Yellow Flower Number 9
February of the Frozen Planet
"Anti-Kyler and Anti-Scott both got married last year," Anti-Cosmo pointed out, snatching up three baskets as they floated into the market square. He handed one to Anti-Wanda, one to Foop, and kept the last for himself. "I can't ask either of them to be my best man for Valentine's Day, then. And it's a pity too. Anti-Kyler is a most enjoyable conversational partner over a private lunch."
"Anti-Elliot ain't married yet. You can ask him." Anti-Wanda grabbed Foop by the wing before he could bolt off down the nearest cobblestone path. "Hey, bubbly. I gots a game-plan to run ya big dreams over with. Here's the deal: You's gotta float down the first two aisles with us so we can present ourselves as a family for people's eyeballs. Then you's all free to ravage for candy and souvenirs like a loony, as long as you stay where I can hear ya."
"You're an infuriatingly observant mother bat," Foop grumbled, pulling his basket on top of his head. "There's nowhere in this entire dratted city I can go where you won't hear me."
Anti-Wanda smiled. "Aw, yeah. That is pretty awesome."
Anti-Cosmo waited until his wife straightened up, and reached out to take her hand. Somehow, even though she was taller than him, and she preferred floating higher than he did, she never made him feel small. It was that perky, supportive attitude of hers, he supposed. He said, "Anti-Julian already asked Anti-Sylvester to be his best man, and he accepted. It wouldn't be practical to expect the poor bloke to show up for two lunches on the same day, and it wouldn't be proper for me to elbow my way in with them either."
"Ain't Anti-Tanner available?"
"Not since he headed down to deal with that muldjewangk outbreak down in Solsbirth. He won't be back until next week."
"'kay, so then Anti-Phillip could-"
"I'd sooner devour a jackalope that had been munching through a field of four-leaf clovers, dear."
Anti-Wanda twitched her ears at her husband's sour comment. "Aw, but how 'bout Anti-Kanin? You like Anti-Kanin."
That one made him cringe, wings briefly bunching. "And given my past history with Anti-Kanin, tell me how exactly it would look if I took him out for a Friendship Day lunch? He'd be insulted!"
"Huh. Well…" Anti-Wanda peered over her other shoulder. "There's gotta be somebutt who'll wanna get himself a private lunch with the big ol' crazy High Count a' the Anti-Fairies. Oh, look. The new puppies from the Anti-Liftwing colony are sellin' scale models a' junky Fairy World stuff."
"Hmm?" Anti-Cosmo glanced over too. Every year during the final week of winter holidays, the Anti-Fairy World capital city Luna's Landing hosted an outdoor craft fair in place of the usual market wares of fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, lumber, honey, and knick-knacks imported from Earth. As Anti-Wanda had said, a booth that normally sold Earthside topsoil in bulk had been taken over by four square children, now clustered behind a table laden with little blocks handcrafted and painted to mimic famous cloudland buildings and landmarks. One pup kept lookout for potential customers while the other three sat on a mat behind her, chopping at chunks of wood, their blue fur puffed and coated in shavings. Unsupervised, of course. These things often were.
"Oh, my!" Anti-Cosmo feigned pure delight by placing his hand over his chest. "I say, these are just about the finest little carvings I must have seen in years. Let's see here. You have one, two, three… seven, fourteen, twenty-one… How much for all of them?"
The pups in the back giggled and nudged each other. The damsel at the table floated forward, smoothing out her skirt with her hand. "Normally they're each priced at half a click apiece," she said sweetly, "but they're just five els each for you, High Count."
"With a bargain like that, however could I refuse?" Anti-Cosmo counted out the green and yellow coins from his satchel, and divided the profits into four when he pushed them across the table. "But surely there must be some way I can make up the difference for the profits you're losing. Ooh, I know. You can gift wrap for me, can't you? I'll take the shiniest paper you have."
He lay out another round of coins. The pups crowed and whispered in hushed excitement. Sparkly silver wrapping flashed through the air, scissors sliced, tape was tangled and thrown out and tangled again. But at last, Anti-Cosmo had a whole set of blocks clumsily bundled in a weathered shoe box. He thanked the children immensely, and they waved after him as he and the rest of the Anti-Fairywinkle family left with their goods.
When Anti-Cosmo finished tucking the wrapped package and remaining money into his bag, he found Foop glaring at him, arms crossed, tapping his foot. His own basket still perched on his square head. "Father, why do you constantly insist on doing that? You waste whole pounds of government tax money on these inferior products, you know."
Anti-Cosmo took up Anti-Wanda's hand again. "Supporting our local fair each year encourages the talents of bright young minds. I can think of no better use for our surplus funds."
"It encourages loser skills." As he tailed them, Foop tossed the little curl of black hair on his head. "What we really should be doing is hosting a fair that encourages children to make advances that will benefit the scientific community. That's where the future is headed. Maybe next year, I'll have to stake a booth out for myself selling sterilized test tubes and the answers to the pop quizzes Ms. Powers gives on our winter reading assignments every year."
Anti-Wanda tapped her teeth with a claw. "Hey, a science fair couldn't possy be the worst idea. 'Specially if it makes our li'l darling happy, and sticks it to them Fairies, h'yuck."
Anti-Cosmo sighed through his nostrils. "Art has a place in our society, Foop. One day, you will come to understand that. Besides, I really do have a use for these misshapen scraps I've purchased… as kindling." He paused by another booth and adjusted his monocle. "Personalized zodiac license plates crafted with all the symbols and emblems you choose to represent the year of your birth? Hmm…"
Foop flung his hands into the air. "Oh, come on! No one in Anti-Fairy World actually owns a car! We're social flyers!"
"H.P. owns a car, and it's nearly the New Year. Perhaps he'd appreciate me getting him a gift for the festivities." Anti-Cosmo fingered the black wand in the sheath at his hip. "Maybe I should…"
Anti-Wanda tugged him back by the hand. "We can make another loop after we gets ta see some more stuff first," she promised.
"Yes, so you keep telling me," Anti-Cosmo mumbled, throwing back one last look at the license plates and knowing he wouldn't return.
"Hey," she said suddenly. "Why don'tya ask that Head Pixie guy if he can be your best man for Friendship Day this year?"
"What?" He jerked away, though Anti-Wanda maintained a crushing grip on his wrist. "Woman, have you gone mad?"
"Why not? Everyone knows y'all are equals and friends. You hang out with him at the big meetings with the guys." Anti-Wanda watched her husband for a moment as he steamed and stewed, and then it seemed to dawn on her. "Oh. You don't wanna hop the border to Fairy World this time a' year, huh?"
"First of all, there comes the matter of time zones. Pixie World is seven hours behind us, which makes planning meals sooo much more difficult than it needs to be. Not only that, but in the warmer temperatures, the sprites and fleas over there return to activity much sooner than they do here."
Anti-Wanda embraced his arm, kicking up one of her legs behind her. "Aw, fleas ain't no big deal, sugarplum. I don't mind helpin' ya pick the li'l buggers out a' your fur when you get home. Even out a' those real hard to reach places."
"Hmm… You are especially good at applying just the right amount of delicate pressure in the more sensitive areas…"
"Good grief, find yourselves a market stall already!" Foop hollered from down at the candied cricket booth. Anti-Cosmo rolled his eyes, Anti-Wanda stuck out her tongue, but together, they floated over to join him.
"I couldn't ask H.P. anyway," Anti-Cosmo said. "He's a pixie. Friendship Day is an Anti-Fairy holiday. It isn't done."
Anti-Wanda walked her claws up to his elbow. "Why not, huh? He's your pal, and you're his pal, and when two pals like each other very much, they call 'emselves each other's best friends. Aw, he sounds like the perfect guy ta ask out to Friendship Day lunch ta me."
"But he's a pixie! What would people say?"
Suddenly, Foop inhaled. "Mother!" Grabbing her arm, he pointed and pointed down the rows of booths to one that sat in the far corner, with a red and black sign leaning against the legs of the front table. "That anti-gnome is selling ladybugs and earthworms! From Earth! We need those for our greenhouse."
Anti-Wanda dropped Anti-Cosmo's hand and grabbed her son's. "Aw, shoot- you's right, punkin! Hurry!"
Baskets bouncing, the pair raced to the booth at top speed. Which, of course, given that they were anti-fairies, was really quite fast. Anti-Cosmo shook his head in amusement and tailed them at a more natural pace, allowing his eyes to briefly wander. Up ahead, Foop slammed into one of the booth's other tables and bounced back. Anti-Wanda grabbed the nearest jar of invertebrate and smashed it to the cobblestones, where it immediately split open. "Hey," the vendor protested, leaning forward to get a better look.
Ignoring him, Anti-Wanda crouched down and poked one of the worms with her claw. Anti-Cosmo raised his eyebrow. For a moment, nothing. Then the worm uncoiled and began to tunnel into the ashes and soot that made up most of the Anti-Fairy World soil. Foop's hands went to his mouth, folded as though in prayer. He looked up at his mother. Anti-Wanda plucked the worm from the ground and brought it to her tongue. After three licks, she made eye contact with Foop and nodded very seriously. His arms went up like a saucerbee goalpost.
"We'll take a whole big crate of 'em," Anti-Wanda said, checking the pockets of her jacket for a fountain pen. She pushed her dangling blue curls from her eyes. "Can we get that poofed directly ta our castle's garden? I gots the coordinates on me somewhere."
Foop grabbed some sort of tube from a hook on the booth's wall, throwing it over his arm. "And we need another automated irrigation hose, and this fan, and this thing-"
Anti-Cosmo floated forward to tap his son on the shoulder. "Foop? Remember that you are back in Anti-Fairy World now. No electricity."
"That trick won't work on me anymore, Father," Foop scoffed, scanning the shelves for other tools that might catch his eye. "I once took apart your telly while you and Mother were romancing. I know all about using the crushed leaves of the devil's backbone plant to generate watts of electricity to supply enough power to charge all my batteries."
Anti-Cosmo sighed good-naturedly. "So that's why you were so insistent on growing Bryophyllum this year."
"Bryophyllum daigremontianum, to be precise. Let's not skip out on the details." Foop's head briefly disappeared as he burrowed his way into a bin of gloves that protected the wearer from dirt, toxins, scrapes, and magical backlash. "Living full-time in this technologically-backwards society, my genius wouldn't be going anywhere if I hadn't learned how to produce the power for all my inventions at an early age."
"Yes, of course." Anti-Cosmo crouched down beside him. "Say, do you also think you could find a way to redirect all those infuriating political advertisements regarding the Council Robes? As High Count and Countess, your mother and I aren't allowed to vote for any of them anyway."
"Already replaced with violent nature feeds so I can watch predators mauling their prey when I want to block out the sound of yours and Mother's courtship behavior," came Foop's muffled voice from the bottom of the heap.
Anti-Wanda closed up the deal, which included a crate of dirt and worms, six jars of ladybugs with sugar-watered wings, and all of… whatever all that rubbish that Foop wanted were. He bounced on his toes, tracking every movement of his mother's hand with his eyes as she carefully patted her High Countess stamp on her pink ink pad and brought it down with a smash that rocked the entire table.
"All yours, hon," Anti-Wanda announced, returning the pad and stamp to her purse.
"How delightful, Mother! I shall treasure this moment for years to come. Ooh, who's that?" Foop shoved several jars of ladybugs into Anti-Cosmo's arms and dropped his basket to the ground. While Anti-Cosmo fumbled, Foop split like a lightning bolt.
"Here, peach." Anti-Wanda picked the basket up and helped Anti-Cosmo unload the jars. He exhaled.
"Many thanks, dear. I say, when are you going to tell him all earthworms are basically the same, regardless of their taste?"
She grinned and stacked the final jar in the basket's corner. "Not so long as he's havin' fun with it."
"I wonder what caught his attention anyway…" Anti-Cosmo's smile faded when he lifted his head. "Oh, dear. It's that young anti-will o' the wisp damsel from his school."
Anti-Wanda followed his gaze. "Oh. The opposite a' that girlie his cute countypart likes?"
"Unfortunately." He eyeballed the young Anti-Fairy on the stool behind the shabby stall table, her fur so blue it was nearly violet and her black hair dangling in pigtails to either side of her face. She leaned forward across the table, chatting Foop up as casually as though she'd done it every day of her life, while he floated in front of her leaning his head on his folded arms, arms on the table. Were those natural doe eyes and long lashes of his being used in teasing, or sincerity? Her black and red moth wings were distinctly visible behind her.
Anti-Cosmo turned to his wife. "You know, we really do need to talk about this. Foop's getting to the age where a drake starts to notice damsels, and he's our heir."
"Honeybuns?" Anti-Wanda took hold of his shoulder. "I don't know how ta tell ya this, so I'm just gonna say it. I think the li'l darling has known damsels exist for a long time now. He's a smart kiddlet."
"Romantically notice," Anti-Cosmo corrected himself, offering her his hand and lifting her to her feet. "Dear, sooner than we may think, Foop is going to be named the new High Count. After that, he only has a 100-day window to name his High Countess, and then he and she will be legally equals, permanent in their positions until one of them either dies or steps down." Basket swinging on his arm, Anti-Cosmo wrapped his other hand around Anti-Wanda's, holding them both near his chest. "We can't let him have a mothdame for a High Countess. You know that. We need to introduce him to other damsels his age. Perhaps we ought to host a ball? A sporting event? Make more visits to the markets and fairs?"
Anti-Wanda gazed over her husband's shoulder. "Aww, but he's so young. Let him have his childhood fun 'fore we gotta dump all this political trub on his head. 'Sides that, it's almost Friendship Day. Maybe he's just gettin' into the spirit of it. He can't take anybody out ta lunch, but he can still show his friend that he appreciates her. It ain't like he's nice ta lots a' people."
Perhaps she was right, as she usually was. Inwardly, Anti-Cosmo sighed. Even his wayward son had found a companion for Friendship Day. Disregarding the increased political expectations laden on a High Count's shoulders, what did that say about him?
"Pillows and cases?" he asked, floated up to the young anti-will o' the wisp's booth. It was deserted apart from his lingering son, who kept bringing his attention noticeably back to the animal pelt designs on the center table. Anti-Goldie seemed to be working the place alone, until with a rustle of fabric, an adolescent damsel bearing the same black and red wing design crawled out from under a heap of cloth in the back.
"Skinned and sewed 'em all ourselves," she insisted, dusting off her hands.
"Really?" Anti-Cosmo murmured, skimming his eyes along the wares again. His knuckles tightened around the strap of his satchel. "How nice."
Foop leaned his elbows on the table, his wings beating to keep him level with Anti-Goldie on her stool behind it. "I get that you're a moth," he was saying, "but you know, most of us Anti-Fairies roost upside-down. We don't really use pillows."
Anti-Goldie held her hands up near her face, palms facing. She tilted them down so her fingers pointed in Foop's direction. "Right, mate, but consider this: Maybe the only reason you don't use pillows, is because y'all don't have pillows."
"Ooh, you're good." Foop twisted his ungainly square body around, obviously making another superfae effort to widen his purple eyes and bat his long lashes. "Father? May we support the artistic endeavors of my friend?"
"Um…" Anti-Cosmo looked again at the display of animal pelts made into pillowcases. What Foop had said was true. Being anti-fairies, their kind roosted from pieces of furniture called arrays when they slept, which were designed to mimic the strong, sturdy boughs of trees in the countryside. They didn't really have need of any pillows. And Anti-Cosmo himself was strictly vegan, vastly preferring to live the fruit bat way of life as opposed to gobbling squirming insects or choking down dry strips of meat. That, and, well… these were moth children. Hardly an acceptable class for someone of their status to be seen acting so friendly to. Indeed, most of the other Anti-Fairies were floating quickly past the booth without taking so much as a second glance at the wares once they noticed who the vendors were.
Foop crossed his arms in a huff. "They're homeless children whose absent mum has to scrape the bottom of the social collection plate every single day in order to rub two coins together, you monster."
Anti-Wanda was still waiting, stamp and ink pad in hand, for a signal from her husband. With a sigh, Anti-Cosmo made it with his hand and stepped back. "We can take one. Just one."
Foop needed no further encouragement. Skimming his eyes one final time over the display, he pointed to a pale golden brown design decorated in black spots. "Is this made from a real serval's pelt?"
"Of course," Anti-Goldie enthused. Smirking all the while, Anti-Cosmo couldn't help but notice. His claws pierced his satchel strap. Anti-Wanda snickered.
"Aww, that thing's nearly as big as your whole head, li'l buddy. You'll squish your face up."
Foop dismissed this comment with a flap of his hand. "Ooh, Kelsia, it's lovely. Skinned from a wee cub, I trust?"
"Darn straight, mate. The smallest, most helpless one we could find."
Delighted, Foop turned expectantly to his mother. Anti-Wanda paid for the pillow and wished the two anti-wisps well on their further sales. Anti-Cosmo counted pink and purple baskets of flowers hanging from the ceiling of one of the largest and busiest booths of all just across the way. There were still fourteen.
"We do appreciate y'all's business," Anti-Goldie called after them. With a definite hint of smugness, she added, "It's nice when we can provide for ourselves a bit so our mama doesn't have to work so much."
Typical guilt trip. What else would an anti-will o' the wisp do for a living, but sell her body to the highest bidder? Those two young damsels were fast learning the ways of marketing themselves, and Anti-Cosmo didn't like it one bit.
As they floated on, Foop hugged the large pillow to his chest and inhaled. "It smells just like her pheromones on the night we snuck into Timmy Turner's house and poured sticky guano all over his floor, and filled Poof's stupid fishbowl with laundry detergent."
Anti-Wanda winced. "And a real expensive play-date that was. 'Course, y'all did stay outta trouble back home. Hey, sug'?"
"What?" Anti-Cosmo tore his stare away from the bustling booth, with its perennials laid out in bundles and baskets brimming with chocolates and little shaped soaps. Not to mention the enormous, heart-shaped "I'm Yours Tonight" sign up at the front. Anti-Wanda caught his gaze, then modestly lowered it. Glancing again at the sickening displays of pink and red hearts (Which, by the way, didn't look remotely like actual hearts), Anti-Cosmo pursed his lips. "Hmm?"
She tilted her head, both of her ears swiveling towards the booth.
"Yes, what is it, dear?"
Foop coughed into his fist. "Father, she wants you to buy her a chocolate rat."
"Right. I knew that. You two fly on ahead, and I'll catch up with you later. One moment, please."
It only made sense that someone here would have set up a booth for Valentine's Day. Every direction he turned his head, Anti-Cosmo spotted husbands and wives and boyfriends and girlfriends alike flipping through pre-printed cards, scrambling to compare the prices on plushies and taxidermies, or haggling over boxes of assorted berries and insects. This booth was wider than most in the market, and sickeningly colored like a pastel lollipop. Anti-Cosmo shook his head. Valentine's Day was a fine holiday with a noble idea behind it, and he did so enjoy flexing his creative muscles in search of new and exciting ways to show his affection for his dear wife every year, but why the need to set the day in February? With winter migration season coming to an end and preparations for the annual New Year celebrations at the castle already on his plate, all the hype engulfing this time of year still made his head spin even after all these centuries.
What had he stepped in here for, again? Perhaps a clever card with a witty, romantic pun scribbled inside of it? His darling Anti-Wanda may be a tad lacking in the linguistic department, but her adoration with poetry and her habit of screwing words up with their homophones had long ago given her an appreciation for puns. She had gotten quite good at them lately, as a matter of fact, although there were some nights when Anti-Cosmo found himself beating his head against the nearest door and questioning whether introducing her to innuendo had been a mistake. Anti-Wanda had rapidly developed a certain knack for it. He blamed that one on Foop coming to live with them in the Castle; it wasn't proper, of course, for a husband and wife to discuss certain matters directly with young pups in the room.
Not that he didn't truly enjoy her running commentary, for whispering sweet nothings to one another was about the only option Anti-Cosmo had to engage in clever banter with the woman. Just that sometimes her puns could be a mite too… much in certain conversational settings where etiquette was expected. She was the High Countess, after all, and dimwitted or not, there was a certain image she was expected to maintain.
Anti-Cosmo paused to study an arrangements of soaps shaped like little flowers laid out on a circular table. Lovely handcrafted soaps had been such an easy thing to gift his wife before he realized the pretty scents had simply coaxed her into eating them. Bottles of shampoo were a more practical purchase, though they never quite captured the same special feeling. Even he wasn't dope enough to select one of those as a Valentine's present. Rather than, "You deserve these pretty soaps because you too are pretty", a bottle of the stuff in liquid form always seemed to convey a meaning more akin to, "I bought this soap because you smell like you need it".
Ah, well. What else might Anti-Wanda like? His eyes latched on to a poster, taped and tattered, clinging to the front of another table. Anti-Cosmo sighed. The celebrity child on the poster was distressingly familiar, and left no question in Anti-Cosmo's mind as to what product he would find being offered. Scented candles. What else?
The battered poster depicted an adolescent fairy drake with his hips cocked and his mouth set in a permanent pout. His blue-violet eyes gleamed with haughty snootiness. His hair had been bleached blond, though natural red-brown still showed here and there at the roots if one knew enough to look closely. His curls fell in ribbons on one side of his face. Hmm. Might Anti-Wanda enjoy a set of candles that burned with colorful flames? Likely not. She had a tendency to associate burning them with holding a funeral, and the last time he'd given her candles, she'd gone through them in a week by honoring the deaths of every rat and insect she happened to kill. Using them to set a particular mood never seemed to cross her dimwitted mind.
"What Anti-Fairy would ever want a scented candle anyway?" Anti-Cosmo muttered, shaking his head as he looked them over. "Our race has exceptional hearing to compensate for our poor senses of smell. It's meaningless. Who would even buy one of these?"
"H.P. would like this, of course. A great deal of nonverbal Fairy communication occurs through scent, after all." After reassuring himself (twice) that there wasn't a Do not touch sign set up anywhere in the near vicinity, Anti-Cosmo picked up the nearest of the fancy candles and flipped it to his left hand. "I say, you could likely tell an entire novel with one of these things. No wonder they've become so popular lately."
A shame he himself had no idea how to translate anything the candles might be saying. For all he knew, he might accidentally pick out a recipe for insect leg casserole, or secret Anti-Fairy fighting techniques. Or, the scents might simply mean, "I'm a strawberry-scented candle. Buy me now." Anti-Cosmo fingered the candle for a moment, trying to decide if his son's extended stays in the Fairy World and visits on Earth might have left him bilingual, before deciding not to take any risks of sabotage or cultural insensitivity. He set the candle back on the display just right and continued perusing the booth.
After circling the entire selection, he finally found a shelf of boxed chocolate rats up at the front, beside an arrangement of fur brushes. On the other side of the rats stood a tall glass vase of ten chocolate roses, all but one of them wrapped in bright foil that twinkled like gold. The yellow shine amidst a booth selling mostly red, pink, and purple products snagged his eye. Anti-Cosmo drifted closer, taking a chocolate rat from the shelf at random and tucking it behind his back. Why were these chocolates coated in yellow foil? He couldn't recall any brand that decorated their products like that.
"Can I help you find anything, Esteemed High Count?"
Anti-Cosmo flicked his ears to the left. When he raised his head, he came nose to nose with an older damsel, her hair dyed an exquisite tint of crimson and her pale blue fur crinkled up along her face in wrinkles. The cursive name sewn in white over her black shirt pocket read Anti-Ruby.
"Um…" His eyes went back to the roses in the vase. "No, thank you. I'm quite all right. I was simply admiring your wares is all."
Anti-Ruby nodded. "Those chocolates are a specialty of mine. They're difficult to perfect, but I take pride in the quality of my work."
"You made these yourself, did you?"
She dipped her head again, only half hiding her smile. "Every year, High Count. They're quite popular treats. As you can see, I need to restock my color options. Red roses represent passion, pink mean admiration, blue symbolize what almost was and can never be… but those yellow ones you have your eye on represent simple true friendship."
"Which is why you're offering them just before Friendship Day, I'm sure. Clever marketing, that." Anti-Cosmo twisted his monocle. "They're quite lovely, and I am in the market for a suitable symbol of friendship I can use as a gift on Friendship Day, but I haven't anyone to give them to."
"Oh?" Anti-Ruby noticed the chocolate rat behind his back, and held out her hand so she could ring it up. As she moved towards the front table, she said, "I'd have thought the rest of the camarilla would be leaping into your lap."
"Maybe so, if I hadn't treated most of them out to lunch before, and if most of the drakes holding seats on the court were as slow to settle their plans as I am. Apart from that, narrowing down my options is only half the problem." Anti-Cosmo leaned his back against the table and waved his hand through the air with a flourish as he spoke. "You see, as High Count, I'm under political scrutiny. It's expected that I wouldn't seek my best man from anyone lower-class than the camarilla, you know what I mean? I've already run through my options, and it simply won't work. Gone are the drearily pleasant days when we were all bachelors. Lately, my friends have taken up knot tying. Who's left? Anti-Phillip? I don't think so- Privately, I can't stand his squeaky voice." He raked his claws down his cheeks, teeth straining. "Ohhh, why did I put this off until February 11th?"
Anti-Ruby had finished ringing up the chocolate rat, but instead of passing it back to him, she folded her hands around it. "Would you care for my advice, High Count?"
"I think the people will be less concerned with politics, and more pleased that you're embracing the holiday for the spirit behind it. They appreciate honesty, not obligatory commercialization. Ask yourself, if these were the olden days, who would you trust to intercept a love arrow should the cherubs try to set you, a married man, up with someone other than your wife? Surely there must be some drake out there whom you would trust to defend your reputation as a faithful husband."
"With my friends? Ha. In our younger years, we used to pick fallen arrows off the ground and chase each other down with them. We still do that every now and again, which makes it very difficult to know when I can trust them to actually watch my back. Actually… I suppose there is one man who would never succumb to such juvenile games." Idly, Anti-Cosmo reached out to the single chocolate flower wrapped in blue foil from the vase and spun the stem around in his fingers. "You know, it's a shame he isn't an Anti-Fairy. I do consider the Head Pixie a dear friend and intelligent conversation partner." Love his wife he may, but Tarrow knew he needed a bloke on his level to chat with now and again. "Certainly we've had our ups and downs." His fist clenched around the flower stem. "Sometimes a few… very, very deep downs of pain, hate, and betrayal that miraculously, I have somehow found it in me to forgive… But in the end, well, I simply couldn't ask for a more complementary personality to make me feel as comfortable in our relationship as I somehow do."
Anti-Ruby smiled. "There you go. It sounds to me like you've already found the perfect lunch date for Friendship Day."
Anti-Cosmo started and dropped the flower. It clicked lightly on the table. "What-? No, I didn't mean- D-don't talk tosh. I was being entirely hypothetical. I wasn't- I could never- But- But he's not an Anti-Fairy!"
"Does that matter?"
Anti-Cosmo tugged at his cravat, eyeballing his fellow browsers wandering the stall. He couldn't ignore several tall ears pointed vaguely in his direction. "I, well, um… It's just that he wouldn't want to. Friendship Day is, ah, it's much too serious an occasion for the casual business relationship he and I have."
… Not that "casual" was really the right word for it, or had ever really been. Truthfully, they were the best of friends, or at least the best of fiends, and hearing Anti-Cosmo speak the forbidden "c" word they'd agreed they never would, well, perhaps that might strike H.P. to the core.
Things had started - really started - so very poorly. Anti-Cosmo couldn't forget the war. He could never forget the war, how the Head Pixie had hurt him with his blatant attitude of disrespect and grabby, pushy hands. Oh gods, those wounds had been long in healing, and even now thoughts of being trapped alone in the same small space as the man still made his knees weak and his eyes brim over with tears. Even now, he never went out alone when it was dark if it could be avoided. Stupid Anti-Fairy memories wired to capture and burn every nerve-wracking detail into his brain. Stupid, mean, nasty, coffee-deprived pixie. And the stupid fairy dog- bloody smoke, confound the stupid fairy dog. Who even befriends dogs in a prisoner of war camp?
Over the years, Anti-Cosmo had come to realize that H.P. was just as prickly once you got to know him as he seemed from afar. Despite the stereotype of pixies being guarded with their emotions, H.P. himself tended to be a rather honest and open man. True, he wasn't the sappy sort, but when something entertained or irritated him, he would always let you know. While his bluntness stung, especially for an Anti-Fairy trained to master more indirect methods of communication, at least Anti-Cosmo semi-always knew where he stood in H.P.'s mind. Removing the guesswork was half the battle. For someone as socially anxious as he was, that meant a great deal.
Even so, everything had been horrible... until that sweet, malleable anti-fairy child had fallen into their laps all those thousands of years ago. The brief adoption and subsequent release of parental rights wasn't something talked about outside of the history books, the subject made even more taboo now that he and Anti-Wanda had Foop to look after (Oh, Foop; Anti-Cosmo was still waiting for the right time to tell him why he was explicitly referred to as the first anti-fairy baby born in mere thousands of years, not the first born since his own father's birth).
Still, what rotten fun that had been, he and H.P. and Anti-Wanda terrorizing Fairy World together with the bumbling child scampering after them… A shame things ended the way they had. He couldn't admit it to himself yet, let alone to either Anti-Wanda or H.P., but sometimes he missed those well-scheduled days of waking up in a Pixie World inn and placing all his leadership responsibilities in the hands of an efficient neat-freak so much smarter than himself… He missed those freeing days, those lazy days of reading books in chairs and listening to the radio. Days arranging his political platforms under H.P.'s watchful eye, and the secret, precious nights spent in Anti-Wanda's arms, back when they were young and he was healing instead of hurting and everything was new and every friendship he held was supposed to last forever.
Anti-Ruby tapped one claw against her cheek. "Pardon my forwardness, High Count, but you've dined with the Head Pixie in your castle dozens of times."
Anti-Cosmo grimaced, blinking himself back to the present day. He removed his monocle and cleaned one side on the end of his sleeve. "Of course, but that's different. You must admit, Friendship Day wasn't founded precisely on the idea of celebrating platonic relationships. I mean, the entire idea behind this holiday is to bribe someone to spend their Valentine's Day keeping your kids entertained while you and the wife are involved in pressing personal matters. I would never say I trust the Head Pixie to take a love arrow for me should the opportunity present itself. I mean" - here he put out his arms - "Rhoswen knows the man's as asexual as a dandelion. I know times have changed and we don't expect our friends to intervene in nature's course that way anymore, but even so, I'm sure he'd rather not involve himself in any relatively romantic aventure whatsoever. He isn't the type, and I don't want to make things between us more awkward than I already know he will."
Anti-Ruby listened until he was finished, never once removing her cupped palm from her chin. "In modern times, High Count," she said, "the idea behind Friendship Day is to show your best friend you appreciate him by taking him out to lunch. Especially if he's a single man right around February 14th."
"H.P. already knows I appreciate him," Anti-Cosmo insisted. He combed his claws through his bangs, pressing them back with the heel of his hand. When he let go, they remained bushed up in a scruffily unprofessional manner. "Look here. Even if I were to invite the Head Pixie out for lunch, he'd interpret the offer in completely the wrong way. Our relationship is complicated, to put it mildly. After all these years of pushing myself down paths he isn't inclined to follow, I've finally shaken off his crushing apron strings. I don't want him to think I'm being clingy. It's this game of competitive flirting he plays, where he allows me to sidle up as close to befriending him as I can before he swoops in and- and- teases me with all the ways my gestures of friendship could be taken as something romantic. We most certainly aren't romantic and we both know we don't want that, but he thinks he's funny. By treating him to lunch, I'll be walking out of there with a smarting headache for days."
Anti-Ruby looked down at the chocolate rat beneath her hand, then pushed the box across the table. "Thank you for coming by, High Count. I do hope you'll find that special lunch companion sooner rather than later."
"Thank you," he said, and left. But out on the path of booths again, he paused. He swiveled. "Er, that is to say…"
Anti-Ruby hadn't changed her posture. She smiled. "I suspected you couldn't leave without a Friendship Day gift for the Head Pixie. Care for a yellow flower? I only have nine left."
"I am not asking the Head Pixie to lunch for Friendship Day. Don't be absurd! But they are very pretty chocolates." Anti-Cosmo floated back and traced his fingers up the gentle patterns on the vase. He fingered one of the stems. "Oh, I don't know. Don't you think it might be a bit simple?"
"I think a chocolate rose would make the perfect accent for the occasion. Remember, you are already treating your friend to lunch. You don't want to overdo it."
Anti-Cosmo looked down at his shoes. "I suppose not."
Anti-Ruby took her time handling the rose so it wouldn't break, and Anti-Cosmo found himself squirming his feet even in the air.
"Oh, perhaps you're right, Anti-Ruby. I do appreciate H.P., and I suppose I could try making an offer. Yes, why not ring him up right now? Could I borrow your crystal?"
The ball was a quality model, but contacting Pixie World from Anti-Fairy World still took several anxious minutes. Anti-Cosmo drummed his claws along its surface, trying to ignore the curious eyes and whispers from the other patrons as they tracked his movements for both social and political reasons. Finally, the white mists turned to color. Mainly gray, but close enough. Anti-Cosmo let out his breath.
He'd picked up.
"Oh, good. H.P.? It's me, Anti-Cosmo."
Thank you, Captain Clarity.
Only, the face within the ball wasn't H.P.'s. As the last of the mist cleared up, Anti-Cosmo bit his tongue. Of course. This crystal wasn't on a direct line like the one in his office, so he'd been automatically redirected to one of the subordinate pixies, who looked down at Anti-Cosmo with his arm extended as though studying the screen of his cell phone. Though dressed in a neat gray suit and wearing tinted shades just like all pixies seemed to, Anti-Cosmo recognized him by the two cowlicks in his slick black hair.
"Sanderson," he corrected himself, pressing the tips of his claws together, "would you pass me along to H.P.? There's a matter of importance I wish to discuss with him."
Two seconds of silence. No reaction. Then Sanderson raised both eyebrows. "High Count? Are you silhouetted by enormous pink and red hearts that say 'I'm Yours Tonight'? Because that's going to be-"
Anti-Cosmo hung up without saying good-bye. The crystal went down on the counter, and so did his forehead. "Well, no one can say I didn't make an attempt. Ring the flower up for me anyway, darling. I'll find someone to give it to."
Just as he was taking it from her hand, Anti-Cosmo felt a tug on his coat. He looked down to find a small square figure floating there with a spotted pillow tucked under his arm.
"Mother sent me back here to see what was taking so long with her chocolate rat." Foop paused for a beat, and then added maliciously, "You left us unsupervised with her credit stamp, you know."
Anti-Cosmo flashed for the booth's entrance, bumping heart-shaped boxes of candy with his wings. An entire display of greeting cards toppled over with a whoosh. With a lash of his wand, he set it upright again. Foop followed on his heels with a gleeful howl.
By the time they returned home to the castle late that afternoon, all Anti-Cosmo really wanted to do was toss aside the bags full of junk and a few admittedly interesting art pieces, clamp his feet around a high branch, and take a very long nap. He made it as far as the soft brown couch in the front den before he collapsed on his back in a heap. His wings protested that they were crushed, but now wasn't the time to arrange them nicely.
"There are some days," he mumbled to no one in particular as he kicked off his shoes. That sentence could end in many ways. Truthfully, Anti-Cosmo's current thought process leaned a little towards, Days I wish my wife were a smarter woman who could lift some of this responsibility from my shoulders. But, well, she was his, and for some reason or another he loved her dearly, and nothing could be done about that now.
"Hello, Father. You're looking awfully tuckered out."
Anti-Cosmo forced open his eyelids to see Foop hovering innocently in front of his face. He held out the pelt-coated monstrosity from the craft fair. "Would you like to give my wonderful new pillow a try now?"
"Foop, you know how I feel about animal skins."
"Oh, please. Whether you use it or not, it's already dead. I swear, you are so unbelievably picky, old man."
Anti-Cosmo rolled over, burrowing into the cushions. "That's nice. Go show your mother."
Foop shrugged and wandered to the other side of the room to set the pillow up somewhere he liked. Anti-Wanda took his place beside the couch with her hands behind her back, and this time Anti-Cosmo sat up.
"Oh, I just don't know what to do, darling. Do you think I ought to try again? Contacting the Head Pixie again. I mean, time is ticking fast and I'm running out of options. But if he did accept, what shall we even do for lunch?" He combed a curl of hair behind his ear. "Perhaps I could help you make your infamous mealworm pie? That tends to leave mouths watering."
Anti-Wanda pursed her lips. "Let's maybe start by not feeding bugs to the insect people."
Anti-Cosmo groaned. "Oh, gods. See, this is why I need you, woman… Say. Are your hands behind your back for any particular reason?"
"Well, since ya asked me…" She tossed a glowing crystal ball into his lap. "I maaay have a'ready taken the liberty of ringin' him up for ya."
"Why, you dastardly-"
Anti-Wanda laughed. "I'll give ya boys some privacy. Come find me in my office when we's gonna have dinner, hon."
She vanished in a puff of smoke. Left with little choice, Anti-Cosmo brought his knees to his chest and peered at the surface of the ball. The white mists had parted. Anti-Cosmo really didn't want to look any deeper, but he forced himself to anyway.
H.P. was a man from another time. That's what Anti-Cosmo always thought first every time their eyes would lock, before heated faces or heated arguments could break the unsteady peace between them. Anti-Fairy World was a dark, dreary corner of the universe forever stuck in old tried and true ways of teasing stray travelers and navigating by the light of torches when echolocation failed (Not, it's worth noting, the kind that required batteries). Because of his schooling, Anti-Cosmo had been raised with a foot in Fairy World, and he was not fooled by claims praising Anti-Fairy World's decor and suggested malice. Foop may enthuse over the acid pits and lava pools, but Anti-Cosmo dreaded the mornings when he awoke on the roost beside Anti-Wanda and remembered what the Fairies, whether it had been their intention long ago or not, had taken away from them.
Anti-Fairy World was not beautiful. Not with its fields of stubble and bare forests devoid of most plant and animal life. Not to someone who had grown up idolizing the promised land from the window of his Academy dorm. Pixie World was beautiful, with its dull colors and highly-orderly streets that always ran in straight lines instead of veering around random homeowners who possessed powerful pheromones. Pixie World ran on electricity, which was not a matter on which Anti-Fairy World could compete. Oh yes, compared to Anti-Cosmo, H.P. certainly was a man from another time, and somehow it just made him so much more interesting than he probably deserved or wanted to be. And yet, it was true. With his sharp, fluid movements and his incredible attention to detail, H.P. was beautiful in the same way his homeland was beautiful: Roots planted firmly in practicality, and budding branches always hunting for something bigger. Better. More. If H.P. were a type of tree, he would be the type a person used to create the tools used to build one's home. Practical, efficient, and always focusing on the whats and hows of a job instead of on end results in the way that always seemed to get Anti-Cosmo into trouble.
How long had it been since last they'd met, anyway? They'd gone out for drinks with Jorgen and the Head Anti-Pixie, Anti-Sanderson, just before Foop was born. But oh, that was so long ago, and surely they'd gotten together since. Hadn't their paths crossed when Anti-Cosmo was wandering the Pixie storerooms, busily scraping together research for a project regarding a suspected human breach in cloudland security? Hm.
Through the crystal ball, Anti-Cosmo could tell that the Head Pixie sat behind his dull purple desk in his dull purple office, tapping his pen against the thick rims of his glasses and leaning his other hand against his cheek. "Hello, High Count," he greeted in his chronic monotone, reaching up to push the soft fabric of his gray cap back from his eyes. Tufts of scruffy white hair stuck out around his ears, and although pixies weren't normally typecast as creatures who actually got bored given what they found enjoyment in, it looked as though he'd been waiting there for some time now, and had started to entertain himself by tracing over his wrinkles with blue ink.
Anti-Cosmo swallowed. "Hellooo, H.P., my good man."
H.P. set the pen on his purple desk with a click. It rolled. He straightened it out again so it lay perfectly parallel beside a crisp stack of documents. "Sanderson told me you had something important to tell me."
"Whatever Sanderson told you, it isn't true!"
"You didn't have something important to tell me? Well then." H.P. reached for the 'Off' button on whatever device he was using to view this conversation.
"Wait wait wait hold the unicorns!" Anti-Cosmo tilted back his head. He exhaled towards the ceiling. The chandelier glittered with dangling crystals and upright rainbow candles, glinting off the polished stone above. "Look here. H.P., there was a misunderstanding between Sanderson and I today."
"'Sanderson and me.'"
"Yes. The truth is, I have a very serious matter to ask you about, and I don't want you to take it the wrong way."
H.P. shrugged. "Fair enough. I've waited this long."
90,034 years of positive relations, and the old man never let these things be easy on him. Anti-Cosmo clenched his eyelids shut until their corners burned with tears. An itch started to fizzle in the back of his throat. He folded his wings around his shoulders. His claws curled in, clinking against the smooth surface of the ball in his lap.
"H.P., I actually…"
Didn't sign up for this when I took over.
Can't believe I let myself get pushed into this.
Wouldn't be here if I didn't feel I were out of options.
Oh gods, I hate myself. What am I doing here? I'm really so desperate for the approval of others that I'd go so far as breaking protocol to ask a Seelie Courter to celebrate Friendship Day with me? Idiot. He's not an Anti-Fairy, and I'm not a Pixie. How could it ever work?
"Anti-Cosmo, I do have a lot of preparations I'm trying to finish for tomorrow."
"I wondered if we might could do lunch together on the 13th!" he blurted all in one go.
Absolute dead silence. The Head Pixie even let his rustling wings fall flat to either side of the arms of his chair. One eyebrow lifted. He folded his hands over his mouth. For a minute, he didn't say anything. What was he thinking about? What he wanted for lunch? Where they would go? And how long had Anti-Wanda kept him waiting anyway? What had Sanderson told him? Had he blown everything out of proportion? Had he even mentioned the mishap with the Valentine's decorations? Did he find an offer of lunch together unworthy of the hype that had built up to it today? Did he find Anti-Cosmo completely annoying, disorganized, and inconsiderate for springing this on him on the 11th, of all days?
"Am I perhaps a little too short-notice for you, H.P.? Because we can find another time…"
Too late, Anti-Cosmo knew. He'd already shot himself in the foot.
"The timing isn't amazing," the Head Pixie said carefully, leaving his hands on his face. His eyes wandered across his desk. "But I can make it work. Only, now I won't get to send you a chocolate advent calendar counting down to the days when next you get to see me. Frankly, I am a little disappointed about it. I like to invade your personal space with chocolates shaped like my wonderful face."
Anti-Cosmo resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Typical old pixie. "Yes, I suppose you have had a history of doing that ever since you bought out the Sugarslew chocolate factory."
"Don't tell me you're still bitter, A.C. That was 250,000 years ago."
"253,149. But, who's counting?"
H.P. actually did roll his eyes. "Right. Let's see here. Hmm. Food. Well. I could meet you in Little Olympus at about 6:00 Amethyst Time. That's 13:00 in your time zone. It's just across the border, and there's stuff around in Little Olympus that we can eat. My people will be enjoying breakfast while your people have lunch."
Anti-Cosmo made a rocking sign with his hand to indicate an unbalanced scale. "Well, yes, but can we be a little more specific than 'stuff around'?"
"You're really going to Fairy World on the 13th?" Foop burst out of nowhere, springing up from behind his new pillow on the other end of the couch. Anti-Cosmo dropped his crystal ball, and made a wild scramble for it. He yanked it back to his lap as Foop grabbed his leg and cried, "Ooh, can we make it a family thing? I want to have lunch in an actual Fairy World restaurant too!"
"No. This is a special meal for the High Count and Head Pixie only!"
"Really? The two of you? Alone? Why, you cheeky man- What will Mother say when I sell you out?"
Inside the crystal, the image of H.P. craned its head. "Was that Foop?"
Anti-Cosmo used his foot to push his protesting son further down the couch. "Unfortunately. Being a regular little brrrat, as usual."
"Tell him he can come too."
"Yes!" Foop cheered.
"Actually, you wouldn't really want him to-"
H.P. cut him off with a brisk wave of his hand. "With all the endless media coverage about his exploits, I completely forgot I haven't even met the kid face to face yet. Bring him on by so we can get acquainted. Bring Anti-Wanda if you want. She actually laughs at my jokes. We can all celebrate the 13th together. It'll be nice. I mean, it's not a Friday, but we'll make it fun. For you, I mean. I don't really deal in fun."
Anti-Cosmo's mind went perfectly blank. "I, um… I mean, I don't know… I had sort of hoped…"
"Your baby is first in line to be future High Count anyway, and I assume you aren't planning to break off positive relations with the Pixies anytime soon. The experience will be good for him."
That was the end of the conversation. As the mists within the crystal faded back to white, Anti-Cosmo glowered at Foop, who had started dancing around on the couch and bouncing his hands as though lifting up the ceiling. "Well, I hope you're very, very pleased with yourself, young man."
"Oh, Father, I am."
The trickier part was confronting Anti-Wanda about the details of the call, which Anti-Cosmo chose to do after tapping (not knocking) carefully at her office door. Their offices were conjoined, but, you know, it just felt right approaching her from the heavy, black, solid door instead of the light, brown, sliding one. As difficult as it was going to be to swallow his pride and admit his mistake to Anti-Wanda, it also wouldn't be fair to leave her out of the loop without giving her the chance to voice her opinion. For one thing, as High Countess she was his equal (legally, at least, and his superior in so many other ways he valued). For another thing, Anti-Wanda adored anything that had to do with travel. She was a visitor of diverse places, an appreciator of foreign customs, and a taster of exotic foods. The people loved her for it too, and probably more than they would ever love him. As private as Friendship Day lunch was intended to be, she had the right to hear the Head Pixie's offer and make the decision for herself. Following his tapping, Anti-Cosmo replaced his arm behind his back, and waited.
And waited a little more.
He cleared his throat. "Darling? It's me. Anti-Cosmo, your ever-doting husband? Your dearly beloved? I'm out here. Alone. May I come in to see you? There are pertinent matters to be discussed."
The handle turned. The door cracked open, allowing Anti-Cosmo to examine a slice of the High Countess' office. Books and scrolls had been tugged from shelves and left on tabletops. Discarded paper, mostly reduced to crumpled balls and shreds, littered the floor. Her jacket hung from one arm of the only half-lit chandelier. Before Anti-Cosmo could formulate intelligible words, Anti-Wanda grabbed him by the cravat and yanked him inside. "Shh," she hissed in his face. Her arms went around him. "Get in!"
She dragged him across the office and underneath her desk, automatically curling her body around his smaller one. Her wings followed suit, cupping behind his head. Anti-Cosmo rested quietly on her stomach with his ear to her chest. Unmoving. His wife kept him clamped against her, her eyes fixated on a fraying gash in the carpet a meter away.
"What we we hiding from?" Anti-Cosmo whispered after a few minutes had gone by.
Anti-Wanda looked at him. "Hiding? I just wanted ta squeeze some cuddles outta my tubba hubba 'fore ya remembered you were gonna be real mad at me for calling the pixie-headed guy without your sayin' so."
"Oooh, yes. I did intend to be quite angry about that." Still, he sighed and nestled his cheek against the fur on her neck. His hands roamed behind her back, searching to find each other so he could link them up. "Of course, I could never stay angry with you for long, Anti-Wanda. Much in the same way I could never punish Foop for playing that recording of sweeping sounds on his Skullphone instead of actually taking the broom upstairs to clean his laboratory himself. The result of such an argument may be temporarily cathartic, but not particularly productive or honorable for any of us, you know what I mean?"
"Aw, shucks, you're welcome, hon."
"Hmm." Anti-Cosmo lifted his head. "Listen to me close, dearest. The Head Pixie thought I could invite you to lunch. And Foop along with us."
Anti-Wanda tucked a scrappy curl of his blue hair behind his ear, taking care not to knock his monocle from his eye in the process. "Well golly, that was sweet of him."
His teeth clenched. Affectionate as Anti-Wanda was intending to be, being trapped underneath the desk was claustrophobic; he needed fresher air. Releasing his wife (against her protests), Anti-Cosmo crawled out from beneath it again. "Only now, I've ruined everything! This is supposed to be a lunch between friends, without any distractions from other people, but I didn't know how to tell him 'No'."
Anti-Wanda came out after him, fluffing her curls with her hand. "Huh," she said. While Anti-Cosmo plopped down in her office chair, she reached out to trace a circle on the desk with her claw. "Maybe the Head Pixie'll like it if there's other people. He's real busy and it makes it be a whole darn fishy use of time."
"Efficient use, you mean." Anti-Cosmo sighed and covered his face. "I imagine that's what bothers me most about the whole idea. He isn't thinking of me at all, you see. He's simply writing this off as a way to see me, you, and Foop all at the same time. We're nothing but checkmarks on his to-do list. Admittedly, that bothers me. I'm a person too. Can't he respect that?"
Anti-Wanda clasped her hands together at her waist and leaned to one side. "Well, look at it this way, gumdrop. Now I sure ain't gonna expect ya ta also take me out ta lunch or anythin' on the 14th too."
Anti-Cosmo jerked up his head. "Unholy smoke. Lunch! The 14th! I- I didn't even think to make a reservation for us anywhere, for any meal."
That earned him a pat on the shoulder. "Aw, s'okay, sug'. I don't mind eatin' in."
As familiar panic closed over his throat, Anti-Cosmo took his bangs in his fists. "But it's not okay! Blast, what have I done? Valentine's Day is a special time meant to be set apart so the two of us alone can reconnect, and I can't even manage to do that! What did I prepare? Nothing? Did I prepare nothing for the most radiant and precious goddess who lights up my entire life?" He swung the chair around in a circle. "Ohh, Anti-Wanda, what is wrong with me? I'm an absolute failure of a husband in every conceivable way. How can I please the Anti-Fairies when I can't even satisfy my own wife?"
He stammered to a halt when Anti-Wanda reached forward and latched onto the lapels of his coat. She jerked him from the chair until they were standing together, bodies barely brushing. Brows cocked, she stared down straight into the eyes. "Y'all really can't use that big brain ta think up aaany other way to make it up ta me? Huh. Some smartypants genius you are."
Anti-Cosmo swallowed, fingering the mesh pad on the arm of the chair behind him. His cheeks chilled with cold Anti-Fairy blood. "Oh, uh. Was there, um… S-something in particular you had in mind, cottonclaws? A-an activity you thought the two of us could, ah, participate in together, perhaps?"
Had he locked her office door? No. She'd yanked him in too quickly for that. But Foop never ventured down to this rear corner of the castle anyway, and he would probably be much too busy tinkering in that laboratory of his that he'd set up in his bedroom to be bothered with them. Unless, of course, he came seeking his mother to help him set up his irrigation hose in the greenhouse…
"Hmm…" Still gripping his lapels, Anti-Wanda brought her lips very close to his. Anti-Cosmo tightened his grip on the chair. One of her hands slipped away from his neck and onto the desk. "Y'know, hon, I bought a new book a' poetry at the market t'day. While you were distracted findin' me that yummy rat boy."
His ears trembled at their tips. Bloody smoke, it absolutely wasn't fair, that way she could lure him in so deeply and leave him to make an idiot of himself. "Oh. O-oh. A poetry book, you say? W-whatever would you want me to do with a thing like that?"
Something small and solid slipped into his hands. Anti-Cosmo's eyes flickered down to its beautiful hardcover front, all worn and brown and accented with golden swirls. He squinted at the author's name.
"Emeralda Shinywing? I daresay I'm not familiar with her work."
Anti-Wanda planted a smooch against his cheek. Releasing him, she pulled away. "Uh-huh. Now, I'll make sure we all gots nice clean clothes to wear ta lunch with H.P. while you do a li'l readin' t'night. But…"
Forcing his eyes away from the lovely little book was a battle, even for her. Anti-Cosmo managed it anyway, and even pushed a smile onto his face. "But?"
She placed the tip of one claw below his chin. "I expect t'be sung to with no fewer than six poems whistled in my ear all random-like throughout tomorrow. And six more the day after that. Think that cute top-heavy crani-cap of yours can manage that, honeyfangs?"
"You want fourteen romantic poems, memorized to perfection?" Anti-Cosmo pressed a knuckle to his lips. "Hmm… But of course, determining which ones are most appropriate for the mood I intend to set when I serenade you is bound to take all night, at least. And perfecting every pronunciation and rhyme scheme will take another several hours tomorrow on top of that, not even including the background research I shall have to do to uncover the context." Lip curling, he held the book out at arms' length. "Oh, bother it all. Curse you to your bones, foul temptress! You haven't left me any time now to worry about lunch with the Head Pixie! How could you do this to me? Inconceivably cruel woman, you are."
"Gee whiz, guess you'd better get started, smartypants," was her chirpy reply, and she sent him off with a flick of her fingers on his nose.
"I had to take a second bath this morning just because I sat for twenty minutes in front of the fireplace?" Foop asked, still flipping imaginary water droplets from one of his ears. The three Anti-Fairies sat on one of several dozen couches edging the station that oversaw comings and goings between Fairy World and Anti-Fairy World. Anti-Cosmo had his satchel protectively under one arm, seeing as it contained the precious chocolate rose and everything else he hadn't gotten around to dumping out after the trip to the craft fair. Thus far, he'd decided, it was taking every ounce of control in his body not to start making nasty comments about how much simpler it would be to find an illegal point to fly across the border instead of having to take a number and wait here in the busy station like commoners did. Half of that came from a reluctance to put a sour mood on the day, and half of that from the inevitable jabs he would get from Foop concerning his age. The child had never known anything different, of course, seeing as the Gate that separated the two Worlds had been opened shortly before his counterpart had been born.
"Foop, for the last time, I don't want you smelling like a badger when you're finally introduced to H.P. And you will get into a habit of taking advantage of those scented soaps we set out for you, I hope. Someday you will be older and dealing with members of the Seelie Court such as Fairies and Pixies regularly, and you'll want to make a good impression."
Foop sniffed. "I notice you and Mother both hung behind in the lavatory after you'd finished with me, and in the end, you left it together."
Ignoring him, Anti-Cosmo touched his hand to the back of his son's neck. "Now, lad. Do be polite to the Head Pixie. You have to realize, Pixie customs are quite… unusual. You must keep in mind that his ears aren't as sharp as ours, so be sure to speak up. And, Pixie nonverbal communication is almost entirely based on scent cues secreted from the skin. When he's in a social mood, he tends to get in…" Anti-Cosmo narrowed his eyes. "… close."
"Now serving numbers 800 to 849," hollered one of the Keepers from the front of the station. Anti-Cosmo checked the ticket in his hand, then took Anti-Wanda by the elbow and nudged Foop up with his foot. Together, they approached the pink archway that spanned the majority of the building. The Keeper behind the nearest desk frowned.
"Our passports," Anti-Cosmo said, drawing three yellow scrolls from his satchel and holding them out. His and Anti-Wanda's were both marked inside with wax seals indicating their ranks, while Foop's had a special acorn symbol confirming him a student of Spellementary School. The Keeper did not take them.
"Anti-Fairywinkle family. I didn't think you were off travel probation for another three years."
"Oh, come off it. Jorgen had the Divide Gate officially opened ages ago. We can cross the border at will these days. We're allowed."
"Most Anti-Fairies, yes." The Keeper tilted his head sympathetically to one side. "However, you, High Count, are a particularly wanted criminal. Precautions must be taken, so I'm afraid we can't let you cross the border without a high-ranking escort."
"Beg your pardon? No. This is preposterous. I've done nothing wrong in recent times." Anti-Cosmo jabbed a finger at the ground, gripping his satchel strap in his other fist. "I mean it! Really, look it up! I have only acted to secure Anti-Fairy rights for the protection and betterment of my people. Name one time I've broken a law since the Supreme Fairy Council ruled in favor of lowering the Barrier."
The Keeper rubbed the collar of his pale blue uniform. "Let's see. Well, you did kidnap the first fairy baby born in thousands of years and proceed to drain him of his natural magic for the purpose of making a legitimate attempt to destroy Planet Earth, which would of course have plunged all of us into a major famine and caused mass pandemonium until we were able to relocate all the Fairy Worlders across the universe to the Hawthorn Haven cloudland colony between Planet Boudacia and Planet Delk. There's that."
"… That was just belated and well-deserved revenge."
"Negatory," said the Keeper, maintaining the same half-cheery tone in his voice. "I'm afraid that unless you can produce actual documentation confirming you were granted permission to cross the border today, we'll have to keep you under lockdown."
Another Keeper came forward and took Anti-Cosmo by the arm. A third moved towards Foop and Anti-Wanda. Anti-Cosmo's hand flashed for the wand in his sheath, but just as he grasped the handle, someone called from the other side of the pink arch, "They're all with me, officer."
That was the Head Pixie, literally elbowing his way through the Fairy World half of the station as nonchalantly as he might cut across a golf course. His long, spinning wings produced a distinct buzz in the air, and did a very effective job of clearing his path. The Keepers released Anti-Cosmo's coat. With a muttered thank you, he started to brush himself off. He did not look up until the Head Pixie stopped just in front of him, and even he could taste the mingled scents of bananas, ink, and cinnamon in the air.
"I say, old sport, you always did have a flair for dramatic entrances."
"'Course. I'd never send one of my underlings to do a Head Pixie's job. I have to maintain my dominant disposition." H.P. clapped his hand on Anti-Cosmo's shoulder, forcing Anti-Cosmo's floating feet to touch the ground. "Besides, I haven't seen my two favorite Anti-Fairies in months. I see no reason to put it off longer than we have to. I'd miss you."
In the corner of his good eye, Anti-Cosmo noticed Foop's alarmed hands fly up near his face, palms forward and startled fingers splayed. Grimacing inwardly at the Head Pixie's forward physical contact, but refusing to let it show on his face, Anti-Cosmo said, "I daresay you're looking well."
H.P.'s eyes scanned his face from top to bottom, left to right, idly searching for signs of discomfort and weakness. Even discounting the height of his forehead he dwarfed Anti-Cosmo immensely, but then again, members of the Seelie Court generally did. Pixies especially came from a sturdy stock. He straightened his shoulders. "Sure am. It's probably because I stayed almost entirely sober yesterday, even though it was my party and I could drink if I want to." His fingers slipped away. Turning, H.P. floated closer to Anti-Wanda, and lifted her hand from her side. He brought it to his lips, but let it hover there a moment instead of kissing her wrist. "And how is my favorite damsel in the entire cloudlands? I hope your husband's been treating you well."
"Eep!" Foop's hands moved up to his ears. "Oh gods, tell me when it's over."
"Oh yes, talking to pixies is an acquired skill, to put it mildly," Anti-Cosmo murmured, using two fingers to give his collar a tug. He may not be in the hot seat anymore, but he couldn't resist the urge to lean a little back just watching them. However, despite the Head Pixie's blatant intrusion into her personal bubble, Anti-Wanda held her ground. Keeping one fist positioned behind her hip and her chin tilted slightly up, she even smiled at him.
"Aw, my Anti-Cosmo sure treats me like a queen oughta be. He got me a whole chocolate rat all for only myself jist the other day."
H.P. kissed the back of her hand and let it slip away between his fingers. "A rat, did he?"
"Yup! I like the way they squirm when you put your lips on 'em."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that." The Head Pixie touched his mouth with two fingers, then leaned closer, although he kept his voice loud enough to be heard over the bustle of the crowd around them. "I'm afraid to do so without your husband's permission, but I took your advice. I want to show you what I did with my first tattoo. I just had it redone into a piggy bank."
"Your hog?" Anti-Cosmo asked, aghast. "The one on your left shoulder? But it was perfect for you in every way. The sturdy, patient, truffle-hunting creature represented everything your family stood for."
H.P. glanced down at his shoulder, though the long gray sleeve of his suit kept it well covered. "It still does. What part of 'piggy bank' did you miss? Now money is involved. It fits my current interests. I like it."
Anti-Wanda nudged him with her elbow. "Speakin' about change, this don't change a thing, bucko. You'll always be a boar ta me."
There were several seconds of stunned silence as the reality of what had just been said sunk in around them. Foop was the first to break it with a whisper-shouted, "Mother!" Anti-Cosmo turned to his wife, his lips parted to respond, but try as he might, he couldn't formulate the proper words. H.P. tilted his head.
"How long have you been planning to-?"
"Golly gee!" She stretched her arms in one direction and her wings in the other. "Well, I forget exactly, but I must've done sat on this li'l piggy pun 'til it cracked for at least four hundred years, ayup. Aw, but that one was a gimme anyway. It barely e'en counts."
"You- you- you-" Anti-Cosmo tried to say. "No! No, that just isn't fair!"
"Aw, hon, fairs is for guys who share traits with donk-"
Anti-Cosmo put his hand over her mouth. "Don't. Finish."
She flicked her gaze desperately in H.P.'s direction. Twice. Anti-Cosmo squeezed his eyes shut, wishing he didn't know she was trying to tell him that the donkey was the sacred animal of the year on the Fairy zodiac the Head Pixie had been born under. A fitting symbol for him, but H.P. certainly wouldn't like to hear it, and Anti-Cosmo really couldn't handle the old man slipping into a foul mood today of all days. He pinched her lips between the pads of his thumb and forefinger.
H.P. chuckled dryly. "Your wit remains as charming as ever, High Countess." Once Anti-Cosmo removed his fingers from his wife's mouth, the pixie said, "By the way. Did you fix those delayed response problems you were having with your thermostat at home?"
Anti-Wanda smiled with all her flat, crooked teeth. "Uh-yup! We's all set for that time a' the season. Now all I gotta do tomorrow is switch the fans on reeeal high."
"Perfect. Keep me updated. And if it starts giving you any more trouble, send it my way for a weekend and I'll smack a little more sense into it."
Foop stood with both his ears cocked forward, frowning hard. "I don't get it," he said. "Why are they talking about turning on the A/C?"
Anti-Cosmo shook his head. "Who knows? They've been doing it since your mother and I were married."
H.P. glanced over at them and stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Well. Despite the cultural barriers, it's one area where she and I did manage to find common interest. Anti-Wanda is widely considered the cloudlands' leading expert on the subject. I just like to be a part of things."
"He's gotta grill me on all the detail-y parts 'cuz he don't know everything 'bout how Anti-Fairy World stuff works, and this kinda thing tends ta be an inside job," Anti-Wanda explained, waving her hand.
The Head Pixie's mouth twitched a little too high in one corner. "Excuse me," he managed, and pinged away in a cloud of white dust. After several long seconds, he returned with another ping, straight-faced once again. Anti-Cosmo looked at Foop and shrugged his wings to indicate his lack of understanding for their sense of humor.
"Did they even have air conditioners back when you geezers tied the knot?" Foop asked, rolling his eyes.
"Well, the first thing one learns about your mother is that she can be very resourceful."
H.P. only half-concealed his snort by pretending to cough into his elbow. "Just a moment," he told Anti-Wanda. "I haven't introduced myself properly to your son." Quickly switching gears and bringing his attention down to Foop, H.P. came forward and held out his hand again. Foop reached up to grab it and they shook. When they let go, H.P. set his hands to his waist without stepping back. "Obviously I'm the Head Pixie. CEO of Pixies Inc., ambassador of Pixie World to the Fairy Council, and just in general someone you should look up to and admire at all times. Call me H.P."
Anti-Cosmo watched as his son blinked and eased his head away. "I'm, uh… Foop Anti-Fairywinkle. Or Foop Anti-Cosma-Anti-Fairywinkle, rather. It's both for legal reasons that let me dance around the shapeshifting cap-off laws. And it's…" He blinked again, this time flinging a desperate peek up at his father's face. He shifted the weight between his feet. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
H.P. nodded. "I assume your father's told you a lot about me. Anti-Cosmo is a pretty good man. So I hope you're showing him the proper respect he deserves."
Foop rocked back on his heels and feigned a stumble, using the opportunity to put a little more space between himself and the towering Head Pixie. His hand went up to touch Anti-Cosmo's satchel. "Yes, I… I'm working on that."
"Caudwell told me he'd been paying you visits in Abracatraz. Caudwell my pixie, probably a certified therapist and my heir to Wish Fixers," he clarified to Anti-Wanda, absently floating closer (Anti-Cosmo leaned away). Then to Foop again, "How is that therapy for your split personality mishap working out for you? I assume magnificently."
As he spoke, Foop groped sideways for Anti-Cosmo's leg. He looped one arm behind it, and coughed into his other fist. His ears went flat against the sides of his head. "My mother and I, uh, named him Hiccup. My other, um, self. H-he still shows up sometimes. We're finding a balance. Caudwell said we could go to school, but we still have to come in and see him every Sunday morning and Wednesday afternoon."
H.P. rubbed his chin, adjusting the weight between his wings. "Yes, I believe the frequent check-ins are standard practice. Or at least they would be if we knew many Anti-Fairies who suffer from having multiple personalities stuck inside their brains. Frankly, I think I might be jealous. Really. Managing over five hundred pixies like I do, I could use a co-pilot to take over from me whenever I need a nap."
Anti-Cosmo heard the twaaang in the air when Foop's patience snapped. "Do you even mind? I can hear you just fine from over there, and if you keep gabbing straight into my ears, you'll make me go deaf before I'm even an adolescent. Stop getting so up in my face, you creep! Despite your infamous cubicles, have they not gotten around to inventing personal space in Pixie World?"
"Foop!" Anti-Cosmo kicked him lightly in the place he thought his square son's ribs might be. "Show a hint of respect for our gracious host, good smoke. I'm sorry," he said to H.P., "he really doesn't know any better yet. He's only a child, you know what I mean?"
Foop's arms went out when he gestured as usual. "It's not my fault the man completely lacks any sense of common decency!"
"Nah, then he'd be naked," Anti-Wanda whispered.
"Ha ha. Ha ha." H.P. crouched to ruffle the fur on Foop's flat head, including his little swirl of black hair. "Cute kid, A.C. I used to have one just like him."
"Yes, he's quite the charming young lad," Anti-Cosmo muttered, risking a glare down at the pup crouching between his feet. Foop clung stubbornly to his leg. For his part, Anti-Cosmo brushed his hands together crisply, forcing H.P. to allow him enough space to make the motion. "Well, yes. Now, about our brunch plans."
H.P. stood again. "About those. We should probably take your family over the border now."
"'We'?" Anti-Cosmo leaned to the side, his smile fading at the corners as he finally glimpsed the smaller figure who had evidently slipped into the station on H.P.'s heels. This man dressed in the same gray suit, although his short hair remained black and sleek instead of fluffy and white, and his glasses had been replaced with dark shades. While the second man was much smaller, with thinner hips and shoulders, certain features of the pair such as the sharp edges of their faces, their pale skin, their rounded noses, and their ginger-orange, vaguely-square wings remained identical. Even Anti-Cosmo could smell traces of the Head Pixie's pheromones lingering on the man. He fought the tumult of conflicting emotions rising in his throat- most of them blatant irritation. "Oh. You invited Sanderson to have lunch with us too."
I mean, it wasn't that he really minded Sanderson's presence. After all, he'd brought along Anti-Wanda and Foop (not to mention a chunk of mounting anxiety). He didn't really need to get the Head Pixie alone or anything to give him the yellow chocolate rose and ask if he'd accept the offer of being his best man this Valentine's Day. Still… Maybe he'd try to time the offer when Sanderson excused himself to use the loo for a moment. Then again, Sanderson was such a hovering parasite where his boss was concerned, he probably secretly wore diapers when on the job like Cupid so he could skip taking bathroom breaks at all.
Oh gods, he was overthinking this.
"I bring Sanderson everywhere," H.P. said, scratching behind his ear. Anti-Wanda pressed her fingers to her mouth and looked up at the ceiling, not quite covering a grin. H.P. adjusted his hat. "Remember, you Unseelie Courters aren't allowed to be over the border unless escorted by at least two members of the Seelie Court. I'm a pixie, and Sanderson is a pixie. We qualify. There you go."
"That rule was overturned 46 years- Er…" For some reason he had to pause for a second to think about the correct date. "-several… months ago when the Barrier came down. You know, just after that world-mashing fiasco with the bulgyversers. Remember?" Sometimes it was difficult to tell when the old pixie's memories were really going, or when he was only teasing.
H.P. considered this evidence, then shrugged. He'd drifted so close, his whirring wing nearly batted Anti-Cosmo on the nose. "Meh. I bring Sanderson everywhere. He watches my back when we're out in public."
I'll bet he does. It was a petty thing to seethe about, Anti-Cosmo knew, but it was the tipping point for his topped-off vial of frustration. Here he was, trying to organize a private brunch for just the Head Pixie and himself, and H.P. simply couldn't seem to keep his controlling hands off messing with his plans. Why not jolly invite Jorgen smoking Strangle and Anti-Sanderson to pop on by, and call it a potluck?
"Enough about him," H.P. insisted. He set his hands to his waist. "Notice anything different about me?"
"What? Oh, um…" Anti-Cosmo blinked. "You seem happier today than most."
"You's lost weight," Anti-Wanda suggested.
"Erm… You were recently outfitted for a new suit? Due to the amount of weight you lost?"
"A lot of weight," Anti-Wanda emphasized. "You don't e'en look like you's the same guy who was wearin' paternity clothes the last time I saw ya."
Sanderson floated uncomfortably close beside Anti-Cosmo and leaned forward to whisper in his ear, "We celebrate Pixalchia Day on the 12th for a reason, High Count."
… Oh no.
The overlapping dates. The party. The sugary soda. The hangovers. The H.P.-forgoing-his-beloved-sugary-soda-on-the-biggest-Pixie-holiday-of-the-decade-to-avoid-suffering-a-hangover-because-Anti-Cosmo-had-asked-him-out-to-what-in-his-time-zone-would-be-considered-breakfast-the-morning-after.
Don't think about that, oh my smoke, don't think about that. He's here, he made his choice, if he were annoyed then he would be blunt about it, he really does care about you, focus on that. Anti-Cosmo slammed his fist in his open palm and pointed his finger at H.P. "I say! You had another birthday, old chap. You're 744,699 now, if my memory isn't mistaken."
"You remembered," H.P. remarked, actually sounding delighted. "Sanderson, he remembered."
"Yes he did, sir."
"Doesn't it make you all warm and fuzzy inside?"
"Yes it does, sir."
Strange, though. For some odd reason, Anti-Cosmo could have sworn the Head Pixie turned 744,699 last year. Or maybe it was the year before that. Hm. Ah, well.
H.P. swung his attention back to Anti-Cosmo and rubbed his hands together. "And? Did you bring me anything for it?"
Foop instantly covered his mouth. "Isn't that more than a mite direct?" he breathed into his palms. Softly, Anti-Wanda imitated the sound of a fire truck peeling through the streets down on Earth, alarms blaring. Anti-Cosmo twitched an ear.
"Why, I- I- Of course I did! I never forget anything. You know this." As he felt around inside his satchel, Anti-Cosmo allowed a smirk to play out across his lips. "What with you being Head Pixie, your birthday is technically a federal holiday, after all."
"Oh…" Half-smiling, H.P. rocked back in the air and studied the border crossing signs and pink archway above their heads. "Only because it's the one day the Fairies acknowledge it's impossible to get anything done without us. I just manage the paperwork behind package shipping and online deliveries for all magical creatures in this quadrant of the known universe on a constant daily basis. No big deal."
"But of course. Here." Anti-Cosmo removed the shoe box wrapped in silver paper from his bag, listening to the wooden blocks slide around inside. Vaguely, he was aware of Foop slapping himself in the face when he saw what his father held. The shame of such a crude gift must seem to him insurmountable.
Regardless, Foop didn't know H.P. like Anti-Cosmo did, and Anti-Cosmo presented the box the way he imagined pixies liked most: Back straight, head high, arms extended out front and slightly down. H.P. fixed his glasses and leaned in to study it. The long tail of his gray hat bounced against the old scars on his right cheek.
"Hmm…" His tongue poked out between his lips, although his face remained perfectly blank otherwise. A small crease appeared along his tall forehead.
"You aren't supposed to try using your sensing-stuff-through-boxes powers when you're getting a present," Anti-Cosmo scolded.
"If it makes you feel any better, I can't tell what it is. So it's not magical. I know that much." He raised the box to his mouth, sharp teeth bared.
"Don't open it here!" Anti-Cosmo made a wild grab for the box and yanked. "We're in public. That's indecent. Not to mention, you'll give my wife the most outrageous ideas."
"It's my birthday," H.P. protested, pulling the gift back towards him. The model carvings of Fairy World slid around again, clacking against one another. "In fact, you're giving me this present the day after my birthday. The sooner I open it, the less late it will be." He raised the box again to his mouth.
"Ah- Mm- Ih-" Anti-Cosmo attempted to put out his arm again, then fell back. He pressed his fist to his lips, cupping his elbow in the palm of his left hand. "Of course, I may have forgotten how you pixies get about slick, shiny foil."
"Blame the paper wasp in my genetics," came the muffled reply. H.P. had already used his teeth to rip away a long strip of the stuff. Sanderson hovered behind him. He held his arms straight by his sides, but his fingers twitched madly with every movement his boss made.
Anti-Cosmo's fangs pressed into his lower lip as he watched the Head Pixie sit down cross-legged on the dirty tile floor, ignoring the other Fairies and Anti-Fairies (mainly the latter) milling around him. "Ah, maybe- don't- Mmm-"
"It's my party."
"Tell me when it's over," Foop muttered again. Anti-Wanda patted one corner of his head.
For all his unconventional behaviors, H.P. did manage to remove the paper somewhat nicely. He split half the rubbish with Sanderson, who quietly stuffed scraps of shiny wrapping into various pockets of his suit, and (when he thought no one was looking) slipped a chunk into his mouth and started to chew. H.P. removed the lid from the battered blue shoe box and paused, hands hovering, to examine the contents within.
"I purchased those for you at the Luna's Landing craft fair the other day," Anti-Cosmo explained, resisting the urge to anti-poof their entire traveling party out of the station and into an abandoned geyser field in the middle of nowhere. He leaned forward, his hands firmly wrapped around his knees instead of his wand. "They're little models of assorted Fairy World buildings and landmarks, you see? A handful of children were so proud to be selling them, and you know I can hardly resist supporting the artistic talents of my fellow creative minds. Tarrow knows they'll be starved of support once they make it far enough in school."
H.P. picked up a misshaped carving of three humped bridges vaguely attached into one landmark and brought it to his face. "Hmm. I see they're made of wood."
"But of course! You must recall, H.P., that we've been friends for 90,000 years now. I know all about the constant gnawing you pixies have to do in order to keep your teeth from growing out of your mouths and straight up into your brrrains."
"This is an acceptable gift," H.P. decided. He returned the bridges to the box. "I'll be sure to send you a glowing performance review once I try them out."
Hearing that, Anti-Cosmo couldn't resist the tugging of a smile. "You mean, a thank you card?"
"That too." H.P. examined the blocks, then picked up the model of the army bunker that Jorgen von Strangle called home. He tilted his glasses down. "Spruce, is this?"
"Oh, you know I can't tell Earthside plants apart from pastries. You'd be wiser asking my wife or son."
Foop squeaked and ducked behind Anti-Wanda's waist, keeping low to avoid her sweeping wings. "Oh, no, don't trouble yourself. I don't know about the rest of you, but I certainly don't intend to make any promises to assist anyone who so horribly mangles even the most basic bottom lines of social etiquette."
"Do ignore him," Anti-Cosmo said fondly, folding his arms. "He really is a pest, but we do love him so."
Rejecting Sanderson's extended hand, H.P. pushed himself up to one knee and then rose into the air again. He tucked the shoe box under his arm, but kept Jorgen's model bunker near his face. "Shall we head over into Little Olympus now? Like I was saying, there's stuff there we can eat. I've been meaning to try the bacon they serve somewhere around here. That'll put fur on the kid's chest. Wait. Do you care if I eat the bacon in front of you? I forget you're weird about food that leaves a shadow."
"He wouldn't," Foop whispered, his eyes clearly locked onto H.P.'s hand. But he did. H.P. put one corner of the block in his mouth and started to strip away at it with his teeth. Foop whimpered with secondhand embarrassment and hid behind Anti-Wanda yet again. She plucked him up with her feet and flipped him into her arms.
Bacon sounded horrific, but Anti-Cosmo smiled anyhow. "Ah. Local's choice, I suppose. We don't eat across the border often, so lead the way."
"Technically I'm not a local here, but I could be if I took out a couple of well-placed pheromone machines some considerate joker set up strategically around these parts. Sanderson could fetch me a pair of slippers and these blockheads wouldn't know what hit them. I actually did buy all of Fairy World from the Fairy Elder once. Remind me to tell you that story."
They exited the station, H.P. in the lead with Sanderson a constant buzzing annoyance a meter or two behind him. The sunlight in Fairy World was far brighter than most anything they got in Anti-Fairy World, and as the Anti-Fairywinkles tailed the pixies, they held out their hands and blinked while their eyes adjusted. The colors clashed in a garish fashion, pinks and purples across from blues and turquoise and green, but the Fairies seemed to like it that way. Long buildings changed to tall ones. Columns changed to sloped roofs laden with shingles. Cobblestones changed to brick-laid paths. Barred windows changed to ones of glass.
After two blocks (meaning the street kind, not the wooden kind), H.P. paused from his gnawing long enough to say, "I've noticed that you always drop back to follow behind me as soon as we're outdoors, A.C."
"Hmm?" The anti-fairy looked himself over, reaching for Anti-Wanda's hand. Their fingers threaded behind Foop's back. "I suppose I do. It just feels more natural somehow."
"If you're a hungry bat hunting insects," Sanderson muttered from over on the right. Anti-Cosmo shot him a dangerous glance. Sanderson met it with a raised chin, and Anti-Cosmo sighed.
"A pleasure it is to bump wings with you again after so long, my good man. Is it my imagining, or is your boss a jolly deal more chipper today than usual?"
"You're kidding, right? He's the Head Pixie. Practically by definition, he's always in a good mood on the 13th. Remember what yesterday was."
Anti-Cosmo frowned. "You know, I didn't realize the bloke cared so much about another silly birthday. 744,699 isn't even grounds for a milestone. Now, if we were doing this next year…"
"Pixalchia Day isn't just H.P.'s birthday," Sanderson insisted, pushing his shades further up his nose with one finger. He bobbed further ahead. "Once there were enough of us, it got difficult to celebrate our birthdays individually. Pixlachia Day isn't just his day. It's our day too."
"Oh, right. You pixies are all his genetically identical offspring." A line of thought Anti-Cosmo had never cared to dwell on for long. It wasn't H.P.'s fault, really. The man had been infected by a strain of bacteria known to the human world as Wolbachia pipientis back in his younger years, and the asexual reproduction wasn't anything he had control over. To be fair, considering how many pixies there were nowadays, Anti-Cosmo didn't blame him for celebrating their birthdays en masse just once a year, or a decade, or however it was they did it. But…
"What do stuck-up, neat-freak pixies do to celebrate a Pixie holiday?" Foop asked with apparently honest curiosity, and then he blinked and smacked himself between the eyes. "Of course, duh. You're wasps."
Sanderson licked his lips. "Delicious sugar. Lots and lots of sugar. And I made sure we had plenty of music to accompany us."
"Did H.P. partake in the sugar festivities too?" Anti-Cosmo glanced around. H.P. had floated on ahead and paused to wait for them only at the corner of the street. Or maybe he had only paused to continue nibbling on his block of spruce. While pixies weren't really much for expressing silly emotions in public, he certainly did seem pleased to have the thing.
"H.P. has… his own way of celebrating his place as head of our company," Sanderson said evasively.
That went without saying. There were, of course, certain things a Head Pixie was expected to get around to doing for his underlings. Splashing them with his scent came to mind. Anti-Cosmo coughed into his fist and glanced into the sky. "Come to think of it, I did notice that even I can pick up the smell of him on you today. Seems to me like you got a wee overly doused last night. Is a pheromone dumping the Pixie equivalent of drawing all over an unconscious coworker's face without wasting the office's precious ink?"
Sanderson groaned. He stuck out his tongue like he wanted to make a face, though his expression didn't really change. Then he pushed up his shades and rubbed his face with both hands. "Holy smoof, that was some party. I'll say that much." After several seconds passed without a response from Anti-Cosmo, Sanderson removed his hands and said, "That is why you came here, isn't it? To celebrate his birthday?"
"Um… Sort of."
"Please elaborate on 'Sort of'."
"Well." Anti-Cosmo scratched behind one of his ears. "Do you recall the Anti-Fairy holiday Friendship Day on the 13th?"
Sanderson turned his head. "Oh, no. You didn't."
"See, I just wanted to treat the Head Pixie to lunch and offer him this yellow flower as a token of our friendship, a symbol that we're equals, without him reading too much into it and taking the gesture the wrong way."
Sanderson said nothing, and Anti-Cosmo covered his face with the hand that wasn't clasped in Anti-Wanda's.
"Let me guess. My first mistake was assuming I can get him to see me as an equal, wasn't it?"
"And you're doing this the day after he was just fawned over by every pixie in the company and treated to every whim he could possibly think up?"
"Accounting for the differences in time zones has never been my strong suit."
"Pardon my jargon, High Count, but you just totally screwed yourself over."
Choosing an establishment where they could all eat together proved more frustrating than Anti-Cosmo had anticipated. Legally, with the gate between their Worlds open, Fairies were supposed to treat Anti-Fairies just as they did any other magical consumer. Even so, every time H.P. pointed to a shop, the Anti-Fairywinkles would study it for a few seconds and shake their heads. "How can you tell they don't want to serve you?" H.P. asked, falling into beat between Anti-Cosmo and Foop.
Foop scoffed. "Seriously? It's those fancy ice candles they have burning in the window on the Anti-Fairy World side of the door. They mean that the owner inside wasn't happy about the Divide Gate opening permanently, and they'll sabotage our food if they think they can get away with it. Every Anti-Fairy knows that one."
"They's taken to using 'em as symbolizers ta warn us not t'try anything 'less they happen ta got a Keeper or someone in there watchin' to make sure they follows all the laws." Anti-Wanda sighed. "The fancy candle stuff's gotten real popular lately. Add ta that, the biggest fancy candle shop a' them all is somewhere in this here town, too. And it's mean ta use ice candles. In Anti-Fairy World, we burn 'em for dead folk."
Anti-Cosmo rolled his eyes. "What's worse is, some of these places actually used to serve Anti-Fairies back when our hops across the border were infrequent in nature. But now that travel restrictions are relaxing, they fear the constant flow of us will scare off their regulars, and that we'll bring bad luck into their places of business."
H.P. looked between him and the nearest diner. "They'd risk rejecting the High Count and High Countess? Really?"
"No, not us. I'm known for my temper, and Anti-Wanda is more than generous with her tips everywhere she goes, and few Fairies want to risk upsetting Foop" (Foop smirked upon hearing this) "but we still don't want to support anyone who actively practices discrimination against our kind, you know what I mean?"
"Sanderson," H.P. said, making a slight signal with his hand, "make a note. There's something I want to bring up at the Friday meeting."
"Yes, well." Anti-Cosmo fidgeted with his monocle. "We're looking for a place with a simple tapered candle burning on the far side of the door as opposed to the near one. That's where we know we can supposedly be treated like any other Fairy." Which reminded him. "H.P., can you actually translate what scented candles are saying in the scent language?"
"This close to Valentine's Day?" He snorted. "I've been trying not to. It's gross. Why don't the shopkeepers who support your people put up a sign? They could have huge, clear ones that says 'Anti-Fairies are welcome, they're here to stay, and anyone who loses out on their business won't have one soon enough.'"
"Flagged by the Keepers for excessive enthusiasm."
"Ah." H.P. looked over at the restaurant on his left. "Or we could eat here because I wanted bacon, and I could bribe the owner to change her mind about Anti-Fairies."
"Cash can't fix everything, old boy." Anti-Cosmo ran his claws through his hair. "To play devils' advocate here, the Fairies really do have reasons to be hesitant about allowing us into any establishment that prepares food. It's the fur. Sometimes they keep us out simply for health and safety reasons."
"Actually, it's your personalities they don't like. I mean, they have to let drones like Sanderson in despite the negative stereotypes. Service animals too; fur suddenly doesn't become a problem there." H.P. frowned at the cruel candle in the window. "It's too bad. I wanted to take you to eat here. They have good rolls they set out on the table. Unbuttered and kept at a cool temperature."
The three Anti-Fairies watched him, saying nothing. After another several seconds spent moping, the Head Pixie straightened up. "Okay. Now. Let's find somewhere you can actually eat."
"Sandwiches?" Anti-Wanda suggested hopefully.
"Sure. Let's try the shop down at the corner. They look like they could be pretty busy. I think I see some Anti-Fairies going through the doors."
They were, and better yet, Anti-Cosmo managed to find something without meat slapped all over it. "No tea?" the Head Pixie asked, still examining his options on the overhead menu- presumably to find something a little more breakfast-y in nature.
"Ha! I don't trust ignorant Fairy hands with anything that precious. Here, take my wand. It's chipped. I'll cover the cost for you and Sanderson."
"No need," said the Head Pixie, using the antenna of his cell phone to push Anti-Cosmo's wand away without taking his eyes from the menu. "I can handle my own tab for this. Yours too, actually. It doesn't bother me. Which reminds me. Sanderson. Get something greasy with at least two types of cheese. Your wings burn more energy than you take in. You need a little fattening up."
Foop looked at Anti-Cosmo. Anti-Wanda looked at Anti-Cosmo. Anti-Cosmo brought his fist to his forehead and inhaled. Then he reached out and placed a hand to either of the Head Pixie's shoulders, forcing the man to twist and look him in the eyes. Searing green to dull, half-lidded lavender.
"Please. Let. Me. Do. This. For. You."
Regardless of the difficulties, everyone did manage to find something they were willing to stomach. Anti-Cosmo ensured he left a generous tip and gracious verbal thanks while Anti-Wanda (and to a lesser extent Foop) wandered about and greeted many of the Anti-Fairies at the tables personally. "This is nice," H.P. said as Sanderson carried their tray to the door in search of a wireframe table out front. "We should do this every year."
Anti-Cosmo pulled a chair out for Foop (Anti-Wanda wouldn't need one considering her preferred method of eating) and snorted. "Believe me, the first time the 13th falls on Friday, you won't want to do this every year."
H.P. flickered his fingers, taking the place across from him. He set the carving of Jorgen's bunker (now a little worn at one corner) beside his hand. "Oh, I don't mind if you snatch the reins every now and then, A.C. You're so much fun when you're blooming with energy. Don't worry. I can handle a temporary shift in power now and again. Sometimes I enjoy it."
Ignore the innuendo, ignore the innuendo…
"I thought you pixies didn't like fun," he managed, pulling the triangles of Foop's sandwich apart into smaller bites.
"You Anti-Fairies make it hard to resist." H.P. continued watching him as Anti-Cosmo untwisted the cap on Foop's bottle and poured the orange juice in. "You know, we should make this a holiday. We'll call it Friendship Day, and I'll trademark it so no one else can commercialize a day like this. It'll be the most popular thing since aerosol pheromones."
"Um. Please don't."
H.P. rolled his eyes and picked up the slice of zucchini bread that Sanderson set in front of him. "Wow. Anti-Cosmo, I know February 13th is an actual Anti-Fairy holiday. I'm just messing with you. You look stiff and uncomfortable. I'm breaking your ice."
Anti-Cosmo slid his satchel off his shoulder and hung it on the back of his chair. Surreptitiously, he snuck the chocolate rose out of it and into his hand, and with a grimace finally took his own seat. "You know, sometimes I really wish you wouldn't. I can never tell with you."
"But how can I resist teasing you when you always make it so eaaasy?"
Ignore him. Ignore him. Ignore him. It's not worth it.
Anti-Cosmo looked down at his toast and fruit. Anti-Wanda nudged him with her elbow. Placing the yellow flower on his lap, he folded his hands together and cleared his throat. "S-speaking of, ah, Friendship Day, H.P., I, um… I sort of wanted to talk to you about something. You see, it's tradition for a married man to take his best unmarried friend out to lunch today, a-and offer him something to represent their friendship as a gift. And, um… I sort of have a… See…"
Anti-Cosmo waved his hand. "You know…"
H.P. paused, a bite of zucchini bread hovering in front of his mouth. His fingers tightened, knuckles slightly bulging. "And you need to leave early so you can make it back to Anti-Fairy World in time to attend another lunch?"
He was doing this on purpose. He had to be. Anti-Cosmo pinched the bridge of his nose. "Bloody Darkness, don't make this harder than it is."
"A.C., I understand if you need to bail. Even though we were celebrating my birthday."
"All right, that's it." Anti-Cosmo slammed both hands, flower included, on the table and sprang up to his feet. "It's just that I think of you as my best friend, for smoke's sake! Ugh! Ooh, drat it all. You're such a vain, oblivious oaf, and yet you're still dependable and constant and you're always there when I need you no matter what other plans you have going on, and I know that no matter what you pretend, you couldn't possibly feel anything at all for me because you're always so deadpan and pigheaded, but I appreciate you all the same, so here, just take the thing!"
He thrust the chocolate rose into H.P.'s face. It trembled. His hands trembled? He'd grabbed the rose and held it out with both, his eyes squeezed shut and head ducked so he didn't have to see what expression did or didn't cross the Head Pixie's face. H.P., however, only laughed in that short, dry way of his.
"It's adorable when the blood and magic start racing through your veins. I can always tell how fast your core is beating."
Anti-Cosmo grimaced. "Bloody smoke, you Seelie Courters can actually sense that sort of thing?"
"When you stand close enough. And your people can hear the flow of our blood with those big ears of yours. It's a fair trade off." The Head Pixie leaned forward. Anti-Cosmo risked a peek. Their hands brushed, warm and slightly oily against cool, chipped claws. H.P. lifted the flower from Anti-Cosmo's hand with two fingers as though accepting a wine glass. He turned it by the stem. The yellow foil glinted like nothing in particular, and yet everything it should.
"You can eat it," Anti-Cosmo said, still standing. "I mean. If you want to. It's chocolate." His ears twitched. Voices? Were those voices? Turning his head just a little to the right, he made out a row of eager blue faces pressed up against the sandwich shop's window. The tips of his ears burned. Had his outburst been overheard? Perhaps he should have thought this through more intently.
Someone inside the sandwich shop started to clap. Then another and another. H.P., Sanderson, Anti-Wanda, and Foop turned too as Anti-Fairies clustered around, pointing and waving. Even a few out on the street began to realize what was going on. It was the time of day for it, of course. Anti-Cosmo shielded his face with his hand, cheeks burning with cold blood, but Anti-Wanda grabbed his arm and used it instead to wave back at the glowing crowd. Leaning back in his wireframe chair, H.P. stripped the beautiful foil from the flower and set the chocolate down on the edge of his plate to eat once brunch was over.
"Thanks for the neat scale model of Fairy World," he said to Anti-Cosmo. "Only, I noticed it was missing one thing."
Anti-Cosmo glanced at him. "Is it?"
"Something small." H.P. stuck the ball of yellow foil from the chocolate flower in his mouth and chewed it for a moment. Then he put his fingers in after it (Much to Foop's dismay) and pulled out the scrap. He'd actually managed to sculpt it into some sort of orchid or lily with its petals spread in all directions. A lovely little thing. This, he placed delicately on the roof of the Jorgen's wooden bunker. "There we go. A yellow flower I can put in my model city for Friendship Day. I'm keeping it."
Anti-Cosmo blinked as he sat down again. "You can actually fold that with your tongue?"
"Paper wasp DNA. You should see what I can do with a cherry stem."
"I floated directly into that one," he muttered as Anti-Wanda snorted into her milk.
H.P. shook his head. His hands came down on either side of the bunker, fingers grasping the very edge of the table. He lowered himself in his seat to bring his eyes down to level. "See, this is why we're such good friends, Anti-Cosmo. My pixies don't pick up on all my hilarious jokes."
Didn't, or were trained to suppress their emotions? Namely disgust and annoyance. Anti-Cosmo leaned his head against Anti-Wanda's shoulder.
"Oh, it comes from having a wife obsessed with wordplay. We do have our pleasant fun with puns."
"Yes. Relatable mood." Straightening, folding his arms against the table, H.P. looked down at the little flower again. "Thank you for the gifts, Anti-Cosmo. And for lunch. It's interesting. I don't normally enjoy this time of year. Too much Valentine's hype. And then the winter decorations I like have to be taken down. And there's the craze of preparing for the New Year. Then my anti-fairy friends are always too busy getting ready for spring migration and the turn of summer season to come and visit me until July. It's… Well." He smiled. "The little things like this are nice."