When I first became a bridger I have to admit that the prestige was part of the decision. Bridgers that I’d met – and certainly the stories I’d read about Caleb – made them out to be these elusive fixers. They got things done, talked with some of the most powerful people in the world (Fae and Human alike), and traveled all over the place to get things done.
Elements of that were present in the work, of course, but nothing prepared me for how tiresome phonecalls could be. I didn’t mind talking to people in person, but calling a person on the phone seemed like such an intrusion into their privacy, and took away all opportunity to gauge facial expressions. Skype helped with this, but most major news media places shied away from skype calls. Probably something about not wanting to be recorded while they were doing whatever they were doing.
I could have cried when the deluge of phone calls, emails, and internet research finally, mercifully came to a conclusion. It was 5 pm pacific time, which meant that most of the offices around the west coast were closing and it certainly meant that the east close was ending their day. We’d established early in the day that Caleb, Landsong and I would take the day shift for the western bridgers; Peter and Alex were slated to take over any new emergencies after us. It was one thing after another – this outlet talking about the Fae as victims, this other one nearly uttering the word “terrorist” in the same breath as our people. To our knowledge the terrorist label was mainly being applied in the blogosphere, a sector of the media we had very little control over. The television outlets were complying with our desperate requests to keep the tone neutral – for the moment.
I knew it was going to get worse, though. After the initial gratuitous shots of the burning buildings and families of those who died they would have to move on to making new tragedies; likely of a religious nature. I was certain that the next group of speakers on the media’s list consisted of reverends and pastors, a group we historically clashed with on a regular basis. There weren’t many large blocks of strongly religious people who were strictly comfortable with the idea of the Fae. Most of us still saw ourselves as demigods, a direct contradiction of the many monotheists on the earth. This belief my people held was really a two-fold disadvantage; we angered both the religious and the non-religious or scientific community with our “magick.” I tended to side with the scientists, who insisted on a mundane explanation for our extraordinary feats.
As I’ve said before, I’m not much like the other Fae.
I was about to jump off of the council chamber porch to glide to the ground when I paused. Caleb was following me out of the hut, just as stiff and bleary-eyed as I was. It was already getting dark, which suited me fine truth be told. The nip of the cold on my skin and the sight of the stars above – almost totally untouched by city glow this far out of town – felt like freedom to me. They didn’t name me Starhunter without cause.
Caleb shrugged into his jacket, hands in his pockets. “Don’t stop just for me.”
“I can walk down-“
“I’m still Fae,” he raised an eyebrow, “if it didn’t hurt so damned much I’d do the same thing. Just go.”
I clamped my mouth shut, and knew instantly that if I stayed and walked down with him he’d be perhaps more irritable than he already was. I nodded, turned back to the edge, and leaped off.
No matter how many times I’d done it, I never got rid of the heart-stop-in-the-throat feeling of free fall, and I’d never want to. I held out my hand in front of me, the gold shimmers turning to silver in the night. I grinned, blissfully dizzy on the high of flight, and canted my wings just so to bring myself up, whipping my body in a u-shape a few feet off the ground. I closed my eyes, my wings easily keeping me airborne and upright. The new cold from the fall made me shiver; it was getting downright frigid.
Most of the tree Fae had gone inside for the night. Tree Fae were of a sun aspect, and tended to avoid the night when they could. Me, though, with my half-water Fae tendencies, was just as happy in the dark as I was in the light. Muses were like that too, from what I knew of Dyana – she was pretty adaptable, though I tended to get the feeling that she liked the night more than the day. That might have just been her though.
The Fae lights on the edges of the bridge gave off just illumination for me to see Caleb’s face, his lips twitching in a new smile. He’s checking me out?
I shook my head. Probably just the light.
I swooped upwards before dropping down beside him, letting loose a contented sigh.
“Feel better?” He asked softly, continuing his stroll like nothing happened.
“Much,” I rubbed my arms, coaxing the warmth through the fabric. “My grandmother’s place is through these trees, here. You’re welcome to join me. I’m sure she has food ready.”
I almost winced after I said it. Inviting him to Nan’s home seemed to somehow breach that personal gap I’d been trying to maintain with him – though I supposed that the gap had been crossed back when I spent the morning hugging his backside to maintain balance on his motorcycle.
Though, to his credit, he seemed to notice that crossing of boundaries with the way his half-smile disappeared. “I assumed I would meet you again in the morning to conduct our original business.”
“Original…? Oh, yes. The tree Fae tour and all that. Renewable energy.”
“Like I said, it’s up to you.”
He was still walking beside me, even with his lips in a tight line on his face, considering.
“What would you do alone, anyway?” I began thinking out loud, and once I started I saw no point in stopping. “Something tells me that you’re the brooding kind of Fae.”
“You have many opinions about me for someone I met just yesterday.”
“You mean to say my opinions are incorrect?”
“Some of them, perhaps.”
“So brooding it is,” I chuckled.
At that I finally got another smile. “I’ll go with you if that is what you like, Ms. Fletcher.”
“It’s Ms. Fletcher again.”
“Extenuating circumstances robbed me of my better judgment. It was always Ms. Fletcher.”
“Does that mean I should have been calling you Mr. McLain this whole time?”
His wings shivered, and his expression went unreadable. We were nearing my grandmother’s hut, just two more bridges over. A stray water nymph waved at me – one of the older nymphs who had taught me to manage wings underwater – and I waved back, over Caleb’s shoulder. Her blue-green hair and see-through wings were stunning in the evening light, her skin pale with just a tint of gray. I could spend weeks just visiting all the people I knew in this glade.
“Caleb is fine,” he said mildly, briefly following my gaze to the nymph I’d been waving at.
“Likewise, Amelie would be fine. We’re supposed to be colleagues.”
“As you like it.”
“I thought we were moving past that thing where I give you a chance to share your thoughts and you just brush it off.”
“I think that some leniency might be in order, don’t you?”
The darkness in his eyes cut me right in my center. Perhaps. I didn’t like to think about it – 241 people had died, by the last count. The Elementals had taken responsibility for it, and taken it gladly. They had no shame.
I still couldn’t believe that Fae could be responsible for that kind of loss of life. By virtue of existing we are forced to kill – plants, bugs, the occasional unruly creature that threatens us, but killing for the sake of doing so, to prove a point…
It didn’t make sense to me. I spent the entire afternoon trying to cover it, and I still couldn’t quite grasp the concept myself. Part of me didn’t want to, anyway; if I came to understand it then it would mean seeing the world in a new way, and I wasn’t ready for that. Not yet.
Light licked out from underneath Nan’s elaborate tapestry when we reached her door. Her hut was one of the odd ones, built originally with one room but later expanded to three, the extra rooms connected by magick-linked vines which might have been part of the tree structure. I smirked to myself, noting the rickshaw construction. I was convinced that when Nan passed on to the fifth earth her home would fall apart. Only she could keep this structure contiguous.
“You hungry, Star?” my grandmother asked. Even with the tapestry closed she must have seen the shadows of our feet. She was observant like that. Caleb startled at her apparent clairvoyance.
“A bit. I brought Caleb along, if that’s alright.”
“Sure it is!” I could hear the wooden scrape of plates as she pulled them down from her shelves.
Nan’s home was almost as familiar to me as the nymph grotto I grew up in, with its various nick-knacks, tapestries, and natural implements hanging from the ceiling. The shell windchimes tinkled out entry, singing in my head – home, safety, warmth.
The room was crowded with Nan’s possession around a circular center table, overflowing with enough nutcakes, blackberry jam, and wood berries to feed half the glade. My face flushed with anticipation. She made all my favorites.
Nan turned around, kettle in hand to make tea. “Jasmine?” she asked me, as if she expected me to object. She knew I wouldn’t.
“I’d love some,” I told her.
“Caleb, do you like jasmine tea?”
“Jasmine would be fine, thank you,” Caleb said smoothly.
I sat down at the table, obliging myself to one of the nutcakes. The taste of hazelnuts and cinnamon was absolutely luscious, and I was starving after spending so much time working the phones. The Fae of the glade could complain all they wanted about human societies and their unnatural dissemination of produce and spices – cinnamon was a living being’s right as far as I was concerned.
Caleb sat beside me, his movements clipped and ill at ease in Nan’s house. Nan was so casual that it was beyond me to imagine anyone being proper in her home.
“Do you like nutcakes?” I asked, too tired to keep myself from adding, “or is that too personal to share?”
As if to spite me, he reached for one of the glistening confections with one eye on me and took a bite so large as to border on rude. I leaned back in my chair with the most skeptical look on my face that I could muster. Every so often he showed that glimmer of being down to earth – and damned if it wasn’t awfully attractive on him.
“Did you figure things out?” Nan asked mildly. She set a mug down for each of us and poured the water in, the scent of fresh jasmine instantly relaxing my muscles.
“I don’t know about that,” I breathed. “Things… aren’t looking good right now.”
“It’s messier than anyone in the IFA would like,” Caleb added. “It may be the worst incident we’ve had, but we’ll get through it. I’m sure of it.”
“What happened?” Nan asked, sitting down at the table. Her earthy brown eyes were wide and concerned. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d expressed an interest in the political happenings outside the glade.
“Some Elementals in Birmingham decided to protest the recent encroachment on their glade by destroying the company headquarters of the construction firm. Lots of people… died.”
Nan’s gaze fell. “It’s been a long time since so many Fae fell tainted.”
“I wouldn’t assume they were tainted,” Caleb said over the rim of his cup.
The statement jostled me so badly that I couldn’t quite put my finger on what made me so surprised. It seemed wholly incongruous to say such a thing. “…what?” I managed to choke out.
“Tainted is a spiritual term. I simply don’t think we need to seek a spiritual answer to a rational question.”
“There’s nothing rational about what happened,” I snapped, and even I was a bit uncertain about defending what he rightly called a spiritual assessment. Nan raised her eyebrows. “If they weren’t tainted then you’re arguing that they had good reasons for what they did.”
“I didn’t say the reasons were good or right.” Caleb cleared his throat, tipping his head in deference to Nan. “I don’t mean to cause a dispute at your dinner table. You are terribly kind to open your home to me and I’m afraid I’ve spoiled that kindness.”
Something about the way he said it made it feel like I had caused him to spoil the kindness, making it in fact my fault. His words didn’t say it, but it was an attitude thing – or maybe I was imagining it. Whatever it was, it sucked the attractiveness right out of him, leaving me with that uneasy feeling I’d had about him since he walked into the conference yesterday.
“I am just glad that the two of you are working on the situation,” Nan took a nutcake for herself, spreading it with jam. “If you’re anything like Starhunter I know you’ll find a solution.”
Caleb flashed a hesitant smile. “All the same, I should probably go.”
“No, no,” Nan waved a hand, “you haven’t even finished your tea. I was just going out to meet Rosedancer. We neglected one of the nurseries this morning with all the activity.” She fluttered up into the air. I often marveled at Nan and her agility – she moved with the grace of a Fae much younger than I knew she was. She was remarkable that way. “I want it to look nice for you in the morning. I’ll be right back.”
Before I could protest she had zoomed out the door. I narrowed my eyes at her path. She was leaving me alone with him – deliberately.
Oh, Nan, you’re such a matchmaker. If only her matchmaking was more attuned to my match preferences.
“Your grandmother is lovely,” he said in a way that was genuine – as genuine as anything I’d ever heard from him.
I let the silence run long, hoping that he would suffer for it. I was just a bit disappointed at how he appeared more amused than disgruntled for my efforts. The amusement he showed was just the slightest flicker of his eyes; almost impossible to perceive.
“You’re angry with me,” he finally broke the silence.
“You could have just agreed that what they did was terrible,” my defensive posture was clanging to my own ears. I was tired. I shouldn’t have been arguing with anyone in my state.
“Loss of life is always regrettable. I would never mean to imply that it isn’t.”
“And still you won’t blatantly state that they were wrong.”
“The world is a lot more than right and wrong right now. We’re just here to deal with the reality of keeping up an image – that’s our job. Judging the actions of others isn’t a part of that.”
“I’m not talking to you as a bridger. Don’t you have personal feelings about anything?”
His shoulders inched subtly closer to his ears, and his mouth failed to move. He had nothing to say. I had… offended him?
I blew out a breath and closed my eyes, which stung with the pain of too many hours spent pouring over news reports and blog posts. “I don’t know why all of this had to happen here, with you.”
The sound of him rising from the table grated on my ears. He took another sip of the tea before turning his back.
Part of me wanted to tell him to go – that he was just annoying me at this point, and I never should have invited him in the first place. The other part – I assume the part that invited him here – was causing a most unpleasant stabbing feeling in my chest.
“Wait-” I started.
“Good evening to you, Ms. Fletcher.”
“Clearly not.” He never even turned around to look at me.
I took solace in the fact that I didn’t spring up to grab him, even though that stabby part of my brain (or humans might say, my heart) wanted to do it. It made no sense.
What he’d said about the Elementals was odd, just as odd as everything else he did. How on earth did he get his reputation? I shook my head. There was too much going on here.
“I…” Don’t tell him you’re sorry. You have nothing to be sorry for. He should have just agreed that the other Fae were tainted. He probably is one of those radicals, and you want nothing to- “I’m sorry if I’m the reason you’re leaving.”
At times like these, I wished that I would listen to myself. Even as I said it the apology felt thick and unwelcome in my throat.
There was a hitch in his step, and even through his jacket I could see the wing muscles in his back clench. My own muscles twinged in sympathy when he braced himself with one hand on the wall. His head bowed.
I blinked. My mouth dropped, and my heart thumped irregularly in my chest. No wonder he’s not thinking clearly. Who would? I scrambled up from the table towards him. “Caleb-”
Nan nearly bowled him over when she came through the tapestry. He stumbled briefly enough that only I would notice, dodging out of her way. He stood straight, for all it might have cost him.
“You’re leaving so soon? I was hoping to get to know you.” Nan puzzled.
“I would love to stay, but I have a few more phonecalls to make,” he cleared his throat, “I look forward to talking with you tomorrow.”
With that he left, his boots clopping across the wooden boards and over the bridge. I was frozen in place, one hand on the table. Nan turned her gaze on me.
“You two were having a spat, I’m guessing?” she asked.
“I’m not courting him, grandmother,” I rubbed my temples, feeling the tension all through my neck and my back. “This whole thing is a mess. No one is thinking things through right now. This afternoon was bad… we spent so much time just trying to hold back the waters. I don’t even know what our role is tomorrow, or next week, in Austin…”
Her thin, cool fingers brushed my arm. I swallowed, looking up at her. “Star, I can’t help but think that you and that boy should stick together in times like these. People like you are special. Something must make him special, too.”
“You’re focusing on him when the real problem-”
“Are you going to try to tell me that the explosion is the ‘real problem?’” she cocked her head to the side, “there’s something about him, isn’t there?”
“I think he might be a very bad person, Nan. That’s the ‘thing’ about him. I don’t know who to trust right now. Dyana somehow knew this was coming, and she thinks… maybe Caleb knew even better.”
“Maybe you should tell him that.”
“Didn’t I try to teach you to say what you’re thinking?” the glint in her eyes was full of Fae mischief, the same glint she wore when she hassled the nymphs and played tricks on the humans. “It gets me in trouble, but I always say what I think.”
My mouth clamped shut, my thoughts spinning.
“I’ll save you a snack for when you get back.” She withdrew her touch and put a lid on the blackberry jam, a hint of sass in her step.
Perhaps Nan and I have a few too many things in common, I thought as I fluttered through her doorway back into the night.