JC set two fresh pitchers of ice water on the dining room table and retreated to stand near the hall door. The ice had been grudgingly provided by the wizards, there not being enough time yet for the fridge to do so.
Letting her joints lock meant holding position effortlessly and with no need to think about it at all, and interestingly, once she was still, all seven humans ignored her presence entirely.
Not that they paid much attention even when she was moving. House fae, apparently, were beneath notice.
It wasn't her first experience with that, though previously it had been as a human. It would have angered her, rather than merely irritating her, except that without the constant prodding of the wrongness in the kitchen, her mind felt clearer and she suspected that being beneath notice could be very useful.
“This was the best you could do?” Lloyd grumbled, picking at the rather lacklustre mound of rice and canned tuna and vegetables on his flimsy paper plate.
“The kitchen was trashed,” Felix said shortly. “Be grateful that you aren't eating raw vegetables off paper towels. You should be offering me a medal for coming up with that in the very little time I've had since I had my kitchen back and with only the pots and pans and the food in the pantry still intact. And that was after patching Barry up. So piss off. Eat it or don't.”
“This is much better than that,” Isabel said. “Under the circumstances, you've worked miracles. We're all tired. It's been a very long day. Let's try not to take it out on each other, please?”
“Back to having to do everything ourselves tomorrow,” Barry groused. Multiple small and medium adhesive bandages spotted the side of his face and his arm, and he had changed his shirt. “Too bad they don't stay useful longer.”
“They're more useful now than they were,” Phrixos corrected. “While they might be helpful for labour during the initial phase, there's very little we learn from that to help further our knowledge of fae and faelings. That is, after all, the primary purpose behind scooping them up and keeping them alive here. That it keeps regular humans in blissful ignorance and prevents newly-awakened faelings from wreaking havoc is secondary, and having them to do chores around here is only a minor benefit in the end.”
“They're all safely confined now, right?” Gord asked.
“The reptilian is now in a cage out by the edge in the spring quarter where it's warm enough to keep it alive but cool enough to keep it sluggish. We'll look at Isabel's request for a much larger enclosure in summer once we're sure it's not going to go immediately psychotic and after we can assess what it might need. The water fae is in the observation pond with a barrier around it for the moment.” He glanced at Isabel, who picked it up from there.
“The equine is back in their residence overnight now that she's worn herself out, she can stay there until we see whether we can convince her or our house fae to clear out the clutter currently using the stable as storage—otherwise you'll have to do it. After that, I imagine she'll be some use to you hitched to the cart if she's an obedient sort, and so far, everything suggests that she is. I don't believe we've had a unicorn before, only a horse fae or two, so it should be educational. The green fae is still playing in the gardens and to all appearances is aware of nothing else, so presumably she'll drift off and join the rest eventually. As though we really needed yet another green fae. The probable will-o'-the-wisp is in a small temporary cage near the marsh, to keep her separated until we've confirmed what she is. If she's still a she, that is. With the swamp coming into autumn and another mouth to feed, we'll have to increase the supplemental food for the moment. It will be interesting to see if this is enough to give us a breeding colony of wisps. Young ones might be useful. If nothing else, we might eventually get some idea of what the minimum number is before a flock starts to reproduce.”
“You want them to breed?” Gord asked. “There's only so much space. And only so many of us. You said they're already crowded.”
Isabel managed to keep her tone patient, a parent lecturing recalcitrant children, though her expression didn't quite match, JC thought. “We'll need to keep the numbers limited, yes, and for most of our subjects, I agree, breeding them would be a bad idea. However, for the occasional highly social type, there's a lot to potentially be learned from them.”
“We've already discovered some new information about them that has never been documented before,” Lloyd interjected. “It explains why they're usually but not always reported as sexless. No one knew that only two out of the flock actually develop sexual features, or that the queen's favour is one of the factors in who gains the dominance position immediately under her, and therefore becomes her consort. We've seen a spectacular overthrow that led to a new queen taking over, the previous queen becoming the new consort, and the previous consort going back to neuter, but we don't know what criteria they're using for dominance. They're about the least aggressive fae ever. And they have yet to produce any young.”
Isabel looked sideways at him, but said only, “Exactly my point.”
“Fine by me,” Felix muttered.
“As for whether they're all confined,” Isabel said, “our remaining house fae is obvious. The cat, however, is going to be a problem. We still haven't managed to locate her. Lloyd's spot research confirms that cat fae are notoriously difficult to track or confine. We've probably been fortunate not having one before now. If we can keep this one alive, we could learn a lot. At any rate, she can't escape the island, and nothing suggests that she'll be aggressive or has any motivation to become so.”
“Then switch the collars from silence and forbidding approach to the Gate over to tracking,” Nestor said. “It should be possible to locate it, at least, despite any interference if it's set to single-function, and she won't be able to get it off.”
Never met Ramses, have you? That cat can get anything off. Collar, harness, you name it.
“That could be dangerous with a water fae of unknown abilities,” Phrixos pointed out. “Giving it back its voice needs to be done carefully, in case it's one of the siren types. Keeping them away from the Gate is, I agree, not a priority, since they probably won't risk it and wouldn't be able to open it if they did. I'll have to pinpoint which one of the set the cat's wearing and switch just that one. I'll add it to the list of things to do.”
“We do need to find the cat as quickly as possible,” Isabel said. “The green fae should be in no danger from the older fae, and the others are all safe, but the cat... well, if nothing else, cats are strict carnivores, and instincts are no substitute for actual hunting skill. She'll have nothing at all to eat.”
“Unless one of the older fae attacks her,” Felix snickered. “Either she'll have something to eat, or we won't need to worry about her any more.”
“I wish you were joking,” Isabel sighed. “The water fae is out of hearing range of the house even if she does have siren abilities, and she's also more in the direction of spring or early summer, while all the harvestable produce is in late summer and autumn. There should be no need for anyone to go near enough for her to have any effect, other than feeding her. I'll make sure you have a charm against siren vocal abilities before we give her back her voice, so we don't have a repetition of Marcy's accident, but again, nothing suggests aggression. They've all been very docile and cooperative. I think the newest tea-and-bread combo is highly successful. None of the others are at all likely to have any vocal-based abilities. Some may no longer have voices. Why don't you just switch the whole set instead of spending extra time trying to choose just one?”
Other than the possible danger out there alone with the earlier victims, the thought of Des being part cat and wandering around the island avoiding detection and capture was an amusing one. Des would find a way to stay safe, she was sure of it. It probably would have made her smile, but facial expressions needed conscious thought, too, so outwardly, she remained impassive.
Poor Zach, though. Poor Ali, back in our place all alone. Poor Suze.
At least I'm not getting any sense of immediate distress from anyone, and I hope I still would. I wonder if they're all caught up in that same kind of overwhelming need, like I had for cleaning the kitchen? It's hard to be scared when you're hyper-focused like that.
As commanded, she went obediently back to the kitchen to retrieve the boxes of vegetable crackers, cheese crackers, and wheat crackers from the pantry, and brought them to the dining room directly since there were no intact bowls or plates to put them on. No cheese to have with them, either, which Barry grumbled about, although there was a jar of peanut butter that had been in the pantry, and a jar of strawberry jam, and there remained a plate of fresh bite-sized pieces of fresh fruit on the table.
The fruit might have gone well with the ice cream in the large chest freezer in the pantry, had there been any dishes remaining to serve that in.
“Lloyd and Felix can do a shopping run in the morning,” Isabel said. “It's late morning there, everything will be open even on a Saturday.”
Late morning on Saturday.
We really have only been out of the real world for a few hours. Half of us probably haven't even been missed yet.
“We'll just have to survive without you for the day,” Gord said, with a mocking sigh.
“Bite me,” Lloyd said with no particular heat.
They spent the rest of supper discussing the shopping trip. It did sound like they planned to hit a Costco, not necessarily the one JC considered local, but it did not sound like they had any intention of paying for anything.
Barry yawned hugely. “I'm beat. I'm going to bed. The damned faelings can look after themselves for one night if they're not going to cooperate.”
“Good idea,” Lloyd conceded, as the yawn made the rounds, even the wizards not immune to that particular contagion.
Felix looked around for JC. “Clean up,” he ordered.
“We probably won't need to give her any further commands about routine housework,” Isabel said mildly. “House fae are, after all, house fae. There's no reason to think this one has the power or inclination to pull the pranks that wild house fae have been known to do, so all that's left for her instincts to push her towards is basic domestic tasks. She'll be quite happy doing them, too, since it's all about fulfilling fundamental nature. She may start helping you in the kitchen, some of them extend it to food.”
They all abandoned the table and headed upstairs to their respective rooms.
JC cleared the table, most of which was trash, and washed the few kitchen items that had been used—metal, mainly.
Will I be happy doing housework?
Well, not for you, but... an awful lot of my jobs have involved cleaning and janitorial stuff and all the rest have been food services, plus I cook for fun when I have anyone to share it with, although I'd rather cook what I want than have to do fast food crap that's just bad for people. There really is something satisfying in getting things clean and putting things in order. How often have people commented on how I manage to keep a small one-room apartment as neat as I do, with everything in its place? And I like cooking and I'm good at it and I like knowing people that matter to me are eating well. Every time Des does work on my computer, she says that my cooking both of us a meal is enough to pay her back. Niko likes my meals, too, and I like making sure sometimes he's eating something not canned or takeout.
Which I suppose he'll go back to if I'm not there. Although I'm not sure how much more of an effect that'll have on his life. I bet he can find someone else to have weird speculative conversations with. I mean, the shop's not exactly high traffic, but he does well enough. I miss him, but I dunno how much he'll really miss me.
Anyway. If I didn't hate the people in the house, looking after them might actually be, well, satisfying.
Oh good god, not only did I turn myself into French Maid Barbie, but I want to be a housewife too.
Whatever. But I want to choose the house in question!
With all quiet downstairs, she gave the counter a last wipe and began to consider food—feeding the captives had apparently been forgotten, or at least deemed unimportant. She knew nothing about gardens, but there remained food here, food intended for the humans so it presumably lacked any of Isabel's additives. It was only the contents of the fridge that had been destroyed; the pantry remained intact.
Despite the heels on her boots, her footsteps made no sound in the sleeping house, which was a relief since the thought of taking them off gave her a strange feeling of reluctance. Like they were, in some way, part of her. The risk of being overheard made her uneasy, and she didn't think it was entirely apprehension about punishment. Any number of stories mentioned household fairies that resented being spied upon, and that did their work at night while no humans were around to see. Maybe it was some instinct, a fae version of hating to be supervised while doing a task.
Most of her friends were out there somewhere she couldn't readily find them, let alone reach them. Zach and Suzi were in cages and Theo in an observation pond that was probably equivalent, though at least the former two were probably not interested in food right now. Erica could feed herself, she was sure. Des might have more trouble, cats and vegetarianism being a very poor combination, but she didn't know where Des was.
Alison was nearby, and confined.
What might someone equine, who had preferred a mostly-vegetarian diet for as long as JC could recall, enjoy out of what was available?
Was Alison even going to be awake, to make it worth the risks?
Thoughtfully, she took a broom from the closet on her way out.
The path to the building they'd been confined in overnight for the past couple of weeks was so familiar she hardly needed to look, and she'd made this trip in the dark multiple times. Interestingly, her night vision was better than it had been, though she couldn't make out colours at all, only shapes.
She braced the door open with the broom, reluctant to take any risk that her ability to unlock it might have changed, and stepped over it.
Alison was sprawled in the inner room, so deeply asleep she didn't hear JC coming. It was rather a striking effect, the horselike legs and human body, all so white with the bright mane and tail and feathering, the dark hooves and harness, nails and lips and eyes. In the centre of her forehead was, not a horn, but a sort of suggestion of one, a slightly-protruding spiral half an inch across at the base, smooth ivory and deep blue twisting around each other. JC knelt beside her, and ran a hand over her hair and down her back gently, repeatedly. Getting no response, she tried shaking her, a little, then a bit harder, to no avail.
JC would have felt a lot better knowing Alison had eaten; she dared not even leave anything, in case Isabel visited before Alison woke up. It would also have been rather comforting to share a hug, even briefly. She hadn't felt this alone since their first night here.
At least the fear was manageable. They'd known something like this was coming; they'd already adapted to one transformation; this one might be more individual and more exotic, but it wouldn't make them any less themselves than the first change had.
And somewhere underneath the doubts, underneath the associations that troubled her conscious mind, there lurked a feeling of rightness. Like something that had always been wrong, out-of-focus, incomplete, something she'd been vaguely aware of but never able to consciously grasp, had now been corrected. Whether she consciously liked the exact form of it or not made no difference, really. The butterfly was out of the chrysalis and couldn't go back to being a wingless caterpillar even if it wanted to, but wanting to was not so simple.
She'd still have liked a hug, and some reassurance that all her friends had made it through the day okay.
Reluctantly, she left Alison to sleep and went back to the pantry to look for her own late supper.
She nibbled on what appealled to her, exploring. Graham crackers with honey on them turned out to taste best, though the pudding mixes made her wish for milk and the luxury to make them. A can of sweetened condensed milk kept drawing her attention back, until she finally gave in and opened it; the contents should have been too sweet and rich to drink straight, but one tentative sip proved otherwise, and she finished it within minutes.
While she wasn't exactly tired, she presumably would be eventually, and having that catch up with her when she'd been given something to do would probably be bad. She didn't think their captors were going to let her work through the quiet night and sleep alone somewhere while the human household was active, though the idea appealled to her on many levels.
Options were limited. There was no way she was going to use the staff lounge upstairs to sleep, and private sitting rooms were certainly out. That pretty much left the ground floor sitting room, if she didn't want to sleep on the bare floor.
She tried lying down on the couch, but it was too short to allow her to stretch out properly. Her back objected to the necessity of curving, and she couldn't find a position that felt at all comfortable. With a private sigh, she got up again and settled herself in a chair, wondering whether she would end up on the floor after all and whether going to join Alison might be taken as simply continuing habitual behaviour.
She found that her posture still defaulted to straight upright and also with her knees together as well—definitely not a relaxed kind of pose. It was, however, effortless once she let her joints lock, needing no attention at all. The hard back and arms of the chair actually helped a little, though she thought it might have worked with neither, as long as the seat was the right height.
And, while her mind was busy with far too much that was new and needed thinking about, she finally fell asleep sitting there.
- Kingston, Ontario, Canada
Bio: Short form? Mid-40s, writing for over 30 years, not interested in "getting published," only interested in telling good stories. Thoroughly co-owned by a pair of mature rescued cats, with my roommate/best friend/biggest fan/merciless alpha reader. Struggling daily with evil aliens called "anxiety" and "depression" living in my head. Pansexual, quoiromantic, poly, kinky, and sort-of nonbinary, which are reflected in my writing but not what it's about. I write for adults, but I'm a big believer in always ending on an upbeat and leaving a reader feeling good. I have four novels on Smashwords, but newer work is drifting towards serial instead.