“This assignment is stupid,” Noah grumbled.
Fletcher looked up from the script he’d been thumbing through — Noises Off, which wasn’t his but had been sitting under his chair when he arrived to class — to glance in her direction. “Why’s it stupid?” he asked.
“I mean, I’m all for writing our own monologues, but ‘give us an insight into your story,’ come on,” she answered. “That’s the most Dramatic Writing 101 thing I can imagine.”
“We’re in Dramatic Writing 101,” Fletcher pointed out.
“Right. That’s what makes it stupid. It’s cliché.” Noah sighed. “But a grade’s a grade, and I did sign up for this class.” She clicked her pen absentmindedly. “What are you going to write about? That’s my problem, I think. My life is boring as hell. I’ve got no ‘story’ to give ‘insight’ into.”
“Well.” Fletcher traced a curlicue on the underside of his desk with one long fingernail. “I’ve got some ideas.”
“Yeah?” Noah pressed. “What ideas?”
“You ever heard of Battleground Forest?”
“It’s a spooky stretch of woods out in the boondocks, south of here. Basically a big national park with a town stuck in the middle, and that there’s the town of Battleground,” he said, adopting a phony Southern-Western accent that made Noah snicker. “It’s where I grew up. They say it was built on aes sí land —”
“That a Native American tribe I’ve never heard of? Tell me your city wasn’t built on a burial ground.”
“Nope. Older than that, and more dangerous.” His voice became that of a thirteen-year-old telling a scary story at a campfire. “The aes sí…you’ve heard of them, but maybe under another name. My family, for example, called them the Kindly Ones.”
“‘The Kindly Ones?’” she repeated. “Isn’t that a Sandman novel?”
“The ninth one, I think. It’s also another name for the good gentry, the Fair Folk, the People-Under-Hills….”
He nodded. “But you aren’t supposed to call them that. Not out loud. They might take it as an invitation.”
He could tell that Noah was barely not rolling her eyes. “Sure.”
“Hey, I never said it was true.” Bless human semantics, and its many ways to lie without lying. “But think of it this way. You wouldn’t say ‘Macbeth’ out loud in the Roland, would you?” ("The Roland" being the school's auditorium and Fletcher's unofficial second home.)
“I’m not sure you should say it in here,” she said, glancing around the classroom. Dramatic Writing might be located in the English wing, but it was a playwriting class, and that made it Theatre through and through.
Fletcher spit over his shoulder, just in case. “Exactly. And why not?”
Noah shrugged. “Tradition, I guess. You might not believe in it, but you don't mess with it.”
“Right. That’s how things were in Battleground. Not everyone believed in the good gentry, but we all acted like we did. Tradition.”
“Okay…. So, your monologue is about the weird town you grew up in?”
“In a way.” He grinned. “You’ll see. Wanna be my beta reader?”
The teacher cut into their conversation. “Class dismissed,” he said, waving his hand. “Get outta here.” That was Mr. Turner; the moment he was done speaking, you had best be out of his classroom.
Fletcher stood. “‘Bye, Noah.”
“‘Bye, Fletch. See you tomorrow.”
He took Noises Off with him, hoping whoever left it wouldn’t miss it. He’d leave it on his dresser for a night, an offering for the brownies and hobs. The house faeries of dormitory 12 loved to read.
That night, Fletcher retreated to his room, sank into his mattress, and began to write.
Thirteen Rules For the Teenage Changeling: A Monologue By Fletcher Gray.
He read his words aloud as he wrote.
“Rule number one. You will know. Perhaps you’ve known forever, or perhaps it comes to you at the age of ten or fifteen or twenty. It doesn’t matter. One day, you will know, and when you know, you must keep your wits about you. Keep calm, and keep going.”
He was five when he realized. He barely remembered an age when he believed he was human, but he knew there had been an age. He remembered the first time he saw his true self in the mirror, but he had long forgotten what he saw before.
“Rule number two. Don’t tell your parents unless you absolutely have to. Good parents will know, and love you anyway. Bad parents, you’ll be away from soon enough. Eighteen years will pass in the blink of an eye.”
Fletcher’s mother was a good parent. She loved him, dearly, even she from time to time suspected there was something off about her son. And she did — Fletcher could see it in her eyes when she looked at him.
“Rule number three. Be careful of your heart. To love as fae is to love with the strength of a star, to burn for a thousand years and more. Humanity doesn’t love this way, not at this age. The one you love will be gone from your life soon, and you will want to burn the world down. Best not to fall in love, if you can help it.”
Fletcher had never been in love. There were many people he loved — his family; his old friend Bryce, the one person he trusted with his True Name — but never in a romantic way, not like in the stories.
“Rule number four. Always read the fine print. Humans can be as tricksy as the eldest gentry. They will do whatever they can to make a bad deal seem good…or a bad person. Trust, but do so with caution and sense.”
A child of the Fair Folk should have know better. He should have recognized all the glamours and tricks a boy like Tim would use to make himself seem like a friend, only to whisper behind everyone’s backs, whisper whisper whisper until he’d nearly ruined many students’ lives, Fletcher being one.
“Rule number five. Remember to be just. If you must use your magic, use it only on those who would harm others.”
And when Tim’s bullying had escalated to physical abuse, Fletcher had taken matters into his own hands. With magic he could barely control, he’d cursed the boy with sickness (a “coughing spell” he had deemed it, much too proud of himself for thinking of that moniker). It kept him quiet long enough for half a dozen students to go to administration, and Tim was suspended.
He had disappeared in the forest not long after that; not Fletcher’s doing, but if that wasn’t Folk justice, nothing was.
“Rule number six. You can grow out your hair, long enough to cover your ears. Wear glasses to dull the shine of your eyes. It isn’t difficult to seem human, if you wish. And if you don’t? That’s easy, too.”
Fletcher wore his hair, which was a pewter color, almost black but not quite, in long curls that covered his knife-sharp ears, gave his face a more innocent look. His eyes, however, shiny penny-colored eyes that didn’t often occur naturally, he didn’t cover. People loved those eyes.
“Rule number seven.” Fletcher paused, his throat closing. Rule number seven was closest to his heart, which was why he put it at seven, a number of power. “Know that it will hurt. Your magic, when it comes, will bring fear and fury with it. You will look in the mirror and hate what you see; again, you will want to burn the world, but this time, you will only burn yourself.”
He ran his thumb over the scars on his wrist. He was eleven when his magic came to him in full force, and it had torn his mind apart. He lost sleep, jumped in fear at shadows, cried and raged for tiny reasons or no reasons at all. He took out his feelings on himself, so as not to take them out on someone else. It was the worst time of his life, but he made it through. Scarred, but alive.
Fletcher took a breath, and kept writing, moving onto something lighter. “Rule number eight. Grow flowers at your window. To lose touch with nature is to lose your magic. Never, never lose your magic, child. Never lose sight of where you come from.”
He had two flower boxes: one at home, and one in his dorm. Amaryllis grew in one, and hyacinths in the other. His favorites.
“Rule number nine. There’s a lot wrong with the human world, but there’s a lot that’s beautiful, too. Try not to get weighed down by the bad, dear child. Focus on what is good.”
A simple enough rule, but one Fletcher had to remind himself of every day, every time he looked at the news.
“Rule number ten. You do not have to follow their codes. Humans lie, they break promises, they demand respect where none is due, for foolish reasons like age. Be true to your word, and demand respect for courage and strength. These are the laws of the gentry.”
Fletcher followed the laws of the gentry to the letter. Often the laws of humanity made no sense to him — they seemed so arbitrary — but fae laws were built on order. They made sense. They were built on a strict, strict sense of right, and Fletcher wouldn’t break them for the world.
“Rule number eleven. Stay connected to the Grey Land. Leave offerings, wear protection charms, keep your eyes open. Do what you must.”
He touched the charm he wore around his neck. It was a general charm against dark magic, not to ward off the Folk specifically — obviously, there was no point in wearing something that could burn him or drain his strength. Protection wasn’t worth being sick constantly, or worse.
And of course, he left offerings. Chocolates and packets of coffee creamer and other sweet things on benches around campus for the locals; plays and poetry and anything else he could find in the Roland’s library on his dresser. At the speed the brownies read, they’d probably finish Noises Off by the next day; they’d gone through his battered high school copy of Our Town in five hours.
“Rule number twelve. There will be those who reject your magic, your truth, you, altogether — ignore them. You will always be too strange for some; don’t worry. You are not one of them, so why should you try to be?”
There was a reason Bryce had been Fletcher’s closest, really, his only, friend in Battleground: they were both outcasts. They didn’t understand the human world, and it didn’t understand them. It was a bit easier now, though; he was a Theatre major, after all. He was expected, if not practically required, to be a bit odd.
“And rule number thirteen. It’s more a theory, really, but I think you can say anything you wish among young people. No one will believe you, and that’s to your advantage. Everything is a joke to the human teenager, even the urban legends they fear when the woods get dark.
“So go ahead,” he finished. “Tell them the truth.”
He spent another half an hour typing what he’d written into an email, fixing a few mistakes here and there, and then he sent it to Noah.
She texted him a moment later: U finished already??? Damn u for being so good at writing Fletcher.
Did you even read it? he replied. It could suck for all you know.
No it doesn’t. I kno it doesn’t bc you wrote it.
That made him smile, made him feel a little giddy. Whatever. Can you print it out for me? Ur dorm is closer to the library than mine.
Something that says u can’t go tomorrow?
Yeah it’s called “I gotta sleep sometime.”
Thnx. I owe you 1. Another law he would never break — all favors must be repaid.
Don’t mention it. But if ur gonna sleep, sleep. Don’t be txting me at 1 am again.
Ok fine. I’ll sleep.
Fletcher grinned, tossing his phone onto the nightstand. He didn’t use it much, only to send emails, and sometimes to play music when he was in the mood for a miniature revel.
And, recently, to text Noah.
He felt the strangest urge to pick up the phone and read her messages again. The corners of his mouth twitched even thinking about her, imagining her voice and her grin and the way the corners of her eyes crinkled as she said “Goodnight, a**hole.”
He couldn’t help smiling around her.
Fletcher thought, maybe, he was falling in love with Noah. He hoped he was. If he ever loved anyone with the strength of a star, he wanted it to be her.
Fletcher closed his eyes, still smiling, and he fell asleep.
He saw Noah the next morning, sitting on the Roland steps, white as a daylily with a book clutched to her chest like a life raft. He called her name, running to join her on the steps.
She shifted, and he saw the book she was holding: an old, worn-around-the-edges library book titled A Complete Guide to Faeries and Magical Beings. Noah had been reading up on the Folk? That was unusual. Just the day before she had been doing her best not to scoff at him for believing.
He sat beside her. “Are you okay?”
Noah shook her head. “Fletcher,” she said quietly, “remind me: what was your first rule?”
“‘You will know.’ Even if it takes twenty years, you will remember what you are one day. I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist. Why do you….”
Wait. Wait a minute.
What was she saying?
She couldn’t be.
“So…so say there was a kid, a changeling, who didn’t know. They pushed their magic down so far, it was barely there at all. Until one day, something happened — just a little thing, something they heard or read — and something starts to feel…wrong. They feel these unnatural feelings, and they think they see things in the shadows, and they can’t sleep, and they wonder if it’s possible to go completely mad in one night. And they wonder if it’s worse than that.”
Noah bit her lip, ducking her head as tears rolled down her cheeks, and when she met Fletcher’s eyes again, she flickered, and a completely different girl sat in her place. The girl behind the glamour. A girl with skin the color of pistachio ice cream and catlike bright yellow eyes.
“They wonder if, maybe, the monsters are real. And if they might be one of them.” She paused. “What would you say to them, Fletcher? Are there rules for a terrified college-aged changeling?”
Carefully, he reached out, lacing his fingers through hers. “Rule number one. For the Fair Folk, nothing is an accident. Fate will take you where you need to be, into the path of another like you. Someone to show you the ways of our people, to keep you safe as your magic returns. And to tell you that you are not, you are not, a monster.”
She squeezed his hand tightly, tears spilling from her eyes. She didn’t thank him, not aloud — perhaps she understood the rules instinctively, or perhaps she just couldn’t find the words — but it was there, in her touch.
Then, Fletcher smiled. “You and I have a lot to talk about, huh? What d’you say we blow off this class — just this once won’t hurt — and go for coffee?”
Noah raised an eyebrow. “That sounds suspiciously like a date.”
“Think of it as payment, for going to the library for my lazy a*s. Gentry rules, y’know. Favors must be repaid.”
She grinned back at him, her eyes crinkling in that odd way, her odd way, that always made Fletcher’s heart skip a beat. “I think I could get used to gentry rules,” she said.