Al pushed the metal and frosted glass door open, the jingling tinkle hitting him the exact second the scent of mutton filled his nose. Squinting at the bohemian, dim lighting, he stepped into the rustic tavern from an interior door. His eyes flicked to the two teenagers at one of the narrow windows, both of them ignoring him as they focused on their cell phones and takeout cups of coffee, but the medieval trio sitting before the second window looked up, acknowledging him.
He’d seen the young woman in her blue homespun dress before, that bird on her shoulder and that middle-class artisan at her side. Today, she had her dandy with her as well, the charismatic man wearing something even Al would call overdone: lace and velvet, jeweled dagger at his hip. The love triangle was obvious. Almost as obvious as who she favored.
Old story, he thought as he nodded to them and shut the door behind himself, thinking the gleaming modern lines looked odd beside the rough hewn timbers. Trees and mountains were visible through the windows, making him feel as if he were intruding. His suit and tie looked out of place, even if the teenagers had cell phones and sneakers, and he wondered if today he might find the courage to ask the young woman with the bird if the odd color of her eyes was born in science or magic.
But none of the earlies had ever talked to him or any of his contemporaries.
His dress shoes clicked loudly on the wooden floor as he went to the empty, rough hewn bar. It was awkward being the only one from his peer group here, and he grunted in appreciation when the floor beneath his feet suddenly became smoother as The Commons finally responded to his presence. The walls, too, though still wood, were now paneled instead of bare logs. Though they all could—and did—come into The Commons whenever they felt like it, today was special. An arranged meeting.
The girl and boy sharing videos fist-bumped, clearly approving of the change. The boy looked common enough, and even with her purple-tinted hair, the girl wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. But the a hint of hazy light hovering over her reminded Al of an overgrown mystic.
Two sets of earlies, he thought, curious as the view outside the window shifted to plowed fields, ridged in their mechanical rows. It was unusual to have more than one group in The Commons at once, and he looked for the medieval assassin and her even more dangerous lover, not seeing them.
Taking a stool, he settled himself, picking at a protruding sliver on the bar. He didn’t have to wait long, and in a burst of noise, Ivy blew through the same door he had. Her long dark hair swinging, she jerked to a stop, lips pressed in annoyance as she found him here first. Immediately the room brightened, electric lights now showing at the ceiling. Al shifted as the rough stool under him became leather and mahogany. It looked more like a modern bar trying to be rustic now, and the trio of pre-industrial earlies sighed, clearly not appreciating it even as the younger group plugged their phones into a socket to recharge.
Al patted the stool beside him and Ivy made her way over, svelte and dangerous in her black pantsuit, her Asian heritage obvious.
“Crap, we’re doing this from your POV?” the woman said, her low voice still having the power to make Al’s thoughts turn to more earthly desires. Not that he’d ever touch her. Even now the woman had too much baggage. “Do you have any idea what I went through to get here first? Who do you think you are? Morgan Freeman?”
Al’s lips split into a wide grin. “Someone has to explain the shit we’re put through. And you weren’t given the gift of far sight as I was, my dear.” He reached for her hand, elegantly trying to kiss it.
Ivy yanked her hand away, and Al chuckled as she settled beside him. “I’m not your dear,” she said, gaze landing on the earlies. “What are they doing here?”
“No idea,” he said softly, not liking that tiny bird staring at him. A kestrel?
The door chimes jingled again. He’d swear they were the same ones at Junior’s, and he stifled a shudder as Jenks flew in.
“Hey! Hi!” Jenks shrilled as the dragonfly-winged, four-inch man darted in, a glittering ribbon of silver dust spilling from him. “Sorry we’re late, but Rachel was hell bent on not narrating.”
“You think?” the slim redhead said as she came in, looking relaxed in her trendy skirt, leggings, and snappy jacket. Trent trailed behind, his hand slipping from her waist as he double checked that the door was shut. “Someone else can do it for a while,” she muttered, her eyes going to the low ceiling and wooden motif. “Wow, why are we still in wood?” she blurted, her breath catching when she followed Ivy’s head nod to the earlies. “Oh,” she stammered, flushing as she gave Ivy a hug before sitting down on Al’s other side.
Trent immediately went behind the bar, his trim form bent double as he looked into the tiny fridge. “There’s enough of us here for soda, though,” he said encouragingly.
“Thank God for that,” Ivy said sarcastically, spinning her stool to put her back to the earlies.
Jenks’s dust settled as he landed on Trent’s shoulder, the two of them looking remarkably alike as they investigated the fridge. “Dude. How come we never get one with my name on it?” the pixy complained as Trent set four bottles on the bar, the rustic wood now a sleek granite.
A rich carpet scuffed under Al’s shoes as he resettled himself, appreciating the lack of mutton smell. Subdued chandeliers tinkled overhead, and cars were a soft hush of noise outside the windows. But no one would ever come in. It was all for show. The trio of medieval earlies had closed the blinds, shifting in their booth table to make room for the contemporary kids as they came over. Al’s eyes narrowed, watching them through the bar’s expansive mirror as it shimmered into existence. Something felt odd.
“Let me get that for you, Ivy,” Trent said, cracking her pop and pouring it into a squat glass of ice for her.
“Thank you,” she said, eyebrows high in question as she waved Jenks’s dust from her face, the impatient pixy darting back and forth as he waited for his share.
“Good God, Jenks,” Rachel said as the pixy waved his tiny mug about. “Give me a sec, will you?”
The banter felt familiar, and a content smile curved Al’s lips up as he looked at the pop bottle with his name on it. The cold was almost an ache against his hand, and his eyes smarted from the fizz as he took a gulp right from the chill plastic.
Breath held against the sting, he watched Jenks land on Rachel’s shoulder with his mini cup of pop. Behind them, that kestrel glared from the medieval babe’s shoulder. Turning slightly, Al focused on the glowing orb hovering over the teenagers, and his watering eyes narrowed. That’s curious.
But it had gone silent with far more than the enjoyment of a cold, fizzy drink. Trent was still behind the bar, his casual confidence and silk-lined suit making the subservient post anything but. Jenks belched, and the attentive man refilled his tiny cup from his own bottle.
“So . . .” Ivy said slowly. “Does anyone know anything about the newbies?”
Al set his bottle down, an unusual sliver of anxiety cutting between his thought and reason. Newbies. The ones who had taken their place. Forced them into retirement.
Rachel chuckled ruefully. “I don’t know why you’re complaining. I’m sick to death of saving the world. Again. And again. And again.”
“Yeah.” Jenks’s his wings blurred into motion even as he remained where he was on the salt and pepper shakers. “It doesn’t pay enough, and the world never thanks you.”
Trent clinked his bottle against Rachel’s glass. “Here, here.”
Her dark eyes pinched, Ivy made a face. “Like you weren’t the one she was saving it from half the time?”
A smile, not unusual but rare in its depth, came over Trent. “Things change,” he said, and then he blinked, startled when Rachel yanked on his tie, bringing him closer for a kiss.
“Oh, for fairy-loving farts,” Jenks complained as he took to the air to get out of their way. “Can’t you keep your lips off each other for even an hour?” But he quickly dropped back down to the pepper shaker when the bird across the room focused on him. Immediately Jenks sneezed, a burst of blue dust exploding from him.
Ivy dramatically waved it away before it could hit her drink, but Al slumped deeper atop his stool. He didn’t feel done yet. But there was little he could do. There was always someone new, younger and full of potential, clamoring for attention. That the hardest lessons were learned later in life never occurred to most people.
A sigh shifted his wide shoulders. The Turn take it. They were becoming earlies, and he couldn’t help but wonder what The Commons was going to become when this new crew began making an impact.
Rachel had gone quiet, eyes distant as she sipped her drink and thought her Rachel-ly thoughts. Knowing it had to hurt to go from star to remember-that-time-when, Al gave her hand a squeeze. She started, giving him a faint smile that lingered even as Trent intruded.
“Has anyone seen her yet?” Trent asked, leaning over the bar to shift Rachel’s hair behind an ear.
“Her who?” Ivy said, lost in her own thoughts.
Rachel glanced at the new door. The slab of metallic white metal had a glowing key pad next to it that Trent had ooed and ahhed over the first time he’d seen it. “Peri Reed,” she said softly, doing a good job of hiding her melancholy. “Has she been in The Commons yet?”
Ivy pushed an ice cube around with a black-manicured fingernail. “Not when I’ve been here, but I’ve seen Jack and Silas.” A sly smile came over her and she crossed her knees and leaned in over the bar. “Silas is . . . a big man,” she finished, almost sighing it.
Jenks laughed, the tinkling sound making the orb over the teenagers glow, and Rachel rolled her eyes at the woman’s obvious lust.
“Smart, too,” Al said, then softly added, “From what I’ve heard, anyway.”
“He’d have to be to keep up with Peri.” Rachel slumped. “I hear her phone is made of glass, and she can roll it up into a tube. What kind of spell does that?”
“It’s not magic, it’s science, love,” Al said as he reached out to her.
Trent bristled. “Hey, hey, hey,” he said, pushing Al’s thick, ruddy hand off of Rachel’s pale fingers. “I wouldn’t mind having her car though,” he added.
“Where would you plug it in?” Rachel teased Trent. “I hear it’s electric.”
Trent’s blond eyebrows rose. “Electric? Zero to sixty in 3.5 seconds is electric?”
Al turned to the soft steps as a wooden door creaked open and another pair of earlies came in, the pre-industrial assassins making a beeline to the group up front. The elegant woman hid her strength under a full skirt, but he knew the darts in her drawn-up hair were lethal. The man beside her had a hard slant in his eyes, clearly knowing how to manipulate people as well as, if not better, than Al himself. They’re all here, he thought, concerned. “Magic would be easier,” he said as the pair were taken in at the table like old friends.
“Bitching,” Jenks said, the new word rolling off his tongue slowly as if he was trying it out.
Ivy stared into her glass. “I hear she shops by programmed, interactive simulations that look like her.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Rachel scoffed, but it was obvious she was intrigued. Or jealous, maybe.
“Science,” Al grumbled as he finished his drink. “What have we come to, boys and girls?”
“It’s a full circle,” Trent said as he poured half his bottle into Rachel’s glass. “It’s the same thing that saved both our people, Al, once you push aside the magic to what’s underneath fueling it.” His glance went past Al to the earlies. “And from what I can see, it always has been.”
Lips pressed sourly, Al pulled his gaze back from them. “I suppose. But it makes me nervous putting it right out in front like that. You watch. These newbies are not going to like us,” he said, the bitter taste of jealousy rising up hot and fast–shocking him. “They’re going to think we’re backward. Superstitious. Silly. They are going to roll in here with their fancy technology and turn The Commons into some kind of futuristic deli.”
“It won’t be that bad.” Ivy stretched to show off her lanky body, taunt with lean muscle. “After all, a good story, is a good story. The trappings of genre are just frosting to sweeten the bitter bite of the human condition.”
All snorted. “This coming from a vampire?” he said, then jumped when Rachel kicked his ankle.
“Hey!” Ivy barked, her quick temper showing. “It wasn’t vampirism. It was manipulation, child abuse, and drug-induced slavery disguised as vampirism. Get with it, Al.”
“Uh, guys?” Jenks said, the small pixy more watchful than a room full of Chihuahuas.
Ivy’s anger cut off with a startling quickness, and Al turned, following her surprised gaze. The earlies had stood and were coming forward, tankards of ale and paper cups of coffee in their hands.
“Umm,” Rachel fumbled as she slid off her stool, clearly caught off guard when the blond woman with the bird was shoved to the front, apparently their spokeswoman. Her shy smile and hidden confidence reminded Al of Ceri. He missed the arrogant, timid woman, but if you didn’t survive to the end, you never found your way to The Commons.
“Ah, hi?” Rachel said, and the woman flushed.
“Hi,” she said, her lyrical voice holding the uncatchable strength of the wind. “It’s been a year,” she said, her eyes shifting to take them all in. “We’d officially like to welcome you.”
“To The Commons?” Jenks said sarcastically.
The nobly-dressed man beside the comely woman grinned impishly. “To retirement!” he said loudly, curls shaking as he held his tankard high in salute.
As one, Al, Trent, Ivy, and Rachel slumped. Even Jenks’s dust shifted to a dull brown. Retirement. To be forgotten. To go fallow. To be lost.
“No,” the young woman said, taking Rachel’s hand and make her start in surprise. “You’re not forgotten. Not by those who hear you, find comfort, laugh, or worry for you. You did more than save yourself or the world,” she added, her golden eyes riveting.
“And you’re immortal now,” the common man on her other side said, his voice slow but holding a personal strength that could only be born in great suffering. “Real,” he said, and Ivy looked up, a sheen of tears in her eyes. “Like velveteen rabbits.”
“Velveteen rabbits on fire,” the teenager with purple hair said, and the boy with her laughed and mock punched her shoulder.
“We’re glad you’re here with us. Forever,” the woman with the bird said, and Rachel, her smile wan but true, clinked her glass of ice and pop against her thin-walled wooden tankard.
Suddenly the middle ground was full of cups, and tankards, and modern glasses full of melting ice as they were all extended into a circle of shared meaning. The collective shout of celebration hit Al like a slap, and he blinked fast, never having imagined that there would be more—here at the end, and he hid a smile as he watched Jenks, that bird, and the glowing orb all fronting each other suspiciously.
Conversations, new and eager, began to rise high as common ground was sought for and found, and Al pulled back to take it in and try to make sense of it. His eyes strayed to the new door, the green light softly glowing on the panel to show it was active, and he wondered who was going to come through it.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.