The look the woman at the ground transit desk was giving me made me long for the perplexed suspicion of the TSA agents in the midwest. I resisted the urge to cross my arms over my chest, opting for the charming smile with easily-visible hands stance, hovering just high enough to see her eyes, but not too high.
“You said you were looking for what?” her forehead wrinkled, her sun-weathered skin plastered with enough makeup to make my own face itch. The brown eyes peering over her glasses at me were anything but understanding.
“We had a shuttle scheduled for 10:30,” I explained yet again, “but our flight was delayed taxiing in. We’d like a cab to the downtown Radisson.”
The cross in the center of her chest sparkled at me, and I imagined that her Jesus was up in their heaven sky-land laughing. “I don’t believe there are any cabs around with the right… equipment for your kind.”
Our baggage dropped on the ground when Caleb swooped upwards, perching in a way that was almost dainty.
“Marlene,” he said softly, calling the woman’s attention. I watched him, and for a moment was offended that he was butting in – but then I saw it, the faint sparkle when the light hit his eyes, a glow that had the quality of an intricately-cut jewel. Though Dy only rarely used her magick to curie favor with humans in my presence, I’d seen it enough times to recognize it. “It would be to your advantage to pick up that phone and call the nicest, Fae-friendliest cab driver that you can think of.”
Marlene’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t believe in special treatment-”
“It would make you righteous,” he continued, taking a new tack, “so much better than the lost Fae. So much more generous.”
Marlene blinked, and I could see the muse magick taking. She paused, catching her bottom lip between her teeth, and finally went to pick up the phone. The light went out of Caleb’s eyes.
“It will be just a few minutes. You can wait outside,” Marlene said, as polite as could be.
Caleb flashed the woman a peace sign, and I couldn’t help but snicker. Marlene didn’t even seem to acknowledge it.
I picked up my bag, carefully sliding the strap over one shoulder where it wouldn’t interfere with my wings. I stuck my thumbs in my jeans pockets and allowed Caleb to lead the way out the automatic doors.
A wave of heavy heat hit me in the face, and I coughed at the impact. Austin in the winter may as well have been Portland in the summer. I had been assured by the Granite glade that it should be “cooler” this time of year, but it was clear that our definitions of “cool” were somewhat different. It was sunny, warm, and just humid enough to be uncomfortable. The air here was nowhere near as clean as Portland’s; I’d taken a prophylactic benadryl before we touched down, yet I felt that I would be needing another sometime soon. Even Chicago didn’t seem to be as bad as all this.
I’d heard from several scientists that there was a crisis going on in the southern United States. They called it the second dust bowl – winters had effectively begun to disappear, and the pollution around southern cities seemed to be eating into the surrounding rural areas. The oil in the air here was thick, way beyond the usual Fae tolerance; we could handle hydrocarbons at the level usually found in nature, but this was several times normal. It was like breathing pure gas. It was no wonder that Houston’s glade had been abandoned two summers ago.
Caleb leaned up against a concrete piling, tying his black jacket around his waist. He rubbed his eyes with one hand.
“Itchy?” I asked.
“Burning,” he groaned. He drew a pair of rather dashing sunglasses from his backpack, looking so very out of place with his pale skin. “And you wanted to visit the south why, again?”
I squinted, taking my first look around the place. Austin wasn’t completely devoid of trees; I’d seen some from the air, certainly, and there were trees appropriately spaced throughout the medians in the roads and next to buildings. All the same, there was something so sad about the trees, compared to Portland and her rolling hills of endless firs. The poor things were in a battle with their environment. I shivered, feeling their ache in my bones. After our tree Fae magick session last week I’d been practicing my skills more often, and I started getting the weird plant-empathy that most pure tree Fae felt all the time.
“I’m not sure want is the right word,” I muttered, taking off my own jacket. In hindsight it was silly to bring a jacket at all. A young lady who looked like a hippie waif I might see on the streets in Portland passed by and slowed down long enough to smile and nod at us. I returned the gesture. “Why couldn’t we have gotten a girl like her at the transit desk? Austin is supposed to be the Portland of the south.”
“Marlene’s tribe lives up in the northwest, too,” said Caleb, his expression again unreadable under the glasses. “They’re just afraid to talk about it as much up there. They’re outnumbered. They’re outnumbered in this city, too, but step outside the limits and it’s a different world down here.”
“I have read books, you know.”
“Yes, but you haven’t spent time down here like I have.”
He was looking out at the trees, still, while I was twisting my eyebrows at him. “I didn’t know you spent time in the south.”
“Cally didn’t put me down here with you just because we make an striking couple,” his lips twitched on a grin, “You remember my father?”
“I think everyone remembers your father.”
He just nodded. “Howard Hughes didn’t always live in California. Hughes’ family was from Texas, and my family came over with them from Ireland back in the settling days. I spent some time visiting Houston as a youngling, before the Fae deserted it.”
“You still have family down here?”
“I don’t consider everyone who shares my bloodline to be family,” he replied flatly.
“I see.” I wasn’t sure that I did, but it didn’t sound like he was ready to share many more ‘semi-secrets’ with me. Since our trip down to the Willamette glade last week we’d seen each other for brief periods in the IFA headquarters, but never really spent any time together. I think we were both avoiding each other, hoping that if we could leave things on relatively good terms we wouldn’t end up tearing each other to pieces at the climate change summit.
“Tell me,” I began again, “if muses can have that affect on humans, why haven’t we received everything we’ve asked for?”
“The more deeply-held the belief, the harder it is to inspire an opposite action,” Caleb shrugged. “There has to be a basic interest in whatever it is we inspire – for our friend in the airport, she has a basic need to feel that she has done good works. Muse magick brings basic beliefs to the surface to produce motivation. The idea was already there.”
“And the people we’ve been arguing with don’t have beliefs you can capitalize on.”
“Not when the incentives to continue their established policies are rooted in so many different motivations,” he paused, chewing on his inner cheek. “Most of what we’ve done in history has been easier than what we’re trying to do now. The skateboarding private that Cally told you about over dinner? He had an intrinsic interest in risk taking. I just… encouraged that behavior.”
I snorted. “I can’t imagine you playing tricks on people.”
“That sounds a lot like a challenge, Ms-” he caught himself, “Amelie.”
I was rather proud of myself for not rolling my eyes at him. We stood in sweltering silence for some time before we were approached by a lime-colored prius with a giant logo on the side reading The Green Cab. Caleb looked to me with a smirk.
“That’s inspiration for you,” he chuckled. I had a feeling that Marlene didn’t make many calls to the Green Cab.
“You two must be who I’m looking for,” a man hopped out of the car, casually dressed in khakis and an untucked white shirt. He was tan and fair-haired, young from afar but up close was clearly in his mid-thirties. He bent slightly at the knees to offer us each a hand to shake.
“I think so,” I said, squeezing his hand. “Amelie Fletcher.”
Caleb likewise introduced himself, allowing the driver to take the bags.
“I’m Max,” the driver said as we loaded up. I blushed when he opened the door on my side to help me with my belt. It wasn’t like we couldn’t ride in cars with human-sized belts, it was just less comfortable.
I closed by eyes, relieved to have a properly air conditioned environment. We hadn’t even been out in the heat for fifteen minutes and I couldn’t handle it. How was I going to handle an entire week down in this mess?
“The Radisson, right?” Max asked as he started pulling out.
“Downtown, yes,” Caleb replied. He looked surprisingly relaxed, watching out the window as the airport passed us by. “Appreciate the service.”
“Ah, well,” I could hear the smile in Max’s voice, “I was kind of excited to hear that two Faeries were looking for a ride. They say they have them out in the hill country, but I’ve never met any before now.”
“This state isn’t known for its welcoming nature,” said Caleb.
“Are you here for the summit?” his eyes glanced at us through the rearview mirror.
I’m not sure why, but his knowing where we were going made my heart skip a beat. I shouldn’t have been afraid of him – of anyone – knowing who we were and where we were going. It must have been all the catastrophizing in the media getting to me.
“I was hoping some of you would show up. I have a booth in the lobby.”
“You own this company?” I asked politely.
“Yes ma’am,” said Max, cheerfully enough. “It’s not much, I know, but we all have to do our part, right?”
I smiled up at the mirror, where he could see. “Every bit helps.” Maybe I wouldn’t need to worry so much – not about Max, anyway.
“Where are you two coming from?” he asked.
“I’m from Portland. Caleb here is from Vancouver.”
“Are you… bridgers? Is that the word?”
“Yes, we are,” I paused, “you weren’t worried that we were with the people who bombed Birmingham?”
When Caleb shot me a withering look I kicked him in the shin. I would say whatever I pleased, and I was liking this new approach of putting it all out in the open. I tried on the polite diplomatic scheme for a while, but in the end, it just wasn’t me. This was activist me, the one who spent a week in the Sacramento jail for orchestrating a sit-in against the burning rice field policies. I liked activist me.
Max just smiled, shaking his head. “Well if you were, would I really be your target? The Elementals went after humans who were going after the Fae. I feel pretty safe as a human ally.”
“Very reasonable,” Caleb interjected.
“Glad you think so.” He kept on glancing back at us, almost in disbelief. I laid back in my seat, pursing my lips. I never got used to being looked upon as some kind of celebrity. I couldn’t blame him, of course. I would probably be pretty intrigued by humans if I went my whole life hearing about them without seeing them.
Looking back out on Austin as the sky-scrapers appeared ahead of us, the fear started creeping in again. People of the Northwest saw their fair share of Fae, and even in Chicago, it wasn’t altogether unlikely to see a Faerie now and then – here, though, we were an endangered species. I think the last estimate put our number at about two thousand in Texas, the vast majority of those glade-bound. In the last hundred years those numbers had cut themselves in half as more and more of the elder Fae slipped into near-Earth, never to come back.
It made a person wonder why the southern Fae stayed here at all. That was one question I imagined I should keep to myself, at least for now.
“Is this your first time in Austin?” Max asked. We were turning off on one of the exits marked for downtown. For all its hype, Austin was actually a rather small city as Texas cities went. The internet informed me of this.
“It’s Amelie’s first time,” said Caleb. “I’ve been here a few times.”
“So you’ve been down sixth street.”
Caleb grinned, and I realized that I was watching him work his charms. “Of course. Plenty of aspiring artists around there. It’s the perfect place for a young muse.”
“A muse?” Max nearly lost track of the road with his excitement, hitting the brakes a little harder than I would have liked at the stoplight. “Are you both…?”
“Caleb is a muse,” I spoke up. “I’m a little of everything.”
“I read an article once about…” Max turned his head over his shoulder, appraising Caleb more thoroughly this time. “Wait, are you…?”
“Caleb McLain, and yes, I’m probably the one from the article.”
“You inspired The Lost?”
I snickered in spite myself. Max was referring to Caleb’s relationship with a certain now-deceased screenwriter, Gregory G. Carrol, who wrote the most influential film since Star Wars. Caleb’s foray into artistic inspiration was short-lived; he couldn’t have been quite twenty when The Lost was released, and faded back into public policy thereafter, with a much louder voice once he was known for something. I got the feeling that The Lost was probably Caleb’s father’s idea, but I hadn’t asked him about it directly. Of all the things he’d done, that was perhaps the least interesting to me.
“Surprising, I know,” Caleb said on a laugh. “It was a long time ago. I didn’t write it, after all.”
“Oh, I know – I mean, well, I’ve read… geeze, I’m sorry.”
“You’re not going to offend us so easily, it’s alright. We’re like anyone else.”
“If you’re not easily offended then you’re not much like most people.”
Caleb chuckled. “Maybe so. You have me there.”
“So Max, how long have you had the cab service?” I asked, feeling much more at ease. I could see the Radisson coming up down the street, and wished it wasn’t so close. The Colorado River gleamed at us from over the bridge, putting me in mind of Portland – even though this place most certainly was not. It was relaxing to be in a nice, safe car with a nice, safe human. The more I thought about what we were doing, the less at-ease I felt.
“Oh, ever since I finished grad school,” Max’s wrist rested casually on the wheel. “I couldn’t find a job in my field, so I managed to put together a business loan and here we are. I have six cars that run the city and suburbs.”
“What was your field?”
The corners of his eyes crinkled. “’Energy and Earth Resources,’ believe it or not. I guess running a sustainable cab company was about as close as I could get.”
“Seems like that could be marketable.”
“Not if you want to stay in Austin. I probably should have widened my search,” he shrugged, “I like it here, though. I’ve lived here forever.”
Even though I had the same kind of connection to the northwest, I still couldn’t imagine a good reason to stay in this particular place. “I guess I could see that,” was the best I could manage.
Caleb just smirked at me with a yeah, right look in his eyes.
Max stopped the car in the little pull-through area, and he, too, looked sad to see us go. He helped us with our bags, and just for fun I let him watch me hover about a little. I didn’t need to show off, but the widening of his eyes was adorably child-like. Caleb handed off the IFA credit card (or maybe even one of his own, I supposed, since they seemed to be one in the same), and ran the transaction while I stood near the door.
“Hey, it was very nice to meet you,” Caleb reached out to shake Max’s hand. “If we see your booth tomorrow we’ll stop by.”
“That would be great!” he smiled at both of us, and behind it I could see a question he desperately wanted to ask but didn’t have the courage to say.
I was about to bring it up myself before Caleb opened his mouth. “Was there something else you needed before we go?”
“Well… it’s dumb. Don’t worry about it.”
“What is it?” I asked.
He thought about it for a breath or two before his shoulders slumped, surging ahead with abandon. “Okay, well, since I was a kid I always wanted to see magick. It’s dumb – really – I shouldn’t ask…”
Caleb looked to me and raised his eyebrows. I laughed out loud before throwing him my bag. “That’s all?” I scanned the parking area. There were a couple people unloading behind us – I was sure they would be imaptient except for the young children who were enraptured with our presence. I went on as if they weren’t there, finding a nice example of a tiny, young blue bonnet planted in one of the pots. True to season, it had yet to flower – though I wondered if it ever would in this heat. I motioned Max over, standing next to him to shield the scene from casual onlookers.
“Here,” I slid my hand to cup one of the stems, an end that would become a flower someday. Closing my eyes I strengthened the connection through the touch, feeling the energy of the plant as if it were a part of me, an extension of my hand. Softly, gently, I coaxed the energy up, a silent request, come closer, show me who you are.
The stem lengthened, the leaves brushing up over my palm. The stages of growth accelerated, and the tip developed a series of buds, then bloomed, until my hand was full; when I opened my eyes the delicate purpley-blue flowers looked back at me.
I rubbed them with my thumb, a note of thanks before letting them go. I looked up at Max sidelong, his excitement subdued under the layer of adulthood. Poor humans with their repressed selves – much as I valued their culture, some parts of it were so unfortunate. I could understand hiding sadness at times, but happiness should be shared.
He brushed the back of his fingers against the flowers in disbelief, as if he expected them to disappear. “That’s amazing.”
I hopped up and down in the air, still feeling the growing energy tingling through my muscles. “My grandmother could do much better than I.”
“Thank you,” Max bowed his head, “you didn’t have to do that.”
“Like Caleb said, it was really nice to meet you,” I reiterated, retreating away from the adoration. Funny, really, that he found it so impressive. Nan could have made the plant twice its size and made the whole thing flower. I was lucky that I got the one stem to cooperate.
Max waved us good-bye before going for his door. “Hope you have a good visit.”
“That’s the idea,” Caleb waved back.
As we watched him drive away I imagined my grandfather and what he would have said – There goes a once-and-always friend. The Fae believed that spirits sometimes traveled together in groups, and when the met briefly in life they could feel an old connection.
I wasn’t sure I believed that, of course, but if I did that would have been one of those moments.
“That was refreshing,” Caleb noted, heaving his pack over his shoulder. “Ready to go in?”
Just having the jacket tied around my waist was making me sweat. “I suppose so.”
The inside of the Radisson was large and lodge-like, with appropriately Texan accents – antler chandeliers and stars here and there, as if one might forget what state they were in. The lobby wasn’t terribly busy yet – virtue of traveling on a Tuesday, I was sure – but the kids from outside were there, standing beside their parents at the desk.
A little boy about Caleb’s height was looking at him with giant, brown eyes, and much to my surprise (and my amusement), Caleb made a face at the child, his tongue stuck out and his eyes practically in different directions. The look lasted only a second before his face straightened out back into the lazy half-smile he usually wore.
The child’s high-pitched squeal of delight even made me grin. His older sister stood beside him, trying her best to look unimpressed, even as I caught a hint of pleasure. Repression started early.
“That’s not very professional, now, is it?” a voice came from our right.
Caleb and I turned at once to see a dark-skinned Fae, standing a little taller than Caleb, wearing a crisp purple-and-white striped shirt and newly-ironed pants. His wings were also purple with edges dipped black, his pointed ears clearly visible against close-cropped black hair. His clean professional getup made me feel even more travel-weary than I already was, with my jeans and t-shirt wrinkled from sleeping on the plane.
“Neo!” Caleb’s handshake was a half-clap as he folded Neo into a brief hug. “I didn’t realize you’d be here.”
“I just started bridging with the south a few months ago, and you never call,” Neo pulled away, his smile infectiously wide. “And who is this lovely young Fae?” He tipped his head amiably, “beautiful set of wings you have there.”
I fluttered them gamely, mirroring his tip of the head. “Amelie Fletcher, one of the northwest bridgers. Also new to the job.”
His eyebrows waggled up and down. “You must have talent. I’ve never met a bridging tree Fae.”
His comment could have been disparaging, but instead it was quite sweet – he meant it. “Well, that remains to be seen I think.”
“Plenty of time, plenty of time,” Neo cleared his throat, “I was sent to take you two to brunch, but I think it’s full-on lunch at this point.”
“Plane was late. ‘Technical delays,’” Caleb emphasized the latter with sarcasm. It was almost certain that the delay was because we were aboard. “If I’d known you would be here I would have called.”
“And spoil my entrance?” Neo gestured with flourish. “I think not. You two get checked in, I can wait while you change. We have…” his eyes darkened as he looked out the door, as if he could see something in the street that we could not, “a lot to talk about.”