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He must have been running on autopilot, getting onto that plane, Tim realized later. He hadn’t walked out the door when he had a chance at home. He hadn’t gone to the gents’ at the airport and not come back. He’d walked across the runway, and hadn’t run off among the other planes. Just walked like a sheep, following all the other sheep.

The plane was tiny inside. Just two rows of seats, A and C. He had to duck his head to walk down the corridor between them.

There was someone in the seat he’d been allocated.

The girl gave him a nervous smile. She had braces on her teeth, and freckles, so many freckles that her skin was just about one big freckle. It might have been a bit more obvious than usual, because her face was very white between them. “I’m supposed to be sitting there.” She pointed to the seat in front of her. “But, do you mind, I…I’d rather sit over the wing. Do…do you mind sitting one forward instead? I asked them to give me a seat over the wing, but I guess, like, they thought everyone wants one with a view. But I hate sitting next to such a long way down.”

She was speaking too fast. And she was plainly even more afraid than he was. That was kind of a shock to Tim. He wondered what sort of trouble she was in. “No worries. I don’t mind.” She’d stood up to talk to him. She was taller than he was. Skinny. But those were designer label jeans she was wearing. That brought back to Tim the misery of being an outcast in among posh kids, and made him feel awkward. She didn’t seem to see it that way, though, as she leaned over his seat to talk to him. He looked about, trying to figure out where the overhead lockers were.

“I hate flying. But I had to go for my teeth. And Auntie Helen is paying, so it has to be Melbourne.” She saw him looking about for a place to store the elderly laptop. “You have to put it at your feet. I’m sorry…some of my stuff is in there. Can you fit your bag in? My aunt bought half of Melbourne for me. She didn’t think much of my clothes. I don’t know anything about clothes. But I couldn’t really tell her I don’t care. I mean, she wants me to wear white trousers. Bunce, he’s my dog, he’d just cover them in mud, like, instantly. He’s a cross Irish wolfhound-Great Dane.”

* * *

Molly knew she was babbling. At any other time, she would have been embarrassed. She didn’t really know how to talk to people she didn’t know, let alone strange guys. But right now she was too scared to care. She really was scared of flying. And she was scared of flying in small planes even more. So what made her parents go and live on an island? At the moment, talking was better than thinking. “Mom and Dad and I moved to the island a few years ago. And you can only really get on and off by flying. Well, it’s that or a boat, and the ferry only runs once a week, and it doesn’t take passengers unless you’ve got a car, and I’ve only got my P-plates. And I hate flying, but I had to. And we had a bumpy trip over. Do you fly often? I suppose you know all this, and you come from Flinders?”

He shook his head. “I’ve never been there. Well, not since I can remember. But I’ve flown overseas. To Ireland.”

“Wow. I’ve never been overseas.”

That got the first sign of a real smile from him. He’d looked like a bit of scary storm a few moments before, when she’d seen him looking at the seat number. He had very black hair, and his dark eyes had been all crinkled up. She’d seen that look before. She did a lot of babysitting, not that he was exactly a baby. When he smiled, and it wasn’t much of a smile, you could see his eyes were blue, actually. “It’s kinda different from this.”

“Everything is different about Flinders. My dad says it’s like going back fifty years. We’ve got a B&B over there. We only moved a couple of years ago, and I’m still getting used to it. Are you going on holiday?”

* * *

Tim was saved from having to answer by the captain giving them a talk about the life jackets, now sharing the space under his seat with his laptop. If he had to jump into the sea he’d better make sure to take the right thing. Not the life jacket! He could swim pretty well. Dad had liked taking him to the pool, back before he’d left. It was probably so he could look at the girls in bikinis, or that was what his mother said, but Tim got to go swimming.

Then it was seat belts and taxiing out onto the runway, taking off and flying above the city and out to sea. At any other time and place he would have been loving it. Now…his thoughts were interrupted by a little whimpery noise behind him. He looked back, twisting himself around in the seat to kneel on it. She was staring blindly at the book in front of her. Tim knew she wasn’t reading it, because she had it upside down. He could read it: George R.R. Martin…she read good books. He managed not to say anything stupid like “is something wrong?” Instead he said, “Do you want to talk to me? Keep your mind off it.”

She nodded. Didn’t say anything.

Tim had zero skilz at talking to girls at the best of times, but she needed his help. He groped around for something intelligent to say. The best he could manage was “So, what’s your name?” It was noisy in the plane. She was leaning forward to hear. They were all of ten centimeters apart.

“Molly. Molly Symons. And yours?”

“Tim Ryan.”

There was a moment of awkward silence. Grasping at straws, Tim said, “So…you said you had a dog called Bonce?”

It was an inspired, or at least a lucky choice. She smiled. “My Bunce. ’Cause he’s, like, halfway between a bounce and dunce, my dad said. I love him to bits. He’s got a moustache.”

“A moustache? Way cool! You mean like Adolf Hitler? Or one of those long ones with curly ends?” The image was enough to make Tim smile, and to make the girl start giggling, in little snorts of the sort of laughing you do when it’s laugh or panic, but that was better than straight panic. “And a beard?” asked Tim, following up while he was winning. “Like one of those goatees, maybe? Or a Lord of the Rings type plaited dwarf one? Maybe with a bone in it?”

That got still more laughter. “Poor Bunce. He’d be, like, trying to eat his own chin, and when he couldn’t eat it, he’d try and bury it.”

The talk flowed easily from there, with the Irish wolfhound–Great Dane cross getting more ridiculous costumes and hairdos, and curlers, and gel and bows on his tail. They drifted on to other things—books, the smell of dead wallaby, the school. Panic had been beaten, and so had some of Tim’s own misery. It was still there, of course, but it had been pushed away to be resentful and nag in the background.

* * *

Outside the human flying machine, where the air was cold and delightfully sharp, Áed danced on the wing, enjoying himself. Far below, the sea, hungry and restless, moved and surged about isolated islands, drowned mountains of a long-ago that Áed could dimly sense, like an echo that one could see, with the old magics still walking there, deep and strong. There were traces too, far more recent traces, mere hundreds of years old, of Fae-work and the creatures from hidden realms, in the shipwrecks and the buildings on the islands.

Áed saw there was at least one of the Fae, an old, strong one, swimming far below him. It was almost as if she were chasing the flying-machine he perched on.

The little spirit of air and darkness did not see as humans saw. If they could have seen her from such a height at all, they would have seen a gray seal arching through the waves. To Áed, her true form was obvious, and her long wavy auburn hair washed across her naked breasts as she half-turned in the swell, looking up at the airplane.

What did the seal-woman seek here, so far from the cold coasts of Ireland or Scotland?

* * *

The plane banked steeply, giving the passengers a glorious view into the clear sea. Through the azure water, Tim could see patches of white sand in between the reefs and the weed-banks.

Molly went pale again, lost her smile. “You’d better belt up. We’re coming in to land.”

Hastily, Tim did, and looked out at the curve of the coastline—a strip of dark trees just inside the white sand. He noticed she’d stuck her hand up the narrow gap onto the window-side armrest. She must be lying forward on her knees. Her knuckles were whiter than the beach sand they were approaching. He tentatively reached across with his other hand, trying for the reassuring squeeze…only she grabbed his hand and held on, as, with a very slight bump, they touched down. It gave him an odd sort of inner satisfaction, being something of a comfort. She pulled her hand back as the plane slowed, propellers roaring. It swung round and taxied over to a tiny building in front of a car park…and stopped.

Tim blinked as the seat belts began their clacking. A sign on the building read “Flinders Island Airport.” And he’d thought Essenden small?

The girl was standing up already. She wasn’t pale anymore. Actually, she was blushing furiously through the freckle cover. “Sorry,” she whispered, awkwardly.

“Um. Like, no problem. Just thought you were worried. I…I won’t tell anyone,” he said, because he knew he would almost rather have died than admit he’d been scared enough to clutch a stranger’s hand. The hand of someone he didn’t know, and younger than he was too.

By the look he got, he also got that right. “Thanks,” she said, as she bent down and grubbed for her bags. “You’re a nice guy.” That was plainly embarrassing too, and, with haste, she grabbed her kit and joined the outflow.

Tim waited. He suddenly realized he had no idea what his grandmother looked like. He wasn’t sure how to deal with meeting her. But he was still riding on a little high. “Nice guy.” Not “nice kid.”

He was the last out of the plane, looking around at the scenery from the top step assessing his new prison-to-be.

It had a mountain. A mountain that seemed to be looking back at him, over the buildings and the trees, its distant bare-rock top lipped with cloud. It was really weird: part of his mind said, “I know that mountain, I’ve seen it so often.” But he hadn’t, he knew that. He was still looking at it as he clutched his laptop case and stepped down to the ground.

There must have been a static charge or something on the plane, because he got a weird sort of shock when his foot touched the tarmac. It was nearly strong enough to make his knees buckle, and he tripped and fell forward, only just stopping himself from face-planting onto the runway with one hand, and that gave him a shock too. He stood up hastily.

Everyone else was obviously over the static, walking cheerfully to the door of the curved-roofed airport building. Maybe it was something that always happened when you flew in little planes, and they were all used to it?

Whatever. He squared his shoulders and walked after the rest of the passengers. He could sort of remember what his grandmother sounded like, and maybe this island wasn’t going to be that bad. It was strange. He’d never been here, but it felt sort of…familiar. Like putting on a pair of his old shoes.

He stepped through the door, into a crowd of people meeting, hugging, talking and laughing. It was a crowd, but not a big crowd. There had only been about fifteen people on the plane, and it seemed that all of them, except him, had at least two people who had come to meet them.

But there was no one there waiting patiently, stepping forward to meet him. There were several old women, but they were all meeting someone else. No one was paying him a blind bit of attention. Molly—the only person whose name he even knew—was heading out of the door, towing behind her a tall man with a retreating hairline and a ponytail, who was carrying all her parcels. She was in some kind of hurry. And then he heard a loud, deep bark-storm from outside, followed by little yelps of what was obviously delight. Tim grinned, despite no one being there to meet him. He hoped he’d get outside the terminus in time to see the dog with a moustache. He looked around for a carousel. It wouldn’t take long to unload those few bags, surely?

Only there was no carousel. Not anything that could be one. Everyone was starting to drift out of the door…so Tim, not wanting to be left there standing alone, followed them out into the October sunshine. Everyone was heading for a lean-to roof next to the building, where a solitary, sturdy black-wheeled trolley was being pushed into place, piled with the luggage. Tim could see his Spiderman II bag near the top. He cringed inside a bit as people helped themselves to their suitcases and parcels and bags. Molly’s father hauled a battered pink one off the pile, and she lifted out another bag from on top of his. She gave him a rather wary half-smile. “See you,” she said, and set off for an elderly SUV—which had some mud, a few dents, and a huge, hairy brown dog panting out of the window. He did have a moustache—and about a mile of pink tongue too.

Tim’s bag was the last one left on the trolley, so he took it. Everyone was heading for cars, and he really didn’t know what to do now. He didn’t want to go back into the airport building and look spare. There was an aluminum bench outside the door. He’d sit there. She couldn’t miss him surely? There was no way to walk in without walking past him. He still had a few minutes of battery life in the laptop.

So he sat. Cars and utes—passenger vehicles with a cargo tray in the rear—left. Silence came down over the little airport. A kookaburra laughed at him sitting there, but no one else did, because there was no one else to see him. He couldn’t even see any other buildings from here, just stark forested hills spiked with rock, and the mountain looking at him over the trees. He took out the laptop, started on Starcraft II. But the battery died before he did. So he just sat. Sat and felt hungry.

There was a vending machine inside, and a Lions’ mints honesty box on the counter. But he realized that he literally didn’t have any money at all. He’d spent almost the last of it with Hailey on buying the two of them milkshakes before his venture into being a shoplifter. The store security guy had taken Tim’s wallet out of his pocket…and hadn’t given it back. So it had probably burned with the store.

Time did not pass quickly or easily, or without everything coming back to plague his mind, while he was just sitting.

It was too easy to play “if only I had…”

* * *

Áed saw the place they had come to as it was, not as mere geography. It was a place of power. A place of sorrows and a place of gladness. A place of refuge. A place that had once been very much part of the magic of this ancient land. Forgotten magic now, but still as strong as ever it was. The creature of air and darkness was a little afraid of it. Of the big green and gray mountain to the south, of the spirit voices in the rocks themselves, singing songs in their own tongue. But he was strengthened by it too. This was his master’s place, and therefore Áed had a place here too. They were owned by this land, a part of its slow dance, just as it was a part of them.

It accepted them. But Áed could see that his young master did not accept it. Not yet. He might never. Humans were like that, sometimes. His master’s ancestor had had the key to Faerie in his hand, and had still turned his back on a life of endless plenty and feasting, dancing, riding and womanizing with Finvarra’s host, for the hardships and privations of this distant land.

Áed sat at his master’s feet and kicked his heels, drinking in the strangeness, the beauty and the power of the place he found himself in. Time meant little to him.

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