The darkness under the shelf was absolute. Every wall in this quiet, warm, endless place was lined with storage of every kind, racks and drawers and hooks and pigeonholes and cubbyholes, slots and shelves and pull-out cabinets and stacking units on long, trundling tracks. Almost every inch of available space in this narrow little corridor, from the dusty floorboards to the low ceiling, was crammed with boxes and bottles, tubes and crates, jars and tins and stacks of yellowed paper, filling the dim-lit warrenlike space nearly to bursting.
"Kid, don't take this the wrong way, but you are screwing up my filing system. It's a complex thing I've got going here, it needs careful management. You can't just throw yourself in anywhere and hope you'll fit."
"Go away." The voice was muffled, crawling wetly from the darkness under the shelf. A young voice, as far as you could tell- angry to the point of self-strangulation, choked with snot.
"This is the 'D' section," continued Jerry. "Dragons, domestic spells, you name it, if it starts with a D, it's here. You want 'T' for 'teenage angst' or maybe 'W' for 'what the heck are you doing down here anyway?"
A damp gulping sound.
"You're the eloquent type, I can tell." Jerry glanced down the long, winding corridor, then perched himself comfortably on a short stepladder. "Me, I'm the same. I get called a blabbermouth. I'm like, what is that? Sue me, I like communicating. You make connections that way, it's a beautiful thing. You mind if I smoke?"
Silence. Jerry shrugged, and started to fish various things out of his pockets. Between the unravelling woolly cardigan and the complicated tool-belt, he had an incredible number of pockets, a personal storage system just as complex and cluttered in its own small way as the dusty labyrinth around him.
"Hey, there's no rush, I've got time to kill. I'm waiting for a big delivery of invisibility spray. The tricky part is working out if it's been delivered or not. Last time the cans got all shaken up in transit, I open the box, pow, the whole thing, gone. Not just the shipment, either- we're talking the whole enchilada, the entire loading bay. Took me a week to work out where I was. You ever try eating soup when you can't see your hands or mouth? Builds your spatial awareness, I'm telling you."
The dark recess under the shelf was a lot bigger than it looked from the outside, but still uncomfortably cramped, boxed in on both sides by dry, woodwormy supports. Tucked out of sight, the kid wrapped his arms around his knees and sniffed, hard.
Fairy was a transient realm, and to some extent mood-sensitive. If you weren't paying attention, or if you flat-out didn't care where you were going, you could end up anywhere. If you wanted to be around lots of other fairies, for example- and fairies, being naturally social, generally did- an aimless stroll would probably deliver you to the Dock, constantly crowded and bustling through the endless dawn-lit day. Or, at the other extreme, say you wanted the deepest, blackest hole you could crawl into- somewhere to hide, possibly forever- chances were you'd find yourself somewhere like this, somewhere dark and close and quiet, comforting in a dusty, mothballish sort of way.
There was a soft flaring sound, a brief smell of burning as Jerry struck a match. "They say challenges like that build character. Adversity, hardship, psychological trauma, all great character-builders. You, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess you've had enough character-building for one day. What's your name, kid?"
The kid laughed- not in a good way, a single hard joyless huuuh of a noise- then said something, a collection of syllables, a single word. Odd and lilting, it had more weight, more resonance,than his voice should have been able to give it. It carried, each sound a bright note, spreading gentle ripples like pebbles tossed in a pond.
Jerry, who had been puffing industriously on his pipe to get it going, sucked in a shocked breath and started to choke.
"Whoah whoah whoah, what are you, nuts or somethi-"
"Oh, sorry." A hand- pale fingers splayed like a deep-sea creature, or something travellers might have been warned against following into the marsh- grabbed the upper edge of the shelf, followed by a long arm, as the kid struggled out into the dim light of the corridor. "Sorry, which- which name would you like? Because I've got a lot of names, as it happens, people call me a lot of things, you can take your pick. How about freak, there's a good one, I get that one a lot." His voice broke, then clenched like a fist, harsh and hateful. "Wingless- freak-"
"I was thinking maybe 'Herman.'" Jerry brushed bits of tobacco off the front of his cardigan, looked up. He had to- the kid was slight but tall, head brushing the higher shelves, his conscientiously-tidy tunic fluffy with dust from the dark unswept space under the shelves. "You know, you look like a Herman. I knew a Herman once. Sweet guy. Always had the hiccups."
He gave the kid a thoughtful look. His face seemed familiar, although it took Jerry a moment to realise why.
"Spencer Tracy, right? Well, if the guy was about sixteen and nine foot tall."
The kid blinked in surprise. "You know who-"
"Sure. I'm a film buff, it passes the time. It's a pretty good likeness you've got there. The nose is kinda off, but who's checking? The way I see it, if you're going to make yourself look like someone else you might as well go for someone with a little class."
The kid snorted. "Huh, like any of them'd have a clue who Spencer Tracy is. You'd think we were the only species in the bloody universe, listening to them. Like there's anything so special about them, all they do is flutter round treating other people like dirt- like underneath it all any of them look any better than this-"
He passed a hand across his face. Like fingers drawn through cobweb, or ink swirled on the surface of water, his features swam and altered in the half-light. Shadows moved across his face in the wake of his fingers, trailed loose, faded to nothing.
Disenchanted, his face was unremarkable, besides being miserable nearly past the point of endurance, blotchy with crying. A young face, still possessing that touch of wildness peculiar to young Fae, the faint cutting edge of unseelie not yet worn smooth by their safe, tamed world. From a human point of view the ears were a little too sharp, the face a little too fragile, pointed in the wrong places.
From Jerry's point of view, which was somewhat more practical, the kid looked like he could really do with a box of Kleenex. Without comment, the old fairy climbed a couple of rungs up the stepladder, and fetched some down.
"Don't bother," said the kid, blowing his nose with excessive violence. He fished a pair of thick-framed glasses from his breast-pocket and wiped them with automatic care, pushing them absently onto his nose. "Know- know you're trying to be nice but I- I don't care, honestly, it doesn't bother me if you fly-"
"It'd bother the heck out of me," said Jerry. "What, you think I collect stepladders for a hobby? This place? Was not built for flying. Not enough wingroom, too much junk piled everywhere. I tell every temp that comes down here the same thing, do they listen to me? Last one caught his wing on a box of springheeled Nikes down in the 'S' section. Wound up getting bounced at seventy miles an hour through the rest of the alphabet. Nearly broke every bone in his body. Still comes out in a rash every time he sees a pair of trainers."
He itched a wingtip. His own wings were smallish, as wings went, frizzy with sprouting cillia as white and wiry as an elderly terrier.
"It's not a good idea to go zipping around in here like a great big magical eagle in tights, is what I'm trying to get across. I don't even know half of what's down here, and I've been working here for so long I've been declared an item of historical significance. Which is not as awesome as it sounds, believe me- I have to apply for planning permission every time I want a haircut. Anyway, it's not all shrinking paste and amnesia dust down here, is what I'm saying. There's some pretty eldritch stuff, just lying around gathering dust. Did you know, I came across this notebook the other day, looks just like your basic, ordinary notebook, but you write someone's name in it, bam, they drop stone dead. Don't even have to lay a finger on them."
The kid's head came up, sharply. His eyes were arresting, windows into a desperate little hell, a complex mixture of horror and terrible hope.
"No, of course not," said Jerry, without batting an eyelid. "What are you, nuts? You think I'd have something like that just lying around?"
"Jeez, no, that's a crazy idea, you could kill someone. No, that was a test, and you failed. So, Mr. Tracy, now I've got to ask, what's got a nice kid like you this worked up? Huh?"
The kid gave him a scared sideways glance, clearly conscious of having given away more than he'd intended. He stared down at his feet, tugging at the hem of his tunic- a picky little smoothing gesture more grounded in habit than conscious thought.
"C'mon, you can tell me, I'm a practicing psychotherapist. Well, okay- I'm not exactly a psychotherapist, but I am practising. So, what's up?"
"It'd serve them right," said the kid, in a low, fierce voice. He kept his eyes fixed on his feet, his face turned away as if he didn't quite dare own up to the fact that the words were coming from his own mouth. His light hair, which was rather the worse for cobwebs but still suited his true face a lot better than the film-star mask, fell across his forehead, obscuring his frightened, fervent eyes. "Serve 'em right if there really was something like that."
"Teach them a lesson, right?"
"Wrong! Take it from me, kid, using that kind of magical hoopla to sort out your personal life is just asking for trouble. Doesn't matter what you do, it always blows up in your face, guaranteed. Listen, here's some ancient history for you. My best pal- he was seeing this girl, right? Boy, was she something, I tell you. You know how sometimes people just click? It was like that. They were going steady, he was head-over-heels, they were a wonderful couple. Anyway, we were hanging out in Greece this one time, just us and the gang, one of those get-away-from-it-all things- and they fall out. I mean, with a capital F, it was ugly. Don't even remember what it was about, something totally trivial. Who's turn it was to babysit or something, I don't know. You with me so far?"
"Whatever," continued Jerry, without much of a pause at all, "my pal went crazy. Couldn't let it go, had to teach her a lesson. Now, there's this flower, okay- very rare, all you got to do is put it in someone's eye, one squirt and bam, they fall in love with the first thing they see. Literally, the first thing- animal, vegetable, chair, vacuum cleaner, plate of spaghetti, you name it. Hilarious at parties. So he ropes me into this mess- what can I say, the guy's persuasive- I hit her with this stuff, bingo, she wakes up, she falls in love with this total schmuck. I mean, this guy was an ass."
"Wait- hang about, I've heard this story," said the kid, with a start. "When he took it off, she was so relieved she forgave him and-"
"Yeah, you got it," deadpanned Jerry, "that's exactly what happened, 'cause girls just love a guy whose idea of solving an argument like an adult involves magical Rohypnol. Don't believe everything you read in a folio, kid. When he took it off, wow did the glitter hit the fan. She was furious. Never spoke to him again. My pal was heartbroken. Regretted it for the rest of his life."
The kid winced.
"Trade secret," said Jerry, in a lower voice, motioning for the kid to lean closer. He kept motioning, flapping his hand like a small and impatient bird, until they were practically nose-to-nose. "All this junk, sure, it looks a big deal, and maybe some of it comes in handy when your back's to the wall, but in the scheme of things you know what it all adds up to? Precisely zip. The real magic's up here."
He poked the kid gently in the head, between the eyes and just above the glasses. The kid flinched back against the shelf, setting a rack of glass jars jingling faintly at his empty back, a jostling musical rattle like chattering teeth.
"Don't spread it around too much, though. I like my job."
This seemed to hit a nerve. The kid drew himself up, pushing away from the shelf with a dissonant clatter. Jerry, circling a sly thumb and finger, saw jarring grief-shot blacks and yellows, the colour of a live wire- a sour crackling mess of frustration and rage that surrounded the kid like a kicked wasp's nest.
"Yeah- well, you're lucky, aren't you? Nobody's telling you you can't do what you want, they're not telling you it's just not practical, oh, it's not your fault, it's nobody's fault, that's just how it works- just the way we do things-"
The kid's voice climbed higher, took on a hectoring, lecturing tone, a bitter parody of authority. "Follow your dreams, kids! Don't let anything hold you back, you can be anything you want, the sky's the limit- oh, except for you, sorry, we didn't mean you. You don't get to have dreams, but nevermind, we've got lots of lovely filing you can be getting on with instead-"
Jerry glanced up. The corridor was lit by a shaky system of ancient bulbs of all shapes, makes, and sizes, strung up over the decades and held together with a mixture of magic, wishful thinking, and a hell of a lot of duct tape. Right now, they were flickering like angry fireflies, and the air, usually dry and bookish, had gained an acrid, dangerous tang, like burning sugar.
"It's- not- FAIR!"
The bulb directly above their heads- a huge dust-caked thing with OSRAM LAMPWORKS traced in faded script across the glass- blazed like a tiny sun and exploded, raining shards and bright sparks down across the shelves and floor.
Both fairies ducked. Jerry came up first, deceptively fast, planting a hand on the kid's thin chest and shoving him backwards. His shins hit an empty crate, and he sat down hard, still staring at the shattered glass glittering at their feet. Shock or fascination- it was hard to tell, and Jerry didn't wait to find out.
"Okay, okay, so it's not fair! Yeesh! No need to take it out on the fixtures. You got any idea how long it takes to get Maintenance down here? Six months last time, and the first guy vanished without trace. I warned him, he should have left a trail of breadcrumbs. Plus it all comes out of my budget, or what, did you think lightbulbs grow on trees? Don't answer that, the answer's no, they don't."
"I'm- I'm sorry-"
"Well, apology accepted. Conditionally. First, you've got to give me some context here. You know how it is, you stop going to staff meetings for a few centuries, you get a little out of the loop. Okay? From the top. And don't get up- you've got a lot of nervous energy, and I've got a finite number of things you can break. It's not a good combination."
It took a while. When he got going, the kid was a good talker, naturally eloquent- Jerry's initial assessment had hit pretty close to the mark. Beneath the anger, he was articulate and smart- too smart, perhaps, for his own good. It had been a long, long time, but Jerry could still remember what it was like- that age, walking on glass, too much clarity without the maturity that allowed you to finally take it lightly.
Jerry was patient. He sat on the stepladder and blew wonky smoke-rings- he'd never quite got the knack- while the kid sat with his shoulders hunched, tearing a tissue with mathematical precision into halves, quarters, eighths, sixteenths. The fried-sugar smell faded, the remaining lights dimmed down to normal, the patch of shadow under the busted bulb settled back into mellow, dusty calm, and the kid talked.
It shouldn't make a difference, he tells himself, up to a dozen times a day. He's clever. He understands people. He believes. There's no reason for them to look at him differently, to treat him differently, but they do. Again and again, left out, held back, ridiculed or- worse- ignored completely.
From his peers, poorly-masked pity or open taunting. From the Higher Ups- who have learned subtlety with age- careful handling, tired platitudes, eyes that never quite met his own.
You're just one of the unlucky ones.
He's tired of being unlucky. Years of it have left him with a fierce hunger for acceptance and not much in the way of scruples when it comes to achieving it. He doesn't want special treatment. He just wants to be treated normally. He's had enough of being marginalised and held back and made to feel like a nuisance, something that's putting other people out just by existing.
It's not your fault. It's nobody's fault. This is just how it works. It's just the way we do things. A hundred and one reasons to explain why for the others there is a Bright Future and the Duty and Following Your Dreams, and for him there is… filing. It doesn't add up. Anyone with an ounce of common sense can surely see that a lack of wings is no real impediment for a fairy with a brain in his head, a perfectly functional pair of legs, and the ability to turn invisible in the space of a breath. It's only because he doesn't look the part, He doesn't fit in.
This has to work. It has to. He's rehearsed it in his head a million times. If they want him to fit in, he reasons, fine, he will. He'll give them what they want, and in return, surely, surely, they'll give him what he wants-
He's been trying for months. Months of practice, struggling in secret. Months of punishing, exacting work, endless hours of effort. He's bright and capable- up there amongst the best in his teind as far as magical ability is concerned- but this, this is pushing the boundaries of what could have been accomplished by a fairy of several times his age and puissance.
They are a work of art. He doesn't just construct their outward appearance, a lazy glamour that might fall apart as soon as you look at it sideways, no, like his film-star face, he uses reference, he does it properly. He studies all the old texts, everything he can find on the true construction of a glamour, not to mention everything he can get his hands on about wing anatomy. Every tendon, every capillary, every hollow bone, he fixes it all in his head, grinding these things- these things he does not have- into his memory. At times it feels like deliberate self-torture, but no, he tells himself, it's worth it, there's a reason- there's a reason.
He labours over the musty diagrams until he can summon the entire structure of a wing, inside and out, into his mind, and hold it there. He doesn't stop until he can see them, hair-perfect, in his head- the wings he might have had, if he'd only been one of the lucky ones. He imagines them, visualises them and draws them, forces himself to put as much detail as he can into the careful sketches until they are every bit as detailed as the diagrams in the books.
They are perfect.
Colour is hard, colour takes extra effort, so he keeps them white. It's a fairly common colour anyway, one of the five basic variations. He can't resist adding the faintest pinkish tinge at the root of each, fading out into the white. It's the little touches that sell the illusion, after all.
They are perfect, they are beautiful, and as long as he can keep focus, they are his. Of course, he still can't fly, but that's not important- and anyway, nobody will be able to tell. They'll be amazed, stunned by his skill, his resourcefulness, his willing to be like them, and at last, he'll fit in.
He'll show them glamour.
He picks his moment, his entrance. The Dock is a perpetual hive of activity, a vast Grand Central for arriving, departing, working, scurrying, bustling fairies. A constant hubbub of voices, a dopplering to-and-fro clatter of hundreds of light feet, a rainbow flurry of wings overhead. It is alive and a proof of life, the endless tik-tik-tik of names and details falling like rain down the face of the enormous boards at the far end, the blinking clusters of lights on the vast mosaic on the other, the Realm's biggest existing map of the human world.
He takes a deep, steadying breath, focuses on the line of counters at the far end, and starts walking. Already, he can hear a faint mutter rising behind him, and despite the strain his heart gives a giddy lurch of pleasure.
And surely it'll get easier, it seems like such an effort now but if he can only keep it up surely it'll become second nature, keeping them there, every step won't strain and hurt and make his brain pound like some distant over-heavy engine with the effort and the detail-
Oh but it's worth it, he can already tell it's worth it, just from the cessation of sound around him, the whispers-
-although actually he hadn't expected them to whisper. They usually whisper, or giggle, in a half-secret way that makes his teeth itch and the skin on the back of his neck grow hot and taut- but it's alright, this must be whispering of a different kind, a good kind-
It's not a good kind. He can't fool himself- he should know, after all, if there's anything he's a sodding expert on by now it's telling the difference between admiration and derision. Someone laughs, somewhere behind his back, a high mocking note like breaking glass. He turns, fast, tries to pick out the culprit, but there's so many of them, so many eyes-
A single fairy- his own wings flattened and ruffling in agitation, at his shoulder. A friend, his face tense, eyes big and nervous, voice a worried hiss.
What are you DOING?
He's no longer sure. What seemed so simple and perfect just moments ago is unravelling, falling apart, turning to unbearable realisation. Something inside him snaps in two at the sound of his friend's voice- the incredulous note in it, the embarrassment for him, the humiliation by proxy and worse- the pity. Hot bile rises in his throat, and he drops the glamour and runs, stumbling on the marble, his 'wings' trailing to nothing at his back.
"So that's it. It doesn't matter what I believe I can do, it's never going to matter, they're never going to give a toss, 'cause they don't even want me to be like them. They just want someone they can feel happy they're not. We tell the dreamkillers that nothing's more important than being true to yourself but we don't even show each other our real faces. Everything we are, it's all fake- but the moment someone like me tries to be something they're not-"
The kid dropped his head, his fingers knotting and unknotting themselves in his lap. When he spoke again, the sound was much quieter, as if he'd finally talked himself calm- an adult's share of reflection in his young, breaking voice.
"You know what's really sad?" he said. "The best dreams aren't the ones where I've got wings. They're the ones where I haven't- and nobody cares."
There was a short silence. Jerry, who had smoked through his pipe, knocked it out with a couple of absent taps on the nearest shelf and tucked it, still smouldering, back into his pocket.
"You know, I must be a real knucklehead," he said, at last, "because I just can't seem to work out what the problem is here. So that's your dream, right? You want to be a Tooth Fairy."
"Yes," said the kid, wearily. "More than- more than anything, but it's impossible, they'll never-"
"Hey! We don't use the 'I' word down here, got that? It's a good dream. Personally, my dream is one day owning a house made entirely of nougat. Your dream? Is way more practical. Not to mention less sticky. The point is, it doesn't have to be realistic. It's a dream, not a To-Do list."
He passed the kid the box of tissues. "Here, you're trying to be the Tooth Fairy, not the Mucus Fairy. It's not a good look. You'll scare children."
The kid laughed, or at least made an involuntary sort of huh-snurff noise that could have been interpreted as a laugh. There was a little reluctant humour in it, at least.
"See," continued Jerry, "the important thing is, you never give up. You work for that dream. It might take a lifetime, but I'm telling you, that day when you're standing at your bedroom window and you just go on and take a great big bite out of it, just because you can, boy are you going to be glad you put in the hours and kept dreaming big. I apologise, that was my dream again, I got kind of caught up in the moment. Whatever, the point's still valid."
"But! The hunting call of the dreamkiller. You don't want to go that way, it's not pretty. You know, I see big things ahead for you, kid. Trust me- my dad was a soothsayer."
"Nah. Sorry, I just can't help telling tall tales sometimes. It's a curse. Genetic- Mom was a Sphinx."
"R-" The kid stopped himself, gave Jerry a flat, sceptical look.
"Ha! He learns fast. Seriously, though, I meant it about the big things. Tell me something- have you ever considered a career in Supplies? As it happens, I've got a vacancy."
"No," said the kid, carefully, after a moment. It was a good sign- the kid had recovered enough of himself to be diplomatic, or at least polite. It was a definite improvement, considering that a few minutes ago he'd been so recklessly close to the end of his rope that he'd told his name- his actual true name- to a total stranger. "I'm not sure it's exactly my, uhh... my calling."
"It's nobody's calling," said Jerry. "Trust me, Mr. Tracy, nobody wakes up in the middle of the night and goes 'Holy cow, I've just seen the light, it's my destiny to unpack boxes and tick things off clipboards every day for the rest of my life.' No, kid, what it is, is a foot in the door. So maybe they won't let you make Tooth Fairy the easy way, but you work in Supplies, you get fairies from every department coming down here all the time, section chiefs, heads of staff, you name it. I mean, even the Lady herself needs a new pen every once in a while. She chews them, too- it's a habit, makes them run out quicker. Anyway, they see you every week, they get to know you, they see you're conscientious, reliable, then just maybe, if they've got a space to fill somewhere else. Like the Stacks, or even Fieldwork, maybe..."
"A foot in the door," said the kid, slowly. He looked at Jerry, the expression on his true face a heart-hurting picture of doubt and hope- and something else, in his ebbing, settling colours, in his voice. A sense of a door closing, perhaps, deep down- and there in its place, the small spark of kindling belief. "You... really think that could work?"
Jerry raised his hands in an open shrug. "Hey, nobody said it was going to be easy. And it's not guaranteed- dreams aren't, that's why they're called dreams, right? But it's a start."
The kid nodded.
"That story," he said, after a moment. "The one about the flower. If it's true- then- then that makes you the-"
"Call me Jerry," said Jerry, firmly. "Here's a piece of advice for free, kid, you don't want to be 'the' anything. You start being a 'the,' people start expecting a certain level of personal grooming, and before you know it, they're saying you can't wear bedsocks to work any more. It's exhausting. With a 'Jerry,' on the other hand, people know what to expect. You hear a name like that, you're already thinking, harmless old yutz, maybe he's a few twinkles short of a moonbeam but boy does he know some killer stories. In this job, it pays to act the part, you know what I'm saying?"
On impulse, the kid grinned. He had a wide, bright grin- not perfect but interesting, intelligent and sincere and, given everything that he'd been through, surprisingly trusting.
"When do I start?"
"Tomorrow. Get some sleep. And do me a favour, leave the face at the door, okay? We've got enough wannabe movie stars around here as it is. You're going to give me a complex."
"It never really suited me anyway," said the kid. He stood up, bending his neck against the low curve of the ceiling, following Jerry as the old fairy crunched through the carpet of glass fragments and started back down the dim obstacle-course of a corridor, down the path that would eventually take them to distant main hub. "To be honest, I feel like I've had enough of glamours for a while."
By now they had reached the turning, the place where the narrow corridor met another shelf-lined passageway, wider and brighter-lit. The kid hesitated for a moment, looking towards the light, straightening to his full height in the extra space.
"You're welcome, kid."