Passing between worlds was always a somewhat jarring experience to Danny. When the curtain of light passed over them, everything changed. The sky was a deeper blue, the waters were darker, the air temperature and pressure changed. Even the smell was different. Not far ahead on the rolling surface of the water, sat the mainland. The boat carried them onward, bobbing on the waves. With practiced ease, Danny got them secured in the docks and they were soon on their way in a rented Jeep.
In the years since he’d left Clute, Texas, much had changed. There were new buildings, shopping centers, and many once-familiar landmarks were absent or drastically changed. The old sandlot where they played ball was now one of several Starbucks. The school had a new expansion. Several shops were boarded up, casualties of the arrival of a walmart. But when he really looked, there was no mistaking the feel of the place.
In Rhy'Din, Alexia lived and breathed magic, whether she knew it or not. It was thick in the air, and not once in her many decades had she found reason to even think about it. Now, here on this strange planet where the magic seemed to seep out of her and dissipate into the atmosphere, she felt dizzy and a touch out of sorts. The only thing keeping her from teetering was the firm grip she had on Danny's arm any time they needed to walk.
Thankfully, Danny seemed almost exuberant and his mood was infectious. His dimpled smile and animated anecdotes helped her acclimate to the complete lack of raw energy. Sitting in the vehicle with the love of her life, worlds away from the terrible things that had happened in what seemed like a short amount of time, she found herself able to breathe a little more easily.
She reached over and placed a feather light palm on his shoulder. Her nimble little thumb gently stroked his bicep as she listened attentively, a warm, doting smile on her lips.
"It's weird, isn't it?" He asked her. "Coming to a place like this after SO much time in Rhy'Din?"
Some things were the same, of course, but the general feel of the place, not to mention the lack of species diversity were most definitely something new for her.
"I m-must admit I'm a bit... a-a-anxious." Her free hand lifted absently to reach back, way back, her fingertips only just brushing the stalk of one of her wings through the fabric of her blouse.
"Perhaps I'm just eager to m-meet the rest of the F-Finnegans, I just... I hope I m-make a good impression." Her large dark brown eyes lowered to her lap.
"M-More than anything, I want you to be able to r-relax and enjoy yourself and..." She cut her thought short, unsure if she should continue or if she'd already said too much.
Danny grinned as they passed the old park where they had played as kids. It was now a generic looking apartment complex. He glanced her way as if she had said something ridiculous. "Love, I don't believe you are capable of making a bad impression. You're adorable and lovable and everyone is going to be head-over-heels for the beautiful fae who has graced them with her presence."
Those large doe eyes rolled at the litany of compliments she probably should already have been accustomed to. Still, she couldn't help the rush of warmth in her cheeks as she tried not to smile and failed miserably. She gave his shoulder a light squeeze.
"Th-That's not what I meant and you kn-know it." She mock-chided.
"In all seriousness, mo chroí, I w-want you to enjoy yourself and maybe..." She snatched her bottom lip with pearly white teeth for a brief moment as she mustered the courage to continue.
"M-Maybe find yourself again." She finished, her feather soft voice dipping a touch lower.
When his green-eyed gaze turned to her again, that little facade had fallen. Coming home wasn't just about a vacation. It was about an escape. A chance for the two of them to get as far from the place that served as a constant reminder of everything that happened. A sanctuary from every face the Void had taken through Danny. It was a way for Danny to seek some sort of redemption, even if only to himself.
"I'd like that." He said quietly, reaching over and taking her hand in his and giving it a squeeze. For a long moment he was quiet, driving onward and looking around at the changed landscape of his youth. For a moment, he swore he could almost see tiny versions of Gerry, Kara, Jimmy, and himself running down the sidewalk, off to cause any manner of trouble.
"Everything seems so much smaller now. When we were kids, it was this big, wide world that just didn't seem to end." He said wistfully.
"Now it just...sort of blends together. Like an out of focus photograph."
Nimble little fingers gently squeezed back. While she didn't quite understand what it must have felt like to return to his childhood home, after all, she hadn't had much of a childhood herself, she could still empathize with having to face change.
"Perhaps everything will seem b-better once you see some f-f-familiar faces."
That brought a genuine dimpled smile to his face. "Of that, I have no doubt."
Finally, they turned onto the old street. It was a neighborhood like a million others. The houses all looked sort of similar with minor variations. Street lights decorated the cul-de-sac and at the end of the street, outside the Finnegan house, was what could ONLY be Gerry Finnegan's pick up. Danny pulled them onto the side in front of the house. Somehow, even from the sidewalk, there was a general feeling of love and joy emanating from the split-level house.
Danny hopped out of the Jeep and offered his arm to her.
"Shall we, love?"
Alexia felt it, too. It was something ineffable, but undeniable as well. Somehow, on a different world, in a town she'd never been to with people she'd never met, a part of her felt like she belonged. She credited that much to Danny. He always made her feel important and that he wanted her along on this trip meant the world to her. The smile on her face was immovable as she reached for his arm. As she stepped out of the vehicle she briefly snuggled into his side, her excitement, along with a bit of nervousness, growing.
"Y-You're sure they're expecting... both of us? I-I-It's alright that I came w-with you?" It had to be the hundredth time she'd asked.
"Well, I mean they didn't specifically say you were invited..." He said quietly, his tone 1000% giving away the joke as they approached the screen door. There were sounds of screaming children, the pitter patter of little feet on tile and the general din of lively conversation. Danny was WELL aware he had no-knock allowances at the Finnegans. He always had. He pulled open the door and called out. "Hello?"
Just then, like a bat out of hell, a tiny girl of about 7 with the brightest blue eyes and darkest black hair he'd ever seen came bolting by out onto the front lawn. her 5 year old brother, who looked like someone had shrunk Gerry, in hot pursuit. Danny laughed watching them chase each other around on the lawn before that familiar booming voice called out. "Oh my GOD! Who let this skinny Limey in here!"
Gerry stood, larger than life, those huge arms held open to his friend. The men embraced tightly, giving each other the tightest hug, a mock intimacy as they inhaled sharply.
"Ahhhh....you smell like a father figure." Danny said wistfully before they parted. Gerry chuckled and his eyes lit up at the sight of Alexia. "Lil bug! Lookit you! Are you TALLER?! And are those WINGS?!"
It was all so wonderfully chaotic and sudden, it left the doe eyed healer in a bit of a whirlwind. She was so caught up in the excitement, it took her a moment to realize Gerry was addressing her. In fact, only when he mentioned her wings was she certain of it.
"Oh! Ah... Y-Yes, I... ah... I have w-wings now." Suddenly a bit unsure of her choice in clothing, she nervously tugged at the hem at the back of her blouse as though that would somehow cover the trailing wings. As if of their own volition, those long, gossamer wings folded even more tightly against her petite body.
"Sh-Should I have... ah... I can c-cover them b-better..." A strange surge of guilt suddenly washed over her. As though, standing there, in front of Gerard Finnegan, one of Danny's best friends, she had failed them both. She'd let terrible things happen to Danny and, had she simply been more observant, or, for that matter, had it not been for her very presence in the first place... Quickly, she shook free of that train of thought and pushed far to the back of her mind, even managing what she hoped was a convincing smile.
"Are you kidding?!" He said. "They're awesome! C'mere! Give us a hug!" Gerry approached her to give her a hug, but tall, absurdly beautiful Kara pushed him out of the way.
"Move!" Her eyes lit up at the sight of Alexia.
"My friend!" She fairly squealed, wrapping Alexia up in the biggest hug of her long life. "Oh my god, you look sooooooo good!"
Alexia's eyes went saucer wide for a moment before her face brightened in earnest. With a small 'oof' she returned the embrace, a tiny, muffled giggle emanating from between the two polar opposite women.
Danny stepped toward them. "Hey, K-"
Kara playfully reached out with one hand and blindly swiped it across his face.
"It is SO good to see you." Kara said, clutching her hands as she looked her over. "And I am loving these wings…"
"Oh..." Her face flushed crimson, but her smile remained. "I highly recommend them. Y-You should get a pair in every color."
The rare bit of snark that typically only Danny was privy to might have come as a surprise to some, but it was a sign she was starting to relax. It didn't hurt one bit that they almost always met up for dinner whenever Gerry and Kara happened to be in Rhy'Din. Turning back, she shared that radiant smile with the love of her life.
"Oof, I wish. I've got a few dresses those would look killer with. " She said, with a rueful grin. "Well, you've gotta tell me everything you've been up to. But first, you should meet Ger's parents. You're gonna love 'em." Kara smiled brightly, taking Alexia by the hand and leading her into the kitchen.
Danny and Gerry walked toward the kitchen, following the ladies. "Gin here?" Danny asked him.
Gerry shook his head. "Nah, she and Michelle are gonna meet us up there."
Danny peered over curiously. "Michelle?"
"Yeah. Ginny's girlfriend. They've been dating, like 6 or so years." Gerry explained. That was not news Danny had heard about just yet, but it made sense.
The kitchen was cozy if just a hair cramped. An octagonal table sat in front of sliding glass doors and the counters, cabinets and appliances were all to the right. It wasn't hard to tell that the big man was Gerry's father. The two of them looked so much alike, it was uncanny. Bill had a few more lines upon his brow, a little bit paunch around the midsection, and bright, grey hair, but he was still built tall and broad like his son. He had those same, kind blue eyes, as well. She found him side by side with his wife, making sandwiches. Rose was slender with hair that had once been dark, now almost entirely grey. Age had done nothing to dull her beauty.
A false sense of confidence had begun to build as she walked hand in hand with Kara. And just as suddenly, it began to falter. She realized she didn't really have very much experience with parents in general. Certainly not her own. She swallowed hard with a small but audible gulp and resisted the urge to run and hide. Without realizing it, her little fingers squeezed Kara's hand ever so slightly.
"Mom, Dad..." Kara greeted them. The pair looked up from their work. Just viewing them in proximity to one another, one could sense just how in love these two still were with each other.
Bill smiled brightly, looking between them. "What's up, kid. Who's this?" He nodded to Alexia.
"This is Danny's girlfriend, Alexia. She's a little nervous, but she's an absolute sweetheart." Kara said.
Bill grinned and walked over, wiping his hands on his jeans, much to Rose's chagrin. "Oh! Well, then. I'm Bill. The big one’s dad. You a hugger or do you prefer a good handshake?"
Alexia's gaze turned further and further up as Bill Finnegan approached. Her mouth opened and closed once or twice with false starts before she finally cleared her throat and tried again.
"I-I-I..." She resisted the urge to look back toward Danny for reassurance. Although she longed for that trademark dimpled smile that never failed to melt her heart, she drew a deep breath and took a small, tentative step forward, her thin arms slowly rising.
"It's l-lovely to meet you, M-Mr. Finnegan." She said, only a small mote of uncertainty in her voice that she desperately tried to hide.
Bill easily enveloped her, his arms dwarfing hers, and just as quickly released her. "Alexia, it is a genuine pleasure. And please. Bill."
Rose approached and took Alexia's hand. "I'm Rose. We're so glad you could come. You are just the cutest little thing! How did you end up with this lanky goofus?" She hooked a thumb to Danny, a lopsided smirk on her face that Gerry had most certainly inherited.
She decided then and there, it had to be the height difference. Danny, Gerry, Bill, and even Kara simply towered over her, which, admittedly, was not difficult to do. But there was just something about Rose that put her at ease. Something she couldn't quite place. Before she lost herself in thought, she gently squeezed her hand and smiled.
"Oh... y-you know... just one of those ch-chance meetings." The little glint in her eye may have told another story.
“Speaking of…” Bill said as he walked to Danny, wrapping him in a big hug. "Look at this guy! All skin and bones! Ain’t they feeding you over there?"
Danny flashed that demure, dimpled grin. “Well, it’s not for lack of trying. Alexia’s a helluva baker.”
Bill chuckled. “Oh-ho-ho no. Apologies in advance if we put her to work in the kitchen all weekend, then.”
It was rare that Rose ever felt tall, living with the two behemoth sized men in her household. Her eyes lit up as a wave of realization washed over her face. "Oh! Where is my mind? You must be famished! Can I get you something to eat? There's not a ton in the fridge, but I'm sure I can whip something up."
Entirely unaccustomed to any sort of maternal care, Alexia began to wring and twist her hands apprehensively.
"Oh, ah... please, d-don't go to any trouble." She said with a nervous little chuckle.
Rose launched into action. "Oh, nonsense. Do you like fruit? I found this wonderful stand at the farmer's market the other day. The sweetest oranges you ever had! I can make you some eggs and toast, if you like?" It sounded like a question, but she was already gathering the accouterments.
Kara brushed past and whispered to Alexia. “Just let her go. She’s gonna make you something either way. It’s her love language." With a smirk, she stepped outside calling for the kids.
That Alexia could understand. Easily. Cooking as a love language? There was little she could relate to more. It was largely how she even just communicated at times! She shot Kara a look of gratitude before letting go of a small sigh.
"That sounds l-lovely." She murmured, completely unaware just how spoiled for motherly fussing she was going to become for the duration of their stay.
Danny stepped up to Alexia's side, a hand resting gently at the small of her back. "Holding up? Not too overwhelming is it?"
She could sense just how much more relaxed he was in this place with these people. It seemed like an immense weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
Whatever apprehension Alexia felt before began to dissolve. The Finnegans were just as warm and welcoming as Danny had promised and his own ease and comfort was infectious. Smiling sweetly up at him, she shook her head.
"N-No, my love. Not at all." She lightly leaned her head on his shoulder, her thin arm slipping behind him.
"Oh, Daniel. You're too skinny! I'll make something for you, too." Rose said, giving him a quick hug and a peck on the cheek.
"Thank you, Mrs. Finnegan." He said, shooting a glance at Alexia before whispering. "I think she may actually like cooking for people more than you do."
Alexia blinked in surprise a few times. But looking at Bill and Gerry, and Danny too as no doubt he was a claimed member of the family, not to mention the sheer numbers of family members, it tracked. Giggling softly, she snuggled into his side.
"I don't hear any c-complaints."
"Oh, you'll get none from me." Danny said.
Gerry stepped up beside them, two bottles of beer in that big meathook he called a hand. He passed it over to Danny and clinked the neck of the bottles together. "Accent's still weird." Gerry said with a sigh before taking a swig.
"Weirder than a beer at 11am?" Danny shot back, with a smirk.
"Oh, dude. It's vacation rules. It doesn’t count. Plus, K is gonna take the first leg." Gerry said. "So. How's Rhy'din these days?"
With no basis for comparison, Alexia lifted her shoulder and shrugged.
"Y-You know Rhy'Din." She almost winced and wondered silently if perhaps she should have at least brought up some of the things that had happened. Perhaps it was best she said nothing as it was not her place. Eventually, she decided it would be best to leave it up to Danny to bring up what he felt comfortable with and when. After all, he had suffered the most, she was sure of it.
Danny's demeanor didn't change in the slightest, but he did take a drink. "Yep. Crazy and weird as ever. When we get time, I'll catch you up on the big stuff, but it’s been…interesting."
"No shit.” Gerry chuckled “This adorable little minx has wings now? That's gotta be a helluva story."
Before anything else could be said, Bill walked back into the house, with a tiny young girl riding his shoulders. The raven haired girl with ice-blue eyes looked at her "Pa" with absolute adoration. He carried her over towards the three of them.
"Alexia, I want you to meet my little munchkin." Bill said. "This is Nasya. Nasya, this is Uncle Danny's gal pal Alexia. What do you say, Monster face?"
Nasya waved, an amiable smile on her little face. "Hi!"
Alexia's eyes crinkled at the corners with the warm, radiant smile that spread on her delicate features.
"Hello..." She cooed. "I've heard s-so much about you, mo stór."
She didn't have very much experience with children in general. Even as a child she'd only had a brief friendship with Alexander before he left. But despite her limited experiences, she'd always gotten along well with them on the rare chance meetings. This was no exception. In Nasya, she could see the same brave, adventurous spirit that twinkled behind Gerry's eyes.
Nasya definitely got all her mother's looks, but that gregarious personality was 100% Gerry. For a second, she wondered why the new lady called her a monster, but she decided she'd take it. Monsters kicked ass. Instead, she focused on another topic, excitement in her eyes. "Oooh! You're a faerie?! I love fae!" She exclaimed, pointing at the wings.
She was very clearly well-acquainted with the different species in Rhy'din. Afterall, she WAS a child of both worlds.
"Oh!" A touch of color bloomed in Alexia's lightly freckled face, but her smile didn't waver. Instead, she chuckled voicelessly, almost bashful as she, too, glanced back at her neatly folded wings.
"Y-Yes, but I haven't quite f-figured them out just yet." Her wings gently rustled and resettled just as she tilted her head in their direction. "But they d-do help me swim faster."
"I need flippies to swim faster." Nasya said ruefully, as if they were just talking shop. "Mama has a friend who's a faerie, but she doesn't swim so much. She takes her clothes off for her job. You should meet her!"
Nearby, a red-faced Gerry choked down a sputtered mouthful of beer. With a strained clear of his throat, he chuckled sheepishly before leaning toward his precocious progeny.
"Hey, Nas? Remember how we talked about sometime-topics?" He said, trying to stifle another laugh.
Nasya looked supremely offended. "But, it's true!"
"Yeah, Dad.” Bill said, teasing his son. “It’s true!”
Nasya gave Alexia SUCH a look, gesturing to her father as if to say "can you believe this guy?"
Despite the deep crimson that assailed her cheeks, Alexia giggled uncontrollably. The soft sound bubbled up and warmed the atmosphere.
"I b-believe you, Nasya." She said, mirth still heavy in her voice. It was evident she would be wholly unhelpful.
Breakfast was eventually served and Nasya insisted on staying at her new friend's side the entire time, asking her several hundred questions about her wings and herself and...every random thing that popped into her head.
Before long, it was time for the family to pile into their cars and head out to the lake. Rose and Bill drove together with the kids in his pickup while Gerry, Kara, Alexia and Danny rode in an SUV, after much protest from Nasya who wanted to sit with her new friend. Luckily, the long drive had an immediate effect on her state of consciousness and she slept the entire way.
The Finnegans stepped in first, leaving Danny and Alexia to follow. As they entered, they heard the kids cry out "Aunt Ginny!" and make a mad dash for a petite redheaded woman with bright blue eyes.
"My munchkin faces!" She bellowed, wrapping them in her arms. The woman at her side was blonde, with short hair and sun-tanned skin. She wore a tank top that showed off a physique earned through many hours at the gym.
Alexia defaulted to her usual spot by Danny's side, gently clutching his hand. Determined to break old, nervous habits, she stood tall, as tall as her diminutive frame would allow, her free hand slipping around his bicep. The warm, eager smile never left her face. Try as she might, she couldn’t help but feel there was a subtle but unmistakable shift in the atmosphere. She cast a quick glance up, hoping to see dimples instead of a clenched jaw.
But Danny was all dimples for Alexia. The redhead peered up at him, eyes going wide to compliment the smile on her face. "Dah? Is that Dah Dubek? Look at you!"
"Heya, Gin." He greeted Gerry's younger sister. She rose and walked over, wrapping him in a squeeze.
"And who is this?" She gestured to Alexia, looking her over a moment, immediately noticing her wings.
Alexia tore her eyes away from that heart stopping smile to meet Ginny's gaze, her own smile widening just a touch. Without releasing her hold on Danny, she gave a small clear of her throat.
"Hello, ah... m-my name is Alexia." Her face warmed as she felt herself already start to fumble another introduction.
"It's l-lovely to meet you." She finished quickly, her soft, airy voice just barely audible. She mentally shook herself. She'd have to pull it together for Danny's sake and give him one less thing to worry about.
Ginny offered a dainty hand and smiled at the adorable little newcomer. "Ginny. Nice to meet you. This is my girlfriend Michelle." She hooked a thumb back to the blonde woman. Michelle emanated a quiet, cool confidence. She eyed the faerie and gave her a wave. The years she'd spent with the Finnegans had very clearly prepared her for other-worldly people dropping by.
“Hey, Alexia.” Michelle said, that amiable cool in her voice. “What’s up?”
Nasya immediately popped up beside Alexia out of nowhere, taking her hand as if claiming her. "Alexia’s a faerie! She's got wings and everything!"
Ginny looked to her niece with an amused grin. "So I see!"
"She and Uncle Danny are in looooooooooove!" the child said in a taunting sing-song.
A silvery, bell-like laugh passed Alexia’s lips at Nasya's antics and she certainly couldn't argue with any of her declarations.
"V-Very astute, mo stór." Alexia said, smiling at the precocious little girl. She had the feeling she was about to get a crash course in just about everything she missed out on from her own lack of childhood.
"Well done, Uncle Danny." Michelle cooed in a singsong melody, earning a pointed look from the petite redhead. The blonde shrugged as if to say 'What? She’s hot.'
"Hey, babygirl?" Kara called to her stepdaughter. "Give Uncle Danny and Aunt Alexia a minute, okay, bud? Go unpack your stuff."
Nasya looked ready to protest, but, on the stern raise of Kara’s brows, thought better of it, wandering off toward her room.
The tall brunette walked over, hooking an arm with her tiny friend. "Come on. I'll show you kids to your room." She guided Alexia up the stairs toward a room at the end of the balcony. "Sorry if she's being a pain. Nas is a sweetheart, but she doesn't really have a filter."
Alexia fell into step beside Kara. Sort of. She took two steps for every one of Kara's. She almost immediately shook her head.
"She's absolutely d-delightful. She knows what she w-wants to say and she s-s-says it with confidence. I admire it greatly." She said, a touch of appreciative envy in her voice.
That brought a smile to Kara's face. "Rose said she wouldn't stop talking about you on ride up. I hope you like answering questions, because she's got a LOT of them."
Their bedroom was as cozy as the rest of the place, a king size bed, dresser, wall-mounted flat-screen, and a closet. On the dresser was a framed photo of four children, maybe six or seven years old, standing in a line. The two boys had chocolate ice cream smeared all over their faces. The older girl was much cleaner, holding a bomb pop. But the young redhead was just shooting a blue-eyed death glare at the two filthy boys.
Alexia’s eyes immediately went to the photo. Danny had long since awakened an interest in all aspects of photography, especially when she slowly but surely recognized each of their faces in turn. Her smile brightened as she stepped towards the dresser, her hand already reaching for the frame.
Danny's gaze followed Alexia. It took him a moment to recognize what it was, but when it finally clicked, his face dropped. "No. No way. The Ice Cream picture?!"
Kara laughed and came up behind them. "Yeah, Rose found that a couple years ago. Look at those spindly little arms on you!"
"Oh who are you to talk with those weird knobby knees?" He shot back.
"I had to grow into them!" Kara insisted.
While Danny and Kara exchanged friendly banter, Alexia could only stare at the picture. She tried to imagine what it would have been like having friends. Having a family. She wondered what it would have been like to have them as friends. How it would have been growing up with this tight knit group.
As the wheels turned, she held a fond, if not a bit wistful smile. She gently ran nimble fingertips over their young faces and chuckled voicelessly. Young Danny’s face was less angular, but there was no mistaking those auburn curls or those dimples.
"He still gets that little smudge... j-just there, on his chin... whenever he eats ice cream." She murmured, perhaps not fully aware she had spoken aloud.
“Yeah?” Kara flashed a toothy grin. "Does he still mash the cone AROUND his mouth?"
A fresh giggle bubbled up and she was finally able to tear her gaze away from the picture. She set it down gently and turned to shoot Danny a small, wicked grin.
"Oh, that was like, one time!" He chuckled, letting his bag drop to the floor.
"Only when he's t-trying to make me laugh." She smirked at him.
"Well, I'll leave you two to it. If you need the bathroom, it's down the hall." Kara said, walking to the door. "Just don't get too comfortable, because Gin and I have plans for you, Miss Alexia."
Still giggling softly, she turned to Kara and nodded along until her smile suddenly evaporated and those dark brown eyes went impossibly wide. They could hear the little gulp just before she began to stammer.
"O-Oh... ah... a-alright, th-that sounds... e-exciting?" She shot Danny a bewildered look.
Danny watched her leave the room, an eyebrow quirked. "Ominous is probably the more appropriate term." He shook his head and walked up to her, wrapping his arms around the tiny beauty. Those warm, green eyes stared down at her as he pulled her close. "So. What do you think? Did I overhype them?"
As soon as he held her in his arms, the tension left her petite frame. With a soft sigh, she melted into him, her thin arms slipping around his waist and shook her head.
"N-No. They were everything you said they would be and m-more. They're..." She drew a deep breath and slowly let it out in another soft sigh. "W-Wonderful."
The unmistakable scent of lavender and chamomile began to emanate from her tiny form. Her smile spread and easily reached her eyes.
"I'm glad you like them." He said. "Because I'd love to make this a tradition. I'm told they throw a helluva party at the end of the weekend. I apologize in advance if Kara tries to get you super drunk."
"T-Tradition?" She perked. "We'd get to see them every y-year?"
She tried desperately not to let her excitement get away from her.
"At least once a year is what I'm hoping." He cast that dimpled smile down at her. "It might be a little early to tell, but I'm pretty sure they all adore you already."
Although her smile dropped, the warmth remained in her eyes as she stared deeply into his.
"I hope so, I r-really do. But more than anything, I just w-want you to be happy. As long as it m-makes you happy, we'll come here every y-year. We'll come here wh-whenever you want."
Danny leaned in, pressing his lips gently to hers, a hand cupping her cheek gently as the kiss slowly ended. He rested his forehead to hers, running his thumb along her brow. "I love you."
Her eyes slid closed as she held him tight. Even as she returned his kiss, the corners of her lips pulled into a sweet smile once more.
"I l-love you."
To say Alexia was grateful for the reprieve was an understatement. She absolutely adored everyone and she was fairly certain the feelings were mutual. But it was still a lot of new faces all at once. Now, in the vehicle, the wind in her hair as she tried to snag tresses and bind them in a braid, she took what felt like her first deep breath since arriving.
Large, dark brown eyes peered into her own reflection in Kara's sunglasses. A small, sheepish smile tugged at the corners of her lips.
"It m-must be lovely having a l-large family." What she really meant was 'to have a family.'
Kara glanced over offering a smile, but something in her friend's voice hinted at a sense of sadness. "Yeah. They're amazing. Growing up, I didn't have that. You know...unless I was over at their house." She thumbed the volume down on the radio to better hear the tiny Fae. "You didn't have a big fam, either?"
"I-I..." Her voice refused to continue. There was too much. Too much history, too much pain, and too much sadness. All things she was specifically trying to avoid on this trip. With a small voiceless chuckle and a quick shake of her head, she brushed it all away and tried again.
"I had m-my uncle." The answer was by far more simplistic than the truth.
Kara listened in silence, reading into every pause and inflection in Alexia's voice. She understood all too well what sort of things could be hidden behind that simple statement. She nodded before speaking.
“It’s important to have somebody. The Finnegans were pretty much all I had.” She said. "At my house, it was just me and my dad. But…the less said about him the better."
There was so much unsaid there, but her tone told the fae everything she needed to know. "There were a few weeks where I got to live with Gerry's family, though. Those were the best days."
Alexia's gaze had drifted out the window for a moment. Now it snapped back and words that could not be stopped hurtled past her lips.
"Y-You escaped?" She gasped, part of her immediately regretting saying it out loud, but an entirely different part dying to know what it was like.
Kara was quiet for a moment, thinking back. "For a bit. My dad was…well, he was a drunk. A violent drunk. I used to go over to the Finnegans and curl up with Gerry in his bed. He’d patch me up. Cover my bruises with his mom’s makeup. As best a young boy could anyhow. One day, Bill saw the bruises."
That enchanting little smile crossed her lips then. "You shoulda seen him. He marches me back over there, tells me to go pack a bag. My dad was completely loaded, of course. He tries to get in Bill's face, but Bill just gut-punches him. Puts him on the ground with one hit. Tells him he's taking me home until he gets his shit together and if he ever sees another bruise on me, he'd end him."
That smile went ear-to-ear before it faded. "I'd never known love like I felt in their house. And when the cops took me out of there and made me go back...It was bad. Dad didn't hit me anymore, but it was almost worse. He just sort of ignored me."
The expression on Alexia's face showed she understood all too well. She could only nod slowly.
"It's difficult... sometimes. T-Trying to decide which was worse." She chewed her bottom lip for a moment.
"I don't really r-remember my parents. I l-lost them when I was v-very young." She said it now so matter-of-factly. "It was just m-my uncle for... for a v-very long time. But he wasn't always... He was k-kind once. And loving. For a while, I can r-remember him treating me as though I were his o-own. Some days I l-look back fondly and other days... I w-wish he had j-just been a mean, angry drunk from the beginning."
"Because it would be easier to accept the bad parts if you didn't know it could be better? Makes sense." An array of emotions warred under her carefully crafted neutral expression as she slowly nodded.
Alexia mirrored Kara’s nod as her rich, dark eyes unfocused and, for several long moments, she stared just ahead. When she finally spoke again, she was worlds away.
“I have a garden, b-back on Rhy'Din. I'll admit, i-i-it's a bit impressive now, but it had a m-meager beginning. It started with a h-handful of scraggly little w-w-wildflowers doing their best to survive the ch-choking weeds. I t-t-tried to keep them hidden because I was c-convinced, if my uncle f-found out, he would have s-s-stomped the life out of them. And p-probably me as well.
I cleared a little s-s-space for them and, every chance I could, I w-w-would tend to them. P-Prune back dying edges, k-k-keep the weeds at b-bay, refresh them with c-c-collected rainwater... O-One day, I was careless. I a-s-s-sumed he was still unconscious. After all, he'd been s-so inebriated the d-day before... I-I was so consumed with e-expanding the little space I'd c-c-cleared for them, pulling w-weeds with my b-bare hands, I d-didn't hear him step out f-f-from the cabin.
It w-wasn't until he was s-s-standing right in front of me, blocking the s-sunlight, that I finally saw him. Wh-When I looked at him, I-I froze. For a l-long time he just s-s-stared down at me until I f-finally realized he was l-looking *through* me, n-not at me. I d-d-didn't know what to do. F-Finally, he reached into his p-p-pocket and pulled out a pair of g-g-gardening gloves. They weren't n-new by any means. They were w-worn and f-f-fraying a bit, a few sizes too l-large, but they were s-still good. He d-dropped them in front of me and just... w-went back inside.
F-For a long time, I was t-t-too scared to move. But when it was c-clear he w-wasn't going to come back outside, I p-p-picked them up, put them on, and c-cleared the entire back yard th-that afternoon. F-From then on, I'd try to get my h-hands on a-a-anything I could to add to it. I s-s-saved seeds from the f-food I ate, took t-t-trimmings from overgrown plants in n-n-need of pruning... I was p-patient and w-willing to learn. Eventually, I had s-so many kinds of fruits and v-vegetables, herbs, flowers, w-w-we could go months without having to go to the m-marketplace.
M-My garden became a source of c-c-comfort and s-safety, even long after he passed. E-Even in my d-dreams. Now… Now e-everything seems d-different. Alien. N-Nothing feels mine anymore. S-Safe anymore. Things I was s-s-so sure of, p-people I th-thought I kn-knew, are all d-different now.”
Behind those glasses, her brows knit together, listening to Alexia's story. At the end, she nodded. Yeah, Kara got it. Alexia knew she would somehow. When her eyes finally focused again, a warm blush colored her cheeks.
Kara was quiet for a long moment before turning her attention back to Alexia. "You deserved better. But, if it’s any consolation, you still turned out kick-ass. Plus, you managed to make Danny the happiest I've ever seen him."
"I hope so." She said, addressing only the last thing Kara had said. "I... I r-really hope so."
She finished quickly before softly clearing her throat as she suddenly turned her attention to the hem of her blouse.
A lopsided smirk tugged at one corner of Kara’s lips, trading glances to her and then back to the road ahead. She couldn't believe the little fae didn't know how positive an effect she had on Danny. "Oh, you definitely do. How ARE things between you two? He said some stuff happened, but didn't really want to go into details over the phone."
"Oh…" She began somberly. It was the conversation she had been dreading since they arrived. "Ah... W-Well... I don't know how much he shared but... he... ah... He's b-been through a lot. He was taken over by s-something dark and insidious. F-Forced to watch as it did t-terrible things to... ah, to those he cares about." She stopped short. There was a lot left unsaid and somehow so much more said in her avoidance.
It was certainly more than Danny had said, Kara noted. Part of her wished stories like that still sounded far-fetched to her. But years of sharing custody of a child with someone from another world had somewhat broadened her sense of the word "weird". She worried about him in that place, much as she did whenever Gerry went back on business. A land of gods and monsters was a scary concept to her mundane little existence. The only monsters she’d ever seen were simple humans. She pushed her sunglasses up on top of her head and leveled those brilliantly colored eyes at her friend.
"And how about you? I mean, you look amazing...and the wings?" She made a chef's kiss. "But are you doing okay?"
Her wings. They remained folded, awkwardly pinned between her petite frame and the passenger seat. She gave them a quick over the shoulder glance before almost startling at the question.
"M-Me? I'm f-fine. I was m-mostly unscathed. Hardly a s-scratch on me." She smiled. Perhaps just a bit too brightly. Kara most certainly noticed that a good deal of scars were suspiciously absent, but thought better of mentioning it.
"I'm just focused on m-making sure D-Danny gets b-better."
Kara couldn't help the smile that came to her face. She was glad Alexia was so devoted to her friend. "That's awesome. Sincerely, it's great. But don't forget to take time to enjoy yourself. Trust me, the boys are either downing beers, eating meat or throwing a football around right now, so he's in great hands. The important thing is that you take care of yourself.”
She let that sink into the little fae’s mind before she changed to a lighter subject. “Speaking of being in great hands, I'm making a stop before the groceries. There's this cute little shop in town. I always stop and get an outfit or two whenever we come up. Interested in getting something new for yourself?"
"As in c-clothing?" She looked down at her own outfit. It wasn't anything special. A light blue, loose fitting tunic style blouse over soft, white leggings. Comfortable to be sure, but she was well aware she stuck out a bit. She was also relieved to have avoided delving further into the complicated reasons they finally chose to join the annual Finnegan celebration.
"I... I s-suppose it couldn't hurt to look..."
"Yeah?" the sunglasses fell over her eyes with a nod of her head. "You wanna get balls-to-the-wall girly up in this bitch?" She chuckled playfully.
"I... I know what m-most of those words mean, i-individually!" Alexia delighted in Kara's energy even if she was terribly confused. She couldn't help the nervous chuckle, however, and the odd sensation she was about to be taken well out of her comfort zone.
Trista's was a little store in the strip mall and the best place to buy clothing in the sleepy little town. The owner, Trista, fancied herself something of a fashion expert and always kept a nice selection. Over the years, Kara had come to know her well. Kara thumbed through a rack of blouses while Alexia was trying on an outfit Kara put together for her.
Alexia chewed her lip for what had to be at least a dozen or more times. Kara's pick was certainly different from what she was accustomed to. Typically handmade, by her own hand, form covering pieces, simple and inexpensive, hardly compared to the dark denim shorts with lovely lace detail around the pockets and hems or the dark red blouse that ruched and gathered at the sides and cinched with long trailing ties.
She took one last look at herself in the dressing room mirror before putting her hand on the sliding lock. With a deep breath, she slid the latch open and quietly let the door swing out, peeking out timidly.
The sound of the sliding lock caught her attention. Kara spun on her heel and looked her over, her brows raising. "Oh my god." She exhaled. "You look so damn good!"
"How's it feel?"
Alexia's mouth opened and closed with a few false starts. She stepped out and realized for the first time there were mirrors everywhere. She could see herself from multiple angles and it reddened her cheeks. Quickly, her gaze fell to her bare little feet.
"Ah... d-different." She answered honestly as she futilely tried to smooth the fabric of the soft blouse.
"Good different or bad different?"
"N-Not bad. Just... different. I think... I like it." She surprised even herself.
Kara was almost immediately on her, primping her diminutive friend like she was a model about to walk the runway. "I love these shorts on you. You have amazing legs, you should show them off." It was true. They weren't super long, but all the walking had paid off. Every inch of smooth, skin exposed was a delight for the eyes.
As Kara fussed over her, Alexia's dark pretty brows furrowed and her nose scrunched. Her lips pursed and pulled to one side until she was undeniably and unabashedly making a face at her friend. It soon changed into a side smirk as she lightly rolled her eyes and shook her head. Who was she to deny Kara a bit of fussing? She looked down again, a bit more appreciatively at the new clothing and hummed a thoughtful little murmur.
"Danny will flip when he sees you. Okay. So, I have a bunch more for you...but I think..." She trailed off, distractedly going through the pile of things she'd picked out. "...you should try these on."
The articles of clothing she picked out were...small, to say the least. The difference between underwear and a bikini was slim, but this just barely fell on the latter. White and blue striped and they would show off a lot of that smooth, pale skin. "Just call me in when you're ready and we'll make the final judgment."
Large dark eyes went impossibly wide and she began to sputter response after nonsensical response. At first, her lightly freckled face went pale as a sheet. But it didn't take long for a deep crimson to set in as the barely there scraps of fabric were pressed into her hands. For lack of knowing what to do, she simply retreated into the dressing room.
"That girl is gonna break so many hearts." Kara muttered with a grin, waiting for her cue.
For a minute or two there was only the sound of rustling fabric. Followed, finally, by a tiny whimper and a very unsure, "Umm..."
"Do you need help?" Kara called to her.
"Y-Ye-... N-... umm... Is this made to be w-worn... alone?" She called out, her voice cracking ever so slightly at the last word.
Kara stifled a chuckle and quickly slipped into the changing room with her. "I mean, I’VE worn them out before, but…I’m shameless." She stopped in her tracks at the sight before her, at a loss for words.
She cast a nervous glance at Kara, wondering what could have robbed her of her words so suddenly. She reddened just a touch more and looked back to the mirror again, trying to go over every inch of the garments. It didn't take long.
"D-Did I... put something on incorrectly? I w-wasn't sure... I've n-never... I mean..." She began to twist and pull at her fingertips nervously.
She'd never seen the fae in this state of undress. To say she was impressed with the lithe, petite form in front of her was an understatement. The top cupped and accentuated her small chest, showing off bits of fair, soft skin behind every bit of striped fabric. ‘Short-round has a nice little booty on her!’ Kara thought to herself. The outfit clung to her curves, showing off every bit in exquisite detail. "Holy shit. Wow." Kara muttered. "Lucky man..."
As if snapping out of a trance, she smiled at Alexia. "His head might explode if he saw you in that. Er....in a good way."
"Oh... th-that's good. I don't think I can h-heal anything involving o-o-obliterating d-dismemberment." Completely over her precious little head.
"Umm... I was a bit... u-unsure about this..." She turned her back and pulled her waist length dark hair over one shoulder, revealing the hooks to the top were left completely unclasped.
"I-I-I... I've n-never... ah..." As she struggled to articulate, nimble little fingers tugged at a few strands of hair.
That was unexpected to say the least. "You...haven't...OH! Oh, yeah! It can be a pain. I fasten mine on the front and spin it around to pull up the straps. Want me to get it?"
"Y-Yes, please." She murmured softly, a deep crimson suddenly flooding the tips of her ears and the back of her neck.
Nimble fingers reached up, brushing the skin of her back gently as she took the clasp and brought it together to fasten securely. "It's really easy. Just a matter of lining up the hooks. You'll get the hang of it in no time."
“Ah.” She murmured, as it began to make sense. She did her best to hold still, but couldn't help the slight rustle of her wings. They were still so new and foreign to her and only one person had ever touched them. She glanced at her own clothing, folded and neatly piled nearby, and had already begun planning how to modify any new clothing to accommodate the lengths of silken gossamer that trailed behind her.
"I wish... I had g-grown up with all of you, t-too… s-somehow." She murmured seemingly randomly. For a long moment, she hardly realized she'd spoken aloud.
She placed her hands on Alexia's biceps and looked at her in the mirror. "Oh. We'd have gotten in SO much trouble. Would have been nice to have another girl around. Can you imagine? The two of us running loose? God help that little neighborhood."
Alexia met Kara's gaze in the mirror and couldn't help a tiny smile. Shaking her head, she chuckled softly to herself and ran her small hand through her hair, pulling it off the the side and tucking it behind her pointed little ear.
"Wh-What do we do, n-now?" A thought suddenly occurred to her and her face paled. "Y-You don't intend for me to go out there l-like this, d-do you?"
"I mean...I doubt anyone would complain..." She shrugged before her conscience got the better of her. She just grinned and stepped back. "But no. I'll step out and we'll continue our little fashion show, yes?"
She began to nod when concern flashed across her pretty face.
"Ah... b-before you do?" Once more, she pulled her hair to one side and offered her back as she tossed a look over her shoulder that was clearly a plea for help.
"Oh!" Kara stopped herself. "Here, you've gotta learn this some time." She took Alexia's hand and guided it to the clasp. "Okay. Now it's just like snapping your fingers. Give it a shot."
She angled her hand and fingers just so and gave it her best try. She succeeded in getting one clasp undone! Encouraged by the small victory, she tried again, ready to take on the next outfit.
Gerry surprised him with an ice cold bottle against his cheek. Danny jolted but caught himself just short of leaping out of his chair. A grin crossed his lips as he peered up at his tall friend.
“Thanks, mate.” He said
Gerry laughed, taking a seat in between his father and best friend. “No prob’m, eh, guvnah? Spit spot, cheerio n’ wotsalldis innit?” Gerry said, affecting an AWFUL attempt at a cockney accent.
“Fuck off.” Danny chuckled, popping the cap off his beer. “My accent is far more adorable than that.”
Gerry grinned, taking a swig from his bottle. “How they biting? I miss anything?”
Bill shook his head. “Told you we shoulda picked up some night crawlers.”
“For the last time, pops, they creep Kara out.”
“Booooooo….wuss.” Bill teased him.
“Oh, tell you what, old timer, YOU can tell her off, next time. Cool?”
“She ain’t my wife…”. Bill chuckled sheepishly.
Silence settled over the trio. For a long moment, it was just them and the calm quiet. Gerry glanced over his shoulder, making certain the coast was clear of children.
“So.” Gerry said. “You wanna talk about it?”
Danny glanced over, putting on a confused expression. “About what?”
Bill and Gerry exchanged dubious glances. Taking a drink, Gerry’s attention turned back to Danny.
“You’ve got the look.” Gerry said.
“The demon.” Bill said. “I can tell just by looking at you. You’re carrying a serious weight, kid. Might help to talk it out.”
Danny sniffed a laugh. “I forgot how you lot are. We don’t really… talk things out in my family. It’s more stuffing the feelings down in a corner and pretending they don’t exist.”
“How’s that working out?” Bill asked, a wry smirk on his face.
“Oh, terribly. Haven’t spoken to my father in over a decade.” Danny said in a matter-of-fact tone. After a light chuckle, silence once again descended upon them. Gerry watched Danny, noting that he refused to make even the briefest of eye contact.
“Danny, seriously. What happened, man?” Gerry finally asked, his voice gentle.
Danny locked eyes with him, color draining from his face. “I hurt people.” He said quietly. “I took away everything that made them…them.”
Gerry stared. The things Danny had said certainly didn’t sound like things the man he knew would do. But no matter what, Danny Dubek got the benefit of the doubt. “What did you do?”
“I was infected by this…entity, or spirit…whatever you want to call it.” Danny explained.
“You were possessed?” Bill asked him.
“I suppose that’s as good a word as any.” Danny agreed. “It was horrible. Dark. Cold. The kind of cold that penetrates your very soul. It fed and thrived on hate and fear. Devoured you from the inside out until there was nothing left but a drained husk.”
“Why? What did it want?”
“Everything. Everywhere. To devour every world and every reality until there was nothing left but darkness. It said the darkness was once all there was…and it wanted us to go back there.” Danny said.
Bill and Gerry exchanged concerned glances. This was FAR beyond either of their experiences. Even Gerry had never faced such stakes. It would have been hard to believe if not for genuine pain in Danny’s voice.
“That’s…a lot.” Gerry said.
“It’s not all.” Danny’s voice dropped to a pained whisper. “I…hurt Alexia.”
An aura of shock washed over their faces as Danny continued.
“I tried to kill her. Christ, I did. I wrapped my hands around her throat and squeezed until she was gone. I watched the light leave her eyes and I couldn’t stop myself.”
A long moment of stunned silence hung between the trio.
“But you know that wasn’t you, right?” Gerry finally said.
“They were my hands. My face. My body.” Danny insisted.
“But not your will.” Bill countered. “That thing…whatever it was, basically sounds like it hijacked your body. That’s to blame. Not you.”
“That’s what Alexia says.” Danny muttered, green eyes staring at the bottle in his hand.
“And she’s right.” Gerry said. “Look, man. I’m not gonna pretend to know what this is like. I can’t imagine, even with all the weird shit I been through. But, sooner or later, you’re going to have to find a way to forgive yourself for the things you can’t control. That shit will eat you alive, Danny. That much I DO know.”
Danny’s eyes flicked up to Gerry then. “I’m trying. I really am. It’s part of why Alexia and I decided to come here. Just…had to get as far from Rhy’din as possible.”
Gerry smirked and took a swig from his bottle. “Well. That, I can relate to. And, for what it’s worth? We’re all glad you’re here.”
That brought out a genuine smile from Danny. “Yeah, me too.”
Danny felt the meaty hand of Bill Finnegan slap down upon his shoulder and squeeze. The old man was still strong as a bear, Danny thought.
“You’ve got a good heart, kid.” Bill said. “Don’t let this bring you down.”
Kara barely looked up from her menu as she talked, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. "So, how long has it been now? Since you two got together?"
Alexia read the menu carefully. The names of the items were confusing at best, but their descriptions, at least, were intriguing and she recognized many of the individual ingredients. When Kara spoke, she slowly looked up, a warm pink glow in her cheeks.
"Oh! Ah... W-We just had our s-s-second anniversary about a month and a half ago."
Her brows raised and a smile graced her lips. "Two years? Has it really?" She asked with a distinct note of wistfulness in her voice. "Goes by fast, doesn't it?"
"It d-does. It s-s-seems as though it was o-only a few w-weeks ago." Her tiny smile reached all the way up to crinkle the corners of her eyes.
Kara grinned across the table to her friend. "I still remember those early days when Gerry came back to us like they were yesterday." She said. "So much in our lives has changed and we've grown so much, but...some things are exactly the same, you know? He's independently wealthy and an amazing father and husband...but he's still the giant, goofy golden retriever of a man I've always known."
Alexia couldn't help but snicker a bit at the devastatingly accurate description of the man known as Gerard Finnegan. Even she had quickly noticed his incredibly big-hearted, child-like demeanor when she first met him.
"I had trouble p-picturing it when D-Danny tried describing him to me. Imagine my s-surprise when it t-t-turned out to be incredibly true."
Kara couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah, he's a...unique sort of man, isn't he? Then again, it seems to be a theme in the men surrounding this family, doesn't it? I swear, when I saw Danny again for the first time, not only had he grown into a really good looking man, but… that accent? I was not ready for it. But, at heart, he's still the good natured kid who couldn't get his words right."
“W-Was it the dimples?” Alexia asked, knowingly.
“Oof. Oh yeah. Those bad boys are eternal.” Kara said with a cheeky smirk.
"Mmm… He c-certainly managed to find his words." Her smile turned dreamy and her gaze just a touch faraway.
"He has s-such a way with words. He m-makes me laugh like no other, and he always seems to know what to s-say. To help c-calm me down when I'm upset or to inspire me."
"So...have y'all started having...talks?" She asked, putting a particular weight onto the last word.
Alexia's smile faded as confusion gradually took over. Her left eyebrow slowly arched.
"W-We... talk, yes... We talk of m-many things..."
"No." Kara chuckled, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "I mean, like, have you talked about all the big stuff yet. Marriage, kids, what to name the dog. The big stuff!"
Alexia's face paled.
"M-Marriage? Ah… n-no, not really. I think… W-We’re both happy with the w-way things are right now. And… as for ch-children…" Her words trailed off into a whisper as one small hand instinctively went to her midsection.
Her thoughts immediately went to what she lost at the hands of Dommik. Things he took from her future. Things she had asked Danny not to put in his article. But sitting across from her friend in another world, she mustered up the courage to at least try to explain a bit.
“D-Danny and I… we’re… I… am in n-no rush to ch-change anything right now. And as for ch-children… th-that, unfortunately, was decided for me s-s-some time ago.” She did her best to smile and shrug it off, but couldn’t help the touch of sadness, pain, and uncertainty behind those sweet doe eyes.
Kara followed along the trail of abandoned thoughts, piecing everything together. He brows knit with empathy, a frown forming as she reached out and took her hand. She didn't pry, she didn't push the topic. She simply said "Oh, Alexia. I'm so sorry."
Alexia shook her head, her free hand quickly going up and dismissing the thought with a small wave.
"It's... n-not something I ever thought I'd have in the f-first place. T-Truth be told, I n-never even thought I'd have f-friends... s-someone to l-love who loves me b-back." Her usual sunshiny smile began to return.
"P-Perhaps someday that will ch-change, but for now, I just w-want to enjoy my l-life with D-Danny."
That seemed to sit right with Kara. The little fae was stronger than she'd ever imagined. There was a time in Kara's life where she'd let the darkness in, but Alexia seemed to always find the bright. It was a quality she admired. "I'm happy for you. Both of you. I love Danny to pieces and you are just my absolute favorite. You both deserve to be happy."
A soft, voiceless chuckle passed Alexia’s lips. Her posture relaxed once more and she idly fussed with the menu on the table.
"W-We are. I mean, I am and D-Danny seems so as well."
Kara couldn’t help but notice a change in the man who’d come back to them on this trip. She wasn’t so sure.
“Just do me a favor.” She requested, “Keep an eye on him. The stuff Ger told me about that place…it can be a lot. Even for a man like Danny. Just make sure you’re taking good care of each other.”
Eventually, the waiter found his way over to them and Kara put in their order. The rest of the afternoon was practically a walking tour of the small town, ending with a stop at the grocery store and the trip back to the cabin.
"You're going down, Dubek." She said, across from him as they waited for Gerry to hike the ball.
"You think?" He shot back. "Hope you brought your running shoes."
"Your girlfriend like the taste of grass? Because you're not gonna be able to get it out of your mouth for weeks."
Danny smirked just before Gerry readied the play. Danny burst into motion, juking past the toned blonde. But Michelle was not lost that easily, she was right on his heels instantly. Danny ran hard toward his team's goal, looking back to Gerry. The big man caught sight of him and cocked his arm back before launching a perfect spiral through the air. Danny was still running as he watched it coming in. It would land right in his arms any second now.
A tiny train with red hair launched right into his at full blast, grabbing him around the waist as the sudden weight and impact dragged him to the ground. Danny and Michelle skidded to a halt across the lawn, the football bouncing uselessly away from them. A chorus of complaints and trash talk erupted from the others as they all debated the legality of the play
"I don't know why they even bother with the 'touch' rule." Rose sighed. "They all end up plowing into each other anyway."
Although fully committed to learning how to play the various games Nasya suggested, Alexia reserved a decent amount of attention to the boisterous activities nearby. Perhaps that was how they went from the intriguing miniature life simulation the child called 'playing Barbies' to Nasya giving the last Ontari a princess makeover, complete with feather boa, a plastic bejeweled crown, and a healthy dose of... vibrant makeup, the last activity still very much in the works.
"They won't... i-injure each other, w-will they?" She tried to peek only to be admonished by Nasya’s insistence.
"Not yet! You still need more blue glitter on this eye!" Nasya exclaimed, prompting Alexia to instinctively comply by shutting both eyes once more, however reluctantly.
Rose turned around, glass of sangria in her hand as she looked upon the horrors her granddaughter had unleashed upon the world. She looked, in a word, perplexed as she took in the sight of the poor fae who had made the fatal error of indulging the 8 year old's fantasy of becoming a makeup artist. It was all she could do not to laugh. "Oh, I'm sure one of them will get a skinned knee or pulled muscle, but nothing permanent."
Alexia absently fussed with one of the plastic costume rings on her petite finger as she tried to tune her fine hearing in to the rough play. She thought she heard a toe bone crunch in the distance but admitted silently it could also very well have been an errant branch.
"Hmm..." She murmured, concern still evident in her soft airy voice. "Well... if anything s-serious does happen, I can help. I a-am a healer."
"A healer?" Rose asked, leaning her hip on the railing for a moment. "You mean a doctor or a nurse?"
"N-No, I've never had any f-formal training. I'm a n-natural healer. Ah... an empathic one, actually." Nervous little fingers began to fidget again, twirling the clunky plastic around and around.
Had she overshared? Should she have asked Danny what he thought first? The entire family seemed both aware and accustomed to Gerry's experiences in Rhy'Din, but did that mean she could speak freely? All these questions and more swirled in her head, mixing unpleasantly with the sugary sweet glittery lip gloss Nasya had just uncapped.
If it bothered the older woman, it didn't show. She seemed a little confused, like she was still processing what that meant, but not upset. Rose was pretty sure she got the gist of what Alexia had just told her and slowly nodded.
"Oh...well, that's wonderful." She sipped her sangria.
"Sorry. I'm still getting used to all this...magic stuff. Please be patient with me. Even with everything that's happened, it still takes some time for the old wheels to start turning like they used to." Rose chuckled.
"Ger offered to take me to your world once, but…I don’t know. It just...it's a lot to process. I’m a bit of an old gal. It's kind of scary."
"I-It can be. Admittedly, things are v-very different here. But it can be w-wondrous and amazing as well. Th-There are some really i-incredible people in Rhy'Din. It's wh-where I met D-Danny, after all." She finished with a soft chuckle.
"Fair point." She smiled at the little fae. "I suppose it can't be all that bad. Maybe someday I'll get there. I've never been much of a traveler. I've barely even left Texas, to be honest. Bill and I went to Hawaii for our honeymoon, but that was about it. If I come, will you join in and give me the tour?"
"Absolutely." She quickly responded, her cheeks warming under the generously applied neon pink powder. Chuckling softly, she dared to open her eyes. When she received no further chiding, she lifted her gaze to meet Rose's.
"I think you'd l-love it. There's a lot of b-beauty if you know where to l-look." Almost as if for emphasis, she glanced over to try and catch a glimpse of her dashing boyfriend.
Just as she did, she saw him leap through the air to catch a pass, only to be tackled by a petite, battle-crying redhead the second his feet touched the ground. Rose glanced back at the tragic display, letting out a theatrical sigh of exasperation. "I like you, Alexia." She said. "You're more my speed. Everyone else is running around like chickens with their heads cut off, but you're content to just relax and enjoy your vacation."
Sadly, in exact counter to Rose's assessment, the tiny smile that had begun to form on Alexia sparkly glossed lips quickly dropped and was replaced with a startled gasp. Her petite frame tensed and her dark brown eyes went impossibly wide.
"D-Danny!" She cried, as she abruptly sprang up.
She managed to clear Nasya but her little makeup kit was not so lucky. She'd jostled it with her knee and sent a few glittery tubes sprawling around on the deck, earning herself a confused and slightly irritated little "Hey!" from the little girl. Although the raucous excitement easily drowned her out, the thinly veiled panic in her voice was undeniable. She leaned hard against the railing, her knuckles going white against her vice-like grip.
When Danny pushed himself up off the ground, earning a "Suck it!" from Ginny, he was laughing, very clearly unharmed as he walked back to his "team".
Rose saw the panic in the fae's body and immediately knew something was very wrong.
"Hey, Nasya? Baby girl? Why don't you clean all that up for Grammy? Miss Alexia and I need to have a little talk."
Rose gently placed a hand on Alexia's shoulder, giving her what she could only describe as a very "mom" look that said this was NOT up for debate.
She immediately felt the tension in Alexia's shoulder. Her entire frame was rigid to the point of beginning to tremble. Swallowing hard as she watched Danny rise, she drew a shaky breath and eased off the railing a tiny bit, although the color had yet to return to her knuckles. She pressed her lips into a thin line for a long moment, the touch of Rose's hand belatedly registering. When Nasya was well out of earshot, the words came tumbling out. Slowly at first.
"I-I was s-s-supposed to help him. To b-be there for him. I was s-supposed to m-make things easier. I w-wanted to b-be there for him. I did. Just like he’s a-always been there for m-me." It was just as likely she was rambling to herself as she was to Rose.
"But I f-failed. I failed him. N-No matter what I did, things just got w-worse. D-Don’t you see? I l-let it happen! He was in t-t-trouble and I d-didn’t see it until it was t-t-too l-late!” It took some effort to turn her, her rigid stance surprisingly strong, and even when she did finally turn to face Rose, her eyes remained glued to the handsome journalist.
Rose's brows knit together in confusion and empathy. She took one of Alexia’s hands and placed it over her heart. Cupping the little fae’s cheek, she breathed. “Breathe, sweetheart. Breathe.”
Alexia finally turned to Rose, but her gaze was miles away, reliving the worst parts of the last year.
“He’s alright. He’s smiling. Laughing. Danny’s a strong, capable man. You don’t need to fret so.” Her voice was gentle and reassuring. Alexia matched her breathing, deep breath in, slow breath out.
“I'm glad he's l-laughing again, I just... I just wish I c-could have helped instead of m-making things w-worse." The last few words came out in a hoarse whisper and her cheeks burned with shame.
She knew it was selfish, but she couldn't help the way she felt. With a sudden, sharp intake of breath through her nostrils, she finally looked at Rose in earnest, albeit through burning tears that welled in her eyes. She dashed at them quickly, drawing a faint line in the blazing glitter on her face.
"I'm s-s-sorry. I sh-shouldn't have s-said that.” Alexia shut her eyes a moment and shook her head.
Something just didn't seem to settle right with Rose. She sought Alexia’s eyes and squeezed her shoulders. "Hon, I don't know much about this stuff and what happened. But from what I understand...you saved him.”
“He n-never should have b-been in danger in the f-f-first place. I was r-reckless and I m-meddled with things I sh-sh-shouldn’t have. It’s because of m-me that thing… that d-darkness even had a chance to get n-near him.” Finally she opened her eyes and they were starting to look hollow.
“I'm glad he’s doing b-better. D-Danny seems to be r-recovering, and so qu-quickly, too. N-Now we can f-f-finally start getting back to normal. Or at least s-some semblance of it." Despite her best efforts, the stiffness of her frame remained.
“Nobody blames you, sweetheart. Especially not Danny."
"I do.” She whispered before shutting her eyes a moment more and swallowing hard with an audible gulp. And just as quickly, her eyes opened and she forced a tiny, pained smile on her features. “As long as D-Danny is alright, I'm fine. H-He's the one that w-went through that t-t-terrible ordeal."
Rose listened patiently. "Alexia. Sweetheart. It's wonderful that you're so devoted to him, and being selfless is very admirable…to a certain point. But you need to look out for your own happiness. It's not enough for HIM to be happy if you're struggling. This thing that happened didn’t happen because of you. It happened to you.”
Perplexed at first, Alexia crossed her thin arms and clutched at herself in a desperate attempt to self soothe. She'd held it together for so long in her admirable attempts to be strong. And now, standing in front of the epitome of maternal compassion and concern, a concept entirely foreign to her, she frowned in deep confusion.
"I-I'm n-not..." her feather soft voice cracked pitifully as she choked out the last word. "... s-s-struggling."
A single hot tear trailed down her brightly painted face. Followed soon after by another and another, until twin trails of multicolored, glittering hurt and confusion flowed down her lightly freckled cheeks. Her whole body shook as she tried to hold back a sob.
Rose said nothing. She didn't call out the lie, she didn't force the subject, she just wrapped her arms around the tiny fae and pulled her close. Something about her embrace felt so warm and welcoming. Almost as if it had a magic of its own. It wasn't something familiar to someone who had grown up like Alexia. It felt, above all things, safe. When she finally did speak, she gently stroked Alexia’s back in the space between her gossamer wings.
“I know what it’s like to try and stay strong when it feels like your world is crumbling. It’s lonely and it hurts deep down in your very core. And when you’ve gone on for so long holding it together, it can feel scary and out of control to finally let go. But you have to. If you don’t, it will devour you until there’s nothing left. Eventually, you’ve got to let people help you. There’s absolutely no shame in needing help.”
Within the harbor of Rose's arms, Alexia finally let go. She let go of the walls she had put up to hold her own fear and panic in. She let go of the pain and loneliness she'd felt as one by one her friends and loved ones were taken by the void. And, perhaps most importantly, she let go of the ridiculous notion that, when considering what everyone else went though, she hadn't really suffered at all. Not as they had. She finally accepted the fact that she had gone through something terrible, too. And she had, up until that moment, dealt with it on her own. Still drowned out by the happy din in the yard, she finally let go and sobbed until a great deal of her princess makeover became a sticky, lip-glossy smudge on Rose's collar.
Unable to resist the call of a book, it was as if she watched herself reach out with nimble little fingers and slowly begin to pry the tome from its designated spot. Even the soft rustle of book cover against book cover as it slid out of place was enough to take the corners of her mouth tug upward. She could feel the heft of it almost before it fell softly into her grasp, the weight of it certainly not unappreciated. She almost cradled it in her arms as she gave the cover an appraising look, the tip of her middle finger gliding down the edge to pull it open.
Even the paper it was printed on felt rich. A little bit of light reflected upon the semi-glossy surface that showed a black and white image of a trio of soldiers in odd looking helmets standing in a trench, their arms around one another's shoulders. They were absolutely filthy, their thin, young faces covered in mud. Despite their smiles, they looked absolutely exhausted. The page next to it gave a brief introduction by Ken Greene discussing the purpose of the book, celebrating the men who sacrificed so much on the altar of freedom. How they bound together to lift each other up in their darkest moments. How so many never grew old to see the world without war.
While keeping her eyes on the book, she made her way to the nearest seat, a deceptively tattered old recliner that was far more comfortable than the frayed edges and creaky joints conveyed. She didn't take up much room. In fact, she scooted all the way back and pulled her thin legs up to rest her heels on the edge of the cushion. In the valley of her lap, she let the book rest as she carefully thumbed through the pages.
"That's a good one." The voice of Bill came from the kitchen. The towering patriarch of the Finnegan clan approached with that warm smile on his face, a cup of coffee in his hand. "Coffee?"
Alexia nearly jumped out of her skin. Large dark brown eyes widened into saucers as a small gasp parted her lips. Her instincts went immediately to protect what she deemed the most precious thing in her proximity. The book, of course. She clutched it to her chest, ready to bolt, to where, she had no clue. Luckily, relief washed over her before she had to decide. She let out a small breath that ended in a voiceless chuckle. As the tension slowly left her tiny frame, she shook her head and smiled.
"N-No, thank you, Mr. Finnegan."
Bill grinned just this side of impishly, slipping down onto the couch with a groan. "I love mornings here. Ger likes to give me crap about being on an 'old man' schedule, but I like those few moments of peace and quiet before the chaos starts again. It feels like christmas."
As she read on, the tiny fae would learn about the inciting moments that lead to a war that embroiled most of the civilized world. Pictures showed the major players, all very stern looking individuals in elaborate uniforms. Bill was happy to let her read as they spoke.
A small smile lingered on her lips as she listened to him. She caught a few phrases here and there off the pages in her lap, but slowly the brunt of her attention drifted to the avuncular figure that was Bill Finnegan. He was in stark contrast to Owen Shadowsoul, the man who bore the unjust burden of raising her, and although she absorbed what Bill said to her, she couldn't help conjure up images of the man in what had to be his preferred element. Surrounded by family, loved ones, telling stories and laughing so loud the windows rattled. Her smile persisted, but there was a hint of wistfulness in her eyes as she couldn't help wishing once again that she had met the entire Finnegan clan much sooner.
"Wh-What's it like? Ch-Ch-Christmas, I mean. D-Danny explained it to me and we've spent the l-last two together, but..." She left unsaid the yearning she felt to have the type of childhood experiences people were not ashamed or saddened to share.
"Well, it's different when the kids are younger." He said, contemplating it for a moment, "You know? The whole Santa thing. When they're little and they still believe, their excitement is just infectious. They've all got this glow about them because they know that Santa Claus is going to come that night and make their dreams come true. At least...if those dreams are in 'Santa's' budget." He chuckled. Those blue eyes fairly lit up, excitement creeping into his voice. "Oh, and god, that morning! Rose and I would lay in bed, just waiting for them to come get us. I swear, sometimes we would be almost as excited as they were. We'd pretend to be asleep when they came bursting into the room, shrieking at the top of their lungs, practically dragging us out of bed. Then we got to watch them go absolutely crazy over the stuff they got. It's just an incredible feeling. I am so thankful for my grandkids. I honestly thought those mornings were gone, but with Nas and Will? It's like seeing it all over again. And being a grandpa for it is even better."
Of course Alexia only had a vague grasp on the concept, but something in Bill's excitement and warm tone made her feel like she knew exactly what he was talking about. Her smile crinkled the corners of her eyes. Absently, she turned the page in the book, giving the next image a fleeting glance before declaring softly.
"Th-They're lucky to have you."
"Nah." He brushed it away with his hand. "I'm the lucky one. I mean, look at what I got. An amazing wife who loves my big, dopey butt...happy, successful kids...Two little monsters running around calling me 'PopPop'. You know, when Gerry was...well. When he was gone, it sorta seemed like nothing would ever be good again. I mean, we adjusted, but...things just weren't the same. Not for a long, long time. But then one day, Gin shows up at our door with this...big kid. Big, handsome, goofball of a kid and the first thing I see is that...he's got my eyes. I knew instantly that he was my son. I got him back. I got a second chance. I gotta tell ya, kid...I don't deserve to be this lucky. But, damned if I'm gonna complain." Bill laughed.
A small murmur of mirth widened her smile.
"I th-think I know what you m-mean... wh-when it seems like the bad will n-never be over. It can make it d-difficult to trust when something g-good comes along." Rich, dark eyes casually drifted for a brief moment toward the general direction of the room where she left Danny sleeping soundly. Before she lost herself on a train of thought, she let a small puff of air out through her nostrils and turned another page in the book.
"Absolutely. But y'know what, Alexia? When you get that second chance? Never pass it up." He said before taking a sip of his coffee.
And that was when she saw it. It was a picture subtitled "Verdun, France. 1916." The image showed a gathering of people standing close to destroyed buildings. All were morose, but two stood out. The man was in profile, wearing a soldier's uniform that had seen better days. About a week's worth of beard was on his handsome face. If he had been facing the camera, Alexia would have seen her own dark, soulful eyes looking back at her. But it was the woman who stood out the most. She stared directly into the camera. The woman had striking, beautiful features. Her lightly colored eyes were intense and filled with strength that bordered on rage. She wore her hair cropped short and clothes that concealed her slim body. There was no mistaking that face.
Alexia froze. Her small but warm smile dropped and her petite frame went rigid as she stared intently at the page. It had been a very long time since she had seen those faces, but she would recognize them anywhere. They were burned into her memory. Color began to sap from her features, making the light dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose stand out by stark contrast.
It took Bill a moment to realize the change in the little one's entire bearing, but that dad instinct came around. "Hey...You okay, kiddo?" He asked her, leaning forward, peering down at the page at which she was staring so intently.
A myriad of responses flooded her brain. From pure denial to demanding to know everything about the book, the photograph, even the paper it was printed on, and everything in between. Her mouth opened and all of the questions she was dying to ask tried to leave her all at once, causing nothing more than several false starts. Alexia quickly closed her eyes. She couldn't think. Not with that intense, familiar gaze boring a hole directly to her soul. When she opened them again, she looked up to see genuine concern etched on Bill's face. She tried to think quickly.
"Ah... c-could I borrow this? P-Please? I just... I th-think D-Danny would r-really like it, too. I p-p-promise I'll take e-excellent care of it." She attempted a reassuring smile but only managed to come across incredibly sheepish.
Bill nodded slowly. "Yeah...yeah, of course." He gestured for her to go. "Everything oka-?"
"Wh-What?” She said, a little too quickly. “Oh! Ah... y-yes, everything is fine. I'm just r-really excited to sh-sh-show this to D-Danny."
Always the terrible liar, she glanced down. A mistake she instantly regretted. She closed the book, perhaps a bit too quickly, and smiled nervously.
"Th-Thank you... M-Mr. Finnegan? I r-really did enjoy talking to you." She said, genuinely sad to cut their conversation short.
Bill flashed that heartwarming smile of his and once again hand waved her away. "Any time, kid."
Reassured once again by the kindness of a Finnegan family member, she returned the smile and unfolded from the recliner, the springs hardly protesting from her movement. She stood a moment, both admiring and envying the family that had welcomed her with open arms, no questions asked. Finally, an easy smile warmed her features and she gave a tiny nod before turning to tiptoe back to the guest room. With the care and glacial speed of a safe cracker, she closed the door behind her with a soft, near inaudible click and turned to take in the sight before her with no small amount of appreciation.
Danny lay face down on the pillow, snoozing away. It was a wonder the man didn't manage to somehow smother himself in his sleep. Those auburn curls were an absolute mess, spread out all over the place. One leg was about an inch from just draping over the side of the bed, the sheets barely covering him. She could hear him mutter nonsense in his sleep, his body stirring just slightly before again relaxing back into his dreams.
A small, half smirk touched her lips as she gingerly sat on the bed. Gentle fingers reached to pull soft auburn locks from his face. She opened her mouth to murmur a soft wake up call when a sudden wave of doubt washed over her. For a long moment, she simply watched him, slowly realizing that it was selfish of her to interrupt his path to recovery with what she had just discovered. She swallowed hard, now very hesitant to wake him with yet another of her emotional burdens.
The touch was enough to rouse him. Slowly, his eyelids opened. It took him a moment to adjust to the light of the room and the feeling of being awake again. Those green eyes focused on her, an easy, sleepy smile crossing his lips. Danny rolled onto his side, facing her. "Hello, there, beautiful." He greeted her, reaching out for her hand.
A flash of guilt at having awoken him briefly clouded her features. It was quickly replaced by an adoring smile as she deftly slipped the book under her pillow.
"G-Good morning, mo chroí. Y-Y-You slept well?" She leaned into his reach.
A long groan accompanied his stretch before he let out a deep, deep breath. "Mmhmm! How about you, love?"
"Mmm." She hummed noncommittally. After all, she had, indeed, slept. Some. "A-Are you hungry? There's already c-coffee."
"Maybe in a little bit." His fingers entwined with hers, giving a little squeeze to her hand. He could just see the corner of the book peeking out from under the pillow. Danny nodded towards it. "What's that?"
She'd had trouble lying to Bill, the fact that even she didn't believe what she'd told him notwithstanding. Lying to Danny was entirely impossible for her. With a small, defeated sigh, she pulled the book out into full view. This was what she had wanted to do in the first place, she might as well lean fully into it.
Without a word, she opened the book to the page. She didn't need to count. She was, after all, eidetic. She slipped back under the covers, sitting up to lean against the headboard, and lay the book flat in her lap, giving him full view of the photograph.
"Oh, is that Ken's book?" Danny brightened, recognizing the cover. "I didn't know Bill had..." When he saw the picture, he instantly recognized the woman from one of the many drawings back in Owen's room. He was utterly at a loss for words. He, of course, knew just how old Alexia was, but seeing pictures of her parents from the history of his homeworld was still a shock to the system. "Is...is that..."
"Yes." She murmured a touch hoarsely, cutting him off a bit as his words trailed.
"I-It's her... Them. B-Both of them." her voice began to tremble and she took a small steadying breath.
The dumbfounded expression on his face shifted to a smile as he turned his gaze towards her. "Wow. That's...incredible." Those empathetic eyes turned to her then, practically feeling the whirlwind of emotions she was feeling at that moment. "Are you okay?"
Now, with Danny at her side, she was able to stare right back at the woman in the photograph. Hot tears began to well in her eyes, burning at the inner corners and threatening to spill over.
"Th-They were alive. They..." she swallowed hard against the rising lump in her throat. "They were h-here, on T-Terra. At least for s-some time."
A million thoughts rushed through his head. Not the least of which involved how difficult it would be to find them based on just a 106 year old photograph of two people who likely had moved on from the location featured. Still, he couldn't deny that it was a reunion worth pursuing. "Well. You know what we need to do, then, right?" He said, a smirk tugging at his lips.
Dark pretty brows furrowed as his voice mercifully tore her attention away from the book in front of her. She shook her head, thin arms wrapping around herself in an attempt to self sooth.
He placed his comforting hands upon her arms and looked her in the eye. "We need to find them."
Alexia sighed, her brows relaxing as she stole another glance at the glaring woman.
"D-Danny... I can't ask you to-"
"Alexia." Danny said firmly, but still maintained that empathetic smile. "This is an opportunity. Your parents might be alive. They could be here. You could meet them. Or at least get some answers. You deserve it and I am going to be there with you every step of the way. This is important. Let's do this."
Naturally, the only part she liked of what he said was his promise to be there. It was the only reason she eventually nodded before closing the book once more and setting it aside. With another soft sigh, she slid back down under the covers and melted into his side.
"Y-You're right. Of course, your r-right. I just... I'm afraid I'll l-learn something I wish I hadn't. But I n-need to... don't I..." It wasn't really a question. They both knew the answer. With a small, fairly pathetic groan, she buried her face into his chest and jutted her bottom lip out in a half mock, half serious pout.
He wrapped his arms around her, his hand going to the back of that wild mane of hair as he held her tight. "You do. So...let me drop a line to a few contacts and we'll track them down. If they're still around, I'm betting we could find them."
"Th-Thank you, my love." She muffled into his chest, the last of the tension finally leaving her body. As she lay within the sanctuary of his arms, the next leg of their journey, daunting though it was, seemed less impossible.
Danny placed a soft kiss atop her forehead and held her for a long moment before stepping away with his phone. He brought it to his ear, waiting for an answer. “Hey, Ken? It’s Danny. I need a favor.”
It was an hour in when Gerry left to get something from their room, never to return. Kara knew he’d likely sat down, shut his eyes for a second and fell RIGHT to sleep. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
The games continued on until Alexia had fallen asleep, curled up on the couch at Danny’s side. Danny glanced down at her, a warm smile on his lips at the sight of her, snoozing away. Kara shuffled the deck, dealing out cards.
“So?” She whispered, trying not to wake Alexia. “What’s it like being back?”
Danny took a sip from his beer bottle, eyes turning up to her. “Weird.”
Kara snickered and evened out her cards. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
“Everything looks different, y’know?” He sighed. “It’s weird.”
“Yeah.” Kara nodded. “I’ve seen it change a lot over the years.”
She leaned to one side looking towards the stairs. “Well. I don’t think he’s coming back. You wanna step outside a minute?”
“Sure.” He nodded, carefully slipping out from under the little fae, making sure to replace himself with a pillow.
Danny and Kara stepped out onto the patio looking over the lake. The moon danced in the rippling water below as he slid the door shut behind them. Kara took one last covert look at the stairs and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. She popped one between her lips and fished out her lighter.
Danny quirked an eyebrow and smirked. She looked like a teenager smoking behind her parents’ backs.
“I don’t do this in front of the kids.” Kara explained, sparking the lighter.
“No judgments.” He waved her off. After a moment, he nodded to the pack. “Do you mind?”
Kara gasped theatrically. “Daniel Franklin Dubek! Smoking?!”
“I know.” He chuckled. “What can I say? I’m a latchkey kid.”
Kara offered him the pack, letting him slide one out, and lit it for him. The pair of them walked to the stairs, sitting on the first step as they took their first drag. Faint white smoke billowed in the air as they exhaled.
“Does she mind?” Kara nodded back towards Alexia.
“Not so much.” Danny said. “As long as I’m not chain smoking or anything.”
“I only do it once in a great while.” She said. “Special occasions and such.”
The air was crisp. Warm enough to sit and relax, but cool enough for them to be wrapped in their hoodies. Danny’s eyes traveled over the lake, taking in the sight of stars wavering in the reflection.
“Do you ever see any of the old gang from the neighborhood?” Danny asked.
Kara took another drag and nodded. “Oh yeah. Remember that Gerry kid?”
“Finnegan?” Danny played along, “Vaguely.”
Kara chuckled. “Nah. Honestly, there weren’t really any I’d want to. I mean, first you left. Then Gerry disappeared. It was just me and Jimmy.”
Danny’s smile faltered just slightly. “Ah. Yeah. Jimmy Savage.”
Jimmy had been part of their group as kids. A wild rambunctious sort who always managed to find trouble. Danny had met him years later while he was embedded with his unit in Afghanistan as a journalist. When their convoy had been hit by an IED and small arms fire, it had been Jimmy who’d saved his life…at the expense of his own. Danny still carried the scars from that day, physical and emotional.
Kara laughed to herself, exhaling a lungful of smoke. “Remember that time Glen Stark went running to his dad, crying about us playing football too hard?”
The smile returned to Danny’s face. “Didn’t he expect Gerry to just stand there and let Glen hit him?”
Kara nodded vehemently, and put on a low voice, chewing on an imaginary pork chop. “‘Tell you one thing, Finnegan. You got a problem with Glen, you come talk to me! You don’t lay a finger on my boy! Go ahead, Glenny, hit ‘im!’”
Danny tried to keep his laughter quiet.
“And Jimmy’s over there with a baseball bat, ready to take ‘em both out.” Kara chuckled.
“Absolutely mental.” Danny laughed, shaking his head.
“We dated, y’know?” Kara glanced at him.
“No.” Danny said, astonished. “When?”
“Like, a week in freshman year.” she said.
“What happened? I was a shitty 14 year old kid with emotional problems. What do you think happened?” She exclaimed. “I mean, by that time, I was always either drunk or high off my ass. I was a fuckin’ mess, dude. He wasn’t into it, so…yeah. We sort of lost contact after that.”
Danny frowned. Over the years, Kara had shared a little bit of what was really going down with her dad when they were kids. He knew the basics, that it wasn’t a happy home, but as a kid, he had no idea how violent her dad could be.
“I’m sorry.” He said quietly.
Kara took another long drag and slowly let the smoke out, silence hanging over them.
“Is it true that you were with him?” she asked. “When it happened?
Danny was not at all ready for that question. For a moment, he just froze, the memories of that night coming back as if they were yesterday.
“They never told us exactly what happened.” She muttered.
“It’s not exactly a pleasant story to tell in the papers.” Danny frowned. “I was embedded with him and his guys. Writing a piece on the brotherhood forged in battle.”
He spoke the last with a bitter sarcasm. After a long drag from his cigarette, he continued.
“They had a mission…routine patrol duty, basically, but I guess the zone was hot. They let me tag along. We got hit and I took shrapnel to the thigh and burned my shoulder. The other guys weren’t so lucky. I don’t really remember the attack, but the rest of that day, I’ll never forget.”
Kara’s brows knit together, listening to her old friend relate the events of that terrible day.
“Now, I can’t put any weight on my leg, so Jimmy’s got me by the back of my vest, dragging me away from our burning humvee. He gets me to safety, tells me to stay down. Extraction is coming. Only problem was, it seemed like half the city was coming quicker. Eventually, Jimmy slaps a gun in my hand and tells me he can’t fend them off alone. He needed me to help. So...I did.”
Danny didn’t elaborate on what exactly that entailed, but the pain in his voice told her she shouldn’t press him on it. He took a long drag of his cigarette, inhaling it deep before releasing a plume of smoke into the night air.
“We were there for a long time. Don’t know exactly how long. Maybe three hours, maybe ten. I’m bleeding, getting weaker. Jimmy’s wounded. It’s looking grim. Then the convoy showed up.”
Kara just watched as he told his tale, his voice distant and pained. Through the whole retelling, he didn’t make eye contact with her once. Finally, when he turned to her, his eyes were glassy with sorrow. His voice broke quietly.
“It was so quick, Kara. Just there one minute, then his head snaps back and he drops. Gone. I don’t really remember what happened next, it’s all a blur. All I remember is the sound of bullets hitting the vehicle as they drove off.” Danny sighed, lowering his head. “I woke up in the med tent a day or two later.”
“Jesus, Danny.” She sighed.
“Yeah.” He nodded. “But that was vintage Jimmy Savage if I’ve ever seen it. Hurt, surrounded by death and fire, and he’s still looking out for his friends.”
A sad smile crossed her lips, her eyes lowering to her feet. “Yeah. Vintage Jimmy.” She leaned against her friend, resting her head upon his shoulder.
“I swore I’d make that sacrifice worth something.” Danny said. “I’ve tried to do that every day since.”
“Well..I’d say you have, Danny boy.” Kara smiled, taking in a deep breath and letting it out as a sigh. “It’s good to have you back.”
Danny stared up at the night sky, thinking of everything that had happened in the intervening years. All he’d experienced, gained, and lost. The good. The bad. The joy. The sorrow. He’d seen things most men could only dream of. He’d earned the love in the eyes of a woman who made his life feel complete, even on his worst days. He had friends as close as family who adored him. He worked and excelled at a job he loved. He would never be certain that he’d earned the life Jimmy gave him, but he would cherish it nonetheless.
“It’s good to be back.” He whispered.
“Nasya?” Alexia began as she leaned, hands on her knees. “Wh-What’s wrong, mo stor?”
Nasya nearly scoffed at the question. Although she was quite aware it wasn’t Alexia she was upset with, it was difficult to keep her emotions in check.
“Aunt Lexi, you promised!” Nasya began, unable to help the petulant tone in her voice.
“I-I did?” Alexia’s eyes went wide with surprise for a brief moment before confusion began to knit her eyebrows. “Wh-What did I promise?”
With an exasperated sigh, Nasya’s features pinched into a pained pout.
“Yes, you did! I asked if we could play Superhero Princesses and you said yes! And now the day’s almost over and we haven’t even played once!”
“Nasya…” Gerry began, a warning tone in his voice.
“N-No,” Alexia said as she stood straight. “She is astute.”
“Toot…” Nasya echoed, snickering as well before remembering she had been upset.. Alexia simply put a gentle hand on her shoulder and smiled.
“L-Lead the way, Princess Nasya. Sh-Sh-Show me how to p-play this game.” Alexia hardly had time to get the words out before Nasya squealed in excitement and latched onto her arm, pulling her toward the back yard. Much to everyone’s amazement, the yard had already been set up with costumes and foam swords and even a big cardboard castle wall that had been fashioned out of an old refrigerator box.
“Well, now! Someone’s been a busy little bee!” Bill exclaimed as he admired Nasya’s hard work.
“Me and Aunt Lexi are gonna be the princesses that save the village,” Nasya forged on. “Mama and Will are gonna be the ones in dresses…”
“Dresses?” Alexia echoed.
“The ones that need saving.” Nasya clarified, earning herself a soft ‘ah’ of understanding from the last Ontari. “Daddy is gonna be the big mean stinky dragon that wants to take them away, Grammy, you’re the narrator that’s gonna tell everyone what’s going on, and Uncle Danny, you can be the handsome prince, but you don’t come in until the end, okay?”
Danny’s brow arched, an amused grin forming as his green eyes flicked to Alexia.. “Handsome prince, huh? I can do that.”
Aside from an indignant grunt from Gerry at being made the stinky dragon, nobody dared question their roles in Nasya’s elaborate world. She set to work distributing various costumes and props. A crown and foam sword each for both herself and Alexia, an old green ski mask and a basket full of orange nerf darts for Gerry, and a stack of hastily written narrations for Rose. The stage was set. The audience was seated. For the next 45 minutes, Nasya and Alexia fought goblins and trolls, and even a snobby hall monitor that Nasya absolutely did not just throw in at the last minute, all the way to the final battle against the stinky dragon, all for their captive audience. Just before Gerry could hurl his first foam firebolt, Kara called out.
“Hey, baby girl, it’s getting late. How about we press pause and have some dinner. We can keep playing after.” Kara began to stand and hauled Will up to rest on her hip.
“But we hardly even got to play!” Nasya exclaimed, hardly noticing the telltale colors of a rapidly approaching sunset in the distance. “Just five more minutes! Pleeeeeeease?!”
“Yeah! I didn’t even get to breathe fire on anybody!” Gerry exclaimed from under the now sweaty green ski mask.
Kara rolled her eyes and sighed before turning to Alexia for backup. She would soon learn what a mistake that was. Rather than being able to tag in a fellow practical minded grownup, she was met with the largest set of doe eyes she had ever seen.
“J-Just five more minutes?” Alexia’s soft, airy voice begged as she absently fiddled with the foam sword in her hand. Kara’s jaw dropped in betrayal. Outnumbered, she laughed and slowly shook her head.
“I swear… alright, five more minutes and then it’s time for dinner!” She relented, only to be met by a round of cheers from the “cast.”
Back in the swing of action, Nasya charged forward just as Gerry began throwing bright orange nerf darts everywhere and roaring. She ducked and dodged and was able to escape his foam wrath, until he took aim with the last one. It sailed true, destined to strike dead center on her torso. But Alexia was right behind her and, with a small gasp and a quick beat of her powerful yet elegant gossamer wings, she dove in front of Nasya, taking the last bit of fiery dragon breath to her own stomach. It bounced off harmlessly and fell to the ground as Alexia put the back of her hand to her forehead, just as Nasya had instructed her, and swayed dramatically.
“Y-You must go on w-without me, P-Princess Nasya!” She declared. “O-Only you can s-s-save them!” With full trust, she let herself fall backward.
“Now!” Nasya shouted at a ready and waiting Danny. He swept Alexia up into his arms and cradled her lovingly, a dashing smile on his lips.
“You’re s’pose’ta look worried.” Nasya whispered loudly to him, drawing a giggle from a closed-eyed Alexia.
“And you’re s’pose’ta be fainted.” she said to Alexia.
“R-Right, my apologies.” Alexia giggled.
“Now where was I…” Nasya tapped her tiny chin for a moment before brightening. “Oh, yeah! I’ll get you, you stinky dragon! You won’t get away with hurting my friend! Take that!”
Nasya bat Gerry over the head with her foam sword again and again, driving him back from Will and Kara until he was cornered against the cardboard castle. There, she drove the final blow, stabbing the toy between his arm and side. Ever the good sport, Gerry roared and sputtered a fantastic stinky dragon death until he lay on the grass, panting.
“Hey, stinker, can I take this off now?" Gerry panted. "I’m sweating like a pig!”
“Silence, beast!” Nasya demanded before putting her fists on her hips. “I have defeated the stinky dragon! Grammy, that’s when you read the last part!” she said to Rose, who quickly flipped to the last page of Nasya’s notes.
“And even though Princess Nasya could have saved her friend all by herself, she decided to let the handsome prince save her just this one time.” Rose and everyone else turned and looked expectantly at Danny who raised his eyebrows, just a touch lost.
“You hafta kiss’er, Uncle Danny!” Nasya declared excitedly.
“Yeah! You have to kiss her Unc- uh… Danny…” A red-faced, drenched Gerry echoed as he clutched a sweat soaked ski mask in his large hands.
“Ah, of course…” Chuckling, Danny shook his head and glanced down at Alexia who could barely contain her own laughter. With a warm, affectionate smile, he leaned in and placed the sweetest, most loving peck on Alexia’s lips. Her eyes fluttered open and the audience and players alike cheered.
Although there were no more written notes on the pages Nasya had given her, Rose couldn’t help herself and declared their happy ending.
“Aww, and then they got married and had half a dozen beautiful babies.” Rose said, her nose scrunching and chuckling. Alexia’s eyes widened in brief panic before realizing it was all in jest.
“Who’s gonna babysit?” Bill chuckled. Everyone laughed along. Everyone except one.
“No, stop it! You’re not playing it right!” Nasya suddenly dropped all manner of facade and gave Rose a very serious look.
“Oh? Don’t you want them to live happily ever after?” Rose chuckled.
“No!” Nasya stamped her little foot, drawing the attention of everyone in the vicinity.
“Baby girl…” Rose began. “It’s just a ga-”
“NO!” She shouted again, this time earning herself a stern look from Gerry.
“Now, wait just a minute, Peanut. There’s no reason to shout at your Grammy. She’s right it’s just-”
“I don’t care about the game! It’s not fun anymore, anyway! Uncle Danny and Aunt Lexi can’t get married, it’ll ruin everything!” Finally, hot tears began to roll down her little cheeks. With a mangled little sob, she turned and fled into the house.
“Oh, dear…” Rose whispered, exchanging a concerned look with Bill. Both Gerry and Kara rose, intending to follow her, but Alexia quickly stood.
“Please, l-let me?” Her dark pretty brows knit with concern. Kara looked at Gerry who, after some thought and a few jaw clenches later, gave a small nod. Alexia mirrored his nod before hurrying in the direction Nasya disappeared.
Alexia had only been a few steps behind, but Nasya was an excellent hider. So good, in fact, that she was about to admit defeat and ask one of the others to help find her. That is, until those sensitive, pointed little ears heard it. A tiny, pitiful sniffle from the bathroom down the hall gave Nasya away. Alexia quietly stepped in and sat on the floor, knees drawn up, her back leaning on the tub in which the miserable little girl had curled up. For a few moments, the two simply sat in silence, the occasional hiccup echoing against the porcelain. Finally, Alexia cleared her throat.
“It was a v-very nice story.” She murmured toward the shower curtain.
“Yeah…” Nasya sniffled again.
“Is it r-really ruined? Can n-nothing be d-done?” Alexia asked, genuinely concerned about the masterpiece she’d had the privilege to take part in.
Nasya sighed heavily and sat up straight in the tub. Alexia turned and pushed the curtain aside. She looked at her little friend thoughtfully as she crossed her arms atop the side of the tub and rested her chin.
“No… Not yet, anyway. But it will be if you and Uncle Danny ever get married.” Nasya insisted. She drew a deep breath before she continued.
“It’s not that I don’t like you. I do. A lot. That's the problem. Every time someone gets married, everything is ruined.” Finally turning to face Alexia, Nasya’s eyes were pleading.
“In what w-way, mo stor?” Alexia asked, eternally patient.
“It always happens! It happened to Daddy and Mommy and now I only get to see either of them for a few months at a time and never at the same time! And it’s gonna happen to Daddy and Mama, too, I just know it! And when it does, maybe I won’t get to see Mama and Will for a long time, either! So you and Uncle Danny can’t get married!” Her words cut off with a tiny sob as large tears began to well in her ice blue eyes once more. Alexia’s face fell as her heart broke for the little girl.
“Oh, my d-dear little one…” Alexia murmured softly as she reached to put an arm around her. “N-No, love. Th-That is not your b-burden to carry. S-Sometimes adults decide they are b-better off apart and it’s n-not anyone’s fault. Especially n-not yours. And it’s c-c-certainly not your r-responsibility to m-manage.”
With a deep sigh of her own, Alexia gently stroked Nasya’s hair as she embraced her, the wall of the tub between them. She could feel hot tears soaking her shoulder.
“Y-Your father and your mother did what th-they thought was best for everyone, including y-you. It m-may not always feel the b-best, and I’m s-s-sorry that it m-makes you sad. I w-wish it didn’t. And as for your father and your m-mama, they l-love each other v-very much. Almost as m-much as they love y-you and W-Will. That’s n-not going to change. And n-no matter wh-what happens, y-you and I will always be f-f-friends.” Alexia pulled back just enough to smile down at the watery-eyed Nasya
“You promise?” She asked tearfully after a long moment.
“Y-Yes, I do, mo stor.” Alexia said, giving her shoulders another gentle squeeze.
“Okay… because I like being monsters with you.” She said, the quiver quickly dissipating from her voice.
“M-Monsters?” Alexia asked, quite perplexed.
“Yeah!” Nasya exclaimed as she began to stand. “Because you call me a monster.”
Alexia instinctively held out her hands to steady her as she began climbing out of the tub. It took a moment, but it finally dawned on her and she began to chuckle.
“Nasya… I w-wasn’t calling you a monster. I was c-c-calling you mo stor... It means my t-t-treasure. B-Because I t-treasure you and our f-friendship.” She said as she, too, slowly stood. Nasya paused mid climb, her knee hanging over the side of the tub.
“Oh…” After a moment, she giggled and finished climbing out to stand in front of Alexia. “I guess that does make more sense… Can I still be your monster, too, though? I kinda like it.”
“Of c-course, you can.” Alexia said with a full laugh as she held her hand out. As Nasya took it, they both began toward the door of the bathroom. When they stepped out into the hall, a gaggle of grown ups, Gerry, Kara, Bill, Rose, Ginny, Michelle, and Danny, all suddenly straightened and did their best to not appear guilty of eavesdropping on every word. With a roll of those crystal blue eyes, Nasya shook her head and turned to Alexia.
“Grown ups.” She said with an exaggerated sigh and shake of her head. Alexia giggled softly. As they headed to the dining room, Kara gave her friend a gentle squeeze on her shoulder and when she turned, both she and Gerry smiled gratefully at her, the latter mouthing a silent ‘thank you’ at her. She returned the smile before following the comforted and reassured Nasya. As she passed him, Alexia snagged Danny’s hand, lacing her fingers in his, and they all settled in for a much needed and well earned dinner.
Alexia couldn't help but smile whenever Nasya seemed to materialize next to her. And by the time she felt her tiny form press into her side, she couldn't help but loop a gentle arm around the little girl's shoulders for a quick squeeze. With a soft, contented sigh, she glanced up at Danny to catch his eyes and motion to their honorary niece.
He glanced down to them, a toothy little grin forming on his lips. He'd had a feeling the two of them would bond, and seeing Alexia with the kid warmed his heart. He took her free hand and brought it to his lips, planting a kiss. Nasya peered up at them from Alexia's side, a little giggle leaving her tiny body. Danny glanced around Alexia offering the child an upnod.
"What're you laughing at, munchkinface?"
Nasya's high pitched little voice took on a mocking, sing-song melody. "You guys are in looooooo-oooooooove."
Alexia let loose a soft giggle of her own as she nodded down to Nasya.
"Th-That we are, mo stor." She beamed warmly. It didn't even seem to bother her when other pairs of eyes glanced their way.
"Perhaps, s-someday, you might fall in l-love as well."
Nasya made a face like she tasted something awful. "Ew. Nuh uh! That's gross!"
Danny quirked a brow and chuckled. "You're suddenly disgusted by love? A second ago, you were swooning."
"No, I wasn't!"
"Oh, yes you were, miss!"
"I was makin' fun! 'Cuz you're gross. All..." Nasya made a bunch of kissing noises on the back of her hand, following it up with a mock retch. "Bleh."
Bill and Rose exchanged an amused glance at the exchange before returning their attention to the TV. Alexia sat snickering for a moment before giving Nasya another little squeeze. With a mirthful sigh, she shook her head and smiled at her.
"It's al-r-right, Nasya, y-you don't have to w-w-worry about any of that r-right now." Gentle little fingertips lightly ran through her hair, carefully avoiding little butterfly clips and tiny, slightly lopsided braids.
"I better not." She spat, snuggling back into her new bestie's side.
"I feel like that should be my line." Kara added from her own spot at Gerry's side.
Nasya let out a loud yawn, her eyelids becoming very heavy. Eventually, the soft, even little breaths gave her up. She was sound asleep. Alexia mashed her lips together to stifle another building chortle. The solid, relaxed weight confirmed what she'd suspected. The child had been pushing herself to the limit and had finally crashed. She shot Gerry and Kara a grin, her dark pretty brows raising in silent question. What now?
"Do you want me to take her up to bed?" Kara asked quietly. "She's kind of a load."
Before Alexia could answer, she attempted to sit up just a touch straighter, and the result was a soft but insistent whine as she felt little arms wrap more tightly around her.
"Ah... n-no... I think... I th-think I can m-manage." She said, mostly confident as she did her best to gather Nasya up without disturbing her slumber.
She didn't stir much, just unconsciously clung to Alexia as she was carried off. Even when she was laid down upon her bed and the covers were pulled over her, she snoozed away, peacefully.
Alexia foolishly smiled inward to herself. It was too easy. Far too easy. There was no resistance to being tucked in, no requests for water or checking under the bed or any of the other things she'd read in so many books. With one last affectionate little glance at the sleeping child, she slowly rose from the edge of the little bed and took the few steps that would put her within arm’s reach of the door. Just when she brushed the door knob with her fingertips, she heard it. It was as soft as a kitten's mewl but unmistakable.
"Aunt Lexi?" Of course. Of course that little voice called out.
She froze. With wide dark brown eyes, she slowly turned, a touch of concern in her features.
"Y-Yes?" She half whispered as she slowly returned to her bedside.
Alexia reached for the covers to smooth them out just a bit more as she gently perched on the edge of the bed once more.
Nasya'svoice was still sleepy, but she persisted. "Are you really the girl from Uncle Danny's story?"
Rich dark brown eyes went a touch wider. Memories cane flooding back of the harrowing story she'd shared with Danny that eventually went to publish for more than one world to read. Flabbergasted, and really just this side of horrified, she leaned in and brushed a few strands of hair out of Nasya's face.
"Y-You... You r-read that... mo stor?" She asked cautiously.
There was a shadow of guilt on her face as she nodded. "I wasn't s'posed to. Daddy left it out once and I snuck..." Nasya was an avid reader, especially for someone her age. She tore through books like a bucket of popcorn. There were some themes in her uncle's book that she was just too young to grasp, but there were others that she understood clearly. Namely, what had been done to her new friend. "Did all of that really happen?"
"I..." What could she say? Nasya was far too bright to accept any kind of lie, not that she wanted to lie to her new dear little friend.
"Y-Yes. I... I'm s-sorry to say it's all t-t-true." She said softly.
"Th-There were people that w-wished to do me harm. And th-they succeeded. But that was a l-long time ago."
Nasya wrapped her arms around her stuffed bunny, BunBun, giving him a squeeze. "Why did they do that?"
"I w-wish I knew, mo stor." Alexia frowned and slowly shook her head.
"Th-There are so many things I d-don't understand about wh-what happened. And wh-when the questions become too m-many, I just t-try to remember that n-no matter what, I am s-s-still here. They d-didn't take that away from me."
Nasya was quiet for a long moment, contemplating what she was being told. "Aunt Lexi?"
“Y-Yes, mo stor?” Alexia whispered.
"I'm glad you're still here." Nasya sighed sleepily.
Alexia's features softened from their confusion and concern and a genuine smile found its way back onto her face.
"M-Me, too, mo stor." She reached to gently squeeze her hand.
"And I'm v-very glad that I got to m-meet you."
Nasya smiled through another yawn. Those sleepy eyes were such a bright blue, Alexia could almost swear they glowed.
"Can you sing me the song?” Nasya asked. “The one your Grammy sang to you?"
Alexia stiffened for a fraction of a second. It was still an odd feeling to sing in front of others and there was always the concern of what effect her voice might have on people. But Nasya's request came from a place of pure innocence. It didn't take long for her smile to return and she gave a little nod.
"Certainly, m-my treasure. But then you r-really must get some r-rest."
Oh, how her little face lit up. "Yay! I will! I promise!"
Alexia leaned back and drew a deep breath. As soft as a whispering breeze, she began to sing the words that, for as little as she knew about both women, seemed sacred to both her grandmother and her mother. She took her time, forgoing the usual powerful pace and volume, instead letting her voice lilt and soothe the precocious little girl to sleep.
As the last sweet note hung in the air, she let her eyes slide open to peer at her sleepy little friend. Enthralled as she was, the tired eight year old had drifted off to sleep, very faintly snoring as she snuggled her BunBun tight. She was out cold.
With a soft, breathless chuckle, she gave Nasya's hand a tiny squeeze and slowly rose to leave, this time successfully. When she finally returned to her spot at Danny's side, her eyes were misty, but her smile never faltered. Tucking into his awaiting embrace, she sighed softly.
Danny glanced down at her, a soft smile playing at his lips. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head and eased in to enjoy the rest of the movie.
When she awoke the day of the big party, Alexia would find that the lakehouse was positively buzzing with excitement. The boys (and, not to be outdone, Michelle) were busy carrying the heavy things and setting them up around the yard, while the others were decorating. Ginny was fussing with the sound system and arguing with Nasya about the playlist because...she had that kind of time.
Kara's boots thudded against the wood of the stairs as she sought out her friend. She was, of course, stunning in a pair of cut-off denim shorts that showed off her long, tanned legs and a white and black flannel over a pink tank top, tied off at her midriff. She made it all look so effortless. She knocked on Alexia's door. "You decent?"
A touch of sleep still in her large dark brown eyes, she sat on the edge of the bed coaxing a comb through her freshly washed waist length hair. With a fuzzy little smile, she glanced at the closed door and called out softly.
"Y-Yes, please, come in." Quite the opposite when it came to fashion, Alexia didn't know the first thing about what put together a look. It was for that reason she had thrown on one of Danny's t-shirts before she set out on the daunting task of deciding what to wear.
Kara slipped in through the door, a smile on her face as she laid eyes on her friend. "Hey. Just thought I'd check in. These parties can get to be a little extra and I wanted to be sure you're doing okay."
Kara's words caught her mid stroke through a fairly tough and tangled lock of hair. She paused, half her comb buried in dark brown tresses, and drew a slow, deep breath.
"It's... d-different, certainly. I'm not accustomed to being around s-so many people... but... e-everyone has been so kind and D-Danny seems so happy... I think... I think I'll b-be... ah... oh-kay." She punctuated the last part with a small nod, a touch proud as she recalled the odd little colloquialism.
Not all of it was a brave face she put on, but certainly a great deal. Her smile was adequately reassuring, but the way her little toes curled nervously told another story.
Kara walked up to her and took her hands, looking the little fae in those big brown eyes. "If you need any sort of break, you come find me and I'll make some excuse for us to go inside, alright? Only fun tonight. Right?"
Her smile turned sheepish. Much like Danny, the Finnegan clan was terribly proficient in seeing through her usual defenses. Still, she was grateful. It meant she could let go, even when her person wasn't around. A small, voiceless chuckle expelled through her nostrils preceded another little nod.
"R-Right." She agreed.
The serious face immediately melted away into another bright smile. "Great. So. What are you wearing?"
She pressed her lips together for a brief moment before lifting her shoulders in a small shrug. An unabashedly impish grin tugged at her lips.
"N-Not… more leggings?" It may have come as a surprise at first just how sassy and sarcastic Alexia could be, but after staying with Danny's extended family, her quiet little brand of humor fit perfectly like an oddly shaped little puzzle piece.
The corner of Kara’s mouth ticked upwards, but she made a show of considering it. "Might I suggest something more than that? They're a pretty open-minded crowd, but your sexy ass wandering around naked might not go over so well for younguns. Or...for the older ones, maybe it'll go over too well."
Her own joke turned around on her, her face burned bright red, even darkening the light smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. Her jaw dropped and she sputtered a few times before finally retreating to the chest of drawers.
She pulled open the middle drawer, revealing all the simple tops and sun dresses she had brought from home, plus the new pieces Kara helped her pick out. All folded neatly and meticulously organized.
"I'm open t so s-suggestions." She mumbled, still a touch embarrassed but not in the least upset. She, too, was growing accustomed to different humors.
"Then, let's see what we have to work with..." Kara took complete control of the entire endeavor, digging through the little fae's new wardrobe and trying different things to get just the right look for her friend. When the outfit was chosen, she even did the little fae's make up.
Kara's idea of makeup was vastly different from what Nasya had been testing out on her. More subtle and by far less glitter. Although her features were stunning in their natural state, Kara was able to accentuate all her best features. With no real flaws to hide, it didn't take long before Alexia stood in front of the mirror, dressed in a stunning blue sundress. One of Danny's white button down shirts tied at the waist completed the look. No shoes. Never any shoes if she could help it.
"Are you s-sure I look alright?" Alexia asked for the third time. She fussed with the simple, low side pony tail that draped over her right shoulder.
What Kara could accomplish with make up seemed like absolute magic. It didn't hurt that the canvas she had to work on was already stunningly beautiful, but Alexia looked ready for the runway. "Babe, his mouth is gonna water looking at you. I guarantee it."
A tiny laugh escaped her and she rolled those doe eyes, her head shaking slightly. After a moment, she crossed her arms and lightly grasped her own biceps in a small self embrace.
"Th-Thank you, Kara. I... I think I w-would have been c-c-continuously overwhelmed if it weren't for you."
Kara smiled and wrapped her arms around Alexia from behind, giving her a little squeeze. "That's what friends are for. That and alibis and bail money."
Another little laugh bubbled up. Alexia’s tiny frame shook and her eyes crinkled at the corners.
Outside, Danny and Gerry lowered their third keg into a large basket full of ice, a bit of freezing water sloshing out onto his leg. "Oh, bugger all, that is cold!" He exclaimed.
"Ah, sack up, John Wayne." Gerry chided, tapping the keg. Danny smirked and turned just in time to see Alexia and Kara step outside. It took a second for him to even realize it was her, but even before, his jaw was left hanging. Of course, she was always the most beautiful thing on any world to him, but THIS? Kara had somehow found a way to elevate perfection.
"What?" Gerry asked him with a furrowed brow. "What's so-Oh..." It sounded almost like the wind had been knocked out of him. "Whoa."
As the two women approached, a smile began to form on Alexia's face. It quickly dropped, however, when she saw Danny's reaction. Confusion, concern, and a touch of curiosity made her quickly turn and look directly behind her. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, her dark pretty brows knitted in confusion.
"A-Are you alright, my love?" She asked as soon as she was within arm's length of her slightly soggy boyfriend.
A lopsided grin formed on Gerry's face as he watched his dumbfounded friend stare at the beauty before them. He gave the man a nudge before walking towards Kara, mouthing "Holy fuck, she's hot!" only to get a "I know, right?!" mouthed right back.
Danny's trademark dimples made their appearance as he took in the sight of her. "You look...absolutely phenomenal, love. I'm...I'm speechless."
She let out a demure little chuckle as she slipped her arms around his torso for a sweet embrace. As she peered up at his towering figure, she smiled, feeling a bit more at ease.
"I'm glad you l-like it."
He held her tight and close, leaning down to plant a soft, sweet kiss upon her lips, careful not to mar Kara's fine work. For a moment, he just marveled at the fact that this absolute goddess saw fit to claim him as hers. That warm, little smile graced his chiseled, handsome features as he beheld her for just a few more seconds.
"Alright, enough with the mush." Gerry teased in a theatrically exasperated tone.
Kara swept past them, drifting her hand lightly across Alexia's back as she went by. "You're shootin' way out of your league, Dubek." She gave him a wink and a smirk before finding her spot in her own man's arms.
"Don't I know it." Danny grinned.
Large, dark eyes rolled at Gerry, but Alexia’s smile remained. Content to be in his arms, she looped her own around Danny's torso and flattened her cheek against his chest in full embrace and just breathed him in. After letting out a contented sigh, she pulled back slightly and smiled up at him.
"How c-can I help?" She glanced at the others making preparations.
After stealing a kiss from Gerry, Kara simply smiled at her tiny friend. "Just keep being your beautiful self, m'dear. Just about everything is ready."
Danny looked around the yard. Kegs were set up, furniture was laid out, fireworks were in-place for nightfall. Games for adults and kids alike were all ready to go. The only thing he didn't see was the food. "So...I was led to believe you lot put together a smorgasbord for these little shindigs. Skimping this year?"
Gerry and Kara shared a knowing glance. "No. Far from it. Got a new guy, actually. Bringing a whole damn barbecue. You're gonna love it."
Danny's brow furrowed as he observed his friends. "Normally that wouldn't sound so ominous."
Much like she had been since arriving on Earth, Alexia was terribly out of the loop. But thus far, she either received a swift and helpful explanation, or she received a pleasant surprise. It was only this that kept her perfectly at ease despite the uncertainty even Danny seemed to be experiencing. Dark pretty brows rose with curiosity as she looked from Gerry to Kara.
"Wh-Who is it?" She asked once her curiosity got the better of her.
"Funny you should ask. Right on time." Gerry smirked.
The rumble of a big diesel truck came almost as if on-cue. Trailing behind was a big, black grill, the bed of the dually fully loaded with coolers. It was impossible to see through the tinted windows from their position on the lawn as the truck rolled to a stop. Nevertheless, Danny squinted, making an effort. The driver's door opened and out stepped a man that Alexia could have SWORN was a beefier, dark-haired Danny. A flannel shirt was rolled up on solid, muscular forearms. A five-o'clock shadow accentuated his strong jawline. His flannel shirt sat taut across his broad torso.
Danny's lips parted as he gawked. "...Wally?"
It had been at least a decade since he'd seen his brother in person. Most of their contact had been done online, and even then, it was rushed, surface-level niceties. Wallace Dubek rounded the front of the truck, laying eyes upon his little brother. Alexia would recognize the smile on his face as being almost identical to Danny's.
"Wally?" Alexia echoed softly. "As in, your b-brother?"
Even she was stunned. She'd heard a few childhood stories, not just about Wallace Dubek, but of their parents as well. She never pressed him or peppered him with questions. She had always just let him speak what had been on his mind at the moment. Some of them were funny anecdotes, others somber memories. They almost always ended with a sad smile that broke her heart to see. It was this reason she gave him an extra, reassuring squeeze before pulling away and taking just the tiniest step back.
“Danny!” He called out, stepping down the hill toward them. His voice was deeper than Danny's, and the Texas twang of his accent was a far cry from the soft, melodic tone of the fae's doting boyfriend. Danny moved toward him swiftly and the second he was in proximity, the two brothers wrapped each other in a massive embrace. It had been years since they’d seen each other in person. Danny clung to his big brother tightly, a million memories and feelings rushing through him.
“How ya been, little brother?” Wally asked fondly, finally breaking the embrace to hold him out in front of him to appraise his younger sibling.
Tears hadn’t quite formed in Danny’s eyes but they were close. He didn’t know, at all, where to begin. “It’s…It’s a long story.” he chuckled.
Alexia couldn't help but smile. In all the time she'd known him, Danny had always been self confident and self sufficient. He'd always been the one to lend her strength and support, never asking for anything in return. It didn't fool her for a second. There was always something behind those intense green eyes. A beautiful melancholy she was all too familiar with. The complicated nature of families.
“I wanna hear all about it.” Wally assured him.
Danny reached for Alexia's hand, clasping it and leading her over. "Wally, this is Alexia. My girlfriend."
"Hello... i-it's l-lovely to meet you." Her fingers, intertwined with Danny's, curled into a tiny squeeze.
Wallace took off his hat and turned that familiar, dimpled smile on her as he extended his large hand her way. "Alexia?" He made sure he got the name correct. "Wallace Dubek. Pleasure to meet ya, ma'am."
Her free hand slipped into Wally's, easily dwarfed and enveloped. Before she could stop herself, an impish grin tugged at the corner of her mouth, a smirk she'd undoubtedly picked up from Danny, and the words tumbled out.
"I've heard m-many stories."
His brows raised as if he were concerned. "Well, I maintain that the garage burned itself to the ground, so..."
An involuntary snickersnort escaped her and she quickly pressed her lips together. Her shoulders shook slightly with silent mirth and she flashed a look to Danny.
“Ah, he told you that one, did he?” Wallace smirked at his brother. “I’m sure it was greatly exaggerated.”
“Only the part with the flamethrower.” Danny smirked.
It was as if the years between Wally returning to America and today simply melted away. Wally slapped his shoulder playfully. "Look at you! You’re all skin and bones! Ain't this little lady feedin' you, baby brother?"
"Oh, she feeds me just fine. What kinda diet has Maggie got you on? Whole sides of beef for every meal?" Danny chuckled.
“Hey, half sides.” Wally jokingly corrected him. “Cholesterol, y’know?”
Alexia chuckled voicelessly and tucked a lock of hair behind a delicately pointed ear.
At the driveway, three others stepped out of the truck. The woman was a striking beauty with red hair the color of the sunset. Her slim form draped in a sundress. The boy had his father’s dark hair and his features were mostly his mother’s. His face buried in an iPad, Wally’s wife ushered him along, informing him that he would not be on the tablet all night, much to his dismay.
The little girl, though, was 100% Dubek. Something about her just brought back his own mother’s face. He imagined she looked much like this at her age. The girl’s auburn hair cut off in a bob around her face. Everything about her screamed “tomboy”.
"And that, stranger, is the fam.” He gestured behind him with a sweeping motion of his arm. Wally’s family finally approached, his wife looking just a little harried as she shouldered a bag. She somehow made even the exhausted mom look seem glamorous.
“Hi, there.” She said, her melodic voice tinged with a Texan twang.
“Danny, Alexia. This is my wife Maggie.” He placed a hand at her back. “Maggie this is my brother and his…”
“Girlfriend.” Danny nodded, taking her by the hand. “Maggie, it is a genuine pleasure to finally meet you.”
Maggie looked like something had just clicked. Of course this was his brother. He looked like if Wallace had only ever done cardio and ate right.
“Danny.” She greeted him warmly. “I’ve heard wonderful things.”
Maggie turned to Alexia then and took her hand. “Alexia. Wonderful to meet you.”
Alexia kept a warm smile at the ready as she took the hand of the intimidatingly attractive woman at his side.
"M-Maggie." She echoed, warmth in her feather soft voice.
Wally gestured to the little ones.
"And the one with his face buried in his phone is our oldest, Charlie. And that little hellion over there is Melody Joan. Kids, come say hi to your uncle Danny and aunt Alexia!"
Perhaps Alexia’s face paled a bit at being dubbed an aunt for the second time on their trip. Perhaps it was just a cloud passing by overhead.
At the mention of the girl’s name, Danny’s face dropped. He could almost hear the sound of humming echoing back from his youth. Looking at his niece, he decided that she very much earned her namesake. Danny caught his brother’s eyes, an entire conversation passing between them in the silence.
Danny crouched down as they approached, offering that warm smile to both. He extended a hand to the boy. "Hello, there, Charlie. Melody. You know, I've been wanting to meet you two for a very long time. Your dad's told me a lot about you."
Charlie looked at his uncle like the stranger he was, trying to play it cool. "Cool...Yeah. It's...nice to meet you."
"And you, miss, look JUST like your grandmother." Danny said with a smile.
She peered up at him, a bashful smile on her face. She, too, had those trademark Dubek dimples. Her eyes flicked to Alexia as she stared. "Are you an alien?" She asked curiously.
"Mellie!" Maggie reprimanded her before turning to Alexia, mortified. "I'm sorry."
Alexia’s eyes turned up, thoughtfully. The young girl's assessment was technically very astute, but somehow that didn't seem like something to open with upon first meeting Danny's brother and his family. Instead, she simply smiled that mystical smile of hers.
"I'm n-not from here." She offered helpfully, entirely unoffended. Petite as she was, there was little need to crouch down as Danny did, but she did lean in a touch.
"I hope we can a-all get to know one another and b-become friends." She murmured gently.
Melody’s face lit up at the prospect. "Okay! Friends!"
Wally grinned. “Alright, friends. Why don’t you two go find some trouble to get into. Danny? Gimme a hand with the grill?”
As the kids took off, looking for Nasya, Danny gave Alexia one last kiss and set off with his brother.
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