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When I reach a certain level of terror and excitement, I giggle. In my very early memories of learning to fly with my grandfather, who had this obsession with jumping off of cliffs, I would take his hand, close my eyes, and let him jump. Together we’d fall, wings held wide, watching as the grass and the trees soared to greet us. We’d catch ourselves just before we smashed into the ground (surely hard enough to kill us both), and I would giggle wildly.
The trait would be cute, I supposed, except that with Caleb’s radio-helmets he could hear me every time, and every time he laughed at me. I had yet to tell him about the flight thing, hoping that it would go away eventually, but when the engine revved and we started hitting 70 on the on-ramp to I-5, there was no hope left. I was pathologically incapable of stifling my giggles every time the motorcycle contraption gained speed. The wind was coming at us just as fast as it did on those cliff-high falls from childhood, and it felt as if we were about to take the motorcycle airborne. I ducked my head closer to Caleb’s back (his wings, sadly, remained tucked beneath his jacket). My stomach fluttered in that almost-pleasant new-love kind of way as we took off onto the actual highway, giant semis and cars flanking us like enemy armies. We were tiny next to them. Caleb’s cycle was specially modified, he’d told me, so that it was almost as big as a small human-sized cycle, yet still designed to fit his three-foot-seven frame. The seat was set extra-low while the handlebars were a little on the high side. I supposed it made sense, in a way, but I had my doubts about the safety of being so small on the road. He didn’t seem concerned about it at all.
Good gods, it was terrifying, but it was so much fun.
“Has anyone told you that your giggling is adorable?” Caleb’s electronically-transmitted voice sounded in my ear as he punched it, weaving around a car going slow in the right lane. I yipped, my fingers digging into his hips, probably painfully, I noted. I couldn’t really change that, either.
“I think I hit the last person who said that,” the squeak in my voice belied my tough-Fae attitude.
There again, his laugh – a rather enchanting laugh, actually. I had to remind myself to stop thinking of so many of his attributes as enchanting. I still didn’t know the man. The whole way to Corvallis we’d spent most of our time talking about riding etiquette and the special features of his bike. He liked to tinker with it himself, apparently. That was something I knew. He had a thing for wrenches and wiring. It wasn’t exactly something we had in common.
“Maybe next time you can do the driving,” he continued. We were going at a better pace, now, back in the right lane with a lot of space between us and the next group of vehicles.
I was starting to shiver even more than I had when we were back on 99, even with Caleb in front of me to shield me from the wind. He must have been positively freezing. “Nah,” I replied, “I don’t think I’ll be doing much more motorcycling in the future.”
“You say that now.”
“Surely I’ve passed your test.”
“Test, Ms. Fletcher?”
“Well,” I started to relax, the tension in my fingers easing up. His hips would have to be bruised by now. “I don’t have any better explanation for why you’d take me out on this… thing.”
“Did you ever consider that I wanted to have a little fun?”
“I don’t know what to consider with you. You’re… inscrutable.”
“Those are big words to use on a simple muse such as myself.”
Simple. Sure. “Tell me something about yourself that I don’t know,” I countered. It was a little on the nose, I supposed, but I was getting sick of this who-do-you-think-I-am game, and we still had a half hour to go before we came in range of the glade… and another few minutes of flight to get to the right place. “Something I wouldn’t have read on the internet. You owe me after that little snit in the conference room.”
“Snit?” He turned his head over his shoulder as if to glance at me, and I tensed up, sure that taking his eyes off the road for a second would mean that we would crash and die. We didn’t. “I don’t even remember what you could be referring to.”
“I…” I choked out, “you… you made me look stupid. Unprepared.”
“Stupidity had nothing to do with it,” he said evenly, totally unaffected. “You were incorrect and I corrected you.”
“You didn’t have to be so snippy about it.”
“Snippy? Hm. My mistake.”
I snarled, wishing I could pop up in the air and fly the rest of the way. The endless green fields of the I-5 corridor might well have been an ocean for how I was stranded on this contraption, alone with him and his radio. “See, you’re doing it again. I try to get to know you and you do this.”
He fell silent for a while. A couple of mile posts passed us by, and I wished I could let go of him, or that he would pull off and let me step away for a moment. What was interesting – and probably more revealing than anything he could have told me about himself – was that he didn’t.
“I corrected you for the very opposite reason that you imagine,” he finally spoke up, jerking me from my wandering thoughts. “You’re an intelligent Fae, and I believe that you yourself would prefer to have the best data possible for your arguments.”
“You don’t know me.”
“New York Times, June 22, 2017.”
I blinked behind the mask, back where he couldn’t see me. My thoughts stuttered. “You remembered my article?”
“I used several of your quotes in the UN hearings on recognition of the Fae Nation.”
“That was six years ago.”
“I had a hunch you could do math, too.”
“So you think that you know me based on one article.” That was defensive and cheap, I realized. I put my heart and theoretical soul into that article. Fae Nation: A Plea for Harmony won me a few moments in the spotlight. I’d made an impassioned argument that the world nations should recognize the sovereignty of the Fae Nation and work together to prevent the environmental destruction threatening to drive my people to extinction. Anyone who read that article knew me – my worldview, my inner monologue, my drive.
I thought that by now everyone had surely forgotten.
“Unless it was all an elaborate lie, yes,” he said. “It’s also why I ended up recommending you to the IFA as the new representative of the Northwest. I don’t think you would have learned that fact on the internet, but I may be mistaken. A great many things are said about me on the internet.”
My jaw loosened, and suddenly I was very glad he couldn’t see me. I was thankful for the deafening rush of wind as we passed another semi, giving me a few extra seconds to figure out how on earth to respond to that.
“That… isn’t really a fact about you,” I managed, and realized that it was a little silly, actually, to ignore what he was telling me. I knew that someone in the IFA had to have recommended me to the position after I applied. I just assumed that Dy convinced Collette to put in the good word. Collette was a big fan of my textbook project, which was more successful than my article, if a fair bit less ambitious. I never confirmed that, though, and hadn’t had a conversation with Collette directly.
“Black is my favorite color.”
He had to be grinning. I narrowed my eyes at the back of his helmet. “I’m pretty sure I read that on the internet somewhere, or I might have also figured it out with my brilliant deductive skills.”
“Then please, Ms. Fletcher, ask me something specific. I seem incapable of satisfying you.”
Was he being deliberately suggestive? I had a feeling that even if I could see his face I wouldn’t be able to tell. “Do you actually like your job?” After I said it I almost wanted to take it back. I hadn’t even anticipated asking that question. Why, gods, would I ask such a direct question?
“No. Now, I believe I gave you some extra facts in between, so may I ask you a question?”
“Wait – ‘no’ is not a proper answer.”
“Explaining it would take much longer than we have left on this trip,” he paused, “and you asked a yes or no question, to which I believe a yes or no answer is, in fact, proper.”
Anything I could say would be tipping my hand. I wanted to get to know him better – for business reasons, of course. I wanted to know if his like or dislike of his job had anything to do with radicalization.
That’s what I told myself, anyway.
“Are you still partnered with Dyana?” he asked, filling the silence.
“That’s… a very personal question.”
“So was yours.”
“Do you have actual friends?” I guffawed, “I heard that people like you, but I haven’t figured out why that is.”
His soft chuckle was nearly lost in the road noise. “Anyone can be likable on the surface. It doesn’t take much talent to maintain an illusion.”
I scrutinized the back of his helmet so hard that my head hurt.
“You and Dyana…?”
“No,” I replied. While it wasn’t a secret that we were no longer together, it was probably a little confusing to see her answering my door. “Not for some time now.”
“She seemed very comfortable in your apartment.”
“Dyana is comfortable anywhere she goes. Also, we’re still friends. We just didn’t work out.”
It was coming up towards midday, the sun shining improbably bright, the sky a cloudless, striking blue. I loved the blue skies in Oregon after days of rain – they were clean. Perfect. I scanned the hillsides coming up around Eugene, still heavily forested. Humankind had yet to destroy the natural beauty of most of Oregon.
“That turnoff, there,” I tapped his left shoulder, indicating a road that jutted off to the east. The Willamette Glade was located up on a very particular hill in that area; there was a side road which ran alongside Springfield and up into the wild. There would be a shed somewhere along the winding paths where we could probably drop the bike before heading up where the roads did not go. I knew the way to the Willamette like any child would know the layout of their home. For a couple of years when I lived there, it was my whole world.
The interesting thing about Fae Glades is how humans find them so difficult to locate. Even with as many hikers that frequented the hills in the Willamette, there was a strange energy about the glades which generally eluded them. That energy had been dwindling in recent years, but for the most part it still worked to disorient mundane beings. A turn around a tree that becomes another, and humans spin in circles; lost, briefly, before finding their way back to their original “path” which conveniently took them away from the glade’s location.
I didn’t purport to be an expert on magick, I just observed its effects. The Fae weren’t known for their scientific prowess, and indeed, the mechanisms by which our magick worked was still very poorly understood even by us.
We were halfway up the hill, already completely shrouded by the trees when my phone buzzed in my pocket. I thought for a second about checking it, but then thought better of it – the last thing I needed was to drop my phone from a moving vehicle. Another downside to traveling by bike, along with the cramp I was developing in my thigh. We’d stopped in Corvallis for a few minutes, but it wasn’t nearly long enough. I couldn’t wait to get off.
“Urgent business?” he spoke up. He could probably feel the vibration, too, with the way my legs pressed against his… backside.
“Probably Dy telling me more than I ever wanted to know about her flight schedule. It can wait.”
“Is it much further?”
“No, not too bad. Couple more corners.”
The shed was situated off the road, just beyond a turnout. Between the trees I could pick out bits of the valley and I-5 below us; we’d already gained some elevation. It looked like any other camping-style shed a person might encounter, with wood stacked outside for campfires and a customary brown pain coat, peeling at the corners. The world seemed to move at half pace when Caleb slowed down enough to slide into the gravel and we finally, mercifully stopped moving. Everything got quiet. No more road noise and semi’s here; just trees, squirrels, and probably some hidden tree Fae somewhere out there.
Caleb graciously waited for me to hop off being doing so himself. My legs twinged, the muscles stretching just this side of uncomfortable. I rolled my shoulders with a satisfying series of pops.
“Can shove it in the shed if you want,” I told him, fishing my keys from my pocket. “I think I have the right key here somewhere.”
“That would be lovely, thank you.” He pulled the helmet off his head just as I did, his hair messy yet somehow perfect at the same time. I had sincere doubts about the perfection of my own hair, all frazzled and frizzy. Thank goodness for headbands.
“So… you said it was a short hike from here?” he asked, steering his bike up to the shed while I fiddled with the lock.
“Well, a quick flight, anyway.”
“A quick flight and a moderate hike, then.”
“You’re saying you’d like to walk to the glade?” I tugged off the lock and opened the door to find a shed full of random gardening implements, hatchets, and a few jars in a corner which probably had something magicky to do with them. I wasn’t much of an alchemist, myself.
He situated his bike in the middle, caring for it with the same level of tenderness that I’d seen people use with their pets. He tossed me my backpack.
“We established that it’s a lovely day,” he replied.
It was a lovely day. A little on the cool side, of course – couldn’t be more than 70 farenheit, with a brisk breeze to remind a person that it was still winter, even if it was bright and sunny. I contorted my face to effect. “It’s a lovely chilly day.”
“So you’re saying you don’t enjoy a nice hike.”
“I feel like this is another test.”
He shrugged in his jacket, unzipping it to show his similarly black shirt underneath. He helped me with the padlock and chain when he closed the door. “I will be enjoying the hike. You can go on ahead if you wish.”
I reached for my phone on a sigh, appraising my boots for hikability. It seemed that they would do well enough. “If we go-“
When I clicked on my phone I saw that the one text message I had was not from Dy, as I’d expected, but from Cally. I had to read it three times to be sure I had it right.
Elemental bombing near Birmingham. Not on news yet. Talk to Landsong asap.
Caleb was looking at his phone, too, and from the way he’d gone somehow paler he must have gotten the same message. I should have been trying to search his face for some indication of how he felt about it, but the buzzing in my head was preventing any higher functions.
Bombing? She couldn’t mean that the elementals had bombed someone. The Fae didn’t deal in explosives or firearms of any kind. It was beyond wrong to even touch something that was built exclusively for death.
My phone buzzed again. A text from Dy – Are you seeing this? Where are you?
It was a fair guess that the story had hit the news. The real question remained – how was the news going to hit the story?
I had no words. My thumb hesitated over my web browser. I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to see what happened. As a bridger it seemed like I had some kind of role to play here, but I couldn’t decipher what it was.
“Come on,” Caleb buried his own phone in his jacket and reached out to touch my arm. “Landsong will skype in with us. We have some time.”
“But… have you…”
“No, I’ve never dealt with this before. Now, which way?”
My wings stretched out, quivering. I was far too distracted. I lifted myself in the air and began flying towards the glade. That, at least, I knew how to do. I didn’t know how to deal with some kind of quasi-national emergency, but I could get to the Willamette glade in a reasonable period of time. I was up on top of the first little hill before I noticed that Caleb wasn’t following. I pulled my wings in, dropping down onto the evergreen needle-covered forest floor. He was still walking.
“I feel like we should go as quickly as possible,” I prompted, annoyed. I couldn’t keep it out of my voice this time. Something was happening – something bad – and I needed to understand what was going on.
His eyes flickered up at me, and he stopped mid-walk up the embankment that led from the road into the forest. He raised his eyebrows, visibly considering what he was about to say.
“What in the five earths-”
“I’m going to ask you to fly slower than that, and I’m going to also ask your discretion,” he said softly.
I shrugged, open-handed, waiting for him to continue.
“How far did you say it was?”
“If we fly my speed we’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Then it’ll take twenty,” he sighed. His wings flexed, their deep, black, graceful lines still beautiful, yet rounded out on the edges in what I recognized as shame. Shame? “You wanted to know things about me that weren’t on the internet.”
“Just tell me already.”
“I have MRPS.”
There was a bombing somewhere out in the world – people were hurt, maybe dying, and the Fae were either the targets or the culprits, yet hearing him say those words dropped my stomach just as hard as hearing the news. My lips parted, and I again found myself at a loss for words. MRPS stood for multi-radicular pinna syndrome. It was a congenital, relatively rare disease that had become more common with the increased pollution in the atmosphere. I’d discussed it a few times during my activist years as one of those big-name reasons for why the Fae required the human’s cooperation. I’d met a few Fae who had the disease, most of them older. It was pain syndrome that grew worse with time, eventually causing the flight muscles along the spine to go into permanent spasm, rendering their wings useless. There was no cure, and the humans seemed disinclined to look for one.
People didn’t like to talk about it. Our wings – our flight – have always been closely tied to our identities. To lose one’s wings, knowing that someday they would become vessels of pain… well, I would almost rather die.
“Yes,” he fluttered past me, taking deep breaths. It probably hurt him to do it, I imagined, though I had no way to tell how far the disease had progressed. “That’s precisely why I’ve kept it to myself. Unfortunately I think it’s important that you be aware… that this is going to be an issue for today.”
“I didn’t mean to-” I stammered, “I just… I didn’t expect, I’m-”
“We have bigger things to worry about right now,” He managed to fly up to a low-hanging branch where he perched, looking down on me. “I’m not so far gone that I can’t make a twenty-minute stint. You’re still going to have to lead the way.”
There were another million things I wanted to ask, but I didn’t have time. We needed to get up to Landsong, and this whole mess was not nearly as pressing as the mess in Birmingham. This day just gets better all the time.