The Second Chance Club Cruise had been Val’s idea, but she hadn’t come up with it alone. Chartering the world’s largest luxury vessel had been surprisingly easy and finding staff for it had been as simple as turning to the Club’s many direct members and asking if anyone wanted to join them on an impromptu vacation. As it turned out they’d been overwhelmed with offers, and in the end it wasn’t just a singular cruise which had taken off for a vacation, it had been a fleet of cruise ships, together holding a few tens of thousands people the Club had helped and who had helped others through it in turn.
The Club’s associates who were busy getting back to their lives or building new ones had sent their well wishes along, and those seemed to amplify the party atmosphere even more than the Pacific’s warm breezes and bright blue waters could account for.
All of the noise and bright lights and commotion felt wonderfully far away from Val though as she drifted in a pool she had all to herself on the lead yacht’s main deck.
The water had been warmed by the constant sunshine to where it melted the tension out of her muscles with each slosh of the waves from one side of the pool to the other. With her eyes closed, and the refreshing breeze blowing over her face, Val felt like she could drift for all eternity and be perfectly content.
“But then who would keep me company,” a soft voice whispered in her ear.
Val opened her eyes slowly, to find Aranea kneeling in the pool beside her.
“You’ve got a lot of friends now,” Val said sleepily, as she reached up to draw the Spider Goddess into an embrace. Aranea leaned into Val’s arms, and met her lips with a soft but unrelenting kiss.
“Yes, but I’m allowed to play favorites,” Aranea said when the broke apart at last. She added a quick kiss on the tip of Val’s nose to emphasize her point.
“Good,” Val said. “I like being your favorite.”
“Hey, we’re going to pass over the deepest part of the Marianas Trench in a few minutes,” Jimmy B said. “You wanted a heads up when we were getting close right?”
Val looked at Aranea with questioning expression, but Aranea just smiled at Jimmy.
“Thank you,” she said, and offered no further explanation.
Val’s chance to probe Aranea on her newfound maritime interests was cut short when Tam and Cynthia arrived on the man deck. Val was happy to see them in normal clothes rather than the sequined fishnets and top hats which were part and parcel of the shows Tam put on.
The cruise was meant to be a vacation, but for Tam that meant time off from doing arcane magic in favor of getting to try out a new series of stage magic effects on a captive audience. Not that anyone on any of the ships in the armada was going to pass up the chance to see a world renowned magician practice her craft live in front of them. Val was still holding out hope that Tam would take some real time off, but she had to concede that everyone recharged their batteries in different ways and, in Tam’s case, entertaining a room of excited fans seemed to do the trick as well as anything else possibly could.
“Wait,” Val said as she noticed the one detail that was out of place, “Jimmy B, are you still playing event coordinator?”
Jimmy shrugged with a “what are you going to do” expression.
“This is supposed to be your vacation too!” Tam said.
“Yeah, but I like it when things run smoothly. It’s what I do,” he said.
“You know, you could make a fortune doing that kind of thing,” Cynthia said, as she wrapped Tam in an embrace from behind.
“I have a fortune,” he said. “Charlene left all of us pretty well off. Like never work for a few lifetimes level of ‘well off’, but what would I do with all that time? I’ll tell you what I’d do. This. This is what I’d do.”
“We are lucky to have you with us,” Anna said as she and Zoe climbed up to the main deck.
“Yes we are,” JB said, following along behind them.
“I do still wish I could hire you both away,” Zoe said. “Establishing contacts and connections among the new worlds we have as neighbors is going to take the best people we’ve got and you’ve proved that’s what you are.”
“Some of us are just normal folk,” Jim said.
Zoe shook her head. “You built one of the Earth’s first interdimensional transports. There is nothing ‘just normal’ about any of you.”
“Probably not,” Val said. “I’m guessing Jimmy B isn’t the only one who won’t be retiring now that we’ve saved the world?”
“We’re definitely not,” Connie said as she led Sarah and Jen up to join the gathering on the main deck.
“Yeah, we talked it over and we’re going to stick together as a team,” Sarah said.
“What about the work you’re doing with helping people who get lost on the borders of the world?” Tam asked.
“I’ll have time for that too,” Sarah said. “We’ve got so many people who are willing to help now that each volunteer is only need for a few shifts a week. If that was all I did, I think I’d get pretty bored.”
“We figure there’s still going to be a need for a team of general troubleshooters,” Connie said.
“Especially since it’s not like the world is going to stay saved,” Jen said.
“I’ve been meaning to talk with about that,” Anna said. “I think we can expect…”
“Ah, ah, ah!” Val cut in. “No working. We all agreed. We can talk shop. We can tell stories, but the moment anyone breaks out a slideshow they’re going right over the side of the ship.”
“What do your plans look like then?” Tam asked.
“One of the reasons I joined the Army was to see more of the world,” Val said. “The Club did a better job of giving me that than the Army ever could have, but I think that’s still calling to me.”
“Where will you go?” Anna asked.
“Wherever my feet take me I guess,” Val said. “I mean there’s so many world out there. I think if I head outwards I’ll find the kind of things I couldn’t even imagine looking for now.”
“If you wish to stay in touch with us, I believe I will be able to help with that,” James said. He was bundled up in a light robe with a wide brimmed straw hat and plenty of sunscreen but Val still felt like he could be better sheltered raw daylight.
“I thought you hated crowds?” Connie asked.
“I do,” James said. “But I am rather fond of you all, and I didn’t want to miss what might be our last outing together.”
“Oh, I’m not planning to go away forever,” Val said. “And I’ll definitely be there if you ever need me.”
“I am sure we will,” Anna said. “But it’s good that you’ll be exploring our new neighbors. I think we’re going to see a lot of people doing that, and having at least a few of us out there with them gives us a better chance of catching the next mad god who decides we’re an affront to him by merely existing.”
“A few of us? Will you be traveling too?” Val asked.
“Earth doesn’t have any official representatives to the other worlds,” Anna said. “But in an unofficial capacity? Yes. We’ll be spending a lot of time off world.” She threaded her fingers through Zoe’s who returned the gesture with a small squeeze and a sharp smile. Despite the rings they both wore, the vows they’d pledges, and the framed marriage certificate hanging in their bedroom, the two were still every bit the rivals they’d ever been. At least in some arenas.
If Anna was focused on deepening the peaceful relations with the worlds who’d stoof with the Earth and Zoe pursued opportunities to build mutually beneficial (and profitable) ventures then the difference in their objectives was slight enough to allow each to measure their results against the other while at the same time allowing both to declare victory according to their own goals.
“I guess that leaves me to mind the home front then,” Tam said. “Which, to be fair, is going to make it a lot easier to start scheduling shows again.”
“I thought I heard that more and more people were learning how to use real magic?” Jim asked. “Are you still going to get the crowds you used to?”
“It looks like she’ll need to play bigger arenas,” Cynthia said.
“There’s a lot more Earthlings than there used to be, and we’ve got tourists from so many worlds to draw in too,” Tam said.
“Even the ones who can do magic on their own may still show up to watch a true master perform,” James said.
“Believe it or not, the real trick for a show has nothing to do with magic. It’s part of why I don’t use anything mystical in the act. Even now with magic being so much more reliable, a clever spell isn’t what’s going to keep the crowds entertained. They want the presentation and th mystery. If anything real magic makes a good show harder. Anyone can believe that a spell can do something extraordinary. My job is to make them see that even the perfectly mundane can be extraordinary.”
“Will you keep helping her with the act?” Val asked, looking over to Cynthia.
“She has a horde of professionals lining up to work with her,” Cynthia said. “I can pitch in here because I’m off duty but once we get back I’ll let the performers do their job. She makes it look so much easier than it really is.”
“You’ve done fantastic!” Tam said. “But the work you’re doing with helping people adapt to the different environments of the Earthly realms is mind blowing too. Do you know what she discovered? Go ahead, tell them!”
Cynthia blushed but spoke up when Tam nudged her in the ribs.
“We know there’s a lot of less pleasant realms out there,” Cynthia said. “More than a few get mistaken for being Hell. Well, it turns out that some of them at least are just places with a whole lot of fire and brimstone and the people there are quite friendly when you give them half a chance to explain they’re not trying to drag you into a river of lava but that the lava is in fact quite refreshing and breathable. So helping people find methods of adapting to their environments is what I’m going to be doing.”
“How about you Aranea? What do your plans look like?” Tam asked.
“I have something I’ve been meaning to do for a while,” Aranea said and turned to Val.
With a gentle, loving smile, she placed her hands on Val’s shoulders and everything else but her face fell away from Val’s gaze.
There were words held just behind Aranae’s lips but she hesitated, visibly gathering her courage and resolve before continuing.
“If you’re going to ask me to marry you, the answer’s definitely yes,” Val said. It was a joke, since she knew as a mortal she couldn’t actually marry a goddess, but as she said the words, she knew she meant them with utter sincerity too.
She’d had plenty of relationship and plenty of people she’d been close to. To say none of them measured up to a goddess was as obvious as it was foolish. Looking into the eyes of the woman who loved her, Val knew that it wasn’t the goddess she’d fallen for. Val accepted the divine part of the woman in front of her, but it was the part which had grown into someone far more complex and down to earth who’d captured her heart.
She respected Aranae’s station, just like she would any difficult and important position someone she cared for might hold, but it was the person who made sure she had coffee waiting each morning, who tutored young kids in zoology, and who refused to go to sleep if they were reaching the end of a binge-watch of a new series, that she would do anything for.
“Do you trust me?” Aranea asked.
“With my life,” Val said.
“Good,” Aranea said with a quick smile and grasped Val’s arms tighter.
“Wait, what? Blaaaa..” Val shouted as Aranea hurled her off the deck into the bright blue Pacific waters.
She walked over to Tam next.
“May I?” she asked.
“Umm, sure?” Tam said an instant before being launched similarly overboard.
“And do you consent as well?” Aranea asked Anna.
Anna narrowed her eyes.
“Must you?” she asked.
“I’m afraid so,” Aranea said.
“Fine,” Anna said, her voice all resignation before she was pitched soundlessly to sploosh down beside Val and Tam.
The ocean swirled around the three and rose under Tam’s command, depositing them back on the deck in a thoroughly soaked state.
“What was that all about!” Val shouted, throwing her hands up in disbelief.
“I’ve told you, I must be true to my word,” Aranea said. “Before I met you I had sworn to cast the three of you into the abyss. I hadn’t sworn myself to a particular time limit so there was no rush, but it was something I could not change. Eventually I had to cast you down, just as I had said I would. Fortunately, I never said anything about which abyss I would cast you into, or what it might be full of.”
“Ok, but why now?” Val asked.
“Because I wanted to make sure you knew how serious I am when I make a vow,” Aranea said. “Or rather how much it would mean to me to exchange vows with you.”
In her hand she held a ring that glittered with a literal spec of starlight shining where the gemstone would normally have been.
For a long moment Val, and by extension everyone else, was shocked into silence. Val had witnessed the rebirth of the world, fought gods with her bare hands, and seen more strange sights than she could ever have imagined but somehow she still couldn’t catch her breath to answer. Not until Tam and Anna placed their hands on her shoulders and nodded for her to move forward.
When she moved though, it was away from everyone. Silently she walked over to the deck chair she’d commandeered and opened up the pack of sunscreen and essentially she’d brought to pull forth a small box.
“I didn’t think I was ever going to get to use this,” she said, handing the box to Aranea with only a slight tremble in her hands as she took the ring Aranea offered. Inside the box, Aranea found a simple silver band with a small but beautifully cut gem in the center. “This belonged to me great grandmother, and my grandmother, and my mother. I didn’t think you could…”
She broke off.
“It is unusual for a god to marry a mortal,” James said. “Will you be able to make such a vow without losing the greater portion of yourself?”
“Formal vows with a mortal would require me to give away much of what I am,” Aranea said. “You all have seen first hand the true face of the creator though. You have restored yourselves and your world from the ashes of death. You carry within you a message of hope you each spread in your own ways. So tell me, what makes you think any of you are still mortal?”
Her smile was the smile of someone who had been keeping a secret for a long time and had finally been able to reveal it.
The others, by contrast, had joined Val in her stunned silence.
“You know what Charlene Potestates was,” Aranea said. “She didn’t want the Earth to be under the dominion of an angel who would interfere with your choices as a parent might protect an infant, but she also wasn’t about to leave world without her angels to protect it from the choices other worlds might make. You made a second chance for yourselves, and for all of us, to become part of a better world, and the thing about second chances is that, if you embrace them, they will change you more than anything else ever can.”
– Finis –