Theodore unpacked his uniform from the suitcase. A heavy khaki shirt and olive breeches, tailored to endure the outdoors. He fastened the buttons in front of the dressing mirror, fixed his tie, and stared at himself. It was a strange comfort to see himself in the outfit again. Like he was back in his own skin.
He saw Oboe sidle up beside him in the reflection. She pressed a gentle hand against his back, her face pensive.
“Are you sure you’re ready?”
Theodore pawed at his waist. The pain was there, but dull. Fairy magic worked fast when Fates were spent. “I’m sure,” he said. There would be aches, but aches he could deal with.
“Well.” Her smile was sly. “I don’t think anyone would blame you for taking a few more days for yourself.” She traced a finger down his back, sending a shiver up his spine.
“We’ve been gone long enough.” Theodore gathered up his long hair and pinned it behind his head. “There’s work to do.”
“You’re no fun!” Oboe flopped onto the bed and squirmed in mock upset. “Ugggh!!”
Theodore chuckled and checked himself in the mirror one last time. There was one piece missing. He picked the Ranger Deputy badge up off the dresser.
He turned. Oboe was lying in a tangle of sheets. She was staring up at the ceiling, her face serious.
“I’m sorry I made you fight,” she said. “You didn’t want to.”
Theodore weighed the badge in his hand: A heavy eight-pointed star. Silver and iron, cold against his palm.
“I had to,” he said.
“I know.” She sat up. “That’s why it wasn’t fair. This isn’t the life you wanted. You didn’t want to be a knight. …Like your dad.”
Theodore fixed the badge to his chest. “My father was just a man,” Theodore said. “A creature like you or me. He made mistakes, but he did what he thought was right. That’s what made him a knight.” He turned to look at her. “I fought because it was the best way to help everyone. If that’s what being a knight means, I suppose I don’t mind so much now.”
He snapped his suitcase shut and fastened the clasps. “Let’s go home.”
They left the Circle, and saw that Autumn had come to the Whirlwood. The trees were burned with golden yellows, vivid reds, and steadfast evergreens. A gentle wind breathed through the valley and sent leaves drifting around them. A warm sun shined through the thinning, tangled branches of the live oaks.
Oboe held his hand tight. There was something on her mind, so he asked her what it was.
“Do you think,” she said. “That they’d let me be a knight too? A good one I mean. Like you?”
Theodore gave it careful thought. “I think it would be hard.” He did not want to lie. “There’d be a lot of humans who wouldn’t treat you right.” He studied her. In her he saw the knight he wanted to be. “But I’m not sure that matters. I think you’d be good at it.”
Something in her eyes solidified. Calcified like magic into shining stone. She nodded at him, resolute.
The trail passed through a copse of trees and arrived at the cottage. There was a big crowd of creatures waiting for them. Pookas, and birds, and shadow children, and trolls, and gnomes, and furies, and imps, and peskies, and sylph, and skeletons, and foxes, and goblins, and terrors, and trolls, and werewolves, and one big bear in the middle. They were neighbors and friends, the people of the Whirlwood. Every one of them had been waiting since the start of the crisis with some problem or another that needed the attention of the Ranger Deputy. They cheered and shoved and bickered and shouted all in excitement to see him.
Theodore and Oboe shared a weary but happy look with one another. The Ranger Deputy rolled up his sleeves.