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The Short Way's Short but the Long Way's Pretty

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Bastian, curled in a knot of self-hatred, huddled from his own wrath.

What have you done today? he asked himself ruthlessly. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Another day wasted because you’re too despicable to even come up with something to do. It might even be a worthwhile day if you had done something to make you actively happy, but no - you sit here, with mere hours left before bedtime, if you even make it to bed on time, too busy staying up late to salve your sins with yet more useless, time-wasting drivel.

He could not deny it.

Look at this place you live in! A complete sty. If you took five minutes you could clear the floors so there’s a straight path from your miserable cry-hole to the bed. You still have the time for that, at least. But you won’t. There’s two hours left until bedtime; that’s twenty-four opportunities to not be a complete failure, to have something left of beauty in your life, and I bet you will waste every. Single. One of them. Won’t you?

There’s dishes in the sink. Get up and wash them! Get up and wash a single one! I dare you! I conjure you! It would take five minutes! Just do it! Get up! Go!

He tried. He tried, and all that happened was a flexing of the muscles in his left leg and a deepening sense of loathing. Lashing out at his berating self only deepened the sensation of disgust. Now he was sniveling, a sensation the domineering brain found even more despicable, and every attempt to stop crying only deepened the sense of failure, disgust, and helpless raging against his own worthlessness.

I’m not fighting you! he responded. I’m trying! Don’t you think I’d get up if I could? Do you think I like crouching here like a drunken hobgoblin?

It wasn’t any use. Both sides, angry and sympathetic, were disgusted with him already, and all the more so with the pointless crying they engendered.

Then do something else! Anything! Stand up - no, don’t stand up, you can never stand up when you get like this. Go look in the fridge, surely you’re hungry or something.

That at least was possible. Bastian found himself standing, staring helplessly at a bottle of ketchup he had picked up for an indiscernible reason, unable to put it down or close the fridge door.

All right. This has got to stop, he thought, and immediately, Nonono - that only makes it worse. Eat something.

He ate perhaps a quarter cup of ketchup, straight, standing with the fridge door open and licking it off his finger. He wasn’t sure how long it took, or whether he wanted that to be a short time or a long one. It wasn’t that he was losing time - more that it ran together as he drew wards in ketchup on his finger and then licked them right back off again.

All right, he thought dimly after a while. Now something else.

The thought of dishes filled him with a wild panic.

All right, he thought, Something else then. Straightening?

Not much better.

Okay. I can’t do either of those things, but something has to be done by tomorrow, or it will be just as bad then as now. Except a day later. Which is worse. And I’ll have wasted all of today -

That was also an awful thought, already proven to be unproductive, and he was still standing here with the fridge door open and some faint traces of ketchup drying on his finger. He stuck the finger in his mouth and sucked it; it tasted mostly like skin, and the tomato-and-vinegar flavor probably came more from his cheeks than his fingernail.

All right, so he couldn’t clean up, but someone had to. He’d tried conjuring himself earlier, and that hadn’t worked. So - conjure someone else. And if it didn’t work, at least he’d have done something.

He pulled a cookie sheet out of a cabinet, which was miraculously clean since he hadn’t had the energy for baking in at least a week and hadn’t yet stooped to eating half-rotted salad off a baking sheet. He kicked some piles of junk, wasn’t entirely sure what but he caught a glimpse of a lanyard turning over in the debris as he shoved it out of the way, and then he had a space clear enough for himself to sit and the cookie sheet to wobble a bit in front of him. He nearly tried to clear out from under it so that it would rest evenly, felt the sobs rising from under him, and let that go. He went back to the ketchup container still in his hand and started squeezing out a pentacle.

If it didn’t work, he’d have more mess in the morning. He’d probably lick the ketchup off the baking sheet. It didn’t even feel like an insult anymore, just an acknowledgment of the inevitable.

The inscribed star was finished eventually, and he looked at it sadly, noting all the drips and wobbles that made it tremendously imperfect. He couldn’t quite muster the energy to yell at himself for getting even this wrong. He just stared at it for a moment, and then realized he probably ought to have candles.

“I ought to light something on fire,” he said, as if that would make it so. It didn’t make him stand up. His legs weren’t cooperating again. Anyway he didn’t have any matches. He’d been meaning to get some and hadn’t managed; so if he wanted to light a candle, he’d either have to start the stove up and hold some paper to it, maybe that would work, or go all the way out to the supermarket, if it was even open, did they stay open this late? - go all the way out to the supermarket and buy something, and there were definitely more steps in that than he could manage to accomplish in this state.

He found a twist of paper, sort of off yellowish, maybe it was a post-it note, or a receipt, and gave it a little twist. “There. You’re a flame,” he said, and added, ghoulishly, “Congratulations.”

So he had candles and a pentacle. He stared balefully at the cookie sheet. “Boo,” he said. “So, summon a demon or whatever. No, something better than that. A good spirit. Something helpful. Like an elf or a fairy or whatever.”

It needed something more, Latin or Aramaic or whatever old language people chanted rituals in. He’d learned a bit of Latin once. He focused hard on the pentacle and tried to remember. “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo… delenda est… atque hinc super asinum tuam.”

Well, he’d tried. The candle-that-wasn’t flared. Bastian sat back for a moment, closed his eyes, and tried to think what he actually needed to clean up in order to avoid getting ketchup all over his foot tomorrow morning. When he’d have to actually get his act together and go to the store, because he was out of ketchup now. Were there any paper towels left? Or could he maybe still fit the cookie sheet in the sink if he moved the spaghetti pot back out of it?

He opened his eyes again. The pentacle was being squished by the ugliest foot he had ever seen, peeking out from beneath a hem of some sort of tan waterproof coat thing.

“Holy fuck,” said Bastian. “How on Earth did that actually even sort of work?”

 

Bastian’s visitor’s foot twisted slightly as its owner looked about the room. “This place is a wreck,” said a squeaky voice.

“I know,” Bastian agreed. So much for helpers. They were probably just going to judge him for this and not help out at all, which was only as much as he deserved. This was a terrible idea, and worse because it had somehow, against all odds or the will of anyone involved, managed to work.

“Are you okay, man?”

“Aren’t you supposed to, like, devour my soul or something for being fuck-awful at everything?” Bastian asked. It would probably be a relief.

“That seems a little harsh,” said the arcane visitor. “Anyway, you’d have to let us out of the circle first.”

“You’re telling me that that streaky mess of ketchup is holding you there?

“Them’s the breaks,” said the visitor. “You gonna let us out?”

Bastian shrugged. It couldn’t hurt. He reached out and drew one finger listlessly through the ketchup wall at the edge of the circle, and the visitor stepped out, leaving ketchup footprints on the floor.

“Really looks like your coping mechanisms aren’t up to snuff,” said the visitor. “You need some help with that?”

“That is kinda why I summoned you,” Bastian said. He hadn’t looked up yet. It just seemed like a bad idea. He gave it a try, but the horror of eye contact made him stop and turn his whole head away before he’d gotten half way up his visitor’s body.

“Right,” said the visitor. “We’re Frus, Okz, and Pyq. You got an idea where we should start, or…?”

“I guess the kitchen’s perishable,” said Bastian after a moment’s pause. “You want me to help, or -?” He tried pushing himself to his feet.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” said the visitor with obvious frustration. “Pyq, find him some juice, would you? Frus, you get the trash.”

There was a decided quantity of banging after that. Bastian kept trying to get up and help, but he never seemed to get quite past squatting, and telling himself this was ridiculous and he was just being dramatic. After a while, a face so distorted it almost wasn’t recognizable as a face intruded itself between him and the hands he’d been staring at for who knew how long.

“Juice,” it said, and held out an ugly, chipped souvenir mug that Bastian knew had been dirty not long before. It was steaming.

“That’s… not juice,” Bastian said in some bewilderment.

“Caffeine helps with the concentration,” Pyq said. “Plus you look like you need some more calories, so I added milk and sugar.”

“I’m out of sugar,” Bastian said, not quite able to voice that he was also out of milk, and had been for some time.

“Your neighbors had some,” said Pyq.

“You didn’t steal it,” Bastian protested, but his fingers wrapped around the mug. The weight was… hard, but the warmth was nice. He didn’t want to say that he’d rather they stole it than, horrors, asked. He didn’t get an answer to his question.

Since he couldn’t look at anyone yet, and the banging was still continuing, he put the cup up to his lips. Wasn’t committing to drinking it. It was just warm, and warm was nice on his lips, although the steam made him cough. He tilted the cup, and then he had to open his lips or maybe the liquid would burn them. One sip, and lower the whole thing hastily. The coffee was good.

“What are you? Brownies?” he asked, still not looking at any of them. There were a lot of other-dimensional suburbs with varying degrees of contact with the human city, so it was a reasonable question, but still met with a derisive snort.

“We’re goblins,” came the answer from the one that had been speaking when they were still in the circle. “You think brownies would know what to do about this?”

“What’s your name, anyway?” asked the third one, which had recently come back from taking out the trash, which meant it was Frus. “We gave you ours. There ought to be some sort of exchange.”

“Shush,” said Pyq, but Bastian thought Frus was right. They were cleaning his apartment, after he’d summoned them away from whatever they had been doing stacked one on top of the other in a trench coat, he ought to be giving them something.

“Bastian,” he said. “Basti when I’m feeling better.”

“Are you up for Basti just yet?” Pyq asked. She was sitting somewhere behind him. She seemed to be in charge of him, like Okz was in charge of dishes and Frus was… jittering from one foot to the other in the middle of the room, apparently.

“I don’t think so,” Bastian said apologetically.

“All right,” said Pyq.

“So here’s the plan,” said Okz. “We’re going to get the worst of this straightened out, and put everything away -“

No, don’t, Bastian thought automatically. They’d put things away in some order that didn’t make sense, and he’d be weeks trying to find things, and they wouldn’t be where they needed to be when he looked - but they weren’t now, either, they were strewn all over his floor right now.

“- and then we’re going to take you away to Goblintown, because you clearly need to get out of the house for a while,” Okz finished.

“Oh, the fairies are stealing me away?” Bastian asked hopefully. If fairies stole him, he didn’t have to deal with life. He could deal with being stolen away and put to whatever tasks fairies told him to do. At least then he’d know what to do all the time, and there wouldn’t be so many choices.

“No,” said Okz flatly. “We’re getting you out of the house.”

“Out of your own skin, like,” said Pyq.

Not out of your own skin,” said Frus. “That’s Okz’s whole point.”

“Drink your coffee,” said Pyq.

He’d need the coffee. If they were going out, he wasn’t going to get to bed on time. Bastian drank a bit more. There was foam on the coffee. He didn’t have anything to make foam with. He didn’t have anything to grind coffee with. What had Pyq done?

He drank the coffee and paid attention to the sounds they made while moving. The coffee did help, or else the milk and sugar in it did. Okz was making regular clanking, and at least one small, quick sound of a dish breaking accompanied by what was clearly a curse even though it wasn’t in a language Bastian understood. Frus seemed to have taken the straightening on himself, and was moving about the room in syncopated patterns that made their own rhythm within itself, the sounds themselves varied but all clearly Frus, because Okz was definitely in the kitchen, and Pyq was sitting behind him making tiny wooden clicks.

She was knitting, he found out half way through his coffee, because she reached over and held it in front of his nose.

“Smell this,” she said. It smelled of clean wool and the heat of her hands, which was a smell of living things and warm fur and some sort of bright earth.

“It’s nice,” he said. His eyes were still closed. He thought probably he ought to ask what she was making, but she took the thing away, and when he snuck a glance over, her posture was not just satisfied but smug.

They must be really good at conveying emotion, he thought, because I shouldn’t be able to read a goblin’s posture. He wasn’t good at reading people in the first place, and goblins seemed to be… squat, round or cubic versions of each other, like people who were built like tanks had been compressed into a single cubic foot. But maybe he spent too much time trying to look at people’s faces, which was how everyone said it ought to be done and was taxing, and not enough watching the way they moved and held themselves. Or maybe goblins had some sort of magic that enabled them to exude whatever they were feeling, the way elves secrete glamour.

Pyq poured him a second cup of coffee when he was done, which was, thankfully, as much flatter as he might expect a second cup of coffee to be when it had sat and de-frothed while the first cup was being drunk. By the end of the second cup, he was feeling better, which seemed to be a combination of ‘not in a horrible funk’ and ‘completely strung out on caffeine’, and the goblins had finished whatever they were doing.

“How are you feeling?” asked Okz, coming around to his front. Bastian found he could look about waist high now, which on a goblin was not terribly far.

“Better,” he admitted. “I think I could use something to eat.”

Okz and Pyq seemed to look at each other. “Goblintown?” Pyq asked.

“Goblintown,” Okz confirmed. “Frus!”

“I’m almost done,” Frus said, with a rapidity that suggested it was automatic.

Frus,” Okz repeated.

“I’m coming!” Frus said, which was clearly a lie.

“Frus, if you built our sack into one of those stacks…” Pyq declared, getting up to her full, towering height of almost two feet.

“I didn’t!” Frus said automatically, and then shouted as Pyq crossed the room and pulled a large sack out of one of the stacks he had been making, causing it to lean to one side and, miraculously, not collapse.

Bastian had to take a look at them then. Frus had apparently sorted all of the junk on his floor, not by function but by primary construction material. The biggest stack, Plastic, had been sorted by color and then rearranged into a rough approximation of Pikachu. Bastian stared at it for a while, because he did not understand how Frus had created such an obvious portrait out of mismatched objects that didn’t fit together and most of which weren’t yellow.

“Come on,” said Pyq. “Take my hand.”

“How will that help?” asked Bastian, obeying.

“Everything contiguous goes through the circle,” said Frus, clambering onto Okz’s shoulders. Goblins seemed to have human-length arms that just… folded away somewhere when they weren’t being used.

“And the circle goes to…?”

“Wherever we want, on the way back,” said Okz, who was standing in the smears of ketchup now. “It’s a sort of… divergence point. In the summoning, it pulls from anywhere to one central location; on the way out, it returns you from one location to anywhere radiating out from there.”

“Humans would make a really good transportation system if it weren’t so uncomfortable,” said Pyq. She took her hand back and reached up, grabbing what might have been Frus’s shoulder to pull herself on top of him. “Pass me the trench coat. Got the sack, Frus? Then let’s go.”

Bastian took her hand again, waited a moment, and then realized she was looking expectantly at him. “Uh… Exite?” he tried, and the world vanished.

 

Humans were not really meant for circle travel. No one was, really, the same way no one was meant to be beautiful like elves or to change the entire body’s mass and composition like werewolves. Bastian wasn’t even supposed to be a part of this circle, and it taxed him the entire contents of his stomach, which was mostly bile. The goblins watched from their perches atop one another.

“Do you think he should have something to eat, or let it settle first?” asked Frus from the middle.

“Do you think we can leave that on the sidewalk?” Pyq answered. “Okz, find something to clean it up with.”

Okz took off at a dead run. Pyq and Frus landed, looked about long enough to determine they were in an alley, and then Frus took Bastian’s hand and gently guided him to the corner so Pyq could check the street signs. His hand was warm and rough and dry, almost nothing at all like touching a person, and his touch was just the slightest of pressures, so that Bastian might almost have been resting his hand on a leather cantle.

Bastian decided he loved goblins.

“Elm Street,” Pyq groaned. “What are our odds of getting the car back?”

“Minimal. It’s probably been impounded by now.”

“Sorry,” said Bastian.

“Not your fault. And the circle was faster anyway,” said Frus, patting Bastian’s hand. “We’ll take the bus.”

They wandered off down the street. Half way down they met Okz going the other way, carrying a beautiful pottery pitcher half as big as he was.

“Bus stop,” said Pyq. Okz must have done some sort of goblin nod, because nothing else was said.

They were definitely in Goblintown, though. Bastian’s head reached almost to the second story of the houses they were passing through; but the houses stacked about as well as the goblins did, and they seemed to consider three stories the bare minimum. And every house was decorated in fantastic, ornate, contrasting patterns - here swirls of tooled paisley, there an intricately painted scene from a fairy tale, and across from it, perhaps mocking, perhaps in deadly earnest, a complete Asterix & Obelix comic. It was set right next to a building done entirely in drab beige which Bastian couldn’t help drifting closer to in disbelief, where he found that the brush strokes had been done in constantly evolving patterns, chevron in one place and stripes of varying widths in the next and an entire labyrinth after that. In the dim light of the flickering street lamps - were they gas? - the whole street fit together in a weird, unfathomable way, like the construction of one of the less direct German compound words.

The building by the bus stop had been done in swatches, as if the painter just changed colors every time he ran out of paint. Okz, coming up to join them and noticing Bastian’s interest, opined that it had probably been done in exactly that way.

“Fan of architecture, are you?” he asked.

“What did you do with that pitcher?” asked Bastian.

“Dunno,” said Okz. He gave a concentrated mental effort. “Um… smashed it into the trash, maybe?” Bastian flinched. All three goblins peered at him much more closely.

“You’re one of those humans who like art, aren’t you?” asked Frus.

“Um, sure. Doesn’t everyone?” asked Bastian. He wasn’t sure the street was art, but it was certainly something.

“Fascinating,” said Pyq.

The bus was a rickety construction and mostly empty at this time of day. Frus reached deep into the sack and fished around before coming up with a handful of coins to pay their fare. Bastian ducked his head to fit under the low ceiling, and prayed the bus would not fall apart under his weight and volume, a thought that didn’t seem to occur to any of the goblins present. Once they were on, it took off and tore around a street corner with a certain degree of reckless glee, the driver apparently having a great deal of fun with the steering wheel. The other occupant of the bus, a single goblin squatted tiredly on the floor, did not seem to notice; they had one arm extended upward to the grab handles, and Bastian spent some time contemplating the disparity between the compactness of the goblin body and the length of the arm. The goblin did not seem to notice.

At one stop the bus was boarded by a child, an eighth the size of and significantly rounder than the other goblins and apparently entirely unimpressed by traveling alone. “Half grown,” Okz grunted when he noticed Bastian’s concern.

“It’s only an eighth the size of you though,” said Bastian.

“Nonononono,” said Frus, and Bastian was subjected to a rapid lecture from three directions about cubes and growth radiating outward that probably would have made a lot more sense with diagrams.

“Do humans calculate growth based on total volume?” asked Pyq at last. “Why?”

Bastian couldn’t answer. But he asked her to call him Basti.

“Great,” said Pyq. “This is our stop.”

He had no idea how to tell an upscale goblin neighborhood from a dilapidated one. The sheer exuberance of the decorations confused him. But he could stand upright in the building the goblins took him to, though he had to duck to get through the doorway.  The walls inside were lined with shelves with ladders in between; perhaps it was considered three stories in one, or perhaps it was a library, or perhaps this was standard for goblins.

Frus took the sack he was still holding on to and turned it upside down in the middle of the room. The table underneath abruptly filled with bank notes, the coins skittering off the edge and across the floor. Bastian blinked.

“Where did you get all this?” he asked.

“Sorry, what?”

“Where did you -“

“The bank, obviously,” said Pyq. “Frus, show him the pottery or something.”

“Come on,” said Frus. “Basti, right?”

Bastian nodded. “What are they doing?” he asked.

“Never you mind,” said Frus, not very reassuringly, and led Bastian to the next room over.

The shelves in this room were stacked much closer together, and every one of them was crowded with pottery. Bastian stared transfixed. Mugs, bowls, plates, vases, anything round at all, painted in bright clashing colors and jagged patterns and earthy tones, full of simplicity and intricacy, all of the myriad styles and architecture of the buildings around them condensed into the walls of this one tiny room, jammed haphazardly around the edges. Not all of it was good; quite a lot of it was horrid. But Bastian couldn’t help wanting to get closer and see what was there; and the things he most disliked had an odd compulsion to them, perhaps a sense of limitless energy careening out of the glaze.

His feet wandered slowly forward, far ahead of his thoughts, which were still trying to decide what he wanted to look at first, and he abruptly tripped over a pottery wheel someone had left in the middle of the floor. He swore absently, most of his attention still on the walls, skirted the wheel, and tripped over another one. Frus hooted with laughter.

“There’s plenty of time, child,” he said. “Sit down. Stay a while.” He plonked himself on top of the first wheel Bastian had tripped over and kicked it slowly into life.

“This is amazing,” said Bastian.

“Stay a while,” Frus repeated. “No one’s rushing you.”

Bastian tore his gaze from the art long enough to look about the room and mark the positions of the three pottery wheels and the trough of clay, and then he took Frus’s advice and lost himself in the art. He meant to start at one edge, or one wall, and work his way top to bottom; but there was so much variety he got lost in it almost immediately. He was vilely, lightheadedly hungry and not past the third shelf by the time he said, absently, “Someone ought to organize this. Someone ought to curate it.”

“It is organized,” said Frus. “By date, currently.”

Date?” asked Bastian. “But it’s all so - eclectic.”

“It gets a bit mixed up in the kiln. And then there’s the painting. And every so often we have to go and chuck all of it.”

“Chuck it?” asked Bastian. “All of it?”

“To make room for the next lot,” said Frus.

Bastian tore his attention from the pottery and stared back at Frus. They were going to have to have a conversation. “You make all of this?”

“Sit down,” said Frus. He gestured to the two remaining potter’s wheels. “Of course I don’t make all of it. Pyq and Okz and I do.”

All of it?” Bastian repeated.

“Well, we’ve got to have something to do with our hands if we’re going to have talks in the evening,” said Frus. “And we have to have talks to organize business, and we have to have business to pay for the clay, and we have to have clay to keep the wheels turning. Everybody’s got something.”

Bastian thought of the job he hated, which made him depressed and tired enough he couldn’t clean when he got home, which made him more depressed and tired. He wished he did have something.

Frus was peering closely at him. “Do you… like it?” he asked.

“Of course,” said Bastian automatically, and then the honest part of his brain kicked in and he said, “Well, I like some of it. Like this is nice. And this one. But a lot of it’s junk. Well, some of it’s junk that I don’t like but other people might. I can tell that someone would like this one, for example, but I hate it; and if they like that, then, you know, there might even be someone who likes this thing. Whatever it is.”

“Umm,” said Frus. “Could you repeat that?”

Bastian tried to think what he had just said, and how other people would say it, and eventually came up with, “…it’s nice, but most of it is not for me.”

“Pity,” said Frus. “I thought you could help us.”

“Can I?” asked Bastian. They’d already helped him a lot, and he wanted to help them back. And maybe, the small greedy part of him thought, if he could help them they might let him take something back from the shelves. And it wasn’t great, none of it was glorious, but some of it made sense to him and he liked the idea of having handmade dishes. He loved the idea of having handmade dishes. Most of the things in his life were things that you could get cheap from nearby, because he couldn’t make himself go out after work, most of the time, and he knew what he wanted but it was expensive, and more than that it was far away, so that every time he picked up a ladle it was just another piece of that wearing despair and the acres of mess that marked him as useless and worthless and made it impossible to do anything at all…

“Kid,” said Frus. “Eat something.”

He was holding out some sort of dried meat. It didn’t look appetizing. Bastian said, “I can’t. You’ve already given me so much. I can’t take even more.”

“Eat something before you make it worse,” said Frus, before Bastian had finished speaking. So Bastian took the meat, and took a bite, and tried not to taste what was heavy with spices. It wasn’t bad; it was just strong, and that was a lot just now.

“Chew,” said Frus. So Bastian focused on the chewing. After a little while, he’d managed to finish the strip of meat, and Frus had made a new blank.

“So,” said Frus. “You were saying about helping us.”

“Yeah,” said Bastian.

“Well, first you’re gonna need to sleep, and then you’re gonna need to eat, and then you’re gonna need to go home,” said Frus. “But if you’re serious about helping, let me tell you, robbing banks does not pay the bills. But if you think the pottery is nice, and some of the other humans might like it, well. You could be our broker.” And then the dam broke on the words. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and I think it could be a big break. Let the pottery pay for itself, maybe have enough on the side for meals? It’s a pretty sweet deal. Never gonna fly with goblinkind, but if we’ve got an outlet to the multi-species market, if we had a dealer, I hear they pay ridiculous money for artisan pottery crap. Like, five dollars for a mug. Can you imagine? Five dollars for one mug? Five mugs and you could pay for enough clay for another fifty. Or something like that, we’re none of us very good at math, too much sitting still, that’s why Okz is counting what Pyq already counted from the haul tonight. And why we have pottery wheels in the first place. But imagine - enough mugs and you could eat McDonald’s. Every night.”

“Um,” said Bastian. “I think mugs actually go for - “

“And if you could crack the elven market, hoo! Talk about people who like useless junk! You could sell them the shavings that dropped off and tell ‘em it’s artisan beads. Elves.”

Frus snorted, and Bastian took the opportunity to finish, “- at least twenty dollars.”

“For four mugs, yeah, I said,” said Frus, and in the process of taking a breath seemed to realize what he had said. The blank on the wheel spun, his hand idly wrecking the graceful curve of it. Bastian winced. “So yeah. Kid. Rest up. Eat. Go back to the human world, and if you find someone who might want to buy some mugs bulk or something, we’ll give you… one mug in five? one mug in six? I dunno, what seems fair to you?”

“I don’t know how these things work,” said Bastian.

“Join the club,” said Frus. “Offer stands.”

Why?” asked Bastian. “You just met me, and I was literally at my worst.”

“Aw, kid,” said Frus. “That’s why. We understand you. You think none of us was ever there before? You think we wouldn’t be again, if we didn’t have the other two to hold us up? We found each other. Now we found you. And we know you won’t screw us over, ‘cause you need us as much as we need you.” He paused. “Well, I say ‘we’, but I haven’t even talked it over with Pyq yet.”

“Okay,” said Bastian.

“Good. There’s a tarp in the corner for keeping water off the clay. One side’s wet, the other side’s dirty, your pick. We’ll wake you in the morning.”

 

Bastian woke up to a world that smelled of dirt and chemicals. He was ravenous. He sat up, rustling the tarp around him, and cracked his head on a wooden shelf. Something rattled, and another something hurtled downward. He swung a hand wildly and caught a mug quite by accident. Hand and mug together nestled in his lap. The mug had a raven on it. Well, some sort of black bird, its wings outstretched in flight and its beak pointed to the edge of the cup.

He edged out carefully from under the shelf and went to find his - friends? Benefactors. The entry room was empty again. The table was stacked in bills and coins. He paused by it to ruffle a strap and count as the bills flipped back into place. A quick bit of arithmetic, of extrapolation to the coins - they were organized in stacks of five dollars, in groups of six stacks.

“Pyq?” he called. “Okz?”

A goblin head, or at least a goblin edge containing eyes, popped over the edge of one of the few shelves above Bastian’s head. “Ungrateful, I call it,” said Frus. “After I took out your trash.”

“I was going to say your name next,” said Bastian. “Where is everybody?”

“Still sleeping,” said Frus. “Time to go home, Basti?”

“Food first,” said Bastian. “If we can, I mean. I don’t want to -“

“I got it,” said Frus, and held up a small dark wallet whose contents had not made it onto the table. “We’ll have to go out somewhere; you ate the last of our food last night.”

“All right,” said Bastian distractedly. “Is that - is that my wallet?”

Frus looked at it, and another of his disproportionate arms snaked over the edge of the shelf to open it and shake out an ID card. “Looks like you,” he said as it drifted to the floor. Bastian picked it up and read his own name. “You want it back?” asked Frus.

“I’ll buy you breakfast,” Bastian offered. Frus swung over the side of the shelf and dropped to the ground.

“Not while Pyq and Okz are asleep,” he said. “I’ll walk you to the bus stop.”

The streets were just as interesting by day. More so; some of the paints changed color, and Bastian thought the artwork might shift with the changing light of the day, and if it didn’t he wondered if it could be made to, and if it could, well, maybe he could figure out how to make that happen in glaze, too. For vases, maybe; nobody spent all day looking at a dish. He didn’t really have any idea how that would work, but maybe the goblins could figure it out; they seemed like really clever people.

Frus was talking about something, but the subject kept changing as he got distracted, and he didn’t seem to mind that Bastian wasn’t paying attention. Part of Bastian wanted to work out the logistics of color-changing paint. Most of him wanted to work out the logistics of getting home and washing the clay out of his hair.

“Get your groceries first,” said Frus, as if he could hear Bastian’s thoughts. “If you go home, you’ll forget all about them.”

“I don’t think I’m fit to be seen in public,” said Bastian.

“You’ll be seen all the way to your doorstep, so you may as well make it official,” said Frus. “Do you know how to get home?”

“I’ll ask the bus drivers which changes I need,” said Bastian.

“And ask the humans about the pottery,” Frus reminded him. “Don’t forget.”

“I promised.”

“Promise again.”

“I promise,” said Bastian, smiling.

“If they want some mugs, or whatever, you know how to find us. I mean. Summon us. Only use our names this time, we don’t want just anybody stepping in and taking the trade. And try to use something a little less squishy for the pentacle.”

“All right,” said Bastian. “Have you got a preference?”

“Paint?” Frus suggested. “Chalk, maybe? You’ve got a sidewalk, right? Or we could get a phone, if you’re going to sell enough pottery.”

The bus pulled up to the curb, tires squealing, engine rattling as if it would drop right out from under the bus. Bastian put a foot up on the floorboard.

“Thanks, Frus,” he said. “I’ll do better now. I promise.”

“Uh-huh,” said Frus skeptically. “Take care, Basti.”

“Yeah,” said Bastian. He held a bill out to the driver, who took it and handed him a handful of unfamiliar coins. Bastian shrugged and pocketed them, then grabbed wildly for the straps as the driver pounced on the accelerator.

He peered out the back window as the bus pulled away. Frus had turned and was walking away down the side street, not once looking back. Bastian watched him the whole way.

 

When he got home, the apartment was unfamiliar around him. The grocery bags he eased to the floor were almost the only thing on the floor; there was a vast amount of empty space that soothed some small, tense place in his head that still expected a chaotic mess.

Even the kitchen counters were clear, clean, and swept free of crumbs. Bastian ran a hand across them, not to check but to glory in the freedom that smoothness left in his head.

The counters were clean; the dish drainer was stacked higher than Bastian would have believed possible, higher than his head, in a delicate, teetering balance that rivaled even the towers Frus had built of his things. Next to the sink, a single dirty coffee mug dared him to make a start on his own self-maintenance.

He put the groceries away. He put the dishes away, and washed the mug. He picked up his phone, and called home.

“Hi Mom,” he said, getting to work on one of Frus’s piles with his free hand. “Sorry I haven’t called in a while. No, I’m okay. I was just wondering, um… Do you know how to start an art business?”