The palace loomed on a hill, high above set apart from the high glass and steel towers of the city, the image from a fairy tale.
‘Hook,’ Stef said suddenly.
She looked over to Curt. ‘It was Hook.’
‘Full sentences, newbie,’ Curt said as he chewed on some leftover aole.
‘It as Hook that told me about Nonsuch, I didn’t remember that until now.’ His face was still blank. ‘Captain Hook?’ she prompted, forming a curve with her fingers.
‘Captain Hook? Like, the pirate?’
‘Like there’s another. He was my Court of the Lost-appointed imaginary friend when I was a kid.’
This made him nod. ‘Saying that part at the beginning would have helped.’
She poked out her tongue. ‘Yeah, but I like confusing you.’
‘My favourite Doctor is Bones.’
This made her stop and grin. ‘Padawan, you’re learning. Plus one to your geek.’
‘You needed one of the Lost though?’ he asked. ‘I don’t know much about them, but I thought they-‘
‘I was ignored,’ she said, ‘not abused.’
‘I never wanted for anything. I never knew what it was like to be hungry or cold or worried for the roof over my head. I had everything I could ask for, and more. Most people have it so much worse, so I’m not going to pine for the things I didn’t have. Besides Ryan is doing an exceptional job at making up for a lifetime of not having loving parents, and I know damn well he wouldn’t leave a five-year-old in Kensington Gardens for six hours by themselves, so I think everything worked out for the best. ‘
‘If you keep dawdling,’ she said, ‘I’m not going to get to see anything.’
‘Yes ma’am.’
‘Stop ma’am’ing me.’ She poked him in the arm. ‘And if you go “yes ma’am” to that, I am-‘
‘You’re going to what, ma’am?’
‘Plan very, very strange revenge. Be scared.’
‘You going to focus on enjoying this?’
They walked up the long, winding garden path, and into the building. Tour tickets and the gift shop lay in front of them, a roped-off area to the left, for those taking the tour, and a long wing to the right that could be viewed without tour tickets.
‘Go have a look down that way,’ he said, ‘I just want to go to the gift shop, you can go next time, when we do a tour.’
She gave him a nod, and began to wander down the wing. Portraits and tapestries hung on the wall, all carefully labelled. On the lower section of the wall was a running history, describing the real Nonsuch and the one she was standing in.
She stared out the window, at the rain that was determined to stop the from having an adventure.
’I’m sorry, dear one,’ Hook said as he drew treasure in the condensation on the window. ‘Piracy will have to wait for another day.’
’Tell me a story instead!’,
‘What kind of story?’
‘One I haven’t heard before.’
He lit his pipe. ‘I think I know just the one.’
She stared at the wall, at the detail, the centuries of wear and care. A Tudor palace, the Fairies’ palace, there was so much power and history running through the building that it was almost intimidating. She looked back towards the gift shop, saw Curt lost in a sea of fae, and moved on to the next section of wall, reaching out to touch it when she was sure no one was looking. She held back a squee as she laid her hand flat against the wall. Half-remembered stories that Hook had told her inspired the awe, but the reality took her breath away.
There was a balcony to her right, this part of the palace looked newer – different materials, a slightly different design, an addition made sometime in the last few hundred years. There was a crowd gathered on the balcony, far too excited to be a tour group. She stared at them for a moment, their jubilance and excitement familiar, but it took some of them chanting a name until their identity crystallised in her mind: fangirls.
They all started to shriek the name – something fairy or fae that she couldn’t make out, and waved their phones around, snapping photos and shouting for autographs. She watched them for a moment, before getting bored.
A flutter focused her attention again, and she immediately looked for the source.
The sound was familiar, but she’d never heard it.
The crowd pressed in on the man, and she saw the tips of white wings above the fairies and the fae.
She watched, trying to see more of the wings, trying to see who was connected to them, but the crowd of fangirls kept his identity shielded until they started to disperse. Soon, the crowd was gone, sated with photos and autographs. The fairy, alone with a palace guidebook, started to turn towards the edge of the balcony, but stopped as he spotted her. She saw him give a quick sigh. ‘Come on, I’ve got time for one more autograph, give me your phone.’
‘Um,’ she said as she approached.
The wings were flat-out gorgeous. Big, fluffy, strong, and in impeccable condition, compared to Taylor’s one-winged-angel moment. One bloodied-winged-angel moment.
‘Come on, come on, I don’t have-‘ He looked down at her and saw her universe. ‘Oh.’ He flared his wings and she jumped back a little. ‘You’re here for these, not for me. Do you want to touch them?’
She reached a hand for the closest wing.
Curt’s voice. Angry. Savage. Taylorish. There was a yank on her vest, as Curt pulled her away from the angel-winged man.
The man looked insulted. ‘These were given freely, young man.’
‘They always are,’ Curt growled as he pulled her further from the fairy.
‘And my preference is not for newborn wings, I want ones that have flown.’ The man stared down at her and smiled in a way that made her stomach turn. ‘But I could make an exception.’
‘Turn around, newbie, and walk.’ She turned and walked towards the exit.
Once she was on the gate path, she hesitated and looked back. Curt came storming out of the door and pointed toward the gate. ‘Keep walking.’
She kept pace with him, nearly running to keep up with his long strides. Only once out of the palace grounds did he even start to relax.
He shook his head and pointed to a small green area with one of the converging circles for all of the coloured paths. ‘Over there.’ She kept quiet as they walked back down the yellow-lined footpath to the green space, then they took one of the unused picnic tables. He nearly threw the brown gift shop bag onto the table, and sat, hands balled into fists.
She sat across from him, and waited for him to speak.
After a moment, his fists unclenched and he looked up, stress still obvious in his expression. ‘I didn’t hurt you, did I?’
‘Surprised me a little,’ she said, ‘but you didn’t hurt me.’
This seemed to relieve him a bit. ‘Good.’
‘Is this the explanation bit?’
‘You saw his wings.’
‘They would have been ripped out of an agent for him. Guys like that are- I’m struggling to put this gently, but I can’t. They’re fucking scum, Stef.’
‘He said they were given-‘
‘Agents have to choose to grow their wings. You can’t force it, it has to be a conscious choice. You can force them with torture, and drugs, and all kinds of cruelty, but in the end, they have to decide to grow them. It’s coercion, it’s violation, and most of the time, they kill the agent afterwards. Angel wings are so rare, they’re a status symbol, that guy you saw, he’s like the Prince of fairies-‘
‘You yelled at royalty?’
‘Like the musician, newbie.’
‘Oh. Sorry.’
‘Guys who have one pair are more likely to want another pair, because of all the offers they would have had on their own. You can’t begin to imagine what they’re worth. Favour beyond compare, power within a Court, millions upon millions if you’re just after cash.’
‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘I had no idea. I just wanted to look. The only pair I’ve ever seen were Taylor’s, and they weren’t pretty.’
‘So when we go home, we’ll boot up a training sim and you can stare at a pair as long as you want.’ He let out a long breath. ‘Sorry this all got screwed up. Soon as we can, we’ll come back, and do the proper tour.’
‘Unless we all die, first.’
‘Unless we all die first,’ he said. ‘Sorry. Really sorry, Stef.’
‘I already forgave you. Show me what’s in the bag and I’ll doubleplus forgive you?’
This seemed to shake him out of his funk. He grabbed the brown bag and began to pull items out of it. The first was an oversized history book. ‘Least you’ll have something to read on the trip back.’
‘Thank you.’
He stared into the bag. ‘Ok, shut up and give me a chance to explain these before you say anything.’
He pulled out a toy crown and a fake magic wand.
He stood, rounded the picnic table and placed the plastic crown on her head. ‘I dub thee Princess Stef,’ he said as he gave her a light bap on the head. There was a tingly sensation over her skin, and a flash of light.
She stood and stared down at herself. Overlaid on her uniform was a see-through image of a fancy dress. She reached a hand to touch the holographic fabric, but felt only the tingle again.
‘During the tour it’s interactive, changes to match the outfits in the paintings, outside of the palace though, there’s only like three or four options.’ He handed her the wand. ‘I knew the crown was a bit of a risk, but you should like this.’
She took the wand and waved it. Nothing happened.
‘Try turning it on first, newbie.’
She stared at the plastic, star-headed wand and pressed down on the biggest jewel. It lit up, played a small music clip, and began to glow. She looked to him, and he nodded.
She gave it an experimental wave, and a blue trail of shapes hung in the air for a moment after each movement.
‘IRL particle effects!’
Non-geek confusion returned to his face. ‘Is that good?’
She waved the wand around. ‘Better than good. Requiring is fun, but I sometimes wish it was a little bit less incognito. Apparently you can mod your requirements to make them fancier, but I don’t want to chance it, seems like it’s got great potential for Clarke to yell at me about being a bad agent, and I don’t want to give him reason to give me an even worse mark on my next evaluation.’
‘He gets a say in that?’
‘I thought you read my experiment parameters.’
‘Some of it is above my clearance level.’ He took the wand and unscrewed the bottom, pouring candy into her hand. ‘When’s your next evaluation?’
‘At six months. There’s one every month, technically, but the next one that counts is at six months, then one year, then every year after that, unless they’re given reason to bring me in for a review.’
‘I know you did it to draw suspicion away from Ryan, but I think Clarke is vindictive enough to use our fake relationship against you.’
‘Probably, but I can always claim I’m helping rehabilitate you. So, are we heading back to the bus stop now?’
He gave a shrug. ‘Sorry. There’s not much else we can do in the time we’ve got left. You’ll get to see the transit centre at least.’ He put the book bag into the paper bag and plucked the crown from her head.
‘I could have been a princess,’ she said as he packed the crown away, ‘but it didn’t work out.’
‘For real,’ she said.
‘Feeling like sharing?’ he asked as they started along the red-lined path.
‘I met a prince once. The short-short version is he needed a beard.’
‘Didn’t want in on a sham marriage?’
‘No, the sham part I was ok with.’
‘So what happened then?’
She shrugged. ‘It didn’t work out. Still came close. I like being an agent better though.’
‘Is this what the end of the world is like?’ she asked. ‘Ignoring it and just having regular conversations?’
He took her hand as they crossed the street. ‘Are you scared?’
‘Of course I am.’
‘There is, at best, a fifty per cent chance of the end of the world. The other option is a massively changed world. Worst case scenario is the world at large finds out about magic and everything turns to shit. If that happens, the answer is simple, we run here before they close the borders.’
‘I was just starting to like the world,’ she said. ‘Just. And it has my stuff in it. I don’t think I’ve ever said this, but I don’t want the world to end.’
‘Most people don’t,’ he said. ‘We’re not going to sit by and just let it happen. And don’t forget, the Solstice got into this to save the world, not to destroy it, so that’s a big factor in all of this. Blue Earth could be a problem though, even if they’re a bit of a joke.’ He let her hand go and pointed. ‘Missing out on the palace does mean you’ve got time to go get candy.’
She followed his point and saw the shop with the gingerbread-façade, and felt herself smile.
‘I have a favour to ask first,’ he said.
‘I want to go Contingency 32 my daughter.’
‘You’re not going to argue or ask questions or-‘
‘Of course I’m not,’ she said, ‘soon as we get back up, we’ll shift down, it shouldn’t take long to do, I’ll agent-wiki the instructions and then we won’t even have to go through Jonesy to get it done. Everything’s getting rubber-stamped anyway, and I’m pretty sure everyone else will be doing the same for their non-Agency family members.’
‘Thank you, I mean it, truly, thank you.’
‘Hey, what are friends for?’ She paused. ‘Is this the kind of situation that you use that phrase? Is it supposed to be an actual question or a declarative? Is-‘
‘You’re overthinking it. Yes, the right timing, and yes it’s a question.’
‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I’ve never actually used it before.’
‘You’re doing fine, Stef. Candy?’