"It's only two months, Jean. It'll be over before you're ready for it to be."
"Two and a half months, mom. Two and half months in a cabin with no air conditioning and no cell service, no tv and no internet. Exactly how I don't want to spend my last summer before senior year."
Jean tossed another stack of folded shirts into his suitcase. His mother stood in the doorway of his bedroom, arms folded and smiling patiently.
"This is the opportunity of a lifetime, Jean. Not many seventeen year olds get to say they spent their summer vacation abroad. I'd bet your friends from school would kill for a chance to go to Scotland."
"Then they can kill me and take my place." He pushed the suitcase closed and zipped it - not an easy task given how much his mother had insisted that he pack - and flopped onto his bed beside it. "I'm sure they'd change their mind once they met aunt Lori."
His mother sighed but didn't argue. Instead she picked up a few of the dirty shirts and socks that littered his bedroom floor, tossed them into his hamper and then settled on the bed beside him.
"I know Lorraine can be a little bit... eccentric. But you know she's looking forward to you coming, and I'd like to think that you won't hurt her feelings by acting like this once you get there."
Jean laid an arm over his eyes and groaned. "Really, with the guilt trip right now, mom? I'm going, aren't I? I'm leaving you and dad alone for ten weeks; isn't that enough?"
"That's not what this trip is about, Jean," she retorted. When he lifted his arm just long enough to roll his eyes in her direction, she twisted her mouth to one side and swatted at him. "You're getting a chance to see the world, and make life a little less lonely for your aunt. You're going to enjoy it more than you think, and yes, your father and I are going to get a little trial run of what life be like once you're in college. Everyone is getting something nice out of this trip, especially you. Try to be a little more appreciative, alright?" She smiled as she implored him to enjoy himself, and it made it hard for him to be as bitter about it as he wanted - at least to her face.
"Yeah, yeah mom. I'm sure it'll be great. Can we just have dinner now? I wanna enjoy my last meal as a free man."
She raised one eyebrow and pinched at the back of his arm, then his ribs until he sat up and scrambled away, scowling. "Alright then, Free Man. What would you like?"
"The most American thing possible," he grumbled, rubbing at his side and glaring in her direction. "Since I'll probably be living on porridge and hash for the next few months."
She rose from his bed and left the room, laughing quietly. Jean followed her, eyeing the stack of documents on their kitchen table - his passport, emergency contact papers and other reminders of his upcoming trip - with dread. His father was sitting at the table smiling, having likely heard the entire conversation they'd been having.
"Maybe you'll luck out and get offered some haggis while you're there," he grinned. Jean looked at him skeptically.
"Is that good or something?"
His father shrugged. "If you like entrails and bits of whatever's left over when they make sausages, then sure." When Jean wretched in disgust, he nearly doubled over laughing. "Oh c'mon, Jeanbo!" he teased. "Everybody eats haggis in Scotland!"
"Stop it, you two," she scolded, trying to raise her voice over her husband's raucous laughter. "Jean, your father is just trying to torment you. Now go get your luggage and bring it in here so we have everything together tomorrow morning. And check to make sure you're all packed while you're at it!"
"I just don't want you going over there unprepared. The weather is unpredictable and I don't want you catching a cold from being stuck in the rain with no..."
Her voice trailed off over his shoulder as he returned to his room. He wouldn't miss his parents being so damned annoying, but not even that thought made him anything similar to excited for the trip that was only a few hours away. He dropped back onto his bed and stared at the ceiling for a while, until his mom's call to the dinner table roused him.
It was going to be a long summer.
He couldn't decide if the hour long car ride or the world's most boring flight was the worst part of the journey to Scotland, but both became fond memories when he realized he would have to navigate the increasingly smaller towns and villages that led to his aunt's secluded cottage alone. Exhausted and intimidated by the boisterous locals he met along the way, he was relieved when he arrived in Fraserburgh and saw her waiting at the train station for him. His relief was short lived; upon seeing him she bounded through the shuffling crowd and threw her thin arms around his neck, screeching loudly enough to draw stares from most of the people she'd trampled in the process.
"My little Jean-boy!" She trilled, ruffling his hair and grabbing bags from his hands. She used the back of her arm to smooth down her messy brown hair and grinned at him through the pieces of it that fell over her eyes. "Welcome to Scotland!"
Her greeting was misplaced; he'd been in Scotland for what already felt like an eternity, and felt anything but welcome there, but he knew she meant well. He gave her a tight smile and a one-sided hug, and followed her gladly from the platform full of glowering people.
She talked during most of the cab ride they took to reach the edge of town, giving him an enthusiastic briefing on the culture and traditions of the area. He held his tongue when the urge to inquire about technology arose; he knew there would be plenty of time to be disappointed about that later. The most important thing in his mind as they reached the barely traveled gravel road leading to her home was whether or not it had a bed for him to sleep in. Sleeping on the plane hadn't been the most pleasant experience, and he was anxious to get to a real pillow and a few soft blankets. When they at last arrived at her cottage, it was the first thing he asked her about.
"Just down the hall, to the right," she said cheerfully. "I've got it all made up for you. Just let me know if I've missed anything."
Jean nodded and pulled his bags after him as he made his way toward the guest room. The flip of a light switch revealed it to be small but comfortable looking, and far better for sleeping than the cabin of a plane. He tossed his suitcase beside the bed, sat down and sighed at the relief of being done with traveling for a while, if nothing else. Only when his aunt called for him to come join her for dinner did he stop to consider how little he'd eaten during his trip. He tugged himself back onto his feet and made his way to her tiny kitchen, more than a little nervous about what she might be serving.
"So what's in this?" He asked over an entirely normal looking bowl of stew. She rattled off a list of ingredients that didn't include intestines or other oddities, and he reluctantly tasted a spoonful. Finding it to be edible - even good - he ate to make up for his accidental fast. Delighted, she spooned more into his bowl as he finished the first batch.
"It's good to have someone to help me finish the food," she smiled. They didn't speak much more over the meal, but she never stopped looking pleased. When he finished a second bowl she collected the dishes to wash and made conversation, speaking quietly and in the thin, rural Scottish accent she'd developed in her many years there.
"What are you looking forward to doing while you're here, Jean?"
He didn't want to lie to her. 'Nothing' was the response that came to mind right away, but he decided on something more tactful, if only slightly so.
"Not sure what there is to do. Any suggestions?"
"Well, I spend most of my free time in the garden, which I'm sure doesn't interest a young man your age. But the forest at the edge of the property is nice for taking walks, and it's not too much of a trek to make it into town when the weather holds."
"Walking," Jean said flatly. "Got it. Anything else?"
She turned and leaned back against her sink, crossing her arms in a way that made it annoyingly obvious that she was his mother's sister. "I know it doesn't seem very exciting here, Jean. But I promise, there's more to this little patch of woods than you can see from a distance. Just give it a chance before you make your judgement, eh?"
He nodded just enough to satisfy her, and slumped onto the table when she turned back to finish her work on the dishes. Slightly more energized after eating an actual meal, he considered his extremely limited entertainment options, and decided that a walk would allow him time to think, if nothing else.
"I guess I'm gonna give the whole walking thing a try," he said, and adjusted his shoe laces before standing to stretch.
"Would you like me to come along?" Lorraine asked, and her voice sounded slightly more parental. Jean shook his head, maybe a little too quickly.
"I'd rather just look around on my own for now. I won't wander off too much; don't worry."
She looked at him cautiously for a moment, but then smiled and nodded toward the front door. "Just be careful, alright? Stay on the property here, and don't venture too far into the forest. And," - she added, watching him as he made for the door - "watch out for fairies."
Jean turned on his heel, looking at her cynically with one foot already out the door. "Fairies? Really, aunt Lori?"
"They say every Scottish forest has them!" She laughed, but he wasn't entirely convinced that she didn't actually believe her own words.
"Right. Well I think 'they' need to stop watching so many Disney movies. I'm sure I'll be fine in the woods. If my mom calls, tell her I'll be back soon. Or maybe just tell her I'm asleep, honestly."
"Just don't be out too long," she said in a voice that sounded a lot like his mother's, and he nodded hastily before heading out the door.
The property was certainly beautiful.
The garden around his aunt's cottage led out into a thick carpet of soft grass, bordered by tall, vine wrapped trees. The foot of nearly every one was encircled by scattered wild flowers, and the fading light of the sun made their colors seem richer than any he'd ever seen. He followed a walk-worn path that led right alongside the line of trees, and tapered off until he was walking through seemingly untouched forest floor. The unexpectedly chilly air of the early evening nipped at his bare arms and reminded him that he was somewhere other than home. He took it as a sign that he should keep his walk brief, and head back to the little house before it got much darker.
Just as he was turning around to head back, he heard the sound of something rustling only a few feet away, and his spine stiffened on instinct. He looked around quickly, and for a moment the sound stopped. There was nothing in his line of sight, save for gnarled tree roots, flowers and leaves. He'd made it a few more steps back toward the cottage when he saw - or at least, could have sworn he'd seen - two of those leaves moving, twittering like wings and rustling the plants around them. Sure that a troublesome bug had been making the startling racket, he walked over to where the wings were twitching and reached to pull the leaves in front of them back for a better look.
"Now let's see what the--" his whispered words were cut short when the wings took off, the creature attached to them darting past him to escape. He tried to get a good look at it as it did, but he'd never seen anything move so quickly. It flitted around his head a few times and then it was gone; the buzzing of its wings rang in his ears even after it had disappeared. Barely able to catch a glimpse of it, he couldn't be sure, but the bug had almost looked human in a way. His mind's eye assembled a picture of a tiny man, with a pair of green wings fixed to his back. He shook his head, embarrassed by his own absurdity, and headed back toward his aunt's home without another look behind him.
Lying in his borrowed bed that night, he reminded himself that he was exhausted, that he was unhappy to be so far from the comforts of home, and that he was definitely not excited about the thought of taking another walk into the woods. After all, there was no way he'd actually seen anything more than a very strange insect in that forest, and there was nothing exciting about that. He'd just have to go back the next day, and prove it to himself. He fell asleep trying to convince himself that he was already absolutely certain of what he would find when he did.
His mother had warned him about the unpredictability of Scottish weather, and when he looked out his room's window at first light the next day, he was glad for her insistence that he pack accordingly. He dressed and shrugged a jacket onto his shoulders, stopping only for a moment to chat with his aunt - and promising he would join her for lunch - before heading out into the misty morning air.
He followed the path he'd walked the day before, treading more carefully and watching anything that moved around him. Every stick that broke beneath his feet gave him reason for pause; every slow moving breeze brought more fluttering sounds like the one he'd heard the day before. By the time he'd walked well past the spot where he'd stood then, he was beginning to convince himself that the wind might have been to blame for what he'd witnessed before as well. The trees, the flowers and even the birds in the sky were different there; it was sensible that things like bugs would be just as foreign. He huffed a quiet, bitter laugh at himself for thinking he had seen anything more interesting than that, and began to slowly wander back the way he had come.
The trees were tall, and even in the rising light of the day the ground beneath them held onto a wispy layer of morning fog. Jean traipsed through the shade, turning over rocks with his foot and watching birds flit from one tree to the next. They whistled and chirped in pleasant rhythms that filled the silence of the forest. So present was their singing that it almost kept him from noticing the sound of buzzing that was following him as he walked; only when the birds paused for a gust of wind did he hear it clearly. He turned to look over his shoulder, and was certain - despite his insistent skepticism - of what he saw behind him.
The same pair of tiny green wings he'd seen the evening before, beating quickly as they held a tiny person in the air. It looked in every way human, but small enough to fit inside a clasped hand. Hovering in the air in front of him when he turned around to face it, the little creature froze, save for its madly buzzing wings. Jean's mouth went slack as he stared at it, afraid to rub his eyes in disbelief and scare it away by moving. After a few seconds of stillness between them, he reached his hand out toward it and spoke.
"Hey, uh, come here little... guy?" The words sounded ridiculous, even as he was saying them. He anxiously swore under his breath, and again even louder when the creature darted upward and away from him.
"Wait, come back!" The turn to chase after it was sharp, and the cuff of his pants snagged in the spindly root of a nearby tree. He toppled over himself and into the dirt, smashing a rose bush and collecting a mouth full of the forest floor as his face hit the ground.
"Damn it," he hissed, pulling himself to his knees and wiping mud from his lips. He looked up to see where the little flying beast had gone - maybe to throw something at it or curse at it some more - but he didn't see anything. Only when he'd cleaned enough soil from his face to see properly did he notice that it had landed on a root a few feet away, and was watching him cautiously. He didn't bother to toss anything in its direction after all, instead just sighing as he looked at it, sure that no one would believe him if he told them about it anyway.
When it seemed satisfied that Jean didn't intend to harm it, the creature stopped moving its wings and walked forward a few tiny steps. Seeing it then, Jean could tell that it was indeed very much like a human. It stepped toward him, and he recoiled slightly in surprise. This in turn seemed to startle the tiny person, but it didn't run or fly. Instead, it bent forward slightly, closed its eyes, and grew.
Within seconds, it was Jean's size, and maybe even a bit larger. It stood upright again and stretched to stand above him, and looked back at him cautiously. He blinked a few times, barely able to believe the winged human boy he saw eyeing him. He forced his voice from his throat, but not without resistance.
"What the -- what, or... who are you?"
The boy studied him for a moment before answering. His voice was soft and his words sounded stiff with hesitation, a thick, unfamiliar accent making him all the harder to understand. "Why do you want to know?"
Jean laughed, and the boy only looked more puzzled.
"I'd just like to know how the hell you went from being some little two inch tall bug thing to being a guy that's taller than me. And do you live out here, or what? If you're gonna knock me on my ass the least you could do is tell me who you are and what's going on."
"You're not going to hurt me?" The boy's accent was fading a bit as he continued to speak, but his anxiety didn't seem to wane. His question was stubborn, like he was implying that he wouldn't answer any of Jean's until he knew he was safe. Jean let out a long exhale and shook his head, showing his hands to be empty and anything but dangerous.
"Well, no. Why would I do that? Waste of my time and yours. Although if you don't either stand back or help me up, I might rethink that decision."
The boy eyed him for a minute more, and then cautiously offered a hand to pull him to his feet. Jean took it and stood, brushing himself off once he was upright again. Once he was at least free of the majority of leaves and twigs, he stepped back to get a better look at the boy. He was indeed just a fraction taller than Jean himself, with dark hair and eyes and luminous pale skin dusted with spots that resembled freckles. Most of that skin was exposed, but he wore a pair of cloth-like shorts that resembled something a person might swim or sleep in. The wings on his back had grown along with him, and were striking in appearance, like large, glassy leaves fixed to his back. They folded tightly as Jean looked him over, in awe.
"Well I guess aunt Lori was right about the whole 'fairies' thing," Jean said. "Although I doubt she's ever actually seen anything like you."
"Is the woman who lives in that house your aunt?" The boy pointed in the direction of Lorraine's cottage, and Jean nodded.
"Yeah... do you know her?"
The boy shook his head. "No, but she seems quite nice. She's very cheerful and never disturbs the forest."
"I see," Jean said, raising an eyebrow. "So is this your forest or something?" He grinned sarcastically, but the other boy shrugged and then nodded.
"In a way, I suppose you could say that. I'm bound to it, so I try to see to its care." He looked behind Jean and noticed the destroyed rose bush, frowning when it caught his eye. Jean followed his stare to it.
"Oh, yeah. Sorry about that."
Before Jean could say anything more about it, the winged boy held a hand out over the bush and swirled the air around it in circles. Jean almost stumbled backward again in shock when the stems and leaves filled back out, standing up and holding flowers that seemed to bloom from nowhere. The boy nodded once, as if satisfied, and then turned back to look at Jean.
"No harm done," he said with a smile. Jean swallowed a few times while he tried to come up with the best question to ask him first. What he managed wasn't entirely eloquent, but he settled for it anyway.
"How did you do that?"
The boy opened his mouth to speak, but his face flushed with panic when another voice cut through the relative silence of the fading morning.
Lorraine was calling for him, and Jean turned to shout back in her direction.
"Be right there!" He turned back to finish talking to the other boy, but he was gone. A buzzing somewhere above his head grew increasingly faint, and even as Jean yelled for him not to leave, the strange boy showed no signs of returning. After a few fruitless minutes of calling out to him - and another few shouts from his aunt - Jean made his way back to uphold his promise of sharing lunch.
Sitting down to eat with his aunt, he wondered if he should mention the incredible encounter he'd just had with the boy who claimed to be bound to the forest. Was he one of the fairies from her crazy superstitions? Would she know anything about him? Or would she want to know more and go poking through the woods herself? He decided not to chance that; they ate in quiet and talked about little more than the weather.
He returned to the forest that afternoon, but didn't see the boy. The repaired rose bush still stood, a testament to what he had seen that morning. Frustrated, he picked one of the roses, and waited to see if the boy would return again to replace it. When he didn't, Jean slipped the rose into his shirt pocket and headed back to the cabin. Lorraine had mentioned going to a nearby lake that day, and it seemed like as good a waste of time as any.
His shoes were still dusty from his fall that morning, and he looked down at them with half a smile as he walked. If his mother were there, she would have fussed over them and demanded that he clean them, but he was momentarily glad she was so far away. He knew it would be senseless to wipe them off; he would be taking a lot more walks through the woods while he was there. At least until he had some answers about the seemingly magical boy with the shiny green wings.
The next day Jean returned early, looking for the other boy again. When he didn't find him he left in an aggravated huff, nothing close to eager to explain to his aunt why he kept slipping away into the forest. To his surprise though, Lorraine never asked him about his frequent walks. She would wish him a good morning or evening before he left, and offer to cook for him or take him to see the local sights if he got bored or restless. He would come back from hi s walks to find her tending to her plants, usually too busy talking to them to question him very much. After several failed attempts at finding the 'fairy', Jean even took her up on a few of her offers to explore the area. Though their trips to village markets and nearby lakes were more pleasant than he expected, no matter what he was doing he was always thinking about finding that strange boy again, and getting his questions answered fully. It didn't help that he'd tried every way he could think of to find him and had seen no sign at all.
He tried searching quietly, looking in every spot that he could reach on foot until he was calling out everything but a name in search of the mysterious boy. After two solid days of trying in vain to find the elusive young man, Jean resigned himself to never seeing him again, and returning to wondering if he had ever actually met him in the first place. When he leaned against a tree and punched its trunk in frustration, he heard a dull thump and the cracking of shifting ground behind him.
He turned sharply and saw the boy standing half hidden behind a tree a few feet away. He looked at Jean with more curiosity than fear, and repeated his name.
"Jean - that is your name, isn't it?" His accent had become nearly imperceptible, almost like Jean's own.
Jean nodded slowly, not bothering to pretend he wasn't taken aback by the boy's knowledge of his name. "How do you know that?"
The boy smiled, just slightly. "I heard your aunt shouting for you last time we met. That's what she called you, so..."
"Oh. Yeah." Jean felt a little embarrassed, but not knowing what else to do, crossed the space between himself and the other boy and offered his head to shake. "Jean Kirschtein." The quickness with which the other boy took his hand surprised him, but their handshake was otherwise so normal that Jean almost forgot that he was introducing himself to a being that had no business existing in the first place.
"My name is Marco" the boy said brightly. "Marco Bodt, but no one has used my full name in a very long time."
Jean stared at him. "No one-- do you, uh... talk to many people?"
Marco shook his head, his smile slipping just a little. "Not usually. But there are other fairy folk in the glens and forests nearby, and they just call me Marco when we meet. Truthfully, I hardly ever speak to anyone, let alone humans. The last humans I really knew well were from my time, so that's been--"
"My time as a human," Marco clarified. "Many years ago."
"So you haven't always been like... this?" He indicated Marco's wings, hanging down his back at rest. Marco gave another small shake of his head. "Then why - how did you get like that?"
"It's a bit of a long story, I'm afraid. And I might be slow to tell it properly, as I haven't really talked about it all in great while."
Jean thought about his aunt's offer to busy him that afternoon by teaching him to make food he'd probably never bother cooking for himself, and then looked back at Marco with a genuine smile. "I think I can spare the time."
"It was in the year sixteen hundred and forty five that our clan of people were involved with the great war. People who called themselves royalists, fighting against people who were called convenanters. We were a smaller clan, so I didn't live in much fear of the war affecting me. Of course, I was only sixteen, and quite sheltered."
They sat together with their backs to a large tree, talking like any two people might, save for the strange story Marco was weaving about his past life. Jean nodded along, more astonished by each new detail he added.
"Sixteen? You don't seem that young - I'm seventeen and you look older than me. But then, if you were sixteen in 1645, you're going on like... four hundred years old now?"
"I'd say I look alright for it," Marco grinned, and Jean laughed. He turned to face Marco better, the toes of his shoes pointed toward Marco's bare feet.
"Our people kept to ourselves mostly. We didn't speak the language of many of the convenanters, and we lived in the hills and valleys, independent of the government's control. Life was peaceful. But the Campbell clan thundered through the countryside like a gall and started conflict with any group that didn't look ready to change their ways at a moment's notice. Many of the smaller families - like mine - were wiped out during that time. Those that weren't killed in massacres died of the rampant diseases the outsiders brought with them, and those of us who were left had to take up weapons as children or old men and try to fight them back. It was hopeless from the beginning."
Jean swallowed the feeling of thickness in his throat. "So did you... were you hurt or something?" He reasoned that asking him if he was killed might not have been appropriate, but that seemed to be what Marco was implying. Marco nodded solemnly and placed his hand over a tattoo-like image of a rose on his chest.
"I was shot. My body was left where I was hit. My mother found me there that evening, after the fighting had moved on. I was already gone."
"Then how are you here talking to me now?"
"She took me to a druid priest - an old man that had watched over many of us as children. She begged him for my life, asked him to use his magic to bring me back. He agreed, but she paid with her own life in exchange for mine."
"H-He brought you back from the dead?" Jean asked, his spine going rigid at the thought.
"Not exactly. There's no magic that can bring life back once it's gone. But in my mother's sacrifice, she enabled him to create a new life for me. He made me into what I am now, starting from the wound that killed me, and working out until my entire body was changed." He moved his hand away from the rose tattoo, and Jean saw that the image looked smaller and more closed than before, like it had changed somehow.
"So why did he make you into a fairy or whatever? Why not just make you human again?"
"He believed he was doing what my mother would've wanted. Scotland was a dangerous place then, and humans only live so long. In making me into what I am, he saved me from death in more ways than one."
"And apparently gave you magic powers" Jean added. Marco smiled again, and the tension of the conversation began to lift.
"That's not exactly what I'd call it. More like he left me in charge of this forest, and gave me what I needed to protect it from harm."
"Right," Jean replied, though he still didn't exactly understand Marco's explanation.
They sat quietly for a few minutes, Jean digesting everything he'd just learned, until Marco seemed to grow restless under the silence.
"So I've talked about myself now; may I ask about you? I've never seen you here before. Where are you from? What brought you here?"
"I don't have a very interesting story to tell, or an interesting life for that matter," Jean shrugged. "I live in the United States, which I'm not sure you even know about, Mr. 1645. I'm visiting my aunt for the summer, and I'm less than thrilled to be here. Although," - he added, with much less acidity - "I do think it's kind of cool that I met you."
Marco smiled in response, and Jean thought he saw the tips of his pointed ears begin to turn red.
"Sorry I don't have anything more entertaining to add." Jean sighed. "My life isn't a cool story like yours."
"Trust me, it's not as nice as it may sound. As I said before, I'm bound to this forest. The old druid wove my spirit into the trees themselves here. I'll live only as long as the forest does, and although I can come and go as I like, my soul will always be here. So I spend most of my time taking care of things here in exchange for my continuing life. I've watched generations of trees rise from the ground and in turn die again, and even more generations of people at the edges of the forest do the same. I've listened to the language change along with the faces of the people, and I've taught myself to talk the way that I hear others talking, just in case anyone ever got close enough to speak to me. But no one ever has. It gets very lonely."
He looked down at his bare toes and wiggled them. Jean thought for a moment, and then poked Marco's foot to grab his attention.
"I'll come visit you," he said decidedly. "I'm only gonna be here for a few months, but that would give us both someone to talk to, right?" He didn't wait for Marco's response before smiling, but Marco seemed as keen on the idea as he was.
"I would like that, Jean."
"Cool," Jean replied, moving his hands beneath his legs to sit on them, unsure of what else to do. The awkwardness in the air melted away a little at a time as they talked more, laughing and grinning like old friends by the time the sun had passed over their heads for the afternoon. Happy with the way he'd spent his morning, Jean sighed contentedly and smiled when he heard Marco do the same.
"And Jean?" Marco added to the end of a conversation several hours in the making.
"For what it's worth, I think you're pretty interesting."
Jean developed something of a routine by the end of his second week in the little Scottish cabin. He would wake up before he was really ready to, drag himself to the kitchen and make small talk with his aunt over breakfast, ask her what their plans were for the day, and then time his visit to the forest accordingly. He never knew what to expect out of Marco, and the more comfortable the two of them got with each other, the more exciting their time together became.
Marco showed him the easiest ways to climb the forest's massive trees, how to skip rocks across the surface of the tiny streams that wound through the woods, and how he kept the forest floor carpeted with flowers. Running through the grass with blooms in both hands and wrapped over half of his pale body, Marco scattered seeds everywhere, and then took to the sky and flew back over them, with something that reminded Jean of glitter falling in showers each time he beat his wings. The seeds burst into blooming flowers that shook from the breeze as Marco flew past, Jean running behind him and breathlessly cursing him for being too fast.
The days on his feet from dawn until dusk made sleeping easy, and Lorraine's cooking taste even better on Jean's ravenous stomach. Sometimes he would take food with him from the table to share with Marco, much to his friend's delight. But it was something else that he brought with him on a cloudy June afternoon that really caught Marco off guard.
"What are those for?" He asked, looking suspiciously at the stack of clothing in Jean's arms. Jean tossed the entire stack in his direction and smirked mischievously.
"For you. I couldn't find anything looser in the stuff that I brought, so hopefully these will fit." He held the shirt up against Marco's chest to check it for size and nodded. "They look like they will."
"But why did you bring me clothes, Jean? I don't really need them. I don't get cold or burned by the sun - I mean, I live outside. And no one ever sees me except you, so--"
"They're going to today. I'm taking you into town with me" Jean said, grinning wider. Marco's mouth dropped open and he shook his head nervously.
"Oh, no Jean. I can't. I really shouldn't let other people see me. Can you imagine what they would--"
"That's why I brought the clothes. As long as you're this size, no one will be able to tell you apart from the next person."
"Jean, I don't think--"
"Look, I have to go run a few errands for aunt Lori, and I might be there most of the day. I'll be bored as hell. You said you can come and go whenever you want, right? And a few days ago you said that you're curious about how different things are now, from the way they were when you were my age. Come with me for the day. You'll have a good time, and I won't want to throw myself off the train from boredom. Works for everybody."
Marco held his breath for a moment, thinking. When he let it out, it was with a long exhale that Jean knew meant he had won him over. Marco nodded and tugged on the spare pair of pants, fiddling with the button for a few frustrating minutes while Jean snickered and laid a pair of sandals in front of his feet. Marco folded his wings behind him and pulled the shirt on over them, then tried to crane his neck to see if they were out of sight.
"I can still see the ends," Jean laughed. "We've gotta hide 'em before we head for town. Probably the ears, too."
Marco groaned, trying to tuck his wings into the pants and nearly falling backward in the process.
"Dude. I thought fairies were supposed to be graceful and all that." Jean grabbed his arm to steady him after a few close calls, and when they caught each other's eye he saw the hesitation and fear on Marco's face. He squeezed the arm he was holding and let the smirk fall from his lips entirely.
"Hey - I've got you" he whispered, and stood Marco upright again. "I get why this is making you anxious; I won't make you go if you'd rather not."
"No, no I want to!" Marco said quickly, and his ears glowed red at the tips. "I'm just... you're right, I'm just anxious. I haven't been out of the woods here in decades. Before you, I hadn't seen humans up close for hundreds of years. I don't even remember the last time I wore real clothes!" He laughed, but it was shaky and tight. "And my wings won't fit--"
"Let me help, alright?" Jean said it before he could stop to think, and his hands were at the waistband of the pants just as quickly. He ignored the burning of his face as he tucked the ends of Marco's wings gently into the back of the pants, careful not to bend them as he did so. He patted Marco's back when he was done, trying to recover the moment from the intimacy that had threatened to make it uncomfortable. When he stepped back he was strangely glad to see that Marco was blushing too, his speckled cheeks blooming with tiny pink flowers.
"You look great! Uh, er... t-totally human, I mean." Jean stammered. He reached out to brush some of Marco's dark hair over the pointed tips of his ears, and then stood back to look at him again. "Okay, now you look totally human."
Marco grinned, and the blush blossoms on his face disappeared, leaving only a slight rosy tinge of color behind. "Let's go, then."
Jean was sure he had never smiled so much in his life as he did watching Marco that day. Everywhere they went, the tiniest things were of the most interest to him, and it was all at once amusing and charming to Jean. Marco gasped at the fluorescent lights and outdated registers in the grocery store they stopped at, and laughed excitedly at the sight of mail trucks leaving the post office. Jean wondered what Marco would think of America, of the slicker technology and flashier lifestyles of the people in his city back home in comparison to the slower pace of life in the small Scottish village. Stopping to buy pastries at a little bakery at the town's edge, he decided maybe the simpler life he was living that summer wasn't so bad, especially if it meant sharing sweets with Marco.
On the train ride back to the cottage, Marco couldn't stop smiling and just watching people. He spoke to a handful of the strangers they saw, holding back delighted laughter when they would cordially reply. Even as they walked the last mile or so to return to the forest, Marco didn't let his smile slip for a moment. When they were safely out of view of anyone but each other, he almost tore the shirt from his chest and tossed it in Jean's direction with a giddy shout.
"That was so much fun!" He stretched his wings to their full span, startling Jean just a bit. "People now are so interesting - the things they've created are amazing!" He rattled off some of his favorite memories of the day and Jean gave a satisfied nod.
"I knew you would like it. I'll have to drag you along next time aunt Lori sends me back."
"Please do, I'd love to go back! That was wonderful, and I just - thank you, Jean." He threw his arms around Jean's neck and hugged him, and Jean didn't know what to do other than hug him back. They stood that way for a few seconds, and when Marco didn't let go right away, Jean realized that he was shaking.
"You okay?" He grabbed Marco by the arms and pulled back to look at him. Marco's hair had fallen away from its place over his ears and they were peeking out, tiny flowers blooming along their edge to match the ones reappearing on his cheeks. He wiped at his watery eyes and nodded.
"I'm sorry. I just... I really appreciate what you did for me today. I know you say that you do the things you do for me to benefit yourself as well, but I see your intentions for what they are. You befriended me when others would have captured or killed me, and kept me a secret to keep me safe. You gave me one of the best days I've had in my very long life today, and I just... wish I could repay you for your kindness." The rose on his chest bloomed more fully, fanning itself out as Marco finished speaking. Jean was pretty sure his own face was as red as its petals after hearing all of what he had to say.
"You don't have to do anything for me, Marco. You're, um... you're right, I really like you - you're my friend - and I did that stuff because I thought it would make you happy. I wasn't expecting anything, so don't worry about--"
"Take my hands!" Marco interjected suddenly. Jean looked at him strangely and cocked his head to one side. "Trust me," Marco insisted, and Jean reluctantly reached out and clasped their hands together. The translucent wings stretched out again, fluttering a few times, and then Jean felt his feet begin to leave the ground.
He clawed his hands up Marco's arms one at a time, until he was clutching at his back in panic. Marco slipped an arm around him just above his waist, tightening his grip a little as they rose higher into the air. When they were just above the tops of the trees he stopped, his wings beating behind him to keep them aloft.
"Look!" he said cheerfully, but Jean stared straight ahead at him, still panicked. "Come on, Jean. I trusted you today. Remember what you said to me earlier? I've got you."
Finally, slowly, Jean glanced around. He held tight to Marco's back, but once he saw that they weren't going to fall, he let himself take in the incredible view below them. The canopy of the forest seemed to go on forever, ending only to lead his eye across a gorgeous green field in the distance, dotted with wildflowers. The horizon was a meeting of deep green against soft blue-grey, and he was sure that it would have taken his breath away if the altitude hadn't already. He grinned - speechless - and made sure Marco saw that the smile was for him.
They stayed above the trees for a while, heading back to the forest floor only when Marco thought to remind him that his aunt was probably long past expecting him. He hurried back to the cottage, a goodbye not having long left his lips when he made it inside. He handed Lorraine the groceries and mail he'd retrieved for her and thanked her for reminding him to call his mother for the week. He had no intention of telling either of them about his day with Marco, but thinking about the boy who lived in the nearby forest made it hard for him to be anything but happy, even while listening to his mother lecturing him.
"Yeah, mom. Every day. No, it's been fine. I told you guys not to worry."
He answered his mother's questions as quickly as they came, sometimes cutting her off before she could finish them. She voiced her usual list of concerns, and then her voice changed tone to one Jean wasn't entirely familiar with.
"You sound a lot happier than you did last week, Jean. Something different since then?" She almost sounded teasing, and despite the fact that he was still smiling from his adventures with Marco, something about the way she spoke aggravated him.
"No, mom. I'm just in a good mood, ok?"
"Right. Well, I thought maybe you might be in the mood to tell me I was right about you enjoying yourself with aunt Lorraine this summer after all."
She was right, truly. But Jean didn't like admitting to that sort of thing any more than he liked being teased. He scoffed loudly into the receiver and snapped back an answer without thinking.
"No, mom. I mean, yeah, it's not as bad as I thought it would be, but aunt Lori is still a crazy, weird-ass hermit that lives in the middle of nowhere and talks to plants. Not exactly the best way to spend an entire summer."
As soon as the words left his mouth he tasted the bitterness from them, and felt a pang of regret. It was made all the worse when he heard footsteps outside of his borrowed room, and what sounded like quiet sniffling. He cut his conversation with his mother short and went to look for his aunt, trying as he walked to think of exactly how he was going to gloss over his hurtful words.
He found her in her kitchen, staring out the window as she listlessly stirred a pot of stew. He approached her hesitantly, and noticed when he got close enough to look over her shoulder that she was crying. Guilt clawing at his throat, he cleared it to speak.
"Smells good, aunt Lori."
She turned and looked at him with a sad smile and dropped the spoon back into the pot and covered it. "Thank you, dear. Should be ready to eat in an hour or so."
"Um, what's wrong?" Jean was sure that he knew, but he still wasn't sure of what to say to make things better. Lorraine sniffled again and waved her hand dismissively.
"Nothing to worry about, Jean. I'm alright." Her broken voice made Jean angry with himself, and he began to babble through an apology without stopping to make sense of it first.
"Aunt Lori, I... I'm really sorry. I didn't think anyone could hear me, and sometimes I just say things without thinking, and I know I shouldn't have but I didn't mean it, so--"
"Jean, Jean, sweetheart - it's nothing like that. I'm just a little upset about some personal things. Don't worry yourself about me."
He could see the pain in her eyes, and it made the guilt he was feeling tear at his throat even more. "Tell me what's wrong, aunt Lori. The least I can do is listen."
She took a seat at her tiny table and motioned for him to do the same. Once they were seated, she let out a long, shaky breath and spoke.
"The mail you brought me today had a letter in it. It was from the municipal council for land development in this area. It said that this fall, they're going to start building a lodge resort. And they need me to leave my home to make room for it."
"Leave your house? Why? They can't just make you leave, you live here. You own the cabin, don't you?"
"Yes," she sighed. "But not the land around it. They are going to offer me the value of my home so they can buy it and demolish it. They're going to destroy the whole forest."
Jean's heart dropped out of his chest. He stared at her for a moment before shaking his head forcefully.
"They can't do that. You've got to tell them no. You can't let them--"
"It isn't up to me, dear. I wish there was more I could do, but even if I stayed they would just demolish everything around me." She strained through her words, like she was working hard not to cry. "They'd force me off the land eventually, so--"
"You don't understand! It's not just about the house. They can't just take out the whole forest; that's insane! You have to stand up to them, you have to fight!" He knew he sounded angry, and he knew that she didn't understand why. But he remembered Marco's tale of being bound to the forest, and the thought of Marco being destroyed along with the trees made his blood boil. Lorraine looked equally disturbed, but her anger was mixed with confusion that had Jean conflicted as to what he could risk telling her.
"Why do you care so much, honey?" She asked, trying to calm him, but clearly just as unsettled as he was. "Why does it matter to you? By the time they start the construction your summer here will be over. I told you before, it's nothing that need concern you. It's my problem, so don't worry about it."
"It's not just your problem!" Jean shouted. His mind was swimming with images of his days with the fairy in the forest and he couldn't bear to let them be shattered by thoughts of harm coming to his new friend. After not more than a moment of debate with himself, he stood from his seat and pointed at the door.
"Grab your shoes. I've got something I need to show you."
"And so if anything happens to this forest, he'll be killed along with it!"
Jean was out of breath after just a few minutes of trying to explain everything. Marco sat quietly, patiently waiting for Jean to finish retelling his story while Lorraine walked in circles around him, just looking at him. When he'd heard Jean calling for him in a panicked voice he'd flown to him without hesitation, only pausing slightly when he saw that Jean was being followed by another person. Jean had stammered through a quick explanation while his aunt stared at Marco with a disbelieving smile. Once Marco understood why he'd brought another person into the forest, he'd turned his attention to trying to explain just how serious Marco's situation was to his aunt.
"So this is where you spend all your time," Lorraine said quietly, still examining Marco closely. "Can't say that I blame you. Marco dear, I think you may be the most fascinating thing I've seen in all of Scotland!" She rubbed her hands together and tried to bite back a grin that seemed entirely inappropriate for the gravity of the situation. Jean wondered if his face had looked anything like hers the first time he'd seen his friend up close.
For his part, Marco was more than patient, even stretching his wings a few times to show them to her, to Lorraine's absolute delight. He let her look at them, at his ears and the image of the rose on his chest. He answered her questions along with Jean, and thanked her for every one of her enthusiastic compliments. Too polite to refocus the conversation on the serious matters at hand, he left it to Jean to get them all back on track.
"Yeah, he's amazing aunt Lori, I know. But we don't have time to talk about that right now. If someone is going to tear down this forest, he's in serious danger. We need to talk about--"
"Getting him out of the forest!" Lorraine interrupted. "He and I may both lose our homes, but I can take him with me wherever I end up."
"It's not that simple, aunt Lori, I told you! He can't just--"
Marco laid a hand on Jean's arm to calm him, and picked up where he left off in clarifying things to Lorraine.
"As Jean said before ma'am, I don't just live in these woods.- I'm bound to them. My spirit is part of the forest. For me to live, the plants and trees have to survive. I can't exist without them."
"See!" Jean hissed, still almost manic in his urgency. "He's gonna die if we don't do something! You've got to talk to those people!"
"And tell them what, Jean?" Lorraine sighed. "They're not going to listen to one person, especially not a person like me. I'm just a crazy old hermit who talks to her plants, remember?"
Hearing the words he'd said himself just an hour before, Jean's throat all but closed off entirely. He felt the guilt there climb to his face, where it burned as a blush. She'd heard him, and despite the fact that he didn't really mean what he'd said, he couldn't explain it away.
"Aunt Lori, I... I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I really shouldn't have said that stuff, I just - I was just trying to keep my mom off my case, and I didn't - I don't think you're crazy."
Lorraine's face was sad, but also soft and forgiving. She gave him half a smile and reached out to squeeze his shoulder. "I'm not upset with you, Jean. I can't expect a teenager not to feel restless holed up here in the woods with me; I'm glad you found Marco to keep you company. But I'm afraid you might be the only one who thinks that I'm not an oddball, dear. I mean who's going to listen to one woman who lives by herself in the middle of the woods and comes asking those old businessmen not to tear down her house and trees because of a fairy?"
She was breathless by the time she finished speaking and her sentence was punctuated with a shaky sob. Beside her, Marco had a dreadful look on his face as well, as if he'd already accepted the fact that he was going to die. Jean sniffed back tears of his own that threatened to fall and ground his shoe into the dirt with a huff.
"I'll help you. We'll come up with good reasons why they can't build something here. We'll go talk to other locals here and drum up some support, whatever it takes. We just can't... we can't sit by and do nothing." He looked at Marco and then back at his aunt, reaching out to take her jittery hand. "Please, aunt Lori."
Lorraine wiped at her face with her free hand and looked back and forth between the two boys. She looked at her cottage, and at the tall trees that surrounded them there in the forest, and finally nodded.
"Alright, boys," she smiled, her voice steady again. She stood beside Jean and glanced between he and Marco, a determined look appearing on her face. "I think we've got some work to do."
Jean had never spent so much time on his feet.
Almost every day, he and Lorraine were up before the sun, heading for a different town and different faces that they hoped would hear them out about the destruction of the forest. Jean typed up flyers to hand out, and took Marco with him to a copy shop almost an hour away to have them printed. If it hadn't been such a serious mission they were on, he would have spent more time enjoying Marco's genuine amazement at all of the technology they encountered. But time was quickly slipping away from them, and fewer and fewer people made time to listen to them speak each day. Lorraine worked every night on a presentation to give to the municipal council, but despite her persistence Jean knew she wasn't optimistic. None of them were.
It was late one evening near the end of July that he found Marco sitting in his near-human form on a large, smooth stone just inside the edge of the forest, tying the stems of tiny flowers together into a chain. He didn't even bother looking up from his busy fingers when Jean brushed past him to find a place to sit himself. Jean settled on a clearing of soft clover and grass a few feet away, and waited for a few minutes to see if Marco would speak first. He didn't; Jean cleared his throat and tried to fill the silence.
"Hello," Marco replied quietly, just as Jean was beginning to wonder if he would even acknowledge him. "What are you doing out here so late?"
"Couldn't sleep," Jean said simply. "Just figured... I can leave if you want me to, though."
"Stay." It wasn't a reply so much as a request, and Jean nodded. They didn't talk for a while, but he watched Marco finish making his chain of flowers and loop it into a circle. He dropped it down over his neck like a necklace and eyed a section of it between his fingers for a moment before breathing a deep sigh.
"I don't think it's going to work, Jean - what you and your aunt are trying to do." When he finally said it, Jean knew it was coming, but it didn't sting any less. Marco wouldn't look at him, and Jean knew it was hurting him just as much to say.
"C'mon Marco, don't think like that. We've gotta stay positive and keep at it or we definitely won't--"
"Stay positive?" Marco hissed. "Jean, I'm not just going to lose my home. I'm going to lose my life, for a second time. The life my mother gave hers to save. And for what? So greedy people can profit from the land I've watched over for centuries! Humans are the worst kind of creatures, I --" He stopped and glanced up at Jean for the first time. His eyes were wide with something between anger and panic, and he must've noticed how taken aback Jean was by his tone, because he bit down on the back of one of his fingers and frowned before quickly apologizing. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean - you're not--"
"I'm not gonna get on some 'not all humans' soapbox, don't worry. I know people suck, dude. The world is full of the worst of the worst. But that's not all there is out there. Sometimes you've just gotta look for one thing worth fighting for, and it's enough to keep you going. And I know it seems like a long shot that Lori and I can do anything to save this place, but if one person doesn't try then no one else will either." A firefly landed on the ground beside him and he scooped it into his hands, holding it out toward Marco as it twinkled in the growing darkness. "Like this little guy. He's not very bright on his own, but he's still a part of the big picture. Put enough of these little lights together, and it makes a big difference. See?" He let the bug go, and it climbed slowly through the air, pulling Marco's attention up after it. The spaces between the trees were filled with hundreds of other fireflies, the sky above them aglow with their light. Marco watched them for a moment before dropping a softer gaze back to where Jean sat.
"You're right," he whispered. "I'm just afraid."
Jean scooted toward him, until their feet were touching. He laid his hands over Marco's ankles and gently squeezed. "I get that. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't, too."
"You don't have anything to lose," Marco said, looking down to where Jean's hands touched his feet. Jean squeezed him there again and shook his head.
"I've got you."
They looked at each other for a long time, and although Marco's eyes were almost burning him with their thoughtful intensity, Jean refused to drop his gaze. When Marco finally looked away, it was far out over the forest floor, like his mind was elsewhere. Jean waited for it to come back, unmoving.
"I don't understand you, Jean" Marco said after a few moments. He looked back at Jean and his mouth turned up at the corners just a bit. "But I'm glad I have you, all the same." He slid the flower chain from around his neck and looped it around Jean's.
"Likewise, fairy boy." Jean smirked. "Now go get some sleep. You're coming with us tomorrow, alright?"
"Where are we going?"
Jean grinned as he pushed himself to his feet, running a few fingers over the edge of one of Marco's wings as he walked past him.
"To look for more fireflies."
"Are you sure this looks alright?"
The early August morning of the meeting they'd managed to schedule with the municipal council members dawned muggy and warm, and Jean was sticky with sweat from the moment he woke up. The three of them ate breakfast together in the garden, Lorraine fussing with the hem of her skirt, tugging at the jacket she wore over it for more coverage as she anxiously asked their opinions. Jean and Marco nodded encouragingly.
"You look fine, aunt Lori. Just focus on what we're going there to do and don't worry about anything else." He spoke with as much confidence as he could feign; inside he was near to screaming from his own wracked nerves.
"Everything will be okay," Marco said to both of them, and Jean knew all of them were just reassuring each other to keep from panicking themselves. Still, something about hearing that promise from Marco made it more believable. He nodded in response and tapped the small pocket of his shirt.
"You still want to come along?" He asked. Marco gave a small nod and then he was shrinking, almost out of sight. A fluttering sound buzzed once around Jean's head, and then Marco was on his shoulder, ready to slide down into his shirt pocket. Jean looked back at Lori and gave her the most assured grin he could muster. "We're gold, aunt Lori. We've got a real, live good luck charm. See?"
Lorraine returned his smile, and they headed off to try to save her home, and Marco's life.
A small group of supporters met them outside the building, armed with small signs that told of the historic and ecological value of the forest where Lorraine lived. Most of them only looked half as optimistic as Jean felt, but he tried to stay positive. Knowing Marco was nestled in his pocket helped, if only a little. The group filed inside and found seats in the large, drafty municipal hall.
Lorraine gave a shaky presentation, but her reasoning was solid, and Jean was sure that the council members would see that. They couldn't destroy the forest around her home, she told them. It would create a backlash of angry locals, and protests of the deforestation of the historic, beautiful land there. Riled protesters were the last thing a brand new business needed - it was just poor business sense to disregard their opinions in favor of tourists that weren't even a guaranteed quantity in such a tucked away location. She told them of the negative impact their building would have on the plants and animals of the area, many of which were endangered. After reciting her facts and referring them to the charts Jean had helped her put together, she made her final plea for their attention - an emotional account of losing her home and the way of life she loved. She finished without crying, though only just, and stood as tall as she could straighten herself. The men and women behind the long panel table nodded their dismissal and murmured thanks to her for her time; she took her seat again beside Jean and waited for them to finish discussing the issue amongst themselves. Almost before she'd gotten comfortable in her chair, the eldest councilman - seated in the middle of the others - cleared his throat to speak to her.
"We appreciate your time and the motivation behind your presentation, ma'am," he said condescendingly. "I assure you that we've taken the things you mentioned into account already during the planning process of this project, and we didn't do so lightly. But we believe it's the general consensus of the people in this area that the construction of this resort would be financially beneficial for entire region. We can't set aside the increase in jobs and revenue that this project would create; the preparation of the building site will commence this fall as scheduled."
Jean's mouth fell open. He glanced at Lorraine, who was frozen beside him. She nodded numbly, as if she'd been expecting to be dismissed. Jean hadn't been; he stood bolt upright from his seat and took a few strides in the direction of the seated council members, seething with anger as he almost shouted at them.
"Did you even listen to what she said?"
A dozen or so pairs of eyes fell on Jean. He swallowed hard, refusing to let his throat close off the way it was trying to.
"She made valid points that you're just going to ignore? How does that reflect the 'overall consensus' of anything, other than yourselves?"
"Young man, the plans to create a resort in that area have been in place for months now. Although it disheartens us to know that public interest isn't as high as we'd hoped for the project, we've already reached an agreement with the company. Quite frankly there's nothing we can do at this point."
Jean felt the sinking in his stomach return. Lorraine's face dropped like she might cry, and although the councilmen still eyed him with irritation, a few of them seemed almost remorseful for the answer they'd given him. Against his chest, he felt Marco's tiny fingers dig into the fabric of his shirt, and a faint vibration that might have been him crying into it as well. He cupped his hand over his pocket and scowled, desperately trying to think of something to do to fix the situation. What he came up with was out of his mouth before he could even decide if it was logical.
"What if... you build around the forest? Instead of tearing it down?"
There was scattered laughter, a few scoffs. He wasn't sure if he was even making sense, but he knew it was better than silent acceptance.
"How could we possibly--"
"Keep everyone happy? Have your money making resort and keep public relations positive at the same time? Hear me out, it's possible; the answer is to use the forest, not destroy it."
The eldest man on the committee looked Jean over skeptically, but there was at least a touch of curiosity in his eyes. "Go on, then," he said patiently. Jean exhaled sharply and nodded, hoping he could come up with the right things to say on the fly.
"Right, well... yeah." He wasn't off to a good start, but when he felt Marco's hands patting him reassuringly, he cleared his throat and tried again. "Instead of one big resort building, you could have... smaller ones. Like cottages, set up all around the edge of the forest. The scenery there is really pretty - you'd make a killing on reservations for couples and stuff! And you could have bigger ones for families; most people would probably love the privacy on vacation. Throw in a few playgrounds for kids and a walking path with like a tour of the woods for everyone else - you'd save money on building costs, because you could make the forest your main attraction. More money for the area, and no bad press, right?"
The people in the room who had come to watch the meeting were talking in hushed but excited voices, and a few of the council members had turned to exchange impressed glances with each other. Jean felt no movement in his shirt pocket, but beneath it his heart was hammering anxiously in his chest. He remained standing, eyes occasionally roaming the room as he listened to the men and women at the tables discussed marketing, the cost of redesigning the original plans for the resort, as well as the possible savings of using Jean's suggestions. When he was sure his shaking legs wouldn't keep him up much longer, one of the councilmen finally turned back to him, a small smile on his face.
"I think you may have given us a plan that works for everyone, young man. I'm sure I'm not alone in saying I'm very impressed." A few of the others at the table nodded, and a chorus of cheers and clapping erupted from the formerly quiet crowd of supporters. Jean thought he might faint; instead he laid a hand over his pocket again and smiled just a little when he felt a tiny flurry of movement under his fingers. Lorraine stood to walk over to him, and he didn't know how truly shaky he was until she let him lean onto her arm to steady himself. The councilman cleared his throat to calm the crowd.
"Now that's not a straightforward answer any more than it is a conclusive plan. We'll need to find someone who knows the area well to help with site preparation and construction. Maybe to help manage the tours once we get units in place."
Jean grinned at them and nudged his aunt forward. "I think I know just the lady you're looking for."
As he tucked the last of his belongings into bags and trunks, Jean heard footsteps come to a stop just outside the door of the guest room. He turned around and saw Lorraine standing there, her arms full of a tall stack of papers that he assumed were for the planning of the resort. She looked exhausted, but blissfully happy. Looking at her tired smile, he wished he could say the same for himself.
"What's wrong, dear?" Her voice was no more intrusive than her presence as she lingered outside the doorway, offering him space. "Aren't you excited to get back to the states? Thought you'd be happy to be getting home."
Jean nodded automatically, but he knew better, and he was fairly certain she did too. "I'm glad I'll be back in my own bed. But that's about as much as I can say, honestly." He looked up at her like he was inviting her in, and she seemed to understand. She laid the hefty pile of papers on the nightstand just inside the door and came to sit on the edge of Jean's borrowed bed.
"I can't say it doesn't make me happy that you'll miss it here, Jean," she said quietly, reaching out to brush back the fringe of his overgrown bangs. "That means you enjoyed yourself. And all I wanted for you was to have a good time while you were here. Although I suppose I'm not really the reason you'll be missing Scotland." She finished her sentence with a knowing smirk and Jean frowned, trying not to blush.
"Don't say that aunt Lori," he huffed. "I'm gonna miss both of you. But at least you can call and write to me." After a beat of silence he realized that Lorraine had pretty much baited him into acknowledging how upset he was about leaving Marco behind, and he couldn't keep the redness in his cheeks at bay anymore.
"Well there's no reason I can't help Marco do the same" she said sweetly. "Poor boy probably gets lonely out here all by himself. He can call and write to you from here anytime he likes, and you know I'd be happy to make dinner for him any day. Why don't you tell him as much when you go visit him today?"
Jean was still flushed pink, but smiled widely at her words. "I will aunt Lori. Thank you. For everything." He sat up on his knees and hugged her, grinning at the way it seemed to catch her off guard. When he let her go she patted his shoulder softly and checked her watch.
"We've got about an hour or so before we need to leave. Are you all finished packing up?"
He nodded and then glanced out the window with a bittersweet smile. "All done, yeah. I've got one more thing I need to do before I leave, though."
"Well while you're at it, why don't you take this to him?" She scurried out of the room and returned a moment later, carrying a large paper shopping bag. She laid it on the bed beside Jean and motioned for him to look inside.
"Clothes?" Jean said, pulling a t-shirt and jacket out of the bag. More clothes were still folded inside. "These are for him?"
"I figured he might like to come with us to the train station, and we couldn't have him wandering around town half dressed."
By the time she finished her sentence Jean had jumped from the bed, seized the bag in one hand and thrown the other around her neck in a another lopsided hug.
"Aunt Lori, you are seriously the most awesome person I've ever met." He kissed her cheek and then headed out the door excitedly, his aunt laughing under her breath as he left her to find Marco one last time for the summer.
"And she said she'll make you dinner anytime you want. Honestly she just likes the company - but her food is amazing, trust me."
Marco laughed at Jean's breathlessness as he tried to remember everything he needed to say before he left. There was so much, and suddenly an hour seemed like the blink of an eye.
"I'll be sure to visit with her," Marco promised. "She's done so much for me, it's the least I can do in return."
"She's a pretty great lady," Jean smiled. Marco nodded.
"You're both pretty great. I can't thank you enough for everything you've done - you're the most incredible person I've ever known."
Jean felt his face heating up again, and shook his head, as if to put out the fire kindling there. "C'mon Marco, don't say stuff like that."
"Sorry," Marco said with an insincere grin. It didn't last though, and Jean knew they were both just stalling for time, avoiding any talk of him leaving. "I just wish..." Marco trailed off, and Jean stepped in, grabbing his arm to catch his full attention.
"Lori is going to call and write to me. She said she'd be happy to help you keep in touch, too. If... you want to, I mean."
"Of course I do. But once you're back home you'll be back to your life there, and very busy I'd assume. Are you sure you want to hear from me?"
Marco's question was earnest, but Jean couldn't help the nervous bubble of laughter that it pulled from him.
"My life back home is pretty boring, to be honest. Most of what I'm busy with is just to keep me from going stir crazy or whatever. But even if I was busy everyday, I'd want to hear from you." He swallowed the knot threatening to settle in his throat and closed the small amount of space between them, pulling Marco into a hug. "I'm gonna miss you, fairy boy. Flowers and all."
"I'll miss you too, Jean." Marco dropped his head onto Jean's shoulder and sighed, and it should've been weird and awkward but Jean had begun to believe that with Marco, nothing ever could be. When they stepped apart, hands still on each other's arms, his eye was caught by the movement of the rose petals on Marco's chest, fluttering like they had been blown by a soft breeze. When he looked back up at his face, Marco's eyes were shiny and wet, and Jean rattled off a promise without a moment's thought beforehand.
"I'm gonna come back, ok?"
Marco eyed him skeptically. "When? How?"
Jean gave another answer with only a few seconds more forethought. "Next time I'm on break from school. Christmas break. December. I'll come stay with Lori again."
"Jean, that's... I know the trip here wasn't easy for you or your family. You don't tave to--"
"I want to," Jean said quickly, before he could talk himself out of admitting it. "I want to see you again, in person. But um, until then just... write to me and stuff ok? And I'll get back here as soon as I can."
Marco nodded quickly, and Jean wasn't sure if he was biting his lip to keep from smiling or crying. He got his answer when a soft hiccup escaped Marco's mouth, followed by quick falling tears. Jean swiped at them with the cuff of his jacket sleeve and threw his arms around Marco's neck again.
"Hey, no crying, ok?" He rubbed at the space on Marco's back, right between his wings. "I can't keep it together if you don't." There was something comforting in admitting that he was upset as well. He was sure Marco could feel it too; his whimpering cries gave way to a soft gasp, and then before he could hear anything else, Marco was pressing his lips softly against Jean's.
It was just another one of those things that should've felt out of place, but didn't. Jean was pretty sure it was the kind of thing friends didn't usually do with each other, and he was even more sure that he didn't care. It was over before he could blink, and when he did it was a few times in quick succession, just to make sure he didn't dream it. Marco's flustered smile assured him that he hadn't, and when he glanced down at his chest again, he saw that the rose there was more fully bloomed than he had ever seen it, with vines curling over Marco's chest and down his arm. He didn't know what that meant exactly, but he couldn't think of a better way of describing the way he felt when Marco squeezed his hand and smiled at him again.
Afraid he might forget until the last minute otherwise, Jean dragged his attention away from Marco for just long enough to retrieve the shopping bag from the place where he'd dropped it, just inside the forest's edge.
"Lori got you something, by the way. Here." He thrust the bag out toward Marco and grinned even before Marco had it open. When he finally did pull the clothes out and look at them, his face sparkled with excitement that made Jean laugh out loud. "They're for you to keep. And she thought maybe you could break 'em in by coming to the train station with us today."
At that Marco laughed too, and his wings fluttered behind him. He pulled on the pants and socks, grinning like an ecstatic child the entire time.
"You're aunt is wonderful!"
"You're wonderful" Jean said mockingly, and Marco tossed the new shirt in his direction, but they both knew he wasn't really joking. They made their way back to the cabin together, barely speaking, but walking a little closer than they'd done before. That morning Jean had woken up dreading the end of something great, but as they emerged from the trees, elbows bumping and fingers brushing every few steps, it felt much more like a beginning.
"... which will drum up money for the maintenance of the resort, and the rest will go right back into keeping the forest protected."
As soon as he saw his parents at the airport, Jean launched into his account of their successful bid to guard Lorraine's home and the forest around it. On the car ride home he regaled them with every detail he could remember - sometimes slightly out of order, due to his jet lag scrambled brain - spurred on by his mother's beaming smile. Once they were finally home and inside the door for the evening, she pulled him into a tight hug and kissed the top of his head.
"Jean sweetie, I am so incredibly proud of you. You did a very good thing, helping aunt Lori save her home. You took up a cause and you seem like you learned so much; I can't tell you how happy that makes me."
His father hummed in agreement. "Your mom was right when she said that trip would do you some good, hm?"
Jean nodded, without even so much as an eye roll. "Yeah, yeah. Mom was right. Same as always." He gave her an impish grin that only faded when she pinched at one of his cheeks. He huffed, still smirking as he pulled away from her. "Knock it off, mom!"
She laughed at him - with him - but then cleared her throat and changed the subject. "So, Lorraine tells me you're thinking about going back to visit with her in December." It wasn't a question, but Jean could hear the uncertain tone in her voice.
"Yeah. I mean, if it's okay with you guys. She said she'd love to have me, and I thought it would be nice for her to have some company for Christmas for once." He didn't bother telling them he had another reason for wanting to go back. That was a story for a day he couldn't even imagine yet. But he didn't bother to hide his enthusiasm to return. "I'll be on break from school, so..."
"I'm not sure we can afford another trip for you that soon though, sweetheart," she replied quickly. "I think it's lovely that you want to spend more time with her, but--"
"I can raise the money, mom. I've got almost five months. I'll get a job or whatever once school starts and save up."
His parents looked at him each other with eyebrows raised, smiles slowly creeping across both of their faces.
"That's very mature of you, Jeanbo," his father said, obviously impressed. "I'm sure we can help you come up with whatever you don't make on your own."
Jean grinned. "Thanks, dad. But I should be alright."
They sat at their kitchen table together for nearly an hour, just talking about some of the smaller details of Jean's stay with his aunt. The spacious expanse of their kitchen made him miss the cozy feel of her tiny cottage, and he remembered somewhat sadly that he wouldn't be waking up to his forest dwelling friend the next morning, either. He couldn't control the grin that stretched his features thinking about the boy thousands of miles away, waiting for his return and for whatever new adventures they'd take when he got back. Seeing him smile, his parents assumed it was just because of how happy his summer in Scotland had made him, and he let them believe that. After all, it wasn't untrue.
Helping him carry the last of his things into his bedroom that evening, his mother sighed happily. "I'm glad you enjoyed your stay with aunt Lori, sweetie. You've done so much growing up this summer; I can't stop thinking about how proud I am of you, or how glad I am that you're so happy." She sat his duffel bag beside the foot of his bed and kissed his forehead, ruffling his hair as she left him to settle in for the night. "You must've found something really special over there," she mused on her way out of the room.
Jean watched her leave and smiled, thinking of all the things he did find in the Scottish forest, of fireflies and shared pastries and the feeling of warm, freckled arms around him right before he left.
"Yeah," he said to himself, reaching for a notebook and flipping it open to a blank page. "I definitely did."
He dated the top of the page and smiled as he neatly, carefully wrote Marco's name across the top of his first letter.