowing each other, Trouble Kelp had avoided visiting his best friend for a total of...three months.

She wasn't that great at forming relationships.

She also, apparently, was not very good at dissolving them. Trouble was sure he wasn't going to enjoy this.

He'd been held up that evening, performing a few tasks that only the Commander of Retrieval could do (bollocks, he said, but tell that to the Council head and see how well it goes over), but it wasn't really that different from any other Friday evening. Unless stated otherwise, Lili would be waiting for him to pick her up for a night on the town. She rarely over-drank, being prone to blackouts and poorly chosen "royal consorts," but it took a lot longer for alcohol to leave her system than it took Trouble, which meant he was her designated driver.

He had a key to the mansion, but found the front door unlocked when he arrived. She'd always been bad about that. Granted there hadn't been any serious crime on the Hill since Cahartez had his little debacle, and that hardly counted. Still Trouble frowned, closing the door behind him and doing up all of the locks, minus those few magical ones that required a member of the Frond family to throw the metaphysical (meta-magical?) switch. "Lili?" he called over his shoulder.

"Parlor," she sang back in a warbling, off-key voice.

Trouble cursed. She liked singing, yes, but not at every little thing, like an opera diva. If she was doing that... He began walking towards the overly-decorated room.

He found Lili draped over a long, velvet-covered, gold-framed fainting couch, one arm lolling back to play with the teeth of an enormous ebony statue that seemed to depict a cross of enraged lion and rabid dog. She had apparently succeeded in getting herself ready for a night out, wearing a pair of skin-tight black pants with a little glitter to the material, along with a simple green tee that ended three inches short of fully clothing her, exposing a soft expanse of light brown skin. She was tracing her abdominal muscles with the bottom of an open beer bottle, the condensation leaving wet trails across her ridges.

She looked over at Trouble and smiled, wriggling her toes in sudden pleasure. "Hello, Commander." She batted her eyes, which were pained a shining green, bringing attention to the small silver stars she had painted from the corner of her right eye and across the curve of her face, down the the more pronounced and endless curves of her chest. "I've been waiting."

"It looks like you started without me," he grumbled, looking at the many bottles laid out on the black granite coffee table before her. "Is this all, or have you managed to toss some of the empties already?"

Lili scowled and sat up. She brushed at her hair—now held up loosely with a gold and emerald claw clip, free ends flirting about her cheeks—and took a deep breath, preparing to defend her honor. "Look, just stand still a moment, you ass..." She squinted at him. Holding up the beer, she aligned it with Trouble's spine, making sure he was stable in her vision. This proved a lost cause when she began to drift sideways, ruining her aim.

Trouble rolled his eyes and eyed the half-empty bottle, trying to recall the last few times he had seen the woman this inebriated. She was wasted enough that he could keep her from getting to any more liquor, so long as he didn't join her in a drunken stupor, but he really wished she would put that one down. "You're done, I think. Come on. You're going to get some nightclothes on, drink a big glass of water, and go to bed. I've got to run out and find some hangover remedies, it seems."

Lili stood, swaying a moment, and put a steadying hand against her head. "No, I wanna—oof!"

Her knees went out, and the princess was about to take a very unroyal fall when she found herself held up around the waist by a pair of very strong arms.

"Dammit, Lili. Help me here," Trouble grunted, heaving upwards until Lili managed to stand again, using him as a support, though she was still only a few pounds away from pure dead weight. He put a hand to her forehead, making it tilt back so he could inspect her eyes. "Okay, when did you start drinking?"

"I think," Lili slurred, shaking free from his inspection with a pout, "that the better question is 'when did you stop?'"

"Oh, fantastic," Trouble muttered. He shifted the woman again until she was standing completely on her own, with only his hand on her back in case she tipped over again. It was better for her to fall forward onto him than backwards and crack her head open on the furniture. The very expensive, very uncomfortable, very stain-able furniture. "You need to go to sleep."

"How do you," Lili hissed, poking Trouble's chest with the bottle's lip, "know what I need?"

"Years of experience," Trouble tried to joke, but the quip seemed to fall flat on the woman.

"Experience. Psh. Experience." She shook her head, freeing more strands of long strawberry hair. "I have slept around just as much as you for almost as long as you, remember? I've seen you this...I'm not drunk," she said, changing tactics midway. Her eyes crossing for a second as she looked at his face did not help her argument.

"Sure. But you need to go to bed."

"Shh shh shh," Lili hushed, waving the index finger that helped hold her beer bottle at Trouble's nose. "No no no. Shhhhhh..." She giggled. "I know...what I need." She grinned, rising to her tip toes to help her look Trouble in the eyes, leaning against the man's chest to help her stability. "Do you often I fucked your brother?"

Trouble winced, pulling back from the beer breath. "No. I don't."

Lili grinned. "Heeeee...hehehe..." She poked Trouble's nose and spoke with exaggerated lip movements. "Ne...ver."

Trouble stared at her, certain he'd heard wrong. "You...?"

"Never!" She threw her hands in the air and wobbled, screeching and throwing her arms about Trouble's neck before she tumbled. "Nnnn...never. Three...months." She sniffled. "What's the longest you've gone without being laid, Trouble?"

He thought about that. Very carefully. He found that thinking was getting suddenly difficult. "Um...blowjobs count?" He suddenly wanted to smack himself upside the head for saying that word in front of Lili. Even if they had undertaken extensive conversations on the practice in the past, it was just the wrong thing for him to be mentioning, at the moment.

"Of course! You're a guy." She took a swig from her bottle and frowned. "He wouldn't even let me do that, you know? Pity. I've been told I'm...fu...fu...fucking fantastic."

Trouble gulped and stared at Lili's lips. There was a single droplet of ale left on the lower, refracting the light and looking so utterly delicious that he wanted to crane his head down and slowly lick it off. "I..."

"How long?"

Trouble was about to give an answer in inches before he recalled the specific subject of their discussion. " months?"


"Unpleasant?" Gods, he sounded like his brother. Which...could be to his!

"Exactly," Lili whispered, resting her bottle against Trouble's chest. "It's really...really...bad." She shook her head, shuddering. "Don't like it. Nuh uh. So...get where I'm going with this?" She raised an eyebrow at her friend.

Trouble swallowed. He had a pretty good idea he did, though he replied with, "No." He really hated lying to this woman. He avoided it as much as possible, but now was one of those moments when it was best to lie his ass off.

The lie proved to be a bit ineffective, this time, as Lili was more than happy to bring on an enlightenment. "I...don't need...sleep." She pressed the cold beer bottle harder into Trouble's chest. "I need...something...better." The bottle began to slide down between them, making Lili shiver and hiss in a breath as it moved across her bare midriff. "And we both know...just exactly..."

Trouble shut his eyes as the bottle came between their groins, chilling his hardness. He really wished he wasn't being affected by this, but...fuck, she felt good, and she was saying those...things. There had to be some sort of rule about this: don't sleep with your little brother's ex until a period of time has passed that is no less than a third of the term of the relationship, or something. Did that still count if the ex was your best friend? He'd known plenty of guys that turned their friends into "fuck buddies." Those relationships didn't last longer than a year past the change, however, and that included the dissolution of the friendship.

"What...I need," Lili finished, grinding her hips against Trouble's, squeezing the alcohol between them, laughing lightly when she registered the equally thick, warm, hard thing next to the cold one. "I've had a three month dry spell, Trouble." She leaned in, nuzzling at his neck. "Mind doing the honors?"

Trouble groaned, moving back against her. The cold beer almost hurt, but she washed it away by feeling so gods-damned hot. "Lili, I...d'arvit..." He licked his lips, breathing hard, mind a jumble of desires and inhibitions.

"You're not answer-ing," Lili sang. She removed the bottle, swishing it in the commander's face. "Need a drink to help loosen your tongue?"

Trouble looked at the bottle, trying to think. With that drink up here, all he could feel was her body moving so perfectly against his. What would really be so wrong about it? Grub had taken his chance and then given it away. And if Lili really did need this—and, by the way she was acting, she needed it badly—wasn't it sort of a friendly thing to do to help her out? Just a few hours, and they could agree to forget the entire evening, once they woke up. If Lili even remembered...

He snatched the bottle from her, downing it in a single gulp, and tossed it to the coffee table, not bothering to fix the mess when it landed sideways and rolled off under the couch. He puffed out a breath, shaking his head. "D'arvit..."

Laying a hand on Lili's shoulder, he gave her a small shake. "You need to got to bed."

"Oh, good," she purred, nestling her head back into the curve of Trouble's neck, angling a bit up to lick at his earlobe. "Should I put on anything...special?"

"Pajamas, Trouble groaned, grabbing her hair and pulling the female away. "You're sleeping alone. I'll stay in the guest room."

"Good to know."

"I'm locking my door!"

She pouted. The pout very quickly began to falter. From sullen acting, her lower lip began to tremble, and a real sheen came to her eyes. A drunk crying is never a pretty sight, but Lili pulled it off admirably. "Tr-Trouble...wh...wh...what is wrong with you Kelps? Why don't you want me?"

Trouble sighed, eyes rolling, and patted Lili's back. "Here it comes," he muttered.

She began to sob, now burying her head in his chest, thick tear-tracks soaking his shirt, soon joined by some little green circles as snot bubbles popped, made all the worse when she tried to snort the ooze back in. "Wh...wh...wh...whyyyyyyyyy?"

Trouble sighed and gave up on getting her permission. Kneeling, he tucked an arm behind Lili's legs, standing swiftly and taking her with him, bringing the woman up until he held her in both arms.

She shrieked, which managed to halt her crying, and threw her arms around Trouble's neck. For a moment, she squirmed, whimpering as she felt the earth leave her, and looked over her shoulder to determine how far away it was. Finding the answer somewhat acceptable, Lili turned her head back, and came across Trouble's face.

He swallowed, realizing how poorly this position had been thought through. Not wanting to give the sloshed woman enough time to think of how to take advantage of their position (he wasn't sure he could stop himself if she did figure out how close their lips were), he began walking to the bedroom, deciding that she could sleep in her clothes, so long as she didn't throw up on them.

Lili hiccuped a little sob, closing her eyes, and rested her forehead against Trouble's chin. "Why don't you want me?"

Trouble sighed, kicking the door open. "I do, Lili." He was glad Lili had a poor drunk's memory. All of this would be gone by the morning, except for some feelings of anger and embarrassment, knowing that something had caused those emotions, even if she didn't know what. He could come up with a story she would believe before it came time to discuss what had happened. So he decided to give a true answer, this time. "Just...not only once. Now, come on. Time to sleep."


"Yes, Tiger Lily. Bed."

"I'm tired."

"I told you so."


"Me, too. Come on. You'd better not throw up on me."


Grub did not slide right back into the routine of living with the Wing Commander, despite his decision to pass on the apartment and remain her tenant. She barely saw him that weekend, as he only emerged to visit the lounge or get food. In fact, she had once been passing in the hall as he opened his door, and was startled when he slammed it again. She dearly hoped it was food he missed out on for the next two hours.

He seemed to be practicing some kind of exposure therapy, as she noticed him spending a little more time outside his room every night. Monday, he did the cooking. Tuesday, cooking and laundry, including folding in the laundry room. Wednesday, he ate at the dining room table, though he did so alone, as she rarely joined him for meals, finding that a bit too domestic for her tastes. Thursday, he was back in the living room, not ten feet from his landlord, and spent his time listening to some music through ear-bud headphones. Vinyáya suspected they weren't very high-quality headphones, as the man twitched whenever she moved more than an inch, but he did not flee.

Friday, he took down another barrier, spending his time watching Vinyáya's game instead of ignoring her completely

He had rather bad timing. The hormones were on the march. And not the ones that led to bad decisions on bikes. Pretty much every other type, though.

"Why," she said quietly, "are you watching me?" Hot flashes of nerve ran across her skin as she angled her head to stare at the elf. She wanted to turn the chair so it's back rested between her and the man, as an extra barrier. What was he planning? What was his ulterior motive? He was there to sabotage her game, wasn't he!

"I'm not watching you," he rationalized, pointing at the television screen. "I'm watching the game. Careful, that one with the missing arm is going to jump." His chin rested on the end of the couch closer to the television, and his arms were pulled tight under his body, making them almost disappear.

Vinyáya returned her eyes to the screen, teeth bared. She hated the jumpers almost as much as the fast ones. It must be destroyed. "You're distracting me."

Grub snorted. "Like what?"

"I don't know!" She expertly pirouetted her avatar, avoiding the leaper (leper, as well?), only to run into a nest of altered dogs just beyond. She felt tears come to her eyes, and gritted her teeth against them. "Go...get drunk with Frond, or something!" She immediately regretted the jibe, and it made the moisture in her eyes spill over. She shook her head as the man responded, her long hair soaking up the tracks.

"We broke up. You know that." He sniffed with great dignity. "Everyone knows that."

And everyone knew, from the looks Lili kept sending his way, who had done the breaking. Vinyáya found herself sneering. Mourning over the little Kelp boy. Stupid girl. Gods knew, the princess had probably blown better in the back room of some club. Someone like...

Turning and smiling with false sweetness, hoping that would be more effective, she tried another entertainment option for the intently focused captain. "Then call your brother."

"Oh, sure," Grub laughed. "And what shall he draw on me this time? Sodomizing dwarves?"

Vinyáya gagged at the image. "Oh, gods, what is wrong with you?" Her stomach did a full flip, and she got to re-taste a little bit of that night's casserole

"Deeeeee-pressed." Grub pushed himself up, folding his arms under his torso and shifting to the side so he could actually look at his conversational partner, though he didn't bother to tuck back his hair, which fell across his eyes in a thick mass. "Why aren't you? Out, I mean. You haven't gone out anywhere for months, now."

"I," Vinyáya said in a superior tone of voice, "do not link my happiness to my ability to be courted every weekend."

"And why not?" Grub asked, yawning. It was still too early to sleep, but laying on the couch for the last few hours was doing a lot to make him tired. "I don't recall you ever being one to date, even before we began sleeping together."

"Well," Vinyáya said in a false-airy tone, grabbing half of her hair and shaking the ends at him. "There's this. Seventy hit, this came, and there was this odd plummet in interest."

Grub's eyes shook as he tried to focus on the larger clumps of hair, drawn to it almost like a cat. He blinked to get back to normal, giving the woman the distinct impression that she was lucky he hadn't taken a swipe at the locks. "The human thing? Really that bad?"

"More-so then than now," Vinyáya sighed. "There were more genuine hybrids when I was young. The last flings with the knights and ladies." She looked at her hair again, letting it sift out of her fingers. She suddenly felt as if a weight had been placed on her chest. As if she couldn't breath properly. As much as she had not wanted to cry only seconds ago, she now thought it would feel quite good, but didn't think she was even capable of tears. "Not many of them had kids, and they mostly had human lifespans. So, when they died off, some of the prejudice went with them, and people stopped passing around that stupid, unfounded rumor."

"And dating picked up again," Grub concluded, looking quite interested.

Laughing, Vinyáya shook her head. "Gods, it's not that simple. There was climbing the ranks, then getting used to the Council workload, and..." She paused, looking at her fingernails.

Grub tilted his head to the side. "And?"

"And..." For a few seconds, she gritted her teeth against another inner explosion of rage, but soon relaxed. "Other things."


"And now this!" Vinyáya said swiftly, poking at her stomach to distract him. "I look like a hippo!"

"Psh," Grub said dismissively. "No, you don't."

"Oh, yes I do," Vinyáya argued, tugging at her shirt. It was one of the last per-maternity items she could still wear, and this had been a simple tee she wore when fixing her magna-bike. Thanks to fairy laundry practices, there were no grease stains, but it had a few dime-sized holes, through which one could see her sallow skin. "I'm hideous."

"You're not!" Grub yelled, pushing himself up and glaring at the self-depreciating woman. "You're beautiful!"

Vinyáya continued staring at her stomach, unable to bring herself to look at the man.

After a few seconds of stunned silence on both sides, Grub's body finally reacted, turning his face red and making him shrink back down on the couch. "I-I-I—"

"Oh, gods," Vinyáya choked, letting her head fall back to the chair's arm. "You...little..."

And she began to laugh, tears springing to her eyes unbidden. She clutched at her stomach, and tried to fight it, but her hormones had decided to take a very strong swing towards true hysteria, and they were not to be stopped. She could feel her face reddening as she lost all her extra air, and soon her laughter was just wheezes, and then the silent type that can only be felt. She even snorted once, and that was enough to make her pause, take a deep breath, and break into a few seconds of even louder laughter before being again silenced.

Grub sat up, pulling his legs up to the couch and holding his knees, chin resting between them as he watched the woman. "Thanks," he muttered petulantly. He watched her. Then, after a minute, he gave a small laugh and smiled. He'd seen her laugh a few times with Holly, and during the promotion dance she seemed full of tinkling, almost girlish giggles whenever an upper-class partner came along, but he'd never seen this. It was unhinged, yes. Still, even though he was being laughed at and not with, he felt sort of proud at being the source.

When the point came where Vinyáya could not continue laughing without having a complete break from sanity, she reduced herself to tired moans and occasional chuckles, wiping the tears from her eyes. "Oh, gods,!" She winced, grabbing at her stomach.

"What?" Grub said, that familiar squeak of terror in his query.

Vinyáya rubbed just above her navel, eyes closed tight as she fought off the moment of pain. "The baby kicked me again. I swear, it's out to get me."

"It...kicked?" Grub whispered.

"Yeah," she said, pushing against the back of the chair until her legs swung off the arm, sitting as a normal person would, still rubbing at her inner wound. "I think all the laughing woke it up."


Catching the continued softness in her partner's voice, Vinyáya looked over, a brow raised in question.

Grub looked at her stomach, his expression...hungry, in some way. He didn't move, but his entire demeanor had changed from the depression of minutes ago. He was tight, somehow. Restrained. He shook minutely, squeezing his legs tighter to his chest. "Does that...happen often?"

Vinyáya suddenly realized that the redness of her laughter was not fading away. She ran a hand through her hair, blowing out her cheeks, trying to recall her grasp of Gnommish. "Um...yes, actually." She winced as what she was certain was a karate chop landed on her lowest rib. "Especially when I'm trying to relax!" She glared at her stomach and poked it lightly, hoping for a reprieve.

Baby apparently got the message wrong. Deciding it was a game, it came back with an even stronger attack, making Vinyáya yelp.

From the couch, Grub chuckled softly, watching the exchange of blows between mother and unborn child. "Vindictive. Takes after you?"

"Actually," she snapped, a surge of testosterone in her system making her battle-fire light, "it seems just desperate to touch me. Maybe it takes after you!"

Grub gaped, sent off-kilter by the mood swing. After a moment, he looked away, muttering.

"Oh, what was that?" Vinyáya sang, cupping a hand to her ear. "I couldn't quite hear your whining!"

"I said 'I haven't touched you,' okay?" Kicking his legs out, Grub stood, picking up the few items he had brought into the living room in the off chance he would gain the motivation to entertain himself. "I know you don't want me to, anymore, so I haven't, even though you let all of Police Plaza feel our child move, and it's not fair that you use that against me!" He stormed from the room, making for the hall and his bedroom.

Vinyáya stared after him, stunned out of her sudden fury, trying to work out his run-on sentence. When she heard his bedroom door slam and the lock click, she was further shocked, and this time into movement. She took to her feet—if a bit wobbly from sitting so long—and looked around the living room, hoping for some convenient solution. Her mind raced to the drawer of miscellaneous items in the kitchen, and her feet soon followed. She tore it open, hands diving inside, tossing out spare screwdrivers, random wires, twisty ties, and an egg of silly putty (where in Frond's name did that come from?) before she came up with a thin, silver key.

With a purposefulness to her stride that she normally only showed in the Plaza, she stormed down the hall, shoved the key into Grub's lock, and kicked the door open.

In the middle of dressing for the night, pajama bottoms already on, but his shirt as yet absent, Grub spun, shouting down the intruder. "I locked that door for a reason!"

Vinyáya held up the key, as if her tenant needed proof of how she gained entrance. "My house!" She barked the words out. She still had a bit of testosterone coursing through her, and it manifested in complete impulsiveness.

And that was why Vinyáya crossed the room and grabbed Grub's wrist. He jerked against the touch, but she was far stronger than he. With a thrill rushing across her skin, she yanked the young male to her.

And placed his hand on her stomach.

It took several seconds for Grub's expression to go from fury to confusion. He blinked at her, mouth open.

With his lack of response, Vinyáya was forced to spread Grub's fingers until they lay flat, cupping her roundness. Then she closed her eyes, waiting. Praying now was not the time that her child decided to be zen.

After a few seconds, she winced.

Grub yelped, his other hand flying up to rest beside the first. "W-was that...?"

"D'arvit," Vinyáya hissed, then nodded. "Yes. Phew...should happen again soon en-ow!"

"Holy shit," Grub breathed. "Hah...oh...oh my gods...I can feel it!"

"As hard as he's kicking, I'd damn well hoped so." Vinyáya bit her lips the second the words were out. She had been carefully avoiding the baby's gender, since her snooping. The man would know, now, and what would he think...?

After a long silence, Vinyáya slit her eyes open. She looked down, preparing for Grub's smug look.

She needn't have worried. He wasn't looking at her at all. Or, technically, he was watching a part of the commander, but it was obvious that the young elf was more looking through her than at her. His smile was soft, eyes matching. He had the demeanor of a blessed man before his loving god. He barely moved his hands, not wanting to lose the contact that allowed him to feel the smaller tremors within her belly, but just enough to let his fingers stroke her stretched skin, letting little bumps flare up at the periphery of his touch. When another strong kick came—this one not so harsh as to make Vinyáya react to the pain, though there was some—he laughed, eyes sparking. " some kick."

That hunger he had shown a few minutes ago was back in him, and Vinyáya felt a sourness rise within her. It took several minutes to identify the feeling. And then she tried to push the knowledge away, sure she was jumping to conclusions. Yet the look in his eyes and the hollow in her heart were both undeniable.

I'm a horrible mother, Vinyáya thought, though it wasn't like this was the first time she had come to this conclusion. Given how unexpected this "blessing" was, she should have been breathing a huge sigh when she realized that the man was excited, rather than sneering at her and questioning the paternity. She couldn't think of even one of her previous lovers that would have risen to the occasion with such enthusiasm as Grub Kelp. And, yet, there it was. Insane and inescapable. Jealousy.

She tried to be kind about it; which was laudable, with her temper so swift to change. Coughing to get his attention, she leaned back a fraction. "Um...good?" She avoided the 'enough' she wanted to add, to show that his time was up.

Grub finally looked at her fully.

She felt her heart catch for far too many beats.

There was no alteration in his eyes. Looking at his former lover, for a moment lost in his own intense elven emotions, not trying to be strong and guarded, Grub gave Vinyáya the same longing, sorrowful, hopeful, worshiping look. He smiled after a moment, raising one hand to rub at the back of his neck, though refusing to remove the other, despite her minute retreat. "I never'" He laughed again, running the hand through his hair, making it even more disheveled. "Wow! You have no idea, Vinyáya."

She couldn't help but join him in the laughter. "It's been inside me, so I've been getting used to it over time." Experimentally, she put a hand down on her stomach, right next to Grub's, one of her fingertips touching his, and waited. When another kick came, she exhaled a single, soft laugh. "That is pretty weird."

"This is really happening, isn't it?" Grub said, somewhere between uncertainty and sudden comprehension. He pressed on her stomach lightly, rubbing his hand across the taut flesh. "You...we're having a baby." He shook his head, smirking. "I finally see why my brother is having issues believing. I don't think I would, myself, if..." At another nudge against his hand, he nodded, as if agreeing with the unborn child.

"I'm still not quite sure," Vinyáya admitted. At Grub's alarmed look, she went on. "In, you know, a 'do I believe it' sense. I's going to happen, no matter what I think about it all." She tried to shrug off the unintended, deadly second meaning that her tenant seemed to have latched onto. "No going back, though. This kid's coming."

In tiny fractions, Grub relaxed. "Yeah. Not long, now.

"Vinyáya, I..." He swallowed, slowing his desire for impulsive speech. "Thanks for...letting me do this. I mean..." He leaned back, turning even redder. "Thanks for letting me touch you." He squeaked. "I mean...oh, man," he groaned, waiting for the next inevitable swing, both in moods and fists.

After a long moment, Vinyáya shook her head. "You're welcome," she said, head tilting a fraction to the side, a little self-satisfied smirk on her lips. "Just don't go groping me in the Plaza, like everyone else wants to. I have work to do, after all."

"Of course," he agreed, and with obvious effort, he took his hand away, breathing out as he did so. " pretty tired. I know I am. We should go to sleep."

She swallowed, her eyes edging towards the man's bed before she wrangled her thoughts and line of sight. Taking a step back, she nodded. "Good point. I think we're both wound pretty tight, now."

Looking up at him again, Vinyáya decided that this was completely wrong. She had never seen an elf more relaxed in her life. She hadn't seen him this happy since the doctor revealed the child's gender. And...was she the cause of that look on his face?

No, she decided. It was the child. There was no denying that it had always been the child that made him smile like that. After all, he had never given her such a look when they were in a tangle of sweating limbs and short breaths. If she received that gaze, then it was residual. Anything more was all her imagination.

"Good night, Kelp," she droned, turning her back on him.

"Sleep well," he implored.

Pausing, hand resting on the door frame, Vinyáya breathed deeply. She nodded. "Sure. You, too." Then, before anything else could be said to make her rethink this night, she was gone to her bedroom, locking herself inside.

"Sweetness...darling...oh, most radiant lovely one..."

Lili groaned, lashing about before her face, eyes still closed, hoping she would hit something. "Shut up..."

"Time to wake up, oh innocent flower," the voice came again.

"Trouble!" Lili screeched, punching a bit lower, and laughing in triumph as she came across something soft. "Will you shut up? I've got a damned hangover!" She brought her arm back to drape over her eyes, blocking what little light filtered through her lids. "Dammit, what club am I banned from this time?"

Trouble snorted. Lili Frond was never banned from a club. Not in reality. One didn't ban the princess, and she had been remarkably good about her partying habits since Short had taken her on. "No club. You did this at home."

"Oh," she whimpered, disappointed that an amusing story hadn't come out of this pounding in her head. "How many did we have?"

"We didn't have anything to drink. You seemed to have finished off a half-bottle of wine before going plebeian and attacking the better part of a case of beer." Trouble reached out, grabbing Lili's shoulder, using his significant muscles to pull at the woman, fighting for a sitting position. "I'm surprised you didn't spew everywhere. Come on, drink this. It'll help your head."

Petulantly, Lili cooperated with Trouble's efforts to get her seated, pushing against the mattress until she slid up to support her back against the headboard. She slit her eyes open, looking at the vile concoction that she was presented, it's olive-green complexion in no way improved by the tiny pink umbrella Trouble had placed on the edge. She whimpered at the sight.

"You know it works, Lili. Drink it," Trouble said, then, taking on his Commander's voice, finished with, "now."

Giving him a look that quite clearly said he was an utter bastard for doing this to her, Lili took the drink and sipped. She immediately gagged, but kept her gorge down. That was one of the genius elements to this potion. Despite how utterly horrific it tasted, she had not once thrown it up. Granted, she was rarely given it unless she was done with her vomiting for the evening, so perhaps it was more incidental than an actual element of the ingredients.

A few seconds after the gagging stopped, she took a huge mouthful, forcing it down, and fanned at her open mouth, tongue hanging out, panting in a very canine manner. There was a strong peppery taste to the remedy, and it would alter the taste of food for several hours after being finished. "Gods, does this have to be so nasty?"

Trouble chuckled, patting Lili's shoulder, discretely grabbing the strap of her pink pajama top and moving it back into place. "It's a lot better than spending all day with a hangover, and it seems only fitting to have a bit of discomfort to remind you of how stupid you acted."

Lili froze, looking down into her drink, trying to determine if that was a whole garlic bulb she was seeing. ""

"Pretty stupid," Trouble said airily. Too airily.

Lili flushed. They hadn't gone anywhere but the Mansion. Which limited her stupidity to the only other person in the room. She tried hard to remember what had happened. All that came to her was beer four, and then darkness thereafter. "Um...what did I do, Trouble?"

"Oh..." He blew out his cheeks, rubbing at the back of his neck. "Nothing much. we have an arm wrestling match, said I was your best friend ever, insisted we watch the Ballad of King Frond and cried all the way through...the opening credits." He tilted his head to the side, inspecting her. "I never knew you could be so emotional about directors and producers." At her incredulous look, he shrugged. "And then you insisted we rip our clothes off and go dive into the fountain. At the golf course."

Lili shrieked, covering her mouth with one hand. "Oh, gods, we didn't!"

"No," Trouble admitted. "I managed to distract you with my shiny keys. And then you finally reached your limit and decided it was time to go to bed."

"Oh, thank the gods," Lili whispered, leaning all her weight onto the headboard, finding that the lessening of her hangover (it was a damned good remedy, born over decades of partying like college fairies, and purportedly handed down by Manfred Kelp after his son managed to break into the liquor cabinet one weekend) and the mitigation of her ban from the golf club had sapped her of all strength. She took another drink and coughed, then sputtered as a good chunk of the slush went up her nose, clearing her sinuses for weeks to come. "Oh, gods...I'm sorry you had to deal with that."

"That's fine, Lili," Trouble said, moving to sit further up on the bed, his legs folding to a yoga-like position before him. "I'm just glad we didn't go out. That would have been...tabloid-worthy."

Lili nodded, breathing in deeply to clear the last of the liquid from her nasal passages, a less-than-appetizing rattle coming from her nose. "My good record continues," she said. She'd undoubtedly been in the tabloids all along, but the last few years she had avoided what Fowl called "Hilton-esque" escapades. She was almost getting a good name, in fact. "I guess we're staying in this weekend," she sulked, instantly feeling terrible. With this much alcohol in her system, going anywhere was out of the question, and she knew Trouble well enough to realize he wouldn't be leaving his friend behind to recover while he went out for fun. A very honorable guy, she mused, smiling behind her novelty umbrella.

"Well, yeah, but not just because of the drinking." Trouble smiled playfully. "I...uh...decided on something, last night. Something I've been thinking of doing for a long time."

Lili looked at him for a long time. If the booze had not taxed her system into minor shock, she would have felt a flush rise to her cheeks. "O-oh!" She lowered the half-finished drink, playing with the salt rim. She dipped her finger back into the goo to keep this bit of the remedy in place, wiping her finger off on the covers. It was time to wash them, anyway. Especially if Trouble meant...after all this time? "Um...what?"

"Something I've wanted to give you, but I wasn't sure if it was a good idea. And I've thought about it for years." He looked to the ceiling, still smiling, but avoiding her eyes, trying to be coy. "I think you'll really enjoy it. It something you need."

"Something..." She swallowed hard, sending the pepper flaring up again on her tongue. Lili's heart raced, and she found the last of her hangover was suddenly gone. She felt very, very good, and she had a feeling she was about to feel a thousand times better. " about it, then?" She squared her shoulders, head held high. "I'm ready!"

Smiling, Trouble lowered his eyes to meet Lili's and licked his lips, making her pupils dilate a fraction. Then he licked his lips, pursing them together...and blew.

The whistle was piercing, though it only lasted a second, and Lili blinked twice rapidly as she tried to decide if he was summoning her. It was so not going to work.

A second later, there was a series of very rapid clicks from the hallway outside Lili's open bedroom door, followed by panting and an exultant bark of "Finally!"

Something small and reddish burst into the room, knocking the door back, sending the rugs flying out of order as it blasted overhead. Whether it ever touched the ground was debatable. With a final, loud cry, the creature took to the air, covering the last five feet and landing perfectly in the middle of the pair of elves, it's arrival jarring Lili and spilling the drink across her chin.

The furry, smiling face looked up at her, blue eyes so pale that they matched the sunniest rays on the far-distant skies. It spent a moment panting, moving about to collect it's gangly limbs, and waggle it's butt with enough energy to drive a locomotive. Then it sprang.

"Mommy!" Barking, it's tongue came out, flashing across Lili's cheeks, lapping up the spilled hangover cure in the process.

A second later, with a yelp, the creature fell back. It paused a moment, pawing at its nose, and commenced sneezing, the motion so violent that it's entire head shook, floppy ears snapping.

Faced with this apparition, Lili did what any woman in the same situation does.

She squealed.

"PUPPY!" Wrapping her arms about the still-sneezing dog, Lili pulled it to her chest, rubbing one hand deep into the rust-red fur along it's back, then along the white sides, searching out the hidden spot that would make the dog's leg thump. "It's a puppy!" she said excitedly to Trouble, as if he hadn't caught on.

"Thought you'd like him," Trouble said, reaching out to rub behind the whimpering canine's ears. "Fronds are supposed to be good with dogs, right?"

Lili nodded enthusiastically, though "good with dogs" was a major understatement. The Frond clan was intrinsically tied to dogs, in the legends. After all, there was a reason that the Gnommish symbol for "king" strongly resembled the Egyptian jackel god, and not just because they were both associated with the underworld. It was how Frond had signed his name, when he was just learning to write.

"He's gorgeous, Trouble," Lili said, grabbing at the puppy's jowls (Trouble made a note to have her wash her hands before eating again) to turn it's face to her. There was something wolfish to the shape, though a bit kinder than its more primal cousins.

"Mommy?" The puppy opened its mouth for another canine smile, tilting its head to the side.

Lili felt her heartstrings pulled. "I...guess?" She smiled back.

"Mommy!" New parental figure thus confirmed, the dog went back into hysterics, wriggling about so violently that it soon escaped Lili's grip, though it remained on her lap, going between squirming on it's back, begging for a belly rub, and jumping up to lick at her face with another bark of "Mommy!"

Laughing, Lili tried to protect her face. She did not know how futile a gesture this was, but she would learn soon enough. "He seems to really like me!"

"You're very likeable," Trouble reasoned.

With a little explosion, the dog left Lili's lap and crashed into Trouble's chest, toppling him over and trying to clean his face, as well. "DADDY!"

Lili gaped. And then began to laugh so hard a bit of her hangover headache come back. "Oh, gods...oh, gods...really, boy?" She drummed her hands on the pup's rump, making his tail wag even faster. "Is that how it's gonna be?"

"Yeah! Yeahyeahyeah!" Jumping between them, the puppy looked back and forth. Overcome with the indecision on whom to accept lavish attentions from, he just gave up, flopping onto his back, stretching out his limbs to create the maximum surface area. "Tummy!"

They both obliged, Lili still giggling, and Trouble smirking. Eventually, he reached over and poked at the woman's nose, getting her attention. "So," he officiated, pointing at her chest, "Mommy," then to himself, with his thumb, smirking largely, "Daddy," and finally gestured at the dog. "Please, don't name him 'Baby.' I beg of you."

"Oh, that would be horrific," Lili agreed. She continued the rubbing, making the pup's eyes roll back in their sockets from the pleasure, tongue lolling out. "It's a boy, right?"

"Yep. Though you should get, um...those taken care of next week, the shop keeper said." Trouble jerked his head downward on the dog's body, feeling like a traitor to all men.

She winced in sympathy. "Okay..." Lili bit her lip, thinking. She inspected the dog carefully, looking for any unique patterns in the fur to give a fitting name, but the red and white coat was devoid of peculiarities Scowling, she tried to think of a suitable boy's name. Then she smirked, looking up into Trouble's eyes. "How about...'Shirley.'"

Trouble turned green. "Oh, no. Come on! That is not a boy's name!"

"It certainly is! Mud Men used to name their sons 'Shirley'!"

"Yeah, like, two hundred years ago!"

Lili batted her eyes prettily. "Your mother seemed to like the name..."

Trouble stopped rubbing the dog's stomach, jabbing a finger at Lili's chest. "We agreed to never speak of that again."

"Oh, but it's such a nice name..."

"If you name this dog 'Shirley,' I am taking him back and putting in an accusation of animal abuse."

Lili pouted. "Fine..." Chastised thusly, she gave Trouble a curious look. It made him squirm a bit, and she began to wonder. "Trouble...?"

"Hmmm?" He said, smiling through clenched teeth, little prickles rising on the back of his neck.

"Why now?"


"You said you'd been thinking of getting me a dog for a while. Why now, all of a sudden?"

"Oh," he said, puffing out his cheeks. "I, uh...last night," he winced, "I guess it got me thinking. You were...pretty far gone. Not even in a cute way. I mean...we've both been trying to be good about the clubbing thing, lately, but..." He shook his head, suddenly seeming to deflate from his pride over picking the perfect present. "We're not exactly in the Academy, anymore."

Lili raised an eyebrow. "Feeling old?"

"Hardly. Feeling...immature." Needing to do something with his hands, he rubbed the underside of the dog's neck, slowly, as if that would help him contemplate his words, which needed to be chosen with the utmost care. "I'm a Commander, now, and you're just as much in the public eye as me, being a Frond and all. And, seems like every month, Commander Verres makes some smart-mouth remark about an arrest Traffic made. Some drunk fairy that mentions our names, like what we do is an...excuse."

"Oh," Lili said, looking away. Verres hadn't said anything to her—no doubt some royalist feelings of loyalty—but Holly was certainly vocal about her disapproval. Besides complaining, there wasn't much her boss could do about the woman's wild ways, given that Lili was always fully functioning by Monday morning. Still, it had resulted in some of the recent efforts at reformation. "I...guess it does look pretty bad, huh?"

"Yeah," Trouble agreed. After a pause, he jumped forward. "I mean, that doesn't mean we can't keep going out and having fun! Just..." He looked down at the dog, drawing Lili's gaze along with him. "I figure knowing there's something a bit more complicated than an aquarium and a few potted plants waiting at home might help you be...less..."

"Stupid?" Lili suggested.

"Exactly." Trouble smiled, waiting to see if the woman would take offense. When she just snickered, he went on. "And I'd be watching myself, too. It wouldn't be fair if I was going around still being a drunken asshole."

"Oh," Lili said pensively. Then she nodded, smirking. "Well...maybe I should get you a cat, then," she concluded, in what she felt was a very logical way.

Trouble looked down at her, eyebrow raised. "A cat? Why a cat? Isn't this a bit switched, gender-wise?"

"I don't know," she said, casually, encouraging the puppy to sit up and undergo a closer inspection, lifting his ears and looking between his toes for any medical issues. She'd had a dog, once, before she went to the Academy, but it was more a family pet, and quite a lot smaller. The sort of dog you could drop-kick thirty yards (and sometimes wanted to, she admitted to herself, remembering the yapping). "If you're going to be responsible, then you'll need one." She leaned over, elbowing Trouble in the chest. "It's the last pussy you'll get in a while, after all."

"Why, you...come here!" Trouble laughed, grabbing Lili's wrist, trying to pull her to him, his free hand shooting towards her side, fingers wriggling as he prepared to inflict his revenge.

"No!" Lili screeched, leaning back. She had obviously been taking her lessons with Holly seriously, as she twisted her wrist about, breaking the strong man's grip before the tickling truly began. She pushed away from the headboard, jumping across the enormous bed, landing on the opposite side, ready to bolt, if necessary.

"Pup!" Trouble barked (literally, of course, going into the Haven canine dialect), pointing at the woman. "Face!"

Pup complied, with another cry for his mother, leaping after Lili. He hit her straight-on in the stomach, making both tumble off the side of the bed, landing with a sharp crash on the floor.

Trouble slid across the bed, looking over the edge of the mattress to make sure there were no injuries. When he saw Lili writhing on the floor, trying to fight the dog off, both laughing like school children, he threw his hands triumphantly in the air, laughing with such evilness that even Koboi would have been impressed.

"Get him off," Lili wheezed, throwing her head side-to-side as the dog made for her mouth. "Off! No! Bad puppy!"

Still too young to know the cruelty behind those words, the dog went on with its attack until Trouble leaned over the bed, wrapping his arms about the animal's waist and lifting him back up to the sheets. Keeping a firm hand in its scruff, Trouble looked over the edge, smirking at the prone figure of Lili. She looked quite fetching, hair a mess from the night, clothes rumpled and nearly falling off in some places from the struggle. If only he could fool himself into thinking that sheen on her face was sweat, and not dog drool, it would be the stuff of many fantasies to come.

"I believe," Trouble said primly, "I win."

"Oh—shut—up—you—ass." Lili wheezed, sitting up. She tugged at her shirt, lifting until it fell back into place, rather than risking flashing her good friend. "Don't think you're getting out of the kitten thing."

"Sure, Lili," Trouble said sarcastically, making no plans for a cleverly hidden catbox. "The pup still needs a name. Or do you want to be original and call him 'Dog.'"

"No...I've got an idea." Lili beamed, reaching up to rub at the dog's ears, making him whimper in pleasure. "I think you're right. It's time to...settle down, a bit." She snickered. "Not with a guy, I mean. Just...less hangovers would be nice. And...his name, its something the older people of Haven have wanted me to be for a while. Something I'm going to work on becoming."

Trouble stared at her, dread rising in him. What could she possibly name this dog? Temperance? Obedience? Oh, gods...gods, no! Chastity?

"Regal," Lili said, leaning in quickly to give the pup a kiss on the nose.

Trouble took a second to think of the name. Then he smiled. "Regal. Perfect."

"Regal!" Lili shouted, standing up and lifting the dog in her arms, making him yelp for a second as he went high in the air, coming back down to stand by her feet, looking up at her expectantly.

"The Mansion hasn't had a dog in a while," Lili mused. "I don't think I'd trust any of the old supplies. We'll need to go out today. Get some food, a new collar and leash, a bed..."

"No! I'll sleep with you!" Regal said quickly, eager to retain possession of those utterly smooth sheets. They would be fun to chew on.

"Oh, no you wont," Trouble growled.

Regal let his mouth fall open in a tooth-filled grin, tail wagging slowly.

"We'll see," Lili said diplomatically. "For now, I'm sure there's an old collar that will last him until we get downtown and find something else. Mind watching him while I go find it?"

"My pleasure," Trouble said, settling down on Lili's bed.

"Stay," Lili commanded, hand flat in front of Regal's face.

The pup went stock-still, ears flattening against his head, and whimpered.

"Stay," Lili repeated, a bit softer. When it seemed to be working, she grinned. "He's pretty well-trained already." She paused, chewing on her cheek, eyes darting to Trouble, who she had no doubt was a lot less well-trained.

Then, impulsively, she leaned over and brushed her lips on Trouble's cheek. "Thanks..." Pulling back, she met his eyes. The hangover cure seemed to have done wonders, as there was now enough blood for a good amount to come into her cheeks, turning them a rosy red. "For everything, Trouble. don't have to do all this, you know?"

"Of course I do," he said, smirking and holding himself back. "I've gotta take care of you, Tiger Lily."

Stepping back and standing straight, Lili brought her fist to her mouth, which was curved in a large smile. She giggled nervously, continuing her retreat. "" She gestured towards Regal, but her eyes remained on Trouble until she spun about, dashing towards the door.

Regal continued staring at the door and whimpering, shifting between his paws. The light of his young life had just left, and told him not to follow. Oh, cruel world, that would allow such a wondrous creature to command him against his instincts, forcing him to abandon her when all he desired was to run by her side. To be within her pack always, taking on the role of omega, if necessary, simply to bask in her alpha glow. To lay his life on the line for hers, and consider it an honor to be slain...

"She'll be back," Trouble said, snapping the dog out of his dramatic inner monologue.

Regal turned his head to look at Trouble, tail wagging. "You promised..."

"I did. Good boy," Trouble said, rubbing the pup behind the ears. Reaching into his pocket, he took out a bone-shaped treat that should have been given to a canine about three times his size. It smelled strongly of BBQ sauce and the finest of meats, which made Trouble wrinkle his nose in disgust, though the dog looked at him with undivided attention. Trouble tossed it over, and watched in fascination as the bone was inhaled, not even a crumb marring the wood flooring, courtesy of the dog's slimy tongue.

Trouble looked back at the bedroom door, waiting for Lili to reappear. Slowly, he brought his hand up, fingertips brushing lightly at his cheek. He smiled in a deranged manner. In that moment, he looked for all the world like his little brother.

Chapter Text

Week 32

Their lunches didn't coincide again for the rest of the week, but, on Monday, Viny á ya arrived at her customary table to find the young sprite already seated, finishing up his meal. A bit more healthy than a tarantula burger and sweet potato fries this time, she was pleased to note.

Then she berated herself for this interest. He was Traffic. His diet was not her problem.

There were plenty of empty tables, and Viny á ya considered claiming one of them for the day. Again, she felt her hackles rise. That had always been her favored table, and most of the other officers had recognized it and left it to her, by now. It enjoyed excellent lighting and a good proximity to the exit, if her communicator gave off an emergency alert. Retreat? Not damned likely.

She slammed her tray down, glaring across as the trespassing sprite, who blinked at her in surprise.

"Don't think I don't know what you're doing here," she snarled.

The sprite stared at her. Then looked down at the last of his celery sticks, holding one up for her to inspect. "Um...eating?"

She batted it away, and he looked after the vegetable forlornly until her continued words brought his attention back. "This is not some cheap romance novel, you fool. I am not going to be charmed by your little lunches and then get all intrigued and just spread my legs like a good little girl!"

Wings fluttering, the sprite leaned away from the very pointy-toothed face, shock flashing across his own. "Woah...who said anything about...?" He swallowed, unable to finish the sentence, and certainly unable to repeat what she had just said. Major steps towards social equality would be made in the coming decades, but, at present, such words from a female's mouth were thrice as obscene as the same from a male.

"You think, just because of some rumors about my family, I've got some sort of bad habits you can take advantage of, right? Well, stop thinking, rookie. I am not going to jump in the bed of every officer who treats me halfway decent! That's not how I got my job, and that is not how I live my life." She leaned in closer, covering and claiming the table, thrilling at every centimeter the sprite retreated. "So. Just. Stop."

"I wasn't looking to seduce you," the sprite huffed, piling trash onto his plate, wiping away the crumbs with a paper towel.

Viny á ya found herself settling. Perfect. He had taken the hint, though she didn't believe him about his original intentions. Lately, she'd had to resort to formal complaints to get the same results, ever since that fling with the pixie in Traffic was let into the gossip channels. A few good dates and a crappy romp, and she was never going to live it down.

"I mean," the sprite laughed, picking his tray up and giving the Wing Commander a roguish wink, "I was just aiming for dinner and a movie."

Then he turned about, making another swift exit before the elf had a chance to counterattack. A very wise move, for being such a young fairy.

Upon waking, Vinyáya eloquently cursed Morpheus. She needed to talk to his distant relation, Cupid, it seemed. The god had always seemed to like her, though it was likely because she was so close to his favorite descendant. Hopefully, he'd have some sort of sway over the dream lord.

...or he'd make it worse. It would be just like Cupid to give her have an even more awkward set of dreams, on the premise of "helping." She really did not want any of his brand of help, nowadays.

Lili knew Holly's love of all things fuzzy would not last forever, so she took advantage of it by bringing the whelp into work every day for the first week. In between her duties, she trained the klee kai, and the ability to speak in the canine dialect made the process far easier than any human would have experienced. By Thursday, she was fairly certain he could take a day in the mansion alone without causing undue destruction, though the dog really didn't get why rugs weren't for chewing, when they tasted so good. He just obeyed, and Lili considered that victory enough.

She was considering a very quick drive back to the hill to drop him off for a half-day trial when Trouble popped his head into her office, knocking on the frame for attention and smiling when he had it. "Hey, shut down, I'm taking you to lunch."

The mutual treating of lunches was not uncommon for them, but Lili normally expected more notice. When Regal raised his head from the curled position on his rump, tilting it and whining, tail thumping loudly, she recalled their major impediment to impromptu dining. "I can't leave him locked in here."

The translation of the dog's soft woof said that he would also refuse to be left alone when there was food to be had. He was a true chow hound, and Lili would have much difficulty in future years with keeping his trim shape.

"That café down on Kings is dog-friendly. I've been meaning to try it." He grinned in a manner that seemed quite smug. "And I've already called in our reservation, so come on. I'm starved."

Regal had already risen to get behind-the-ear scritches from his surrogate father, and the dog's vacant tongue-out face made Lili smile fondly as she shut down and went to Trouble's side. "If you insist, Commander," she teased, clicking the lead on and getting a good grip. She still didn't completely trust her new charge. He was bred from long-distance runners, so she had no illusions about being able to catch him if he took off after a car or pedestrian.

"Of course I insist. I'm the Commander," Trouble purred, wrapping an arm about Lili's waist and pulling the woman to stand hip-to-hip against him. When she yelped in surprise and Regal gave the hint of a growl, he transferred the arm to her shoulders, steering the woman towards the front of the Plaza.

Lili made a great show of inspecting Regal's leash as they walked. It allowed the secretary to keep her head down, which was vital. It was the only way to mask the sudden blush that covered her face. She could only pray it didn't extended to her ears, or she was doomed.

As both Vinyáya and Grub had fairly regular hours at the Plaza, the large majority of their visits to the obstetrician were on the weekend or after normal office hours. However, sometimes, things did not mesh well with the three elves, and it became necessary, as with this day, to hold their meetings during LEP lunch hours.

When the officers arrived somewhat late, they entered through the front doors (secrecy no longer being a concern) and found Ginko in his office. He wore a pair of ratty brown slippers, which were resting on top of his desk, engaged in eating something rather gooey and likely bad for the arteries, though he focused very little on his meal, instead preoccupied with his computer screen, which was turned sideways and playing a no-doubt pirated Mud Man feed. On screen, a single man stood on a wide swath of grass, surrounded by very silent onlookers, holding a recently moistened finger to the air. After several seconds, the human adjusted himself, took aim at the tiny ball on the ground, and tapped it.

Ginko leaned forward, nearly spilling his food onto his lap, and began muttering at the screen. "Go in...go in...go in, you damn...YES!" He punched at the air, hooting loudly "That's how you do it! By the gods, that's how you do it!"

Grub shook his head slowly, but smiled. Everyone had their obsessions, and he wasn't one to judge, given his own. Though, really, Dr. Ginko could have chosen one that was a bit less expensive. Grub had even seen him up on the Principality Hill course once, when he went to the golf club for lunch with Lili. That was a pretty pricey bit of grass, and the wait-list for non-members was horrendous, according to the Frond.

Remembering "the Frond," Grub stopped smiling. She'd finally stopped reacting whenever she saw him in the halls of the Plaza, but that was only because her pup would whimper in response to her tension. He still felt like utter scum, but life in the office was almost tolerable, now that she was getting back to normal (or at least faking it) and his brother would talk to him again.

Of course, one thing that hadn't changed much was Vinyáya. She wasn't overtly hostile, but she still mostly ignored his presence. By his side, she coughed discreetly.

Ginko stopped his cheering and this time did drop his food, though it landed on the floor, rather than his green overcoat. He stood, looking first at the two officers, and then to his tiny video screen, pupils going large as he realized the scene they had walked in on. "You're here! I somewhat...thought you'd need to reschedule." He swallowed.

Grub smirked. He enjoyed seeing the doctor squirm. For the first time in months, he felt he had the upper-hand on the derisive man. Still...he couldn't really take advantage of it, even if he so desperately wanted to. Incarcerating their obstetrician just two months shy of delivery would make Vinyáya...miffed, and making her angry was the last thing he wanted; although Grub did silently muse that it would solve the issue of him not wanting the man to handle the birth.

Vinyáya glanced at her moonometer and tapped her foot. "I apologize for the delay, but we really do need to get moving, if we are to finish before our lunch hour is up."

"No worries, no worries," Ginko said, flapping his hands down the hall. "The examination room, if you will, for another ultrasound."

Grub looked to Vinyáya, giddy, but she just turned away from him and retreated from office room to exam room, undoing her shirt and pant buttons as she went, wanting to banish all delays. Once inside, she flopped onto the table and was again tapping her foot, arms crossed, when they arrived.

Despite having undergone the procedure several times, she still jerked a half-inch when the cold gel hit her skin. There was a lot more skin to work with, so she had to suffer though an extra splash, when the first proved not enough. She had done her best to moisturize as she expanded, but the measures were not 100% effective, and she now sported several thin, irregular lines where her stomach and breasts had changed too quickly. She wasn't a terribly vain woman, but she looked forward to the post-birth rounds of healing. The best part of being a pregnant fairy was being pumped so full of magic post-postpartum that the body returned to a fairly normal state. Unlike humans, no bloat would remain to make one seem still with-child, except for what was unavoidable from the weight gain.

Grub, blissfully unhindered by physical changes (except his unruly hair, which he had finally trimmed away from his eyes, going into a gradual sweep down to his shoulders), was focused on the screen. Even though he had the stock image of a seven-month fetus memorized, he had one of his many tomes open on his lap, displaying what was expected. When the ultrasound came into focus and he could analyze the image, he beamed. "No tail!"

His grin was lopsided, so Vinyáya assumed he was poking fun at himself. This did not stop her from muttering "spaz," and she indulged in a tiny smile when he pouted.

"" Ginko said to himself, tapping the touch screen several times, bringing up yellow markers on a frozen image. "And...process... Hmmm."

"Hmmm?" Grub echoed, a few notes higher.

Vinyáya reached over and punched the male's shoulder in an attempt to derail his panic. It worked somewhat, though he looked at her balefully, rubbing his injured flesh.

"A half-centimeter smaller than I would have guessed from the last visit, but still within normal measurements for this period. Tell me, do any of you have any pixie in your bloodlines?"

Vinyáya shook her head. "Supposedly some sprite, a few thousand years ago."

Grub pondered deeply. " second cousin married a pixie," he volunteered.

Ginko turned his head to level a very flat look at the young elf.

", I guess," Grub murmured, lowering his head and raising his shoulders until his neck seemed to disappear, much as he wished his entire body would.

"Well, as I said, still normal. And I do believe I can make out the proper numbers of fingers and toes, Mr. Kelp."

"Nostrils?" Vinyáya said with a sneer, which got a bit more pronounced when the father's eyes widened and focused on the doctor.

"Yes, and nostrils," Ginko said, with a "you're not helping" look, which did absolutely nothing to chastise his patient. "To be honest, Councilwoman, yours has been the easiest pregnancy I've seen in decades."

Easy? Vinyáya thought, horrified. The puking, the mood swings, the dizziness...gods, the cravings for potting soil? What was a hard pregnancy like?

"I think it is time we discussed the delivery and post-postpartum plan," Ginko went on, handing a towel to Vinyáya, who yanked free from her terrifying contemplations.

As she mopped herself off, Vinyáya nodded for the doctor to keep talking. Finally, like a marathoner whose legs wobbled with each step, mind pushed far past the wall of endurance, the finish line was in her sight.

Taking up his tablet, Ginko opened their visit records, bringing up a intensely long outline, which he began to go through, empty squares ticked off as he went. "Will you be continuing with my services through the birth?"

Grub frowned, but the pants-wearer in the partnership nodded, so he remained silent and seethed inwardly. He'd heard such great things about Nesset...

"Excellent." A quick tick was made, opening up an entire series of further questions. "What sort of birth are you considering?"

"An...easy one?" Vinyáya ventured. Based on the doctor's expression, he heard that joke far too often for it to be funny anymore.

Grub jumped into the spirit of things, much more knowledgeable, as per usual. "I was interested in a water birth, actually."

Vinyáya blinked "A...what?" She was suddenly overcome by the mental image of herself lying on a hospital bed with a hose pumping her up (the orifice varied, and she was not sure which was the more disturbing) until the baby shot out like a cannonball, caught in an over-sized catcher's mitt held by Grub. That just couldn't be right...

"This is an ideal pregnancy for a water birth," Ginko enthused, for once drawn into conversation with the male of the pair, instead of enduring it. "Since it's the Councilwoman's first birth, labor will be a bit long. The tub will have plenty of time to heat. I've had a few couples miss because the baby arrived too quickly!"

Grub tsked. "That's too bad, though I suppose there's nothing you can do about that, huh?"

"Certainly not," Ginko agreed.

"Tub?" Vinyáya interrupted their inane chatter, brows drawn. "Like...I'd be in the water?" She stopped herself before saying "the water won't be in me?" It was somewhat obvious, now that she considered it, and she was fairly certain she'd seen a movie with the procedure, long ago.

"Yes. Very soothing. I've had women fall asleep between contractions!"

"But...wont the baby...drown?"

Grub shook his head violently. "There's plenty of time to lift it out before the first breath." He looked to the doctor, who nodded in agreement.

She seriously considered the matter. Or, more accurately, she seriously considered the insanity of the idea. "No. No water. No earth, wind, or fire, either. What about those..." she rolled her hand in the air, trying to think of the word, "something-sections?" She shot a finger-gun at the doctor as she tracked down half her desired word, and then shrugged. "That seems easy."

Grub whimpered, but did not not need to object, as the doctor answered quite curtly.

"Cesareans are considered an emergency procedure by the People. Gods know, the Mud Men will cut at the first opportunity, but it causes more problems than it solves."

"Fine, whatever," Vinyáya grunted, watching her one hope of what she considered an "easy birth" fly away. "Just a normal hospital birth." She looked to Grub, faking interest. "Or is there some sort of special name for that?"

The young captain decided to avoid giving an answer. There wasn't, from what he knew, and the urge to throw out the idea of a Leboyer birth was quickly squelched. Mostly because he didn't want to explain the term, though he made a mental note to bring it up with the doctor over the phone.

Unaware of the future annoying conversation with his least-favorite client, Ginko filled the couple in for a simple hospital delivery, and then moved on. "Then it's week 32, so delivery will be...3rd week of July." He clicked the month and highlighted the entire period as the parents agreed. Babies had a habit of arriving without warning, so he did a less color-saturated highlight for the week before, as well.

"Um..." Grub swallowed, eyes darting to the Wing Commander. He shifted in his seat, going to the far side to put as much distance between the woman and himself as possible before he spoke again. "My mother went past her due date for both my brother and me. That's...can that be kind of genetic?"

Vinyáya looked just as terror-stricken by this revelation as Grub did for...pretty much every bit of news he got. Then she steeled herself, snarling at the man. "It had better not, or we are doing the Cesarean the second I'm overdue and shoving the kid inside you until it's done!"

Grub nearly fell from his seat as he tried to get further away, one set of chair legs coming off the ground, the entire structure wobbling dangerously before it came crashing to Earth again.

"I wouldn't worry, Councilwoman," Ginko said, shrinking his calendar to see the entire month. "The due date depends far more on how your body works than his mother's. We'll face that if it...comes." He squinted at the rest of July and frowned very slightly. He made a tiny note and closed the window, making another tick on his list, looking up to address the two parents for the next section. "What about birthing classes?"

"Doctor," Vinyáya said. "I am a very busy woman. I don't have time for such nonsense."

Grub hissed in a breath, and spoke slowly, holding out his words for emphasis. "That is a reeeeeally bad idea.

Vinyáya shot him a look that finally made the captain get up to move his chair.

"I would also advise against that," the doctor hedged, still smarting from the birth argument. "Especially as this is your first pregnancy. A class will reduce your anxiety and...allay...fears..."

At "first pregnancy," the councilwoman rotated her head, boring into the obstetrician with her most scathing look. With his every word, her eyes narrowed, until the doctor could only be sure that they were still open a fraction because of the feel of visual acid covering his skin.

"Ahem, well...yes. And...Ritual leave, next, yes..." He nodded to himself and made another tick, going on to explain the special medical surface visas given to parents, whose magic would be vital to the sensitive systems of their children, until such time as they could speak and claim their powers. "Magic works best on those related by blood, so you will be the primary healers, even when a doctor is in easy reach."

Grub gulped. "Is that...a big problem? Needing healing?"

Laughing jovially, the doctor shook his head. "Not likely. The child will, of course, still have an immune system, and the People have many inoculations. Most likely you will just be called upon to 'kiss it and make it better.' Perhaps fix a sprain or broken bone under physician supervision."

"That cute," Grub enthused, imagining himself coming to the rescue of a minorly injured yet majorly distressed little Kelp. He didn't like the idea of his child being in pain, but becoming the hero of their day with a simple infusion of blue sparks was a heady notion.

Vinyáya had a very different reaction. She made a mental note to keep an eye on Short and Fowl, once they had children. They would abuse that surface leave with little to no guilt.

There was plenty more to discuss. Ginko recommended that Vinyáya consult Hibiscus about post-postpartum life, which Vinyáya assured she would and mentally added a "not" to the end of the sentence (based on Grub's scowl, he had gained temporary telepathy, and did not approve). He then gave them a shopping list with more items than would comfortably fit into Fowl Manor, which Grub began to mark off as some more "delicate" female issues were covered between doctor and patient. Grub had his normal barrage of questions, though three of every 4 were completely reasonable, by now.

When all was wrapped up, their lunch long over (though who in the Plaza would have the gall to call them on the cutting into work was unknown), they made their way out to the streets for the walk back to the Plaza.

"I really wish you'd reconsider the classes, at least," Grub said as they approached the four major buildings that surrounded the city square: the Plaza, City Hall, the main Fire Department, and Haven Central Hospital (their practitioner being located in a nearby but separate private office). "You'll learn a lot. Especially since you haven't really read anything. And it will help with the pain."

Vinyáya snorted, looking over at the man, who was now walking at her side, if farther apart than a normal companion would stride, instead of several paces behind. "Do you have any idea how many times I've been shot in action?"

He spluttered. "You've been...I mean, I knew you had been, but when was the last—"

Before she had to elaborate on that boring incident (he would have known, if he hadn't passed out midway through the Rebellion), Vinyáya cut him off. "Kelp, pain is not an issue. Stop it."

"I don't think you realize—"

"I don't think you realize how little I care."

Grub cringed another half-step away. "I just...sorry. Sorry."

She remained bristled for some seconds. And then that pesky thing called "guilt" began to poke at the edges of her defenses. She sighed, and deigned to diplomatically amend her statement. "How little I care about pain." She flicked the idea away with a casual hand movement. "I've been through enough. I can take it."

Grub looked at the ground. "Vinyáya, I...just because you can do something on your own, doesn't mean you have to..."

It didn't take a genius to figure out that the man was no longer speaking about pain, and Vinyáya really didn't want to have this sort of heart-warming discussion in the middle of her work day. She had a meeting in fifteen minutes, after all, and she couldn't be overtaken by the warm fuzzies when she (covertly) threatened a fellow council member into voting her way. "I'm fine, Kelp, I...oh, darvit!" She shook her head as she lost the train of her argument. Her hair had been tied back for the appointment, so it flowed across her back like a thick, yet smooth rope, end snapping violently. "Just...d'arvit, get a video or something! I have no intention of going to some mothering class, but I'll watch one video, if it will make you happy."

"Really!" Grub yipped, eyes shining. "You promise?"

"Yes," she snorted. "I'll pinky-swear, if it'll make you shut up."

Like a fine lady at a tea party, Grub extended his hand and further extended his smallest finger. "Deal!"

A bit startled, she stared at the proffered finger. She began to shake her head very slowly.

Finding his pinky un-shook, Grub wilted and retracted his hand.

Laying her fingers over her breast, directly over her tiny copy of the Book, Vinyáya spoke. "I promise I'll watch the video, okay?" It was a far more binding contract than pinky-swearing, but without the minor complication of touching the man. He still looked a bit lacking in something as they continued walking, but his vacant look at least showed he had become mentally