Jarrod wasn’t going to make it. His breath was a phlegmy rattle in his chest, his bones screamed, his pack was too heavy to bear, and it was pouring rain. At least the needle-like stinging sleet had abated. Stopping beneath a sidewalk elm, he reached out a hand, seeking communion with another being bounded in by concrete, cars, and steel. The branches were bare, and the tree was half asleep. The change was coming fast and, comforting as the tree was, he was still far too exposed.
Pushing off from the tree, Jarrod tried to gain enough momentum to make it to the tattered blue awning ten steps ahead. Maybe that would hide him well enough. The tip of his right boot caught on the concrete cut out around the tree. He sprawled to the sidewalk, scraping his hands. His backpack slid up and smacked the base of his skull, cracking his head on the sidewalk.
Everything went black.
What a shitty week. The lawyers had dumped everything on her last minute, trying to get everything done before the holidays. And then, an asshole in the bar decided he could slide his hand under her skirt. She’d smacked his hands away and shoved him to the floor. The dude started foaming at the mouth about assault. The bartender and another patron had wrestled him away from her and someone else asked if she needed a car service. Callie shook her head and downed her whiskey, which was a shame. It was a quality single malt she’d planned on sipping as she read a book for a quiet half an hour on the longest night.
She no longer called herself a Pagan, but she still marked the Winter Solstice in her own way, raising a toast to the year as it past.
Well, this year could go to hell.
Now she was back out on the street, walking the five blocks home past the light industrial warehouses, the fenced-in yard filled with stacks of old tires, and the auto body shop on the corner. The neighborhood would gentrify eventually. The shift was already coming. The dive bars slowly grew more upscale, there were more cafés and restaurants moving in, and even a small used bookstore which she frequented every other Saturday.
If she hadn’t lived here for the past five years, she would never have walked home by herself at night. Certainly not in a skirt and boots with two-inch heels. At least her raincoat was warm and had a big hood that she flung up over her blond hair. The hood gave her tunnel vision which wasn’t the safest thing in the world, but it kept the rain off.
“Shit!” She almost tripped over a man, lying face down on the sidewalk. It seemed like he was out cold. He lay crumpled on the stretch of sidewalk next to the corrugated siding of the auto body shop. His black trench coat splayed out around him, and one of those sleek, businessman’s backpacks had slid up his back, resting halfway on his bare head. Bending down, Callie peered at his face. She could barely make out his features in the gloom. Portland needed more goddamn street lights.
She stripped one of her gloves off her hands and gingerly place two fingers and his throat. There was a pulse, but it felt weak.
“Help me.” She barely caught the words.
Jarrod came to, smelling oil and rain, mud and steel. He needed to get away from the iron in the wall. Too close. How the hell had he ended up in this neighborhood, anyway? His friend had told him about a great bar, out of the way, still real, he said. What Raul had failed to mention was that it was in the middle of a semi-industrial area, surrounded by iron and steel. Iron and steel were well and fine most times of the year, but not tonight. Not on solstice eve. The big tides of the year, when the veils were thin, made it almost impossible for him to not shift. He was just lucky he’s been able to hold it together long enough, so that wings weren’t popping out of his back. At least he didn’t think they were.
He felt the rasp of concrete under his cheek and tasted the sickness of iron in the back of his throat. Most of the time he was human, and these things barely bothered him. But tonight? He was half shifted into his fae being.
He wanted to be in the middle of trees and soil––hearing the rain on pine needles––so badly he could almost a weep for it. The fingers on his right hand moved, trying to clutch at the sidewalk, but he didn’t have the strength to push himself upright.
And then he sensed her. A human. She smelled warm and wonderful, with just a hint of peppermint and something else. He inhaled, snorting at the rain running off his nose. Whiskey. She smelled of whiskey. And then she touched him, sending a shiver of warmth down his neck. As badly as he wanted to be fae, sometimes he wanted to be human more.
“Are you all right?” She spoke, through the rain and the night, her voice like an afternoon in May, with undercurrents of winter’s worry.
He could hear her, she could tell. His pulse grew slightly stronger beneath her fingers. One hand pushed against the sidewalk, and he groaned.
“Do you need me to get help? Can you sit up?”
He groaned again, this time pushing against the concrete with greater success. Callie tugged his backpack down and slipped a hand under one arm, trying to help him.
“Here, let’s lean you up against the wall.”
He shook his head, then winced.
Scanning the sidewalk, the closest thing to lean him against was a bare elm a few paces away, but the tree was surrounded by mud and water, and she wasn’t sure she could move him that far.
“Can I call a friend for you?”
He put his weight on her then, almost dragging her down. She planted her boots and braced herself against him, forming a tripod of their bodies and the ground. That seemed to work, and together, they got somewhat upright. Enough to stagger toward the elm, where he leaned, panting, face turned upward toward the falling rain.
A handsome, bedraggled man. Not houseless. He was too well kempt for that, and his clothes and gear were too nice. He looked Asian, she thought, but there was also some cast to his features she couldn’t quite place.
And he was…shining?
“How?” she whispered. “How are you shining?”
Shit. A civilian had seen him. Damn it. He thought he had enough time. Time to meet Raul for a quick, celebratory drink, and then off to his well-wooded home near Powell Butte, just east of this industrial hell-hole he was in now. But there hadn’t been a spot outside the bar to park his tiny plastic, electric car. And he’d become bewildered by all the iron. Not prepared for it.
He couldn’t be prepared. Not with solstice only hours away.
“I’m shining?” he said, stalling for time. His breath hurt going in and out of his chest, and his bones ached. The space behind his shoulder blades itched like crazy, waiting for his wings to come in.
No. They couldn’t. Not yet.
What was he going to do? There was no way he could drive like this, but there was also no way to ward off the change at this point. And around all of this iron? It would hurt a lot worse than usual.
He felt her standing there, shuffling from foot to foot, confused and worried.
“I can call a car service for you,” she finally said.
He looked into her eyes, peering out from beneath that hood. The planes of her face were damp with rain. Her eyes were hazel green. Like leaves at the summer’s end.
“Is there a park nearby?” he asked. “A garden?”
She held his gaze, not speaking. Thinking.
Beneath his raincoat, he began to shake and sweat.
“I have a garden,” she replied. “But it’s a few blocks away. Can you make it that far?”
What the hell, Callie? Are you nuts? You can’t bring this guy to your house!
But she had a garden. A nice one. And a covered porch out back where he could at least get out of the rain.
His face changed, relief softening the lines on his forehead, gratitude spilling into his eyes. He was definitely shining now. It was so weird. Maybe he was one of those Twilight-type vampires, weakened from lack of blood? That would be just her luck: to stumble from one asshole predator to another.
He adjusted the pack on his back and took a step away from the tree.
“That would be wonderful,” he said. “Can you lead me there?”
She stared at him for the space of two long breaths, and then nodded. She’d decided. He seemed safe enough, and she wouldn’t let him in the house. And something in her trusted him, and something else wanted to know what the hell he was, to shine that way.
The three-block walk was excruciating, though things got a little better once they left that auto body shop and the big street behind. They walked past houses set back from the road behind tangled winter gardens. He could already smell the three pines that towered from some backyards a block away.
She hurried on ahead of him, the sound of her boot heels on the concrete muted by the damp and the sound of the steadily falling rain.
Finally, they reached a tidy, two-story bungalow with large wooden pillars holding up a broad porch.
Taking a concrete path that wound around the building, the woman led him to a wooden gate and snicked up the latch.
He followed her into a dim space between house and fence and gasped as the space opened out to the most perfect place he’d ever seen.
It was a garden filled with hollows and ivy, those three pine trees mighty sentinels in the corner of the yard. Though only one stood on this side of the fence, it was clear the trees were fast friends of long standing. What looked like Japanese maples dotted the rest of the yard, and in the corner opposite the pines were two garden boxes covered in damp straw.
He stepped onto the springy, spongy ground cover, and spread his arms out wide. His shoulder blades itched something terrible now. He needed to get his backpack off. He needed to be free.
The man stood in her garden, arms outstretched as if he could embrace the rain. The shine was even brighter now. He glowed in the darkness.
She didn’t know how that was even possible, but there it was, in the middle of her backyard.
If she hadn’t given up on such things years ago, she would have called it magic. But a series of bad heartbreaks, a coven headed up by a manipulative priestess, some failed jobs…no spellwork had helped her with any of it. She’d ended up feeling duped and disillusioned. She’d given up trying any of it.
But even if she’d decided magic wasn’t real, she missed the sense of wonder and possibility all the same.
He shucked off his pack and dropped it to the ground. The tide was turning and he desperately needed to shift. His coat came off next. He didn’t need to be naked for the shift to come. Far from it. Here in the human realms, his feathered wings were made of air and light. Oh, he could manifest physical wings, but the cost was too high. Too painful.
He felt his limbs begin to change and growled, low in the back of this throat. Arms and legs and torso lengthened and stretched, his heartbeat changed, growing more rapid.
Sight, sound, smell, touch, everything flooded in at once, amplified. It was painful to be fey, but magnificent, too. He felt his wings burst forth and heard a gasp behind him. He gloried in the sense, in their lightness and brightness. His wings lit up the garden, casting a multi-colored glow across the branches of the trees, the copse of ivy, the shimmering cascade of rain.
But here in the human realms, he could not fly. That was the sorrow in the heart of every faery here, whether they chose to stay or had been left behind.
Standing on her back porch, keys in hand, she questioned bringing the man home. He was definitely strange. Maybe the conk on the head he must’ve gotten had scrambled his brains or something…
He stood, arms still outstretched, right at the edge of the ivy filled copse, where the garden hollowed out between the trunks of two Japanese maples and a cherry tree. His clothing pressed against his skin, soaking wet.
And then he changed.
She could see it, almost feel it, as he grew taller and slimmer than before.
A burst of light dazzled her eyes, and she gasped, and dropped her keys, clapping a hand across her mouth.
Her garden glowed in a cascade of colored lights from his…from his…
Wings. From his actual, honest to goodness wings.
“You’re a faery,” she whispered.
Somehow, even over the sound of pouring rain, he must have heard her, because he turned, a smile on his narrow face, eyebrows arched up toward his dark hairline. It looked as if his ears had grown sharp tips.
“How?” she asked.
“There is magic everywhere,” he said, walking toward her. She took a step back, further into the shelter of the porch and the safety of her home.
Then he stopped and frowned, the colors shimmering over his clothing flashed and deepened, changing hue.
“Well, there used to be magic everywhere,” he looked around the wet garden, then back toward her, “but much of it has gone into hiding now.”
He laughed at that, a sharp bark, then swept a hand down his glowing form.
“I’m not doing a great job, am I?”
She stepped down from the porch, back out into the rain, only realizing her hood was no longer up when the cold water hit her scalp and face. Callie found she didn’t care. She just wanted to be near this glowing…man? Faery?
“It’s Solstice Eve,” he replied. “Solstices, equinoxes, and the cross-quarter days…the tides turn, the veils grow thinner between the worlds, especially late fall and spring.”
“Samhain and Beltane,” she said, blinking as his wings flashed. She had blocked all of that, given it up as stupid superstition. The philosophy of people long dead, or the deluded few who clung to outdated thinking in a world of computers small enough to fit into pockets, and all the world’s knowledge available with a button’s click.
“Yes. The solstices and equinoxes have their own strengths, though it would take too long to explain it all right now.”
“You seem better.”
He nodded, smiling once again. “Yes. The change is painful, but fighting it during the great tides of the year is even worse.”
“And living as a human?”
His mouth turned into a wry grimace. “That is painful, too.” He caught her eyes. “Isn’t it?”
“It is,” she said, stepping toward him, her boots squishing on the soft ground cover. “Would you like to come in? I can make us tea and you can tell me all about it.”
This was definitely still weird, but Callie’s heart felt lighter than it had for a long time.
“That is kind,” Jarrod told the woman, “but if it’s all right with you, I’d prefer to stay outside. This place feels nice. You must keep your local fey very happy.”
And she must have. The small creatures who masked themselves as opossums and squirrels, crows and wrens must have felt well fed in such a place. That was why the garden felt like a tiny slice of home. He wondered where they were now. Were they in their faery forms, hidden inside burrows and under eaves? They were often hard to catch sight of, the smaller fey, even for one such as himself.
“You have a lot to tell me,” she said. “But I need a cup of tea for that. If you’d like to tell me, that is…I can make us something and bring it out. Sit on the porch here.”
His heart warmed, and he felt his wings pulse brighter. He smiled at her, at this human who took it all in so easily, and wanted to hear more.
“I would like that,” he replied. “it would be the finest solstice gift I’ve had in years.”
She smiled back at him and nodded.
“It will be for me, too.”
This story is part of the Faery Shifters world. Look for the new series sometime in 2019.
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