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It had been the most terrifying, miserable day of Tim Ryan’s whole miserable life.

He’d just done it to show Hailey. Because…because she said he was too scared. He was. Every time he tried anything it always went wrong. Horribly wrong. And he wasn’t a thief. Well, he didn’t want to be. It was one of the few things his dad had ever really got angry with him about. And then he’d only been a little five-year-old kid helping himself to a chocolate bar in a store.

But Hailey…she said…and he’d do anything to get her.

He’d been just short of the door of the store when a big hand had closed around his upper arm. He’d looked up into the face of the store security officer. “Come along with me, you,” said the man, his hand like a steel band around Tim’s arm. The security officer had looked at Hailey. “He with you, Miss?”

“Him?” Hailey had said. “As if I’d hang out with that little creep. He’s a loser. I think he’s stalking me.”

The security officer looked at her with slightly narrowed eyes, and Tim’s mouth had been suddenly too dry to say anything. “Off you go, then,” he had said, and he’d marched Tim along back through the store to the security office. Every cringing step Tim had been aware of the eyes of the other shoppers on him, on his school uniform. The office door had been slightly ajar, and they’d pushed through it, into a plain windowless room, with filing cabinets, two big CCTV screens showing the shoppers, and a desk, at which sat another security officer, who was talking on the telephone.

“Hand it over,” the big security man with designer stubble who had dragged him there had said. “You might as well know our policy is to prosecute.”

“I haven’t done anything!” Tim had protested, his voice going shrill as it did sometimes, still, when he was scared or upset. The weight of the DVD hidden in his inside pocket felt like half a ton of lead. If only he could have dropped it or something…

The store security guy, his big hand still tight around Tim’s upper arm, had looked down at him. “It’d be a lot easier on you if you just come clean. And I must tell you the store is covered by closed-circuit TV.” He pointed at the black-and-white screens, showing the shoppers. “Even in here—the camera is in the corner. When the police get here, you’ll be searched and charged.”

“And then things will be really rough for you, sonny,” the guy at the desk, who had a long nose almost like a beak, had said, while staring down that nose at him. He’d sounded viciously pleased about that, as he’d put down the phone. Actually he’d sounded just like Brute Meldrum at school, when he told you he was going to beat the stuffing out of you after class. Tim had half expected the guy to get up and start hitting him. Instead he’d said to his fellow officer, “The cops say they should have someone here in about ten minutes.”

In the corner, a large filing cabinet had suddenly flung itself open with a loud clang, and vomited a fountain of paper onto the floor.

“Blast it!” big stubble-face had said, as he’d looked crossly at the mess. “What made that happen? It’s going to take me an hour to sort out those files.”

“Must have been something jammed in it when you closed it,” long-nose had said with a sigh, as he’d started to get up. “Hello. Whoa, Nellie! You’re a quick little thief, boy,” he’d exclaimed, pointing to the DVD now lying on the desk.

“Won’t help you,” designer-stubble had said, derisively. “Your prints are on it, and…” He stopped and sniffed. “Have you been smoking in here again, Johnny Belsen?” he’d snapped at his fellow security man.

“No. I told you, I’ve quit,” the other store security officer had answered.

Tim—at a different angle to both of them—had seen it first. Numb with terror, he’d watched it crawl like some live thing out of the gridded duct behind them. It was, he realized, smoke. Heavy, oily smoke, and it was cascading out of the duct and down the wall. Tim swallowed. “Uh…” he’d pointed at it with a wavering hand.

“Good try, brat,” the stubble-faced one had said, his eyes narrow, his gaze locked on Tim, not following the pointing hand for an instant.

But his long-nosed companion had looked. “Marx! Smoke!” he’d yelled, pointing too.

Abruptly, the wall-duct had spat a gout of crimson flames.

Its plastic cover had suddenly melted and dribbled in burning tears, spitting and bubbling black smoke, as they oozed down the wall. A piece of the burning plastic had exploded, sending a sticky trail of flaming goo across the desk, onto the scatter of papers there. The pointy-nosed one had slapped at it and screamed, clutched his hand. Then a siren began to yowl. On the black-and-white CCTV screen, people had looked up from their shopping in alarm.

“Fire! Fire! Everybody out of the building!” someone, out in the store, had shouted.

Then, finally, the store-security man had let go of Tim’s arm, and Tim had done what seemed obvious right then, just stupid later. He’d run and snatched a fire extinguisher from the bracket in the corner. Pulled the pin, like he’d been shown in the fire-safety lecture at school. He’d let loose a blast from it at the burning duct.

It had hissed, gushed steam and a shower of crackling sparks…and the partition wall had collapsed, showing burning struts, and the store beyond, full of yelling running people. More flames blossomed instantly, and Tim had winced as the savage heat of it hit his face.

The grimacing long-nosed security officer, still clutching his burned hand, had staggered to his companion and pushed his arm down with an elbow. “Electrical fire, kid. Wrong extinguisher! Come on! We gotta get out.”

Tim had just stood there, frozen, in the middle of the room.

The big guy had rushed for the door…and then turned and grabbed Tim’s arm in the same viselike grip. “Come on, kid!”

His long-nosed friend had fumbled at the lock, and they’d spilled together out into the store, full of smoke and sirens. “Run!” the security officer had yelled in his ear. And, half-dragged, Tim stumbled along with them, out to the pavement, still carrying the little fire extinguisher.

It had not ended there, either. They had not let him go until the two police officers had arrived. That part on the pavement was now all a big, confusing, terrifying blur in his memory. Tim could still remember the police woman’s words, though. He’d never forget them, or the shame and the relief. “Did you see him take the DVD?” she’d asked the security officer.

“Not actually,” the store security man had admitted. “I picked the behavior, asked him to come with me to the control room. Marx and I were there, but the kid’s a quick one. He took advantage of the filing cabinet flying open to dump it on the desk as we looked away, I reckon. Clever, but not clever enough. His prints will be all over it, as I said to him, and the CCTV record…”

The other police officer had looked at the store security man. At the firemen working. “You might be lucky. It’s a pretty hot fire. Did he start it?”

The store security guy had shaken his head. “I’d like to say yes, but Marx and I are professionals. We had him on CCTV, told him so, and we were both with him. He didn’t try and run away or anything when the fire alarms went off. He actually tried to use the extinguisher, which I hadn’t thought of. No, he didn’t start it. It was just his lucky day. But you can still prosecute on a witness statement.”

The female officer pulled a face. Shook her head in turn. “We could. If you had seen him take the DVD, or found it in his possession. As it is…St. Dominic’s kid.” It was said with obvious dislike. “His parents will hire a lawyer that’ll probably get the spoiled brat off. We’ll just take him back home.”

The scene, when he’d arrived at the flat with the two police officers, just as his mother got in, just having received a call from the school…was something Tim would rather forget forever.

She’d been silent. That wasn’t like her. He hadn’t said anything either.

They stood silent for what seemed like forever, until in desperation he’d said he was sorry.

And then the yelling started…but not at him.

Instead she was shouting it down the phone line to his father in Oman. And she normally wouldn’t even speak to the man. Kept communication to snarky e-mails about money. Tim knew. He’d looked. Her password was so lame.

Accidents happen. Just more of them happen around me than anyone else in the world, Tim thought.

“I just can’t cope anymore!” His mother had stormed.

Tim Ryan was used to that. She said it at least twice a day.

Usually about him.

Huh. He couldn’t cope with himself either, and he had no escape. He was stuck in his life; she could duck out of it. She didn’t always have to be the one who didn’t fit in, who didn’t belong anywhere. But that was situation normal, making like it was her who had a problem that she couldn’t cope with, not him.

“He’s a changeling, Tom! He’s not normal!” his mother yelled, as if Tim wasn’t even in Melbourne, let alone the same room.

Like I can help the weird stuff that happens around me, Tim thought bitterly, looking out at the dirty sky beyond the high-rises of Williamstown. This poltergeist rubbish they accuse me of causing is all bull. I wish I could do it. I really do. Only he really didn’t. All he wanted right then was for it all to go away.

Tim couldn’t hear his dad’s answer. But he was ready to bet his mother didn’t even know what a changeling was. He kind of wished that he was one. It had to beat “loser.” Maybe Faerie glamour let you look taller, cooler, like you had an iPhone. Maybe it let you get away with shoplifting without getting busted, he thought. He was sort of dead-man-walking resigned to the consequences by now. It could only get worse, but at least he wouldn’t be at St. Dominic’s anymore. At least he wouldn’t be the new kid in the secondhand blazer, who didn’t know any cool people or do any cool stuff. The kid whose friends from middle school were all in ordinary state schools. The kid everyone, even the losers, kicked.

“That won’t work,” said his mother, angrily. “The school has asked me to remove him. I don’t know what to do, Tom!”

That must be the first time she’s ever admitted that, thought Tim, sourly. He wasn’t too good at it himself, but this time the truth was he didn’t know either. He wished he was dead. Only that would please some people, he muttered to himself. Not Mum—it would upset her, he supposed. And she’d stop getting money from Dad then too, and that would upset her more. But Hailey—she’d said that he was a creep and a loser, and stalking her. She’d looked at him like she wanted him to drop dead. Well, he didn’t feel like making her day. Not after she’d lied and left him to take all the heat. Put on that sweet, pretty, innocent little-girl look and fluttered her eyelashes at the store security guy and walked out, scot-free. His heart still ached anyway. She was…gorgeous. And, yeah, she was wild in a scary but still fascinating way.

“I can’t,” said his mother. “I can’t afford it, Tom. The flights cost a fortune.”

For a moment, just a heart-lifting moment, at the end of that day of shame and despair, Tim thought his dad was going to have him in Oman.

Yeah. Likely.

Not, his mind said.

But his heart was still beating faster when his mother said: “All right. But only if you pay for the flights. And only if you call the old bat to arrange it. She always gives me hell because you never call. Like it’s my fault.”

When she got to the part about “if you call the old bat and arrange it,” Tim knew that his dad had slithered out again. Dad’s a champion slither-outer, thought Tim, glumly. And everyone always says that I look just like him.

Tim knew then that he was off to the end of the earth. Being sent into exile. Transported. Being got rid of. Being dumped on his grandmother. Being sent to the worst and most boring place in the world.

Well. Flinders Island, anyway.

Then she put down the phone and there was more yelling.

* * *

Áed sat, as was his right, at his sleeping master’s feet. Those few who could see him, and his kind, tended to take him for twisted bits of shadow and angle, which looked oddly like a sharp-faced little manikin, a tiny little man with black shards of eyes. There was no flesh or blood or true bone about him, but Áed was stirred by the boy’s anger and fear, and numbed by his resignation. He didn’t understand his master. Of course, as one of the lesser spirits of air and darkness, he didn’t have to understand. His kind of Fae were bound to the bloodline, and only had to obey. Áed was loyal to this one, even if the child carried only a little of the old blood of the Faerie kings of the Aos Sí, and neither commanded his sprite, nor gave the traditional rewards and honours to Áed. The sprite knew the old ways and understandings were lost among modern men. That was the way of it, but he regretted their passing.

This day he’d served his master well. He’d woken the need-fire in an air-conditioning unit. Fortunately it was mostly plastic, aluminum and copper wire, with little cold iron. Even the iron bones in these buildings caused Áed discomfort. It had been hard to do. Raising fire was an achievement deserving of reward, uisge beatha or at least a bowl of old mellow mead…

It wouldn’t be forthcoming, Áed knew.

Still, he was loyal.

* * *

When he woke, Tim wasn’t too sure how he’d gotten to his bedroom. He hadn’t changed or anything, or even gotten into the bed that he’d fallen asleep on. He was still wearing the same school clothes with the smell of smoke from the burned-out store clinging to them.

He tried not to wake up. Tried to bury himself safe in sleep. It couldn’t have been real. It must have been a really bad dream. Please? He closed his eyes again, determined to ignore the school uniform and the smell of smoke.

And then his mother was yelling at him lying there. That, at least, was normal.

“Get up! I don’t know what is wrong with you, Tim! Have you been smoking that filthy weed again? I’ve begged you to stay away from that stuff. But would you listen to me? No!”

Tim sat, blinking, on the edge of the bed. “I told you, I only ever did that once. But you never believe me, do you?” he muttered, sullenly. It was true. He’d been scared to try it, but Hailey told him not to be a nob. And that the tagging that he’d done on the train had been so cool. He’d wanted to be cool, not a nob, so he’d taken the joint from her. And then he’d been really, really sick. Couldn’t breathe, and saw weird things, which wasn’t what happened to other people, from what he’d heard. Hailey had panicked, and had run away and left him. Some passerby had found him and called the ambos. The doctor at emergency said that he had an allergic reaction. The doctor hadn’t been very sympathetic, but it was nothing, absolutely nothing, to the fit his mother had thrown—nearly as bad as last night. She didn’t believe him, and she was at him all the time about it. It had been after the fight about the bill for breakages at Harvey Norman. She hadn’t believed him then, either. Well, no one did. There had been a few other things when it had been him, he had to admit. But he didn’t ever want to touch cannabis again.

His mother shook her head, her face set in that surly-cross expression, like a bad-tempered tradesman’s dog, that she got when she was setting out to be really nasty. Her Irish accent came back strongly whenever she did that. “Not anymore, I don’t. You’re just like your father. And you’ve brought this on yourself. Pack your things, Tim. You’re only allowed fifteen kilos of luggage, and Tom has booked you on the plane at midday. I’ve had to take another day off work for this. And you can clean up this pigsty before you go!”

He could hear the sound of rush-hour cars in the street, and see that the sun shining through the window was sparkling on the dust motes dancing in the air. If it was that bright and noisy he should be on his way to school, to another miserable but predictable day.

So. It wasn’t all some kind of nightmare. He was leaving Melbourne. Leaving the life he knew, leaving everything and everyone. He hoped at least that that was true. He’d be leaving his friends, if he had any. At St. Dominic’s there was only Hailey, and then, he had to admit, only if she didn’t have an audience and if she wanted something. His heart still hurt thinking about her. She was drop-dead gorgeous, in spite of it all. He didn’t even want to think farther back in his life. He’d been sort of happy here, once. Had a few guys he played about with at junior school, but then they’d moved, and he’d gone to St. Dominic’s. Before his father left, before his unlucky thirteenth birthday, when the weird accidents had started happening around him.

He turned to his room, determined not to think about it all. It was like deciding not to think about pink elephants. So what did you pack when you could only take fifteen kilos of your life with you? Well. Not barbells. Not that he had any. He’d kind of wanted some, so he could get stronger and bigger…only, they were expensive and…Books? Some of them. Sabriel. Lord of the Rings. The Harry Potters could stay. Did his laptop count? It was old and heavy, a hand-me-down. The battery only did twenty minutes. He was still sitting there, trying to reach decisions, when his mother bustled back in carrying a suitcase. “Haven’t you done anything yet? Don’t just sit there, Tim!”

And on his desk, just behind her and across the room from him, a pile of books tilted, tipped, and the first fell, bang! to the floor.

They both stared as the next book tipped over the edge and fell to land on the next. And then the next…

“I suppose you think you’re incredibly funny with these tricks! Grow up!” shouted his mother, and stormed out of the room.

Tim sat and stared at the books. They didn’t move again. So he got up, and went to the kitchen and had a bowl of cornflakes. He didn’t really know what else to do, and he was past caring, and into the hopelessly resigned phase of coping. Books overbalanced, especially in tottery piles, when people stomped into the room. And actually, he didn’t really give a toss what he packed. Well. He had to take a couple of books and his “I love Ireland” T-shirt. It was way too small by now. But like the stamp in his passport, it proved he’d been there. Looking back, he could see the trip had been his father’s attempt to patch his failing marriage, taking Mum for that trip back “home” to Ireland that she’d always claimed she wanted. But at the time Tim had just enjoyed it. And there’d been something about that green and ancient place that had made him think it was sort of home-ish too. It wasn’t, of course. This was.

He slouched back to his room. Looked at the case his mother had dropped. Groaned. It had a Spiderman II logo on it. He’d thought that was really flash…when he was nine. It had been cheap, getting rid of old stock, but then he hadn’t cared. If anyone saw him with it now they’d crack up. He put it on the bed. Began putting things into it, more or less at random, after the books. He looked at the “I love Ireland” T-shirt. It was faded, the collar frayed, and it was way, way too small. He wasn’t big for his age, but that shirt was, like, not going to ever fit again. He blinked. He wasn’t going to let it get to him. He firmly put it back in the cupboard, walked out into the hall and dug in the top drawer of the cabinet. He fished out his passport. This was dumb, and he knew it. He’d never be able to afford the ticket, ever. But he still took the passport and put it into the zipper pouch of the case. And then picked up the T-shirt again anyway. He could always leave out something else. His deodorant was nearly empty. It had to weigh less like that, right?

Things went in. Came out. Went in again. It was…something to do.

“Tim! Are you finished? We’ve got to go. You’ll be late,” shouted his mother.

Like I should care, he thought, glumly. But he closed the case, slid out the handle—he had to sort of wrestle with it and it wouldn’t go all the way back in either, and squeaky-rattled his way to the door, trundling the case behind him. He walked out, not looking back.

* * *

Áed waited. His kind had a poor sense of time, or time as it was in these earthly realms, anyway. He was not so much patient, as unaware of not doing anything. When his master left the building he did too, perched on the bag as it trundled on its erratic wheels, and he slipped into the boot of the metal chariot with it. Creatures of air and darkness do not have much in the way of weight, and so—as usual—his presence was not noticed. Only those humans with a trace of Aos Sí blood who were gifted with the sight could see Áed or his brothers. And, mostly, they refused to believe what they saw. That was good too…which Áed could not say of the oil-smelly iron chariot he and his master were trapped inside, but that too could be endured, because it had to be.

* * *

Essenden Airport was almost exactly the opposite of what Tim thought defined “airport.” It wasn’t big. There were no queues, or moving walkways or announcements you could hear only half of. And the place wasn’t full of strangers. Well, they were all strangers to Tim, but they all seemed to know each other. It made sitting there in silence worse. At least nothing weird happened, except to the scale when they tried to weigh his bag. The airline official just shrugged, and picked it up and said with an easy smile, “Bit heavy. But the plane’s not full and he doesn’t weigh much.” That wasn’t quite how he remembered boarding at Tullamarine International when they’d flown to Ireland. But he’d been younger then and excited and eager.

At last someone came along and said, “Well, we’re all here. You can board now for Flinders.” Tim stood up. His mother kissed him, half missing, on the jaw and not the cheek. “Try to pull yourself right, Tim.”

There was an awkward pause as people filed past them through the open glass doors and onto the runway. Tim swallowed the lump in his throat. He wanted to hold onto her and beg her not to send him away, but all he did was nod. Anyway, he couldn’t find his voice to say anything right then.

His mother patted him on the shoulder, awkwardly, and turned him toward the door.

So he walked, not looking back, out into the sunlight and to the waiting Metroliner. A very little plane, Tim realized. It had propellers! And the man who had said they could go…was the pilot.

* * *

Áed loved flying in human flying-machines. They moved so much faster than creatures of air and darkness could fly on their own! He liked to sit on a wing and feel the rush of the wind blowing through him.

Besides, the air was cleaner up and away from the human habitations.

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