The Elf and the Shoemaker
Delphine woke with a pounding headache. The kind of headache that made it feel like her vision was pulsing to her heartbeat. It was making it rather hard to focus on the blinding red numbers of her alarm clock. Was it malfunctioning again? Setting itself for random alarms to make her shit herself at 1 AM, thinking there was a fire or maybe the SWAT team was kicking down her door and accusing her of cooking meth in her basement because of the strangely colored smoke that sometimes came out her chimney.
Okay, maybe she's had a couple explosions down there. But it was all contained! Besides, no well-meaning Chesterville policeman would really recognize the faerie dust power or vials or dragon blood that she kept down there.
Delphine blinked, knowing it wasn't the alarm, but unable to think with her pounding head. Then she remembered Travis and the bar and just one too many tequila shots. And then she remembered Jennifer.
Jennifer with her long legs and push up bra. Jennifer who just swept her hair over one shoulder and managed to sweep Travis right off his bar stool and into her car. Not that Delphine was bitter or anything.
It was just that she had known Travis for almost three years now. She knew he was a great guy with a wicked sense of humor who loved dogs and video games. He also loved walking late at night along the outskirts of town, sharing a six pack and running into the corn fields whenever a car came by. Just in case it was a bored policeman ready to ticket them for public drunkenness or whatever.
Okay, and maybe Delphine had maybe a bit of a crush on the guy, but that crush was… well, crushed when he totally ditched her in the bar in favor of Jennifer's slinky, practically-painted-on dress, and her smoldering eyes with flawless eyeliner. Dammit, if Delphine wasn't busy being jealous and bitter, she'd probably be hitting on Jennifer too.
The pounding was persistent and while Delphine's mental functions were obviously not up to par, she was beginning to realize that while her head hurt like a bitch, there was an actual pounding happening in her house.
Sitting up, and immediately regretting it, she rubbed her eyes, trying to focus. Not the alarm, not the police, not the tequila, well, not only the tequila. It was the front door. Someone was knocking, and while it was persistent, it wasn't actually all that loud. Obviously tequila was an amplifying agent. She almost wondered if it would work that way in a potion…
Delphine stood up and threw on a bathrobe, not caring enough to actually put on more than the panties she had fallen asleep in. Really, at 1 AM, no one could expect decorum.
Not bothering to turn on any lights, knowing they would blind her anyway, Delphine stumbled to the door and threw it open, ready to chew out whoever was unlucky to disturb her.
The intruder was a small thing, thin shoulders and knobby knees. Her head almost seemed too large for her body, or maybe it's just her eyes are so wide, green as spring leaves, staring up with her and shining in the light from her porch lantern. Her hair was a dirty blond, but Delphine suspected it was actually because there was dirt and grime coating it. Her clothes were threadbare, brownish grey and completely shapeless. She was clutching was seemed to be scraps of leather, biting her small pink lips.
Delphine stared at the girl for a moment, not recognizing her as anyone from Chesterville. Which might sound like an exaggeration, but Chesterville was a stupidly small town. Even if Delphine didn't know everyone who lived there, she had probably seen them around the town's only grocery store.
But this girl didn't fit the mold. For one, she was filthy and poorly dressed. People in town weren't rich, but they cared about each other enough that no would let anyone get to such a state. She could be a drifter, a runaway from another town. But kids like that tended to stay out of sight, not banging on doors in the middle of the night.
"What do you want?" Delphine spat out. And maybe it was a little too harsh, because the girl dropped her oddly shaped pieces of leather, squeaking in fear. Delphine refused to apologize. She was damned tired and she realized that her mouth sort of tasted like cotton and tequila mixed with a salamander's small intestine.
The girl scrabbled to pick up the leather, quickly tucking a strand of hair behind one delicately pointed ear. Elf.
Delphine knew her night was about to get a lot longer.
"I… I just need some help. Please, I promise it isn't much! I'm just so desperate!" Her voice was high and squeaky, like a little girl. But Delphine knew that any fae's appearance could be deceiving. They tended to look like children, but this one could be a hundred years old. Not that they always acted like it. Faeries were notorious for being mischievous and naïve.
"How did you find me?" Delphine crossed her arms.
The girl licked her lips and Delphine couldn't help but notice how delicate and delicious they looked. If only they weren't marred by the rather unkempt girl attached to them. "I… I don't know? I just… I just needed some help and you are the only house on the road with your light on. I thought, perhaps, it was a sign?"
Delphine looked out the door, but instead of her normal neighborhood of modest ranchstyle homes and long driveways filled with beat up cars and grass poking up in the cracks in the asphalt, there was a dirt road and a whole city street that probably would look better at a ren faire. She could even smell the grime from of a lack of sewage disposal and smoke from a smithy's forge.
"Dammit," Delphine swore and quickly pulled the elf inside, shutting the door behind her. She ignored the elf and addressed the door, "You better not keep me here, I've got an early shift tomorrow." She was pretty sure it was smirking at her, cheeky bastard.
Delphine whirled around and began to turn on the lights leading to the kitchen. She was unlikely to be able to go back to bed tonight and she was going to need some coffee. She heard the soft padding of the elf trailing her as she rather violently threw open her cabinets, swearing under her breath as she searched for some coffee grounds. She was pretty sure one of the cabinet doors smacked her on purpose.
It was only when the coffee pot started sputtering and generally making complaining sounds did she finally look at the elf. But she wasn't behind Delphine, she was looking around the kitchen. Poking at the toaster and microwave before tentatively opening the fridge, staring at it all with wide-eyed wonder and clutching the strips of leather to her chest.
"Hey, don't leave that open."
The elf jumped and quickly shut the fridge. "Oh! I'm sorry! It's just… I've never been in a witch's house before."
"Enchantress. Witches have hoards of familiars. And I'm allergic to cats." Delphine rubbed her eyes, pulling out a mug and pouring a cup before it was even done dripping. The pot crackled as a few drops escaped and she noticed it made the elf jump. "What's wrong with you?"
The elf was standing close, staring at Delphine's cup, wrinkling her nose. "Is that poison?"
Delphine snorted. "Only for myself. Now stop hovering and sit down. Why are all you fae so nosy?"
The elf backed away, half sitting on one of Delphine's barstools around her counter. "I'm sorry…"
Delphine sighed, drinking the scalding coffee, and settled herself across from the elf. "Don't worry about it. I'm just in a bad mood." The elf looked down and Delphine was pretty sure she might start crying. Delphine couldn't stand it when people cried, like what was she supposed to do? Comfort them? Plug up their eyeballs? "Can you just… tell me your name or something? My name is Delphine, by the way."
"Maple," her voice was soft, but when she looked up at least she didn't look like she was going to cry anymore.
The name wasn't surprising. Fae's tended to be born from nature and so named themselves after what they sprouted from. Like in a seed for a flower or tree or from some hopelessly charming brook or stream. Maple wasn't all that bad, really. Delphine once met a brownie named Hackberry, poor guy. "Okay, so you needed my help or something?"
Maple breathed in deeply, before carefully setting out the leather on the table. "Sh-shoes, I need help making a pair of shoes."
Delphine, stared at her and rubbed her eyes again. "Shoes?"
"Y-yes, made from this leather. It's cut and everything. It just needs to be sewn together."
"And you say that you just happened to find my house? Someone told you to look me up, didn't they. It was Cateline, right? God, I will murder that woman—!"
Maple held up her hands, pleading. "No, I swear no one directed me to your home. Your light was on, that was the only reason I decided to knock."
Delphine glared in the direction of the front door. She would have words with the porch light tomorrow. For now, she looked back to Maple. "Alright. Shoes. Anything in particular? Dancing? Cursed? Charmed? Boots? Men's? Women's? Extra wide?"
Maple just stared at her. "I… I think just shoes. Normal. Whatever can be made using this leather."
Delphine looked down at the material, picking it up and testing it between her fingers. Sturdy, but soft. Nothing fancy, working shoes, most likely. A bit of lace or buckles and solid heel. Perfect for someone on their feet all day, but not strong enough if they were a farmer. A merchant, perhaps, would buy shoes of this quality.
She looked again to Maple. "Any magic?"
She shook her head, more forcefully. "Just shoes."
Delphine put the leather down. "Aren't you fae folk supposed to be good at stuff like this? Crafting and whatnot?"
Maple blushed, though it looked splotched underneath the grim on her skin. "Ah, I've not… the talent for crafting."
"Fair enough." Even Delphine knew not all fae were made the same. She scooped up the leather and took it upstairs to her spare room. She had a sewing machine there and more material that she could easily finish the shoes by dawn. Maybe even faster, if she didn't have to take it downstairs to enchant it.
Maple followed her, touching each light switch as Delphine flipped it on. When she started stroking Delphine's electric sewing machine, she had to stop her.
"Do you mind?"
Maple jerked her hand away. "Oh, I'm sorry. It's just… I've never seen magic like this before."
Delphine shrugged. "Cause it's not magic."
"But how could you light the room without fire? And that ice box in your kitchen had no ice in it, but it is still cool. And you brewed a potion without a cauldron?"
Delphine couldn't help but smile, there was something a bit charming about Maple's naïve curiosity. But only a bit. "Modern technology. This world you've stepped into has learned just fine how to live without magic. Just wait until you see the Internet." Not that Maple would be around long enough, probably. Delphine set aside the leather for a moment. "Speaking of 21st century comforts, why don't you check out my shower? This will take me awhile and I'd really rather you didn't track more dirt around my house."
Maple flushed again as Delphine led her towards the bathroom.
"This is the shower. You'll use it to wash off. This knob for hot and this one is for cold." She demonstrated, ignoring how Maple flinched as the shower burst into life. "Soap is right there. Shampoo is next to it— I mean, put that in your hair until it makes bubbles, and then rinse it out."
Maple picked up the bottle of shampoo like it was an unstable potion. "What will it do?"
"Clean your hair. Oh, and don't get it in your eyes." Delphine pulled out a clean towel from the cabinet. "You can use this to dry off and I'll get you something to wear." She was definitely going to throw away that rag Maple was wearing. She hesitated at the door, looking back to Maple. "You don't freak out over new clothes, right? Won't make you disappear, like poof?"
Maple shook her head. "I don't mind clothes."
"Good, because you fae have the weirdest rules sometimes." Delphine left for her bedroom, refusing to look at her alarm. Probably mock her with the ungodly hour that it was. Instead, she rummaged around her drawers, looking for something that she wouldn't mind getting rid of and that was small enough to fit Maple. She should probably also find something to match the medieval world Maple obviously came from.
Luckily, in her closet, she found a rather dull peasant-y dress left by a maiden last month who was in desperate need of dancing slippers. Delphine wasn't about to send the girl to some fancy party wearing some awesome shoes and an awful dress. So she made her a ball gown while she was at it. The shoes must have worked because the maiden never came back for her dress.
Delphine pulled it out and went back to the bathroom, where Maple was still playing with the shower knobs. "When you are done in the shower, put this on, okay?"
Maple looked back to her. "The shower is magic," she breathed in wonder.
Delphine bit her lip, if only to keep from laughing. "Don't get too impressed. That hot water will run out eventually."
She set aside the dress and closed the door. She stepped back into her spare room, pushing aside some boxes of random material and something that suspiciously looked like dragon scales. She tidy-ed the room to make, once again, another pair of shoes.
She flicked her wrist, watching the leather hover in the air, arranging itself before the machine. Turning it one, she only stood by long enough to watch the leather place itself under the needle, which had transformed itself to be larger and thicker. A sturdy thread, flew from the cupboard, and pulled itself through the machine.
Delphine used to actually have to sit at the machine and direct the material more carefully. But now, after far too much experience, she had barely needed to watch. Instead, she went to work trying to find the proper awl and hammer and anything else that could easily fly into work. She was running out of good laces, but she figured this probably didn't have to be the best quality.
"Now this magic I recognize."
Delphine looked up to find Maple in the doorway. But gone was the dirty girl who looked like she had been dragged up and down a country road. Her hair was a shining blond and her green eyes stood out on her freckled cheeks. Delphine hadn't even realized she had freckles. The dress was slightly too long and she waved a hand, having a pair of scissors fly over to quickly hem it up. Maple flinched, but remained still, looking down as a thread and needle began to hem the edges.
"You can sit down, it'll follow you." Delphine waved to a wooden chair pushed in the corner of the room. There was a bed in there too, but it was currently covered in Delphine's random crap. Besides being too long, the dress seemed to fit Maple rather well. She was probably a bit too thin to be healthy, but at least the dress hid how she was all skin and bones. "You hungry?" Delphine asked, suddenly.
"Oh? No… I'm fine."
Delphine wasn't convinced, but she also rather not take the moment to make something to eat when she could be getting these shoes done. So she turned back to her machine as it started to tangle the thread. A common occurrence when one mixed magic and technology, but it was still faster this way.
"You… seemed upset when I asked you to make the shoes… ?"
Delphine glanced over at Maple, who was holding up her skirt as if it might bite her. "I am upset."
"Oh… I'm… I'm sorry."
Delphine sighed and pulled over another chair to sit across from Maple. Taking her skirt from her hands, she checked over the needlework. "Look, I have something of a reputation that I can't seem to shake, okay? It's not your fault it's just… Okay, it probably started a couple centuries ago when I helped a friend of mind with a bit of magic. Needed to get this wretched peasant girl to catch the affections of a prince, I think. Anyway, she was a bit overwhelmed by it. Had to enchant a carriage, a coachman, some horses, a dress, just a lot of work. So she came to me and asked if I could conjure up some fancy slippers. Just to help her out. Well, I think I made them too well. You see, when you conjure something from nothing, the spell tends to wear off after awhile. Cateline's carriage and dress and everything when poof at midnight, right on schedule. But my glass slippers didn't."
"Wait… the prince was able to find her because of those slippers, yes? I think I know this story."
Delphine raised her eyebrows. "It's not surprising. Terribly romantic, in the end. Stories like that tend to transcend the multi-dimensional plane."
Delphine waved a hand and summoned her coffee mug. She drank deeply, eternally grateful for the miracle of caffeine. "Doesn't matter. Anyway, that tale is a curse on me. I'm a pretty good enchantress, I know this. My glass slippers were a particular spark of genius, I'll admit, but I can do so much more than just shoes. For instance, I'm excellent at cursing amulets and roses and old houses. I've made enough mystic rings to predict the future for the next two centuries. And I make a mean sleeping potion. But who shows up at my door and all hours of the night? People who want shoes. Goddamn shoes."
"So many people want shoes?"
Delphine rubbed her face. "You have no idea. I've made rather talented dancing shoes, I've made boots that could take a warrior from one country to another. I've even made this ruby pumps that could walk between worlds." She paused. "Hmm, still don't know where those ended up. But the point is that I have more than that to offer."
Maple quirked her head. "That is obvious. You have a shower."
Delphine really did laugh this time and she had to put down her mug so she wouldn't drop it. Hearing the sewing machine complain again, she stood to untangle the thread. "You are something else, Maple. So, you want to tell me why you need this particularly unimpressive pair of shoes? By the size of the pattern, I don't think these will fit you."
She looked over her shoulder to see Maple biting her lip again. And with her all cleaned up and wearing the slightly too large dress, it just seemed a little too cute.
"There is this… cobbler that lives in town. He has an apprentice, named Aurick. He is a kind boy, who works very hard. But his family is very poor and the cobbler treats him harshly. The cobbler knows Aurick needs the apprenticeship, so he makes him work long hours and demands so much of him…"
Delphine held up the leather in her hands, checking the shape. "Aurick is your boyfriend?"
"Umm, I mean lover?"
She didn't need to look up to know Maple was probably flushed. "Ah, n-no, nothing like that. I mean… he doesn't even know me… even though I have watched him… You see, the hollow where I sleep is just behind the cobbler's workshop. I've seen how mistreated Aurick is. But he is so kind and gentle to everyone, even the awful cobbler. Tonight, the cobbler gave him so much work that he fell asleep right at the bench. All he had left was this last pair of shoes, so I took it, thinking that maybe I could find a way to finish it before the cobbler finds him in the morning."
It was kind of a charming story. Even if a bit idiotic. What if Maple hadn't stumbled onto Delphine's front porch? Then the cobbler would have found Aurick had failed to finish his work and managed to lose some material. Delphine looked up, about to ask some more, but Maple was already slouched in the wooden chair, fast asleep.
Delphine sighed, knowing she could spare a moment to clear off the bed for her.
Just before dawn, Delphine woke Maple to give her the recently finished pair of shoes. Maple blubbered out thanks and apologies and whatnot, but Delphine was tired and had maybe a couple hours before she was due for work. So Maple quickly left and Delphine went down into her basement to brew up something stronger than coffee.
She worked at the local bakery most days. She didn't need the job, certainly enough magical creatures came around that she had enough gold for a kingdom. Not that gold coins paid the taxes. But magic did have the benefit of making companies forget that you didn't pay the bills. But the job did give her enough cash for groceries and the occasional night out. Everyone in town figured her other job was some sort of custom seamstress.
It depressed her how true that was.
Travis was already there, being the main baker he tended to show up around 4 AM to get the ovens running. And even though he probably had just a late of night as Delphine, he looked annoyingly peppy. "Morning, De-De!" he called out and walked to the front, already covered in flower.
Delphine frowned at him, before turning up her nose and started taking down the chairs so she could wipe down the tables. "Julie here yet?" she asked. Julie was the owner of the bakery and of course she wasn't there. She barely made it in time before the first customer.
"Of course not," Travis answered. "And I'm sorry about last night, okay? I didn't mean to ditch you or anything. Look, next time, drinks on me."
She paused. "All the drinks?"
He grinned. "Yes, all of them. In fact, we'll just hang out at my place, watch some movies play, some games?"
"Would that be alright with Jennifer?"
He ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up with flower. "Aww, I don't know. I mean, you know how she is. Mysterious, can never read her. But look, I was stupid. You're a good friend and she shouldn't come between us, yeah?" Delphine glared and Travis ran his hand through his hair again. "I'll let you win at Ultimate Fighter?"
Delphine snorted and reached up, firmly fixing his hair. "You never have a chance at it anyway."
He laughed and squeezed her shoulder. She couldn't help but forgive him, idiot and all. He was just so delightfully human and wonderfully not magical in any manner. There was some magic in this world, she knew, but it was so carefully hidden that it almost wasn't worth mentioning. And certainly, in this small middle-of-no-where town, there was not a trace of it. Besides for Delphine of course.
Refreshing, is what it all was. And Travis was the epitome of refreshing. Shame he had a preference for long legs and perfect eyeliner.
Travis followed her as she prepped the coffee for the morning regulars that were bound to show up in less than an hour. "So, did you at least find someone to hang with last night instead of me?"
Delphine turned on the espresso machine. "Hmm, I guess so."
"You guess so?" he pressed.
"It's really not your business, especially after you ditched me."
He probably would have pouted for awhile longer, but the door rang and someone stepped inside. Delphine looked up, ready to tell the customer that they would have to wait awhile longer for the coffee to be ready. But it wasn't a regular. It was Cateline.
Today, she looked like some power business woman from the city. An expensive suit and heels, with dark hair all piled on her head. She looked to be about 45 years old, though Delphine had known her for thousands of years. A natural shape-shifter, her appearance was hardly ever the same, but Delphine would recognize her friend in any form.
Cateline's sharp eyes swept up and down Travis, making him subconsciously stand straighter. Then she looked to Delphine. "Darling, it's so good to see you!" Her voice was deep, and husky. She reached over the counter, gripping Delphine's collar and pulling her forward to press her lips against hers.
Delphine indulged her for a moment, before pushing her away. Travis sputtered and quickly retreated to the back. "Cateline, must you always be so forward?"
"Come on, darling, when was the last time we kissed?"
"About fifty years ago, when you lost those ruby slippers of mine?"
"Those were mine, I commissioned them."
"Yeah, for you to keep track of them. Not throw them around to unsuspecting humans."
Cateline pressed her finger against her lips. "Now be careful, don't want to scare the children, her eyes glanced to the back room."
Delphine rolled her eyes. She learned a long time ago that non-magical creatures had a fantastic ability to ignore anything magical. She could walk right up to Travis and tell him that she was an ageless enchantress who could travel between dimensions, but he wouldn't believe her for even a second. "Okay, just tell me what you want, Cateline."
"You don't think I just missed you? It has been ages."
"The only reason why you kiss me these days is because you need a favor or you need forgiveness."
If Cateline had been any normal creature, magical or not, Delphine wouldn't have associated with her. She could be awfully needy and rather demanding. But when one became as old as Delphine and Cateline, old friends were more valuable than old enemies.
Cateline leaned over the counter, resting her cheek on one hand. "I've really only just come to check up on you, dearest. See you still enjoy playing in non-magic realms like this? That human is a cutie."
"Don't call him a cutie when you look like that, makes you seem even more lewd than usual."
Cateline grinned. "Same old spitfire too. Do you also still run magical creatures out your home with that tone?"
"No thanks to you. Hey, did you send an elf my way last night? She denied any guidance, but I don't believe it."
Cateline actually looked a bit thoughtful. "Elf? No, not since last century. But let me guess, she needed a pair of magic shoes?"
"Just regular shoes, as weird as that is. You are sure you didn't send her?"
"It was probably your house you know. You've been living in it too long, and dragging it between worlds. Magic has rubbed off on it." She wrinkled your nose. "And I'm pretty sure it's gaining sentience."
Delphine was pretty sure she already knew that, but she didn't want to admit it. She liked her house, and had settled quite nicely in it for several centuries now. But she might want to move one day and she really didn't want to leave a sentient house just lying around. "Why would my house be sending people to me? Especially people who want me to make shoes for them?"
"Maybe it dislikes you as much as it dislikes me."
"My house doesn't dislike anyone."
Cateline appeared to be checking her nails. "Your stove attempted to burn me."
"You were also using magic on my stove. I've told you again and again that it works perfectly well without magic. In fact, magic will only mess with it."
Cateline sighed deeply. "I hate following the rules of non-magical worlds like this. So tedious." She waved her hand. "But to each their own. Tell me about this elf. Why did she need shoes that aren't even magical?"
"She has this crush on a cobbler's apprentice. Wants to help him, I guess."
"Was she cute?"
Delphine glared. "Does it matter?"
Cateline smiled. "Elves are always cute and I know you like your girls short."
Delphine turned, pointedly trying to open up the bakery. "You are a hopeless case."
"I could say the same for you."
When Delphine got off work, she was too tired to do much more than berate her front door and pass out in bed.
She almost wasn't surprised to hear a familiar knock on her door in the middle of the night. Sitting up and eternally grateful that she had managed a decent amount of sleep this time, Delphine didn't even bother opening her door. "Oh, just let her in, will you?" she muttered, heading straight for her coffee maker.
The door creaked open, like a petulant whine, and she heard the soft footsteps of Maple entering her house. Delphine glanced over her shoulder to confirm, once again, that she was clutching more strips of leather.
"You know, this apprentice of yours should really learn to handle his own problems."
Maple flushed, biting her lip and dropping her head. "It's… it's not so easy. And Aurick isn't mine."
Delphine shrugged, opening the fridge. "Hey, you want something to eat this time. Think I need a snack before another all-nighter."
"I'm… I'm fine. There is no need—"
"Ah, cookies! I totally forgot I had these!" Delphine triumphantly pulled out some ready-to-bake cookie dough. "I'm a terrible cook, generally, but I can certainly pop these on a pan and bake them up. You good with that?"
Maple's fingers were tense on the leather. "You really don't have to—"
"Hey, I know you fae don't need that much human food. But this is sugar, everyone loves sugar." Delphine was already preheating the oven and pulling out a pan.
"But I… I have nothing to pay you with!" Maple blurted out.
Delphine glanced at her, arranging the cookies on the pan. "You don't need to pay me."
She was almost shaking. "N-no, I must. You've already done so much for me and now I've come back with more shoes that need to be made and…" she trailed off.
Delphine sighed. "Look, when you are as powerful as I am and as old as I am, payment really isn't necessary. Otherwise I'd kick out half the creatures that come by here on a daily basis. The thing is, power like mine is meant to be shared, otherwise it be wasted and probably fizzle out and die." She looked up. "We all need a purpose and I'd be stupid if I didn't embrace mine."
Maple stared at her, freckles standing out on her flushed cheeks. Her eyes were so bright and glassy like a clear pond. "You are amazing."
Delphine grinned, kind of liking the way she said it. "Thanks, but you haven't seen nothing yet. Making normal no-nonsense shoes? Hardly an exercise in my power."
Cateline's smooth voice cut in. "Yes, you should have seen her take on a dark sorcerer three hundred years ago. Leveled an entire forest and made a mountain lose its entire peak."
Delphine looked up. "It's rude to barge into people's houses without knocking, Cateline." She sighed. "Maple this is an old friend and an even older annoyance. Cateline, this is Maple."
Cateline grinned, sauntering over to lean on the counter next to Maple. They made an odd picture. Cateline was the epitome of relaxed and confident, looking at Maple with curious, dark eyes. Maple was nearly a jittery mess, barely able to keep a hold of the leather in her arms. "You must be the elf." She smirked and addressed Delphine, even while looking at Maple. "She's as cute as you said."
Delphine turned back to her cookies, popping them in the oven and setting the timer. She didn't bother replying to that. "Cateline, do you need something?"
"Oh, just picking up some supplies."
"You can't have my faerie dust again."
She tutted. "So stingy."
Delphine glared. "I'm serious. I've been working on a transformative potion for weeks now and I'm not having you empty my stock."
"Ooh, transformative? For anyone special?"
Now that had been alarming to hear a knock and open her door to find her house was at the bottom of the ocean. Took weeks just to get the salt smell from the carpet and her TV still wasn't quite the same. Maybe she should turn into a wanderer like Cateline, then she wouldn't have to worry about what she might open her door to next.
Delphine ignored Cateline and her prodding questions to smile at Maple. "Let's get started on some more shoes, okay? Anything different about this pair?" She led her up to the spare room again.
Maple shook her head. "No, but Aurick needs three pairs by dawn. Is that possible? I… I can help!"
Delphine waved a hand, getting her materials out again. Not that she really put them away yet. "Not necessary."
Cateline thread her arm through Maple's, tugging her to sit on the bed next to her. "Do tell me about this Aurick. What's he like?"
Maple flushed, looking away. "Oh, he is very kind and gentle and generous and cares so much about his poor mother and works so hard…"
Cateline grinned, soaking it up. She was a hopeless romantic at heart and always searching for the next best romance to help along. Delphine tended to get folk who just needed a change in their life or had found themselves in terrible trouble. Cateline found the lonely royals and the poor peasants with hearts of gold who all just need an extra boost to help win over their true love.
Delphine personally found it somewhat tiresome. Most of those couples didn't need magic or curses or whatnot. They just need basic communication and maybe a little more guts.
"So you haven't spoken to him at all?" Cateline asked.
Maple shook her head. "N-no, I couldn't…"
Cateline grinned and she almost looked motherly and caring. "Pining. Gah, I do love the angst." She took Maple's hands. "You must try to get him to see you. Maybe wait until the last minute to drop off the shoes and then run out of sight. Then he'll have to chase you!" She sounded positively giddy.
"Don't listen to her, Maple. She'll have you sleeping a hundred years just to make him pine."
Maple looked a little overwhelmed by Cateline, but smiled to Delphine. "Just being able to help him, even just a little, is good enough for me."
Cateline pouted. "Well, can I at least do something with your hair." She ran a hand through Maple's tangled strands.
Maple flinched. "Ah… well…"
Delphine rolled her eyes. "Might as well let her. I'll still be working on these for a couple hours yet."
Cateline squealed, pulling Maple to her feet and out of the room and down the hall to the bathroom.
Delphine turned back to the shoes, glad the distractions were gone. She had forgotten how much Cateline could fill up a room. Company was nice, but Delphine was something of a solitary traveler. Settling herself down in out-of-the-way places like this small town, hoping to avoid as much attention as possible. She wasn't anything like Cateline with her string of lovers and play toys. Cateline always found herself in the middle of drama and a crowd. Perhaps that is why they were friends. Cateline could get distracted and disappear for fifty years and Delphine would hardly mind the break.
But after over two hours and Cateline hadn't returned with Maple, Delphine began to suspect they were up to more than just playing with her hair. She stood up from her sewing machine, stretching the kinks in her back, and set off to make sure Cateline really wasn't going to steal her faerie dust.
Delphine found them both in the kitchen, enjoying the cookies that she had obviously forgotten. Not that she was too worried; the oven had a habit of shutting off before anything caught fire. Which was probably proof enough that her house was at least a little sentient.
Cateline had obviously done more for Maple than just brush her hair. The plain peasant dress from before was now a dark green velvet dress, with gold bordering and slashed sleeves. She was wearing a white lace shift underneath, just peaking out around her bust. Her golden hair had been curled and pulled back with only a few green ribbons to keep it from her face. Her freckles traveled from her cheeks to her collar bone, disappearing on her shoulders under the dress. But her skin looked more luminous, healthier and pink. Her round face and large eyes only matched her pointed ears that almost seemed to perk up when Delphine entered the room.
"That suits you," Delphine blurted before she really thought.
Maple flushed, ducking her head, even though her hair would not fall over her face any more. "T-Thank you." She was playing with a half eaten cookie in her hands. But Delphine could see crumbs gathered on her lap that implied she probably had more than one. The fae did have a tendency for sweets.
Cateline was grinning at Delphine in a way that made her uncomfortable. So Delphine ignored her, reaching over to grab a cookie of her own. "I'm almost done with the shoes, you'll be able to return them will plenty of time."
"So soon?" Maple looked up, green eyes so bright. Then she bit her lip. "I… I mean, there are three pairs this time… how are you able to finish so quickly?"
Delphine decided she should get more of this cookie mix. They were too delicious. Of course, most food tasted great in the middle of the night. "I was just getting warmed up last night. Now that I know what to do, it's not hard."
"That is so incredible," Maple complimented, so genuine and earnest that it made Delphine feel a little uncomfortable. Not that Delphine wasn't complimented for her work. But it was usually because she did something pretty grand. Otherwise the trend was of people dropping in, asking for a favor, thanking her, and then leaving. None of this awe and wonder that Maple seemed to hold.
"Yeah, well, it's pretty amazing how most elves are good with plants and flowers. I can barely remember to keep my house plants watered." It was a pretty lame response, but Maple just kept looking at her.
Maple smiled. "I've no talent with nature either."
That sort of shocked Delphine. An elf that wasn't a good crafter nor had nature magic? "Not even maple trees?"
She flushed, but still smiled. "I have an affinity for them, but I could never help one grow."
Delphine wanted to say something stupid. Something like 'then what are you good at?' She had never heard of an elf without some magic. Luckily, Cateline smoothly interrupted. "Delphine, you should probably go check on your shoes. Probably already pacing around the floor up there."
Delphine was almost grateful, but as she handed off the shoes to a grateful Maple, that annoying glint was back in Cateline's eyes. Delphine was almost a little too quick to push Maple out the door before Cateline said something embarrassing.
But it wasn't until Delphine was back upstairs, trying to untangle the thread from her machine –it had gotten a little upset when she left it for a cookie break– that Cateline finally spoke. "She's a cutie."
"She's an elf. Of course she meets your definitions of cute."
Cateline chuckled. "True, but she looks really cute when she's flirting with you."
Delphine turned to glare. "She was not flirting with me."
"And who is the romance expert?"
Delphine waved a hand. "She's in love with the cobbler's apprentice. Remember Aurick? You were fawning over her extolling of him earlier!"
"Oh, she has a crush on Aurick, I know. But she is absolutely captivated by you." She leaned forward. "And I know you liked that dress."
Delphine didn't bother to deny it. It was a very well made dress. "How did you make that anyway?"
She shrugged. "Tinkered with those rags she was wearing. Nothing special. Probably wear off in a couple hours. But don't change the subject. What are you going to do tomorrow when she comes around?" Her eyes were positively lascivious.
Delphine turned up her chin. "She won't be coming around. While you both were busy playing dress up and eating my cookies, I was charming those shoes with a bit of luck."
"Enough that when Aurick touches them he'll probably get a raise on the spot or put the cobbler in such a mood that he might never mistreat him again. Or anyone around him for that matter. Tomorrow night he is sure to be able to take care of himself." Delphine gave her a cheeky grin. "Maple can continue to pine in peace and she won't need to bother me again."
Cateline matched her grin. "If you say so."
It didn't work.
Maple arrived the next night and the night after that and for the next two weeks. Whatever luck Delphine put into those shoes, it obviously wasn't enough to outweigh whatever misfortune fell on Aurick. But the work was easy, Cateline at least wasn't around all the time, and Maple was… well, she was good company.
Maple seemed to realize, eventually, that Delphine wasn't exactly living in her world. She brought gifts in the small purple flowers that grew under her tree hallow. Pretty things, even though they didn't last a couple days. Maple was correct, she had no talent with nature. But she also brought stories of what her village was like and the surrounding woods. The woods had magic, like most, and even a resident witch lived somewhere in the middle. But Maple was the only elf she knew for miles and even the small colony of pixies weren't too friendly. Delphine could understand. Pixie's tend to bite.
It was not long before Delphine began accepting her help in making the shoes. While Maple was eager, but did not have the instincts of a craftsmen. But since Delphine could probably make twenty pairs of these simple shoes in a single night, it did not bother her that Maple was slow or made mistakes.
In fact, the only talents Delphine could see in Maple –besides for how quickly she learned how to make instant cookies– was that she had a way with Delphine's house. There were too many times, in the early hours of the morning, that Delphine would take a break to find that Maple had learned how to use the TV or the computer, without consulting Delphine. She even once came downstairs to hear Maple having a discussing with her microwave, trying to figure out what it was for when Delphine already had an oven.
"Can you understand it? Is it, like, speaking to you?"
Maple flushed, but it wasn't nervous, just a little excited. "No, of course not. But I'm getting the feeling that this is a handy device for quickly warming small amounts of food and making popcorn. Also, what is popcorn?"
But, night after night, it was beginning to irk on Delphine whenever Maple opened her mouth and Aurick came out. Always the same things about how kind and gentle and perfect and handsome he was. How poorly he was treated. So unfortunate.
"Have you even talked to him yet?"
"Well, no… but I think he knows about me."
"He's begun to leave out tokens before he falls asleep."
"Bits of cheese or sweets." She touches the poorly made flower crown in her hair. "This."
Delphine couldn't help but think that if Maple had an ounce of power, those dying flowers would not look so pitiful. "Don't you fae dislike gifts?"
"Some do… I guess. But I don't mind."
It began to seem to Delphine that Aurick was either blind, lazy, or just taking advantage. Possibly all of it. "Why don't you just tell him it's you helping him?"
"Oh… I couldn't… I mean, you are the one doing all the work, in any case. I couldn't…"
It was really irritating Delphine.
And maybe it was too many nights in a row with interrupted sleep. Or maybe it was because Jennifer had started visiting Travis at work and making out with him in the backroom when Delphine could have really used a hand out front. Maybe it was because a werewolf stopped by that afternoon and totally wrecked her whole alchemy lab in the basement.
But the last night that Maple came around for some new shoes, Delphine was in a ripe mood.
"Oh, just open the damn door for her!" She shouted to the blackened ceiling as she heard the incessant knocking. She was still in the basement, trying to pry bits of glass embedded in the concrete walls. Two months of work cultivating potions and collecting ingredients was ruined. She would have to go to Cateline to get that transmutation potion finished and Cateline would be a bitch about it.
"Delphine?" Maple was standing at the top of the stairs. "Are you okay?"
"Oh, just peachy! Only just had my entire basement blown apart by some idiot werewolf. Don't worry about it, just lost some valuable ingredients that probably would have saved lives!" She rather vigorously threw some glass into the waste bucket.
"Werewolf?" Maple seemed to have enough sense not to come down the stairs.
"For some reason he got scared away by the explosion he caused. With my luck, he ran into the woods and scared some tourists and then I'll have to go solve that problem!"
Maple watched her for a moment more as she viciously tried to salvage her basement. "Delphine?"
"What?" she snapped. She looked up and saw Maple's large eyes and tangled hair, that even with Cateline's assistance, just couldn't stay tamed for more than a few hours. It calmed her somehow, and it irritated her that she wasn't sure why. Maybe it was because Maple's visits were never destructive. Maybe it was because she really didn't find Maple annoying or manipulative. She was a little dumb when it came to love, sure, but most people were.
Maple bit her lip. "What's a tourist?"
And it just seemed sort of hilarious. Enough that that Delphine turned away so Maple couldn't see her grinning. She didn't know why, probably because she should be so irritated and angry. About the werewolf. About Travis being an insensitive dick. About Maple constantly coming around with her big green eyes that would light up at the strangest things Delphine did, and her small mouth that still constantly spouted off the virtues of Aurick.
Delphine turned away because she didn't want Maple to see how she constantly put her in a ridiculously good mood. And a ridiculously jealous one as well.
"A tourist is a visitor. Here to see the sights and annoy the locals." She calmed herself enough to look up the stairs. Putting on a strained smile she stepped up to Maple. "Let me guess, shoes again?"
Maple nodded. "Just one pair this time. But it's…" she trailed off.
Delphine took the leather from her. "What?"
Maple shook her head. "Nothing. Nevermind." She looked down to the basement again. "Is there anything I could do?"
Delphine sighed and began to make her way up the stairs. "It's a hopeless case. I just needed something to rage against."
Maple followed her slowly. "Is it usual for dangerous creatures to come to you?"
"Sometimes. I can handle them. But my house sometimes gets caught in the crossfire." Delphine turned just to see Maple yawning. Was she tired? Ill? She had never seen her look exhausted. But in the good light upstairs, Delphine cold see her skin was a little more sallow, eyes a little darker around the edges. "Are you alright?"
Maple sat on the bed wearily. "It's just… Aurick…"
"Oh." Delphine went to her machine. She really didn't want to ask more. But Maple didn't need more prompting.
"I worry about him… I mean, I won't be able to help him forever. I mean, come to you to help him…"
"Then maybe he should learn how to do his own work. Or grow a spine and leave the cobbler, if he is such an awful man."
"I don't think it is so easy…"
"You could show yourself to him."
Maple sighed. "I couldn't…"
Delphine turned around. Her earlier bad mood was coming back in force as they talked about precious Aurick. "Why not? Maybe it would help!"
She looked at Delphine, so sad and pitiful. It kind of pissed her off. "How could I help him? I can't even make his shoes… I have to come to you for that… What would be the point in having him meet me?"
Delphine snorted. "True love solves all ails, that's what Cateline would say."
"True love? But I… I don't know anything of love…"
Delphine almost violently threw the leather at the sewing machine. It didn't make a difference. Her magic was so attuned to this task that it easily slid under the needle. "You've got to be kidding me! You've come to my house every night for weeks, all to help this boy who does even know you exist! If that's not love, then what is?"
Maple was staring at her and though Delphine was rather good at reading her expression. This time… this time it was different. Different than the wide eye stare of curiosity or wonder. Different than the soft smiles and brightness whenever Delphine showed her an ounce of kindness. Different than the crinkle she got in the corner of her eyes whenever she thanked Delphine or complimented her or whatever.
It was different and inscrutable.
It felt like an eternity before Maple looked away. And Delphine was rather familiar with eternity. She turned back to her machine, waving her hand over the leather in a small sign.
"What are you doing?"
"Making this go faster so you can get back to your Aurick as soon as possible and I can get back to the mess." It was a lie. Delphine cast a silent spell over this pair of shoes. Different than the luck charm she tried so many days ago. This time it was a curse.
When Maple touched the shoes, she would not be able to let them go until Aurick woke up and took them from her. They would be forced to meet. Fall in love with some grand gesture or confession. Get married in some charming woodland glad surrounded by their forest friends. Make adorable half-elf babies and never ever regret a single thing.
Then Delphine could shelve this moment away as another time some magical creature asked her to make another pair of goddamned shoes. And she would forget about Maple.
"You are an idiot."
Delphine resisted the urge to take Cateline's cup and upend it over her perfectly waved hair. She was dressed in a power suit again with heels that looked like they had killed a man. The whole town was buzzing about the 'new arrival' despite the fact that Cateline had been calling on Delphine for over a month now, but they all were too scared to make eye contact with her, let alone ask her what business she had in town.
Of course, no one asked Delphine, if only because she had a ward up that generally kept people from asking about her private life.
But it seriously annoyed Delphine that Cateline, who could change her appearance at will, would purposefully look like the opposite of a small town. And just sit around in the bakery without a care in the world. Watching and judging Delphine from her seat. All the while making snide comments about how awful she looked and was she getting any sleep these days and why hasn't Maple been around.
"You are annoying and oblivious and don't seem to have the ability to think before speaking," Delphine spat back.
Cateline calmly folded her hands, cocking her head at Delphine. "I'm not the oblivious one. You were falling in love with Maple. And now that she hasn't shown up in weeks you've become an irritable bitch."
The steaming pitcher cracked and Delphine swore as scalding milk splashed on her. She chucked it into the trash and searched for another. Where was Julie when she needed a distraction? In fact, where were all the regulars? Cateline was obviously tampering with the place, trying to get Delphine alone since she refused her entrance to her house. Which, strangely enough, did involve a bit of bribing on the front door. Dammit, she forgot to pick up the new paint finish for it.
She found another steam pitcher and deeply considered throwing it at Cateline's head before she placed it next to the espresso machine. Her 'friend' didn't deserve her fancy latte anyway. "I was not falling in love with Maple," she muttered, because shouting it just seemed stupid.
Cateline stood up from her table, coming to lean against the counter. "Yeah, sure."
Delphine glared at her. "I liked her, okay? I'll admit that it was kind of nice not to have some spoiled princess or crazed beast haunting my house for a bit. But I wasn't in love."
"Delphine," she was using that tone. That soft, tender, I'm-doing-this-because-I-care-about-you tone. "I know you. I've been by your side for centuries. I've known your triumphs and your loses and your bed. And—" she held up a hand, "—before you accuse me of being lewd or inappropriate, you have to admit that I am among a very select few who can say that. And most of them passed hundreds of years ago. I know you. And I know how locked up you can make yourself. And I understand why."
Her eyes softened, in a way Delphine hadn't seen for a very long time. It made Cateline look her age.
"We all have our ways of living through eternity. Some of us spend it always chasing that perfect romance, in which true love really can cure all ails." She reached out and Delphine found she didn't mind her hand on her arm. "And some of us close ourselves off. Go to nowhere places like this. And find contentment in watching the universe spin on. But that doesn't mean you are invulnerable. Or that you can't do a bit of chasing yourself."
Delphine didn't feel angry anymore. She just felt tired and she suddenly wondered why Maple had been so tired the last night they met. "I'm not in love."
Cateline grinned. And it looked too impish for the aged face she was wearing. "Maybe not, but if you, just this once, let someone in to your insane trans-dimensional-creature-filled-sentient-house life, then you might find a little room for love."
Delphine shrugged off her arm, reaching for the steaming pitcher again. "You've become cheesy in your old age."
Delphine didn't go chasing after true love, not like how Cateline would like. Instead, when she got off her shift, she went home, made a microwavable dinner, and took a nap. Then when she got up, she went to her front door and took a deep breath.
"Okay, I've got a favor to ask." She felt a little like an idiot, talking to her front door. "I don't know where Maple is from or how she got here. Though I am beginning to suspect you are in cahoots with the porch light and the microwave. Anyway, I guess I'd like to ask if you could possibly lead me to the world she's from?"
The door was suspiciously quiet, though she swore she could hear the microwave buzzing. Cateline was right; she really shouldn't have stayed here so long. It was kind of creepy.
Taking a deep breath she opened the door, squinting her eyes into the darkness past the porch light.
It was the smell of smoke that first alerted her. And horse poop. It was dark, but she could make out a dirt road and glowing embers from a smithy's forge not far down the road. Taking a step out onto her porch, she turned to find her house had transformed into something more rudimentary. The wood on the door was worn and the paneling seemed to have turned into rough stone. She touched the door, biting her lip. Then turned to walk down the road.
It seemed a modestly large town, judging by the houses and shops lining the dirt road. Not many folk were out, though a few men on horseback and a farmer with some oxen passed her by. There were shouts from some windows and she got a mixture of smells from horses to cooking food to wood and leather. Thanks to her personal wards, no one looked twice at her.
She examined each building she passed, looking for some clue. It was nearly two blocks away that she spotted the cobbler's. A small building with a dingy window showing off a lady's boot. The lights were extinguished and she was unwilling to confront anyone yet. So she crept around the back.
Maple's tree hollow could not have been far, if she could easily look in on her apprentice. The store backed into the forest and Delphine walked around, touching the trees. She could feel no presence in these woods, besides for the typical creatures living here. But if an elf was sleeping nearby, she should have felt some magical presence.
There was a maple tree, large and bloated, with a rather sizeable hollow between two massive roots. It didn't look like a normal tree, but very rarely do magical trees look typical. Delphine held out her hand, conjuring a small flame to see. The tree was empty.
Delphine didn't know why, but she lingered there, running her hands over the roots and examining the inside of the hollow. It was small, but a nest of leaves and bits of worn fabric had been laid about inside. She didn't really fit. But, she supposed, with a bit of a squeeze Maple could crawl inside. The image of her, with drooping flowers in her hair and a worn dress, curled up in her tiny home, made Delphine smile sadly.
She looked up to the leaves, barely silhouetted against the starry sky. She didn't know exactly why she was here. What was she trying to prove? Did she just need confirmation that Maple had moved on? Was she planning to 'win' her over?
The leaves shuddered and Delphine stroked the bark with one hand. "She's alright," she whispered. The tree shuddered again, with a little more force. Delphine frowned. A magical tree like this would eventually revert to normal after their source had left. Maple hadn't been visiting Delphine for weeks now and she had assumed it was because Maple had finally run off with Aurick. But if the tree was still active, did it mean Maple was still around?
Delphine turned back towards the cobbler's shop. The windows in the upper level were glowing with soft candlelight. Stepping to the back door, she nudged it open with ease. The place was a mess of materials and half finished shoes. It smelled like leather and smoke and polish and nearly made Delphine's eyes burned. In the near darkness she ran into a table, toppling over a pile of boots.
There was a rustle from upstairs. "Hey! Who's there?" She turned to the staircase as a man with a candle came hobbling down. He looked weathered, but wiry with dark eyes and a mouth set in a permanent frown. A woman lingered behind him.
"Who is there, Ulrich?" she asked, voice shrill.
Ulrich looked to Delphine and she wasn't sure what he saw. She wasn't a shape-shifter like Cateline, but her presence, her aura, tended to change depending on who was looking at her. And what mood she was in. His eyes were wide, lips forming a thin line. "Marlena, go back to bed."
Marlena grumbled, but retreated without argument. Delphine waited until she could hear her footsteps on the floorboards above. "You are the owner of this place?" she asked, tone short.
Ulrich attempted to stand tall, but he seemed to have a permanent bend in his back. He tried to look intimidating, but she could tell that he feared her. She wasn't sure if it was her presence or if he had enough sense to know just how powerful she was. "I am."
"Where is your apprentice? Aurick was his name."
His eyebrows furrowed in surprise. "Aurick? What on earth has he gotten himself into?"
"Tell me where he is."
Ulrich snorted. "If you have a bone to pick with Aurick, you've got no business here. He's been gone for almost two months now. Useless whelp managed to impress some noble passing through town. Taken on the spot to the capital to live in some fancy house and have his own servants! Ridiculous!" She didn't like his tone, but she could tell he was giving her the truth.
Delphine frowned. Two months? Unless Ulrich was exaggerating, Maple had only stopped coming to Delphine a couple weeks ago. It didn't add up. Why would she bring the shoes unless Aurick needed them? She couldn't have been trying to help this cobbler. Even though Delphine had been speaking to him for less than five minutes, she could taste his vile aura.
Deciding to take a risk, she quickly asked, "Where is the elf?"
That made Ulrich pale. "W-what elf?" Now that was a lie.
Delphine took a step forward and Ulrich nearly scrambled half way up the steps. "What have you done with her?"
"Done? I've done nothing to her!" Ulrich sputtered. Delphine took another step letting out a bit of her own aura so that even the densest of mortals would sense her anger. "She was breaking into my shop! It was my right to stop her!" His voice had gone very high.
"Where is she?" Delphine didn't know how long she could hold back the urge to just incinerate him on the spot.
"She's in the cellar! I didn't hurt her, you know! How was I supposed to know she was someone important? Just caught her sneaking around my shop! Stole some shoes too! It was my right to stop her!"
Delphine let go of a wave of magic, pushing Ulrich all the way up the stairs. Without her control, the door slammed behind him and latched firmly. She almost grinned; she even had an affinity with a stranger's house. There was a scream and some shouting, but she knew Ulrich and his wife would walk away from this with only a few bruises, even if they deserved worse. But Delphine wasn't going to take the time to properly curse them, not when she needed to find Maple.
She turned back to the shop, looking around. The place was a mess and it would be annoying to search around outside for a cellar door. "Where is the cellar?" she whispered.
There was a creak in the corner and she quickly walked over and brushed aside a sack of fabric scraps, revealing a trap door. The damned man probably locked her away and then just left her there to rot. The door flew open without her touch and she eased down the couple of steps.
Holding the flame in her hand aloft, she was able to see around the small room. A few dried herbs hanging from the ceiling, some storage boxes, and a small iron cage pushed into the corner.
Delphine fell to her knees at the cage and the sleeping creature inside. "Maple!"
Maple slowly moved and turned herself enough in the cramped space to look up. "Delphine?" she whispered in wonder.
Delphine looked to the heavy lock on the cage, wondering if it would hurt Maple if she blasted it apart. "Just give me a second. I'll get you out of there."
"No… don't bother…" Maple shifted enough to get one thin arm between the bars. She put her palm over the lock and Delphine hear it unlock with a snap. It popped off and landed on the straw floor.
Delphine opened the door, staring at Maple. "Did you just unlock that?"
Maple didn't move from her cramped position. "Yes, I suppose I did."
Delphine blinked. "How?"
She shrugged. "It… makes sense to me? I don't know…"
"I thought iron was supposed to burn faeries?"
"It doesn't bother me."
But it really bothered Delphine that Maple had yet to move from the cage. "If you could unlock that, then why are you here? Have you been here for weeks?"
Maple closed her eyes. "I didn't expect you to come find me."
Delphine reached out with one hand, pulling Maple from the cage and onto the floor. She was frozen and Delphine took the flame from her hand and rubbed it on Maple's shoulders, hoping to warm her. "I'm missing something. What happened?"
Maple leaned into the warm touch. "Aurick left… a long time ago."
"Yeah, I had gathered as much from the oaf upstairs."
Maple's eyes were still closed, but she gave a small smile. "It was after that second pair of shoes that you gave me. He was taken to the capital by a rich man who promised him a home and real money. I was so happy for him, but also sad…"
"Because he left without you?"
She shook her head slowly and looked up to Delphine. "I had really enjoyed meeting you and talking with you and seeing your house. I wanted to see you again, but without Aurick, what reason did I have?"
"Wait," Delphine interrupted, "Are you telling me that Aurick really hasn't been here and you've been taking the cobbler's shoes to finish?"
Maple nodded, looking away. "I told you they were for Aurick because I figured you wouldn't want me around unless it was for a good reason. I… know it annoyed you, but I was afraid that if I stopped talking about him, then you would realize that I really had no reason to be there."
Delphine frowned. "That's stupid. I would have been happy to have you… just to visit or whatever."
Maple smiled, but she wasn't looking at Delphine. "I had hoped so… but I had already lied to you for so long, I didn't know quite how to stop. Then, when I returned last, you were in such a bad mood and I knew I was only making it worse but I didn't know… when I got back here, the cobbler caught me and locked me down here. Tried to use me to make more shoes, but when he realized how useless I was… well, I think he forgot about me."
Delphine could only stare. Had she really been such an idiot? Had she really been so blind and dumb that when Maple talked about Aurick, she had believed her? How could she have not seen that Maple wanted to visit her? Maple wanted to see grumpy, irritable, stupid Delphine?
"You aren't useless," Delphine blurted, once again too overwhelmed to make a sensible reply.
Maple looked up at her and Delphine knew she had to say more. But what could she say? She wasn't like Cateline with her moving speeches and grand gestures. She was trans-dimensional enchantress who talked to her house.
"It was totally my fault that he caught you. I cursed those shoes so you wouldn't be able to let them go until another took them from you. I was… I dunno, kind of pissed that night and I really didn't intend for it to work out like this and… I'm… I get irritable easily, okay? And I say dumb things or lash out, but I don't mean it. And anyone who knows me will usually call me out of it so I'll stop being stupid. I wasn't annoyed by you and I wouldn't have minded if you just wanted to visit me, really, I wouldn't have. I was just… well, insanely jealous, I guess. Cause I like you, a lot. Like, a lot a lot. And Cateline says I'm in love, but I have no idea what love really is. And I'm pretty sure you are some type of mechanical faerie because your way with machines and metal just seems to fit. And maybe that's not normal in your world, but I have heard of it before. And you've totally done something to my microwave because I think it misses you."
Delphine put a hand over her mouth before more garbage could come out. At least Maple was looking at her now. "Really?"
"Yeah, really, I swear it made a deal with the front door to bring me here."
Maple was smiling and it was a real one this time. "No, no, I mean… do you really love me?"
Delphine rubbed her forehead. "Well, I'd like you to come back to my house and spend at least a couple centuries with me. Does that count?"
"Are you being serious?"
"Yeah? Look, Maple, you have to know that I have no idea how this sort of thing works. I haven't had a lover in a long time and most of them usually realized how hopeless I am and took the reins. So to speak." She knew she was flushing and probably making it worse by the second. "But I think I really like the way you look at me and Cateline said that was love and maybe I shouldn't argue with her, but she can be a real bi—"
Maple threw her arms around Delphine, pressing a soft kiss to the corner of her lips. "I think I love you too." She was flushed, biting her lip, and generally looking a little scared, but not scared enough to let go. Her eyes were bright and glassy in the dim light and this close Delphine could count every adorable freckle on her cheeks.
Delphine was in a sudden dilemma. She desperately wanted to kiss Maple back and probably a lot more. But that would require her to extinguish her fire and then she wouldn't be able to see that adoring gaze on her.
She took the easy way.
Maple yelped as they were both suddenly transported back into Delphine's house, the bright lights nearly blinding after the dark cellar. Delphine took a quick look around, a little disappointed that she failed to place them in her bedroom.
But, turning back to Maple's flushed and eager face, she found that the kitchen floor was good enough.
"So are you going to tell me why you came to visit?"
Delphine made herself a cup of coffee, watching as Cateline looking out the front window. Cateline ignored the question. "Did you know that your elf is tinkering with your car?"
Delphine came to stand beside her. She knew Maple had gotten up early. She had figured she wanted to explore the neighborhood or something. But Cateline was right; Maple was currently half inside the hood of Delphine's beat up car. Thing barely worked, so she hardly ever used it.
"She has a way with machines," she said, knowing she probably sounded embarrassingly proud.
Cateline raise an eyebrow. "Do I need to ask why you are in such a good mood?"
"You could, but only if you tell me why you've been in town."
Cateline smiled, turning back to the window. "Just wanted to catch up with an old friend, make sure she's been keeping herself healthy."
Delphine snorted. "Yeah, sure." Then she stopped, thinking for a moment. "Wait… wait!" She pointed her coffee cup at Cateline. "You are the romance freak! The fairy godmother and the genie in the bottle! You came by to set me up, didn't you!"
Cateline leaned forward, giving Delphine a quick kiss on the cheek. "I've been holding out for centuries, Delphine. You think I couldn't wait any longer to give you your own romance?" She tapped her lips. "Granted, could have used a bit more excitement, a dragon perhaps would have spiced things up." She shrugged. "However, I did enjoy all the angst you put into it."
Delphine knew she was spluttering like an idiot. "Y-you… I can't believe— I just… You led her to my house!"
Cateline grinned. "She was poor little elf with unrequited love. Of course, I had to help her! Think of it, Delphine, if I hadn't brought her to you, her story would have been a dead end. That foolish apprentice had never an interest in her and she was much too frightened to make the first step. So… I took it for her."
"Let me guess, you also arranged that 'noble' to take Aurick away, right?"
"Actually, that was you and your little good luck charm." She clasped her hands together. "I couldn't have done it better myself!"
Delphine was ready to splutter again and probably try to curse Cateline. However, the front door opened and Maple stepped inside, covered in grim and grease. Thrusting her coffee into Cateline's hands, Delphine stomped over and put her arms around Maple. "Go away."
Cateline took a sip of the coffee, grimaced, and set it down next to one of Delphine's potted plants. "Perhaps your little elf will teach you how to be grateful, Delphine." She beamed at Maple. "So good to see you again." Then she swept out the door like she hadn't a care in the world how she manipulated innocent lives.
Maple twisted in Delphine's arms, looking up to her. "Your car would like some fresh oil and a good coat of wax." She looked at Delphine like she wasn't quite sure what she said. Even though her powers seemed strong, she obviously hadn't quite got to practice them in her own world. "Why were you angry at Cateline?"
Delphine sighed, resting her forehead on Maple's neck. Despite being up a car hood all morning, she still managed to smell like spring leaves. "Just having a normal chat."
"Do you normally yell?"
Delphine grinned, lifting her head. "I told you I'm not very good at expressing myself." At least not in words. She leaned forward, pressing her lips against those flushed freckles. "You know," she murmured, slowly pulling them both away from the door. "I'm thinking of moving."
Maple's hands tensed on her arms. "What? Out of this house?"
She sounded so heartbroken that Delphine almost laughed. "No, the house will move too. I mean to a different world. Somewhere more exciting than this small town. Somewhere you can really explore your powers. I'm thinking a city, a machine city. Maybe one of those steam-powered ones."
"Do those really exist?" Maple breathed. "Can you really do that?"
Delphine leaned back to appreciate the expression of awe and wonderment on Maple's face. Maybe, as the centuries passed, it would fade. But she had a feeling it wouldn't, not really. If only because Delphine would spend every waking moment trying to keep Maple just as captivated as she was now.
And she could do so much better than a pair of leather shoes.
"I'll show you."