Written for the NYC Midnight short story challenge. I signed up thinking “as long as I don’t get romance, I’ll be fine.” Well, my story had to include an instructor, and the generic theme of absentminded, and of course had to be in the romance genre. And this is the resulting story. Please enjoy the following surrealist Shakespeare-inspired a-sexual/a-romantic romance.
There was an infinite supply of dreams in the Aether from the whole span of time and space. They glittered like stars, and the space between was a shimmering oil-in-water rainbow. A droning hum swirled in the air as the colours blended and refracted off each prismatic shard.
Each star was a dream—each a perfect piece of human magic. They closed their eyes, and for the briefest flash of a moment, their consciousness wandered in all dimensions and directions. But only for an instant.
Human life was short and magic-devoid but for this magic void of dreams.
Mab wondered why humans even bothered with dreams. A whole human life was as fleeting a clap of thunder. And a dream? Barely a crack of lightning in a distant summer sky. What good is a single flash in an infinite darkness?
It just didn’t make sense to Mab. Why would they bother with magic at all?
Mab didn’t need to dream, of course. The Fae were blessed with the magic of nature and near-immortality. If it was up to her, she’d spend her infinite days dancing by a bonfire.
But she had a job to do.
Soldiers needed Mab to teach them how to dream of blades, ambushes, and drinking games with lost comrades.
Lawyers had a requirement of the fae sometimes known as Mab to show them how to dream of riches—including but not limited to precious metals and gemstones.
A Lover’s dream was a lonely dream without Mab’s soft caress.
And all this work for people who probably wouldn’t remember anything about it in the morning.
It was exhausting. Every moment of Mab’s own personal slice of infinity spent in brief flashes of human nothingness. Each instant Mab wasted in charity. Mab was pure magic, her endless spark could be a raging eternal blaze if only she could focus her energy on something a little more permanent and meaningful.
But this was where the magicless humans had power over Mab. They enjoyed free will. Mab endured obligation.
Chin raised against her longing, she guided her chariot between the scattering of glittering dreams. Just as she had done since the beginning of memory. Her hazelnut carriage twisted and spiralled around a new dream as it burst into life just in front of her. Seventeen others winked out nearby.
Seventy-three trillion and twenty. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three. Twenty-four. Sometimes Mab liked to lose herself by counting the stars and wondering if she’d ever find the blessed end. Twenty-five. Twenty-six.
The black rainbow void began to flicker like dying candle flame.
The Aether flashed and became pure white.
Mab drew her chariot to a halt. In all her time in the Aether, Mab had never seen anything like this before. The dreams would flash and shimmer, sure. But the Aether itself was a shifting tide, not a crashing wave.
An infinite million stars flickered in unison. Their bright diamond white faded away as they became a painful purple-white. The soft harmonic hum fell silent as sharp discordant sound blared with each pulse of the synchronised dreams.
Squinting with every muscle in her body, Mab spun her chariot around, sensing for the source of the disturbance.
In the distance, behind a million flashing dreams, a single star shone brighter than a thousand suns. Surrounding dreams darkened. The purple-white stars became deep midnight-blue as the white of the void grew brighter like little specks of ink dripped onto a fresh-bleached cloth.
She squeezed her eyes closed tight against the blinding pain and ushered her chariot reluctantly toward the monster dream. She pressed her hands against her ears. The dissonant throbbing still rang in her head. She scrunched her eyes closed so tight she almost felt her eyelids touch the tops of her feet. But the light stabbed through.
Whose dream was this? The greediest of Lawyers? The loneliest of Lovers? Even the most desperate Courtier couldn’t create this monster star.
Her skin tightened as she reached the massively bright dream. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. This might be pain. Mab wasn’t sure. She’d never been burned before.
She jumped out of her chariot and stepped across the threshold into the dream.
The pain was gone.
She eased open an uneasy eye. It was bright in this dream, but just a sunny earth day. Nothing out of the ordinary. She uncovered her ears and listened. There was nothing. All sound had been sucked away.
Rolling hills stretched out into inhuman vastness. Humans couldn’t create such a boundless mountain range. They couldn’t comprehend perpetuity, let alone create it. But these bright green mountains faded into a foggy distance beyond comprehension.
Birds fluttered across the sunlit sky. Trees shivered with a silent breeze. Supple grass tickled Mab’s bare feet. She took a deep breath and tasted the honeysuckle in the air.
That was a shock. Humans didn’t often dream smells. But surely a perfumed dream wouldn’t cause such a stir in the Aether. Definitely not. Surely. Not.
At the top of one of the nearby hillocks a young human leaned back, their hands in the grass behind them, eyes closed, face toward the shining sun. Mab walked up the hill toward the Dreamer. She could have floated on the wind, but something about the tickle under her feet kept her on the ground. Human dreams couldn’t be so detailed. They were paintings with broad strokes that confounded up close. But this lifelike grass lightly caressed her soles like thousands of fine paintbrushes, and with each step a joyous giggle grew inside her soul.
By the time she reached the resting human, Mab was laughing through an ear-to-ear smile.
The human was still. They didn’t even look at Mab. They stared through closed eyelids at the pleasant afternoon sun. Mab leaned in for a closer look at their face. Their lips curved slightly into a sincerely content smile, and sweat beaded on their forehead. They breathed in deeply and exhaled a deeper smile.
Who was this person?
Normally, Mab knew the Dreamer by now. The Courtier’s dream felt like desperation. The Soldiers pulsed like hot blood. The Lover’s had an underlying desire. A Musician’s sang in strange harmonies. But this person?
“Hello!” Mab chirped. Her voice made no sound. “Hello?”
The person just kept lounging.
Mab had experienced this before. In infinite dreams in infinite time, Mab had touched her fair share of deaf dreams. It wasn’t often, but this certainly was nothing new. And it wouldn’t account for the strange effect this dream had on the Aether.
She knelt down next to the Dreamer and tapped them on the shoulder.
The person’s eyes opened, and their gaze drifted like a leaf on the wind toward Mab.
Their smile widened until their eyelids wrinkled.
Mab felt like she could fall into those eyes forever. She smiled back.
Then the person turned back toward the sun and closed their eyes again.
Humans didn’t spurn Mab. Not ever. She clenched her jaw and tapped on their shoulder again.
They giggled but continued to bask without otherwise acknowledging Mab.
What were they doing? Just sitting in the sun? Why? What could be so special about the artificial sunlight that this person could ignore one of the fae?
Mab closed her eyes and faced the sun just as her Dreamer did. The light heat prickled against her eyelids and lips. Her jaw unclamped. After losing herself for a time, her tingling lips curled up into a smile. Eyes still relaxed and shut, she burst into silent laughter.
Her mirth was interrupted by a hand on her shoulder.
“You can call me Jess.” The Dreamer’s silent mouth danced to musicless words.
“Mab.” Mab signed. Jess smiled again.
“You’re beautiful, Mab. I need you to know that.” This time Jess signed. Their fingers moved with a grace rarely seen in humans. There was a peace in their hands, like the casual stretching of a newly hatched butterfly’s wings.
“Yes, I am. Thank you.” Mab tried to make her hands move the way Jess’s did. She wanted to continue—to return the compliment—but Jess had already turned away again, depriving Mab of their eyes.
“But who are you?” Mab asked to herself.
Was Jess a Lover? The Lover’s dream usually had a stronger longing about it. She didn’t strike Mab as a Soldier, a Scholar, or a Musician. Mab couldn’t pin this person down as anything. They were only content. They asked no questions. Jess didn’t seem to want anything but to feel the sun on their skin.
Jess sat up and looked Mab in the eyes and said, “I’m glad you’re here.”
“I just am.”
Mab arched an eyebrow. “You don’t even know who or what I am. How can you be glad I’m here?”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re here, and I’m glad you are.”
In the millions and millions of dreams Mab had visited, there had always been questions. Jess asked nothing.
“What if I mean you harm. I am fae. I can curse you.”
They laughed. “You won’t.”
Mab’s breath caught. That laugh. Mab felt her eyes begin to moisten.
“Who are you, Jess?”
“Nobody special. Just a driving instructor,” Jess signed as they turned back to the sun.
Mab tapped Jess on the shoulder. “Nobody special? Okay then. Where are we?”
“I’m not sure,” Jess signed with a shrug. “I don’t think it matters. We’re just here. With the sun and the breeze and the birds and the trees.”
Mab closed her eyes again and felt a cool wind gently cool the warmth of the sun.
Her eyes eased open, and Mab found Jess staring at her. Jess’s smile widened.
“You are special, Jess. But why?”
The need for understanding burned like the searing pain of Jess’s dream star in the Aether. A painful sting like the voiceless Musician’s longing for song.
Jess shrugged and shook their head. “I’m not special. This is just the sun and the grass and the sky. And I’m just a person. One of many.”
Jess’s hand drifted across the grass and took Mab’s in theirs. With their other hand, Jess pressed a finger to Mab’s lips. They mouthed, “Enjoy the silence.”
The tears in Mab’s eyes swelled like the moonlit tide on a rocky shore. The bank of her eyelashes couldn’t dam the flow. Skin soft as sunset, Jess wiped Mab’s tear away with a thumb and leaned back in the grass with a smile and a sigh.
Mab followed their lead.
Hand in hand, the pair laid on the top of the grassy hill as the sun shone around fluffy white clouds and a flock of birds flew overhead. A tender wind brought the scents of a hundred blooming flowers.
Mab closed her eyes.
She was transported to a dense woodland. The thick forest smelled like cowslip and sassafras. Mice and squirrels skittered through the underbrush far below. Fireflies flickered about in the evening sky, illuminating branches covered in bright green leaves.
Mab perched in a tree like a lazy owl. Jess sat raven-like on bough beside her. The vacuum of sound dissolved into chirping birds, rustling leaves, and creaking limbs.
Jess looked at Mab and questioned in sign, “Are you happy here? In this tree?”
“But it’s so ordinary, Mab.” Jess indicated to the foliage as it fluttered and whirled in the whistling wind.
Mab saw all these ordinary things, but she didn’t reply. She wrapped a feathery arm around her companion and rested her head on Jess’s chest. The in and out of their breathing, like the gentle rocking of a hazelnut chariot, was completely typical. The birds and creaking branches, like the harmonic hum of the Aether, were entirely everyday. The fireflies, like glittering dreams, were altogether routine.
And it was magical.
And as temporary as a bolt of lightning.
Mab’s eyes opened. Her absent mind became present.
The fireflies and the sun were replaced by a million diamonds. The cold air of the Aether chilled Mab’s tear-soaked cheeks. She remembered the warmth of Jess’s sun. Swaying back and forth in her chariot felt vaguely like resting with Jess on the thick branch in the forest.
Birdsong had again become the Aether’s humming harmony. She listened close as the rhythm grew more intricate. She thought she could hear a calm melody somewhere behind the drone. Her feathery owl wings were once again sparkling skin.
Jess was gone.
There was no outward sign at all of their strange dream. Its whole existence was now only a void inside Mab’s heart as endless as the Aether.
Everything was ordinary again.
An impossible thing.
Wonderfully impossible. Not a spark in infinite night, but embers in an infinite bonfire. Unlimited impossibility made possible only in brief flashes.
Mab took a deep calming breath and felt the cold tears on her cheek one more time.
Feeling the rhythm of the hum of the Aether’s swirling prism, Mab danced with the glistening lights of human dreams.
There was an infinite supply of dreams in the Aether. Mab had seen them all so many times; and like sun-reflecting tears, they shimmered in the infinite hope of a second meeting.