I found Caleb in the most likely place he’d be – the guest house up near the council chamber. I’d flown around the glade a bit before finally going up to his hiding spot, considering what I wanted to say to him, if anything. My aerial pacing had gone on long enough that clouds had gathered in the sky and a sprinkling of rainfall tickled my skin. It was now or not, I supposed – even the weather decided that I needed to make up my mind about which hut I would fly back to.
I could see the silver shimmers through the lit window and blushed when I saw that he was changing his shirt, his well-muscled back to the outside. I held myself on a breath just above the deck and spun to look away, but not before the sound of my wingbeats alerted him to my presence. The flooring creaked softly as he walked to the windowsill.
“If you guessed I was cursed with modesty then you guessed wrong,” he said wryly.
I sighed deeply and audibly, my arms crossed. How did Nan talk me into this, anyway? I looked over my shoulder at him reluctantly. His elbows were rested on the natural wood sill, shoulders bare. I raised an eyebrow, mildly curious as to whether he was even wearing pants.
“I was trying to be-” I caught myself, realizing that my attempt at a heart-to-heart was coming out more like a frustrated child instructed to say ‘I’m sorry.’ “…polite.”
He just blinked at me, unmoving.
“Can I talk to you?” And would you kindly put on a shirt?
“If memory serves we don’t do well with that, you and I. Of course it has been several minutes, so that may have changed.” He paused, as if to pull back from his excessive snark. He began again with a slightly kinder tone. “Sorry. We could try it again if you’re up for it. It would be nice if we established some kind of communication before Tuesday.”
“I just got a text from Cally. She said that you emailed her earlier today and told her you wouldn’t call off the Austin trip.”
“No, I won’t.”
“You’re sure about that?”
I dropped down on the decking, arms still crossed. My body refused to relax no matter what I told it. “What business is it of yours?”
“Cally decided that if you go, I will need to go with you.” He promptly disappeared from the window, sliding to the side to mess with something on the small dresser situated next to the guest hammock. He wore pants, at least – something softer than what he’d rode up in, probably for sleeping.
My jaw slackened while he went about his business. “Does she think I can’t handle it by myself now?”
“You know that’s not it.”
Of course it wasn’t, even if that was the first thing that came to mind. Most likely she suggested it because traveling in pairs would be safer in some ways; someone around to make sure I didn’t disappear for some mysterious reason, as the Fae tended to do in places like Texas. “Bombing or no bombing, I will be fine by myself. I’ve been planning this trip for weeks.”
“And bombing or no bombing, I have a plane ticket to Austin and no interest in losing my job.” He wasn’t looking at me, still. He sat on the edge of the hammock, a jar of what looked like lotion in his hands. “We don’t even have to see each other outside of official business if that suits you.”
I considered asking him if I could come in. I almost did, but at the last minute thought better of it. This was one of my home glades. I could see the whole guest hut already through the window, so it wasn’t like I’d be exposing anything by barging in. I pushed past the generic tapestry and sat my behind in the reading corner, a fair-sized plush chair next to a sparsely stocked bookshelf. The guest hut was well-appointed, but lacking in any sort of kitchen. It encouraged guests of the glade to mingle with the locals.
“Are you an Elemental?” I blurted.
He paused with his fingertips in the jar, his eyes immediately hooded with suspicion. He licked his lips. “Excuse me?”
“You’ll probably lie about it if you are,” I hedged, averting his gaze while I dug myself out of my hole. “I suppose I hoped that if you were lying I would notice, so I may as well ask, then, in case you aren’t. Either way, at least if I say something about it we can stop this passive-aggressive thing, which I guess is more me than you-” I stopped myself. This was getting rambly. “You must think I’m quite odd.”
He frowned, wiping off his hands and setting the jar aside, his task no doubt unfinished. It took a while before he spoke.
“Well, that certainly explains a few things,” he groaned and rolled himself onto his back, the hammock swinging gently from the force. “Let me guess – Dyana is the one who has you worried about all this.”
“Yes,” I said, insecure with the answer. I could have said no, but then I wasn’t sure what good it would do to lie.
He nodded, eyes closed. “Among muses she has a reputation for knowing things she shouldn’t.”
My mouth went dry. “You mean it’s-”
He startled, his eyes fluttering open. “No, no. It’s not strictly true. She would be right that I’ve had intentional run-ins with the Elementals, and it’s true that I’m not one of the people who hate them. I find that the fine line between ‘not disagreeing’ and ‘not supporting’ is difficult for most people to parse, Fae and human alike.”
“You’re saying that you know who these Fae are and you haven’t done anything to bring them to justice,” I replied, hoping for clarification while unable to banish the disdain from my tone. My initial thought was that he was parts each wishy-washy and weak, but I realized that I probably needed more time to think about it than our conversation would allow.
“Not quite like that,” he said softly, his gaze unfocused. “If I’d known they were going to initiate the attack on Birmingham I would have suggested they find something with less loss of life. Barring that, I would have informed the human government,” he paused, “I didn’t know, though.”
“So you’re not… one of them.”
“I can tell you I’m not, but I don’t expect you to believe that.”
I went quiet, watching him rock in the hammock, hands resting on his abdomen, never looking directly at me. I ran down a whole list of things that might be useful to ask before landing on the one that stood out.
“Does the IFA know?”
“Just Cally,” he shrugged. “She seems to understand, at least enough to ignore it so she can benefit from my family’s wealth. The others – the bridgers – I don’t believe any of them know, save for you, now,” he chuckled, “which would make two semi-secrets you’ve discovered about me in as many days.”
“You didn’t have to tell me,” I huffed.
“I’m not certain I would lie if Peter or Alex asked me the same question,” he said, genuine contemplation in his voice. “I suppose I would if it was bothering them as much as it appeared to bother you.”
“You act like you’ve known this whole time and just waited for me to bring it up.”
“I wasn’t sure-” he hissed, and all at once it looked like his shoulders seized up. I found myself jolting to get up out of the chair – to do what, I wasn’t sure. He managed to shake his head when he saw me about to stand, his eyes closed as he breathed through the attack. “…but I thought this might be it.”
“Do you have some kind of medicine for that?” I bit my lip.
He nudged his head toward the dresser. “The salve helps. Cramping usually lets up after a day or so. I haven’t flown that far in a long time.” He pushed himself back up on a sigh, scooting so he could sit cross-legged while he reached for the jar. “Was there anything else you absolutely had to know before the morning?”
I shook my head slowly. It seemed that there were a few other things that might be nice to know before I went traveling across the country with a Fae I scarcely trusted, yet at the same time I felt some relief at hearing him explain things for himself. I didn’t want to believe that he was some kind of shady covert operative.
I wanted to like the guy, for what it was worth. That was the crux of it, I realized, in the midst of all the angst I’d developed in the last two days since meeting him – this need to redeem him in my own mind. Perhaps that was what made everyone adore Caleb McLain; some intangible thing about him that made people hope that he was better than he might really be. As I was thinking I could feel myself frowning. More irrationality.
Just because I wanted to like him didn’t mean I would take his statements at face value. He said I could ask Cally about it, and I had every intention of doing so.
I snapped back to reality when I noticed him awkwardly reaching around his back to apply the salve to his wing muscles. “Would you like some help with that?” I asked – blurting again. Perhaps that was another intangible power of his. I usually liked to think before I let go of my voice.
I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. “Just watching you is driving me crazy,” I approached him with my hand outstretched, “here. It’s my fault, anyway,” I smirked, “and I thought you said you weren’t modest.”
He gave me a look that I could only describe as petulant before handing over the salve. “You’ll want to wash your hands after touching this stuff.”
It smelled neutral enough, with the texture of body butter. I used a modified hover to hold myself in a seated position. It gave me a good view of his wing musculature – lean and well-developed, completely normal except for the painful bunching around the four wing stalks, black as the wings themselves. When I brushed my fingertips over the skin he bowed his head.
“What’s in it?” I asked, distracting him as I rubbed the salve in.
“Anti-inflammatories, for the most part,” he replied mechanically. “A family recipe, as it were.”
“When I was diagnosed my father spent a great deal of money and time on searching for a cure. We didn’t find one, obviously, but they did manage to come up with some salient therapies.”
I narrowed my eyes even though he couldn’t see my face, swirling small, thoughtful circles with the salve while my gaze wandered the lovely, dark arches of his wings. “Did they… experiment on you?”
His laugh was devoid of light. “Astute. It sounds so medieval when you say it.”
I wondered, all at once, if his outlook on the Elementals and everything else might have been different if he didn’t grow up knowing he had MRPS. Flight was one of the things that defined us, made us different than humankind – our culture was much more accepting and relaxed than their society, and most of us believed it had to do with flight. It was one of the few ancient Fae beliefs that I ascribed to. Caleb had grown up knowing his wings were a curse – something that made my own wings shiver.
“Can I ask how long you have?” I said after a time.
“You can ask anything you want,” his voice was smooth, “twenty years, give or take, before I won’t be able to fly at all.”
Twenty years before the pain becomes debilitating. I knew that was what it really meant. Twenty years was nothing in a lifespan as long as ours. “That’s so… soon.”
“Most cases in our generation are rapidly progressive.”
“You say that like it doesn’t bother you.”
“It bothers me plenty, but what good what it do to get upset over it?” He looked at me from the corner of his eyes, “you could spend your life consumed by hating the color of your wings, but that wouldn’t make them change.” My cheeks betrayed me with a blush. His enigmatic smile blossomed. “I didn’t mean you specifically. Your wings are…” he swallowed, trailing off without resolution. He waved me off gently.
I snapped my wings in close to my back, dropping from my hover. I set the salve on the table. “Will that do?”
He rolled his shoulders gingerly, turning to plant his feet on the floor. “It’s much better. Thank you.”
“Well…” I cleared my throat, awkwardly shifting my stance. “You’re welcome.”
His dark eyes looked me over, as if he was deciding something. I couldn’t come up with anything to put in between the silence, relieved when he finally filled it himself. “Like I said, you should wash that off.” There wasn’t any running water in the guest hut.
“Ah, yes. I meant to visit the water nymphs anyway.” I started to drift toward the door, feeling him watch me. “Landsong will want to have breakfast in the morning. He always does.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Good.” I slipped through the tapestry without another glance at him, and in my head it felt like a retreat.
Muses were such complicated folk.