1. Excitement (~10 years before Season 1)
Year of Sky; Summer of the Pink Star
If two human eight-year-olds, one little boy still wearing the chubbiness of toddlerhood around his cheeks, and six pixies crammed into a rickety roller coaster car on such a stifling day, would Jorgen von Strangle flip out? That was the question buzzing about in Sanderson's brain as he watched Gary, Kenny, and Betty run mindless circles around the lonely red picnic table and scrubby trees with little Rosencrantz. All four puffed out and sucked in their flushed cheeks like dirty animals as they strained to tag one another's shoulder blades with their Cheeto-powder fingertips.
Longwood moved his mouth softly as he watched them. Sanderson lifted one ear of his headphones and through gritted teeth forced the words, "I'm sorry, sir?"
"I said I'm really not much a fan of the amusement park," Longwood muttered, drumming his fingers on the wood so loudly that it was doubtless scaring off any and every slippery Anti-Fairy in the vicinity. Nor was he much of a fan of children in general. Though orders were orders, babysitting the three scrawny humans was doubtless not the way he'd envisioned spending one of his vacation days beyond the borders of Pixies Incorporated and down below the clouds on Earth. And privately, Sanderson agreed with him. Out loud, however, because it was Longwood, he croaked back, "You wouldn't be".
Even with short sleeves and a lopsided blue and black fan folded out of a park map, it appeared Longwood wasn't in the mood to argue- he must be roasting like a phoenix hen under the collar. Good. Sanderson hoped the clouds cleared and the sun beat down thicker until every pair of hidden pixie wings shriveled up like melon leaves. He plucked up a click beetle crawling between the slats of the picnic table and pinched it between his middle finger and thumb.
The vice president of Pixies Inc. used his pinky to shove his shades up his forehead and fixed Sanderson with an icy stare that really should have melted long before reaching July, if the universe were fair. "Might I ask, why do you always see the need to do that sort of thing? There doesn't appear to be a point and it's simply revolting for the rest of us to watch."
"Why do I do what, Longwood?" Sanderson monotoned back to the younger pixie, pausing and starting his Discman player in bursts without looking and trying to remember if it had a skip button.
"You smeared colorful beetle guts everywhere. Why do you have to hurt things? The insect hasn't acted out against you."
"I don't care for click beetles."
"Well, you ought to." Longwood straightened himself importantly with hands clasped on the table and thumbs up, as though he hovered at the head of a lecture hall. He and about six dozen of their coworkers had inherited that automatic tic from H.P.'s identical genes, but Sanderson hadn't and found both that fact and the body language itself irritating as a result. "The leprechauns have click beetle in their DNA like we have parasitic wasp and fairies have dragonfly, and it wouldn't be polite to kill their patron in front of them. You may as well imagine this were a business meeting and behave yourself, Sanderson."
Oh, go kiss a brownie, he thought at Longwood, but had been rebuked enough times over the years to hold his tongue.
Even so, Longwood knew him well enough to see the snappish comment ringing in his eyes. He rotated his head approximately twenty-nine degrees to the left, as he tended to. "I'm not weak or flawed because I won't kill bugs. I only follow orders. H.P. has never instructed me to kill without reason, and so I don't."
"Congratulations. What a sacrifice. Do you only relieve yourself in the restroom when the boss stands outside the stall and tells you to do so?"
"Aren't you so bravely the one to talk here, Mr. Separation Anxiety."
That sent Bayard into a rising, "Ooooh, scalded!" further down the table. Sanderson groped for a response, but couldn't hook one. After several awkward seconds (at least, awkward on his side of the bench), he adjusted his shades and said, "Listen, Woody, if you're a closet vegan and aren't going to finish it, can I have the rest of your gelato?"
Longwood shoved the cup and spoon across the table, palm to his sagging cheek. "But isn't that what you do?"
"Mr. Sanderson, can we go back to the bouncy dolphins?" Kenny (fortunately) interrupted then, taking a fistful of Betty's pale blonde pigtails and tugging hard. In response, Gary pushed his chest, and Betty went for the armpits of both boys with jittering fingers. The three collapsed in a heap of snorts and "Stop it"s.
Sanderson rolled the volume of his music down to a warm simmer. "That sounds like a swell idea. Sharp thinking, Kenny- you're on point. Extra crayons for you at dinner tonight. The dolphins are just about the safest ride in the amusement park. We like safety, don't we?"
"Yes sir, Sanderson."
"'Mr. Sanderson', please. Let's go. Quick working feet, working feet, everyone."
"Come on, Rosebud!" Betty and Gary each grabbed one of the little pixie's elbows and scampered off across the grass. Kenny had to get a nudge with Longwood's foot before he realized he ought to follow his sister and newfound friends. Then he came sprinting doggedly back.
"Mr. Sanderson, can I share my crayons with Gary and Betty?"
"Do you want to? They're all yours, for your very own- you won them fairly. Being goody-goody is for fairies. Don't- don't make that crying face- you know I can't stand your sobbing. It's very human. Stop. Kenny- All right, you have permission. Get on with you."
Kenny scampered off. Sanderson placed his too-large hands on his too-large knees and drew himself up to his too-tall, disguised height of five and a half feet and followed in his too-heavy shoes. The others remained at the simple table with their simple sandwiches.
With the exception of Rosencrantz, who at only age nine hundred and fourteen could pass for a scrawny human child so long as he kept his wings tucked under his shirt and didn't wash the glittery dust from his skin, the six pixies looked and felt less like pixies than they ever had before, and it disgusted them. Their gray suits and familiar ties had been exchanged for white t-shirts that exposed pale skin up to the shoulders. Their awkward square faces slightly rounded at the corners. Their black hair ruffled and styled in a variety of ways to keep them from appearing too identical and drawing second glances. They'd utterly discarded their floating caps (and more importantly, the broken six-pointed crowns those pointed caps concealed), and they had all taken to nibbling at their fingernails or sucking on their thumbs as a way to shake off the associated dizziness and keep their focus. Their wings had been temporarily dissolved, which they all kept forgetting- it left them tripping over themselves in a mortifyingly unprofessional manner. Thankfully, the Head Pixie himself wasn't here to witness such a thing.
It was a transformation difficult to maintain, and particularly for an awkward race of beings with a limited grasp over magic in the first place. They were all guzzling water by the bottles and sweating and flushing and panting. Sanderson could feel human lungs tucked in his human chest, both they and his beating human heart struggling to function when crammed up against his fagiggly gland.
Outwardly, the one remaining clue that they didn't belong down here on Earth would be the six pairs of lavender eyes concealed behind six pairs of tinted sunglasses. Eyes were notoriously difficult (and expensive- half a million lagelyn per minute? Not on this pixie's credit!) to shift, so none of them had bothered; they were comfortable with the shades as it was. And anyone close enough to notice the odd color would probably have predicted their identity from a distance anyway. Every magical being worth his salt and silverware could pick up on the cloud of power humming in the air around their ears, but when it came to the humans, Sanderson hoped the flecks of dust on their skin still kept them invisible among the crowds. The Pixies had work to do here today, meticulous plans to carry out.
After ten minutes, Kenny, Gary, Betty, and Rosencrantz came tumbling from their dolphin attraction, dizzy as gophers. The pixie tucked his headphones around his neck for good, released the orange gate, and took a step towards them. Just as he did, a waterfall of nausea made him reel to the left.
Instantly, the three human children abandoned their game of dizzy-tag and rushed to take his hands. "Mr. Sanderson! You're flickering again!"
His hand. He was losing his hand. Or the illusion part of it. Sanderson grimaced as the limb retracted to a stubby size and hid it behind his back. "Three hours straight does begin to wear on you. I need another 'tiny break'. Gary, lend me your jacket and all of you head back to the others at the table by the miniature golf."
Pixie instinct set Rosencrantz moving instantly, but the little humans shifted their scuffed sneakers. Betty bit her lip. When Sanderson prompted her, she said, "Can't we stay with you while you're on break? The other pixies don't like us."
"'cept Rosebud," was Gary's defensive protest.
Sanderson didn't consider it an argument worth having. His right arm was short and awkward, and his left wasn't in much less horrifying condition. It took the remainder of his concentration just to keep the rest of his human disguise together.
Gary, Betty, and Kenny led him towards an array of carnival games (all rigged except the rubber ducks, his pixie instincts could tell) and, in the bushes behind the row of beaten sheds where the coast was clearer, he collapsed in full. With a ping, he melted back into his regular size and shape, three feet two inches tall to the millimeter and square-faced once again. Wasp-like wings arced in full translucent splendor. A pointed gray cap materialized above his head. He curled up on his side among the roots and weeds. Gary dropped his red jacket over him and fluffed the sleeves like a small pillow.
"Are you dead?" Betty asked him after a few minutes. "Please don't be dead. I'm kind of done with dead people."
"Mm… No. My magic lines are still connected like straws to the universal energy field. That's how all magical creatures of about pixie size and body type breathe." After a moment more, Sanderson propped himself on his elbows. "What did you three see at the Novakiin Science Museum with Hawkins yesterday?"
"Um…" She scrunched her entire face the way she typically did when she was straining her brain. Thinking with her head rather than her heart wasn't exactly her strength. "We learned about Santa and Christmas. Fairies call it Krisday sometimes."
"There was a big war. Actually, I think there were like this many big wars." Gary held up all four fingers, and Sanderson wondered which one he was missing- the Sealing War, the Sacred Revolution, the Struggle with The Darkness, the Sunset Divide, or the War of the Angels.
Betty nodded. "Then we looked at the fairy dogs. They're called cozies or somethin'."
"Cù siths. Well, more than one cù sith is 'coin sith'."
"Yeah, what Gary said."
"And rocket ships," Kenny added, flapping his arms. "The tentacle guys have big smarty brains in their rockets."
Sanderson took his right wrist in his left hand and flexed it. Still stung like hot fizzing bubbles. "They still have the Yugopotamian exhibit up on public display? And here I thought the Fairies rather enjoyed stomping those space squids out of their history books."
Gary made another list with his fingers. "We also learned about Cupid and his two brothers. And how the fancy space alligators invented the Snobbish language for everyone in the universe to use. And there was the Fairy Eclipse. And Da Rules."
"And Wanda Winksomething and the dinosaurs."
"Oh, yeah. And the Cherish Jungle. Hawkins says there's a gingerbread cave somewhere in there right next to your Pixie World place. Is that really true, Mr. Sanderson?"
"And dragonflies! Oh, and I liked it when we ate buggers and cheese fries. I really, really like fries."
Gary stuck out his tongue. "Ew, Kenny, those were so gross. The only thing that even tasted a little bit good at that place was the plain bread and the salad and the soy stuff."
Betty scratched her arm as Kenny continued to babble aimlessly about wanting to eat nothing but hamburgers for the rest of his life. "Mr. Sanderson? Will you tell the story about… about how the Head Pixie found us again?"
Sanderson lifted one eyebrow, more because it was the response he had witnessed H.P. exhibit when he was asked such things than because he found himself actually surprised by the question. "Do you all want to hear it?"
The three humans grinned and nodded. Deep down, that disgusted him. It was only a story to them. A game. If they were delighted to hear gruesome tales of their own pasts, perhaps they ought to have been adopted by Anti-Fairies.
"All right. Let me remember. It was probably a Friday afternoon. That morning would be when our magic gets refreshed and is at its strongest, and I think I remember that. The Head Pixie and I happened to be in the area on business. The Kansas sky was very clear and deeply blue. The roads were fairly open. Thomas and Tam Lovell were coming from the east." The finger switched from Betty and Kenny over to Gary. "Your father Quincy, who was bringing you up to your mother's place after what was intended to be and then was your last visit with him, came from the south. Their cars crashed right into each other." He paused, rolling saliva around in his mouth, and then finished with, "Nobody knows why."
And if he had anything to do with it, nobody ever would.
"My dad's car totally beat up your guys's car," Gary announced.
"I am Superman," said Kenny. Again, he flapped his arms in a childish manner. "I flewed far in my car seat. I soared. Like catapultzering."
If Kenny had been either Gary or Betty, Sanderson would have corrected his grammar. But it wasn't important. There were future plans involving Gary and Betty. H.P. had already determined that Kenny wasn't needed.
"Well," he said instead, "we should perhaps be getting back to the others about now. I don't really like to be away from the other pixies and you shouldn't either. When we're with the group, the group protects us."
"Yes, Mr. Sanderson," they chorused. Sanderson withdrew his black and white ballpoint pen from his coat and smashed the star cap with his thumb. A bright ping! splattered across the air, and when the pixelated clouds cleared away, Sanderson was too tall again. His wings flapped once and burst into purple sparkles. He returned Gary's jacket and climbed to his feet.
"Come on, now." They began walking. As they went, Betty reached up to take his hand. Sanderson pulled it back. "I need that, actually."
"Sorry." She held Kenny's hand instead.
Back at the picnic table, they were greeted only by Rosencrantz and Wilcox, who had a sandwich-shaped backpack and Gummi Worms sitting in front of them, respectively. Sanderson checked the surroundings, the trees, a nearby gift shop, and even under the table for the others before he cautiously asked. In response, Wilcox smirked an evil smirk.
"Hey, human kiddy-buds. Pop on out from behind Uncle Sanders- don't be shy like a lot of brownies. You guys want to play a little guessing game? Here goes: how many shrunken pixies can you fit in a gift shop backpack?"
"Seven?" Kenny guessed.
"Try more like three."
Sanderson cracked a mirthless smile when Wilcox pulled the zipper open. "Hello, Longwood."
"This is humiliating," the company vice president muttered back, crossing his right leg over the left and folding his arms in a huff. Evidently, not even he could maintain human form for very long without a break. Bayard was squeezed beside him, chewing on a water bottle and wearing Longwood's pointed hat, and Sanderson could just make out Caudwell crumpled at the bottom of the pile by his long fingernails.
Wilcox clucked his tongue. "If the rest of you would exercise your fagiggly glands regularly, like moi, you wouldn't be having this problem." He swung the pack over his shoulders, to the grunts of his coworkers inside. "Where are we off to next? The merry-go-round? The swinging boat?"
"Can we ride the bigger rides now?" Betty asked, clasping her hands.
"Oh, can we? Please? Please?"
"The biggest rides in the whole park!"
Kenny shrank backwards. "Big kid rides? I dunno…"
Instantly, Betty and Gary were on him with hugs. "We'll protect you, Kenny."
"Lots of people ride big roller coasters."
"I'll hold your hand the whole time."
Wilcox glanced at Sanderson, neutral-faced. "Are you ready for this?"
"Yeah!" the two older kids cheered, thinking the question was directed towards them.
Sanderson hesitated at least as much as Kenny was. "The big kid rides might be too scary for the two- er, three of you."
"No, we can do it!"
"Yeah, we didn't die in the crashing cars! We lived!"
Kenny swallowed. "I wanna go with my sister. Can I? Please?"
"You'll have lots of fun, Kenny."
"Yeah, and you'll get to sit with us."
"… Really, those rides aren't very safe at all."
"Please?" Gary stretched his green eyes wider than half-dollars. "We'll fill out paperwork."
"We'll wash clothes with Rosebud."
"We'll eat all our yummy soy."
"We'll reorganize the files in the basement with Mr. Keefe."
"We'll cook pancakes for all of the pixies every day."
"Oh, oh! And draw pictures of bugs! On the hands you shake with! Can I go with them too?"
Wilcox continued with the patient staring, now with one sharp black eyebrow lifted almost an entire centimeter above his shades. Sanderson bit his lip. "All right. Not because you said 'Please' - begging is desperate and shameful - but because we came all this way and bought you entrance passes to the park for the day, and making use of them is most cost-effective."
Betty and Gary exchanged, Sure it is glances over Kenny's tufted blond hair.
"Only, let's wait a few minutes for the others to pull themselves together again. They wanted to go with us." He nodded towards the restrooms. "The three of you, see if you need to go. We'll decide which of us are coming on which ride with you."
The three humans nodded and ran off. "Gary," Sanderson called, "drakes to the left. Damsels to the right."
Gary skidded to a stop and shifted his route to follow Kenny rather than Betty. Sanderson waited several seconds after they had gone before he rotated back around to face Wilcox, plucking at the tip of his thin collar. "So… H.P. still wants us to do this?"
Wilcox had been replaced by a fluffy lavender-furred rabbit with long black ears and exactly six white whiskers. He upturned both forepaws in a shrug. The three pixies from Rosencrantz's backpack were peeking out of it now, though still in the undersized, hardly-a-foot-tall forms that Wilcox had forced them into. They clung to one leg of the picnic table, wasp wings flat to their backs. From there, Longwood tipped down his shades. "Are you having second thoughts, Sanderson?"
Sanderson gazed down at the too-small pixie from his too-tall height. "Of course not. I know my duties. I was simply checking to ensure that you were keeping up with the boss as is your job and that we hadn't missed a sudden change in plans."
They all fell quiet as a couple of humans walked along the nearby pebbled path. Magic from the energy field clustered around magical beings, mostly invisible to human eyes or else rendering itself as shimmering purple dust, but not at all invisible to touch or smell. Even as the six pixies watched uncertainly, Sanderson could hear one of them comment that the wafting breeze carried the scent of sizzling scrambled eggs, and possibly brown sugar oatmeal.
Rosencrantz cleared his throat. "Are you really going to take them on the bigger rides with you, Longwood?"
"That is my intention, yes."
Bayard clapped his hands. "Let's start off simple, with the bumper cars. I've wanted to ride the bumper cars since they invented bumper car driver's licenses." Then he stopped. "I mean. If we have to. For the kids."
Sanderson rounded on him, crouching so he could glare under the table. "We're not making them ride the bumper cars, smoof."
Bayard looked puzzled for a moment, then snapped his fingers. "Right. Duh."
"Yes." Longwood licked his lips. "I've decided we'll do it on the mine carts. For starters, at least. It's dark, and the cart can seat six. We can fill it up and there won't be any other witnesses about. Caudwell and I will go with Garrett, Elizabeth, Kenneth, and Sanderson."
Caudwell nodded, but Sanderson snapped to attention. "You're… actually inviting me to be in the same vicinity as you? … By choice? Without a bonus?"
"Don't get a swelled head. It's why we brought you at all. You have to go. Aside from Rosebud, you're the only one they like." Longwood didn't sound particularly upset about it. Or particularly pleased, but, well.
"Oh, come on," Bayard complained. "Why'd you even bring me along if you were just going to boot me off?"
Turning his head, Longwood met him with a level stare. "This is a serious matter, for serious pixies."
"I can totally be serious like you guys! Caudwell, tell me this doesn't seem like my most serious face ever." Bayard grabbed his coworker by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes, but couldn't hold his straight expression and dissolved in awkward laughter. Caudwell turned his head away and mouthed 'Help me' in Sanderson's direction. Sanderson shrugged. He liked Bayard. He just didn't… like Bayard. They got on fine together so long as Bayard's eternally-cheerful teasing was targeted on literally anybody else. But, that was how it went with most people.
"Bayard," Longwood began again, "it's hot out and I'm losing my patience. Much more of this and your presence alone might send me tingle-fritzy with annoyance. You and Rosie-"
"Are you sure that annoyance is why you'll probably go tingle-fritzy tonight?"
The color drained from Longwood's face. "I didn't make plans to take Naelita to Ivory Wand and Comet Blood when we get back. Don't spread rumors to H.P. that I did. I don't kiss damsels during work hours- you know this. You all know this, right?"
Bayard took his mouth off the water bottle again. "Who said anything about smooching your girlfriend? I was referring to the fact that you'll probably be slumped on a stool at the Anthill straight after work, crying your pacifist problems away into a creamy orange soda after what's gonna happen here in about twenty minutes. Self-incrimination burn! I'm so busting you. Have fun on laundry duty with Rose."
"Bayard, I swear to the great fountain Kiiloëi-"
"Also, I stole your jingly star cap while we were snuggling in the backpack and it kind of bothers me that you haven't said anything about why I'm wearing a hat on my hat."
Sanderson shook his head. "Really, now what would H.P. say if word got back that his vice president could be found walking about in public with his crown showing?"
Longwood's hand flew to his floating crown's broken and exposed points. "Mister Bayard, I am legally required to treat you with respect in public, but you can't stop me from privately loathing you, and I will 'accidently' leave you behind if you try me. Give me that!"
"You want it, shortstuff? Sandy, if you can hear me up there, catch and bolt at fairy speed!"
That was mean, Sanderson thought as the balled-up scrap of gray fabric landed in his open palm. Longwood would excuse Bayard's actions because he'd picked on everyone equally for the last two hundred and fifty thousand years, but Sanderson was Longwood's go-to scapegoat and would definitely be getting his paycheck docked if he didn't cooperate. He had little choice but to crouch his ungainly body and hand the hat back to Longwood, whose eyes had flushed behind his shades. Longwood stood there, clutching it and not moving. The hundred or so red-brown freckles on his cheeks and nose and neck seemed to burn.
"Only I am permitted to wear the star hat," he finally managed. He fitted it on his crown again with a series of tinkling, clinking noises. "Bayard, this is exactly why you won't be coming. I'll be bringing your name up with H.P. in my closing report." (Pointless threat- What was H.P. going to do, disown his best marketer?) "You and Rosencrantz are to remain on lookout for pestering Fairies. Keep their nosy fingers away at any cost. We're relying on you for cover. If necessary, you and Wilcox will join the team on the Egyptian tomb ride, or perhaps the witch's tower. Kenneth is of no use to us here. As per the Head Pixie's orders, I'll… I'll do what needs to be done with him."
"So we're off, then. Rosie! Here, boy!"
Rosencrantz had been staring towards the restrooms with a furrowed brow. At his name, he jumped and bashed his head on the underside of the picnic table. Bayard patted it before spotting an apparent human-free opening and sprinting along the walking path. Rosencrantz chased him on stumbling feet, pulling off his shirt, and they spread their wings and jumped. Just in time. A few seconds later, a whole busload of humans wearing identical green jackets around their waists meandered past on their irritatingly-slow way to nowhere.
Caudwell crossed his arms. He was a bricklayer when up in Pixie World and a therapist at Wish Fixers besides that, and clearly far more comfortable in his T-shirt and jeans than his fellows were. "Are you sure you're able to manage Kenny, Longwood? Not just physically - no one's questioning that - but emotionally. Do you want to talk about it?"
"H.P. specifically requested that I do it myself, and so I will follow orders."
While Sanderson and Wilcox (and possibly Longwood himself) rolled their eyes, Caudwell reached out his hand and took Longwood's shoulder. "Okay. Then I believe you. Let's go."
Longwood removed his shades. "Physical touch goes against protocol. And, I've worked hard to make it abundantly clear to everyone that I'm interested in damsels."
Caudwell put up his hands and muttered an, "I'm sorry for the sad life you live that causes you to automatically make such assumptions even towards a drake who literally shares all your identical genetics and is scarcely five hundred years younger and raised in the same household," sort of apology as Gary popped out of the boys' restroom and hollered for Betty. Sanderson found himself staring up at a single bristled, pale cloud hovering above distant treetops. Through clenched teeth, he managed to force out the steady gray words, "I don't particularly see why we need to hurt them."
Longwood was unflinching as he returned his shades to his nose. "You started this, Sanderson. Introducing them to magic was all your idea. H.P. only mended the flaws in your plan and handed back the improved script. He expects you to finish the project as you were instructed to."
"Yes, and if it's his will, then I will follow orders without hesitation. You know I will. However, my instructions come from the top. If you hold on a moment and keep an eye on the kids when they come back out, I think I'm going to find a phone and call H.P. just to ensure that he truly-"
"Is that insubordination?" Longwood flared his wings and kicked off from the ground. In an instant, his ballpoint pen was out of his pocket and pointed at Sanderson so the star on its cap hovered an inch from his throat. "May I remind you, Sanderson, that I'm the one wearing the vice president hat. Not you."
Sanderson gazed at the younger (not to mention much smaller, at least from this too-tall height) drake without speaking, without blinking, and after a couple seconds spent pupil-wrestling, Sanderson took a step backwards and Longwood lowered the pen. He turned around, sweeping those same lavender eyes across the gathered pixies.
"All right. Let's go make a few little kids cry."
When Gary and Betty had joined them near the table and Sanderson had finally gone to fetch Kenny, then Caudwell, Wilcox, and Longwood shifted into their human disguises once again. "Where's the tall pixie with the little mustache and the gel spikes he puts in his hair when the Head Pixie isn't around?" Betty asked suspiciously.
"Is he going to hit me with a codfish again?"
"And Rosie?" asked Kenny, hugging his sister's arm.
"It's six to a mine cart and there are eight of us, so Bayard took Rosencrantz to ride something else. We'll meet up with them later."
Gary lit up at once. "We get to ride the mine carts?"
"If you want to," Wilcox called from up the path. "Hop along."
As the children whooped and rushed ahead, Sanderson felt a finger tap his shoulder. "Sanderson?"
"I'm not particularly interested in either damsels or drakes, Caudwell. Oh, don't give me that disgusted look. You never come inside Headquarters and I honestly think I haven't spoken to you for a couple centuries. Let us have our little joke because we know it bothers you. That's the curse you suffer for being a pixie raised for five hundred years by a selkie who so valued physical touch. What's shaking the dust off your wings?"
"Oh, why do you have to hurt things?" the younger pixie muttered, but went on a little more cautiously with, "Are you okay with this? With…" He motioned towards Gary and Betty with his hand. Well, Kenny too. "I mean, they're basically yours after that court case."
And what a shame it was that the Fairy Council had refused to lift the wish-blocker from the three humans, just because they'd been legally adopted by a pixie. Being allowed to directly use magic in response to their wishes would have made everything a great deal easier.
"Of course I am. This is the entire reason we took an interest in them to begin with. Anyway, we've come too far to slam on the brakes now. H.P. is counting on us. You ought to go back to fretting over Longwood. And no, I don't want to sit down and have a core-to-core about it."
Caudwell just held his hands clasped near his chest as Sanderson pushed past him.
And yet, for some reason, after they had pulled a string and perhaps flicked a wand in the direction of Kenny's height to get all six of them up to the front of the roller coaster line, Sanderson crouched down with his arms folded around his stomach. "Let me get a look at you three."
Betty and Gary exchanged curious frowns. Then their cart ground to a halt, and the tiny metal safety gates swung open. Yipping and cheering, the pair scrambled over one another to sit in the front.
"Looks like there's a little patch of trees over there on the left with a nice view of the exit," Wilcox said. "I'll meet you lot there when everything's done." Sanderson watched him melt into a blue jay (purple jay?) after he'd hopped the fence and ducked behind the nearest patch of shrubbery.
"Come on, Kenny." Caudwell twitched his shoulder like he intended to offer his wing to the smaller boy, then recognized his mistake and wrapped an arm around his shoulders instead. "You can sit in the middle row with me, right there in front of Longwood."
Sanderson pressed the lap bar down as soon as he'd sat down in the cart, and Longwood cleared his throat. "Excuse me," he said, and once it had been raised, Longwood joined him. He turned his palms outward and breathed out a hot stream of air. Silence.
"You're going to bail," muttered Sanderson, placing his fist to his left cheek as the coaster lurched into action.
"Just you wait."
"I rather imagine I'll be waiting for awhile."
"Would you like to be waiting for your job awhile, too?"
"After you watch them struggle through half a ride on this thing, you won't have the guts."
"Nymphs and damsels first."
They dove underground. Complete blackness enveloped them. Kenny yelped his second thoughts aloud while Betty and Gary cheered from the front. It almost covered the ping that sprang up from Caudwell's general area.
Sanderson did not shut his eyes and did not look away. And not purely because it wouldn't have mattered in the dark. He pressed his thumb to the large star-shaped button atop his own pen.
That was supposed to be a tiger. Judging from the noises, only Gary noticed its lashing claws before it slipped away. Sanderson used a second ping to snap a solid 90% of its magic back into his starpiece; the rest couldn't be saved even when recaptured so soon and would dissolve. And besides the tax and expense benefits, it also spared the humans who would come riding after. Not that it was a pixie's job to ensure the existence of magic stayed below human notice.
Ping! Horse hooves crashed across the metal track like storm clouds.
Ping! Three geese honked and flared their wings as the cart whipped around a corner and took another dive. Thanks, Caudwell.
Ping! The floor of the cart dropped away beneath their feet.
Ping! The track rerouted slightly to add a few more whipping turns.
Ping! Chunks of moist rock and dusty ceiling clattered on the tracks from above. The cart jarred and scraped against the wall in a shower of golden sparks.
Ping! Dragon fire enveloped the tunnel, scorching decorative wooden beams. Glancing to his right before the glow was swallowed up, Sanderson watched Longwood hold his pen, sparking with magic, sparking with blue electricity, to the back of Kenny's head.
Sanderson raised his eyebrows and pressed the button again. Ping! Betty screeched as a wolf leapt at her from the shadows, jaws snapping, drool spattering, and buried its fangs in the seat about three inches from her ear. By the dim light of several lanterns now appearing along the wall in bursts, Longwood withdrew the pen. Brought it forward. Covered his mouth. Held out his hand again.
You can't do it, Sanderson groaned in his head, and almost like telepathy, he read the answer in Longwood's bitten lip: I'm a pacifist.
Well. Somebody here had to take charge of things.
"Won't H.P. be displeased to hear this," drawled the older pixie and, reaching forward with his own starpiece, delivered a sharp electric shock all across Kenny's body. Longwood did not flinch, but the staring mutely ahead told Sanderson everything. He lifted his pen and, with a "Do what you have to," pinged both himself and the injured child out of there.
Up in the air, dissolved in a mass of particles, Sanderson had only milliseconds to make a decision. The safety feature embedded in his starpiece would of course prevent him from landing in something like a brick wall or tree bark or a random bystander, but he still wanted to avoid human notice. Even thickly-layered magic dust couldn't offer cover in the face of a direct double-take.
Wilcox the jay was perched where he'd promised among the trees around the corner from the crowded line of humans. Which was good, since that was the location Sanderson had been imagining when he'd flicked his pen and, well, he couldn't exactly change course now. When his feet were maybe two inches from the ground, he and Kenny burst into their physical shapes again. The human was larger than the pixie, and Sanderson was forced to put him down.
Kenny wasn't in the best of conditions. Patches of his strawberry-blond hair had been singed to his sooty scalp with dragon fire. Something with heavy claws had slashed along his arm. His clothing was rumpled and loose about his thin shoulders and skeletal form. His skin had turned red in places like he'd broken out in hives, but that was a frequent side effect of coming into contact with magical beings or objects and Sanderson blew it off. He was more interested in finding out if the boy had survived the electricity.
So Sanderson righted him, and Wilcox even flew down from his branch to check up with them before zipping off. Moaning, Kenny clutched Sanderson's shirt with feeble fingers.
"What… what happened? All my whole body hurts bad."
Sanderson let out a sigh through his nose. Alive. "I did warn you that the big kid rides were dangerous."
With a whimper, Kenny pressed his face into Sanderson's shirt. Crying was the human defensive behavior, just as injured pixies reacted to pheromones in each other's blood when one of them got hurt. It was nothing he could control. Sanderson could only sit stiffly with one hand placed between Kenny's shoulder blades as the sobbing went on.
"Um. See, here comes your sister."
The mine cart rolled up from the tunnel and halted with a mechanical squeal. Fortunately, it looked good and fresh. Glaze-eyed Gary and Betty sat in front, clutching one another's shoulders. Shivering. Caudwell leaned stoically behind them, holding the safety bar with both hands, but Longwood sat with his face buried in his. Wilcox had pinged in to take the role of a ruffled but otherwise identical Sanderson, and someone had projected an image of Kenny into the seat beside Caudwell.
The attendants helped everyone out with patient smiles and vaguely-concerned voices, wished them all well, and didn't spare any of them another glance. As they all descended the ramp, Caudwell jabbed the star on his pen into the neck of imaginary Kenny, and he vanished in a blocky scattering of purple and white. Sanderson returned to his larger form so they would see him waving and holding the boy among the trees.
"Mr. S-Sanderson?" Gary choked out. He hadn't let go of Betty, even as they walked. "W-what are you doing out here? Didn't you come with us?"
"This ride was extremely unsafe. Kenny got hurt and I had to use magic to get him off."
With a squeal, Betty untangled herself from Gary and came tripping over her own feet to his side. "Kenny? Kenny!"
Sanderson pulled himself away, but not quickly enough. With two human ten-year-olds tackling his legs, it was all he could do to keep his focus on maintaining his human disguise.
"I'll be back," Longwood muttered, shoving past them and bolting off in the direction of the restrooms.
Betty succeeded in pushing Gary aside and at last took her hands away from his face. "I sh-shouldn't have made you go, Kenny. I'm sorry. Please, you h-have to get better." Throwing herself over him, she began to sob, "I can't lose you too!"
"Can't you help him with magic and stuff, Mr. Sanderson?" Gary asked, tugging quietly on the hems of his sleeves.
"Yes, I can save him. This time. We were lucky." Sanderson placed his hand beneath Betty's chin and tilted it upwards. As she continued to sniffle and blink, he murmured, "Should I take you back to your bubble where everything is safe and you won't get hurt?"
"Uh-huh." Then she said the words: "I'll never ride another roller coaster again."
Wilcox leaned forward, his hands vaguely flickering with the effort of holding himself together. "The real problem was the lack of safety, Betty. In fact, after a ride like that, I'm starting to think that a lot of this park is unsafe."
"We shouldn't have come."
"This place should be illegal."
"They ought to have left it as a grassy park with twisting walkways and pretty fountains where you could lie on your backs and count the stars."
"Children like you deserve to grow up in a safer world."
"Betty." Gary wrapped her in a new hug. "Betty, stop crying. It's okay. We'll always be safe forever now."
Sanderson loosened his arms and forced all three children to stand up on wobbly feet. "I'm going to use the restroom myself," he said to Caudwell, and then to the children, "When I come back, we'll go and find Bayard and Rosebud, and then we'll grab a scoop of any ice cream flavor you want. And Skittles. There will definitely be Skittles."
Gary ignored him, tightening his grip on Betty, who ignored him and tightened her grip on Kenny. Without looking back, Sanderson tugged down his T-shirt to smooth its wrinkles and walked with quick steps towards the restrooms. He hoped it was equipped with paper towel dispensers and not automatic hand dryers- he had some rubbing in to do.
Longwood perched on the edge of the nearest toilet bowl, shoes dangling just above the water, head bowed and perfectly-combed black hair shining. The white stall door hung wide open and obvious, yet he'd dropped his human form entirely. Dull-colored wasp wings drooped behind him.
After using a spark of magic to lock the big wooden door, Sanderson dropped his disguise too. It felt brilliant to sweep his wings up, down, and up again as far as they could stretch before finally breaking into the rapid windmill motion that lifted him from the ground. Hovering there, he cocked his left fist on his hip the way he'd often seen H.P. do. "And you thought I would be the one to hesitate."
"Lay off, Sanderson, or you'll get laid off," Longwood muttered back. His crown gleamed like a star; he twisted his gray cap between his fists. "The War of the Angels broke all of us in one way or another. I have my… thing. Robin couldn't last in the kitchens. Hawkins has his awkward hand. Wilcox suffered fagigglyne withdrawal something awful. Cupid went cross-eyed. We lost a prince, a king, a castle, a treasury, a government, respect, our kinship with the anti-pixies… even H.P. actively hated that place. Speaking of which, I seem to remember that your limp never quite healed in full."
Sanderson glanced down at his right leg, and specifically at the back part beneath his knee where his boss had once blasted him with a bolt of lightning (among other things) during his attempt to force the wild Anti-Sanderson out of commission. Then, with a sniff, he folded his arms. "Be that as it may, it's completely irrelevant. The duty of a pixie is to follow orders without question or pause. You failed out there today. And it's not anywhere near the first time. If you can't manage to follow simple procedures, perhaps you are not qualified for this position and ought to retire."
Longwood finally turned around. The tiny star on the tip of his cap jingled when he did. He'd pushed his shades down to his chin, and his lavender eyes had deepened into stinging violet again. "If you were capable of keeping up with all the things I manage on a daily basis, then you would have been assigned the position in the first place. As it happens, H.P. would take my flaws over yours. He trusts me never to turn against him, even if I believed I were ordered to, and even though my freckles make me a gyne instead of a drone like you. I'm still not so belly-in-the-dirt desperate for his approval that I'd attempt to kill him just because he said so. I've never been so stumped for ideas that I flit about drawing pictures of clowns and pink elephants whenever I'm left to my own devices. I'm not so directionless without the boss that there's a defense protocol in place to take out me should I lash out in panic and fury after he goes dusty someday. That's the reason why I'm vice president, and you'll never amount to anything more than head of the complaints department. H.P. selected me to wear this hat, and his word alone ought to be enough to end this discussion."
A direct quote, those last parts, and the response that would, indeed, have likely been slapped around their ears had the Head Pixie himself been here to witness their scuffle. Some human tried the restroom door and, puzzled when it didn't open, wandered off again.
"… Gary, Betty, and Kenny like me, even if me and my unrecognized talents are stuck in a dead-end filler job forever."
Longwood snuck a good laugh out of that one.