Although, in my opinion, to fully appreciate Hellboy you need to have read the entire series from the beginning, the only really critical prerequisite reading for this story to make best sense is The Wild Hunt. Which also happens to be one of the most fantastic comic book stories ever, so you should read it anyway. It will also help to have read The Storm, the story that follows Hunt, as this fic foreshadows a few revelations from it and develops Hellboy & Alice's relationship. And is another extraordinarily good comic book story. This fic takes place in-between those two stories. Strictly comic-verse. I hope you enjoy. Lengthy Author's Note at end.

(If you need some appropriate accompaniment, I've put a playlist in the Author's Note. I would also recommend almost the entirety of Tom Waits: Bawlers (Disc 2 of Orphans). Really perfectly matched. If that finishes before you're done with this fic, try PJ Harvey's White Chalk. Both albums have songs in the playlist. This is the first time I've ever recommended a playlist for a fic...!)

PLEEEEEASE review! Concrit welcome! I'm desperate to know how this fic works for people because I kinda love it.

ooo

It was a cheap roadside motel on the highway, the first one they saw after they'd agreed they would stop for the night.

Hellboy had waited in the crappy old station wagon Alice had rented for their road trip. She'd gone into the office and booked the room.

The sun was setting on the horizon and the parking lot of the motel was deserted and dry, wind scattering accumulated filth of leaves and dirt and trash in dusty piles.

After a day of driving from dawn til dusk, Hellboy felt cramped, short-tempered - more so than usual - and exhausted. The station wagon was the biggest car the tiny rental branch had had available in the village closest to Alice's isolated family home. Hellboy had to slide the passenger seat as far back as it would go and slump down in it just to fit inside. And the dome of his head still bumped against the roof every time the road got rough. Alice would laugh with his every scowl, but not unkindly. Not at him.

It was the absurdity of it all. They were both more than a little inured to absurdity, but a road trip across Ireland in a beat-up old station wagon with the Sword of Excalibur resting on the back seat and Hellboy newly named King of Britain challenged even their nonchalance.

"I'll pay you back. Somehow," he said when she got back into the car. There was probably money still in his account. He hadn't had a lot of expenses when working for the Bureau and he'd travelled cheap. The problem was accessing his account when his wallet was lost somewhere in the ocean.

"Forget about it," she said easily in her Irish lilt. "I'm just glad you finally showed up."

The smile she gave him was coy and lopsided as she drove the wagon into their spot. Something tightened in his chest. A family of larks fluttered across the sky, silhouetted in the last rays of the sun and Hellboy allowed his eyes to follow them as Alice stopped the engine.

Hellboy got out of the wagon slowly, with a low groan as his spine straightened. He stretched his brawny arms up above his head and tilted his pelvis forward, vertebrae cracking with relief. Then he lashed his tail from side to side; superlative pleasure after it had been cramped so long without decent range of movement. The larks called to each other in the distance, the only sound besides the wind.

Alice had walked forward to the door of their room, struggling with the key in the old lock. She cast him a sympathetic look over her shoulder, her freckled face shadowed in the twilight gloom.

"Come on inside and I'll see if there's tea," she said as the beat-up old door finally gave way with a creak and a groan.

The room was predictably shabby and smelt musty with the years of mould and strangers passing through. The carpet was patched and stained. The kitchenette was dingy white tile and wood veneer. The double bed was covered with a chintz spread that matched the curtains. The bedside lamps that Alice switched on did little to cheer the room, instead throwing into starker relief its misery in pools of dirty yellow.

Hellboy stood in the door frame and stared at the bed. The only bed.

The corner of Alice's mouth quirked ruefully. "Your suite, your Majesty." She turned toward the kitchenette and opened a cupboard door, rattling about for a kettle.

Hellboy placed a hand on either side of the doorframe and slumped as he contemplated the grim little room and its solitary bed. He'd known this moment would come, the awareness of it on the periphery of his thoughts as the events of the last forty-eight hours had played out. Expectation of it since Alice had first opened the door of her ramshackle cottage to welcome him.

Anticipation of it since she'd first stood on the rolling hilltops of the Irish countryside and said he was going to need her before all this was over.

"I'll get the bags," he rumbled, then backed out of the room and turned towards the station wagon. He did not miss the look Alice threw across the room as she filled the old kettle. She had a way of doing that - looking at him and seeing more than he cared her to. It both bothered and comforted him.

The truth was he'd wanted to kiss her the moment she'd first opened the door to him.

That had caused him no small amount of discomfort. The last time he'd seen Alice, she was nine years old, scrawny and shy, a little mature for her years perhaps, but still just a kid.

Just a kid.

When Hellboy returned with the bags, the kettle was just beginning to whistle. Alice had located tea bags and sugar sachets and two chipped white mugs beneath the sink. The receptionist had given her a half-pint of milk she stirred a little of into her own mug, but she made his black, strong and sweet, remembering how he had taken it in her cottage.

As she handed the mug to him, his fingertips grazed her knuckles and, for the merest second, they both paused and the distance between them seemed to shudder from that single point of connection.

But then he had the mug and she was withdrawing her hand back, quickly, as though to hide it.

Hellboy was not generally shy. He gazed searchingly at Alice's face as she turned her head, her long, pale neck exposed when she pushed a few tumbling red locks over her ear. Again, that tightening in his chest. In the stillness of that shabby room, the low hum of the bar refrigerator underscored their silence.

Alice was a woman now, as different to the child she'd been as night was to day. He knew, intellectually, they were the same person - but somehow he couldn't connect the tall, carelessly graceful, composed woman with that gangly, awkward little girl.

Until she smiled.

The smile was the same. Brilliant, open and full of mischief. It was the smile that he recognised.

She glanced back and caught his eye. He smiled at her, a slight curving of his mouth, no teeth.

"Thanks," he said. Alice shrugged, and then lifted a hand to her neck, pushing her hair back and baring more of her neck, arching her back in a stretch. It was an oddly vulnerable gesture and he suddenly realised how awkward they were being, standing up in the cramped little room with their cups of generic tea.

"You should relax", he told her. "You drove all day and we only stopped that one time." At a tiny little village pub near Tralee where they'd both had steak and chips and Alice had rather charmingly ordered two pints of bitter, both for herself, regardless that she was driving. "What?" she'd said to his raised brow. "I am Irish, after all."

Always, nearly always, there seemed to be a note of dry amusement in her voice. Hellboy found it profoundly endearing; it reminded him weirdly of Katie and how too long he'd gone without someone to just be normal with.

She shrugged again. "I'm fine for now. Gotta let the feeling come back to my arse." She grinned, then lifted her tea to her lips, took a sip of the milky-brown liquid and looked up at him over the rim of the mug. Her eyes were a grave blue, like the sea after a storm, and their depths betrayed her true age. He was caught in them unexpectedly, in the mischief and coyness there, the sincerity.

She believed you were worth saving.

Hellboy broke the gaze and set his mug down on the table without tasting it.

"Gotta use the john," he mumbled and Alice stepped aside to allow him through the narrow space between the bed and the wall that led to the bathroom. He caught the scent of her hair as they passed so close by. Lilies. He held his breath. Again, she looked at him and saw more than he'd revealed, her eyes darkened and her lips pushed into that full, ponderous pout he'd quickly learned meant she was contemplating what she'd perceived.

The bathroom was stingy and chill, all dulled white tile and the stink of bleach, the shower curtain vaguely stained. Hellboy's size had accustomed him to assessing facilities he would need - or like - to use as soon as he was faced with them and he did so automatically as he relieved himself.

He was taller than the shower head and would have to stand sideways in the bathtub to wash. Typical. Unlike humans - for whom the world he moved in was built - he couldn't take it for granted that a chair would support his weight or that he would fit inside a car. He could cross the length of this bathroom in two steps, and not without smacking his tail against the wall as he turned. He sighed and washed his hands, then splashed water up over his face, hulking over the tiny sink. The age-pocked mirror threw back his travel-weary reflection in grim detail, unforgiving under the neon light. Hellboy glanced at himself wryly, then shook his head and straightened up, out of sight of himself.

You're a smooth one.

Hellboy was too gruff and too straight-forward to ever be suave. He was a man of simple gestures and direct enquiries - but sensitive enough to care about tact, particularly when it came to the feelings of women, children and freaks. Too genuine to use guile, however, his efforts usually came off awkward and transparent. This was why he'd sought refuge in the bathroom. Confined in the closeness of the motel room, that solitary bed consuming most of the space, he knew with certainty that he would blunder in his obviousness and make a king-pin fool out of himself.

Hellboy was not much given to self-consciousness. He was what he was and that was that. Notwithstanding the underlying existential crisis brought about by his heritage and, as too many for his ease had tried to claim, his destiny, he was unconcerned with how people responded to his blunt, unpretentious disposition. He had no patience for artifice or elaborations. Never had.

To his mind, this made him lousy at seduction.

His thoughts were disrupted by the rhythmic pink of water. He glanced down into the sink and noticed that the faucet was dripping, steady fat drops that echoed on the porcelain. As he stared, following each drip as it hit, he became aware they were keeping beat with his heart, the still quiet of his body allowing him to feel each thud within him.

Funny... it doesn't hurt.

He was jolted violently into memory of Alice's poisoned body limp in his arms, her pulse at first frantic and fluttering in her neck then slowing horribly, inexorably, every passing second. Hellboy had felt if only he could keep track of that pulse she'd pull through okay - but he'd had to put her down. He always did what he had to do, even if he didn't like it. And when he'd come back from serving that Duke of Hell his ass, he hadn't been able to feel even the sluggish murmur of a beat.

And he'd been terrified.

Fear was not something he was much given to either. He didn't like it.

The lingering memory of that fear - and later, in the face of worse, the cold, hollow ache of anguish - drove home just how much was already at stake for him here. It was enough to make him hesitate - to question what he'd sensed from Alice, the signals he thought she'd been sending. If he were wrong - he didn't want that painful rejection to further complicate this whole sorry mess.

Alice looked up from where she sat on the bed as he emerged from the bathroom, a coil of her hair slipping over her shoulder, her feet newly bared and pale against the mottled carpet.

"Thought you'd fallen in," she quipped, then held up a handful of take-away menus she'd scrounged up from somewhere. "Pizza, Chinese or Indian?"

And he, the King of Britain, taking the Sword of Excalibur cross-country in a beat-up station wagon to raise up an army of the Noble Dead, spending the night in a shabby Irish motel with Pizza, Chinese or Indian take-out to choose from.

"Pizza," he said firmly. He was feeling resolutely American right then. "Sausage."

"Pepperoni?" she queried after perusing the menu. He nodded curtly.

"Pity there's nowhere near that does a takeaway," she mused, but he did not reply. He recognised the slang - she meant a liquor store. She wanted alcohol.

So did he.

Drink, hide with ghosts in their houses, but you cannot escape him - any more than you can escape your own shadow.

"Tea's fine with me" he finally said.

While she ordered using the old plastic rotary-dial phone on the bedside table, he retrieved his tea to find it tepid. He gulped it down in one mouthful, and then moved to shrug off his battered duster.

Hellboy caught sight of his shadow, thrown across the walls by the weak bedside lamp, further pronounced now the daylight outside had dwindled, and stopped. He was profoundly aware of his massiveness in this pokey little room and felt suddenly that bare-chested and over-sized he would discomfit Alice. Hellboy had never conceptualised himself as a threat. Always, he was a protector, particularly to the women he cared for. Others felt differently, of course, but he didn't allow their prejudice to cloud his assessment of his own nature and will.

I cut them all to pieces - and I loved it.

The Giants had changed all that.

Now, the meaningless gestures of the everyday took on greater significance in that claustrophobic room. He had been through so much with Alice already and the thought of intimidating her was especially unpleasant.

Alice hung up the phone and turned to face him, sitting on the bed with one leg propped up, her long gypsy skirt dipping like a valley between her thighs.

"They reckon thirty minutes," her accent thick West Country Irish. "I'm going to have a shower. Then let's talk about it."

Hellboy glanced up; still mildly surprised by her astuteness, how quick she was to read his moods and emotions. He knew that she knew he'd held back with her when she asked what had happened before he'd come to her. He'd seen the look of hurt and sorrow in her dense, deep eyes when he'd told her that nothing had. But she'd let it go, accepted his choice to shoulder that burden alone.

Alice laid a hand on his great right one as she passed him to the bathroom, a bag of toiletries tucked under her arm. The look she gave him from lowered lashes was gently reassuring and in that was also maddeningly irresistible. He watched after her as she lifted up her abundant red tresses to wrap them around on each other close to her neck, and swallowed hard.

It wasn't a question of trust. He trusted Alice, more immediately and more completely than he had anyone in his life before. Even more than Stasia and there was just a little twinge of sorrow at that realisation, of that final certainty he and Stasia were well and truly over. But the pointless slaughtering of the Giants was something that shamed him deeply; that - no matter what Vasilisa had said or how much Alice believed in him - spoke to something slumbering deep in his roots, something that was being awoken however he resisted.

It just wasn't something easy to explain. And not to Alice - not when her faith in him was so unquestioning and absolute. Giving voice to his anxieties with Vasilisa had been a difficult relief. But he would feel like he was betraying Alice to reveal those acts of brutality. They made him sick to his stomach, but sicker to think of tainting her faith with that knowledge.

Hellboy wanted a drink then so badly that his throat burned and his mouth watered. He'd spent years avoiding the encroaching thoughts of his so-called destiny by climbing in and out of bottle after bottle. Just the scent of the wine that Morgan Le Fay had offered them had been so sweet it had hurt to knock it back. And that was why he had to, and kept having to.

Hellboy hadn't felt like a monster since he was a small boy. He knew many others beheld him as such. He knew he feared himself such, increasingly so with the revelations of recent years. But he hadn't felt like it - not even under the weight of the staring and whisperings he was still often subjected to - since his employment by the BPRD and the exceptional skills he demonstrated as an agent.

You are so ready to believe all the bad things said about you. Why can't you believe what she believed?

It was that prompting - that blunt reminder of everything he had witnessed, had felt, had been bolstered by since first reuniting with Alice - that had given him the courage to draw the Sword of Excalibur from the stone in which it was fixed. Alice's trusting, determined faith in him.

And damn it all, after so many years alone if that didn't feel as precious as life itself.

If only he deserved it.

Alice emerged from the bathroom clad in an ankle-length white nightgown, plain and old-fashioned, bringing with her a fog of steam and the scent of lilies. Hellboy, after reviewing the bed and deciding that it might suggest something to Alice she wasn't comfortable with, had gingerly seated himself on the flimsy chair pushed under the desk and allowed himself to only glance at her.

"Now that feels splendid," she declared, stretching her arms above her head, interlocking fingers so they cracked. Her hair was still collected in a knot on the back of her head, damp curls clinging to her cheek. "Felt like I hadn't had a shower for days!"

Hellboy's mouth quirked and he couldn't help pointing out: "Well - you hadn't."

Alice laughed, uninhibitedly letting her head tip back and her mouth open wide. He loved how readily she surrendered her body to merriment.

"No wonder you kept the window down," she smiled, then reached up behind her and released her hair from its tie so that it cascaded down around her shoulders and face. His mouth went dry.

Alice fetched a brush from her bag and, sweeping the full waist-length of her hair over one shoulder, began to brush it out, the long loose curls bouncing back after each stroke, its gorgeous copper sheen illuminated to burnished gold in the lamplight.

The urge to touch her then, to gather her close to him and plunge his hand into that hair, bury his face in it, was almost overwhelming.

The rap on the door made him jump, then he immediately felt guilty. He liked looking at pretty girls as much as any guy, but he didn't make a habit of ogling, particularly when in such restricted space. He knew the thoughtless stares of men could make women uneasy - pile his distinctive differences on top of that and it could come off downright threatening. So he'd trained himself not to do it.

"That'll be the food," he said to cover his slip, but Alice was already up and foraging in the pocket of her coat for money.

He felt like a heel, watching her pay for everything. Not that he had a choice right then, but he was old-fashioned in some ways and at the least he wanted to go Dutch. She and the delivery boy, assured as countrymen, conversed in accents so thick they were near another language, no care to enunciate in blander prosody for the sake of outsiders. The hot waft of cheese and pepperoni broke the crisp night air that stole in the open door. The sound of their voices were melodic and he didn't pay much attention to the words, just let the cadences and rhythms echo in his ears.

Alice squeezed past him to deposit the pizza boxes on the desk, the edge of her nightgown brushing his knee pleasantly, the material moving easily with her stride for an even pleasanter sight. The soft fabric adhered to her buttocks as she turned and he dragged his gaze away. He should've stood up to let her pass easier. He was making a fool out of himself.

"Sorry I don't got any money," he said again as she took a pizza slice and sat down on the bed in front of him.

"Come on now," she took a bite, threads of cheese bridging the slice to her mouth. "You saved my life. Least I can do."

Hellboy knew she was only joking, but it bothered him anyway. He didn't want her to feel as though she owed him. For anything. That would suggest they were something other - something far more formal and distant - than what they were.

Not that he was clear on what they were anyway.

Alice finished her slice and leaned forward to get another, her long pale arms bare, the neck of her nightgown gaping just enough to reveal a shadow of cleavage. Again, he burned for a drink.

"Hurry up, dig in," she said around a mouthful, crossing her legs on the bed. "Or I'll eat yours too!"

Hellboy relaxed a little and chuckled, because despite her slightness he could easily imagine her doing such a thing. He reached for a slice. It was definitely not American pizza - soggy crust and not enough topping, the sausage bland - but it was hot and it gave him something to distract his thoughts with. The chair groaned unsteadily as he sat back and he felt the disconcerting rock of the legs as they buckled beneath his weight.

"Hellboy," Alice laughed, then scooched back up the bed to the pillows at its head. "Sit on the damn bed." She drew her knees up to her chest and crossed her arms over them, her hair softly illuminated from behind by the bedside lamp. "Give me some credit."

Thus scolded and duly abashed, he carefully stood up from the unreliable chair and shifted his weight to the bed, which dipped beneath him but did not creak. He was being - what was it Stasia used to call it? -paternalistic. Hellboy was a little old-fashioned but he was no chauvinist. Alice was a grown woman and they'd been through so much together already. He was selling her short, not least for thinking she wouldn't understand what he was doing.

"Sorry," he said and she tossed hair off her face.

"Pass me another slice," she replied and gave him a crooked smile. The freckles spattered across her nose seemed dark in the dim room and for a brief, soaring moment he was inexplicably happy.

They ate through another slice each in silence and then Alice licked each fingertip in turn and sat up on her haunches, pushing her hair back over her shoulders.

"Let's look at the sword," she suggested. "I never did get a good look before we set off."

Something occurred to him then and he asked her: "How do you feel about that?"

She looked mildly surprised but then her expression softened into gratitude and she confessed: "It's been eating me up, but I know it was important to you to get on the road."

It had been dawn when they found themselves back on the hilltops not so far from Alice's cottage. They had gone back to her place, figuring the plan along the way, then she'd hastily packed and they'd gone straight to the town and rented the wagon.

But it had been in Morgan Le Fay's castle that King Arthur had come to Alice's dreams and told her that her life was bound to his sword.

Hellboy reached his left hand out across the mattress. "You coulda said something," he said, his gravelly voice lowered to be gentle.

She shrugged and there was something of the awkward little girl about her then, her cheeks perhaps colouring a little. "You seemed to need more time to think things over. I may not remember it, but I reckon it was a fairly traumatic night."

He was reminded then that there were more secrets he kept from her.

Finding her scorched corpse in the bed, still smoking. The complete, unspeakable hollowness that had welled up from the core of him and overwhelmed him so that all he could do was sit in the chair beside her bed, and look upon those unrecognisable remains. That was what her faith in him had brought her to, burnt to a cinder as she slept peacefully, her heart certain that Hellboy would make everything all right.

His failure to protect her in the end, even after - especially after - saving her from being poisoned, was so absolute that he could not even summon grief.

That he had been the cause of her death a knowledge so dreadful he could only accept it.

So to honour that faith in him that she'd taken to her grave - the faith he hadn't earned and didn't deserve - he had taken the Pendragon sword.

Afterwards, the only part she seemed to remember was her own dream. So he had left some parts out. To protect her.

To protect himself.

Her hand touched his shoulder. He hadn't realised he'd looked away, become lost in his own thoughts for a moment. He turned his head to face her, quietly alarmed by how close she had come, crawling over the bed to his side. He thought she was naked beneath the nightgown. Her small breasts had a natural sit, their tips peaking softly against the white fabric. He tried not to look.

"Hellboy," she said tenderly. "Will you tell me what happened to you, before you came to me?"

She looked straight into his yellow eyes and held his gaze, her eyes pure in their openness. He looked back and realised that the hurt and sorrow he had seen in them earlier, in Morgan Le Fay's castle, had not been just for herself and his unwillingness to confide in her. It had been as much for him and all that he chose to bore alone. He remembered how she put her arms around him and said that he was going to make everything all right. He hadn't even thought about it. Hadn't seen then that she was trying to comfort him.

He desired so very badly then to unburden himself, to let it all come out in the same raw, simple way he'd told it all to Vasilisa, sitting beside Alice's smouldering corpse.

"Alice - " he heard himself say, husky and sad. Then: " - you shoulda said something."

Her shoulders sagged with disappointment, but then she seemed to shrug it off, letting her hand fall back to her lap and accepting once again with such grace what he needed to do.

"I trust you," she said levelly. "I knew it would come in good time."

He turned towards her a little more. "You're a part of this," he said in quiet earnestness. "You got the right."

Her eyes flooded with sudden tears, darkening the blue of them nearly black. His left hand darted out to comfort her, and then stopped in mid-air, self-recriminations hammering around his head. Hellboy was never good with tears. They wrung something from him he felt helpless to and that didn't rest easy with him.

"I did need to hear you say that," she confessed, her voice thick with emotion. Then she drew in a shuddering breath and seemed to get hold of herself, dashing the unshed tears away with the back of a freckled hand.

In that moment he knew he loved her.

Hellboy stood up and strode over to where Alice's bags jumbled on the carpet. Underneath them was Excalibur, carelessly plonked there when he'd brought the bags in. He hefted it up in his left hand, holding it out so it would catch what dull light the tiny lamps threw. He caught the inhalation of breath and turned to see Alice gazing at him with reverence, and felt embarrassed.

Hellboy lowered the sword and awkwardly scratched the back of his head, walking back to the bed and laying Excalibur down on the mattress. Alice did not take her eyes from him the whole time, her lips parted, the lower one glistening. The walls of the room seemed to close in on them, narrowing the space between them. He couldn't touch her until he was sure. Sure it was not just the devotion she would show to any who held that sword. Sure it was not just the lingering idolisation of youth for the hero who'd brought her back to her parents.

If he touched her and then found out she did not love him, it would be devastating. And that was something he didn't need on top of everything else right now.

Alice had finally dropped her gaze to the sword, one fair, freckled hand reaching out to run gently up its golden length, curling her fingers slowly so finally the tip of just one traced a path along the blade to its point. He felt himself stirred by the sight, an unnameable fascination with flesh against steel.

"Funny," she said. "It just looks like a sword."

Hellboy tilted his head to one side and considered that. "Well. I guess it is," he said finally.

Their eyes met above the weapon of so much legend and lore and then they were both laughing. And as they laughed, Hellboy felt the ache leave his shoulders and the tension dissipate from the back of his neck. He tipped his head back and let himself laugh, feeling it reverberate deep in his gut while Alice lay down on the bed, her head by the hilt of Excalibur, and laughed along with him.

When they finally stopped, he stood up and shrugged off his duster, the air on his bared skin like a caress. After all, he'd already held her close against his naked chest, when she'd been poisoned by a fairy arrow. It was his massive, red arms that had cradled her dying body to the cure and reassured her as she'd woken.

Alice propped her head up on one hand and grinned impishly up at him, cheeks dimpling. "Well, it's about time you relaxed," she trilled. "After all... it's me, Hellboy."

Hellboy sat back down on the bed, hunching over to rest his forearms across his thighs. His tail twitched a little and he reached up and rubbed his jaw, the coarse hair of his sideburns whispering like sandpaper. Yes, it was her. It was Alice.

The intimacy between them had been so pronounced from the moment they started talking at her dining table, in gentle flirtation and easy understanding. She had touched him easily and often, not shying even from the Right Hand of Doom, and most people did. She had clung to that damn great hand at Morgan Le Fay's castle as though it were a rock anchoring her to life and that had moved him deeply, though he never gave even a hint of it away. In his turn he had not hesitated to touch her, cradle her face, sit close beside her where she lay in singlet and braless, lock eyes and know they were on this road together. God, he'd been so close to kissing her at the castle when she'd held his hand in both hers and asked him to confide in her. But she was still too fragile, recovering from the poison, and it would have felt like taking advantage.

But when they had found themselves back in the Irish country and she was alive and whole and okay, feeling had overcome him and he'd pulled her into his embrace, letting the god damn Sword of Excalibur fall heedlessly to the grass, the better to hold her and reassure himself she was really there.

So why had he become, so all of a sudden, so damn twitchy?

I thought that was a dream.

Can you tell the difference anymore? I can't.

A dozen reasons, and none. The smallness of the room. His intense desire for her. That this disturbed him because he'd known her as a child. That he was so accustomed to suppressing his interest in any woman that piqued it that he didn't know what else to do. That she was, essentially, in his care. That the intensity of what he felt, and so quickly, made him cautious. That they were in the midst of a war that was steadily escalating and he was the one who had to sort it out.

That though he was otherwise at ease in his own skin, being intimate with a woman made him painfully aware of his own freakishness.

That he was horribly, dreadfully afraid that the beast inside him would overcome him and she would suffer for it.

Ironic. He never thought twice about heading into battle. No matter the odds, he was fearless and resigned.

"How long is the trip to Bill's place, you reckon?" she broke the silence, one long-fingered hand absently stroking the sword. Hellboy shrugged, considered whether he should step outside for a cigar.

"Coupla weeks," he said. "Less if we push it."

"Let's not," she said and he looked at her. She smiled at him, her long hair coiling over her shoulder and breasts, her hip bone jutting up against the fabric of her nightgown. "Let's get as many nights together in crappy motel rooms as possible."

"You're a smooth one," he deadpanned and she laughed and sat up, shaking her hair back over her shoulders.

"My subtler signals didn't seem to be working."

His heart began to pound harder.

For Hellboy, sex and love had not been as scarce over the years as one might've thought considering he was an inhumanly large red demon with horns, hooves and a tail.

His first sexual experience – which took place in nineteen fifty-six in a small Mexican town – wasn't one he liked to think about, at all if possible. It barely counted, really, so he didn't count it.

His real initiation had come in nineteen sixty-three in the tender embrace of another BPRD agent. A gentle red-head with a bosomy figure and an open-hearted willingness to take him as he was that he'd found liberating and affirming. But not long after she'd surprised him with her seduction, she'd been abruptly transferred out of the Bureau and he'd never heard from her again. He'd always suspected Professor Bruttenholm had gotten wind of their affair and taken action - his surrogate father tended to over-protectiveness.

Then, of course, Anastasia. Stasia. To others, Stacie, but his Stasia. Hellboy had loved her for years after their tender, passionate relationship had ended. And known she had loved him still too. It was with Stasia that he'd truly learned what love-making meant, in the two years they'd travelled the world, inseparable and deliriously in love before the world's prejudice had split them apart. Stasia's brand would always be on his heart.

Cassie Saunders – he didn't like to think of her too much. The way she had lost her life – how he had so completely failed to protect her – was a burden he had never quite overcome. But they had shared something, brief as it was, and it was something that had held the promise of more, never to be fulfilled.

"Granny" McCulver, who had so sweetly and wantonly indulged his passions by matching them with her own, over a few scorching, damp days in Georgia after that whole rotten mess with the Nail girl. Before sending him away with kind eyes and a mischievous smile, promising him his place was not with her.

There had been moments with Katie over the years - beautiful moments of intimacy that only grew in intensity the more time that passed. Sweet, passionate connections they shared without shyness or restraint – but culminating in hesitation, then abandonment before the very final union could take place, as though they feared that taking the attraction all the way through to its natural conclusion would dissolve it under the weight of the Bureau's demands on them both. And take their strong, affectionate friendship with it. He had loved Katie deeply but somehow neither of them had ever been ready to make a formal commitment – and then it had been too late.

Then FBI Agent Emma Granger, his first - and only - one night stand. Nineteen ninety-eight, one year before he quit the Bureau, seventeen years since his relationship with Stasia had ended, four years after he and Katie had come so close to consummating their attraction and affection. It had been a mistake and not one he intended to repeat. But Emma had pursued him fiercely. The experience of that was so unique that his initial resistance had given way. But meaningless sex had left him unsatisfied and disliking himself.

Occasionally he had thought there was something in a woman's eyes - appreciation and interest - mild flirtation vague enough to be simply friendliness, and he didn't want to make the mistake. And sometimes it was just plain perverse curiosity. He didn't care for that. He didn't want to be anyone's experiment.

And he would never pursue. Not unless he was sure beyond all shadow of a doubt - in which case, he wouldn't really be making the first move anyway. Even if the interest was genuine, he knew there was always a chance the woman had no real intentions behind it. And then he'd be a fool and she'd be uncomfortable.

So in the end, it was sweeter just to look, and wonder. To be occupied in the tantalising exercise of speculation - anticipation that was more the richer for never being fulfilled. So long as there was no pursual, there was always - always - possibility.

Alice sat close beside him on the bed now, cross-legged, looking intensely at him with dark, quiet eyes. She was unusually tall at nearly six feet and though she still had to look up at him, they were on a more even standing than he was used to with most women. He wasn't sure if he liked it or not yet. But he knew he liked her pretty pixieish face with its large eyes and full-lips, the freckles that liberally spattered her features and continued across her breast bone and shoulders, all the way down her arms and hands. He knew he very much liked her long, rippling hair and its interwoven hues of red, orange and gold and how she let it tumble around her face. He liked her simple, sloppy clothes - the anachronism of long, floaty skirts and sneakers, clinging sweaters and vests. He really liked the shape of her body beneath those clothes. Though unpretentious and unadorned, everything about Alice was undeniably female and he responded strongly to it. Sitting close to him, warm and alive and smelling of lilies, she stirred his heart so that it pounded, and that pounding reverberated downwards, through his gut and further.

Alice reached over and touched his face and he shut his eyes beneath the caress. Her fingertips were soft and gentle, moving tenderly over his chiselled features, brushing the stumps of horn that protruded from his forehead. Eyes shut and lost to feeling, he swallowed. Alice's hand cupped his cheek, her thumb stroking his sideburns and without opening his eyes he turned his body towards her, propping one leg up on the bed, his mighty right hand carefully in his lap. Alice's hand dropped down his neck to one of his broad shoulders. A moment later he felt the whisper touch of its pair on his other. He opened his eyes and looked down into her dark blue ones, stormy with desire not even he could be unsure of.

"Hellboy," she said, her accent a soft burr, seductive because it wasn't trying to be. "Aren't we both too old to be so coy?"

He exhaled and all uncertainty left him.

They sat there, on the bed, facing each other for what seemed painfully long moments as though now they had truly reached this point they wanted to delay it for greater appreciation. Alice's hands resting delicately on his shoulders. Both of them suddenly breathing heavy, chests rising and falling hard. In Alice's face he saw a raw hunger there he knew was reflected on his own. Then finally, his hands found her slight waist and tugged her towards him.

That first kiss had the pulse in his loins pounding into a thunderous beat. Alice's lips were soft, her mouth opening readily to his, her tongue warm and flickering against his own. Her arms quickly encircled his neck, her hands running up to cup his skull as she threw herself into the kiss without restraint. And he felt perhaps she had wanted to kiss him from the moment she opened the door to him, too.

Such a thought bolstered his confidence and sudden bright happiness again suffused him. Hellboy pulled Alice to straddle his lap and crushed her breasts to his chest whilst somehow still finding the restraint to not suffocate her in his arms. He had learned to pass the years with little physical contact, accepting it - if somewhat dejectedly - as his lot. But now that he found himself again with the softness of a woman's body in his embrace, the smell of female flesh in his nostrils, the taste of lips and tongue and skin and the sweet tickle of long hair on his hands and neck, he realised how much he had missed it.

The intensity made him catch his breath and stop, pull away from her. Alice gasped and then looked up at him with a tremulous expression. The naked vulnerability on her face pierced him deep. She feared rejection and that she didn't seem to realise how ridiculous that was, was too sweet to bear.

Hellboy lifted his left hand to her face, flushed with fervour, and cupped her cheek much as she had done his. But his great hand cradled the whole side of her head and as he contemplated her wonderingly, a little smile, soothed and content, crept over her pink lips and into her cloudy eyes. He pushed his hand back over her ear in an adoring caress and she shut her eyes to it. Hellboy twined his fingers in her hair, pushing it away from her neck, combing through it with reverence. He tugged a handful out to the side, gently, then let it slip through his grip, watching as it showered back against her, the lamplight behind them turning it to fire. Alice made a little noise of pleasure and he saw that her nipples had grown hard, buds straining against the thin, soft fabric of her nightgown.

From where it sat, covering the whole of her from her waist to her mid-thigh, his great right hand twitched a little. He wanted to lift it and thread those fingers through her hair also. But he didn't dare.

Hellboy found his strength alone something overwhelming in such moments of intimacy. He would only need to embrace Alice too tight and he would break her ribs, her spine. But the unmatchable destructive power of his stone hand was a greater responsibility. With barely an exertion, he could crush her bones to powder with it.

Hellboy had absolute mastery over his body - over its power and potential - and the Right Hand of Doom had been his from birth. He knew it intimately. Knew it was dexterous enough to catch a fly. Knew it was gentle enough to cradle a child. Knew it was sensitive enough to feel the brush of a feather. His hand did not crush and destroy unless he commanded it to.

And yet - yet when he was faced with these moments of such consuming emotion, he feared losing control. In moments of such closeness, it seemed awkward and unwieldy, the only times it ever had.

Without even quite realising it, Hellboy let his right hand drop from Alice's side to the mattress. He cupped the back of her head with his left, and urged her close to him to kiss once more.

Already fully erect, that kiss did little to help his situation. It was so tender and her mouth so soft that his head reeled, even as his cock swelled still further. They were slower about it this time, Alice seeming to realise that he did not want to rush, even if it killed him. She ran her hands up over his muscular shoulders then back down across his chest and his own nipples awoke beneath her touch.

His right hand sat motionless on the mattress.

Their lips parted and came together again, over and over, in heady, intoxicating kisses. Their breath came in gasps, inhaling and exhaling into each other as once more their passion grew fevered. Hellboy's hand dropped to the small of her back and pressed her closer against him, his mouth breaking from hers to burn a trail down her jaw and neck, her nipples dragging a path up his chest as she arched her spine in offering.

"Alice," he breathed, his right hand in action again as he clutched up fistfuls of white cotton.
"Yes," she agreed and raised her arms above her head as he tugged the nightgown upwards and off of her.

Naked, she was glorious and terribly fragile. Long limbs petal-pale, slight hips and small breasts with particularly large, pink nipples. Her hair tumbled about her like a mantle and low down, where her thighs met, a springy thatch of vibrant red hair grew. His desire burned, pounded through his veins in molten blood as he drank in the sight of her greedily, his eyes darting all over, not able to settle.

Alice was at ease in her nudity and shook her hair back. "Not bad for an old broad, then?"

He was a little embarrassed and glanced away to the wall with a half-smile but Alice only leant forward and wrapped her arms around him again. "It's all right," she murmured into his ear. "I stare at you too."

Pointedly she slid her hands down over his shoulders and arms, all rippling, defined muscle beneath his bright red flesh.

He gave voice to one of his many anxieties without realising he would: "It's been more than ten years for me,"

She kissed the lobe of his ear, her breath hot and pleasurable against its crevices. "Oh good, for me too. Damn it all, Hellboy, make love to me. Don't you know how long I've been waiting?"

He who had battled giants and conquered behemoths found humans weightless and frail, but women especially. He loved that about them, because he knew that they weren't frail, not at all. Women like Kate and Anastasia had shown him so, proven to be tougher than any number of the men around them who resented their success and their independence. Women who never expected him to protect them but knew that he would. Women who didn't need him to protect them, but let him.

Women like Alice.

He wrapped his left arm around her waist, his right again, subconsciously, removing itself from the action. Naked like this, she seemed even smaller and more fragile than when she'd been dying and he lowered her carefully down against the mattress, ever conscious of his strength. Her red hair fanned out about her and the shadowed dips and illuminated curves of her body made her seem ethereal and fantastic, like she was just a particularly tormenting dream.

But dreams did not reach back for him when he lowered himself over them, tirelessly keeping his four-hundred-pound weight supported on the massive right hand so he didn't suffocate her. Her hands clasped behind his neck, her thumbs nesting into his hair. His bare chest pressed against her breasts, the softness of them like a kiss on his rough, bristly skin. He pressed his mouth to hers and pushed his groin against hers. The benefits of her height were pressed home to him then; with Stasia he would have to choose between kissing her and keeping them joined at that crucial junction - it could never be both at once and that had tormented them, though they'd coped with it.

Alice was tall enough he did not have to choose and that knowledge was joy, fierce as lightning across his gut.

The tip of his tail flicked back and forth against the mattress in the unconscious habit it had when his moods were at their best. Alice slid her hands down to his waist and tugged at him, trying to bring him closer. The slightness of her grip enforced how terribly weak she was in comparison and it was with great care he allowed a little more of his weight to press against her. She groaned against his mouth in pleasure and tightened her grip on him. Hellboy was so broad around that she could not truly embrace him, but she strained to and he loved that.

Alice's hands found the waistband of his shorts and she pulled at it, indicating what she wanted. Excitement lanced up his chest and his breath caught. Sudden insecurity wrung his heart. Had it been too long? Would he have forgotten everything he'd learned with Stasia?

Alice's hands had fumbled their way around to where his shorts fastened. She clutched at it, fought with the button then pushed at his stomach with her palms, his abdominal muscles rigid against her touch.

But he understood and obeyed. Alice left her legs languidly parted as he sat back on his haunches, and he couldn't help but rake his eyes across her. He caught the deep, musky scent of her arousal and the fly of his shorts was damp where he'd pressed against her. This sensory information excited him further, increased his desire. Hellboy's hands shook as he undid the fastenings of his shorts, and he hoped Alice didn't notice. As the teeth of the zip parted and his cock pulsed, sensing relief, he hesitated. This was the part that had made the other women in his life nervous. If they'd got to this point the matter of his tail and hooves, yellow eyes and vibrantly red skin was moot; they were incidentals overcome and accepted. But there were other intimidating aspects to his physique, particularly in these circumstances...

What would he do if Alice decided, upon seeing him fully unclothed, that she did not want to proceed? As Katie had, in Paris. Probably go outside and smoke a cigar. Burn for a drink. Hate himself for a while then sleep in the car to avoid the awkwardness.

"Hellboy, are you trying to kill me?" Alice asked him with quiet mischief. "My anticipation is already quite piqued, thank you."

He was grateful for how easy she was about it all, playful as ever, as though this were nothing even though it was everything and they both knew it. It put him at ease and with a quiet snort he pushed himself back off the bed and stood, letting his shorts drop in the process.

Hellboy was not as comfortable in his nudity as Alice was. He hadn't been naked in front of many people even in his long life and awkwardness returned as he stood there and let her appraise him with languid, contented eyes. She was perfect on the bed, one leg bent at the knee, hands resting in loose fists on the pillow, pale against her hair. A sweet smile hovered about her mouth and he ached to go back to her but didn't dare in case she was on the edge of changing her mind. Instead he occupied himself with dragging Excalibur off the bed and letting it clatter to the carpet.

"Hellboy," Alice said softly and he looked to her. She reached her left hand to him, her expression suffused with desire. "Come here."

It would've been natural to take her hand with his right. But after a second he turned and squeezed it with his own left, then knelt back on the bed, where it dipped and rocked a little with his weight. Alice sat up and reached for him and they kissed again. Hellboy rested the palm of his right hand on the bed and let his left arm encircle her, running his fingers up her back and through her hair as she let her own hands roam his body freely.

He knew it was okay, but he still delayed touching her back an uncertain moment before allowing his hand to run down to her waist and then up her rib cage before cupping her breast. She made an agreeable noise and he brushed his thumb over her nipple, then gently squeezed the soft orb, the feeling of it delicious. Alice's hands dipped to his groin, then slid down his thigh, her fingertips eliciting delicious sensation, before they ran upwards and suddenly her palm was cupping his balls.

Hellboy couldn't stop himself gasping out loud, even though his sensitive genitals had been aching for her touch since they'd begun. The pleasure of being caressed after so long alone was breath-taking and again he was overwhelmed with how much he had missed this sort of contact without even realising it. Touching himself really only emphasised his isolation, so he didn't bother with it much. He may have been resigned to a solitary life, but that didn't mean he liked it.

As Alice massaged him gently, he let his forehead drop to her shoulder and exhaled, then resumed pressing hot kisses against her neck. Alice's boldness finally chased the last of his shyness away and once again he wrapped his arm around her and lowered her back against the pillows.

His kisses made their way across her breast bone, his sideburns bruising her creamy skin. His right hand stayed inert on the mattress, his left tugged her hair. His mouth moved over one breast and he sucked the nipple carefully. Alice moaned and raked her hands over his skull, then rubbed the palms of her hands on his horn stubs. That reminder of them discomfited him momentarily, but Alice was not disturbed and he returned his attention to her breasts, taken over by the rapture of moving his mouth from one to the other.

Alice ran a foot up the back of his thigh, the corded muscle there hard against the pressure. Her foot ran up over his buttock and then found the base of his tail, her toes rubbing the underside of it.

His cock jumped, he was breathless. His tail was sensitive to feeling, particularly the base. She couldn't have known. No one but Stasia really knew. It wasn't something he let on. But Alice had found the spot as surely as if he had guided her touch there himself. Her hands continued to caress his head, her nails sweet tracks on his skull, her toes stroking the hard flesh of his tail, awakening the nerves there and increasing his pleasure.

Alice raised her head from the pillow and looked down to where his was still between her breasts. "Is that okay?" she asked, her voice tinged with anxiety. He realised he had stopped kissing her, had become still against her bosom. Hellboy looked up into her concerned blue eyes and once again was overwhelmed with the beautiful reality of the situation. It had been so long...

"Yeah," he breathed. "Yeah."

He kissed her breasts again, daring to treat her nipples a little rougher with his teeth and was rewarded when she thrust her groin up towards him and let out a short, affirmative exclamation.

Hellboy lifted his head to Alice's face again and she kissed him keenly, then reached down to rub her palm against the head of his cock. Involuntarily, a groan rose from his throat that was haggard with need. Alice responded by kissing him harder, a little gasp of delight elicited by his reaction. His left hand ran down her body, caressing her breasts, her soft belly, just daring to brush the curls that sprang from her groin. Alice moaned and allowed her legs to fall further apart. Hellboy's fingertips lightly combed through the mound and he felt his hand shake as his pulse raced.

He let his hand drift down between her legs and he exhaled deeply as he came in contact with her wet folds, her lower-lips swollen and puffy with desire. Hellboy broke their kiss to watch her face and she lifted a hand to stroke his cheek, her eyes misty with lust, her lips wet and red.

His own selfish lust burned to touch her but he held back still, concerned about her response, wanting to do it right. Alice stroked his face still, smoothing back his sideburns, looking into his eyes with loving trust. Always, the trust. It made him brim over with something unnameable - something composed of joy and gratitude, disbelief and yearning.

When he finally touched her, her lips parted and she sighed. Her eyelids fluttered but she seemed to resist closing her eyes, gazing into his still. Soft fingertips traced the contours of his ear. Alice pushed herself up against his touch, then rocked her hips and he grew bolder, rubbing with surer strokes, the feeling of the hard little nub and the lower soft wetness beneath his hand arousing another desire within him, an urge that, once acknowledged, would not abate but grew more clamorous.

Alice's breath was coming harder and her eyes had fallen shut of their own accord as she became consumed in her own pleasure, her hips thrusting up. It wasn't enough for him. Quickly, before he could second-guess himself, he slid down, the bed rocking hard beneath his weight, and pressed his face between her thighs, praying he wouldn't louse it up.

Alice's cry was mingled delight and surprise. He tucked his left hand beneath her buttocks and lifted her hips so that his searching tongue could easier find its goal, eager to indulge in this intimate act he so loved.

His memories of sex were dim pleasures he revisited only occasionally, and they made him smile as much as scowl and resent the world. But they were nothing on the real thing. The scents and the tastes, the sounds and the sights were overwhelmingly wonderful. He was immersed in sensory overload and for a while, nothing else existed beyond that room - not Hecate and the Witches of England, not an Army of Noble Dead rousing itself from somewhere, not Nimue and the Ogdru Jahad - even the Giants faded. And there was nothing - just Alice, her gorgeous hair and the oasis between her thighs.

As Hellboy licked and sucked at the centre of her, making her gasp and moan and rock her hips delightfully, Alice's hand clutched across the mattress, searching.

She found the tip of his stone right hand.

He was alarmed as she gripped at it, her palm running up to find the raised, round knuckles, then sliding to the side and pushing its way beneath, her fingertips scratching at the rough-hewn palm. She wanted him to hold her hand in his, he realised, and he was unsure how to respond. He tried to concentrate simply on what he was doing, but the feeling of her fingers trailing back and forth across his palm bothered him. Gently, carefully, he closed his right hand around her small left one. Her hand was like a doll's in his, dwarfed completely by the gigantic dimensions of the unique red appendage. He kept his grip loose but she seemed satisfied, her attention recaptured by what his mouth was doing to her as he dug deep into his memory and recalled the technique that Stasia had most favoured.

When she orgasmed, Alice was as direct as she was about everything else - her free hand clawed his head, her hips lifted and she cried out, hooking a leg around his neck and holding his face against her so he felt the pulse of her convulsing muscles. Hellboy was staggered by the sensuality of that feeling. Delicious and affirming, an unmistakeably erotic manifestation of his success. Her hand inside his clutched into a fist and he surprised himself by tightening his own just a little.

He drew his face away with a last lingering kiss, then pressed his mouth again and again up her inner thigh, withdrawing his hand from beneath her, running the flat of it over her belly and up to her breasts, slightly shy of looking at her. His senses were clogged still with the scent and taste of her, intoxicating and making his cock throb.

Alice's face was smeared with bliss, her head lolling against the pillow, gazing up at him with shining eyes. She reached her free arm out to him and he went to her. She kissed him fully, opening her mouth for his tongue and cupped his face as his own hand stroked her cheek. The kiss halted and they gazed deeply into each other's eyes for long, tender moments, before Alice's hand, clasped in his mighty right one, stirred.

Quickly he released it, concerned his grip had been too tight without him realising, perturbed he could so easily lose track of that.

But in the next moment Alice was sitting up and actually taking his right hand in both hers, one hand wrapping around a great finger, the other smoothing along his palm. Hellboy held his breath, jerked away a little instinctively.

"Hellboy," she said, and looked at him gently imploring. "I trust you. Trust yourself."

Alice lifted his hand right up to her face and laid her cheek in the palm of it. Something inside Hellboy cracked. His jaw tightened as he fought with it, fought against the tide of emotion that roared upwards and caught in his throat. Alice looked at him with such tender understanding, her eyes huge and limpid, fearless of the vulnerability she allowed in placing her head into what could so easily crush it, snuff out her life. He wanted to pull her to him and kiss her until they were both delirious with it.

Alice turned her face to his palm and, wonderfully, kissed it gently. He stared at her, his jaw slack and his vision clouded. She traced kisses all the way up his palm, her soft lips tickling, then kissed each fingertip in turn. This gentle demonstration of acceptance was one of the more powerful experiences of his life. His throat constricted.

"Touch me with it," she urged him. "The texture of it is so lovely. Rough and coarse. Touch me with it gently and it will feel wonderful."

She laid back against the pillows, her hair framing her flushed face, guiding his right hand with both hers to her breast.

Tentative, breathless, Hellboy allowed the great square fingertips to carefully trail their way across her flesh. Immediately, her nipple puckered, its pink tip inviting his mouth. But he didn't want anything to distract his focus, not trusting himself fully just yet.

The Right Hand of Doom did not feel pain, but it felt everything else. The creamy texture of her skin was luscious, emphasising again her femininity. Her moon-pearl colouring gleamed against the grainy red, her flesh quivering as his hand stirred her nerve endings. Alice smiled at him, relaxed in surrender, and he stretched out beside her, wrapping his left arm behind her back, supporting her close while his right hand continued to explore, to stroke and pet, as soft as a whisper. Again it struck him just how long it had been since he'd truly been close to anyone. Not just like this, but to those with whom he had camaraderie, friendship, kinship. Almost everyone he'd encountered since leaving the Bureau had been hostile, male, male and hostile, or a ghost. Or Hecate, who seemed to be stuck on the idea that insisting they would be together at "the end of it all" was an irresistible line of seduction.

Alice shivered beneath his touch, the gravelly tips of his fingers drawing gooseflesh in its wake. He watched after it in fascination, marking the contrast between her slight, fragile body and this unbreakable limb. The palm of his hand covered her whole stomach, the fingers splaying downwards across her hips and thighs. She let them part and he pushed one finger over her centre. She groaned and reached up to clutch his neck, turning his face back towards her.

She kissed him greedily, even roughly, her teeth nipping just slightly at his mouth and he revelled in the acceptance in those kisses, how eager and unstinting they were.

Then Alice was sitting up, her hand resting on the back of his where it stroked her belly and thighs. She broke their kiss, then nuzzled his neck, his turn to shiver now as her lips trailed down over his chest, toying with his nipples, her tongue tracing the contours of his abdominal muscles, making him twitch and tremble. His cock swelled as he realised her destination and then her lips were fluttering across his groin, slow and teasing, and he was panting hard and pushing his left hand deep into her hair.

When she took him into her mouth, he clenched his jaw tight to keep quiet, suddenly fighting against surrender. Bliss shivered out from his groin in waves, rushing upwards, through his chest and all the way up his neck. His sheer size always prevented total immersion, but Alice did her best and focused the bulk of her attention on the head, where it mattered the most anyway.

And it was wonderful.

But still he struggled against relaxing totally into it, trying to maintain control, his hand fisted in Alice's hair, the fingers of his right digging into the mattress. He would not roll over onto his back but stayed propped on one side, his hooves scratching the sheets as his legs stiffened to rock.

Her hand caressed the back of his right gently. She guessed, he knew, how much he was holding back.

But she did not stop and after a while the pleasure began to break through his defences as he realised she would not be deterred, not stop trusting him. He let himself slump back on his forearm and sighed finally, a great rush of breath that thrummed in his chest as it escaped.

He was in love.

For the first time in thirty years.

After all that time and all he'd been through, that it should happen right there and then, with this woman and on the cusp of all that was to come - it was bitterly fitting.

He shut his eyes and exhaled again.

Alice brought her tender ministrations to a finish with a loving kiss on the swollen tip of his cock, then moved up his body, chewing her lower lip and gazing at him with wide, searching eyes, as though she had guessed his thoughts.

She kissed him, her lips lingering on his mouth, his own taste on her tongue.

"I can't wait any longer," she breathed, her breath hot and damp. "I need to feel you inside me."

It wasn't just the words, it was the rawness with which she uttered them - the naked need in her eyes - that all of a sudden the ever-playful Alice was deadly serious and hanging her arms about his neck in supine consent - that hit him with an urgent need of his own. It was so immediate and so driven that it alarmed him. But not enough to resist it.

Hellboy pressed her down flat against the mattress and rolled over on top of her, pushing her legs apart with his own. He was glad of her willingness to be positioned; he was old-fashioned in that way also. Their kissing now was frenzied, fierce and desperate. Alice hooked her legs around his waist, digging into his lower back with her heels and urging him closer. Reticence gone, he wrapped his right arm around her, cradling her body in the palm of his hand, pressing her as close as he could get her.

His cock pressed against her wet softness and it was so superlative his head reeled and he almost forgot himself and pushed straight into her, without heed or care.

Almost.

With what was suddenly Herculean effort, he held back, squeezing his eyes shut and breathing in deep. He opened them to find Alice's hands clinging to his shoulders, her expression a curious one of apprehension and anticipation. Inwardly he cursed himself for threatening her trust.

"Sorry," he said out loud and she shook her head, smiling a little.

"It's okay. I trust you," she promised him. "It's just been a good decade."

Hellboy chuckled breathlessly and bent his forehead to hers. Alice's inhalation was happy and she pushed back against him, her nose pressing to his.

"This has been so perfect," she whispered to him. "You are a great lover."

Hellboy knew she wanted to reassure him, but he didn't feel patronised. Sincerity laced her words, made them thick with feeling. His chest swelled and he knew he would not have been anywhere else in the world right then, not for anything.

He readied her with his fingers while they continued to kiss feverishly and with ever-increasing urgency. Finally Alice announced she was ready, or that even if she wasn't she couldn't wait anymore, and he was back on top of her, their groins pressing and Alice's face contorted with desire and need and he was pushing inside her as slowly as his heart was racing completely out of control.

The moan that Alice let freely escape her throat was low, long and guttural as he entered her. Hellboy paused, pressing a suddenly-sodden brow to hers while she gasped and gripped his shoulders, then breathed straight into his mouth: "More."

She was so tight but unresisting to him, a hot, wet sheath that enveloped him in ecstasy. Alice's face was gorgeous in its emotion, her lower lip worried between her teeth, her forehead creased, her cheeks flushed and her hair wild around her. As he slid fully in, she opened her eyes and stared into his, that point of absolute connection punctuated by their gaze and all it silently but profoundly said.

Hellboy moved inside her slowly at first, the hug of her muscles driving him to distraction but determined to ensure nothing about this would spoil it for her. Alice swore in short, gritted bursts and he clenched his teeth and kept her cradled and safe in his hand.

She kissed him desperately and he bit her lip, making it swell with colour. He rubbed his forehead against hers, and deep inside the stubs of his horns there was the strangest tingling. Alice wrapped her arms around his neck and her fingers tore through his hair, tugging it out of the knot he kept it in so it scattered around his shoulders.

He sped up, feeling her body had adjusted more, and Alice's throaty moans increased and she again drove her heels into the muscle of his buttocks. His tail lashed wildly, then stiffened up in a wide arc behind him as he thrust, an automatic response to the pleasure that overwhelmed his reason.

They breathed in and out of each other as they kissed and his knees burned with friction on the sheets. The bed was beginning to thunder against the wall with every thrust, but he scarcely heard it. Alice's cries were continuous and his own had risen to join them, deep growls he was barely aware of. Now that he had it again, had love and passion and someone warm to hold and be in union with in such an all-consuming way, he felt it was a miserable existence without it. And he was grateful, with every fibre of his being, that Alice was with him on this journey he'd been thrust so reluctantly upon, that he'd been given the chance to love again and be loved without condition or compromise. That, for a little while at least, he would not have to walk alone.

Alice gasped and arched her spine and he felt the convulsing grip of her on his cock as she came again. Her nails raked up his back.

Hellboy himself was nearing his end, the exquisite pleasure building to an inexorable finish. They kissed in gasping, desperate bursts, Hellboy crushing her to him with his great right hand, keeping his weight lifted with his left. He felt the rush of feeling gather and knew holding back was not an option, not when it was so demanding and so urgent.

He sped up once more, so very, very much of his strength still restrained but enough unleashed that the world shook around them. At this point, this final beautiful point, he never wanted to know anything else again but wanted only to prolong this moment forever, where all was bliss and joy and safety - the world was safe, and Alice was safe with him and he was safe. Where things like war and destiny were only the stuff of stories. And this was all that was real and it was his.

When he came, the world stopped for a moment. All was in darkness except for Alice's face before him, shining in the glow of his ecstasy. Bliss thundered through him and for a while he was lost in it, all consciousness surrendered in the wake of that pleasure. As it slowly retreated, ebbing back to the core of him like the tide, he found his face buried in Alice's hair, his senses suffused with the scent of lilies.

They lay still for a long while, so still that as he came back to himself, Hellboy feared in his passion he had hurt her. But then her head moved and he felt the brush of her lips against his cheek, soft and sweet.

Hellboy pushed himself up on his left arm, keeping his right twined round her, reluctant to let her go just yet. Alice looked up at him with an expression of bruised awe, her eyes glazed and her lips parted and swollen.

"You okay?" He queried her, a little breathlessly.

She pressed her lips shut into a little smile even as her eyes grew red and wet. Worried now he began to shift, fearful her body would be limp and broken. But her arms tightened about his shoulders and she shook her head.

"I'm fine," she whispered, and her voice was sure. "It was just - " and she stopped and seemed lost for words, her lip quivering and her eyes sparkling with emotion.

He understood. He felt it too.

" - worth the wait," she sighed after a long, long pause and her chin wobbled and she pressed her lips tight together. He hugged her closer, solicitous in concern. Then she breathed in deep through her nostrils, calming herself.

"How long until you're ready to go again?" she quipped and he laughed, relieved and buoyed by this return of her mischief.

Alice combed her fingers through his hair and smiled up at him, content and adoring. "I'm serious."

Hellboy snorted and pressed his forehead back against hers. "Just gimme until my knees are solid again."

She kissed him softly, rubbed her nose on his. This close, he could see how her freckles connected over the bridge of her nose. "At least you still have knees. Not sure I can say the same."

Reluctantly, he pulled out of her and they both sighed with the loss of it. They lay close beside each other, his right hand shifting to cup her lower body, holding her close against his chest, her back supported effortlessly in the crook of his arm. They kissed, and the fluttering of her heart was echoed by his own. His left hand caressed her freely as their lips played against each other, her breasts soft to the touch, her inner thighs like cream, her sex wet and swollen. She touched his chest and groin and genitals in loving, affirming strokes.

Slowly, the world around them returned and with some alarm they realised the bed had shifted to the middle of the room, careened at a wild angle. Alice laughed a little hysterically to see it and he felt sheepish. Excalibur lay abandoned on the carpet and as his gaze passed over it he realised that everything was as it had been before: the world was not safe, he was still the King of Britain and a war was impending. For a moment, his heart plummeted and he was cold all over.

But then Alice's hand was cupping his face and he was gazing into her tumultuous blue eyes and her expression was soft with love and faith.

"Everything is going to be all right," she murmured. "You'll see. You'll change everything. You already have."

And he wondered if it would be so terrible to let himself believe that.

You always look after everyone, Anastasia had said to him once. But who looks after you?

Hellboy let himself be comforted in the warmth and softness of her, her perfume of lilies and the heady aroma of her body lulling him into peace. His worries receded as he turned away from the world, for just a little while longer, and allowed her to be all that he knew.

Alice's arm slipped around his waist and her feet entangled with his legs, ran down his calves to rub the smooth surface of his hooves. She nuzzled his chest and stroked his flank. He brought his tail around and let it idle over her hip. He held her close, the Right Hand of Doom cradling her against him, his left hand twining tenderly in her hair. But she held him too.

And he slept better than he had in years.