43. Rain Dance (Pre-series)
First Wednesday of Late Spring; Aurora 8016
Year of Breath; Spring of the Pruned Porcupines
The square purple lamp sprouting from the square purple desk in the square purple office clicked on with a hazy flicker. "Dm. Wanda Venus Fairywinkle."
"Let me repeat this report back to you, just to ensure I have all the facts."
"All right, sir; that sounds reasonable and you can go ahead with that whenever you're ready," she said, hands folded in her gaping sleeves as instructed. Back straight. Chin up. Crown floating. All four dragonfly wings tightly folded between her spine and the fluffy gray robe she had been suited up in, for reasons she hadn't yet asked. The Head Pixie rifled through another stack of papers, then put it down and set his palm to his cheek.
"I am to understand that you and your husband traveled back in time no less than sixty-five million years, allegedly on - I believe these are your sister's words - 'sightseeing tour' - and shrunk all the dinosaurs into itty-bitty birds and lizards. Every one of them. The time-stream has shifted and they are now classified as extinct well before they might have been. The pair of you were the reason for it all along. Ignoring the fact that you've sparked the interest of the Yugopotamians who wish to study and import - slash - export a variety of new species and that this is causing tourism rates to skyrocket, I hope you understand that you and quite possibly the entirety of Fairy World could be sued quintillions for this. I was told there was also a meteorite involved?"
"Why?" he asked without lifting out of monotone.
"I wasn't thinking clearly." It was all Wanda could scrape together. She shifted one palm up towards the opposite elbow. "Hey, it was my assigned day to be bad. It happens, and then- Poof! It all gets to your head. Next thing you know, you're face-down on a trampoline made of grilled cheese in a lagoon filled with hadrosauruses. Or is it hadrosaurusi…?"
"Be that as it may that it was your assigned day, that's no excuse." The thick, perfectly-unsmudged glasses pushed upwards into the graying black hair for the third time in as many minutes as he pinched his nose and rubbed. Then they came off altogether. The Head Pixie set them down without folding the arms. Then, leaning forward, he clasped his hands. "How exactly did the two of you manage to get your hands on a golden Time Key in the first place? Those things are more valuable than honeymoon arrows, and easily six thousand times rarer."
"My sister found it in her cereal box when we were thirty-thousand. We didn't know what it was for."
"Dm. Fairywinkle, now is not the time for games. This is a matter of universal security. I've just come from spending a long morning with Father Time - believe me when I say it was long, because it literally has gone on for a week and I am functioning on very little sleep at the moment - and apparently its magic was so immense that not a single sensor nor tracking device in Fairy World could land a read on it. I find it difficult to believe that the two of you stumbled across it by accident."
Wanda shrugged. The Head Pixie sighed. He made a mark on one of the papers, turned to a second, and replaced his glasses on his round nose. "I interrogated your husband on the matter of what became of the key. Might I hear your side of the story to compare?"
"Okay. So after we'd spent the morning doing our sightseeing thing, we dropped it from a cliff into a lake and went diving after it. Well, if you want the truth-"
"-then Cosmo went after it. He… he doesn't mind the water creatures as much as some of us."
"Your hesitation is understandable. The dragonfly is your race's patron and they don't do well around large fish. And did Cosmo manage to retrieve the key?"
Wanda's eyes trailed to the windows. They were square windows, of course, and every one had purple curtains drawn across them. All the lighting in the room was artificial, and the Head Pixie just continued to stare at her from his side of the square, purple desk with his fist leaning against his right cheek. At least he'd put the glasses back on. It made him less intimidating, somehow; she still remembered him with his glasses from when they'd last spoken days long ago, and seeing him without them even for an instant unnerved her. Faltering, she said, "Y-yes, he did eventually. I guarded his back from approaching dinosaurs while he was down there. I'd never realized they had feathers. But there was a problem."
She tapped one fingernail to another inside her sleeves. "Cosmo turned himself into an eel. He thought it would help him blend in with all the other fish. And when he scooped the key up in his mouth, something began to chase him about, trying to eat him, and he panicked. Then he swallowed it."
"Yes, so I've been informed. That's the part that concerns me. Of all fairies, the fact that it was Cosmo Cosma who should…" Leaning back, he rubbed his temples. Rustle. Flip. Flip. "His family tree says that although he is technically a full-blooded fairy, he is legally recognized as half-brownie."
Wanda bristled. "It's a stupid rule. Blatant discrimination against his family for being poor."
"Life is blatant discrimination. You're preaching to the Tuatha Dé Danann, m'dear. It's not my decision to make, and either way, he has the nose." With two fingers, he turned the paper he was reading around so the words were facing her. One graying eyebrow went up. "Though it says here he uses magic to conceal it on an ever-draining basis, still?"
"Are you trying to call me a brownie-kisser?" Even though she was the one to ask the question, Wanda was disinterested in hearing his answer. She'd heard every individual accusation a thousand times before.
The Head Pixie studied her, then scratched his own nose and went back to his notes. "That is not an important piece of this discussion. I bring it up because before sitting him down for questioning, we ran a scan over him as is proper protocol here in Pixie World. Much as with the key, our technology could not pick up any trace of him. Not his shape. Not his magic. Not his lines. Not his core. Until we tested a DNA sample and took his fingerprints, he registered on the screen as a goose egg. He and the Anti-Cosmo."
"Maybe you need new technology."
"We do not. Brownie saliva is highly acidic and evidence suggests that upon his swallowing the key, it dissolved in his stomach and that its abilities passed on to him. Its magic is more powerful than anything Fairy World has ever had to face before."
Suppressing the same shiver she got every time her distrusting senses began tingling and she correctly identified the real villain before the end of a good book, she said, "Sorry- is this the part that's a Pixie matter?"
"Ignoring your sarcasm, I will say simply that actually, it is. Yours and Cosmo's wands have always been covered by the Pixurance plan. However, in light of certain circumstances, I would advise you both to take your business elsewhere. Ta-ta."
"Um." Wanda upturned both palms. "How, exactly?"
"Dm. Fairywinkle. Hands."
They went back into her sleeves. "I'm sorry that I don't know when you last pulled back those purple curtains and looked out the window, but, well… you and your people have kind of driven most everyone else out of the business completely."
He didn't blink or move, with the exception of his mouth. "'Most' everyone is not everyone. I happen to know each and every one of my competitors in the wand and magic line insurance field, along with their strengths and their weaknesses, and when we're done here today, I will provide you with a list of they and their businesses in my personal order of favoritism, if you should like."
This time, Wanda actually did shiver. Even with her father's surname behind her, seeking out those in the struggling businesses (with or without having the expectation that said struggling businesses would be up to par with the bells and whistles offered by the Pixies) was not exactly advisable these days. Shifty characters always found shadows beneath the big names to skulk in.
"It will be in our best interests."
"Your best interests? Whatever happened to 'The customer is always right'?"
The Head Pixie ignored her. "While it is automatic and has always served us well in the past, our system can no longer keep tabs on whatever wishes Cosmo may flit about granting. I might go so far as to say that secret wishes may come out of this, or getting lost without a trace while Fairies scramble to track him down. The world could descend into chaos, and who is going to have to be the one responsible for shelling out the money to restore it to order? We will. It's always us." His fingers tightened, knuckles lining up on top of his spread papers. "If you Fairies would all just calm down and think basic things through instead of zipping off after whichever of the two opportunities laid in front of you looks most appealing at that moment in time, we wouldn't be having this problem, hm? To be frank, the entire civilization on your side of Cherish Jungle needs to chill."
You'd think someone as rich as you lot could afford to stay out of other people's business, she replied, but only in her head. He shook his and forged on.
"There are proper protocols to follow. You can't very well just spend your life flouncing about breaking Da Rules left and right and expecting to meet no resistance and suffer no punishment. Really, anything could happen with Cosmo's records, location, status, and magic virtually untraceable from this point forward, especially considering who he is. So, this is a grave matter for everyone. If you want my opinion, although I know you will not heed my advice and I accept that, the universe as a whole would be far better off if he were to go dusty tonight."
Wanda regarded him in silence. "If you make any attempt to slice Cosmo open and fish around for whatever might remain of that key, believe me, I will stop at nothing to tear you and your company to the ground. I'm still coming down from my power boost."
"Unfortunately, as much as I desperately want to, I cannot." The Head Pixie's voice still hadn't changed once throughout the entire conversation. As he rearranged his papers into a perfect stack, he went on with a bored, "Your husband has a powerful counterpart on the other side of the Divide, and he and I signed a binding contract that I would not physically harm either one of you. However, I never surrendered my ability to bring you both misery, so I would continue to tread carefully were I the one with your wings."
Then he reached across the desk and took up her wand, which had been placed there by the same pixie who had escorted her in fifteen minutes ago. Wanda stretched her own hand out instinctively, but a sharp reminder not to touch anything made her draw it back. The Head Pixie popped the star cap off the end of her wand and set it beside his cup of highlighters without spilling any of the precious rosewater inside. Then his attention turned to the hollow black handle.
"Ulkroot," he said. "Unusual choice."
"The physical piece may wear faster than the other woods, but I happen to like it for the channeling simplicity and its reliable speed."
"Interesting." He shook it until four coin-shaped, coin-sized, and coin-sounding units of power tumbled onto his desk, along with a clump of wires like a knot of hair. After moving the units about with his fingertip for several seconds, he brought one that glowed with fluorescent green up to his eyes. Wanda watched in twitching silence as he rotated it, smelled it, and even put his tongue to it. Then the Head Pixie nodded and, during a painstaking two minutes, repacked everything into the handle of the wand.
"I've been informed that the Fairy Council has decided to reassign you both training models for the foreseeable future. You can be picking them up from Adelinda von Strangle later this evening, and I was told that you would have time to lock them in your vault before you and Cosmo get shipped off for your five hundred years in Abracatraz."
She swiveled her head to follow him with silent eyes as he got up and floated towards the door of his office. He opened it and motioned for her to follow. Wow. He wasn't even going to thank her for her time?
"And don't touch anything," he reminded her as she slid past him. On foot, of course- with her wings flattened by the robe, she couldn't very well float. Wanda shot him an upwards glare that she hoped he didn't catch. What she really wanted to do was fling the back of her hand against his cheek and see how he reacted to it… but she refrained.
They were back in the room with the water cooler, the white couch, and the secretary desk where one of the pixies lay with his head in the crook of his arm and the crook of his arm in the middle of a thick green book. He sat up at their approach and offered a dull, "Sir?"
The Head Pixie snapped his fingers twice in the direction of a second pixie who hovered stoically by the open door on the other side of the room. "Sanderson, please escort Dm. Fairywinkle to the showers."
"The showers?" Wanda found herself asking.
"Yes. Your skin is crawling with prehistoric parasites and deadly bacteria that ought to be extinct and that Fairy World may not have cures for any longer. We've been instructed that we are to have you thoroughly hosed down and vaccinated before we return you to Adelinda."
Wanda glanced down at her hands. Ah.
Sanderson made the same 'Follow me' gesture that his boss had, but before Wanda followed him through the doorway, she turned back. "Drk. Head Pixie?"
"If you have to make anything about this event public, is there any way possible you could leave out the parts that talk about mine and Cosmo's relationship? Our parents don't know we're married and we'd both prefer it stayed that way."
He furrowed his brow. "I have to document it in Pixie permanent records, but so long as you cooperate, I see no reason why I can't expend some effort ensuring that news of this stays out of the media's grasp."
She supposed it was the best she could hope for, so she surrendered herself to Sanderson's lead. He walked her down flight after flight of stairs ('flight' was such an ironic name), from Floor 18 all the way down to Floor 6 where the pixies had their cute food court and eating area, and spoke to her only once when she made the mistake of reaching towards the handrail for support on behalf of her clumsy feet. Several more of the pointy-hatted weirdos followed them in silence as they descended. Possibly to ensure she didn't slip off while Sanderson was looking the other way.
Part of Wanda desperately wanted to wonder aloud why they were walking all that way instead of poofing. The other part of her knew the answer; if she was infected, doing anything of the sort was simply the equivalent of laying out a picnic lunch for trouble on a blanket in the woods, then skipping off while all chaos broke loose among the unheeded insects. That, and the pixie would probably be tempted to charge her for it.
"You don't have a separate damsels' washroom," she said without thinking when they pulled up at their destination at last, and then realized why and inwardly kicked herself. She heard Cosmo singing fairy tales-turned-awkward rhymes from behind one of the shower curtains, but her escorts pointed to one of the others before she could ask.
"Soap," Sanderson said, unwrapping a thin bar he'd taken from a high shelf. When Wanda put out her upturned hand, he dropped it into her palm from a safe distance. "Washcloth. Additional washcloth. I would assume you know how to scrub stale magic from your skin?"
"We're doing the whole thing, are we?"
"Yes. You've been contaminated. You must be as sterilized as possible before you may leave quarantine."
Wanda studied the shower, then checked over her shoulder. "Well, is there any way I could get this done in a bathtub instead? I am a fairy. Why do you think I have the dragonfly wings? I don't like them wet if it can be helped." Mostly because she wasn't particularly fond of mulling over the concept of being entrapped in such a large, unfamiliar building without the ability to fly.
The four pixies, all standing near the first toilet stall with arms crossed like huldufólk bouncers at a serious rave, shook their heads. Well then. Pursing her lips, Wanda stepped past the half-drawn curtain. There was a bench in there, and the floor was tiled and grippy. Above the bench she found a hook where the gray robe was almost certainly meant to go. A second one was already awaiting her freshly-cleaned body. Sanderson insisted on turning on the water for her, and once they'd agreed upon the temperature and she'd drawn the curtain shut behind him, she hung her first robe there.
It wasn't a small shower- Wanda could turn full around with her wings spread to either side, and she found herself wondering if the same would be true if they were physically capable of stretching straight backwards, particularly if she reached forward at the same time. The water fell in raindrops. It soaked her pink curls and stung her sensitive wings. Out of spite, she rubbed her palms up and down the curtain, and made a silent show of bracing her bare skin against the walls as she scrubbed her body down.
She started with the physical wash, of course. Red dirt, caked blood, and the like. Once she was relatively satisfied with her work, Wanda rolled her eyes back in her head until she triggered her ability to peer into the magic energy field. Looking again now, she found her skin coated with multiple layers of swimming purple dots. The flakes latched on to each other, released, buzzed about, and then settled again.
Wanda used the soap and water in turns to peel back every one. It was slow going, but she had to admit that she did feel much better when all of it was done. Seeing as her hands were clean, Wanda turned the water off herself and reached for the fresh robe.
The instant she stepped out from behind the curtain, Sanderson pounced on her. Almost literally.
"Not yet, Dm. Fairywinkle. Take off the robe and let's see how you did."
Wanda slid her eyes from him to the other three pixies, still standing relatively where she'd left them. "Uh-huh. Why don't you all turn around first, sport? I'm a happily-married woman, and not really eager or comfortable with the idea of doing that."
"Nonetheless, there are places on your back that are physically impossible for you to reach, and it's our job to wipe them down for you. You can't leave quarantine until you do this. It will be easier on all of us if you please cooperate."
Nobody had an answer for that. After thirty seconds of inquisitive silence, a pixie that Sanderson called Keefe pinged off to hunt down the Head Pixie. Wanda shrank back against the wall, cursing herself under her breath. Apparently, her situation had just gone from finfolk to redcap.
When the Head Pixie returned, he shot an irritated glance in the direction of Cosmo's curtain (he still hadn't stopped belting out mismatched nursery rhymes) and then turned his half-lidded gaze on Sanderson. "What exactly is the problem?"
Wanda wasn't about to let some pointy-hatted freak answer for her. She folded her arms across her chest. "Well, I'm definitely not going to stand here and be washed down by a bunch of drakes. I can tell you that much. Like I just told these twits, I'm a married woman."
The pixies all turned their heads in the direction of their boss, who sighed like this was something he'd explained more often than the Snobbish alphabet. "Pixies reproduce through parthenogenetic means and don't take mates. You can rest assured that none of them are the slightest bit interested in you."
"I don't care. I have my rights. Call my sister. Call the Anti-Wanda. Call any damsel. Call Cosmo."
Cosmo, still humming, poked his head out from under his curtain. "Who's this Cosmo you speak of? He sounds like a swell guy. Someone I should know about?"
The Head Pixie didn't blink. "Witnesses must be present so we can record in our files that you were indeed cleaned. My pixies would still be here, and I'll charge you extra for the inconvenience."
"Cosmo won't like this. I want to talk to him. Let him do it for you. Back me up, sweetie," she added to him under her breath.
"No, seriously, do I know a Cosmo? That name sounds awfully familiar. Does he wear half a pair of glasses and a funny round hat?"
"Would you really like to entrust Cosmo with ridding you of all-encompassing deadly bacteria?"
No. But Wanda outright refused to lift her foot from the matter. Focusing her eyes deep into the Head Pixie's, she said, "I want my husband to be there with me."
The Head Pixie scratched his cheek, but he didn't pick a fight about it. He snapped his fingers twice and motioned for his pixies to head for Cosmo's shower with their washcloths and soap. Gritting her flat teeth, Wanda joined their party. At least the Head Pixie showed no intention of following himself. She heard him ping away, and Sanderson gave a satisfied nod at this turn of events and went after him.
Cosmo had sat himself down cross-legged on the floor, sliding his soap in circles around the drain like some sort of boat, and he flinched slightly when he realized he was about to have an audience. "Rhonda!"
"Cosmo!" He jumped up and the pair embraced as the water pattered down, which caused at least two of the pixies to hiss and stammer that they shouldn't be touching. What did they know- after all, pixies reproduced through parthenogenetic means and didn't take mates, right? They couldn't understand affection.
Wanda's hope was that as long as she was hugging Cosmo, the pixies would be at too much of a loss to bother her. And it worked, for a little while. They fiddled with their black ties and flapped out the wet sleeves of their gray suit coats. But one of them - Wolfram, she'd thought she'd heard earlier - finally snagged her by the loop in the back of her robe collar and reminded her that she needed to take it off.
"You want her to get naked in the shower?" Cosmo asked, apparently oblivious to the fact that he was exactly that. His green hair had been plastered down against his forehead so a great sopping tuft of it hung down between his eyes. "Hey, this is my wife you're trying to rain dance with."
"Yes, and it's my job that's on the line. Why do fairies need each and every side of the coin spelled out for them before they ever do anything?"
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"Do you dull gray people really have to be here?" Wanda asked. She hadn't let go.
Keefe put back his head. "Oh my smoof. You look exactly the same in field-sight whether you are naked or clothed. It's not like we're demanding you let us probe around inside your forehead domes. Yet. Why is this a problem?"
Okay. That was the fair point that finally made her shed the robe, even if she still didn't want to. When Wanda flipped back into field-sight herself, she realized that very little of the soap in Cosmo's hand had actually made its way across his skin. So she and two of the pixies went to work on him while the third pixie touched his hand between her fore- and hind wings to ease them down.
Cosmo put a stop to that fast. While his right arm was up in the air getting patiently scrubbed, the other reached out and tugged at the pixie's washcloth. "Hey, buddy. What exactly do you think you're doing with my wife now?"
"I'm trying to do my job and spare all magical beings from gruesomely painful extinction. What did you think you were doing with her when you dragged her off to that utterly filthy and dangerous period of time?"
"Tone back the sass a couple of ticks, Cinna," called one of the others in an identical dull voice. "There's no reason to make this more miserable than it already is for all parties involved."
Cinna muttered something under his breath and pressed his washcloth down again. "Pointy-hatted freaks," Wanda grumbled in Cosmo's ear.
Trickle by trickle, while the shower's rain washed in divets along pale skin, patches of bacteria began to wear away. When one of the pixies whispered some snide comment that Wanda didn't catch, but was possibly intended in her direction by the look he flashed at her over his shades, Cosmo spread both pairs of wings above his head and snapped, "We could take this outside where the light is better."
"Swallow your pride, Wolfram," one of the pixies warned. "His saliva's part brownie. You don't want to fight him."
"You mean that I might want to, but I shouldn't."
"And what's taking so long?" Cosmo asked, seemingly squinting past Wanda's shoulder. "You've been working on her for an awfully long time, and I don't really see anymore why I should have to like it."
The pixie called Keefe hurled his washcloth against the wall. It slid down in a lump. "Then why don't you do it, Captain Capable?"
"Really? Cool!" Cosmo picked up the rag and studied Wanda's back. She could hear the smirk in his voice when he chirped, "Looks clean. All done here. Well done, Cosmo. Ooh, can we go for steak now? I want mine medium rare like diamonds."
"No, not all done. She is covered in fungus. The bacteria are microscopic, but they're present nonetheless. How can you not understand that?"
The cloth touched her, gingerly. "How am I supposed to know when she's clean if I can't see them?"
"Well, and this is just a guess, but you maybe could try turning on your field-sight like your wife."
"Wolfram," Cinna snapped.
Wanda briefly switched hers off again to watch Cosmo's eyes roll back in his head until all that was left were a pair of green holes glowing bright. "Oh," he said, a note of interest creeping into his voice. "So, what color are these back bacteria crawlies anyway?"
Keefe made a lunging move forward, and the other two pixies immediately abandoned their work and slammed him into the wall beneath the showerhead. "Purple," one of them said, wings whirring and splattering wetness, so Cosmo repeated the word and began to touch everything purple in the shower with his soap. With purple being the color of magic in its natural, raw state, this went on for awhile before Wanda directed him gently back towards the task on hand. It was easier after that.
"You're not clean," Wolfram huffed when they'd pulled away to scan the two fairies with a starpiece. He stuffed the wand back into the pocket of his coat. "It would seem we've missed a spot. Where is it?"
"Right here," Wanda said, and lightly smacked the heel of her hand on the space between his eyes. The pixies' reactions were instantaneous. All of them yanked backwards, then targeted the unfortunate Wolfram and scrubbed furiously at his forehead with their washcloths.
"What?" she asked, readjusting the shower curtain to pull it shut in their faces as Cosmo dissolved into giggles beside her. "Can't you serious-faced cone-domes ever take a little joke?"