Better Than Breakfast
There was something to be said about losing to an enchanted cow. Granted, the enchantment most likely gave the cow a few advantages, but Irian rather thought he still shouldn't be losing to one. It was fortunate that the cow was not enchanted to speak and therefore could never tell anyone about Irian's sorry game skills.
Irian could always use magic to his advantage, of course, but that would be utterly unsporting. Besides, losing was a better teacher than winning anyway. Or so he kept telling himself.
It was something of a relief, in the end, when he felt it. Answering the call would at least allow him to escape without actually losing, although he'd been well on his way to doing so. With a wry nod to George (and he never had figured out why anyone would name a female cow George) he relocated.
As usual, the relocation spell left him a little disoriented, so he pasted on his best smile and waited for the world to stop spinning. When it finally complied enough that Irian could look around without losing his supper, he did so.
He was in a small garden, tended only cursorily, which butted up against the high wall of a stone keep. From the looks of it, a minor noble's castle, although offhand he couldn't identify which one. There were far too many nobles in his kingdoms for Irian to be able to remember all of them. He usually counted it a minor victory when he could recall all the royals without forgetting one.
Still, a minor noble's castle usually meant some sort of pure-hearted serving girl or a young Lady trapped beneath a cruel step-parent's thumb. Easy.
"Who are you? Where'd you come from?"
Irian turned, brows already rising, to find himself face to face with what was very obviously not a serving girl nor a young Lady. Maybe this wasn't going to be as easy as he'd thought.
The young man was eyeing him suspiciously. He was no great beauty, but neither was he plain. He was a touch taller than Irian (Most people were) with dark brown hair that seemed to have escaped its ties and bright hazel eyes. The brightness of those eyes, along with the telltale streaks that the young man had not quite managed to wipe off his cheeks, identified as plain as day to Irian's practiced eye what he'd been doing only moments ago.
This, then, was the deserving young ... person whose call he'd heeded. Interesting. Well, he was always up for a challenge.
"I'm your fairy godfather."
The young man blinked slowly. "Fairy godfather?" he asked incredulously.
Irian tried not to sigh and grit his teeth behind his smile. This was always the worst part of the whole thing. "Fairy godfather. Yes, you heard that right, and no, I'm not dropping my pants to prove it to you."
The young man blinked again, then his lips quirked in a wan smile. "Ah."
Irian gave him points for adaptability. Most of them didn't recover quite this quickly.
"So, I'm your fairy godfather, here to make all your dreams come true." Irian managed a more or less graceful bow. His equilibrium had never been very good, but it was entirely beneath the dignity and reputation of a fairy godparent to fall over in front of a ward. Fortunately, most of the wards never seemed to notice his balance issues. Or at the very least, were too polite to say anything about it.
"Dreams?" The young man sounded a bit lost. "I don't really have any dreams..."
Irian blinked. Of course he had dreams. All deserving young persons had dreams. It was part of what called a fairy godparent to them. All the fairy in question had to do was make those dreams into reality.
"Maybe it would help if you told me a little about yourself," Irian mused, finding a bush that looked like it would support his weight with only minimal enchantment and settling into its embrace. "We can go from there."
Though he looked doubtful, the young man never the less settled on the ground at Irian's feet (Irian conjured up a bit of clover to make it a bit more comfortable) and complied.
"My name is Vel," he said slowly. "Well, Velken, but nobody calls me that. My father is Lord Deverin of Frostbrook, but my mother was only a simple cook."
Ah, a bastard child. This was beginning to make more sense. Irian nodded for Vel to go on.
"My father never had any other children, and he told me he was going to make me his heir... but a few months ago he remarried, and his new wife has a son..." Vel's face tightened, his eyes shining with tears he refused to shed. "They just announced it this morning. Thael is legitimate, and I'm not, so Thael gets to be father's heir."
Irian winced, even as part of him was congratulating himself on being right about the step-parent part. Step-parents caused more messes for fairy godparents to sort out than anyone else. Sometimes he swore people should be forbidden from remarrying.
"Well, short of this Thael dying or some pretty heavy tampering with your father's mind, I don't really see any way to get you Frostbrook..." Irian said doubtfully, as though he'd actually consider the possibility. He doubted Vel would fail this test, and the young man didn't disappoint him.
Vel's eyes widened. "N-no, I don't want that..." His face softened, sad rather than startled. "I never really wanted to be Lord of Frostbrook, honestly. I just... before, it was just father and me. I was... wanted. Now, I'm just the bastard child that everyone wishes would just disappear."
"Ahh." Irian nodded slowly. "So at its heart, your dream is to be wanted."
For a moment Vel looked surprised again, then thoughtful, then he slowly nodded as well. "I... yes."
Now Irian was definitely back on more familiar ground. "Well then, we'll just find you an appropriate princess and that will be that! Let's see... didn't I hear something last week about a princess on a glass mountain? And there's a nice one a few kingdoms over stuck in a tower... or perhaps the sleeping one would be more to your liking..."
Vel's eyes had gone very wide again, and his cheeks flushed a brilliant red. "Uh, actually... I... um..."
Irian blinked. "No? Oh, was there someone you already had your eye on?"
Vel shook his head slowly, the flush spreading. He mumbled something beneath his breath, but Irian didn't quite catch it.
Puzzled, Irian peered closely at the man, then swiftly straightened. Just to be sure, he cast a tiny spell.
Vel's blush spread to his ears.
That made things a little bit trickier, but far from impossible. In fact, if memory served, there was a rather handsome lord not too far away...
"No need to feel embarrassed," Irian said in his most reassuring voice, as he patted Vel's shoulder. "You're in good company."
As Vel looked at him in surprise, Irian smiled wider. "And I keep a handy list of similarly oriented individuals with ratings for appearance, personality, skill, and endurance."
Vel's flush extended to his neck. "H-how do you..."
Irian smirked. "We have our ways." At the look on Vel's face, he laughed. "And no, I don't sleep with them all to test them."
When Vel continued to look unconvinced, Irian added wryly, "I will admit to being something of a voyeur, but that's all you're getting out of me. Now then, let's find you your man."
Although the red in his face didn't appear to be going away any time soon, Vel never the less took Irian's hand and allowed the magic to sweep him away.
Relocating wasn't as gentle on him this time as it had been before, and Irian refused to acknowledge the way he clung to his charge for balance rather than land on his ass on the ground. It was utterly demeaning as well as highly embarrassing, and Vel got even more points for not even mentioning it once Irian was finally able to release him and stand on his own two feet.
"Well," Irian said cheerfully, still a little wobbly but doing his damndest not to show it, "that was fun."
"If that's your idea of fun," Vel muttered quietly, "I'd hate to see what you consider torture."
"Technically torture does not fall within the purview of fairy godparents," Irian replied absently, turning away to gather up the things he needed, "but I have been told I am a trifle bit overprotective of my charges."
The only response he got was a rather non-committal "hmm" as Vel decided, wisely, to look around instead. "Where are we?" he asked after a moment.
"My house," Irian told him, digging underneath the armoire for his satchel of dried dragonsbane. "I had to pick up a few things."
There was only a faint acknowledgement, and Irian looked up in time to see Vel disappearing into the next room. Well, that was harmless enough. He was fairly certain everything remotely dangerous was locked away, and if he happened to have left something out, well, he was a fairy godfather. It wouldn't be that difficult to undo it.
When he was satisfied he had everything he needed, Irian set out in search of his wandering charge. Vel wasn't in the first room he checked, nor the second (although George was), but in the third he located Vel, curled up on the settee his mother had given him several birthdays ago. Perched on the back of the settee and watching Vel sleep were Pip and Squeak, the resident talking mice.
"Like him, Ree," Squeak said softly as he entered. "Fed us crumbs."
"Good crumbs," Pip added, licking his whiskers.
Mice. Feed them, and you had friends for life. Irian shook his head in amusement as he moved silently over to the settee, peering down at his young charge.
Vel was fast asleep, despite his rumpled clothes and the awkward angle at which he was lying. Irian couldn't really blame him, considering the lateness of the hour, so he wove a subtle softening spell over the settee and retreated to his own bedroom.
The fulfillment of Vel's dreams could wait until tomorrow.
As always, it took several moments after waking for Irian to truly be aware of his surroundings. During that gradual awakening, he slowly became aware of the fact that something was not quite right. When he felt secure enough in his consciousness not to break his neck stumbling down the stairs, Irian pulled on a dressing gown and followed the strange smell that had awoken him down to the kitchen.
Just inside the doorway, he stopped short.
Vel was there. So was most everything else that chose to live in his home domain. Vel had managed to find the apron his mother had left the last time she'd taken offense to his kitchen and was cheerfully making what appeared to be breakfast. There were mice in the sink, birds on the table, rabbits underfoot, and George in a corner munching on the drapes.
Irian could only stare.
After several minutes, one of the birds noticed him and started chattering. The rest of them joined in after a moment, and Vel turned to see what was causing all the racket.
"Oh!" He flushed when he saw Irian. "Sorry... I was going to ask if it was all right, but they all agreed that waking you up would be a bad idea."
Irian glanced around. Pip actually had the audacity to wave at him. Irian ignored the rodent in favor of coming the rest of the way into the kitchen and peering at what Vel was making. His brows rose.
"Where did you get the eggs?"
Vel pointed nervously out the back door. "Your chicken gave them to me."
Irian's brows rose higher. "Cleo?"
"Um, gold and brown, with kind of... poof around her head?" Vel gestured with his hands to demonstrate.
Irian shook his head slowly. "That's Cleo..." But Cleo hated strangers. Most visitors never even saw her, much less managed to get eggs from her.
He gave Vel more points.
"I assume you got the milk from George..."
Now it was Vel's turn to look surprised. "George? Your cow's name is George?"
Irian smiled faintly. "It's a long story." He peered back at the pans on the stove.
"Pip and Squeak brought the cheese," Vel provided helpfully. "The birds brought the vegetables and spices, and the fox brought the meat." He paused. "I didn't ask, but I think it's bacon..."
"The fox?" Irian started, looking around until he found, sure enough, Eltan curled up in a basket in the corner. "I can't believe..." He looked back up at Vel. "He isn't trying to eat Peter and Thumper again, is he?"
Vel shook his head. "He was eyeing them earlier, but I guess you have some sort of truce set up here...?"
Irian nodded slowly, still feeling a bit lost. "Yes, although he likes to try my patience."
Vel laughed. "Well, you could always threaten to have George step on him."
Irian smirked. "Oh, I can do much worse."
Vel looked at him thoughtfully, then shook his head with a smile. "You should sit down. Breakfast is done."
Amused, Irian took his accustomed seat at the little wooden table. Chatter and Headache, two of the resident bluebirds, took turns hopping over his hands while Gloria, true to her magpie heritage, attempted to sneak off with his buttons while he wasn't looking. After a minute, Vel sat down at the other chair and passed over what smelled like the best omelet he'd ever encountered.
It tasted like the best omelet he'd ever encountered as well, and he tried not to be too put out when it was gone. He wondered if it was too far beneath his dignity to lick the plate. "I believe you mentioned your mother was a cook...?"
Vel flushed, but nodded. "I grew up helping her in the kitchens."
"Mmm. It shows." Maybe just a little lick. Surely no one could begrudge him a tiny one.
He'd almost managed to convince himself to do it when Vel rose and whisked the plate away, taking both plates to the back door and setting them down. A moment later Rapscallion appeared and began cleaning them thoroughly. Irian found himself wondering that he was jealous of a raccoon.
Forcing the sulk to go away, or at least hide somewhere for the time being, Irian got up and washed his hands at the sink before turning to Vel. "Thank you for breakfast. Now I suppose we should be going."
Vel swallowed and nodded, removing the apron and hanging it up on a little hook. Irian looked him over critically, then shook his head.
"We're going to have to get you some decent clothes. Come with me."
Without waiting to see if he was obeyed, Irian headed back upstairs to his bedroom. He rummaged through the enchanted wardrobe until he found something reasonable, then turned around.
Vel had followed him, as requested, but he wasn't alone. Peter was cradled snugly in his arms, Pip and Squeak were riding on one shoulder, and Gloria was on his head.
"Oh no," Irian told them. "You are not watching Vel get changed. Out."
Although there was quite a bit of grumbling, not a one of them would defy a direct order. When they were finally gone, Irian held out the clothing to Vel. "Here."
Vel took the garments cautiously.
Irian pointed through an adjacent doorway. "The bathing room is in there. Get washed up and dressed, then we'll be on our way." He grabbed his own clothing and swiftly exited before he could do more than entertain the vague notion of watching. Vel was his charge, and as such was off-limits.
Still, he found himself extremely grateful that Vel wasn't the type to dally. In almost no time at all the man came down the stairs, still damp in places and fussing with his sleeves. He cleaned up very nicely, Irian noted. Finding someone to want him wasn't going to be hard at all.
"Not bad." Irian stepped forward and fixed the sleeve where it was misbehaving. "Not bad at all. Now then, shall we go?"
Vel looked a little uncertain, but nodded anyway. Irian led them outside to where he'd prepared a small carriage, settling them both inside before signaling to the horses to set out. Well, the creatures currently masquerading as horses and pulling the carriage, anyway. He usually found that things went a lot smoother if his charge of the moment didn't know that what looked like horses were actually a pair of relatively friendly kelpie.
They made good time, one advantage of using kelpie instead of regular horses, but the real reason Irian preferred to use them was just ahead. After a sharp bend in the road, he gave the proper signal and one of the kelpies carefully stepped a little too far to the left, sending the left carriage wheel right into a deep rut that they would have otherwise avoided.
There was a sickening crack, and the horses stopped.
"What was that?" Vel asked.
Irian put on a convincing frown. "The wheel snapped." He sighed. "I guess we're not going anywhere after all."
He got out of the carriage and knelt down, making a show of examining the broken wheel. The kelpies had done a very good job of breaking it, nice and clean and right where it would be problematic, but not impossible to fix. Perfect.
"Well," Irian said, standing back up and dusting himself off, "it's pretty bad, but at least it's not the axle."
"Can you fix it?" Vel asked.
Irian shook his head. "Not with what I have on hand. But I'm fairly certain there's a wood troll lurking somewhere in this forest, and everyone knows there's no better carpenter than a wood troll." He smiled brightly and spread his wings. "Stay put. I'll go see if I can find it."
Before Vel had time to protest, Irian was out of earshot.
He skimmed the treetops for a bit, amused as the local birds came out to play, then shifted to his favorite form, a pale elf owl, and circled back to where he'd left Vel and the carriage. If he'd calculated right, he had just enough time to find a nice tree branch to settle on and watch the show.
As usual, his timing was just about perfect. He'd no sooner smoothed down his feathers than he heard the distinct clopping of hooves. A minute later the carriage came into view, all brilliant scarlets trimmed in black and gold, and pulled by four beautiful palomino geldings. As Irian knew it would, it slowed when it sighted the broken carriage, then stopped once it had pulled up alongside.
The carriage door opened, a tall, handsome gentleman stepping out. He spoke to his driver, who also hopped down, and the two of them engaged Vel in conversation. After several exchanges the driver of the second carriage moved around to inspect the broken wheel while the gentleman - Lord Deverin of Meadowshire, Irian knew - continued his conversation with Vel.
It was an absolutely perfect plan. Deverin was always helping persons in distress, and all Vel had to do was smile to charm even the hardest heart, so it should have been all but guaranteed.
Which was why Irian nearly fell off his branch in surprise as Lord Deverin merely gave a formal bow, kissed Vel's hand, and got back into his carriage once his driver finished mending the broken wheel. In a matter of minutes, they were out of sight.
Leaving Vel sitting in the newly-repaired carriage, just as he'd been before.
Utterly baffled, Irian flew down to the road, changing back to his natural shape in mid-flight.
"What happened?" he demanded as soon as he had lips with which to speak.
Vel jumped, apparently not having been expecting him to appear quite so suddenly, and looked a trifle confused. "What do you mean?"
Irian waved a hand in the direction Lord Deverin's carriage had gone. "I gave you the perfect set up! Why did Lord Deverin leave?"
Vel blinked owlishly. "He had an appointment to attend. He invited me to go with him, but you told me to stay here." He paused. "His driver fixed the carriage though."
Irian couldn't have been more flabbergasted than he was. "You do remember we're trying to find someone to fulfill your dream, right?"
"Oh," Vel said softly, turning to look in the direction the carriage had gone. "He was nice enough, I guess, but..."
"But?" Irian prompted.
Vel's cheeks pinked. "I guess he just wasn't really my type."
Irian stared at him for a long moment, then sighed and shook his head as he climbed back into the carriage. It looked like this was going to be one of the tricky ones after all.
With a soft word, he got the kelpies turned back around and heading for home. It was time to make a new plan.
After having gone through his list twice, then cross-referencing it with his other list, it was far too late in the day to go out again. Vel made supper for both of them, and even though the thought felt traitorous Irian rather felt that it was even better than breakfast had been.
This time, he set up the guest bedroom and got Vel into it before the young man passed out. He even acquired a pair of proper pajamas for Vel to wear. Green, to bring out the subtle color in his eyes.
Irian was justifiably proud of himself for going straight to his room for bed and not sticking around in disguise to watch Vel change, no matter how tempting a thought it was. The sooner he got his charge hooked up and properly settled, the better. And he had a perfect new plan. There was no way anything could go wrong this time.
That was the thought that carried him into sleep, and greeted him with the morning sun. It skittered away to hide at the smell of breakfast, and only significant effort recalled it back again afterwards. Vel's cooking skills were entirely too addictive, and that was a thought he most certainly did not want to be having.
So he once more bundled them into the carriage, freshly washed and dressed in clean clothing that was far more befitting of Vel than the refuse he'd arrived in, and they set out in search of the fulfillment to a dream.
This time their journey was longer, even with a few fairy tricks to speed it along, but Irian's stomach informed him quite concisely as to what it would do with his very nice breakfast should he choose to use relocation magic, and Irian was rather fond of his breakfast. So carriage it was.
Eventually, though, they stopped outside of a large manor that had seen better days. Vel looked around curiously as they stepped down.
"What happened here?" he asked.
"Curse," Irian responded, herding Vel around back to where he knew there'd be an overgrown garden. "Don't worry, you'll be fine."
"But..." Vel protested, though he didn't really fight being steered around. In short order they arrived at the edge of a small pond, its edges choked with weeds, and Irian nodded in satisfaction.
"What's perfect?" Vel asked curiously. In response, Irian shoved a small golden ball into his hands.
"Here, throw this into the pond," he instructed. "After I leave."
Vel blinked, turning toward him. "What?"
Irian ignored him in favor of transforming into his owl shape, flying up and perching on a dilapidated buttress where he could watch the proceedings. There was no way it could fail this time. Everything was practically pre-arranged.
Vel stared up at him for a long moment, then gave a slight shrug and turned back to the pond. He contemplated the little ball he'd been given for a moment, then casually tossed it in.
When nothing immediately happened, he looked around, then back up at Irian. Irian fluffed himself. Young people had no patience.
After several moments Vel looked back at the pond, getting to his knees and peering into its murky waters. Irian was surprised, but relieved, when Vel managed not to fall in and merely shrieked and fell over backwards when the frog appeared.
Irian preened. It really was the best plan ever. Duke Englefram was desperate for someone to break his enchantment. If that someone just happened to be a pretty and available young man, well, that was even better. Vel would be a very lucky young man indeed, as Irian had heard quite the flattering stories concerning the Duke's bedroom performance prior to his unfortunate run-in with that enchantress.
All seemed to be going perfectly. Vel spoke with the frog, the frog fetched the little golden ball, Vel provided the appropriate thank-you kiss, and Duke Englefram and his manor were restored to their proper appearance. Perfect. Exactly as planned.
Except that the Duke was placing a chaste kiss to Vel's hand, then going inside. Without Vel.
What had happened this time?
Vel was waiting patiently when Irian flew down to join him on the newly restored lawn, looking somewhat rueful for all that he was smiling.
"Now what happened?" Irian asked as he shifted out of owl form and landed on the grass.
"He was very grateful, and said if I ever needed anything at all then he'd be more than happy to grant it for me."
Irian resisted the urge to shake him. "But...?"
Vel studiously looked at his feet, cheeks reddening. "He's very nice..."
"But not your type." Irian sighed. So much for Plan B. "All right, I'll figure out something else. Let's go home."
Vel smiled brightly at him as they headed back to the carriage.
Breakfast the next morning was hotcakes with syrup and fresh berries. When asked, Vel informed him that the berries were a gift from the local bear family.
Irian didn't even bother to explain how unusual that was.
He did, however, resolve again to fulfill Vel's dream as quickly as possible. Another day or two of Vel's cooking and Irian might do something entirely unbefitting of a Fairy Godfather. It was bad enough that Vel's pajamas managed to cling in ways they most definitely were not supposed to. And while Irian had never considered "sleep rumpled" to be particularly sexy before, he found himself increasingly grateful for the loose, obscuring fabric of his dressing gown.
Of course, Vel certainly wasn't helping matters with his eating habits. Hadn't anyone ever told him it wasn't polite to lick his fork like that?
Irian bit back a moan and rubbed his temples instead.
"Tell me about Fairy Godfathers."
Irian looked up and blinked. "What?"
"Fairy Godfathers," Vel prompted. "I want to know more."
"Uh..." Irian managed a shrug. "We're just like Fairy Godmothers, only male."
Vel rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. "So tell me about Fairy Godmothers then."
Eyeing him dubiously, receiving only a coaxing smile in return, Irian pondered. "Well, we're the rarest race of magical beings. I think there's currently seven of us in the entire world. Six, if Lavender actually made good on her threat to retire."
"Retire?" Vel asked curiously.
"Yes... Fairy Godparents are immortal until we choose not to be. Most Fairy Godparents live to be thousands of years old. I believe Lavender just celebrated her 9,550th birthday."
Vel blinked. "So, you are born like regular people?"
It was Irian's turn to blink. He gave a lopsided smile. "As far as I know, yes, though you'd have to ask my mother to be certain."
"Oh." Vel considered. "Is your mother a Fairy Godmother too? What about your father?"
Irian shook his head. "My father was human, just like you. Over the years Fairy Godparents take any number of lovers. Most of the children from those liaisons are born perfectly ordinary, or as ordinary as one can be growing up under the care of a Fairy Godmother. But on very rare occasions a magic child is born, and later grows up to be a Fairy Godmother." He smiled ruefully and gestured to himself. "Or a Fairy Godfather, but by far the majority of them are girls."
"So, Fairy Godmothers are rare, and Fairy Godfathers are really really rare?" Vel asked.
Irian nodded. "The last Fairy Godfather retired long before I was born. I'm the only one right now. The fourth in recorded history." It was just a bit of fact; he was certainly not hoping to impress Vel.
"Woah." From the way Vel's eyes widened, he was impressed anyway. "That's... wow."
Irian hid a smile. "So, does that answer all your questions?"
"Um." Vel itched his nose, then abruptly straightened and leaned forward curiously. "You said Fairy Godparents have lovers... do you have a lover?"
Against all intentions, Irian found his cheeks heating. "Not at the moment, no." He grimaced. "I had something of a dramatic fall out last time."
Under the table, Thumper snorted. Irian nobly refrained from kicking him. He met Vel's questioning look with some reluctance.
"There was an argument... that resulted in quite a bit of collateral damage," he said finally. That didn't even begin to cover the whole mess, but it was the part that was more or less public knowledge. Stupid Ulik. He should have turned the bastard into something worse than a donkey.
Vel was still looking at him. Irian looked away. "I don't like to talk about it. Besides, we're not supposed to be talking about me." He stood, startling the birds off the table. "We're supposed to be making plans to get you your dream."
Vel stood, more slowly than Irian. "Um, right."
Irian grabbed his arm before he could attempt to pick up the dishes, herding him back into the hall. "It'll work perfectly this time, you'll see. We will have to do a little bit of prep work, though." He looked Vel over critically, trying not to linger too badly, and nodded. "You go upstairs and get washed and dressed. Just pick something out of the wardrobe. When you're ready, come back down and look for the green door."
"Green door," Vel repeated, bewildered.
"Right." Irian gave him a little prod, all the way to the stairs, then turned back around once he was at the top.
He had work to do.
First he summoned the door of a different color, affixing it halfway between the kitchen and the sitting room. A little bit of coaxing brought it to green, whereupon Irian opened it and stepped through.
The ballroom was just as beautiful as he remembered it, although a trifle dusty in places. Unsurprising, considering he hadn't used it in at least three decades. A quick restoration spell took care of that, and then it was simply a matter of appropriate music and atmosphere.
Whistling softly, he called to those he would need. While otherwise just on the tolerable side of irritating, the bluebirds Chatter, Headache, and Box were excellent musicians once given hands with which to play. Peter and Thumper played drums better than most royal musicians, and he'd never met a better flautist than Gloria, even if she did always try to sneak off with the flute afterwards.
Once he had them all transformed and arranged to his satisfaction, he cast one last spell upon his own clothing to save him the temptation of going upstairs to 'change.' He'd just gotten it all settled to his liking when the ballroom door opened and Vel stepped inside.
If for nothing else, it was worth it simply to see the look on Vel's face.
"Oh good," Irian said brightly, sweeping forward and drawing Vel into the center of the ballroom. "Now then, you're going to learn how to dance."
"Dance?" Vel squeaked.
Irian ignored the note of panic in the man's voice and concentrated instead on nudging Vel's feet and hands into the appropriate positions. "Now then, dancing is very much a game of follow the leader. As long as you don't step on anyone's toes, you'll be fine."
Vel wasn't convinced. Neither was the anthropomorphic orchestra, to judge by their faces. Irian ignored them all and walked Vel through the basic steps. Vel wasn't naturally clumsy, but his embarrassment compounded his awkwardness and Irian silently thanked that huntsman who'd clued him in to the possibility of steel-reinforced dancing slippers.
Eventually, however, Vel seemed to grasp it. Irian gradually worked in more complex steps, one dance at a time, until they were all but floating all around the ballroom floor. It was the most fun he'd had in decades, and it really was a pity that Vel would be gone after tonight.
Well, he'd just have to enjoy it while it lasted.
When Irian shifted their positions to let Vel lead, Vel barely even faltered before confidently moving with his newly-acquired skill. It wasn't until the grandfather clock chimed the hour that Irian finally came back to reality.
"Oh Bollocks and Brugmansia," Irian swore. "You're going to be late."
He swept the both of them out the door and to the carriage, silently blessing enchanted slippers as he blatantly abused magic to transform it into something a little more fitting and get the proper clothing on Vel. Rather than kelpie, this time a team of six white unicorns had agreed to go in harness for a night. Apparently, it was their version of 'slumming it.'
Vel made a few attempts at speaking, failing at all of them, and eventually let himself be herded into the carriage like a good little ward. Irian gave a nod to the lead unicorn and off they went. He watched until they were out of sight, then slowly turned and went back inside.
This was it. There was no way for Vel to mess up this time. He'd go, dance the night away in Irian's specially-enchanted slippers that would never let him tire, Prince Peryn would fall madly in love with him before the stroke of midnight, and that would be that.
Case solved. Dream granted. Happily Ever After and all that.
There was absolutely no reason for Irian to be feeling out of sorts, none whatsoever. He'd performed his duty admirably, despite the setbacks encountered, and Vel was one more charge successfully Godfathered.
So when Irian's steps led him back to the recently-vacated ballroom, there was no purpose for it other than to tidy up and close it down once more. He restored all the animals to their proper forms, snuffed the candles, and allowed the dust to settle over the room once more. That was all.
Still he lingered, and when he closed his eyes he could still feel Vel's warmth in his arms, see his bright smile, hear the lilting music. Against intention, Irian's feet began to move, retracing steps so recently taken, around and around in a memory.
That was where Pip found him, later, and despite Pip's concerns Irian found he had no appetite for supper. Instead he went straight up to bed, changing into his nightclothes only by habit and curling up in bed.
Sleep eluded him, however, as he found himself wondering how the ball was going. Vel would look magnificent, of course. Irian's charges always did. That, paired with his easy smile and unconscious grace, would make him the most breathtaking person there. Prince Peryn wouldn't stand a chance.
Still... Vel had managed to botch two other nearly-perfect plans already. Maybe there was something Irian had missed. Some tiny key element that was out of place and would make the whole thing fall apart at the crucial moment.
Was he losing his touch as a Fairy Godfather?
The thought made him sit up straight and run over every charge he'd ever had, all the details, all of the subtle spells woven together to create a seamless masterpiece. Every single happy ending. He turned them over in his mind, examining them, comparing them to his failures with Vel.
As far as he could tell, there was nothing different. Both of his attempts with Vel should have worked perfectly. There wasn't a single hitch that would cause either of them to go wrong. But that obviously couldn't be, because it had taken until the third try to get it right, so there had to be some tiny little thing he was overlooking.
The clock in the foyer was just chiming midnight when he heard the unmistakable silvery sound of unicorn hoofbeats, bringing the empty carriage home.
Well, he was already awake, so there was no reason to leave it for morning. Irian drifted down the stairs and outside, making it halfway to the carriage before it opened.
He stopped. Started.
"What are you doing here?"
Vel flushed and ducked his head. "Um, well..."
Irian dragged a hand down his face. "Don't tell me, he wasn't your type."
"He was very kind, and a wonderful dancer," Vel offered, "but truthfully, you're better."
Irian firmly told himself not to feel pleased by the compliment. "It's the wings. Makes me light on my feet." He shook his head slowly, turning away to hide his smile. "Best get to bed, then. We've got a long day tomorrow."
He waited until Vel's footsteps retreated inside, then carefully set about unharnessing the unicorns. Petunia nudged him gently, nuzzling, and he felt telltale nuzzlings at his back that told him Lily and Foxglove were looking for apples. He conjured up a few out of the garden and shooed them off, finally feeling exhaustion starting to set in. The last one to leave was Baby's Breath, and she stood with apple in mouth as he opened his front door, just watching him.
Irian turned back around to face her. "What?"
The unicorn tossed her mane and snorted, coquetting girlishly before turning and prancing off. Irian shook his head and went inside. Unicorns. For all that they could communicate just like any other sentient magical creature, they always preferred to remain mysterious and aloof. Personally, Irian thought they just had a bit too much sparkle in their brains and not enough sense.
At least they liked him enough to aid him in his projects. Fairy Godparents seemed to have a fair bit of immunity to the whole purity thing. Maybe their job description canceled it out or something, because as a whole unicorns tended to adore Fairy Godparents, and Irian didn't know a single one of them that was still a virgin.
Putting unicorns and their silly whims out of mind, Irian headed upstairs to bed and, finally, sleep.
As was becoming a far too pleasant occurrence, Irian woke to the delicious smell of breakfast cooking. Less pleasant was the hard-on left over from a rather enjoyable dream, but that was dealt with easily enough. Harder to deal with was the prospect of Vel, back in his kitchen and not in Prince Peryn's castle.
Maybe he really was losing his touch.
Shoving that thought down into a dark corner, Irian yanked on a set of his working clothes and stumbled down the stairs. His dressing robe might hide erections better, but it was usually a little easier to avoid distraction when he was actually dressed.
Irian arrived in the kitchen just as the food was being set out on the table and had to firmly remind himself again that he wasn't allowed to keep one of his charges for selfish reasons.
"Good morning," Vel greeted.
Irian managed to summon up an appropriately non-lecherous smile. "Good morning. Breakfast smells wonderful."
Vel's cheeks pinked slightly and he turned away to remove his apron. His pajamas were still clinging in entirely unseemly ways, and Irian couldn't quite bring himself not to watch the view until Vel sat down. Of course, once he actually sat down himself it was hard to concentrate on anything but the meal itself. Egg bread, crepes, and yet more berries. His mouth watered just looking at it.
The first bite drew a soft moan out of him, it was simply that good. Yet again he had to remind himself of his duty and the fact that it didn't involve keeping his charges from their dreams simply because they had cooking skills that kings would go to war over.
"All right," Irian said after he'd cleared every bite from his plate, "what to try next?" He mused for a moment, sorting through the list in his head and removing everyone who was remotely similar to Lord Deverin, Duke Englefram, or Prince Peryn. When he was done, he looked over the much shortened list. Only one really stood out.
It was also going to be a doozy, even for a Fairy Godfather of his caliber. Still, Vel was well worth the effort, especially after the last three failures.
So, Emperor Shai-ming it was.
"I'm going to have to go prepare some things," he told Vel. "I'm sure the animals will keep you company, and if you want you can try a game of backgammon with George, but I think she cheats."
"Um, okay..." Vel said slowly.
"Have Pip and Squeak clean up," Irian called over his shoulder as he headed out into the hallway. He had work to do. First the library, to fetch the enchanted histories-in-progress he required, then to the work room gifted to him by a particularly grateful sorceress. He needed concentration and a handful of items, as well as enough uninterrupted time to work one of the major spells that Fairy Godparents were so respected for.
The magic of other races was far more obvious and immediate, but it was far too easy to counter if one knew how. The strength of a Fairy Godparent, and the reason they were given free access even into the dark courts, was that even though it was subtle, there was no defense for a properly-cast spell. No hex could break it. No enchantment could stand up to it.
This time, it would work for sure.
Several hours later he emerged, tired but triumphant, and paced through the house until he found Vel playing marbles with George, the two mice, several birds, a rabbit, and a fox. A moment's hasty search located the other rabbit asleep on a cushion and not in Eltan's stomach as he'd feared.
They all looked up as he entered, a slight furrow creasing Vel's brow. "Are you all right...?" he asked.
Irian waved off the question. "Fine. I have everything set up properly, so this should be a walk in the park." He paused. "You're not dressed."
Vel scrambled to his feet, cheeks turning red as he stammered out hasty apologies. Irian waited until he was out of sight, hopefully to go get ready, before turning to the menagerie in his sitting room.
"So who won?" he asked.
Paws, wings, and one ear all pointed to George. Irian snorted. He'd thought so. One of these days he'd figure out how she did it.
He left the sitting room, going outside and whistling softly to the cloudless sky. They had too far to go to use the carriage, and after his morning exertions Irian wasn't really feeling up to a relocation spell. Therefore, other methods of transportation were needed.
Just as he heard the sound of the front door opening behind him, it arrived. Irian could hear Vel's swift intake of breath and smiled to himself even as he stepped forward to greet the new arrival. He'd considered pegasi, as they had the smoothest gait, but passed them up in favor of something with greater speed.
Also, they were going to save an eastern Emperor. What better entrance to make than riding on the back of a dragon?
"Chao Mian," Irian greeted, stroking the dragon's nose. "Thank you for coming."
The dragon rumbled, its version of a chuckle. "I had to come see, when I heard the rumors."
Irian made a face. "There are rumors of my failures spreading? So much for my reputation."
Chao Mian rumbled again. "No disrespect is intended, weaver of destiny. You are much beloved by all."
"It'll go right this time," Irian muttered, beckoning Vel over and helping him clamber up the dragon's leg to its back, then swinging up behind him. Once they were both firmly seated, Irian called out, "All right, Chao Mian. Let's go."
The dragon braced himself, then leapt straight upward. There was a moment of rather sickening vertigo in the instant before Chao Mian's wings snapped down, then they were rising high into the clouds faster than the winds themselves.
"Are you all right?" Irian asked softly after several minutes, noting the whiteness of Vel's hands where the young man was gripping the scales before him.
"Y-yes..." came the faltering reply.
Hm. Irian freed one hand to slide it around Vel's waist, knowing he was playing with fire but mollified by the way Vel almost immediately relaxed. He could endure it, for Vel's sake, no matter how much the proximity tortured him.
For over an hour.
It was with a feeling of profound relief, and also a tiny bit of regret that Irian wasn't admitting to under any circumstances, that they finally began to feel the dragon descend. Irian realized he'd completely forgotten to brief Vel, so caught up in the feeling of the young man in his arms, so he hurried to do so before they landed.
"Now, the Emperor has been sick for several years. All the healers, wise men, and seers in the land have been unable to figure out why. Now, feed this to him," Irian pressed a small wrapped bundle into Vel's hand, "and he should be right as rain. Understand?"
Vel twisted around awkwardly to peer at him. "What's wrong with him?"
"Someone fed him cursed wyrm larvae by mistake," Irian responded off-handedly. "Don't worry about it. He'll be good as new once he gets the counter."
Vel's eyes widened. "But-"
"Just present yourself at the palace and ask for Emperor Shai-ming," Irian said, interrupting him. "You'll do fine." He scooted backwards just enough to give himself the room he needed, then spread his wings. The rush of air from their descent immediately lifted him up and away from the dragon's back, and he hung in the air, hovering, as Vel and Chao Mian landed.
This time there was no way he could fail. Absolutely none.
Irian waited until Vel had vanished inside with a pair of guards, then shifted to his favorite owl shape and fluttered down to land on Chao Mian's head. The dragon snorted.
"You figured out how to cure the Sun Emperor?"
Irian settled beside one of Chao Mian's horns and idly preened his feathers in case anyone was watching. "The problem was that everyone was looking for one source, one cure. No one thought of curse and poison," he replied in the dragon tongue.
"You really think it happened by mistake?" Chao Mian asked curiously.
Irian grimaced. "No, but I was less concerned with how it happened than I was with fixing it."
Chao Mian rumbled in discontent, watching the palace gates. Irian shared the feeling, though it wasn't his place to interfere beyond what was necessary to fulfill Vel's dream. Figuring out who'd tried to kill the Sun Emperor, preventing it from happening again, those were tasks for a Hero.
Although, any future plots could potentially threaten Vel, so maybe Irian would end up tampering after all. For the sake of his charge, of course.
He was running over everything he'd read, wishing he had his histories with which to cross-reference things, when the excitement started up. Word seemed to pass with the swiftness of the wind, for as the sound grew louder people came running from all directions to see if it was true. If their Emperor was well again.
Irian found himself glad for his beak, as it meant he had no need to attempt to force a smile to his face. It was hard enough to keep from flying in there and snatching Vel away. Maybe he should transform into something without wings.
"Well," Irian said with hollow cheer, "That's that. Guess it's time to go home."
Chao Mian tilted his head to one side, eyes still on the gate. "Are you certain?" he asked.
Irian frowned. "What do you mean..."
He broke off, looking up at the gate, beak falling open at the familiar sight of Vel walking slowly toward him. He couldn't believe it. There was just no way.
Irian shifted back before his feet touched the earth. "It didn't work?" he demanded.
Vel shook his head slightly. "It worked just fine. Shai-ming was very grateful, and his people were very relieved."
Irian stared at him. "Then why aren't you in there celebrating with them?"
Vel seemed to hunch down, making him seem smaller than Irian. "I..."
Irian sighed in frustration and ran a hand through his hair. "Fine, no Emperor. No Prince, Duke, or Lord either." He sighed again. "Well, maybe one of the High King of Faerie's sons is properly inclined..."
It was quiet, but definite none the less. Irian looked up and blinked. "Pardon?"
Vel's cheeks colored again, and he swallowed, but repeated his prior statement. "No. I don't want a faerie prince."
Irian threw his hands up in exasperation. "Then what do you want? I've found you the very best prospects in the entire world, and none of them are good enough! You act like there's something specific you want, but you told me when we met that there wasn't anyone you liked!"
Vel's flush deepened and he looked down. "There wasn't... then."
That threw him. Irian blinked slowly, running back over the last few days in his mind. "But... there hasn't really been anyone else..." His eyes widened, then narrowed. "Regardless of what Prince may have told you, he was born a frog and is not under an enchantment of any kind."
Vel startled, then he laughed. "Oh, no, no, it's not Prince..."
Irian exhaled. "Then who?"
"Um." Vel looked away again, fidgeting.
Just when Irian was getting ready to ask again, there was a hard nudge to his lower back and he stumbled forward, right into Vel. Vel, who was obviously not expecting it, yelped and fell over, taking Irian with him.
It was quite possibly the worst position they could have been in, and Irian swore beneath his breath even as he began apologizing, attempting to sort out arms and legs so that he could get up and carefully looking anywhere but at Vel. But maybe Vel was exactly where he should have been looking as he had no forewarning for the hands that cupped his face, forcing him to hold still as soft lips brushed over his.
It ended as swiftly as it had occurred, the hands falling away from his face and the red spreading all the way to Vel's ears. There was a nervous uncertainty in those soft hazel eyes, but he didn't look away.
Irian struggled to find his voice. "You... me?" It came out embarrassingly close to a squeak.
Vel's flush darkened. "If... if that's all right..."
"But I'm..." Irritable, unsociable, and a workaholic. Not to mention he lived with a bunch of furry creatures because people were either intimidated by him or couldn't stand him.
"It's not true, you know," Vel said quietly.
Irian blinked at him.
"You think people don't like you," Vel continued, "but you're wrong. I asked. Everyone adores you. But they stay away because you seem to like your privacy."
Blinking seemed to be all that Irian was good for. That and gaping stupidly.
"They told me you're usually grumpy for weeks after you have to take a charge home, and were all so relieved that I wasn't upsetting you." His gaze flicked past Irian, to where Irian realized abruptly that Chao Mian was still watching. "Right?"
Chao Mian rumbled. "Correct."
Vel smiled. "I think he said yes..."
Irian swallowed, then nodded mutely. A moment later reality caught up. "Wait, so they all kept bringing you presents because you make me happy?" He stared for a moment, then his expression darkened. "They knew. The little brats, they knew. I am so making woodland stew when we get home..."
"Aw, don't blame..." Vel trailed off, eyes widening slightly. The hope in his eyes could have out-shone the sun. "Home?"
Irian shifted awkwardly, then ceased when that only served to make matters worse. "I've been trying to talk myself out of keeping you for days. You really think I'm going to change my mind now?"
The joy in Vel's eyes was the only warning he had before strong arms wrapped around his neck and he was being pulled down for a kiss that was most likely the best one he'd ever received.
It was even better than breakfast.