The book flew across the desk and hit the wall with a smack. It was really a terrible way to treat a book, but Alexander Fox Xanatos was too frustrated to not take it out on something and too wise to try any of the other options.
Almost a full minute passed before Alex's conscience finally got the better of him, but he eventually shoved back his chair and picked the book up off the floor. He tried to smooth out the crease in the cover, to no avail. There was a permanent line running through the title of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Alex tossed the book onto his desk and turned back to his computer. Unfortunately, nothing had changed since the book hit the wall. Alex was still confronted by a mostly empty page, with 'Alexander Fox Xanatos, Grade 8, English Fundamentals, Ms. Chang's Tutorial II' taking up not nearly enough room.
The essay was supposed to be about the 'symbolism and emotional themes of Shakespeare's work as applied to class-conflicts, or relationships between men and women, or the role of the unknown in the human world.' Unfortunately, what Alex really wanted to write about was how the reader was supposed to believe that Titania was so easily tricked by Puck? And the way that Oberon had played her for a fool? That wasn't the grandmother that he knew, nor the one from all the stories that the gargoyles and his parents had told. If anything, it was the other way around; Titania was rumored to have Oberon wound around one of her slender green fingers.
After staring at the empty white screen for almost ten minutes, Alex shoved back his chair and stood up. Since this was a question that technically involved magic – although mostly it involved gossip about the Third Race – his first impulse was to simply summon his tutor. Unfortunately, Puck was away. But besides Puck, he did know some other people who had seen more than the grandmotherly side of the mercurial Titania.
Alex checked the time. It was barely past nine. In less than five minutes, Alex strode into the great hall. Seeing no one around, he whistled sharply. A few seconds later, Alex heard a gruff bark echoing back from somewhere within the halls. Alex braced himself and in less than a minute Bronx slammed into his shins and began leaping for attention.
“Down, down boy!” Alex laughed. Bronx bounded up onto his hind legs and planted his front paws on Alex's shoulders, while attempting to thoroughly lick Alex's face from chin to forehead. Alex let him get in a few good licks, then gently pulled his paws downwards. Alex gave Bronx a good scratch behind both ears before speaking. “Bronx, find Lexington. Find him!”
Bronx snapped to attention, sniffed and then bounded out of the great hall. Alex jogged after the gargoyle, loping through the dimly lit stone hallways of the castle with ease. Alex could probably find his way through the corridors by touch alone, which could have been useful if he hadn't already memorized the floor plan of the castle by the time he was six.
Boy and dog tumbled out into the castle's main courtyard, and Alex followed as Bronx dashed into the side-courtyard. As Alex walked through the archway, he spotted Brooklyn crouched near a bike. Bronx ran up to the bike and then over to an exterior wall before turning in place and whining. As Alex walked up, Brooklyn waved distractedly.
“Hey, Brooklyn. Have you seen Lexington?” Alex whistled Bronx back to his side and waited for an answer.
“Yup. He just dropped off my new bike, then headed down to the maintenance bay.” Brooklyn seemed to be absorbed completely in the bike, and Alex noticed that it looked quite a bit different from the latest – sadly smashed – model. Alex looked at the abnormally large vents and what looked like strange bulges on the side.
“So, have you taken it for a flight yet?” Alex asked.
Brooklyn's head snapped up. “How'd you even -”
Alex laughed. “Even if I hadn't been hanging out with Lexington while he designed it, everyone knows that you've been begging for a flying cycle for the last year.” Alex grinned. “Besides, he needed someone else to run the specs by.”
Brooklyn shook his head. “Well, at least I know who to blame if this thing ends up as street pizza.” The lean red gargoyle shook out his wings and threw a leg over the bike. Brooklyn keyed up the engine, and a crackling hum echoed throughout the courtyard.
Bronx whined in confusion and Alex stepped back. “Are you taking it out tonight?” Alex asked. Maybe he could ask to go along for the test-run. A flying motorcycle sounded great on any night, never mind one with tedious essay-writing as part of the schedule.
“If you're going, can I come with?” Alex tried to pitch all of his not-inconsiderable charm into the question. Brooklyn looked like he was considering it, so Alex attempted to put some guilt into his plea. “I did help design it, and Lexington wouldn't let me ride it during the testing phase.” Brooklyn's expression shifted into a slight frown, and Alex knew that he'd just accidentally highlighted the bike's questionable safety. No bike for tonight, he thought, just as Brooklyn started speaking.
“Sorry kid, but your parents would kill me. I hate to think about what Lexington calls a good safety margin, so I think the courtyard is good enough for now.” Brooklyn turned back to the bike and muttered under his breath. “I know I won't be leaving it.”
As the engine's noise slowly rose, a tinge of blue flame began flickering under the lowered tail pipes. Brooklyn whooped in joy and turned back to Alex to shout. “Tell Lexington that I'll take good care of it!”
Alex backed out of the courtyard as the bike slowly rose to five feet above the ground, kicking up a near wind-storm in the process. He and Bronx darted through the archway and back into the main courtyard, running to get back into the main hall and away from whine of machinery. As the main hall's doors shut, Alex leaned against them in relief. Alex's ears were ringing from the sudden absence of noise, and as he looked down he spotted Bronx attempting to paw at his ears as if in pain. Alex crouched down and patted the watchdog. Bronx looked up in adoration and panted. “I know, I know. Now let's go find Lexington.”
The elevator ride down to the maintenance bay was quick, and soon boy and dog were standing outside Lexington's workshop doors. The doors were thick and sealed with a security code pad as well as guarded by a video-monitoring system, as much to keep Lexington's inventions inside as it was to keep people out. Alex personally knew of at least a dozen companies that would happily shove their CEOs into the Hudson River to get their scientists fifteen minutes alone with the contents of Lexington's workshop.
Alex waved at the cameras and Bronx barked. The workshop doors slid open and Alex was blinded. A giant bank of lights was aimed straight at the door, and Alex raised a hand in front of his eyes even as they started watering.
“Oh, sorry!” Lexington's voice echoed around the massive workshop bay. The lights immediately dimmed down to a normal level.
Alex blinked the sunspots out of his eyes as Lexington bounded up to Alex. Alex was barely able to see that the small gargoyle was wearing what looked like a set of cobbled-together goggles.
“I was testing out the solar harmonic resonance transformer.” Lexington tapped the side of the goggles. “These filter out most of the light, but I forgot to adjust it before you guys came in.” The little gargoyle flipped up the goggles and beckoned them in. Bronx started to wander about the workshop even as Lexington and Alex walked towards the back workbench.
“I saw Brooklyn on the way over. He wanted me to tell you that he'll take good care of the bike.” Alex said.
Lexington groaned. “I'm going to be picking up pieces in a box, aren't I.” The way Lexington spoke, it wasn't a question. “Again.” He sighed. “Oh well, at least he's happy.” Lexington hopped up onto a stool and spun in place. “So, what brings you down to the workshop? Isn't it a school night?”
Alex leaned against the workbench. “That's actually why I'm down here.”
Lexington looked at him doubtfully. “I don't think motorcycles, flying or not, are part of your homework.”
Alex groaned. “No, but I wish they were. Instead I've got this essay on Shakespeare. Specifically, A Midsummer Night's Dream.”
“Never read that one.” Lexington reached out and bumped to a stop against the workbench.
Alex shrugged. “Doesn't really matter. It's just got this plot in it about Titania and Oberon...”
“And you want to know if it's true?” Lexington asked.
“Pretty much. Oh, and find something to write about for five pages, but between you and me, it's most about wanting to find out if at some point my grandmother was in love with a guy with a donkey-head.”
Lexington's jaw dropped. “You're kidding!”
“Nope! Shakespeare totally wrote that, and he said that Puck was responsible for most of the trouble.”
Lexington rolled his eyes. “Why am I not surprised by that?”
Alex grinned. Puck's tricks were the things of legends, and unlike most readers of Shakespeare, Alex actually had to live with their consequences.
“Well, I'd love to help you, but I'm not really close friends with your grandmother. I mean, we-” Lexington gestured at the castle walls, indicating the entire clan. “-tend to stay out of her way when she's here as Granny Renard. Plus, we were kind of just kids when it all happened. You know, the fighting.” Lexington paused and looked thoughtful. “I don't think I've spent more than twenty minutes in the same room with her in my whole life. She tends to appear and disappear, with a lot of chaos in between.”
Alex frowned. “Damn. I was kind of hoping for all kinds of stories from when I was young. You know, before the truce.”
“Sorry, wish I could help you out.” Lexington looked thoughtful. “Look, if you're that curious, why don't you just go ask Puck?”
“He's out of town with my father, doing his Owen-thing. Besides, he's not exactly the most-” Alex's voice trailed off, as he tried to find the right word. “-reliable source.”
Lexington laughed. “Sure, but why not ask? I mean, wouldn't it be cool to find out how much of it was right and how much of it was wrong?” Lexington paused. “Well, at least to find out how much of it Puck's willing to say is right or wrong.”
“Doesn't matter anyway, he's away with my father until the middle of next week. The essay's due next Monday, and I'm not supposed to bug him while he's doing Owen things, unless it's an emergency.” Alex paused. “And I really don't think there's any way this qualifies as an emergency.”
Lexington shook his head. “Nope, they'll be back this Friday.” He waved a wrench over towards the hanger bay. “I heard some of the pilots talking about a change in the flight schedule about twenty minutes ago, sounds like the Japan deal wrapped up early.”
“Really?” Alex said. It would be infinitely easier to do this essay with Puck's help, even if it was just the kind of help that comes from knowing that the sooner the essay was finished, the sooner Puck would be willing to tutor him in some new aspect of magic.
“Yup. Hey, isn't it already ten? You should get out of here, you've got school tomorrow!” Lexington looked reprovingly at Alex.
Alex held up his hands placatingly. “Fine, fine. But I want to see what Brooklyn drags back in from that motorcycle after tonight!”
Lexington snorted and turned back to his workbench. “Deal. I'll need a second pair of hands to put it back together.”
“Later!” Alex waved as he walked out of the workshop. Bronx paced by his side. “Looks like I should get you back to Hudson.” Hearing Hudson's name, Bronx barked and waved his stub of a tail.
Alex walked slowly through the familiar halls of the castle, as if he could put off tomorrow morning – and the dullness of school – by staying awake a little longer. Alex heard Hudson's TV blaring long before he came to the door, and he wondered if the old gargoyle was losing his hearing. The old gargoyle was a canny fighter and would live longer than most humans, but Hudson was still getting on in years.
Alex knocked loudly on the door. “Hudson, I've brought back Bronx!” He shouted. Alex pounded on the door twice before the elderly gargoyle responded.
“Come in, lad, come in!” Hudson was securely seated in his battered recliner, the TV showing some late-night comic rattling off political jokes. Bronx leaped forward and flung himself at the foot of the recliner, turning over and wriggling on his back.
Alex leaned on the handle of the half-open door. “Thanks for letting me borrow him.”
“Not a problem, lad.” Hudson put the TV on mute and looked over his shoulder. “What did you want him for, anyhow?”
“I just had a problem with my homework. There's this essay on one of Shakespeare's plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream.”
“I think I've heard of that one. Isn't it with the faeries and a donkey's ass?”
Alex laughed. “Definitely faeries, but it's a character called Bottom who ends up with a donkey head.”
“Bah. Human names are always so strange.” Hudson shrugged.
“Anyhow, I was just having a problem figuring out if the part about the faeries was true or not. Or at least how true.” Alex said.
“Lad. If this 'essay' means so much to you, your own grandmother is queen of the Third Race. I'm sure she'd be happy to see you and happy to answer the questions that your instructor might have of ye.” Hudson spoke as if it were the most obvious answer in the world. “You're of her blood, and Puck is of Oberon's Children. Surely the fair folk do not bat around in those wanderin' boats every time they wish to set foot on that isle.”
“Hudson, you've just solved my problem.” Alex grinned.
Hudson shrugged and turned back to the TV. “Glad to help, lad.”
Alex walked quickly back to his quarters and flung himself onto his bed. Going to Avalon. Why hadn't he thought of that? And Puck would be back on Friday, leaving two full – well, maybe one and half if he counted essay-writing time – days for traveling to Avalon. Even with the time-difference, he was sure that Titania could spare an hour for her grandson. That would leave him and Puck plenty of time to travel there and back. It was an excellent plan, and it definitely beat another weekend with homework, and possibly beat a weekend testing the flying bike. The bike would still be there next week, but the excuse to visit Avalon wouldn’t!
The days seemed to drag on, as Alex eagerly awaited his father and Owen's return. Still, things didn't quite go the way he'd envisioned them when he tracked down Owen-soon-to-be-Puck for a magic lesson on Friday night. Owen might be the incarnation of reticent; Puck was anything but.
“You want to go to Avalon.” Puck sounded as though he couldn't quite understand.
“Yes.” Alex frowned. “I thought that was pretty clear, by the way I asked 'Can we go to Avalon this weekend?'”
Puck shrugged, a picture of nonchalance. “I just figured that I'd check before asking exactly why you've decided that this weekend would be an excellent time to go merrily skipping off to Oberon's court, for no apparent reason at all.”
“I just wanted to visit my grandmother. I've got some free time, figured I should go before I got too busy this semester.” Alex shrugged nonchalantly, or as close as he could manage. He'd been trying to mimic that particular gesture of Puck's for the last year, after realizing how much it unsettled his father.
“Is that so?” Puck dragged out the last word, rising above the floor to lounge on apparent thin air. “It would have nothing to do with your essay on A Midsummer Night's Dream, would it? Because I can say right now that if, only if, it had something to do with this essay, it would be a very bad idea.”
“Really? I thought you would have approved.” Alex raised a hand and began ticking off all the excellent, parent or annoying immortal magic teacher-convincing points that he's thought of during the last few days. “I'd spend time in a place that's grounded in magic, something that you've told me is essential for any sorcerer developing their powers, I'd spend time with my grandmother, your queen,” This was said with a pointed look at Puck. “something she's told me that she would like, I'd gain valuable insight into the historical basis of the myth of the fae, I'd also find out Titania's own interpretation of Shakespeare's words, which is sure to guarantee me an excellent grade on my essay, and shouldn't I learn how to open an Avalon gate anyway? You're supposed to be my magic teacher, so this would be a perfect demonstration.” Alex finished his list with a satisfied smile. All excellent reasons, playing off of Puck's own duties, Alex's royal bloodline, and the academic value of the trip.
Puck lazily floated in the air. “Sure, but you've forgotten one thing.”
“I'm sure my parents wouldn't mind, so don't even try that argument.” Alex glared.
“No, no, I wasn't talking about that. You've just overlooked one thing in your plan. Now, I'm not saying the play's true, and I'm not saying it isn't. But you should know that it's expressly forbidden to talk about A Midsummer Night's Dream in Oberon's court.” Puck twirled in the air. “I mean, think about it. Here you are, my personal charge, the only child of my employers, and you want me, me, to take you to ask one of the most capricious, whimsical, powerful creatures in all the world whether or not these slanderous accusations are true?” Puck appeared to be inspecting his fingernails rather closely. “I wouldn't put our lifespans past five minutes, and that's accounting for the three minute head-start she'd give you for being her grandson. She might appear to care for you, but I assure you that one should never step between Titania and her own good opinion of herself. It's just not healthy.”
Alex's objections died unvoiced. In all of his plotting to finagle a way out from starting this essay, which had escalating to coaxing a jaunt to Avalon out of his mercurial teacher, he'd rather failed to consider the entire point that his plans hinged on.
“As a matter of fact, I'd suggest you get back to that essay of yours. You do only have two days to complete it in, and that little green gargoyle probably wants to see you about some loathsome pile of metal this weekend.” Puck looked pointedly at Alex.
Alex knew defeat when he saw it. If he could not win – and he couldn't, hamstrung by his own arguments – Alex had at least learned how to gracefully lose. It was a rather useful lesson, especially if one's parents were the infamous David Xanatos and Fox.
Puck vanished and it was Owen who stiffly bowed and excused himself. By late Saturday evening, Alex had produced a solid five pages on the symbolism of the uncertainty of dealing with the fae and its relationship to humanity's views on luck and religion. Sunday was spent dealing with the expected semi-wreckage of the bike and Brooklyn's sincere apologies, and on Monday morning Alex handed in a neatly stapled paper to Ms. Chang during Tutorial II.
It eventually received a 'B+'. Ms. Chang commended him for a 'vivid imagination,' but noted that he had failed to stay within the text in some sections by quoting a 'fictional interview with the character Puck' when talking about whether or not one should consider the interludes with the fairies as dream sequences or literal happenings. Overall, Alex counted it as a victory. After all, how many other students could say Shakespeare had written about their family gossip?