The cops have surrounded the auction house by the time they arrive. John steps out of the truck and stares up at the tall building. He has a feeling… he's not sure how to put it. A stirring. Wakefulness. Something inside of him twists in anticipation.
"Getting cold feet?" Hellboy smacks him on the back as he descends from the truck.
John shakes his head and follows. "No. Just…"
"Nervous," Abe says, unhelpfully. "I wonder why."
Abe, Liz, and John pull on plasma-screen night-vision scanners as they move into the empty sales room.
"No one here. No survivors. No bodies," Liz says.
John shivers. He feels like he's being watched. He pulls off the scanner and turns in a circle. "There's something…"
"Same story here, babe," Hellboy interrupts.
"Don't call me 'babe'," Liz bites back.
John takes a step further into the room. He feels… something. A pull, like he's being drawn forward. There really is something here. His hand strays to his gun, makes sure it's clear.
"I said 'Abe'. I'm sorry. Wrong channel," Hellboy says. Normally John would be amused by their banter but there's something off here and he's using all his attention to just listen, ears straining for a sound he knows he should hear.
Something flitters out of the corner of his eye and he turns, gun up. "Guys…" There's nothing there. Another flitter and he turns.
Something green lands on the tip of his gun and he jerks, taking a step back. It's a fairy, olive-skinned and hairless, about nine inches tall. For a moment, John thinks he's a gonner and then it does the strangest thing – it bows.
There are more of them, flittering out from every corner to form a circle around him nearly a yard wide. There's hundreds of them and they're all looking at him. One by one, they bow to him.
He can hear Abe approach but he doesn't dare turn to look. "Oh, dear. Tooth fairies."
Hellboy curses over the intercom. From deeper in the building, John can hear him running.
"Abe, c'mon. Cut the crap," Liz says.
"Third century, the Teutoburg forest. Famished. They feed on calcium. And they go for the teeth first. How do you think they got that name 'Tooth Fairies'?"
"Abe, get out of there," Hellboy says over the intercom.
"You really have to see this," Abe says back.
The fairy on John's gun straightens and looks at him. It tilts its head.
"Nice fairy. No eating me. Or them. No eating people."
Then the fairy does the strangest thing – it nods, like it understood him, like it's listening to him.
Thick boots stop towards him and John dares to turn. "Hellboy…"
Hellboy looks just as confused as John. "What the…"
Slowly, John lowers his gun. The fairy on it flits closer and sits harmlessly on his shoulder. It chitters in his ear, some strange nonsense noise but John somehow understands. "They're hungry."
"Yes," Abe says. "They always are."
"Where did they come from?"
Liz picks up a strange-looking box from further in the room. It has a strange crest on it. "I'd imagine from this."
The fairy points and jabbers. "They were transported in that," John translates. "From the market where they were sold."
Three pairs of eyes turn to him. "You can understand that?" Hellboy asks, incredulous.
"Remarkable," Abe says. "Which market? Does it remember where?"
The fairy jabbers again. "It heard trolls."
"The troll market?" Hellboy says. "How are we supposed to find that?"
"Rumor puts it under the Washington Bridge, but we've staked that place out for weeks with no sign of activity," Abe says.
John shrugs. "It's worth checking out again."
"Now the real question," Hellboy says, "is what are we going to do with these little fellows?" Hellboy sweeps his hand over the group of fairies.
"Take them home and feed them?" The fairies jump and clatter at John's suggestion.
"Home it is."
The truck rolls to a stop beneath the bridge.
"I still say this is a waste of time," Hellboy grumbles for the fifth time as they exit the truck.
"Yes," Liz snaps, "we heard you."
John takes a step towards the alleyway. He's never been here before but it feels familiar. He walks forward, heedless of the bickering behind him. There's an old bag lady pushing her cart down the alleyways as John approaches.
She turns to him and her eyes widen. Just like the tooth fairies, she stops and bows. "Mathair."
"What the hell is going on?" Hellboy says as he storms up.
"I believe she just called you 'mother'," Abe says, confused.
"Umm… Do you know where the troll market is?"
The bag lady nods and gestures them to follow. She opens a service door, leading them into the back of a bowling alley and then down into the basement.
"Maybe we can bowl a few frames, huh?" Hellboy says.
Abe splays his webbed fingers. "Bowling balls – they give me trouble."
They enter a dusty, cramped basement. "I don't think-" Hellboy starts, but then the old lady says a word in a foreign tongue.
Suddenly the basement falls away and the trunk of a very old tree appears. There's a large mossy rock and stone columns. John steps forward in wonder and touches the trunk of the tree. It feels warm under his hand and somehow, right. Where a large banner hung, there is now a huge, rusty mechanical lock.
"What the hell?"
The old woman approaches the lock, turns a few gears, and then the door opens, revealing a stone staircase. She gestures them through, eagerly.
"Ladies first," Hellboy says, looking at John.
"Funny." Still, John takes point since that's what the bag lady seems to want. As they step through the opening, the bag lady's form shifts, growing large, muscle-bound troll. John starts but doesn't pull away as the troll leads them downstairs.
There's a din of noise ahead, growing louder the further down they go. They step out into steamy, mechanical mess. There's a labyrinth of alleyways intermixed with stalls and creatures John has never seen before in his lifetime. There's a fetid vapor permeating the air and he wrinkles his nose for a moment.
One of the creatures glances over at them and its eyes widen. "Mathair!" it shouts. Its fellows turn and they join the cry. "Mathair! Mathair!" The troll leads the way through the crowd that slowly grows silent around them.
A woman in gold and pearls steps out of the crowd. The troll bows and those around bow with it. "Mathair," it says again.
The woman steps forward and regards John curiously. "I thought you were just a myth…" she says, almost to herself. She shakes herself and then extends a hand. "Come. You must come with me."
John takes her hand and in the moment their fingers touch he gets a flash – sorrow, death, rebirth. A lifetime of hiding. A chance for new growth.
They both gasp as their fingers part.
Her eyes are wide. "I did not realize you had the gift."
"I don't," he says, not knowing what gift she refers to but knowing he doesn't have whatever it is. He's just John, just an ordinary human despite what all these creatures seem to think.
"You are far from ordinary, John Meyers," she says, as if reading his thoughts. "You must come now. We must find my brother."
"If it's not too late, we can stop him." She grabs him by the hand but this time there is no spark between them. She pulls and he follows, the crowd parting around them with bowed heads and low murmurs.
The woman seems to know exactly which way to go, darting through alleyways and broad streets with a single-minded focus.
"You never did tell me your name," John says.
"Nuala, princess of the Bethmoora elves."
Abe makes a startled sound. "The Children of the Earth."
"That would make your brother-"
"Nuada, king of the elves," a deeper voice proclaims.
Nuala halts abruptly, tugging John behind her. "Brother, you must stop your war. There is another way."
Nuada lifts a spear and points it at her. "You are a traitor to our kind. Give me the key to the Golden Army and I will forgive your transgressions, sister."
Nuala steps forward, hands raised. "I bring you something better, brother. Mathair na Gach. The legend is real."
Nuada slowly lowers his spear. "I see a human, worthless and weak."
In a flash, Nuada is beside him, his spear at John's throat. He holds back a flinch, gives nothing of his emotions away. Nuada reaches up and presses cool fingers to his face. All at once John relaxes. Nuada will not hurt him. He cannot.
The spear is pulled away and Nuada steps back with a gasp. He looks past John at the crowd and says in a loud, commanding voice. "Mathair na Gach has returned. Rejoice, for we are reborn."
A cheer erupts from the crowd.
"Come." Nuada grabs John by the wrist, his grip tight but not painfully so. He pulls John behind him as they're circled by a mass of elves in armor.
"Wait! What's going on?" He can hear Hellboy shouting and trying to press through the guards. "Those are my friends."
Nuada glances behind him and barks a word. The guards let Hellboy and the others through. A troll and a giant dog sidle up to Nuala as she marches ahead of them. John loses track of where they go, deeper into the market and then into a structure. There are white columns mixed with rusted metal and more elves in strange clothing.
They go down a set of stairs into a strange storeroom. Nuada lets go of his wrist then and pulls a golden box from the shelves. He opens it and inside is a seed the size of an egg.
"A test to see if you are what you seem." He takes out the seed and holds it out to John.
John takes the seed, feeling a bit of a thrill as his fingers brush Nuada's palm. He cups the seed in both hands and he feels it. Life. Growing inside the seed, not fully awaked yet but there, potential. He closes his eyes and concentrates, acting on instinct alone. His body feels warm all over. He feels a tug in his belly and a twitch in his hands. When he opens his eyes the seed is sprouting.
"We need to plant it."
Hellboy grabs a vase off a nearby shelf. "This ought to do."
"No." John shakes his head. The pot won't do. "It's not big enough."
Hellboy puts the pot back with a frown. "How big are we talking?"
John wracks his brain for someplace appropriate. They need a big space, somewhere where it won't be disturbed by concrete, maybe near water. "Central Park."
"You want all of us to traipse up to Central Park at this time of night?"
John shoots him a look. "You can stay behind if you want." He pushes past Hellboy, still cradling the growing plant in his hands. There's a bud on the plant now. A leaf appears as it rises from the seed.
The elves form a circle around him as they emerge in the market once more.
"We left our vehicle by the Washington Bridge entrance," John says.
Nuala shakes her head. "We know a shortcut."
The market ends abruptly as they duck into a series of tunnels – subway access lines, if John had to guess. The plant is growing heavy in his arms, still spiraling up and out. "Hurry."
The elves speed into a run. By the time they stop at a manhole, the seed is the size of a small houseplant and John has to cradle it against him to keep hold. He looks at the ladder. There's no way he can hold the plant and climb at the same time. He's reluctant to let go. The choice is taken away from him as Nuada scoops him up like he weighs nothing, tucks John's head into his shoulder, and then jumps, clearing the manhole in one leap. John feels flustered and dizzy when Nuada sets him down and it has nothing to do with the leap.
They're in Central Park, or the edges of it at least. People shout and point at the mass of elves climbing out of the sewer. The shouting only gets worse as Hellboy emerges. John ignores all of them and makes his way into the park. The ground here is too close to the street so he goes deeper, searching for a nice clearing near a stream. His body seems to know where to go, or maybe it's the plant.
John drops to his knees on the ground and starts digging with his bare hands, tearing at the sod. Gentle hands pull him away.
"Let me," Nuada says and produces his spear. He stabs at the earth, chunking it up and then John is back as soon as the spear is gone, pulling away the clumps of sod to dig a hole in the ground. Nuada drops to the ground beside him, his pale white skin turning brown with dirt as they both dig.
Once John is satisfied, he places the seed in the earth and covers the base of it. His hands cover the ground around it and there's a green glow emanating from him and the plant. He can't move, even as the plant grows taller, thicker, green shoots turning to brown bark and growing up and up. It's a tree, a massive tree. John has to stand to keep in contact with it.
He's distantly aware of flashing lights, of excited and awed voices, of massing crowds. His focus is on the tree, on growing it big and strong and right. Nuada and Nuala flank him, their presence steadying as if they were physically holding him up. He has to back up every few minutes as the tree grows thicker around and around, so wide it would take five men, then more, to circle its trunk. It grows taller than houses, rising up like a green and brown skyscraper towering over the park. From its leaves pink flowers bloom, showering the park with a mist-like pollen.
Then it stops and the green glow fades, leaving John feeling both drained and full deep in his stomach. He has to lean against the tree for support.
"What's going on here?" Manning has somehow found them, his outburst caught by a dozen cameras with more news trucks pulling up.
"I am Nuada Silverlance, king of the Bethmoora elves." Nuada's voice carries over the crowd. John feels drawn to him, inspired by his regal countenance. "We shall hide in our holes no longer. The land of the humans is our land and thus I claim this territory for my people."
"That we may share it," Nuala adds quickly, "and live in peace together."
The reporters gathered have a flurry of questions. Hellboy steps forward, preening at the attention while Liz tries to hide in the crowd. All of that is beyond John. His head feels fuzzy and his stomach warm. He slides down the tree. His knees hit the dirt. The lights fade out and he's distantly aware of one of the guards shouting, but it's too late, he's already pitching face-first into the dirt. He's out before he hits the ground.
When John wakes, he's in an unfamiliar room wrapped in white and gold finery. There are tapestries on the wall and drapes hanging over the bed. His uniform is gone and he's been dressed in a white nightgown. He starts to sit up but a sudden headache and a cool hand press him back down.
"Rest a little more," Nuala says from where she sits at his bedside.
"The rebirth of the great tree took much out of you. You will need to rest a while to regain your energy. Too much exertion and you might hurt the children."
John blinks. "Children?"
Nuala places a hand over his stomach. "You are Mathair na Gach. Mother of All."
"I'm pregnant?" John wants to sit up but his body is too tired. He can feel how badly he needs the rest, just like he can feel the weight in his stomach that confirms that yes, he is pregnant, and not just a little. He runs his hands over the sheets and there's a definite bump there. He's not sure how he feels about that.
"You are bearing the seeds of a race reborn. You have given my people hope that all is not lost."
"Wait, I'm pregnant from a tree?" John had seen a lot of strange things in his time at the BRPD but this was a bit over his limit.
"Not just any tree, a world tree. We will plant them across the land as a symbol of the unity of elves and men."
"Right." He's carrying a new race. How amazing is that? How strange?
Nuala's hand raised to his brow. He closed his eyes at the cool touch. It was comforting, like a mother's touch. "Rest. We can speak more later."
He wanted to ask more questions, but his body had other ideas. He slept.
When John wakes again, he feels much better. The room still glows with a soft white light and there are no windows, so John has no idea what time it was. He sits up and groans. His entire body feels sore, like he'd been slammed into a wall. Still, he moves, edging his way to the side of the bed far too big for him alone. He stands on shaky feet and stumbles to the bench where a pile of clothes are folded and set out for him. He checks the doors. The first one he tries leads to a bathroom. He showers, letting the warm water work at his sore muscles. When he emerges he feels a bit more human.
He pauses in the bathroom and stares at himself in the mirror. There's a very obvious bump low on his stomach that wasn't there before. He runs a hand over the lump and feels something stir inside of him. There is definitely life there. It feels good, in a strange sort of way. Right. It feels like something he's meant to do.
He wraps a towel around his waist and steps out into the bedroom. Nuada is there and John starts, flushing and feeling completely exposed despite the towel.
Nuada's cold gaze washes over him and then he turns. "I will return." Just like that, Nuada is gone and John is left staring at the door in confusion.
He drops the towel and dresses. As he dresses, a hunger rises up in him, growing stronger every minute. He finishes dressing in the strange silver and gold clothing, thankful that the clothing seems to be tailored to fit his extended stomach. He tries the other door. Two armed guards stand at attention outside the door. They make no move to stop him as he walks through.
He's in an unfamiliar place, not sure where to go so he wanders. The guards follow his every step.
A familiar booming voice echoes down the hall and John follows, tracking the sound. He steps into the room to find Hellboy there, arguing with Nuada while Abe and Nuala play peacemaker.
"You're delusional if you think we're leaving without him," Hellboy shouted.
"He doesn't leave," Nuada said back, his voice cool and even.
They don't seem to notice his presence, except for Nuala who gives him a weak smile. He can guess who they're talking about.
Hellboy and Nuada turn towards him. Nuada remains expressionless but Hellboy lights up. "Tell him, John. Tell him you have to leave."
Nuala steps forward. "It's not wise. You can't-"
John raises his hands. "Why can't I leave?"
Nuala looks at him insistently. "It's not safe for the children. You need to be protected."
"Children?" Hellboy asks. "What children?"
John blushes. How to explain it?
Abe beats him to the punch. There's surprise in his voice. "It seems John is pregnant."
Hellboy frowns and stares at John. "Bullshit. He can't be pregnant. Guys don't get pregnant."
John presses a hand to his stomach. "Hellboy…"
"You're not seriously buying this shit?"
"It's there. Inside me. I can feel it."
Hellboy's expression changes and he steps forward. Nuada follows, his hand on his sword, but Hellboy just reaches forward with his human hand and he just touches. His hand is gentle on John's stomach, light, as if he's afraid to touch. "Well, shit…" He turns to Nuada. "He's still coming back with us. We can protect him."
"We have an army of trained warriors," Nuada hisses. "And what do you have? Humans with guns? Pitiful. Useless."
"He's got us."
John knows this argument has been going on for a while and it's up to him to stop it. It's his choice, a choice he has to make and he feels like he's on a precipice. He imagines going back with Hellboy and being surrounded by people who are normal, people who are not like him. He can't imagine how the others stand it and he knows it's not for him.
"I want to stay," he says, his voice wavering. A flash of something like pleasure crosses Nuada's face and then it's gone. Nuala's shoulders slump in relief.
"John…" Liz speaks up for the first time since John walked in. She looks a little sad.
"It's the best place for me, at least while…" He places a hand over his stomach. "I can't risk them. It's too important." He's rebuilding a race, a race of trees but they're more than that. They're creatures in their own right and he needs to protect them.
"You can't honestly want to stay here," Hellboy says, like John's somehow betrayed him.
"It's what's best for the children."
Nuala steps forward and touches Hellboy's arm. "We'll keep him safe, comfortable. He'll be protected here."
John's stomach rumbles loudly. "Speaking of… can I get some food?"
Nuala smiles. "Of course." She takes him by the arm and leads him from the room. John looks back at the others. He knows it's not the last time he'll be seeing them, but it feels like a separation.
John settles easily into life in the underground palace. To be honest, it's a little boring. He has everything provided for him. He's guarded wherever he goes. Nuala is his constant companion and she keeps him from going absolutely insane. He takes to inviting his guards inside his room when he's resting. The morning shift is Kalia and Tesala and the night shift is Kesla and Kira. He learns more about elven culture and history from them than he'd ever could have imagined. They seem enthused to share, like they want him to be part of their world.
After the first few days, they bring him books written in a strange language and Nuala or one of the guards reads to him stories older than humanity. He learns of the Tuatha de Danna and the legacy of Nuada's father Balor. He learns the myth of Mathair na Gach – Mother of All – who's destined to revive the races of old. He can't quite believe that that's him but the elves are certain.
Creatures come to see him, some of which have travelled quite far. He sits in a large round hall with Nuada on the throne and John at his side while creatures like he'd never imagined come and petition for the rebirth of their race. Their stories make John ache for their people, their numbers so few, so lonely. John gives his nod to all of them and it slowly settles on him that he's going to be here for a while. With each nod, he feels Nuada's approval and John preens a little on the inside.
He's not sure how he'll raise so many children, not sure how conception will take place, but he knows that it needs to be done.
His stomach grows faster than it should and with each week he feels fuller.
He doesn't get morning sickness. His feet swell and it's hard to walk after a while but he toddles as best as he can. He needs the guard's help to get out of bed. His pants hang low on his hips and when he sees Nuada, the few times outside of court where he sees Nuada, there's something in his eyes that makes John go warm inside.
"Do you hate me?" John asks one day when Nuada visits him to say nothing.
A strange look passes over Nuada's face and he shakes his head slowly.
"Why don't you say anything? Why won't you speak with me?"
Nuada hesitates. "I do not trust myself to speak."
John stares from his bed. His belly is round, almost big enough to pop and he feels unnatural and strange. "Is it because of this?" He presses a hand to his swollen belly.
John's face falls. "Oh." He moves to cover the bulge but then Nuada is there, his hand stilling John's.
"Don't hide your beauty."
John blinks. "Beauty?"
Nuada's gaze is fierce. "You are beautiful. I never thought a human could be beautiful but then I see you, teeming with the life of my people." Then Nuada leans down and kisses the round of John's stomach.
John makes a strangled sound and he reaches, pulling Nuada towards him. Their mouths meet and it's everything John hadn't realized he's been wanting. He moans into the kiss. Nuada's hand comes up to grip John's hair at the back of his head, making John shiver.
The bed dips as Nuada climbs on top of him, pushes the sheets back to expose John's body. Nuada pushes John's shirt up and kisses his way down John's skin. Nuada takes extra time on John's stomach, stroking the extended flesh lightly before continuing on. He pushes John's pants down and then his mouth is on John's cock.
John twists his hands in the sheets and he arches, gasping as Nuada swallows him down. It's been so long since someone's touched him like that. So long since he's felt the want of another person and he feels it now, the way Nuada wants him even as swollen and strange as he is. Small noises of pleasure escape his lips, filling the room with the sound of his want.
He comes too soon. He can't help it. Nuada's mouth is warm and wet. His hand strokes where his mouth can't reach and it's so good. So, so good.
Then Nuada's rolling him on his side and dipping his fingers in the gel Nuala rubs on his stomach to soothe the stretch marks. Slick fingers press inside of him and he gasps. His cock twitches and he pushes back into the fingers. Nuada is a strong line against his back.
"I want you to bear my children," Nuada says, low in John's ear.
"Yes," he says, because it's the only answer he can give. "Yes, please."
Nuada pushes inside of him and it's perfect. Nuada's cock fills him and John feels stretched full. He feels complete. Nuada's hand strokes against his stomach. He kisses John's neck and shoulders as he takes him slowly, gently, opening him up and taking him apart in a way he's never felt before. He turns his head and Nuada kisses him on the lips.
"Nuada…" He sighs as Nuada rolls into him. "Please, Nuada."
Nuada's grip shifts lower. He slides a leg between John's own, pushing deeper. Nuada's hand is tight as he holds John's leg up. It feels perfect, possessive and he knows then that he's never leaving here, he's never leaving Nuada.
Nuada squeezes John's leg tight and comes with a groan. Slick spills down John's thighs as Nuada pulls out. For a second he thinks Nuada is going to leave, but he just sits up and rights John's clothing, then pulls the covers up around them.
John settles into Nuada's embrace and he sleeps, safe in Nuada's arms.
He wakes one morning a month after the growing of the tree and he just knows.
The door bursts open. Pain shoots through him and he clenches his teeth to keep from screaming, grabs the sheets and holds tight.
"Get Nuada," he bites out. "Get the doctors."
The second spasm rocks through him and he screams then. He can't help it. Kalia stays with him, holding his hand as the spasms hit him again and again. Tesala is off running, shouting for the doctors.
People flood his room and Nuada takes Kalia's place at his side. Nuada's grip keeps John sane through the pain. He hasn't thought past the pregnancy to the delivery. How are they going to get the children out? He's answered seconds later as the doctors pull out a scalpel. He whimpers as the knife comes out and Nuada runs a hand over his cheek. The pain goes away and John is floating. He watches as if outside his body as the doctor cuts a stripe down his stomach, cutting into the womb inside of him.
Green leaves crawl out of his stomach and there are seeds, already growing, already searching for the sunlight. He can feel the roots pull away from his inside as each one is pulled out and transported to a waiting pot. There are dozens of them, dozens of his children waiting to go around the world and proclaim the return of magic to the mortal world.
It feels like eternity before the doctor pulls the final one out and then he's empty. Tears leak from his eyes. Nuada kisses them away. Then the doctor mutters some words, presses his hands to John's flesh and it knits together as if it were never cut.
The floating feeling cuts off and John gasps as he's plunged back into his body. The pain is gone but the emptiness remains. He knows he will not be empty for long.
"You did it," Nuada whispers, praising him.
John squeezes their joined hands. He doesn't ever want to let go.
"You did well. Rest. I'll be here with you."
John wants to say he isn't tired but then dizziness washes over him and he feels the strain of the birth hit him. His eyes close against his will and he sinks into darkness.
The world will be born anew. The people below will see the sun again and humanity will welcome them whether they want to or not. John will hold his place as the mother of all and they will be reborn.