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It took twenty minutes for Curt to return – enough time to return twice more to the buffet bar, and get some more fluffin flavours. And three more of the bacon fluffins.
Curt returned after she’d finished all fluffins and had started on the egg. The white sauce was something like hollandaise but far sweeter; the orange was coconut-almond – a strange choice for eggs, but not one she’d argue with.
‘I’m impressed,’ he said as he put his jacket back on. ‘Most newbies stick with very human foods.’
Nothing seemed like it would shrink me down or turn me into a cat.
She stared at her plate, uncomfortable with being complimented for her food choices. ‘I didn’t try any of the weird-sounding fluffins.’
‘Still, you did good, newbie.’
‘Was this a test?’
He smirked. ‘No, this was breakfast. Test, though – that reminds me.’ An open folder appeared on the table in front of him, and she jumped.
‘You hadn’t done your recruitment tests when Agent Ryan called me this morning, so…’ He trailed off, flicked through a couple of pages, then looked at her. ‘This is kind of weird.’
‘What’s kinda weird?’
He waved a hand dismissively, and buried himself in her file, flicking from one page to the next, then back again. ‘You, uh, hiding a superpower or something?’
Are you a superpower?
She stared down at her plate and drew a circle in the remains of the sweet-not-hollandaise. ‘I mean, I’m kinda smart, but I don’t think that’s what-’
At the edge of her field of vision, she saw him look up from the folder. ‘Yeah, these numbers tell me you’re smart, that’s kind of what I’m having a problem with.’ His hand crossed the table, with a duplicate of the folder he was holding. ‘Want to follow along with me?’
She pushed her plate to the side and laid the folder open. She took a quick look to see what page he was on and quickly turned her report to match.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘There’s three scores there. Combat, field and tech. Each is out of ten, with ten being the best, obviously.’
At the top of the page was a simple horizontal bar graph, one score in blue, one in red and one in green. The red score dipped back behind the zero marker by quite a margin. ‘So that’s not good,’ she said.
‘Negative seven,’ he said, sounding amused. ‘Taylor’s given higher scores to corpses.’
She looked away, unsure of how she was supposed to react. Ryan hadn’t seemed bothered after she’d done the wall test, so even with the atrocious score, it obviously hadn’t barred her from working for the Agency, but-
‘Combat doesn’t really matter if you’re not working for Taylor. Field is the interesting score – it’s the one that impacts you, no matter what department you work for.’
She tried to remember what Ryan had said after the hob test. ‘I need a four, right?’ She looked at the chart again – Field was the blue bar at the top. ‘Well, it’s bigger than four.’
‘Four-point-two,’ he said. ‘You got eight-point-six for tech.’ She saw him lift his head to look at her. ‘I mean, I don’t question what Agent Ryan says, but why the hell aren’t you with Agent Jones?’
‘Is- Is four-two that bad?’
‘I’m a seven-six for comparison. There’s a few CSI recruits that have ratings in the low fives. It’s sufficient, but…just. That’s why I’m wondering if there’s anything pertinent that’s not directly reflected in the score.’
The score didn’t make sense, but she allowed herself a tiny smile. Ryan had seemed almost – maybe – happy when handing over her uniform, which was weird, because people didn’t like having her around.
It meant a lot, because maybe it would be easier to eventually thank him for saving her life. For exactly how much a small scrap of memory had meant over the years.
She pretended to be interested in her dirty plate. ‘I guess I’m where Ryan wanted me,’ she said.
‘You don’t call him “Agent” or “Director”. You just call him Ryan.’
She forced herself to look up. ‘Director?’
Curt gave her an incredulous look. ‘He’s the director of our agency.’
‘But I thought he was–’ She swallowed. ‘He’s in charge, like in-charge-in-charge?’
‘Yeah,’ he said flatly. ‘Of our Agency, and because our Agency is a hub, he’s also the boss of the satellites that report to us.’ He held up a hand. ‘I can give you a map later, not now.’
‘But if he’s field agent,’ she said, finishing her thought. ‘Is he allowed to do two jobs?’
‘He’s just the interim director. Still, you’re not referring to him by rank.’
‘Should I be?’
‘Probably, Newbie, yeah.’
She slid lower in her chair. ‘Sorry.’
He stared at her for a moment, then played with the pages of the file. ‘I’m just trying to figure it out.’
‘There’s nothing to figure out.’
You’re a stranger, I can’t tell you- I don’t even know what I’d be telling you.
Maybe a version of the truth?
‘You’re not his kid, are you? Agents tend to keep family in their own department.’
She shook her head. ‘N-no. I-’ She swallowed. ‘I met him when I was a kid. I remembered him. Maybe it’s a novelty. You know- Like, when people catch the same fish twice or whatever.’
She grabbed the corner of one of the file’s pages and began to twist it back and forth.
I think I had too many bacon fluffins.
‘And if- If- Fuck. Get- If you want to get all the backstory stuff out of the way. You didn’t-’ she made a vague gesture with her left hand. ‘You didn’t- You didn’t ask about what that other recruit said.’
‘You mean Brian’s bullshit? I don’t ask people. I’m a Solstice piece of shit, anything you’ve got going on is nothing compared to that.’
She pressed her thumb and forefinger into her eyes. ‘When I was at school,’ she said, and hated the trace of accent she heard in her voice. ‘There was this guy,’ she said, trying to relay the facts as dispassionately as she could. ‘Prince. Not British royalty. Tiny-ass country you’ve never heard of. Barely bigger than Monaco. He broke up with his girlfriend and then hid out in my room playing my Playstation, eating all my snacks while he waited for his family to arrange a ride home for him. Paps got wind, shot some perfectly innocent photos that they managed to misconstrue. Turned it into a scandal.’ She tore the corner off the page. ‘That’s the entire thing. It’s not great, because I thought I’d never have to hear about that bullshit again, and-’
Curt took her glass and filled it with the remains from the pitcher. ‘Again, if you’re standing next to me, no one is going to give a shit. Ex-Solstice kind of…wins.’
‘Thanks,’ she mumbled.
‘Tell me you at least liked the food.’ He sighed. ‘Because this was supposed to be the fun thing before we go do your follow up.’
‘We tend to take recruits back to- If there’s an incident that resulted in recruitment, and there’s the possibility of further details being-’
‘We’re going back to Dorian’s,’ she said. ‘That’s okay, the rest of my shit is, I presume, still there. It would be nice to get my phone and wallet and all my knickers and clothes. And I guess that everything’s been cleaned up.’ She raised a hand to the back of her head, to where the-
Calm down. Act normal.
She couldn’t think about the blood. About someone’s brains being all over her hair. About-
She stole a look at Curt. He was a stranger, she couldn’t- Emotions, real emotions, real screaming-crying-fuck-there-was-blood-on-me emotions might not be safe. He probably expected a normal person. A normal recruit.
And she wasn’t normal, wasn’t-
Wasn’t recruit material. Was- Was probably making a mistake.
And maybe it would have been okay if- If there hadn’t been so much new stuff. New people. Expectations to be normal. To put up a mask for ages when she’d gotten used to being alone, to just putting it up long enough to interact with a clerk during the times she couldn’t do something over the internet. People were hard.
People were hard, and magic being real had made her forget that for five minutes, and she couldn’t breathe, and-
‘What kind of phone do you have?’
She stabbed her thumb into her thigh, the pain giving her the focus to breathe. ‘Huh?’ she asked, looking at the gauzy sound-proofing curtain. Conversation was already hard, adding pretending-to-make-eye-contact to that was just one task too much.
‘A- A Kallis Alpha-Seven.’ Kallis wasn’t her favourite brand. However, one perk of family money invested – and an uncle on the board – meant that she was on the distribution list a free phone whenever they released a new flagship model.
And since the Alpha-Seven had arrived three months ago, somehow it was a perk she’d managed to retain, even after breaking contact with her family.
‘Particularly sentimental about it?’ he asked. ‘Like, the phone itself, not the data.’
‘I didn’t even get the colour I wanted,’ she said, trying to figure out how they’d gotten onto this conversational path.
‘Require a phone, then look at the specs. Trust me.’ He stood. ‘And come on, we’re driving. I’m still new, so I take all the opportunities I get to learn the roads better. And yeah, I know GPS is a thing, but you can’t always-’
He continued to talk as she looked at her hands.
The phone appeared in her hands, a large screen, the body sleek and beautiful. The wallpaper had the same grey circle and blue line logo she’d seen on the corporate credit card Ryan had issued her.
She dragged a finger along the screen and pulled the top menu down. There were some icons she recognised – wifi and mobile data, others she didn’t, like a plain circle. Her own face stared back at her from a profile picture beside the bank of icons.
Already loaded with my profile, cool.
‘The circle and the line,’ she said as they walked out of the restaurant. ‘What-’
‘The circle is the Agency. The logo with the line half-in, half-out is us, Field,’ he said. ‘Should also be an Agency logo next to the wifi, that tells you if you’re in System territory or not.’
‘System?’ she echoed as they stepped into the lift.
‘Just think of it like your wifi connection. No System connection, no requiring.’ He looked down at her. ‘But, you know, a bit more serious. Some places naturally have no System connection, like Faerie, though there are some areas of Fairyland that have weak connections, but even with all the signal boosters you can imagine, requiring has a lag and agents can’t shift.’
She stared at the elevator doors. ‘So if there’s natural, ergo, there’s unnatural?’
‘Blackout zones,’ he said as they left the elevator. ‘Usually Solstice. They’ve got bombs that can temporarily knock out an area, so you’ve got to remember the Agency isn’t all-powerful. You get caught in a blackout, you’re on your own, they don’t send agents in after recruits. Hiding is usually your best option, the temporary ones can last as little as twenty minutes.’
Curt gave a mirthless chuckle as they walked down the street from the ugly building. ‘Again, sorry, this wasn’t supposed to be the miserable part of the day. I’ll see if there are any packages for the Local Court that need delivering later on, you’ll get to see more fae, and we can hit up the food court.’
About halfway down a laneway, he stopped, looked from left to right, then flicked his hand and a red sports car appeared.
‘There’s got to be some advantages to requiring, right?’ he asked as he slipped into the driver’s seat.
She nodded. ‘And it’s good you’re going for something low-profile,’ she said, ‘rather than something stupidly ostentatious,’ she said.
The passenger door was opened for her, and she found him staring at her as she settled into her seat. ‘I legitimately can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic right now.’
‘This is what, a hundred thousand, maybe?’ she asked as she fastened her belt. ‘It’s not like you pulled a Bugatti out of your hat.’
‘I’m starting to think maybe we have very different perceptions about money, Newbie.’
She stared down at her knees. ‘My- Um. My family’s rich. So I- I- Sorry.’
‘You don’t need to apologise. Belt on?’ He turned the key, and the engine came to life. ‘This- Well, something like this has always been my dream car.’ He pulled forward, turned into the street, and joined the flow of traffic. ‘I always wanted something-’ he made a groaning, unsure noise. ‘You know, something just barely within the realm of possibility. I knew I wasn’t going to get it. Still, I figured if enough of my relatives died, I could probably pool whatever I inherited and get one secondhand.’ They stopped at a red light. ‘Now I can drive this whenever I want. Not sure I-’ he coughed. ‘Not sure I like the colour though. That I’ve been thinking of changing to something more subtle.’
‘Racing green always says mature and boring,’ she commented.
He set his phone into a mount on the dashboard, the GPS already displayed. ‘This will take us about twenty minutes. Finish getting your phone set up, you’ll need it for later.’
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