(Posted August 12, 2016)
The Art of Starting Fires
Spring - Summer of the Vibrant Sparks
"Did you eat your wand again?"
There was no right answer to the question. Not back then. Ambrosine handed my ulkroot starpiece, or what was left of it, across the keeping room's black coffee table. Awaiting an explanation. Better yet, a confession.
"I get nervous when we have to try playing saucerbee in front of the whole class," I told him, still kneeling in the dirt, holding my left hand in my right. My thumb ran across the knuckles. I squeezed.
To this day, I have never heard Ambrosine raise his voice a mite above his regular level. His millennia of work at Wish Fixers wouldn't allow him to. Once I'd taken the wand from his hand, he scratched his rounded chin and leaned his shoulder against the muddy frame of the door.
"What would you like me to do to help you, Fergus?"
I shrugged in reply, never once lowering my gaze. Over the centuries, we'd tried all the tricks: Gold stars, spicy dragonlily paste, being forbidden to play my tiny springcase really loud and late at night.
"This is the fifth one since you've left your training wand behind." Then he came around to where I knelt. After studying the math problems I was working on in my clay tablets, he mussed my hair and continued with, "I've never met another Fairy who nibbles at theirs the way you do, but I might guess at a connection to problems your core is trying to suppress."
"In school, they told us that we're supposed to say 'subconscious mind' now, instead of using 'core' that way. That's 163rd Year curriculum. 'Core' is just for the deepest center of the soul. The one big trait we share with our anti-selves. And, well. Also for our core." I pointed to my forehead, with its laser cannon of pulp, calcium, and enamel snuggled up inside, between my brain and the sealed bubble of about a thousand little translucent eggs that I had potential to one day bring to life. Laser cannons were fairly common cores, but I was still proud of mine. It had won me a fight with a freckle-faced gnome at school once.
Ambrosine patted my cheek with the hand that wasn't braced against his waist. "Check the sass, saltlick. Next you'll be trying to make me believe the proper term is 'unconscious'. Which one of us here is the children's magic and mental therapist?"
"You are, duh."
"Although," he added like an afterthought, fingering his dark red vest, "it's always been the family business, and when you're in the Academy, I do expect you'll be studying the stuff too. Just like your old man."
I stopped scratching at the clay with the metal tip of my stylus. The glowing fire crackled in its dirty pit on my right, and a flying spark that snapped made me flinch. "Wait. Why? I don't want to study therapy like you. I'm not a nymph anymore. I'm halfway through juvenile school- I should be able to choose what I want for myself."
"What would you like to study if you weren't going to study psychology and therapy? Any ideas?"
"Um." I tried to think of a single thing that I enjoyed doing. Aside from my math homework, nothing much came to mind (I was not the type to be easily entertained). I shifted my attention back to it. It was all trajectories of wand waves and veering flight patterns. Fidgeting with one of the tablets, I mumbled, "I don't know yet. You know I'm kind of a procrastinator."
He gave a whistle. "Maybe in another lifetime you could study big words, Fergus. However, the fact remains that I've always intended for you to take on the family business after me."
"I don't have other nymphs."
"Get a new mate," I said as he plopped down in his favorite red-pink chair by the fire.
"Not on your fritzy lines. Now, you're going. Otherwise, I'd have to sell the old place, and while I could make a sharp two bits off it, it's been in our family for easily two million and a half years, so six or seven or eight of us. It's tradition, and it isn't as though I have any other offspring. Your dusty ancestors would be reeling in their magic lines and leaving me gasping if the place died in my capable hands."
I wrinkled my nose. "You're telling me that all my ancestors went to school to learn how to ask nymphs to tell them about their feelings?"
"On my side, yes. More or less, and they haven't always focused on children like I have. Schooling has updated over the millennia. Actually, you're descended from quite a lot of drakes and damsels who pioneered the way and made significant discoveries in the field. Or at least, that's what my father told me. I don't actually have a record of the Whimsifinado and Gumswood family trees."
I rubbed my cheek without drawing my elbow from the coffee table. Scrawling my answer to the current story problem, I said quietly, "I don't know if I'd be good with nymphs and juveniles."
"Aw, don't doubt yourself." Abandoning the chair, he crouched beside me to poke my lower stomach. "You're a drake. Your hormones will kick in like mind control, and you'll find it comes to you just as naturally as weaving magic lines into a newborn's core. You want nymphs one of these days, don't you?"
"Well, duh." I thought it was a dumb question. Fairies were born, they played silly games as nymphs, they went to school, they found work, they took mates, they had nymphs of their own, and they lived extended lives and passed their knowledge down to the younger generations when they themselves became too frail to channel much magic any longer. That was simply the way it worked; the only formula. "But I just want a little damsel. Named Emery."
"Do you? I like that name. I like it a lot, I think. I'm willing to bet she'll have your long fingers, shiny black hair, and pale lavender-gray eyes. Score- I can't wait until you come into your freckles. I already love her."
My grip tightened around my stylus. "Good. Because I've never met a damsel who was truly nice to me, ever, and I refuse to die until I meet one. I'm going to raise the best damsel of her entire generation. She's going to be sweet and kind and a good cook, and then all the drakes will come to take her away from me - damsels always marry faster than drakes - and I can stop being a doting parent and move on with my real, actual life."
"That's not a good goal."
I moved to my next tablet. "Why? It looks pretty good from where I'm sitting. Then somebody else can take care of her, and I can still see her without having to share any of my stuff."
"You're not looking at this from the right angle." Ambrosine wrapped his arms around me and, against my protests, lifted me from my place among the straw and dirt. "So what I'm understanding from what you told me is, it's a waste of time for me to raise you and you think I should go back to the office where a drake belongs, forever."
His words made me hesitate. "Well, no. That's different because I'm not ready yet to be on my own. I wouldn't throw any of my nymphs out if they couldn't care for themselves. I just- I just-"
I covered my face with my sweater sleeves as he set me down on my feet. "I don't know, Ambrosine. I don't want to be a children's therapist like you. I don't like nymphs. They always need something, they're loud, and they make messes. And I worry about little things. What if I have nymphs when I'm older, and I don't like them? Even though they're my own? Because I might not. I mean, I don't like anyone else. Maybe it's just impossible for me to like people. I think about this a lot."
"Then I know exactly what to do." Drawing that favorite soft chair of his over from the corner of the keeping room after all, Ambrosine pointed to my clay tablets. "You make two lists: one of things about your nymph that make you happy, and one about things you don't like or that could use a little improvement."
I nodded. I could get behind this idea.
"Then you take your nymph aside and tell them all of the things you wrote on the 'good' list, and you break the other tablet forever because you realize that none of those things really matter all that much. Anything from the list that you remember after a month, you have the right to bring up with your kid. Just don't forget. If you don't break it, then one day while your son is playing hide-and-seek with his imaginary friends, he might choose to hide in the food cellar underneath the bags of maize and dangling scraps of yale meat. Behind a crate of sugarpeels, he could in theory stumble across the uncensored 'negative' tablet, and his childhood innocence could be destroyed in a mere moment."
"That is… very specific."
He flapped his hands. "There's probably a reason why you've never met your grandfather Praxis more than twice. But, nothing prepared me more for raising you than studying therapy at the Academy. If you're afraid that you won't love your future family, they'll smooth over all your doubts."
"Are they going to tell me it's mentally healthy for me to force my nymphs to be something they don't want to be when they grow up?"
Ambrosine drummed his fingers with his usual flick pattern at the end. "Hmm. Depends how much they talk about authoritarian nature and how much you want to believe it works. But I'm only paying for your school if that's what you study. And if you don't go to school, then you obviously think you can take care of yourself, and you'll be out of my house and out looking for your own."
That was that. He bought me a new wand. Threedspiral this time, to my disgust, and I had to baby it like a nymph to prevent it from falling to pieces in my hand. I learned to chew on my nails instead.
A few months after the "Did you eat your wand again?" incident, Ambrosine floated into my bedroom and waved two round badges in my direction. "Here. I bought passes to the upcoming Dragonflies game."
I fumbled to catch my slippery book. The rough tablets smacked against my face anyway. I sat up, my gray and white blanket tumbling to the straw. "For saucerbee? You're not tugging my wing?"
He winked. "Watching the professionals ought to tighten your wand. Next time magic skill exams come around, you'll whip the rest of your year."
"Really? You think there's even a chance? But my magic is so scattered and…" I studied the thick grooves spider-webbing across my pale, upturned palms. "Bad."
"Then in that case, they'll help you to at least be on par with the rest of your year. Either way, it's educational and so it's worth your time."
That explained it. Odd as it may seem for a spritely fairy, he never was the kind to waste money without a solid purpose. Education was a reason for attending the game, not an excuse.
On Wednesday, I bounced on my heels in the pale pink waiting room outside Ambrosine's office for him to finish with his last patient of the day and leave Rheather with the key to lock up. "Look at you all dressed to impress," she said, leaning the fruit snack bowl down so I could grab a handful. "Are you and your daddy going to the big game tonight?"
"Yes ma'am. We're poofing all the way up to the big city of Faeheim. I've never been that far outside of Novakiin, except for school. We have good seats. He said. In the purple section."
"Good luck," Karowel told me as he floated out from his own office. He had a dustpan full of pottery chunks and crumpled flowers in his hands (someone, it seemed, had finally put that twisted orange and brown vase on the bookshelf out of its misery) and even as he made his way towards the trashcan, he kept stopping to give the heap of scraps a pathetic cù sith-eyed look like he couldn't decide whether he ought to magic it back together and spare its worthless life after all.
"Please let it die," I said, resisting the urge to throw up my fruit snacks.
Then he realized who I was, and his grin broadened. "Little Whimsifinado! You look more like your father every day. Well. Your face has white sprinkles on it, and you're a tick wider than Amb-"
"Karo," Rheather snapped.
"Hey, it could still be considered a compliment. Learn to dish 'em out, Rhet." He hovered with his hand over the trashcan, began to tilt his pan, then straightened it out again.
"Someone broke your ugly vase?" I prompted.
He shrugged and finally spilled both the shards and the limp white and yellow flowers into the trash beside me. "One of the will o' the wisps brushed it with her wing. It doesn't matter- they were just daisies. What brought you here today? I think I heard something about a big game up in Faeheim?"
I took my thin gray shirt by the hem and straightened it out so he could read it. "It's the Dragonflies vs. the Centipedes vs. the Wasps in saucerbee."
"And I'm guessing you're not a fan of those last two teams," he said, sizing up the way I'd used my wand to create a sea of blue dots that chased a few red and orange speckles around the folds of my stomach and under my arms.
"Yeah. I like the Dragonflies. My dad says that before she went dusty, his mom Nettle Gumswood used to play for them. That was a really, really long time before he was born, though. And…" I straightened. "Here he comes. So I think we're going to leave now. 'Bye."
Ambrosine tossed his ring of keys to Rheather and pinned my ticket badge to the front of my shirt. "Get your Dragonfly on," he said then, boosting me up on his hip. I adjusted my hat between my head and broken crown.
"Eat your core out, Henry Huddlewand."
Ambrosine poofed us to Faeheim once we were a safe enough distance from Wish Fixers, so the magic backlash resulting from our distant jump didn't risk rattling the foundation of the big square place, just in case. We found ourselves on a floating safety landing pad up the street from the stadium, and Ambrosine hopped off quickly so no newcomer would come crashing into us. We made it halfway to our intended destination when Ambrosine's wings froze.
"It can't be."
"What is it?"
"Chocolate." His voice took on a giddy tinge as the soles of his shoes brushed the cloudstones. "Fergus, they have actual chocolate here! The big city really is a magical place where dreams come true." Ignoring my questions, he set me down and zipped over to an open stand at the edge of the neighboring bazaar street.
"Um." I moved my eyes between the extensive line for chocolate and the stadium. "We'll be late."
Ambrosine flapped his hand back at me, never drawing his gaze away from the nix merchant behind the table. "We're plenty early. Feel free to wander off and see if you find anything you like. Oh!" His finger moved upwards. "But don't touch the inrita mud."
"The what?" I approached him since he was beckoning me, and he pointed again.
"The inrita mud. That thin, black, sludge-y goop in the basket dangling from that beam in the middle of the ceiling. It naturally casts out a small field to repel magic, preventing anyone from poofing that merchant's goods away without payment. One touch would begin to eat away at your magic supply, and you'd go dusty within fifteen minutes. Just standing too close to it will make it difficult for you to drink from the universal field of magic around us."
I attempted to pedal backwards with my wings as he corrected himself with, "Actually, with inrita poison blocking your lines, you would die a dustless death and leave me curdling in the shame of knowing that the magic I used to bring you to life was never cycled back through the energy field for future generations to draw upon. Only brownies are immune to the effects of inrita, because they carry its chemicals in their saliva. Just like the poison of the assassin bugs they share their wings with, a brownie's kiss could liquefy your insides if you didn't receive immediate medical attention. And still then, not everyone survives. So have fun."
(Sidenote: Admittedly, this brief explanation from Ambrosine has been falsely implanted in this text for the purposes of education, as are a few other conversations sprinkled throughout. I did leave my house before the day in question and so I did understand what inrita poison was by this age. I'm not an idiot.)
I perused the bazaar street, examining stylus sharpeners, heavy tablet books, fruits and flowers from a variety of planets, good-luck charms, incense sticks, candles, emblemed water buckets, sewn dolls of Earth animals I had never seen, or simply staring at the twinkling constellations in the ever-starry sky, until Ambrosine at last poofed in beside me. "Here," he said as we started again for the stadium. He broke off a sliver of chocolate and passed it to me. "Tell me what you think of this."
In my rebellious naivety, I thought he was exaggerating its goodness. He was not. The sharp, broken chip carried a leathery taste, like his favorite chair back when it was new, but full of prickling butter and melting cream that cooled my entire mouth in a thick curl of deep. Just… deep. Like soft smoke from that crackling fire pit I hated. My wings stopped. My vision swam vertically. I had to cling to his arm.
"I told you."
"C-can I have another bite?"
"Let me do the math. You're just over two thousand years old, so you can have…" He split about a square half-inch of chocolate from the rest of his bar and placed it in my warm palm. "This much. But that's it for three hours. Any more and you'll get sugarloaded. Your body's too young to handle that."
That left me wriggling from foot to foot, wing to wing, as we waited in the slow-moving crowd seeping into the stadium. At last Ambrosine picked me up, and after waiting several minutes more and catching impatient snippets of conversation, I tugged on his collar. "Why can't we go in?"
"We can in a minute."
"Why not now?"
"From what I heard while I was in line for the chocolate, it sounds as though they're cleaning up after some vandals and shooing off some vocal protesters. Nothing that's going to stop us from enjoying our evening."
I waited, then when he didn't continue pressed, "What are they protesting?"
He sighed. "Crossbreeds. Crossbreeds with fairy blood, specifically."
"Genetic sickness. Nothing to concern yourself with."
"What genetic sickness?"
"You've learned about the two types of magic lines in school, haven't you? The external for drawing energy from the field through your pores and the internal veins for carrying it all throughout the body? There's a genetic sickness among the fairies that has something to do with the body's internal lines, control over magic, and mental capabilities. Other than that, I'm not sure."
Ambrosine adjusted the badge on my gray shirt so it stayed right-side-up. "Because I haven't seen the signs they're waving. Not that it has anything to do with us, although I do have a leprechaun grandmother on my father's side. That's where I get my pointed ears, but they only last for so many generations before they fade from the genepool. Sorry you lucked out there, kiddo."
My grip tightened in the fabric of his white shirt. "I'm glad I'm not a crossbreed."
"Yes. It's days like this I'm glad I chose not to mate outside my own species."
"So it's not the same genetic mutation as me?"
"Not even close. Yours only affects your outsides, making you look round in the belly and square in the face and shoulders. This kind affects the insides."
We waited another five minutes, Ambrosine shifting on his feet or tugging at my cap until he decided to put me down. The protesters, most of them cherubs and eastern elves, were eventually shuffled past us in disgrace. Not a fairy among the group. I stared heavy-lidded at all of them as I followed Ambrosine through the stadium gate.
My wand wilted in my back pocket with an odd noise the moment I stepped through. It was the first time I had ever witnessed it do that, and I almost dropped it to the ground in alarm after I'd whipped it out.
Ambrosine showed me how his own piece had gone soft. "They've shut down the loose magic so the crowd can't interfere with the game. Only approved starpieces will work inside the stadium on a night like this."
"We can't do anything with them until we leave?"
"Since you asked, we can buy souvenirs and snacks."
I rolled my eyes and stuffed my wand away. "Of course we can. Whoa!"
Wrapping my hands around the metal bar fencing us into the top level of the stadium, I leaned down with my wings aflutter. "Their field is a lot bigger than our playground."
"Yes, I imagine it is. Now, it's this way to the place where we'll be sitting. Pardon me. So sorry. Stay on my wingtips, Fergus."
Our seats were in the purple section. Just before I settled into mine, Ambrosine tapped my shoulder and asked in his typical casual way, "How many seats do you think there are here?"
"I don't know." My eyes trailed around the near-empty stadium. "Fifty thousand."
"Try eighty-one thousand."
"Mmhm. Now, do you know how many Fairies there are in our quadrant of the universe? 'Fairies' with the capital 'F' as in 'the Fairykind'."
I scratched my head. "Thirty thousand?"
"Just barely over seven thousand, actually. And there are maybe three hundred of them present today, although it's probably closer to two. There are only seven thousand known Fairies in the universe, and yet my ancestors two generations back built this place to be enormous. And one day, in perhaps another say, six or seven hundred thousand years or so, we'll reach that moment when every seat in this stadium could finally be filled with all the Fairies in the universe. Fascinating, isn't it?"
In silence, I stared over the rows of seats, wondering how many of them would be taken up by my descendants when that time came.
After about ten anxious minutes, a hush fell over the entire crowd. I stopped fiddling with my limp wand and the roaming dabs of color across my shirt and looked up to find that five white pillars had risen from the artificial purple grass and taken their positions around the field like the points of a star. As the seconds ticked, the pillars faded from white and into the five colors of the Fairy Rainbow in zig-zagging order- Yellow, blue, pink, purple, and…
I frowned. "Why didn't the green one light up?"
"The Green Robe must be away on important Fairy Council business, or sick. Or he disapproves of what's going on, but to the best of my knowledge that hasn't ever happened at a saucerbee game before and seems the least likely option."
"Or someone in the Lower West Region that he's the representative of died today."
Ambrosine nodded. "Right, I'd forgotten about that part."
"Or it's broken."
"Or it's broken."
The song of the Central Star Region began to ring out. On that signal, the vertical tunnel in the center of the field swept open, and the players burst free in a swarming blur of dragonfly diamond, centipede scarlet, and dull wasp orange against the starry sky. Number 8 for the Dragonflies zipped out at the tip of a five-colored rainbow. He waved to the crowd and blew two kisses at a blonde korrigan in the yellow section of the stadium. She turned pink and ducked behind the ribbons on her pointed green hat, possibly debating the pros and cons of turning into a bubble and flitting off.
"That's Webster Goldenflare," I told Ambrosine. "He's the only leprechaun on any serious team in all of Fairy World. He uses his rainbows to slide around the field. The only reason he can even use starpiece magic is because his mom was a fairy. That's why there's a crown under his green hat, and he has those little tiny wings. They just don't work that well."
"Is he now? Ah, so he was our crossbreed…" Leaning forward, he pointed to Number 11. "Do you know who that pretty á la mode with all the blue hair tied on the left side of her face is?"
"Of course. Sonata Winterfly. She got transferred from the Crickets back in the Year of the Pale Moon, and they regretted it by spring. They promised to double her pay if she came back, but she had always wanted to play for the Dragonflies and turned them down. She hasn't missed a shot ever since."
"And Kalitik Sparkflicker?"
"Number 4. He holds the cloudland record for the most points ever single-handedly scored in a game."
"What about Number-"
"Shh." I held my small hand to his mouth. The swarm had stopped, the players had peeled off into their own teams, and down below, Amelia "Beetleguts" Thundercrack had just stepped up to the line with a red and an orange player who must have been the respective captains of the opposing teams. Each of the three licked the palms of their right hands, then presented their wands beside their cheeks, left arm across the body.
"Release the targets," I whispered as the referee made a signal, clenching Ambrosine's lips between my forefinger and my thumb. All in the same instant, each of the five pillars spat out two whirring white discs imprinted in their middles with golden stars.
"Tea-saucers live!" The satyr referee stuck two fingers in his mouth and sent out a high-pitched note. The captains clapped and shouted instructions as six players from each team burst into action, then took to the air themselves. I shrank back into Ambrosine as one of the saucers whizzed over our heads and sputtered, "These have to be like, five times faster than what we practice with! Maybe six times!"
"Welcome to the major leagues." He ducked as a stray yellow blast from a wand turned one of the swanee sitting near us into a bundle of cinnamon sticks. Two wingbeats later, a dark-skinned damsel with bright yellow and black butterfly wings zipped past us, twirling her wand between the fingers of her left hand and spurting a promise to fix him after the round was over.
Ambrosine flicked his finger as she disappeared below my line of sight. "Gabriella Farnfell. The first will o' the wisp to make it to the major leagues within my lifetime."
"That's a long time."
"You won't be saying that when you hit two hundred twenty-seven thousand yourself. I'll have you know that I'm still considered fairly young to have a nymph. I only had twenty-two lines plugged into my core when you were born, and then I had to give three of them up to you."
I ignored the sarcastic remark bubbling on my tongue in favor of watching a clump of blue-shirted drakes who had shifted their tea-saucer into an enormous, squirming Cherish Jungle-esque python. They flew with it through the orange goal in looping spirals, earning themselves high points for size, speed, ability, elegance, and technique, as well as dropping the Wasps' points to negative one.
"Yes! Down with the Wasps!" I turned to Ambrosine. "What are wasps?"
"Some sort of new beetle or fly the Yugopotamians dug up when they were doing their scientific cataloguing and field guide project just two years before you were born. I never saw any of them myself and couldn't tell you if they were spiders or cockroaches or what, but Solara used to wander Earth a lot before you came along, and she hated them beyond belief."
"She did? Why?"
He chuckled, eyes tracing a distant saucer that had chosen to double back on itself and perform loop-de-loops, infuriating a half dozen players who pursued it with wands zinging pink and blue. "Because they always bit her. She'd show up at my place with arms covered in swollen red scabs, and rant about it from the moment her foot was through the beaded curtain until my father and I flew her home."
"Did she? Huh."
"Yep. She always ended up stumbling into their nests when she was looking for bees to steal honey from, and she tasted delicious. Not that I would know. I wonder if they were venomous. If so, her blood is probably flowing with their poison."
A cheer went up from the opposite side of the field as two orange players who had been guarding the back of a third from Centipedes managed to chase a shapeshifted gnat through the Dragonflies' goal. It turned instantly into full tea-saucer form on the other side and flew back to the pillar it had been fired from to await the second round. While I watched in dismay as our counter ticked from three to two, Ambrosine leaned back and said, "I hope the Wasps win."
"You hope the Wasps win?" That was the moment I emotionally disconnected myself from my father and swore that I would live on my own the instant I was old enough.
"Sure. Then they'll shoot off the fireworks in bright Wasp orange, and at the very end of the show they'll have a big glowing wasp that zips above the crowd before it explodes, and I'll finally get to see what they look like. And the next time I see Solara, I can tease her for getting driven into such a fit by them when they're doubtlessly so tiny and cute."
I twisted the cap on my skinny wand. "So, do you really think Solara's going to come back someday?"
He hesitated, looking me over with cautious blue eyes, as though he feared I might laugh at him. "I… think she might. Did they ever tell you in school that fairies are wired to only fall in love once?"
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean she will. If she left us, then she probably has better things to do. Plus, you said one time that other drakes tried to win her first. Maybe she fell in love with one of them."
I tugged the brim of my cap further over my eyes, staring still across the field. "I kind of hope she doesn't. I like having you only to myself. And she'll just have some lousy excuse, probably. I don't want to hear it. If she left, she left. She has to live with the consequences."
"Well, you're a spoilsport."
Goldenflare bounced on a loop of rainbow, front-flipped, and at the arc of his jump sent a yellow blast from his star-tipped shillelagh. With an explosion of pink smoke, the tea-saucer morphed into a vase brimming with white spit-orchids flecked with red, which he caught. The rainbow straightened beneath him; he skidded down the other side like a barbegazi along an avalanche and skated off across the field. Number 17 on the Wasps side slammed into him before he made it very far, causing the vase to fly into the side of a pillar, where it shattered. The will o' the wisp.
A piercing whistle split the air. While the saucerbee game continued to whirl about them, the referee pointed to Farnfell and jabbed a thumb in the direction of the Wasps dugout.
"Hey!" I shot out of my seat. Cupping my hands around my mouth, I hollered, "That wasn't a foul! Boo! Hiss!"
Suddenly aware that I was the only one on this end of the field shouting in her defense, I stopped and sat down again. Fortunately, my embarrassing slip-up had been swallowed in the ripples of the crowd around me.
"Don't quit your day job!"
"You can't hit someone higher than you on the social ladder!"
"Think you can provide for a family with this gig?"
"Go back to your burrow, wisp!"
"You don't belong in the rat race!"
"Get off the field!"
"Hand over your slot to a fairy who actually knows how to play the game!"
Farnfell hurled her wand into the purple grass and grabbed the satyr by the collar. His collar of thick blue fluff, actually, since he wore a yellow and black referee skirt and no shirt; covering the chest was against his kind's customs. She drew him to her face, and an explosion of noise rattled the whole stadium as she kissed him hard and deep.
"Oh smoof, I can't watch." Ambrosine pressed his fingertips against his eyelids. "She forgot it's mid-summer now and she's out of season. The secondhand embarrassment is going to turn me tingle-fritzy."
I replayed the instance of her slamming into Goldenflare in my head, then let my fingers slip from the metal bar I'd been clinging to and turned around. "What did she do wrong?"
"I don't know. I wasn't watching."
"She just hit him. You can do that. You're supposed to do that."
He shrugged. "You know the rules better than I do."
As I returned my attention to the field, I found myself frowning. I didn't know that one.
Down below, Goldenflare shook out his body and his tiny click beetle wings. He gave a shaky thumbs up to the crowd and mended the vase with a tap of his shillelagh. Then he leaped onto a rainbow and shot off again. I folded my arms against the metal bar, burying my mouth and my chin as I knitted my brows. I stayed like that for three rounds, until Farnfell was cuffed over the ear and allowed back in.
"See her wings, Fergus? They don't buzz like yours or make that churring sound that mine do. Will o' the wisp wings are almost perfectly silent."
After ducking another saucer and the Dragonfly habetrot and Centipede sylph who were vying for it, sprinkling the crowd with random transformations, I said, "Good for her that they didn't throw her out of the whole game like the crowd demanded Sparky Thornwhip get chased off that one time ages ago. Everyone was talking about it at school for the entire year."
"Mostly everything ends badly, but not all things end as badly as they could have," he agreed. He was cut off at the very end by another whistle from the satyr. This time it wasn't Farnfell who was the target, but one of the huldufólk dressed in Centipede red.
"Missed it," I muttered as he slunk off for the bench to take his penalty.
"Impressive that he made the team, considering how much of a struggle it is for those little crane flies to stay in the air for longer than a couple of minutes."
The Dragonflies whipped in with saucers turned into chairs, carts, saber-toothed tigers, and even a great bronze-colored squid, but round after round I realized with a sinking knot in my throat that it wasn't going to be enough. And when the eleventh was over, it wasn't. The Centipedes had grappled with them hard, stealing most of their points, and so the Dragonflies had begun to target them and them alone. My veins flooded over with disappointment. I pulled the brim of my small cap over my eyes.
"Here come the fireworks," Ambrosine said, bringing his right leg up over his left knee. "Now we'll have our chance to see exactly what Solara was fussing about."
My lids peeled back from my eyes as the first blast went off almost exactly above my head. It was orange as a flaming cyclone, whipping smoke and ash down on our heads like something I would later learn in Earth Studies was called 'precipitation'. The sparks crackled and plunged. They burned the air as they fell. The universal energy field became less universal, sucking towards them and dying in a flourish like shooting stars. And the noise. I lack the words for it more than I lacked them for the beautiful chocolate; 'deafening' does not suffice. It was the fire pit multiplied by five million thousand.
One after the other after the other after the other after the other. Tens of screaming rockets, then hundreds, raced each other, only to burst without any apparent impact, rhyme, reason, or warning. Each one made me wince. No wingbeat of time passed without the blazing light searing the back of my brain through my pupils. The catastrophic sound those fireworks pronounced could rival the implosion of our quadrant of the solar system, I have no doubt. I pressed my nose into Ambrosine's sleeve as my mind filled with orange. My hands folded down my ears.
"You don't like them?" my father asked, rubbing my hair with his narrow hand. He moved down to my back when the next snap of thunder boomed throughout the sky. Brown sparkles spiraled over our heads. "Don't you want to look? They aren't scary. They're fun."
"They're a little much for me," I squeaked out. Fun wasn't precisely my thing.
Ambrosine touched his wingtip to mine. "Fergus? Would you rather we went home early as opposed to staying here for the show?"
At first, I didn't reply to his words. Maybe because I didn't hear them. My fingers were still wedged in my ears. I kept my eyes squinted up into the sky. He repeated the question, and I stared at him without comprehending.
"Dad, can we… go?"
He raised both eyebrows at my tentative request. "It's not entirely like you to back out of an event like this without squeezing out the full experience. But as long as you're okay with that, so am I."
"And you're sure you want to miss out on seeing the giant wasp?"
I nodded again. Ambrosine held my head to his shoulder and began calmly apologizing his way down the row of captivated simpletons. As he scooted past the last tall-crowned nix, I risked another peek from beneath the curls in the back of his dark hair. The famous wasp wasn't zipping above the stadium yet, but an injured, screeching dragonfly twisted among the stars like a dead thing. It enveloped the entire sky with stunning bright violet and navy blue, while a grotesque, hunched orange beast half-hidden behind a crimson centipede feasted on dusty strips of its flesh.
I found nothing beautiful in that.
A/N: Text to Life - The insect our little Fergus shares his wings with builds its nest (Read: obtains comfort) by mixing splinters of wood with its saliva to create a paper-like substance. This behavior occurs in the spring.
As a bonus fun fact, the amount of Fairies in existence during H.P.'s youth is proportional to the amount of humans on the earth in the time period I set Fairy society in as compared to nowadays (taking into account that no fairy babies were born after Cosmo).