There was a crowd clustered around a small pond. Fairies and fae in fancy dress sat comfortably on the soft grass, on small chairs – or on friends for those who had come with nymphs – all watching the dance taking place in and on the water. Mermaids and water nymphs cavorted, water towering high into the air, forming shapes and tubes, suspending the mermaids ten feet or more off the ground, before bringing them back down.
Stef pulled on Curt’s arm and found a quiet spot off to the left, only noticed by a few people, all of which were courteous enough to keep their distance. They sat, and she removed her mask before leaning against him.
A mermaid rolled on a wave that stretched out from the pond, black hair spilling beyond the edges of the water, her green skin catching the last of the afternoon sun as the sun slipped behind a mountain. Curt pulled up his phone as the topless mermaid swung near their section of the crowd, and busied himself with an app.
She put a hand over his phone. ‘You don’t have to not look, you know.’
‘Whatever you’re going to say, I’ll argue it.’
‘How about, “I’m not going to eye a hot mermaid while I’m with the guest of honour”?’
She pushed the point of her chin into his arm. ‘I’m not the guest of honour, I’m your newbie.’ She bit the inside of her cheek, and dug her nails into her palms. ‘And it’s not just boobies now, or mermaids now, it’s other girls and other boobies.’
‘And I don’t need other girls, Stef.’
‘You can still look.’
She dug her nails deeper into her palms. ‘Hey, give me credit, ok? I’m trying to be an adult in this conversation and it’s really hard. Just let me say my bit, ok?’
‘Yes ma’am.’
‘I believe you when you say you love me, I don’t understand it, but I accept it. You love me, but I’m- I’m not pretty like that, or like Mags, or whatever. And I don’t have boobies like the mermaids. I’m not hot, and neither of us are stupid enough to pretend otherwise. For as long as you want me, you’ve got me, but I’m not going to freak out if you look at other girls. So- So long as it’s me you want, look all you want, I’m not gonna think less of you, and I’m not gonna think less of us.’
‘That’s not something I’ve ever had anyone say to me. My ex wasn’t one of those crazy people who thinks that their boyfriend is banging all of his female friends, but she refused to acknowledge that I had a porn collection.’
‘You keep your pr0n away from me, and I’ll keep my pr0n away from you.’
‘You don’t have any porn!’ he said, and a few people turned to look.
‘Shush. And fine, I don’t. Which makes my end of the bargain really easy to keep.’
Palace staff quickly lit the dimming area, globes of every colour of the rainbow were hung from slim poles, or simply suspended themselves in the air.
The next round of mermaid dancing started. ‘I don’t need to look,’ he said, ‘just so long as you know.’
‘I’m lacking sanity,’ she said, ‘not sense.’
He kissed her cheek, and wrapped an arm around her.
‘Ooh,’ she said as the music started up, ‘lasers!’
Lasers bounced in and around the water shapes, creating dancing patterns for the mermaids to move with.
There was a hand on her chest, and she flinched. ‘Hey, no surprise groping.’
Pressure against her chest, and she looked down to see a baby beside her, one hand on the ground, one hand touching her.
‘Erm. Baby? Why is there a baby?’
The baby crawled into her lap and slapped its hands against her chest.
‘This would probably hurt if I had boobs,’ she said as she looked around for a parent.
‘Careful with him,’ Curt said, ‘they can’t balance at that age.’
The baby pressed his head against her chest and made contented baby sounds.
She looked at Curt. ‘What is it doing?’
‘He’s listening to Dajulveed,’ a voice said, ‘I’d be grateful if you indulge him.’
She looked up, and saw a man in cargo pants and a tie-dyed shirt. ‘Huh?’
The man sat. ‘Your mask is off, Agent.’
‘Yeah, yeah, talk.’
‘Do you want to take a guess at who he is?’
He’s a baby!
He’s a baby who knows-
She felt her thoughts grind to a half. ‘How old is he?’
‘If you’re asking that, you know who he is. He’s the starchild’s son.’
‘The leech from your mirrorfall?’ Curt asked as he looked from her to the baby.
‘I guess I wasn’t the only lucky one that night,’ she said. ‘Um, Stef, by the way, but you probably know that.’
‘Hummer,’ the man said. ‘And the little dude is Nat. Astrin said Natenal, I figured Nathaniel’s close enough.’
She lifted the baby away from herself and handed him back up the man. ‘I’m still not entirely sure of the polite way to ask this- You look human, and my HUD is wigging out when I try and scan you, what are you?’
‘Nothing special, dudette.’
‘Indulge me?’
The man shrugged. ‘Just a god.’
Curt leaned close. ‘You probably shouldn’t say that to a god.’
Her cheeks flushed red. ‘Right. Yeah. Probably.’
Hummer patted the baby on the back and smiled. ‘I’m not much of a god anyway, so it’s cool.’ The next track of music started up. ‘You dudes excuse us? We’re going to go find our own seat.’
She gave a vague nod, and watched the god and the baby leave.
‘Yeah, ok, that was strange,’ she said. ‘I admit I don’t know much, but he’s not the first image I get when I try to imagine the gods.’
‘What do you think of?’
She shrugged. ‘Thor, I guess? I never really bought into the whole fluffy-cloud-land and the one overriding mod with serious banhammer issues. I like the Greek stuff and the Norse stuff, with gods acting like dicks and just being really weird people. It was messed up, but it was really human in a way.’
‘We did the church thing,’ he said. ‘An hour a week, Sunday school so it was just arts and crafts and singing stuff by rote. Tara hated it.’ He shrugged. ‘You want to watch more of this or see what else there is?’
‘See other stuff, I guess. ’
‘This isn’t so bad, is it?’
She shook her head. ‘No, it’s not.’
* * *
‘Do you ever relax, agent?’
Ryan looked from his drink to the blank. ‘Pardon?’
She smiled. ‘You’re still being an agent.’
‘What else should I be, Vink?’
‘A proud father, a gala guest, a man who’s going to get laid later? Stop looking for enemies, you’re in one of the safest places in the world. Royalty is in attendance, and one out of every five people here is some sort of security guard, so unless a Solstice is going to jump out of a cake, please, relax.’ She pulled a canapé from a passing tray. ‘I respect your need to be every part of yourself, but put the agent to sleep, tonight’s as much for you as it is for her.’
He sighed and downed his drink before returning it to a passing empty tray. ‘I expect something to go wrong.’
‘Careful, or you’ll jinx the night.’
‘I don’t believe in superstition.’
She gave a shrug, and pulled him towards the dance floor, securing his arms around her waist. ‘Relax, Agent.’
He sighed, and held her as they swayed with the music. ‘Thank you for coming tonight.’
She leaned her head against his shoulder. ‘You never did tell me who your first choice was.’
‘I’m not sure you’d believe me.’
‘You may have all the time in the world, Agent, I don’t. I don’t waste my time disbelieving.’
He spun her in time with the music, then pulled her back. ‘What do you mean?’
Her oversized eyes stared up into his. ‘When you get right down to it Ryan, we’re much the same sort of being.’ She gave a smile. ‘I guess what you’d consider my blue is closer to purple, but we’re both artificial beings, we’re both living under the good graces of our respective commands.’
He gave her a slight nod.
‘But whereas agents are given all the time in the world to grow and to experience, we’re not.’
‘How long do you get?’
She smiled. ‘A woman never tells.’
‘More than ten, less than a hundred.’ She smiled again. ‘I’ve got more than a few left, so don’t worry.’
‘As self-defeating as it is,’ he said, ‘I sometimes feel it would be better if agents had limits on them as well. Far too many of us take advantage of what we see as immortality. Too many-‘ he shook his head. ‘Never mind. We are as we were made, and unless we fall, there’s nothing that will change that.’
‘Blanks don’t fall, Ryan.’
He nodded. ‘Of course, sorry. What do you call it?’
‘’No, I meant what I said, Blanks don’t fall.’
‘It’s not something we advertise either.’
She smiled at him and gave a slight shrug. ‘We should get a drink, the speeches are soon.’