The next morning the girls woke up happy to find that they hadn’t been eaten by boneless white globs in the middle of the night. The wimps who slept in the vehicles were pleasantly surprised by that as well.
“You weren’t eaten,” Tyler said to Dianna when the guys met them in the field.
“Nope. Annie did see a U.F.O. last night, though,” Dianna informed them.
“Seriously?” Percy asked in disbelief.
“Oh yeah. It was a fireball, or something that looked like one, at least,” Annelise said. “It was fast and appeared in the blink of an eye. Then it hovered over us before speeding away.”
“That’s really cool,” Percy said.
“I wish I could have seen it,” Tyler added.
“Yeah,” Xander agreed simply.
Again, from the look on his face, Annelise was struck by the feeling that something wasn’t right with him. Apparently a good night’s sleep hadn’t helped, as she’d hoped it would. She wanted to ask him if something was wrong, but didn’t feel comfortable doing that with everyone around. So she decided to wait until they had a minute to themselves.
“Should we get going then?” Athena asked.
They all agreed that they should.
“I can ride in the van today,” Dianna said to Athena.
Athena, knowing that Dianna was only offering for her sake, was touched, but wasn’t about to force her to be miserable all day.
“You can ride in the car,” Athena told her.
“I really don’t have to,” Dianna maintained.
“It’s fine Dianna. Ride in the car,” Athena insisted.
“Okay,” Dianna accepted happily.
“Are you getting sick of me or something?” Tyler asked lightly.
“No,” Dianna answered simply.
Annelise was hoping to talk to Xander during the drive, so she was disappointed when he volunteered to ride in the car with Dianna and Tyler. Percy and Athena, meanwhile, were both going in the van.
Annelise was reluctant to go the entire day without finding out what was going on with Xander, but she didn’t see how she had a choice. After their talk with Athena the day before, she wasn’t going to leave her alone with Percy again. So, reluctantly, she climbed into the van.
Their plan was to make it as far as Jasperdale, a small town about ten hours away from where they were. There, they’d spend the night. And in one or two day’s time, they’d finally arrive in New San Francisco.
Annelise was in the back navigating, while Percy drove and Athena sat in the passenger’s seat. It didn’t take long for Athena to try the advice her friends gave her the night before.
“So you guys go to Cosmo Topper University?” She asked him.
“Yeah. We just finished our sophomore year,” Percy answered.
“I’m actually going there in the fall. I’m majoring in structural engineering.”
“Oh yeah, Annelise mentioned that to me and Xander. That’s what I’m majoring in too” he said, perking up slightly.
“Cool. Do you like it?”
Annelise didn’t hear the answer. For she was too busy mentally patting herself on the back for helping Athena to hear whatever Percy was saying. Well, Dianna had given an assist, but still, she thought she deserved most of the credit. Other than Athena, of course, who was acting natural, and relaxed. In that moment, Annelise couldn’t have been any prouder of her.
“Everyone thinks it’s complicated, but it isn’t really,” Percy said. “It’s simple. You learn the math, and what you need to look for, and then you go out and do it. It’s ordered, and constant, unlike so many things in the world.”
“Math is like that,” Athena said, not really sure if she considered that a plus or not. “A squared plus B squared will always equal C squared.”
“Exactly,” Percy agreed. “The equations used on the job are a bit more complicated than that, but like you said, they don’t change. The main ones are-”
Once again, Annelise stopped listening. She’d just graduated from school, after all. Since then, she’d been happy to have the useless information necessary to pass her finals, like equations and math, purged from her brain. She didn’t want that purging to be jeopardized by listening to Athena and Percy geek out over math.
Athena, meanwhile, like Annelise, started to tune Percy out when as many numbers as words started to come out of his mouth. She knew that he was explaining things she would have to know eventually, but she didn’t need to know them yet. And she didn’t want to learn them in the middle of their road trip. It was supposed to be about having fun, after all. And math just wasn’t all that fun, even to her. So, soon, she found herself wishing for the silence she’d been so desperate to get rid of just the day before. She just couldn’t win.
Annelise, meanwhile, oblivious to Athena’s silent suffering, stared out of the window watching the green grass, patches of trees, and gentle hills pass by. White, fluffy clouds slowly made their way across the unusually deep blue sky, and the sun was out and shining. The temperature was a very reasonable seventy six degrees, making it an absolutely perfect summer day.
For all the beauty of the day, though, Annelise found her mind troubled with thoughts of Xander.
Everything had been fine until she, Athena, and Dianna had gone off on their walk. When they got back, it was clear that something had happened. He barely even looked at her, whereas before they’d been happily enjoying each others company. Clearly, something had happened between the guys while they were gone, something that had caused him to retreat from her, inside himself. The only problem was that she had no way of finding out what that was. Or did she?
She turned away from the window and looked at Percy, who was still talking incomprehensibly. He’d presumably know what happened. And with the right provocation, he might reveal what that was. But for that to be possible, he’d first have to stop talking, which considering he hadn’t for the past ten minutes, was hardly a given.
“Oh, and you’re going to want to look out for Professor Wilkins. He’s tough. Probably the toughest professor you’ll have your whole time in college,” Percy advised.
“Thanks for the advice,” Athena said, hoping that his lecture was over.
“You’re very welcome.”
With that, silence fell and Athena let out a sigh of relief. For Annelise, though, the silence offered the perfect opportunity to probe for information.
“So how did you guys sleep in the van last night?” She asked. “Was it everything you expected?”
“It was nice. Definitely more comfortable than the car would have been,” Percy answered.
“You guys slept alright, then?”
“As alright as we could not in a bed,” he answered with a shrug.
“I was just wondering, because Xander just seemed a little off this morning,” Annelise said, trying to seem natural and not too interested. “I figured maybe he didn’t get much sleep, or something.”
“No, I think he slept alright,” Percy said slowly, knowing more than he was letting on. “He just has some stuff on his mind. It’s nothing any of us need to worry about, though.”
“Good. That’s good,” Annelise said with a nod.
She was reluctant to just leave it like that, having not really learned anything, but didn’t want to pry too much. So she resisted the temptation to keep interrogating Percy, and got back to looking out the window.
A few minutes later, they passed a billboard advertising another tourist trap.
“Hey, cool, the world’s largest CD player is up ahead. Should we stop?” Percy asked.
Hearing that, Athena and Annelise exchanged an alarmed look.
“No!” They both said at once.
“Are you sure? It sounds like it could be neat.”
“It might be. But the lady who runs it definitely won’t be,” Athena replied.
“Huh? How do you know it’s a lady that runs it?”
“It’s a long story,” Annelise said.
“Actually it’s not,” Athena disagreed. “We met her ex-husband at the world’s largest CD. And having met him, we’d rather not cross paths with the woman that decided to marry him.”
“Okay then,” Percy accepted, taking their words for it.
The others in the car, meanwhile, had seen the billboard as well.
“I hope they decide we should go,” Tyler remarked. “It sounds kind of cool.”
“It won’t be cool. Trust me, it won’t be cool,” Dianna said seriously, praying that her friends would come through and decide to not stop.
Xander, meanwhile, smiled to himself in the back. Annelise had shown him the pictures of the CD, and the surly man that owned it. She’d told him the entire story, and he’d laughed the whole time. It wasn’t just the content of her tale that made it hilarious. It was also the way she told it. She was so animated, so flamboyant, that it added a whole new level of humor to it.
Thinking back to that moment, he sincerely regretted his decision to ride in the car. He wished that he could have seen her face when she saw the billboard. He wished that he could have heard what she said about it. He wished that he could have heard and seen her laugh, and laugh with her. He just wished that he could have been next to her for it.
Wait, did that mean that he actually did like her? No, of course it didn’t. Loving her smile, and the way she laughed wasn’t the same thing as liking her. Enjoying being with her wasn’t the same thing as liking her either. And neither was the fact that he’d struggled to get her out of his head ever since he got into the car. No, none of that meant that he liked her. It didn’t. It didn’t.
That, at least, is what he tried to convince himself of.
They drove and they drove, not even stopping for a quick break, or to eat lunch. At about two they left the Great Plains and entered the Great Basin. The green gradually gave way to brown, dry ground and dark, hearty plants. The flat ground gave them a view for miles around, allowing them to see the massive stone plateaus and formations in the distance.
At about six o’clock, with the sun only a few hours from setting and them a few hours from their objective for the day, Jasperdale, they rolled into a small town called Melody.
Melody wasn’t much different from the other small towns they’d rolled through previously. It couldn’t have had more than a couple thousand residents, with one main road flanked on either side by business, with residential areas radiating out from there. There was one stop light on the main road, which they were forced to stop at, and a motel, but nothing otherwise memorable or remarkable. So, when the light turned green, they kept driving with every intention of continuing until they came to Jasperdale.
But then, about two miles out of town, they came across what can only be described as a festival.
The field to their left was full of people going to and fro. In the center of it, directly inside the entrance, there were booths and tents set up, the vendors selling everything from jewelry, to t-shirts, to sculptures, and plush toys. Other stalls featured games that anyone could play for a price and win prizes. Further down the field, away from the booths, there was a large arena set up. Events ranging from sack races for children, to tug of wars, all the way to wrestling were taking place there. On the other side of the tents and booths there was a stage set up, featuring a live band, with dancing taking place in front of it.
For Annelise, though, there was one last touch that fully convinced her that they needed to stop.
“There are fae here too!” She yelled in excitement. “There’s a faun dancing with those people! And couril! And there are brownies working at the food court!” She screamed.
“Should we do it?” Athena asked, not quite as excited as Annelise, but still plenty enthused.
“Yes! Please, please, yes!” Annelise answered, nodding her head so fast and hard that it actually hurt.
“Let’s park then,” she told Percy.
“Okay,” he obeyed, pulling into the field to their right where the parking was. “I wonder what the occasion is.”
“It is the fiftieth anniversary of the day the Atlata virus was cured. Maybe it’s because of that,” Athena said with a shrug.
The instant they stopped, Annelise leapt out of the van.
“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” She yelled like a child, unable to wait for the fun to begin.
“We’re seriously going to the fair?” Dianna asked, getting out of the car.
“We sure are!” Athena answered, stepping out of the van.
“PARTY TIME!” Dianna roared.
With that, Athena, Dianna, and Annelise all converged, each of them chattering excitedly about what they wanted to see and do.
The guys, meanwhile, were standing a few feet away together, watching the girls.
“Why do girls do that kind of thing and guys don’t?” Tyler asked.
“I have no idea,” Percy answered.
Eventually, when the girls were done chattering together, they all grabbed what they needed from the vehicles and walked over to the festival.
When they made it through the entrance and into the crowd, amongst the noise and the booths and tents, they took in the abundance of stimuli around them eagerly. It was almost as if the very air was bristling with energy, and every breath they took charged them up for the fun they were about to have. And, now that they were in the midst of the action, they were able to see that there were more fae around than even Annelise had realized.
There were cluricauns, fae similar to leprechauns who enjoy getting drunk and then riding around on sheep or sheepdogs in the night. There were pixies, small, green fae with tiny spines covering their bodies like hedgehogs, with long snouts, and either flowers or wild mushrooms for hats, sticking close to the booths and tents. There were groups of keshalyi, beautiful, tall, slender female fae with skin colors ranging from gold, to green, to purple, and everything in between. Some wore the traditional long, loose fitting gown of their kind, while others had on jeans and t-shirts, and others skirts and blouses. One, which Tyler seemed particularly fascinated with, was wearing a tight fitting mini skirt and a halter top.
“Pick your jaw up off the floor, jerk,” Dianna told him.
“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied, doing his best to act innocent.
“Yeah, yeah,” Dianna said, shaking her head.
Before their trip, Annelise had never realized that like she was fascinated by the fae, so some of the fae were fascinated by humans. She hadn’t learned about it in school, but it was clear that a genuine cultural exchange had taken place between humans and fae in the last fifty years. Her thoughts immediately turned back to the young Led Zeppelin t-shirt wearing gnome that had flipped them off. And the presence of keshalyi wearing Batman and Superman t-shirts, and fauns wearing The Police, Queen, and Florence and the Machine shirts made that all the more apparent to her. And it made her even more grateful to be living in the time she was.
“I like your shirts,” she said to the pair of keshalyi wearing the Batman and Superman t-shirts.
“Thanks,” the Batman keshalyi replied in a high pitched, melodious voice.
“They’re definitely the coolest superheroes,” the Superman keshalyi added.
“They so are,” Annelise agreed.
“One of our other friends likes Spiderman, but we make fun of her for that,” Batman remarked.
“I’ve never really been into him either,” Annelise agreed. “Would you mind if I took a picture with you?” She asked, raising her camera so they could see.
“Not at all! Let’s do it!” Superman replied.
Annelise and the two keshalyi got in close together, and then Annelise snapped the picture of them all.
“Man you guys look gorgeous in this,” she said as she printed out copies for both of them. “And you’re both really cool.”
“Aw, so are you!” The Superman keshalyi said.
“Well I think my friends have abandoned me, so I better go find them. You guys have a great night,” Annelise said to them.
“You too,” they replied.
Thankfully, the others hadn’t gone far. Annelise quickly found them, and then they continued on their way.
With a plethora of fae around them, Annelise took pictures rapidly, without reserve. Once when she got a passing phooka in frame, a fae with long, curved horns, the head of a goat, and lithe, hairy, humanoid body, it noticed what she was doing and stopped. To Annelise’s pleasure, it struck a pose with its arms outstretched, the same way a wizard might look over a cauldron, and scowled fiercely. If she would have met it in the forest with that look on its face, Annelise would have been terrified. But there, then, it just made her laugh.
“Thank you!” She said to it after taking the picture
Smiling, and bowing its head to them, the phooka turned and continued on its way.
There was more to see and do than just observe and photograph the fae, though. The lure of the booths was just too strong to resist for long.
The guys all tried their luck at one of the games, where they had ten chances to throw a ball and hit ten different targets. Tyler, predictably, did the best. He hit nine of the ten targets, and won a large, rainbow unicorn, which he promptly gave to Dianna.
“This will do until we can find a real one to check out,” she said, hugging the unicorn tightly.
“Dianna, unicorns don’t exist,” Athena informed her.
“We saw a man with the head of a goat a few minutes ago, and you’re telling me a freaking horse with a horn on its head doesn’t exist?” She asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” Athena shrugged.
“What’s the sense of that?”
“I don’t make the rules,” Athena said, holding her hands up in surrender.
When Percy tried his hand at the game, he didn’t have as much luck as Tyler. He only hit six of the targets, but still won a toy sword, which he claimed he was going to give to his little cousin once they got home. Everyone suspected he was actually planning on keeping it, though. Xander, by far, did the worst. He only hit three targets, and didn’t win anything at all. For whatever reason, he just didn’t seem to put much effort into his throws.
“It’s probably rigged,” Annelise said to him as they walked away from the booth, trying to be supportive.
“Maybe,” he said lamely, with a shrug.
Annelise was about to ask him if everything was okay, when Dianna let out a squeal of excitement.
“Look! We have to let her do our hair!” She said to her friends.
Annelise looked at the booth Dianna had spotted, and felt a jolt of excitement as well.
In it there was a green lady, a fae made up entirely of vines, and leaves, twigs, and flowers, yet in the shape of a woman. The green lady, as Dianna said, was styling and decorating people’s hair.
“I’m in,” Annelise said.
Even Athena, who wasn’t usually interested in such girly things, agreed to get her hair done. The green lady’s creations were just too beautiful to pass up.
One by one, each of the girls sat down on the chair, allowing the green lady to braid and style their hair, and decorate it with her flowers. Her hands, even though they were made up of vines, moved with a precision and skill that even most humans wouldn’t be capable of.
The green lady braided Annelise’s hair so it fell in front of her left shoulder, and decorated it with white and blue flowers. Dianna’s hair, meanwhile, was very simply braided down her back, with red and orange flowers flowing all the way down the braid. And Athena’s hair was braided and then arranged so it was up and around her hairline, and was decorated with purple, pink, and white flowers, making her hair look like a crown.
After paying the green lady, taking a picture with her, and thanking her heartily, the three girls admired their new hairdos.
“How do I look?” Dianna asked, twirling for them.
“Perfect. As usual,” Athena replied.
“You really do look perfect,” Annelise agreed.
“I, on the other hand, feel kind of weird,” Athena said, reaching up and gently touching her hair.
“Well you look hot. You should do your hair like that more often,” Dianna told her.
“You’re just saying that.”
“No, she’s right. You seriously look gorgeous,” Annelise confirmed.
“Well, we all do,” Athena said with a bashful smile. She wasn’t used to being called hot or gorgeous, even by her friends.
“I think we need another picture of ourselves,” Dianna suggested.
Athena and Annelise agreed wholeheartedly. They all got close together, and then Annelise took the picture.
“Wow. You guys look great,” Tyler said when the girls rejoined the guys, who had been occupying themselves with more carnival games while the girls got their hair done.
“Yeah,” Percy agreed.
“You all do look really beautiful,” Xander said looking at Athena, almost as if he was purposefully trying to avoid looking at Annelise.
“What next then?” Percy asked.
“Food?” Athena suggested.
They all nodded, more than ready to get something to eat.
After a short walk, they came to the section of the fair where vendors were selling food. The different booths and tents formed a square, with picnic tables set up in the center. A troop of brownies, small, human like, good natured fae with brown skin and hair, meanwhile, were busy working to make sure that the area remained clean. Every one of them was wearing old, dirty, threadbare clothes that most would consider little more than rags.
“Why are they wearing those things? Someone should get them new clothes,” Dianna commented when she saw them.
“Don’t say that!” Annelise ordered. “They’ll get mad if they hear. They’re very touchy about their clothes.”
“I don’t know, they just are. Just don’t say anything about their clothes, and don’t offer them anything either or they’ll freak out,” Annelise advised.
“Whatever,” Dianna accepted with a shrug.
As they began to browse, they were surprised by the wide selection of foods to choose from. There was the more traditional festival food like hot dogs, hamburgers, soft pretzels, elephant ears, and funnel cakes, along with much odder, more unexpected fare. One person was selling skewers with nothing but assorted meat on them, while others served grilled corn on the cob, veggie burgers, salads, huge turkey legs still on the bone. One stall even sold nothing but breakfast food.
With all the walking they’d done, they’d worked up quite an appetite. So once they figured out what they wanted, they wasted no time before scattering to order their food. Then, one by one, they reassembled at one of the picnic tables.
Annelise got a short stack of flapjacks and a funnel cake. Tyler had gone for one of the skewers of meat, and a turkey leg. Xander and Percy both got a hot dog, a hamburger, and elephant ears. Dianna got a hamburger and a funnel cake. Athena, as usual, was the only one that went for the healthy food. She got a cob of grilled corn, and a salad topped with grilled chicken, cashews, and mandarin oranges.
“Seriously Athy?” Dianna asked when she saw what her friend had, shaking her head.
“It’s good! I’d rather eat this yummy, healthy food than any of your fried plates of heart disease,” Athena countered.
“At least we’ll die happy,” Annelise stated.
“For sure,” Dianna said, giving Annelise a high five.
“Right, miss breakfast for dinner,” Athena shot back. “Identity crisis much?”
“More like free spirit. Normal meal paradigms don’t weigh me down,” Annelise said.
“I’m actually with you on that,” Percy said, to all of their surprise. “Breakfast is always a great choice,” he said as he took another bite of his burger.
“And there’s a perfect example of irony, boys and girls,” Athena pointed out.
“This is the one exception that makes the rule. At any rate, at least I don’t look like Henry VIII over there,” Percy said, motioning to Tyler, who was tearing his way through his giant turkey leg.
“Who’s Henry VIII?” He asked.
Athena opened her mouth to answer, when Dianna interrupted her.
“He’s that king that had like 1000 wives, right?” Dianna asked, excited by the prospect of knowing something.
“You’re thinking of King Solomon,” Annelise told her.
“What?” Dianna asked, now confused.
“Who am I kidding, of course you’re not,” Annelise said simply.
“Henry had a lot of wives, but not that many,” Athena clarified.
“So he was a king, and a ladies man. Sounds like a compliment to me,” Tyler remarked.
“Except for the fact that he had, like, a quadruple chin,” Xander said.
“And had many of his wives killed,” Annelise added.
“Seriously, dude?” Tyler said, turning to Percy.
To that, Percy merely laughed.
“So what are we doing when we’re done eating?” Xander asked, loosening up slightly, but still avoiding Annelise with his gaze.
“Dancing,” all three girls said at once.
“Watch the games,” Tyler said at the same time.
“I guess we could always separate for a while,” Percy suggested.
“Oh come on! You have to come dance for at least a few songs!” Dianna told them.
Not particularly excited by that notion, the guys all exchanged quick, reluctant glances.
“If we come dance for a while, you have to come watch some of the games with us,” Tyler proposed.
“I’m not agreeing to that,” Annelise said, shaking her head.
“I’m not either,” Athena echoed.
“I will, as long as you dance with me,” Dianna said to Tyler.
“Deal,” he replied.
As they finished their dinner, the last light of day began to wane, painting the sky in colors remarkably close to those of the flowers in the girl’s hair. Even though nightfall was drawing dangerously close, though, the party showed no sign of slowing down. And neither did any of the six friends. They didn’t care about getting enough sleep, or staying on track with their driving. All they cared about was having fun.
They finished eating a short time later. Before they could get up to throw their trash away, though, a group of brownies appeared and snatched up their garbage for them.
“Thank you,” Annelise said to the one that took hers. “What’s your name?”
“No time. Got to work. Got to work,” the brownie answered, bustling away.
Annelise, amused by its response, raised her camera and snapped a few pictures of the hard working brownies. Then she and the others rose to head to the dance floor.
“So are they slaves?” Dianna asked when the brownies were out of earshot.
“Not really,” Annelise answered. “They like to work. And they are paid for their labor. It’s just in bowls of heavy cream.”
“That still seems shady,” Dianna said, shaking her head.
“It’s how it’s always been,” Annelise replied, shrugging her shoulder.
A few minutes later they made it to the stage and dance floor.
The musicians on stage were playing without any kind of amplifier or other electrical equipment. One of them was playing an acoustic guitar, using his fingernails instead of picks. Another was pounding on a set of giant bass drums, filling the area with a deep BOOM, BOOM. Another was playing a fiddle while leaping and dancing around the stage as lithely and gracefully as a gazelle. Others were playing flutes, and a double bass, and one person even had a mandolin. The combined effect of the instruments was not the kind of music one would expect to hear in the 21st century, but rather the fifteenth. It made the fair feel almost like a medieval harvest festival, or at least what Annelise thought a medieval harvest festival would be like, with the simple pleasures of music and dancing in the forefront, and all other distractions being put aside.
The three girls were ready to leap into the joyous fray as soon as they arrived. Tyler, for his part, was going along with Dianna without complaint. Xander and Percy, however, merely made their way over to one of the tables at the edge of the dance ground, and sat down.
“Come on, guys!” Annelise called to them.
“Maybe later,” Xander replied, with absolutely no intention of dancing later. “My food just needs to settle,” he lied.
“Same for me,” Percy added.
“Oh, spoilsports!” Annelise said, waving her hand at them dismissively. “Come on, Athena!” She said, taking her friend’s hand, deciding they’d just dance together.
Then, waiting until just the right moment, the four of them leapt into the crowd and danced away.
Annelise, Dianna, and Athena were all excellent dancers. Their movements were precise and graceful, their steps sure. It all stemmed from the dance classes they’d taken together from when they were five, all the way up to when they were ten. Dancing, like restaurant booths, was one of the things they all agreed on. They all absolutely loved it.
Despite all the years between their last lesson and that day, everything they’d learned over the years came flooding back to them with the music, enabling them to feel the beat and move and leap accordingly.
“You’re really good,” Tyler said to Dianna, obviously surprised.
“What did you expect?” She asked.
Wisely, he thought it best not to answer that.
Xander and Percy, meanwhile, were still sitting at the table, watching their friends dance. Well, Percy was watching his friends. Xander, on the other hand, only had eyes for Annelise.
He couldn’t help but smile as he watched her dance with the music, a radiant, joyful, gorgeous smile on her face. Her braid was bouncing and swinging this way and that, though the flowers remained perfectly in place. In that moment, he couldn’t imagine anyone ever looking more beautiful, more perfect, than she did there. She was so beautiful, radiating such energy and happiness, that she was more than a match for any stunning denizen of the fae world. Indeed, he felt sure that she was the human answer to the legendarily beautiful keshalyi they saw earlier. Yes, she was. And he had no idea how anyone could gaze upon her face and not fall madly in love with her, just as he was.
And for the first time, he didn’t recoil from that thought. For the first time, he embraced it fully. He really, really, really, really, really, really liked Annelise. He was done hiding from that fact, done pushing it away. And suddenly, he knew what he wanted. He wanted to be with her.
“Hey, Percy,” he called over to his friend.
“What?” Percy called back, watching the fawn that had been there for hours flip through the air.
“I’ve fallen for Annelise, man. I’ve fallen hard,” he said.
To that, Percy looked over at his friend, a serious look on his face.
“You know what you have to do then,” Percy said simply.
“I know,” Xander said with a nod.
“Well, good luck then.”
The four dancers continued dancing, and Percy and Xander continued watching for over an hour. It was completely dark when the dancers returned to the table.
Tyler plopped down on one of the chairs, sweaty, panting, and clearly tired. The three girls, however, were just as eager to get back out on the dance floor as they had been when they first got there.
“Come on!” Dianna said, trying to pull Tyler back up and into the dancing.
“No, I need a break. And anyway, you promised you’d come and watch the games with me,” he reminded her.
“Or you could just let me off the hook, and we’ll keep dancing,” she proposed.
“Nope. You’re keeping your end of the bargain,” Tyler told her.
“Fine,” Dianna sighed. “Let’s go, then.”
“Alright,” Tyler said, somehow finding enough energy within himself to leap up eagerly. “Anyone else coming?”
Annelise and Athena, wanting to do more dancing, shook their heads. Xander shook his head as well, no longer interested in being anywhere that was away from Annelise. Percy would have liked to go, but wasn’t eager to spend more time with Tyler and Dianna alone. So he, like the others, declined.
“Let’s go,” Tyler said to Dianna happily.
“See you guys later,” she grumbled to her friends as she and Tyler started walking away.
With them gone, Annelise and Athena’s minds turned back to the party.
“You guys should come and dance!” Athena said to Percy and Xander.
“I would, but I don’t really know how,” Percy said, thinking that was a good enough excuse to get out of it.
It wasn’t a good enough excuse for Athena, though.
“It’s not hard. Come on, I’ll teach you how,” she said, grabbing Percy’s hand and pulling him up. She then proceeded to drag Percy into the crowd, a positively terrified look on his face the entire time.
Annelise, wanting to take a moment to see how Percy would do, took the seat next to Xander. It took a few minutes, and a few smashed toes on Athena’s part, but eventually she got him moving in a semi-coherent manner that could be loosely classified as dancing. He still had a pained expression on his face, though.
Xander and Annelise watched the quick lesson and subsequent dancing, laughing the entire time. And, of course, Annelise took plenty of pictures of it for posterity’s sake.
“Hey, Xander?” She called over to him when their laughing died down.
“Yeah?” He asked back.
“Are we okay?”
“Okay. I wasn’t sure, because things seemed a little weird for a while.”
“Don’t worry, I got better,” he replied.
“Then come dance with me!” Annelise ordered, seizing his hand and pulling him to his feet.
Unlike his friends, Xander put up no resistance. In fact, he was eager to join Annelise in that expression of joy. There was, however, one problem. The same problem Percy had, in fact.
“I don’t really know what I’m doing,” Xander admitted to Annelise when they were in the middle of the action, with fae and people, Athena and Percy included, whirling around them.
“It’s easy,” Annelise assured him lightly. “I’ll lead, and you make the same steps I do. Just go with it. There’s no wrong way to dance.”
With that, she grabbed both of his hands and leapt away with him and the rest of the crowd.
Xander tried his best to do what Annelise said. He tried to step the way she did, and make the same moves she did. At first, it was a struggle; he just wasn’t used to leaping, twirling, and stepping like that. He felt sure that he was holding Annelise back. She’d moved so gracefully and lithely without him. But despite how Xander felt, not once did Annelise’s smile falter. Not once did she seem even slightly bothered by his lack of finesse. When the fact that he wasn’t impeding her joy became apparent, he started to loosen up. The moves began to feel more natural to him, even if they were still far from easy. As they moved and flowed with the rest of the crowd, around and around, his feet moving faster and faster, Xander felt like he was losing control, that he was a mere instant from falling over, and dragging Annelise down with him to be trampled by the other dancers. Only he didn’t fall. He just kept going. He kept going until he did lose control, but even then he didn’t fall. It was as if his body was moving independent from his mind, and was beyond his control. It was as if his body instinctually knew what to do, and all he had to do was trust it and he wouldn’t go wrong. So that’s what he did. He just kept dancing, without thinking, or interfering. He just followed Annelise, putting his trust in her completely.
“You’re doing great!” Annelise said to him with a joyous laugh.
“I’m just following your lead,” he responded, a wide, open mouthed grin on his face.
So they danced, spinning ever faster, completely oblivious to such nonsense as fatigue and rest, until at last, after what seemed like far too short a time, the band played one last, long note, and then no more. The dancing, and the fair as a whole, had finally come to an end. And even though it was going on 1am, Xander, Annelise, and the others wished it could have gone on for at least a little bit longer.
“That was fun,” Annelise said as she, Xander, Percy, and Athena walked back to the vehicles, surrounded by a herd of people moving in the same direction.
“Yeah, it was,” Xander agreed.
“A bit exhausting, though,” Percy said. He had never gotten quite into the groove of the dance the way Xander had.
“Now let’s just hope we can find Dianna and Tyler,” Athena said, looking around for them in the crowd.
Slowly, but steadily, they made their way back to where they’d parked. Dianna and Tyler were already there waiting for them. To their surprise, Tyler was holding a small basket full of food.
“Hey guys. How were the games?” Annelise asked.
“Great,” Dianna answered. “Tyler actually entered an arm wrestling contest, and won this food basket.”
“Cool,” Annelise said, peeking into it. There were half a dozen eggs, some summer sausage, a small loaf of bread, and an assortment of cheese and crackers.
“We should get going so we can find somewhere to stay for the night,” Percy said with a yawn.
“There was that motel back in town,” Athena remembered.
“I’ll ride back with you guys,” Dianna said to Athena and Annelise.
Without another word the girls all piled into the van and the guys all got into the car. Athena wasted no time before starting up the van and pulling away in the direction of Melody.
“So I wasn’t quite telling the truth back there,” Dianna admitted.
“You weren’t telling the truth about what?” Athena asked, not entirely sure she wanted to know.
“Tyler didn’t win that basket. It was his consolation prize for getting his butt kicked,” Dianna revealed. “He didn’t want me to tell you guys, but I don’t feel like lying to you guys.”
Annelise smiled and shook her head, amused that someone so big and seemingly strong would have such a fragile ego. Athena, meanwhile, laughed mercilessly.
“That’s awesome,” she said through her cackles. “How far did he get before losing?”
“He didn’t even make it through the first round,” Dianna said, traces of a smile on the corners of her mouth.
“That’s even better,” Athena laughed.
“When did you become so heartless?” Annelise asked, surprised by how much joy she was taking in Tyler’s misery.
“It’s just funny, that’s all,” Athena stated as she wiped tears from her eyes.
“Then I kissed him,” Dianna added, almost as an afterthought.
“What?” Athena yelled, nearly swerving off the road.
Annelise rounded on Dianna silently, too shocked to form words.
“He was sad, and embarrassed when he lost. I told him that I didn’t care, and that I still liked him. And then I kissed him.”
“What did he do?” Annelise asked, recovering from her momentary muteness.
“He kissed me back,” Dianna said with a smile, and a shrug.
“Wow,” Athena said, shaking her head.
“Why are you guys acting so weird about it? I’ve kissed boys before!”
“We know,” Annelise acknowledged. “It’s just that that is a pretty big step forward for you two.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Dianna said simply.
Back in the car, meanwhile, the story was being told very differently.
“So this guy had arms the size of one of your thighs,” Tyler said, meaning Percy’s, “and he’s the one they made me go up against. I don’t know, they probably put us together because we looked like the two strongest. They probably wanted a good show.”
“Probably,” Xander agreed sarcastically, wishing that Tyler would just shut up.
“Yeah, right?” Tyler said, Xander’s sarcasm going right over his head. “So we start the match, and our arms are just still as we push against each other. Neither of us budged for like thirty seconds. But then, he started to crack. His face got red, and he started to shake, and I started to gain ground. He put all his strength behind his arm, trying to stop me, but couldn’t. Then his strength gave out entirely. I slammed his fist onto the table, and everyone cheered and I won that basket, and Dianna was so impressed that she jumped into my arms, and planted one on me, and we made out for a little while after that.”
“So your grand prize was a little food basket?” Percy asked, not buying his tale for a second.
“It wasn’t the grand prize. I decided not to go forward so someone else could have a chance at winning. I just did it to impress Dianna, and I did. The food is just a bonus.”
“How magnanimous of you,” Xander said facetiously.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Tyler replied.
To that, Xander and Percy merely shook their heads in disbelief. Not only for Tyler’s stupidity, but also for the fact that he thought they believed his yarn.
“So how was the rest of the dance?” Dianna asked back in the van.
“Good,” Athena said.
“Great,” Annelise said.
“Did you guys actually convince the two wet blankets sitting at the table to dance with you?”
“Yes. I taught Percy how to dance, and he wasn’t too bad. He was nowhere near as good as Xander, though,” Athena said.
“Really?” Dianna said in shock, looking at Annelise.
“Yeah. I didn’t even really teach him anything,” Annelise said. “I just told him to follow me and go with the flow. And he did. He was kind of great at it, actually.”
“You always said you wanted a boyfriend you could dance with,” Dianna pointed out.
“Yeah, I did,” Annelise replied thoughtfully.
“So is that it? You guys just danced?” Dianna asked.
“I didn’t kiss him, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Annelise said. “Unlike you, I don’t make a habit of kissing a bunch of boys.”
“Or any,” Dianna said. “Not that that’s bad or anything. You guys just work differently than I do, and that’s fine.”
“It’s not like there were a bunch of boys worth kissing in Sunnyville anyway,” Athena said.
“And especially not in our class,” Annelise added with a shudder.
“There was always Rupert Tuttle,” Dianna teased Annelise.
“Don’t you bring him up!” Annelise ordered. “Don’t you ever bring him up!”
“Case proven,” Athena said, her nose scrunched up in a look of distaste at the thought. “How could you ever have dated him?” She asked Dianna.
“I was young, and dumb, and he complimented my pigtails,” Dianna answered. “So excuse me for not having better taste when I was thirteen.”
“Well just between us, I’m still not sure about Tyler,” Athena said. “There’s just something about him that I don’t trust. Don’t tell any of the guys I said that, though.”
“You’re wrong about him,” Dianna disagreed.
“I hope I am too, for your sake,” Athena said.
A few minutes later they found the motel in Melody. And, mercifully, there were two rooms available.
With all of the activity over the previous hours finally catching up to them, they were all eager to go to bed. They walked to their rooms quietly. Athena and Percy went into their respective rooms straight away. Dianna and Tyler shared a quick peck on the lips, before joining them, which left Annelise and Xander outside, alone.
“Goodnight,” Annelise told him with a smile.
“Goodnight,” Xander responded. “And thank you for asking me to dance. It was really fun.”
“Yeah, it was.”
They stood there for a moment in silence, unsure of what to do, just looking at each other. Then Annelise stepped forward, and pulled him into a tight hug. Xander quickly recovered from his surprise and wrapped his arms around her as well.
A few seconds later, when they broke the embrace, they stood there for another second, just looking at each other, until Annelise, not really sure why, chuckled quietly. Xander, also not really sure why, did the same.
Then, without so much as another word, they both stepped into their rooms, and shut the doors.
As Annelise laid in bed, her friends already asleep, she couldn’t help but smile again when she thought of their hug. And she could help but hope that there would be many more hugs with him to come.
Annelise found herself standing in the forest, looking around. For a moment she felt lost, absolutely lost. What was she doing there again? How had she gotten there?
And then, she felt it in her chest.
POUND. POUND. POUND.
That’s right. She had been walking, searching for the source of the pounding. And now here she was to finish the task.
Full of a refreshed sense of purpose, she continued walking forward towards the pounding. With each step it became stronger. With each step she felt it all the more. And the more it grew, the more she wanted it to grow. Soon it was pounding through her entire torso, not just in her chest. A few more steps and it was pounding through her legs, pulsing through them. A few more steps, and it was in her arms.
Feeling it pound through her body, all she wanted, more than anything, was to be enveloped in that pounding, to feel it pouring over her like rainwater. Eagerly, she ran forward, towards the pounding, yearning to be made one with it.
After a hundred feet, the pounding moved into her head.
And then, she saw it.
She’d come to the edge of the trees, to the end of the forest. Looking out beyond, there was a small, rocky beach there. The ground rose up on either side of the tiny bay, boxing it in with tree topped cliffs on either side. And straight ahead, past the rocky beach, was the ocean, sloshing on rocks just off shore.
As she stepped forward, onto the beach, she could feel the ocean spray on her face. She could taste the salt in the air from the sea spray.
And then, reaching the end of dry ground, barely a centimeter from the furthest reach of the waves, she stopped.
She stood there, staring out at the ocean, until she was filled with the impulse to look down. She knew that something was down there, by her feet.
What it was was a large, white pedaled daisy.
Smiling to herself, she picked the flower and held it close to her chest. Then she looked back out at the ocean, patiently waiting for something. No, it wasn’t a something she was waiting for. It was a someone. And instinctually, she knew that that someone would be there soon.
Closing her eyes, she just stood there, listening to the waves lap against the shore, just out of reach.
And like that, she waited.