I awoke atop the most uncomfortable surface I’d ever encountered—with the sole exception of a damp, dirty bathroom floor.
“You didn’t last long,” a condescending feminine voice said, but not the condescending feminine voice I would’ve preferred. “I’m guessing this is your first time as a fugitive—and probably the last.” She lazily waved toward the fire pit between us.
I recognized the tone of her voice, if not her skin. “One of my former captors, I presume? Ironic, that. And unlike you, I don’t spend my time leading innocent children into a life of crime, so forgive me if my fugitive evasive maneuvers need work.”
“Liberators. And Penny isn’t a child.”
“Not anymore, she isn’t. Thanks to you and your accomplice.” I offered her a threatening smile. Something stoked the flames of my long dormant anger, which burned hotter than the fire separating us.
I should’ve been more disoriented by the realm of fairies I’d apparently stumbled into, but I could only think of Lissette. Had she been captured as well? Were they going to…burn her alive? I was no stranger to tales of some of the more twisted behavior of the fae, but my years studying vampires had lessened the impact of casual cruelty and depravity in all its forms. And then there was Miss Bianca.
“Well,” my former captor said, “it doesn’t really matter anymore, does it? We’ll be dead in a matter of hours, after the festivities have run their course. They love a good burning, the fae. All of us will roast, unless Darius escapes on his own…” She sounded—and looked—defeated.
There was a cell—if you could call it that—beside ours. Empty, I discovered to my relief. Two cells in as many days; I wasn’t enjoying the experience, though this was a step up from the bathroom cage in Lissette’s apartment. The fresh air was somewhat soothing, at least.
We sat in silence. I had nothing to say to her—nothing that would help the situation any. I could ask why: why she took my sister, why we were here, why she seemed absolutely certain we were going to die…but I didn’t. A strange sort of complacency settled over me, or perhaps it was shock and dizziness. Narrowly escaping death, only to be thrust into faerie flames…repeatedly trying to connect with my sister to no avail…I was tired.
Someone was watching us.
My cellmate noticed a moment later. “Come to gloat, have you, you blue bastard? You’re finally getting what you want after all these years.”
The watchful fae moved closer to the wooden bars of our cage. “If you die,” he said, “how will I continue to torment you?”
“I suppose you’ll have to find a new hobby, won’t you?” she muttered.
“I’ve grown fond of this one,” he said, fluttering backwards away from the bars while still keeping an eye on my former captor. I wondered why he had wings and she didn’t, but it was another one of those things that didn’t matter in the end.
He raised a dark blue hand…and then the wood melted away into a leafy green arch.
“Why, Orlando?” At least someone was asking why. I still lacked the energy.
But he didn’t answer her question. “I suggest you use all the magic you have to escape, and as soon as possible. I never want to see you again, Isla. Do you understand?”
“The feeling is mutual,” she muttered, though her voice softened. When he flew away, she looked at me. “Are you coming out, or are you going to sit there like a lump on a log until you burn to ashes?”
“I don’t know what to do,” I said. I was so tired. “My sister…”
“Your sister needs you,” she snapped. “And my brother needs me. Find Penny and take her home.”
Her words shamed me into obedience, or perhaps I was too accustomed to following she-demons’ orders without question. I exited the cell and took a few steps toward her.
“We do love her, in our own way,” she said softly. “If you really are her brother, you’d probably want to know that.”
I gave her a brusque nod. “Thank you,” I said. But I wasn’t entirely certain what I was thanking her for.
And then she took off in a run.
“Where am I supposed to go now?” I called after her.
“Where Penny is,” she yelled back, clearly annoyed.
I started walking. That hadn’t gone so well the last time, but it was all I could think to do.
This way, someone whispered. But no one was there.
I changed course.
Over here, someone whispered again. You’re getting closer.
I picked up the pace, following the sound of the strange whisper. It was better than choosing a direction at random, though not by much. Fae were notorious for their trickery.
Almost there. Books. She liked books. And food. And her brother.
I know what my sister likes, I wanted to say, but I didn’t, not anymore. She did like to ask me to read to her, once. So long ago.
I stopped in my tracks. “Lissette?” My sister—as I once knew her—was standing beside a pile of books. A very, very large pile of books.
She looked over her shoulder briefly and proceeded to ignore me. “I like when Darius reads to me more.”
“But I’m your brother, Lissette.”
She shrugged. “I don’t have a brother. If I did, then he’d actually pay attention to me and play with me and help me with my homework and do whatever I want because he wants to, not because he has to.”
“I’ll do all those things. Just come home with me, Liss. Please?”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “First you have to do everyyyything I want. Then I’ll think about going home. Maybe. Deal?”
I held out my hand, which she shook. “Deal.”
It didn’t take long for me to regret that deal. It started off innocently enough. It started with a game of pirates and sea monsters, though it dragged on for a touch too long for my tastes.
I wasn’t sure what kind of place this was, but the sheer size of common household objects floating in the air made my stomach lurch when I looked at them.
When she finally (finally!) tired of pirates, I had to follow her up a narrow, seemingly endless flight of stairs without any railings present. The experience managed to be even less pleasant than walking under enormous floating books.
I helped her with her homework, though she seemed to make mistakes solely to get a rise out of me or make me spend longer helping her.
Even if I was now by her side, I very much would’ve preferred to sit anywhere else. Somewhere closer to the ground.
“I’m bored,” she said, after I’d read five books in a row to her with increasingly ridiculous plots. So was I, but I didn’t say so aloud. “Let’s do something else.” She jumped down the unbelievably hazardous stairs two or three steps at a time and I had to rush to keep up with her, both of my hands on the wall for balance the entire long descent.
And then we arrived at a very different place with a somehow similar sense of chaotic whimsy.
“I wanna play in the fountain,” she said. “If I ever had a brother, he’d say stuff like I couldn’t because I’d get my shoes wet, and then I’d track water through the house and ruin my shoes and lose my socks and make him have to clean up after me.”
“You can play in the fountain if you like,” I said, trying to mask my irritation. I had never been that stuffy, not like our father. I eyed her warily as she climbed up onto the stone rim of the fountain.
“Okay.” She jumped in with an obnoxious splash.
She stopped splashing for one blessed moment. “Are you gonna jump in the fountain too?”
“I’ll just sit here and let you play,” I said. “I need to catch my breath.”
“Old man,” she said. “My brother was always acting like an old man. If I had one.”
“I’m not old,” I protested stiffly, my back straightening. “You’re just acting younger than usual.”
“Then play in the fountain with me.”
“Will you come home afterward?”
“Maybe. But you have to look like you’re having fun, otherwise I’ll just make you keep jumping around until I believe your face.”
“Fine.” My hair was already unkempt and my shoes were gone thanks to my earlier watery misadventures; a little jumping in a fountain wouldn’t hurt.
The look of exhilaration on her small face made the whole experience slightly enjoyable, as ridiculous as it was.
And then she climbed up and out of the fountain without a word, traveling deeper inside what was clearly some kind of theme park for children or torture chamber for adults. I followed her until she stopped in a room on the second floor of the strange structure.
She started to cry. “It’s broken,” she sobbed over the crumpled carcass of a toy castle.
“It isn’t even yours, Liss.” I tried very hard to keep my voice even, slicking my hair back over my eye. “I can buy you a dollhouse when we’re home.”
“But I like this one.” More tears.
“If I fix it,” I said with a sigh, “will you come home?”
She eyed me through the fingers covering her face, momentarily halting her tears. “Maybe,” she said.
I went to work. It had been some time since I’d fixed a dollhouse in particular, but the Blackwell estate had required a number of emergency repairs over the years.
The look on my sister’s face was almost worth the exertion.
“Time to go home, Liss,” I said quietly but firmly.
“We can order a pizza when we get home—you still like pizza, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” she admitted. “But I know where I wanna eat it.” And then she was off again.
“Lissette!” I chased after her; there was nothing else I could do. How did she have so much energy? Was I really so old?
At last she stopped in front of a small, fanciful house on stilts that was surrounded by flowers.
“If you don’t hurry up,” she said, already walking up the steps, “I’m going to eat a whole pizza.”
“You’ll get sick,” I said.
“Then follow me,” she ordered without looking behind her.
There was already pizza on the table in a strange open-air kitchen. I took a seat across from her, serving us each a slice of pizza. She reached over my arm to grab another slice and add it to the first one. My fingertips felt greasy—every butler’s bane—but there weren’t any napkins. Maybe the girl had gone her entire life without any napkins.
She stuffed her cheeks almost to bursting like a chipmunk’s. She really hadn’t changed much over the years.
We kept eating, and yet there seemed to be an infinite supply of pizza.
She looked happy. She always did like to eat, my sister.
Her smile faded once her plate was finally empty. There was still more pizza to be had, but she didn’t reach for another piece.
“I want cake,” she announced. “Bake me one. And then I’ll go home, promise.”
I immediately stood up from the table and shoved the seat inward with a bang. Was this some cruel fairy game, meant to make me waste my time until I was recaptured? Some sort of ridiculous entertainment for unseen eyes?
“Enough,” I said through a clenched jaw. “I’ve played with you, I’ve read to you, I’ve fixed a dollhouse that doesn’t even belong to you—and I’ve even jumped in a fountain and eaten pizza with you. And now you want me to bake you a cake? Enough, Lissette. I’m tired of this.”
I started to stalk away from the table. She could follow me or not. I’d tried, but trying wasn’t enough, not for my sister. If she didn’t want an elder brother, there was apparently nothing I could do to change her mind.
I heard soft, uncertain footsteps behind me. And then my sister clung to me as though she could never bear to let me go.
“But it’s my birthday,” she whispered, then hiccuped as tears streamed down her face. “And you forgot last time, remember? Everybody forgot. Only Darius cared and tried to make it special. You weren’t even there. I was all alone the whole day, and then I was alone for years and years, and you never found me. You never even tried, you just pretended, just like always.”
I drew in a sharp breath. Her pain…there was too much of it. Years’ worth, combined with mine… But I was older, and the only brother she had. I had to be strong for her. I turned to face her and took her small, slightly greasy hands in mine.
“You’re right, Liss,” I said gently. “And I’m sorry for that. I could’ve been a better brother to you in the past, but I will be a better brother in the future. I promise you. Will you give me another chance? Please, Liss?”
She blinked those giant blue eyes at me—our mother’s eyes—and gave a small, shaky nod. “Okay,” she said in a small voice. “After I blow out the candles, I’ll go home. I promise, too.”
“Then let’s bake a cake together,” I said. “Just like old times, Liss.”
“Lissette…?” I whispered. Grown up and with her hair now flowing past her shoulders, she was the very image of our mother.
My heart sank.
“I know who you are, Lysander,” she said quietly. “Mostly. Some stuff is just…not where it should be, I guess.” She shrugged. It was a very unladylike habit that she seemed to rely on to combat awkward pauses. “But this is who I am now, okay? I still feel like a Penny.”
“That’s fair, L—Penny,” I said, even though she would always be Lissette to me.
“Good. Now let’s eat some cake.”
I stared. “You just ate.”
“Yeah, well…I just grew. And my stomach grew too, I guess.”
“I knew you’d find her,” came a vaguely familiar voice.
I looked up.
And immediately back down.
“Pen,” he said.
Now I had no choice but to look at him, because he was looking at my sister.
What kind of nickname was “Pen”? She already had a very sophisticated, ladylike name—she didn’t need to be likened to a common household object or minuscule form of currency.
She pushed her chair away from the table with her feet and stood to look at him. I didn’t like how close they stood together, or how she seemed so comfortable in his presence.
“Hey,” she said. She didn’t smile, not exactly, but her voice was still warm somehow.
“You don’t remember everything yet,” the blue-green sister-abductor said. It wasn’t a question.
“Nope.” She shrugged. “I can remember some things, though. Things I forgot.”
“I kept the saddest ones for as long as I could, Pen,” he said. “But I think you need those too.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I think I probably do.”
And then he took her face in his hands and—kissed her.
My hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. But before I could strangle him, Penny sprang away, her head in her hands. Good. So there was a smart, responsible girl with some pride in there somewhere, who didn’t go around kissing her kidnappers willy-nilly.
“Do you always return one’s lost possessions via mouth?” I demanded of the turquoise man who had so shamelessly pawed my sister.
“No,” he said quietly, with downcast eyes. “But I wanted to, just this once. I won’t ever do it again.” He raised his eyes to finally meet mine, a melancholy smile on his lips. “She doesn’t belong to me, not the way you’re afraid of.”
Penny wandered over to us again, her face a neutral mask even as I noticed the slight blush to her cheeks. “Stop talking about me when I’m right here,” she said. “Darius and I aren’t even like that. He’s like a brother to me.”
“You have a perfectly good brother right here,” I muttered.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m starting to realize that, I guess. But Darius and Isla—they’re family too, even if they weren’t supposed to be.” She moved in front of this—this Darius—and looked up at him, showing me her back. I wish I could see her face—was she looking at him with longing? Regret? Other things that should not appear on my little sister’s face under any circumstances? Why did his face light up when he looked at her? Why did I have to look at his face?
“Thank you,” she said softly. I tried not to eavesdrop, but they were only standing a few short steps away from me. I couldn’t help what I might’ve overheard, as a responsible elder brother acting as chaperone. “For everything. You were…what I needed when I needed it. And you did so much for me, for all that time. I’ll pay you back someday, I promise.” She stepped back so that she was no longer facing him directly. Good.
“You will, Pen,” he said softly. “But when that time comes, it won’t make you happy.” He suddenly looked so sad that I almost felt sorry for him. “You and your brother have to leave now.”
“I can deal,” she said. “Goodbye hug?” She hadn’t accepted a goodbye hug from me, and we’d been about to lose our lives. Of course, being the unforgivable scoundrel that he was, he accepted.
I tried not to look. Long.
“I’ll send you back where you belong,” he said. “I have to help Isla, too. You’ll see her again soon.” He gestured toward the relatively open space in the kitchen where I was already standing. “You’ll be safe if you stand together.”
My sister nodded and moved so that she was across from me. “Time to go home,” she said.
A warm globe of light bubbled up from our feet—and then continued to grow until it fully enveloped us.
Goodbye, Pen, someone whispered.
My sister took my hands. And then we were gone—together.