I saw him for the first time when I was six years old.
By all reports he'd been checking upon me since day one, but this time I saw him.
He was tall, broad-shouldered and black-eyed and smiling, and for some reason I wasn't afraid of him in the slightest.
There was a lot to be afraid of in Faerie. People have asked me, from time to time, what it was like to be there, and all I can tell them is: you really don't want to know.
But this guy, twice as tall as me and with two rows of teeth, he looked perfectly trustworthy.
I just stared at him.
He slithered out of the shadow and slid up to me, all smiles and warm feelings.
“Got a question for you. Real easy one, too.”
“You been a good kid this year?”
I stared at him with a long, puzzled stare. Since I’d gotten to faerie I was used to being prodded and stared at and ignored by turns, but they never talked to me. And this question? Downright weird.
“I... guess? Depends on what you mean by ‘good’. And what you mean by ‘year’.” I considered that as carefully as a six year old could. “And ‘kid’.” You answer questions carefully in Faerie.
He laughed. “Now that right there? That’s a good answer. That’s a careful answer. But let’s say you define the words. You tell me what’s what. Now what’s the answer?”
“Well, if a kid is me, and good is good, and year is, you know, the last one that I remember? Then yeah.”
He grinned again, and this time I knew his teeth weren’t made of tooth, and his skin wasn’t made of skin, and his eyes weren’t made of eye. His voice sighed out, quieter now. “All right then. If you’ve been a good kid this year, you’re going to get a gift. Just one gift, one wish in all the world. What’ll it be?”
And I told him.
Next time he saw me, it was the summer I ran away from home. It was a good thing I ran away in the summer -- living in the mortal world is tough enough when you’re not hip-deep in the slush and muck of a San Francisco winter.
I was smoking a cigarette and doing my best to look threatening while leaning against a lamppost. It’d probably have gone over better if I hadn’t been right outside a coffee shop, carrying a couple of books and a cranky attitude.
Yeah, I was one of those kids. I’m sure we’re all shocked.
“Hey, Tobes.” Cliff was a good guy, even if his car was a real piece of crap. He'd pulled up to the curb without me even noticing, and he leaned out of the window, resting his chin on his hand.
I put out the cigarette on the heel of my boot and gave him a little grin. “Hey, Cliff.” Somehow he always made me feel a little bit like an idiot, no matter how I tried to play it cool. “Where you heading?”
"A porch. Just a lazy kind of party. You can come if you want." I thought about it for a minute, and he tlited his head to read the books under my arm. "What're you reading."
"Oh, just things." I managed to look faintly embarassed. "Mostly fairy tales."
"You like fairy tales?"
"I love fairy tales. Maybe more than anything." I leaned in to tell him I wanted to go, and then I saw it, out of the corner of my eye. A kind of sliding, like oil slipping over water.
Shit. Shit. All I wanted to do was get away from all this. I could smell a hint of magic in the air, something like frankincense and woodsmoke. It left the tang of peppermint at the back of my throat. I coughed and wheezed a little, and straightened up. "Look, I've got a thing tonight, Cliff. I'll catch you next time, okay?"
He looked disappointed. "Okay. Next time, then." He gave me a little wave, and I kicked the lamppost as he drove away.
This had better be good.
I followed the scent of the magic up the street, down around the corner and into an alley -- god, I was an idiot back then -- and ended up toe to toe with, well. Him.
"... oh. It's you, huh?"
"It's me." I'd say he leaned against the wall, but it was more like he rubbed up against it, made a mark like black chalk on the bricks. "It's been a long time."
"Sure, sure. That happens when you leave the Summerlands." I crossed my arms a little, but it was hard to be cross when a guy was smiling at you twice. Teeth of stone and skin of syrup. I could see him better this time. "I don't think I know your name."
"I don't know yours." He bowed a little and flowed over, and I got a whiff of snow. Just a promise of good, clean snow. It's amazing how potent that can be. "And I don't want to. The name's not the thing, no. What matters is how you answer the questions."
I narrowed my eyes just a little. "Same as ever?"
"Of course. So tell me, kiddo. Have you been a good girl this year?" He tipped his hat to me, and I felt my shoulders ease a little bit.
"Depends," I said, with a smile. "On how you define 'good'. I'll take 'girl' and 'year' for whatever you want."
"Now, isn't that kind of you." This time, he took the hat right off and plopped it on my head. I tugged it down just a little, settling it over my ears. "So you get to take 'good', all over again. Define, and answer."
"If good is good, then yeah."
He chuckled. "So you get one gift then. One wish you want, in all the world. Will you tell me what that is?"
"It hasn't changed."
"No? Well. Say it again, then."
And I did. I told him.
I saw him again three months after I'd come out of the pond. I was in the house, the lights were out, and I was lying on a couch that'd been mouldering under months of mail and weeks of pizza boxes.
I had phone calls and messages. Piles of them. Miles of them. Things were pushed through my mail slot every day. My phone rang so often I figured the voicemail was full several times over. And right then, I really couldn't care less about what people wanted.
I heard the door rattle again and I sat up, pulling back the curtain to try to see who was on the stoop. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I met a pair of golden eyes -- a black cat, sitting right on my windowsill.
"Damn it, Tybalt," I turned back around, intending to read him the riot act on my way to the door. "Just because you want to doesn't mean you sh... oh." I threw the door open and it wasn't the man I was
hoping expecting to see. It was the one who showed up every important season, whose hat was buried deep in the one suitcase of stuff I'd never lose.
"I don't have a lot of time, pretty lady." This time, I could see him clearer than ever. More to the point, I could see what he wasn't. There weren't teeth, there was just a smile, a jagged line. The skin was just something that moved, shadow and scarlet silk. What was more imortant was what I could hear -- glass bells, some kind of singing, something distant. For the first time in a while, I wanted to get out of the house.
"You want a coffee?"
He did the equivalent of grinning at me, and I saw the cat from my windowsill running off beyond his shoulder. "Not a lot of time. There's a friend of yours who's going to come by and check on you, and these conversations, they're just you and me."
"I get it." I breathed in to start to get the smell of his magic, and suddenly I could smell myself. Ash and oak, I should've taken a shower today. I rubbed my eyes. "So you want to ask me those questions?"
"No." I could see he didn't like that answer. "I was a fish for months. Can't call me a girl."
He chuckled and eased back. "We'll take 'good fish'." He watched her. "Will you tell me what you want?"
"Same as ever." I was glad, suddenly, that I'd been a pretty smart kid.
I told him what I wanted.
I saw him the last time, well, now. Right now, when I'm crouched under a willow tree, one hand over my ribs to keep pressure on a wound. This case had been killing me figureatively since I'd gotten it, but now it was killing me literally. Fists had turned to knives, knives to guns, and all of them had a whole pile of magical intent behind them.
And here he was, ghosting through the air like he was made of nothing at all. He crouched down next to me, sitting on the ground -- some how -- and leaning against the tree. Apparently. His teeth flashed in the moonlight, and I was suddenly desperately glad he was there.
"So this is what you wanted?"
I didn't know what he meant, at first, but then I felt something clip the tree, damned close to me. "It's now? Oh." I close my eyes, and take better stock of the situation. It's not the guns. Not the knives. Not the fists. For the first time, I feel the way the wound is burning just a little. Not just magic. Poison. "Yes. This is what I want."
"You have to ask."
"When I'm alone," I told him, just like I had when I was six, "I want a friend."
"Have you been a good girl this year?"
He put his... hand... on my shoulder, and I felt something heavy settle on my stomach. In my stomach, maybe. "No definitions?"
"Good is good. Girl is me. And this year is whatever you want it to be."
I felt a little light headed, the world spinning, but then I took a breath and everything started to clear. If you think feeling poison spreading through your system is weird, you've never felt it recede. I wiped my hand on my jeans and realized I wasn't bleeding anymore. I turned to say thank you to him. This wasn't just a friend, this was help.
And he was gone.
I still felt the cold on my stomach, and I looked down and both my hands were full. In one hand, a weapon. Better, my weapon, familiar and whole and ready to go.
In my other hand, a cell phone, one I'd never seen before. One that was ringing, number blocked.
Maybe this was the friend I was getting. Maybe this was my wish.
A shadow passed over the moon, and I looked up to see the odd shape of my old visitor swooping through the air. He was riding on something, and when I looked up somehow I knew I'd caught his eye.
And I heard him exclaim, ere he rode out of sight...
No, I'm not kidding.