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130 Prompts #113 - Step Back

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113. Step Back (Post Season 10)

Year of Water; Winter of the Aligned Raindrops


His rash easily could have been attributed to the color-eye STD acting up again this time of December, but Foop preferred to blame it entirely on the new cravat around his neck because said cravat, its ruffles almost identical to those of his father's, was totally awful. Incredibly, horribly, absolutely, entirely, quite simply rather awful.

First off, it was brown, which went very nicely with pale blue fur, if one through painful politeness ignored the fact that it didn't. The feathers had been ripped from one of those dead owls his mother had dragged back to the kitchen, and they itched at his throat like ticks on a dust bunny. The more his father stroked his no-longer-so-square head with its two dripping black curls in the front and bragged about various accomplishments of his son that were only partway true, the more Foop scratched. Clumps of fur ('arctic blue tone', he thought he'd heard his mother boast to her aunt two hours ago, and the lightest tint of all his family line for seven generations) were tearing out between his claws, revealing hard rows of scales beneath, and those were beginning to peel in short strips just as fast.

Oh, how immensely he loathed the formal parties. Although this one had supposedly been thrown in celebration of him finally shedding his ugly cubical exoskeleton, it certainly didn't feel as though he was much of a guest of honor tonight. His father insisted on toting him around the castle halls like a high-floating and newly-polished crown, contributing to status and atmosphere with his irritable silence and scripted conversational replies. On any other day Foop would have blasted down the dangling streamers, ripped apart the wrappings of the presents with his claws in a matter of wingbeats, and flown off cackling to his room. But he was grounded, and he wanted to get ungrounded, so he kissed up and played their stupid games.

On top of his entire extended family being here this evening, along with the members of the Anti-Fairy Council and the random strangers who had gotten wind about the presence of food, he had Hiccup to deal with. The goody-two-shoed brat had already jumped out to take control of their body and say hello to their peers twice now (once to a drake with orange eyes and once to one with shaggy black hair). But, Foop consoled himself as he rotated a steaming mug of hot chocolate in his long fingers, but, the two of them were getting better at respecting one another's boundaries. Baby steps were still steps, and at least they weren't stepping backwards anymore.

Therapy with Mr. Caudwell seemed to be helping. Granted, Foop had little pre-therapy life to compare with, but as long as things were going his way, he figured he would toss his faith in any placebo that was offered him. 'Don't smash the lamp if it perchance should contain a genie' and all that. Speaking of which, where had that dratted old genie lady slithered off to with that crock pot…

Hiccup wasn't gone. Oh no, he was never gone. Rather, he hummed softly in the back of their mind, waiting with all the shivering patience of a clinging red leaf. Caudwell said that alternate personalities were most often born to defend and help their host. Hiccup wasn't a mean fellow, mostly, but even after forty-six years or so, he was still learning to settle down in there.

Smoke, that feathered cravat ruffled his fur the wrong way. Maybe he could kill himself with one of the knives on the nearest refreshment table while his father wasn't watching. He'd automatically regenerate within seconds, of course, but oh what precious itch-free seconds those would be. Foop had never actually "killed" himself on purpose before, but he'd been meaning to try it for awhile. They said that an Anti-Fairy dying caused their counterpart to sneeze.

Flipping the tail of his orange and black scarf over his shoulder, Foop pushed himself away from the wall and flapped obediently after his father's tucked-under heels as Anti-Cosmo finished making small talk with Anti-Theodore ("Anti-Ted", he wore the Maroon Robe, represented the Far West Region on the Anti-Fairy Council, kept a summer home on Mars, liked mango-blend chocolates, sported the black 'mustache and goatee' fur combo that proved him to be a 'pilot' just like Foop and the other two Council members, constantly drummed his claws, was dangerously opposed to neck-biting as a form of punishment as part of his platform, owned seventeen snakeupines, and had horrifyingly managed to cram all of these things in a single six-minute conversation) and moved on to talking politics with two of Foop's second cousins at a perch beside a barred window further down the hall.

Foop himself might have chosen to be less vocal than they if he were the one with a high opinion about the increasing-taxes-for-the-use-of-welfare policy of Anti-Ted's main competition for the upcoming election, you know, considering that the tall red-furred man was roosting right there eating cucumber sandwiches from an anti-gravity platter, but then again, as the son of the High Count and Countess, Foop wasn't really allowed to voice his political opinions anyway. Personally, he liked Anti-Alin the Teal, all things considered. Anti-Daryl the Navy he definitely could get by without. That baba will zap you and give you an ouchie thing still haunted his hair-trigger reactions at times… Rhoswen only knew how many daydreams full of red hair and tubas and sandpaper and lemonade he jolted awake from in a frantic, sticky sweat.

"There he is!" his grandmother shouted then, prompting a lull in his father's conversation with those second cousins. Foop and Anti-Cosmo exchanged disgruntled glances. Before a decision could be reached, Anti-Florensa swooped down from her rafter to rumple her grandson's ears with her balding hand. "Little Nebula!"

"Mother," Anti-Cosmo greeted stiffly, still floating. He'd obviously been so focused on trying to struggle through all this endless social interaction without a break that he hadn't even noticed her personal magical imprint leaking into the energy field above his head, or he would have "Nope"d away from there so fast.

Foop rolled his eyes and forced his tight lips away from his fangs. Ah, yes. Nebula. Anti-Poof was his legal name as far as the Fairies were concerned, but things worked differently on this side of the Barrier. He wasn't supposed to use his Anti-name until he reached age of majority at 150,000, and really, the Unseelie legal system would recognize him as Nebula for life anyway.

It was an interesting name, but bad blood soaked the story behind it; Fairy-Cosmo and Fairy-Wanda had broken Tradition when they themselves along with Timmy Turner chose the Fairy-Poof's middle name. Boy, his father had been livid that the right and ceremony had been snatched away from them- one more casualty to the selfishness of Fairies. So livid that he refused to acknowledge it in private away from the expectant ears of the commoners, and had bestowed the unflattering name of 'Foop' on his son instead. Something about flipping the name to ward off bad mojo, maybe, but also maybe not. Foop himself had slowly grown fond of the silly nickname over the year (years, he still had to remind himself; plural). Apparently not all of his relatives had gotten the memo. To them, he was their little Nebula still. And it made him feel like they thought him a pup.

Tell us: Did they look under the age of forty-five to you?

Perhaps, or close to it. But given the muddling of the timestream, did that make them one? That was the hundred-thousand-lagelyn question.

"I'm here too, Grandnana," Hiccup said, flipping into control and holding out his arms. "Hiccup, remember? Your other grandson?"

Anti-Florensa acted as though he hadn't spoken while she tugged on their right ear. "For smoke's sake, your ribs are as jagged as anti-pixie teeth under this dirty, matted fur of yours! Where's the shine to your pretty blue color? And doesn't your horrid father feed you? One might think the drake who pitched a massive hissy-fit all those years ago against the decree that Anti-Fairies weren't allowed to eat would care for one of his own."

"I prrrovide for him plenty," Anti-Cosmo protested, obviously trying to keep his tone level and firm. It came out as more of a nervous whine, and Hiccup didn't miss the shaking in his father's wrists or the gradual lowering of his pointed ears.

"Mother scrubbed us in the bath," he mumbled, slipping back into Foop. Foop wished he could have sent his alternate personality a stinging look for that. He didn't want to be the one out here either.

Anti-Florensa shook her head, her expensive trails of earrings rattling. "I don't want you spending any more time than absolutely necessary with this selfish pig I had the misfortune to bear, Nebula- you ought to listen to Anti-Wanda-la-la. She's a good damsel and she always knows exactly what she's doing. The ideal High Countess."

Yep. Ideal as a handful of trick dice.

"Mother, could we perhaps not discuss this on Foop's special day? At least not here?"

Cowardly old man, Foop thought. He took another slow sip of his hot chocolate to avoid snapping something that Hiccup might regret. Take a step back. Best behavior. Be strong for the return of greenhouse privileges. Among other things, the gardener pixie was supposed to be bringing another delivery of ladybugs tomorrow, and even a small handful of those insects would render a lawn gnome groveling at his feet in school after that. He looked forward to it.

"Tell me honestly, Nebula," Anti-Florensa cooed as she smoothed down his collar (flattening that cravat against his neck), "are you getting all the nutrition a growing drake needs? Nutrition is one of those trivial details that you wouldn't be synced up with the Fairy-Poof for, you know what I mean?"

Foop cast a sideways size-up in Anti-Cosmo's direction, but the High Count had already inched a few flaps closer to the trellis they'd decorated for today's winter solstice and was trying to signal Anti-Wanda for support; she could turn anyone off from any conversation. At the moment, however, she was clinging to the underside of a low bar in the neighboring throne room and chatting a thousand cloudlengths a wingbeat with several of her eleven uncles. So, almost anyone, then.

"Father doesn't allow us to eat meat. Mother has to sneak chicken nuggets into my lunchbox for school. He says we're fr-"

"You're not a fruit bat!"

He took the acidic spittle that accompanied this statement mostly in stride, even if he did spit when it was done and bristle at the back of his neck. Instantly Hiccup flashed to the reins and apologized profusely for the offensive comment of his 'brother', but their grandmother plowed on without gracing his response.

"I couldn't count on the spit-orchids in the gardens how many times I drilled into his head that he's legally a Faeumbra fae, no matter how much anti-brownie vampire bat-patron blood is trickling beneath his loose-hanging skin thanks to that rotten great-grandfather Gonzo of yours. But no, always with the accursed sniveling: 'But Mama, but Mama, I'm too sick to chase after sprites', 'I don't want any greasy bats'." Anti-Florensa made a pursed-lipped, narrow-eyed, upturned-eyebrow face to emulate an expression Foop seriously doubted his father had ever worn in his life. "Ungrateful brat; Rhoswen only knows what's wrong with that drake. I ought to have punished him more while he was young before he became so corrupted. Although now I highly doubt that would have helped. It would appear his brokenness is internal and there's no curing that, only pruning it back here and there so he doesn't make such a mortifying embarrassment of the Anti-Lunifly family. Smoke, I wish he hadn't taken the Anti-Fairywinkle name. And by the Lia Fáil, I hope to Kiiloëi you don't turn out like him."

"Nebula," one of their second cousins interrupted, releasing her perch and drifting over before the conversation could continue its downward spiral. Anti-Crystalli held out both hands, palms crossed over and upturned in greeting. "Oh, Ah just adore your blue sweater vest, darlin'. The dark threads look dazzlin' with your light arctic tone fur, and the purple accents at the collar bring out that darn-pretty shimmer in your precious eyeballs."

"I'm Hiccup, but thanks." Taking advantage of the distraction, Hiccup upturned his hands and let his older but lower-ranked second cousin lay hers in them. "Foop chose the sweater vest part, but I picked out the black shirt underneath with the sleeves, you know?"

She smiled the peculiar smile that Hiccup had long learned meant, Poor Foop, he's playing pretend again; when will he grow out of it, no one really believes him. "Well, Ah do declare you're the most dashin' one-year-old in the castle t'night. You look doggone ravishing."

"Oh, but the honor's all mine, Dame…"

He blanked. She was the Anti-Crystalli, but was she over age of majority yet? Which name was he supposed to use?

"Heleen?" he tried.

Anti-Florensa smacked him on the back of the head with her star-tipped staff. "Anti-Crystalli," Foop corrected themself through gritted fangs as Hiccup writhed internally from the sting of the blow. Foop doubted he'd swapped out willingly- that was a hard and fast stun, capable of shaking a dragon's fist open.

"Lugh's spear, what smoof is that hopeless spawn of mine teaching you? You aren't going to rely on flashcards for life like your smokeforsaken father, are you? I should hope not. You've got the colored eyes to be an iris, and you're a proper pilot and a descendant of the Anti-Lunifly line, honorary members of the Anti-Coppertalon family (through me, might I remind you), and the people look to you as reborn representative and medium of one of the seven sons of Tarrow the Luck-Twister on vapor."

"Really?" he asked, unable to bite back the sarcasm any longer. His claws had left indents in the dark ceramic of his mug; he'd already snapped off the handle and was hoping she didn't notice him clenching it in his hand. "Tell me more, Grandnana."

She didn't pick up on his disinterest. As his embarrassed second cousins made themselves softly scarce, Anti-Florensa spun her shimmering staff through her fingers and thunked the flat end into a rug that concealed very little of the stone floor. It stamped a circle in the blue fabric. "Of course, which of Tarrow's sons you channel remains up to considerable debate. The fact that you don't even know which of the seven Unseelie temples to worship in or which candidates to choose from to fill your camarilla court when you come of age is inconceivable and completely unacceptable. In what year of the zodiac precisely were you born, again?"

Foop sighed through his small round nose (he'd so wanted a pointed one after losing the cube shape) and tugged his scarf between his cravat and bare neck again. "Mother Nature posthumously, you might say, named it the Year of the Frozen Planet, but legally my birthdate falls in the Year of the Last Berry. If you calculate the cycle with the number of years that time was frozen, I would have been born a Breath."

"Last Berry, Frozen Planet, Thawed Calendar, Aligned Raindrops," she counted off on her claws. "That's a Leaves year, a Love year, a Fire year, and a Water year. The Water year is always bad luck for Breaths. And not the good kind of bad luck. This is bad luck bad luck. Bad karma."

Foop smiled and nodded politely, feeling like they'd taken a step back here. Of course he knew karma was the word for 'bad luck even by the standards of Anti-Fairies'. Smoke, she really did think him an idiot. What the devil did she think he'd been going to school for?

Not an education at his level, obviously. He'd requested originally to be placed in the 200th-Year classes, bare minimum. No one cared. They'd only let him in at all because he'd stolen Poof's desire to obliterate his counterpart. That would be so distracting for him, being in the class of someone he was oh-so-understandingly driven to attack, Finella reflex and all. Yes, we mustn't distract Poof… Mustn't strike those in society who actually had legal rights.

And honestly, Foop had never met anyone who firmly believed he would actually go through with it if the opportunity should present itself. A sort of 'Surely we can trust him to bathe alone without drowning himself' scenario, if you would, with that whole synchronized-death thing going on up there. And Hiccup was usually good about stepping in anyway… Smoke, Hiccup the babysitter, who plucked his roommate up by the scruff of his neck and crooned apologies while Foop kicked and spat like a soaked and salty kitten where he dangled, feet swaying.

"Shedding your exoskeleton in such a bad year for you can't possibly be good news," she continued. "Winni is the son who rules the Breath year, and badness knows he won't accept you if you step into his Temple stinking of Thursday. And then there are other questions. What if we were wrong in our careful calculations, and despite the possibility you were born a Breath, the nature spirits agree you were indeed born in the Year That Time Was Frozen."

"… Last Berry?"

Disgusted nod, fluttering fingers. "Worse than that still, the Year of the Frozen Planet was named the Love year by Mother Nature herself, effectively ensuring that the Angels' year 2002 occurs twice entirely on the zodiac, and that 2003 falls on a Fire year. Saturday's Fire year! The Molpa-Pel spare us! Taking this logic into account and falling backward from Leaves, you perhaps could be determined as being born in the Breath year of Wednesday. However are we supposed to account for that, Nebula poppet? With four years for your birth that all could be argued as correct, how are we to know which is the true one at all? Your future depends upon it! With you first in line to inherit the High Count seat and reconstruct your father's camarilla, the fate of the twenty-four planes of existence in the known universe as a whole depends upon it!

"Might I get you a drink, Grandnana?"

Anti-Florensa huffed and clenched her staff. "The fact that my worthless second son has yet to make an official public statement about this is an absolute disgrace. He was meant to do so at your crowning ceremony before the Fairies had you incarcerated the day you were brought into the world, wot?"

By this point, Foop's black mug had splintered quite a lot. Yet through some miracle, he finally managed to excuse himself and flit around the corner and into the next hallway. "Good smoke," Hiccup squeaked as they collapsed against a sconce, mopping their brow with his palm. "You were getting stressed. I thought I was going to have to stab her in the throat."

Foop rubbed his eyes. "Oh, thank Rhoswen's chisel you didn't do that, or Mother shouldn't have let us have home-brought lunch for a week. Rubbish. I do wish Father weren't so anti-soda; we may be young, but I rather feel as though we could use a drink. This sugar-free hot chocolate is giving me migraines."

"Oh, I think that's the iris virus. It's about that time of the year again."

"I don't want to hear it now." Setting the cracked mug and broken handle on a small floating table, Foop pushed the two large, black curls back from their forehead with his claws. They snaked through his fingers, pattering down hair by hair. Additional low curls tickled the nape of his neck. "Mm. Let's treat ourselves to another few cookies from that table in the observatory. I think I can sneak us in. At least those aren't entirely sugar-free."

Hiccup agreed, so that's where they were heading when pricking claws grabbed his pointed ear and yanked. Foop squeaked despite himself as the claws dragged him into one of the castle's (pitifully few) secret passages and slid the door shut. The passage went dark, though Foop's sonar worked just as well. Very slender hands steadied his shoulders.

"G'day, mate. Mind if I pop in and take a quick breather with you?"

Foop blinked. He registered the voice, but the small, skinny body shape was unfamiliar. "Anti-Marigold? Ah, quite right. Goldie shed before I did, so it would only make sense that you would have too. Shouldn't you be having your own exoskeleton-shedding party with your own friends and fellows about now? What are you doing here at the Blue Castle for Winter Turn?"

"Kelsia," she corrected for the dozenth time, propping one foot against his knee to boost herself to his eye-level and nudging back her crown with her wand. Curses- Kelsia. He'd spent too many recess periods listening to Poof and the Wisp-Marigold coo that he and 'Anti-Marigold' were such a cute couple, hadn't he? Her four sweeping moth wings rushed with the sound of water falling over cloth as she folded them back into place. "Don't get excited, mate- I didn't sneak in here to get cuddly with all y'all. I need a' copy y'all's lab report for bio again because I don't feel much like doing it myself."

"You waited until now to tell me this? Smoke, Kelsia- it's due by noon, Coordinated Cloudland Time. That's" - he flipped the numbers through his head - "Well, we're in the Blue Time zone, so that would be, what, twenty minutes from now? Is it two hours 'til midnight here?"

"Hey, y'all told me your pa would nick my neck if he caught an anti-wisp skulking about his pretty tea party. I've been staked out behind this door for an hour, waiting to pounce on ya. Almost took a step back and let you prance right on past me, too, but then I just decided to go for it."

Grimacing, Foop rubbed behind his itchy neck. "Yes, I did warn you he'd be irritated, didn't I? Although I may have been exaggerating; I do that from time to time. Contrary to the folktales, he doesn't drink blood. He doesn't even like it, if you can manage to wrap your mind around that. Odd old anti-fairy." He brushed at his scarf and refused to look her in the eyes. "Of course, copying off me profits you nothing in the end, you realize."

"Spare me, mate. I'm like, one." Kelsia removed her foot and floated to the right, further along the tunnel. "Where's the goods?"

After a glance over his shoulder at the passage door, thin blue candlelight leaking in from around the edges, Foop locked it and then motioned with his wing for her to follow him. "Stay on my heels, then, and I'll see what I can do for you."

"Can I ask y'all something?" she said after a minute, flicking a scab from her nose.

"Hm? Mark it."

"Why's y'all's castle have these secret passages anyway?"

"Same as most other castles. Servant tunnels, escape routes, a play area for the pups away from the eyes of disapproving adults. Anti-Fairies can't poof without a wand and it behooves one to have options."

"Aw, shucks. I was half-hoping y'all were gonna say you kept guardian monsters and your cool inventions and supplies in here."

"I do," Foop said easily, making a left turn as his claws scratched across the stones. "However, you asked why the castle itself had these passages, not what I use them for, and we're not going anywhere near the old storerooms anyway. I'm the only one with a key to the hidden chamber down there, but you can't let my father find out- he's convinced Mother ate it."

"I won't." She paused, then added slyly, "Nebula."

"Please don't call me that," he grunted. "Tarrow knows I've heard it more tonight than I can just about stand."

"Aw, but it's so cute."

"Yes, entirely. Here." Tapping six times in various places around a patch of stone between two twisting cracks in the wall, he tugged the door inward. It was made of threedspiral, actually, so it was plenty lightweight and swung easily and in silence. Foop felt a thrill spin down his spine from crown to chiropatagium anyway- his muscles were bigger now, his movements more fine, and leaving the secret passage turned out to be a lot easier than it had been only a few days ago.

"The tunnelly-do opens straight into your pad," Kelsia observed, stepping after him. "That's an awful design, ain't it?"

Foop trailed his eyes around the long bedroom, hung with a single rosewood-colored curtain over the window, with withering vines crawling up the red-tinted corner pillars. His purple coffin of a bed nestled on its curled golden feet against the far wall. Hinged lid closed. Faithful Skullbeary hidden from view (He was planning to shove the stuffed red and white toy beneath his pajamas before he moved out of here tonight). An ebony desk had been shoved into another corner, although the fact that it was a desk could only really be gleaned through the context clues of all the heaps of paper that blanketed it. He told her, "I take care to set up defensive charms when I plan to sleep if I feel the need. And it won't matter so much anymore from here on forward. The coffin and the, um, table will be put away and we'll convert this place into my study room. I'll be sleeping in the roosting room with my parents and their respective camarillas now."

"Huh," Kelsia said, running her fingers across a line of dust on the nearest bookshelf. Foop wished she wouldn't do that- it tasted so judgmental in his mouth. She sat on the second coffin that made up his diaper-changing table (From when he was so much younger- of course he didn't need it now!) and crossed her legs at the ankles. "Can't say I'm so envious, mate. Anti-wisps aren't much for hanging upside-down, 'cuz… y'all get it. Moth wings."

Foop chuckled dryly as he began the hunt for those biology notes. "Ha. I would be lying if I insisted Hiccup and I weren't a tad uncertain about the whole hanging-upside-down deal ourselves. Two straight years of sleeping in prison and forty-four more spent with a coffin for a bed tends to do that to you, I imagine. With the shedding ceremony and all, tonight will be our first night trying. We'll all be together like family, or some rot."

"Yeah… y'all remember I don't have a family, maybe. Abandoned when it wasn't even healthy t'leave the brood pouch. I just hang out around the fringes of the forest with some guys."

Pause.

"Right. I had forgotten." The anti-fairy bounced a clump of papers lightly against his desk, straightening them each time they hit. Setting them aside again, he took up a black file folder and began to leaf through its contents. "I hope you've enjoyed the party here tonight, then. Hiccup thought he spotted you about earlier, but I wasn't paying all that much attention and thereafter blew it off. All you anti-will o' the wisps have that same black and red six-spot burnet moth pattern in your wings."

Kelsia waved. "G'day in there, Hiccup."

"Duly noted, and I presume he'd like me to return your greeting on his behalf."

"He's not gonna say 'Hi' himself?"

"That's not how it wor- Ah, here it is!" Foop drew three sheets of stapled paper from the black folder. Twisting with a snap of his heels, he crossed the room to Kelsia and presented them with a flourish. "I hope you'll find my analyses and conclusions as riveting as I did."

"Hey, anything written in your hand's bound to be better'n what I could get from Poof Prime; li'l tucker ain't been quite the same since the Wisp-Marigold switched classrooms, know what I'm saying? Do y'all mind if I step outside the castle and poof back to my place to finish copying these? This wand's running low on juice and I left my signature stamp behind. I'll return 'em to you when we get to class tomorrow."

"Keep them- I used a P.A.W.S. to 'ping' up a digi-stream copy and submitted it into the W.E.B. program hours ago." Foop hovered at her shoulder, one sharp elbow braced against the lid of the coffin as he watched her skim through the pages. The other hand rubbed at his throat. Smoke, he had a throat now! "Now then, is that all you wanted?"

"Sure deal, mate," she said, creasing and pocketing the papers. "Catch y'all at school when we get off break. Lab partners again for Tuesday, as usual?"

"That sounds fine."

Kelsia tipped her black crown and started for the tunnel passageway again. Foop tilted his crown in return and leaned back against his coffin, crossing his ankles much the same way she had.

Then he decided that maybe he wasn't quite ready to return to the dull night of standing by himself and scratching his collar after all, and darted past her to block the door. When Kelsia cocked her head, Foop extended his thin hand towards her. "Would you care to step out where the music is louder and dance for a song or three, m'lady?"

"Ehhh…" She shook her head. "That ain't really my style. You know how we anti-wisps are, mate. We don't much like being tied down."

"It was my understanding that you liked to be wooed."

"Mm. Can we skip the dance? I'm underdressed in my cute t-shirt and shorts and I'm not feeling it. Dunno if I want your pa's eyes following us around the floor. But if you want, we can just hang out for a bit as y'all walk me t' the door. I gotta go write this, 'member."

"Hanging out sounds delightful." He took a step back, pushed the passage open, and waved her through. "Could I grab you a bite before you go?"

"Sure, I guess, but neither of y'all has to. And you're definitely not going to pull any sickeningly-cutesy feeding-me ritual, let me tell ya."

Foop wrinkled his round nose. "How revolting. Come on, I know a back passage that will help us avoid most of the crowd."

"Cool." Keeping her hands in her pockets, Kelsia trailed after him. "Did y'all want to talk about something?"

"We can talk about me. I've made plans to erect a silent alarm system that will alert me when the anti-lawn gnomes and sprites enter the gardens to crawl into Mother's plants. Then I'll go hunting. I know it's sadistic, but I'd like to taunt the thieves while they're tied up, and only let them go if they bribe me well enough. Perhaps stick a tag on them so I know which ones haven't learned their lesson if they double back. Hahaha!"

"I've taken up knitting," she said, ignoring him.

He sniffed. "How horribly dull. Wouldn't you rather discuss how I conquered Mr. Splinter's class in art while my class and yours were out at recess?"

"Nah, not really. I'd rather knit y'all a sweater. Red one, maybe." She shoved a handful of peanut M&Ms into her mouth. How long had she been holding onto those? "Anyway, if y'all're both just making small talk then I'm gonna skip."

"Small talk? I erected a throne out of easels, enslaved the masses to paint my portrait on pumpkins, and ruled my empire with a paintbrush sceptar and newspaper hat!"

Kelsia flicked a wrist, a single bracelet rattling. "Sure, but that's ol' buck teeth to the curls now, arctic blue. You take over a lot of things."

Foop sighed in acknowledgement through his fangs and eased open the door that would let them out back into the main hallway, just around the corner from the castle's foremost door. "Are you certain you don't want that dance?"

"Lemoncake, the day I dance for y'all's the day I decide I don't care cinders about my image and life is meaningless." She fluttered her fingers in good-bye before tapping her wand against the bars over the nearest window. After squeezing her small body through it, rolling into a sticker bush, and giving him a thumbs up to signal she was all right, the anti-will o' the wisp shook herself off and jumped into the air.

"Watch for the strobe lights!"

"Yeah!"

"Oh- and the automated arrow-launching defense system! And the portcullis, too! And the spikes on that bridge! And the barbed wire! And the-! … Never mind. I suppose you'll survive. Ah, well," Foop murmured as Kelsia disappeared from the reach of his sonar and into the dark, seeking a smoother patch of the energy field to anti-poof from. He'd just have to find some other way to take his mind off that incredibly, horribly, absolutely awful cravat. As he took a step back and loosened the tie yet again, he had the thought that perhaps spiking the lemonade bowl with caffeine straight from the Anti-Pixie Isle gingertie trees would be an entertaining way to end his night after all.