Unseemly

by shukyou (主教)

“Aunt Linda, did…” Paul had no idea how to word this question. “Did Mom and Dad … sell me?”

He wanted to hear her laugh at that, amused by what seemed to her a rare show of whimsy from her straitlaced nephew. He wanted to hear her express utter confusion, wondering why the hell a question like that would pop into his head. He wanted her to ask for clarification, to blame ears that weren’t as young as they used to be on what must obviously have been a mishearing.

Instead, she was quiet.

Paul found himself leaning against the wall for support. Outside, the sun had already settled behind the horizon, shading the sky on toward night — the shortest night of the year, in fact, following the longest day. He’d been thinking about going jogging later, once the evening started cooling down, then treating himself to dinner from one of the food trucks along the bayfront, maybe a beer, maybe even two. A man didn’t turn thirty-five every day after all. He’d been thinking about all of that, but he wasn’t going to do any of it now, because he was making a phone call to his mother’s older sister, because he wanted her to assure him that the world still made sense.

She did just the opposite. “Why,” she began, her voice soft, “do you ask?”

Paul looked over at the man sitting on his couch, who looked back at Paul with an expression that perfectly said I told you so.

“No reason,” Paul lied. 

After a beat, Aunt Linda cleared her throat. “Well, the answer is no,” she declared at last, “because that would be ridiculous. They didn’t sell you or anything like that. It was just a … a weird idea they got into their heads. Everything was a little tense, what with her being an older mother and all.” Paul’s mother had been forty-six at the time of his birth. Sometimes she and his father had been mistaken for his grandparents at PTA meetings. “And that was even after she’d been told by all the doctors that she couldn’t get pregnant.”

Even though Paul had the phone pressed tight to his ear, the man smiled and nodded along with what Paul’s maternal aunt was saying, as though he remembered those days well. That, of course, was ridiculous; the man on his couch couldn’t have been twenty if he was a day. He wore a suit of pink fabric that made Paul think of the centers of cherry blossoms, the bold little hearts that faded out into white, and Paul was not the kind of man to think much about cherry blossoms, period.

“But nothing happened,” Aunt Linda added quickly. “They were paranoid at the time, with all the doctors telling them about the risks of older women getting pregnant. But then you popped right out and you were perfect! Everybody’s an overprotective parent when it’s their first time. I think you were about two years old before I saw you without one or the other of them keeping an eye on you. You were their special boy and they loved you very much.”

The sinking feeling in Paul’s chest had started when the man in the pink suit had shown up at his work that afternoon, and hadn’t stopped its downward trajectory since. He hadn’t even had the chance to change out of his coveralls. He still smelled like oil changes and tire rotations. He had grease under his fingernails.

“Why…” Through the connection, Paul could hear her lips press together. “Is everything okay, honey?”

“Everything’s fine.” Paul sighed and raked his fingers back through his hair. “Just going through some old paperwork from their estate. That’s all. I’ll call you later. Give my love to Uncle Dave.”

Paul was the product of a loving marriage between two spirited, adventurous, and deeply flaky people. They had thrown themselves fully into Sixties hippie counterculture, ridden it all the way through the Seventies, and by the Eighties found themselves middle-aged with few practical life skills. As such, Paul had quickly become the adult of his small family, the middle man between the necessities of day-to-day living and the fanciful dreams of his parents. From the age of six or so, he’d had full rein over the family finances, or the bills would never have been paid on time. His father illustrated children’s books, his mother created wind sculptures from reclaimed objects, and Paul had compensated by never developing the slightest bit of imagination. He did not believe in ghosts, witches, angels, demons, luck, gods, karma, or any related concepts. And he certainly did not believe in fairies. In fact, if he had, for some reason, felt compelled to make a list of exactly what he did not believe in, in order of the intensity with which he did not believe it, fairies would have been very close to the “definite no” end of the spectrum.

Thus, having one sitting on his couch was not a comfortable sensation. Paul slipped his phone into his pocket. He cleared his throat. He desperately tried to think of something to say that wasn’t the most obvious thing to say, which was I guess you’re right.

The man in the pink suit hopped to his feet and peered over the rims of his small sunglasses. He wasn’t much shorter than Paul, but there was a way he moved that made him seem too light, almost more air than substance. “Settled, then. Shall we?”

“What makes you think I won’t call the cops,” Paul said, an empty threat if ever there had been one.

The man sighed and raked his fingers back through his wild chestnut hair, pulling it just far enough back from his face that Paul could see how the tops of his ears pulled up into sharp little points. “You invited me in.”

That, strangely enough, was true. Paul’s cramped one-bedroom apartment was seldom if ever used for entertaining guests. He hadn’t had a hookup worth bringing home since before he’d moved in. He disliked letting even the super inside. But the man in the cherry-blossom suit had knocked and asked if he could come inside, and Paul had let him in, just like that, without even asking why. Paul cleared his throat again, just for something to do. “And you said you were, again…?”

The man snatched up Paul’s hand and, before Paul could react, kissed Paul’s knuckles. “Duke of Small Buttons, Lord of the Shaded Regions, cherished son of the Tenth House, eighth in line to the throne of the Unseelie Court, and” –he fluttered a gilt piece of paper with fancy script on it– “holder of the contract for one male child born of Allen Song and Mildred Yaling Jones: Prince Corncockle, at your service.”

No. No, Paul had hit his limit. The small buttons had been the proverbial back-breaking straw; everything else had just confirmed the correctness of his decision. Paul reached out and grabbed the man — Prince Corncockle, if he really wanted to call himself something that stupid — by his upper arm. He was light, as light as he looked, almost too insubstantial to be real. But Paul simply wasn’t going to deal with it anymore, and that meant not letting impossibilities take up another second of his mind. The man was surprised by the sudden contact, which gave Paul the leverage he needed. In seconds, his barely invited guest was on the other side of Paul’s front door, with that same door closed between them.

There followed a few more minutes of knocking, which Paul studiously ignored. He went about fixing himself dinner instead, and by the time his stir-fry was finished, everything was quiet again. Paul sat down on his couch, turned on ESPN, and proceeded to put the entire ridiculous incident from his mind.

 

~*~

 

“Hey, Paul,” called his boss as Paul walked into the garage’s office to start his workday. “Soon as you clock in, there’s a customer waiting for you in the far bay.”

Now that was a bit strange. Paul was accustomed to unexpectedly busy mornings, where it was all hands on deck from the moment the OPEN sign hit the door. But there were at least three other guys already doing tasks that were lower-priority than helping a waiting customer. “Everything okay?” Paul asked as he keyed in the code that would start his day.

“Yeah, it’s all good.” His boss jerked his thumb out in the direction of the work area. “He’s got a Ducati, and he wanted our best bike guy to take a look at it. I told him you’d be here any minute.”

Paul couldn’t argue with that; of all his co-workers, he was hands-down the one who knew the most about motorcycles. He nodded his understanding and walked out, ready to solve whatever mechanical problems the day had for him.

When he got out there, however, he realized quickly that there was no motorcycle in the far bay. There was instead a very large deer.

Paul rubbed his eyes. Was this some kind of practical joke the guys were playing on him? When he jerked his head around to look back at the office, though, he saw through the window that none of the guys were paying any attention to him, much less watching for the punchline of his reaction. God, it was a big deer, too. Was it even still a deer when it was that big? Wait, did it have a saddle on it? Was it a model of some kind?

No, it was alive; it turned its head to look at Paul and snorted, making Paul jump so hard he knocked over a pile of wrenches. The noise got the attention of his boss, who looked out, saw what had caused the sound, and turned back, bored, to the endless spreadsheets on his computer. Apparently the sight of a giant maybe-deer-maybe-not-deer taking up a car’s worth of space was not even worth a second glance.

That was when Paul saw the man, the weirdo calling himself Corncockle (and no, Paul was still not over that one), standing by the deer. “Good morning,” said Corncockle with another of his charming little bows. Today’s suit was double-breasted and a dappled brown, making Paul think of the coats of fauns, like Bambi. Corncockle was still wearing his sunglasses, but he had pushed them up on his forehead, shoving back his shaggy hair from his pale face. He was a good-looking guy, definitely working that twink appeal. Too bad he was obviously completely insane, to say nothing of the deer.

Paul inched closer, half-expecting the animal to charge him, antlers and hooves flying. But it honestly looked bored by its surroundings, as though it pretended to be a motorcycle every day. “What are … what is…?”

“This is Swift, my noble steed.” Corncockle stroked its neck, which seemed to please the giant deer.

“And how did you…?” Paul looked back over his shoulder one more time, in the desperate hope that maybe this time everyone would jump out and show off the hidden cameras recording this prank. No one did. “How did you get that in here?”

Corncockle shrugged. “I rode him in.”

Somehow that answer was even more infuriating than Paul had thought possible. “But that’s–” Paul drew in a deep breath through his nose and let it out through pursed lips before speaking again. “My boss. Would not. Let you ride. A deer. Into here.”

“Firstly, Swift is a reindeer,” Corncockle said. Paul, who could identify different motorcycles by the sounds their engines made, was not fussed by the correction. “And secondly, he did not see me ride a deer into here. He saw me ride a black-and-yellow Ducati Diavel 1260S with a twin-cylinder, 1262-cc, desmodromic Ducati Testastretta DVT engine in here.”

“Do you–” Paul raked his fingers back through his hair. “Do you even know what any of those words mean?”

“Not a one,” Corncockle answered with complete confidence. “But I know that it’s expensive enough that when you say you want the mechanic with the most experience handling motorcycles, the person in charge sends the mechanic with the most experience handling motorcycles to talk with you.”

Paul hated that he had to concede that point. He folded his arms across his chest and huffed out air through his nose. In a way, he was glad for how awkwardly Corncockle described this theoretical bike, because it was better for Paul to focus on than the idea that a deer could look like a motorcycle, or vice versa. Well, either way, it was time to get this over with. “What do you want?”

“I want you to fulfill your contract and come back to the Unseelie Court with me,” said Corncockle, like those were words people actually said in that order.

“Well, no,” Paul said. “Sorry,” he added, even though he wasn’t.

Corncockle let out a little laugh. “It isn’t your place to say no. I have your contract.”

“You can’t just own someone.”

“I can and I do.” Corncockle took a step closer. Somehow the fabric of his suit shifted in the morning light through the bay doors, making his movements hard to track. It was probably just the weird print of his suit, but Paul couldn’t stop watching, waiting for his eyes to make sense of the effect. “Don’t you know anything about faeries?”

Paul snorted again. “I know they don’t exist.”

“That is rude and hurtful.” Corncockle held a hand to his chest, right over the bright gold tie that seemed to spill like liquid from his neck down to where the folds of his jacket hid it beneath. “Look, your parents, in good faith, knowingly made a deal. They wanted a child. They got one. But you were, at best, only ever on loan. Out of respect for them, I didn’t even try to pull any Changeling shit, swapping you out and hoping they wouldn’t notice. I was simply patient. But patience is not forbearance. Their deaths — and I assume I’m sorry for your loss — do not change anything.”

This was far more than Paul should be expected to endure on a Tuesday morning. What was worse, he was actually starting to entertain all this like it was a proposition worth discussing, and not just the clear delusions of a very attractive but nonetheless very mentally not-good young man. “So I just…” He gestured around to the garage, the city, the world as he knew it in general. “You want me to hop on your deer, forget my whole life, and ride off with you to fairy land?”

“Faerie.”

Paul frowned. “What?”

“Faerie,” Corncockle repeated.

“Fairy.”

“Faerie.  I can — I can hear you saying the i.”

Paul had a limit, and this conversation had again reached it. Without further conversation, Paul turned on his heel and marched right back into the office. He didn’t even look back to see Corncockle’s expression; he simply walked up to his boss and said, “Just needed his brakes tightened. Easy fix. Can you get him checked out? I’ve got a call I need to take.”

By the time Paul re-emerged after faking a conversation with his bank, there was neither man nor beast nor vehicle in the far bay. Everyone else around him, employee and customer alike, was going about their day like it hadn’t started with a reindeer impersonating a Ducati. Which left only one rational possibility: Paul was going insane, complete with shockingly vivid delusions that just somehow managed to map up correctly against the corners of reality.

“Oh yeah,” said the boss when he saw Paul, rummaging in his pocket for something. “You must’ve done good work. Guy left you a hundred for a tip.”

Paul reached out his hand to take what he knew his boss completely, thoroughly believed to be a hundred-dollar bill. It wasn’t. It was a gold coin, shinier and more iridescent than real gold should be. On one side was printed a series of symbols, probably words in a language Paul couldn’t read. On the other side was the image of a five-petaled flower.

Paul sighed as he stuck it in his breast pocket. At least a hundred he could use for groceries. What the hell did someone do with this?

 

~*~

 

Perhaps a trip to the doctor was in order. Paul sat in his car, eating lunch and scrolling idly through the pages of Google results, still not entirely sure what he was looking for. He barely had health insurance through this job; he sure as hell didn’t have someone he could just call up and see on the same day. That left urgent care and emergency rooms. Those gave him even more pause, though — not only did they cost money he didn’t really have, he didn’t even know what he’d say. Please help, I’m hallucinating reindeer seemed a poor entry into the problem. I think the fairy man who paid my parents for my unborn self is back wasn’t much better. Maybe he could just show them the gold coin and see what they made of it.

He was so wrapped up in pondering the problem that he didn’t notice at first a crunching sound from the passenger seat. When he did notice, he closed his eyes and willed them to stay shut. It was no good. It continued, punctuated every so often by the crinkling rustle from the bag of chips on the armrest.

“Go away,” Paul said at last. “Go away, you are not real, this isn’t happening, go away.”

“Maybe you’re not the real one,” Corncockle said. “Maybe you need to go away. Have you ever thought of that, hm? Have you?”

Paul grunted. This was some freshman-year philosophy shit he wasn’t even going to touch. He hadn’t even gone to college. He’d dated a Classics major for about six months, and that had been close enough.

Corncockle reached up and patted the dashboard of Paul’s old Toyota, frowning a little at the cracks in the sun-worn plastic. “I thought you’d ride a motorcycle.”

Fifteen years ago, sure, Paul had ridden a motorcycle. He’d ridden something that had started out life as a 1978 Harley-Davidson Sportster, though by the time it came into Paul’s possession, it had been Frankensteined with repairs into a different beast entirely. He’d owned it just long enough to realize that no matter how good it felt to roar down the roads in one, it wasn’t a practical choice for a man who could only afford one vehicle. And that was what mattered, practicality. Keeping the lights on and food in the refrigerator. Choosing to deal with the world as it was, not the way he wanted it to be. Like he was doing right now.

“All right, I’m sorry, I’m–” There was a little pause, and then Corncockle sighed. “Can you look at me? It’s very weird when you don’t look at me.”

“Weird for you?” Paul scoffed, but he did open his eyes. Corncockle was sitting there in the passenger seat of Paul’s car, his feet up on the dash, in a orange suit with a bright blue tie that should have looked unfashionably ’70s of him, but was actually charming and soft. God, he must be losing his mind if he was thinking things like that about the clothing choices of his delusions. “I’m not looking forward to having all my co-workers look out and seeing me sitting here, talking to myself.”

Corncockle shrugged. “Who do you want them to see you talking to? A beautiful lady?”

Paul honestly didn’t know if that or a dapper twink would raise more eyebrows among the crew, for whom Paul might only have existed eight hours a day, forty hours a week, with no personal life whatsoever. He didn’t even think he’d explained the half-days he’d taken the previous year for his parents’ funerals. He didn’t begrudge anyone else’s talking about their families and hobbies and vacations, but he himself, for a variety of reasons, found it safer to leave all that at the door. “I’d rather they didn’t see me talking, period.”

With a laugh, Corncockle lifted one hand. “Oh, that’s easy,” he said, and snapped his fingers.

It wasn’t like anything had changed. It was just that one second they had been in the front seats of Paul’s car, and the next they were at some lakeside public park at sunset, complete with picnic basket and blanket. The coming evening was warm, with just the slightest breeze off the water to keep the day’s heat from being too stifling. A few small sailboats drifted lazily along, their ripples disturbing the reflections of the sky’s pinks and oranges on the lake’s surface.

Paul reached out a hand and touched the grass beside him, just over the edge of the blanket. It was soft and slightly damp, and the blades sprung back into place when he pulled his fingers away. “Are you making me … I mean, is this real?”

“It’s real,” said Corncockle, who was holding a champagne flute as obnoxiously as it was possible to hold a champagne flute. His suit matched the sunset. “Welcome to beautiful Riga, Latvia.”

Paul could not even have said with any great certainty which hemisphere Latvia was in, much less whether this was an accurate representation of what it looked like. And wasn’t there some limerick about Riga and a young lady? Or was he thinking of something else? “Why are we here?”

Corncockle handed over the champagne flute, which Paul accepted the way someone might take a lit firework. “Because it’s romantic. And to wish you a happy birthday. You didn’t get feted appropriately yesterday.”

Frowning, Paul looked at the glass and its contents. It seemed normal, but for all he knew, it might actually be a stalk of asparagus or a shoe or a bear pretending to be a champagne flute. He sighed and put it down on the picnic blanket, where, despite the uneven terrain, it remained upright. “Let me try again: Why are you here? Showing up to me, right now, why?”

“Why shouldn’t I be?” answered Corncockle with a smug little shrug.

“Because–” Paul grunted and stared out at the sailboats. If his brain really was making them up, at least they were pretty. “Okay. Let’s say I believe you. You make a deal with my parents that says they get to have a baby, only you get ownership of the baby.” He looked over at Corncockle, who nodded confirmation. “And then you don’t take the baby. Why?”

Corncockle stretched out on his back on the blanket, pillowing his hands beneath his head. He had the effortlessly comfortable nature of a cat that had determined every space was its rightful spot. “Why wait thirty-five years to come get you, or why make a deal in the first place?”

“Both.”

The fading daylight caught wonderful colors in Corncockle’s nut-brown hair, bringing out reds and golds until he almost looked like each strand was an individual thread of flame, fine as glass and soft as fur. Why the hell was Paul thinking stuff like that? What was wrong with him? “Well,” Corncockle began with a grin, “if we’re saying you believe me, you’re also saying that you believe faeries exist. In which case, I would explain to you that faeries, being ageless, rarely reproduce the way humans do. Instead, we have other methods. One way is to find us tucked up at the hearts of blossoms, when the morning light shines on the dew on the shortest day of the year. I myself was plucked from the center of a pristine corncockle, hence the name.”

“What’s a corncockle?” asked Paul.

“What’s a–? It’s a flower. You know, the little purple ones. With the tall stems.” Corncockle held his fingers a couple inches apart, then snorted when Paul’s face showed no recognition. “They’re very common. You need to get out more. Anyway, the other way is through contract. This usually means one of the fey folk offers a young couple the thing they want, and they forfeit their child in exchange for it.”

Paul shook his head. “I don’t believe it. People don’t just bargain away their children. Someone would notice.”

“It doesn’t happen often,” Corncockle pointed out. “And anyway, it’s usually a very simple exchange. The child gets swapped at some point in its infancy by a Changeling, and parents are usually none the wiser. In fact, Changelings usually do quite well for themselves. I heard one was running Disney for a while.”

That was a rabbit hole Paul wasn’t even going to put his big toe into. “But you didn’t.”

Corncockle turned on his side facing Paul, propping his head up on one hand. He reached out his other and placed it on Paul’s thigh, never minding what kind of ages-old grime was probably on his work coveralls. “I like my men a little more … daddy.”

Again, Paul felt like he’d run face-first into the necessary end of the conversation — only now he couldn’t leave or toss Corncockle out of the room, because they were in Latvia for some bizarre reason, and Paul was still not entirely convinced he wasn’t losing his damn mind. He looked down at Corncockle’s dainty hand, then back at Corncockle himself. “So this is a sex thing.”

“It’s not not a sex thing.” Corncockle gave Paul’s thigh a playful little squeeze, then withdrew his hand, perhaps fearing to chance what might happen to it if he left it there much longer. “But it does mean you’re a faerie. Or at least, you’re a faerie in the way an acorn is an oak tree. I’ve come to take you home and plant you.”

Paul decided the risk of its being a disguised bear was worth it; he grabbed the champagne flute and drank it in a single pour. It was strangely, or perhaps not-so-strangely, fruity. “No,” he said.

There was a moment of silence so long afterward that Paul thought Corncockle might not have heard him. But then Corncockle sat upright with such indignant force that there was no chance his meaning had been lost. “No?” Corncockle sputtered.

“No,” Paul repeated. He shrugged and folded his hands in his lap. “I don’t want to.”

“What do you mean, you don’t want to?” The little wrinkle of distress between Corncockle’s eyebrows was cute, given what a ridiculous thing he had chosen to be distressed about. “Everybody wants to! Human cultures have entire bodies of literature about how much you want to! Someone shows up and says, surprise, you’re not just an ordinary lump of dirt like everyone else, you are and have always been a fabulous diamond! You were born special! And then you get to off and enjoy your fabulous destiny! Don’t you know how anything works?”

Paul was fairly certain he needed to take offense at no fewer than three things there. “Maybe you’ve got the wrong guy.”

“I don’t–” Angrily, Corncockle rummaged around in the inner pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out the gold contract again. “It’s you. I know it’s you. I’ve felt it since the moment we were in the same room together. And what’s more, I know you have too.”

That, at least, Paul couldn’t deny. He’d encountered it first when he’d felt compelled to let Corncockle in the front door of his apartment, even if he hadn’t understood it then. He could feel it now, too, if he closed his eyes and let the sensation happen. He imagined it was like being an iron filing introduced to a distant magnet, feeling a pull of alignment that it had never before known was even possible to be felt. That was the part that terrified him the most, because he couldn’t chalk that up to the power of hallucination. This was deeper, something that went all the way to his bone.

And frankly, he would have been thrilled to have it gone. “Then maybe you bought the wrong baby,” Paul said at last, his voice a quiet sigh. He supposed there was an idea of a child out there, the kind of son that two parents like his should have had, the one that believed in fairies as easily as breathing. That child would have been the diamond worth coming back for after all these years. Paul, on the other hand, was much more like the lumps of dirt everyone else was supposed to be.

With a quiet little sigh, Corncockle reached for Paul’s hand and pressed their palms together. It was almost comical, the difference between Concockle’s slender, dainty fingers and Paul’s callused grip. It would have made more sense for Corncockle to have mistaken him for someone else. Paul still didn’t believe in fairies, but he knew what they were supposed to be like. If anybody could look like they’d been born out of a flower, it was Corncockle, a creature of light and air if he’d ever seen one. Paul already had silver hairs starting to come in in his beard. If magical creatures looked like anything, they didn’t look like him.

When Corncockle spoke again, the smug enthusiasm was gone from his voice, replaced instead with a sigh that sounded almost vulnerable. It had to be a trick, of course, an affectation intended to make Paul feel sorry for him. Paul hated that it was working. “Am I wrong about this?” asked Corncockle, pushing his hand against Paul’s hard enough that the place where they made contact hummed like an electrical charge.

Paul couldn’t even pretend he didn’t feel it. He shook his head.

A softer smile than he’d worn before spread across Corncockle’s lips. “Good,” he said. “I’ll be back in a week.”

And just like that, Paul was back again in the front seat of his car. The clock on his phone said it was the end of his lunch hour, the bag of chips was empty, and the sensation of magnetic alignment was gone as though it had never existed in the first place. Paul wanted to feel relieved. Mostly, for the first time in a long time, he felt lonely.

 

~*~

 

Whether or not fairies could tell time correctly under normal circumstances, Corncockle showed up again the next time on Saturday morning, cutting the promised week down to a measly four days. Paul was stretching his legs against a railing after his morning run when a figure appeared next to him, this time in a pale blue suit the color of the sky at the edge of the horizon. He had an iridescent scarf tucked under his lapels, which shimmered every time the wind caught the feather-light material.

Paul, on the other hand, was wearing running shorts and a sweat-stained t-shirt that had seen better days. “Hi,” he said, like he hadn’t spent the previous nights lying awake, staring at the ceiling and wondering if he’d ever feel that kind of resonance again. He’d turned up the bass on his sound system all the way, probably loud enough to annoy his neighbors, just trying to replicate it, but with no luck. He’d caught himself daydreaming at work about those delicate hands and what they might feel like in other places.

“It’s pretty here,” said Corncockle, looking out over the water through his little sunglasses. “I can see why you settled here.”

There hadn’t really been much settling, at least on a conscious level. This had been the place his parents had been living when Paul had graduated high school and started his auto tech program. By the time he’d finished, they’d moved on. Paul, for his own part, had never seen any reason to leave, and so he hadn’t.

Why was he so resistant to the idea of dropping his entire life and running off on some magical adventure? Besides, of course, the obvious part where he still didn’t believe in fairies, magic, or the ability to teleport across the planet in the blink of an eye. (He’d since looked up Riga on Google Maps, even found the park on street view. It seemed like a nice — and real — place.) He’d thought about that several times in the intervening days, to no satisfactory conclusion. He wasn’t in a relationship. He didn’t have many close friends. He liked his job well enough, but it was hardly his dream. 

He just … liked it all. It wasn’t much, but it was his. He’d spent his whole childhood tagging along behind his parents as they fluttered about from place to place, rarely staying in one city for more than a year or so at a time. He’d never complained, and of course he’d been grateful for the many things he’d gotten to experience. Small wonder, though, that left to his own devices, Paul would choose to stay put.

Corncockle gripped the railing Paul had his leg pressed against. “I went about this all wrong.”

“You did,” Paul agreed, nodding.

“You’re not a baby. I can’t use the same approach I would with a baby.”

By Paul’s reckoning, he wouldn’t have needed to use any approach with a baby. He could just have picked up a baby and relocated it without much fuss. Babies were famously portable like that. He should know; he’d been one.

Sighing, Corncockle raked his fingers back through his windswept hair, taming it for the half-second it took another gust to blow it just as handsomely askew. Paul wondered what it was like to be that good-looking all the time, if it took effort or if it came naturally. He’d believe it either way. “There is,” Corncockle began after a moment, “an event tonight. A party. I’d like you to attend. As my date.”

Paul pressed his lips together. “A fairy party.”

“A faerie party,” Corncockle agreed, nodding.

Paul shook his head. “I’m not great at parties.”

“How–” Corncockle squinted at him over the tops of his sunglasses. “How can someone be bad at parties? At the general concept of parties, you, being bad, how?”

“I’m … like this.” Paul made a gesture to his whole self meant to indicate that his general deeply low-key demeanor wasn’t exactly what people tended to associate with fun and festive atmospheres. He never tried to bring a party down. But sooner or later, it seemed he always did. “Not a party person. I don’t even know what you’d wear to a fairy party.”

“A faerie party.”

“That’s what I said.”

“It really isn’t.”

And,” Paul continued, trying not to roll his eyes too hard, “how does this go from you owning me to you being my date?”

With a little hop, Corncockle bounced right up on the railing and sat there, his legs crossed casually at the ankles like wearing a suit to the bayfront on a Saturday morning was a thing anyone sane did. The suit was a different blue now, a little darker than it had been when he first arrived. If Paul looked at it long enough, he could see the faintest hints of clouds shimmering across its surface, shifting on the breeze. He wanted to reach out and touch the material, to feel just what the hell it was made out of, but he kept his hands right where they were. He suspected the answer to his question would not fit well inside the mundane reality he was so desperately trying to hold on to.

“If you come with me,” Corncockle said at last, “I’ll explain. Fair?”

It was the opposite of fair, as far was Paul was concerned, but he also didn’t see that he had a great deal of choice in the matter. Still, an offer like that let Paul focus on information as a reason for saying yes, giving him the chance to ignore the part where he hadn’t been able to think about anything for the past week but this impossible stranger in his impossible suits. “Fine.” Paul sighed. “But I still don’t have anything to wear.”

“I have something picked out for you. And if you don’t like it, I’ll get you something else. That’s what we’re all about, we fey folk. We trade in appearances. I’ll make sure you look the part.” Corncockle smiled and held out his hand. “Come on. Everything’s waiting.”

Paul looked down at his general sweaty, smelly self. “I need to shower.”

“You need more than a shower,” Corncockle said, wiggling his fingers again. “Come on.”

Paul supposed he should be insulted. Instead, he sighed and placed his hand in Corncockle’s, then closed his eyes as the world around him went away.

 

~*~

 

Up to his nose in scented water, Paul had to admit there were indeed things that counted as more than a shower. He poked at one of the rose petals floating across the surface and sighed, then leaned his head back and let his scruffy hair submerge beneath the milky surface. He needed a haircut.

That thought was so mundane that it nearly made him burst out laughing. Here he was, soaking in a marble tub big enough to host a dozen people, and he was thinking about how long it had been since he’d last seen his barber. So this was where the fairies lived. It was nice, or at least the bathrooms were nice. The rest of it remained to be seen. They’d entered right here, into the bathroom’s great carved stone arches and polished surfaces, everything humid and smelling of various flowers. Corncockle had instructed him gently but firmly to undress and get in the water, then had left Paul to do it, which was more privacy than Paul had assumed he’d be afforded. Lacking alternatives, he’d done just that.

When was the last time he’d taken a bath? He couldn’t remember. Baths were kid things, time for plunking a child in some water and letting them splash about until they were cleaner than not. There were no toys in here, but it was still nice. He leaned back against the sloped marble sides of the tub, letting the heated stone press against his back. Maybe now he understood why people went to spas.

Paul lifted his hand and watched the bathwater drip from it. It was the same hand it had always been, maybe a little cleaner than usual. It didn’t look like a fairy hand. At least, he assumed it didn’t; he only had Corncockle’s for comparison. Despite his desperate hope for some kind of rational explanation, it was becoming too hard for Paul to discount the idea that maybe, just maybe, that gold paper was some kind of binding arrangement between him and Corncockle. But it would take a lot before anything started to convince him he was anything other than the regular, ordinary, downright boring man he’d always been. Especially when he was standing next to a beauty like Corncockle.

Paul’s inclination was to find some nickname alternate to “Corncockle”, except it seemed that it was a name that could not be truncated in a dignified manner. Any part of it by itself was more ridiculous than the whole. He’d looked up the flower online to see if it might have an alternate name, only to find that, yes it did, and all of those names were somehow worse. Paul couldn’t imagine himself saying “cuckole” or “kiss-me-quick” or “little and pretty” at all, much less like they were things to actually call someone. Even if Corncockle was little, about the same height as Paul but far more willowy. And very, very pretty.

Grumbling, Paul sank beneath the water and held his breath until he couldn’t anymore. He wasn’t going to think about that. It was too complicated.

When he at last was forced to come up for air again, he heard voices from the far side of the room. The speakers were unseen, but the marble walls ferried their speech right to Paul’s ears. One of them was Corncockle; the other had a voice like the roar of the sea.

“Do you see now what your laziness has done?” asked that second voice, soft and pitiless. “Do you want to make me a laughingstock?”

Corncockle scoffed, but there was a tone to it that was unfamiliar to Paul’s ears. Corncockle’s smug bluster was more than familiar by now — but not like this, with an edge that sounded forced. “Father, you’re making it sound as though I’m planning to arrive on the arm of a trained bear.”

“You might as well be!” The second speaker, who seemed to be Corncockle’s father, let out a disgusted sigh. “I ordered you to reclaim your outstanding debts. Not to make a scene of yourself.”

“What scene? What? I have a contract. He has as much right to be here as any other stolen child.”

“Take two pups from a litter, train one from birth and let the other be brought up among wolves, and then see which one’s welcome in a banquet hall.”

“What, do you think he’s going to gnaw on the draperies and shit in the punchbowl?” asked Corncockle with a laugh that wasn’t friendly at all.

Corncockle’s father snorted in a way that made Paul wonder if that was a common problem around here. “Fine. This is just another of your little stunts. All right, go on, make a fool of yourself, get it out of your system. Perhaps then you’ll feel like behaving according to your station, and not like some common redcap.” And with that came the sound of retreating heavy footsteps until there was nothing left after.

Enough of a silence followed that Paul wondered if they hadn’t left together, Corncockle following along in his father’s wake. But then a hint of movement caught Paul’s ear. Paul kept his eyes shut, breathing evenly as though he’d fallen asleep in the tub. As a child, whenever he’d been over visiting his friends and they’d gotten in fights with their parents, Paul had learned just to keep his head down and pretend like he hadn’t heard anything. He supposed the same rules applied here.

Then something broke the surface of the water on the far side of the sunken tub, and Paul’s eyes snapped open. Corncockle was there, pouring in another bowl of sweet-smelling herbs. Also, he was completely naked.

Paul didn’t really have a type. If pressed, he’d say he took people on a case by case basis. But the truth was that, being a blue-collar man who looked the part, most of the men he hooked up with were rough-and-tumble in equal measure. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d put his hands on somebody who’d had less body hair than he did. He had nothing against the twinkier boys out there, so much as he’d just come to assume that the pretty young things had their eyes on better prizes than he was, and had therefore stopped looking in the first place.

But seeing Corncockle without his suit on, Paul wanted to do nothing but look. Corncockle didn’t look like a woman — and he especially didn’t look like one now, with all his assets on display — but he was still both little and pretty in a way that Paul was having trouble wrapping his brain around. He was pretty in a way flowers and rainbows were pretty, not in a way that people were pretty. He was all graceful angles and soft lines, more like the idea of a person than an actual one.

“Is that what you really look like?” Paul asked before he could think better of it.

Corncockle barked out a surprised laugh. “That’s a harder question to answer than you might think,” he said, dipping his toe in the water. “Do you not like it?”

“No, it’s–” Paul had no idea how he’d intended to finish that sentence. It seemed like a stupid idea to encourage Corncockle, but an even stupider idea to lie about something that obvious. “It’s fine.”

Rolling his eyes, Corncockle smiled. “Such flattery. It’ll go to my head. May I join you?”

Paul was grateful for the milky opacity of the water and what it did to hide his body. “It’s your tub,” he answered with a forced shrug. “…I think.”

“It is,” Corncockle assured him. He dipped a toe in and smiled, then stepped the rest of the way in, submerging himself in one graceful motion. A half-second later, he popped up again, his hair littered with flower petals. His wet skin shimmered in precisely the way human skin didn’t. How did he manage to look like he’d just stepped off a magazine cover at all times? Paul supposed that was what made his earlier question hard to answer. “Though that means it’s also yours, as long as you’re here.”

“Yeah?” Paul raised an eyebrow. “You have a different one for all your contract babies? Or do we all share?” he asked, surprised at how bitter the words sounded as they came out of his mouth. Was he jealous? That was ridiculous; he couldn’t be both angry at being owned by a fairy and angry that he might not be the only one owned by said fairy. He had to stop that right now.

The sly little grin on Corncockle’s face told Paul that neither of them had missed the tone. “Don’t worry,” Corncockle said, holding up a single slender digit as he inched closer to Paul in the water. This close, Paul could see the pink-purple glint deep within his dark eyes, the same shade as his namesake blossom. “I don’t like sharing, and I wouldn’t make anyone else have to do it either.”

Two deeply contradictory sensations overtook Paul then. The first was primal, a deep awareness of how he hadn’t gotten laid in months. The second, however, was far more rational, reminding him that when shit this nonsensical was unfolding around him, he’d have to be pretty stupid to let himself get caught off-guard.

So he took the coward’s way out: “Why was your father upset?”

Fortunately, or unfortunately, he saw Corncockle’s expression fall, calling a halt to whatever seduction had been in progress. Instead, Corkcockle sighed while dunking his face into the bathwater, making a charming little symphony of bubbles. When he emerged again, dripping water from his absurdly long eyelashes, the foxlike seductive power he’d been fronting earlier had vanished. Instead, he looked almost childlike with his wrinkled-nose pout. “Oh,” Corncockle spat. “That.”

“And how do you even have a father? Didn’t you say you were picked out of a flower?”

“Sadly, that merely makes me motherless, not fatherless.” Corncockle exhaled hard, while Paul decided against asking for further clarification on that matter. “Well, if you heard that, you got the gist of it. Suffice it to say, letting a bargained-for child — how do I put this — mature outside the boundaries of the fey realms is an — again, searching for phrasing here — unconventional choice. I might have let you go a little further, get even more silver in your hair, but my father wouldn’t have it.”

Absently, Paul scratched at the patch of beard on his chin. “Why does he care? You said it’s your contract.”

Instead of answering right away, Corncockle crossed the rest of the distance between them, landing straddled across Paul’s lap. Paul’s erection, which he had been stubbornly ignoring, pressed right up against Corncockle’s in a way that was beyond unavoidable. Corncockle wrapped his arms around Paul’s neck and pressed their foreheads together. Despite himself, Paul let his hands rest on Corncockle’s soft thighs.

This close, it was undeniable. No, it had been undeniable when Paul had touched Corncockle’s hand. Hell, it had been undeniable all the way back to the first time Paul had let him into his apartment without questioning why. But not even the last pillar of Paul’s stubborn resolve could hold out against the resonance of skin against skin. Maybe he could keep on believing that fairies and magic weren’t real, but this was. It made Paul think stupid things like how this was maybe the only thing in his life that ever had felt completely real.

“Because it’s dangerous for us to be apart,” Corncockle admitted at last, his voice soft. “And I knew this, and I risked it, but it is. A contract like this means there’s always been a piece of me inside of you. If something had happened to you, or if someone had tried to leverage you against me–“

“I wouldn’t,” Paul said.

Corncockle laughed and pressed a kiss to the broad tip of Paul’s nose. “I know. Not on purpose. But the Unseelie Court is a dangerous place. And being in line for the throne of an ageless king can make inspire some rash decisions.”

Had fairies always been this cutthroat in the children’s stories Paul’s parents had read him? Maybe he should have been paying closer attention. Then again, maybe those stories should have done a better job of indicating that their subjects weren’t as fictional as Paul had been led to believe. “So why didn’t you just come get me as a baby?”

“I…” Corncockle sighed and sat back a little on Paul’s knees. “Can I answer that question later this evening?”

What was Paul going to say, no? “Sure.”

“Suffice it to say,” Corncockle said, running his damp fingers over the whiskers on Paul’s chin, “I like very much what I got out of the deal.”

“Well.” Paul hoped the heat from the water was enough to explain away the flush he was feeling in his cheeks. “I promise at least not the shit in the punchbowl.”

Corncockle leaned his head back and laughed, using his grip around Paul’s shoulders to keep from toppling over entirely. Paul shifted his grip until his fingers clutched either side of Corncockle’s narrow hips. He was so light as to be nearly insubstantial, except for how much gravity his presence alone caused between them. Paul felt like he could lean forward and just keep falling, tumble right into Corncockle, stupid name and all, and never pull himself out again. Whatever this was, Paul had it bad.

When Corncockle righted himself again, he placed his hands on either side of Paul’s face and looked him deep in the eye. “I know you won’t,” Corncockle said with a knowing smile. “But a lot of people are going to treat you like you did anyway. Your job is to be too handsome to care.”

It was Paul’s turn to laugh, though this a more mocking bark. At thirty-five, he’d thought himself years past aiding and abetting in any teenage rebellion more complicated than letting an underage coworker bum a cigarette, much less being the Bad Boy brought home to dinner. “So you’re dragging me into all this just to piss off your father?” 

No.” Corncockle pressed his lips together, then shrugged and settled down onto Paul’s lap again. The way he wriggled was outright dangerous. “At least, not just. Besides, he was never going to approve, no matter the outcome. At best he’d have me lock you in a box and keep you at hand but out of sight. Chain you to my bed and ride you every night, then leave you there in the morning.”

Paul grunted like that thought had no effect on him, even though his erection steadily pressing up against Corncockle’s belly branded him a liar. “You’ve picked the most boring possible person to make a scene with.”

Corncockle shook his head, then pressed a little kiss to the corner of Paul’s jaw. “You’re pragmatic, yes. But not boring. ‘Boring’ is a story you’ve told yourself about yourself, until it becomes more like a spell you’re casting on yourself.” Corncockle took his hand and placed it in the center of Paul’s chest. “I know, though, that there’s a little thorn in your heart, and I know it prickles every time you have to keep your mouth shut.”

Paul knew what he meant. It wasn’t just about being a man of few words, which was Paul’s natural inclination, and a fairly comfortable one under most circumstances. He thought of all the effort he’d spent holding his words back, biting his tongue even when he knew he was right because it was less trouble than just taking it. That was the real problem with expensive machines, the part where they were usually owned by the rich assholes whose mechanical ignorance paid his bills. 

All his life, he’d been praised as a good son, a good student, a good employee. But those assessments had never sat quite right with Paul. He hadn’t been good so much as he’d just behaved, since the consequences of not behaving had been worse. It had started with not wanting to make trouble for his parents, and before long it had become not wanting to make trouble for himself either. 

When Corncockle spoke, his lips brushed against the skin of Paul’s throat, just over his pulse. “I am that thorn. And I know that deep down inside of you, there’s something that finds delicious the idea of making a room full of very wealthy people very” –Corncockle punctuated this by wrapping his hand lightly around Paul’s cock– “uncomfortable.”

The touch made Paul exhale hard through his teeth. “So it is a sex thing,” he said, trying to ignore how much he’d just utterly failed at sounding cool about it.

“It will be a sex thing,” Corncockle corrected him. He gave Paul’s cock a gentle promising squeeze — then let go and stood up, out of Paul’s reach entirely. He shook his head a little to dry out his hair before turning and sauntering toward the steps that led up out of the tub. There was no doubt the way he was swaying his skinny little ass as he walked was on purpose. “If you behave tonight.”

Wrinkling up his nose, Paul sank down into the water up to his chin.

“And no onanism,” Corncockle called after him on his way out. “You’ll need it for later.”

That warning came across so ominous that it overcame Paul’s initial desire to jerk off just to spite Corncockle’s having told him not to. Instead, Paul stretched his arms out along the sides of the bath and closed his eyes, willing his erection away. It didn’t entirely, but after several minutes of breathing deeply and thinking about fuel lines, the situation was manageable. The water had cooled by then anyway, so he got on out of the tub.

Waiting for him was a full-length mirror, and in front of it, a stack of black fabric on a low table. At first Paul thought it might have been a towel, but when he began to unfold the pieces, it became clear that it was to be his outfit for the evening. A coat, a shirt, a tie, underwear, pants, socks, and a pair of shoes — all the same deep uniform shade of black so dark that it was difficult for Paul’s eyes to make out where one piece ended and the other began.

 When the clothes all sat folded, they looked inert, darker than but otherwise no different from the one nice pair of pants Paul had hanging in his closet. As he touched them, though, he saw the surface of the fabric shimmer. He moved it again under the light, watching close as the barest hints of color rose from the deep void of the material. There was a word, wasn’t there, for rainbows on the surface of oil slicks? Whatever it was, this was the same thing.

Maybe it was Corncockle’s private little joke, calling him a grease monkey no matter what he wore. Well, Paul supposed there were worse insults than the accurate ones. 

Just as he was about to put on the jacket, Corncockle walked back in — and the sight of him was enough to make Paul’s hands forget how to hold anything. This suit Corncockle wore now was as white as Paul’s was black, except for the tie that formed a single red line downward from the collar of his shirt; its surface even seemed to flow as he moved, giving the impression that he’d been stabbed in the throat and had decided the proper response was to bleed fashionably about it. Little crystals dangled from silver vines that curled up the curve of his earlobes; the same veiny patterns extended from his wrists and curled around his fingers.

“Are we ready?” asked Corncockle.

“Is it night already?” Paul found himself reaching for his phone to check the time, despite how he hadn’t taken it with him jogging earlier and certainly didn’t have it now. Was there even reception in the fairy world? He supposed people who could just snap their fingers and bend reality to their will didn’t have much use for cell towers.

“Time flows differently here.” Corncockle shrugged. “You’ll get the hang of it soon enough. May I?”

Paul looked down to realize Corncockle was holding the black tie in his pale hands. “I can put on a tie.”

“I know you can. But may I?” Paul nodded, and Corncockle gave a little hop that lifted him up on his tiptoes. “Hold still.” He tossed one end of the tie around Paul’s neck, then pulled it level so that one end was in each of his hands.

They were the same height like this, to the point where Paul neither had to lift nor lower his chin to look Corncockle in his faintly purple eyes. Paul stood with his arms loose at his sides while Corncockle ran the tie through his fingers, weaving its ends into a complicated knot over the top button of Paul’s shirt. This was a strange intimacy, one Paul had never really considered before — due in no small part to the precious few situations in his life where he felt compelled to wear a tie. It was an ordinary gesture, tying a tie, but letting someone else do made Paul have to stand still and bare his throat while another person tightened a cord around his neck. When he thought about it that way, no wonder it was making his heart skip a beat.

Corncockle gave the knot a final tug, then drew the wide end of the tie down over Paul’s front. “There we are,” he said, his voice soft as he smoothed down the lapels of Paul’s jacket. “My handsome date.”

Nothing Paul had ever experienced under the heading of “date” came anywhere close to this. “I still think you should have bought a more exciting baby.”

“Nope,” Corncocke said, lifting up on his tiptoes just enough to kiss the tip of Paul’s nose. “I think it’s time for you to rise to the occasion.”

 

~*~

 

Despite all his efforts to keep his facial expressions in check, the gala in the ballroom took Paul’s breath away. Suits and gowns and light swirled from all directions. The colors were all liquid, blending into everything else. A lady in a great blue ball gown passed a gentleman in a crimson suit, and for a moment, she took some of his red with her, trailing it along in her skirts until it vanished like ink diluted in water. Her clothes, like everyone else’s, were fanciful and old-fashioned, with ruffles and buttons and stockings Paul had never seen anyone wear outside of a period drama. 

At least, Paul supposed she was a she. While the clothing and hairstyles strongly suggested designations of either male or female for everyone in the room, the bodies beneath were not nearly so clearly defined. A passing couple had near-identical faces and frames, except that one wore an elaborate gown and the other sported a long coat and trousers. Paul supposed they could have switched their clothes and he never would have been able to tell the difference.

“Am I–” Paul pressed his lips together. “I feel like I walked into Cinderella.”

Corncockle laughed, his hands clasped around Paul’s elbow. “That’s one way to see it, yes.”

Paul frowned as he watched a gentleman’s coattails light up like a firefly as he talked to another man, whose own coat wisped at its edges like fog. “Is that not what you’re seeing?”

“Don’t worry about it.” Corncockle gave Paul’s arm an affectionate squeeze. Amidst all the frills and layers everyone else seemed to be wearing, their suits were crisply out of place, sleek and modern even when taking all of Corncockle’s ornate jewelry into account. “There’s many ways to see the Unseelie Court. That’s just the one that makes the most sense to you.”

The fact that what was in front of his eyes might not be the reality of the situation gave Paul serious pause, but it was too late now. He was in this whether he liked it or not — and what was more, everyone else was starting to notice him too. They were discreet about it, casting glances over the tops of fans and out of the corners of their eyes. It didn’t matter. Paul hadn’t lived as long as he had without learning what it looked like when a whole room of people thought you didn’t belong.

He had no doubt Corncockle noticed it too. It was simply that Corncockle didn’t care — or, rather, that he did care, and that reaction was the whole point. Corncockle tightened his hand around Paul’s arm and pulled him forward into the bright heart of the gala.

The room was absolutely something out of Cinderella, the Disney one, or maybe Beauty and the Beast, for all the times his mother had played that on their VHS until the tape had worn fuzzy. Knowing that his own brain might be supplying that as an interpretive layer actually soothed Paul somewhat; it was, in a strange way, the tiniest bit vindicating knowing that at least some of all his was made up. He didn’t know if he wanted to live in a world where magical creatures went out of their way to imitate European royalty of their own volition.

Darling!” chimed a sunny voice from behind them. Paul had the sudden feeling he now knew what it was to be a mouse who’d just seen the shadow of a hawk overhead.

“Just be yourself,” Corncockle whispered to him, before turning them both to face a trio of women whose skirts were three times as wide as they were. Two of them had the same look as Corncockle, angular and impossible in their stunning beauty. The third was … well, she was still lovely, that much was certain, but she was also plainer than the two in some way Paul couldn’t identify. Wildly, Paul’s brain suggested to him it was like the difference between two boxes of brand-name cereals and a box of the equivalent store brand, which seemed an unkind comparison, so he kept his mouth shut about it.

“My dear,” said the woman who had called to them earlier. She had locks of white-lavender curls piled on top of her head, spilling down in perfect ringlets over her bare shoulders. She leaned in and gave Corncockle a kiss on each cheek, which Corncockle returned with similarly fussy grace. “When I heard Father was mad at you, I was tremendously afraid you might not show you face here tonight!”

Did Corncockle’s fingers tighten slightly around Paul’s arm? No, it must have been his imagination. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, dear sister,” Corncockle said with a nod. “May I present my elder sister, the Lady Foxglove; my cousin, the Lady Pennyroyal; and her maid, the Lady Chickweed.”

The woman identified as Pennyroyal hid a laugh behind a ruffled fan. “You were always so prone to your little japes,” she said, glancing over at the plain one of the trio — Chickweed, Paul knew now. “And what savage beast have you brought around tonight?”

When Corncockle didn’t respond right away, Paul decided to take the initiative. “Paul Song,” he said, extending his hand.

Foxglove and Pennyroyal dissolved into giggles at that, and even Chickweed laughed along with them, covering her mouth with her fingers. “Oh!” gasped Foxglove, bringing a hand to her chest. “He is a delight.”

“I tend to agree,” Corncockle said, keeping one hand tucked in the crook of Paul’s elbow all the time. Paul suspected that if Corncockle could have tied Paul to his wrist like a child with a balloon, he would have done so without hesitation, and for Paul’s own good most of all.

“Well, hello, Paul Song,” said Pennyroyal, bringing her hand toward his still-outstretched one. She didn’t place her palm against his for a handshake, though, but draped her fingers over the top of his. Was Paul supposed to kiss her knuckles? That was something he’d only seen people do in movies, never in real life. “I wonder if I might borrow him for a dance.”

Before Paul could wonder what on earth he was supposed to say to that — or if his opinion on the matter had any bearing on the request at all — Corncockle laughed and placed his hand atop their joined ones. Pennyroyal slipped hers away almost immediately. “Dear cousin,” Corncockle said with a smile, “we’ve only just arrived! There’s still a number of people we should greet first. Come ask again as the night goes on.”

That clearly wasn’t the answer either Foxglove or Pennyroyal had wanted to hear, but they kept their toothy smiles fixed and laughed like this was all in good fun. “Of course, of course,” Foxglove said with an eyerake that made Paul squirm a little. “We’ll find you again before the evening’s through.”

Corncockle gave them both a little half-bow. “Of that I have no doubt.”

The women left then in the same cloud they’d appeared in, Foxglove and Pennyroyal taking the lead, with Chickweed leaving a step or two between them before she followed. “She’s like me, isn’t she?” Paul asked, watching as Chickweed stuck to them like Pennyroyal’s silent little shadow. “Human.”

“Not that you’re entirely human, but yes.” Corncockle nodded. “She is like you, and Pennyroyal holds her contract.”

“And she was a baby?”

“When she was brought here? Yes.”

Trying not to outright stare, Paul still watched Chickweed until the movement of the crowd swallowed her whole. She looked so young, barely into her twenties. “How long ago was that?”

“Oh, I have no idea,” said Corncockle, shaking his head. “Centuries? Likely as not. As I said, matching time between the realms can bet a slippery calculation. So if you’re having some wild thought about kidnapping her and returning her to her grateful family, don’t. You’d more likely be left explaining to her many-times-great-grandchildren why their just-as-many-times-great-grandmother wasn’t actually the woman she was supposed to be.”

With Chickweed in mind, Paul looked around the room, scanning the faces of the other people in attendance. There they were, among the crowd — the human ones, or at least the ones who had been born that way. It was hard to say just what made them different, except that they shone just a little less brightly, laughed just a little more softly than their counterparts. Each of them hung just by one of the fancier fairies, attentive to whatever that person said or did. Some of the fairies talked to their not-quite-human attendants, touched them, even kissed them; others didn’t so much as spare a glance for them. The stolen children fit, but they would never be allowed to forget their origins.

So that was what would have become of him if Corncockle had dealt with the contract appropriately and swapped him out for another infant under his parent’s noses. Instead of being “Paul”, he would have had the name of some flower he’d probably never heard of before. Instead of repairing engines, he would have spent his days hovering just at the edge of conversations, laughing at other people’s jokes and speaking when he was spoken to. Instead of needing a haircut and probably a shave as well, he would have been molded into the same perfect beauty as everyone else.

Try as he might, Paul couldn’t imagine Corncockle like that, half-regarding someone who might as well have been lashed to his side. Corncockle was a brat, that was true — a pest with some terrible ideas about human interaction and a troublemaking streak nearly a mile wide. But he’d also never treated Paul like Paul was any lesser than Corncockle himself. Corncockle had teased Paul, occasionally to the brink of frustration, but not once had he talked down to him.

Why had Corncockle waited so long to call the contract due? Paul supposed he had the answer to his question.

As the party swirled around them, Corncockle reached over to a small table beside them and plucked a glass from it, then placed it in Paul’s hand before grabbing a second for himself. “Go on, enjoy yourself.”

Paul looked down into the champagne, watching the little bubbles coil their way up to the surface in perfect little spirals. He didn’t think bubbles in champagne usually did that. “Aren’t you not supposed to eat the food in Hell?” he asked, turning the glass in his hand. Sometimes the bubbles traveled sideways, which was entertaining.

“You’re thinking of a different life lesson,” Corncockle said with a shrug. “Anyway, drink up. You’ll wish you had in about … mm, thirty seconds.”

Before Paul could ask what Corncockle meant by that, he heard that voice again, the one like an ocean roar. Paul took the advice and swallowed his drink in three large gulps. Maybe someday he would stop having to chug good champagne like that. Then again, maybe someday the fairies would let him live. Until then, he’d get his revenge by drinking their alcohol and not savoring it appropriately. Some days the only victories were the petty ones.

The King of the Unseelie Court, or whatever the appropriate title for Corncockle’s father was, was an imposing man. If Corncockle was a flower, then his father was a tree in winter, a gnarled thing with bare limbs and roots winding up out of the ground. The brown mane that stretched back from his temples was either braided hair or twisted branches, depending on how it caught the light. He had no crown, but he needed none. There was no one else he might have been.

And he looked at Paul the way Paul looked at the occasional roach he found lurking in his kitchen cabinets. “Father,” said Corncockle, bending in a deep bow. “You’re looking well this evening.”

Paul became aware that the din of the festivities had died down a bit. More than a bit, in fact — the partygoers around them had grown quiet enough that Paul could hear the musicians clearly. All eyes were on this encounter, even the ones pretending not to be. Taking his cues from Corncockle, Paul gave a similar little bow. It seemed the polite thing to do, under the circumstances.

The King barely acknowledged the gesture. He was surrounded by an entourage of nearly a dozen people, at least half of whom seemed to be stolen children who looked at Paul with an expression Paul couldn’t read. “Well,” said one of the more obviously born-from-a-flower fairy attendants, tossing her long hair about her shoulders, “aren’t you going to introduce us?”

Holding tight to Paul’s arm, Corncockle beamed. “Father, friends, this is my companion, Paul Song.”

A murmur ran through the crowd at that. The King’s wooden face looked unamused. “What an unusual name!” gasped another of the attendants, holding a moss-green hand to the breast of his identically moss-green shirt. “I’ve heard of a silky oak and a fire lily, a pigeon berry and a thorn apple. But I’ve never heard of a Paul Song before. Now tell me, where do those grow?”

Paul didn’t believe for a second this man truly thought Paul’s name was floral in origin. “They don’t,” Paul said. “It’s just a name.”

That joke was the best one yet, judging by the crowd’s reaction. Hands covered mouths as even the stolen children laughed at the idea that a name might be just a name. The King’s face did not change. “I told you he’s amusing,” piped up Foxglove, popping up from behind her father’s wide-shouldered cloak. “So utterly raw and unrefined. Like a mouthful of dirt.”

Paul glanced over at Corncockle with a look of I don’t like your sister, which Corncockle acknowledged with a sigh that clearly said I know. “The dear and radiant Lady Foxglove speaks correctly,” Corncockle said with a smug little smirk. He sounded different when he spoke to the other fairies, falling into their same flowery speech. “After all, what great praise it would be to compare someone to the Mother who bore us all, the ground in which all things grow. You know indeed what it is to look upon someone who has not had the life bleached out of him down to his bones by all this pageantry.”

Foxglove opened her mouth with an indignant snarl, but that was as far as she got with her retort before the King lifted a hand and she fell silent. This was obviously a man who’d gotten used to ending arguments between his children before they began. “And how are you finding the Unseelie Court?” he asked, directing his question to Paul without so much as looking him in the eye.

Now that question was a trap if ever Paul had heard one, and he’d once had a long-term couple ask him after a threesome which of them had had the better dick game. But honestly, as gobsmacked by the initial glamor and spectacle as he’d been, once Paul put all that aside, this really wasn’t a whole lot different than dealing with some frat boy who expected all the gearheads to be wowed by his parents’ ability to buy him a Bentley. Self-important shitheads were self-important shitheads, no matter how many flowers they were named after. Well, Corncockle had said to be himself, hadn’t he?

“It’s nice,” Paul said — and then, giving in to that little thorn of mischief lodged in his heart, he allowed himself a little smile. “I’ve never been to a fairy party before.”

The reaction was immediate. Every fairy in earshot cringed the way people at concerts did when the speakers started spitting feedback. Even the King’s expression cracked as he set his wooden jaw. Paul had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from ruining the moment by laughing. “That’s…” the King began, spitting his words out through clenched teeth, “that’s not…”

But Paul had had enough. Maybe Corncockle could spar with them on their terms, trading veiled insults through fifty-word sentences, but Paul couldn’t. His skill set involved a completely different response to fairy nonsense. As such, he turned to Corncockle and extended his hand in as gentlemanly a manner as he could fake, hoping Cinderella had served him right for once. “Would you like to dance?” Paul asked Corncockle, as though there were no one else in the room worth talking to.

It was worth everything to see that perfect smile blossom on Corncockle’s face. “I would be delighted,” he said, placing his hand in Paul’s.

With nothing else to say, Paul just walked away — only this time, he had Corncockle with him. Paul marched right out to the dance floor, or at least to where he’d seen people dancing before, which had to be close enough to count. He’d never done any kind of fancy ballroom dancing before, but he’d learned to two-step at a cowboy bar once, and he figured that had to be close enough. Keeping their joined hands together, Paul got his right hand around Corncockle’s back, then pulled him close. With the way the other stolen children followed their contract-holders so submissively around, Paul was sure he was breaking some kind of protocol by taking the lead here, and that made him grin. He half-swayed them together in time to the music, hoping his sense of rhythm would cover for how he didn’t know the steps.

Judging by the look on his dance partner’s face, however, Corncockle could not possibly have cared less about a lack of fancy footwork. “Wow, that’s–” Corncockle giggled, then took a deep breath. “That’s so fun to see happen to someone else.”

Paul chuckled. It was taking all his concentration not to look back over his shoulder and see everyone else’s responses. At least he had something much more pleasant to look at right in front of him. Maybe he’d never be much of a dancer, but at least he could enjoy just being together like this, close and quiet in the middle of a crowd.

“So,” said Corncockle after a moment, “I don’t think anyone’s ever walked away from my father in his entire life.”

“Not even you?”

“Oh no, not me.” Corncockle shook his head. “I’m just very good at tiring him out, then giving him the last word and letting him stomp off. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I could just … leave.”

It seemed Paul had learned at least one lesson from his parents’ itinerant ways. With a little shrug, he pulled Corncockle closer. It was strange, how impossibly powerful Corncockle clearly was, and yet Paul was the one feeling protective. He tightened his grip on Corncockle’s hand. “You’re clearly an asshole.”

Corncockle snorted out a laugh. “Thanks,” he said, rolling his eyes.

“What I don’t get is,” Paul continued, “why you’re an asshole on their terms.”

“What do you mean?”

What did he mean? Paul let the music carry them for a minute as he gathered his thoughts. “Everyone here is playing some kind of game. Even you. You’re all trying to play by the rules, and that includes you. When you’re trying to fuck with the rules, that still means you think the rules are worth existing enough to justify fucking with them. Like, you can’t shit in the punchbowl unless you think there should be a punchbowl there in the first place. Am I making sense?”

Corncockle gave a slow little nod. “Go on.”

“And…” Paul shrugged. “I guess I don’t know why, if you hate it so much, you do any of it at all.”

Corncockle’s hand tightened on Paul’s bicep. “You understand taking the path of least resistance,” he said, his voice soft.

“But you’re not. You are taking the path of most resistance.” Paul sighed and leaned in close until their foreheads touched, the way they’d been together in the bathtub earlier. He shut his eyes. “Look, would you rather be here, pissing off your dad? Or somewhere he isn’t?” Paul shrugged again, then added, “And naked?”

That won a startled little laugh from Corncockle, who leaned on Paul even more as the piece the musicians were playing changed to something slower. A few other dancers had joined them, but most had kept their distance. Paul had no doubt how many eyes were still on the two of them. At first he thought he didn’t care — but then he changed his mind. No, he wanted them all watching for this. 

Paul slipped his left hand from Corncockle’s grip. Surprised, Corncockle pulled away a bit, but only enough to let Paul get his hand between them and around Corncockle’s tie. It was warm to the touch, enough that Paul thought back to its initial assessment. Maybe it was blood. Maybe as he wrapped his fingers around the red material, he was actually putting his hand around Corncockle’s heart. Well, in that case, he’d have to treat it like it deserved to be treated. He gave it a sharp tug and smiled as Corncockle pitched forward, yanked into a kiss.

The little whimper Corncockle made as their mouths touched was more than worth it. He gripped the material of Paul’s sleeves tight, leaning back just a little in Paul’s strong grip as Paul pressed their bodies together. Corncockle tasted like the champagne, bright and bubbly, with just the faintest bite as his teeth grazed Paul’s lower lip. As first kisses went, Paul couldn’t imagine ever having had better.

He couldn’t imagine there was much precedent for having one of the more pedigreed fairies be bossed around by one of their stolen children — or at least, not admitting in public to any kind of switching up there. Well, Paul though, their loss. He closed his fist hard around Corncockle’s tie. “Let’s get out of here,” he murmured into the kiss.

It was charming to see Corncockle, usually so full of confidence and downright bluster, thrown for such a loop. His hands even shook a little as they held tight to Paul. Breathless, he nodded.

“Wait,” Paul said, before Corncockle could magic them away too quickly. He meant what he’d said about not playing by the courtly rules of spite and spectacle — but he was only human (or at least mostly only human), and he could be forgiven a parting shot. He loosened his grip on Corncockle’s tie, letting his fingers slide all the way down to the tip before he made a fist again. He turned and gave a tug, walking right out of the ballroom with Corncockle trailing merrily behind him, following as though he were on a leash, giving a little wave to the other fairies as the two of them left the others to their terrible gala. They had better places to be.

 

~*~

 

Even without the buoyancy of the bathwater, Corncockle was as light as he had been on Paul’s lap in the tub as Paul got his hands on Corncockle’s hips and lifted him right off the ground. Corncockle responded by wrapping his legs around Paul’s waist, grabbing Paul’s face as they kissed more. Paul got Corncockle’s back up against the wall, using the support to hold him there while he ran his hands up Corncockle’s thighs.

Paul had no idea where they were. It was clearly some sort of bedroom, though Paul had no idea whether this counted as an appropriate or an inappropriate place to have sex. Given the fact that Corncockle had been the one to find it, Paul would have believed either — and given the way Corncockle was grinding up needfully against Paul’s stomach, Paul would have been fine with either.

“Fuck me,” Corncockle gasped into the kiss. He punctuated the command by giving Paul’s lower lip a bratty little bite. “Fuck me now.”

Paul wasn’t going to let this play out like that. He pressed Corncockle up against the wall hard enough to get one of his hands free, then went for Corncockle’s hair. It felt like petting a dandelion. “No,” Paul said.

Corncockle’s pretty eyes went wide with surprise. “No?”

“No.” Paul shook his head. “You’re not bossing me around.” He was surprised at how well he was keeping his composure, given the way his cock was nearly aching for contact. He took a deep breath and planted his heels to steady himself. “If you want it, you can ask nicely.”

The way Corncockle’s eyebrows rose at that told Paul everything he needed to know about just how unfamiliar Corncockle was to the concept of having to ask instead of just taking. The way he behaved in the bathtub was clearly more his style — feigning vulnerability while remaining perfectly in control. Paul didn’t want him to have that control. There was a contract out there that said he deserved it, and that was already more than Paul wanted him to have. If this was going to happen, they’d have to call it a little more even.

Pressing in, Paul sandwiched Corncockle’s erection between their bellies, a move that won a lovely sound from Corncockle’s lips. “Ask nicely,” Paul repeated, dropping his voice down into his chestiest register for added effect.

The response was immediate. “Fuck me,” Corncockle said again, but this time there was no power in it. It was a plea, a sound just this side of a whine. He locked his arms around Paul’s shoulders.

It was Paul’s turn to be a brat about things. “Nicely.”

Please.” Corncockle looked at Paul through the curtain of his long, dark eyelashes. “Please stick your cock in me, daddy.”

During prior encounters in his life, having that word directed toward him had worked wonders on Paul. Considering that they’d just run away from the judgmental gaze of Corncockle’s actual father, though, Paul found himself wrinkling up his nose in a frown.

After a beat, Corncockle did the same. “Yeah, no, I hear it now.”

“Maybe … maybe we’ll come back to that one later.”

“Got it.” With a nod, Corncockle kissed the tip of Paul’s nose, then turned back on his earlier pout. “Please stick your cock in me, sir?”

That was more like it. Paul growled and got his arms up under Corncockle’s thighs, holding him up for the few steps it took to get to the bed. Paul all but dropped Corncockle onto the wine-red sheets, taking a moment to appreciate the contrast between the dark material and Corncockle’s pearl-white clothes. Then Paul got a hand under Corncockle and flipped him over onto his stomach with a single sweep of his arm. Corncockle squeaked with surprise as he was relocated, but Paul held him in place with a firm hand at the small of his back.

Under more realistic circumstances, Paul would have removed a suit that fancy piece by piece. Well, under more realistic circumstances, Paul would likely never have gotten this far with someone rich enough to own a suit like that, so the cost of the outfit would have been a moot point. Now, however, Paul figured that if Corncockle didn’t want his clothing ruined, he could do something about it himself. When he didn’t, Paul felt justified in grabbing the waistband of Corncockle’s trousers and yanking them down to his knees. The soft, pale skin bared there was flawlessly smooth and only a hint bluer than healthy skin should probably be. Paul bent down and pressed a kiss to the curve of Corncockle’s round backside.

Corncockle shivered with delight at the touch. He lifted his hands to push himself up off the bed, but Paul shoved him down again. He had no fear that he would, or even could, hurt Corncockle with such manhandling. “Stop,” Paul ordered him. “Stay put.”

With a needy little whine, Corncockle nodded. Even so, he wriggled his hips a little, rubbing up against the bed. Paul gave Corncockle’s ass a playful swat, which made Corncockle whimper into the bedsheets. From what little Paul had seen of fairies in general, and Corncockle in particular, it seemed they were beings who constructed most of their lives around instant gratification. Well, Corncockle was just going to have to learn how to wait.

“So you can behave,” Paul teased, stroking his hand along the bare skin of Corncockle’s inner thigh. “With the right incentive.”

Corncockle nodded again, his wild hair rustling like wind through a wheat field. “I can behave, sir.”

Paul nodded, then withdrew his hand. “Good. Turn over.”

Corncockle did without hesitation, rolling onto his back. His suit was rumpled, the red tie bunched up around his neck, and his cock stood at attention. The smile on his parted lips was soft, not the self-satisfied grin he’d worn earlier. With a catlike stretch, he raised his arms up over his head and arched his back.

Paul took advantage of the moment to strip Corncockle from the waist down. He took one of Corncockle’s feet in his hand and kissed the arch of the sole. He’d never been any kind of foot person, and he supposed he wasn’t now either, but there was just something very cute and touchable about every part of Corncockle’s body. He smirked as Corncockle wiggled his toes at the sensation. “Tickles,” Corncockle explained with a little giggle.

With a smirk, Paul threw that same foot over his shoulder, in the process yanking Corncockle so his hips landed near the edge of the bed. “How about that? Does that tickle?”

Corncockle shook his head, then lifted his other foot and wiggled it suggestively. Paul couldn’t even pretend it hadn’t been where he was going next. He took it and adjusted them until both of Corncockle’s knees were bent over Paul’s shoulders. Corncockle grinned up at Paul, then reached for Paul’s black necktie and drew him forward. With perfect flexibility, Corncockle bent neatly in half as Paul leaned in and kissed him again.

Paul’s hands quickly unzipped the fly of his suit. He thought about stripping down even further, but he had to admit there was something nice about the formality of it — something that made him feel sharp, powerful. Maybe even outright official, as silly as it seemed to put it in those terms. There was nothing silly, though, about the way Corncockle looked up at him with a hungry look in his eyes. Corncockle even licked his flushed pink lips, despite how he was clearly the object of any feasting that was about to happen.

“You want this?” Paul grabbed his cock and rubbed its tip along the soft cleft of Corncockle’s ass.

“I want it.” Corncockle nodded as he lifted his hips as much as the press of Paul’s body would allow. “May I have it, please, sir?”

“Have what?” asked Paul in a low grumble.

“Have your cock, sir.”

Paul couldn’t help the way his own cock jerked to hear those words from Corncockle’s mouth. Part of him told him that this was all very silly, that he should laugh or cringe or possibly do both, and either way depart from the situation before he made a fool of himself. Except that the way Corncockle was looking at him didn’t make him feel like a fool. It made him feel good, like someone worth being called ‘sir’, even if only in bed.

That was part of the strange ease between them, that the more Paul leaned into it, the easier it became to just be around Corncockle. He’d expected just the opposite when confronted with the reality of his contract — that he’d finally been caught out for not being the thing he was supposed to be, for not being good enough. Corncockle, however, treated him like everything Paul had become on his own was better than anything Corncockle could hope to shape him into.

Exhaling hard, Paul brought his fingers down between Corncockle’s legs to press against the entrance to his ass. “Do you…” Paul began, trying to think of how best to word his question. “What’s the best…”

Corncockle pointed to the little table right beside the bed, where Paul saw an indigo glass bottle he was very certain had not been there before. “You know you don’t need it, though, right?”

No, Paul was pretty certain that he did, at least for his own mental benefit. The world had gotten very weird recently, but there were certain concessions to anatomical impossibility he wasn’t quite ready to make yet. “We’ll come back to that one later too.” He took the bottle and poured the oil on his fingers, feeling a bit of surprise at how warm it already was. He’d expected it to smell like flowers, but the scent was darker than that, more like amber and raw wood. Nothing left to do then but to see how it worked. 

Slowly, he pressed his fingers inside of Corncockle, smirking a little as Corncockle’s body opened so readily to him. “So it’s a sex thing,” Paul said as he warmed Corncockle up with his hand.

“It is clearly a sex thing,” answered Corncockle with a grin. He locked his ankles together behind Paul’s neck. “Are you complaining?”

Paul wasn’t. He worked Corncockle slowly with his fingers, watching as Corncockle gasped and squirmed prettily on the bed at the intrusion. His cock was hard, tapping up and down against his own belly every time he moved, staining his already pearly shirt with precome. His red tie had come all but loose from its knot in the process of getting him out of the ballroom. The topmost button of his shirt was undone, so that Paul could see the way his throat contracted when he swallowed. He really was a sight to behold, a beauty worth treating well. Or poorly, depending on one’s perspective.

At last, Corncockle grabbed for Paul’s tie again and pulled him forward. “If you don’t fuck me very soon, I can’t be held responsible for what happens next.” Corncockle pressed his lips together and cleared his throat. “Sir.”

With a sharp jerk, Paul pulled his fingers from Corncockle’s body, making Corncockle cry out in surprise. Paul wanted him too, of course — there was no way to pretend he hadn’t been thinking about this, at least to some degree, since the moment he met. But he couldn’t let that kind of brattiness stand unanswered. With his unoiled hand, he gathered up the ends of Corncockle’s tie. Just as Corncockle opened his mouth to say something else, Paul jammed the blood-red fabric of the tie into his mouth.

Corncockle’s eyes went wide with surprise, but Paul held his hand over the lower half of Corncockle’s face until he’d made his meaning clear: the tie stayed. A peevish little line folded the skin between Corncockle’s eyebrows. At last, though, he gave a little nod. He understood, and he would listen, because he wasn’t in charge now. It was Paul’s turn.

When Paul pushed his cock inside, Corncockle moaned around the tie stuffed between his lips. For all the bluster about fairy appearances, that reaction clearly wasn’t faked. Paul could feel the way Corncockle clung tight to him, encouraging Paul even deeper. Paul took his hands and grabbed Corncockle’s wrists, then pinned them down above Corncockle’s head against the sheets.

Paul could feel from the way Corncockle rocked against him that Corncockle wanted to be pounded hard, fucked into the mattress until they broke the bed. So Paul took it slow. With the calculated patience of the kind of man who wore suits like this every day, he pressed his cock deep into Corncockle and held it there for several seconds. Then slowly, ever so slowly, he began to withdraw. When he reached the point where only the head of his cock was left inside of Corncockle’s body, Paul waited again, then changed direction. The amber-scented oil was useful, but just thin enough that the slow friction of their contact, skin on skin, made a delightful heat.

Corncockle glared at Paul, his eyes conveying the words his mouth couldn’t make: Faster! More! Paul, understanding perfectly, didn’t adjust the movement of his hips a single bit. So some fairy wanted to buy him as a baby, show up decades later, and upend Paul’s entire life? Fine, but he’d have to deal with being fucked on Paul’s terms.

He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that Corncockle hadn’t known entirely what he’d been asking for. There was the idea of submission, pretending to relinquish power while still just using it to tease and bait, the way Corncockle had crawled onto his lap in the bath. But while his mind imagined that kind of controlled scenario, his body practically begged for Paul to top him harder. Corncockle’s dick was leaking precome all over his suit, jerking every time Paul bottomed out inside him and held there for the duration of a breath.

As Paul continued to fuck Corncockle with deliberate slowness, he saw that look in Corncockle’s eyes begin to shift. The fire in Corncockle’s expression didn’t go out, but it slowly shifted intensity, from a prissy blaze to a warm simmer. The indignity of not getting to control the situation was ultimately less appealing than the pleasure of giving in, which was what Paul had been hoping for all along. “You like this,” he growled, hearing the breathless tone of his own words.

Corncockle nodded dreamily. Bent double and pinned to the bed as he was, Corncockle could only lock his ankles tighter around Paul’s neck as a way to spur him on. The muffled sounds he was making were no longer speech, but gasping moans. He was quite a picture like that, half of his body still in his fancy suit, the other half naked, and all of him together begging for as much as Paul could give him.

Given everything about Corncockle’s personality, Paul was hardly surprised that when Corncockle came, it was loud. Even with the tie in his mouth, his shouts were unmistakable. He arched his back as much as his position would allow him as his cock shot ropes of come all over his front. With his eyes closed and his mouth full, Corncockle was the picture of absolute bliss.

That was all the self-control Paul had in him. His point made, he paused only long enough to brace his feet. Then he gave Corncockle the pounding he’d been begging for, fucking him so hard that the wooden four-poster bedframe did in fact creak ominously. Boneless and post-orgasmic, Corncockle’s body welcomed this rougher treatment. He turned his hands in Paul’s grip so that Paul was no longer clutching his elbows, but so that their fingers were interlaced with one another. Paul grunted as he let himself give up control and fall into the pleasure of being able to have Corncockle like this.

And then he was coming, and there was no question about where that should go. He pressed his cock in deep, holding it there one last time as he emptied himself inside of Corncockle. Maybe it was a little gauche to come inside someone on a first date, but Paul figured Corncockle deserved this too. After all, if you couldn’t shoot your load inside of somebody who literally owned your maybe-part-fairy-self, when could you?

He barely made it up onto the bed before he collapsed sideways on it, more on top of Corncockle than not. Corncockle took his legs from over Paul’s shoulders, but kept one leg on either side of Paul’s body, just in case Paul had any doubts about where he belonged. Paul hardly realized he’d let go of Corncockle’s hands until he felt a soft touch stroking back his sweaty hair from his forehead. That was nice; he’d let it happen.

Fuck,” said Corncockle with a laughing exhale. He must have pulled the tie from his mouth at some point. “That was … that was very good.”

Paul just grunted like he might be upset that Corncockle had ever expected otherwise. But at the same time, he got an arm around Corncockle’s waist, holding him tight. Just in case.

“Oh, I’m sorry: That was good, sir.”

With a snort, Paul rolled his eyes. “You don’t have to keep talking like that.”

“Wouldn’t it be funny if I did, though?” Stretching out his legs, Corncockle gave a little chuckle. “Showing up to your job telling everyone that I brought you your lunch today, sir.”

“Stop it.” Paul poked Corncockle in the side. “And no more pets in my workplace.”

“I am offended,” Corncockle huffed, “that you would call a noble steed such as Swift my pet.”

There was an entire argument here that Paul was going to win by just not having it. He decided the best way to shut Corncockle up was to kiss him, and so he did. The fact that Corncockle was smiling the entire time was somehow less annoying than Paul would have expected it to be.

Thinking of his job, however, did make Paul think of other things, like how he did still have one, and an apartment, and extended family members, and a couple plants on his bedroom windowsill that needed to be watered. Maybe people dreamed of being raptured away to magical worlds all the time, but what about the responsibilities all those dreamers left behind? Paul might not have had as many life obligations as some people had, but he did have them. Besides, it was his life, and he would probably miss it as much as it would miss him.

Breaking away from the kiss, Paul pulled back enough to look Corncockle in the eye. “Do you want to know what would probably really piss off your father?”

Corncockle’s expression brightened. “I’m all ears.”

 

~*~

 

“You can’t be serious,” growled the King, who looked more than a little ridiculous standing in the middle of Paul’s otherwise ordinary living room. The context of the human world meant his appearance was more ordinary now — for starters, no parts of him appeared to be made from plants anymore — but his wide-shouldered cloak and fancy flowing robes meant he was at the very least overdressed. He folded his arms across his broad chest.

“Do I look like I’m joking?” asked Corncockle, who did not. In a scandalously short little pair of jean shorts and a crop top with a picture of Tinkerbell on the front, he managed to look absolutely sincere as he sprawled across Paul’s couch. With his head resting on Paul’s thigh, Corncockle fanned himself with a lacy hand fan like the most put-upon corseted actress ever to lounge on a fainting couch.

The King glared over at Paul, who immediately went back to scrolling through his Instagram feed. Sure, the situation was technically at least somewhat his fault. That didn’t mean he was taking the heat for it, though.

Corncockle snapped his fan closed and pointed it accusingly at his father. “You,” he said, giving the fan another little jab in case the pronoun’s owner was unclear, “told me that I was not to let someone bound to me roam freely. Am I doing that? I assure you, Father, I know precisely where he is.”

“But–” The King no doubt wished his face were more in its usual unyielding wooden state. “That is not what I intended, and don’t pretend you thought otherwise.”

“Oh, I’m not pretending anything.” Corncockle sat up a little and nudged his sunglasses down his nose, looking over their rims so he and his father could see eye to eye, at least as much as they ever did. “I’m telling you where to find me, and with whom. Obviously I didn’t even need to do that, or you might have rung the doorbell first instead of just manifesting between me and the television while I’m trying to watch Downton Abbey.”

At least Paul had had the presence of mind to hit the pause button as soon as their visitor appeared. He’d been more surprised that it had taken a whole month for this parent-child confrontation to manifest, but as Corncockle had pointed out, time moved differently in the two realms. A month had been more than enough for Corncockle to settle right in like he owned the place. Paul had already gotten used to extra doors leading to rooms that should have overlapped with his next-door neighbors’ units, and stairs up and down that ignored how Paul’s apartment was on the middle floor of a three-story building. On the whole, it wasn’t manifestly wackier than growing up with his parents had been — just a little less tied down by the laws of physics.

The King pressed his lips together. Paul wondered if instead of a flower, they’d pulled him out of a pinecone or something. “You are,” the King grumbled, “misbehaving.”

“And you,” Corncockle said, waving his father aside and craning around him to see the TV, “make a better fairy door than a fairy window.”

The King’s face turned scarlet with rage. He glared at Paul again, this time with a strength that Paul could nearly feel boring into his skull. “Who sent you? The Trooping Faeries? The Mor Breizh Spriggans? Was it those infernal Gwragedd Annwn again?”

Paul was fairly sure that the way he was imagining many of those words should be spelled was miles off what the king was actually saying. With a low sigh, he put down his phone. He did not say the main thing he was thinking, which was, It is not some great faerie conspiracy that is causing your son to feel this way; he does shit like this because the alternative is that you ignore him while he slowly gets pressed into the same shape as everyone else. Instead, he looked the King in the eye and said, “I’m making spaghetti for dinner later. If you want to stay, I can double the recipe.”

With a great harrumph, the King swirled his cloak about him and vanished as though the air had swallowed him up.

Paul looked at Corncockle. “When you talk to him again, tell him the offer stands.”

“He’ll be back when he hears about your spaghetti.” Corncockle rested his head back down on Paul’s thigh, giving him an affectionate nuzzle before settling in. “It’s really good.”

“Glad you think so,” said Paul. He grabbed the remote control and pressed play.

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6 thoughts on “Unseemly

  1. Texas two-stepping in the Unseelie Court! Reindeer disguised as motorcycles! Menacing your in-laws with offers of spaghetti! Stealing a fairy from faerie! This is just DELIGHTFUL, like all your work, and so funny.
    This was my favorite line – He didn’t know if he wanted to live in a world where magical creatures went out of their way to imitate European royalty of their own volition. – HA I love that this is both such an excellent taste of Paul’s voice AND such a correct observation. I don’t want to live in that world either, lmao. Imaginary or not, I love how you conceptualized the aesthetics of the faerie court, the fabrics that melt and merge and pick up bits of the sky. And the whole bit about the corncockle flower and what a terrible name it is was hilarious.
    This is so tongue in cheek and yet so touching on another level, all the way through. Paul becoming the man he is because of who his parents were, and how that gives him the ability to offer Corncockle a way out that he’d never seen as possible before – delightful. Such a pleasure to read from start to finish.

  2. Okay, first off, great title! I really adore Paul, who is just SO stubbornly normal and pragmatic. He seems to be deeply comfortable and settled into his life — content enough to have Corncockle in it, but not to give it up entirely — and it’s such a nice change from the usual run of things. Like he managed to actually decline the call to adventure! Also, really great point that subverting the rules means you’re acknowledging them. Just such a delightfully down to earth guy, really impossible not to like. The ending made me grin too. I feel like the king reads it as a power play, while Paul would absolutely just make enough spaghetti for an extra guest if they wanted to stay.

  3. Oh, this is so cute. I love the way Paul did feel maybe more complete with Corncockle, but didn’t let that mean he was inferior before. Like, faerie prince moving in with his human boyfriend is such a good twist on the fish-out-of-water human/fae premise. The fact that it also pisses off the Unseelie King is a bonus.

    IDK there’s something so charming and compelling about a human being like. No, I think instead of adapting to your rules, you’re going to adapt to mine, or we’re not going to have a relationship. You don’t automatically win because your rules are ~magical~.

  4. The ridiculousness (as perceived by Paul) made me laugh a lot throughout this. And all that daddy language, hahaha. They’re such a fun and great pair. Power shift and slow pace sex is so hot!
    I’m glad that Paul helped Corncockle figure out some stuff and break away from the patterns.

  5. I’m really glad Paul got to keep his life in the human world. He likes his life and his job! Just now he has a fun faerie boyfriend along with it. He’s a really fun character. P.S. I like his name -a fellow bear!paul writer

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