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130 Prompts #30 - Gaining the Upper Hand

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 30. Gaining the Upper Hand ("Fairy Idol")

Saturday September 25th, "2004"

Year of Fire; Autumn of the Frozen Planet


"So. When can I expect to receive the royalties for, I don't know, the three of you stealing my song and performing it on interplane television as though it were your own?"

"In the name of wicks and wax," Norm groaned as he squished himself deeper between the leather cushions on the dirty tan couch, "is he still going on about that?"

"It's a parody," came the snappish reply of the lawn gnome in question. His name was Fennel or something, or it wasn't. "We don't owe you jack dirt."

Wanda, sitting on Norm's right, poofed up a small watch with that Timmy Turner kid's beaver-toothed image in the middle of it. "Well, they've been bantering on and off for twenty minutes now. What is Jorgen doing out there?"

"Licorice," said Cosmo with utter seriousness, refilling his styrofoam cup with murky-looking water from the dispenser for what had to be the eleventh time.

"I'm just saying," the pixie sneered in the background, "you ought to have cited me for credit on air. I have mixtapes and record deals and albums and greeting cards, and I'm trying to turn a profit."

"It's a popular song. We didn't have to personally award you no credit."

"That's not entirely how the music industry works."

"It's a freakin' parody."

"You knew I was right there!"

Norm, who wasn't in the mood for turn around to watch, conjured a miniature version of the pixie into his palm with a bored gong. This one made the same two-fingered rolling hand gesture as the original as its rant continued, but after it reached, "And another thing, under Pixie World v. Starshine Studios-" he took pleasure in flicking it into the furthest backstage corner. The tiny creature bounced off the wall and landed in the cobwebbed corner behind the trash can. Direct hit. Twenty points to Mudlip.

"They have to stop someday," chirped Cosmo, trotting over with his water cup turned upside-down. "He still has to sing. Maybe he'll need a new song now. He has the money to buy one. Or he could pirate one illegally off the digi-stream. But he'll have to act now if he wants to score a good deal. Thirty minutes or it's absolutely free." Cosmo thought for another several seconds, then went for his wand. An anchovy pizza materialized in front of him in a dry poof of pink smoke. The space just in front of Cosmo coincidentally also happened to be the space above Norm's head. Norm was too slow to register the thought that Hey, maybe I want to gong to that other couch before this clumsily-put-together meatbread splatters in my hair, but he at least managed to stick his hands out to catch the thing. He had the soggy crust of a large triangular slice in each fist as the rest of the mess oozed from his grip and into his lap.

"Hey-hey! Not bad. And I thought the word you were going to focus on was 'pirate'. You know, considering those gray-suited clone drones' habit for waving metal around and taking over anything the light touches. Plus, they already have the boats, even if you wand-twirlers still don't let 'em fly them, last I checked." Norm, just to remind everyone that he wasn't bothered by this turn of events and that it was all his own idea anyway, took a bite of the piece in his left hand. Honestly it wasn't bad. Just damp and dripping in Fairy magic residue. And… peanut butter?

With a light sigh through her nostrils, Wanda flicked her wand and poofed the remainder of the pizza out of Norm's lap and over to the desecrated refreshment table in the corner. Cosmo downed the remainder of his water (of which there wasn't much, the cup being upside-down and all), and crushed the styrofoam against his own head. Sticky white flakes of it dangled from his bright green bangs and the creases of his tan-brown palms.

"Cosmo, we're supposed to be thinking about our song. It's the only way we'll be able to squeeze back into the Fairy godparents roster without having to take our certification tests all over again."

"Silly, silly Wanda," he tsk tsked. "We've sung 'Floating With You' more times than I've had my brain replaced. We're fine!"

She bobbed over to brush his hair. "You don't have a brain right now, sweetie."

"Ah! Then I must engage in a quest to find it!" So saying, the irritating little fairy poofed himself into a giant green eyeball, with a Do not feed the defective sign somehow dangling from his… neck-body… like a collar with a tag.

"Trench coats, a magnifying glass, and a tilted-down fedora to boot," Norm drawled. "Right on schedule- I was just looking for another reason not to subscribe to 'Dress Like an Idiot Monthly'."

"Cosmo! What the heck are you supposed to be?"

He blinked his… face. "Duh, I'm a private eye."

Wanda puffed her cheeks and shook her head as her husband floated away. The pixie and the lawn gnomes shut up.

"Hey, maybe while he's out looking, he'll find you both a new job, since it's looking more and more like you're going to need one." Norm's eyes followed a gray mouse scurrying between several slats in the walls. It ran up a dangling rope and disappeared into the rafters. He pointed two fingers after it. "I thought there wasn't oxygen in Fairy World?"

"There's enough." Wanda fluffed her curl and whirred after Cosmo.

That left Norm with two slices of soggy anchovy-and-peanut-butter-laden pizza, and he wasn't sure what the best thing to do with them was. On the one hand, the peanut butter would stick to his teeth and dry out his mouth, potentially ruining his chances at winning the competition, cheating him of his chance to improve his circumstances, denying him from achieving his full revenge on a certain pink-hatted loser he wasn't particularly fond of in the least, and leaving him with no choice but to crawl home and wait out the next day or two with McBadbat until the kid finally got around to making the last of his three allotted wishes and mercifully stoppered him up in his lava lamp again with no need to look at those horrendous teeth or dirty living conditions a moment longer.

On the other hand, pizza.

Deciding that the peanut butter staining his teeth wouldn't be fully digested before it was his turn to go on and therefore wouldn't make it all the more difficult for him to whip out his genie magic to clean it off, Norm took another bite. As he was swallowing, something soft closed around his tail about four inches from the tip. "Gihk!" he sputtered, his shoulders jolting up. He slapped the smooth hand backwards as he twisted around. "Whoa, whoa there, my little square showpony. Do not. Touch. The tail."

"I let you go."

Norm, setting the pizza aside (he still hadn't cleaned the sauce stains from his clothes, but he'd get to that), twisted a long pinky in his ear. "Come again, squeak? I can't hear you over the sound of me eyewashing the living embers out of my sockets at the way you're dressed. Did you lose a fight with a wall of drying paint, or with a yarn documentary?"

The speaker was… what was his name again? Sidney… Sawyer… Sandy… Some sort of M.E. Sanderson- wasn't that the name from the paperwork? Norm had dropped his own right on top of it (grateful, at least, for the ability to fill it out instantly with the near-limitless magic offered by connection to his lamp in that sense).

Anyway, it was that pixie chump who'd been arguing with the lawn gnomes. A pixie, of all things, competing on the stage (still in that gray suit to boot; even Norm couldn't help feeling a slight squicked-out sensation when faced with so little color and so many sickeningly-precise stitches). He'd probably buzzed over with his weird square wings suddenly and silently - like an unpleasant deadline - while Norm had been distracted with the bubbly fairy twits.

Sanderson held his right wrist with his left hand and wiggled the fingers. He floated annoyingly close to Norm's eyes, which seemed to be routine with his people- higher off the ground than the uncertain Anti-Fairies but much, much lower than the self-righteous wand-waving twits he usually seemed to bump into.

"I let you go just now," Sanderson said again in monotone, brushing at his knuckles. As near to Norm's eye-level as he was, and even though he was taller than most fairies Norm had run across, he still had to tilt his head slightly back in order to peer at him. The genie could barely detect the dusty-purple glint of his irises behind the cowlicks in his hair (let alone the tinted lenses).

"That you did, push-pop. Careful you don't flap so hard you pass out. That pompadour looks liable to crush your lungs and suffocate you while you're down."

The pixie continued on breezily, as though he hadn't interrupted. "So I was wondering, does that mean I can have three wishes?"

"Aha. Aha." Norm took his own, very-similar shades by the back of one arm and tugged them a tad closer to his face. "That's a cute try, cupcake tin, and you're not the first to pull it, but I'm not in the habit of doing favors for my fellow magic channelers. It's bad for business, you not having physical hearts to pull energy from." That was the nice thing about Yugopotamians, his momma had always said- when it came to hearts, they had four. You could really grant some game-changing wishes with a Yugopotamian for a master.

Sanderson pulled out his ugly cell phone. "That's understandable, but I was curious. I've traveled up and down the reaches of Earth and Fairy World, and even most of Anti-Fairy World, and one time we even looked into setting up a business on one of Jupiter's moons, but I haven't yet met enough genies to satisfy my fascination."

"Eh, we're tough as frozen hotcakes to come by." Norm's attention moved to his fingernails. Brace-Face's non-contagious enthusiasm had chipped the one on the left ring finger, and all the others were soiled just from bobbing about beneath the kid's dirty roof. "I might try checking out Canada, in your shoes. Whole country's built on a Genie graveyard. Dozens of lamps, buried there beneath the snow somewhere, just hibernating forever with no one to rub the warmth back into them."

Sanderson obviously wasn't listening. Or maybe he was, but the rapid drilling of his thumbs against the keys of the little gray device suggested otherwise. Guy didn't have much of an attention span, did he? How old would he be by genie terms? 25,000, maybe, and then some? Too old to have gone this long without learning proper manners, in any case.

After almost two minutes, which Norm spent relishing his odd if somehow intriguing pizza, it seemed to occur to the pixie that his 'conversation partner' hadn't been speaking for a time. He raised his head again. "What about one question?"

"Eh?" Still chewing, Norm touched his tail to the floor as he reoriented himself on the couch. "Better speak softly and ping up a current passport. You don't want someone to phone the immigration offices now that you've just come back to reality. It won't injure your cardboard feelings if I don't offer you a pizza, I hope. You could spill on that tasty treat you're wearing, and I presume the 1920s will want it returned to them in prime condition."

"I let you go," Sanderson said, for the third time now, like a mimic. Like a clone. The cell phone went back inside the inner left pocket of his suit coat, and he smoothed the fabric with his fingertips. "If I'm not allowed to request three wishes, can you answer one question? Any sort of question?"

"Yeeeeeahh, I can," sighed the genie. He flicked his tongue around his teeth. "The big dilemma first and foremost is, do I want to?"

"You should."

The innocent response made Norm roll his eyes, but only halfway. Seriously, what was Jorgen McGorgen doing out there? Had no one taught the guy how commercial breaks actually worked? Was he honestly waiting for the audience to 'come back'? They'd been cooped up back behind the stage for awhile now, and Norm was starting to run out of ways to put on a pleasant facade to his fellow competitors. Most of his masters spoke little to him once they learned his powers. It was one, two, three, good show everyone, job well done, and this old man came rolling home. But sitting around, making small talk, participating in social interaction… At least female genies didn't tend to be a fickle crowd. The majority of his conversations tended to be composed of short sentences, cheesy flirtations, and sarcastic quips.

He wanted to bury himself fully beneath the cushions of the couch and curl up with the tip of his tail resting on his nose. He hadn't had much time to practice his song, and the longer he was kept here to drum out the ticking seconds against his thigh, the more the possibility of becoming the fool was beginning to chew on him.

"Or," Sanderson said, watching him, "you're being really quiet, so… I can excuse myself from this conversation."

The lawn gnomes began to jeer.

He started to bob away, but Norm snapped his tail around his ankle and yanked the pixie back to the couch. "Hey, slow down, what's your hurry? I get that it's 'no rest for the wicked' and all that, but you gotta learn never to turn your back on someone you want something from." He lifted his left hand, fingers poised. "Sure, gel-bell- I'll grant you this request. Answers to any one question in the universe, hit me. How many roads does a man walk in his lifetime? Who's afraid of the big bad foop? Why is it that people who wear non-prescription glasses for the aesthetic are essentially immune to magic? How much wood could a woodchuck chuck? Where did Cotton-Eye Joe come from, where did he go?"

"Do genies have belly buttons?"

Norm was so startled, he almost snapped his fingers. They hovered there, tapping, and he only stared.

"Do genies have belly buttons?" Sanderson repeated, pressing his palms together and rubbing briskly, sharply, smartly, precisely. "Additionally, do they have parents, or are you born from the eruptions of volcanoes like in the nursery rhyme? So instead of leaving me ever ever after awaiting your return, throw me in the mountain where the genies all are born. Bring me to the peaks where the smoke clouds the skies, drop me in the Earth where the fire never dies. For I was born an ember, swaddled up in flames, return me to my bottle, don't force me out again."

He sung it in haunting monotone, but without a trace of sarcasm. Norm cocked his favorite of his two eyebrows.

"As much as it pains me - it really does - to ruin your innocent outlook on life, my pointy-hatted clock-puncher, the song's not about the origin of genies so much as it's about a girl who wants one last night with her boyfriend just after he tells her he's leaving her for a dollface with 'diamonds in her hair' and 'flowers on her lips'."

"Mm… no? I'm pretty sure it's about a damsel who'd rather die than kiss a sniveling drake who's been coming on to her all night at a party." Sanderson bobbed a hair closer. Norm could just make out his pupils behind his sunglasses now. He'd wondered if the pixie even had any, because he'd met their Head in the courtroom once and missed most of his own hearing just squinting at the guy and trying to solve that puzzle. "So then, does that mean genies do have belly buttons?"

"Sure, either we have belly buttons or we'd have to lay eggs."

"Why?"

Moving his jaws, wriggling his tongue in the spaces behind his teeth where the peanut butter stuck the worst, Norm propped an elbow on the back of the couch and flicked Sanderson on the nose. "Because, kitten-tot, when a foolish master leaves a genie to head out roaming with at least one wish still left to grant, and when a mommy and daddy genie love each other very much, and their tails twine together and it's plenty warm outside and… You're… not interrupting me. First time for everything, eh, pumpernickel? You can't even predict where I'm going with this, can you? They never gave you this conversation in business school?"

"H.P. says even a small splash of cold water will kill a small genie," Sanderson said with utter seriousness, settling himself on his knees on the couch. His wings folded along his back with a vague crunching sound (Good- Norm didn't have much experience with spinning objects and the fluttering had been making him dizzy). "Or a 'candle', I believe you call your nymphs? That's why it has to be warm weather for conception to occur. So, I was wondering, if you care to inform me, does that mean the little baby genie inside will die if the pregnant father visits a place with a low-level outside temperature?"

Norm glanced over the couch's back to see if anyone was listening in on their… interesting choice of conversation. Cosmo had found licorice, which Wanda was trying to wheedle away from him. Not easy when he'd gone into hermit crab form and was swinging from a particularly strong cobweb. Cupid and Juandissimo were floating beside a vanity, arguing over a quiver of the cherub's arrows. The lawn gnomes had overturned a coffee table on the far side of the backstage area and were apparently arming themselves for Sanderson's next venomous attack. They ducked when they caught his glance.

To the pixie, he said, "Pregnant mother, actually. But nah, it's rare for a genie to score top marks on the death thing. We just have amniotic sacs filled with fire instead of water, that's all. Keeps the li'l candle nice and toasty. It would have to at least as cold as Canada in January to kill an unborn genie."

"And then you get belly buttons." Sanderson's upper lip twitched almost an entire centimeter. They were breaking all the records today, weren't they? Evidently, he was delighted to learn this critical piece of information. He braced his hands to either side and tilted his face towards the ceiling. Content. Norm folded his arms.

"Look, cough drop. I kinda take it as a personal insult that you thought it was worth wasting my all-dominating, rule-free, supreme cosmic powers of the universe on a question like that. What, did you not think I could handle anything more?" Now he looped his smoky, shifting tail around Sanderson's arm near his wrist and dragged himself closer to the pixie. "Am I stupid to you?"

He'd gained the upper hand- physically, and metaphorically. Sanderson wriggled his fingers against Norm's grip, the limb they were connected to now held above his head. "I meant no offense… Norman, wasn't it? Norm? I was simply curious."

"Odd topic to be curious about in another class of beings. Someone set you up on a wild swanee chase?" He asked the question in a mostly disinterested fashion, because really, who sends people around to ask stuff like that? And as expected, Sanderson denied it. He withdrew his tail and they lapsed into silence. Norm ran the opening lines of his song through his head once again. Sanderson checked the time on his phone.

"Is it true that your heads open?" Norm finally couldn't resist asking. It startled the pixie enough that he withdrew the hand that had been finger-crawling back for the tip of Norm's blue tail. "I'm not the clown here so I wouldn't call myself the leading expert on 'fair', but it seems I should get to ask a question about Fairykind anatomy since you got to hear a snatch of mine."

"Yes. It's where we keep some reproductive organs and our cores."

Oh. How-? But-? Hmm. Never mind.

"A simple 'yes' would have sufficed." Licking the last of the sauce from his thumb - the pizza really hadn't been that bad - he tapped a nail against his chest. "I keep my own core right around this general location, although I am prone to giving it away to honeys on the weekends. And we simpletons refer to it as a 'heart'. 100% pure fire, that."

"And it makes the smoke for your tails, I've read." Sanderson reached up to lay his palm against Norm's chest. The genie slapped it away before it could connect.

"Hey, you did not get permission to touch me."

After a moment's consideration, Sanderson teleported in a short stack of paperwork with a chime and lifted his pen from behind his ear. "Would it hurt you if I did? That's unexpected."

Norm squinted. It was impossible to tell whether the guy was being sarcastic or if he was honestly puzzled. "It won't hurt anything-"

"Then why do I need your permission? I have papers now, but I thought I ought to ask."

Now the genie just rolled his eyes. Shifting in his seat so he was angled away from the curious gray-hatted oddity, he snorted, "I don't really make it a habit of letting pixies smear their dirty hands on me. You'll stain my shirt with your greasy ink stains."

Sanderson thought about this. "Is that your reason? I've been informed that the ink we use in our official practice isn't quite so greasy as everyone else seems to claim it is."

"Well, my clearly-too-innocent paper boy, it implies affection, and I have done and will continue to do way better than you."

"I must ask you to clarify what it is that you're doing better than me at."

One more time, Norm rolled his eyes and began to finger his sunglasses. "Hey, forget it, okay? It's not your fault if your brain is so stuffed with legal terms and grammar mechanics that you can't retain certain other valuable aspects of information."

"I never forget anything," Sanderson said seriously, pinging the paperwork off again. "Pixie brains are wired for attentiveness, and on top of that, I'm a drone. It takes exactly 75 centigrams of forget-a-cin to wipe a pixie's mind of a single minute of the timestream." Absentmindedly, he plucked up the tip of Norm's tail again. And once more, Norm smacked it out of his hands.

"Would you stop touching that? By embers- for a species that claims to remember everything, you sure can't follow directions."

"I've noticed that it squishes."

"Yes. And stop. It's yours as much as your eyesore of a hat is mine." He sat back and groaned. "Aw, you made me smudge my shades, smart-dart."

"Here." Sanderson reached into a pocket of his gray suit and drew out a small, crisp package of white wipes.

"Eh… You'll have to get those for me, pint-size. I don't know how to open tiny crinkly bags. Actually, I think 'pint-size' fits you- you're about the size and shape of a milk carton."

"You don't know how to tear things open?"

"What can I say, tin-grin? I live in a lamp, secluded from the world." Norm mimed taking the packet and ripping it with his teeth. Sanderson copied the gesture smugly. For one second, he almost looked proud that he could do something that 'didn't come naturally' to a genie.

But the second immediately after that, he spat out a trail of saliva dripping with white bubbles. The genie got a laugh out of that.

"Hey, whaddya know, huh? I always thought the stories might have exaggerated, but I guess the monkey-see, monkey-do game really is easy to pull over your dull gray minds."

Sanderson twitched one of his eyebrows. "Did you just trick me into biting this for the sheer smoof of it?"

"Who, me?" Norm plucked just one wipe from the foil packet in the pixie's hands and flapped it out with a flourish. "I didn't make you do anything you couldn't have prevented."

"Hm." Sanderson gazed at the remaining wipes in their little bundle. And then, to Norm's shock, he put his tongue to them again. He ran the taste around his mouth, smacking softly as the genie watched over the rims of his deeply-tinted sunglasses, and then he shook his head. "No. The research is conclusive. I do not like licking soapy wipes."

"I'm glad we got that figured out, buttercup. Smoof, how much longer are they planning to leave us sitting on our tushes back here?" Instinct prevented him from snapping his fingers, but Norm mimed the gesture lightly anyway as he used his other hand to finish cleaning his sunglasses. "Keep it moving, dragonflies, keep it moving. Some of us have places to 'port and wishes to grant."

"We're running late," Sanderson blurted. He craned his neck. "Jorgen said it was my turn in ten minutes. However, it has now been ten and a half. I can feel it; time ticks in my head. Now everything is collapsing. Something's gone wrong and the end of the cloudlands is imminent. Should that happen, then I'll never get my chance to sing."

Norm clicked his tongue. The shades went on his nose again. He tapped them once so they slid down a bit further. "Little high-strung, aren't you little pen-pushers?"

Sanderson had set his teeth. His fingers were locked into the creases of the tan couch cushions beneath him. He wasn't quite rocking back and forth, but his body was certainly tense enough that Norm could have tapped a finger on his nose and tipped him over. "Permit me to correct you. I wouldn't refer to my state of mind as high-strung. I'm functioning at peak performance."

"I'm guessing that you wear the glasses to hide that constant twitch in your lower eye, eh, sunshine?"

"Why are we running late?"

That got a whistle out of the genie, and he reached up to tip his fez. "Hey, you actually managed to place emphasis on a word that time. If you were my maître d', I'd tip you extra."

Sanderson settled his wings against his spine again and stared forward. "We've been here for awhile. I hope H.P. hasn't left." After another moment of apparently dwelling on that idea, fingering his shiny black tie, he slipped from the couch and skimmed towards the edge of the stage where he could catch a glimpse out into the crowd.

Norm turned his attention briefly on Cosmo and Wanda, still arguing over licorice, but now at the opposite end of the backstage area. It seemed that a squabble and chase had broken out; Wanda now had Cosmo the hermit crab pinned to the wooden wall, a mass of licorice raised in a no-nonsense fist above the padded swirl in her hair. Juandissimo had probably just shot the water dispenser, because he looked startled and Cupid had a hand clapped over his eyes. Liquid guzzled to the floor. When Sanderson came back, the genie flicked a thumb over his shoulder.

"You've got building floor plan senses, right? Think you could use that sharp hat to point me towards the nearest watering hole that doesn't look like it came out the wrong end of a lawn gnome? I've got peanut butter sticking my teeth together."

Sanderson fixed his shades. "There's a vanity over there in the back with honeytonic. That would be for gargling. It can help to clear out the throat and nasal passages. That could potentially help you."

"Ah, well then… Were you able to get your money back?"

"I get my money back from a lot of things. You'll need to clarify."

"I meant since the honeytonic obviously didn't do you any good."

The pixie said nothing. Then, "I don't get it."

Norm rubbed his knuckles into Sanderson's head, which was a disturbing sensation, given that their skulls were apparently as square as they looked. It was like scraping his hand against a tree stump with peeling bark. "It'll come to you if you hear yourself speak with that low drawl much longer, hey?"

"Well." Still twitching, Sanderson cracked his knuckles. "It seems it would be a better use of my time to finish chewing out those pesky thieving lawn gnomes- Did you hear how they ripped off my song?"

"Uh, no." If Norm had to listen to those snapping voices back and forth and back and forth on the same topic for another moment, he was going to lose his steam. He'd already obliterated the Canadian-imported nuts on the dirty refreshment table. "I mean, yes, I heard. Hey, forget those red-capped chumps." He used his pinky to lift his sunglasses. "I enjoyed our chat, pointy hat, and I've got something more I wanna say before you go prancing off like a sprite."

"Oh. Okay." Sanderson, possibly puzzled, sat down again. Not a fighter, was he? Just a forthcoming little fellow.

"You gave me the advice about gargling before I head out on stage, so I'll pay you back with a bit of advice of my own." Norm placed his arm around Sanderson's shoulders and pulled the pixie a tad closer to his own body. He tapped him on the tip of a nose that simultaneously managed to be pointed and round. The perfect average. "Since that big-headed boss of yours has obviously neglected to teach you the facts of life, it just seems right that I fill in for you here."

"Please don't."

He'd half expected the guy to say 'Under blah blah blah court case, this is harassment' or 'I'll sue'. Norm clucked his tongue again and flipped his tail away from Sanderson's creeping fingers. "We're skipping the reproductive parts, Captain Gray-dient. I wouldn't even know where to start with beings with legs. It's your horrendous lack of social skills that I'm here to fix you up with. It's the least I can do, since even I can't work a miracle with that square face. You could draw out architecture plans with a straight-edge like that."

"I knew a selkie once who used to…"

"So I was thinking we needed to get you a girlfriend. Or a friend at all. And Norm the Genie is no one's friend, if that wasn't clear to your close-minded head. One-man soul. Never to change."

Sanderson eased Norm's hand from his shoulder. "I'm no one's friend either."

"You too, huh? Well…" Norm trailed his eyes about their surroundings once again. The lawn gnomes had taken care of the water problem. Juandissimo sat sadly in the corner while Cupid lectured him for snatching his precious lovey-dovey arrows. The genie gestured with his tail towards the she-fairy tapping on the shell of the quaking hermit crab in her palm. "You can keep a trade secret, can't you, little man? Perfect. Here, the key to winning a girl is all confidence. Act big to make it big. Before you head home tonight, you ought to strike up a conversation with her."

"She's married," Sanderson said in a tone that might have passed for surprise under proper scrutiny. "Legally. Can't you see the matching notches along the distal costas of their wings?"

"It's just for practice. If you already know you'll get shot down, you've got nothing to lose. And, you'll find yourself honing a new skill, which is waaay better than arguing with some silly lawn gnomes, right?"

"I'm afraid not."

That time he spoke with a voice that could have withered paint from the wall or curdled couch cushions, and possibly did. Norm chuckled and wrapped his tail around the lower portion of his own torso, content to lie back and bask in his own warmth until it was his turn to hit the stage. For the first time, he actually bothered to snap his fingers and gong the pizza sauce stains off his sky-blue blazer. "Like I said, it's confidence that's key. That's the tale as old as time."

Sanderson adjusted the arms of his shades with both hands. He seemed to fiddle with them an awful lot. He cleared his throat. "Well, spontaneity was always a major factor in the origin of the Pixies, and perhaps your 'fast and forward' approach will benefit me in life. Anyhow, I thank you for your time."

"What can I say? You've never had a friend like me." He drawled the word 'friend' to make clear to Sanderson exactly what he thought of it. Sanderson, in the spirit of someone who knew every Disney song by heart, smiled very faintly and nodded.

It was then that Jorgen - fezzin' finally - strolled through the backstage area, although from the opposite direction Norm would have expected. He glanced at a trailing list in his hands, then crumpled it up. "Pixie, you are on in one hundred and thirty seconds."

Good. Perhaps those lawn gnomes could use his time out onstage to make a getaway. Norm patted him on the shoulder. "Splash 'em to ashes, paper boy."

Sanderson leapt from his seat and beat his way towards the edge of the stage. There he hovered (Norm had forgotten how irritating that buzz in his wings was) while Jorgen roused the crowd with one of his usual unflattering introductions. Wanda and Cosmo (both now back in fairy form and licorice-free) leaned against the wall beside the pixie, squinting beneath his shoulder and into the crowd.

In that snap-second just after his name had been called but before he strolled onto the stage, Sanderson turned full around to face the two fairies. Hands in fists, head tilted back, he looked Wanda in the eyes and clipped, "Check me as I whip out some serious beats, yo."

Then, with a satisfied nod to himself, the pixie swept out to face the music. Cosmo and Wanda exchanged raised-eyebrow glances. One of the elf officials behind Norm pressed Play on a chunky boombox. What followed was a churning, rattling, beeping, almost mechanical tune, seeping from the overhead speakers. Sanderson grasped the front of his suit in one fist. For a couple of heartbeats he hovered, head bowed. Then, as the music kicked into gear, he ripped off his coat and shirt to reveal that underneath it all he was wearing…

… underwear.

Wanda looked straight at Norm and held both arms out in the direction of the partially-stripped pixie, shrugging them like, Are you proud of what you've done? "I didn't tell him to do that," the genie protested, but faint secondhand embarrassment prickled at the top of his scalp like an itch. On stage, Sanderson pinged in a fresh set of red clothes, complete with a solid, golden chain around his neck. How it didn't knock the guy out of the air, Norm honestly wondered about. He braced his shoulder against the wall and covered half his face with one thoughtful hand.

He had to admit, the guy put on a good show. It obviously wasn't his first time in front of a large audience, and his steely calm made Norm twist his tail into a light knot with envy.

Okay, so flinging his microphone across the stage so that the impact banged through the speakers and half the second stanza was drowned out- that was a bad idea. But the act of bunching himself into a ball and then bursting from it with squarish wasp wings turned into long dragonfly ones that shimmered with rainbows was certainly a clever touch. And who would've guessed earlier that pixies were willing to perform standing backflips for a crowd? Miniature sparkling fireworks rained over the stage in a unicorn's blood of colors as Sanderson touched down on the stage again and folded his arms tight.

… Then it was gone. Whether it was a money question, the strain of holding all that shapeshifting magic, or just done for effect, Sanderson pinged back into his gray suit. The pixie stood, stared into the silent crowd for a beat, then tucked his hands in his pockets and wandered from the stage and back to Norm's side.

"So," he droned, glancing up, "can I get some constructive criticism on my performance? I take it from your tilted eyebrows and tensed tail that it was not my best work."

"Aw, fez, sugarcube." Norm ran two fingers between his sunglasses and his eyes. On the bright side, Sanderson hadn't set the bar particularly high for the rest of them, so in a way he'd gained the upper hand here. "We gotta teach you when to drop a mic."