"Guess you were right, Vi," the little remarked, coming to a stop beside his wife. He cast an incredulous eye over the mass of cameras and boom-mics at the top of the boat ramp, barely a stone's throw away. Was one lousy fashion designer worth such a fuss? Apparently so. "Ten points to Gryffindor."
"You sound surprised. Of course I'm right." Violet threw a dour gaze across the water, at the inescapable nuisance only a hundred meters offshore. Cecil Winters, owner and namesake of the country's most prestigious clothing line for female littles, was even louder in life than he was on the television. It was a fact which had been growing steadily less and less tolerable as the afternoon progressed. The Amazon ripped across the water at blistering speeds, pushing his jet ski to the point of protest as he raced up and down the beach. The demonstration was presumably meant to be impressive, but between the growl of the motor and the curtains of spray, it was nothing more than obnoxious. "Besides, who else would it be? How many celebrities come from the Isles, of all places?"
"I wasn't aware you'd be one to know." Flynn passed his wife the drink he'd bought her, and his heart soared at the grudging smile it earned him. It was something of an endangered species in recent times. At least when it concerned him. "Since when do you follow celebrity...well, anything?"
"Since some idiot with a jet ski decided to be a pest on the first day of my vacation." She patted the phone resting on her bare midriff and pretended not to notice as her husband's eyes subsequently slid to the top half of her bikini. "I had it puzzled out even before the vultures showed up. It's him, alright."
I can barely contain my excitement. "Okay, Vi." The sand was pleasantly warm beneath Flynn's bare feet, and without further delay he lowered himself onto the beach. Violet moved aside to make room on the beach towel, but he waved her off, content to entrench himself in the sand's embrace. "You're in Sunrise City - Sunrise freaking City - and you want to spend your time stressing about some prick with a jet ski?"
"I've been here before. You know that."
"Not with me you haven't." He donned a silly grin and made a show of laying a wet, slobbery kiss on her cheek. Violet squealed and wriggled away, and he let her go, laughing. He abruptly realised that he was the happiest he'd been in a very long time, even despite his wife's (admittedly exasperating) lamentations. Since he'd got laid off, at least, and how long ago had that been? Six months? Longer? "This is exactly what we need, Vi. I couldn't be happier, and you're going to offend me if you don't feel exactly the same."
It was true. Flynn and Violet had been happily married for two amazing years when along came the unemployment train. The firm Flynn worked for downsized in May (seven months, he realised), and his job ended up on the cutting room floor; the result was one unemployed little and one unimpressed wife. Although Violet's managerial job at the local Beds R' Us was enough to get the couple by, she'd been forced to take on additional hours, and as such, the hours they spent together grew fewer and fewer. Her support gradually turned to derision as her husband remained jobless, and what began as a thin tear in the fabric of their relationship soon deepened into a deep, yawning chasm.
Violet never outright said she resented her husband for his lack of success finding employment, but she hardly needed to. It was hard to miss the way she turned up her nose as she walked through the door at 10pm each night, or how stiff she became in his arms when he tried to kiss her. The "I love yous" became strained and perfunctory. Their sex life dissipated. Their relationship became a chore.
And yet...here they were! Sunrise freaking City, Pearl of the Coral Sea! Sure, it was a less of a holiday than an attempt to mend their fractured relationship, but it was something. After a couple of long, torturous months spent on rocky ground, the postcard beaches of Sunrise City were a welcome relief. Flynn inhaled the ocean breeze the way a man in the desert might inhale water. It was cool and salty on his tongues. Paradise, just like everything else found at the number one holiday destination east of the Spine.
Minus the fool in the water, at least.
"What does he get out of this?" Violet mused, shaking her head at the spectacle. Cecil Winters might be a household name everywhere between Gloam and the Dawning Isles, but a hundred meters out from shore, he was little more than a faceless nuisance in a bright yellow life-jacket. Even as they watched, the most famous fashion designer in the country performer an abrupt U-turn and went hurtling back the way he'd come. Ten seconds later, he repeated the gesture. Spray rained from the sky, and waves lapped at the shore like a lovesick dog. "I don't get it. Surely that can't be fun."
Flynn shrugged and looped his arm around his wife's shoulders, savouring the feel of her bare flesh against his own. He couldn't say he cared all that much about some narcissistic celebrity right then. Not when his wife was happy to talk to him. "We can go somewhere else if you like," he suggested. "The beach goes up a long way."
"I'd rather he just showed a little respect. He doesn't own the beach."
Not that he couldn't afford it, if he wanted to. "I can't make that happen. I can move us somewhere a little quieter."
"And let him win?" Curls the colour of dark chocolate fell over Violet's eyes as she nodded in Cecil's direction. She brushed her hair aside with a dramatic sigh. "I don't know if I can stomach that, Flynn. I just don't."
Flynn could only shake his head. Easy to anger and long to forget, Violet was like to keep any bee she found in her bonnet well past the point of reason. She was as stubborn as she was beautiful, and as much as he loved her, he had to admit her act did wear thin on occasion...such as this one, considering the circumstances. He was about to open his mouth to point out that she should be more appreciative of their situation, of the good they were doing for their relationship, when Cecil Winters pre-empted any further discussion by veering towards the shore. Thank God, the little thought to himself. His eyes slid to his wife and found her tracking the jet ski's trajectory, same as him. That'll make her happy.
It also made Cecil's entourage happy. The crowd of paparazzi was close enough to where the little's relaxed that Flynn could practically see their eyes light up at the realisation their victim was en route. There was a sudden flurry of activity as they rushed to finalise their preparations, but the Amazon in the water was upon them before they'd made it halfway down the boat ramp.
"What's this?" The media darling known as Cecil Winters hailed his reception with a resonant, baritone rumble that made Flynn think of the opera. He was a handsome man, only just entering his forties and still untouched by the true ravages of middle age. Rippling muscles the colour of ripe olives gleamed beneath his light-jacket, clad in nothing more than a sheen of moisture that sparkled in the sunlight. His hair was dyed a tasteful shade of grey. "Can't a man enjoy an afternoon on the water without being pestered by gulls like you lot?"
"Mr Winters!" A lady in heels and a suit totally unsuited to the climate called out. She waddled down the ramp in short, mincing steps, brandishing a microphone in front of her like a weapon. A guy with a boom mic followed close behind. Neither seemed cognisant of the fact their target was too far off shore to be picked up by their equipment. "Julia Light, from Little's Weekly. Is it true you are expanding the scope of Cecil Winters to include a fashion line for male littles, and if so, when do you expect to go public with an announcement?"
The man in the jet ski laughed. It was the sound of an avalanche. "If I was keeping such information from the public, than why in the world would I be inclined to share it with you, Ms Julia Light from Little's Weekly?" Cecil swung down from the jet ski and landed in thigh-deep water. A bemused grin graced his lips at the sight of the boom mic craning towards him. "That was a rather silly question, don't you think?"
"Mr Winters!" Another reporter pushed past a very flustered Ms Light. "Where is Little Miss? Your daughter is well known to love the beach, but I don't see her anywhere. Surely you haven't left your her alone at home? Does she have a babysitter?"
"Ha! And that's the sort of question that's like to get you banned from future interviews." Cecil's smile was anything but irritated, however. In fact, he looked rather smug, and it was this expression which predicated Flynn's understanding of what the man had been trying to achieve with his aquatic shenanigans. He was getting their attention, the little abruptly realised. The sheer, calculated cunning of it made him grin. Make it nice and obvious that the great Cecil Winters is out on the waterfront, and all the press come running. They get a couple of pictures to post on their website, and he gets a tonne of free publicity. Brilliant!
The Amazon tethered his jet ski to the jetty, and without preamble attempted to pick his way through the orbiting throng of press. He answered a handful of questions as he walked, mostly with as much sass and substance as in the first two instances, but it was evident he was enjoying himself. If his smile ever faltered, Flynn certainly didn't notice - the man seemed perfectly at home in the spotlight, and it wasn't hard to understand why. His face would be plastered across every gossip magazine in Sunrise City before the day was through. It was a narcissist's wet dream, and it was hard to believe Cecil Winters was anything but a narcissist.
"They're eating out of the palm of his hand," Flynn remarked. He found the taller man's manipulation of human nature utterly fascinating. "He's a natural."
Violet snorted. "He's a tosser, that's what he is."
The fashion designer reached the line of asphalt at the top of the ramp, and there he stopped, smiling that same charming smile that had won the hearts of TV viewers all over the country. Had Flynn any inclination to bat for the other team, he imagined the sight would have made him weak at the knees. "Now, now," Cecil chided as he turned back to face the sea of cameras. The same tone could have been used to lecture a nagging child. "I'm happy to answer all of your questions, but first I have to get my vehicle out of the water. If you'd be kind enough...to..."
By sheer chance, the Amazon's gaze soared over the crowd and fell squarely upon Flynn. His voice broke off, and for a long, pregnant moment he simply stared at the little. Frank interest blossomed on his face the way wild flowers blossomed in the Springtime. It took Flynn a second longer to realise that he was the object of the celebrity's attention, and when he did his heart performed a sickening barrel roll.
"Uh. Flynn?" Violet's voice was cautious as dawn, and when the cameras began to turn their way, she outright shrank into her husband's chest. "They're all looking at you, aren't they? He's looking at you."
"He sure is." Flynn considered waving at the celebrity, figured that was a step too far, and instead smiled a weak, awkward smile. Cecil made no response but to stare him down. The giant's eyes were the colour of ash. "What do I do?"
In the end, he didn't have to do anything. Cecil Winters broke from whatever spell had possessed him all by himself. The Amazon returned to reality with a sudden, unsightly jerk, as if someone had slapped him flush across the cheek. "...yes, if you could just, uh, wait somewhere out of the little - the way, the way." There was a note of confusion in his voice. Flynn heard it clear as day. "My apologies, someone must have...must have walked over my grave. Yes, that's it. Now, please get out of the way. It's such a nice day, is it not? It'd be a shame to end it with one of you under my trailer."
The cameras were returning back to Cecil, Flynn noted with some relief. There was an outburst of appreciative laughter from the crowd, and with a final flash of the pearly whites the giant took his leave, striding across the car-park to retrieve his car and his trailer.
"What was that all about?" Violet poked her husband's ribs. Her voice was unsteady. "What did you do, Flynn?"
"Nothing," he answered honestly, flinching away from the impact. He realised he was shaking. As a little, attention from the taller folk of the world was never a good thing. Most individuals at that altitude held the archaic view that the people flitting about their kneecaps were little more than up-jumped children, to be tolerated until there was an excuse not to, and despite numerous protests, demonstrations and civil right's movements, this remained true across the vast majority of the country. There was the odd exception to the rule, such as Fallvale - Fallvale was a state founded by littles, after all - but here in the Dawning Isles, civilisation had yet to catch up with modern ideals. It wasn't at all uncommon for a little to find their adulthood revoked with scant provocation or justification; one spilt drink might be all it took for a passing giant to decide you were too childish to use anything but a sippy cup, for instance. From there, it was a short trip back to diapers, afternoon naps, and relearning your ABCs. It was as ridiculous as it was demeaning, but it was what it was.
"Well, don't make a habit of it." Violet sounded as disturbed as he felt. She pulled away from Flynn and lay down on the towel, shuddering as she did so. "I quite like this bikini, thank you very much. Diapers aren't anywhere near as fashionable."
"A Cecil Winters diaper might change your opinion on that."
His attempt to make light of the situation fell flat. "A diaper is a diaper, Flynn."
That was a hard line to argue with.
The couple watched as Cecil Winters disappeared around the far side of the jetty, wary as a cornered animal. The assorted press directed a few curious glances in their direction, but for the most part they seemed content to do as they'd been instructed. The mob gradually moved out of the way, making room for the Amazon to reverse his trailer down the boat ramp, and a moment later Cecil returned to do exactly that. He was halfway down when he came to an abrupt stop, wound the driver's-side window down, and poked his head out into the mid-afternoon breeze. He looked directly at Flynn. "You there!" the most famous man in the country cried. "You, the little in the blue shorts! Come give me a guide!"
For a second, Flynn believed neither his eyes nor his eyes. When he realised he had no choice, he began to panic. This is a dream, he thought wildly. Frantically. He looked to Violet for support, but her eyes were as wide as his own. Her face had gone to colour of week-old milk. No way this is happening, not to me, not now, this was meant to fix things, I can't fix things if I'm in a -
"Yes, you! Come on, I don't have all day!"
Still half convinced he'd been lulled to sleep by the warmth of the day, Flynn gave his wife what he hoped was a reassuring pat before stumbling to his feet and hurrying across the sand. Cecil smiling down at him from the front seat, and the little couldn't help but notice how white his teeth were. They were the colour of snow and the shape of tombstones.
"He...hello," he managed to stammer out, nervous beyond all belief. He glanced over his shoulder for moral support and saw Violet watching from a safe distance. Her hands wrung a lock of her hair as if it were a stress ball. "What do you need?"
"A guide. Didn't I just say so? Tell me how far back I need to go."
His brain was made stupid by nerves. "To go back...for..."
"For the ski, my dear boy, the ski." Cecil laughed his deep, booming laugh. "I'm not going to eat you, if that's what you're concerned about. I'm on a strictly vegetarian diet these days. I have to watch my figure, you see - the last time I let myself put on a few pounds, my gut made the front page of National Inquiry. I've had to cut littles from my palette altogether. It's terribly unfortunate, but what can you do?"
"I...I don't know." Stupid, he screamed at himself. Stupid! Stop talking!
Cecil's smile grew. It reminded Flynn of a shark. "Please don't run off after we've sorted out my ski. I'd like to have a word with you...if that's to you and your lady's likings?" He looked over Flynn's shoulder then, undoubtedly sizing up Violet. When he looked back, his expression had turned thoughtful. "I'm not doing a particularly good job of winning your trust, have I? You littles are a flighty lot, after all."
Images of diapers and ABC blocks flashed past Flynn's eyes. "I don't know what you're trying to say," he managed to get out. "Now if you don't - "
"What's your name?"
He hesitated. "Flynn."
"Fantastic. Well, if you haven't already been introduced to me by that flattering picture on the front page of National Inquiry, then you should know my name is Cecil Winters, and in all seriousness I have no wish to eat you, harm you, or in any way take advantage of you." He dropped his voice then, low enough that no one would be able to overhear their conversation. "I already have a daughter, Flynn. I love her dearly, and I don't have room for another little in my life. All I ask for is an audience. You're free to say no, but you should know that I will more than make it worth your while." He shook his head, and now his gaze flickered to the paparazzi just up the road. There were a handful creeping closer, intrigued by the quiet conversation between the celebrity and the little, and this was not to Cecil's liking. Eyeing the approaching mass of humanity with perceptible irritation, the giant picked up the pace. "After we're done here, I am going to go straight to the Square Rose," he murmured. He shot the words out his mouth like bullets from a machine gun. "It's a restaurant on Beachside Row. I'll wait there for an hour. I'll buy you and your lady friend lunch, and afterwards you can take or leave the proposition I wish to make you."
Flynn stared. "But what - "
"I'd rather not say, with the gulls about as they are."
What in the hell? "But - "
"The Square Rose. Beachside Row." And with that, Cecil's face once again broke out in a monstrous, sunny grin. He glanced back at the approaching media one last time before pulling back inside the car, and with no warning whatsoever, proceeded to scare the living daylights out of Flynn by slamming the car horn with a clenched fist. "Begone, my boy!" he cried at the top of his lungs. He looked from the cameras to Flynn, and to the little's undying incredulity, the giant winked at him. It'll be our secret, the expression said. The Square Rose. Beachside Row. "Begone! To the ski, before I decide you can't be trusted without a little padding between your legs!"
To be continued in Chapter 2: All For Violet