Stef felt Curt push her up against a wall, then let her go. He grabbed at her wrist and pulled off the bracelet, then removed her blindfold.
‘Wait here,’ he said, ‘just got to return this stuff.’
She blinked in the bright sunlight as he went back through the revolving door.
‘And the first words out of your mouth are going to be “I want lunch”,’ he said when he returned.
‘I want lunch,’ she said obediently.
He gave her a smile. ‘Come on, there’s a big Fry’s just down the street, you’ll love the playground.’
She followed him down the street, away from the boobies, and adjusted the timer she’d set for her blue so that the bag was no longer accounted for, and entered approximate times for the walk back across the city to the bus stop, the return trip and the walk back out of the Marches. The numbers were empirical, and incapable of lying.
‘We won’t have time for Nonsuch today,’ she said.
‘We’ll see what we can do. You gave up your blue,’ he said, ‘you didn’t give me time to stop you.’
‘It was to seal the deal,’ she said, ‘he was about to argue, and we probably would have been up for at least another twenty-five per cent jump in his fee, this way saved the Agency a ton of money.’
‘Seriously newbie,’ he said as he slowed his pace to walk beside her, ‘how the fuck did you do that? You just- That was amazing, Stef.’
She blushed. ‘I haven’t even had to negotiate my way out of paper bag for ages, so we didn’t get the best deal, if I knew what I was doing, I probably could have made him roll over and beg, but we didn’t do too badly.’
‘He would have rolled over and begged if you’d asked.’
‘I meant metaphorically. Can we please not- I want to forget about everything that happened in there.’
‘This is why I wanted to come alone.’
‘And what deal would you have given him?’
He stared at the ground. ‘Nowhere near as good as you got out of him.’
‘So it’s a good thing I came,’ she said.
‘How did you do it?’
‘I grew up around money,’ she said. ‘Unlike the princess training, some of it stuck. Like I said, this wasn’t the best deal we could have got, and I think he would have pushed for a better deal if-’ Words. Images. Phrases. All of it. None of it. Concepts that weren’t supposed to apply to her. ‘If he wasn’t distracted by how much he wanted to shag me.’
‘You sure you’re ok?’
She stared at the ground. ‘I didn’t expect him to be so overt.’
‘The good thing is,’ he said, ‘you only have to go through it once. He does the pitch to every agent he meets, but once you know the offer’s on the table, he leaves it alone.’
‘You sold him agents.’
‘Jesus, Stef, don’t say it like that.’
‘But you did.’
‘Don’t.’ His voice was strained. ‘I’ve seen the results of agents being sold, and the result is not a pet dragon.’ He looked down at her. ‘It was bad enough when I believed that agents were monsters, but now- Now it’s so easy to take memories and imagine it being you or Ryan or Jones. This is shit I wouldn’t wish on Taylor.’
She hugged his arm, keeping it trapped as they continued down the street. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to dredge up stuff. But you sorta got distracted when you started to tell me how you met Carmichael.’
‘Stories over food?’ he suggested. ‘We’re here.’
Big was an understatement, the restaurant was huge – three levels, tubes connecting the playground on each level. She let go of his arm and started to run towards it.
‘Cars, newbie!’
She stopped dead as she looked up to take in her surroundings – her foot was poised to step into the street. ‘Oh. Right.’
They crossed at the pedestrian crossing, the blue stripes on the street glittering in the sun. ‘They’re so much prettier than regular zebra crossings,’ she said.
‘They’re solar panels.’
‘Eh?’
He pulled her the rest of the way across the street, then crouched and pointed to the closest glittering blue stripe. ‘They’re solar panels.’ He turned and motioned to the glittering flecks in the concrete footpath. ‘And so are those.’ He stood. ‘It all pumps into the central grid. The footpath, tops of streetlights, tops of bus stops, backs of signs, pretty much every unused surface actually serves a purpose.’
‘Ooh.’
‘Food, c’mon.’
A chute beside the door opened, and blasted a fairy into the air.
‘Did we come on circus day?’
‘It’s just a booster, they’re a convenience for customers.’ They walked in, and her attention turned to the brightly coloured entrance to the playground.
‘You sure I’m not to big?’
‘You could make the argument that you’re too old, but not too big, you got any idea how big some fae kids can get?’ He picked up a silver electronic bracelet – very similar to the one they’d worn at Carmichael’s place, and snapped it around her wrist. ‘Press the button when you’re ready to come out.’ He held up a matching pager. ‘And this will buzz me.’ He opened the door. ‘Have fun, newbie, I’ll order food.’
She stepped into the playground and took a running leap into the giant bubblepit. She sank through the semi-solid bubbles, watching the holograms that ran through them, reflected from the screens surrounding the pit. She grabbed one of the head-sized bubbles with both hands and squeezed it until it burst into a hundred smaller bubbles.
She wiggled and half sank, half swam to the bottom, finding a half dozen fae kids there, each smashing bubbles or drawing shapes on the surface and pushing them up, messages to be found by other kids.
A girl with pointy, fuzzy, green ears pushed a bubble at her, a smiley face drawn on the surface. She added hair to the face and pushed it back before moving towards one of the corners of the hexagonal pit. Three of the corners were occupied, but the fourth was free. She pushed the bubbles out of the way, laid on her back on the rubbery mat and stared up through the ten feet of bubbles.
Oily rainbows ran across the surface of each bubble. It was a hundred zillion times better than a regular ball pit. It was magic, and it was safe. There were just bubbles, there wasn’t the threat of the end of the world, there wasn’t a fairy-
Her mind still baulked at the thought. She grabbed one of the bubbles pressing down on her and held it tight – it was a poor replacement for Alexandria, but it would have to do.
Agent fetish or not, there was no reason that…keenness should have been aimed in her direction. There was nothing there to want. Nothing about her that was good. Nothing about her that should inspire lust. Broken mind. Broken body. Broken soul. Broken girl.
She felt tears on her cheeks.
The bubble in her arms burst and she grabbed another.
‘It’s not fair,’ she whispered.
Careful, you said that out loud.
It’s not fair.
What isn’t?
Come on, don’t make me-
You’re never going to get any better if you don’t face up to what’s bothering you.
I don’t want to.
You don’t want to what, Spyder?
Oh fsck off, would you?
If I leave you alone, you’ll stay in here forever.
I can live off scraps.
You-
I just want it to go back to being simple. It’s all too complicated now. I want it to be my life again. I want it to be that making dinner for myself was an actual damn achievement. Or showering more than once a fortnight. I could handle that. I can’t-
You’ve been doing fine so far.
And how many more good days can I have? How long till I just stop working, and what if that’s during a fight? It was fine to just stop before. I could switch off without consequences. I can’t do that anymore. I can’t live in my wardrobe for three days. I can’t hide under the covers and pray the world disappears. People count on me. People actually count on me and I can’t handle that.
Spyder…
If they’re counting on me, I can disappoint them. If I disappoint them-
Ryan can’t exactly send you to boarding school.
He can transfer me. He can give me to the Lost. He can lock me in the basement. He can-
He’s not going to get rid of you.
‘That’s what fathers do!’
Inside voice, Spyder.
She sat up and wedged herself into the corner.
Ryan is not James.
She drew a sad face on the bubble in her arms and pushed it away.
I don’t deserve him. I don’t deserve any of this.
She grabbed another bubble and pushed her face into it, suffocating herself for a moment before it burst – a built in safety measure to stop accidental deaths on company property.
Her wrist buzzed.
She held it up and looked at it. The red LED blinked on and off as the bracelet vibrated.
‘Sigh.’
She wiped her face with the back of her hand, crouched, then pushed off up into the bubbles. Going up was always harder than going down. She stepped onto bubbles and jumped up, making her way up the ten feet of the pit bit by bit until she could grab onto the ladder at the top and pull herself up and out.
She went to the door, and waited for Curt to buzz her out.
The bracelet came loose, and he put it back in the rack before showing her to the table.
The tray sat on a warming circle, keeping the foot hot. She slid into the other side of the booth and waited as he distributed burgers, fries, aole chips, drinks and sauce sachets, the brikni slab he left in the centre of the table.
She dug into the small box of aole chips – savoury chips of bark that aided in digestion – they were supposed to be eaten after the meal, like fortune cookies, but she could never resist eating them first. ‘They didn’t have purple?’ she asked.
‘I didn’t know you liked the purple ones.’
‘Ok, new rule for buying me food, if you can choose between a nifty colour and a boring colour,’ she said as she lifted a green chip, ‘pick the cool colour.’
‘At least I got orange brikni.’
‘Like anyone eats brown brikni if they have a choice.’ She stared at his burger. ‘What the hell is that?’
He pulled the piece of plastic out of his burger and twirled it. ‘Unicorn horn, it’s a fauxnicorn burger.’
‘You got two, you must be feeling horny.’ She laughed and it came out as a snort. ‘Ok, sorry, even I know I didn’t mean to say that.’
He stabbed the end of the horn into the brikni and pulled off a chunk. ‘Have you ever had real unicorn?’
‘Is there still meat around? Seems like it should have gone off by now.’
‘It’s ten times rarer than the wine, but it still exists. Apparently the fake stuff isn’t a bad reproduction of the taste. I just got you regular, wasn’t sure if you had a preference.’
‘Trade you one?’ she said as she held up one of her plain burgers. He nodded, and handed across a fauxnicorn burger – this one with a small purple horn stabbed into the top.
‘I was watching,’ he said, ‘you spent your whole time in the bubbles, you get stuck down at the bottom?’
She shook her head. ‘Nah, it’s just really neat at the bottom. And sometimes there’s loose change. I’ve only been in the bubblepit in the park near Patty’s before, and that one only does the holograms on the top layer of bubbles.’
She pulled out the purple horn, laid it on the edge of the table and unwrapped the burger. The top of the bun had a silhouette of a unicorn toasted into the top. ‘I’m not sure that’s necessary,’ she said. ‘And why don’t they do it for the other burgers?’
Curt swallowed, wiped his mouth, then smirked. ‘A question to answer your question: what flavour are the regular burgers?’
‘They’re-’ Beef. Pork. Chicken. Llama. No, not llama, that had a distinct taste. The regular burgers tasted like- Everything. Nothing. Like burgers. Like meat. Her eyes went wide. ‘What the hell have I been eating?’