37. Grooming (Open timeframe)
Years long gone, and years yet on their way
Ironically, H.P. doesn't believe in nepotism. It's our favorite late-night joke, and we can smile and stare forward for minute after minute in the dark. No promoting us based purely on familial ties for him; he drinks our blood and sweat, crowing at the tang of salt when all has been said and done for the night. Smoof- if I could give him more of it, I would. If his need ever manifested itself in physical form, I'd slash my hand and press it to his lips before my wings could circle around. Then and there. I'd use my teeth, not 'if I had to' but 'should that be the best course of action'. 'It's just a flesh wound.' 'I'll be along.'
I'm on the floor. On my back right now, with my arms pressed tightly behind my head and my feet up against the purple wall. Both our logos are painted there, across from his penthouse door. First the overarching one- the swirling green S with two slashes driving through it like stakes in the ground. That's the mark of the Pixie race as a whole. Underneath it, smaller, is the logo of our company. H.P.'s company. The lavender P, with its head arched backwards and its tail curled in the same direction. Above its spine floats the dot of a lowercase i. A P and an i for Pixies Incorporated. That's the logo for H.P.'s company, stamped on every document we officially release and every gift, debit, or credit card we hand out too. My ID card has it marked in the upper left corner too, to indicate the company I was born in. The upper right corner is still blank. Waiting for a new mark when I come of age. My wrists are exactly the same. On the underside of my left wrist it's burned there, stamped forever in black ink, so deeply scarred that even our anti-pixies carry the brand. My right is waiting.
All pixies need a company. That's what we were taught from the time that I was just over 8,000. That's what a group of pixies is called - what a generational subset of pixies is called - and when we start reproducing asexually like him, we'll need to design something of our own so we can separate ourselves, divide ourselves, classify ourselves, organize ourselves. My company, perhaps the first building on a new street as Pixie World's single city expands, will specialize in music. Tapes, CDs, instruments, rhymes, lyrics, sheet music, microphones, iPods. So many copies of sheet music (I might, perhaps, set myself in charge of all the sheet music of the entire company, and place it in storage under my jurisdiction in the rear of my building). The Sanderson company's mark is going to be an eighth note that rolls straight into a P so they flow together, a noted note. Wilcox told me it looks like a "dP", like it means "dead pixies" or "dumb pixies" or something equally unflattering. I told Wilcox to shut up. If anything, it's a set of leaves on a vine, blooming upward towards the sky, on and on, growing and winding tighter, unable or at least not wanting to stand on its own.
I am left-handed. Each time I pick up a pen and glance down as I write, I see the symbol of H.P.'s company peeking beneath my sleeve. To some of us, it's an annoyance. Caudwell still wishes to break away from what we are, to leave the rest of us behind, and to him, his brand is a chain he will never break. But I find it a comfort. No matter what happens, no matter how far I go, I will always belong to him.
We are not identical.
Almost identical. But we are not. And while we don't like to advertise it and not a lot of people are in the know, there is one fool-proof way that will always tell us apart when facial recognition fails and imprints run together, or should the effort of checking our fingerprints prove impractical at the time. It's not uncommon for H.P. to watch us milling about the food court, then lunge forward in his signature way - instantaneous as the sending of an email, his intention completely undetectable until he makes the move - and snatch one of us by the arm. Just to check. He'll always nod then, and say, "I thought so," in a crisp and satisfied manner before he lets us go. As I take my feet off the wall and roll over onto my stomach, I tug my sleeve closer to my elbow, and it's there. Three numbers printed neatly on my skin just below his company brand.
It's my number, the number I'm as familiar with as my own name, though I must confess I do look forward to seeing the 001 appear on my other wrist when the day I cradle my firstborn to my chest finally comes. We are not identical, casually separated by our branding marks and numbers, but so long as they are not foolishly placed on a nymph still in the exoskeleton that he will shed in a few months' time, they last forever. I belong somewhere. I belong to him. And as long as I live, no one can take this away from me.
I already made my obligatory return to my apartment when I checked out of my office at 7:00. I ate two unsalted crackers for dinner and brushed the crumbs off my tie. H.P. gets annoyed if I change out of my suit before I show up for my after-hour duties, the same way he gets annoyed if I don't take it out "beyond the borders of Pixie World when by default I am a constant representative of our company". I am a figurehead identifiable by my signature cowlicks; I ought to look my best, even when I go out with the intention of singing or drinking or trying to dance. "Your retinue duties are an extension of work duties and I want you to look professional," he says every time I whine about the scratchiness of long-worn fabric, or the freedom that my neck would be offered by loosening my tie. No. Retinue duties are part of my job. And when I'm on the job, I must follow proper dress code. I don't totally get it (After all, shouldn't my work obligations end when I clock out? Retinue duties are classified as a biological need for gynes and drones, and I don't get paid extra for all the work I put into meeting both my demands and his), but that doesn't matter. I don't want him to be annoyed.
It's thirty-seven more minutes until 9:00. The best time of the day. The bells in the tower of the shrine we erected to the Tuatha Dé Dannan (may the Lost Ancients return from their underground prison) will toll twenty-one times. Charming place. Better than the one the Fairies banned us from entering once they decided we were deceitful, contagious, and impure. Even Anti-Cosmo has verbally admitted he likes it, especially the bells. Tin tin, tin tin, tin tinaling tin.
Like clockwork - like a script - he'll appear phoenix-like in the doorway. The hum of wings first. Then the click of the lock. A murmur to Longwood ("Good night", "Good night"). The slow creak of zinflax wood on durable enchanted hinges. Longwood is released. In my mind's eye, he slips through and flits away without a word, his thoughts presumably inclined towards calculating how many kisses he'll manage to squeeze out of his selkie punk of a girlfriend tonight before I am unceremoniously dumped back in our shared apartment to catch them holding hands on the couch. That insignificant crease in his nose always reveals the moments when he bothers to spare me a disgusted glance, even if the tinted lenses of his shades hide his eyes.
Longwood is a subordinate gyne; he doesn't participate in retinue duties like we do. He seems to get his fix by kissing damsels instead. It's totally gross, but it keeps him from chasing us, and it keeps away the whispered rumors of why the Head Pixie chose a rat like him to be company vice president over the pixie who is so obviously his favorite in all other walks of life. He doesn't touch H.P. and H.P. doesn't touch him unless he has to. Neither do we drones, fortunately bound to a highly superior figure with so much authority permeating the air that we avoid the horrid fate of constantly flipping loyalties between him and the seven other gynes who litter the company- Longwood, Smith, Cresswell, Chidlow, Spicer, Lambton, Kettingham… None of them as satisfying to turn myself over to as the reigning Head Pixie, even though I do wander over to them on occasion when H.P. neglects his duties. He's never happy about that. He'd be even less happy if he found out I sometimes do it on purpose.
Oh, Smith knows how to preen wonderfully. He'd make an excellent Head Pixie, which is why he's next in line after Longwood as it stands right now. He can turn a drone faster than any gyne I've ever met (It must be the rough tongue- He's always so rough, so precise, so deliberate, so dominant with the predictable way he always reads a face from left to right, and he's the only one short of the Head who instantly makes me straighten to prim attention and greet him every time we pass in the hall. And he's not stingy with the dominance licks either, sometimes pausing to offer a quickie when he sees me glancing over, just because he knows H.P. keeps me sensually starved on purpose and I'm not always getting what I need after hours; ooh la la, and this when you know I'm happily committed to a more dominant gyne, you naughty charmer, you). But H.P. doesn't care that we've conducted surveys, and that Smith wins the popular drone vote every time. Longwood this. Longwood that. No arguments. Sanderson. Yes, sir.
Even though I am number 002 and Longwood is number 005 so we share a four-pixie apartment, and even though there's a short window of time every morning between when I finish my shower and get ready for work when I often find myself checking his subtle pheromones out on my tongue, I'm not driven to present Longwood with my licks like I do with H.P. Nor would I want to! The thought is repulsive. A surefire way to make me freeze up mid-skim and then wriggle to shake out my wings and loosen my spine. Give myself to Longwood the same way I give myself to H.P.? Even Smith is just my casual secondary gyne and doesn't get to see that side of me.
What the Head Pixie and I have is special. I don't even allow Anti-Cosmo to take that away on days when he walks straight up behind me and casually puts his cold, furry hand on the back of my neck, just because he knows what it does to my senses. Of all the years he had to be born in, the fact that he's a Water like me makes resisting his lure sooo much more difficult than it needs to be; it really isn't fair.
But no, I don't even give myself to Anti-Cosmo the same way I give myself to H.P., and he's kiff-tied with Sunnie himself - bears the guy's favor on his cravat and all - so he totally wacks up my senses with all his "Dur hur I channel an actual nature spirit and as far as another Water like you is concerned I smell more dominant to you than your boss could ever hope to be" in that way that leaves him absolutely brimming over with the salty scents of dark, milk, and white chocolate pouring in slow motion over dipped strawberries, and when he's around then you can just feel with every one of your senses in 1080 HD quality the mental image of Anti-Cosmo plucking up a strawberry between his thumb and forefinger claws without breaking eye contact and swirling it through that milky cream-brown pool at the bottom of the fountain dish and bringing the rosy fruit to his lips, piercing it with his curved and shining white fangs- and that sensation of him biting into that mental chocolate-coated strawberry just slams you from an entire hall away and absolutely washes over your tongue like the most delicious sea salt caramels to ever melt all the way in the back of your mouth a-and… What was I talking about?
Oh, Longwood, Longwood, Longwood… Ha ha, ha ha. I know you're upset about the people I've hurt, and you don't agree with the things I've done. Brother, I know. I know it's so hard for you to understand adoration and perfection, but that's because you've never had to fight jagged tooth and chipped nail for his approval. You're not the one who lost the universe simply because you care too much.
The sigh, half begrudging and half (dare I so much as think the word?) affectionate there to greet me after Longwood has gone. I spring up then, always. Scrambling to my feet in a single bound, lifting my wings, brushing dust from my cheek and from my evening, magic-touched suit that always fits too loosely on my thin shoulders, because no matter how many times I used to fiddle with its size, I never seemed to eat enough to gain any weight, and eventually gave up the practice altogether.
All the medical texts point to obsession as the reason why. A spike in delight, a spike in blood pressure, a spike in magic drainage, a spike in metabolism… Dust, how I used to beg our nonexistent gods every night for weight to stick to my soft bones. Even sugar dissipates like it was never eaten. They're right to call me puny, along either axis. My fate is a twisted one, of gazing up the nostrils of those whose diapers I once changed as I float along the halls of the most successful shipping company in the known universe.
Sometimes, when I'm not too thin to disappear between the frames of their shades, my coworkers thrust their cups of vanilla pudding or their soy cubes and salads at me. By my hat, Sanderson, you have to eat something. Please eat- you need to eat. And I force myself to swallow every unwanted spoonful, but what's the point? I could devour the front half of a griffin, but my body type will always be too thin. I was simply born cursed. I will never have the broad shoulders and rounded belly of the Head Pixie whom I so adore. Eat enough to get by, ration your meals, skip them if you can afford to, because there's no point in overindulging if you can save yourself the money…
So the books blame obsession for my doomed scrawniness, but that's typical of drones, obsession; there's nothing to be concerned about. I'm much too smart to crash and burn- I'm much too humble- I'm much too perfect. Even H.P. says I'm perfect. I cannot afford to suffer weakness, and as a result, I elect not to.
Thirty-three minutes now. The web of skin between my forefinger and thumb is bleeding blue. I bit it to keep myself quiet, but you can only do that so many times before the groan rolls off you, rippling. I try to conceal it in the crook of my arm, but I needn't have bothered- Longwood's chittering drowns it out beyond the door, if the solid wood doesn't.
Vice president this, vice president that. That jingling metal star crowning his cap, identical if a smaller size than his, rightfully ought to have fallen to me. I'm the firstborn. I'm the alpha retinue drone. I'm the pixie everyone knows beyond the borders of our world. I'm the one who works the closest with the boss. I'm the one who was anticipated. Expected. The prince. It was Longwood's body that attended his coronation, but my spirit which was crowned. I know the position was and still is meant for me, even if the paperwork proclaims otherwise in bleeding black and blue. By all the pretend gods… The fact that I watched H.P. select Longwood to steal my destined place is just another of my miracle wounds that survived to heal, when I thought it never would.
When I was younger, I thought it must be because of the freckles; that was why he favored Longwood as his inevitable heir, and rejected me. My small hands would smudge food and dirt across my cheeks. I drew them on with a brown marker. I once spent a decade starting my mornings with an unmagicked knife in my hand, studying the mirror and carefully making slits. Then China caught me and we had to have a talk. Red blood. Red blood. Drip. Drip. Drip. Unlike the scars on the inside of my wrist, rinsed in rosewater immediately after the inking process was done, those marks on my face healed cleanly.
Longwood for company vice president. What a joke. A joke wrapped in a joke. Longwood knows nothing. Longwood deserves nothing. Longwood is nothing. I am the only pixie in the company who deserves to inherit it. I am loyal. I am humble. I am patient. You're a proud soul, Longwood, and you could never live through the things I did. I've killed to protect us - the Pixie race - and if it were up to you, you would have let us die. Five hundred of your coworkers, your friends, your family, your identical genetics. Disgusting.
No, no, I don't think it's "petty" to remember all the times you've betrayed us. It would take more than my six fingers and two thumbs to count off all the times you've let your mind slip away- away from work and into the lips of whichever damsel happened to be passing nearby. And those are only the times I've hovered in the doorways or peered into my crystal ball and watched you. We are parthenogenetic beings. An asexual race. H.P. was clear from our youth that we don't need to take mates. Why wasn't that good enough for you?
You insist on sinning that way, disobeying his orders, murmuring passwords and spilling gossip as you kiss your way along a neck or outstretched arm, over and over despite the therapy, despite our best efforts, and still you look upon your life and view yourself as pure? Your body is soiled, your soul is dirtied, and your hands are clean only because they refuse to kill, even to defend the company.
You call yourself noble; you call yourself a martyr, as if that swift sacrifice I made on your behalf when you refused to lift a finger had begun and ended life as one of your ever-so-frequent sorry ideas. Longwood the considerate, Longwood the obedient, Longwood the shy… I haven't the faintest chirp what the universe sees in you. You're not worth admiring, and I will not thank you for all the punctures left by your existence in what could have been a pleasurable life for me, over and over since nymphhood and only growing deeper and more twisted with age.
I will not thank you for that, nor dwell over the fact that the core beating in my head is what it is… or me who I used to be, almost was… another lifetime, another timeline, another could-have-been, another soul, with 002 marked on the wrong hand… Oh Longwood, you have no idea the depths I've gone to hate you. It doesn't matter how many times you save my life, or let me hold your arm when my alternative is to remain abandoned in the dark, or how many times you fumble your way into my room at night and lean your forehead against mine, your thumbs rubbing circles along my palms, shushing and crooning when old memories are strangling my throat. When I remember what ties my soul to my body now. When I remember what I took from you, what I tore and burned. When I remember that the only reason I'm alive is because of your mistakes. Your folly is now my lifeline. It's cruel and disgusting. You are cruel and disgusting.
No, your present-day kindness doesn't excuse what you've done in the past, or the pixies you've almost gotten killed. Cool motive. Still murder. Aspen's influence does not haunt my lucid mind, offering you any sort of affectionate leeway. I still remember your flaws, and you don't deserve to be forgiven in this over-baked world.
But I can let it go nonetheless. See? I'm the mature one, I'm the good boy. I can make myself move on. The future is bathed in new opportunities. People can change, we can change. I truly believe that if you worked with half the fervor I did, you might become the second most loyal and humble pixie in the company. Dear King Nuada, I'm glad that it's not you H.P. has cleaning his wings. You'd find a way to damage them. You've broken half of everything you've ever touched.
Twenty-seven minutes. I replay one of my more recent chances to rise to my duties and scrub the stale magic from H.P.'s shoulder blades through my mind's eye. Imagine my fingers wrapping around the black handle of that long-worn wing brush, my gaze briefly flicking over it and trying to determine how many more nights it will last in good condition. H.P. sprawled horizontally across his soft break room chair with his feet kicked up on the far arm, the alphabet soup and animal crackers resting in his lap, tie loose. His dull, pale, beautiful square wings dangling so casually from over the nearer arm of the chair. Apexes to jugal fold- that's the rule. Start the brushing from the outside, move upwards and inwards towards the center. The white shirt will come off last so I can take my damp cloth and carefully dab around the aching places beneath the knobs of his wings. Longwood found a discrepancy in the automatic payment system, he says, blowing on a steaming spoonful. Oh, I ask, cross-legged on an ottoman of my own, calmly brushing. How so?
And we talk, while my cheeks burn pink from sour jealousy. H.P. turns his face, as he always does when he can feel my care slipping in my work, and I bow my head in the hopes that between my shades and the dim light, he won't catch anything of my slight facial expression. He understands my rivalry with our dear sweet Mister Markell Longwood Mayfleet, even if he does not endorse it. There's true leadership in that, in the way he can look past my lone flaw, tell me that I'm trying, tell me I'll achieve an unreachable point one day and shed the hate like a butterfly cocoon.
The soup is finished, eventually, and I'll offer him his black square-hooked cane, which he'll instantly refuse with a glare or snide remark. I'll put it back in the corner and wonder how much longer it will be before the day comes that he unhappily decides he wants it, and pretends it's something beautiful he never mocked. Teeth are brushed, and sometimes there's a bath, and always there's an idea to be marked down, an errand to be run, or a verse of scripture to be read ("Long ago our fathers sailed from far across the stars; if we live righteously this land is ours", et cetera). He takes his medicine, without acknowledging it. Laundry will have to be cleaned and ironed before I lapse into dreams. Later.
I hand him one of the usual Pixie Holotype shirts he often likes to sleep in - the fabric thin, no sleeves, perfect to prevent overheating - while he plucks at the waistband of his pajama pants and grumbles that it's too tight. It's always too tight. I straighten his thin collar and smooth out the wrinkles. I want it to be just right, because he's perfect. Dear Nuada, he's perfect. H.P. is my everything. I remind him constantly, but I don't believe he truly gets it. If he only knew how deeply rooted my devotion runs, ever ever on. A shame he'll never know.
Preparations for bed finished, only one last task awaits. One Head Pixie's chore is a drone pixie's drug. Innocently I present myself before him with my left hand patiently extended, the right arm folded behind my back. "If I may progress to preening, sir," I say, in a statement. Smooth confidence is absolutely key.
"But of course. That's your job, that's your biology, and who am I to take that away from you?"
"Would you prefer I begin with a stimulating shoulder massage? To better disperse your pheromones in the air?"
"If you're gentle. I'm afraid I strained my left wing today, and I don't want to irritate it."
"Sir, I'm always gentle." Massaging the Head Pixie is my territory. I'm the alpha retinue. And no "magic fingers" are going to rob me of my job. Not again. Oh, nothing will fix the utter betrayal that shot through my skin when I pinged in on that- that random fairy stealing my spotlight, or satisfying the Head in a way only I was supposed to, careful and deliberately soothing hands coaxing out that drool-inducing cocktail of scents from the back of his neck, spinning them through the air like smoke off a brisket, cinnamon and scrambled eggs and bananas on my tongue… But I forgive him. Of course I forgive him. Not the fairy. But I forgive H.P.
The usual reaction overtakes him instantly as I get to work, then, no matter how tense and startled he was before. His shoulders ease, and he leans back his head, folding his hands in his lap. "Oh yeah. Right there. That's the spot… Sanderson, you're getting good at this."
"I was always good at this, sir." My lips hover over the words, but then, with confidence, "Better than Magnifico?"
"Much better than Magnifico."
"You only flatter me out of what you've decided is reinforcing apologetic necessity, sir."
"I have nothing to gain with empty whispers. Lying would be untrue, and I'm much too old to add 'liar' to my resume. I'm being completely truthful. After all, you're the best. You're perfect."
"Thank you, sir."
… Yet more and more these days, he puts his hand to my mouth, touching my lips with the pads of all three fingers. "Not tonight, Sanderson."
All fantasies evaporate in a horrible, shattering instant. "But sir-"
"I'm not in the state of mind this evening."
"Yes, sir." I withdraw the hand, but place them both to my hips anyway as he turns up the A/C. "H.P., I have a complaint about the intermittent schedule of reinforcement you've set me on, and I would prefer you placed me back on the continuous one."
"You're vice president of the complaints department. You know how to file it."
"Rosencrantz is on the continuous schedule, and it's my understanding that I rank above Rosencrantz."
"Rosencrantz is young and learning his trade." He usually turns his back at this or at similar comments that may litter similar conversations on similar days, leading me to step around him, whirling as I twist on my heel, with a cross swish of my wings.
"Sir, I could preen him for you so you don't have to. I'm your alpha retinue drone. It's my job to spread your pheromones throughout the company. Let me help you. I know how, and you shouldn't let my specialized training go to waste."
"The current system is efficient." And the thermostat will go down another tick.
"You always used to let me do this."
"We are creatures who look towards the future, Sanderson. When technology advances, so do we."
The accusing finger flying towards the door. "You gave dominance licks to Longwood!"
"Longwood is a subordinate gyne who was experiencing a flicker of rebellion and had to be put in his place." And then, often, he tilts his glasses down and smiles while I steam where I stand. "It would be an unnecessary use of energy to treat you in the same fashion. You always remember your place. After all, you're the best. You're perfect."
Usually, while I stand there with my finger still out and my eyes burning behind my shades, he'll leave our little break room through the door that leads into his private bathroom, and from there into the penthouse, and flick the locks behind him so I can't follow. If he's in an especially sour mood, he might ping me directly to my apartment before I have the chance to knock any lamps to the floor and wait, ears pricked, for the sound of him hurrying back to confront me.
True, it sounds like a miserable existence, to live in constant deprivation of your biological needs… but some nights, Sanderson wins. Oh, and those nights are magnificent.
"Come on, Sanderson. You can do a better S10 signal than that. Press a little deeper. Really dig your tongue into it on the upward swish."
"Will that please you, sir?"
"Mmm… That sounds like an emotion. Emotions aren't my department."
"I'll do it anyway. But sir, when you give me my dominance licks, I'd appreciate it if you spent longer on my cheeks, and less time on my forehead."
"Sanderson. I didn't request your criticism. You're fortunate I let you do this at all. Don't get sassy with me."
It doesn't happen as often nowadays as it used to, but intermittent schedules would simply be pathways to extinction if no reinforcement was ever presented again. And sometimes when I hold out my hand, my head tipped to one side, H.P. relents. He takes it and lets me dip him down, and go to work grooming his neck with my tongue. I'm delicate and precise when I paint my swirling signs of submission and absorb his sweat and pheromones, and I know he prefers me to all the other drones in the company, even if he refuses to admit it aloud. Contrary to what he thinks, I actually can detect some of his subtle cues of pleasure.
No, perhaps he doesn't actually let them slip in the midst of our evening preening ritual, his mouth always stretched in either a bored line or moving carefully as he places perfect dominant licks at certain sensual points across my face, but I sense the pleasure cues in his other behaviors. I'm his favorite, and that's why I'm the alpha retinue. I'm his favorite, and that's why he lets me alone get this close after hours, and I get the pleasure of responding to any concerned knocks at his (shut) break room door. And for just a few precious minutes, it's me and not Longwood who gets to act as Head Pixie ad litem. "Can H.P. check my citations before I attach this file?" Rosencrantz might beg, clutching a dented and borrowed laptop to his chest, to which I can lean my shoulder and hand on the doorframe and say, "Sorry, we're busy." Only once did H.P. consider it a brilliant idea to call the smaller pixie in, thinking he could satisfy us both with licks and pheromones at the same time. When he realized how distant, careless, and sulky I instantly became, he did not suggest I share our special alone time again.
"Where were we, Sanderson?"
I suppress the wiggle in my wings. "You were just about to give me my dominance licks, H.P."
"Oh? But you haven't finished with your subordinate ones yet."
"But- sir! I already did them. In fact, I did most of them nine times. Weren't you paying attention to me?"
"Hm? Is it really that late? Well, I suppose we can pick this up next time."
"Sir, that's not fair! You promised!"
"… Yes, sir."
And as we huffily part ways for the night (that night and so many similar nights), I'm always left fretting over the constant question while I make my way back to my apartment- prepared to snatch the first instrument I come in contact with and spit rhymes until the pinged-in post-it notes requesting I shut up are raining down on my head courtesy of every other pixie in the Rapunzel Tower, and maybe a few from the Beanstalk on the other side of our city as well.
"Weren't you paying attention to me?"
Even when I slam my hands hard on a keyboard, or strum my fingers down a guitar, or smash the antenna of my cell phone against a cymbal, or rake a bow across a set of violin strings, I can't distract myself from that nagging thought.
Weren't you paying attention to me? Didn't you notice I was doing perfectly? Do you even care?
Does he play with me on purpose, because he finds it amusing? Or does his mind wander despite the crisp passion I take in my work, and lead him to actually forget where he is and what's going on? Is he getting that old already? Is his memory starting to slip away? Because that will be a problem. I don't care if I have Smith to turn to. That's just licks; it doesn't mean anything. It just feels good. Smith isn't my universe like H.P. is. I'm not ready to let him go.
When I get out of control with my instruments, Longwood will smart in and wrench me back with a hand on my shoulder. "Go to bed, Sanderson."
"Get off me! You're not my gyne!"
"Maybe not right now, but I will be one day, and for now, I still happen to be your superior. As well as a very annoyed roommate to boot."
"I will never let you be my gyne! Let me go! Don't treat me like a nymph! You're not my dad!"
The instant pain fills his uncovered eyes and curls his lips into a snarl. His grip tightens around my arm. I stand there, mouth hanging open, my wings fluttering, as we both pause and take in the hand that flies up behind his head. Rearing for a smack across my cheek louder than my music.
He doesn't smack me. He never smacks me. But he always wants to, when I make him remember he's no one's father, and he has no son. That if he ever becomes Head Pixie and chooses his own successor, that pixie will not be his firstborn. That I'm the reason why. That Mother Nature and Father Time took my side over his. That Longwood v. Sanderson VII is nicknamed "The Tree-Hugger Case" for a reason, but it's not because his name contains the word "wood", and it's not because I've ever expressed any desire to touch him. That what happened shouldn't have happened. A distortion. A miscalculation. A blip. An error in reality.
That he didn't have to choose to save me.
"I'll go to bed," I mumble, and he drops me and turns away. "Please do, Sanderson."
And coming into work the next morning, I'll find my summary report for last night's preening neatly placed in the middle of my desk. Key points are as follows: You let your knees jab my stomach when you dipped me down. They're pointy and uncomfortable, so please correct this. I don't want your fingers roaming up and down my back. They are to remain at the knobs of my wings as I thought I had made clear. Take care to brush your teeth. You smell. Your tie came loose halfway through and you did not fix it. You are not to allow your wings to chirp while you work. We are professionals; keep a lid on your expressed behaviors. At 21:47, you made five zig-zags on what was supposed to be a four zig-zag S2 mark, and you signaled S4 so many times that it got super annoying. Your S9s are always too fast and sloppy. I know you sulk about them because the chin crosshatch is Longwood's go-to signature, but I still want them done correctly. S11 needs more force on the second curl; the "leaf" on the "stem" should be a deep scrape, not a delicate flick. S7 strayed too high at 12:49. You need to practice S8; you're closing the third cross too near the center of my throat. I want to see more S5s next time.
In addition, you've formed a dreadful habit of initiating too much body contact. I should theoretically be able to balance a copy of Da Rules on my chest in the space between us once you are in position holding me, and perhaps I will next time. This is a preening session, not a hug. Don't get so touchy-feely. It's annoying and you're making it weird. You are a professional retinue drone displaying your submissive loyalty, not a hired snatter brought in to pinch and tease. You know why drones always lead the preening foreplay. This is a ceremony of you willingly giving yourself to me. That is why you dip and hold me, and I do not dip and hold you. When you do not conform to my requirements, I interpret your deviations the same way you would interpret me being the first to extend my hand and leading you through the ritual. As though it were a ceremony where I were coaxing you towards my bed and pinning you down for a sensual night.
That's not what keeping a retinue is about. It's just licks. It doesn't mean anything.
This is why we don't use the bed. This is why I insist you remain floating at all times. This is why all preening takes place in break rooms and not in my penthouse or your apartment. It it platonic, it is professional, and I know you understand and desire the same. Some gynes like it when their drones show initiative during preening. I don't. Do not try to take command and vary from my instructions, or I shall question where your hormones angle. We do not want the Fairy media snatching up another bundle of lies and smearing our names across the cloudlands in a negative fashion. Also, I distinctly caught a low whine about my mass at 21:56, which I do not appreciate in the least. Puny as you are, you should be able to hold me easily. We're all weightless.
As I hold the report in my left hand, I'll slide my shades off with the right and tap one lens against my teeth, and slowly nod. I will learn, and I will adapt, and I will improve. It stings when I realize I haven't performed to the best of my abilities, but critique is useful. Especially if it pleases him. As Alexander Rybak so excellently put it, "No one else could make me sadder. But no one else could lift me high above."
Sacred smoof, knowing that you've pleased the Head Pixie, that he's as proud of you as a father of his son… That's the best sensation in the world.
It won't as easy for me to improve as it is for most of the others, which is a minor annoyance that comes with the job and must be overcome. I'm the alpha retinue drone. All other drones in the company answer to me. I have just as much authority to preen them as H.P. does, so long as he preens me in the morning first to blanket me with his scent. Which he rarely elects to because he always claims to have so much else to do, despite the fact that I could have run errands for him when we met the night before. Hmph. I could snag any drone to pass me in the hallway and do him right then against the wall if I want to, driving my knee into his stomach and clutching his shoulders with my hands to keep him pinned. As the alpha retinue among drones that are already committed to him, I'm legally allowed to do that when on a refresh patrol- not forbidden from making certain moves on them like the gynes are. But that's not "professional", that's not "respectable", even if it does seem the fastest, most efficient, and most cost-effective way to go about things. I don't really get it, but H.P. does, and that's why he's the boss.
The largest irritant I'll cite on this matter is that when I act as alpha among the others, by default, I have to step into the dominant role. No drone is allowed to touch their tongue to my forehead; it's the only time someone ever scoops me up and dips me, rather than the other way around. Their fingers pinching the base of my wings. Licking their lips as they check me over. I don't like that part of the job (I'm in it more for the extra morning preen from a legitimate gyne and the ability to legally travel anywhere my gyne does- not this time-consuming 'help distribute the pheromones' task that doesn't pay extra). It's nothing special. Nor am I allowed to lick another drone's neck since I rank above them all, which rather limits my ability to perfect my submissive signals outside of my time with the Head Pixie. Even after over 250,000 years of honing my skills, H.P. always finds several areas a session where I'm not performing to his standards.
Maybe he does it on purpose. Maybe he doesn't really want me to evolve into the perfect drone. Because he loves to keep pushing me down. Because that's how he wins. Because maybe, for all the time we spend together beyond the borders of Pixie World, me watching his back and faithful as a Wolbachia strain, he doesn't actually trust me. Maybe he fears there's a little insubordinate Anti-Sanderson in me after all, biding his time for a day when he slips and I accidentally allow myself to undergo a flicker of dominance. Not that I would- of course I never would! But maybe he keeps me down and deprived because it's how he keeps me controlled. It's how he keeps me submissive.
That's nature. I don't mind nature. I only wish I was allowed to suggest improvements on my end of the deal.
Internally, lying on the floor before his penthouse door and just letting the hypothetical scenes play out in my head, I stretch my arms and groan. H.P. is an unconditioned reinforcer, every part of him. I know his footsteps. I know his wingbeats. I know his interior design tastes and I know he doesn't like the crusts on his sandwiches, but only when they're kitnut butter and jelly, because he likes to eat them separately after the rest of the sandwich. He eats a lot of those. I know his exact specifications. I make them perfectly every time. I do everything perfectly every time. I know his everything. I adore him.
But I don't just adore him with the fervor of a thousand fiery suns. If wishes were for pixies, then before I could blink I would wish to take his place.
I don't even care if maybe the timestream would shift and I wouldn't be Head Pixie (although that would be ideal). I just want to be him. Always collected, always clever, always flexible, always unwavering, always dominant, always right. I want that to be my personality. We're genetically identical! It should be my personality! I should be smart and respected like him! It's not fair!
… But he could offer that to me, and I would honestly struggle to give up my music for it, so I suppose we will never be entirely alike. Makes one wonder at times why I refuse to consider that statement - never alike - and still bother to try. I suppose it's because if I don't cling to him, then my mind will deteriorate around me like my bony, hungry body. Skip the meals, save yourself the money, you're immortal, it will be okay…
I've heard there are such things as sexual fantasies. Hamilton and Bayard if not Longwood have proven so through the slurred words of drunken stupor on a Lotus Palace balcony. My fantasies are different. Sexless, loveless, emotionless. I lust after the concept nonetheless. Imagine, if you will: Mister Sanderson Ennet and (pecan on top) Whimsifinado tagged onto the end of my name like the only holiday gift I could ever want. Salty white freckles on my face, the enveloping hat, those old scars slashed across my right cheek and hands. I'll take it all. Ambrosine. Solara. Kalysta. Emery. China. Venus. Cherry. Iris. Gynes. The war. The cohuleen druith. Weskar. Commelina. The Fairy Elder. Politics. Aspen (as if I didn't deal with him enough). Central test theory and thought experiments. Constant pregnancy. I don't care. They're worth it. They're all worth it, if I could've been raised by Ambrosine and been born as him.
Beloved king, I always think as I trace my fingers along the edges of his white curls- I have one split-second to do so everyday as I tug his cap more firmly around his ears, ensuring it will stay on as the final phase of my retinue duties begins. If I'm lucky. Do you notice that I take care to set it just right, H.P.? Do you notice that I go out of my way to make you comfortable and obey your orders, even for unpleasant tasks like wearing my stiff suit while I offer you my subordinate licks, when you have already changed yourself into more casual dress? It isn't quite fair, but I allow it, because it's you. Oh, if our positions were reversed, I'd treat you right. I recognize loyalty, sir. If you were my alpha retinue and I your Head Pixie, you'd be my universe, too. Don't you ever think the same way about me, even a shred? That I'm worth anything? Surely there must be something in you that must, after all that I've ever done for you.
Briefly, I entertain the thought with a smile. "Where were we, Fergus?"
And you are there. A little chubby around the corners, sir, your hair distinctly sticking up in scruffs near both ears, the signature spiral curling out from the back. Freckles? Perhaps not; I suppose in my fantasy, you are the drone, and I play the freckled gyne. You straighten your pointed hat (It's a small hat, with a star at its tip) and pale blue sweater (I let you wear pale blue sweaters and jeans if you want to, because maybe that would be your style if you were my age).
"You were just about to give me my dominance licks, H.P."
I'm on my L-shaped office couch, because I'd be the type of gyne to want to conduct dominance licks while lying back on the couch (Trust me, sir, holding your weight mostly off the ground the way you like it doesn't actually get easier over the millennia, and lying down would be such a relief). One earbud is wound into place in my ear, the other in yours. I always have a fresh playlist set to shuffle so our exchanges are never exactly the same. You're carefully on top of me, eyes stretched huge behind your owl-like glasses (You probably need glasses). Limbs splayed and balanced among the cushions as you try to avoid actually touching my shoulders and torso out of concern that unnecessary physical contact will earn you a scolding or a light smack (It won't). Then I bring my hand to your cheek, and hold it there as you melt into my gentle touch. Your glasses shift when I bump the arm. You lick your lips. When you raise your hand to touch the backs of my knuckles, your eyelids flickering shut, the eighth note P symbol of my company is distinctly visible on the inside of your left wrist. Yes, all the way down to the 002 printed underneath.
"Don't call me H.P., son. Don't call me Ennet Whimsifinado either. Call me Dad."
We begin, tongues scraping deeply at first to clean the skin and open the pores, then gradually softer as we recognize each other's movements and fall into synchronized speed and motion. I don't make you wait until the end of our session before I give you those dominance licks you crave more than processed sugar. I start with D3, because it's my favorite, and slide from there with a double-spiral back into D2 before I lift my tongue away. Then I drop into D4 and a few D12s, and of course you would be busy executing your work without flaws along my neck, sidling a bit closer as you do, head tipped and eyes shifting back and forth, bracing one hand against my chest until it slips a bit towards my arm, and you lean your forehead (It's a small forehead) against mine until you're so close that the rims of your glasses rub my skin and I can hear the music leaking out of your earbud as a separate song from mine.
And then I just can't take it any more. I embrace you with a groan. As my wings strain to slide and chirp while pinned down against the couch, I hold you so close with the fabric of your sweater rustling against my cheek, because you are my son, the Pixie prince, my alpha retinue, vice president of every department in the company and even some businesses in Fairy World, and you are absolutely perfect, sir. Duh. You commit no errors, you have no faults, and the summary report I file on your work bleeds nothing but praise, and I appreciate you tremendously and all that you do for me and the company, and I am satisfied and proud with our preening sessions twice or thrice every day…
Then I hear one of Longwood's louder remarks slipping beneath the penthouse door and into the hall. And I remember my fantasies are only that. I was not a wanted child. He doesn't see me as his son. No matter how much I wish he would.
Sir, you are the expanses of my universe. I would be nothing without you. I am not nothing, so by process of logical elimination, I should be your everything. Make crows your only bird; make Sanderson your only pixie. Consider giving his shoulder a little pat every once in awhile, his cowlicked hair a little fondle, just as a subtle thank you for all that he does. I promise he would appreciate it. Intermittent schedules of reinforcement may prevent my loyalty from extinguishing and bring me racing back to your side every time I stray too far beyond your circle of influence, yet it's not enough to satisfy my lust and hunger, sir. But who cares, no big deal, I want more~!
It does make one wonder why he ever chose to call me "Sanders' son" if he always planned to spend his life denying the relation offered by the second part of my name. Ha…ha…
And I sit up for the first time, groggy and blinking in the hall, and rub my eyes with both hands. The air conditioner has flickered into life above my head, which is a likely sign I won't be getting the dominance licks across my forehead that I crave like bread and water. Not tonight. Not when the air conditioner can filter his pheromones through the company instead; Sanderson, buddy, you can consider your alpha retinue duties outsourced to a machine. Just another stupid job title for Sanderson that takes longer to read than it does to complete. Or apparently not complete.
I don't know what I was doin'. When suddenly, we fell apaaa~rt.
Technology is advancing. Those familiar days of intimate preening between a gyne and his drones are a thing of the past. We move forward. Why expend energy engaged in endless licking rituals among a constant cycle of employees when pheromones can be condensed down to air fresheners instead? When you can press your thumb on a nozzle with a fssssh or pass around baskets of star-shaped scented scraps ("Take one and hang it from your rear-view mirror. Pass these down.") Why expend that energy when some companies will turn your dominant gyne pheromones into customized oils, and you can sprinkle cute little drops from a cute little vial into a cute little humidifier on the coffee table in every floor's break room? Why expend that energy when this conditioning of your employees to expect pheromone exposure regularly would totally eliminate the establishing operation that makes them crave your "special Christmas presents" with the furious drooling and whining that so turns your sadism on?
"Not today, Sanderson. You've been on my heels all morning, and you should have enough of my scent to flit off and make yourself useful while I take care of some of the others. It will take me hours. Don't expect any preening today. And I have to do the second batch tomorrow; no, don't expect it tomorrow either."
"But sir! I'm the alpha. Let me take some of the burden for you. Give me your licks. I'll distribute your pheromones on your behalf. That's what alpha retinue drones do!"
"Sir, why do I even have this job if you won't let me complete my duties? It's not like you pay me for my services."
"This is demeaning. You're treating me like a nymph, sir. I can't live like this! I'm suffering physical deprivation. If I don't get my mental release, I'll get inspiration back-up."
"Daaad," I whine, putting back my head. One last, desperate attempt to make him snap, and pull me in just to shut me up. Defiant drone neck exposure and all.
"Mister." A warning instead of a casual remark. My eyelid twitches up.
"Fine! If you won't preen me, I'm going to find Smith. He pulls me into the closet and gives me dominance licks whenever I want, no strings attached."
"Sanderson." That time a coo that makes me freeze before I reach the break room door. I turn back, instantly extending my hand, my tongue poking between my lips, fully expecting him to take my wrist in a jealous show of dominance and soothe my rumpled irritation. Only to find him instead watching me with the smile of a fairy who's gotten into the rump roast.
"Mister Ennet Sanderson Chipixie. Go to your office. Or you're fired. If you need something to do, ping up one of those scratch-and-sniff magazines I know you like to hide under the pen tray in the second drawer of your desk."
My face blazing- "Sir! Those are private!"
"You were caught. You had to be punished. Your stash was in the workplace, so it has been confiscated and shredded."
"You were careless, and you got caught. Either keep those in your apartment, or be more clever next time." His hand below my wings, physically thrusting me through the door and into the hall. "Now out you go."
Most especially, why expend that energy when the media has already forgotten the days of platonic faithful loyalty, and turns its sneers on you for your tradition of holding to traditions? Sneers at your lack of free-spiritedness and alleged coerced abuse. Has Sanderson Slept His Way to Snatterdom? The headline haunts me even now- the visible expression of betrayal on his face when I brought him the paper worst of all. The Head Pixie and his personal assistant were caught red-handed in behavior that could hardly be described as professional. Exposed: Read the true story of Mr. Sanderson's ascension to the top. As if. Those idiot Fairies hadn't even bothered to check their facts and figure out that when it came to my day job, I cling to the lowest rung of the corporate ladder. The complaints department is a joke. A pathetic secretary position of taking and redirecting calls. A juvenile brownie could do it. That's hardly the top. I've only been in H.P.'s penthouse twice in my life- once when my fury got the better of me and I snapped, and once when he made me sit on the floor with coloring sheets and paints because he thought it would be funny. That's hardly snatterdom.
But I remember their labels. Even now, they sidle along the bottoms of the TV screens during occasional press conferences when the Head Pixie addresses Fairy World on matters of business they don't care for, and they would rather mock him than listen to all the reasons why they should pay higher taxes on their wand waves to benefit the economy and the cloudlands as a whole. Sanderson's "friend".
I shouldn't let myself believe pretty lies and statistical unlikelihoods. But maybe tonight, he'll say yes. Tonight could be that one night in dozens, that one night in hundreds, when the action of sticking out my hand and cocking my head gets reinforced. What you're hoping for will come true- let me be good to you!
It's fourteen minutes until he'll even step out of the door farther down the hall that hides his private break room (His "It's not my problem right now" room, he sometimes calls it). I can last for seventeen more minutes, kneeling across the hall, staring up at the main penthouse door and drinking in each familiar scar along the wood.
Longwood's in there still, tittering about his summary report for the month. And maybe doing other nice things for the boss out of the kindness of his little black core. Favors. Dark and dirty favors. Like dusting his private book collection or washing the floor-to-ceiling windows or shining his shoes. Things that ought to be my job. How repulsive. If anyone does anything, it's going to be me. It's not as though Longwood doesn't get to spend enough time with our boss as it is.
But I'll be patient. I'll be good! I can kneel before his door, sometimes with my cheek to the dirty tile, gazing and gazing. Clicking my fingernails in rhythm beside my ear. Tun tun tun tun. Tun tun tun tun. Like a drizzle, or a song.
It's only twelve more minutes. That means it's almost time. I can wait. I'll have my turn. This is my moment. 9:00. The best time of the day. It's constant. It's the only part of my day that's ever perfectly constant. Even if I don't get my dominance licks, I'll get to have my special alone time with the Head Pixie, his wings in one hand and my brush in the other, and that's something beautiful, and that's just fine. I appreciate every last moment I still get to have with him before he fades away to dust.
I am a good drake. The perfect employee. A humble drone. His best-behaved son. I will wait. I'll be patient. We run by his schedule in the company, and I exist only to serve him.
It's only ten more minutes. In ten minutes exactly, the shrine bells will chime. Longwood will be forced out, whether he was finished with his report or not, because H.P. would never, ever allow him to run over and cut into my time.
Nine more minutes of waiting. I close my eyes, just to imagine it. The door will open with its familiar squeak. He'll beckon me in and while he unbuttons his shirt, I'll grab my cloth and wing brush. Oh, it will take a lot of extra waiting just to suppress my wriggling and see us through the actual grooming and evening preparations I have to do as the alpha, but my time will come. I'll offer the cane and he'll refuse, rising without it and ignoring when I reach out to steady his elbow. For about ten seconds, my anxiety will crescendo. He'll smooth his pajama shirt and look at me. Then I'll signal my desire to proceed. He can't extend his hand to me- legally, he's not allowed to. The drone has to make the first move. And I will. I will hold out my hand towards him.
Moment of truth. Rejection or acceptance. He'll pause. Consider. Often, glancing at himself in the mirror first, or checking the clock even though as a pixie he always knows the time. He'll give it considerable thought while I resist the urge to bounce on my heels or clear my throat or groan. "Hmm," he might say, and draw the word out.
Should he choose to favor me, I'll snap the opportunity in an instant. Slip my hands behind his back. Hold him by the knobs of his wings. Dip him down. Sweep him off his feet. Sanderson, he'll scold as my wings instantly strain against his mass and not-quite-weightless-no-matter-what-he-insists weight, you forgot to put your shades up in your hair. They'll fall on your tongue when you bend your head.
Oh. Can you get them for me, sir? I'm already in position.
All right. And I close my eyes as he slides them from my nose. Instead of pushing them into my hair, he folds the arms with a neat click, click and pings them off. It would help the awkwardness of holding his weight immensely if he would try to float too, though then again, with his wings in my hands, that's not really a possibility. But let's not make a habit of this.
I wait, watching his face. Waiting for the double tap of fingers against his left collarbone, the signal to proceed, even if it's so often followed by a bored, Go get it, manticore. You've earned it tonight. Like he's doing this just for me and wants me to know he finds it a chore, and that he has no intention of being satisfied no matter how well I perform.
I'll stroke his neck with my tongue anyway, and let my shoulders relax and my worries seep away. For just a few minutes, it doesn't matter if either of us have other work we could be doing, or if the Anti-Fairies are rallying for some impulsive and pointless attack to seize control of the Sunrise Skies again, or if the Fairies would sneer and throw around their nasty names and rumors if they were to catch us doing what only comes naturally to a retinue drone and his primary gyne. All I have to do is wait.
I can wait five more minutes. It's only five more minutes. I will wait. I've waited all day for this, and I have no problem waiting just a little longer. I'm very good at waiting. Perhaps the best pixie of all when it comes to waiting.
… Oh, dust no.
I sit up uncertainly, the gray covers trickling away from my body. I'm in bed. In my bed, tucked in and dressed up in the stripes of my gray and white pajamas. The purple sky, ever-starry, has turned a bit blue and pink outside the window beside Hawkins' empty bed.
No, no… It can't be morning. Don't let it be morning.
And I bury my face in my hands, and crush my hands against my jabbing knees. I zonked out in the hall and slept through our retinue appointment! The grooming, the talking, the atmosphere, my licks- He didn't wake me up. Just sent me to my room like a naughty nymph. Rejected me. Rejected me! I don't even want to know what the summary report on my desk looks like today.
So I'll have to wait until tonight to take up that wing brush and scrub the dirt and stale magic from beneath the edges of his costas, around the sensitive jugal fold, near the worn knobs of his wings that enter his back in the patch where his skin is all loose and sort of scaly, and technically perforated with holes that fill with water fast and make it so very easy to drown a magical being, left to kick and flail as his exoskeleton floods and drags him down.
Another long day of pining and waiting before I can comb my fingers through that soft white hair. Carry those discarded undershirts down to the laundry and run them myself, because by my crown Rosencrantz shouldn't be allowed to touch something so precious and valuable. Lean my ear against the dryer door and listen to the wub, wub of folded fabric, the clink of buttons and zippers and the tinkling star on his hat lashing against the walls. Another long day before he accepts my offered hand and I dip him down, press my tongue against his neck, give myself to him in full as his loyal drone, his alpha retinue, his most devoted kin, his firstborn, his son, his prince…
Smoof, I can't live like this anymore.