I’d assumed retirement would be straightforward. Simple life, starting to develop hobbies, maybe even make some friends. Quiet. Peaceful.
I did not expect to hear screaming on the way back from the grocery store. Young voices and the sounds of animals growling and barking out laughs. In a city the size of Avenglade, one wouldn’t expect to hear the sounds of hyenas, so that doubtless meant these were shifters.
I immediately changed my trajectory, setting down my grocery bags just at the edge of an alleyway before heading silently down to the end and using a hand mirror to peak around the corner to where a chain link fence blocked off the way, creating a dead end.
Two young teens, both supernaturals, hovering in front of the fence. One was a lizardfolk, the other a shifter – likely something that wouldn’t be helpful under the circumstances, or they’d have shifted already since surrounding them was a pack of three hyena shifters. The hyenas looked young, too – my guess, spotting backpacks dumped nearby and taking a swift look at the lizardfolk’s and other shifter’s faces, was these were all kids roughly the same age, with the hyenas likely bullying the other two. The lizardfolk looked like it wanted to protect its shifter friend, but they were both scared.
Three hyenas, okay. Three against one is difficult, but not impossible.
I stowed my mirror, took a deep calming breath, then stepped into the dead end. I didn’t waste time with greetings, just snapped ice across the ground in one fluid motion, followed by deep frost coating the hyenas a moment later and gusts of frozen wind.
Hyenas aren’t used to dealing with cold temperatures, and they weren’t expecting this. They were blinking rapidly to clear the frost from their eyes as they turned to locate the source of their sudden blizzard, the first one yelping in surprise and pain as I strode forward before they had cleared their vision, dropped my entwined fists on top of its head to stun it, and then kneed it hard in the belly.
Most bullies are cowards at heart, so it didn’t surprise me that one of the other hyenas started to back up, ears flattened at the prospect of facing an adult clearly more competent in combat than they were. The other hyena, though, either felt upset that I had interrupted their sport and hurt their friend or simply was cocky about his prospects and started forward, his claws digging into the ice as he lunged towards me.
I was prepared to slap him with an actual wall of ice or freeze him in a block of it if I needed to, but it turned out I didn’t. Before he got another step, green vines sprang up around him and around both of his friends, too, trapping their legs and wrapping around their jaws to immobilize them within seconds.
I glanced back towards the entrance way, searching for the fairy responsible, who was followed by a couple of people in police officer uniforms. Nightwing, one of them, and the other a shifter. I was kind of annoyed with myself that I hadn’t sensed their approach even while my attention was focused on the hyenas – not paying attention to one’s surroundings could get them killed.
I knew that better than most.
“We’ll handle them,” the nightwing told the fairy, heading towards the hyenas who now attempted to shift back – getting more tangled in vines in the process – looking subdued and a little scared.
The fairy nodded, his attention briefly flitting to me before it focused on to the two kids who were sagging with relief.
He started to approach them, presumably to get their stories, and I figured my presence was no longer required – the situation was contained – so I snapped my fingers to dispel the ice and then headed back down the alleyway to retrieve my groceries. Assuming they were still there, of course. They were, but one of the bags had been kicked, possibly by the other people entering the alley and not realizing there would be groceries there, so the bread was squished and jar of pickles cracked, but all-in-all, it wasn’t that bad.
Retrieving my bags, I began heading towards my apartment, mentally editing my food plans for the week. One of my new hobbies was cooking, I’d decided after I’d retired, and I’d had a menu set up, but without pickles and bread, that would have to be adjusted. Not hugely, but couldn’t have the club sandwich I’d been planning on or the French toast, so I’d need to substitute something else. Tacos, maybe? I had ingredients for that. Or fajitas. Either would be fine.
My ears twitched slightly as I heard footsteps behind me and I turned just enough to barely catch sight of my pursuer out of the corner of my eye without making it look like I’d turned enough to see him.
So it didn’t surprise me when the fairy called out a moment later. “Wait – just a minute, please!”
I stopped and turned, waiting patiently as he approached.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to chase you down, exactly, but I wanted to thank you for your help back there. Not everyone would jump in to handle three shifters at once or even know what to do.”
“No thanks needed.” My voice was calm, even. “And it seems you were on the way anyway, so they would have been stopped shortly.” Fairies’ natural abilities were particularly helpful in containing shifters when necessary. It was not a surprise that he had been summoned, despite not appearing to be a police officer himself.
“True,” he allowed, “but you helped the kids out sooner, and that’s something to be thankful for.” He glanced at my grocery bags and hesitated. “Can I give you a hand? As thanks?”
“I do not require your thanks or assistance,” I told him, but held out some of the bags nonetheless. “I would not ignore people in distress.”
He tilted his head to the side a bit, looking confused, but accepted the bags I held out and fell into step with me. “My name is Sorrel Woodson, by the way,” he gave me a polite smile. “I’m technically a vet but my family’s heavily involved in government here, so I often get called in with shifter problems. We got a call that there were three shifters running through this area of town and had to narrow down where they were, or we would have gotten here sooner.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Teenagers. They don’t think through things – seeing hyenas running through town is going to cause a headache with the humans. We’ve got people on it, but still. They never think.”
Woodson, Woodson. The main name I associated with that was Adair Woodson, one of the more powerful fairies in the entire world, once part of the ruling class, but had reportedly given that up in favor of starting a family. He now ran a clinic for supernaturals while his wife, Violet, was on the supernatural city council and reportedly held the most sway of any member.
Sorrel must be their son, if his family was involved in government. I mentally made a note to research the family line when I got home and see if there were others I should be aware of.
It dawned on me that we’d been quiet for most of a block and glanced over to find the fairy watching me hesitantly.
“I’m sorry if I make you uncomfortable,” he offered the moment he realized my eyes were on him. “I suppose it could be concerning to have a strange man walking you home. If you’d rather I didn’t know where you live, I can just give these back before we get there.” He motioned to the groceries.
“Someone in your position, who helps the police and is concerned about teenagers being bullied, is not generally one I would be concerned about knowing where I live.” No judgment in my voice, just calm assessment of facts. “Plus I am not entirely defenseless.”
Until my retirement, he was right. I would not have allowed anyone – male or female – to know where I lived if I could help it. But I was working on relaxing, not constantly being alert and on edge, and my assessment of him had determined he was not a threat, so I saw no need to be concerned.
He seemed surprised, but nodded, a quick smile flitting across his face. “You do seem to know how to handle yourself.” He glanced over at me again. “Familiar?”
Now he seemed taken aback by my simple agreement, probably expecting more from me. Like an explanation of what kind of familiar. Years of keeping back information about myself dictated that I give as little information as possible, so I had to make an effort to unwind my reflexes and engage more.
“Snow leopard,” I explained after a pause.
“Ah, that explains the ice,” he murmured.
We turned the corner and then I led the way into an apartment building, heading for the elevators. Sorrel followed me in, glancing around the interior curiously. The place wasn’t super luxurious, but it was private and secure, designed for people who might have a bit more interest in, well, not having unwelcome visitors show up at their doors.
“Are you newer to town? I don’t remember seeing you around before.”
If anyone remembered me, I wouldn’t have been doing my job properly. Well, okay, that wasn’t an issue now, exactly, but the point was that I was still exceedingly ordinary. Average height, average hair color, unremarkable clothes – nothing that would catch anyone’s eye or stand out in any way. It was intentional, that – a way to be invisible in the middle of a crowd. So ordinary one wouldn’t even give me a second glance. One wouldn’t ever remember me, and if they did, they wouldn’t be able to describe anything more than a generic young woman.
But truth was I wasn’t from here, and there didn’t seem to be any harm in admitting that.
“Yes,” I answered as we got off the elevator and I led the way to the apartment at the end of the hall, next to the stairwell. “I recently moved here.” I didn’t add the part about doing so after I retired, that would probably raise questions about how I could afford to retire while relatively young.
I unlocked the apartment door and led the way to the kitchen, where I set down my bags and let him do the same.
While he was setting them down, I took a moment to observe him in the light of my kitchen. About five inches taller than I was, fairly average build for a male fairy – aka somewhat muscular but not ridiculously so – strong, handsome features, and shoulder-length auburn hair that was trying to escape from the tie he had in it. His expression was somewhat closed, but his body language read more relaxed.
“Thank you for the assistance,” I began unloading the frozen foods to place them in the freezer. “I hope the rest of your evening is less eventful.” Then, because I remembered it was a social nicety that people often did for visitors – something I hadn’t had in a long time, I continued. “Would you like coffee or tea before you go?”
My tone was so flat, it came out as more of an either/or question than a “would you like this at all” question.
He blinked, then shrugged slightly, almost more to himself than to me. “Tea. Fairies tend to be big tea drinkers,” he admitted.
I plugged in the electric teapot after filling it with water, retrieved the teabag options and let him make a choice, then returned to unloading the groceries while we waited for the water to boil.
He was leaning against the counter, resting his forearms on it, but looking slightly uncomfortable. “I don’t think I caught your name,” he said at last, as if searching for something to say. Probably my uninterested demeanor made him uncomfortable – it wouldn’t be the first time.
“Elizabeth Greene.” Even my name was fairly unremarkable. I could have made it more unremarkable, if that was possible, by going by Beth or Liz but I didn’t honestly enjoy nicknames that much.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Elizabeth.” He hesitated for a moment. “You don’t really seem that happy to have me here – would you rather I just go? You don’t need to give me tea, that’s fine. I know I can come across harsh sometimes, I swear it’s not intentional, it’s just – well,” he sighed abruptly, “I’m protective towards my younger siblings, then I help police out with stuff like this, and sometimes I feel like I’m constantly trying to determine if people are a threat or not. Before I realize what I’ve done, I come across as cold and unfriendly, which isn’t really what I mean to do, but it happens anyway.” He paused again. “If I did make you uncomfortable, I apologize.”
“You are fine, I don’t mind your presence,” I answered in that same calm, unwavering voice, no flicker of emotion in my face. “And you did not offend me, you seemed quite normal and friendly to me.”
“Oh, good then.” He sighed in relief this time. “I’m trying to work on it, but it’s so automatic, it usually happens before I realize. I’ve noticed that my family and friends have taken to introducing me to new people around animals since I relax more around them, and I haven’t said anything to them about it because it seems to work.” He looked moodily into the mug I placed in front of him, then shook his head a little to clear it as he processed that he had tea now.
“Sorry.” He took a sip. “This is really good, thank you. And, um, sorry for just telling you all that. That was probably a bit much to be told by a stranger.”
I shut the fridge door behind the last of the groceries. “I don’t mind. I’m honored you feel like confiding in me.”
He tilted his head to one side again, studying me. “You…don’t seem honored.”
I paused, considering how best to respond. “I am not particularly good at expressing how I am feeling,” I admitted at last. “So I suppose I can understand how you feel about people getting mistaken impressions of you.”
He blinked, took a sip of tea, and then studied me more closely. “You don’t express emotions?”
“Not really, no. I feel emotions, but they don’t come out the way normal people’s do.” People didn’t always believe me about this, at least the part about feeling emotions. People tended to assume because I didn’t express emotions, I actually didn’t feel them, and any statements to the contrary were simply lies. However, not expressing emotions had been an advantage, in my line of work – for the most part – so I had learned to live with it. “So if I am making you uncomfortable, than I also apologize.”