The place turned out to be an ugly, squat, six-storey building.
Stef stared at the peeling paint and the sun-faded sign and wondered if she could walk away without him noticing.
‘Coming?’ Curt asked as he started up the stairs towards the ill-lit lobby.
‘You know, there’s an alley right there if you’re going to kill me and dump my body.’
Curt leaned against the rickety brass railing. ‘You’re kind of paranoid, newbie. I’m hungry; I’m going. Call for a shift if you want to go home.’
‘How do I do that?’
‘Didn’t Agent Ryan teach you anything?’ He sighed. ‘There’ll be fae upstairs.’
She tried to keep her face neutral. ‘Ryan hasn’t had a chance to do much,’ she said as she followed him up the stairs.
One of the lights in the small lobby went out as he pressed the elevator button.
‘You sure you’re not gonna dump my body?’
He opened his jacket, pulled out his gun, and let it disappear from his hand. ‘Are you going to start acting like a normal person any time soon?’
But people never buy that act.
He stepped into the lift and gave her a curt nod. She followed him in and stood as far away as possible.
‘So is this normal?’ she asked as the lift ascended at a glacial pace.
Magic being stuck in buildings, hidden away from where everyone can see it.
She bit the inside of her cheek. ‘Meh, never mind.’
The doors slid open, and a hallway in bad need of repair stared back at her. There was a red door to the left, a small handwritten sign showing the hours of operation.
‘Now, don’t stare,’ he said as he pushed the door open.
She held her breath, prepared for something like Dorothy’s entrance to Oz, for everything mundane and humdrum and–
It was a crappy restaurant.
She vaguely heard Curt asking for a table for two as she stared around the floor. The paint wasn’t peeling, but it didn’t look like it had been refreshed in her lifetime. The decorations and fixtures looked…tired, at best. Wallpaper from the seventies adorned the plain walls, and the tables were covered in plastic tablecloths.
‘Agency pricing,’ Curt said. ‘Newbie, come on.’
She shook her head slightly and followed him to a table on a slightly raised dais.
‘Thoughts?’ he asked as he shoved a menu at her.
‘I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be thinking.’
He reached up to one of the floor-to-ceiling poles and tapped a small button, releasing a sheer purple curtain that covered the table. ‘Soundproofing net,’ he said, ‘for privacy, just in case you insult the locals.’
She peered through the curtain. ‘But everyone looks…’ She considered the word for a moment. ‘Normal?’
Curt folded his hands. ‘Oh, really?’
She looked around again and took in details that she hadn’t seen on her first, second, or third sweep of the restaurant. More than a few of the patrons had wings – some were small, most were folded flat against their backs. Beautiful, colourful wings – fairy wings that needed to be captured by an artist.
‘I mean – are – are they called fairies, or pixies, or–’ She wrapped her hands around the edge of the table.
Oh my god. This is all real.
‘Fairies,’ he said as he poured water into two glasses. ‘Wings like that, they’re a fairy.’
The wings were astounding enough. What was more impressive were the customers with leaves. ‘And those are nymphs?’
Stef watched a little girl with a bright yellow shirt run across to the buffet, hair made of vines bouncing, little flowers opening and closing as she loaded her plate.
He drank from his glass of water. ‘Correct. Any kind of nymph you can imagine, they exist. For all kinds of plants, for all kinds of environments: water, wood, desert — everything. Same for hobs, really. They’re sort of divergent species – so you can have city hobs just like you can have city nymphs.’
The little girl returned to her table, one of the flowers in her hair dropping to the floor.
Curt pushed the other glass of water at Stef and looked around the restaurant. ‘Who else have we got?’ he muttered. ‘It’s a weekday, so–’
‘But is magic always hidden away like this? Dingy little restaurants in crappy little buildings?’
‘Do not say that,’ he said. ‘Just wait till you try the food. You’ll forget what this place looks like.’
‘No, there’s nothing mind-altering in the buffet,’ he said. ‘And I brought you here because it’s close and because they accept required currency. And because Agent Ryan probably wouldn’t approve of dragging you to into Fairyland on your first day.’
A string of sounds that didn’t even approach English fell from her mouth as she stared at the recruit.
‘Try that again, newbie?’
‘Te – H – F – Fa–’
He gave a short chuckle. ‘Survive your first week, and we’ll see what we can do.’
A waitress arrived with two empty plates and a large pot of coffee. He pushed a plate at her after the waitress left.
‘Go get some food.’ He waved his phone as it buzzed. ‘I’ve just got to take care of a few things. I’ll be back in ten minutes, so don’t run off.’ He shrugged off his jacket and tapped his phone’s screen as he headed back towards the door.
She watched him go, then stared through the sheer curtain for a few moments more, watching a fairy with orange and green wings play with a tablet computer. She lifted the plate, pushed aside the curtain, and stepped down from the dais as the little nymph girl ran back towards the buffet.
Tiny yellow flowers burst into bloom on the girl’s head as she grabbed a ladle and spooned a bright red soupy concoction in a bowl before upending a container of little black croutons into the bowl.
Stef sniffed at the red soupy…soup, decided against it, and moved along to the next containers – which held small fat discs, about half the size of her palm and as thick as her thumb, in a rainbow of colours.
‘Pancakes?’ she muttered.
The nymph girl grabbed the tongs and took three of the purple ones and one of the pink-and-white striped ones.
She swallowed and put her plate next to the girl. ‘Wh – what are those?’
‘Fluffins?’ the girl said. ‘Or do you mean what kinds?’
‘No, um, I can see the kinds,’ Stef said as she read the labels – blackberry, bacon, oat, power, fish, diet, kolk, lava berry, and a dozen more. ‘Fluffins?’
‘Are you new?’
‘Very new, sorry.’ She took the little girl’s lead and took three of the blackberry and one of the bacon.
The next trays were easier to grok onto – eggs, with a variety of sauces. She took a small serving of eggs, some white sauce, and some orange sauce. She poured a glass of sparkling apple juice and returned to the table as the nymph girl overloaded her own plate and grabbed a jug of water.
Stef closed the purple curtain and watched the little girl get back to her table. The girl’s mother dunked one arm into the jug of water, her fingers splitting into fine white roots, with the other, she took one of the purple fluffins.
At the table next to the nymphs were two guys holding hands and sharing from a plate laden with green fluffins. A sleepy-looking girl sat at the next table, huge fluffy ears and grey hair possibly marking her as some kind of koala person, lazily picked at a plate of eggs while playing with a phone.
This is more attention than you’d paid to people in years.
She quickly wiped tears from her eyes.
Fae are real. Fairies are real. I just–
She let out a long, shuddering breath and smiled.
God, I think I’m happy.
She picked up the bacon fluffin and munched on it – discovering that it was basically a tiny fat pancake with filling – and watched the fae eat their breakfasts. The little girl sneezed, the yellow flowers flying from her head and landing on the floor.
Curt returned after she’d finished all fluffins and had started on the egg. The white sauce was something like hollandaise but sweet; 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 the very human foods.’
Nothing seemed like it would shrink me down or turn me into a cat.
She stared at her plate. ‘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.’ A folder appeared on the table, and she jumped.
‘You hadn’t done your recruitment tests when Agent Ryan called me in this morning, so…’ He trailed off, flicked through a couple of pages, then looked at her. ‘This is kind of weird.’
‘Ca – can I have a look?’
A copy of the folder appeared in front of her, and he leaned across to flick it to the second page.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘There’s three scores there. Combat, field and tech. Each is out of ten, with ten being the best, obviously.’
Where’s my Spyder chart?
‘That one says negative seven,’ she said. ‘I guess I really should stay away from Taylor.’
‘He’s given corpses higher scores, newbie.’
She sank lower in her chair.
‘Combat doesn’t really matter if you’re not working for Taylor. Field is the interesting score – it’s the one that effects you, no matter what department you work for.’ He sipped at the glass of water. ‘One to three-point-nine, you’re really limited as to what fieldwork you can do. It’s where a lot of the techs score – so they have to be chaperoned. Four is the bare minimum for working in our department and getting regular assignments. Anything higher determines what kind of assignments you can take – you know, danger rating.’
She stared at her field rating. ‘Well, it’s bigger than four.’
‘Four-point-two,’ he said. ‘You got eight-point-six for tech.’ He stared at her. ‘I mean, I don’t question what Agent Ryan says, but why the hell aren’t you with Agent Jones?’
She pretended to be interested in her dirty plate. ‘I’m where Ryan wanted me,’ she said.
‘You don’t call him “Agent” or “Director”. You just call him Ryan.’
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.
‘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 shuffled the pages. ‘I’m just trying to figure it out. It’s a bit weird.’
Yeah, well, I died, he saved me, and if he wants to keep me around as a pet–
‘–I’m okay with that.’
‘You’re okay with what?’
‘Whatever he wants to do.’
Curt stared at her. ‘Huh. Okay, things are starting to make a bit more sense now. But seriously?’ He looked at her. ‘All right. But.’ He shook his head. ‘Like I said, I don’t question him. But a four-point-two isn’t going to get you very far, despite whatever advantage he wants to give you, so you’ve got to listen to me until you get a better grip on the world, okay?’
He looked at his watch. ‘Okay, let’s go do your follow-up.’
[table id=15 /]
The place turned out to be an ugly, squat, six-storey building.