He does this thing with people he loves. The way he lets you in, just a little bit at a time, and you don’t even really notice it until suddenly you know everything about him, every scar on his body and mind. It stops being a question of whether or not you’d follow him off a cliff and it becomes just a fact of life, that you’d hold his hand on the way down. All of a sudden, you’re a part of him, like another limb, and you don’t think to question it until you realize that you treat him the same way, like he’s your heart and your lungs and your blood would freeze in your veins without him. You stop being two distinct beings with two separate minds. You’re still different people, but it stops being a ‘you-and-him’ and it becomes a 'we’. And then he’s gone, and you’ve heard of phantom limbs, when amputees feel agonizing pain in limbs that aren’t there anymore, and maybe that’s what this is, but you’re walking around like a zombie and you can’t think and you can’t even fucking breathe, because he isn’t here and you’ve forgotten how to live without him.
The Gentry favor the culinary arts students. Like any Elsewhere student in a creative field, their passion is already intoxicating, but sometimes they leave offerings of baked goods. Sometimes they even get desperate or stupid enough to make a bargain.
But the student known as ‘Maillard’ was not here to bargain.
Their world was fire, and salt, and iron, and they carried that with them always. The scent of the wood-fired grill hung heavy on their clothes; their tea-towels scorched, but their sleeves always white and pure and clean. Their hands still stung with salt; coarse and crystallized, they’d scattered it over steaks, and sealed whole Red Snappers beneath its rocky crust. And the cast iron skillet at their hip carried with it the happy memories of a thousand meals or more, every one of them shared with friends.
And one of those friends was currently the plaything of the Fae, following what mortals would call a ‘bad deal’.
All around them, Maillard could feel the glamour, feel those burning eyes, feel the sheer unbridled outrage as it poured down from the thrones of ice and chaise-longues of living wood in turbid torrents, hell-bent on drowning out all thought. How dare you! How dare you bring these things here, into our world! How dare you think you can just walk in here, just stand there as if you’re anything less than nothing! Crawl, you worm! You insect!Bow down to us!
The words twisted themselves again and again, looking for a way in.
This is outrageous! We demand to speak to your manager!
But muscles honed from lifting sacks of potatoes and hauling huge sauce-pans of chicken stock held the heavy frying pan at arm’s length. Maillard had been pissed off before they’d heard The Bad News;they’d had A Busy Night at their professional kitchen internship.Tomorrow morning, they had to get up and laminate their croissant dough, rolling out unsalted butter and pastry into thin, unbroken sheets. There was no time for hesitation. No room for second guesses. Each and every one of those layers had. To. Be. Perfect.
So like hell they were going to stay up all night playing games.
“What will you give us for the girl?” One asked.
The Fae felt no fear. They could be offended, or be amused, but to them these were absolutes, far beyond the limited mortal constraints of 'feeling’. And being timeless, they were as patient as the grave. All they needed was a moment; the moment of confusion at a fork in the road, the moment a mortal’s faith was shaken, the moment when the stars were right and the moon was full. Sooner or later, they would have their way. They would have their - for lack of a better word - fun.
“I will give you my footprints, going back to whence I came.”
Maillard’s voice was unwavering, and their shoulders squared. The eyes they were looking into were like the winter sun, like burning ice, like death itself - but the customers at table six had ordered a round of extra-well-done steaks and sent them back three times because they were too tough. Table eighteen had requested vegan deviled eggs. Table nine had asked if they could take the sour out of the sourdough and the carrots out of the carrot cake. All were outraged. All were 'never coming back to this dump ever again’. Few left a tip.
They’d dealt with worse.
“I will take with me my fire, and my iron, and my salt. And from these I will forge not blades, but bread - the stuff of life - if you let her go.”
Bread, not blades. Keep the knives in the kitchen, not on the streets. Perhaps it was the magic in the air, but their whole reason for pursuing the culinary arts somehow weaved itself into words worthy of any storybook hero - and perhaps this was enough to amuse the Gentry. Perhaps they had merely tired of their plaything. Or perhaps, that momentary flicker amidst the Fair Folk - when the mortal, kissed by fire and blessed by salt, brandished their iron cookware - meant something else.
But they brought back their friend, covered with frost and fresh-fallen snow. And with their cast-iron skillet and their gas-fired oven and their kosher salt and their grandmother’s recipe, they made cornbread. And soup, because there was time, now. The two friends ate together, and the color came back to her hands and her cheeks, and the life came back to her eyes. And they talked about anything but what they’d seen and done, because that was What You Did at Elsewhere U.
Maillard left a slice of cornbread on the windowsill before they set their alarm clock. Not as a kindness, not as a payment, but as a promise; forged from iron, and salt, and fire, and love.
They supposed you could call it complimentary. The Fair Folk did love a compliment.
They tipped better than most mortal customers, too.