It was pleasantly warm in the sun, but Elenora was climbing a tree anyway. She didn’t mind the cooling touch of partial shade. She had no particular reason for climbing the tree, actually. But she’d gone for her second hike onto the mountain above Woodland and just wanted a better view.
It was an oak tree, and just starting to bud, so it was very easy to climb, all the branches in plain view like some Dr. Seuss ladder. She’d heard a Selasphorus rufus on her walk up today, but it was too early for the Calliope hummingbirds to arrive. S. rufus, with their incredible range, were not terribly affected by environmental disasters. Calliopes, though—Stellula calliope—was a mountain species. It summered in California and wintered in Mexico. Not a bad itinerary, Elenora thought as she found a branch to sit on and breathed in the clear mountain air.
Oh, what a view. Elenora could never understand biologists who wanted to spend their lives in labs peering into microscopes at the smallest creatures on earth. Sure, it was interesting, but where were the sun or the stars? The wind, the flowers and trees? When Elenora had been a little girl, she’d read a poem about fairies who lived in gardens. And though she would never admit it, it still was difficult for her to pass a bed of flowers without wondering if there were little creatures with wings and red caps hiding among the blossoms.
In any case, it was certain that one would never find fairies in a laboratory. And that was reason enough to avoid those places, as far as Elenora was concerned. Not that she listed such reasoning on her application to the Wildlife Biology graduate program at WU, of course. Elenora had always found it odd that not everyone appreciated a little silliness in life. But sadly, that was the way of things. Entirely too few people could be easily amused. Entirely too few people climbed trees, for example. So they would never know what it was to sit up in the air and at once feel the hard, unyielding branch below your behind and yet the thin air around your legs that would not hold you for an instant. They would not know the way an oak smelled in the sunshine or watch ants and beetles crawling on one’s jeans, industrious and seemingly uncaring that a primate had climbed into their lofty domain. There was a bird’s nest—no, there were two from last season in this particular tree. One she guessed was a Bullock’s Oriole and the other was too degraded to tell. The air smelled like earth and warmth and tree bark and spring was in the wind.
Elenora had learned once, in a way she would decline to mention, that one should not fall asleep in trees, no matter how glorious the view or how lovely the warmth of the sun or shade of the leaves. So she resisted closing her eyes, but it was peaceful, nonetheless.
Until she heard something distinctly human and completely inappropriate for her glorious surroundings. No birds burst away from the tree at the sound—no, it was something only Elenora could hear. Suddenly, everything was cold and thin as Elenora once again was forced to listen to the preview of future gunfire in her mind.
Elenora was just as good at climbing out of trees as she was climbing into them. But her legs had gone weak and it seemed her hands didn’t want to grasp anything, they only wanted to push—to push something away. So to the horrible staccato of gunshots, Elenora slipped off of the branch she’d been sitting on and tumbled down toward the ground, twenty feet below.
Fortunately, her instincts appeared before the ground did, and she was able to catch herself part way down. But the noise of the guns would not stop, and the rough bark scraped her hands raw. Elenora forced herself to calm down, to hang by her bleeding hands until she saw a spot to drop into where she could hit the ground easily. She let go.
The morning was warm and the air up on the mountain was full of sounds. Paul asked himself later if he had gone looking for Elenora, and the answer, as best he could give it, was both yes and no. He was thinking about her, yes. He wanted to see her again, for a couple of reasons, and he figured she might be up on the mountain, and so that was where he went. However, if he’d been really planning on it he might have thought to hike in, rather than fly in.
As it was, when he saw Elenora sitting in a tree, he was not entirely surprised that he had managed to locate her. The shock came a moment later, as Elenora suddenly made a brief, low noise that reminded Paul of a frightened animal and tumbled from her perch. She caught herself before Paul could quite do it, but at least he was able to ease her fall to the ground after she let go of the branch she’d grabbed. She landed on her feet, gently. And then because he was so startled himself, he dropped to the ground and essentially appeared out of nowhere. Which startled her again.
She made another frightened noise. Her breathing was more gasping than breathing and some of that red hair had escaped its prison of braids and was wafting around her face.
It was funny—two nights ago at his parents’ house Elenora had looked attractive, pretty maybe. But out here in the sunshine and the fresh air—in what was obviously her element—she was something else. Blue jeans, hiking boots, a long-sleeved purple shirt, and she was beautiful.
Without thinking, Paul reached out and grasped one of her wrists, bringing one of her bleeding hands closer. It looked like a couple of deep scrapes, probably not serious. At least in the two seconds he was able to look before Elenora snatched her hand back. Her face had gone reddish-pink and her eyes—they were gray, weren’t they? A pure stone gray. They were wide on him. She stood there a second as bits of bark still rained down from the tree onto her shoulders, and then she said, “I don’t normally fall out of trees.”
“Okay,” Paul answered. “Me either.”
She looked away from him and down at her hands. “I need to wash these.” There was a backpack at the base of the tree and she took out a water bottle, squeezing the clear water onto her hands. It splashed onto her boots as it fell, but she seemed to take no notice. Then she asked, “Where did you come from?” at the exact moment that Paul realized that that question was undoubtedly coming.
“I was hiking,” he lied. She glanced from her extremely dirty boots to his clean, unmarked blue tennis shoes. Paul felt like an idiot. But she said nothing and so he quickly asked, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I was just—I guess I must have been falling asleep. It’s so beautiful out here.” And here she looked up and gave him the first smile he’d seen from her that day and it was—well, she had a lovely smile. Paul suddenly didn’t know what to do with his hands. Well, no, he did, but he wasn’t going to let himself reach for her again.
“Um, Nora,” he said instead and she gave him a curious glance. “Doesn’t anybody call you Nora?” he asked.
“Uh—sure. I need to go now.” She swung her backpack over her shoulder and gingerly dried her hands on the hem of her shirt.
The only thing Paul could think of to say was, “Wait.”
So she did, but then he didn’t have anything else to add. Except maybe his subconscious kind of did. “There’s a ball,” he said.
“Like a dance, I mean.”
“Oh.” She took a couple of steps away and Paul followed, noticing with some nervousness that he quickly got dust on his tennis shoes.
“Would you want to go with me?” he asked.
That stopped her in mid-stride. Those gray eyes resumed staring at him. That was not the way his date invitations usually went.
“No,” she said.
Okay, definitely not the way they usually went, especially with a woman who pretty clearly had a crush on him. Paul found himself smiling. “Why not?”
“I don’t dance and I don’t—I don’t date.”
She started walking again and Paul quickly caught up with her. “Never?”
“No. And don’t ask why not again, because I won’t answer you.”
“I’m sure you have plenty of women to choose from. And if they all turned you down already—”
“You’re the first one I’ve asked.”
“You are, though.” Technically, he hadn’t asked Quinn—she’d brought it up first, declining before he’d had a chance to talk to her about it.
Elenora told him, “Give it a rest,” but she was smiling now.
“All right then, we can talk about something else. My mother would really love it if you could come to the Ivory Ball this year as our guest.”
Elenora burst out laughing. “What is wrong with you?”
Paul adopted a mock-serious tone. “If you don’t come to the dance with me, you may never find out.”
“Paul—” She was still smiling, but her eyes left him and looked off somewhere else, somewhere in her mind, obviously. Somewhere unpleasant.
He did touch her then, he reached out and took her arm gently in his hand. Her skin was cool to the touch, and a little dry, maybe a healing sunburn, he guessed. When he touched her, she jumped a little and focused on him again.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, serious now for real.
“Something is scaring you. Is it someone? Someone who wants to hurt you?”
“No.” But she said it almost absently. She was looking directly into his eyes, looking for something. Paul had to remind himself that even though his eyes were an odd color, she couldn’t tell that he was only half-human from that alone.
In any case, she looked away, apparently not finding whatever it was.
Paul had not managed to find what he was looking for either. “Nora, if you tell me, maybe I can help you.”
She shook her head, but he took her other arm and pulled her just a little bit closer. A tremor went through her, just a brief passing of shakes. “I won’t let anything hurt you,” he said, and his voice had grown quiet and yet very clear. She looked up at him—she was only a little shorter than he was, and he realized that if he bent his head right now he could kiss her without taking another step nearer.
He tried to clear his mind. Elenora began to speak softly, and it took him a second to process the odd question she’d asked. “Do you—do you go shooting? Guns, I mean. Like at the range, or—”
“No. I don’t think I’ve ever fired a gun.”
He felt her relax a little. “I hate guns,” she whispered.
So that was it. She had a violent past of some sort. He shouldn’t be asking her out. As if he didn’t already know that. He should be focusing on what she needed, not on what he—on what he was realizing that he wanted. Especially because though he may not ever have fired a gun, he certainly spent quite a lot of time around them. “I’ll protect you,” he said.
“You can’t, Paul.”
The Ghost was speaking now. “Yes, I can.”
“Is that why you want me to go to the ball?” she asked. “You want to protect me?”
“That’s—part of it.”
“Did you really not ask anyone else first?”
He tightened his hands on her a little. “I’m not the Kent Prince. I mean, that isn’t who I am. I just want to go to the dance with someone I can talk to.”
She looked at him with surprise. “You think that’s me?”
“Well—not that we’re doing the best job of it right now—”
She giggled suddenly. “Do you take drugs? Do you go downtown and buy them?”
“Um—case in point.”
“I know. Answer the question.”
“I don’t take drugs, no.”
She stepped back, and he had to let her go. She reached up and fussed with the braids winding around her head for a moment. “I believe that makes it your turn for an awkward question,” she informed him, and she was cool and collected now. The blush had faded, and the sun was glowing in her red hair and beneath that her skin was ivory. At that moment, her eyes almost had a silver tint to them and it made her look—well, it was just that Paul could suddenly understand why men spent their lives chasing silver.
Obviously, he should have asked her again what she was running from. Or almost anything else, really. Instead he stood there with his hands cooling now that the warmth of her was gone, and he said, “Will you please go to the ball with me?”
She sighed, but she didn’t drop his gaze. “I don’t date,” she reminded him.
Apparently that question was now fair game, because she did answer it. “I—I am—I’m weird. Weirder than you could know. There are things about me that you wouldn’t believe if I told you.”
It was perhaps the most perfect answer Paul had ever heard. “That’s wonderful,” he said.
She stared at him for a second. “We are very bad at talking.”
“Please come with me?”
Elenora closed her eyes and Paul thought for a second time about kissing her. Or maybe it was still the first time, and he’d never stopped thinking about it. “I promise,” he whispered, “that I’m weird, too.”
She sneaked open one gray eye and looked at him. “There’s this poem about gardens. And fairies. I look for them. Fairies in gardens.”
“Green jacket, red cap, and white owl’s feather?”
She stared at him. It was the first time that an obscure line of poetry had gotten Paul a date.