Stef leaned forward, grabbed Curt’s phone from the cradle and exited the navigation app. ‘We’re here,’ she said and set it back into place.
‘Which building?’ Curt asked.
She leaned against the door and pressed a finger to the window to point at the building they’d just passed. ‘That one.’
Curt slowed the car and backed into a spare spot about half a block down from her building. ‘I’ll just wait here,’ he said. ‘Go do whatever you need to do.’
She nodded and pushed on the door of the car, aware that she should probably say “thank you”, but unable to form the words. Talking was…still not easy. Maybe starting to get a bit easier, but it was still tiring in every conceivable way. Remembering to make facial expressions, thinking about what to say next, about what was a proper response, what she could say in her own head, and what was safe to say out loud.
Everything took effort, and that would be impossible to explain to someone so…normal. Trekkie or not, the amount of normal that he exuded was-
But he gave you the soundboard to use.
She tripped over a patch of uneven concrete just to the left of the steps that lead up to her building’s front door. She knew about the bumpy patch, it had been there as long as she’d been a tenant, and as long as she’d been a tenant, she’d tripped over it.
Shutting down due to stress is one thing. Some people can understand the big stress. Unable to do the little things…that’s harder to explain.
She stared at the front door and realised that she didn’t have her key with her.
She stared at the lock.
‘Worth a try.’
She pressed her fingertips to it and required it to unlock. She felt the mechanism move, and then the pressure against her fingers change as the door swung in slightly. She pushed it open, then closed it behind her, quietly, as the handwritten sign suggested.
The building was old and strange – it had been a rooming house in the old days. It had then changed into a short stay hotel, before finally converting into its current incarnation of small, one-room apartments, managed by a man who was definitely-probably-maybe-certainly committing some kind of tax fraud.
There were a lot of strange and leftover features from the building’s previous lives. What had been a common room was now a communal laundry. Other areas had been turned into storage – mostly for Mr Jenkins’ seemingly endless supply of dusty junk he couldn’t seem to part with.
It was weird, it was old, but it had been the only place she’d ever been able to call “home” where the word had actually meant something.
And right now, it felt so strange to be here. The open lobby area always had to feel of a liminal space to it – somewhere that wasn’t really anywhere. A place that existed as a way to get from place to place, but now the feeling was somehow exaggerated.
Like Recruit Mimosa was maybe a slightly different circle of the Venn diagram to Stef Mimosa, and maybe-
The door to Mr Jenkins’ ground floor apartment – which was always a little ajar anyway – opened, and the old man stood, teacup in hand. ‘Thought I heard the front door.’ He waved her over. ‘Got some of your packages. Shook them a little, nothing…sounded…interesting…’ he slowed his speech, then trailed off, then retreated a step into his room to put his cup down. ‘You’re looking very fancy, Stephanie, working as a maître d are we?’
“Stephanie” always grated really badly whenever someone used it. Still, it was something she took with little complaint from her landlord – he seemed to see using her full name as giving some kind of respect as if calling her “Stef” was too informal. And for someone who’d given her a chance at a home, she’d take a couple of awkward, but-well-meaning moments a month when she had to hand over rent.
“Stephanie” was distracting, but not enough to make her miss the completely disproportionate reaction he’d had to-
Panic spiked at the back of her neck, hot and sharp and-
She tried to swallow. Only someone who knew what her suit meant would have any kind of reaction to it, and anyone who knew what it was-
‘Agency?’ he asked, his voice cracking a bit.
She nodded, and hoped that she’d be able to open the door quick enough if she had to run, or scream loud enough for Curt to hear through closed car doors if-
‘Oh, thank god,’ Jenkins said and deflated so much his chin flopped against his chest. ‘I do know there’s a trend among some Solstice to wear the clothes of their enemy, just to be edgy. And…don’t get me wrong, Stephanie, but you are the kind of disaffected youth that they try and recruit.’
‘And how the fuck do you know about all this?’
He extended a hand towards her, which slowly turned into a bouquet of daisies, before retreating back into a human-seeming hand. ‘Born to it, as they say. But you’re brand new, I would say.’
‘This is like my…third day? Second? Time is a…thing,’ she mumbled. ‘Rent,’ she said, getting her volume back up to normal. ‘I got your rent text. Sorry it’s late, the last couple of days have been, um, hectic.’
‘Understandable, of course,’ he said. ‘Will you be keeping the place, or living on company property?’
At least this answer was easy. ‘Keeping it for now.’ She held a hand palm-up and required several thousand dollars in a stack of one-hundred-dollar notes. ‘Just put this toward whatever, and text me when it runs out.’
He took it, walked over to his hall table, opened the small drawer and threw it in on top of what had to be envelopes of rent money from other residents.
He looked up. ‘I do my bank reconciliations once every couple of months,’ he said, as if he needed to explain himself. ‘My major expenses are my Court taxes, and those are largely discounted through providing accommodation.’
She felt her eyebrows raise. ‘You’re not the only fae in the building?’
God, I must be oblivious.
‘Only a couple,’ he said. ‘And it is the nature of those living on Earth to keep a low profile.’
That made her feel a bit better. A tiny bit. Like everything else about the world, about the truth, the masquerade, the whatever-people-called it, she was far from the only person who had failed to notice that magic was real.
She focused on her landlord. ‘Hmm?’
‘If they have fully engaged your abilities, would you mind-’ he made a gesture towards his TV, which, contrary to every other time she’d had a peek inside his apartment, was dark and silent. ‘Power surge seems to have broken it. I had been planning on calling in a warranty repair, but-’
‘Uh, sure, you want-’ she took a couple of steps closer to the TV. ‘Just want it repaired, or do you want an upgrade?’
‘Nothing too ostentatious,’ he said.
She touched the TV and dismissed it. A requirement conjured a new one – a few sizes larger than his old one, but…a logical upgrade, probably the size he would have chosen the next time he’d bought a new TV anyway.
‘All the bells,’ she said, ‘and most of the whistles.’
He stepped forward, grabbed the corner of film and started to peel it away. ‘This is always my favourite part,’ he said.
‘Ditto, that’s why I included it.’
He pointed to the corner, where a collection of packages lay. ‘I think there’s three for you,’ he said. ‘Just double-check the rest of the pile.’
She knelt on the floor next to the packages and started to sift through the collection of familiar and unfamiliar boxes and brands.
Amongst packages from Amazon, department stores, and small packages of stuff bought off eBay, she found her three deliveries.
She held up one addressed to a neighbour. ‘Is this a fae postmark?’ she asked, and gently touched the shimmering holographic stamp.
Jenkins squinted. ‘Yes, careful with that stamp though, I think Perry is collecting those. It’s a collector’s series for the anniversary of the Tree Wars release.’
She carefully put the packages down, then stood. ‘I think that’s everything?’ she said awkwardly.
He nodded. ‘I’ll text you if you get more deliveries. Talk to your Technical people if you want to get your stuff redirected, they have ways of scanning to see if anything has been slipped in. You never know if someone in a packing facility has anti-magic leanings.’
Yikes. Didn’t even think of that. One limited-edition print with a side of anthrax.
‘I think I’ll keep stuff coming here for now.’
Jenkins nodded, found the remote for his new TV, flicked it on, and began to run through the settings. ‘Good luck with your new job,’ he said kindly, ‘and I mean that. Some of those suits are so uptight you could use them as support beams, but they’re usually good people.’
Packages under one arm, she walked back to the car, where Curt sat playing on his fae phone.
She threw the boxes into the passenger seat footwell and buckled her seatbelt.
‘Just checking,’ Curt said as he slipped the phone back into his pocket. ‘You’re not busy now, are you?’
She shook her head. ‘Just tonight.’
‘Okay, then there’s a sim I want to run you through. Mags like it as a benchmark when people want to cooperate.’
The image of the bird-girl rose in her mind. ‘There are…’ she said slowly as Curt started the car. ‘People who don’t cooperate with her? That combination of pretty and scary…’ she threw up her hands. ‘Why would people argue?’
‘Some people like making life difficult for Combat,’ he said as they pulled up to a red light. ‘Between Mags and Agent Taylor, you’ve got to be pretty ballsy to do that, but some people still manage it. Others-’ he shrugged, then looked over at her. ‘Not your favourite subject, but it’s relevant. Mags fucks a lot of people,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘If you’re a decent person, you realise what someone does with other consenting people doesn’t matter. But some people…make a value judgement, and think that she can’t lead, can’t command, just because she doesn’t tie sleeping with someone to dating.’
She stared out the window. ‘Yeah, that value judgement can be hard,’ she said, memories of faceless classmates staring at her flooding into her mind. Comments from teachers behind her back. Copies of the paparazzi photos tacked to noticeboards.
It hadn’t lasted forever, and in hindsight, there was hilarity to be had in being a virgin at the heart of a teen sex scandal. At the time…it had been another layer of stress and shit on top of what had been life’s awful sundae.
People had looked at her like she was dirty goods. Her grades had never reflected how smart she was. It was hard to scrape anything above passing when you were too busy trying to figure out how to be functionally crazy.
The past was another country, and it was one she’d happily raze to the ground, with an ark only for the few precious good moments she’d been allowed to accumulate.
‘So, what’s the sim?’ she asked. ‘I still basically know jack shit, so I’m not sure how useful-’
He waved his left hand at her. ‘It’s nothing like the grove,’ he said. ‘It’s more-’ he took his eyes off the road for a moment to look at her. ‘Look, I’m going to assume you’re one of those people who walk around the city, figuring out zombie apocalypse disaster scenarios?’
‘Third-floor comic shop in the mall,’ she said automatically, ‘block the back stairs, they’re steep, so they’d deter most standard types anyway. Access nearby restaurants by using the awnings of the lower stores. Central enough for rescue when the military comes, but easy enough to secure if we need to hold out a few days.’
She winced and forced herself to look up at him.
His gaze was focussed on the road, but he was smiling. ‘You don’t disappoint, Newbie.’
‘Bunnings,’ he said. ‘Hardware. Tools. Furniture. Stuff to kill zombies, outdoor furniture to set up a camp for survivors. Probably not a lot of food supplies, but I’ve found that there’s often a Maccas nearby, so there’ll be options.’
She tapped on her knees. ‘Those- Well. You can’t combine those two ideas, but they’re weirdly complementary. I’ve got survival, you’ve got resistance. If we think like that in other areas, maybe I won’t be completely useless as a partner.’ She coughed, and scrambled to form her next sentence, hoping it didn’t look like she was fishing for compliments. ‘I’m guessing it’s not actually zombies?’
‘No, but there are zombie sims for shits and giggles. Do well for your first week, and we can run one. There’s always Techs doing them as group activities.’ He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. ‘No zombies, but the same kind of…notice and use your environment thinking. Mags likes it as a benchmark, because if you run it when you’re new, then every few months, you get radically different results as you get more used to requiring, more trained, and more used to the world.’
‘Okay,’ she said, still afraid of everything that could go wrong, ‘bring it on.’