Chapter 12: Cosette

My latest plan was my most ambitious plan ever. Was that why I had a bad feeling? Or was it just the curse?

What could go wrong? Aside from everything? Rosaline probably wouldn’t kill Rowan… Probably.

At least she’d have to reanimate him afterward, and if she refused, Papa would do it instead. Maman would make him. Or I could try myself if I had to…

Somebody knocked at the door. “Come in,” I yelled. “I’m not naked.” Just in my pajamas, but my mom would tell me to get dressed if I left my room.

“…”

“Is that you, Rowan?” I asked, but I was pretty sure it was. The antlers were a dead giveaway, even if they were blurry. “I forgot where I put my glasses.”

“…”

“Don’t go,” I said, because I thought I heard hoofsteps, like Rowan was turning around. “You’re my BFFAE. And we have plotting to do, you and me. You’re my accomplice.” I think I pointed at him, but it could’ve been a painting on the wall instead.

“…?”

“Jump with me!” I commanded him. “I need to get some exercise while I plot.” Some things you just never grew out of! Especially with your BFFAE.

“I can count on you just like always, right, Row-Rave?”

He smiled at me and didn’t let go of my hand.

We jumped and jumped!

But in the end, the bed won and we lost. But it wasn’t the worst loss ever.

“I need you to be…an actor, kinda,” I said. “I know lines aren’t your thing, but that’s okay. You have stage presence. Charisma. That’s even better, if you ask me.”

I was pretty sure he’d gored my pillow and maybe even my mattress, but that was okay. Grandpa Graham could get me a new one. “…”

I pushed myself up onto my knees, and Rowan followed, just like always. “I don’t know how many wood nymphs and fauns you’ve seduced,” I said, “but this is gonna be your toughest target yet. Are you ready?”

He looked into my eyes, like I’d be able to see his readiness from the intensity of his tree-boy gaze or something. “…”

Except it was really hard to see his facial expression, even this close up. “I guess you’ll have to practice on me. Seducing, I mean. And kissing. I know it’ll kinda be like kissing your sister, except not, because I’m your BFFAE and not your sister, and she’s a lot older than us.” Velvet was also Xanny’s mom, which made things extra weird.

Rowan took my face into his hand, like he was my boyfriend and not my BFFAE. “…”

“Sorry,” I said. “I know this must be really blech for you. I’m not amazingly gorgeous like Rosaline. Curse and all, and also probably genetics.”

He stroked my face with his rough, bark-like hand. Would Rosaline like that? I was pretty sure I did, but she had higher standards. And he was my BFFAE, not hers.

“Good job, Rowan,” I mumbled. “Now you just have to kiss me…”

“…?”

“Yeah. Sorry. On the mouth. I mean, you don’t have to. You can practice on a pillow instead. Or maybe you already have lots of experience. But this has to be perfect–”

I might’ve been able to pretend it was Xanny, if he didn’t smell so…mossy. (Xanny smelled a lot more like hellfire.) I hadn’t kissed anyone before–except for my stuffed animals and that was kind of traumatic after my fang got caught and ripped open Mr. Sweethorns–but I thought this was pretty good…

…It was a really good thing I was a vampiress and didn’t need to breathe.

I finally broke away from him and burst into giggles. “Oh Rowannnn,” I said in a singsong voice–the voice of a girl in love. Maybe not my sister’s voice. “I looooove you. You’re sturdier than an oak tree and your legs are so furry and your tail is soft and twitches like a deer’s and your tongue–”

I didn’t know what to say about his tongue. Would Rosaline like it? I couldn’t imagine it going anywhere near her, to be honest.

“A-plus,” I said. “Or whatever they say to actors to tell them they did a good job, aside from giving them a gold statue. Now you’ll just have to do that on Rosaline once she starts falling for you. It shouldn’t take much.”

“…”

“I mean, she probably won’t be a huge fan of the naked thing, but you can’t help that. Being naked. Naked on my bed. Naked…wow, I never thought about how naked you are. So, um, are your…manly bits more goat-y or tree-y? I mean, not that I want to know, but Rosaline will, for educational purposes and all. Hopefully she doesn’t ask to slice off a sample to study or anything.”

I wasn’t sure, but I’d kind of thought I’d felt something while we were kissing, but it’d be rude to look now when he was naked and couldn’t hide it… I mean, it was right there and it was really really hard not to look but he was my BFFAE and I owed him a little privacy. Good thing I could barely see.

It usually wasn’t a big deal that he couldn’t talk…but I really wanted him to talk right then. Not about his manly bits…but about my plan. Why was he looking at me like that?

This couldn’t go wrong, could it? Rosaline had to love him. I loved him more than anything–as my BFFAE, of course.

And soon Xanny would give up on Rosaline and love me instead, and everything would be great.

But until then, this feeling of foreboding wouldn’t go away…

Chapter 11: Lyra

Visiting my grandfather, it is always joyous!

“Hope your fridge is full of fish, Dadaroni,” says my mother. In language of the sea, I would call her something unpronounceable to human tongues, but meaning is similar to “egg-provider.” My friend Sky tells me this is not so nice-sounding thing, and so I will call her mother.

“You can be sure of that, Ellie,” says my grandfather. He is my mother’s father, fertilizer of egg she hatched from! He has gray whiskers like walrus.

“All wild-caught,” says my grandfather’s life-mate Caspian. “Nothing farm-raised here.” My mother, she calls him her father’s “child-groom.” This is height of surface comedy, because Caspian is not child but mature human male! My fins are tickled whenever she says this.

Among humans, it is considered great scandal for one mate to hatch many years before the other, but my grandfather and his Caspian, they seem very happy, yes?

My mother, she is less happy on the surface…

“It’s always weird af, coming back,” she mutters. “Having legs again. Legs that suck ass. Help me stand, Kai? Need to work these muscles again.”

“Pearl of my heart, I am not liking seeing you in distress,” says my father. My parents, they are both merfolk, but my mother is half-human. Her tail is strong but her legs, they are not so strong.

“Ellie, can I do anything?” my grandfather asks, his walrus whiskers trembling.

“Lyra,” said Caspian, “come on over here and give us a hug. We’ve missed you sooo much.” My grandfather’s life-mate, who is sleek like seal, is good at creating distractions. In that way, he is like my friend Rain, but with less thunder and lightning.

Humans love to smush their mouths against dry skin, especially their granddaughter’s dry skin. Distraction successful!

My mother is in better mood afterward, probably because she is admiring my father’s scales. He likes to keep them very moist and glistening!

And then I am distracted by the entrance of my grandfather and Caspian’s child! Hee hee! This is joke, because Chorizo is dog, not child.

Small dogs, they are like piranhas of the surface! I like them very much.

“Lyra,” says Caspian, “that’s not how we hold dogs here, remember? Chorizo doesn’t have fins.”

Sometimes I am making mistakes like this, because I live deep underwater, but everyone is very kind to me! And I want to be kind to Chorizo.

“Why don’t you go swimming with your bestie,” Mom says, “while us grownups talk about boring shiz?”

I am always happy to swim with Chorizo! He is graceful swimmer, like sea turtle.

It is nice also, to return to my true form. I am very pretty, yes? I have many suitors beneath the waves. They beg to touch my tail! But I have not made my choice yet.

I wish my fins did not need to rest so soon. But Chorizo is small and needs to rest also. We will rest together.

“I am mermaid princess,” I tell him. “Why do I swim more like tadpole?”

This is joke, because small dogs cannot speak human language. Hee hee! Also, Chorizo is not sea witch. But he is very cute, yes?

My parents, they know my tail is not so strong. Sometimes I hear my mother ask my father if this is her fault, because she is half-human, but he does not think so. It is mystery! But it is one they do not get tired of, because after I finish swimming, I hear them talk about it again with my grandfather and his Caspian.

“I think it’ll do her some good, to stay with you two for a couple weeks,” says my mother. “Fresh air or whatevs. Don’t get much of that in the ocean. Fyi, she still has trouble passing as human if she’s left alone for too long, but there won’t be another Goldfish Bandit Incident, I swear.”

“We love having her here,” says my grandfather. “She can stay as long as she likes.”

“I can take her to the fish market tomorrow,” says Caspian. I love the fish market! But paying for fish, this seems strange to me.

I want to peek inside my grandfather’s cold metal box and see what fish await me!

But then I will reveal that I have been listening, so I can only look and imagine tearing into cold fish with my sharp mer-teeth…

I climb many stairs, which is how humans move up and down when they are not using elevators.

While I am here, I stay in my mother’s old room! It is decorated with creatures called “Voidcritters,” which she tells me are very real and hard to find. I have not found any, but I hope to one day.

Her room, it is like small dry world contained inside bottle! My grandfather says I can sleep in downstairs pool, but it is not so bad to live like human sometimes.

Chorizo likes to follow me! It is because he likes me, or maybe because I smell of fish and kelp.

We are both tired. It makes me feel a little better, that swimming for too long is hard on his small body also. We are alike that way.

Together, we will regain our strength and live to swim another day!

Chapter 10: Sky

Papa Griffin was right: Papa Fox returned one quiet morning, as though he’d never been gone at all. The moment I saw his face, I flung myself at him, unwilling to let my father go.

“Miss me that much, Buttersky?” he asked lightly.

“More,” I whispered, though I instantly forgave him, all of my doubts scattering like dandelion seeds.

He took my face in his hands, and stared at me for what felt like an uncommonly long time. Had he forgotten what I looked like during his time away? He was an artist; I didn’t think it was likely.

“Have I sprouted like a weed in your absence?” I asked. He was fond of saying so, even if I disliked the comparison.

“Still my lovely daughter’s face,” he murmured. “Her mother’s eyes, her father’s mouth.” He meant Papa Griffin, I knew, and the thought made me sad. I would’ve liked to more resemble Papa Fox, with his fair hair that glittered in the sunlight. “It hasn’t changed.”

“Why would it have?” I asked, but he didn’t answer.

Papa Griffin had been right about my other father’s return, but he was wrong about something else. Nothing seemed to have changed at all, with Papa Fox teasing my other two parents and claiming he’d never leave their sides again.

I knew everyone else wanted to spend time with him, but I couldn’t help but harbor a small amount of jealousy when I saw him with Cirrus. I had so much to say to Papa Fox and Cirrus so little.

And yet Papa Fox seemed to speak so easily to Cirrus… Had his conversation with me seemed more strained?

My father was never alone. He even spent time with Rain, despite her destructive proclivities. Did his embrace look more natural with her…?

“I’m glad the Sun King didn’t get you,” she said. “I was worried.”

She was no such thing! I’d been the only one to fret endlessly, the only one to search for him…

When I tried to seek out Papa Fox on his own now, he proved almost impossible to find. Was he…hiding from me?

But at last, my persistence bore fruit. “Papa Fox!” I called.

“…Sky,” he said. Was he…frightened? “Did you need something?”

“I only wanted to spend some time with my favorite parent,” I declared.

“…You shouldn’t call me your favorite. It isn’t fair.”

But I knew I was his favorite child, even if he’d never said so. What was the harm in being honest?

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I just missed you so much I could hardly bear it, and I was so certain that you left because of me, even if I couldn’t understand why…”

His expression softened. “Why don’t we go paint? For old times’ sake.”

“I’d love nothing more,” I said eagerly.

He flew me to one of his favorite mountainous painting spots, and it was reassuring when he still held my hand even after we landed.

He was all smiles once more. “Let’s create some beautiful artwork,” he said. “I’m feeling inspired.”

“So am I,” I said, inhaling the scent of the flowers surrounding us. Enveloped by such beauty, how could either of us be troubled?

Papa Fox was focused on his canvas…

…And I on mine.

Together, we painted in companionable silence.

I was quite surprised when I glanced over at his painting–instead of highlighting the flora of mountain, an unfamiliar woman was clearly the star. But it was the glimpse of Papa Fox’s mournful expression that surprised me even more…

But I didn’t say anything until we both finished, then admired our completed works side by side. A father and daughter’s artwork…

“Who is she?” I asked. “She’s very pretty.”

Rather than respond, he instead wandered over to a nearby bench. I sat beside him and waited patiently.

“My mother,” he said at last. “Lyanna.”

“Her name is pretty too,” I said, “like the woman in the painting. And it sounds familiar.” Why, when he’d never mentioned her? “Oh! I saw it engraved on a stone tablet and was struck by the loveliness of it.”

“A gravestone,” he murmured. “It’s how humans remember those they’ve lost.”

“Your mother was a human?” It was quite difficult to imagine. “How did she fade away?”

“You mope for days at the endings of sad stories. Let’s speak of happier things, shall we, daughter of mine?”

That was true, but…I was curious. And I couldn’t help but wonder if he wanted to keep it a secret from me. One secret among many.

Still, I enjoyed the time alone with my father… It was terrible with him gone for so long.

But the woman in the painting…why had a fae come to love a human? Had he found someone more beautiful since? Papa Fox had made no mention of him.

And why did the painting give off an aura of melancholy when the human’s expression was so joyful?

Lyanna. I thought I remembered where I’d found that stone tablet, surrounded by fragrant blossoms that had made me smile. The gravestone. I could find it again…and so when my time with Papa Fox ended, I sought to unravel the mystery.

I never thought to find a monster waiting there, its shadowy form darkening the verdant grass.

I tried to smother my gasp of horror, to no avail.

He raised his head in my direction. He saw me!

“Please don’t hurt me,” I whimpered.

“Never again…” he said in a hoarse, unpleasant voice, one reminiscent of dry, dead leaves crackling. Then he turned and bounded away on all fours like the beast he was, followed by that noxious black cloud.

For a while, I could only stand there and tremble, helpless. But then I dared to gaze upon Lyanna’s gravestone…

It was covered in fresh flowers. Bluebells, like the ones I’d received on my birthday.

But why would someone bring flowers to someone long since faded away…and to me as well?

I shivered despite the warmth, and thought of my brother’s birthday poem.

Like a serpent, a secret lies hidden… How much longer until I felt its bite?

Chapter 9: Ivy

“This is such a good opportunity for you,” Mom said, just like she did every time she signed me up for something against my will.

“I have to shadow a doctor? Is that even legal? Like, what if someone needs a shot in the ass or pops out a baby or something?”

“Of course it’s legal,” she said. Damn it. “You’ll get the patients’ permission, of course. Anders is your dad’s cousin, and it’s been so long since he’s been in the country, so–”

“I’m really lucky,” I finished.

Like Mom, Dad was an only child, so his cousin Caspian was basically like my uncle. I’d never met Uncle Caspian’s brother Anders, but I knew he was a vampire like two of my great-grandfathers. Both my parents were fae, though, like me. Weird.

“It’ll look so good on your college applications,” Mom continued. “You want to major in premed, don’t you? My daughter, the doctor. Dr. Ivy Strider.”

You want me to major in premed, Mom. “Right. I’m alllll about doctoring.”

She hugged me so hard I couldn’t breathe before shoving me out the door. I was surprised she didn’t drop me off there herself, but it wasn’t like I could complain. Maybe she was like, waiting on a shipment for the perfume shop or something.

…Did I seriously have to waste my Saturday on this bullshit?

I was a couple streets down when I realized I’d forgotten my lunch. I could buy something there, maybe? But then Mom would probably just drop it off in front of everyone and give me a big fat kiss on the cheek and…

…Yeah, I’d go back and grab it. Screw the public humiliation.

But I couldn’t find a packed lunch in the fridge.

“Mom,” I yelled. “Where’d you put my lunch?”

No answer. That was like, really unlike her. Was she okay? I was basically her whole life. She didn’t make mistakes like that. Where was she?

Maybe in my parents’ bedroom?

“Mooooooooooooooooooooom.”

Nothing. The bedroom door was closed…but not locked. I headed on in. I was probably going to be late, but whatever.

Some shit can’t be scooped back in the can, my dad once said. Truer words…

It was like staring into the sun. “Oh my god, Mom. This is why you forgot my lunch? Like, ew.”

“Ivy, sweetie?” she said. “I’m so sorry! Sly, get out of there. Sixteen years of good parenting down the drain…”

“I’ll just go,” I said. “If I starve to death I won’t have that image seared onto my brain anymore.”

“Oh my god, she’s going to grow up with warped views on love and sex thanks to us. This is why we shouldn’t have gone off-schedule.” My mom was already panicking, the same way she did every time something went slightly wrong. Always straight to the worst-case scenario. I heard her scrambling–probably to find her underwear.

“Easy, Clem,” Dad said. “I got this. Teachable moment, yeah? Sit down, relax.”

He caught me before I could slip out the door. Oh my god, I so didn’t need this awkwardness. “Hey,” he said. “So when a fae and a fae love each other very much…”

“You’re too late,” I said. “Mom already gave me the sex talk forever ago, plus I learned in school and from really old Yahoo Answers. I know what you were doing isn’t going to give me a baby brother or sister, so thanks for nothing. Also, you’re not allowed to kiss me on the cheek for a YEAR.”

“Look,” he said, “if a guy’s not willing to go down on you, you dump his selfish ass right then. Or her ass. Chick’s probably better at it, though.”

“Sly,” Mom called from the bed. “Do you need me to help? I can help. Ivy, if he says anything weird, just ignore him. You know the drill.”

“I’m FINE,” I called back. “Seriously. People have sex. Including my parents. I was born. I just…never needed to know you still had sex, I guess. Maybe someday I’ll have sex too and you can walk in on me and we’ll be even.”

“Not until you’re thirty, sweetie. Teenage boys can be just the worst. And guys in their twenties.”

“She means me,” Dad said proudly. “I was a real shithead back in the day.”

“…I’m shocked, Dad.” I knew they’d first met when Dad was like, my age. Crazy.

“Sweetie, do you need me to take you to the doctor’s office?” Mom asked. “Oh, I should make you lunch, I can’t believe I forgot, I’m the worst mom, I’m so sorry–”

“You’re the best mom,” I reassured her. “I wouldn’t want any other mom, okay? I’ll just head over before I’m super late. Love you, byeeee.”

Dad slipped me some cash before I left–hopefully cash that had been nowhere near his balls.

It was such a major relief to make it to the doctor’s office, which I’m pretty sure I’ve said zero times in my entire life.

But I was in for a shock when I headed inside. There was a fairy at the front desk. Like, wings out, crazy hair, everything.

“You’re here to shadow Dr. Anders, right?” she asked, translucent wings fluttering. “He’s with a patient right now, but I’ll let him know you’re here.”

“Oh, um, thanks.”

She sat down and grinned up at me. “First time seeing a fae like this in the human world? Dr. Anders wants everyone to be comfortable–patients and employees alike. No glamours if we don’t want them.”

I’d hidden my true form under a glamour ever since I was little. I never used or even showed my wings. She seemed so…happy.

Did she think I was like, a fake fae? More human than fairy? I was too afraid to ask.

“You must be Ivy,” a man said. “A pleasure to finally meet you.” I turned around and came face-to-face with…a vampire doctor, obviously.

“Dr. Anders,” said the fae at the front desk. “Your niece is gorgeous–just like you.”

One, not his niece, and two, thirsty.

“Thank you, Talia,” he said. “Ivy, why don’t we go over a few things before we get started? Follow me to my office, if you please–well, borrowed office.”

But a woman with a toddler was blocking the way. “Dr. Lyons,” she said in a heavy accent I couldn’t place. “You will come to dinner? We will have blood sausage.”

“You can call me Dr. Anders,” he said. “But I’m afraid I can’t make it to dinner tonight, Mrs. Quintero.” He had to realize she wanted him for dinner, right?

“I apologize for the interruptions,” he said, after no fewer than three other patients and one nurse stopped him in the hall to flirt. “I’m taking over for another doctor while she’s on maternity leave, so I have a lot of patient histories to catch up on.”

I plopped down into a seat on the other side of his desk. “You know they were all basically throwing their panties at you, right? Seriously, I’m not a doctor or even a premed student yet, but isn’t that like, against the law?”

He cleared his throat. “My patients are very proactive concerning their health, and everyone who works here is incredibly passionate about maintaining a high level of care for our patients.”

“That lady with the baby was super into you. Married, huh? Can’t say I blame her–if you weren’t super old and also my dad’s cousin, I’d probably be dropping my panties too.”

I tried to rein myself in outside the house–not that I really had anyone to talk to–so I wasn’t sure how this guy was going to react, even if he was family. Maybe I was hoping he’d fire me? Not that I was getting paid. But he just laughed. “You’re certainly Silas’s daughter.”

It took me a second to remember he was talking about my dad–no one called him that, and the name always freaked me out when I saw it on our mail. “So can I call you Uncle Anders?” I asked. “It’s easier than calling you Dad’s Cousin Anders, and it’ll make the receptionist feel less awkward.”

“Uncle Anders,” he repeated thoughtfully. For a second, sadness flitted across his face. He really didn’t look much older than me, with his messy hair and boyish good looks. “I never thought anyone would call me that. Yes, I’d like that, Ivy. Thank you.”

Man, no wonder everyone was all over him. He had that sad, lonely doctor vibe going on underneath his doctor’s mask of professionalism–everyone probably wanted to feed him (their blood) and give him a place to sleep (in their beds).

“Sorry my mom bullied you into letting me do this,” I said, “or however she got you to agree to it. I know it’s super annoying.”

“It’s my pleasure,” he said. “My family is far too small for my liking, and I’m always excited to nurture a young person’s passion for medicine.”

“Yeah, about that… It kind of…doesn’t exist? I’m only doing this because my mom really really wants me to become a doctor. Like, it’s her dream for me. Not mine. I don’t even know what mine is.”

I felt like I was confessing to a priest, almost. This guy just had something about him, something that made it easy to open up. Maybe that’s why he had so many fans, other than the hot vampire doctor thing.

“I’ve been in your shoes,” he said solemnly, “following a certain path in hopes of pleasing my father. I’m not a father myself”–by the way he said it, it was like he was disappointed about it–“but I believe every parent wants their child to be happy.”

So that was his fatal flaw–he was a handsome idiot. There were lots of shitty parents in the world, obviously. “Yeah, maybe…”

My mom wasn’t shitty, but I knew she’d only be happy if I did every single thing she’d planned out for me.

Even if I ever made it out of the house someday, I was trapped for life.

Chapter 8: Cosette

“This has to work,” I said to Rowan. “Right? He’s perfect.”

“…”

Rosaline wasn’t in any of her top seven favorite libraries or top four favorite bookstores, but I was pretty sure I’d tracked her down to one of her top five favorite graveyards.

My big sister loved graveyards, partly because she was an aspiring necromancer and partly because almost everybody was dead and couldn’t bother her while she read.

She was probably down in the mausoleum so she wouldn’t have to deal with any grieving visitors–and so she wouldn’t have to squint while she tried to read in the harsh sunlight. The sun could be a curse for her too, even if she wasn’t a vampiress.

“She’s going to love Gasbone Three-point-oh,” I said as I dragged Rowan into the mausoleum–I could tell he was a little scared. Gasbone 3.0 followed us. I’d never met 1.0, because he’d died before I was born, but my sister had.

Ouaf ouaf,” said Gasbone. Apparently that was all he could say aside from his name…Rosaline would have to teach him new stuff.

She hadn’t noticed us yet, surrounded by coffins and lost in her book like always.

Gasbone started to bark…and even his barks sounded fancy.

He dropped down on all fours…and ran toward Rosaline. “Ouaf ouaf! Ouaf! Ouaf ouaf ouaf!” He was so excited!

Rosaline was oblivious, like she always was while reading. If a book was interesting enough, the whole world was dead to her. No wonder she never paid attention to Xanny.

But then she couldn’t stay oblivious anymore…

Sniff sniff

“What is the meaning of this?!” she demanded.

But instead of getting mad at Gasbone, she got mad at me and Rowan. Oops.

“Do outline your thought process behind turning my beloved canine companion into…that,” she said through gritted teeth. “I fail to understand the intended purpose.”

“How’d you know it was me?” I asked. I didn’t want Rowan to take the blame too, not when it was my idea.

“The spellwork was sloppy,” said Rosaline. “And don’t think I failed to recognize Rowan’s magical profile as well, Cosette. Rowan, you’re older than she is; I’m disappointed you let her lead you down an unfortunate path once again.”

“…”

“It’s not his fault,” I said. “And it was supposed to be a gift. For you. I decided to follow in Maman’s professional matchmaker footsteps…and create your perfect match.”

“Gaston was already perfect,” she said, “and part of his appeal is his inability to speak, along with his unfailing loyalty. Objectively speaking, a dog is the very definition of an ideal creature.”

“But you have to admit, it was pretty awesome how I barely paid attention to Papa’s lessons and still turned a dog into a hot guy.”

“I’m pleased that you’ve shown initiative in your magical studies,” said Rosaline, “but you could’ve inflicted great harm upon yourself–or Gaston and Rowan. I must strongly urge caution, Cosette.”

“But I’m cursed,” I said. “There’s no point in being cautious, really.” That’s why this hadn’t worked–the curse. If Gasbone 3.0 had been able to speak perfect French and tell Rosaline how beautiful she was, everything would’ve been fine.

Rosaline sighed and shook her head. “At least your tenuous enchantment will be simple enough to undo…”

“Or you could leave it,” I suggested. “Maybe Gasbone Three-point-oh will grow on you.” And you’ll fall in looooove

“Absolutely not.” She didn’t waste any time in undoing me and Rowan’s hard work…

And Gasbone 3.0’s drivers were rolled back to 2.0…

Rosaline finally smiled for the first time since we got there. Maybe some things–and undead dogs–were just irreplaceable.

She left with Gasbone, but I didn’t follow. I thought about the picture I’d found crumpled in Rosaline’s trash, which I only went through sometimes. Every year that Xanny visited, he’d give her a pic of himself, and it always ended up in the same place…

The latest addition to my collection was my favorite, and not just because he was shirtless.

He looked all brooding and lonely, like the heroes on Aunt Ophelia’s novel covers. If Rosaline would just fall in love with someone else, then Xanny could move on too. I wanted to be the one to make him feel better, but now…

“Why do I have to be cursed?” I asked, my voice muffled against Rowan’s rough, tree bark-y chest.

Rowan didn’t say anything, because of course he couldn’t, but he was still a good BFFAE who always listened.

Rowan was quiet…and always loyal. Wasn’t that exactly what Rosaline just said she wanted in her perfect match?

“Hey,” I said, sniffling. “New plan…”

“…?”

“You’ll help me again, right? It won’t even involve magic or beloved family pets. Of course you will–you’re my BFFAE.”

But for some reason, even though I was sure it’d work, I didn’t feel very good about it…

Chapter 7: Sky

“I don’t think Papa Fox is really painting,” I said, struggling to hold back tears. Like Rain, I didn’t look very pretty when I cried. “I think he’s hiding. From us.” From me.

When Mama spoke, her voice was soft and soothing. “Sometimes, when we’re hurting or confused, we still want to pretend to be happy around the ones we love most. But even that can become too difficult…and it’s easier to take some time alone to heal.”

“But I want to help him heal. I don’t even know what’s wrong with him, Mama.”

“Neither do I,” she admitted.

Papa Griffin knows.” I’d overheard their fight, even if I didn’t know what it was about.

“He knows too much sometimes. I know we live so close together, the six of us, but we’re all still entitled to privacy when we need it most. Even your father.”

“But I miss him.”

“You’re not alone,” Mama said. “You still have two other parents and a brother and sister who love you.”

I smiled back at her, and it was then I understood Papa Fox a little bit better. It hurt to pretend that I wasn’t scared and lonely simply to ease everyone else’s burdens.

Rain still didn’t seem concerned about his absence, and Cirrus was nowhere to be found, so I decided to search for our missing father on my own. I’d visit every single place he could possibly be…

Starting with his favorite painting spots. I didn’t want to believe he lied. I wanted to find him lost in his art, overtaken by beauty and inspiration.

“Where are you?” I whispered.

Only the breeze ruffling blossom-laden branches answered me.

Next, I sought out the little cottage he built with Papa Griffin. It was too small to comfortably fit all of us, but I knew that sometimes he went here with Papa Griffin when Mama was away. They both got lonely without her.

She should’ve been able to understand my aching heart…or maybe she did, and she was pretending too.

But the cottage was empty.

I traveled as far as a distant mountain, one on the border of our tiny kingdom…

…And even painted alone, in hopes of distracting myself from my troubles.

Rather than capturing the lovely landscape, I produced an image that left me uneasy, one far different from my usual work. Something a human might paint, perhaps.

And yet I still wanted to know what Papa Fox would say about it…

After that, I wandered aimlessly, venturing farther and farther from home. I would always know the way back, and if I didn’t, familiar birdsong would lead me there. And there was beauty to be found even here, silent as it was…

Who had lived here–and what had become of them? Was someone seeking them out now, as I sought Papa Fox? Or were they lost and forgotten…?

If I never returned home…would anyone ever look for me? Or would Mama say that they still had Rain and Cirrus and that was all they needed?

“I’ll just live here,” I decided. “Papa Fox can come look for me when he gets back.”

As if in response, I heard the sound of stone grinding against stone–a hideous noise, one that made me wince.

“…Is someone there?”

The stone tiles rumbled in front of me, and I finally looked up–and immediately jumped up from the ruined steps I’d so idly sat upon.

I screamed.

A massive gargoyle reared up before me, eyes glowing red at the sound of my voice. Was it some wicked denizen of this place? Nothing back home could harm us; we were entirely safe.

But I was far from home now, and alone.

…Until some manner of…terrible beast, wrapped in tendrils of smoke, appeared at my side.

I could only stare and tremble helplessly. Which one of them would tear me apart first? My eyes began to water. I’d never see my family ever again.

“Run,” rasped the smaller of the two monsters, sharp teeth glinting through the smoke. Did he want to chase me down before he ate me?

It lunged at the larger monster, growling fiercely. It had already claimed me as its meal, and wanted no competition.

I didn’t want to be either monster’s meal. I ran. And ran…

…Straight into the strong arms of… “Papa Fox?” I whispered, my vision blurry with tears.

“I know he’s your favorite,” said Papa Griffin, “but I’m your dad too, Sky.”

“He’s not my…” I cut my protest short. Lies were an ugly thing, and he already knew the truth. “Will he ever come back? Will things ever go back to the way they were before he left…?”

“He’ll come back,” he said, in the self-assured voice of someone who saw the future. “But…I don’t think things are gonna be the same. Not for a while…”

“Will I ever find out why…?”

Papa Griffin hesitated. “If you do,” he said softly, “you’ll regret it.”

I was scared. But the fear of the unknown, of all the terrible, heartbreaking possibilities, was far worse than any possible truth.

Wasn’t it?

Chapter 6: Ivy

“I so won’t tell Mom you left me all alone in the shop, promise,” I said, my legs swinging over the edge of the counter. “She totally won’t even find out–unless I get kidnapped. But I bet she’ll find me before the cops can anyway, thanks to my secret GPS implant.”

Dad snorted. “Pretty damn sure you don’t have a GPS implant, Ivy.”

“That you know about.”

“She loves you.”

“Does she?” I said. “She hasn’t told me in like, the past five minutes. Maybe I should check my texts.”

She said she loved me ALL THE TIME, like she had OCD or something and couldn’t help it. Or like, early onset dementia and maybe she forgot? She still left me notes in the “perfectly balanced” lunches she packed for me… I had to crumple them up and toss them before anyone else could see. I’d literally die.

“Hey,” Dad said, weirdly serious all of a sudden. “Go easy on your mom, kid. Never know when the next conversation you have with her will be your last.”

“Oh my god,” I said, wobbling on the countertop. I had to grab the edge to steady myself. “Does Mom have like…cancer? Can fae even get cancer? Am I going to be mom-less?” I really didn’t want anything to happen to her.

“Nah,” he said. “She’s fine. But still…some shit can’t be scooped back in the can, you know? Your mom…she’s got some regrets. I just want the best for my two special ladies.”

“And you also want to sneak upstairs and watch football in your underwear.” There was a tiny living space above the flower shop, which I’d loved “camping out” in as a little kid. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell Mom about that either.”

“Hey, I gotta do important businessman stuff, kid. Inventory and shit. Expense reports. Uh. Taxes. …I can keep going until you bitch about how boring being an adult sounds.”

“Yeah, I’m good. Have fun, Dad.”

He grunted. “I won’t.”

It was a quiet morning at the shop–I had the day off from school thanks to some teacher planning holiday or whatever, so it wasn’t a real holiday that’d bring in a ton of business, but mom had to run the perfume shop. She gave me a choice of which shop to “help out” at…sorry, Mom.

I felt bad enough to diligently study for AP Biology when there were zero customers…

The chimes hanging from the door clinked together, but I barely paid attention…until I noticed all the flowers in the entire shop were swaying together, like they were outside or something. Maybe a really strong wind from the door?

There was a guy standing there, around my age maybe.

It wasn’t Valentine’s Day…Mother’s Day, maybe? His mom’s birthday? It was weird for someone his age to come in alone.

He didn’t say anything, instead perusing our selection. He wasn’t wearing any shoes, but we were right by the beach, and I was pretty sure Dad never kicked anyone out for missing articles of clothing.

It wasn’t like he could be a shoplifter. There were fae enchantments in both shops that deterred any mischief, either of the fae or human variety. I wasn’t sure if he was human…but like, he didn’t exactly seem fae either? Dad was way more into the fae thing than Mom, who rarely talked about it, so I wasn’t an expert or anything.

“Welcome,” I said, in a voice that was a little too loud and waaay too cheerful. “Can I interest you in some fresh cut flowers today?”

Luckily, he came up to the counter instead of beelining for the door or mumbling a “just looking” and shuffling around awkwardly.

“Hello,” he said, in a voice so soft I had to lean forward to hear him better. “You’re Ivy.”

“Um. I’m aware?” Should I be creeped out right now? Or did everyone know the girl with the helicopter mom who had way too much school spirit? “Do you go to Lily Beach High School or something? Sorry, I’m not good with names.”

“We should’ve met before,” he said, a little sadly. Wow. Was he flirting?

“Yeah, my mom’s like…kind of crazy?” I said, even though I didn’t really think she was crazy–just a little obsessed. But who didn’t complain about their parents? “I doubt she’d even let me talk to a guy without her listening in.”

“The skittish gardener,
Fearing another deadly frost,
Singes delicate leaves
With her warmth.”

“Wow, did you come up with that yourself? You’re so talented.” I didn’t really know if he was talented or not, but I liked people who were creative. All I knew how to do was play songs someone else had written–usually someone dead.

“It was in my head,” he said, “but it was meant for you. I have to go,” he added suddenly. The announcement made me sadder than it should’ve. I didn’t even know the guy, but…ugh.

“Will I see you again, do you think?”

“I can’t see the future.”

“Can anyone?” I asked with a laugh.

“Yes.” He was so strange. But it was so refreshing, to actually talk to someone my own age alone, someone who wasn’t my mom or dad, even for two seconds. He was probably an honors student with a zillion extracurriculars like me–I just felt this like, connection somehow.

“Farewell, Ivy. I hope we meet again.” For the first time, he smiled, and it was like sunshine filtering through tree branches or like…something poetic, I don’t even know.

“…You can stop by whenever you want,” I mumbled. “I’m not always here but…I wouldn’t mind selling you flowers. We have some really cheap carnations, and they’re not even that small.”

I was pretty sure his smile widened–just a little–but it didn’t stop him from leaving. But when I went to the window to watch which direction he was going, he was nowhere to be found.

It wasn’t a crush or anything–Mom always said I was too smart for distractions, and boys were like, distraction number one.

But I really hoped we’d meet again. Next time, I’d ask his name.