The Auction

12 – A Dance of Distraction

Curt looked across the dining table at Mags, smiled to himself, and pushed the plate of ribs towards her.

‘Kolk isn’t my favourite mix anyway,’ he said.

Most meat in fae dishes was lab-grown vat meat, and without the restrictions of it coming from an actual animal, there were weird and wonderful mixes. Kolk was a pretty standard mixture, half white meat, half red meat, usually striated to look almost like a candy cane, even when cooked.

It wasn’t bad, but he’d usually go with another option if one was available.

Mags smiled, wiped some of the sauce from her face, and pulled two more ribs from the serving plate. Her tongue played at a glob of sauce in the corner of her mouth. Unable to clear it, she wiped her face again. ‘It’s…one of those foods I ate a lot of when I was poor. There’s this noodle place in the Marches. Kolk was the cheapest that had a decent amount of protein. I know a lot of people don’t like eating their struggle meals when they get past that phase in their life, but- I miss it sometimes. So, now I’ll eat it and just be glad I’m not selling my hair to pay for it.’

‘I get it,’ he said. ‘You ever have that shitty plastic cheese when you were a kid? I was allowed tuckshop only on Fridays. Rest of the week, it was usually cheese or Vegemite.’

Mags nodded. ‘Yeah, that’s normal. My dad also tried that meat paste thing sometimes, and I hated it.’

‘I could have Michelin-star quality food every day. Sometimes, I just require a shitty cheese sandwich because it’s the only thing I want to eat.’

‘That’s disgustingly cute, O’Connor.’ She pushed her plate back just a little and leaned on her hands. ‘You had something you wanted to flag before, but I told you to wait. It’s later now. Tell me it’s a small complication.’

‘Sec,’ he said and retrieved the auction catalogue from his bag. He moved to her side of the table and sat beside her. ‘I don’t know how much of an issue it is,’ he said as he flipped through the book and finally found the necklace, taking up less than a quarter of a page. Unimportant. Not an item that was drawing a lot of attention.

‘That’s…blue-blue,’ she said, resting her fingers on the catalogue.

‘It’s not just that. I need to go have another look to confirm.’ He hesitated, knowing it was entirely possible that it just had been the alcohol going to his head. ‘When I walked past it, it pretty much knocked me for six. I was dizzy, thought my head was going to explode. And of everyone there, I’m the only one that had that reaction. And of everyone there…’

‘You would have been the only one with blue in your body,’ she said, finishing his thought. She drew the catalogue close. ‘No mention of Agency, and it’s not like we own that colour. Check it out again. If it fucks with you again… I’ll call home and get an authorisation to bid on it.’

‘I would love if we had a tech here,’ he said. ‘I can look at it, but that’s it. That feels useless.’


Mags got up from the table, walked through the connecting door, and he heard rummaging and things being dropped on the floor. A moment later, she returned with a small, zipped bag, the size of a large pencil case and a bottle of water.

She unzipped it and spilled the contents onto the table. ‘This is part of the rescue kit for sixty-four.’ A small IV-bag-like of blue plopped onto the table. ‘They’ll well and truly be past withdrawal, but Jones insisted we bring some blue, just in case. I’ve got more, but this will do. Open it for me.’

He unscrewed the small cap and held it gently while she popped the lid on the water bottle. She poured half of it out into the wine bucket, took the blue from his hands and topped it up. She handed it back, capped the bottle, and shook it till it mixed in, the blue colour disappearing almost immediately as it dissolved seamlessly into the water.

‘If you’re right,’ she said and motioned for him to reseal the blue. ‘And it’s attracting the blue in the area, you can use this as a compass. Wait till you’re nearby, tip some into a glass, then get something light, dust, lint, something that will float on the water’s surface, and you’ll see the direction it’s being drawn.’

‘How the-’ he started. ‘How?’

‘It’s simple principles, and I’ve used things like this before. Generally, something Tech has actually made. There are certain pieces of Agency stealth tech that draw in blue, make their presence known that way. I’ve never seen something like this crystal, but we need to know.’

‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t have- There’s still a lot I’ve got to learn.’

‘Yeah, a lot,’ she agreed. ‘You check this out. I’ll head for sixty-four. Go get changed. I need to do my makeup again.’

‘I’ll text you if it’s something significant, then you can get a message back to Agent Ryan-’

‘Even here you do that?’ she asked, finishing off the last of the low-alcohol wine that had been supplied with dinner.


‘I’ve never heard you call any agent their name without their rank. It’s just the two of us, and you’re still following protocol like-’

‘Like I am who I am?’ he asked but couldn’t meet her gaze. ‘It’s just habit now,’ he said. ‘No offence intended.’

She stood and laid a hand against his head that was half-slap, half-comforting touch. She sighed, seeming to want to say more, but retreated through the connecting door. He finished his glass of chilled water and then followed her.

‘Tell me something,’ she said. ‘You and Carmichel. It’s not just a working relationship, is it?’

Curt bunched the fabric of his shirt in his hands as panic stabbed into his chest.

‘On the ride over. It wasn’t a co-worker vibe.’ She turned from the mirror, rubbing a brush into some powder. ‘I don’t want to push, but if it’s anything that we can use, you can tell me.’

Now definitely wasn’t the time to spill the entire story, but a portion of the truth wouldn’t hurt. ‘We’re friends,’ he said. ‘I helped him in a scrape once, and in return, he’s sort of giving me Fairyland 101. I thought it would be a good addition to whatever I can get off the Agency intranet.’

Mags nodded. ‘There’s no reason to hide that. Even being who you are,’ she said, pre-empting his objection. ‘It’s not even…’ she sighed and uncapped some eyeliner. ‘Put aside everything. Ditch all the moves and countermoves you’re doing in your head. Just answer me this: who in our Agency has the time to give a fuck?’


‘Ignoring the general staff, taking the twins out of the equation, you have three people, three agents, who are in your orbit. Taylor, I can tell you for a fact, does not give a shit about your personal life. You’re okay by me, so you’re okay by him. If we need immediate Solstice knowledge, we’ll come calling. Other than that, you don’t exist so far as Combat is concerned.’

‘Okay, fair,’ he said slowly.

‘Between her department, her socialising, her special interests and her son, I am not convinced Jones even sleeps. Added to that, generally, she tries to see the best in people. I don’t see her caring.’

‘I think I stopped being a problem for Agent Jones once Raz got assigned as my operator.’

‘And Ryan?’ she said, throwing her brushes back into her bag. She turned and pulled off the black cami she’d put on after her shower. ‘Field agent and director. No aide. He doesn’t have time to care. You’ve got more breathing room than you think.’

‘It’s hard to feel safe, Mags.’

‘I get that,’ she said. ‘But there are a lot worse places you can be.’

She walked over, retrieved her dress, and carefully slipped it back on. Even with her combat boots hidden under the skirts, she looked like the princess she technically was. ‘You’ve got the number of my burner,’ she said. ‘Text me as soon as you know anything. I’ll do the same.’

With one more quick check in the mirror, she grabbed her clutch and headed out of the hotel room.

He finished dressing, unable to exactly replicate how his hair had been pre-shower, and headed back to the auction.

Once he was back in, he got an empty glass from a server, filled it with the half-blue, half-water mixture, and headed towards the innocuous spiral pendant.

He steeled himself against the upcoming headache and vertigo, hoping it would be less intense now that he was expecting it.

Hoyt had been such a rich, eclectic piece of shit that there had to be non-obvious Agency artifacts amongst the auction loot. The agent was obvious, as were the wings, but as plain and corporate as the Agency was now, it hadn’t always been that way.

Carmichel had told him stories of the Ye Olde Agency. Histories that were more speculation and myth than fact. Tales of when the men in suits had been knights, warriors, roving mages and a dozen stranger forms.

Today, Agents had leather ID folders and guns; the Ye Olde Agents…might just have had magic-looking necklaces.

The gem’s blue could be a coincidence, and the shine could have been any number of low-level bits of magic, but he had to check. He couldn’t leave a stone unturned when they were already trusting him so much.

Well, trusting Magnolia and allowing him there as a favour to Carmichel. It was something of a step forward. Had to be a step forward.

He was happy for Mags to get whatever glory came from the mission. He’d be happy enough with some kind of neutral acknowledgement. Something to say it hadn’t been a waste of an invite sending him.

He had a life built on the margins. Tiny scraps of goodwill and the occasional nod of approval from Ryan were all signs that things, if not getting better, weren’t getting worse.

As Mags had suggested, he pulled a little piece of lint from his pocket and laid it gently on the surface of the water, his little makeshift compass.

He was almost sure that it was the necklace. It was too vibrantly Agency-blue to be unrelated to the men in suits, but he couldn’t assume anything. Any article in the auction might have some Ye Olde Agency magic hidden inside.

Test, investigate, and confirm.

So far, his theory was on point, though. No other object on display was getting the attention of the lint compass.

As he walked closer to the necklace, he dipped a single finger into the water and continued on, a single drop hanging from his index finger.

Hopefully, whatever had tried to pull blue directly from his skull would find it an easier job to pull one free-balling droplet, and if he could follow its direction when it-

The drop was sucked from his finger, and he quickened to follow, excusing his way through the crowd of arguing fae.

As he approached the necklace, he almost imagined that it was glowing, picking up light from unseen sources, refracting and reflecting like an opal. All tricks of the light, probably. Maybe.

Vertigo drunkenness and out-of-control spinning came for him again, but at least this time, he was prepared. He balled his feet within his shoes and rode the wave, trying not to drown in the feeling of a merry-go-round from hell.

Strategically, he spilled a little water on the flat, gold head of one of the bollards that held the barrier ropes up. Immediately, the water rippled in a way that wasn’t just from the reverberations of the room.

Droplets beaded at the far edge then flew – but not towards the glass case of the necklace. He looked up and saw them against the glass case of-

‘Fuck,’ he breathed, as two plus two came together to equal far more trouble than he’d ever wanted.

‘Is that an instruction,’ came a familiar voice as a hand touched the small of his back, ‘or an invitation, young man?’

Whoever – whatever – Francis was, whatever true motivations lay behind the mask, letting him find out what two-plus-two meant seemed like a phenomenally stupid idea.

There were a hundred allegiances and arrangements that were entirely neutral to the Agency, and Francis has too many strong opinions to be just a neutral party.

And for better or worse, he had to put the Agency…if not first, then so close to the top as made no difference.

And if he was right-

He turned towards Francis to allow the hand on his back to spiral them closer together. He angled his face so that they were close enough to kiss if only Francis were to tilt his face down.

‘It doesn’t matter that I’m straight, does it?’ he asked, putting a rumble into his voice. ‘It doesn’t stop you from wanting my company.’

‘I’m sure there are a hundred women you’ve looked at that are unavailable to you in one way or another. It doesn’t stop you from dreaming.’ The hand on his back tightened, holding him for a moment, then released. ‘But if I’m making you uncomfortable-’

He had to move Francis away from the area and keep his mind off the auction pieces.

‘It’s…flattering,’ he said, closing the space between them by another inch, and allowed one of his hands to rest gently on Francis’ hip.

This was probably cruel, but it was spy craft. Flirting to get hold of a keycard, gentle touches to steal information, a kiss in trade for-

‘Say yes,’ Francis whispered, lips close but restrained, if only by the barest thread.

He withdrew by the barest fraction. ‘Yes,’ he said, grabbed Francis’ hand, and pulled him away from the gallery towards the dark nook near the service corridor.

They were barely in shadow before Francis had him against the wall, strong hands and a stronger kiss pinning him in place.

Francis pushed against his chest, each of the man’s hands grabbing a fistful of his lapels.

‘You’re amazing,’ Francis said, breaking the kiss blow warm breaths against Curt’s throat. ‘And I wish,’ he said, the grip on Curt’s lapels lessening a little, ‘that it wasn’t so one-sided.’

Francis’ hands relaxed and finally laid flat against Curt’s chest. ‘I wish I could take what I wanted without consideration.’ He leaned close again, the edges of his lips tickling Curt’s ear. ‘You make me wish I was a bastard.’

He retreated half a step, lifted Curt’s hands, and kissed each in turn. ‘Come willingly to me, and I will make you a prince. Until then-’ Surprisingly, a broad smile broke out over his face. ‘A fumble in the servants’ hall, you’ve made me feel sixteen again.’ He took another step back. ‘Thank you, and- I’m sorry. I won’t bother you again this evening.’

Francis gave one more small smile, then slipped back into the party, in the bright lights of the gallery, away from the secrecy of the service hall.

Curt finally let out a long breath and slumped against the wall, letting his heart settle back to its normal rate.

He felt strangely neutral about the kiss. It had been transactional, something the moment needed to keep a potentially hostile faction from- From something he had to stop himself from thinking about.

As rare as they were, there surely had to be some mind readers around, peeling useful tidbits from the guests’ minds.

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and felt a pang of guilt for manipulating the man’s feelings.

But- Guilt could come later.

For now, he needed to be alone with his thoughts, where no one could hear them.

He tidied his jacket and, as fast as he dared, as fast as he could go without drawing attention, headed back towards the hotel room.

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