Thistle waddled through the junkyard. It was early morning, and there was no wind. Just a stifling quiet and the sharp scent of rust. Thistle looked around at the heaps of human garbage, all tucked away in the dusty foothills of the Upside mountains where it was out of sight. He glowered. You’d think he hated it here, but Oboe knew better. His good antennae twitched, and he scurried after something.
There was a coat hanger poking out from under a big pile of broken bicycles. He grabbed it and pulled, kicking his spindly legs trying to pull it free. It was stuck.
“Oboe!” He yelled. “Give me a hand!”
Oboe moped, sitting on top of a big mound of busted old wagon wheels. Getting up felt like the most difficult thing in the world.
“You want to help or not?!” Thistle said. “Get over here, kid!”
She slid down, curling into a slump at the bottom. Shoving herself onto her hooves, she slouched over to him. She pulled the coat Hanger out with a yank and the whole pile of bicycles came crashing down where they made a huge mess. Oboe didn’t think there was anything she could do to ruin the junkyard, but she was wrong.
“Perfect,” Thistle said. He snatched the coat hanger away and toddled up to his cart where he tucked it into his collection of other treasures.
This was something the old sylph did long before Oboe first met him. He would come out to the outskirts of the capital to pick through the things the humans threw away. He found things he liked, made them useful with magic, and then tried his best to sell them. It was his favorite thing. And, sometimes, when Oboe was upset, or bored, or very, very lonely, he would take her with him.
It stank here. Like rust, and mud, and rotten fruit. It wasn’t a bad smell. It made her feel nostalgic.
“Not that it’s any of my business,” Thistle said as he clambered up onto a mound of scrap metal. “But haven’t you got more important things to do right now?”
“No.” After what had happened, Oboe felt like this was where she belonged. “I’d just make things worse.”
Thistle starting digging through the mess. “Huh.” He said. “Doubt that. Can’t break what’s already broke. I’d rather have you mucking things up than any of those overgrown weeds on the council. At least you care if someone gets hurt.”
Oboe wasn’t sure she did anymore. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “They kicked me out. I went, and I tried, but the Titled are awful and I hate them, and thinking about it hurts so much, and nothing I can do will ever change any of it!!”
“Been saying that for years,” Thistle said. “Can’t say I like hearing it coming out of you. What’re you going to do now, then?”
“I’m not going to do anything!” Oboe said, sick of it being her problem. “They can fall apart for all I care! I’m done. I’m leaving Laien.”
“I see.” Thistle said. He let the moment hang. “So why are you still here?”
Oboe didn’t have an answer. “I just… I wanted to see you. I wanted to say goodbye.”
Thistle seemed to think about this, stuck out his lower lip, and shook his head. “Nope. I don’t buy it. You know better than to stick around for an old roach like me. How many times have I told you to leave? To go find someplace better than this dump? You never listen. Why start now?”
“I’m serious!” Oboe said, annoyed.
Thistle went back to digging. “The only reason you ever come out here with me is so you can talk to someone. If you’re really done, which you aren’t, good. Great. Go! May the Mother’s mercy follow you. But we both know there’s something else. So, start talking already.”
She let her mouth hang open. He was right. More than anything she needed to talk, but when she tried the words felt dry and stick.
“I think…” she said, with great effort. “I think I crossed a line with Theo. …Now I don’t know what to do.”
“Oh yeah?” He said. “You gonna tell me about it, or are you just going to keep dragging your hooves?”
She pinched her fingers. She needed to let it out, but she was terrified of what Thistle would think of her.
“I… kissed him.”
Thistle stopped digging. “You WHAT?” He spun toward her. “Kissed him? That face nuzzling tongue thing you fuzzy fairies do with creatures you want to mate with??”
“…Y-yeah.” Oboe felt hot all of a sudden.
“With HIM?” He squinted at her in disbelief. “Isn’t he kind of a grumpy asshole?”
“He’s not!” Oboe said. “He’s nice, and good, and he came to find me at the Circle! He forgave me when I was stupid and listened to my grandmother. He doesn’t care that I’m nameless, and he believes in me!”
“Okay.” Thistle rolled his eyes. “But he’s a human. That’s gross. Gross and weird.”
“I know that!” Oboe said, pulling at her mane. “He doesn’t have any horns. There’s only hair on his head, and they all smell funny! It’s weird and wrong and every time I look at him I feel warm and good and I want to be with him!”
Thistle went back to digging. “Suppose beggars can’t be choosers. A human, huh. I always hoped there’d be a miracle, and some foreign buck would whisk you away before learning the details. Just proves the Mother’s a real prankster.” He looked up after a moment, mortified. “…HIM?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Oboe said. “Nothing matters. I asked him to leave with me. …He said no.” Her stomach twisted in knots remembering it. “He wants to stay and fight and save everyone, and I don’t. I can’t! I’m not good like him. And now he knows that.”
“Hold on a second.”
Thistle stuck his arm deep into the scrap pile and rooted around. He pulled out a small golden ring, which glinted in the sun. Nodding, he chucked it across the junkyard and it landed in his wagon with a sharp ping. He fluttered down from the pile, brushing his hands off.
“You remember that time you wanted to go to Red Spire?”
“What?” Oboe was bewildered. Annoyed. “What are you talking about? No!”
“It was like a year after they took your name,” Thistle said. “First year was hardest. Or maybe it was just when you threw the most fits. I don’t know. Anyway, I told you we should find you a new Circle to call home, and you got it in your head that the Circle in Red Spire was the one for you.”
“I should’ve gone,” Oboe said, bitter. “Why didn’t I?”
Thistle shrugged. “We packed bags full of everything you’d need. Right when we were about to go, you changed your mind. Told me this was your home. If there was a chance things would change, and I told you there wasn’t, you wanted to stay.”
“I was stupid,” Oboe said.
Thistle glared. “No. Shut up. Just shut up and listen to me.”
Oboe stopped talking. She waited for Thistle to say something else, but he didn’t. He stood there, flexing his twiggy fingers, his mouth opening and closing like he was always half way to starting.
“That was important. …Important to me, anyway.” He stopped looking at her. “You were just this kid. The Circle shat on you. Maybe it would’ve been kinder if they killed you, but they didn’t. They did their worst, but that didn’t matter. You had hope things would get better. …That’s not something you learned from me, and you sure as hell didn’t learn it from them.”
Oboe listened. Thistle struggled to get the rest out.
“…No matter how bad it got, you always had that… hope. That… Seeing that broke me.” He cleared his throat, and focused. “It CHANGED me. Got me to try talking to the Mother again. It was like, no matter what the world was like, I could just look at little Oboe and I’d see hope. It was just inside you, it was PART of you. And… that always kept me going.”
Whatever hope Thistle had seen inside Oboe had dried up. It was dead. Killed by the Circle. She looked at the old bug, feeling like this conversation was another mistake.
“I was a kid and I didn’t know any better,” she said. “Now I do.”
Thistle didn’t say anything.
“Thank you for being there for me,” Oboe said. “I hope we meet again someday.” She turned to leave.
“Hold on!” Thistle said. “Get back here! You aren’t going anywhere!”
Oboe marched away. “Watch me.”