The door opened just a crack, and a wary eye peeked out. It examined the garden outside, took in the length of the firethorn hedge, noted the empty street beyond. "It looks clear," a woman's voice murmured.
"I still think you're overreacting," came the reply, and the door swung open to reveal Huinesoron and Kaitlyn. "No-one's actually going to leap out and accost-"
A woman in a clown costume, complete with vivid orange wig, leapt out from behind the hedge. "Huinesoron!" she called. "I've waited so long for this moment!"
"Oh, stars," Huinesoron muttered, covering his eyes with his hand. "It's Spacegrape."
"That's Scapegrace," the clown snapped, and then her smile reappeared as suddenly as it had vanished. "You've given me a nickname! Oh, Honey-Sauce, I knew you loved me!"
Kaitlyn spluttered, whether with indignation or laughter Huinesoron wasn't sure. "'Overreacting', am I?"
Keeping one eye on Scapegrace, Huinesoron stepped onto the path and locked the door behind them. "So... Scapegrace," the elf said, edging along the path towards her. "I, uh, have you done something with your... hair?"
"You noticed!" Scapegrace beamed, then pulled a trio of balls out of nowhere and started juggling. "I made it extra curly - just for you!"
"That's lovely." Gesturing behind his back, Huinesoron beckoned his wife to move past. "And the juggling - very impressive. How do you keep from dropping them?"
"It's all about the concentration," Scapegrace said, and her gaze flicked to the whirling balls. "As long as I know where the- hey, where'd you go?"
Huinesoron was already halfway down the road, moving fast enough that Kaitlyn could barely keep up. "Don't give her time to follow us!"
"I preferred her when she was cold and grumpy!" Kaitlyn complained, gasping for air. "What did you do to make her open up like that?"
"I don't know!" Huinesoron glanced over his shoulder at her. "I've barely spoken to her, she- oof."
The elf had run headlong into someone, and they tumbled to the ground together. With the reflexes of paranoia, Huinesoron didn't stop moving when they hit: he rolled to the side and leapt back to his feet, then looked down at the person he'd hit. "Wha- Edhelistar?"
Edhelistar pushed himself up, groaning, and brushed his green hair out of his eyes. "Wh... oh, hey! I was waiting for you."
Huinesoron took a step back as the look in Edhelistar's eyes registered. "Hey, now, I thought you were the one person who wasn't after me."
"That was then," Edhelistar said, getting to his feet. "This," he waved at his chest, "is now."
Huinesoron's eyebrows shot up as he realised what the other was indicating. "You're a- how are you a girl now?"
"Oh, I have my ways," Edhelistar said. "So: call me Ellethistar. I'd love to hear you say my name."
"Oh, no." Huinesoron reached back and found Kaitlyn's hand. "I told you - I'm not interested in anyone else. I- okay, that's not my wife back there, is it?"
An arm slunk around Huinesoron's shoulders. "No," said Elcalion in a low voice, "it's not."
"Burning stars. Kaitlyn! Help!"
"You don't need her," Ellethistar said, walking up to him. "Our Elvish names are proof - we were meant to be together."
"We can call it the Swan Ship," Elcalion said. "All you hav- yerk?"
Huinesoron had spun away, leaving Elcalion and Ellethistar tangled up in each other's arms. "Gotta go!" He rebounded from the wall, grabbed hold of a lamppost covered in tiny footprints (for some reason), and ran off down the road.
The reason for his wife's mysterious disappearance became clear when he found her, leaning into the open window of a parked black car. "I'm sure it's very nice," she was saying as the elf approached, "but I'm really not interested."
"You only say that because you don't know what you're missing." Huinesoron got close enough to see Phobos' face reflected in the wingmirror. "Give it a try, just this once, and-"
Kaitlyn caught Huinesoron's reflection and span around, her face filled with relief. "Where'd you go?" she demanded. "I thought you'd vanished!"
"Ooh, is he there?" Neshomeh's voice came drifting out of the car. "Oh hS, why don't you come with me while Phobos entertains your lovely wife?"
"I told you-" Kaitlyn began, but Huinesoron had already taken a more direct approach. Grabbing his wife's arm, he dragged her off down the street. As they rounded the corner, she shook him off. "I could've dealt with them myself," she said, "but thanks."
"Yes, but you weren't." Huinesoron chuckled at her expression. "They're not as easy to avoid as you think, are they?"
"I've had one person try to chat me up today," Kaitlyn said. "You're up to, what, four?"
"So far. But there's still time..."
Kaitlyn snorted. "For you, maybe. I'm not expecting any-"
"Heeeeeeey there, Kaitlyn." A woman dressed entirely in red stepped out of an alley, her appearance perfectly timed to let her take Kaitlyn's hand. "Fancy seeing you here!"
"Lacksi!" Kaitlyn looked at her warily. "You, um... nice dress?"
"Yes," said Lacksidacksical, dropping her voice into a husky register, "isn't it? Oh, that reminds me. hS! Catch!"
Huinesoron's reflexes were up to the task: he snatched the notebook out of the air and flicked through it. "It's... blank graph paper?"
"What?" Lacksidacksical abandoned Kaitlyn and stepped over to snatch the book from Huinesoron. "Bother, that's the spreadsheets. You want this one."
Huinesoron's eyes widened as he took the new book. "A Complete Dictionary of the Elvish Languages! Where did you...?" Not waiting for an answer, he opened the book at random and started reading.
Lacksidacksical smiled, showing her teeth, then turned and draped her arm over Kaitlyn's shoulders. "You were telling me how much you like my dress," she said.
"Um, was I?" Kaitlyn tried to surreptitiously shake her off. "I don't think I was."
"You were." Lacksidacksical leant in close, pressing herself against Kaitlyn's side. "It is a nice dress, isn't it?"
Kaitlyn looked down, then swallowed and redirected her gaze to Lacksidacksical's face. "I guess?"
Lacksidacksical's smile was distinctly predatory. "It has matching lingerie," she said, and reached up to touch Kaitlyn's face. "I'd like to show you... now."
A hand came down from behind Kaitlyn and firmly pushed Lacksidacksical's away. "I don't think that will be necessary," said Huinesoron.
Lacksidacksical gaped. "But--that book--you were supposed to be distracted!"
"Some things are more important than Quenya." Huinesoron took his wife's hand. "Goodbye, Lacksi."
"I think," Kaitlyn said as they walked away, "that might be the most romantic thing I've ever heard from you."
Huinesoron smiled at her. "It's true, you know."
She squeezed his hand. "I know. And I-"
Pella hísië, penna már
órenyan iltuvima lár--
Huinesoron snatched his phone from his pocket and stabbed the green button. "Hello?"
"Hello, hS," said a familiar voice. "Don't you know it's rude to run away when a lady's talking to you?"
Huinesoron facepalmed. "I'm going to hang up now, Neshomeh."
"I wouldn't. The others might get upset if you do."
The elf stared at his phone. "What others?"
"That'd be us," said World-Jumper's voice.
"Neshomeh thought we'd have a better chance of persuading you together," added Desdendelle.
"She was very persistant," said Hieronymus Graubart with a chuckle.
"So you see," Neshomeh cut back in, "there's a lot of people who will be very hurt if you don't come and-"
Huinesoron cut the connection and pocketed his phone. "Do you get the feeling they're being unusually... uh..."
"Horny?" suggested Kaitlyn, and grinned at her husband's choke. "I would say 'seductive', but they kind of haven't been."
"Not even Lacksi and her dress?"
"Okay, she did better than the rest, but still." Kaitlyn shrugged, and glanced at Huinesoron as they turned the last corner. "But yes, it does feel like there's a... oh, dear."
There were five of them, clustered around the door to the local shop, effectively denying entrance. They all looked a little bored - until Data Junkie glanced up and noticed Huinesoron. Then a ripple of excitement ran through the group: they straightened up and started fiddling with their cameras and microphones, watching Huinesoron and Kaitlyn like hawks.
"We could just go home," Huinesoron said. "We don't really need food."
"Unfortunately, yes we do." Kaitlyn took her husband by the hand and half-dragged him towards the crowd. "Look on the bright side - at least you know they're coming."
As soon as the pair drew near, Caddy-Shack stepped forward. "Huinesoron!" she called, waving a microphone in the elf's face. "Is it true that you're sleeping with the Nameless Admin?"
Huinesoron stopped dead, blinking rapidly. "... what?"
"You were seen with a shadowy figure in a club last night," sjosten supplied. "Is this the beginning of a new conquest for the PPC's greatest charmer?"
"And most importantly," TheShyIon said, stepping up with her camera, "will you show us the skills you used to ensnare him?"
"What?" Huinesoron shook his head rapidly. "The Nameless Admin is-- look, you're not-- why don't you just--"
"What my husband is trying to say is, 'No comment'." Kaitlyn took Huinesoron by the elbow and pushed past Iximaz, heading into the shop. Caddy-Shack made one final attempt to intercept them, but the door was already closing behind them, leaving the journalists outside.
The pair collected a basket and wandered down the aisles of the store. It wasn't very big - slightly more than a local grocery shop, but nowhere near a proper supermarket - so they weren't expecting any trouble inside. They split up to gather their shopping, and midway down an aisle, Huinesoron knelt down to reach for the bread, and frowned.
"I've just grabbed hold of someone's leg. I really hope there's a good reason for this."
The reply was almost a purr. "Oh, there is."
Huinesoron bent lower to peer into the shadowy low shelf. "... Iximaz?"
"That's right." The young woman was stretched out along the length of the shelf, pressed back against the wall. Her black dress made it quite hard to see her in the shadows - except for the fact that it only came down less than halfway to her knees. "I know you only ignored me at the door because the others were there. Well - we're alone now..."
"Uh-huh." Huinesoron reached behind Iximaz's knee and grabbed a loaf of bread, then got to his feet. "You have a good time in there."
As he walked away, he heard Iximaz struggling to get out, various parts of her body clattering against the shelf above her. "Wait!" she called. "We can- ow, that was my nose..."
Shaking his head, Huinesoron met up with his wife at the front of the shop. She greeted him with a smile. "Any difficulties?"
Huinesoron chuckled. "Not really. I'm definitely looking forward to getting home again, though."
"I'm with you there."
The pair reached the checkout and handed their basket over - or tried to. The woman behind the till reached out and grabbed Kaitlyn's wrist as she tried to set the shopping down. "Do you realise how annoying it is to have to serve customers?"
"I... yes?" Kaitlyn blinked, and looked at the woman properly. "... JulyFlame?"
"I should've known you wouldn't pay me any attention," JulyFlame moaned. She pushed the basket of shopping to the side and threw herself onto her back across the counter, pressing a hand to her forehead. "Whatever I do, you never see me! For years I've carried the burden of our secret love, yet even now, as I lie naked before you, you still look past me!"
Kaitlyn's eyebrow rose in exact synchronicity with Huinesoron's. "You're not naked," she pointed out. "You're wearing a rather plasticky-looking shop uniform."
"That was a metaphor." JulyFlame rolled over as suddenly as she'd lain down, and grabbed both of Kaitlyn's hands. "And what did you meet her phor - I mean for?"
"Um. Shopping." Kaitlyn glanced at her husband and tried to tug her hands free of JulyFlame's. "I'm thinking we can wait for tomorrow."
"Food's not that important," Huinesoron agreed. "Do you need help?"
"I need all the help you can offer," JulyFlame wailed, "to heal my broken heart!"
"Yeah, no." Kaitlyn managed to pull one hand free, then used it to pry JulyFlame's fingers from her other wrist. As the uniformed PPCer tried to clamber over the counter, Kaitlyn looked at her husband. "Run?"
Their flight took them back through the crowd of reporters, then through a sharp right turn and into the adjoining park. They ran down the gravel paths until they were sure they'd shaken off any pursuit, then stopped by a bench.
Huinesoron looked at his wife, breathing hard. "I didn't plan to get this much exercise today."
"That's because you didn't believe me when I said they'd be after us." Kaitlyn reached down to rub her thighs. "Ow. Running isn't good for me."
"I think technically it-"
Huinesoron blinked rapidly, then looked up at the tree which was shading them. "Is there somebody-?"
"Oh, there's definitely somebirdy up here." The leaves above rustled, and then Storme Hawk appeared, dangling upside-down from a sturdy bough. "Too-whit, too-whoo! The Brotherhood of the Feather salutes you, Huinesoron!"
"Oh stars." Huinesoron facepalmed. "Storme Hawk, I've told you, I don't want-"
"But it is not just I who would take you to our nest," Storme Hawk cut him off.
There was another rustle, and SkarmorySilver swung into position next to Storme Hawk. "We are birds of a feather," he said. "We must stick together."
"Yeah, well why don't you two go 'stick' to each other?" Kaitlyn snapped, grabbing her husband's hand. "We've had enough-"
SkarmorySilver had turned his head to look at her with wide eyes. "What is this vision of loveliness?" he asked. "My avian heart is beating fast - surely she has used Charm!"
"She'll use Thump-You-In-The-Face if you don't leave us alone." Kaitlyn turned and marched away, dragging Huinesoron behind her. The birdlike cries of complaint from Storme Hawk and SkarmorySilver faded into the distance as they passed the pond.
"Thanks." Huinesoron squeezed Kaitlyn's hand. "They-"
"Shh." Kaitlyn was scowling at the rippling water beside them. "Whoever you are, you might as well come out," she called.
There was a moment of stillness and silence as Huinesoron stared at his wife. Then, one by one, the sheepish figures of Neshomeh, Sergio Turbo, and JulyFlame emerged from the pond. They were wearing the skimpiest possible swimwear, bedraggled with pondweed, and Sergio Turbo had a duck sitting on his head, but despite all that, all three cast lustful looks at Huinesoron.
Kaitlyn folded her arms and glared at them. "Well?"
Neshomeh glanced at the other two as if for confirmation, then bestowed her most glowing smile on Huinesoron. "Oh most luscious and utterly hot elf-"
Huinesoron held up a hand. "Heard it before, didn't work then either." He shook his head. "Seriously, have you people not seen my wife? Why would I be interested in anyone else?"
"Because she's going to be distracted," Sergio Turbo blurted, then cringed as JulyFlame clipped him around the head.
Neshomeh shot him a look. "All you had to do is wait one more minute..."
"What exactly is supposed to be distracting me?" Kaitlyn demanded. "If you're planning to try and get me to join in your seduction of my husband, I'll tell you now, it-"
"Sorry we're late!" The voice came from above, and this time there weren't any trees in the way. The five on the ground looked skywards - and Huinesoron immediately covered his eyes.
"Iximaz! If you're going to parachute down on top of people, at least put some trousers on!"
"No need!" Iximaz was grinning away as her parachute brought her gently to the ground. "They'd just get in the way later - and I did so want to attract Kaitlyn's attention."
Desdendelle and PoorCynic had also landed, on either side of Iximaz. PoorCynic leant in and licked Iximaz's ear sensuously, while Desdendelle draped an arm around her shoulders. Iximaz herself ran one hand down the length of her thigh, making sure to highlight the shortness of her black dress.
"So, Kaitlyn," she said, "care to join us? The boys are," she turned her head and kissed Desdendelle lingeringly on the lips, then flashed a wink at Kaitlyn, "so very eager to get to know you."
"And don't worry about your husband," JulyFlame said from over by the pond. "We'll be delighted to keep him from getting... lonely."
Kaitlyn looked at Huinesoron. "They do make an appealing spectacle."
"And I am fed up of all this running."
"Me too." Huinesoron's face was studiously neutral, but there was a certain twinkle in his eye.
"So, all things considered..." Kaitlyn leant in to give her husband a quick kiss. "... I think our best strategy might be to run for it!"
The pair bolted in opposite directions. Kaitlyn dashed past the startled Neshomeh to curve around the pond, while Huinesoron dove between PoorCynic and Iximaz - nearly knocking PoorCynic over as he went - and angled for a spinney of silver birch trees. The six who had been trying to seduce them stared for a moment, then hurried into pursuit - only for each group to run headlong into the other and bring the whole set crashing to the ground.
Huinesoron and Kaitlyn met up again on the far side of the park. Huinesoron caught his wife in a tight embrace and grinned at her. "Nicely done."
"I'm just glad you got what I was aiming at." Kaitlyn took the opportunity to give him a long, lingering kiss. "Do you think we can get home without any more... encounters?"
Huinesoron chuckled. "Almost certainly not. But if we stick to the wider roads, we should be able to see them coming..."
Things went well until the very last corner. The couple walked along the fence, moving slower and slower with each step. Kaitlyn bit her lip. "You know they're going to be there."
"Someone will be, for sure." Huinesoron shook his head and came to a halt. "There's no way they'd not stake out our front door."
Kaitlyn mulled this over. "There's only one way to find out, though."
"Yeah." Together, the two crept up to the corner of the fence and peered round.
Sure enough, their front door was surrounded by PPCers. Between them, they made out Iximaz, TheShyIon, Storme Hawk, Desdendelle, JulyFlame, Darkotas, firemagic, foofooman3, Scapegrace, World-Jumper, Voyd, Neshomeh, Elcalion, domirossi, Caddy-Shack, Sergio Turbo, Phobos, Hieronymus Graubart, and Pretzel - and they were sure there were more. Nor was the sheer number the most prominent thing about them...
"You'd think they'd get cold," Huinesoron hissed to his wife.
"I'd imagine their shared body heat is doing wonders." Kaitlyn shook her head slowly. "If I only had some binoculars..."
Huinesoron gave her a curious look. "You want to get a closer look at them?"
"No." Kaitlyn flicked him on the arm. "I want to know if there's space to get through to the door."
"I'm pretty sure they'd notice."
"I'm pretty sure they wouldn't." Kaitlyn waved a hand in the direction of the PPCers. "Seriously, nineteen naked people in one spot; was there any chance that wouldn't devolve into an orgy?"
"It was either a terrible plan or a brilliant one, depending on what they were after." Huinesoron shot the writhing pile of nude skin another look, then pulled back behind the fence. "So... back door?"
"Back door," Kaitlyn agreed, linking her arm with Huinesoron's. "And then, what do you say to going upstairs and having a... little peace and quiet time?"
"I say that's the best idea I've heard all day." Huinesoron kissed his wife on the cheek. "I love you, Kaitlyn."
"I know. Love you too. Now come on..."