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Wandering Free, Wish I Could Be

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“That octopus-legged witch must think I’m stupid.”

“I think you mean, ‘That octopus-legged bitch,’” Alex says, because he thinks he’s funny, or something.

“Nope,” Z tells him. “Pretty sure she’s a witch—she tried to trick me into giving up my voice in exchange for some legs. Like I’m some dumb kid who’s so land-struck I’m just going to go up there completely helpless and unable to scream if one of those fish-eaters gets fresh.” She flips her tail a little in disbelief, and Alex laughs at her, scuttling off the rock they’re lounging on and up her arm to her shoulder.

“Are you saying you’re not land-struck?” He asks her, waving an expressive claw at Z’s treasure trove of land-garments which are folded neatly on the stone shelves of her favorite cave, slowly eroding in the salt water.

“I didn’t say that,” she tells him. She’s not sure she could say that and still sound convincing. “What I’m saying is that it was a bad deal, and she knew it, and I knew it. What I’m saying is that I’m not stupid. What I’m saying,” Z says, pausing for effect, enjoying the way her words seem to hang in the water between them, “Is that we are going to steal her magic book and make a better deal for ourselves.”

Zooey is in the rafters again, which wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the ukulele. In all of Tennessee’s books, fairies are supposed to be tiny, fluttering creatures, as tall as an average human’s hands. Instead, Zooey and Alexa are as tall as Tennessee’s knee, or so, with faintly sparkling wings which leave a glittering dust all over everything. It’s quite irritating, and requires a dedicated housekeeper to stay on top of it. Luckily for them, Tennessee has nothing but time.

She has written angry letters to a fair few fairytale illustrators over the past few weeks, complaining about this inaccuracy in fairy-sizing, though. It’s false advertising, is what it is, and Tennessee needs some kind of cause to fight for while she’s locked in a tower. This one seems as good a campaign as any, since she’s got renewed reasons for passion about it every time Alexa thinks it would be cute to finger-comb her bangs and gets fairy-wing-glitter in her eyes.

The ukulele is a new challenge in living with fairies, though. It’s a gift from Charlotte, something for them to amuse themselves with, because Charlotte really is an evil witch with ulterior motives. She likes to sound like she means well, likes to talk about how she’s sorry Tennessee is still trapped up here, how she was sure some young hero-in-training would have come by to try to break the curse by now, how she really appreciates Tennessee’s help with this final apprenticeship task, oh, here is a ukulele, you must be getting bored, isn’t it cute and fun?

Tennessee is getting bored, thank you, it’s why she’s taken up terrorizing childrens’ book illustrators by mail as her new hobby, because evil witchiness seems to be catching. It’s no excuse, though, to deliver a perfectly Zooey-sized instrument at a point when Zooey is significantly smaller than normal and also in possession of wings, capable of spiriting the thing off up into the rafters, and then using it to play the same song over and over in the process of perfecting it. Tennessee is so annoyed she wants to tear her hair out, but she’s not sure that’s even physically possible in the state that it’s now in.

Alexa has attempted to braid Tennessee’s hair once or twice, but when hair is approximately twenty feet long and the would-be-braider is only two feet tall, that’s quite the treacherous proposition, and Tennessee would prefer to live without ever again fearing that she’s going to murder a close friend by smothering her in hair.

“What happens to us, in your happy-ever-after?” Alexa asks idly from her spot lying on her back in a puddle of Tennessee’s increasingly dusty hair. It’s a question Tennessee thinks they probably should have asked before they got involved in a novice-witch’s final graduation-project-spell. It had seemed pretty exciting then, though, and they hadn’t really stopped to think before jumping on the idea of having an adventure. Two weeks in, it’s really getting old, and practical considerations are starting to crop up.

“Um, you go back to normal? You can reach things on the top shelf again?”

“Yeah,” Alexa doesn’t sound too enthused about the idea. “I’m liking the wings, though. Do you think I could hang onto them?”

“Not sure, you’d have to ask Charlotte,” Tennessee says, and then reflects, “I’m not even sure I’ll go along with the happy-ever-after marrying-the-guy part. I mean, it’s tradition, but what if he’s boring? Or smells funny.”

“It’s not like anyone can make you,” Alexa agrees. “Still, it’s a better meet-cute story than anyone off that dating profile Grimmy and I set up that time.”

“You set up one of those?” Tennessee doesn’t really see it, but Alexa doesn’t sound like she’s joking.

“There may have been some wine involved.”

Tennessee is not shocked. Zooey doesn’t seem to be, either, when she finally stops strumming to giggle down at them from the ceiling. “Maybe if Tenn doesn’t go for our hero you can make a play for him? Get the story for yourself?”

“Hey, hands off my prince!”

Tennessee doesn’t want this guy they know nothing about who may not actually exist, but that doesn’t mean Alexa gets to shoulder her way in and make off with him, either.

Alexa laughs, though, and says, “Well, maybe we can share him. Sister-wives makes the best story yet! Zooey, you want in on this?”

Z chooses carefully which of her land-garments she’s going to wear when she gets to the surface. It turns out not to matter too much, though, since none of them actually work out on land. Z struggles with the yards of faded fabric which feel as heavy and ungainly on land as they do flowing and graceful under water. Z doesn’t understand it—aren’t the things designed to be worn above-surface?

Alex laughs at her as she tries in vain to bush wet sand from the wetter fabric, scuttling through the tide pools. “Hey,” she asks him, “Did you want to get in on this magical transformation thing?” She hefts the magic book above her head, then huffs in frustration when the piece of cloth draped across her shoulders slithers to the ground.

“I’m thinking no,” Alex says, which means they’re back to plan A, so Z takes the giant abalone shell she’s brought with her and scoops some sea water and sand into it.

“Fine, then. Your chariot awaits.” She’s pretty sure Alex just wants to be a jerk and make her carry him all over land. Still, it’s better than going out on an adventure alone.

Freshly dressed in some things she saw hanging from a rope strung between two tall, plant-things, Z feels a lot better about her adventure. She thinks they must belong to somebody, and she feels kind of bad about it, but the dry fabric feels almost unfairly good against her new limbs.

She’s got Alex in the abalone shell in her hands, and the magic book in a net bag she brought up from the sea floor over her shoulder, the sun is shining and she thinks she has almost mastered this ‘walking’ thing, and her adventure feels like it’s looking up.

She hasn’t been walking very long when she hears a voice calling from far over head. This wouldn’t be unusual in the water, but Z is starting to sense that here on land people mostly spend their time on the same level, feet planted on the ground.

“Cap,” the voice calls out, “Captain Knots, get back here before you break your stupid kitten neck!”

The voice is attached to a person who is lying on one of the limbs of one of those weird, overgrown land-plants. He’s dressed in clothes that aren’t dissimilar to what Z stole--borrowed--and he sounds pretty distressed.

Z shades her eyes to look up at him and yells, “What are you doing?”

The guy yelps, sways from his perch, and almost falls before glaring down at Z. “I could ask you the same question! Were you trying to give me a heart attack?”

Z grins. Her first interaction with a fish-eater. It’s so exciting. She tells him, “If I meant you any harm, you would know it, I promise,” and beams up at him. For some reason, he does not seem reassured.

He answers her, though, says, “I’m trying to find my lost kitten. He ran up here, but he’s having some trouble getting down.”

“Are you sure he didn’t just run away because he didn’t like you?” Z is not totally sure what a kitten is, but it seems like an important distinction to make no matter what the situation.

They guy shakes his head, though, and says, “He’s just a little distractible, and he’s just a baby, you know?”

Z doesn’t know, exactly, but she does know that baby things being out and lost on their own probably isn't the best situation no matter what species they are, and if this kitten really doesn’t want to be back, she’s pretty certain in her ability to help him escape again. She slings the net bag with the witch’s book around to the front and flips back to the spell she remembers noticing while looking for the leg-spell.

“A spell for calling lost things,” the heading at the top of the page reads, so Z takes a deep breath and dives in.

When she reaches the end of the spell, she feels something humming in the air around her, and then with a pop, something small and furry appears in her arms, and she drops the magic book to keep a hold on it. She almost drops Alex, too, which he notices, and climbs out of the abalone, climbing up Z’s arm to her shoulder, grumbling the whole time.

Z isn’t totally sure that this squirming creature in her hands is what she was supposed to be looking for, but the guy up in the land-plant calls out a delighted, “You found him!”

“Yep!” Z answers, suddenly very pleased with herself. “Were you calling him Captain Knots, before?” Z knows proper forms of address are important, so she gazes gravely down to the kitten and says, “Pleased to meet you, Captain.”

The creature doesn't answer except to blink up at her, and her new friend, still up in the plant-thing, laughs a little as he shimmies back along the plant’s limb to its trunk. He keeps glancing backwards, trying to see where he’s putting his feet, and it looks like it’s going to take a while. Apparently, he agrees, because he asks Z, “Do you think you could get me down the same way?

Unicorns. This is what Tennessee’s life has turned into, she is receiving threatening letters from unicorns.

“To be fair,” Zooey shouts down from the rafters, “It’s only in response to your own angry letter.”

“How can they even write?” Tennessee yells back. “Do they hold the little pen in the clefts of their hooves?”

“Maybe they hire a stenographer,” Zooey reflects dreamily, and then “Wouldn't that be an awesome job? Stenographer to the unicorns?”

Alexa gazes up at Tennessee from the floor and says, “it’s not like you shouldn't have guessed that they were a unicorn publishing company. Who else would call themselves One Horn Publishing?”

“I don’t know,” Tennessee shrugs, “Someone making a medieval penis joke?” She’d been kind of hoping it was that one.

“And their seal?” Alexa asks, like that proves her point at all. “Their seal looks definitely phallic,” Tennessee tells her.

When Charlotte stops by that day, Tennessee is leaning out the window, staring wistfully into the distance, so instead of coming in, Charlotte hovers on her broom outside the window.

“Hey, I’m sorry Tenn,” she starts, contrite. “I’m sure someone will be coming to your rescue any day now.”

“I’ve angered the unicorns, Charlotte,” Tennessee tells her, hoping to capitalize on this uncharacteristic display of sympathy. Evil-witches-in-training aren’t encouraged to be the most empathetic, and Tennessee loves Charlotte just the way she is, but it does make her revel in Charlotte’s friendlier moments in their friendship when she gets the chance.

Unfortunately, she hasn’t acted fast enough, or this subject was only ever going to inspire amusement, because Charlotte grins at her slyly and says, “Yeah, I thought that might happen.”

“And you didn’t think to warn me?” Tennessee does not think that should be too much to ask from their friendship.

“You were having so much fun writing your little letters,” Charlotte says, shit-eating grin still firmly in place.

“I hate you,” Tennessee says, and in this one very specific, dire moment, she means it.

“So where are you off to?” Z asks Ryan. After spending the better part of an hour talking him down through each of the tree’s footholds (see! Z can pick up the lingo. Alex can suck it.) she figures they’re friends enough that she really ought to know.

“Oh, you know, questing,” Ryan tells her, peering around Captain Knots where he’s perched on Ryan’s shoulder to look at her.

“I don’t know, really,” Z tells him. She’s heard some questing stories here and there, but she’s never really gotten it. Are you just supposed to walk off in some random direction and wait for the quest to find you? Z isn’t sure it should work like that. If quests are that easy to find, why don't people end up on them every time they step out of the house?

Ryan blinks at her in confusion, though, and asks, “But aren’t you on a quest? I thought that was why the—“ he waves an expressive hand to gesture at Z’s entire person and, apparently, a good portion of the road and field of crops behind her as well, “The disguise.”

Z isn’t sure how he can know that, she’s sure she left no traces, glances down at her bare feet to reassure herself that there are no leftover scales or webbing. “What do you mean?” she asks carefully.

“Well,” Ryan seems surprised by the question, “You’re dressed in guys’ clothes.”

Z looks down at her borrowed finery and frowns. “So? It’s not like I’m doing anything else to try not to look like a girl.”

“You’re interesting, you know that?” Ryan asks her. He doesn’t sound like he’s being snide, either, so Z doesn’t comment, just smiles a bit to herself and says, “So what are you questing for? Or do you know yet?”

“Well, there’s this princess in a tower,” Ryan tells her, “I heard some bards talking about it, all set to write a song about it as soon as she gets rescued, they’re literally hanging around waiting, and I just thought, that’s not cool, you know? It must suck to be locked in a tower.”

That’s true, so Z nods, asks him, “So what are you going to do about it?”

He shrugs. “Don’t know. Thought I’d go, check it out, see if I can’t do a bit of rescuing.”

Ryan seems like a nice guy, but Z can’t help but laugh at that. He shoots her a look, so she asks him, “What? It just didn’t look like rescuing was your forte a few minutes ago, is all.”

After a moment, he grins back, says, “Yeah, it was mostly just an excuse to road-trip, anyway. You want to come? It seems like you’d be the better rescuer. I can be your sidekick, or something.”

“I’ve already got a sidekick,” Z tells him, frowning down at Alex, who has been suspiciously quiet throughout this whole interlude. “Alex, what do you think? Want to go rescue a princess from a tower?”

“I don’t know,” Alex says. “He,” Alex gestures at Ryan, who is staring at Alex with a spooked expression on his face, “Doesn’t eat crab, does he? I’m up for just about anything, but I will not end up someone’s dinner.”

“No, uh, nope, I swear, I’ve got a seafood allergy. Or something. I’d never.”

Z decides it doesn’t much matter if that’s true or not, so long as no Alex-eating goes on. “Alright,” she says, “Let’s go rescue a princess!”

She regrets her optimism later that day, when they reach the tower, which is tall and round and entirely door-less.

“Aren’t there supposed to be, like, tests and trials to decide if we’re worthy before we make it to the tower? Danger and adventure?”

“I almost lost my cat,” Ryan grumbles, “How much more danger and adventure do you want?”

Z is about to snap back at him, when a sparkly, winged girl about a third the size of Z flutters down from the window all the way at the top of the tower, hovers in front of them, clears her throat and asks, “Come you to win the hand of the fair lady Tennessee?”

“She can keep her hand,” Z answers with a shudder, thinking of the witch who’d wanted her voice. “We’re just here to see if we can help her out getting out of the tower.”

The glittery girl nods, the solemn expression clearing for a second to grin. That’s when Ryan says, “Wait—Lady Tennessee? I thought she was supposed to be a princess, that’s just false advertising.”

The girl scowls and says, “If you don’t want her hand in marriage anyway, I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”

Z elbows Ryan, who she thinks should probably stop antagonizing the fluttery, probably magical creature. “Plus, you’re not the one doing the rescuing, anyway, sidekick.”

“He’s not?” Glittery asks, looking intrigued. Z sketches a bow, tells her, “Questing hero Z, at your service.”

Glittery laughs, says, “Oh this is too good, I have to go tell Alexa,” and starts flying straight up. When she’s half way to the top of the tower, she turns and shouts down to them, “The next part is where you yell, ‘Tennessee, Tennessee, let down your hair!’”

Z looks over at Ryan, but he just shrugs his shoulder at her. “Hey, you’re the main event here, Questing Hero Z,” he says, and he doesn’t sound mad, but it occurs to Z that this was sort of his thing, and then she took it over. She tells him, “Hey, I’m sorry. You should say it, if you want.”

He smiles, though, and shakes his head, gesturing to the tower in an ‘all yours’ kind of gesture, so Z takes a deep breath and calls, “Tennessee, Tennessee, let down you hair!”

I couldn’t be doing this if I let that witch take my voice, she thinks with vicious satisfaction as a veritable rope of mousy brown hair is flung from the upper window, falls directly on Z’s upturned face, and knocks her over.

Zooey and Alexa think they're being subtle about the way they’re giggling in the corner, but Tennessee is sitting on the floor of the tower room, back against the wall, head resting on the window sill, bracing herself from the feeling like her entire head is on fire and they are tittering together on the exact opposite end of the room from her, and she really can’t help but see them. She wonders if this is what giving birth feels like. Like giving birth from her head. Like Zeus, she is pretty sure Zeus did that, if Charlotte has turned her into a Greek god against her will, Tennessee is never forgiving her, she swears.

Ouch.

That’s basically what she’s got in her head, just ouch ouch ouch times a thousand, and her mounting frustration with her friends across the room, until she’s shouting at them, “Tell me about my prince, dammnit! Give me something to think about besides wringing Charlotte’s stupid, witchey, best-friend-ey neck!”

Zooey stares at her like she’s being irrational, or something, so she gestures towards what is going on with her head with all the indignation she has in her. She’s not sure how she hasn't been torn bodily from the building by the weight on her head, to be honest. Or how her neck hasn’t snapped. Magic, probably. Tennessee has decided, today, that she really doesn’t much care for magic.

Zooey’s eyes widen in sudden understanding, wings wafting an alarmed grey, shining dust into the air around her. Alexa sneezes. Tennessee loses whatever patience has been keeping her from yelling for the past thirty seconds and asks, “Is he huge, or something? Am I being rescued by a giant-prince?”

At that moment, the pain spikes and then releases, and she can feel her hair being moved to the edge of the windowsill, as a body clambers onto and then into it, landing in an ungainly heap at Tennessee’s side.

“Hey, sorry, not a giant, but I guess even just little old me was almost to much for that head of yours, so maybe I don’t need to apologize for that?”

Tennessee looks over at the dark-eyed girl with the pert bob of bright hair and the breathless, contagious smile and says, “No. don’t apologize for not being a prince, either.”

“I wasn’t going to,” the strange girl says, leaning up on the height of her outstretched arm, closer and closer, but slowly, like she’s giving Tennessee time to stop her, time to react, like the kiss at the end of the rescue isn’t the most non-negotiable part of the story.

“I’m Z,” apparently-Z whispers when her face is inches from Tennessee’s own, and Tennessee can see her pores, can see tiny, faded freckles like constellations on the bridge of her nose, and she leans in the rest of the way, pressing her lips to Z’s.

Z opens her eyes and she and the newly rescued non-princess are sitting in the grass in the glade where the tower used to be. The non-princess, Lady Tennessee, has lost approximately ninety-eight percent of the hair she’d had seconds before. Now it just brushes down against her shoulder-blades.

Which is probably not the important point, here, probably not nearly as important as the fact that the glittery girl from earlier is person-sized and non-glittery, lying in a heap with another girl who looks vaguely familiar, like Z saw her but she didn’t really register it in those fleeting moments in the tower.

Ryan is standing near them grinning down amusedly, and, oh, right, the tower is still gone. An entire building has disappeared, Z isn’t totally sure how to feel about that. She knows she isn’t exactly an expert on things that happen on land, but it still doesn’t seem like a very common event. She looks from Ryan to Tennessee and asks, “What happened?”

“You broke the curse!” Tennessee tells her, then wrinkles her nose in a way that makes her look vaguely like a baby rabbit. “Trust Charlotte to have made it a kissing-curse. Ugh, what if you’d been a boy or something. I’d have gotten cooties!”

When Z doesn't look particularly enlightened by this information, Ryan tells her, “Your quest is done. Completed successfully, too—you could probably make a case for entry into the Heroes’ Union.”

“That was it? That was a quest?” Z asks. For a the end of a quest, it feels pretty brief and anticlimactic. She looks back to Tennessee. “What now?”

“Well,” Tennessee taps her lower lip with her finger, “I don’t know you nearly well enough to marry you, but I think I might be contractually obligated to? I didn’t really read the fine print.”

“What?” Z asks. That’s moving a bit fast for her, too, the idea of marriage at this point. “No, don’t worry about it, no wedding bells needed—“

“I was going to say,” Tennessee interrupts, “You were saying that didn't feel like much of a quest? We could go on a few more, then, maybe. Get to know each other a little better?”

Z feels a grin steal over her face. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well,” Tennessee tells her, “I have a bit of a bone to pick with these unicorns…”