STRAINS OF music led the way to Stephanie’s new apartment and her housewarming-slash-holiday party. The stairs took effort at David’s current exhaustion level—that of the usual doctoral candidate, working to support himself and also dealing with the holidays. He was supposed to drive to his parents’ tonight as well, but he suspected he was going to end up making the hour-and-a half drive in the predawn hours after crashing on someone’s couch for a while first.
Most likely Flor’s couch. There was a good chance Flor, in typical Flor fashion, had completely forgotten Stephanie’s gathering, but David might wind up on Flor’s couch regardless. David’s miniscule apartment was all the way across town; Flor’s place was within walking distance, and since Flor also had a habit of misplacing his keys, David held the backup spare. Flor would hardly mind the surprise sleepover. If anything, he’d be so excited David would be lucky to get any sleep. It had been too long since he’d gotten to hang out with his best friend, which was one of the reasons David had decided to stop by the party.
Before he had to look for the right apartment number, someone opened a door, and colors and lights beckoned him toward what had to be Stephanie’s Christmas party.
Inside, things were slightly more frat party than he’d expected. Stephanie must have invited someone who brought some undergrads with them, who in turn brought the red plastic cups and cheap beer.
He recognized more than a few faces, mostly the undergrads in classes he TA’d, but he noted some grad students as well. Mingled in among the group gathered around the bottles and plastic cups in the kitchen were two plump elves, a well-dressed pixy, and a fairy. Like most fairies in cold winter weather, she had sacrificed some of her freedom of motion by putting on clothing.
David nodded a startled hello at her when she sent him a warm, interested smile, but continued past the kitchen in search of his hostess. The music was loud and not remotely Christmassy, although Stephanie had remained true to the theme by draping red-and-green paper chains everywhere. The result was surprisingly elegant despite the use of construction paper. Most of her money had probably gone to the booze and food, which would quickly be wiped out. David had brought an inexpensive bottle of whiskey for that reason. He left it on a counter in the tiny kitchen, along with a card to wish Stephanie luck in her new place.
She’d need all the good vibes she could get. A year behind David, she was about to enter the hell of life as a PhD student. David had finished half of his first year and already thought of it as the easy part of getting his doctorate. It felt like nothing compared to the looming terror of his candidacy exam, or his dissertation.
At the thought, he almost ducked back into the kitchen to grab a drink, but spotted Stephanie first. She had set up a small table in the short hallway that probably led to her bedroom, and she was arranging plates of iced sugar cookies and gingerbread men with the intense focus of someone several shots into their evening.
“David!” She tottered on her heels, which was the best indicator of how tipsy she really was; a sober Stephanie wore heels like she was born to them. These were black and shiny, with red bottoms that she’d likely glued on herself. She was Nefertiti on a budget.
He grinned when she swept him up in a hug, but he stumbled a little when she abruptly released him. Her gasp was full of dismay. “Oh, David,” she began miserably, and tugged at her cute red-and-green cardigan. “I am so sorry. Clem is here.”
Despite knowing this might happen, and almost convincing himself it didn’t matter, David froze.
Stephanie’s eyes got bigger and sadder, then narrowed in the cool calculation she was known for when sober. “He thinks he’s so pretty,” she enunciated scornfully. “Just because he, you know, is,” she added a moment later, which at least got David to unfreeze and take a breath. “But that’s just because… because he’s a fairy!”
He couldn’t quite decide if she meant to be whispering or not, not that it mattered much with the music at its current volume.
“All sexy. With his muscles and skin and mouth and everything, and the way he goes down until you can’t remember your fucking name, and—”
David placed his hand over her mouth to cut her off. Knowing Stephanie, she’d remember in the morning and be embarrassed about being caught admiring Clematis, and frankly, Clem’s sexual skill wasn’t a subject David felt like talking about with anyone.
“That’s fine,” he assured Steph, as though he wasn’t reconsidering turning and walking out right now. He’d just come in from the cold, but his face felt like it was burning, and unlike Stephanie, his skin was light enough to show blushes. “I don’t care,” he insisted, and glanced around to see who had heard that. Not that it mattered. Everyone here probably knew every single detail of David’s brief whatever with Clematis.
He’d say “affair,” but that made him sound more sophisticated and worldly than he was. What he felt like was… getting drunk, in all honesty. Stupid drunk. As drunk as his hostess, at least. Drunk enough to pretend everyone at this party—meaning his friends as well as strangers and some kids he’d probably be teaching next semester—didn’t know every humiliating detail of his love life.
He should have been immune to mortification by this point, but if anything, he seemed to be getting worse. He needed booze, or sleep, or to be gone from this party and the circle of people studying him.
“I’m going to go get a drink. Congratulations on the place.” The way out was through the kitchen. He could down a shot or two and make it to Flor’s before Stephanie realized he was gone.
Of course, then she blinked sad brown eyes at him. “David, really. If I’d known….”
“Oh look.” David coughed and gestured across the room. “Frangi’s here?” he asked unnecessarily, since Frangipani was obviously there.
David blinked in surprise, not so much because Frangi was cuddling someone, but because Frangi only had eyes for that someone. Frangi was a sweetheart, but he was relatively young for a fairy, which usually meant a short attention span when it came to romance. He was also somewhat vain, and had spent his freshman year sleeping his way through a lot of the student body and some of the faculty. He was rarely in one place, let alone one bed, for long, but there he was, in the arms of a human boy, still but for his fluttering wings.
Fairies did that. They could make you feel like their whole world—for a while.
Yet, though Frangi glanced around a few times, the human called his attention back without speaking. When their eyes met, Frangi let out a laugh that David couldn’t help but think of as joyous.
Frangi’s brown skin and pearly white wings were eye-catching. Hawai‘ian, Frangipani took to the cold less than most fairies, yet loathed to cover up even an inch of his skin. Usually, anyway. Right now he was wearing an oversized university sweatshirt as a blanket to keep his chest and arms warm, and his hands were buried beneath the sweater of the boy he was snuggling. He leaned in to gently knock their foreheads together and then smiled without offering a word. When the boy gave him a soft expression in return, Frangi’s wings shivered, and the glitter in the air around him grew thicker. David had never seen it so bright.
David drew in a breath, but a weight was still pushing against his ribs. “He looks happy,” he heard himself say, and wondered if he sounded as sad and lonely as he thought he did.
Judging from Stephanie’s sympathetic pout, yes.
He gave up. “Can we talk about anything else? Your coursework?”
Her coursework was roughly similar to his. They were both trying to study humans and beings and running into the same obstacles: human prejudice and the resulting lack of meaningful discourse on beings. In the century since magical beings had come out of hiding in the Western world, the intellectual community had all but ignored them. When they were spoken of, it was the same tired stereotypes, usually in quotes from books from the 1920s. David had a particular hatred of those books, which, among their many sins, ignored the beings in the parts of the world untouched by colonialism who had never gone into hiding, discounted evidence that beings had influenced and intersected with human culture from the very beginning, and refused to discuss the different sexualities and genders of the beings they encountered.
Stephanie called it the Old White Male Human Professor Syndrome. Those old Western professors had willfully ignored a lot of things, although the educated in many countries and cultures were guilty of dismissing the contributions of those they considered less than them. Communist governments had tried to suppress literature on dragons and early dragon worship for a while. Dictators around the globe had made up claims about magical beings’ heritage for strength, while at the same time destroying libraries full of the truth about those beings.
In short, the two of them could not have picked a more difficult field of study. But unlike David’s mostly theoretical ideas about the fairies appearing in and contributing to classical human literature, Stephanie was attempting to study the fate of the African beings who had been stolen and brought to America alongside the humans bound for slavery.
“How could you bring up my work when I am trying to relax?” Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Right now I want to talk about that less than you want to talk about Clematis banging your brains out.” They were harsh words except for the feathery way she whispered them, and how she leaned in a second later. She probably intended to plant a kiss on his cheek but stopped when he didn’t move.
People—well, humans—had a way of dealing with awkwardness that involved a lot of silence and apologetic staring. David sometimes let himself forget about that, until moments like these, when he could see the knowledge and pity in Stephanie’s eyes. “Ah, right. You don’t like public displays,” she murmured, although David had never said those words, not once. He had only thought, foolishly, that some things were meant to be solely between people who cared about each other.
He really should have known better. Of all people, he should have known better.
He moved his toes inside his shoes, and then his fingers, trying to feel less frozen. He took a second to pull off his gloves and shove them into his coat pocket. His hands were cold, but it gave him a moment to himself. There was nothing to say that wouldn’t turn out more embarrassing for him.
He finally shrugged. “I’m too sober for this conversation.” Stephanie was a good friend, but this wasn’t the time or place for David to split his heart open.
She sprang to life, a delighted, tipsy hostess. “I’ll get you something!” she chirped, already on her way to the kitchen. Then someone else called for her attention.
David awkwardly pulled at his coat, which he wasn’t quite ready to take off, although the number of people around him meant the room was pretty warm. The sturdy, dark green peacoat was frayed at the cuffs, but he hadn’t had the time or money to devote to replacing it. His coat would make it through this winter at least, although when people realized he was mixed, they would look at the coat in a different way. Then he’d get a few comments about how he was so lucky to be at the university from people who thought they were being kind.
He pulled down the collar, which he’d tugged up on the way over to keep his neck warm, and then shot a glance around the living room. So far Frangi was the sole fairy in this room. Everyone else was, or appeared to be, human and young. David wasn’t that much older than the undergrads, but anyone below a senior sometimes made him feel ancient. Not for the first time he wondered what the fairies must think of them. The fairies looked the same age as the students, but most of them were so much older than everyone here.
The grad students, who wore the same thrift shop sweaters David was wearing, were in their own group. David recognized most of them from either the English or history departments. People he knew, but not well. The undergrads were in little clusters of three or four, in practically every space but the area by the open window. David headed in that direction, fully prepared to say he needed the fresh air if anyone asked.
Stephanie pursed her lips when she noticed him at the far wall by himself, but handed him a cup without comment. The cup was filled with what smelled like whiskey and ginger ale.
“Thank you.” David took a sip and nearly coughed at how strong the drink was. “You could have kissed my cheek. I’m not that uptight.” He didn’t think he was uptight at all, but others evidently disagreed. “If I’d been bothered by it, I would have said something any of the other times you’ve done it. I’m not… I’m not ashamed or anything.”
Stephanie rolled her eyes, then darted in to plant a quick peck on him. In her heels, she reached his chin. She snuck a drink from his cup. “You’re blushing,” she observed smartly.
David leaned against the cool window frame. “It’s warm in here.”
“You didn’t used to be this defensive.” Her drinks must already be wearing off if she was this astute.
“It’s been a crap month,” David told her honestly, then reclaimed his whiskey ginger. “Which isn’t about him, although you won’t believe me.” Her ugly snort was almost reassuring, since it meant she was still drunk, after all. David let her steal another sip, and then he changed the subject. “Have you seen Flor?”
The last David had heard from Flor had been a series of texts a few nights ago, first inviting David on a midnight drive to Los Cerros, then sharing several pictures of the taffy he’d bought, and then asking questions about why drunk humans liked tacos so much and if David was ever going to hang out with him again.
In Flor terms, David had been missed. David had missed him too, although none of his responding texts had been answered. Flor had probably misplaced his phone again. That happened with fairies. The lack of clothes meant a lack of pockets, which meant missing keys and phones and money.
Humans who dealt with fairies regularly learned to let things like that go, along with reliable contact with their fairy friends. But it was an adjustment for humans encountering fairies for the first time. Most of the undergrads at the party had probably never spoken to any beings until they started college. Madera was a university town, and the fairies loved it. Students and fairies lived in the same areas, at least in this town—wherever they could find cheap housing. But David suspected it also had something to do with the open-mindedness of most college students, or perhaps all their energy. The fairies seemed drawn to them.
“Flor?” Stephanie shrugged. “He said he’d be here.”
She gave a start, then furrowed her brow, when a pale but flushed boy of nineteen—at best—poked her shoulder.
“Hey.” The boy was very loud, and likely very drunk, which didn’t explain the panic making his eyes wide. “Hey. Tell me. That thing in the kitchen. What is it? Boy or girl?”
David straightened up before he fully recognized that the boy was referring to the pixy with the lavender eyes and hair. He raised his voice. “Thing?”
The boy seemed to notice him for the first time, looking up to meet David’s gaze and then flinching. David wasn’t especially tall, or broad, but because of the startlingly light brown shade of his eyes, he had been mistaken for a were once or twice by people who didn’t know any werewolves and thought a were would have on a pair of glasses.
David found it funny that some people thought his eyes fierce, since he had never been in a fight in his life. He’d never even come close. But for right now, he took another swallow of whiskey and pitched his voice low, which was as close to a growl as he could manage. “Did you mean to say the pixy?”
He recalled a vague lesson on pixies in his junior high social studies class, although it hadn’t gone into gender too much, and he’d grown up in a somewhat liberal area. This boy was another sheltered kid arriving in a big college town with some stunted, deliberately vague education about sexuality, gender, and beings, and he was in for quite the culture shock. The real surprise was that it had taken him this long to notice a pixy and be confused. And an asshole. He had been an asshole too.
“Pixy?” Sure enough, the boy appeared startled at this news, but he shook it off. “He said he identifies as male. But he’s wearing a skirt, and those look like tits to me.”
“Appearances with pixies mean almost nothing. And it’s rude not to call someone what they ask to be called.” Stephanie clucked her tongue. “Also, do not touch me ever again.”
David laughed at her crisp tone before he could stop himself, which made the kid puff up like an angry squirrel. “Some people”—David addressed Stephanie, and turned his attention away from their unwanted guest—“don’t even know that pixies are whatever they wish to be. And that whatever gender that pixy is, is none of their business unless the pixy wants it to be. Or that if not knowing their gender appears to bother those people, the pixy will make it their business to fuck with them until they don’t know which way is up anymore.” David took another sip and let his voice return to its normal, even, faintly husky register. “I really hope I wasn’t like that as a freshman.”
“I’m a sophomore,” the boy interrupted.
“Go away.” Stephanie shooed him off with a combination of glaring and disdain, then dusted her hands when he was gone. A second later, she grinned. “David, I know you had your reasons, but you really need to stop disappearing from the group. I missed you, and I’m not the only one.”
“I don’t want to talk about Clem,” he immediately reminded her, and regretted drinking so much so fast when he felt himself getting hot again.
“I wasn’t talking about Clem.” She took his cup, which was almost empty. “I’ll be back with more. Don’t go anywhere.”
David took one last glance around the room at the people he didn’t feel like mingling with and then pulled out his phone. He found three messages from Flor.
Dude ur mom textd me to ask when u’d be there.
She must miss u if she’s talking to me.
Hey reminds me of Tulip bcuz Tulip
And that was it. Sent an hour ago, and then Flor must have been distracted in the middle of typing. Or he had honestly typed “reminds me of Tulip bcuz Tulip” and meant it as a complete sentence.
David replied, What about Tulip? Although it could be hours or days before Flor would respond. It would be simpler for David to go visit Tulip himself, if he could invent a reason. Anyway, it was probably nothing but a random thought Flor wouldn’t be able to recall when David finally spoke to him. Maybe Tulip had asked about David’s family, and if David was going home for the whole holiday break or a few days.
It had been over a month since David had seen Tulip. Not since a fleeting encounter in the hall of Flor’s building before Tulip’s elf friend had pulled Tulip away with a reminder of the time. The two of them had been late for a meeting.
Tulip went to a lot of events at the library where he worked. Lately he seemed to go to all of them. David had things to do too. Tutoring, teaching, writing, editing, researching, ignoring calls and online messages from friends who thought his heart was broken.
He pulled out his phone again to check for a message that wasn’t there, then stilled when someone stepped in front of him.
The expanse of chest was nearly the color of ivory, every inch of which was bare to the sharp jut of hip bones and what Stephanie and Flor would refer to as come gutters. A small trail of hair disappeared into skintight black jeans, worn because of the cold. The first time David had seen Clematis, he’d had a scrap of brown fabric slung over his hips, which made him look like the forest creature his ancestors had been.
David looked down first, surprised to see shoes on Clematis’s feet, even in winter, then drew his gaze up. Glitter popped in the air around them as he blinked at Clematis’s fawn brown and emerald hair, his eyes, which were the dark and light green of climbing ivy, and his narrow dragonfly wings, the color of a milky opal. His hair was always a mess, as though someone had just run their hands through it.
Clematis shivered dramatically and offered David a smile of white teeth. “David! I knew you were here when I heard a human boy whining about his hurt feelings and rude TAs! You’re so outspoken!” Clem swept forward before David could do more than part his lips to say something, and then Clem’s mouth was pressed against his. It was only for a moment, a hello, probably, in Clem’s mind. He was still smiling when he pulled away to look David over.
“Where have you been?” he chided, apparently unaware of how loud David’s pulse was in his ears. “You look good at least. Tu was worried you were running yourself ragged.” He considered the part in David’s short, intensely curly reddish-brown hair, David’s glasses, possibly even the signs of exhaustion around David’s eyes or the freckles across his nose. Then he dipped his gaze lower, far lower than David’s chest, and hummed as he raised his eyes. His gaze settled at David’s mouth for another moment before he glanced back up.
David was wearing tan pants and old dress shoes, as well as a secondhand, striped V-neck sweater over a collared shirt—all an attempt to look like an older professor instead of the assistant and beginner he was. The colors were nondescript even without a fairy next to him. He didn’t have a lot of bright hues in his wardrobe. Perhaps all Flor’s talk of his colors and shine distracted him from buying any. Or maybe it was the kind of attention such colors attracted. People were already staring after Clem with a dazed sort of curiosity.
Then they glanced at David, and he could tell who knew him, and about him and Clem, from how their eyes widened. A few, probably those who had been with Clem as well, immediately turned away.
David realized he was clutching his phone. Still nothing from Flor. He swallowed and put it in his pocket before meeting Clem’s stare.
“Tulip was worried?” David heard himself ask, like a complete idiot.
Clem nodded enthusiastically. “You weren’t around!” He said it as though he honestly couldn’t understand why David had been absent from group gatherings in the last month.
“I’ve been getting a lot done.” David cleared his throat when he realized how quiet he was. “School. I’ve been preparing for—”
He stopped at Clem’s wrinkled nose. Clematis hung around the university to audit classes, but had yet to come close to finishing a degree.
Clem stuck out his lower lip. “School? Working is all you do.”
Stephanie appeared at David’s side and handed him a new whiskey ginger. “He does more than that, Clem, or you wouldn’t be complaining,” she remarked coolly.
“Steph,” David hissed. “I said I was fine.”
She had another drink with her, probably her own. It smelled like lemons. She took a sip before blinking innocently at him.
“But I like it when David is around,” Clem insisted to her, then raised his head. “And then he wasn’t here.” Something flickered across Clem’s expression, something both powerful and childlike, reminding David of the fairies of old.
David had read a lot of human stories about fairies from centuries past for his area of study. He read everything from Spenser to Shakespeare to the earliest known written versions of Tam Lin, and that was just Western literature. He had a theory that the reason modern scholars were so reluctant to accept the influence of beings in important works of art and science was because those scholars had never spoken with beings, and knew of them only through media generalizations and clichés.
Modern audiences thought of fairies as a somewhat marginalized minority—silly, flighty, and incapable of any thoughts that weren’t about sugar or sex.
Fairies were none of those things.