One week later.
Stef kicked a clump of grass. ‘I can’t believe we’re waiting for a bus.’
Ryan smiled down at her. ‘What did you expect?’
‘We’re in fairyland,’ she said, ‘I didn’t really expect buses. Secret sideways stair, sure, I can dig that. But…buses?’
‘The fairies don’t rely on teleportation magics as much as some of the fae,’ he said, checking his watch. ‘Mostly they rely on the wings on their back, but they can be broken, or sore, or lost entirely, so there needs to be a decent public transport back-up. That, and they need to account for visitors like us who have no wings.’
‘You would totally make wings work,’ she said. ‘And then we wouldn’t have to wait for a bus that’s twenty minutes late.’
‘It’s one minute late,’ he said as he sat on the bench. ‘You’re just impatient.’
She shrugged. ‘I was five once, I looked for fairies in the garden. Never found any though.’
‘Are you disappointed?’
She shook her head. ‘How can I be disappointed that they don’t match up to what a five-year-old girl expects to see when I’m still sort of giddy that they exist in the first place. I mean, fairies!’ She looked around at the rolling vista, it looked like any countryside, except for the odd flowers, unusual colours of grass, and the fact that there were things flying high in the sky that definitely weren’t birds. ‘It just the buses I didn’t expect.’
He stood, and pointed down the road. ‘It’s coming.’
The bus was red, round, and sort of lumpy, as if the blueprints had been drawn up from a child’s crayon drawing. It stopped as Ryan flagged it down and they climbed aboard. He paid the fare, and asked the driver to call out their stop. She took a window seat, staring down at the bench, and the strange tree that the staircase had led down, then looked around the bus. It was only about a third-full, and she tried not to stare at the fae, taking in their details, their clothes, their costumes, any bits of shimmering magic that surrounded them in quick glances.
‘This is so cool,’ she whispered.
‘Now you’re glad we didn’t walk?’
She nodded, and grinned to herself as she saw the fairy across from her play with his iPod before slumping back down, resting the tips of his wings over his face to hide him from the sun.
The fields stopped after a little while, and began to to segue into houses, with a shop or two scattered around. The driver called out, beckoning Ryan, and they climbed off the bus, they stepped off the bus, and before it had even pulled away, an old woman ran over and hugged Ryan.
‘So I guess this is the right stop,’ she said.
Ryan returned the woman’s embrace. ‘Hello Patty.’
She smiled, then gave him a light slap. ‘Do you really have to wear your uniform everywhere, Ryan? You’re having the day off, aren’t you?’
‘The afternoon, anyway, my Aide is looking after things.’
The old woman gave her a look. ‘And you’ve got her doing it too, you’ve got to be Just Stef, right?’ She gave a nod, and the old woman hugged her. ‘He’s told me nothing about you,’ the woman said with a smile. ‘So it’s a good thing Mike’s closing down the store.’ She started to walk away. ‘Come on, he’s keeping it open long enough for us to pick out afternoon tea, and to serve any last minute customers. He advertised three days ago he was going to close down for today, but you just know people are going to be banging on the door after we’ve gone home.’ The woman stopped and stared at Ryan. ‘He woks too hard, just like you.’
They followed her into the store, a small bell ringing as they opened the door. She grabbed Ryan’s hand, and tugged on it. ‘I can’t die, right?’ she asked quietly. ‘Like, I can, but I don’t get to go anywhere, yeah?’
‘Why are you asking me?’
She sniffed again. ‘So why am I in heaven?’ she said, her mouth watering as she looked around the cake store. Displays were everywhere, showing off creations that she knew she might just kill for, boxes of cookies that she knew she would spend some of her hard-earned gold on, and a clear-fronted case that would look wonderful in the corner of her office.
A small man, someone actually shorter than her – a gnome – rounded the corner, slapped Ryan on the back, and shook his hand. ‘Too long since I’ve seen you!’ he shouted. ‘But thank you for my wife! She’s come in handy over the years!’
‘Magic Mike,’ Ryan said with a smile. ‘It’s good to see you too.’
The gnome turned to her, looked her up and down, took a step forward, and poked her in the stomach. ‘You! You’re too tiny! You need cake!’ He took her by the hand and pulled her to the glass case. ‘Pick six!’
‘Do the cookies count?’ she asked.
‘No, of course not, just the cakes!’
She knelt in front of the glass cake, and closed her mouth, just in case she began to drool.
‘Stef?’
‘Hm?’
‘Stef?’
She looked up at Ryan. ‘What?’
‘Stef, you’ve been staring for ten minutes. Have you picked anything yet?’
She shook her head. ‘They all look good.’
‘Then let me choose for you!’ Magic Mike said. ‘You go have a tour with Patty!’
‘Okies…’ she said, still staring at the cakes.
‘It’s ok love,’ Patty said. ‘He made them, he knows what you’ll like. Come on, there’s a lot to see.’
They followed her out the back door of the store, and to the farm beyond. Acres of land stretched out, just like the land behind the bus stop. To their left was a small house, to the right as a much larger barn. ‘House, or barn first?’ Patty asked.
She looked up at Ryan, and he shrugged. ‘You pick.’
The familiar smell of horses was too much. ‘Barn,’ she said, and Patty grinned. ‘Excellent choice,’ she said. ‘Horses are my passion,’ she said. ‘Couldn’t have one growing up, we moved around too much, and we always lived right near a city, but I had posters, and I took rides whenever I could, pretending for just a little while that the horse I was riding was mine.’ They closed in on the barn. ‘When I became a recruit, I spent all my downtime riding, and it’s so much easier when you can just require all the money you need, and all the best gear you could ever want.’
Patty pushed open the barn door. ‘Mike loves horses too, so we bought our first before we were even married. We’ve got twelve at he moment,’ she said. ‘Well, twelve that are ours, and we’re boarding one here for a friend. Do you know the Serai?’
She shook her head.
‘Amazing warriors,’ Patty said. ‘You should ask your dad to take you to the library sometime, learn a bit of history, it’ll be worth your time. They had some of the finest horses this side of…they were amazing. I’ve got one that’s descended from their warhorses’ pure stock, he’s my new pride and joy. We call him Roger.’ She walked past two empty stalls, then tapped on a nameplate, and patted a handsome red. ‘This is him. Superb temperament, and a thrill to ride.’
She stared at the tall horse. ‘He’s beautiful.’
‘I’m going to do dressage with him, we’ll add a few more ribbons to the wall.’
The old woman dragged her to the next stall. ‘Featherweight,’ she said, introducing the dappled grey, ‘a present from a friend, not much one for the shows, but he’s good to ride when you just want a nice quiet ride in the evening.’
Horse after horse was introduced, until they came to the last time. ‘This is just the one we’re boarding, we haven’t got a nameplate for him yet.’ She shook her head. ‘Silly thing,’ she said, pulling the top half of the stable door open. ‘The hook is broken, I’m going to get Mike to fix it once we’re done tonight.’
She stared at the horse inside, it was just a bay, not very tall, a small star on its face. Not a very impressive-looking horse at all, certainly not in comparison to the Serai warhorse, or the prize-winning palomino. Just an aging bay.
‘Buttercup.’ The horse she hadn’t seen in twelve years raised his head, then moved it forward, whuffled against her cheek, and chewed on her hair. She grabbed the horse’s head, and stared at him. ‘But you’re glue!’ She spun around to look at Patty. ‘I will give you an obscene amount of money for this horse. Please. He’s mine.’
Patty stared at her. ‘We’re only boarding him, I can’t sell him to you.’
She stood on tiptoes and hugged wrapped her hands around the horse’s neck, hurriedly wiping tears away. ‘Get me the details, please, I’ll call them. I thought…gods, I knew I was never going to see him again.’
‘I’ll get you his papers and the phone,’ Patty said.
She turned to look at Ryan. ‘This is him. This is Buttercup! The one James sold when I threw up on him. See? He’s a won-’
Ryan was smiling at her.
‘You-’ she choked. ‘You? You did this?’
He nodded.
She ran and jumped at the agent, hugging him as soon as her arms made contact. ‘I don’t believe it! I mean, oh my god! You…You are the best! How the hell did you find him? How did you know?’ She let him go and spun in circles until she began to tilt.
Ryan steadied her. ‘He wasn’t hard to find, and boarding him here will give me an excuse to see some old friends more often.’
She looked up at him. ‘Why? Why did you do something so wonderful?’
He smiled down at her. ‘I was informed by multiple reliable sources that buying a pony is an intrinsic part of raising a daughter. I just thought it would be best to go with one you already knew.’
‘Can I go for a ride? Just a quick one?’
‘Why do you think we’re here?’
‘…for cake?’
‘The cake was a lie, well, an obfuscation. This is the reason we came today, he only arrived last night.’
‘The cake is also delicious,’ Patty said, returning with a hardhat. ‘If you follow the white fence, you’ll be able to do a circuit by the time we’ve got the cakes ready.’
‘Ok!’ She pulled open the door, and climbed onto the already-saddled horse. ‘I’ll be quick. I promise.’
Ryan put a hand on her knee, and handed her the reins. ‘Take your time, the cake will keep.’
She gently kicked the horse, and walked out of the barn, urging him faster as soon as his hooves hit grass.