Tenderfir v. Redbrush: Following the asphyxiations of Beatrice Banks, Cody Lane, Summer Lane, and Robert Woods due to the lack of oxygen in the high atmosphere, the Fairy Council ruled that Cyril and Cherry Redbrush were to be imprisoned on account of negligence, and that no angel would be permitted to spend eight straight hours in the cloudlands for any reason; a one-hour visit to Earth at minimum after every four hours, including during the night, is required by law. No exceptions. All visiting angels must be accompanied by their Guardian(s) at all times throughout the entirety of Tír Ildáthach, Hy-Brasil, and Meum-Nōmen-Domus-Est-Spriggan-Hame-Vivite-Vitam-Vestram-Et-Nihil-Paenite.
The rain rushed down in truckloads. It beat the dirt with the sound of a few million paper clips clattering against tin. I could almost see the horrified expression on H.P.'s face that day in March when Cupid's stray feathers had accidentally knocked half a dozen open boxes of them from the storage room shelf. My wasp wings pressed tighter to my head, the membranes rippling with every icy droplet. My feet splashed into a puddle, shocking my lower right leg with a fresh rush of cold. I tripped and went sprawling in the mud, and H.P. waved me on from the base of the Bridge.
"Let's keep it professional, Sanderson."
Shaking myself off, I bundled the whimpering Flappy Bob to my chest and raced after him. Slippery, solid light hit my feet. It sent my shoes skidding with a squeak. After a moment of awkward grabbing and pulling at one another, we burst above the scattering of malformed clouds and out of the torrent, and I drew in a swell of cool, humid air and tall violet buildings.
Above the clouds and out of the rain did not equate to 'free from puddles'; we must not have been the only ones who fled to the Bridge when the storm swept over Kansas. The next time I stepped in one, it sent my feet careening out from under me. My chest smacked against the pixelated purple stripes of the Bit Bridge, and I slid back beneath the clouds and into the rain. My hands fumbled for Flappy; I'd lost my grip, and he thought this deserved a round of giggles.
"Oh, you must be-" H.P. dove after us. Rain spattered his wings and made him wobble, but he was still faster than I was on my belly. He zipped down around me and locked his arms beneath my own. Flappy bumped against my outstretched ankle, and I picked him up. With only a few muttered words that I didn't exactly catch, but that rather sounded like "You're a pain", he leant me the support I needed to walk back above the clouds and safely off the Bridge.
H.P. dropped me the instant my feet were on solid concrete, and we collapsed to our knees at the same time. He flopped over on his back and coughed twice.
"You've really got to let the falling-off-Bridges thing go, Sanderson. It was understandable when you were only twenty. Now it's plain ridiculous."
I curled up on the wet ground beside him, my arms and my wings and possibly one leg around Flappy. "What… what was I like when I was that age, boss?"
He stared into a sky of swimming stars, wringing water from his tie so it dribbled across his chest. "You weren't afraid of anything. You snarked at Anti-Fairies and pulled the wings of brownies. It was humiliating. I would have pitched you into the ocean and left you for the elements, but the shore was a long journey from Fairy World and by the time we reached it, I always changed my mind and granted you another chance. You single-handedly ran me ragged for five hundred years until Hawkins was born, and then you would have smothered him with your simpleminded excitement if I hadn't finally started to get a handle on you. Thankfully the elves took him in, or he really might not have survived you. By the time I had Wilcox, you were at least beginning to show some form of obedience and self-restraint."
"Did I… Did I ever crawl into your lap and fall asleep with my thumb in my mouth like Hawkins used to?"
"That's enough." H.P. rolled to his knees. Leaning over, he beat a rapid sheet of rain from his wings. A wet haze of droplets still clung along the veins. I followed suit, though with wings several sizes smaller, I made a slightly less dramatic impression.
I raised my head and gazed over the sparkling, corporate landscape of Pixie World, with its stretching towers and neat roads and occasional decorative fountains in orderly squares. It was well past eight in the evening and the roads were deserted, apart from a few pixies who had paused up the road to chase the loose papers that some scattered coworker had dropped. I didn't even have to get a close look to know it was Rosencrantz, studying hopelessly for the upcoming placement test he'd be retaking for the ninth time next week.
"The Pixie race has grown and accomplished so much. Do you still ever regret your choice not to drown me, H.P.?"
"Sanderson. I said, that's enough. We pixies look to the future- never the past, unless in our future plans we can afford the chance to exact revenge on someone who foolishly chose to stand between us and our victory."
I nodded. That made sense.
Papers now in hand, the parade of pixies was on its way up the street, each one with a briefcase at his side. As we crossed the second shorter, flatter purple bridge to reach the core and soul of the city, I lifted our little visitor to shoulder level. "This is where we all live and work, Flappy."
In response, he licked at the water still clinging to his arm.
"I do much prefer being above the clouds rather than under them. Cooper? You work in shipments and I granted your starpiece that automatic wish-approval function some time ago, didn't I?" H.P. motioned to a pixie at the tail end of the line. He diverged from the others (they passed with murmured greetings) and whisked over to examine us.
"Your starpiece, if you would."
Cooper withdrew his pen from the inner pocket of his jacket and handed it over. H.P. clicked out the tip, then wrote something across an imaginary notepad in the air. A warmth of peace and order spread out from the place where he stopped, wrapping over my shoulders like a friendly boa constrictor. The gashes in my arms closed over. Flappy's own nicks and sores and bug-bites vanished. The mud fell away from my suit and tie.
"Yes, that's much better. Thank you, Cooper; you may be on your way with this. After me, Sanderson."
We entered the building together, but after we stepped and/or floated into the elevator, H.P. caught me off guard by tapping the button for the second floor in addition to the eighteenth, where his office was.
"If you would, Sanderson, have a rough report filed tonight on the events of the last two days under the title 'Flappy Bob', then bring him up to my office. It need not be extensive, as I will be adding to it myself within the week, but it will help me to have you fill in some of the gaps and basic information." The doors dinged on Floor 2. He put out his hand to keep them from closing. "By that time, I should have finished penning down the first draft of my plan, so you can join me in the smaller conference room."
He waved me off with an absent hand and allowed the elevator doors to sweep shut. Once they had, I hefted the baby and walked to the first door on the left. Mr. Sanderson, Department of Complaints read the star-shaped plaque embedded in my door. It could use a polishing. After I'd licked my fingertips, I ran them over the brass and then took the doorknob. My bad wing flicked on the lights. Flappy started and briefly began to cry, but then decided it wasn't worth it and trickled into gurgling.
I found the room in much the same condition it had been in when I'd headed off to Las Vegas, except that someone had swept my loose papers into a single neat stack on my floating desk, wiped down the top with a cleaner that still smelled of strawberries, and left me with a new sharpened pencil.
On the surface the gesture appeared thoughtful, but I could detect no selfless pheromones lingering in the air. This was a deliberately-left indication that someone had been pawing through my things to ensure I was actually doing most of my work between the visits I took down to Earth with H.P. My blue desk had Longwood's distrustful fingerprints stamped all over it.
As I took a blank sheet of paper from a drawer, I groped around above until I found my basket of incoming messages. A fairy in Vermont named Florensa Cosma (her handwriting was a frequent visitor in my office) had managed to split her wand in half and ordered a replacement, but been delivered one with the child-safe lock left on it by accident. This normally wouldn't be an issue, but those things take two wands to snap and she had only the one. She could perform simple tasks with it like sending letters, but she appeared to be having trouble finding any fairy willing to actually help her (that part she didn't say, but I felt was implied- you can't have a short visit with Florensa Cosma) and there would be a problem should her goddaughter get into trouble. One imp had submitted a request that said Take away the walrus with no further explanation apart from a return address in Mozambique.
The other several complaints were from various clients who had recently been billed for ongoing wishes they either insisted they had undone, or were having trouble undoing. Most often, those with the latter case wrote to blame us for taking our sweet time (as if we didn't understand it was a valuable resource) in yanking their magic lines out of the invisible yarn around the Big Wand, but it would turn out that there was some parameter of the wish itself preventing it from being undone, like a godchild wishing their parents to the opposite side of the world "all week" and then trying to wish them back before the seven days were up. An easy fix if the fairy in question had channeled pink magic to grant the wish, but not so for yellow. Yellow tends to stick. Well. It appeared that come morning, I'd be back to the daily grind.
I stretched up on my toes and replaced the basket, then reached into my jacket for my pen so I could write out Flappy's document. It still wasn't there; Cupid had, of course, sent it sailing with a well-placed arrow and H.P. had been urgent to move to Flappy's aid. But a thin smile crossed my face as it sank in that I was home. I kept a backup starpiece in the wire cup of highlighters on my desk.
With growing dread, I looked up again and remembered I couldn't reach my desk.
Briefly, I considered pushing Flappy up there so he might wander around and bump the cup over the edge. But at the same time, I didn't want another instance of him tipping and crashing his head against blue tile. Blue didn't go well with human bloodstains.
The room was empty aside from my desk and a chair in one corner, so I felt perfectly safe leaving Flappy on his own in the five minutes I expected to be gone. My search through the hall turned up nothing. My coworkers, or at least those on this floor, had all left for the evening.
Next, I sought help from the lobby storage closet. There I was a success. We had a stepladder there beside the mop and the Jorgen suit. The why we had a stepladder escaped me until I remembered I'd used a stool just like it back when there were only fourteen pixies and H.P. could supervise us as we brushed our teeth. Thirteen. Sorry.
I toted the little ladder back upstairs and into the office. Flappy mostly stopped whining when he saw me. After setting the ladder near my desk, I hopped on top and made another attempt to reach my pen.
"Come on…" Fingers- grabbing- Yes! Finally, finally, finally I had a way to channel magic again. There was no way I was going to write out my report while balanced clumsily on my toes, so I jumped back down to the floor and lay on my stomach beside Flappy. With him pulling at my tie or fondling my hair or tugging at my wings, I copied down everything I could remember about being (literally) picked up by the nape of my neck and tossed out of Las Vegas, discovering Flappy in the cornfield, escaping the young human drake with the gun, and meeting Eunice at the miniature golf course. With a gesture of my starpiece and a mere thought, I had a photograph of Flappy to accompany my report. Baby, it was good to be back.
When I was through, I pulled a green sticky note for 'urgent' from one of my drawers, pressed it to the top of the first page, scrawled H.P. wants this filed tonight -Sanderson, and pinged it down to Keefe's office. Almost immediately, it reappeared in my message basket. A pale yellow sticky note, the color of an automated response (triggered by the time-sensitive word 'tonight'), told me that the office was closed for the evening and would reopen at nine o'clock sharp tomorrow.
No problem. In one of my other drawers, I located the purple pamphlet that listed each pixie's name along with their office number and the location of their private quarters, just to double-check. Pixies were double-checkers by nature. The yellow sticky note was ripped off, and I pinged the document to Room 4 of the Rapunzel Tower. This time I waited a few seconds, but all was quiet.
I was almost out the door when my message basket pinged with an incoming letter. Since it was a ping as opposed to a poof, I put Flappy back on the floor and went to check.
A pink sticky note had been added to the papers, along with Keefe's handwriting and a few wet dots. It simply said, I get off the clock at 9.
Again, I tore this note off, and circled the word 'tonight' in my previous message before I sent it back. I didn't even make it across the room to Flappy before I got my response.
I get off the clock at 9. Take 'tonight' out of your request and leave it in my basket.
I found another green. H.P. specifically requested that it be completed before tomorrow.
Pink, H.P. can deal. He knows the rules. I give 12 hours 2 him and I'm allowed 2 take 12 4 myself.
He clearly knows, yet he asked me to tell you to file this tonight.
It's a $100 ping down + $100 back. I'm not paying 4 that + I'm not in the mood 2 walk. If it's so important you can do it y/self, Sandy.
Flappy was starting to whimper about being left on the hard ground for this long. I wanted to whimper too. I tore off another note. Time for the typical Sanderson trump card: The self-deprecating plea.
Do you really trust ME to manage this without messing up the entire system? Remember how frustrated you were when you walked into Labby after the LAST time you let me file something on my own?
I have literally been running in and out of the shower 2 answer these and Sp + McK + Ral are sick of it. I am NOT coming over there. You're the oldest among us. I'm sure you can handle this. You'd have 2 be more scattered than R/crantz 2 screw up.
Mmph. What else was there to say? Like mentor, like intern?
This last note was accompanied by a purple sticky with tick marks indicating every time I'd forced Keefe to wave his starpiece. He'd billed me the usual twenty-five dollars for each one.
Briefly, I considered pinging Keefe himself out of his room and down to Labby so he could do his job. But only briefly. I didn't want to pull two hundred more greens from my paycheck if I didn't have to, nor did I really expect him to be in the mood for working if I brought him here soaking wet and unclothed. With a sigh through my nose, I pulled my checkbook from its drawer and tossed it on the desk beside the purple note, then grabbed the document and Flappy himself. Basement Level 1, here we went.
Pixies Incorporated's filing room took up the entire floor. Actually, if you wish to be technical, it took up more space than that, as its floorplan was larger than the building and still occasionally expanding through the cloud-like underground. In conversation, we typically referred to the place as 'Labby', short for 'The Labyrinth'. Really, with massive stacks of wooden drawers that stretched up to the high, high ceiling, that's what it was. Keefe knew the place better than he apparently knew his own job description, and the rest of us didn't like to bother with it too much because we had a tendency to get lost. If not lost, then certainly overwhelmed. Labby was the result of over two hundred and forty thousand years of keeping records, and our motto was that if you wanted to find something, you could find it down there.
The elevator let Flappy and I out in what was supposedly the exact middle of the chamber, right beside the massive mainframe computer that could run searches on files and not much else, and a pedestal bearing H.P.'s original copy of Origin of the Pixies. Purely to annoy Keefe, I left the autobiography open on the first page to bear my name rather than his.
I kept glancing over my shoulder as I trotted away from the 'L' and 'M' sections and up towards 'F'. It wasn't that I thought someone was loitering around down here in the hopes of pouncing on me to make me squeal. It was just that I thought… there might be. Newman, Hamilton, and Faust were quite tall for pixies I shared my genetics with - I might go as far as to call them bulky - and they got their kicksies out of doing that sort of thing. None of them had the self-discipline for paperwork or most of H.P.'s stricter rules, so if they caught a pixie wandering around the halls alone, they'd snatch him up, flip him upside down, carry him kicking and hollering and flailing papers across Pixie World to their little gymnasium, and dunk him in the pool head-first. Then you'd dry off by running laps. Like, on foot. If you were lucky, they wouldn't chase you and snatch you up and toss you in the pool again. You always travelled around Headquarters in pairs when Halloween was coming on. And not with Bayard. He'd lead you straight into a trap for a quick laugh.
Once in its past, Labby had been stark and metal, lined with filing cabinets. It'd also gone through a long period where it had been a cozy library, but a few short years ago, Keefe had begged and received reluctant permission to remodel as he saw fit, and he had leaned heavily on his new fascination with neon. The floor, the walls, the ceiling- all were jet black like mine and Flappy's hair. Strobe lights of dark blue and purple brought focus to corners and the occasional floating reading chair, shifting sometimes into orange and green. Glittering curtains of beads dangled at the entrance of every row between the shelves. Tabletop rock fountains glowed with salmon and turquoise. Spinning balls and colored lasers filled the air, coaxing one to play a dodging game if they so chose, though every ten minutes on the dot they would fade away and reposition themselves. H.P. was not happy. He'd wanted to hold off until the thirty-seven-year plan was complete, but sooner or later, we'd be starting over with dull and gray.
I'd passed a lot of lunch breaks down here, testing my singing voice and listening to the echos, or simply entertaining some of my fellows, but it was quite a different feeling to be surrounded by music and voices, and wandering completely on my own. My feet echoed on hard black tile. Footsteps were a sound rarely heard in Pixie World, and that set my teeth all the more on edge. Yes, with my wing still injured - only a restful night or two of sleep near my starpiece would heal a wound like that - I still couldn't hover and was still totally pathetic.
The curtain between the 'E' and 'F' shelves was violet. Beads clicked together as I shouldered my way through. Flappy grabbed a cord and yanked, but we were out of there before he had the chance to pull the whole thing down on our heads. I scanned the glowing labels on every drawer. Finally, I narrowed my search down to "Flames; Magical" and "Flashlights; Emergency Storage". A flick of my pen created a drawer labeled "Flappy Bob" below the first and above the second, and a ripple passed along the row as the other drawers rearranged themselves to keep alphabetized. After opening Flappy's drawer, I created a few file folders labeled "Current Status", "History", "Pictures", "Plans; Ongoing", and "Wishes", and divided my papers into the first and second (unfortunately, having to do that bit with magic since I couldn't reach the drawer myself). Now that the easy part was done, all I had to do was add my changes to the computerized records.
I found a patch of crossing lights on the floor for Flappy to play in while I tapped random keys across the mainframe until it turned on. Fortunately, after a few too many late-night requests such as this one, Keefe had gotten smart and written up an instruction sheet on how to use the bulky thing. In this way, I struggled through the binary code for a solid fifteen minutes until the computer located Flappy's new drawer and familiarized itself with the contents. Oh, I certainly hoped some human down there on Earth would figure out how to redesign computers soon. We pixies weren't much for inventing ideas- we simply cultivated them once the humans got the flame going and stole the best for ourselves.
But, there. All done. I looked around, licking my sore fingers. Silence. No one was down here but Flappy and myself. Still, I checked back at the elevator several times as I translated two keywords into binary: Eunice Tuckfield.
After about twenty seconds, her name came up with matches in the files "Fairy Godchildren; Overview of", "Human Visitors to Pixie World", "Magnifico, Juandissimo; Fairy", and now "Flappy Bob". Flappy and I left the computer and headed to the 'M' row. As luck would have it, the "Magnifico" drawer rested at my eye level. I pulled it open and started thumbing through.
"'Anti-Juandissimo', 'Current Status', 'History'… 'Overview', 'Wishes; Common Themes', 'Wishes; Turtles', 'Wishes; Uncancelled'… Hold on. Aha. 'Former Godchildren'." That folder I pulled out, and it instantly shifted itself into a wooden box as it left the drawer behind. From the box, I found Eunice's name (in the form of an index card that turned into a second box) and knelt down to open it.
Flappy had fallen asleep several minutes ago, which was almost too bad, because he might have wanted to clap his hands at the bright colors- mostly pinks, with a couple of yellows and a purple thrown in. Rolling around the box were tiny snow globes like marbles - representatives of Eunice's wishes that the Fairy Council hadn't seen any particular reason to undo after the wiping of her memories - but I wasn't here to examine each of those individually; I simply wanted to skim down the list of everything she'd ever asked for.
Taped to the box's lid was an envelope. I unfolded the paper inside. Eunice's very first wish had been for some neighbor's favorite sweater to be ruined, though since this was underlined in red it must have been unwished. What followed were all the usual things children tended to jump on when they had magic at their backs: visiting world landmarks, having wings, breathing underwater, improving one's appearance, developing a new skill, traveling back in time, taking the form of an animal, interacting with a character from a favorite book, finding the end of a rainbow and meeting a leprechaun, random acts of kindness…
I found her wish to visit Pixie World somewhere near the middle, but the brief explanation after it said only something about a complaint on the weekly wish limit we'd installed after a particularly heavy summer. I didn't remember the pair in particular, but then, godchildren often tagged along on visits with their Fairies, and I could only keep track of so many faces and names. We'd had a lot of complaints about that limit policy, and had finally lifted it and reluctantly accepted our never-ending duty of pinging as near to the deep energy pool as possible to straighten out crossed threads of magic. Still. The policy had been plainly written in the annual renewal contract, and it always amused me how long it took for the Fairies to realize the conditions they'd agreed to live by.
In Eunice's two years of having a fairy, nothing stood out to me as particularly interesting, except maybe the still-valid wish that she would never make any mistake so horrible that it caused her future husband to want to leave her and their children. She'd even won over Cupid enough to earn his infamous double heart stamp in the corner. Pity, then. I'd sought out this file hoping I could find more reasons to dislike her besides the fact that she'd laughed at me when I'd been stuck in the fence.
I checked my cracked pocket watch, then scrambled to repack the drawer when I realized a full two hours had passed since H.P. and I had separated. Unfortunately, in my rushing back to the elevator, I disturbed Flappy from sleep, and he was in tears by the time I threw open the door to the conference room.
"I'm sorry if I kept you waiting, sir. Keefe went home for the evening already, and I was left to file Flappy's report in Labby on my own."
"Oh, it could have held off until tomorrow," he remarked in an absent way, and since the back of his chair was to me, he missed the look that shot across my face. I smoothed it out before he turned around. "Would you bring me Flappy Bob?"
I came around the table and did. H.P. held him beneath the armpits to look the baby over, allowed Flappy to suck on his thumb until he quieted down, then replaced him in my arms.
"Now, we are left with the question of where to put him. We can't simply keep him cooped up here in Pixie World. That drains our resources, requires unnecessary attention, and really does us no good."
I forced two of Flappy's fingers from my mouth. "We could… place him… in a human orphanage, perhaps? Sir? And keep watch over him there."
"You're a pixie after my own core, Sanderson. I had the same thought myself." H.P. slid a piece of paper over to me, stroking the fingers of the other hand across a daisy in the nearest of his many vases. "The Rainbow Bridge that connects Earth to Fairy World does so in one location, and one location only: Just a short ways up the hills between two tiny towns by the names of Brightburg and Dimmsdale."
"I follow, sir."
"We should be able to raise Flappy inconspicuously under Fairy noses there, near enough to Fairy World that we'll still have easy access to him should we take over. He'll become familiar with the place and grow attached to both location and people, thus encouraging him to return there after his university education, once we present him with the blueprints for a little building I like to call the Learn-A-Torium."
Flappy gurgled when he heard that word and fastened his lips around my ear. I chose not to react, though one of my eyebrows may have twitched up.
"What is the purpose of the Learn-A-Torium?"
"I'm still trying to pen down the exact details, but I had in mind this image of Flappy being the head of it. The Fairy Council has of course prevented us from granting wishes directly - all that is outlined somewhere in Chapter 417 of Da Rules; I'm sure you know it better than I do - but the Learn-A-Torium will be a sort of daycare facility that helps us discover nearby children with fairy godparents. We'd need to figure out some way to coax them into making a wish, of course, in order to trigger the sensors. I thought perhaps if the center posed a threat to children or was extremely uninteresting, we could make that work."
I nodded, scrunching my brows together. "If you think we could, sir."
"Though if the place is a threat to safety then it might come to the attention of the authorities and be shut down, so it may behoove us to work the other way, with an overabundance of smothering safety measures to the point where a wish is made to 'improve' the place, and we find the kid with fairies." As the words left his lips, H.P. gave me a blank look. The daisy head snapped at an angle between his fingers. "I suppose we'll already have a record of the nearby godchildren since at the end of every month we… discuss payments with the clients we picked up after we took on Twinkletuft's business, but… I… forgot. Oh, yes, now I remember. It's the godchildren who don't wish to make the Learn-A-Torium more exciting that we'll want to be aware of. They're less likely to view us as some sort of oppressive force."
"And after we find them?"
"Then… we manipulate that godchild into making a wish that favors us."
"Thirty-seven years of looking after this child, sir, in order to…"
"Is there a problem?"
"No, sir. I think it's a fine plan."
H.P. nodded. "It's what I have so far. I'm ironing out the details. The problem," he said, curling his lower lip, "will be Flappy. If this is going to work, he needs to believe in the Learn-A-Torium enough not to attempt morphing it into something fun and chaotic. He would be nearing the age of thirty-seven by this point, and may decide that he doesn't need our gifts anymore. That can't happen. He needs to become attached. Much like you, Sanderson, actually. Except I won't make the same mistake with him that I did with you, remaining within a wingspan of you every hour of the day, even when you slept. No, we'll maintain our distance from him."
"It's a fine line to walk, but we'll want him to side with us- we must convince him that what he wants is the same lifestyle we live by instilling in him a belief about the value of hard work and order. At the same time, we must be careful to keep him off the Fairy radar. He must never become miserable enough to be assigned a fairy godparent."
"I think we can manage that between the two of us, boss."
Regardless of my efforts to show no emotion as Flappy scraped his fingernails down my cheek, H.P. shifted his gaze to me. "I'd prefer to sleep on this plan before I go through with it. You, too, should study it for any obvious chinks. Unless I should change my mind, we'll ping him down to either Dimmsdale or Brightburg close to lunchtime. Though I'd prefer to consider my options more carefully than this, we can't keep him here for any longer than that, with the atmosphere being as thin as it is."
I didn't see what that had to do with anything.
"Until then, I trust that you can manage him for another night without too much trouble. He'll be confined to your apartment, after all."
Flappy and I were dismissed into the hall. Headquarters always carried an odd vibe after dark- as we walked, no clicking typewriters or scribbling pens escaped from beneath the closed doors. And that sent crawling fingers down my back. I'd set my schedule so I worked from seven in the morning to seven in the evening, and I was normally among the first to leave the instant the opportunity became available so I could get ready for… stuff later in the evening. Walking past rows of tightly-shut doors with their lights off behind the windows reminded me of that time a century and a half back when H.P. and I had visited the clan of cavern-dwelling elves in Ohio who had raised Hawkins for his first four years. Their bones, hats, and bits of skin had still been there when we arrived.
Eventually, we'd learned from Anti-Schnozmo that human soldiers had stumbled upon the elves during the American Revolutionary War and, seemingly suspecting a secret Redcoat operation, sealed every entrance to the cavern, and abandoned them to dehydrate. No one had realized there was a problem, evidently, until dozens of anti-elves dissipated into purple smoke all across Anti-Fairy World. Elves didn't have wands, nor could they ping like pixies or poof like fairies. Encased. Buried. Restrained. Trapped. By the time I made it to the end of the hall, I'd started to think I preferred being alone down in Labby.
I let Flappy push the button to call the elevator down from the twenty-fifth floor. He left a trail of drool between that and his lips when he returned his thumb to his mouth. "Sometimes you make me consider smiling," I told him, setting him against my left hip so I could wipe the button clean with my sleeve. "Do you ever realize that?"
He reached up to tug on my shades. I was just twisting his little baby hands away when the doors shiinged open. No fewer than four pixies of the nine dropped their briefcases when they saw us.
"Everyone," I said, allowing the smugness to creep into my smirk, "this is my son. I have named him Ribbons."
Eight of them hovered there, blank-faced and skeptical. The ninth, because beneath his white shirt he was still wearing a fluffy brown coat that flattened his wings, wrapped his fingers around the metal armrest as I stepped onto the elevator. "Ground floor, please."
Flappy pointed at Longwood. "Gnoma? No kint fly. Agoo. Kint. Ah. Kint. Weeeeng, ow. La?"
Longwood tipped his shades down so I could see the purple-gray of his eyes. He said nothing to me, which was typical of him; only smoldered in his signature Boss has been playing favorites again, hasn't he? type of way.
"That's right," I said, "he's a gnome."
I covered both of Flappy's ears- one with my left arm and the other with my right hand. "He's learning. You'll teach him he shouldn't try things." To Flappy I said, "Longwood isn't a gnome, but we all know Naelita wishes he was."
Longwood's fingers flew to the left side of his neck as though checking for some sort of mark. He caught himself before he connected with skin and ran a thumb beneath his collar instead of following through.
"Or perhaps a leprechaun," I mused. "Frankly, I still believe she's got her eyes on your paycheck."
"Hm," was all he said, sliding closer to get a better look at Flappy Bob. Clink, clink went the star on his cap. It fascinated Flappy, and I didn't blame him. So many times had I wanted to reach out and flick that star. In fact… right now… he was so close… I could probably…
Someone behind me finished gathering the dropped briefcases together. I withdrew my hand. "I was under the impression H.P. thought he didn't reach sexual maturity until he was nearly five hundred thousand. You're the oldest one among us and you're hardly two-fifty."
"Although I'm loathe to admit it," Wright chimed in, "Abernathy is again correct. That's biologically impossible."
Walters tilted his head. "Ooh, did you steal him from the will o' the wisps? He's one of Idona's, isn't he? Eh? Eh? You sly cù sith."
A snort from Thane. "Is that how you get one of them butterflies to let you call the shots? Kidnap their nymphs? 'Ey, Longwood. You've got competition in the loverboy department tonight."
"Hardly a contest," he replied with careful monotone, placing one hand to his left hip. "And to think someone started rumors a dozen thousand years ago that Sanderson only kissed the ground the Head Pixie walked on."
I narrowed my eyes. "Naelita must have worked you into an awfully good mood if you're willing to argue about which one of us has kissed the boss post-nymph years."
"SHAMPAX: Sharing Magic to Prevent Asphyxiation. No different from the human who tried to perform their cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Cowan or when you and I did it while swimming that year we spent Krisday underwater with Gra- er, China's mother. The twins each stole half his magic and laid him out like that. You showed up at the wrong time." The response was prim. Practiced. Longwood had heard us fling accusations at him so many times that he didn't even turn red anymore.
My lips still tasted of swamp water and roast quail and hummed with a current stronger than the mere static electricity generated by my shirt against her dress. "Thane isn't wrong. Scan me with a starpiece and hook me to a polygraph; I've got more will o' the wisp than pixie magic buzzing in the saliva under my tongue right now. With Apuleius Eros as my witness, I had Idona so wrapped around my pinkie that she let me go by choice even as she begged me to spend the whole night in her burrow. Also, apparently they still build and stomp on some pretty good effigies of you around the summer solstice, Longwood. That's why your limbs always fall asleep then."
As we lingered on Floor 3 to let Palomar and Smitty sweep on, I took satisfaction in the inquisitive silence that fell over the elevator. And in the vice president's nose wrinkling- Who wouldn't?
Abernathy at last cleared his throat and pointed at Flappy's mouth sucking on my thumb. "I thought will o' the wisp drakes mostly weren't allowed above ground."
"But he has ears like a human," McDaniel said, prodding them with his fingertip.
"He's not even a hexagon."
"I thought you were going to name your first child Jules after John Lennon's son."
"We lost connection with your starpieces days ago. The last thing we saw was Cupid showering so many love arrows over Las Vegas, I doubt they'll ever rid the place of their effects. How did the casino plan fare?"
"By my cap, Sanderson- What did you do to your arms?"
I lifted my wings a little and flapped twice to shoo them all higher in the elevator. Only Longwood remained near the floor beside me, with his shades fully in his hand now. "Let's simply say there's a new thirty-seven-year plan brewing in Pixie World."
Dalton's wings buzzed. "Maestro's going rogue. Wait until H.P. hears about this one."
"Are we supposed to enact the you-know-what safety precaution for this?"
"H.P. knows all about it." The elevator chimed before I'd finished the sentence. I stepped backwards, waved good-bye to all but Longwood, and headed for the glass doors. They followed me by wing, of course, muttering amongst themselves as we left the office tower behind and entered the street.
We didn't have anything like a nursery in Pixie World. When a new pixie was born, he'd be sent to a milkmother of a species that actually had damsels (sometimes through request by fairy couples forbidden to have children but who for some reason had access to nursing milk, and sometimes he'd be left on a random doorstep, depending on H.P.'s mood). Then, after about three years, once they'd finally weaned off the stuff and suffered through their Terrible Twos, Longwood would go and find him again, and hand him over to a suitable mentor somewhere among our ranks (I, deemed "too easily distracted by anything that makes a jingling noise or can be rotated at least thirty degrees", hadn't had more than one apprentice myself over my lifetime, and we all know how Rosencrantz turned out).
H.P. didn't much like children; H.P. didn't much want children. I was proud of myself, then, for being partly responsible for the development of the Pixie race. As the firstborn, I had somehow won him over enough to change his mind about drowning me on Hole 10 from the moment he realized that what he'd tugged out from the fluids of his forehead was my goopy little amniotic sac.
I assumed I'd changed his mind, at least- he still threatened it on occasion when he caught me chewing on file folders during the board meetings, or smudging up the windows with my palms and nose. When I was nine, he'd revoked my starpiece for a month after I'd covered the entire first floor of Headquarters with stock market tips one time he'd stopped watching me to take a shower.
I don't know why I lied. That was last January.
So after the first dozen or so of us, H.P. hadn't played his hand much in child rearing, and it didn't surprise me in the least that he'd entrusted Flappy's care to me for the night. Well, the me might have been a surprise, but the literally anyone besides himself I understood quite well.
But H.P.'s apathy didn't mean he didn't know us all as individuals: our names, our birth order, our positions in the office, our safety behaviors, our nervous tics, our strengths, our weaknesses. Especially our weaknesses. You could show him any face and he'd tell you any detail you could want to know. Except when it came to Mullins and Tolbert, but then again, they were twins and not a one of us could tell them apart from their looks.
After work hours, I made my home where the first two hundred of us all did: in the Rapunzel Tower. Longwood was the one to name the place, if you were wondering. Which I'll admit was for the best. If memory serves, I was pretty adamant about Big Pointy Gray Tower at that age. He reminded me about it as we shared the elevator ride up.
Special privileges were folded into being the firstborn. My - our - apartment could be found on Floor 50 at the complex's very top, with one of the widest views of Pixie World (Not that we ever strayed far from Headquarters; we chose to spread up, not out. There was an entire cave system of gingerbread in Cherish Jungle about ten minutes from here, and half of us didn't know). Room Number 2, of course- there wasn't a Room 1 in Rapunzel, or anywhere we had access keys. H.P. had his own suite in the Headquarters penthouse. I'd been inside it precisely twice in a hundred and fifty thousand years, both for reasons I would never own up to.
The lights buzzed with dim fluorescence when Longwood turned them on. Though four of us shared it, it wasn't a large place. There was a bathroom to the left. A coffee table by the windows straight across from the door. Only three chairs. Two bedrooms split off from either side, each with two beds. We'd all had our own rooms once upon a time, but policies had changed the first day H.P. caught Longwood and some random chubby will o' the wisp sharing a closet in the Fairy Courthouse.
Otherwise, we had a wooden kitchen with a sink and a stove, and two cookbooks left by the Crown Duchess of the lawn gnomes at the Pixie World founding event. It worked out nicely for me; after an entire existence spent memorizing universal laws and filing tax forms, I had never once wanted to come home and study the molecular compositions of most of what I ate, even if magically-created food could have been filling. It would drive most fairies I knew up the wall, but I found cooking to be relaxing. I'd piece a sandwich together by hand for a snack any day. It was a well-earned reward.
Longwood vanished into the room he shared with Wilcox and locked the door behind him. Once I heard him tapping on the rabbit hutch and urging his companion to shed the purple fur and climb into a real bed like a normal pixie, I put my hand beneath Flappy's chin and tilted it up so he could look at me. "I'm going to force you to eat something. I don't want you getting hungry in the middle of the night again."
I set the baby on the floor with a pen and yellow legal pad while I searched the cabinets that were specifically Sanderson's. I'd long ago learned not to keep perishable foods when H.P. was coming close to enacting a plan. Because, well… delays tended to happen. I loved my boss, but he loved to… not… think practically all the time. He had grown up as the first of all pixies - an outcast among Fairies as a result of his squarish mutation - and although I would never bring it up to him directly, it seemed to me that sometimes he forgot he wasn't the only one he was supposed to be looking out for anymore.
"Here we are, Flappy. Powdered milk for you. I knew I still had a box of this. There isn't too much left, but we should be able to get a few mouthfuls in you."
A bottle I didn't have on hand, but I thought a simple glass might do the job so long as I took it slow. Flappy didn't like it. But I was bigger and stronger, and he didn't have much choice. I pinned him to my chest and forced as much of the drink as I could down his throat, before his wriggling and sobbing became too much for me to manage single-pixiedly and I had to put him down.
"How you spilled this stuff in my hair I will never understand… What can we dress you in?"
To answer that question, I turned to my closet. My hangers were occupied with pressed gray suits and black ties, my sequin-studded Elvis cape, and a scarlet-spotted yellow jacket that Anti-Sanderson had given me one night when I played I was cold and then decided to steal instead of return after he'd been particularly flirtatious and I wanted to be a jerk, but the shelf below that contained folded white shirts and plaid blue pants of soft flannel. I'd long ago passed down the clothes that had fit me when I was small myself, but after a minute with my starpiece in hand, I succeeded in shrinking a set down to Flappy's size. Growing things was always more difficult - and expensive - but I would worry about that another day.
"You see?" Speaking softly so as not to wake Hawkins in the other bunk, attempting to suck on a thumb he couldn't reach, I stood Flappy (now dressed) on the end of my bed and held him there as he squirmed. "It's what I keep telling you, really. If it weren't for your round head and missing wings, you could pass for a pixie yourself. Your magenta eyes aren't even too far off the mark."
"Dada?" he asked me, staring into my face. I lowered him just a few inches. The springs squeaked beneath my mattress.
"No. No, Flappy. I'll be your godfather, and I will always watch over you, but I could never be your daddy any more than H.P. could be mine."
"Mama?" he tried again, looking even more concerned now. He clasped the fingers of one hand around my tie.
"… Let's get you to sleep now."
I pulled down the blankets one-handed and then pressed them close around his tiny body. Flappy didn't fuss again, but only shut his eyes and… moved his chest. I found that fascinating; even out for the count, his body swelled, then drew itself in. Had he always done that? Over, and over… I pressed my fingers to his stomach, just to see if he would stop. It was endless. Without the near-constant beating of wings, perhaps humans had evolved a new way to expel their excess energy. How curious.
For a moment, I kept there on the end of the bed, with one foot dangling from the edge and the other folded up beneath me. Flappy turned over, not opening his eyes and still solidly asleep. He never stopped breathing. It occurred to me then that I should climb in beside the little clown as a barricade between him and the long drop to the wooden floor.
That can wait, I told myself. For now, I'll be content with watching him.
I took my own pajamas from the closet and, as my final afterthought, scribbled down a few words on my notepad that rhymed with clown and pixies. Maybe a song would come out of that someday.
"Tomorrow you'll be off to an orphanage in California, Flappy. H.P. and I will see if we can't ping down whenever we're available."
Hawkins and I still don't know when I got to sleep that night. Sometimes we doubt I ever did. Often, I'd stayed awake piecing lyrics together until it was time to head back to work. I ran the entire Complaints Department on my own, and so few ever came through my office that it really didn't matter if I fell asleep at my desk. I'd pulled all-nighters playing the disc jockey at raves before, especially in Anti-Pixie World, but here in my room, the only sound at all came from Flappy Bob.
Not taking my eyes from him, I eased off my shades and set them on the side table. Then I took up my set of private stationery that didn't bear the Pixies Incorporated logo, and I wrote.
I wrote about the way I'd watched Flappy breathe. Then I wrote about how when his hair was washed of color, it shone the same black as mine. Sixth, I wrote about growing up in Novakiin and Lau Rell without knowing my parents, either, when the Fairy and Anti-Fairy and elf kids (christened "neighbors") always seemed to have loving families to support them, and how learning the truth had made me both realize and appreciate why I'd been raised the way I had, even when it hadn't seemed logical to my juvenile eyes. I could have done without the being-kidnapped-by-cherubs-for-five-hundred-years part, but that was beside the point.
For number ten, I wrote about times I had struggled to get along with my coworkers. In the twentieth, I wrote a wondering about Flappy's eventual desire to seek a mate and hold his own fragile, breathing angel with a future unknown. Twenty-four, how I'd felt to receive my first major promotion, with my own three-ring hole-puncher that I was never obligated to share but that I sometimes did just to see the look of delight on the faces of my co-workers when I swung by with it and saved them a trip up to the seventh-floor copying room. When I finished, I creased each letter into a sharp trifold and slid them into plain envelopes, marked with nothing but a number and the scrawl, Flappy's Benefactor. There were thirty-seven in all.
I sat there at the foot of the bed, with thirty-seven envelopes arrayed in a spiral across my lap. Most of us never truly process, I think, how long thirty-seven years can actually be. In another four decades, I expected to hold exactly the same standing in Pixie World as I did now. Requesting that H.P. allow me to see if I might benefit the company better in some other position would be ludicrous. Imposing. Too soon.
I was immortal, and I would always be here. A thousand millennia may pass away, but to the best of my knowledge, I wouldn't be leaving anywhere fast. Not unless I chose to retire, which I never planned to, or I contracted rabies.
If I ever fell asleep that September night in 1965, it was while sprawled across my gray bed covers, with my arms around those envelopes and my head resting on my hands, one leg hanging over the edge and a tiny human breathing evenly beside me like he planned to do so for the remainder of his life.
Have you ever had those moments when you realize you are mortal, too?