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“Buy you a drink?”
Caleb’s smile – that boyish, damnably convincing smile – was getting on my nerves. He leaned over the mega-sized bar right next to me, his dark eyes shadowed by his similarly dark hair. The other muses from the conference were aflutter behind us, chatting about all manner of things. They’d taken up a long table behind a clouded glass divider made specifically for Fae patrons. I had slipped away unnoticed to order my drink, or so I thought. Instead he pursued me. The man had the persistence of an ox.
Between Dy’s rumor about Caleb being sympathetic to terrorists and his recent lackluster behavior, I was not inclined to give him any leeway. I didn’t want to believe Dy at the outset, but his behavior was so… odd. I approached him from a position of cautious intrigue – to get anything else from me he’d need to prove himself.
“I already ordered,” I huffed, my gaze averted. If I looked at him he’d continue to try that charm thing. Even though other Fae were generally immune to the influence of muses, I didn’t want to risk it.
“Then I don’t suppose I can ask what you’re having.”
“Tequila, thank you.”
“The conference wasn’t that bad.”
I so wanted to give him my best sour face, one that would convey every ounce of frustration he’d caused me. Instead I smiled and thanked the mega-sized bartender for my mini-sized drink. This bar, whimsically named Pixie’s, was a regular hangout spot for the IFA members and Fae who wandered out into Portland from the glade. The music was soft and ethereal, perfect for having actual conversations. They carried tiny shot glasses, which was good. Fae were already lightweights when it came to alcohol – it had some… interesting… effects on us. Tiny shots were fine, but just a little extra and we were seeing flashes of near earth and dancing with starlight.
I could do with some starlight, though. It would be more fun than the prospect of making friends with all the muses. I knew it would come to this, of course, but I pretended it wasn’t going to happen. I made friends just fine out in regular public – people I sought out myself. I didn’t prefer this artificial friend-making process.
“Conference was fine,” I finally replied, taking my shot and quickly sucking on the tiny lime slice attached to it. The glass clicked down against the bartop, the colors swirling from the light below the stylish counter making the loveliest patterns on the rim of the cup. The bar looked like a block of glowing LED ice – a rather nice effect. “I just like tequila.”
Caleb chuckled, his wings shivering audibly behind him. “Sure you do.”
Cheeky one. “You can stop with the disingenuousness any time, you know.”
“Is ‘disingenuousness’ actually a word, Ms. Fletcher?” He was following me back to the gathering of the other bridgers at the appropriate-sized table. He had a legitimate reason to travel in the same direction, much as it vexed me.
“I thought that you muses were all about making things up,” I said, quirking an eyebrow in his direction.
I suppose I had finally come up with a decent comeback; his only response to that was a wry smile. Inside I sighed. Maybe it was the smile that made people like him so much – it surely couldn’t be his overall personality.
“Ah, I miss those days!” Alex was apparently in the middle of some story when I sat down. Cally moved aside to make room for me, her body a shield between Caleb and I.
I plucked one of the fried zucchini from the appetizer plate and listened, hoping I would eventually catch on to the topic at hand.
Alex’s dark brown-and-fuchsia wings fluttered playfully when he continued. “I haven’t been able to have that kind of fun in years, not with a job like this one. I wasn’t even that good at it back when I had the chance.”
“You would’ve been fine,” Peter sipped on a mug of what looked like root beer – a safe choice. “You just didn’t try hard enough.”
“I bet you have some stories to tell, Mr. Master of Charm,” Alex purred at Caleb, who looked back at him like he knew exactly what they were talking about.
I still hadn’t figured it out. I glanced at Cally, who was shaking her head. “What are they talking about?” I murmured in her direction.
“Youthful indiscretions,” she snorted.
I wanted to prod her and ask what that was supposed to mean, but she didn’t seem interested in elucidating.
“I don’t have as many as you’d think,” Caleb said, continuing on with the elusive exchange.
“Hah,” Cally snickered in disbelief. “I believe there’s a story floating around involving some unfortunate young private, a skateboard and a manhole.”
I could feel my eyes widening of their own accord. What in the five earths could they possibly be talking about?
Caleb waved her off dismissively. “All exaggerated. He was fine, anyway.”
“I’ve never known you to be modest.”
Those dark eyes flickered up at me again, and the edges of Caleb’s lips rose and fell so quick I nearly missed it. “I think we might be making our new associate uncomfortable.”
I cleared my throat. “Confused is more like it.”
“Your ex didn’t tell stories about all the unfortunate humans she ‘inspired’ in her adolescence?” Alex raised his eyebrows.
Everyone knew about the two of us, even if I hadn’t told them explicitly. Dy and I were inseparable when we were activists. “Dy was never…” I paused, not wanting to shame Dyana in her own community. Then again, she’d never been so much on muse community. She was her own special brand of musedom. “She had trouble relating to a lot of humans.”
“Uh-huh,” Alex plucked the last zucchini spear from the plate. “Funny you’d say-”
“Maybe we should find something in common to talk about,” Caleb said pointedly.
Alex’s sly look was all-knowing. “Fine. You pick the topic.”
“When is everyone heading out?” Caleb asked the group politely – perhaps too politely.
“I’ll be on my way day after tomorrow. People to see down in the gorge,” replied Peter. He turned his kind eyes on me and offered up his mug to toast. I scrambled for my water and clicked glasses, since it seemed the thing to do. “You live local, don’t you?”
I was sure that he knew exactly where I lived, but he was including me so I wouldn’t be so left out. He winked at me as if to confirm my suspicion. I nodded, “Yes, I do. As much as any of us lives in one place, anyway. I don’t think I’m used to the lifestyle yet.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” Peter smoothed his pale hair from his eyes, “I’ve been at this for fifteen years and I’m still not used to it. I miss being a sessile Fae.”
I shrugged. “I was getting a little bored, actually. I’ve lived in Oregon forever.”
“There are few places any better, I assure you.”
“Shouldn’t you be saying that about your own district?”
“Everyone envies you northwest people. I bridge for the southwest because I was born there-” he paused, “well, and because if it weren’t me they’d give it over to one of those shady crazy bastards from New Mexico. Let me tell you, the magick down there is… different.”
“I shall have to visit sometime.”
“Be happy to tour you. Just let me know.”
Alright, I thought to myself, my shoulders ratcheting down a notch. The oldest bridger had taken a liking to me – or at least had not taken a disliking to me. Perhaps this night wasn’t going to be so hard after all.
“So you’re water Fae, right?” Alex spoke up.
“Half,” I replied. The waitress was coming by with a few other appetizers to share – hummus and veggies, and something that looked vaguely falafel-ish. “Mother was water, father was tree.”
“Amelie is IFA-WNA’s very first non-muse,” Brenna chirped. I felt my cheeks go red. Brenna was on the older side, too – probably older than Peter, her hair salt-and-peppery, beige wings faded with time. She was pure tree Fae, actually, the only other individual at the table who was not a muse. “Very ambitious.”
“Ambitious indeed,” said Caleb. “Genuinely, we’re all glad you made it this far. We were worried you’d quit after the first meeting.”
“I had faith,” Peter scoffed. “I knew your grandmother during The Reveal. Strong stock. I have no doubts about you, youngling.”
My coloring deepened, and Cally tisked. “You’re making the girl blush.”
“I thought you’d all be more…” I failed to smother a nervous laugh, “formal.”
“Only with the humans,” Alex stuck his tongue out in the direction of the human bar patrons.
I had to cover my face with both hands to keep from roaring in laughter. Alex’s silly behavior contrasted sharply with his otherwise suave outer appearance and perfectly tailored suit. Not what I expected – so much better. I coughed the outburst away. “I hope you’re not setting me up to let loose and make a fool of myself later.”
“If the legends are to be believed we muses are descended from the likes of Pan, Lugh, and Kokopelli,” Peter gazed skyward. “If we cannot be fools amongst ourselves then how are we to survive? I find the human need to put on airs cumbersome, and quite frankly, dumb.”
“I’ve been drinking, darling. Better words fail me.”
“You’ve been drinking root beer.”
“And yet that still qualifies as drinking,” Peter grinned.
Pretenses shattered, three hours passed by in a flash. By the time I was to leave I had an ache in my cheeks from laughter, and learned a great many things about my co-bridgers. Cally, for one, had a near-unhealthy obsession with tie-dying; Alex played the lute, and Peter enjoyed inspiring young athletes. Brenna, of course, loomed over the conversations as the grandmotherly one, and Caleb…
Caleb said nearly nothing. He sat back and watched, his mild-toned voice weaving in between the laughter, rarely sharing anything of himself. It seemed that the others noted the omission, yet chose to ignore it. I found it curious, in addition to being unhelpful. We were supposed to plan our trip down to Eugene, and by the end of the night I’d learned nothing about when he was leaving for Vancouver, or anything else about him for that matter.
At around midnight the group began to disperse. Peter was showing Brenna out while Cally and Alex were discussing some kind of official IFA thing. I closed my eyes, hopping into the air to catch a draft which flung me up on the barstool, a happy flip-flop in my stomach at the quickness of it. The tequila warmed my bones and the good company gave me its own unique buzz, one of acceptance. I could do this, it turned out. I could be one of them, even if I wasn’t really one of them.
It made sense to me in my slightly-altered state.
“Cute trick.” My eyes were still closed when Caleb spoke. I opened them only in response to the clatter of my receipt and a pen against the bar top. The IFA gladly paid for our appetizers, but we were responsible for any alcohol.
“Sure,” I said, catching my tongue between my teeth while I did the math on the bartender’s tip.
“We should arrange the trip to the Willamette.” I felt a brush of air when he fluttered up to the bar, landing delicately on the stool beside mine.
“Of course.” I handed the receipt over and swiveled the stool toward him, my moment of airborne bliss quietly tucked away so I could deal with him. “How long do you have down here?”
“As long as I need,” he cocked his head to the side, his sharp features casting the most interesting shadows over half of his face. “When would you like to leave?”
“Sooner is better. I’m expected in Austin next Tuesday.”
“Austin,” he nearly choked on the word, “they’re sending you to Texas?”
“I’m told that Austin isn’t really Texas.”
“I hope they’re sending you with someone else. Texas is…” He shook his head, and the darkness that swept over his features both frightened and intrigued me. “Our kind have some issues in Texas.”
“I’m not a child. I know what Texas has been like.” I hopped off and started walking outside. Winter in Portland meant rain, and indeed, it was drizzling outside. The sun had long set but the streets were still alive, hipsters and hippies all mixed up together. I waved to the other Fae as I passed them, intending to grab the MAX back to my apartment. Still he followed me.
“I wasn’t insulting you,” he said, two paces behind me.
I paused under the the eve of the house-like building. Pixie’s was in one of those very trendy neighborhoods that Portland was so famous for – a street full of downtown-type businesses with a residential look about it. I began the rather tedious task of putting on my rain jacket. Even though it was specially made for people with wings, it was still a chore just to get it hooked together.
“Here, let me help you with that,” he said charitably.
I just blinked at him.
“Or not,” he held up his hands innocently. “I’ll be ready to leave in the morning. Name the time.”
Buttons buttoned and wings situated through the wing-flap, I shoved my hands in my pockets. This was my favorite jacket – purple like the purple in my wings, a nice fabric that was water-repellent yet lightweight. I fit my form nicely, all modern and human-like. The perfect blending-in jacket. “If we’re taking the train we’ll need to check the schedule first.”
“I assumed you’d ride with me.”
My mouth dropped. Ride? On a motorcycle? “That’s quite an assumption.”
“You seemed interested.”
“Is that supposed to be a double entendre of some kind?”
There was that twitch of his lips again – not quite a smile. He hooked his thumbs through his belt loops and leaned against the wall, his face frozen in that look. “You know it’ll be fun. It’s even supposed to be halfway sunny tomorrow. It would be a waste to pass up riding weather in the middle of winter.”
I was getting tired, and it was late. He seemed determined to push the point of me joining him on his motorcycle contraption. Practical, business Amelie was telling herself that this was stupid idea. The train made a lot more sense – it would be more comfortable and afford the luxury of using a computer, which would provide both an opportunity for productivity and an additional opportunity to avoid excessive conversation. Moreover, I still didn’t know if he was some radical like Dy had suggested, and joining a radical on his motorcycle was surely the worst travel arrangements in the world. Even after spending an evening around him and his associates I knew perhaps less about him than I knew before.
“Pick me up at IFA HQ around eight.” What are you doing?! Practical, business Amelie shouted at me in my head. I turned away from him before he could reply and walked down the street toward the light rail stop, rain catching on my eyelashes. He did not follow me this time.
Dy was going to have a fit.