Three Days Later
‘I still don’t believe I’m getting a gorram gala,’ Stef said.
‘You’d better get used to it, newbie,’ Curt said, ‘cause you can’t really back out of it.’
‘I know, I know, but still…’ She lifted a small box and ripped the plain brown wrapping off. ‘What’s a nymph-in-a-box?’ she asked as she went to pry the cardboard box open.
The box was pulled from her hand.
She looked up at Curt, then at the spot on the far side of the room where he’d been. ‘…did you just shift over here?’
‘Picard manoeuvre,’ he countered as he placed the box into the “to be regifted” pile. ‘I guess Next Gen is good for some things.’
‘So what’s a-‘
‘Do you really want to know?’
‘Do I?’
He mumbled something about a flashlight to himself, then looked up and shook his head. ‘No, you don’t.’
‘It’s not literally a nymph is it?’
‘Out of all the stuff you’ve received, I don’t think you actually got a slave. A few offers of indentured servitude, but you don’t have to accept them.’
‘People want to be my slave?’
‘Newbie, I think you’ve gotten every single thing it’s possible to get. You got marriage proposals, you got servitude proposals, you got offers of people wanting you indentured, job offers, people wanting you to star in ads and promotions, and that’s just out of what I’ve seen so far. You’re not being Courted, but I think the Lost might have staked a claim on you, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you get a few whispers in your ear at the gala, most of the major Courts should be there, and more than a few of the minor ones.’
She stared at the crown’s wooden box in the centre of the large conference table. ‘I should give out the invites soon, shouldn’t I?’
‘There’s only a week and a half left, so, yeah, probably. Who you going to invite?’
She shrugged.
He stared at her. ‘You already know, you’re just being you.’ He opened the envelope beside the box and pulled out the gold-foiled invitations. ‘They included a dozen, but you can request more if you want.’
‘Do I even know a dozen people?’
He slid into the chair across from her and a notebook and pen appeared in his hand. ‘Come on.’
‘Do I need an invite?’
‘There’s a complete disconnect between genius and smart, isn’t there?’
She kicked him under the table. ‘Shut up.’
‘No, guest of honour, you don’t need an invitation. List.’
‘Jonesy already said he doesn’t want to go. Can’t blame him. Ok. People who are coming. Ok, you, obviously. If you want to suffer through this.’
‘Do you want me to wear a tux?’
‘I don’t care what you wear.’
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that reminds me.’ He stood, went back to his sorting pile and retrieved a thick envelope. ‘Yours if you want.’
She opened it, shirked, and shifted into the corner.
‘That’s a no, then?’ he asked.
She shifted back into her chair. She stared down at the gifting of a newly designed dress. ‘I don’t need a dress.’
‘As little as I know, this guy is a name, so it’s a pretty nice offer.’
‘Can you imagine me in something like this?’ she asked as she flicked through the included brochure. ‘I mean, seriously.’
‘Fine, toss it in the regift pile.’
She spun the brochure in her hands for a moment. ‘Obviously I’m inviting those three. May as well get this over with.’ She picked up three invites, stuffed the brochure back into the envelope. ‘Brb.’
Heat pricked at her neck as she stood in front of Taylor’s office. Combat floor, somewhere she didn’t belong. Urges to run, escape and/or flee flooded her body. The flight part of fight or flight instincts were hard to fight when you could shift halfway around the world in a second. She wiped a sweaty hand on her pants and raised it to knock.
She bit back a yelp as the door opened.
The volcano stood, but didn’t explode. Taylor gave her the most neutral expression he’d ever given her, and gave a small grunt.
‘Um?’ she said, and lifted her hands, showing the tickets and the envelope with the future free dress in it.
He stepped to the side, giving her enough room to potentially walk into his office. But that was a mistake. Obviously. She’d never been in his office, he’d-
He stepped back and grunted again.
She walked, stiff-legged into his office, four different emergency shifts prepped and ready to go in her HUD.
‘Um?’ she said again as Magnolia spun on her chair to look at her. She walked across to the desk and laid the golden-ish tickets down. ‘Gala. If you want to. Don’t have to. You guys helped. So you should. It wasn’t just me. There should be free food. I think.’ She put a finger onto the third ticket. ‘And that’s for Grigori. Tell him he still owes me a fuzzy hat.’ She clutched the envelope, then dropped it on the desk in front of Magnolia. ‘You’re pretty. And this is a dress. Well, no it’s an envelope, but it’s got a free dress inside. Voucher. I don’t need it. I don’t want it, and you’re pretty, and you like this kind of stuff, and it’s free, so you should, if you want to.’
Magnolia opened the envelope, and froze as she read the details.
‘Sorry?’ she said, afraid of the magpie’s wrath.
‘Do you even know who this is?’ Magnolia asked, her voice close neutral to the point of a /serious.
‘Arshan Yo,’ Magnolia said as she smoothed the letter out, and laid it on the desk. ‘Arshan. Yo. You don’t know who that is?’
She took a step back. ‘Sorry? I mean you can- I can give it to someone else if-‘
She curled her toes in her shoes. ‘I don’t- Is it good or bad?’
Magnolia sighed. ‘It’s good, Mimosa, it’s exceedingly good.’
‘Okies, um, yay, I suppose. That’s all,’ she said, and shifted back to the new outpost’s main conference room.
‘Where’d you go?’ Curt asked as he dumped a new box of letters onto the table.
‘To invite Mags and Taylor and Grigori,’ she said, ‘Mags got a little weird about the dress thing though, but I think it was good.’
‘You grew up rich, right?’
She nodded.
‘And there are those designers that rich people go after, right? That the not-rich people shouldn’t dare to dream about wearing?’
‘Yeah, he’s one of those guys.’ He waved his phone, and she saw the Fairyland version of Wikipedia there. ‘He does normal collections still, but only designs a couple of unique pieces a year, and he’s getting old, like, real old, so each new design could be his last. You just gave Mags a piece of fashion history.’
‘So maybe it’ll make the truce with Taylor a little stronger?’
‘I’m frankly surprised she didn’t start making out with you,’ he said.
She shrugged. ‘Ok, that’s three invites gone. Plus you. Four. Ryan makes five.’
‘Does he want a plus one?’
‘Who would he bring?’
‘It would be polite to ask.’
She rolled her eyes.
[Do you want a plus one to the gala?] she asked as she pinged Ryan.
The channel opened, and he looked thoughtful for a moment. [If you wouldn’t mind.]
[I’ve got a bunch of tickets I have no idea what to do with, so of course it’s fine.] She lifted two tickets and shifted them to him. [There you go.]
[Thank you.]
She closed the channel and stared at the remaining tickets. ‘Do you have anyone else you want to invite?’
‘Ok, let’s see, my best friend, my girlfriend and my cute co-worker have all been invited, so I think I’m good.’
‘So you’re glad I gave the dress token to Mags then?’
‘Huh- Oh, come on, I meant you.’
‘You think I’m cute?’
He kissed her cheek. ‘Yeah, I do.’
She blushed, and he kissed her again.
She lifted the rest of the tickets and stared into her HUD. [I’m sending you the spares as well, okies?]
Ryan smiled. [I’ll do my best with them.]
She closed the channel again. ‘Okies, let’s get back to the presents, I want to get as much done as possible today.’
He waved a small pile of letters at her. ‘These are just some of the ones that have vouchers or lifetime memberships to places like Carmichael’s, what to you want to do with these?’
‘Toss them in the regifting pile?’
‘They’re a very strange sort of thing to regift.’
She stared at him. ‘You- You could-’ she mumbled.
‘You could use them if you wanted. I mean, I- I can’t for you- So- So these would-‘
‘No, newbie.’
‘No buts.’
She pointed at the vouchers. ‘Actually, from what I understand, lots of butts!’
He smirked. ‘I’ve got you and that’s enough. Really.’
‘End of discussion, newbie, I’m not cheating on you.’
‘It’s not cheating if I let you.’
‘It would feel like cheating, and that’s what matters.’
She slouched in her chair. ‘Fine.’
* * *
Four hours later.
‘Are we dooooooone yet?’
‘Not yet, newbie.’
She spun on her chair. ‘I’d really almost rather be doing work.’
‘We could take a patrol if you like.’
‘I said almost!’
He stood, stretched his arms over his head, then then a hand down to her. ‘Come on, it’ll be good to-‘
She screamed.
‘Ok, fine we-‘
She screamed again, and felt her skin burning.
‘Get back!’
She stumbled back as her skin began to bubble.
Gods, gods, gods, gods-
She tasted blood, but gathered her thoughts.
Shift: phoenix egg.
The world blurred – almost seeming to melt, then became clear.
The small room they’d assigned to the egg was melting.
[Newbie? Newbie?!]
Her sneakers melted to the floor, sticking her to the spot. She bit her lips, stepped out of the shoes and into the flames.
[Keep out,] she broadcasted, then threw herself on the cracking egg.
‘Shhh,’ she whispered as the phoenix peeked out. ‘Shhh, it’s okies, it’s okies.’
[I love you.]
Skin bubbled, and hair burned, but she stayed alive.
[What’s going on?]
[Please just-]
It crawled out of the egg, and into her arms. Afterthoughts of hunger hit her mind.
[It’s ok, I think it’s ok. Just give me a minute, okies?]
‘I know, I know, shhh, shhh.’
The flames slowly subsided, and she slid into the least decimated corner of the room, the warm, soft firebird in her arms.
She pulled her vest open, and offered her chest to the phoenix.
Its beak scratched against her chest and she tried to quiet her mind.
It broke through the skin and tapped against her heart.
Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain.
It shrieked, and she cried.
Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain.
It walked up her arm, rubbed its face against hers for a moment, then jumped back up onto the table and crawled into its egg. The egg glowed as it crawled back inside, and the cracks disappeared.
[I’m fine. I’m fine. Finish up with that room, then go home, I need the tank, but then I need a nap, okies?]
[I’ll be waiting for you.]
She stood on burnt feet, and pushed open the door to the small room.
The sound of the Agency’s emergency alarms pounded against her ears.
‘Owie, turn that off…’
Ryan’s voice.
She turned, and was grateful as she was lifted off her painful feet.
‘What happened?’
‘Baby was hungry,’ she said, ‘and the room’s a bit melted, and I’m a bit burny, but that’s it, no biggy.’
He shifted them, took a few steps, then she felt the refreshing touch of blue against her skin as she was slid into a tech tank. She splashed in the liquid, then submerged herself, and let herself fall to the bottom of the shallow tank.
[Are you all right?]
She pushed herself to the side of the tank and looked through the blue to see Ryan crouching down to her level.
[Been through a lot worse, dad. It wasn’t trying to hurt me, it just woke up hungry.]
[But- Your heart-]
[My heart’s better than it ever has been in my life. The hunk of mirror in my chest, well- Well, there’s still plenty for it to nom on.]
She blew bubbles in the blue. [What?]
His worried face stared at her. [What if we don’t-]
[Like not finding the other one is even an option!] she said. [At least half the city is still blacked out, and that’s if the blackout doesn’t collapse back in on the areas we’ve cleared. Think of how powerful mirror is, how much can one stupid little life need?]
[I don’t want to have to find out the answer to that question.]
[Then we just have to do our jobs and find the blue phoenix,] she said, [which we were kind of planning on doing anyway.] She pushed herself up through the blue, took a breath of air and hung herself over the side of the tank. ‘Have they admitted to having it yet?’
‘Officially,’ Ryan said, ‘no. And we have very few sources in their organisation. It might be hard to get people into the Solstice, but at least numbers aren’t a problem. Blue Earth on the other hand, their numbers are so low that it’s so much harder to get into their inner circles. We observe all the meetings we can, but those are-’ He paused. ‘They’re unimportant, little more than weekly services about their goals and magic in general.’
‘Stupid question?’
‘Have we tried crashing the meetings, tell them what the phoenix will do?’
He nodded. ‘That’s the only reason we have the information that we do. But their organisation is so…unorganised that it’s hard to get this information to people that matter. We don’t know if or when they intend to harm it and we don’t know if they believe us. We’ve got people working on it, so for the moment, we’re stuck playing the waiting game.’
‘And all the drones-slash-birds?’
‘They’re narrowing down the locations, but nothing yet.’
She raised her arms, and he lifted her from the tank. ‘So, we’ve just established that we’re doing everything we can, right? And that there’s nothing we can do to hasten finding the other phoenix?’
‘So stop worrying about my heart. If there’s nothing we can do, there’s nothing we can do. I feel fine. I do. And as little as this world conforms to magic tropes, I think I’d know if I was about to run out of mirror. I hope I would anyway. I’ve lost so much without side effects already, so I think I’ll be fine for a while yet. It didn’t nom that much this time anyway.’
‘And if the next time-‘
‘I could walk out of the building and get eaten by a demon. I could take a wrong turn in fairyland and end up with my wings for sale. The Solstice could decide to nuke us. Right now, in this moment, I’m fine, and that’s all I give a shit about. And if you agree, give me a cookie.’
‘I don’t agree, do you want a cookie anyway?’
‘But speechifying is supposed to make people agree with you…’
‘Sorry.’ He handed her a cookie. ‘I care about your future. I don’t want-‘
‘I don’t want to die either, dad, I don’t. But- And I’m going to do everything I can not to, but I’m also going to do what I can to keep the world turning, cause it’s got my stuff and my friends in it.’
‘I’m proud of you.’
She licked blue off her hand and nommed on the cookie. ‘I know.’ She looked down at herself and required her skin clean. ‘I’m gonna go take a nap, okies?’
‘Of course.’
She gave him a hug, then shifted.
She saw the bed, let herself fall forward, and everything went black.
She smelt coffee.
‘Hey newbie.’
She opened her eyes and saw Curt’s face above her own. ‘Hey.’
‘Figured you would want to wake up for dinner.’
‘What time is it?’
She sat up. ‘At least tell me it’s the same day.’
He nodded, and handed her the coffee. ‘You were only out for a few hours. Ryan’s gone to get dinner, so if you want to wake up a bit, then we’ll go eat.’
She gulped down half of the coffee. ‘Sorry. I just sort of- I just sort of came here, I should have asked if-‘
He kissed her cheek. ‘Shut up. And I’ve been wanting to have this conversation anyway.’
‘Which conversation? Is- Are we- Did I break a rule?’ She gripped her coffee tighter. ‘The breaking up conversation, or the sex conversation? Is there some sort of “I sleep in your bed without asking so you get to sleep in me without asking” thing?’
‘Put that on the list of moments where you’ve genuinely frightened me,’ he said. ‘Your mind is really fucking disturbing, newbie.’
‘I know. Still. Is there such a-‘
‘Of course there’s not!’
‘So which conversation did you-‘
‘If you wanted to officially move in with me!’ he snapped. ‘Sorry. Sorry.’ He hung his head. ‘Sorry. You just- When you say stuff like that it really worries me.’
‘I told you, I still don’t- I don’t know what I’m doing. Or how these things work.’
He kissed her temple. ‘I know, but start with the assumption that I’m not a bad guy and go from there, ok?’
‘Move in?’
‘You’re here all the time anyway, but you still act like it’s just my room. So. Yeah. Make it official?’
‘Is this how normal relationships go?’
He nodded. ‘Pretty much, yeah. Generally you start with a drawer of stuff at your partner’s place, but I think we can safely skip that step.’
‘Okies.’ She required away the coffee in her hands, and hugged him. ‘Okies.’