The man emerged from the back room, but he didn't say anything to me at first. He just looked at me, then glanced at the plate of cookies. he looked so long at them, that I thought something strange must have happened to them and looked too, but they looked exactly the same.
"Uh. Excuse me?" I said.
"Not hungry, are you?"
I slowly shook my head.
"Wouldn't you like a cookie?"
There was an off-putting eagerness to his voice, to the way he moved. And I could tell he was trying to hide it, which made it more uncomfortable. I slid out of the chair.
"No, I'm good. I just want to find my sister."
The door behind me slammed shut.
"I suggest you eat the cookies," he said.
I ran to the door, but it refused to open, no matter how hard i tried the knob. The man came up behind me and I grabbed my shoulder, turning me around to face him. "Take it easy, sprout," he said, looming over me. "I just think you should have a snack."
I don't have powers like Mia, so I can't just wish myself out of things. Instead, I latched onto his arm and sunk my teeth into the exposed skin, biting hard until I could taste the metallic flavor of blood. The man swore and rammed me against the door a few times, but I didn't let go.
Finally he jammed his fingers under my lips and pried me off-- my tearing a bunch of skin as he did. he swore and clutched his arm, and for a split second, i was confused. Why was he covered in silver?
But then that didn't matter, and I was running away, towards the back where he had gone in earlier. maybe there was a window I could break, or a room I could lock myself into to buy time.
The back door didn't lead to a room, like I thought, but a tunnel. A stony, earthy, underground tunnel with burning torches on the walls. I barely had time to notice it; I ran down the tunnel without even thinking, desperate to get away from the red-haired man.
At one point, I barrelled into two of the smaller, goblin-y carnival workers. They tried to grab me, but I was already going full-speed down the slope, and they were barely taller than I was. They went flailing down, and I leapt over them and continued on down the tunnel.
I don't know how far I ran, or how long I could have kept it up, but eventually, after what felt like a long time, I slowed to a jog, then a walk. I glanced behind me and saw nothing there but an empty stretch of tunnel. When I listened, all I could hear was my own breathing and beating heart; no sign of footsteps or of the red haired man yelling for me.
A sudden memory of the desperate man at the food court filled my head. How he had happily walked into the earth, how the dirt closed behind him. I wondered if he was down here somewhere and shuddered at the thought.
But that meant that there might be other ways out of this place. If the carnival workers could open up entrances willy-nilly, then I might be able to get out that way. Maybe they even had ones that were open all the time, and I could find one of those.
Quietly, hoping nobody would see or stop me, I pressed on down the tunnel.
My plan didn't last long.
I heard footsteps before I saw anyone. I thought it might be another of the goblin staff, but the figure turning the corner was too tall for that. Then, the smell of flowers washed over me, and I stumbled backwards as though I'd been struck. The smell was beautiful, but suffocating, and within seconds couldn't breathe. I choked on the air, flailing and clutching my through as though I were drowning.
I fell onto the soft grass, and everything went black.
* * * * *
Someone was singing when I woke up.
I was lying belly-down down somewhere soft and cool. The air was cool too, and thick with the smell of flowers, but this time I could breathe easy. Even before I cracked my eyes open, i was deeply inhaling the smell.
The singing stopped, replaced with the sound of a woman's laughter.
"Do you like the flowers, dear?"
I pushed myself up and tried to look around.
I was probably in some kind of room. There was probably a floor, and a ceiling. Maybe it was carved out of the earth like the rest of the tunnels were. Maybe it had a real floor and walls installed. There might have been furniture. I don't know, because all I could see was the woman sitting beside me.
I'd never had a crush on a girl before. Some of my friends were starting to, but I didn't really get it yet. I'd barely accepted that cooties weren't actually real. But the fairy woman was the most beautiful person I had ever seen in my entire life, and suddenly I knew what my friends and those mopey love songs my mom listens to on the radio had been talking about.
Fairy, noticed some small part of me. That was the word. They're fairies.
"Hi," I said. my voice sounded stupid, but I couldn't stop it.
She smiled at me, and my heart burst. I broke into a million pieces on the ground. I wanted to cry. I wanted to go fight monsters for her. Was that why knights in stories did things?
"What's your name?" she said.
"Jacob," I said. "Are you a princess?"
She laughed and touched my face, and it took everything I had not to melt into a puddle of goop.
"What a sweet child you are."
"That's mine, Leanansidhe." said a familiar voice from the doorway. The fairy woman looked up, though I didn't. I kept my eyes on her face, appreciating it from the side view. I already knew what the red-haired man looked like.
"I see no claim on him, Renard." she said.
"I was in the middle of it."
"Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades," she said. I blinked. It was strange to hear a beautiful fairy princess talk about hand grenades. But the moment passed, and I decided that she could talk about anything she wanted, so long as I was allowed to be there and hear it.
"You're just going to eat him," Renard said. "Come on, you know I've been looking for an assistant. He's not even you're type. He's not an artist."
"I can be an artist," I said. It was the only thing Renard said that my mind latched onto, and I meant it. She made me want to paint pictures of her, make statues of her, write music to play for her.
She smiled. Not at me, at Renard. "Ambitious, isn't he? So eager to please. Yes, I believe I will keep him. He will grow into a fine young man, I think."
"Fine," Renard said, throwing his arms up. "Fine! Enjoy dying at the age of twenty, kid. I know you're gonna love every minute of it."
He stormed out of the room.
"What did he mean?" I said.
She smiled at me, and suddenly the answer wasn't really important. "Never you mind. Now, my love, I need to go."
My love. She called me her love! She loves me!
"Go?" I said, torn between desperation and joy. "Please don't."
She was trying not to laugh, I could tell. I felt my heart rip in two.
"It's alright, little one," she said, stroking my hair. "I have a performance above. I will return shortly."
"Can I go with you?" I said. "I want to see."
She cupped my face in her hands and looked thoughtful for a long moment. At last, she smiled again and said, "of course, pet."
She took my hand-- her skin was so soft-- and led me back through the tunnel. At some point we went a different way, though I wouldn't be able to tell where or when. But the entrance we popped out at eventually was no where near Renard's hut, but a large tent, one big enough to encompass a stage and a few dozen chairs that were already filled with guests.
"Stay here, darling," she said, guiding me to a spot off to the side.
I obeyed happily and sank onto the dirt.
With one last smile, she turned from me to go onstage. There was a microphone set up already waiting for her, and people were filing into the tent. I sat up, alert. If I heard her sing, then maybe that would give me a clue as to what kind of music she liked. Then, once I learned how to actually play music, I could--
I didn't take my eyes off Leanansidhe, but I felt Mia grab my shoulder.
"There you are!" she said. "I've been looking for you!"
"You found me," I said. Leanansidhe was settling down on a stool someone had brought out. Off to the other side of the stage, I saw Renard glaring at her.
"Jacob, come on."
"I'm not going," I said.
She pulled on my arm. "Stop it. Come on, we have to go."
I shoved her away. "Leave me alone, I'm staying here."
Mia lost her balance and fell onto her rear. Still, I kept my eyes on the stage.
"What's wrong with you?" Mia said. She came around in front of me, and I tried to see Leanansidhe past her.
"Who's that?" Mia said.
"My lady," I said. I didn't know why I said it that way, but it felt right.
Mia stared at me. Then her expression hardened, and she turned towards the stage, and the set of her shoulders and the way she walked told me there was about to be trouble.
I grit my teeth and stood up. My lady had asked me to stay there, but I couldn't let Mia ruin her performance.
"Mia!" I hissed. I grabbed her hand and tried to hold her back. "Stop it. You gotta go home."
"I'm not leaving without you!" she shouted. She yanked her hand, sending me stumbling to the ground. I grabbed her ankle, and she came down after me.
We tussled for a bit. I usually don't bother fighting with Mia because girls bite and scratch, but this time I had a purpose: I had to defend my Lady.
"Excuse me," Leanansidhe said, suddenly above us. "What seems to be the matter here?"
Oh no, I thought, terrified. I'd upset her! I released Mia immediately and scrambled away from her.
"That's my brother!" Mia said. "You did something to him!"
Leanansidhe smiled, and I felt my heart melt all over again.
"Girl, I've made my claim on him. He's mine. Even if you did get him away from me, he'd only hate you for it. I suggest you leave."
"He's my brother," Mia said again. Her voice was shaking, and I knew any moment now, she'd start to cry.
Part of me felt bad about that, but most of me wanted her to leave. She was upsetting Leanansidhe.
"Mia," I said, touching her shoulder. "You should go home. Mom's going to need you."
She wrapped her arms around me and cried into my chest. "I'm not going without you."
"I'm staying here," I said again.
She let go and stared at me, her face already snotty and wet from crying.
"Go home, girl," said Renard, sounding bored. "It's no use. She's got her hooks in him. You may as well give it up."
Mia stared at him for a second, then looked around at the other fairies who'd gathered around to watch.
"I hate you," she said. She didn't say it angry, didn't scream it. Just said it calmly. And underneath the happy fog, I felt a small spike of ice cold fear.
"I hate all of you," she said again.
"I believe that's enough," Leanansidhe said. "Unless someone can put a claim or glamour on her, I believe it is time she was escorted off the grounds."
Who of the elves stepped toward Mia. She allowed them to grab her arms, but said, "Wait. I wanna say something before I go."
"Yes?" Leanansidhe said.
Mia looked her dead in the eye and said, "Fairies aren't real. I don't believe in fairies."
And then the world exploded.
. . .
Mia and I stood alone in a field. There were no fairies, there were no tents, there was no carnival. Only dry, yellow grass, and some trees in the distance.
"Mia?" I said.
She ran into me hard enough to knock me back a few steps, and she wrapped her arms around me hard enough to knock the wait from my lungs.
"Hey, it's okay," I said, returning the hug and rubbing her back like mom did when we were upset. "It's okay. I'm right here."
"She was going to take you," she said through the tears. "They were going to take you away."
I tried to remember the fairy woman, tried to remember what about her was so perfect that I would have chosen to live with her instead of my family, but all I could come up with were small fragments of feelings. I knew what had happened, the way you remember a dream, but I couldn't actually remember it, except for the the phantom feel of fingers running through my hair, and a whiff of flowers.
I wanted to throw up.
"It's fine," I said instead. "I'm here. I'm not going anywhere."
We stood like that for a while, until Mia was all cried out and all hugged out, and she let go first.
"So what did you do to them?" I said.
She wiped her nose on her sleeve, and the sad, scared look in her face changed to something more wolfish. "Fairies aren't real," she said fiercely. "I don't want them to be real."
She took my hand, and I wondered what it would be like to stop existing-- not even dying, just not being real anymore.
Sometimes, Mia scared me.
"Let's go home," I said.
She nodded and wiped her eyes with her free hand. We started off towards the shrubs, the same ones we had come in that morning.
"Jacob,?" she said softly.
"I love you."
I gave her hand a squeeze.
"I love you too."
We went home.