Summary: It's September of 1965. H.P. and Sanderson, neither of whom has ever had to look after a human child before, struggle across Kansas on their way home to Pixie World with their semi-kidnapped baby clown in hand. And without any magic to speak of, of course. The journey will be long, freckled with greedy humans, flirtatious Anti-Fairies, frightened godkids, and uncomfortable encounters with ex-girlfriends and ex-mother figures that both H.P. and Sanderson would rather forget.
Dustfinger v. Cadence von Strangle: A Guardian need not be separated from their angel if it is determined the angel has an utter dependency upon their current or former Guardian(s) that would render the angel entirely unable to function and/or physically care for themselves if separation should occur.
When I was hardly two thousand and five hundred years old, the Head Pixie used to line us - all five of us back then - in his office back at Wish Fixers, where the cushy chairs swallowed our tiny feet. He'd flick the starpiece on the end of his wand, and we'd pass the afternoon up on our knees, scribbling in all the tax reports and nutrition labels and instruction manuals that the fairies and the elves and the gnomes and the brownies and the will o' the wisps considered themselves too good to bother with on their own.
Work-wise, it was all the same sorts of tasks we did now. Bayard and I have been slipping our recipe for acorn muffins into the Delegating Administrative Rules of the Known Universe for the last twenty-five millennia, and no one's ever called us on it. Would you believe that? Literally nobody will care if there are twenty Page 486s in the official German edition, or that the entire second half of the Icelandic ones are actually in Danish (To be fair, a high majority of the huldufólk can't read anyway; likely they're too busy throwing parties around the midsummer holidays and trading their own children for cows to take the time to educate themselves). It's the most widely-distributed piece of writing in all of existence, and not even worth dumping blackmail in. Longwood's tried. I've never seen a copy in my life that didn't contain a life-sized drawing of two interesting but utterly pointless square flower pots of daisies sprawled across pages thirty-two and thirty-three. What, has no one ever started from the beginning before? You can't expect me to believe all readers open it directly in the middle.
Back in those earlier days, H.P. would pace back and forth behind us, firing the occasional blast of magic over our heads just to see if we'd flinch, and that was the real test. A few weeks later he'd be in front of us, and a week after that we wouldn't have any distractions from the fireworks at all. In the afternoons, we'd go down the hall for bagels. Those of us he was most impressed with would get to fill our water cups from the dispenser like real employees, and we could get a new pencil already shiny and pre-sharpened. The rest had to pour half their day's paycheck back to the grand champ (Who was, and I'm boasting, yours truly far more often than it wasn't). In the last hundred years, I'd spent most of that money on new records for my gramophone. I think I went through a European cave-painting period in my 244k-thirties too.
Carrots and sticks, I'd realized now that I was nearing my 253,119th birthday. You either grit your teeth and stuck it out or, like Caudwell, resigned your sad soul to an existence of fleeing for cover at the fwiiiip! and ttchrrrrshh! of notebook pages. We Pixies were raised to be still, calculated, calm. It all got so it wasn't a competition any longer. We performed our copying and filing and management duties and respected one another as though we were all the same.
So, with the knowledge that I wasn't much for flinching now firmly set in your mind, you'll understand why it was almost f… funny how just earlier that September day in 1965, I had accepted a mute fate of being beaten and scratched by a great pink lizard (crossed with a buffalo and a helicopter, and I regret approving that request with every fiber in me), but when the sun began to set, I was much more offended by the shrieking hunk of metal that barreled into the roof of our brown pick-up and skipped away across the cornfield. The steering wheel wrenched to the right on its own beneath my fingers.
H.P. and I screamed together, in that halfhearted way of pixies. We whipped around and around and around in perhaps two dozen circles. I slammed jaw-first against the dashboard, then bashed into the window and oozed down into my seat. H.P.'s head thumped into the ceiling. That bent his pointed cap even more than the Tooth Fairy's breakfast platter had. Dirt cascaded down the windshield. Wheels screamed with hot rubber (we were well over that old victory speed). Then we plowed backwards into the corn. The truck stopped spinning, but the world didn't. "I'm okay!" someone yelled, and it frustrated me that I couldn't identify whether it was H.P.'s voice, or my own. Particularly when the next sound to pierce the ringing in my ears was him muttering my name.
He was upsi- No; I, of course, had to be the one upside-down, because that was wrong. One leg, I think, was twisted over a sort of… bar. I wasn't certain how. Backwards? Maybe. Either way, it probably wasn't supposed to bend at that angle. Hot fuzz roared like sand beneath my skin, and I now had an entire arm just sleeping on the job like it didn't care we had work to do. A determined swat didn't wake the nerves. My cowlick began to prickle up beneath the saliva H.P. had used to press it down. The sharp square tips of my wasp-like wings dangled by my ears.
Too bright, I thought. Too bright. I pressed my knuckles to my eyelids. My shades had tumbled off in the crash. Though my vision lilted with swirls, I saw them in H.P.'s hand as he waited, on his knees on the padded brown seat, for me to orient myself to some degree. While he sighed, he pushed his own cracked glasses higher on his nose with one forefinger.
"Only you could possibly get your leg stuck through a steering wheel, Sanderson."
Once I realized where I was, untangling myself turned out not to be difficult. But I couldn't get my wings up before my chest slapped into the floor, jarring like a dropped microphone. I might have even heard the echo. H.P. handed me my shades as I climbed onto the bench beside him.
"Do you have any idea what the" - I hesitated, then went with the emotionally-neutral phrase 'cause of that event' - "was, sir?"
"Mm… I know that something slammed into the truck from behind. It appeared to be some sort of boulder, or time capsule delivered through a wormhole."
Keeping my lips drawn together, I nodded. It must have been. H.P. would know things like that. He placed his hands on the edge of the open window and peered into the corn. There was a rustle out there. For a few wingbeats I listened to it, but I was more concerned with the state the truck might be in.
I dropped the keys into the inner pocket of my suit coat, right where my star-capped pen would typically reside, and opened the door. Then I nearly plummeted straight to the ground. Clinging to the handle, I could only watch as dirt and fields spiraled into one before me. I removed my shades again and scrubbed my eyes. "I hope the engine is still intact. That could prove difficult to fix without the use of magic."
He watched me pick my way towards the front of the truck. "I believe we were only clipped, Sanderson."
"Fairly-sized clipping. The mother of the lizallicopter, no doubt, come to" - I forced open the hood, only for it to clatter back in my face - "exact her revenge for what we did to her babies once Cupid plugged them full of love arrows. Or the… Or some of the Fairies have gotten tipsy on pink lemonade and licorice again, and have rediscovered their passion for shooting stars at passersby. Hihh!"
"I don't imagine so. The capsule looked as though it might be white. And it could prove useful to us." H.P. hovered above the waving stalks of corn, one hand up to deflect the setting sun's glare from his glasses. Wind whistled. The season shifted colder with every passing night. After a moment he said, "It landed in the field."
"You aren't dizzy, sir," I managed. The hood clanged back into place, and I let myself dip with it.
"I've become accustomed to my swivel chair. Are your wings more able than they would seem right now?"
I knew very little about motors and cars anyhow; I'd given up on trying to study the engine and only just sat down in the blurry road. At H.P.'s urging, I flapped corn dust from the veins until I rose a few inches above the ground. Stiff, but functional. We may have had our starpieces revoked, but there remained plenty of magic in the surrounding air for us to both remain alive and get by with the simplest of luxuries. Hovering with my undersized wings was always one such miracle. And, if I was lucky, sticking the front of my hair back into its usual curled tuft of black grass would be too.
I wasn't lucky. I blamed style-challenged anti-fairies.
My boss was often one for unnecessary dawdling, but never when a novel stimuli had just captured his curiosity. He hadn't even checked to ensure I was stable before he'd flown off through the plants. Still readjusting my shades, I beat my dizzy way after him.
We weren't in deep before we ran across the object's trail. A sweeping row of golden stalks lay flattened in a scraped half-pipe of mud. Like a red carpet, they welcomed us to the slight mound where our target had finally ground to a stop. It was picturesque; the setting sunlight behind us glinting against the metal casing, with a distant barn visible as a faint smudge of scarlet among the browning corn.
The rising smoke wasn't an unhelpful clue of its landing point, either.
So it wasn't a fallen star from the Fairy World fields. I looked at H.P. He lifted one brow above the rims of his glasses, and then we approached together. My knowledge on the subject was limited, but the fallen object seemed to bear resemblance to the cute little rockets that were becoming more and more popular among the humans in recent decades. A silly thing, not too much larger than the duffel bags that had been such a common sight in Las Vegas. Its white body bore cheerful stripes of red and blue.
I waited for an Okay to pull back that I did not receive. H.P. twitched one summoning finger in my direction. So it was, hovering close enough to one another that our glasses clicked and our wingtips brushed, we made our soft approach. A front panel began to draw itself upward on its own.
The scratch across my right cheek burned beneath my bandage. I was not particularly in the mood for another fight. Not after being deprived of my starpiece, and especially not without a proper warranty signed and filed in my middle-favorite cabinet. I narrowed my eyes.
But, the miniature rocket contained no furious lizallicopter. Not even a mildly-content lizallicopter. No, no; the universe had responded to H.P.'s absent-minded plea for an impressionable pawn in quite the favorable way, and had personally mailed us a baby, packaged up and hand-delivered at our feet.
A human baby. A human baby, splashed with the white and pink make-up of clowns (including a poofy shock of hair dyed in ginger) and bundled up inside a thin yellow blanket like an anti-pixie's jacket. Either there were red spots on that too, or my vision was still blurry from our crash. The moment it saw us puzzling over it, the infant lit up in a single-toothed grin. I wouldn't, I decided then, forget that slight chill down my back when its odd magenta eyes locked onto mine even through my shades.
"Sanderson?" H.P.'s own eyes made him appear nearly as giddy as the child when he turned his head. "I think this could be the start of a beautiful new thirty-seven-year plan."
Ignoring my war flashbacks, I checked for permission and received the Go ahead signal. The baby never lost its smile as I slid my hands beneath its thin body and raised it over my head. There was a child. And I had it. We were back in business. This was, officially, the best thing to happen to me in the last twenty-four hours.
It was H.P. who started laughing first - leadership was rather his thing - but I joined in with him. You didn't leave your boss to do these things all on his own, if you valued your paycheck. And, if we're stripping down to honesty here, it was fu-
-expected. H.P. gave me one of those tired smiles as we laughed. The baby picked up on it all and broke into cooing, and then the moment was shattered by a lowing, "Paaaaaaapppaaaa!"
My hand went for my pen. The pen that wasn't there. H.P. had been raised among fairies, and his first instinct to hearing the call was to morph himself into an inconspicuous bird or field mouse. But, again, Cupid and the Tooth Fairy had stripped us of our starpieces before leaving us with the truck and a small wad of bills. Without a way to channel the boost of magic he needed, he simply dropped to the ground.
"Sir?" I tucked the infant in the crook of my arm and reached down my hand.
"There's a human in this field." He stood up and started brushing dirt from his suit and wings. "I'll take a moment to search the, ah, capsule for anything that we might exploit. Take the clown and head back for the tru-"
Mud exploded in the corn some ways off to my right. H.P.'s wings snapped out behind him. Shrieking crows scattered in a blur of feathers. I dropped the baby.
I dropped the entire baby.
We're all lucky that H.P. was already below me among the dirt and flattened corn. He caught the child in his arms and blinked once, slowly. "Shotgun shot." To me, "Welcome home."
I couldn't believe I had actually dropped a baby.
"What the-? Papa, Papa, look! Look, maybe it's not really birds! There's a, there's a car, see. Maybe it's those 'drunk teenage brats' you were talkin' about, huh? Y'think it's them?"
H.P.'s forehead creased with a few lines more than usual. "Ah, now that explains who has the gun. A human child. That's the worst type of human there is."
The infant clown, overwhelmed by the shattering noise and unfamiliarity of the field and us, without any warning began to wail. Not in front of the kid, H.P. I thought, biting my lip. I couldn't see the offending human from here. Was he barring our way back to the truck? Maybe if I were just a smidgen higher…
"Get down here, Sanderson."
"He's actually trying to shoot us, boss," I mumbled, not budging. My wings skipped a beat. Generally speaking, we pixies liked the Bit Bridge for its wonderful cost-effectiveness; a slide down was worth saving energy on the pings to various business locations throughout surrounding Kansas. Plus, it made an excellent location for picnics, as when it came to human eyes, the Bridge only rendered itself visible to registered fairy godkids or the occasional bootstrapper whom we thought we could lend a little support to without attracting any attention from Jorgen von Strangle.
So having pixies roam around Kansas and stray into farmland wasn't anything atypical- this wasn't nearly the first time the humans had gone hunting for wings and caps to hang above their mantles. They'd call us gnomes, mostly. So I'd heard. Had I witnessed the slur much myself? Heck. I loathed the rural landscape. I'd heard too many horror stories around the first-floor water cooler that told of trigger-happy farmers confusing curious pixies with hungry crows, so I'd stuck to urban Kansas since I was two hundred twenty thousand ninety-nine. And I'd thought obsidian spears and feathered arrows had been bad enough.
"He wants to shoot us, sir."
"Sanderson, you're immortal. At the end of the day, you're going to be perfectly fine."
"Magical beings can be killed by phys-"
"I asked you to get down here."
I landed with a soft thump, but my wings wouldn't stay folded. Every rustle of corn stalks could be the creep of human footsteps. The stray chirp of an insect, the cocking of a gun. We pixies liked to pretend we'd last forever, and magic couldn't do us in, but I knew of no creature who could withstand a whizzing bullet directly between the eyes. If through a miracle they did, I doubted they'd be the same again.
"Papa, do you hear that crying sound? Do you think it's them? Where are you, Papa?"
The baby had chosen that moment to break into howls. The last few of the crows decided that this field wasn't worth it after all, and took flight. Another crack! went through the air. A squawk, a downward spiral of dark feathers, a thump a mere dozen feet away. An ecstatic burst of noise and another cry for Papa to praise the success of the little monster he had created. I covered my ears, wings beginning to whirr.
H.P. caught me by the tie and dragged my forehead against his. "Sanderson, look me in the eyes when I'm addressing only you. I am over seven hundred and forty-four thousand years old. I know the trick to getting out of this mess, and that would be to move at a steady pace and remain very low." He stuck his thumb in the baby's mouth, shushing it for now but probably not for long. "The child with the gun views his own kind as his equals, and regards birds as a nuisance. So we need to stay low, lest he spot us floating."
A face of practiced calm didn't prevent my scattered thoughts from bouncing every which way inside my head. If I'd had a way to channel magic from the energy field, it would have turned from my usual calm purple into green. But, as I always did, I placed my trust at H.P.'s feet and nodded. "Yes, sir."
He eased his hand off my tie, still studying my face for any show of emotion. "Very good. Now, he's at the truck and we left no physical path for him to follow through the corn. It will take him at least a moment to find us. Wings down. We're walking. Stay directly behind me so we'll sound larger. If he thinks we're human, he'll choose not to harm us. It's easy. Just follow right- ow." H.P. stared down at the child nestled in the crook of his arm, exasperated. "Snippy little brat. Just like a pixie."
"Mama, Mama, go wake up Papa! Look, someone's in the corn again and- and see, I think they, maybe they crashed drunk or something- d'ya think?"
"This way, Sanderson, to the left. We'll come out on the opposite side of the field from the truck, unfortunately, but we can't afford to end up too near the farmhouse as the reinforcements come trickling out."
I hesitated, eyeing the still-smoldering wreck of rocket.
The baby wouldn't have been left with nothing but a faded photograph if whoever had sent him hadn't thought it was important. Snatching it up, I squeezed between the corn stalks after H.P. He shot me a glare over his shoulder.
"Gather your nerves under control, Sanderson, and stop that fluttering. I said, we're walking."
The ring of his words, or the slice of rough and crunchy leaves, or a combination of the two prompted another round of crying from our little human charge. I didn't hear another gunshot, but somebody behind us hollered for his papa. I wondered if H.P. noticed that we were both moving a little faster than "walking".
"Humans, nasty humans," my boss muttered, swatting stalks aside as he hurried through. Old husks and grass and straw crunched against dirt in places where the tip of his shoe might brush. "Show them how to weave a proper water basket, and they'll trap three of your assistants beneath it as soon as you go for a drink. I don't care how many holes it was riddled with- the universe should not have been allowed to classify that rubbish as a butterfly net. And they're no better as the centuries pass, humans. Stubbornly blind and inherently selfish. They'll attempt to burn you at the stake for use of witchcraft, Sanderson- Did you know that? And if one should ping to safety, then it's a race to hunt him down again so they might close their long fingers around his scrawny neck."
I kept hard at his wingtips, Mmhming after every pause, but my eyes were on the photograph. In three shades of gray, a mother clown and father clown waved back at me, with their clown baby balanced in the father's wide palm.
"Where do you imagine the kid originated from, sir?"
"I believe we passed a circus train on the road a few minutes before we were hit. I would presume from there. He looks to be a clown."
H.P. was not the fastest pixie in the business- that prize probably went to Wilcox in falcon form. And, since identifying the items that he did not, in fact, like to have spread over water coolers and file deliveries had long since become second or third nature to me, I stopped talking and focused instead on wriggling through the plants. One leaf nicked my thumb. I didn't see what color my blood had turned.
We had probably rid ourselves of the trigger-happy child; we appeared to be faring well enough, even as we ran. So it turned out there was even less reason to bring up H.P.'s not-walking than the cynical side of my brain had prepared counterarguments for. Court adjourned, case dismissed. We were safe.
I turned the gray photo around so my boss would see it if he looked back at me. He didn't, but the baby's chin rested on his shoulder, and his crying seemed to ebb when he took in the familiar faces.
"I was thinking we should name him Slater," said H.P., zig-zagging between the golden stalks. "After Samuel Slater. You remember him, don't you? He had those nice tin buttons on his coat. I gave Longwood a promotion for keeping an eye on him and his factory deal."
I remembered the part about the promotion.
"That's not what his parents wanted to name him, sir. Look, it's- it's written right here on the back: We love you with all our hearts, Flappy Bob."
H.P. pulled up with a harsh flap. I slammed into his wings. He turned around. "Flappy Bob," he repeated. A faint red began to creep over his neck. "Every name in the wide reachings of the universe exists, and they go with Flappy Bob."
I picked the photograph from the dirt and offered it to the baby. Wishful imaginings, perhaps, but a twinkle seemed to spark in his wide pink eyes as I squeezed it beneath his chubby hand. "Mama?"
"He can say 'Mama', boss."
"I can say, His name will be Slater." H.P. drew in his wings in a decisive manner and returned to forging a path through the field.
"Wasn't I once as small as Flappy is, H.P.?"
"I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it is pointlessly obvious and there is no useful information to be gleaned from such a discussion. You always do this, Sanderson. Boss, can we please name the newborn Markwell instead of Penham? Boss, where should I hang this plaque you wanted me to make that inexplicably reads the name I wanted rather than yours? Boss, I started a petition to rename the company restaurant 'Heartbreak Hotel' for no conceivable reason other than my being passive-aggressive about wanting to attend the Elvis Presley concert this weekend despite the fact that I'm supposed to be giving the most important presentation thus far in Pixie history in front of the Fairy Council that same evening." He skirted a swarming hill of red ants. "Examining the rocket was explicitly my idea. I gave you a good name, didn't I?"
"My first name is Mister. You gave all of us the first name Mister."
"Did you want to share my ridiculous surname of Whi-"
"Who said that?" cried a light voice. The little human with the big gun. We fell silent. H.P. stood frozen with Flappy Bob in one hand, a bent stalk of corn in the other. I started to back away.
"Sir, we'll make smaller targets if we split up…!"
H.P. probably would have given me the 'safety in numbers' line there, but he got distracted when Flappy reached up, shoved his fingers into his nose, and curled his sharp nails in tight. I figured that was just as well. Two pixies and a baby didn't make for a very big number.
"You and I will stick together, Sanderson. I believed I'd made that (Shove off, imp) concept clear. I won't have you turn your back on me- We are not finished with this conversation."
He checked his rising voice. "What's so wrong with the name Slater? No one would ever trust someone named Flappy with their tax forms. Is he going to sign all his checks 'Flappy Bob'? Will there be court cases that read Flappy Bob v. Fairy World? Are we going to have to attend his elementary school parent-teacher conferences and sit around the horseshoe table asking how well Flappy Bob is getting along with the other children?"
I tried to take the photograph back from the baby, but Flappy screwed up his eyes and tightened his grip and would simply have none of it. So I latched onto the opportunity and shrugged. "It appears he likes it, H.P."
"Hmm." H.P. wiped mud from the lapel of his suit onto his thumb. "I suppose allowing him to keep that photo might relieve him of a few restless wonderings about his past, which certainly won't be a negative thing for us. I will have to consider the full consequ-"
"Who said that?" came the voice, again. Perhaps slightly deeper than I'd realized. Suddenly it was in front of us, and sounding rather like the one that had called "I'm okay!" back at the crash. And much… much closer…
H.P. jerked to the right and I dove left as the ears of corn ahead of us were swiped to the side. The perpetrator was a human drake, short and brown, dressed in spandex of the same red, blue, and white pattern as Flappy's rocket. As he stepped out before us, we watched him draw in a great gulp of the air, the same way I might suck up a dish of cheese fondue if someone were foolish enough to leave it unattended on the counter at Anti-Cosmo and Anti-Wanda's 9,000th anniversary. That… that being a hypothetical example, of course.
He bore no gun, nor was he a child. Not so long as he sported that mustache. There I was, barely three feet tall, leering up at a wiry, well-muscled human drake easily twice my height. I could see my reflection in the helmet on his head- a dome that somewhat resembled H.P.'s, if not for the blinding way it bounced the last trails of red sunlight into my face. I pushed my shades closer to my nose. My jaw tightened. Saliva squeezed beneath the chip in my front tooth as my tongue pressed forward.
There was more than one hunter in the field.
So, here's a multi-million blockbuster idea for Fairywood: We'll strip two pixies of magic and abandon them on the open road without so much as a loophole to defend themselves. It's out of our hands, right? They're old enough to look out for themselves, right? Won't be our fault if they die, right? Oh, I ask you…
We looked at one another in a bewildered triangle. A triangle that became a rhombus when the freckle-faced little drake pressed his way out of the corn behind H.P. Together, two sets of human eyes switched from me to him. I watched the dark human's jaw slacken.
I knew Da Rules. You couldn't help that when you were the one to head the Nordic Translation Project (Again, my apologies to Finland for it having taken me thirty years to realize I'd spelled hääyöaieuutinen four different ways throughout). Section N, Article 17, Paragraph 10 (Paragraph 11 if it was one of the copies with half the preamble to the American Constitution thrown in), Line 2: If another member of the planet's dominant species discovers the existence of one's fairy godparent(s); clause two, and associates them with their appropriate godchild; clause three, and reveals their existence before the world through verbalization, sign language, or writing (Childhood drawings were ruled immune from this two years back in Porter v. Starshine Kiss, almost immediately after the decision of Snow v. Carmichael, stating that any child currently in possession of Fairies who knowingly reveals the existence of another's godparents would lose their own as well), then shall the godparent(s) in question be summoned back to Fairy World for a furlough period [sic] lasting no more than forty-five (45) hours at the discretion of the current Keeper of the Rules - and yes, there is an 'e' in current that does not resemble an 'a' whatsoever - after which they shall be reassigned to one or more (though not exceeding three) children of the planet's dominant species who fall into the following parameters… On, on, on.
The short version is, we pixies were always getting landed with the smallest core to swallow. If we'd have been born full fairies, H.P. and I could potentially have named Flappy our godson right there, so long as we followed the standard introductory procedure outlined in Section B, Subsection A. Easy way out, you say, and you're right.
That wasn't even the best part. According to page 1,691, Amendment TT, also referred to as Utter Dependency Clause (as determined in the rulings of Dustfinger v. Cadence von Strangle), Flappy wouldn't even be stripped away from us afterward. We'd be pinged - poofed, more accurately - up to that big poolside resort in the sky, could keep the baby, and Jorgen would deal with all the messy details of memory erasure…
BUT NO, somebody high and grand up there had the brilliant idea to forbid direct wish-granting interference to all non-Fairy beings with even a lick of magic in their souls because, and I'm not paraphrasing, the Fairies happen to make make better brownies. The groveling, charity-minded doormat Brownies themselves are simply lucky that they're still clinging to the Fairy class by a thread- they'll never participate in anything themselves if they risk winning more gain than a sprinkling of food and drink. Never open a bar in brownie country, that's my advice; if it isn't an absolute necessity for the individual, they aren't interested. They hardly understand mating.
Don't look sideways at us for not participating. I hadn't even finished puberty. And it's not as though we didn't try. Actually, the entire reason the Fairy Council finally agreed to recognize Pixies as a distinct class was because they (correctly) assumed their own kind would win the bake-off, and they hoped to prevent us "corporate folk" from getting in on that action and the tax benefits associated with it. Oh, H.P. hit the roof when he heard the way they'd timed their decision. Nothing like being handed the golden goose the day before it croaks. The most we got was a scribbled sidenote in Da Rules: Chapter 417, Section F, Subsection O, Amendment I stated that Pixies could select godkids, assign pixies to act as their Guardians, and directly grant their wishes if there should come a day when fewer than six children on a planet had fairy godparents.
Six. Who pulls weird numbers like that out of their hat? I don't know what scenario they expected to bring them to such low numbers, but my money has always been placed on a third Great Magical Plague. So you lose a batch of fairies; it's not as though they're anywhere near extinction. Then you send the pixies down and see if H.P.'s mutation renders us immune, or (I find this the more likely reason) sit back and let it wipe us from existence. As Anti-Cosmo once pointed out with his wandpoint resting between H.P.'s eyes, if we're all genetically identical, we'll fall like dominoes. Problem solved.
Our only other hope is to convince the Fairy Elder to let us buy Fairy World outright from under her crown, really. I'm still scratching behind my neck, wondering why we should have to be lumped into the wish-restriction class when the Genies managed to slip through the cracks- don't even get me started on them…
So, no, being born into a species incapable of pulling the trick of outing ourselves to the first human to come bumbling along and then kicking back for a two-day all-expenses-paid vacation whenever we lost our starpieces and didn't feel like taking the long way home was not a thing I had ever been bitter about. I'm glad we got that cleared up.
The redhead with the gun lit with a smile in a matter of wingbeats (Really). "Papa, Papa look! Look, I found Grandpa's gnomes!"
"We're pixies!" I shot back at him, thoroughly insulted. Go kiss a brownie librarian and pick up a basic field guide while you're at it, why don't you?
The small drake made a grab for H.P., who finally seemed to realize that he stood at the child's feet. If the Tooth Fairy hadn't crumpled his hat, he'd have lost it. Those spidery fingers closed on empty air. "Flappy," said the darker drake again, reaching out. "Just let me-"
I locked onto his wrist, wrenched it downward, and buried my teeth in the back of his hand. Hey, that's just the Pixie way. He yelped, H.P. vanished into the corn with the baby towards the road, and I plowed face-first in the dirt where I'd been swatted. The smaller drake, who had been racing after H.P., tripped over my back. He squeaked like a rubber ball. I scrambled up, swiping dust from my suit. Then I was off into the field again.
Corn stalks towered in rows like thousands of von Strangles around me. They seemed to crush the last light out of the dusk. Jagged leaves and crispy husks bit my skin, drawing bright pink dots of blood and draining my limited inner store of magic, but I would not stop. That was not a question.
I tried to find a trail of flattened stalks, but a pixie and a baby made for a small team, and there weren't many indications that they'd come this way. Maybe none at all. Had wings sliced through that limp hanging leaf? It was getting harder to tell as even the faint glow of twilight slipped away. I tore my shades off, folded the arms, and stuck them over the collar of my shirt.
It was clear that the humans were following hard behind, tripping and cursing and swatting corn from their faces. Both let out a howl for their respective papas. One final crow took flight on my left. It had probably given away my position, but I didn't particularly care. So had my cry; I would sooner place the blame on myself than attribute awareness to the bird. Having the humans against me was enough. The thought that even the local fauna intended to prevent my escape might just crush my resolve to splinters.
I wasn't running - who would when you can float? - but hovering didn't seem to help me fare much better. My wings caught in the stalks. When I moved, they twisted and snagged. Trapped, trapped! On several occasions I had to land in the mud and wriggle backwards, then crawl beneath the curled, rough leaves. Wasting time, wasting time… There were no more signs to suggest whether H.P. had chosen one direction over another. The taste of his imprint signals permeated the energy field from every possible direction. I was flying blind.
"H.P.?" Beat. "Somebody tell me what to do!"
No reply, except for the dark circus freak again. That was what he had to be- some goon from the circus, if he knew Flappy's name and dressed like that. I paused between two columns of corn, tinted blue as night smothered Kansas. I didn't remember the field being so long between the rocket and the truck. Probably, I'd gotten turned around. That was a sobering thought. If only I were higher.
I flapped my wings two times. Three times. Flappy's white make-up, I hoped, might help me spot them in the dark. The star at the top of H.P.'s cap. A rustling of corn. I only needed a little glimp-
Have you often had the feeling that you've forgotten some very, very crucial detail? Has that detail ever been a child with a shotgun who was born and raised to shoot small, flying creatures out of the sky? If so, congratulations; we'll make a Sanderson out of you yet.
The bullet might have grazed the back of my head. I didn't really feel any pain so much as a short, sharp burn, like the swing of a hot knife, or a typewriter space bar thrown by a really, really frustrated workmate named Jericho across the conference table. But it was enough to overbalance me. I tipped downwards. My grasping fingers closed on a corn husk, only to burn my palm as I continued in my crashing descent. The second stalk bent under me all the way to the dirt, and maybe snapped at its base. I wasn't sure.
I pulled myself together, licking at my dry lips. Violet sparkles were spattered down my right arm. I strained my wings, but they wouldn't support me. Wings acted as a border between the physical and magical; it took the strength of both to lift one off the ground. As I stared for a few numb seconds at my bloodied arm, it didn't seem as though I ought to have lost enough magic from the bullet wound to render me unable to hover. Not so soon. Had I cut up my back, too, without noticing at the time? Even through my suit and shirt?
Tromping noises, human feet- I couldn't stay here. Unlike the eastern elves, who often seemed to prefer the feel of solid earth despite their wings, walking was a concept I was largely unfamiliar with. I stumbled once, favoring my left side, before I regained my balance. The field couldn't go on much farther.
Loneliness was another impression I had rarely experienced. Really, no matter what H.P. may insist if you asked him. I had my own office, yes, as well as my own apartment, yes, but there were always other pixies just down the hall. We all came to work together, and together we all turned in for the night.
This was different. This- this being alone without H.P., lost in the dark without hearing his voice, downed and trapped and staggering and with humans behind me, not knowing when he'd reappear, pinched my soul into a knot.
I think I was anxious, perhaps?
My wings began to flutter up. My fingers grasped at the tight collar of my shirt. I blinked my eyes.
Then I broke into the open.
The cool air caught me so off guard that I tripped over my own feet and rolled twice down the slight slope and into the dusty road. I came up sitting, my hands braced between my legs, but dizziness soon tipped me on my face. I slumped over, massaging one wrist against my eyes.
"H.P.?" I muttered. Bleary as a selkie for too long out of water, I stared back up the road. The truck stood where we'd left it, brown and spotted with rust and mud, backed into the first couple rows of corn. The windows were still rolled down. As I dragged myself over, I thought I could make out a dent mark on the roof where we'd been hit by Flappy's rocket capsule.
They weren't waiting there for me. Still mostly unable to use my wings, I scrambled up to check for them in the seats. I searched the loading bed. I even ducked beneath the chassis. Oil dripped in silence, and I remembered how dry my mouth was, full of dust and maybe a bit of blood.
A couple of crows had begun to return to the rustling field. Stepping away from the truck, I cupped my hands around my dry mouth. "H.P.! Flappy?"
"His name is Slater!" snapped a voice not too deep in the corn. Another gunshot. Something squealed. A soft object hit the ground.
I stopped moving. So did the cornfield. My wings fell at the same time as my knees and palms. Dirt pierced the scratches along my fingers.
H.P. had survived the lizallicopter attack. Of course he had- nothing touched with magic could kill a magical being. Break and bruise to the point we were pulp, yes. Disintegrate into a smoldering heap of cinders, sure, but never kill. Magic ran through our veins; its power had about as much effect on us as a splash of blood in a human's mouth. Having an opponent force our fagiggly glands to act against our will or being smacked with a warm current of lightning was unpleasant, yes, but we could recover and would always live. Only an object crafted without any sort of enchantment could wipe us from existence.
Bullets weren't magical.
I knelt there in the road. Maybe for upwards of two minutes. Even if I'd worked under H.P. longer than any of the other pixies had, I wasn't much of a leader. The most innovative idea in my life had come to me only a few months ago, when I'd pinged down to visit P.F. Sloan - in disguise, of course - and we'd had the sudden revelation that when you dropped off the ending 'g's, coagulating could rhyme with contemplating.
If there wasn't official business to be done, H.P. had the attention span of a candle, but my wick was even shorter. I had a habit of using my allotted ration of paperclips as makeshift hooks or needles to sew my clothes rather than for their intended purpose. I liked typewriters for the clicking sound of their keys. I chewed on my hat when I was plotting out graphs. I wrote 'yadda yadda yadda' into legally-binding contracts. My pens were arranged in my drawer by the number of times I'd successfully used them to land a dark dot on the far wall.
I didn't even have a real job. My position as head of the complaints department in a company full of humble drones who worked better than ticking clocks was a joke; I was assigned the occasional project, and I did oversee copying and filing duties and participate in a fair share of the work myself, and it wasn't like I didn't know how to pull together a decent contract or that one should always write paperwork in triplicate (not knowing that would make me more of a disgrace than Rosencrantz), but mostly I had my own private office because whenever I grew restless, I sang. And I grew restless a lot. H.P. had always known it, and long since given up his attempts to curb the problem. "Just keep the door shut," was his weary advice now. Or had been.
I was a pixie who was kept around for sentimentality's sake. Not because I was particularly efficient. Oh, I worked fine. I completed my tasks and completed them well, so long as someone else was there to keep my attention on it. It wouldn't be the worst thing if I didn't finish; H.P. ensured that most of what passed through my hands was busywork. Expendable. Still, every ounce of myself I poured into the company. I lived it. I cherished it. I'd secure its survival as a whole before my own.
But I was not the kind of pixie one called upon to close a serious business deal. I did not participate in the inner workings of the company, drawing up marketing ideas, accounting, supervising sales and distribution, contacting investors, answering calls, relaying messages, performing administrative duties, following up with Fairies who defaulted on their magic payments, organizing budgets, studying files, sorting mail, managing funds. I'd been assigned to the very fringes. It was an adventure whenever Abernathy asked me to inventory the warehouse stock with him.
On paper, I was the lowest rung on the ladder of customer service. Consumers only met with me when they were left with no other alternative. I was the last line of defense: Anyone who could make it through my office without attempting to beat their head through a wall had certainly earned an audience with the Head Pixie, which was the request I dealt with most often. Without hesitation, he always selected me to accompany him on his excursions beyond Pixie World, less because I held mastery over skills he did not possess and more because leaving me to my own devices for any length of time ran the risk of the company dissolving into a potluck of chirpy music and pink elephants. He'd long grown sick of pinging assorted pachyderms and interesting pieces of sculpture back to where they belonged. Useful and desirable were two separate concepts entirely, and too often I was neither.
Useful pixies did not leave Pixie World when the boss too was away. They were trusted to stay behind and manage the corporation. It was why Longwood held the title of vice president, and Sanderson did not. H.P. brought me along on business trips to suggest he held a strength of numbers; to have someone there to watch his back. I served no real purpose aside from acting as another set of eyes. I was merely the cute one who smiled thinly and waved and urged our enemies to relax their guard. And being "the cute one" is hardly a reassurance when those beyond company walls can never quite tell you apart from your coworkers anyway.
It was that simple. I hadn't even returned home to share the news, and the entirety of the Pixie race had fallen to cookie crumbles in my fingers. And, I was too young for offspring of my own. That was a privilege only H.P. had lived long enough to obtain. So this would be a standstill for our species, then, for about the next five hundred thousand years. That long before I'd meet a pixie whose face never scrunched in judgement. My charming people skills tended to quail when run against rows of my own stonewall peers.
I stared into the dark field, chewing on the inside of my cheek each time I heard a peal of laughter from the child or frustrated shout from the dark man. They sounded as though they were getting closer. The small drake undoubtedly still wielded the shotgun. I had the keys to the pickup truck in my pocket and an open road ahead of me. It couldn't be much further to Mushroom Rock and the Bit Bridge- maybe four more hours, or maybe five. I still had to cross the rest of will o' the wisp country, but otherwise, nothing but distance stood between me and home.
With deliberate care, I drew my shades from my collar and slid them back over my eyes. H.P. had worn his gray, star-tipped hat for hundreds of thousands of years since it had been gifted to him. Hundreds of thousands of magical creatures knew that hat and associated it with the leader of pixiekind. Whether succeeding him was my destiny by birthright or Longwood's by rank could be sorted out later; someone was meant to wear that pointed cap, and I would not be leaving without it.
Without my starpiece in hand, I couldn't channel enough energy from my surroundings to do anything particularly useful.
But magic still ran through my pixie blood, and my pixie blood was leaking pink and purple sparks of it into the air from the back of my head. I could taste it in my nose, and it stirred me to move. That was something I might could work with, even in a limited fashion. I could taste it in my nose, and it stirred something deep within my core to act, to run out there, to defend myself, to stop cowering in the dust. All moving energy manifested itself as heat. And when it's starting to cluster around a furious pixie, it needs only a little nudge.
All right. So starting a fire remained out of the question. Of course it would, when I still lacked the ability to float. I could neither ping across the field nor summon even an object as small as Flappy's photograph to my side, should I have wanted to.
But the important thing was, in that asinine instant, I felt like I wasn't at the mercy of the world. I didn't feel like I was alone and directionless. And back then, that was enough to tip me over the edge.
We didn't really have a name for the phenomenon back then. Not one that you'd throw out during everyday conversation in a rural Kansas town. I wouldn't call it a crop circle, anyway. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, surrounded by swirling flecks of heat growing more intense with my emo… emotions, I made a crop square. Corn was designed to stand tall and tough, but it still bent near the base when it got warm.
I charged back through the field, arms out to catch me should I stumble. Brown stalks bowed behind me like a crowd. Sure, it did start to wear off as I raced along, pell-mell. The heat faded, and the field stopped bending to my whims. But for just that brief moment - and I would never forget it - I felt like the most powerful pixie in the universe.
It was, and remains, the most insolent thing I ever did in my life. But no amount of magic could remove the mention of it from my permanent records. It's written there in bright blue ink even now, scrawled across the first paper to follow a little red tab sticking out near the front of the drawer, in a manila folder labeled "Current Status": Pixie 002; addressed as and hereafter referred to as "Sanderson"; Overseer of Complaints; Room 2A in Headquarters; personal quarters located in Tower Room 2. Does not appear fit to be successor. Capriciousness most likely stems from lack of environmental stability (Cross with Maslow's hierarchy of needs) during the critical period of development due to constantly-fluctuating circumstances surrounding unexpected birth (Cross with Origin of the Pixies, Chapter Eight: "The Nymph In the Sand"). For comparison on environmental stability, also see files on "Palomar" (pixie 016) and "Kaufman" (pixie 018) and cross with Chapter Twenty-Three of the aforementioned text, "The Makings of Greatness". High susceptibility to biological swarm trigger, general pleasant disposition, and apparent craving for affirmation makes him fair choice for companionship beyond Pixie World, yet simultaneously renders him too unpredictable for permanent leadership. Demonstrates high loyalty, though devotion unfortunately appears to result from familiar ties rather than respect for his superiors' positions. Loyalty under another figurehead aside from the Head Pixie [the First; his sire] is a subject which remains mostly unexplored; rivalries with several fellows within a four-thousand-year age range suggest high probability of loyalty collapsing after the rise of an eventual second Head Pixie. What such disloyalty may lead to is unknown, though one attempt at usurpation has been made in the past (May be worth comparing with Origin of the Pixies Chapter Sixteen: "Crossing Thresholds", Twenty-One, "How to Yoo-Doo", and Fifty-Two, "The Rise of Anti-Sanderson", as well as another file in this drawer, "Anti-Sanderson"). For every switching of leadership, it's advised not to trust him with important duties until his full loyalty is affirmed. Officially relocated from sixth in line of succession to nineteenth on Oct. 2, 1965 A.D, Year of the Splattered Snowfall (Cross with Subsection 2 of the file "History" within the drawer "Flappy Bob"); highly unlikely to significantly progress beyond this point. -F.S. Whimsifinado, MA/6/YoSS9.
I was still in my… state when I ran across the dark human. He didn't stop me, only stared, and I rushed past without bothering him either. Shouting, probably, nimrod that I was, and maybe about my concerns over what Longwood had planned for me if he rose into full power. The first thing to go, I assumed, would be my personal three-ring hole puncher. And that, I wouldn't stand for.
There's no telling how long I searched the surrounding corn. It could have been five minutes, or thirty. But I found it. Abandoned, in the dirt. Maybe stepped on. Ground beneath an uncaring heel. Regardless, it was it.
My beating wings remained useless for flight, but they stirred up an anxious cloud of dust. It was difficult to even hear my own voice over the buzzing. Were those my wings, or all the scattered thoughts ricocheting through my brain? I made the mistake of wiping the back of my sore head, and my fingers came away sticky with green; the magic in my blood had fully made the change from its typical purple with the shifting of my mental state. That should have been my signal to step away from the situation- to imagine myself standing in a square of security and push all the negative emotions out of it, the way H.P. had taught me since before I could use a stapler. But, like a nymph, I ignored it.
Near-hovering, gulping up bites of air I didn't need, I finally swept up the abandoned gray hat and yanked it over my ears. It was too floppy, too big. If my fingers hadn't kept it pressed in place, it would have slipped over my eyes.
"U-uncap your pens or ready your typewriters. File this in triplicate. Mister Sanderson died here on September 16th, 1965. Until further notice, you - all of you - can refer to me as the Head Pixie!"
Something smacked me above my fiery bullet scrape, knocking the cap back to the ground. I made a dive for the soiled cloth, only to be tripped up by a quick swing at my legs.
"Put. My hat. Down, Sanderson. You know perfectly well that I loathe it when you do that."
I whipped around as soon as I heard my name, still twisted in my own arms and legs. Then I was on my feet, rapid wings straining to lift myself even a handful of inches off the ground.
There he was. A bit battered around the edges, smelling of crushed grain and maybe manure, but undeniably my boss. He held Flappy under one arm, gurgling. His other hand he'd set on his hip. Knuckles curled. Tight. At a loss for anything else to do, I plucked his hat from the dirt, tried to smooth out the creases, and handed it to him.
"Your magic lines are flickering, Sanderson. Keep them stable and connected to the energy field before you asphyxiate. You're bordering on tingle-fritzy."
I had one finger lengthwise between my teeth. No words came to my tongue, or my head. I just… panted. Which still tasted weird, to feel all that empty air swirling through my nose. Even stranger to feel the prickling behind my eyes. My throat felt like it was being smothered by the rest of my neck. It was really not my day if I were coming down with something now. I hoped I wasn't contagious.
His hand went up, palm turned towards me. "No, no need to explain. I believe I know exactly what you thought. You're growing restless with your rank in the company."
"No! No, sir- never!"
"Despite your knowing that Longwood is next in line of succession, both by the position I have given him and the legal conditions surrounding his birth, you are still convinced in your soul that you as firstborn have the right to take my place, and you pounced upon the opportunity without a second thought."
Every word came slamming down. I shook my head hard enough to rattle one side of my shades from my ear. H.P. hovered there, glowering in the darkness with the baby clown curled up in his right arm. Flappy's gurgling had become a low whimper, and he didn't even understand. My toes shrank away in my shoes, but neither they nor my shoulders had anywhere to hide.
"Sanderson, recognize that I trust you a great deal."
"Yes, sir- Of course, sir!"
"If you should ever give me any reason to suspect you are a threat to me or the interests of this company, I will not hesitate to replace you. Realize that I have no end of assistants to choose from. I don't reveal everything I've learned to the rest of you, even in Origin of the Pixies, and I have more power than you could ever plan to match until it's too late."
Shaking my head again, I wiped my sleeve several times down my tie and straightened up. "I understand that perfectly, sir. But, H.P., I ask that you, too, um… that you remember how everything I am is… of you. I share every last one of your genes. You know I would never betray you, nor the Pixies. I crave success, but- but I embody loyalty even more than that. I know my place the way you once knew yours, sir. I will always stand by your side. So long as you should have me. You know that. Sir."
"Hm. See that you do. I request such impudence never happens again. Don't ever, ever assume I am dead. I don't care if my hat" - he flapped said hat at me - "is spattered with blood turned red alongside pink scraps of flesh. I am immortal, and I will always be here. A thousand millennia may pass away, but to the best of my knowledge, I won't be leaving anywhere fast. You sealed your fate long ago. You will never wear this cap, Sanderson. You will never be Head Pixie. Not unless myself and all those who come before you on the list of succession should choose to retire, which I and presumably they never plan to, or I contract rabies, after which I don't doubt that I'll be coming for you first."
He waited for me to say "Yes, sir" again. I didn't. I wasn't lying when I'd told him I was as loyal a subordinate as he could wish for. But was it wrong if I didn't like the sound of 'never'? Not being worthy even of consideration… He truly wasn't proud of me. Not at all.
"Come on." The hat went back on his head. "I discovered a safe place beneath the tractor, just this way. We can wait there a moment before making a move for the barn."
"Erm, sir, if I might ask…"
"I was grazed by the bullet, is all, but it's no matter."
I wondered where he was bleeding. It wasn't clear in the dark, but from the way he angled the right side of his head away from me, I had an idea. I knew the flow hadn't stopped. I could taste the scent of it on my tongue. My wings folded and unfolded themselves as I trailed after him, on foot. Somehow, I couldn't bring myself off the ground.
"H.P., I- I'm not sure I understand. Why did you leave your hat there on the ground… if you clearly didn't travel far from it? You could have tak-"
He turned on me, bright heat glinting behind his glasses. "Because, simply put, I'm not nearly as sentimental as I know you are, Sanderson. I was content to leave the thing behind and not double back if it meant I lived, particularly when I suspected you might make an attempt to retrieve it for me. Risking my own wings is out of the question- the Pixie race itself must survive before any individual, and all of you are directionless without me as your head. You in particular. If I have to abandon that which I came here with to preserve myself, then so be it. I know what's worth risking for that simple cap, and life isn't on that list. Those bullets were never touched with magic. You could have been killed, and I would have been right over here to watch… you…"
I squirmed my shoulders. Silence, broken by one of Flappy's whimpers.
"He got your wing." H.P. realized then. His own drooped after a simple flap. After he adjusted his hat, he took my hand and guided it around to the tear. It was round, about the size of a half dollar. I folded the apex of my right wing back and forth between my fingers.
"I'm impressed," I said. "This is a small target."
"Here. Here, take off your suit coat and fold it over that rip to keep the dirt away. Not inside out, of course-"
"-but we can't have that getting infected. Especially when we have no way to channel magic."
I did as he instructed, taking care to keep the jacket folded right side out. You could spread around that our kind were ridiculously picky about the way we and those around us wore their clothes, but then, humans didn't much like having sea urchin spines wedged three inches deep in their hands, and you didn't see me using that tidbit of information against them. At least, not unless I was provoked. That would be rude.
"Do you know how far we are from the Bridge, sir?" I asked, placing one hand on the green metal of the tractor. Its rear wheels stretched high, high above my head.
"Not precisely. I have a general idea, but it has been a few decades since I last inspected this portion of Kansas in any great detail." A crease appeared near the top of his nose. He pricked up his ears. "Our voices- Well, nothing to be done about that. They're coming back. Up in the air, Sanderson. We can avoid them entirely if we cut around the barn and then over the field far behind them."
"I… I can't fly with my wing like this, sir."
H.P. shifted his eyes from me to the dusty red barn ahead, me, the barn, me, the baby, towards the road, to me, the barn, and me.
"Okay," he said, and mumbled it again once more. He lowered Flappy back into my arms. "You hold the clown. Give me the keys. I'll move fast and bring the truck around as close as I'm able to. Stick here, near the tractor. Quietly." Keys clinked. He zipped off.
Flappy had found a fold of his spotted blanket to chew on. But he looked up with a giggle as H.P. flew past his head. One fat finger rose into the air.
"No. We're pixies. See, I have wings too." Setting him down to lift up the edge of my jacket, I twisted slightly to show him said wings I had, and beat them a few times to brush air across his face. Flappy squeezed his eyes shut, beaming. He had his one tooth bared in a grin. Then he opened his eyes, and his smile slipped away. The finger shifted to me.
"Ah. Ah. Ow."
Even I could understand the connection he was making. I picked him up beneath the armpits. "The hole doesn't hurt, Flappy. Pixie wings lack the nerves for pain, and all of us magical creatures are quick healers. It will mend itself after a few nights of rest. Until then, it's only a little stiff."
Flappy, however, was not going to take that sitting down. He stuck his little foot in my gut and craned his neck past my shoulder, chubby hands grabbing for a hold on the costa.
"Okay- Now it- hurts. Ow- Don't wrench it forward, you little…"
I pushed him into the dirt. "No. No flying now."
"I can't right now. Do you know what 'can't' means? There's a hole right here. As far as I'm aware, magic can only take physics and enhance them as though it were leaping off a springboard- not outright defy them. There are limits and nuances to these things, see? But someday when it's healed, then I'll hover for you. That's a deal."
I flinched as another crack! rang through the air, followed by a light stream of smoke. But this time, I did not question H.P.'s ability to escape relatively unharmed. It was already beginning to sink in, what I had really done. I could see my arrogant action from H.P.'s perspective. Doubting him, betraying him, interfering with any plan he may have had… No, not this time. This time, I simply drew Flappy to my chest and huddled softly against the tractor, wishing I had something to drink. H.P. would come back in a few minutes. It was our deal.
Flappy laughed, actually, and clapped his hands. It was only then that I started to wonder if the shotgun sounded anything like a circus cannon. He'd lost his red rubber nose among the corn.
By the time my blood calmed back to violet, the infamous Papa had come out to drag his nymph inside. The other human from the field went with them, polite conversation was exchanged on the porch… Yadda, yadda, yadda. H.P. rolled the truck around to the rocky path that led straight into the barn as soon as the humans returned to the farmhouse, so he must have been waiting for them to go. I pushed myself up with one hand, although I probably could have afforded to use both. Flappy clung to my neck, gaaing and cooing and chewing on my lapel.
"Is it true that babies see upside-down for the first few months of their life?" I asked H.P. as I walked over.
"If you're any indication, it may be the first two hundred and fifty thousand years." He slid out of the car to take Flappy away, then returned to his preferred spot on the passenger side. I understood. The road may have looked empty, but it was dark out and we had a long way yet to go. His eyesight wasn't what it used to be.
I climbed in behind the wheel and, with some effort, heaved the door shut. "How old do you think he is, H.P.?"
"My understanding of human aging is limited. He doesn't have magic lines to count."
"How old might you guess?"
He shot me a sideways glance, dull-eyed. "Does it matter?"
I tightened my chapped lips. H.P. watched this for a moment before raising one white brow.
"For all I know, he just split from the amniotic sac and today is his birthday. Now, Sanderson, please set the brick into place on the gas pedal, and start the car."
Rubbing my eyes with my wrist while the crook of my elbow covered my yawn, I did as he requested.