The child played in the park for three days before Jack noticed anything odd. There’d been three separate explosions at GD and, in an almost unprecedented act of good sense, two of those three explosions had resulted in redactions.
So it could be considered forgivable that it took him so long to notice that the little girl playing alone in the park had a tail and possessed teeth that looked sharp enough to break bone. The tail didn’t bother him so much; the teeth meant trouble.
“Hello,” he said, as he sat down beside her. “Do you know who I am?”
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re one of the fae queen’s blowbacks. Which fae I don’t know. Don’t care much neither. They’re all dipshit blowhards. Got the right to eat where and what I like.” She scowled at him. It would have been cute, if not for the already mentioned teeth.
“This is my home. You don’t have the right to eat here, certainly not whatever you like.” That was even true. Most fae were territorial, especially the ones who were solitary. Jack hadn’t always been alone, but he had been for a long time. This one was solitary, too, for different reasons than Jack.
It was hard to live around other fae, when you were happy to eat anything that you came by. Trust became difficult.
“Good eating here,” she said. “Weird eating, but good. You tried the sheep? The ones with the green hooves and horns?”
He shook his head.
“You should, they’re good.”
“Not a big fan of weird eating, to be honest.” He’d take a cheeseburger over weird sheep any day.
She shrugged. “Won’t eat any of the people, even the little ones that can’t run away good. If I promise that, can I stay?”
More than one scientist had been complaining about something eating their experiments. Apparently, they were all going to solve world hunger and Jack not doing anything about it meant world hunger was now his fault. (Even Jack knew there was enough food to feed the world already, so he didn’t feel too bad. World hunger was the result of one thing: people sucked. Whatever Tiller was doing with sheep wasn’t going to change that.)
He sighed. “Why are you in a park, if you don’t want to eat children?”
“Already eaten today.” She shrugged. “Sometimes it’s fun to scare ‘em.” She made claws with her perfectly normal fingers and hissed. It wasn’t scary at all, until her lips drew back and revealed her teeth.
“Stay away from the parks and the children and as long as nothing else happens…you can stay.” He was going to regret this, he just knew it. Letting something like her stick around was a terrible idea.
She smiled, sharp and thereatening. “You really should try the sheep.”
“You should try some of the wildlife. Must be something that isn’t livestock to eat.” He stood up and brushed the grass from his arse.
“What can I say? I’m lazy.”
“What are you staying away from?”
“Parks and children,” she groused, standing up. “You really aren’t no fun.”
“There was a child with a tail tormenting my sprite,” Nathan said, scowling. He held up his arm, which featured a fairly impressively sized bandage wrapped around it. “She fucking bit me. As in, took a chunk out of me. You have any idea how many sessions at the infirmary it’s going to take to heal this? And what if it scars?!”
Unsurprisingly, Nathan appeared far more bothered by the idea that it might scar than by the wound itself. He’d probably looked perfectly put together when he showed up to GD missing a good portion of his arm, bleeding all over the floor with nary a hair out of place. “I should have been more specific,” Jack said. “Stay away from humans generally, not just children. Though this counts as something happening, so I can at least claim she didn’t keep part of her word.” The fae all took keeping their word very seriously. This one would argue semantics, Jack didn’t doubt that, but she’d lose.
“You knew she was running around?” Nathan frowned. “Wait, what would she do to children?”
“Same thing she did to you—or worse, really. What did you think all those teeth are for?”
Lupo had gone out on an early call this morning, which had left the station satisfying quiet. That rarely lasted long these days, as Stark tended to show up to complain about the second sprite that had showed up to live in his pond or the corrections that showed up in calculations he didn’t want any help with. “I’m going to have to share credit with a sprite, Carter,” he’d complained, far louder than Jack had been comfortable with. “It isn’t ethical not to acknowledge outside help! If Henry had done it, he’d be a freaking co-author on this paper. I don’t want a co-author, especially not one that’s a sprite.”
At least getting a bite taken out of you was a better reason to complain than that.
Nathan opened his mouth and shut it again, shuddered, then said, “Jack, honestly? I don’t want to think about what all those teeth are for. Now, thanks to you, I’m going to dream about what all those teeth are for.”
“I’ll send her on her way, she isn’t anything to worry about.”
“Unless children go missing.”
“Well…yes. To be fair, they don’t do that much anymore, draws too much attention, and livestock is really much easier.” And thank God for that. The amount of bitching about not being able to eat humans anymore amongst the fae wasn’t small, but it did make things better for Jack. Avoiding a life cosplaying as modern day van Helsing was always a good thing.
“So she’s the one eating Tiller’s sheep and Alman’s calves?”
“They’re disappearing without a trace. Are you telling me she eats the bones too?” Nathan asked, disbelieving.
“Again, what did you—”
“—think all those teeth are for, right. I much prefer sprites over whatever she is.”
Jack shrugged. You would have to be nuts to not prefer sprites over this thing. Sprites liked tea; this thing liked raw meat. Sprites helped you out wherever they could; this thing would as soon take a bite out of you, literally.
In all honesty, it was much easier to deal with these things before Nathan knew about the fae. Nathan liked to be involved and liked to both know and understand things, which meant that when Jack went to deal with the girl with the teeth, he invited himself along. “I don’t care how tall you are or how scary all the little scientists think you are,” Jack said. “You aren’t going to intimidate her. She took a bite out of you!”
“And then ran away!”
“Was she laughing when she ran away?”
Nathan frowned. “That’s what that sound was?”
“Probably. Your sprite is more able to deal with her than you are. I bet she hasn’t been able to catch a sheep since. Why she decided to torment creatures that can control luck, I don’t know.”
“At the very least, I can drag you home if something happens.”
Annoyingly, this was true. More than once he’d slept where he’d fallen after dealing with some of the nastier creatures around, too exhausted to find somewhere more appropriate to rest.
Which was how he ended up here, with the creature pointing at Nathan and laughing, because of course that’s what she would do.
“That can’t possibly be laughter,” Nathan said.
It was, admittedly, strangely pitched and rather angry sounding. “It is,” Jack said, as the sound got louder. He produced a small, blunt silver knife and the laughter stopped abruptly.
“I stayed away from parks and children! I kept up my end!” She stomped her foot on the ground several times, hard enough that she had to shuffle to the side because the hole she’d made was deep enough to make her stand lopsided.
He took a step forward and she took one back. “So long as nothing else happens. Taking a bite out of my friend counts as something else happening.”
She scowled. “You a shit, that’s what you are. Dipshit blowhard, just like your mummy.”
“Leave my home, and don’t come back.”
She eyed the knife fearfully, then shouted, “Fine! Be like that! Don’t like your green sheep anyway!” She scurried away. Her tiny steps were so fast even Jack could barely follow them and she was out of sight in a handful of seconds.
“That…was easier than I thought it would be,” Nathan said.
Jack shrugged and returned the knife to it’s pouch. “I’ve met another of her kind before. They’re cowards.”
“That was not a scary knife. That was a very blunt and small knife.”
“Not scary to you, maybe.” Knives in general were frightening to many of the fae; a silver knife could be downright terrifying.
“Is that knife silverware? What is she, a werewolf? I suppose that would explain the teeth.”
Sitting on Nathan’s back step, nursing a beer, was now one of Jack’s favourite things to do. The two sprites that lived in the pond were dancing, gliding over the water with the kind of grace a human could never come close to imitating. Occasionally, one would dip the other or lift her over the other’s head.
It was stunningly beautiful.
Nathan sat down next to him, beer in one hand and bowl of camomile tea in the other. “Freshly brewed, ladies,” he said, placing it down on the ground.
Jack laughed. “Oh man. Your neighbours are going to start thinking you're insane, you do realise that, right?”
Nathan shrugged. “Since being fired as head of research, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I actually care about. I've spent so much time worrying about what other people think. I taught an undergraduate class when I was 20, did you know that?”
Jack shook his head.
“Last year of my PhD. My first PhD. It was awful. Looking back, I think I pissed them off somehow. It made me think—who cares how smart I am if people don't take me seriously?”
“Jesus. It was that bad?”
“Worse than you can imagine. I cried after every class. My dad died from prostate cancer a few years later and honestly? Not as awful as teaching that class.” Nathan looked alarmed. “Don't spread that around. I know how that sounds.”
Jack shrugged. “Hey, when my dad died one of my sisters and I opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate. I know how that sounds.”
Nathan smiled, then said, with more melancholy than Jack had thought him capable of, “Need to let that 20 year old kid off the hook for the fact that some other 20 year olds were awful. Stop somehow thinking that there’s that and then there’s wining and dining senators and nothing in between. Stop thinking that being taken seriously is the only thing that matters, that what other people think of me is the be all and end all.”
Jack frowned, considering. Nathan was, to be frank, a bit of a dick, which wasn’t a natural combination with being overly concerned about those sorts of things. “It's funny, you never struck me as someone who cared what other people thought.”
“I don't care if they think I’m a hardarse. Or a dick—”
“Well, clearly,” Jack said.
Nathan smiled and nudged Jack playfully with his knee. “Yeah, yeah. But I cared a lot about whether people took me seriously. Way too much. I didn't want to wait until I was old enough that people took me seriously in person or over the phone and not just when they were corresponding with me.”
Jack nodded and took a long pull from his beer. Suddenly, Nathan burst out laughing. “What?” Jack asked, baffled.
“You a dipshit blowhard, just like your mommy.” Having paused his laughter to explain its existence, it began again as soon as he was done speaking.
“Yeah, yeah,” Jack said. Determined to ignore the laughter, he leaned forward and smiled down at the sprites who were now lounging in the bowl of tea. “How do you put up with him?”
One of them let out a little a squeak that he could only assume meant “good tea”.
Nathan was still smiling, his eyes crinkled with mirth and his whole face lighter and younger than the stern, professional look he usually wore. He'd always thought Nathan handsome, but unpleasant, and the second had more than cancelled out the first. Yet he could tell what Nathan meant about trying to care less about what others thought of him—he'd been friends with Jack for months, good friends, and had ignored the pointed remarks and even the quite cruel comments about laying down with dogs, as though average intelligence was catching.
Nathan reached out and laid a hand on the back of Jack’s neck. Jack stared at him, confused, until Nathan leaned down and kissed Jack, soft and gentle and lingering. Jack wrapped his arms around the back of Nathan’s head and kissed back, just as soft and gentle. It felt like celebration, like letting go, like no longer caring what other people thought just enough to live free and untethered.
When he pulled back, Nathan rested his forehead against Jack’s and smiled. “You did good today,” he said.