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Winter of the Salted Garden


 I track people with imaginary health bars, and Sanderson's shoots from full to zero when a quick knock sounds on my private break room door. The bristles of his brush falter, digging into my wings. He grunts. I crack open one eye. On the one hand, I'm comfy, sprawled sideways in my favorite chair with one foot balanced on my knee and a tray still full of breakfast resting on my stomach. But on the other hand, business is business. Head Pixies don't get vacation days. At least, not ones that anyone takes seriously.

"Huh. That's Longwood's knock."

Sanderson dips his soft brush in the washing bucket, and doesn't raise his head. He remains in place, cross-legged on the ottoman beside my chair, running his thumb along the veins in my wings. "I know, sir."

"Get the door, Sanderson. It must be important." I sit up, my wings sliding from his hands. I rub my eyes. "The energy field is twisting up around him. He's distressed. Where's my shirt?"

"I wouldn't know, sir." Sanderson stands up, pushing the handle of the brush into his pocket. "I'm getting the door."

"Ha ha." Unable to find the shirt within two feet of me in five seconds, I simply lean my elbow against the arm of my chair and set my chin in my hand. It's just Longwood. He's seen me shirtless countless times before, so at least it won't be weird.

Sanderson wrenches open the break room door and glares into the hall. "I really hope this is important, Longwood. I have retinue duties to fulfill. You are interrupting my work. If the boss ends up looking unpresentable today, that's on your head."

"Sanderson," I call. "Play nice. Longwood still outranks you."

Sanderson rolls his eyes and links his hands behind his back. Rocking on his heels, he says, "Technically, sir, I'm alpha retinue drone, emphasis on the 'alpha.' I might make a case that I outrank our company vice president."

I sigh. Oh, Sanderson. He always has to put the 'sass' in 'misassumption.' I don't deserve this. Who even raised this kid?

"May I speak, sir?" Longwood asks, looking past Sanderson at me. His freckled face remains smooth as usual, but the slight lift to his eyebrows might be cause for concern.

"I don't see why not." I reach for my water bottle. "I mean, you've already interrupted us, so there's no point in stopping you now."

"Sir, if I may." Sanderson twists on his heel, drawing the brush from his pocket. His lower lip comes out in a pout. "Don't let him come in. I was cleaning your wings."

"And now you're not. Sanderson, you're dismissed for the morning."

He hovers near the break room door in silence, clenching his teeth. The brush goes back on its hook beside the door, with a snap of his fingers instead of the physical act of turning around to hang it up. The seconds tick by. I raise one eyebrow.

"Sanderson. I believe I just asked you to fulfill your alpha retinue duties and distribute my pheromones to the rest of the company. Why are you still here?"

He shoves his fingers through the front curls in his hair, loudly mumbling something that I don't catch, and stalks into the hallway without a word. I hear the distinct squeak!-thud! of him grabbing one of his passing co-workers by the collar and slamming him into the nearest wall. Longwood turns his head to follow his progress for a patient moment, then looks back at me. I give him the floor with a sweep of my hand.

"Yes. I just received a text from a reliable source, sir. China Mayfleet… died the other night."

"… Oh." This news is slow-blink worthy. I bring my forefingers together, resting them against my lips. "You mean, like… China Mayfleet, China Mayfleet?"

"That is my understanding, sir." Longwood pauses. One finger flicks beneath his shades, then away again. "Accidentally tangled herself in an abandoned fishing net while she was down Earthside freeing a few manatees from it, I think. A boat motor… caught her in the head. Non-magical motor, of course, so it did her in. I, um…" Longwood makes the flicking motion with his hand again, this time rubbing his other eye. "I chose not to read the full details, sir. I came to tell you her funeral will be in her hometown of Cikacoral tonight. I-if you wanted to know."

Figures that's how she'd go. China always did love animals more than people. We used to stay in her parents' Cikacoral home for a week each winter, and she always begged me to come swimming with her. Whenever I did, she'd get distracted by something else, like a piece of coral, a rock, or some passing fish. I guess she has an excuse. She's a selkie. Was a selkie.

Hmm. Is it common for ex-wives to die? I'd never thought about it before. I rub my temples, frowning at the floor. What was even the proper protocol for this situation? China and I hadn't spoken for millennia. I hadn't even heard her name in centuries. Was I supposed to go? Was I supposed to send a card or something? Sorry you died, get well soon…

"I assume she'll have a traditional Zodii funeral," I say at last. Longwood nods, slowly. Of course. Our last fight had been about her choice to commit to that silly zodiac-based philosophy all the Anti-Fairies were more crazy about than chicken cordon bleu. Unsurprising that she'd want to get the last word in, even after dying and everything. Squinting, I say, "That means I'm expected to wear white."

"So you're planning to attend it, sir?"

I grimace and finally get out of my chair. "I have to. For closure."

Longwood touches his fingertips to his bow tie. His wingbeats quicken. "May I go?"

"No." I snatch my fallen shirt from the floor behind my chair. The lower button is still in its hole, for some reason. I stare at it, then decide I'd rather pull it over my head than undo it just to redo it again in a second. After pushing my head through and shaking my hat loose from my collar, I add, "You're company vice president. The rule is, when I leave Pixie World, you stay behind. Always. Someone has to look after the company in case a crisis breaks out."

Longwood holds my gaze for several wingbeats. Then he tilts down his shades and holds it some more. "China was my milkmother, sir. I would very much appreciate the opportunity to pay my respects."

"Hm… Fair point." I break eye contact and tap my chin, then snap my fingers. "I'll send you selfies. It'll be just like you're there too. Except you'll miss all my great one-liners. But this way you can set your milkmother's funeral as your wallpaper. Who wouldn't want that? That's what mine is. Look." I grab my phone from the side table and pull up the home screen. Then I flip it around so Longwood (who grudgingly bobs forward) can take a look. "See? That's you on the left, holding her lifedust. I wanted to give the jar Anti-Fairy ears with my fingers, but one of you talked me out of it. Can't remember which. Probably Wilcox. I still think Gidget would've loved that. I inherited her sarcasm."

He drops his shades back into place, miffed, but doesn't say anything else. I only barely notice, too busy musing over that time I flew into my foster mother's kitchen with a live snake writhing in my pudgy baby hands and she told me to hide it in the laundry bin so it'd catch Reuben off guard when he came home. Hm. Finally I click the screen back to black. I button up my suit coat and tuck the phone away in my pocket. When I leave the break room, Longwood keeps right on my wings.

Sanderson is still in the hallway, pinning a flustered McKinley to the wall. "China's dead," I tell them both. I try to remember if McKinley even knows who China is. She and I divorced long ago, when I was pregnant with Bayard. He might remember her if he read my autobiography, but I don't think they ever met in person.

"Good," Sanderson says, pulling his tongue back from McKinley's cheek. "I never liked her."

Longwood twitches his wings, but McKinley gasps, clasping his hands to his mouth. "Sanderson, all life is precious! Even those who choose to follow the Zodii beliefs. You should be ashamed of yourself."

"I'm not." Sanderson swings his head back around to stare at McKinley, who shrinks against the wall again. His grip on McKinley's collar cinches. "I knew her in person. China didn't respect H.P., and we left her for a reason. We haven't cared about her since. I don't see why we should be obligated to start now."

I fold my arms. "Well. That's why I'm taking Longwood to the funeral. Not you."

Longwood glances at me sideways, expression straight. I nod without breaking eye contact with Sanderson, who's just jerked his head around again.

"H.P.," Sanderson states, his brow almost furrowing. He withdraws his hands from McKinley entirely and holds them straight at his sides. "I'm your alpha retinue."

"Sanderson, if you think I don't know that, then we have a problem."

He doesn't crack a smile, which is mildly disappointing. Sometimes I can tempt him into showing emotion and it's funny. "Sir, it's both my responsibility and my inborn right to accompany you beyond Pixie World."

"Not today." McKinley is waiting on the tips of his toes to be dismissed, so I shoo him off with my hand. "You didn't like China. Longwood did."

A tiny crease appears above Sanderson's nose. "That doesn't mean I don't want to go with you."

"That's too bad. Longwood gets to come with me. You get to be in charge while we're gone."

"Hollow victory if Longwood isn't staying, sir," he says plainly, and heads down the hallway without asking to be excused. I fix my glasses and stare after him until he presses the button on the elevator at the far end.

"I don't know what to do with that man," I mutter.

"I don't mind his salty demeanor, sir. It provides deviation from the monotony of life."

I glance at him sharply. Longwood drops his head. "We're Pixies," I remind him, and smooth my suit with one hand. "Monotony is a perk, not a punishment."

"Yes, sir," he mumbles. I stare.

"Excuse me?"

"Yes, sir," Longwood repeats with more conviction.

"Better. Now, since you're familiar with the Zodii customs, talk me through how the ceremony works and help me find something decent to wear. And don't let me forget to bring Talon his lunch before we leave."

The hours trickle by. Sanderson avoids me all morning, but I can follow his trail through the company in a methodical zigzag pattern of pheromones winding through the building. Longwood refreshes my knowledge on a few ceremonial Zodii practices and vocabulary terms. I visit Hawkins and have him budget the funds for long-distance teleportation. Butler whips out his lint roller when he sees me coming, and painstakingly traces over my entire suit. I spend some time… reflecting on things.

At least at Zodii funerals they don't expect you to show up fasting, unlike a certain Fairy religion I could mention. Just before we leave, Longwood and I eat lunch together. Then we stop by the Water Temple to bring Talon his. I guess it totally slipped my mind that Anti-Cosmo had raised him Zodii too, of course. The young anti-fairy takes one look at me floating there with the bowl of macaroni, and his eyes go up and down. He backs away, tugging at his acolyte robes.

"Who died?"

"No one you know. Longwood made you food. Do you want it?"

"Can I come?"

"To the funeral?"

"Yeah." Talon takes the macaroni, and scoops a forkful into his mouth without blowing on it first. The heat startles his tongue, and he drops most of it back in the bowl. Steam fogs up his glasses. "I like funerals. Everyone is always so quiet, and you feel closer to the nature spirits there than almost anywhere else."

I look from him to the Water Temple's ceiling. Then at him again. "Closer than in the Temple? Why do you even need a Temple, then?"

"Forget it," Talon mutters. He takes an enormous bite of macaroni. "You don't understand me."

I give him a sharp pat to the cheek. "Don't talk with your mouth full. And take slower bites. You'll hurt yourself."

"Is macaroni," he mumbles through it, glancing up at me. "Is soft."

Well.

"We should go," I tell Longwood, who seems a lot less put off about being in the Temple than I am, of course. "China's only going to die once, after all."

Talon's head snaps up. "Are you talking about China Mayfleet? She died? H.P., you have to let me go! She's famous!"

I mull over my options: Have Talon be a brat here or have him be a brat there. "Hmm… Have you ever been to Cikacoral? Underwater merfolk city? Warm water. It's nice."

He shakes his head, sucking on the tines of his fork. "Is that where we're going? How'd they get a merfolk city to agree to host a Zodii ceremony?"

"Times change, I guess. Once, they never would've allowed it. Everyone should get to visit Cikacoral in person sometime, and you're old enough." I glance at one of my watches, then motion to him with my hand. "Hurry and finish. We need to go. But don't choke. Small bites. Talon, what did I just say–?"

We end up waiting for Talon to change from his blue and black robes to white ones, but then we're off with a few taps of cell phone keys. I do the honors myself. Ping! In a scattering of white dust, we're off. It's several seconds before we materialize on the teleport pad in Cikacoral's town hall. Talon stumbles, and I place my hand to his back to guide him forward. He grips the metal handrail and descends the three small stairs to the floor.

"We're not underwater," he says faintly.

"Look out the window." Or look out the entire wall, I guess. Talon turns. The wall behind us is transparent, showing off a shiny garden of rocks and reefs. Small fish weave between strategically planted kelp, eyes glazed and mouths mouthing. Talon stares for a moment, then turns back to me, pushing his glasses closer to his eyes.

"Why is the mermaid city's town hall drained of water?"

"You'll see."

A short hallway leads from the landing room to the main chambers. I keep one eye on Talon as we go. As expected, his jaw drops when we enter the meeting hall. There's still plenty of air–not that we fae need it to breathe, but it's nice not to swim in public while wearing all-white clothes. Two of the walls here are transparent, and provide an impressive look at the kaleidoscopic ocean around the building. The floor is made up of pumice-like rock. Coral bridges arch over beautiful scallop-shaped pools in the floor. Merfolk fill each one, swimming between them through a simple system of connecting tunnels under the floor. The dais decorated in China's memory stands against one wall, with several rows of chairs facing it in anticipation of the coming ceremony.

"I like it," Talon says. He folds his arms. "Why didn't we design the Water Temple to look like this?"

"Because there isn't a community of nautical people in a floating cloud world, so it didn't seem important."

Two long mercall-whistles freeze me in place. I follow the sound with my eyes to two mermen (one tall and lean, the other small and heavy) floating in a pool. One carries a trident and wears a golden circlet around his white hair. The child wears thick goggles, his bowl cut grown out enough now that it risks covering his eyes. When I look at them, they whistle again in greeting. I take off my hat and float over. Their scaly golden tails glisten in the water behind them, fins translucent and shimmering.

"King Neptuna. Prince Gerald." I bow. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"

"That it has," the king agrees, slapping his son on the back. Gary cringes, and reaches back to rub the stinging spot. "Listen," Neptuna says, and his face turns serious. "Following the ceremony, you and I need to talk."

"Okay. Let's definitely do that. Just grab me before I leave and steer me where you want to go."

"Yes," Neptuna says distractedly, and paddles away in thought.

Talon, Longwood, and I join the line of people waiting to pay their respects to China's memory. We aren't there for long before we're interrupted by the sudden cry of, "H.P.!"

I'd know that nasally screech anywhere. I turn my head, raising one eyebrow. Anti-Cosmo's fluffy blue face appears in the crowd, cheeks puffed out and flushed a faint purple. It's almost hard to see him, except he's moving back through the line towards us. And also blue. He doesn't ever fly high except when shouting orders to his Anti-Fairies, and his stunted height doesn't do him any favors. He bobs up and down like a drinky desk bird. A striped scarf, black and green, wraps around his neck and drapes down past his crotch. Talon, moody adolescent he so often is, pretends not to see him.

"H.P." Anti-Cosmo tips his bowler hat to me. "Vice President Longwood. Talon."

"What did you bring me?" Talon asks, looking up. Anti-Cosmo's eyebrows shoot into his hair.

"Bring you? Why, I wasn't even aware you would be here tonight."

Talon sticks out his tongue. "H.P. always brings me stuff when I see him."

"True," I acknowledge. In my head, Anti-Cosmo's hitpoints drop into yellow.

Anti-Cosmo gives the younger anti-fairy a pitying look. "Then he's spoiled you into being a selfish little brat, I'm afraid." And to me, narrow-eyed, "Thanks for that, actually."

"Whoa. Hey. It's not my fault you deprive him of modern technology when he goes to stay in Anti-Fairy World. We agreed from the start: If you want to raise him Zodii, then I get to expose him to pop culture. Go ahead–ask him about memes. I've trained him well." I don't take my hands from my pockets, and Anti-Cosmo doesn't stop scowling at me. "So. That stuff aside, s'up with you lately?"

"Oh… Same old, same old, really. You know how it is this time of year, overseeing my people's winter migration and all." His irritation fades just a bit. "Do you like my new scarf? The cutest little anti-habetrot—this little silver-haired damsel, must've been only 10,000 years old—handmade it for me a few weeks ago. It's cotton, so I can wear it with the peace of mind that no animals were harmed. It's delightful!"

"H.P.?" That's Longwood, waiting patiently for another instruction. His hand is on Talon's shoulder now, which Talon is absolutely burning up about, teeth clenched and shoulders high. Being touched isn't his thing. I get that. I dismiss them both with a nod. Talon ducks Longwood's arm in a spin, but loses his footing and tumbles into the water. He kicks back to the surface several wingspans further down the path, splashing and sputtering. I guess he doesn't like swimming despite the whole 'Poster child acolyte of the Water Temple' thing. Longwood floats over to fish him out again.

Anti-Cosmo steadies himself in front of me and tilts back his head. His green eyes glitter with happy thoughts. He lifts his shoulders in a brief shrug. They drop. "That's what I've been up to lately. But, I suppose we didn't come here to talk about me."

It takes all my focus not to reach out and wind that dangling scarf tail properly around his neck. Disorderly. My fingers twitch. "Ha ha. Name one time I ever shown up specifically to talk about you. Literally. In my life."

"Mm," he says. He butts his head against my side, wriggling under my arm in his touchy-feely way. As he does, he rubs the scent gland on his balding spot against my sleeve, like he always does when he's in an absentminded mood. I roll my eyes, but let him do his thing. That's Anti-Cosmo for you. Never acted like a normal person in his life.

When we reach the front of the line, I realize I don't actually care to poke through China's personal things. Her seashell earrings. Her socks and silk slippers. Her neatly folded dresses. Her scale models. Her old architecture plans and sketchbooks. All on display between the burning incense sticks and framed photos on the table. For a people who believe in reincarnation, the Zodii certainly don't seem to care about respecting the privacy of the dead. I stare at a stack of dinner plates that have somehow survived all these years, a bit more chipped than I remember them, and wonder who organized this funeral. I could have sworn she was out of living relatives by now.

Her wedding photos are there. Most show the face of her last husband, but some smoofing idiot accidentally included an image from her wedding to me. She dances among pumpkins in that one, laughing and clothed in her soft green gown. I'm not in it, but I recognize the location all the same. I snort.

Anti-Cosmo clasps his hands before his chest. When he closes his eyes and inhales the incense smoke, he rises on the tips of his toes. "Isn't it just wonderful?"

"What, that someone's dead?"

He nods, dropping down again. "China was a generous person–one of the most, really. The Great Universe Queen Whose Name Anti-Fairy Tongues Do Not Speak shall make good use of her magic. Perhaps flowers will actually bloom in Anti-Fairy World this year, hm? She'd like that."

"I suppose." As we move away from the table, I glance down at him. "How do you know China anyway?"

"Ha!" Anti-Cosmo fluffs the back of his blue hair with his palm. "Most of what I know about painting buildings, I learned from her. I used to go to all her lectures, and just between us, I do believe I may have formed a bit of a romantic interest in her, oh ho! Devilishly charming woman who always glimmered in the lantern light, slippery and wet as a seal, you know what I mean? I think it's only natural for an enraptured student to have a fantasy or two about working alongside her someday, and perhaps sneaking off with her for a kiss or tangle, wot?" Then he pauses, and blinks. "How do you know China?"

"I married her."

Silence. His wings flop. Spinning around fast enough that he almost falls out of the air and into the water, Anti-Cosmo gapes up at me. One hand clamps his hair in a fist.

"Wait. That China? You were married to China Mayfleet? You know, I've always heard rumors regarding the exquisite buildings in Pixie World, but… Oh gods, that makes so much more sense!"

My eyes narrow. "What rumors?"

"That you wooed her for a discount on the architecture plans," he answers without missing a beat. "But this, why! And here I always thought you eschewed commitment. Oh H.P., you wily old charmer! Marrying an architect! That's bloody brilliant. I say, that's bloody brilliant, hm?" With a chuckle, Anti-Cosmo tilts back his head and flutters his eyelashes. "So much for that old rumor, then. Pity on me for lending ear to it this long."

"It's not wrong," I say, finally grabbing the loose tail of his annoying scarf. I toss it over his shoulder, and hope he'll fix it the rest of the way. "Technically, I did woo her to get it. She made me work for what I wanted. We found compromise. I made a fool of myself to satisfy her, she lowered prices to satisfy me. That's marriage. Well. Maybe. Actually in my experience, that's divorce."

Anti-Cosmo finds the "That's divorce" comment hilariously funny. He leans back on his heels, wrapping his arms around his tiny body. He doesn't fix the scarf. "Ohohoho! While divorced! Always the cheeky one, aren't you!"

"Do you think you could be any louder?" I ask dully. Most of the funeral attendees are merfolk, selkies, and finfolk, and not people I interact with regularly or probably ever will high above in the cloudlands, but still. It's rude.

"You snogged China Mayfleet," he giggles, like a schoolgirl. "That's precious. Oh, I can see it now… Come to think on it, we ought to compare notes. I'd be interested in counting how many times we've each gotten around, for curiosity's sake–We're both competitive people, after all! You do of course have several hundred thousand years on me, but I wonder if my damsel count has caught up to yours by now…? That's not even including my drakes. I just–" He slams the heel of his hand against his eye. "Good smoke, I can't believe it! All this time, I had no idea you once snogged the most influential architect in modern times and everyone's universally-agreed-upon celebrity crush on a regular basis. I never should have put it past you, ahaha. Certainly! Why not?"

I think I make some sort of throaty, humming, chirping noise in the back of my throat that startles Anti-Cosmo into looking up. I rub behind my neck, sliding my eyes towards the domed ceiling. "'Snogging' isn't really the right word for it."

"H.P., you were married. You snogged her. Get over it."

"Ehhh… No, that's not the right word for how I set the mood. It was more like…" I make a rolling gesture with my free hand. "Word flirting."

"'Word flirting,'" he repeats. His eyebrows arch in concern. "No snogging. Oh dear. H.P., don't tell me the only time you ever expressed intimacy to her was when you were actually…?"

"Ehhhhhh…" I lift my arms in a shrug. "I'm not the mushy type. You know this."

Anti-Cosmo slaps his face again and draws his hand along his nose, down to his mouth. "Wow. I say, I'm quite certain that I would not have made a very good pixie. Or a pixie's boyfriend, for that matter."

"I concur. You're too emotional. Even for me."

"What ended it?" he asks softly. My gaze sharpens, and he flinches back, ears lowering. His hands come together before his chest. "I only wondered, old sport. You've mentioned your ex-wife before, but you've never told me precisely why it didn't work out. Can I ask?"

I exhale, and make a mental note to add 'Don't talk about times you were intimate with the dead person' to Pixie funeral customs in the future. "Just stupid reasons. We had too many fights. Mostly because I couldn't bear her nymphs."

"Yes, but you had your pixies." When I don't answer, Anti-Cosmo floats a tiny bit closer and searches my face. His brows make a small caret. "Why, you must have had a dozen to look after back in the day, the darling little scamps. Let's see if I can remember. Sanderson, Hawkins, Longwood… Wasn't that enough for her?"

"You'd think, but no. She wanted our nymphs. My pixies weren't good enough for her."

Anti-Cosmo presses his lips together in a doubting way. Since he's Anti-Cosmo, I relent with more information.

"I didn't really enjoy pairing up with her. Not much. She figured that out pretty quickly and couldn't deal ever again."

His eyebrows jump as though shot from below. "You didn't enjoy it? You, H.P.? The king of flings? The emperor of innuendo? The duke of dabbling? Fairy World's prized celebrity bachelor for as long as memory serves? I've heard the speculations, but–but–" For about three seconds, Anti-Cosmo maintains a gentleman's dignity. Then he flings his arms forward. "No one actually dislikes sex!"

Source? I want to ask. I maintain cool eye contact until he finishes. "The reckless days of my youth are behind me. I don't exactly get around like I used to. I've been high and dry for 90,000 years… Except, you know I'm always open to making an exception for you."

I keep my practiced deadpan the whole time. Anti-Cosmo snorts at that last bit and sets his hands against his waist. Ha. Ha. I smirk. Jorgen would tear off my wings if I used that crack on him, and it's something I'd never say to Sanderson, but A.C. and I are as close as crossed fingers. He just gets me. I'm hilarious. My genius is grossly underappreciated.

With a disbelieving shake of his head, Anti-Cosmo ties the dangling ends of his scarf into another knot. "Hmph! To be frank, H.P., I daresay I'm disappointed. You know I admire you dearly—I say, I admire you dearly, and don't get me wrong—and again I'd heard rumors regarding some lack of interest on your part, but I'd never actually believed you to be the type who would cut physical intimacy completely in your old age. Why, that's something I myself could never fathom, thank you very much. I don't plan to go a week without it until the day I die, and then some."

I think about that for a moment as he dives into a ramble about some part of his love life that I don't really care about. My eyes stray back to the dais, where China's possessions still lay on display for anyone to pry through and take selfies with. Anti-Cosmo adores his wife with a retch-inducing passion, and makes no secret of it. So. What would he do if he were to wake up one day, and realize she'd disappeared into thin air? That from now on, physical intimacy wouldn't be so easy to come by? What would he choose then? Stay firmly loyal to her for a few years longer, or grab the next pretty face to come along?

Like Fairies and Pixies turn to dust after death, Anti-Fairies turn to smoke. Do they even notice when one of their own dies overnight? Or do they convince themselves their loved ones just flew off and never returned?

"Ahem," says a young voice, breaking Anti-Cosmo out of his rant. He spins around, and I glance over to see Prince Gary bobbing like a seal in the nearest pool, his hands clasped at his waist. He fixes us both with a slightly reproachful look. Mostly Anti-Cosmo, who sheepishly twists his monocle more tightly against his eye.

"Aheh…"

"Good evening, sirs. Your presence in Cikacoral is very much appreciated, and I would like to inform you both that we will be starting the ceremony shortly."

We both nod, and when Gary splashes underwater again with a flick of his golden tail, I nudge Anti-Cosmo with my elbow. "Someone got busted."

"Oh, do forgive me." Anti-Cosmo pats his cheek twice, gazing through one of the transparent walls. "I always turn into quite the chatterbox at funerals, ahaha… I really can't help myself sometimes, you know, no matter how hard I try. Silence simply isn't in my nature, but of course, you know me well enough by now that I'm sure you've heard my acknowledgements already."

I wait patiently for his rambling to trickle to an end, then make a motion with my hand. "Turn around."

He blinks. "Whatever for?"

"So I can fix your scarf, duh. You made it worse. How doesn't this irritate the dust out of you?"

When he thinks I'm not looking, he subtly ruffles it askew again.

We settle in the chairs scattered between the pools, facing the dais. Longwood sits on my right, Talon on my left. Anti-Cosmo sits beside him, feigning interest in Talon's explanation of the latest video game he's just beaten. King Neptuna heads the ceremony, describing moments from China's youth when in her seal form she used to tussle with young mermen and hunt with grown mermaids. Then several of her friends get up to share their own experiences with her. It's fairly quiet, apart from the squeak of Talon rocking in his seat, the ripple of flowing water, and Longwood scribbling notes religiously in his personal notebook.

When the ceremony ends, the crowd quickly clears away. It's my intention to leave soon, but while I'm stacking chairs away with Longwood, a heavy hand lands on my shoulder. I glance up to find King Neptuna smiling calmly down at me, his scaly tail curled on solid ground behind him like a snakeskin.

"Head Pixie, we need to speak in private."

"Uh… sure." My eyes trail down to the juvenile selkie standing beside him, her shell phone clenched in her hand, but her scarlet eyes fixed on me. She wears a shiny silver ribbon in her black hair, her dark face marbled with freckles. Especially across her neck. A leopard seal selkie? Perhaps. I upturn my hand in her direction. "Who's this?"

"Larkspur Mayfleet," she says crisply, grabbing my hand and shaking hard. My arm flops like a shaken sheet of thin metal. I blink, caught off guard by such a strong grip from such a young damsel. "I'm studying political science in upper school, and I intend to sit on the Fairy Council someday. It's nice to meet you, H.P., sir. How do you do?"

Not well, I think, narrowing my eyes in suspicion. "Decent," is all I say.

"Glad to hear it, sir."

King Neptuna inclines his head. "Larkspur is the late China's daughter. China has no living relatives, and my understanding is that Larkspur has yet to reach adulthood according to Fairy law. She requires a legal guardian, or she'll be pushed into foster care."

"… I see where this is going."

Larkspur and I spend a few moments chatting politics before Longwood and Talon trail over to join us. King Neptuna excuses himself then, and I send Larkspur off to admire the paintings in the other hall while I "Wrap up loose ends." She shakes my hand again and jumps forward to lead the way, causing Longwood and Talon to exchange a look of shock before they follow her. I can hear her explaining the history of Merfolk to Talon all the way down the hall. Just before the turn, Longwood glances over his shoulder at me. He points his thumb at the back of Larkspur's head in unspoken question. Are you really going to let her boss your vice president around like this? I hold my arms up in a defensive shrug. His palm goes to his forehead in disbelief, but he falls into beat behind her without complaint.

Once they're gone, and with the meeting hall all but deserted, I drop onto a tower of stacked chairs and put my head in my hands.

China went off and had a daughter without me.

I mean, I knew she'd remarried after we'd split apart. If she found a selkie she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, good for her. She'd been enjoying a long string of casual flings the last time I spoke with her. She hadn't invited me to the wedding, let alone the baby shower. I never heard about the pregnancy.

"Hff…" I massage my temples, squeezing my eyes shut. Memories of China—alive and playful—spin through my mind like a deck of cards falling from above. When I think of China, I don't picture her tears, or the hate that flashed in our eyes throughout our bitter fights. I can't help myself. For two hundred thousand years, my mental image of China has always been her lazily satisfied face the last time we ever, you know, did that pairing up thing together…

Her webbed fingers walked up my wrist to my shoulder, poised like a spider. "That was incredible, Fergus. Have you finally started practicing since we split up?"

I propped myself up on my elbow and smiled cooly at her. "I suppose that now, for the first time, I have something I really care about. Now, how about that price reduction?"

"Mm… Architecture plans are on my desk, Cinnamon. Go fetch. You earned them."

Younger me was pathetic.

Before she remarried, part of me always thought she'd come back. I sort of waited for her. She was into lighthearted flings. So was I. I tried every rave and silly party I could find for the next few thousand years, searching desperately for the kind of wild, carefree atmosphere a pixie can get drunk on. Whenever I turned it up, I latched on hard and didn't let go. Slept around with Fairies, drank a lot of soda, burned a lot of bridges. Tried a little candy corn, did a little peppermint, screwed up a couple kids' brains in the process when pregnancy came a-knocking and I refused to give it all up…

Sometimes I miss that life, though. It's the lowest point in my past, but it was also the highest I've ever been. People look at me different when we've had a round together, blushing proudly that they can count themselves one of my chosen few, as far as they know. Fairies love challenging themselves to crack my emotionless facade. I guess I'm a people person, through and through. Screw the stereotypes. Head Pixies just want to have fun.

She moved on without me. Successful architect, doting husband, smart kid… What do I have to show for myself since we broke up? A couple of big buildings that she designed herself? A couple of loyal pixies that she helped me raise?

Tch. I think it would bother me less if China had had a son. We raised several pixies together, all drakes. But a daughter is just a stabbing reminder that someone else gave my ex-wife the one thing I never could.

When I look up, everyone else is gone. Well. Almost everyone. I spy Anti-Cosmo alone sweeping the floor with magic, humming to himself as he goes about his work. I guess he took the duty upon himself just to make sure no cloudland local dumped all the grit into the merfolk pools. He's good at thinking about stuff like that. Whatever the reason, thank dust he's still here. I hop from the chairs and fly up to him, clasping my hands.

"Hey, A.C. You remember Talon?"

He looks at me quizzically. "Do I remember Talon?"

"Talon. The anti-kid I helped you raise before Foop bothered to get born and be your actual legit heir. We switch custody every seven years. Tall. Whiny. Freckles. Curly black hair. Stupid owl glasses." I make circles with my upside-down fingers and bring them to my eyes. "Talon."

Anti-Cosmo scoffs, his face turning exasperated. "Yes, I know who Talon is, thank you, Sir Summary. I simply fail to follow your thought process on the matter, that's all it is."

"I got special glasses for that photoshoot we all did when he was a baby," I muse, tapping my chin. "We almost destroyed the Earth that day. Food prices would have skyrocketed. We'd have been rich. Super rich. Good times. Shame about you losing the Dagda's bottomless cauldron…"

"H.P."

"Hm?" When I glance back, Anti-Cosmo is tapping his foot, arms crossed. "Was I saying something important?"

"Talon."

I snap my fingers and point at his face. "Yes. Yes. That's definitely a thing I was talking about." Floating forward, I hold his gaze. "Larkspur. Did you hear what King Neptuna said when he introduced me to China's daughter? They want me to be her legal guardian now. We should share custody of Larkspur like we share Talon."

Anti-Cosmo's eyes flick up and down my entire body, but he doesn't lean away when my finger boops his nose. "You want to what?"

"Share Larkspur, the leopard seal selkie who's into politics. I don't have any use for her, and you actually like kids. Why is this a hard concept?"

"Ahaha… No, I don't think so." Anti-Cosmo moves my finger away with his claw. "You see, Talon is an anti-fairy child, born and bred in Anti-Fairy World. As you said, Larkspur is a selkie. It simply couldn't work. Jorgen would never allow me anywhere near her."

"Doesn't matter. I have custody. I'd allow you near her." I wait a beat for Anti-Cosmo to process the information, his face scrunched with alarm, before I say, "Well?"

His hands go up defensively. "Ah, while I am flattered you would ask me, H.P., the truth is that I don't really need another child. Let's not forget, in addition to being High Count, I am by default also a creche father. Every pup born into my colony is automatically my responsibility. That's more than enough. Why, Foop alone runs me ragged."

I move towards him, shoving my hands deeper in my pockets. His ears fold back, but he doesn't try to run. "It's good business, A.C. My strength is raising drakes. I can raise an anti-fairy drake. I like Talon. I don't know squat about damsels. She's not even mine. Why don't I keep Talon, and you can have Larkspur?"

"That–" Anti-Cosmo flings his hands near his face, curling them tight. "That doesn't even make sense! Talon's mine! Talon's mine!"

I tip my head. "He spends more time in Pixie World than Anti-Fairy World anyway. He likes it."

"But you can't keep him! What about my rights?"

"You'll get all the rights once I've left."

He huffs upward, billowing his bangs. "You. Are. Impossible."

"That's a possibility. Now." I bring my hands together. "Are you interested in exposing Larkspur to Anti-Fairy customs for me? I won't have her raised Zodii, of course, but I won't have her raised in the traditional ignorant and hateful Fairy biases towards your people. She hopes to sit on the Fairy Council someday, and I intend to do all in my power to ensure she receives a truthful education of how the world works before she gets there. Are you with me?"

Anti-Cosmo sighs. His hands burrow into his pockets. I watch him with a fleck of interest until he says, "The Fairy Council, you say? With both of us behind her, I suppose she really could make it one day… and if she truly is exposed to Anti-Fairy customs from a young age and grows up respecting my people and our culture, that directly benefits me. Curses. I don't have much choice, do I? Very well. H.P., you have yourself a deal. I'll accept joint custody over young Madam Larkspur. What's one more child on my endless list? I can manage. It's for the greater good, after all."

"Thanks, A.C." I swat him on the shoulder. "You're the second greatest person I know."

"At times I am, aren't I?" He tries to smile, although it's strained. His eyes latch onto the heap of grit he'd been sweeping together, so I know his mind is probably a million cloudlengths away, running through two billion sloppy calculations. Clearing his throat, he says, "You know, I've never raised a selkie before."

"That's fine. You help me with the damsel stuff. I'll help you with the selkie stuff."

"You realize this is foolish from every angle." Anti-Cosmo shoves his hands beneath his armpits, and hits me with a withering glare. "I have more pressing responsibilities to attend to."

"Your willingness to be practical about prioritizing is appreciated." I turn on my wingtips and begin to float back the way I came. "Come on. I'll introduce you to her. Nice kid, I guess."

Anti-Cosmo huffs and flies after me. "Jorgen isn't going to like this, you know."

"I'll add him to the list of people I've offended. Maybe you heard what Neptuna said. Larkspur's legally mine. He doesn't get a say."

We glide in silence across the pools, right up until we reach the door. Then Anti-Cosmo says, "I hope you realize my sole reason for doing this is because I value our friendship, H.P."

"Hm?" I ask, slowing my pace and glancing sideways.

"We're friends," he emphasizes, searching my face. He waits, and when I don't respond, his expression hardens. "I want you to acknowledge that. I came to you when I required assistance raising Talon because I respected you as a friend, and not simply to take advantage of your generosity. I trust the same holds true in present circumstances…?"

"Maybe I just like hanging out with you," I suggest.

With a burst of speed, Anti-Cosmo flies ahead and blocks my path. I pull up short. "Smoke," he spits, "is that what this is really about? You aren't actually concerned about giving the child all the care and affection she needs to live a healthy life, are you? You're simply addicted to the spotlight, so you're using her as a means to win my attention!"

As I often do, I set my hands to my waist until he finishes. "As if I'd ever not want to hang out with you. Get real."

Anti-Cosmo hovers there, his wingbeats awkward. His right wing never healed properly when he hurt it as a kid, and he always leans too far on that side. His face darkens. He tucks his legs behind him. "What am I to you, Head Pixie?"

"What are you going on about?" I ask, maintaining an even voice. "We're friends."

"No. I need you to give me a straight answer. What are we?"

I shrug. "Best friends."

His teeth snap like a frozen twig. Anti-Cosmo lunges forward, seizing my collar in his hands and twisting it tight. "WHAT. AM. I?"

Regarding him cooly even as emotion blinds all sense of logic in his brain, I answer, "We're friends—close friends—who feel comfortable enough with our relationship to pool our resources and collaborate on mutually beneficial projects together. These projects include raising children without prejudice towards either of our respective races. After I helped you raise Talon, I assumed we were close enough that I could ask you to help me raise Larkspur. That's only fair, isn't it?"

He keeps his forehead pressed to mine. "Why are you doing this?"

"Maybe I like a little healthy competition. It goes without saying that Talon likes me more than you. We competed for his affections years ago, and I won. Maybe I enjoyed that, and I want to play that game again. Or, maybe I like bragging about you and want to have an excuse to talk about you to someone who knows you almost as well as I do. Who knows? Not me."

Anti-Cosmo finally lets go of my suit, though he doesn't stop snarling. "I daresay you like bragging about yourself, and treating me as a trophy to be won! You like being known as the drake who won Anti-Cosmo's favor." His eyes well up with tears. "Is that it? I'm a title? I matter more to you as High Count of the Anti-Fairies than I do as plain old Anti-Cosmo?"

I straighten the collar of my coat. "Pretty much. We wouldn't be friends if you'd never become High Count."

Apparently that wasn't the right thing to say. Great. Now he's a soppy mess, shaking and scrubbing at his wet face. "Well that's it, then. I changed my mind. The deal's off. I'll have no part in raising Larkspur. Find someone else to do it! I mean it–Don't try me!"

"Anti-Cosmo." I bob to the side to put a bit more space between us, and always keep my voice level and reasonable. "I think you're missing the point. I didn't ask just anyone here at the funeral to help me raise Larkspur. I asked you. No one is as good a friend to me as you are. You know that."

"You–"

"Anti-Cosmo. Listen. I am 744,725 years old. I have raised over five hundred pixies in my lifetime. No, I don't know much about raising damsels. But do you really think I approached you just because I want to dump her on you? You think I'm not willing to even try?"

He pushes a stubborn fist beneath his nose. "W-what exactly are you saying?"

"Freakin' dust, for real? You're going to make me spell it out for you?" I close my eyes, resisting the urge to roll them. My wingbeats slow. I drop slightly towards the ground. "What now? Do you expect me to get down on one knee to do this? Because I can. It just might be stupid."

His eyes narrow. "What are you doing?"

I don't even know how to answer that. So I mostly don't. Sweat droplets dribble down my back. I land on the rough rocks and lower myself to one knee. Okay. Planting one hand on the ground, resting the other on my leg, I bow my head. "All right. Here goes. Anti-Cosmo Anti-Cosma, born the Year of the Black Lake. I, Fergus Whimsifinado, humbly request the chance to lay the thoughts of my soul bare."

"H.P.?"

"Listen." Suddenly my head is fuzzy, and my vision swims. I swallow. "Anti-Cosmo. I've known you more gently and tenderly than I know anyone. Even China. I never trusted my secrets to China the way I've trusted them to you. I never… cared for China as deeply as I care for you. I am Head Pixie. You are High Count. Long ago, we swore an alliance between our peoples in secret, behind the Fairy Council's back. We laughed in the face of the law that stated your people were a failed prototype of Tarrow's first attempt to create the Fairy race, and that my people are a plague sent by the spirits to punish the sinful with slow and excruciating death. I don't hate you. I never could, and never will. You're too important to me to lose."

"Stop it!" His voice squeezes through a tube. "Stop it! I don't need this from you! I'm not interested in–in–in a suggestive–I have a wife!"

"And I have a best friend," I answer calmly (though I suppose my tone goes without saying, really). My fingers curl, knuckles braced against the ground. "You asked what you were to me, Anti-Cosmo, and now I'm telling you, so it's not fair for you to get mad."

"Please," he whimpers, clasping his scarf. "If you have… feelings for me, I'd really prefer not to know. Please don't."

"Yeah right." I lean my chin on my hand, elbow still propped on my knee. "You know I only use my emotions ironically. A.C., you're my friend. You're my ally. You're my equal."

"You're a disaster," he tells me, acidic tears burning trails through the fur on his face. They drip from his chin to the ground. "You know that, don't you?"

"A disaster on a mission, then." I bring my other hand off the ground and fold my arms against my leg. "There's not a single person in the world I care about more than you. Except for me. I care about me. I want to raise Larkspur with you because I find you entertaining. You're my friend. I care about you. I'd like to take another step in our relationship. This isn't just about Larkspur. It's also about us. I want us to hang out more often. I want us to make each other a priority over other friends. I want us to know we can always trust each other. What do we call that level of friendship?"

Still sniffling, he bows his head. His hand slides up to his bangs. "In Anti-Fairy society, w-we'd call them courgettes. But–" And here, Anti-Cosmo buries his face in his hands. "H.P.!"

"We've known each other for a long time, Anti-Cosmo. I think we're ready. I ask for your extended hand."

"Courgettes are… are…" He flaps his arms around as he fumbles for words, head bouncing on a spring. "Well, they're committed best friends. Platonic life partners, serious relationships, that sort of thing!"

"And?"

Anti-Cosmo stares at me. "And we're not. Why, we can hardly go a full year without arguing ourselves silly. In fact, this right here is bound to spark an argument in itself. How dare you disrespect the tender nature of courgetteship by thrusting yourself into it like this?"

"Well, we preen together. Doesn't that matter to you?" I continue crouching on the ground, chin on my hand, even though my back is starting to stiffen up. "To this day, I'm still the only ambassador on the Council who's offered my tongue to groom an Anti-Fairy's furry face. You and I used to only share pheromones for ceremonial and political reasons. But in recent years, we've preened together 'just because' we both enjoy having that connection. To me, preening is a show of trust. And preening outside the bounds of ceremony when you don't have to is a show of genuine close companionship. I just assumed that meant something to you."

"I–" Anti-Cosmo stutters out. His hackles stand on end. His ears quiver at their tips. "I… don't know. I'm a physical creature. Touch is how I express my emotions. Look here, H.P.–I'm flattered, really, but… I thought I, ah… I thought I'd already made myself quite clear in times past." His eyes squeeze shut. He straightens out then, drawing his heels together in the air. Holding his arms rigidly by his sides, fists clenched, he finishes with, "I have no intention of ever, ever giving you my full trust again after how you betrayed me during the war."

BLAM! goes my internal health bar, green to red in a single blow. Some aspect of my consciousness goes flying towards the back of my head, where it hits the wall and slides down with a sickening crunch. He hadn't even yelled. Ow. Slowly, I raise my gaze to lock with his. Anti-Cosmo has the face of a little kid whose puppy died Christmas morning. His teary eyes burn with bitter longing and unflinching pain.

I lick my lips. "I made a single poor decision 90,000 years ago. You can't seriously hold that against me."

"90,000 years without an apology."

"I thought I apologized several times and did a smoofing good job of it."

Anti-Cosmo inhales, shuddering through and through. His hands come together in a low clasp. "Oh, darling. I respect you dearly as a fellow head of state, H.P., and I respect you as a friend, but the very idea of us being courgettes is, quite frankly, preposterous. It would never last. We shouldn't even try."

I stare at him, sweat trickling behind my neck. He's serious. He's dead serious about that. He doesn't care at all, and is just going to turn his back on me. He'll end it all if I don't stop him.

"Anti-Cosmo," I say, trying to keep my voice steady. "I didn't realize I was making an unreasonable request. It was my understanding that we were already close enough to qualify as courgettes. I just wanted your permission to put the official label on it. I want the right to call you my courgette the next time Billy Crystal Ball or Anti-Willow Anti-Starstep or some other big-name interviewer asks what I think of you. I want the assurance of knowing you see my company as a blessing rather than a bother. I want to feel like we belong together."

"You want to tell the media I'm yours."

"If I'm asked, then yes."

"So you can brag you won me." He puts his head to one side, smiling through his tears, teeth clenched like iron bars. His gaze wanders to the wall. "Boast to the universe that you charmed the hopeless High Count off his feet and into your big strong arms. Is that it?"

"That's a bonus."

"I thought you didn't like commitment." He still won't look at me, busy fiddling with the highest button on his coat. My jaw tightens.

"I'm not good with romance because there's always some celebrity I'd rather be kissing if I have to put up with it at all, but this is different. You are my one true best friend." I emphasize the word so he knows I'm being serious. "Don't get me wrong, A.C. Anti-Wanda is my other best friend. I like you both. In fact, I might even say I love her, because she laughs at all my jokes and she's perfect for you and I'm glad she can be there for you when I can't…" I sigh. "But. I haven't done the things with Anti-Wanda that are important partnership things to me—preen beyond ceremony, raise Talon—like I've done with you. Don't undersell your own importance."

He hovers quietly, holding his hands around his scarf. What's he thinking about? All those times we dropped Talon off at each other's door? All those times we hung out together sharing pheromones until our minds and souls were practically one? I blow on my hands and rub them together. Watching him watch me. Waiting.

"Well?" I finally ask. "Are you just going to look me dead in the eyes and act like all that means nothing to you? If it doesn't, then whatever, but find the right way to say it. And also know that I won't believe you for a second. I know you well, Anti-Cosmo. You'd look for hints of emotional connection with a tree branch that bonked your head. I know I mean something to you. What?"

Anti-Cosmo huffs and drops his scarf. "Do you know those 'Proceed with caution' signs that roadworkers turn around sometimes? The ones that have 'Stop' written on their backs? There. That's what you are. You're the infuriating turncoat who operates independently of normal Fairy law, and whose loyalties lie in his own interests alone. You allow us close when it suits you, and railroad us into going where you want us to go." Sighing a second time—groaning, actually—Anti-Cosmo crosses his arms. "Fairies are stop signs at four-way intersections. Anti-Fairies are locomotives rushing quickly along a different track. You're something else. Someone we both have to listen to, and whom we want to do his job correctly yet feel bothered when that job ends up interfering with our plans. You're construction. That's how I feel about you."

"Turnabout is fair play," I point out, irritably subtracting a couple more points from my imaginary health bar. "Neither Fairies nor Anti-Fairies are wholly good nor wholly evil. As far as I'm concerned, you're all pure chaos. We Pixies are a neutral party who simply happen to side with which of you is acting more orderly and behaved at the time. A side that can't manage to meet my minimum requirements is a side that doesn't deserve our alliance. That's established fact that shouldn't be held against me. I'm not talking about our respective races, Anti-Cosmo. I'm talking about us. You. Me. What we mean to one another. I don't want us to just be friends with preening benefits anymore. Don't flinch–you know that's how it looks from my angle right now."

"What's wrong with being friends with benefits?" he demands, sharper than I've heard him all night. He comes forward, neck arched, until we're separated by just a few handspans. "There's nothing wrong with that! Feelings are a natural part of life, and we're allowed to explore them as we will. The nature spirits wouldn't fill our souls with any feelings they didn't want us to explore. What's wrong with that?"

I gaze up at him without leaning my head away, trying to decide how much effort it will be to get off the ground. My instincts beg me to fly higher than him to re-establish my dominance, but I force myself to grit my teeth and stay down on my knees. Humility is crucial here.

"Maybe Anti-Fairies can do whatever they want and brag about it too, but a Head Pixie has to worry about his status."

"Bloody Darkness," he shouts, throwing his arms out to either side, "why do you care? Status? Give me a break. It's your life, and no one has the right to judge you for following your passions! Grow a thicker skin and a pair of adult wings, and tell the world what we actually are, instead of changing our relationship for the sake of a socially acceptable label. If I matter to you at all as a person rather than a political figurehead, you won't let some stupid gossip stand in your way!"

Owwie.

"Anti-Cosmo–"

He makes an X with his arms and uncrosses them again. "I won't be a pretty tourist stamp in the back of your passport. We are what we are. If it was our fate to be something more than this, it would have happened mutually and naturally one night while we preened together. Not like this. Not like this. Relationships are products of spontaneous action, not spoon-fed words. Our actions are fated. Thoughtless words are the shameful sirens that steer destiny off course."

Also owwie.

"Do you ever stop being Zodii?" I ask, blowing on my hands again. "There's more to life than the zodiac and your elemental deities, and you're missing it. You call that living?"

He sniffs and deliberately shakes his shoulders so the loose tail of his scarf swings down behind him. "My personal choices are none of your concern."

"Okay, but they kind of are." I brush my hands across my legs. "We fight like wolves, Anti-Cosmo, but it never changes anything. You're still my best friend. I just want to guarantee the commitment level."

And maybe that'll help us get along without fighting so much. Then I'll be happy.

"A.C., can I trust you'll at least consider what I'm asking, and what us being courgettes would mean to me?"

"Yes," Anti-Cosmo says, pulling his scarf up over his mouth. "I already have. My answer now and forever is no. I'm not interested. I can be your best friend whenever the planets align, but I will not be your courgette. It's as you said before: Pixies are a neutral party who swap sides with the sway of politics. I could offer the finest cakes and wines in Anti-Fairy World for you to dine on every night, clothe you in royal robes every day, give you all that I have and all that I am, and you would still side with the Fairies over me every now and again when it happens to benefit your company. You're a surface skimmer. You act as best suits you, reaping benefits from both sides and cutting your losses without remorse."

My health bar dings even lower than I thought it could. Beep beep. Beep beep. Beep beep.

"Wait, is that how you see me?" I ask, blinking rapidly. "Some power-playing, cherry-picking jerk? You think my friendship's fake?"

Anti-Cosmo's eyes finally soften. "You could never truly give that life up, old sport, and I respect you far too much to request you change your nature. I can only offer myself to someone who will unhesitatingly put me above politics and monetary gain every time. You're Head Pixie. Don't talk tosh now in your old age. Your company will always come first to you. I understand."

I stare at him, massaging my jaw with my hand. "You know, A.C., just because you have a wife who loves you unconditionally doesn't mean the rest of us get to be that lucky. Some of us end up with selkies who use their inborn fate of obeying their coat-bearer to justify their manipulative demands. Just because your social needs for trust and friendship have been met doesn't mean mine have. My pixies are loyal and tell me what I want to hear all day, but that's not what I actually want. I don't want to keep living day after day surrounded by promotion-chasing suck-ups. I want the friendship of someone beyond the immediate reach of my company. I want honest criticism and random genuine kindness for no reason. I want you."

Anti-Cosmo exhales. A glittering cloud of magic swirls away in the air before dissipating into rainbow sparkles. "I'm sorry. I wish I could help you, but there's nothing I can do. The friendship we do have never lasts long before we break apart anyway, only to reconcile a few decades down the road and swear up and down that it won't ever happen again. You wonder if I know you, H.P., and I do. I know you too well, in fact. I won't waste my time, or yours, pursuing dreams that won't last and will hurt us more the next time we split up than we already do."

We look at each other for a moment. Then Anti-Cosmo ducks his head, tugging at his scarf, and begins to float off in the general direction of Anti-Fairy World. A witty one-liner about the temporary dreams I have seen him pursue plays on the end of my tongue. I keep it to myself.

"Anti-Cosmo," I somehow manage instead. I take off my hat, and hold it to my chest. Stretching my other hand across the rocks, I lower my forehead to the ground. "Say the word, and I'll step down. I'll reclaim the name Fergus Whimsifinado. Longwood will be a fine Head Pixie in my place."

Anti-Cosmo pauses. He peers forward for a moment, then turns back to me. "Do you really mean that?"

I stare up at him, not lifting my head. "Don't end our friendship. Please. I divorced my first wife. I've already lost two courgettes since. Jorgen's a jerk. My pixies are suck-ups. Anti-Wanda would never betray you by going good for me. You're all I have left."

"You know, it's a shame you had to become Head Pixie in the first place. Otherwise, perhaps we really could have made it work, hm? Haha… Well. I'll prepare a private bedchamber for Larkspur in my castle. I'll swing by your place to pick her up as soon as the New Year festivities die down. See you there, Head Pixie. Ta-ta."

Then he's gone. I stay there for a long time, sitting on the rough stones with my hands resting on my knees. Certain thoughts beat against my head like burrs, or repeated poisons sapping at my health. Just a wave of a wand. An ounce of paperwork. A little forget-a-cin. That little incident between us during the war would be washed from his memories forever. This argument tonight could be washed away forever. Our every argument, gone in a blink.

Would he agree to call me his best friend then?

"Doesn't 90,000 years of apologizing change anything?" I mutter, digging my fingers into a crack in the rock. "I thought I was the one who favored justice here. What happened to mercy?"

Down to my final health point, I flop forward, cross my arms over my mouth, and whimper muffled sobs into my sleeves. Stupid, stupid, stupid. What an idiot, what a blitzing snattersmoof of an idiot. Now I've ruined what little good we did have between us. The gentlest words in my repertoire have offended the one and only person whose opinion actually matters to me. Anti-Cosmo will never ally forces on a 37-year plan with me again. He'll ignore me at big important meetings. He'll avoid me at the grocery store, or something. Oh. He's bound to take Talon away from me too, even though I poured just as much time and energy into raising that kid as he did. He probably won't even attend my funeral now. And he's Zodii, and believes in reincarnation instead of integrated metamorphosis, so I won't even get to befriend him in the afterlife when mortal cares are finally behind us. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Emotions are bad and I'm losing control and I'm crying and sticky and I hate everything about it.

He's never going to give me another chance. Is he? Even after all ninety millennia. That's ridiculous. Why? Why do I even try?

That's the worst part about friendship. It's pointless unless it goes both ways. If he insisted I do a chicken dance on cloudland-wide television to prove how low I'm willing to grovel in apology, I probably would. If he asked me to step down from being Head Pixie and raise Larkspur in his castle alongside all the little Anti-Fairy pups in the colony, I could do that too. Or if he demanded I throw out my lifelong collection of Celebrity Family trading cards, I'd do it in a fingersnap.

Am I just a naturally unlikable person? How is that my fault?

I could be his everything if he'd only let me in. I just want to be happy. I've given my pixies everything I am day after day after day after day. When's my turn to be selfish for a season?

We're magic. Memory erasure is totally within our capabilities. I know how to use forget-a-cin; my dad taught me. I could wipe it all away with magic more effectively than mere words ever could. Then we'll both be happy. Best friends forever. I have the way. I definitely have the will. It would be so easy.

Yeah, yeah, I know. It's so blitzing stupid that I'm not even going to try. All this magic at my whiny entitled fingertips, and I'm not even going to try. We'll play our little games, level by level, and enjoy our bonus rounds here and there. That's what we have now. I don't want to lose that too.

Anti-Cosmo's my best friend. We've had our ups and downs, but I like him anyway. It's just… He doesn't seem to have a problem with our friendship staying long-distance for life. He holds me at arms' length, he pats me on the head, he dances on his little stage in his own little world, and leaves me watching from a front-row seat, and he thinks that's enough. He doesn't understand that what I really want to do is stand on that stage beside him. Front-row tickets for life might be enough for most people. But that's not what I'm looking for. I don't even want the exclusive one-time-only backstage tour. I just want to forget Pixies Inc. every now and again, hang out with my best friend on a regular schedule, and have a little fun. Ha! I'm not even important enough for his calendar! That's just mean.

Geez. Sometimes life just sucks for the honorable, but whatcha gonna do?