(Posted January 1st, 2019)
Heroes to Goats
Year of Water; Winter of the Sunlit River
Saturday, December 28th, 1991
Anti-Cosmo's pride would never permit him to say it aloud, but the thing he liked most about staying in Pixie World's Onyx Hotel was the opportunity to crawl under warm blankets beside Anti-Wanda all night long. Roosting upside-down was all well and good, but wearing his favorite silk nightshirt in those cases was widely, ah… ill-advised.
H.P.'s orange djinn witch, he wrote. He balanced his clipboard against his knees, hunching forward to keep his wings from crushing against the decorative backboard. Behind the closed washroom door, Talon retched again. Anti-Wanda murmured in his ears and turned on the water faucet.
Hm. Anti-Cosmo furrowed his brow. He scratched out H.P.'s and left the rest as it was. With a pinch of influence and a tug of the right strings, Garrett wouldn't be H.P.'s anything for long. Please. Pixies reeked of new money. New money burned out just as quickly as it was acquired.
Promote genie conservation. Talk shows? B. Crystal Ball Friday night, Rainbow time zone.
He scratched that out too and tapped the pen against his fangs. Fond as he was of old Billy's show, the fairy was simply too unpredictable to be trusted with news as big as this. Unfortunately, the same could be said of Anti-Willow… Her hearing was starting to go these days. Certainly not good news for any Anti-Fairy.
"Shame he had to be a buck," Anti-Cosmo muttered over the background noise of Talon emptying his stomach once again. He drummed his claws. "I'd so love to breed him. I'm sure he'd sire the prettiest little babies. I suppose I could ask around for any genies who would be interested in magically altering his fertility, but then again, that never ends well… We've seen how Norm turned out, sickly little thing… Poor bloke."
Wait. He looked again at the sheet of parchment pinned to his clipboard, then lifted it up to peek at Garrett's genetic profile underneath it. Then he chuckled. He sat up, folding his legs beneath the blankets. On the next line, he wrote, Elaine Cabrera. Fertile witch.
H.P. may be reluctant to share Garrett, but he hadn't said a word about keeping away from his mother. If she'd produced one orange witch, perhaps she could do it again. Even if he did show the orange gene, it didn't guarantee that any of Gary's offspring would have orange hair like him. Witch genetics were a fickle thing.
"Anti-Cozzie, can you come in here?"
His wings jumped. His head jerked up. Anti-Wanda? Oh. The washroom. Talon. "Yes, yes, of course, dear," Anti-Cosmo called, and untangled himself from his blankets. His foot caught in a snag and he tripped, falling face-first to the floor, but freeing his leg was a simple matter, and he was soon on his feet again, clearing his throat and straightening his… Well, the collar of his nightshirt. He smoothed a hand down his front. Never mind the fall. He was a man of dignity. And so, straightening his shoulders, Anti-Cosmo pushed down on the handle to the bathroom door and-
An explosion of butterflies tore through the air, knocking Anti-Cosmo flat on his side. His elbow hit hard floor. His monocle tumbled from his face. Hundreds of butterflies rushed past him in a swarm of pastel colors, whirled in a cyclone, then settled at random points around the room to rest their wings. In the washroom, Talon groaned and clutched his stomach even tighter. Anti-Wanda sat sheepishly on the sink counter beside him, swinging her legs.
"What… did you need me to do?" Anti-Cosmo asked, pressing his monocle back into place. He pushed himself up with one hand and shooed one lingering, glowing insect away.
"Clear the anti-barf 'flies out," was her innocent response. Anti-Cosmo sighed. Standing, he turned his attention on Talon again. The young anti-fairy had changed from his Temple robes into blue and black camouflage footie (feetie?) pajamas. It wasn't often Anti-Cosmo saw him in those anymore. Anti-Wanda had gifted them to Talon after enchanting the camouflage to prevent small animals and insects from noticing the wearer during the night. Anti-Cosmo could have sworn the lad had turned up his nose at them two years ago. Oh dear. He reached automatically for a handkerchief, found none attached to the front of his nightshirt, and took an awkward step forward without it.
"Now, what ails you, child?"
Talon shook his head, dark curls bouncing. His glasses began to slip loose from his hair. Anti-Wanda tucked them back into place. "He's nervous 'cuz of Gary-boy," she said.
Oh. Right. Hypochondriac. Anti-Cosmo sighed again, this time only inwardly. It took a great deal of strength not to cross his arms and tap one foot against the floor.
"I didn't know he had a disease, Pop," Talon mumbled. His cheeks expanded, and he pressed two fingers to his lips. "I bit him. I bit his arm. His big fat arm and all his blood, with my teeth. Am I going to get his blood disease too?"
"No, child. It isn't zoonotic. That's why they call it human immunodeficiency virus. We fae only share a third of our biology with that of humans, and not the part that can become infected that way."
Talon blinked rapidly, tears rising behind his glasses. "But what if it still infects Anti-Fairies, and it just presents differently in us than in humans? What if I get it? What then?"
"You can't get it," Anti-Cosmo said firmly, running his claws through Talon's dark hair. "Put the thought from your mind, lad. It's a physical impossibility. No need to worry."
Anti-Wanda placed her hand on Talon's knee. "Hey. If you do get it, your pop will jist ask one of his genies to snap their fingers and cure ya. You'll be good, Tal. You'll be good."
"He can't get it, dear."
"He thinks he will," Anti-Wanda said simply. "I'm givin' him solutions. It's good to plan out your next steps in case something goes wrong."
"Goes wrong?" Anti-Cosmo arched one eyebrow. Withdrawing his hand from Talon's curls, he brought it instead to his own chest. "In case you've forgotten, Anti-Wanda, I am a supergenius. When have you ever known any of my plans to go wrong?"
"Heh, you're cute," Anti-Wanda said, reaching out to pat his hair. Anti-Cosmo pushed her hand away, but she came back with two and pulled his face against her in a crushing hug. Once she had her husband restrained, she showered his forehead with several rapid kisses.
"You're wounding my pride, dear," he mumbled into her shoulder.
"Ain't no one watching but us guys."
"Am I going to die?" Talon asked.
"No. We are Anti-Fairies. Our bodies shed sickness as quickly as we shed fur."
"But what if that's not true for me?" He pulled his knees to his chest and clutched them tight. "Maybe we only think Anti-Fairies can't get infected through human blood. I wouldn't have bitten him if I knew he was sick!"
Anti-Cosmo finally disengaged from Anti-Wanda's smothering affections. "Mm. Showing off to impress H.P., were you now? Saucy boy, you are."
"No," Talon said, quietly. He lifted his eyes. "H.P. always says he's proud of me already. I was trying to impress you."
Silence. "Oh," Anti-Cosmo said. He pressed the points of his wand's star cap into his palm, rotating the handle in slow motion. Talon let his wings droop behind him.
"Pop? How much longer do I have to live in Pixie World?"
"Yes, um… You see, my castle is still rather filthy at this time. It's terribly musty, with germs lurking around every corner and in every fluttering cobweb. You wouldn't like it. Better that you stay in Pixie World for now. In any case, the fact remains that you're my son." He rested his hand on Talon's curls again. "You're my heir."
Talon glared at his feet. "Until you and Ma have your own kid. One who actually has your oh-so-special colored eyes. That would make the people happy, wouldn't it?"
Anti-Cosmo and Anti-Wanda exchanged a glance. "Ooh," Anti-Cosmo said. He twisted the cap on his wand. "Well, we'll… fly over that gorge when we come to it, hm?"
"You'll forget about me when you have another baby around the Castle," Talon muttered, hugging his knees tighter.
"That's not true."
Anti-Wanda brushed her hand over Talon's leg until he looked at her. "Lovebug, listen here. You're our son, through and through. Even if I get preggers with a li'l brother or sister for you, our love for our Talon baby ain't never gonna change."
"Whatever," Talon slid off the counter and walked to the washroom door. "I'm going to bed."
Anti-Cosmo bit his lip. His eyelids clenched shut. After a few painful seconds, he hurried from the washroom. He was just in time to grab the bedroom door before it slammed shut. When he poked out his head, he spotted the lanky anti-fairy slumping down the hall.
Talon stopped walking, but didn't turn around.
"Would you mind it terribly if your mother and I roost with you tonight? I'll need a moment to change my nightshirt into something more practical, but I'll be there in a moment with a glass of warm milk. That will put you to sleep quite nicely."
Talon's fists tightened at his sides. "Hanging upside-down gives me vertigo, Pop, and milk will just upset my stomach again. When I was a pup, H.P. bought me an electric blanket and all the giant stuffed animals I could ever need to simulate Anti-Fairy colony life on the ground. I'll be fine. Thanks."
"Yes, I suppose so… All right, then. Good night." Anti-Cosmo clasped his hands and took one more floating step forward. "You know I love you, don't you, Talon?"
"I…" He turned halfway around. "I want to come home, Pop. I like how sterile Pixie World is, but I don't have any friends here. 'cept for Nova and Sapphy, I've never even had a friend in my whole life. It's not like I ever get to see them anymore."
Interesting… He didn't mention Anti-Zinnia. Anti-Cosmo eyed him warily. "I know it's difficult, but you can stick it out a mite longer, can't you?"
Talon heaved his wings in a shrug. "When can I move into your Castle for good?"
"Oh, soon enough, I'm certain. You know how I miss you when you're away." Anti-Cosmo sighed, pressing a hand to his cheek. "Of course, we simply must figure out what to do regarding your eyes… H.P. knows his way around eyewear, and perhaps he could provide you with tinted lenses that still match your prescription…"
Talon began to shake, clutching his fists just behind him. His eyes squeezed shut behind his glasses. Anti-Cosmo paused, sliding his eyes back and forth across the younger anti-fairy's freckled face.
"Talon? What's wrong?"
"I hate the inheritance traditions!" Talon's wings exploded behind him, flapping wildly. "It's not fair! You weren't even supposed to become High Count after Anti-Bryndin. Everyone only agreed to let you lead the Anti-Fairies because you have green eyes, but when it's me, your son, who should inherit after you, they're not going to listen, are they? They're not! You don't want me to be your heir! You only keep me around because I'm the only anti-fairy who's been born since the fairy baby mandate cut off all your other options. Or else you'd just dump me on H.P. forever so you don't have to look at me anymore and think about all your old mistakes. You want another kid because I was born with red eyes like some kind of commoner!"
"Talon, enough." Anti-Cosmo swept his arm to the side. "You'll wake the hotel. Worshipers have traveled a long way to visit the Water Temple."
"Look at me! Look me in these eyes and tell me it's not true!"
Anti-Cosmo clenched his teeth, but didn't glance away. "I said, that's enough now. I broke the law to give you a healthy life, child. One would think you'd respect me for that."
"The people," Talon snarled, stabbing a claw vaguely in the direction of Anti-Fairy World, "should accept me as your heir, no matter what color my eyes are."
"I don't disagree, lad, and I don't intend to argue with you. However, you must realize that it isn't within my power to alter the expectations of an entire society."
He stepped forward, fur bristling. "Bet the gossip's true! Bet you were unfaithful. Bet you had me with some hired anti-will o' the wisp for a handful of coins. Is that where I came from? Are you even my real father? Do you ever plan to tell me anything?"
Anti-Cosmo tightened his grip on his wand, but regarded the furious anti-fairy with cool collection. His hand twitched, but he kept his arm low. "I will not argue with you, Talon, and I will not succumb to your goading. I am your father, Anti-Wanda is your mother, and despite your legitimacy, you did not inherit our spirit-blessed eyes. That is all you need to know, apart from the fact that if you do not hold your tongue, you will lose your inheritance tonight. Do not try my patience further."
Talon simmered a moment more, then swung around and stalked away down the hall.
"Telford Anti-Westley Anti-Lunifly. You have yet to be dismissed. Don't you dare turn your back on your High Count while he's trying to converse with you!"
"'Trying,'" Talon said, and kept walking.
Sunset didn't exist in the cloudlands, or at least not in the same way it did in the world below. After parting ways with Mr. Bayard, Betty passed her day alternating between playing Roll In the Clouds and Count Rocks with Kenny, and studying the slow brightening and dimming of the starlight above. Just when she expected to die of boredom, a blue lady with dark blue hair, pink eyes, and big teeth came out to see them. She and Kenny were picking apart leaves at the edge of the woods when the lady just sort of… showed up there. She introduced herself as Anti-Cosmo's wife and Talon's mother, Anti-Wanda, and after perching on the fence that divided the city area from the woods, she listened patiently when Betty explained how nervous Gary had been the last time she'd seen him, walking away with the Head Pixie to visit Anti-Cosmo.
"Mr. Sanderson said Gary will probably need more help and attention than I do," Betty said, hugging her body. "I'm kind of scared to be his friend. What if I accidentally make things worse, like if I say something that hurts his feelings? Or what if he gets hurt while we play a game? I just want to help."
"Keep him happy," Anti-Wanda suggested, folding her arms behind her head.
"How do I do that?"
"Be his friend, sugar. Let the rest happen as it will. Ain't nothing that can't be made better when you know you've got a friend beside ya." After giving one last tip of her crown, Anti-Wanda floated back towards the hotel she'd come from, whistling Frog Went a Courtin' as she went.
Be his friend?
Betty took Kenny's hand and went to look for Gary in Mr. Sanderson's room. Gary, it seemed, had passed his day alternating between napping in some of Pixie World's warmest locations, and jumping on Mr. Sanderson's and Mr. Longwood's and those guys' couch.
"You shouldn't jump on there," Betty said when she and Kenny came in. They'd knocked 'cuz that was polite, but Gary had shouted that the door was unlocked, so then they went in.
"It's super-duper bouncy," Gary said, but obediently flopped onto his butt and stopped jumping.
"What's this?" Betty asked, pointing at a stack of red-backed cards on the low table by the couch.
"A game I found on a table outside. Want to play?"
Betty released Kenny's hand so he could play with a wooden block. "How's it work?"
"It's a question game." Gary picked up the stack and flipped over the card on top. "I'll read it, you answer. Okay. 'What's more important? Truth or ideals?'"
"What are ideals?" she asked, sitting on the nearest end of the couch.
"Hmm… I think striving for ideals means you want to do what's best for everyone else, even if it's very difficult and you have to give up your own time and things you like."
Betty leaned back on her hands, chewing on a strand of her hair. She spit it out. "Well, I think I have to say 'Truth.' It's more important to do the right thing than get what you want."
Gary tilted the card back and forth in his hand. "I don't know… I think if your ideals are pure, then it's better to help others than become so hardened, you forget your emotions."
"I don't think you lose your emotions if you're being truthful."
"Well, I don't think you stop caring about doing the right thing if you're following your ideals."
Betty shrugged, her eyes wandering to the ceiling. She didn't like sitting still, and she wondered if she could get Gary to come outside and play while Kenny was busy with blocks, but he seemed like he was enjoying the question cards, and Anti-Wanda had said "Keep him happy." Her feet tapped together. "Yeah, but if truth's not important to you, you're automatically wrong. Who wants to be wrong all the time?"
"Hee hee. People who don't like having arguments, I guess." Gary put the card down and drew another. He read it silently, and his eyebrows pressed against each other.
"What's it say?" Betty asked, more to make conversation than because she was curious.
"It says, 'If you could only save one from drowning, who would it be: Your best friend's sibling or her lover?"
"What's a sibling?"
"It means 'brother or sister.'"
She held out her arms to Kenny as he crawled into her lap. "And what's a lover?"
"That's the person you sneak away from your husband to go kiss."
Betty wrinkled her nose. "Why are your sibling and lover both about to drown?"
"That's just what it says on the card."
"Can I see?"
He handed over the card, and Betty read it, keeping it above Kenny's head so his pudgy fingers wouldn't grab or bend it.
"Gary, this says 'If your best friend could only save one from drowning, who would you want it to be: Your sibling or your lover?'"
"What? No it doesn't." He took it back. "No, look. It doesn't."
Betty shrugged. "Well, you don't even have a sibling, and neither of us have a lover anyway. And I don't want Kenny to drown. That would be so sad!"
"It's weird that there are only two options," Gary said. "You'd think there would be one for saving your best friend." He replaced the card in the bottom of his stack. He didn't flip over another, and his eyes stayed downcast. His fingers tightened. "Can I make up a question to ask now?"
"Okay." She held Kenny a little tighter, trying to stop him from wiggling as he arched his back and whined.
"If you had to do something every day for the rest of your life so you wouldn't get in trouble, would you still do it even if you were scared it might make your friend sad?"
Betty tilted her head. "Well… I guess I'd have to. It's too bad it might make my friend sad, but I think it's important to follow the rules so you don't get in trouble. I think it would be hard being friends with someone who was okay with breaking the rules."
Gary frowned. "Even if they're a really nice person?"
"A good person would follow the rules," she said with a shrug.
"Yeah, but you can still be nice if you don't follow every rule."
"Maybe, but I still wouldn't want to be friends with someone who doesn't care about rules."
"I didn't say I didn't care about rules!" Gary's voice rose in pitch, his hair prickling up like whooshing flames. "I just said I don't want to make you mad at me!"
"Don't yell," Betty scolded, holding Kenny tight. "I'm not mad at you, but you can't yell at me when I didn't do anything wrong. Why are you so angry?"
Gary's shoulders slumped. He dropped his attention to his hands, upturned in his lap. They tightened. He pulled down on a wrinkle in his shirt. "I don't know… I just really want to be your friend, Betty. But when H.P. and Anti-Cosmo talked to me today, they said I have to… They said I have to kiss you, so you'll be able to do genie magic like me every day. And if I kiss you, I don't want you to be mad at me."
"… Oh." Kenny kept squirming in her arms, but Betty didn't let him go. She actually held him a little tighter, even when he started to cry. She looked down. "Um. Kisses are mostly for people who are in love, like moms and dads."
"Yeah, but…" Gary's hands tightened in his shirt. Then he let go. "Maybe we should practice before we have to do it for real. I don't want any of the pixies to see us in case I mess up. They might laugh at me." Sighing, he pressed his hands to his cheeks. "Do you know how to kiss?"
"I can try," Betty said, slowly.
Gary nodded and rubbed behind his neck. "Um. How long is a kiss supposed to be?"
"I don't know." Betty looked down at the squirming boy in her lap and finally let him go. Kenny crawled a few steps away, and turned to look back at her, his face all tight with sadness. Salty tears glimmered in his eyes. "Maybe three seconds."
He took a deep breath and shifted onto his hands and knees. His fingers curled between the gap in the couch cushions. "Okay. I'll kiss you, and you count. Then at least we've practiced once."
"Okay. You kiss, I count. Got it."
Gary screwed his eyes into the tightest slits and leaned forward, lips ready to kiss. Betty tilted her head, then decided to mimic him. Closing her eyes, she squished her mouth against his until she could feel his teeth.
One, Betty thought. That was the only number she got out. A buzz of energy shot down her back and tingled all the fuzz on her arms. She yelped, breaking their lips apart, and flew backwards across the apartment- smack into Mr. Sanderson, who had just opened the front door. He didn't even stumble. She just slid down his legs and landed in a heap on his shoes, her hair frizzed and crackling. Kenny laughed, holding his block.
"Oh my goodness!" Gary's hands flew to his mouth. "Your hair poofed! I'm so sorry. Let me fix it."
"Are you two…" Mr. Sanderson took a few seconds to study the situation, then finished with, "… kissing up here?"
Gary covered his face with both hands, probably turning red like his hair. Betty scrambled to her feet. "Don't get mad at him! He just wanted to see what would happen."
"I'm sorry!" Gary blurted.
"Gary, we enforce a strict sexual harassment policy on Pixies Inc. premises." Mr. Sanderson thought for a minute after he said that. He tapped his fingers on his leg. "On second thought, we don't." His gaze fell on the stack of cards on the couch next to Gary. "Those look like Anti-Wanda's Tarrow cards."
Gary looked at them. "Maybe they're hers. I just found them on the picnic table in the outdoor eating place that has the roof and no walls."
Mr. Sanderson snatched the stack from Gary's hand and showed him the seven colorful animals printed on the backs of all the cards. "These are a sacred Anti-Fairy artifact that tells the future through riddles and cruel mind games, and they aren't for playing with."
"Oh, sorry. I didn't know."
"Never mind." Mr. Sanderson tucked the cards into his back pocket. He took his phone out from inside his coat. "Are you two ready to go? If we don't leave now, I'm going to be late."
"Go where?" Betty asked from the floor. She sat up, pressing her palm to her prickling hair. It buzzed beneath her skin, but she wasn't hurt. Other than that, though… she didn't… feel all that different.
"Dimmsdale," Mr. Sanderson said, as though she should have known this already.
"It's a city in California, down on Earth. Plenty of oxygen for you to breathe. You'll enjoy it." He turned his head, taking in the hanging plants that still decorated the apartment ceiling, and some of the pots full of leaves on the kitchen counters. "Much safer for you to live down there than up here."
"Are we going to have a house?" Gary asked.
"An apartment, like this one, only smaller. We Pixies will pay your expenses and provide you with food." Sanderson tapped his watch without looking at it. "I need to go. Are you ready?"
"Wait!" Gary shot down the hall to the room he and Betty had slept in the night before. He came back with his backpack, stuffing the notebook he'd given Betty inside it. He swung it over his shoulders and looked around. "Um… I think that's all. I have my jacket, and my medicine's in the pocket."
"I don't have anything," Betty said, standing up. "Just Kenny."
"Then we'll go." Mr. Sanderson shook his phone. A ringing noise filled the air. Betty's arms tingled. As she watched, her feet dissolved below her, and her vision turned white.
When she could see again a few seconds later, she was standing on a bumpy road in a quiet city, and the sun was setting. Mr. Sanderson had materialized them in an alley between two very tall buildings, and he motioned for them to step out onto the sidewalk where it was a little brighter. They did. A few people were out walking, but no one seemed to notice them. When she looked to her left, she was surprised to find, of all things, a wishing well.
Mr. Sanderson patted his pockets, then withdrew a small piece of metal and three apples. "Here is your apartment key," he told Gary, and to Betty, "Here are some snacks. Your building is this brick one right here. Look for the room that matches the number on that key. Go inside and stay there until I come for you. Don't wander off. There's a magical bus that stops at this point every day at 4:44, 11:11, 2:22, 9:44, and midnight, but you absolutely shouldn't get on it or the lack of oxygen at its next stop will kill you, most probably. I hope you understand."
"Okay," Betty said, taking the apples. Gary took the key.
"You really have to leave us here?" he asked.
"I'm sorry," Sanderson said, lifting his magical phone again. His tone sounded more firm than apologetic. "I recognize that it's unprofessional of me to drop you three out here alone, but an emergency situation came up, and I need to handle it if we Pixies are going to continue looking after you. We can't let the Fairies find out we kept you in the cloudlands longer than was legal. Be logical. I'll be back late tonight to ensure you're settling in."
Gary held the apartment key tight in his fist. "All right… We'll be safe. See you later, Mr. Sanderson. Thanks for taking care of us."
Mr. Sanderson bobbed his head and disappeared in a burst of puffy white squares. Gary coughed, and Kenny squealed and pointed at the place where he'd been floating. After flapping her hands at the leftover magic, Betty decided to check out the well up close. It looked old-fashioned for something in a big city, all old stones with a rotting wooden bucket balanced on the edge. Its rope would probably snap if anything heavier than a penny was dropped inside. The well was just standing there in the middle of the white sidewalk, with a plaque beside it.
Here fell Alden Bitterroot the witch
who conned our town with evil tricks
Twas a boy age ten who solved the mystery
so our descendants might hear the history
Our founder Dale Dimm did nobly strive
to save our souls Nov. 2nd, 1665
Betty bit into one of the apples and peered over the edge of the wall. Sometimes, old wells that weren't used anymore were blocked off with a wooden platform to make sure no one fell or dropped anything down there. Not this one. She could see all the way to the bottom. It was pretty dark, but she could just make out some gross mud way, way down there, with a trickle of water running through it, like an underground river that had mostly dried up.
Gary came up beside her. He read the plaque before Betty could even think to cover it with her hand. "Wait," he said, furrowing his brow. "A witch fell in this well?"
"I guess." Betty glanced behind her to make sure Kenny hadn't run out into the road. He was sitting down. She leaned forward. "Maybe he's still down there, climbing up and falling down forever."
"But he lived hundreds of years ago. Wouldn't he have died by now?"
"Nah. Not if this Alden guy really is a real witch like you. Anti-Cosmo's wife, Anti-Wanda, told me witches live for hundreds of years."
Gary looked down at his shoes. "Oh. Yeah."
Betty squinted into the well, then gave her apples to Gary. When he took them, she cupped her hands around her mouth. "Hello down there, Alden! It's me, Betty Lovell! This is Gary Cabrera! Hiiii!"
She was answered by nothing but silence.
"Do you think he's okay?" Gary asked, scooting closer to her.
"No. He's in a well."
Gary shifted his weight between his feet. "I just meant, it's really sad that he's trapped in a small space, and there's some water at the bottom, but probably no food. If he fell in 1665, then that means he's been trapped down there alone for hundreds of years." Folding his arms, he leaned forward against the low wall of the well beside her. "Do you think witches ever starve to death?"
Betty thought about it. "Well, you're part genie. Maybe Alden's part genie too. My dad read me books about genies when I was little, and genies don't need to eat anything when they're trapped in magic lamps, right? Maybe the well is Alden's lamp, and he just lives without food."
Gary stared into the dark. "Do you think his family ever tried to get him out?"
"Maybe they didn't have a long enough rope."
"But his family would miss him if he was in the well. Wouldn't they keep looking for a long enough rope forever?"
Betty shrugged and checked on Kenny again. She took back the apples. "Yeah, that's weird. I don't know. Maybe his family all died before 1665. He probably lived longer than them because he's a witch, so they all died a long time before he fell in the well."
Gary bent his head. His fingers tightened on the stones. "He's still a person. If he really did fall in this well, why didn't the other people in town help him get out?"
"Maybe he broke his neck and died."
"It was because he was a witch, wasn't it?" He was whispering, eyes squeezed shut. "They didn't think he deserved to be rescued because he was a witch, so if he lived after he fell, everyone just left him down there and hoped he'd die for good."
"Well. Yeah. People used to be scared of witches, but that was a long time ago." Betty touched her fingers to Gary's arm. "I'm not scared of them, though. Especially not you."
Gary forced a smile. "Thanks, Betty. I'm really glad that you're my friend. But do you think Alden's scared down there? I'd be scared." His gaze trailed back into the well. "And lonely. And hungry. And cold. But I think I'd be scared to climb up, because I'd be scared that everyone would do something to me that's even worse than leaving me in the well."
"I don't know… But I'd be scared to see all the people who hate me." A few seconds passed in silence. Then he whispered, "I think the only thing worse than knowing everyone hates you… is not knowing how many people hate you until it's too late."
Betty thought about that for a minute, looking between him, Kenny, and the depths of the well. "Let's get him out."
Gary looked up. "What?"
"Alden Bitterroot. If he's really still alive down there, let's get him out of the well."
"We can't do that! We don't even know if he's still alive." Gary lowered his voice. "What if we see his dead body? What if we see rats chewing on his rotting bones?"
"Then we give him a proper burial to pay our amends, because that's respectful," Betty decided. She let go of the well. "Can you use your genie powers to make some rope? We can sing a song, if that helps."
Gary shook his head. Fast. "I can't. I can't control my powers at all. It only acts up when it's really happy… or if it's scared. And even if I could make a rope, I wouldn't want to put it down there."
Betty frowned. "Why not? The story's either real or pretend. If it's pretend, there's nothing to worry about, and if it's real, shouldn't we rescue Alden from the well?"
"He didn't shout back to us," Gary said quickly. "If the story was ever real, he's probably dead. Besides, if we climb inside the well, we could fall and get hurt. Or trapped. That's worse. Let's go inside and find our room."
"Can you please just try to make rope? Aren't you curious? If we're going to live here for a long time, we should probably figure out if there really is a guy in the well."
She let go of the well, but Gary grabbed her arm. When she looked at him, his eyes were huge. The green-blue parts took up so much room, only a small ring of white showed around the edges.
"Please," he whispered. "Don't make me see Alden. Don't go down there and look for Alden. Don't tell me if you see rats eating his bones. Please just don't. It might not be safe down there, and I don't want you to get stuck in the well too. If he's already dead, then there's nothing we can do about it. If he's alive, then he's lived this long without us, so he must be doing okay. Please don't go."
"… Okay." Betty slid her wrist from his squeezing, bony grip. "Maybe we can try again when we're older. Maybe it won't seem so scary then."
"Maybe," Gary said, unconvinced. He glanced at the well again, then shivered and turned his back. When he wasn't looking, Betty rolled one of her apples around in her hands, then slipped it over the well's wall. She never heard it hit the bottom.
Maneuvering the courtroom came so naturally to Pixies, it's a wonder they weren't there more often. The four Robes who sat upon the Fairy Council never seemed to have enough to do, so between that and their extreme magical prowess, Fairy Court sessions met notoriously quickly. Not that there were ever a lot of them. Despite their long lifespans, few Fairies ran across problems too difficult to work out on their own. Friendliness was their nature, cooperation their hope, and that's just the sort of people they were.
Pixies were different. Pixies held the simplest of bitter grudges for no less than thirty-seven years. Some for hundreds of thousands. Tonight's grudge had lasted a lifetime.
The Head Pixie sat calmly in his place at the defense's table, lightly gripping its edge. Sanderson sat beside him, staring down his opponent on the other side of the room from behind his shades. Stubborn Longwood gazed back, unapologetic behind his own.
I'm going to pour ink over his dry-cleaning for this, Sanderson thought. And for good measure, I'll switch all his black pens out for pink ones.
There were no windows in the courtroom that showed the stars, but it was growing late. Sanderson could tell, as any pixie could. Time ticked in his head as constantly as a flowing river, progressing at a steady pace. He did not tap his fingers, or check his watch, or pat his foot against the ground impatiently. He only sat, as did Longwood, as did H.P. Awaiting the verdict of the Fairy Council.
Tonight was an interesting night. Not only for Pixies. Not only for those attending Fairy Court today. But for Fairykind as a whole.
The case Valleysky v. Geraldson had famously granted a fairy godparent the right to legally adopt her godchild long ago. The Geraldsons had not been a loving family by any stretch of the imagination, and all things considered, it hadn't taken much coaxing for Fairy Court to rule in Valleysky's favor. Shane Valleysky, née Geraldson, had gone on to live a short but pleasant life alongside his godmother. Fairy Court worked hard (perhaps obsessively) to keep godparents from abducting their charges as they once had in the days of changeling children long ago. Tonight, Longwood v. Sanderson VIII, known also as "The Bumper Cars Case," would determine whether Pixies were allowed the privileges Fairies were granted automatically by the species of their birth.
If I can't have them, Longwood seemed to think, staring silently, then neither can you. And oh, how he'd whined tonight… Waving around his papers, bringing up the fate that had befallen Aspen at Sanderson's hand… That was a low blow. And a foolish one- Sanderson was still pressing back a smirk at the Head Pixie's rebuke.
But for all his cleverness, Longwood was running out of ideas. The game was decided the moment Juandissimo Magnifico took the stand. The fairy kept his eyes low for most of it, apart from when he lifted them to gaze at Sanderson in soft forlornness.
"Juandissimo," the Head Pixie said, pacing the air before him. "Is it true that you were once godparent to Eunice Tuckfield, mother of Quincy Tuckfield, father of Gary Cabrera?"
"Prior the ruling of Valleysky v. Geraldson centuries ago, the law stated that the most recent godparent documented in the family line, if applicable, is given priority opinion on what Fairy World can do in order to help a child in need. To this day, Fairy Court still requests the blessing of this most recent godparent whenever it's deemed appropriate. Do you have any interest in taking Gary for your own?"
Juandissimo's fingers tightened. Sanderson noticed. "No, señor."
"Interesting. Why don't you?"
The fairy glanced away, fingers clenching further. "Because I have been marked as emotionally unstable and on probation from godparent work. It will be several years yet before I am offered a supervised trial run again. At this time, I am not permitted to adopt a child of my own. All I wish is for Gary to live a life that is comfortable for him, full of great peace and low when it comes to stressful pain."
"Should Sanderson, a pixie, prove able of meeting Gary's needs, would he have your blessing to legally adopt Gary Cabrera?"
Juandissimo stared at his fingers, slowly interlacing them. "I will give it to the one the Fairy Council deems worthy of raising the human children tonight."
"Thank you, Juandissimo." The Head Pixie turned on his wingtips, hands still clasped behind him. He was smiling now. "No further questions."
The case was decided a moment later, ruling in Sanderson's favor. It took every ounce of self-control he had not to lift his chin in defiance when he looked Longwood's way.
"The children will need to have their magical organs removed, of course," said the Purple Robe.
Sanderson's wings stiffened at their tips. His fingers lay spread on the tabletop. "You're taking away their appendixes?"
The Green Robe inclined his head. "It's for their own good, so no Fairy or Anti-Fairy uses magic to draw from their life forces."
Translation: Because we don't trust Pixies.
H.P. floated forward. "If I may speak on behalf of my client, Sanderson did make clear that he is not interested in adopting the children for their magic."
"Then you should have no problem doing this."
Sanderson looked at H.P., his wings beating in slow motion. So, um… The entire reason they were buttering up the children was sort of leading up to the time in 10 years when the Pixies' 37-year plan to gain absolute control of Fairy World would come to fruition. Along the way, it would be very useful to have a godchild or two in their wallet pockets.
And the Fairies were ending the entire plan in its tracks. What was the point of adopting a trio of needy humans now?
Sanderson didn't dare open his mouth, but pled with the Head Pixie through his shades. He wanted to argue that forcing the children to undergo surgery without a medical cause was highly unethical, but he didn't know enough about human court cases to back up his reasoning. More specifically, he couldn't think of many human rulings that held valid in Fairy Court to begin with, let alone one specific to this situation. H.P. looked back at him, stone silent.
The Pink Robe glanced at his fellows, then leaned forward, knitting his fingers. "Of course, as part of our court ruling, we'll proceed with the procedure quickly and painlessly. We can do it right here in the courtroom in a manner of minutes, all expenses paid by us."
Again, Sanderson looked at H.P. for a response. The magical world got along chiefly through empathy (a concept that Pixies preferred to describe as a "mental link"). Among Fairykind, the appendix was the organ that allowed multiple magic-users to sync up to the same thought in their mind's eye, combining their power to grant the same wish with high rates of collaboration and low rates of conflict. Godparents synced to the will of their godkids in much the same way, detecting stress and energy levels even from afar. Many godparents formed such close links with the feelings and images floating around in their charge's mind that, following the termination of services, some godparents requested to maintain the link for sentimental reasons, while others became too stricken with grief or otherwise overwhelmed that the mental link itself actually ruptured.
Politics of the modern era generally encouraged appendix removal as a standard practice. Once the appendix was out of the picture, former godparents were no longer subject to any emotional fluctuations their past godkids may experience over the course of their lives (hormonal mood swings, lustful fantasies, highly complicated mathematical theories that made the head spin, so on and so forth), and ex-godkids were no longer at risk for immoral magic users to come along and steal power from their life forces. It was better that way for everyone.
A "wish" was a construct of empathy. In legal terms, a wish resulted when the will of the godchild combined with the will of the godparent charged with them; a spell was the result of the godparent acting on their own, drawing no power from the appendix of a third party. Theoretically 95% of fae magic performed in the universe could be classified as a spell, though that word was considered legal jargon and rarely made its way into casual conversation. The removal of the appendix did not prevent a godparent from continuing to perform spells in proximity of a human, although it very effectively prevented a wish-granter from capitalizing on the extreme energy boost that came with granting wishes.
Sanderson clenched his fingers very slightly around the edge of the table. Genies didn't need their appendixes in order to perform magic. Gary's abilities weren't projected to suffer from this. And if the Fairy Council didn't ask whether or not he was a witch, then Sanderson didn't see why they should have to volunteer that information.
"You may engage in the removal procedure at will," H.P. said. "I'll bring the children."
Sanderson glanced at him sideways, but he didn't say a word.