Stef slid into her chair and allowed herself to smile at Leaf.
Things would hurt. Maybe always hurt. But- But there was no reason she couldn’t enjoy the cuteness of a child right in front of her.
‘All right?’ Jane asked.
Ryan saved her from questions about the long bathroom break by making a deadpan comment that she’d been defending the honour of a fictional character.
Jane had simply pointed out that Kay was still missing, then stopped Leaf from choking on an orange wedge.
‘Any idea who your docent is going to be?’ Alejandro asked as he sat back in his seat but declined to take Leaf, instead pointing out that he hadn’t had a chance to eat yet.
‘Docent?’ she echoed.
Alejandro made an arc with his hand, skin disappearing as it reached its apex, replaced with flowing blue code. ‘Not sure if you knew what I was,’ he clarified, as his hand touched the table and his skin once again covered code. ‘I got upgraded in my late twenties, but I’ve got natural aging turned on, at least for now. I’ll stop when I get so handsome that Toby loses their mind every time they see me.’
‘I’m pretty sure that was the first time we met,’ a tall figure said, then slid into the chair beside Alejandro, as Kay, clothes dotted with paint, sat beside Jane.
Her eyes followed Toby – she’d seen nymphs before – one of the first fae she’d seen had been a little nymph girl at the breakfast buffet Curt had taken her to. A look that was part plant and part human, somewhere along the bell curve of what she would have imagined if someone had just said “picture a dryad”.
Toby was different. They were tall – easily the tallest person at the table, with skin as white as snow, speckled with patches of vitiligo-like grey, a blank canvas for the rows of ivy and heather tattoos that ran up and down their arms and legs.
Their hair was black and shaved, leaving just a fine layer of fuzz over their head.
Jane handed over Leaf, who immediately began to play with their parent’s tattoos, which moved and changed under the baby’s touch.
‘Getting the upgrade is…weird,’ Alejandro continued, ‘it’s almost like learning your body all over again. You won’t be rolling on a playmat with Leaf, things have to go extraordinarily sideways for motor control to be corrupted like that, but it will literally feel different when you’re moving for the first few weeks.’
‘And the hand thing,’ Toby interjected.
‘Oh, of course. Recruit, are you left or right-handed?’
‘Sinister,’ she said, holding up her left hand.
‘Oh, then I am very, very sorry.’ He looked towards Jane. ‘They still haven’t changed that? That was hell for my docent.’
What the fuck are they going to do to my hands?
‘Agents – all agents,’ Alejandro said, ‘are-’ he paused. ‘I always go to say “omnidirectional”. Ambidextrous. But with a bias towards their right hand. Everything, every action, every fighting move, every protocol, is programmed right-hand dominant.’
“I’m right-handed now” is such a downgrade from “I know kung-fu”.
In fairness, you’ll probably get both.
‘So your docent is someone who has been through this and will be there to answer all your dumb questions about what is and isn’t normal. Your senpai for a couple of weeks.’
‘Gods forgive me for birthing a weeb,’ Jane muttered before Kay slapped her arm.
‘I volunteered, but mum said she might have someone else in mind?’
‘As best as we can, we try and match new augments with people we feel are compatible. It’s not a perfect process, but we try, for example, not to match an introverted tech with a gregarious liaison.’
Her phone buzzed. ‘That’s my friend request,’ Alejandro said, ‘official or not, feel free to ask me weird shit.’
‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘I’ll try not to bother you too much.’
Light conversation continued as everyone slowly ate their way through the portions of the feast lain across the table.
Toby, with a sleeping Leaf strapped to their chest in a comfortable baby sling of vines, excused themselves to lay down for a nap.
Jane looked at her. ‘Want to meet my herd?’
Stef nodded excitedly, and with another snap, she, Jane and Ryan were standing in front of a long line of stables.
‘A lot of these are traditional breeds,’ Jane said, introducing each horse as they went past, stopping to give some a friendly pat or required carrot. ‘Some are fae breeds, and some are a little of both.’
Jane bowed her head to the next horse, one so tall that the top of Jane’s head barely reached the horse’s shoulder. ‘This breed is Serait, traditionally a warhorse. They’re proud, stubborn things. King-in-the-sky here is nearly as old as you, Newborn, and could still pull a canon.’
They continued down the line, with Jane showing off horse after horse, each in immaculate, suspiciously poop-free stables.
Right. Cleaning routines probably do outbuildings as well.
Ten points, genius.
The last stable had its window closed, something which Jane grumbled about before hooking it back.
Compared to the Serait, or the white horse whose hair was curly, almost like a sheep, there was nothing particularly unusual about this stall.
An aging bay with a white blaze. A perfectly ordinary-
There was a lump in her throat the size of a bowling ball.
Slowly, she reached up, fingers sliding across the familiar whorls of the horse’s face. Buttercup, for her part, leaned her head over the stall door, whickered and snuffled at her hair.
‘But you’re glue,’ Stef whispered, holding her horse’s face with both hands, staring at ocean-deep brown eyes she hadn’t seen since childhood. ‘How- How-’ she whirled towards Jane and Ryan. ‘How?!’
Ryan looked a little surprised, but Jane’s smile was wide.
‘I would echo her question,’ Ryan said, looking to Jane.
Jane stepped forward and unlatched the stable door to better enable girl-horse hugs.
‘Ryan’s idea,’ Jane said, ‘I can’t take credit for that. He wanted to get you a birthday present and had good reason to believe that a horse would be suitable. I thought I would take a little initiative. The sale records were easy enough to follow, and one moderate cheque to her old owner gives you back something that was stolen.’
It was Buttercup. It was really, truly Buttercup.
Tack appeared on Buttercup’s body, and Jane pressed a hardhat into her hands. ‘Go. Ride. All else can wait.’
Ryan nodded. ‘Go.’
She buckled the hardhat and barely stopped for a second to require a riding outfit before climbing up onto Buttercup’s back.
All so familiar, all so wonderful.
If Alexandria had been the centre of her childhood, been the one thing she couldn’t live without, Buttercup had been a close second, but one lost all too soon.
She kept Buttercup’s pace to a gentle walk as they stepped out of the stables and onto the packed earth arena.
She lifted her head, looked at the blue sky white clouds, and simply let herself live in the moment, cementing every aspect for a memory to be treasured forever.
Hand-carved signs were pointing towards a riding trail.
She smiled, adjusted her hard hat, nudged Buttercup into a canter, and rode off into the afternoon sun.