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There was a knock.
There was another knock, louder this time.
Stef lifted her head up and felt a soft weight on her head. Blanket. Sleep time. Good sleepy time. She dropped her head back down and started to sink back into the warmth of unconsciousness.
Stop ignoring the door.
Stef wiggled forward, expecting her bed’s headboard – knocking her head against that usually gave her the slight jolt of consciousness to get up when sleeping seemed like the better option.
Instead, her head hit nothing, there was the brief sensation of empty space, and then her hands hit carpet, the rest of her body following soon after.
She looked at the carpet at the end of her nose. Too clean. The wrong colour. ‘This isn’t my carpet.’
Where the fuck am I?
She yelped and sat up, now fully awake. Context clues became information which morphed into memories. She looked up, saw the agent, and everything solidified into reality – or whatever it was that she experienced.
‘Good morning,’ she mumbled. Her head dropped forward, and she made some attempt to rake the hair back from her eyes. ‘Probably? Is it?’
‘Yes,’ Ryan said. ‘I do apologise, I let you sleep as long as I could.’ He paused. ‘I tried knocking, but- Forgive me.’
She grunted in the affirmative, planted her hands, and clumsily got to her feet, then dropped her butt heavily back onto the bed. ‘Sorry. When shit happens- You know, try turning it off and on again; sleeping’s the human equivalent of that, and- Sorry.’ Her train of thought was a pile of twisted metal and flames. ‘Sorry. Um. Hi. Can I help?’
‘There are several things we need to do today. Getting you tested and outfitted amongst them, should you still wish to work with us.’
She nodded and tried to concentrate. ‘Um. Can you- The conjuring thing. Coffee?’
‘Requiring,’ he said, and she couldn’t remember if he’d told her what it had been called before.
‘You call your conjuring power “requiring”?’
‘But that’s so plain and– I like it,’ she said. ‘It’s like a word that people actually use, not all “Expecto Illiad Hydro!” or whatever.’ She gave a magic wand flourish. ‘So, um, coffee?’
‘And, of course. How do you like it?’
He held out his hand, and a white cup appeared. ‘Black with one sugar?’ he asked as liquid appeared in the empty cup.
She reached up and tapped on the rim. ‘More sugar.’ She carefully took the cup and sipped it. ‘More please.’
He sighed. ‘If you insist.’
She sipped, and this time it tasted better. ‘Okay, I don’t know how your spells work, but set that as, like, my default amount of sugar.’
‘I can’t in good conscience-’ Ryan started.
‘Coffee makes the Steffie go,’ she mumbled, then tipped her head back and chugged the rest of the cup.
‘Jones has finished analysing the data you provided,’ he said, ‘and we’ll need a few things clarified later.’
Well, could I also–
Her mind caught up with what he’d said. ‘Get a few things clarified?’
‘Of course.’ He paused for a moment, then sat on the edge of the bed next to her. ‘Ask whatever you need to.’
She lifted the empty cup in his direction, and it refilled. Coffee would burn away some of the stupider questions. ‘Um. The bad guys,’ she said, feeling childish for the wording. Something to do with the sun. Something- ‘I’m getting the name wrong, Sol Invictus?’
‘Solstice,’ Ryan corrected. ‘Sol is…something else.’
‘Okay, and they’re…Just stupidly scared of magic? They-’ She swallowed a lump in her throat. ‘They were smiling as people were dying.’
‘Last night was extreme,’ he said, his voice gentle. ‘Generally, they avoid going after human civilians like that; but yes, broadly, you’re correct. They deem themselves to be a humanitarian organisation – and they wish to destroy anything that isn’t human. Their methods are…cowardly, cruel, unforgivable.’
‘And they’re your – um, our – main bad guy?’
This earned her an amused look. ‘They are only one of our priorities. They are, however, the most organised of the groups that are hostile towards us. Predominantly, our concern is keeping the fae and human worlds separate as best as we can.’
One question refused to be held back. ‘Are we the Men in Black?’ She put her hands to her mouth after the question escaped. ‘Sorry. But. Suit and secrets and stuff.’
‘There are excellent reasons to believe we’re responsible for the urban legends, at least as much as any other well-dressed organisation.’
She felt her eyes drawn to the blue of his vest. It was something that shouldn’t have been real – he shouldn’t have been real. It was a stupid dream, a coping mechanism to give herself some agency against an uncaring family.
She’d died. He’d been there. And there was still more to the story that he hadn’t told her yet. But- The impulsive bravery of the previous night was gone. She started to tap out the Fibonacci sequence on the coffee cup and tried to smile. ‘So is that the kind of suit I get?’ She looked down at her grey clothes. ‘Or do I stick with this?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘that’s a version of our training uniform.’ He indicated to himself. ‘This suit is the formal uniform for all departments and the standard uniform for my recruits.’
She rolled the empty cup around in her hands. ‘So I guess that’s an obvious next question.’
‘I’m head of Field Operations. Agent Jones heads the Tech Department, and we also have a Combat Division.’
She froze the smile on her face, letting her toes curl and unfurl. Memory or not, she wasn’t going to get to hang out with him. If there was an IT department, then there it was a fairly obvious choice as to where the Sorting Hat would send her. She kept her expression neutral. ‘So what’s the litmus test for where I go?’
His expression was more impassive than her own. He was looking for an excuse to get rid of her, to stop answering all of her questions, to palm her off onto someone else. He rose from the bed. ‘If you’ll follow me, we’ll head to the tests.’
She tried to apologise for being annoying, but it came out as a squeak. ‘Sure.’ She ran a hand through her hair again, then stood, and tried to straighten her posture. ‘Am I okay like this, or are you going to awesome new clothes onto me again?’
He raised his eyebrows slightly, and she felt the clothes ripple as they became as fresh and new as they had been the night before. The strangest sensation, though, was shoes appearing around her feet, and the ever-so-slight increase in height afforded by the thick soles.
‘Ready?’ he asked.
She nodded and followed him through the door, and down the hall towards the lift. He pressed the button, and a few seconds later, the elevator appeared. ‘Is this a magic lift? Last night and now, we only had to wait like five seconds for it. With all the buttons inside, there’s a low statistical probability that it was that close each time.’
He gave her a strange look. ‘That’s a very astute observation.’
She stared at her feet. ‘I’m, um, a genius. Sorry. I notice things.’
It’s also the paranoia, but you shouldn’t mention that.
‘You shouldn’t apologise for that,’ he said as they stepped into the lift. ‘Intelligence isn’t something to be ashamed of.’
She continued to stare at her feet and shrugged. The lift doors slid open, and she followed him out.
This floor was a lot plainer than even Ryan’s floor, but at least the doors had numbers, making navigation possible. The room he led her into contained only a few hard, plastic chairs, a table, and a television on the wall.
Oh, please tell me there’s not an orientation video.
There was the sound of voices, and the door opened again, allowing a guy with a buzz cut and a mountain to enter the boring little room. She stared at the mountain for a moment before realising that it was a volcano – one that looked as if it was going to erupt. The volcano rumbled, a deep, rocky sound – one that would have made the residents of Pompeii wish they been thrown in jail. She was pretty sure it was shaking, the red on top obviously burninating fire that would–
Ryan addressed the volcano. ‘Taylor, are we ready to start?’
The volcano – the agent with red hair – grunted, his gaze drilling into her. Volcano or not, an ancient Roman jail seemed a much safer place to be. He took a step forward, and her heart skipped a beat, every bit of her imaginary Spyder-sense screaming at her to run.
If that’s not the guy who runs the combat, I’ll eat my own feet.
The volcano took another step forwards–
Run. Run away from the volcano. Run away from the agent she was going to disappoint. Find her way by the battleship numbers to the lobby and break out. Run to a familiar street and catch a bus home. They could follow her, but they wouldn’t bother. Get home, close the door, and lock–
She blinked up at Ryan. ‘Yeah, I’m ready too.’ She looked back to the door, knowing that until she signed a blood contract that she could run at any time. Until then, there was no harm in–
You’re just too lazy to run to Adelaide Street, aren’t you?
The volcano – Taylor – opened the door at the back of the small room, and they all followed him through. The room was significantly larger than the one they’d left. There was no plastic furniture in the room or plasma screens. There were, however, two thirty-foot brick walls.
Two free-standing thirty-foot brick walls.
‘What.’ They had no visible means of support. ‘So, um,’ she muttered, ‘a wizard did it?’
The three men all turned to look at her. She imagined smoke coming from Taylor’s ears. She slumped and tried to sink into the floor. ‘Sorry. Thinking out loud.’
Taylor walked forwards and stood between the two walls. ‘First test. Combat. Objective: get to the other side. Equipment over there.’ A thick finger was stabbed towards the side of the room.
How is that combat? Is the wall gonna try and eat me?
Is the fscking wall going to try and eat me?!
She walked towards the rack of gear, the buzz cut pushing past her as to get first choice. ‘You’re not exactly scary competition,’ he said as he picked through the equipment.
She examined a set of suction cups and dismissed them – they were for climbing glass and smooth metal, not brick and mortar. Witty responses failed to form, and she just shrugged.
‘I’ll take that,’ he snatched the grappling hook from her hand. ‘Not like you know what you’re doing with it.’
She stared straight ahead at the piles of equipment, letting her vision unfocus, pretending to be a robot, pretending not to be scared. Beside her, the buzz cut spoke about his basic training and methods of wall supremacy.
Two recruits enter, one recruit leaves?
Ryan didn’t say anything about limited places.
She ran her hand over another hook but left it alone. The tests had to be based on individual merits; competition didn’t make any sense. It didn’t make any sense. None of it made any sense.
Magic was real, and things had stopped making sense.
Except that they hadn’t.
A smile settled onto her face, and she turned back to the walls.
Up was still up. Down was still down. The world was still operating according to all the rules she had always known. Right now, every limitation she knew about herself was still applicable.
There was only one way over, one way that she could manage.
At the next wall, the buzz cut was expertly pulling himself up, demonstrating a physicality that belonged to a video-game character. She turned from him, looked back at the brick in front of her, and nodded. There was only one way to do this.
She stepped up to her wall, centred herself, then let her arms swing at her sides, giving herself a little momentum.
She took a deep breath, then walked around the wall.
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