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52 - Engineered Opinion
The crown fell.
It hit the floor and shattered like spun candy.
They were ushered out in shame by guards in nifty uniforms and sharp-looking ceremonial weapons. The guests who wore clothes emulating Agency uniforms jeered at them as they passed.
It was all over the fairy net five minutes later.
They split up, each going their own way, and she let Curt drag her back to his apartment. The news items buzzed on his phone until she fell asleep in his arms.
An expensive cab back to the Marches, to keep her away from the public, and a shift home.
An emergency meeting, already in progress, run by some Enforcer she'd never seen. Disgrace, she was a disgrace to the Agency. PR was working overtime to fix the situation, but they were out for blood. Out for her blood. Out for her life.
She'd ruined relations with the fairies, embarrassed the Agency far worse than the Solstice had ever done, turned them into a joke, something to be ridiculed.
It was far beyond what they could tolerate, especially for some smelly, worthless experiment.
A wall of sound hit her, and her body froze. Someone cut into her chest, and she saw her heart before it all went dark.
Her mind pulled free of the paranoid fantasy, and agenty reflexes snapped out her hands to grab the crown as it seemed to fall in slow-motion towards the floor.
Panic sparked in every cell.
Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me. Just kill me.
Shut up and think!
Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't. Can't.
Pretend you're me.
She slowly stood and looked at the crowd, her ears pounding in the silence.
She straightened herself and cracked a smile. '#crownfall, I guess?'
Time slowed, her HUD refusing the tick the next second over.
The crowd cheered.
It wasn't the polite clapping or raised brandy glasses of usual formal events, it was, for a few seconds, a raucous celebration, before everyone remembered they were in the presence of royalty and immediately resumed their pretense of being filthy-rich-fancy-pants-hoity-toity guests.
The Queen took the crown from her hands and placed it back on her head. 'Mine does that all the time, darling, that's why I don't wear it.' The Queen gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, then took her hand and lead her towards the banquet tables.
Easily three dozen large, round tables sat in a grand dining hall, each with an Agency-blue tablecloth and silver trimming. The glass ceiling let the moon shine in and gave them a view of the painted clouds above. The Queen let go of her hand, and pointed to one of the tables. 'That one's yours, Agent, for you and your guests.'
The Queen and her husband moved off towards another of the tables, and Curt slid in to grab the hand that the Queen had held. 'You ok, newbie?'
Her shoulders tightened in a poor imitation of a shrug. 'They're going to feed us, so that's something, I suppose.'
They sat around the table, and she stared at each of them in turn - friends, family, professional scary people and the douchebag. Her eyes slipped onto the plates, onto the gilded edges, the chips of jewels, the meticulously put-together centerpieces. All so beautiful, all so-
Curt pulled on her arm. 'Come with me?'
The second tug at her arm was more insistent. 'Come on.'
She nodded vaguely and let him pull her away from the table as the tables around them slowly started to fill with sensible, sedate party guests.
Curt nodded at a guard near a small door, and the man pulled the door open.
'Call me professionally paranoid,' he said as they walked through the significantly-less fancy hall. 'Fire exits, location of alarms and cameras, and quicker paths to places you need to go.' He let go of her hand, and opened a door, revealing the anteroom they'd started in. 'Sit.'
She sat on the closest couch.
He retrieved his bag, then crouched in front of her. 'You're not doing so great, are you?'
She covered her mouth with her hands. 'It's too much, it's too fancy, it's too- I don't deserve this.'
He nodded. 'I know, so I think five minutes to breathe will do you wonders, right?'
She stared at a wood panel behind him. 'I'm an Agent, it's hard to get me to stop breathing. Breathing exercises don't calm me down and they're not-'
He put a Gameboy on her lap. 'Breathe, newbie.' He stood and retrieved a bottle of Mountain Dew from the small fridge and poured it into a crystal glass before handing it to her. 'Breathe, newbie.'
She sucked down half the glass before the tears began to fall.
He sat beside her, and she faceplanted heavily into his lap, wrapping the ends of his jacket over her head. 'Hide me? If they can't find me, then I don't have to go back out there. If I don't go back out there, then I won't know it's all for me, and I won't-'
'You'll still know it,' he said gently.
She shook her head as she pressed it against his stomach. 'I'm incredible at the art of self-deception. Hell, I've almost fooled myself into thinking that I can be people, but look at me, I'm just falling apart, like always. And someone who falls apart like this shouldn't be the hero. Can't be the hero. I couldn't even keep the stupid crown on my head.'
'You don't fall apart when I need you.'
'Bull,' she said, 'the very fact that I was detached enough to do what I did proves that I'm not people.'
Confusion flooded his face. 'What?'
She pulled herself out from under his jacket and leaned back against the arm of the likely-expensive-and-antique couch. 'If I was a good person. If I was people. If I deserved you, we wouldn't be having this conversation. I was- I'm always just that little bit detached from- I should have been in the moment with you, I should have been- Those could have been my last minutes alive and I wasn't focused on you. I've told you.' She stabbed her knee with her finger. 'It's so hard for me to be here, to be now, to be- To be! I should have just been holding you and wishing for all the time we didn't get, but I wasn't there, I wasn't there. I was watching the fire, I was watching the phoenix, and then I saw the pattern, saw the gaps in the fire, and figured I could make it through.' She choked on a sob. 'I feel guilty. I could have been mistaken, and it could have all been for nothing, and I went for it anyway. If I'd been a good girl, we'd be dead, but you would have known you were loved.'
He reached for her, and she didn't resist as he held her. 'How could you feel guilty about-'
'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.'
He kissed her cheek. 'We're here because of you, Stef. We get more than one kiss because of you. If we'd- If we'd all died-'
'Then you would have died alone cause I was an idiot and thought I could save the day!'
'Then why did you do it? What- What went through your head when you did it?' he asked quietly.
'That I had to. That mirror was probably the one thing that had a chance. For you. For Ryan. For everyone else who's more important than me, but mostly for you and Ryan. You...you love me and he's done everything for me. I couldn't just let you guys die, not when you could go on to make other people's lives good. I did it because you guys were worth saving and because-'
Don't you dare stop there.
'Don't you dare say because you're not.'
'Stay out of my head Charles.'
He brushed his fingers against her forehead. 'Then would you please listen to the people who are looking out for you? Who love you?'
'I never did anything worthwhile until I saved the world, and even that was a selfish act, cause I wasn't saving the world, I was saving my boyfriend and my father. If I was a good person, if I was the kind of person worthy of a night like this, I wouldn't have made it to this night. It would have weighed heavily on my soul every time a recruit died, or every time I couldn't save a civilian, I would have gone catatonic every time I went near a hospital because of all the lives I could save if I just gave up my heart. I'm not a good person, and I think people just conveniently forget that.'
'I'm not a good person either,' he said, as he gently pulled the clip from her messy hair. 'But you seem to think I'm worth something. Stef...can you even imagine what would have happened if you- If you'd saved the world, but we'd lost you?'
'You haven't even known me six months, you-'
'You didn't even know Ryan for six minutes and he altered the course of your life.'
She looked away. 'That's different.'
'How is it different, newbie?'
'Cause you- You're not me. You would have been fine. You would have been fine, then gotten another girl, and lived happily ever after.'
He caught her gaze and stared into her eyes. 'Do you really think that's what would have happened?'
He kissed her temple. 'You little idiot.'
She tumbled the Gameboy in her hands, over and over and over. 'I can't go back out there.'
'You've met the Queen, so your obligations are over. If you want to leave, we can leave.'
'You know we can't, stop being stupid.'
'It's your night, Stef,' he said, 'stop thinking that you have to live up to someone else's expectations.'
All I've ever done is fail to live up to expectations.
He looked into her eyes with an intensity that was almost scary. 'Stop it.'
His look softened. 'No, stop that.'
'I have no idea what you're talking about!'
'You're good enough, Stef. You are.'
'I said stay out of my head.'
'I'm not reading your mind, I'm reading your face.'
'So do I call us a limo or what?'
She shook her head. 'No.'
She cancelled the /serious. 'Dinner. And then we'll hang out a bit longer, and then we'll head-' she blushed. 'Then to your place.'
He stood and helped her to her feet. 'I'm glad,' he said. 'Because there's another drink I want you to try.'
'You'll love it, it's eighty-five percent chocolate cream.'
He gave her a strange look, then dug a hairbrush out of his bag. 'Need a mirror?'
'The last thing I need is another mirror, and if it's my night, why do I have to fix my hair.'
His face went neutral. 'Do you want me to tell you or do you want to puzzle through the logic yourself?'
She thought about the situation, then shrugged. 'I'm not seeing anything.'
'Let me ask it this way, was your hair messy this morning?'
'My hair is always messy?'
'I'm still not-'
'Was there anything different about this morning than usual?'
She thought, then lost the ability to think as all her blood rushed to flush her face redder than ever before. 'Oh. Um. Of course.' Colour drained and thoughts returned. 'People would think that we went to- That we were- Why would they think that?'
'Cause you're the guest of honour and I'm your good-looking boytoy?'
She sank back down onto the couch. 'Brush plz.'
'It's Fairyland,' he said, 'no one is going to care, but I thought I'd warn you anyway.'
She quickly brushed her hair and replaced the clip, then slipped her mask back into place.
'Ready?' he asked.
'You know I'm not.'
He took her hands. 'Just say the world and we'll go home, you know that.'
She gave a slight shrug. 'I guess I'd like to eat first?'
'As you wish, newbie.'
* * *
Against all logic, Taylor could dance.
It was amazing to watch. Scary, but amazing. The volcano in the tux swung with his magpie, and managed not to kill anyone.
She leaned back on the window seat and tucked her legs beneath her, cradling her third Hout of the night - chocolate, cream, a splash of something sharp and tangy and topped with edible, silvery flakes of sugar.
There was a change in the music, and everyone changed partners. Magnolia was grabbed by a nearly-insubstantial air nymph with rainbow hair, and Grigori grabbed Taylor.
She sipped the Hout and couldn't hold back a smile as she watched the men dance. It was like seeing sharks being cute, or lions not eating a gazelle, an image that was hard to reconcile, hard to comprehend.
She looked at the clock in her HUD and spared an idle thought as to how long the bathroom line must have been long, else he'd gotten distracted with another pretty girl and was currently-
Shut up and drink your dessert.
A waiter walked by, carrying a tray of tiny crackers, and she gave him a frantic wave. He stopped, then jumped a little when he saw her mask. He shook a little, then bent down to offer her the tray. The little crackers had various science-meat pastes on them, and tiny cuts of vegetables, but were surprisingly delicious, and they never seemed to fill her - as dinner had well and truly proved.
'If-if-if,' the waiter stammered, 'there's something else you'd prefer, I can-'
She swept half a dozen crackers on a napkin. 'No, I like the green ones,' she said, and gave him a smile.
The waiter practically ran away.
She crammed two of the crackers into her mouth, and watched as the cloudy nymph pulled Magnolia three feet off the ground, then let her touch down as the music ended.
Most of the dancers changed partners, Taylor and Grigori though, stayed attached to each other.
Magnolia extricated herself from the dance floor and made a beeline for the window seat.
She wrapped the corners of her napkin over the remaining crackers and got up to move.
'Woof,' she said, but sat back down. 'There's other seats, you know.'
Magnolia gave her a neutral look. 'It's faster service if I sit near you.'
She nommed on another cracker. 'Well, so long as I'm useful.'
Magnolia looked at the service staff.
She rolled her eyes. 'You've got no idea what you're doing, do you?'
'I'm waiting for-'
'If you want service, you don't wait. Glare at a waiter, give them a tiny hand movement, and you'll get someone straight away.'
'You're the guest of honour-'
'I didn't learn this tonight,' she said. 'I knew how to do this by age four.'
Magnolia held a perfect glare - not hard - and gave the closest waiter a two fingered wave without raising her arm.
Four seconds later, the young man was at her side.
'Padiv,' Magnolia said, 'tall glass.'
The waiter nodded and slipped away into the crowd.
'Huh,' Magnolia said, 'you really were rich, weren't you?'
She shrugged. 'Very.'
'And you didn't learn how to be nice to the little people?'
'You met my father, do you think I would have survived if I'd been nice to the servants? They were expendable, disposable and barely people at all. Other than his valet, I don't think any of them lasted more than a year at a time.' She shut her mouth, stared at the clock in her HUD, and inched away from the magpie. 'Is there a reason you're still sitting there?'
'Do you want me to leave, Mimosa?'
'Yeah. Kinda. If you won't get me back for it later.'
'Do you really think I'm so petty?'
She sucked on the Hout. 'You poison my coffee, you- Oh fucking forget it. Yes, you're that petty. I can't be in the same room with you for five minutes before you doing something that's petty or passive-aggressive or- Or mean. Or insulting.' She held the glass tightly. 'I wasn't bothering you, I wasn't bothering you, I was just sitting here by myself and being quiet and even that- And you even had to ruin that.' She blinked back tears. 'Forget it, you can have the seat.' She stood, stuffed the crackers into her pocket and pushed her way through the crowd.
After a few seconds, the crowd began to part as normal, letting her through. She quickly looked at the signage and made her way towards the bathrooms - the bathrooms that didn't have a line.
She turned in a slow circle, looking for Curt, and saw nothing but the press of unfamiliar faces nervously glancing at her, or holding their hands up for attention.
She ignored them all, walked to the nearest wall and loaded his voice profile, then pushed her ears to their agenty limits and listened, the scanning subroutine culling out any noise that didn't match his voice.
At first there was nothing but static, then the scan began to match elements of his voice, and gave her a small, blue directional arrow to follow.
She walked through the crowd, following the tiny, pulsing arrow.
She caught sight of him and exited the scanning program.
The word "Solstice" made her look closer.
He was effective trapped by a circle of older fae, each one surely their race's caricature of the Monopoly man - each held a drink and a cigar, or the end of a hookah being held by a quiet attendant. Curt looked away from them, and saw her, desperation flashing on his face.
She stepped forward and shoved through the wall of rich men. 'You ok, Padawan?'
He took a deep breath. 'Yeah, I'm fine.'
He's really not.
'Oh, Agent, if you could-'
She whirled on the closest fae - this one a gnome barely shorter than she was. 'My mask is on, and I didn't give you permission to speak!'
She turned back to Curt. 'What's going on?'
He stared at the floor. 'Nothing-'
'Bull. What's been going on?'
'They had questions and I didn't want to make a scene.'
'Questions about Solstice?'
He gave a single nod.
She squeezed his hand for a moment, then dropped it and turned back to the circle of fancy fae. She stared at each of them, looked past them, then motioned to the closest door-protecting guard. She swept a finger across the circle of men. 'All of them, out of my gala, now.'
The guard snapped a salute, and the gnome looked ready for a coronary. 'You can't-'
She tore the mask from her face and towered over the gnome. 'This is my fucking gala, so shut your mouth!'
'You don't know who I am.'
'An arsehole, obviously! Out!'
The guard gripped the gnomes shoulders. 'Sir. Now.'
'Get your hands off me, or I'll-'
She stepped close to the gnome, getting into his personal space, close enough to make her uncomfortable, and she hoped it was having the same effect on the gnome. 'I'm the girl who saved the world,' she said, 'I cradled a phoenix for a week. You messed with my boyfriend. Are you going to push your luck further? Cause if you say one word more, I will burn you from this world.'
The gnome stumbled back, and happily let the guard escort him from the room.
She ignored the watching crowd, grabbed Curt's hands and pulled him towards the closest balcony.
'We'd like this space please,' she said to the few fae chatting under the starlight and painted clouds.
Three bows and one not-so-surreptitiously-taken photo later, the balcony was cleared. Two guards appeared, closed the doors and the glass blacked out, giving them privacy.
She turned towards him, and he wrapped her up in a tight hug, his head on her shoulder. 'Thank you.'
'I told you, no one messes with my Padwan. What did they want anyway?'
'Just- None of them had ever even seen a real-life Solstice before. They had questions and I couldn't get away without shoving through and I didn't want to make a scene.'
She gently kissed his cheek, and pulled him towards a wide bench. 'It's my gala, stupid,' she said as she slowly guided his head into her lap. 'You could have made a scene. I thought you were off having a good time,' she said as she stroked his hair. 'Not getting harassed by bastards.'
He rolled in her lao to look up at her. 'Do you like doing this?'
'Well, if I has a magic lap then-'
'Do you like it?'
She tapped his forehead. 'Of course I do.'
'You really do have no idea how good this feels.'
'Does it feel like marshmallow?'
He gave a slight nod, and closed his eyes.
'You get five minutes more to breathe, then we have to go back in, I want to see more Taylor-dancing, just cause it's so weird.'
'I don't know why you're so surprised,' he said, 'fighting and dancing are all about footwork and precision.'
Images dances across the clouds, including the fifty-foot rendition of her head. '...that just isn't normal.'
Curt sat up, and looked from her to the cloud, and back and back again. 'No, I think it's a pretty accurate depiction.'
'My head is not that big!'
He smirked and kissed her. 'I love you, giant head or not.'