Hey! Sorry about the long break, but I'm finally back! Thank you, Crimson Ara, CynicalValentine98, Kat Fireblade, Sunne, Amid, Anya Tempest, Crewgar, DestroX, SapphireIris, HungarianPotatoFarmer, The Banshee's Tears, lady11occult, amelia, Iced-Faerie, Aneterrabae, jenjen-0, TwoPlusThree, MiidKniight, Newspeak, Annatari, and of course Tainted Petal for all of your encouragement. I would never have continued without you. Thanks also goes out to Amandine Daumier, twistedlibra, Escritora de Tormenta, xXGod-Is-LifeX, RedBerries, holla, Jayn and RoseofFlame for reviewing. Here's hoping you're still reading? Cheers!
"What do faeries eat?" asked Roan, as he pulled a soggy French fry through the ketchup puddle atop the plastic lunch tray.
It was three hours since the fiasco at the loft apartment with Jiri. Three hours since the brownie's odd appearance. Three hours since Roan had opened his mouth, since this strange internal silence had broken its hold over us, over me.
Since three hours ago, I'd been on autopilot, unable to function on a conscious level. Perhaps it was shock; but maybe it was more than that, worse than that. My stomach growling, my feet carried me to the nearest place to catch a bite, which turned out to be the McDonald's restaurant at the end of the block. Roan followed because I still had a nice, firm grip on his hand. I bought Roan and me super-value meals, and we'd been here for three hours, picking at our food without any real appetite. Actually, I hadn't touched my food. My food was cold to the touch and swam in a pool of its own special sauces and grease. Usually this wouldn't have bothered me.
Only today wasn't at all usual.
"Sunshine," said my mouth before my dazed brain could catch up. Another instant passed before I was able to continue. "The Bright Ones are fed on sunshine, milk and honey, raindrops. They can eat human food, but only very small amounts." I stared at my food blindly while my mouth recited the rest. "The rest of the fey are less picky. They'll eat mostly anything so long as there's little to no Iron in it."
"Why are faeries allergic to iron?"
"The first faeries were born from the laughter of the first child. They became the child's guardians. But then some of them became evil, because that's how the legend goes. You can't have good without evil, so the evil guardians were the first evil faeries, likewise with the good being the first good ones. Anyway, one night one of the evil fey tries to harm the child. Most say it tried leading the child off a cliff shrouded in mist, but the plots vary. A good fey rescues the child. A battle ensues between the good and evil faeries. Only neither can die because faeries are as endless as a child's imagination, so the battle can never end. Until suddenly the child, thinking this all a very fun dream, takes a toy dagger forged from iron from his belt, and pierces the bodies of both the evil and the good faerie. Neither dies, but both take time to recover. Time continues and by now the good and evil fey have split up into two courts—"
"Seelie and Unseelie," Roan helped.
I looked at him, raising both eyebrows. "I've already told you this story," I said.
My brother's smile was reluctant and guilty. "Well, of course," he said. "You've told me all your stories. Doesn't mean I don't still like hearing them again, though. Just finish it, okay?"
"Why don't you tell it?" I picked up a French fry, nibbling on one soggy end. "I must've told it to you a billion times by now."
"Only a hundred."
Now was my turn to smile reluctantly. It was harder to smile than it had been before the fiasco. "The good and evil faeries that fought over the first child's life have borne offspring of their own," I finally pressed on. "They're now King and/or Queen of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, their offspring lesser royalty. Humans have also multiplied. Many years pass, and the lesser royalty of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts grow bored. It's the eldest Unseelie Prince who decides to play some mischief on an unsuspecting human. He plays his mischief—the plots also vary there—and ends up skewered at the end of the human's sword. The Unseelie Prince's companions distract the human and whisk away their prince, back to the infirmary at their Court. A day and a night pass. The eldest Unseelie Prince does not recover. He has died. Can you tell me why, little brother?"
"He's the son of the evil fey that got stabbed with iron by the first child. He inherited an allergy to the metal, as did all both the good and evil fey that are descended from the first good and evil faeries. And since all fey are descended from those, they all have the allergy too."
I applauded softly and Roan took a modest, half-seated bow.
When he straightened up once more, his smile fell away as his gaze focused on a point somewhere behind me. I sensed Jiri before I felt his long-fingered, slender hand on my shoulder; smelled his flowery, wintertime scent before he bent low and kissed my temple. Once again the internal silence enveloped me. I went cold allover.
"Roan," murmured Jiri, holding out a five dollar bill. "Why don't you go wait in line, get us all some ice cream?"
My brother's brown eyes sharpened to something resembling daggers. He didn't take the money or even acknowledge it. Exhaling heavily, Jiri plopped down in the chair beside mine. The five dollar bill disappeared as if it had never been, as Jiri propped his elbows on the tabletop and rested his face in his hands. I wondered if the five dollars disappearing was magic, or a human parlor trick. Was my friend fey or human? The saddest part was that I couldn't answer my own questions, when before there would've been no doubt in my mind.
"What are you?" Roan demanded bluntly. What else are little brothers good for if not for blurting out their elder sister's thoughts when she's unable to speak?
"Don't stall or anything, Roanie," said Jiri, sarcastic. Like the old Jiri. The human Jiri. "Let's cut straight to the point and get it all out there."
"You're the one stalling," Roan snapped back.
Jiri flinched, but then continued regardless. "Alright, well," he began. By his tone of voice, I knew that he didn't know where to begin. This Jiri was even easier to read than my Jiri. Or were they the same, and I was finally seeing my friend for who and what he had always been? "I don't really know how to tell it. It's a really long story."
"What else is new?"
I shot Roan my meanest look—which probably wasn't all that mean—knowing that little snip had been directed at me. He shrugged back apologetically and resumed glaring daggers at our pseudo-human friend.
"How about this?" Jiri asked nobody, raising his face out of his hands and gazing up at the ceiling. He folded his hands over one another, keeping his elbows propped on the table, and settled his chin over his clasped fists. "Once upon a time, back in ancient times, before Christ, there were only so many humans. True humans. Neanderthals, I guess you could call them. Before Christ, the humans lived in widespread peace. Mostly they only occupied what today is called Europe and Asia, and the Mediterranean. Those Neanderthals were responsible for the ancient civilizations such as the furthest east part of China, and then Rome, Greece, Egypt, and up north there were the Vikings, which would eventually settle down and create Germany, England, etc, and stretch as far east as Russia. In the Americas, there were plenty more ancient civilizations that people today know very little about, as well as in what is now known as India."
"We learned all this in World History class, like, last year," Roan pointed out.
Jiri looked at him, but otherwise remained motionless. "What they failed to tell you in World History class last year, Roan, is that the humans existing before Christ made up barely 25 percent of the world's population. The rest of Africa, Europe, Asia, India, and especially the Americas, were occupied by what we today call fey. Faeries. Creatures such as the Winged Ones, and anything else you can imagine. And I mean anything. Back then, Faeries were gods and goddesses among the humans. Sea monsters, shapeshifters, even vampires. You name it. They weren't mythical in the slightest. Faeries and the humans coexisted perfectly; the fey kept the peace and regulated the human population so that they didn't overpopulate their territories. By keeping the human population small, faeries couldn't get too powerful. The fey couldn't exist without the humans and the humans couldn't exist without the fey. It was a careful balance."
I watched Roan as Jiri recited this, not knowing what I was looking for. Or maybe I simply couldn't look at Jiri. Since when was Jiri the one telling fairytales?
"Only once Christ was born and became known as the Savior did faeries begin to fade into legends. Some believe that Christ was here to "save" the humans from the inhuman creatures. Others believe Christ was a faerie creation, for his miracles were as good as magic. Several years of speculation and eventually worship followed. By the time Christ came to be crucified, many people had begun believing in one God and stopped believing in faeries. Priests began praising the one God and anything else was devilish."
"I don't get what any of this bull-crap has to do with what you are," Roan interrupted, scowling at Jiri.
Jiri sighed loudly, staring blankly at my little brother. "Fine," he said patiently. "I'll skip the history lesson. So, skipping ahead one thousand, nine hundred and forty-one years, its World War II. Poland has just been invaded. Around this time, we come upon an innocent Jewish family living in what is then called Czechoslovakia, later to be renamed Czech Republic after a few civil wars. At this time, my grandfather would've been a mere boy, eight years of age. His name was Grigori Jiricek and he lived on a very small farm with his mother. Even in his culture, his appearance was unique for his golden eyes. Maybe this is what first attracted the coming trouble." Faeries have always worshiped beauty, I thought, wondering if Jiri was thinking the same. "Anyway, so one day, Grigori is out collecting chicken eggs, as was his usual chore among others. Only today he would find rather unfortunate. You see, suddenly Grigori came upon a chicken egg that was not the brown of normal non-pasteurized chicken eggs, but golden, like the golden eggs of lore. Taking the egg from the sleeping mother hen's nest, he feels it out thoroughly. He drops it and it doesn't break, doesn't even crack. Finally determining it to be a solid golden chicken egg, greed overcomes young Grigori. He slips the golden egg into his pocket and finishes his morning chores. By the end of the day, Grigori has planned out everything he can buy with his golden egg. He goes to bed that night with the golden egg tucked under his pillow."
Roan rolled his eyes. If Jiri noticed, he pretended not to. He continued in a hushed voice that was difficult to decipher the tone of.
"Now here's where Grigori's life gets really unfortunate. You see, solid gold eggs just aren't left lying around for no reason. So the next morning, Grigori awakens to find he can see his breath in a frosty mist. As it turns out, the farmhouse is mostly buried in fresh snow. It's the middle of summer, so naturally Grigori panics. He goes to wake his parents. Only they don't wake up because they've slept all night with minimal protection against the cold, seeing as it was so hot out the day before. Grigori runs to wake his younger sister, only three years of age. She as well remains in an eternal sleep. Grigori is out of people to run to for help. The nearest neighbor lives twelve miles away. He goes to the door of the farmhouse, but it's snowed in and won't open. Grigori goes to the windows and breaks one."
"Why's he still alive?" Roan demanded. "Why didn't he freeze to death like the rest of his family?"
For once, Jiri showed his annoyance with the look he sent my little brother. "I'm getting to that," he said. Then the irritation in his gaze and voice melted away; his entire persona seemed to be suddenly wiped blank. "Grigori breaks one of the windows. Through vision blurred by tears, he changes into warmer clothes and puts on shoes. He takes the golden egg from beneath his pillow and pockets it. Then he escapes from the dead silence of his home into the white wonderland of summertime through the broken window. He runs until he can no more, then he walks, then he rests, then he runs some more, walks some more. Night sets in while he's resting again. The neighbor's home is only two miles away now, but everything looks the same and Grigori has begun to wonder if he's headed in the right direction. Exhaustion overtakes him. He's lost his family, and perhaps his mind; which takes its toll on a person's energy. Plus, it's so cold that his circulation is slowing and freezing. He falls asleep on the snow bank where he'd sat down to rest, under black clouds and a white blanket of falling snow that hides the stars."
"And?" Roan snapped.
Jiri smiled at his impatience. "A full moon rises," murmured Jiri. "And the curse on the golden egg takes root. During the night, Grigori changes, though he won't realize it at the time or know of it until much later in his life. He changes species that night, from human into something else."
"A tiger," said a soft voice. It took me a few seconds to realize the voice was mine.
Jiri glanced at me from the corner of his feline yellow eyes, his slitted pupils slivered islands amidst all that gold. "Into a tiger," repeated Jiri. "That's right. Of all animals, my grandpa never did figure out why the curse changed him into a tiger. Anyway, the story continues onto how Grigori found out about the curse, how he sought out what set the curse on the golden egg, how he found the faeries and they refused to lift the curse."
"You didn't send my friends away," I whispered, mostly to myself. I looked at Jiri and he met my gaze. Even as I didn't look away, I didn't know if I was completely over my grudge. "They went away because you inherited your grandfather's curse and…"
My best friend flashed me an apologetic smile, interrupting me. "Nice thought," he said. "But the truth is that my family—the male line, anyway—just plain hates faeries. After the fey refused to lift the curse, Grigori went on this big rampage. He hurt, and even killed, many faeries. The fey couldn't even fight back because the curse made my grandpa pretty much invincible. He could die and everything, but not by the hands of faeries… It gets pretty complicated, so I won't go into details. Pretty much what I'm telling you is that your imaginary friends went away because I can hurt them while they can't hurt me."
"They were afraid of you," supplied Roan.
I shot my little brother a questioning glance. Did he even know what Jiri and I were discussing? Did he believe any of this? Looking back to Jiri, I tilted my head to one side and studied him so thoroughly it was almost sexual.
So despite my grudge against Jiri, maybe I do still have a strong physical attraction to him.
Jiri shifted uncomfortably under my gaze. Before he could speak, I asked, "Did you ever hurt any of them?"
He flinched, which was answer enough for me. I started to stand, about to grab Roan and storm out of the McDonald's restaurant. It felt weird. Not surreal, just weird. Here we were in a nationally-known fast food franchise, sitting and talking about magical matters over Big Macs and fries. I'd always known I wasn't normal, but this was a little too weird even for me.
"Wait, Vaydell," snapped Jiri, snatching my wrist and pulling me down before I could stand all the way. He pulled too hard and I stumbled sideways, landing awkwardly in his lap. Jiri wrapped his arms around me in a way that made escape impossible. Roan made a noise in his throat like an overprotective pet as he watched this. "Vay, you have to understand. We didn't really know each other back then. I wasn't really your friend until the second grade. I'd grown up learning awful stories about faeries from my grandpa and my dad. Then when I come to the States, there you are, practically fey yourself. You attracted faeries like flies to fruit. When I hurt your friends, I didn't realize I was hurting your friends. Don't you understand yet?"
No, I didn't. If we weren't really friends until the second grade, then Jiri wasn't hurting what he mistook as my enemies to protect me. He was hurting them because he could, because they couldn't hurt him.
If that was the case, I didn't want this cursed Jiri at all. I wanted my old Samuel Jiricek back. My first real friend who seemed to understand me effortlessly, who contradicted all of my fairytales and claimed he'd never believe in faeries; who had held me and supported me in my time of greatest need. This wasn't that Jiri. Whatever he was, he was no longer my friend.
"I'm sorry, Vay," said Jiri, pressing his lips to my collar bone. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, a thousand times over, I'm sorry. I didn't know until after the damage was done that they meant so much to you. I didn't know you had history with the fey. You understand that when I hurt those faeries, I was just doing as I'd been taught by my family. To me, the fey are terrible things." He kissed my shoulder, and goosebumps rose allover. "You can't hold that against me, Vaydell," he whispered, kissing down my arm and raising more goosebumps. "Even as upset with me as you are now, I know you can understand that. And I've been your best friend for too long. I love you and Roan. You know I'd do nothing to purposely hurt you."
Mere hours ago, I wouldn't have had a doubt in my mind that Jiri would protect me with his life. Then he had tackled me with fangs bared, all but threatened me; and suddenly I wasn't so sure.
"Please, Vay. I never asked for forgiveness then, but I'm begging you now. You and Roan. Please forgive me?"
"Vay," said Roan, his anger waning.
He had had nothing really to be upset about in the first place. Jiri was like his big brother, while he was my best friend. It'd always been that way. Roan would always have a bond with Jiri that I'd never be able to touch, just like Jiri and I would always have a bond that Roan could never come close to. Perhaps that was a cold way to put it, but facts are facts, and that's my opinion.
"I wanna go home," I said, and then heaved a sigh. I wasn't forgiving Jiri, but I could put aside my grudge for now. Doing all of this in front of Roan wasn't right. A small part of my brother might, just might, believe in faeries; but he didn't believe like I did, he hadn't had the same friends as I'd had growing up. He didn't know what Jiri and I were talking about, and it was wrong to hold such a life-altering discussion in front of someone who only had half an idea of what was going on, who wasn't really involved to begin with. "Let's go," I concluded, shoving myself up and off of Jiri.
Jiri let me go and I started picking up my and Roan's trash. He stood up beside me and helped. There was a lot of wasted food that I would mourn once my senses returned, but for now I was carefully numb as I tossed the wasted food and set the lunch tray atop the receptacle. As a trio, Jiri, Roan and I left the restaurant and headed back to the apartment loft.
Once inside, I instructed Roan to start on his homework. He moaned and groaned, but eventually followed instructions.
More than once I caught myself peering around the loft from the corners of my eyes, looking for our new brownie friend. Obviously Roan couldn't see it; I'd learned that much from the fiasco of three and a half hours ago. Yet there was no sign of the creature, other than the spotless apartment.
Jiri crept up behind me while I was just settling down on our shared bed with my backpack in hand, intent on starting my own homework.
"I didn't kill the brownie," he whispered in my ear, making me jump, "if that's what you're thinking."
Three and a half hours ago, Jiri's reading my mind would have been much less creepy than it was just then.