‘You’re kidding, right?’
‘Most of the time, Maggie, yes, but not now.’
Maggie stared at the pile of pink boxes. ‘I’m too old for Barbies.’
‘That’s not what the lady in the store said. Besides, they’re not for you, they’re for me.’
‘You went to a shop and bought them, you didn’t poof them?’
‘I can require more if we break these, but I’m trying to do it properly.’
‘And I’m trying to do homework!’
Darren sighed and sat down across the big table from her. ‘The book says you should hate homework. Ten year olds hate homework, that’s what the book says?’
‘Well I don’t.’ She put down her green pencil and picked up a black one to reinforce the outlines of the state-shapes on her report. ‘What book?’
A book poofed into his hands and he waved it at her. ‘She says I have to read all the books she gives me before she gives me kids. Which is sort of like homework. But I don’t like homework, you want to sneak out?’
‘You kind of suck as a babysitter.’
‘You suck as a kid!’
She stuck her tongue out at him. ‘And what if your kids like homework and playing indoors?’
‘…I’ll return them?’
She abandoned her map of Australia and climbed up onto the table to look at the mountain of pink boxes. ‘How did you carry all of this?’
There was a knock at the door. ‘Darren?’
He swore under his breath, apologised to her, then stood to look at the man in the doorway. Another agent. The same suit Darren wore, when he bothered to wear all of his suit, and not just his shirt and pants. ‘Yes, sir?’
She flinched at the word “sir” and started to climb off the table – the big table, hers to use for homework or not, was the official agent table, and probably one of the pieces of furniture a person shouldn’t climb on.
The other agent smiled at her. ‘A bit young for a recruit, isn’t she?’
‘She’s a mascot?’ Darren said.
‘I am not!’
‘What’s your name?’
‘Nice to meet you, Maggie,’ the agent said, ‘Darren, could I talk with you for a moment?’
‘You just start unboxing these.’ Darren said as he left the room with the other agent.
Maggie stared at the open pile of Barbies, to the door, then back again. The clock on the wall and the Minnie Mouse watch on her wrist told her that Darren had been gone at least twenty minutes.
She walked through the building – it was always quiet in the afternoons. The sound of the two men talking was muffled by Darren’s office door, enough to hear voices, but not the words. The voices didn’t sound happy.
She twisted the bottom of her school uniform shirt, then sneaked closer to the office.
The other agent’s voice rose over Darren’s. He sounded like a principal. Like principals did when they yelled at her about fights she didn’t start. Finished, but didn’t start.
‘Give me a break!’ Darren’s voice came, much louder than Agent Principal and loud enough to make her knock over the bin next to her.
The voices went quiet and the door to Darren’s office opened. Agent Principal stared down at her, the back at Darren. ‘She’s the closet thing you’ve got to a recruit, and she thinks she can sneak up on agents.’
‘Just close the door, sir.’
Agent Principal walked over to her, picked up the bin, then tossed a heavy blue folder into it. ‘Darren, I can’t give you any more chances.’
‘I’m sick of hearing the age excuse,’ Agent Principal snapped. ‘If not for your Aide, you’d already-‘
‘Classy, sir, are you really going to threaten me in front of a child.’
‘I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that. And there’s no reason to hide the truth from children.’ Agent Principal crouched in front of her. ‘How old are you, Maggie?’
‘Ryan-’ Darren said.
‘Does your teacher give you homework?’
‘I was doing it, then he brought Barbies in. It’s not due till Friday. Can teachers call angels about homework?’
This got a decidedly non-principally smile out of him. ‘Maybe.’
‘Maggie, go to your room or I’ll-’ Darren started.
‘Shift her, and I’ll shift her back down.’ Agent Ryan said. ‘Do you always do your homework on time, Maggie?’
She twisted her uniform shirt again. ‘I try!’
‘And trying is all I ask for,’ Ryan said as he looked up at Darren. ‘How is it that a child has a better work ethic than you do?’
‘She’s weird,’ Darren said, ‘she likes homework, she helps Katie file stuff on the weekends. She started to read the recruit handbook, and found errors in it.’
Ryan smiled again. ‘She’ll make a great recruit one day.’ A bar of chocolate poofed into hand and he handed it to her before standing. ‘And you might not live that long to see that if you don’t improve.’
‘I’m not a great agent, you should have figured that out by now!’
‘I can’t keep covering for you! Your only recruit is an overworked Aide, your territory is overrun by fae and Solstice and gods know what else. The previous agent in this position didn’t have an issue, but everything is growing wild on your watch. I’ve made all the allowances for your age that I can, and even that you didn’t deserve. Do you think my first five years were easy?’ Ryan pointed to the file in the bin. ‘And I am not signing off on that until you’ve earned it.’
‘We’ll do it anyway.’
‘Legal for Kings is not legal for Agency,’ he said, ‘do as you wish, but if I have to walk you to the chamber, she won’t get spousal benefits.’
‘Why are you doing this to me?’
‘Because I have to,’ Ryan said, ‘I have enough problems keeping my city and my territory under control without covering for you as well.’
Darren looked scared, and she ran across to hold his hand. ‘Would you do it?’ Darren asked. ‘Look at me, sir, could you really do it?’
‘Carol Whitman,’ Ryan said. ‘Review the file before you ask me what I’m capable of. If you want to celebrate your sixth birthday, I’m going to need to see some improvement. You can have help, but ask for it, don’t just expect it.’
Ryan straightened his coat and disappeared from the room.
‘What’s that called?’
‘What’s what called, sweetheart?’
‘When you poof to go somewhere.’
‘A shift. Shifting.’
She stared up at him. ‘And you’re only five? You look like a grown-up. Not just a tall kid. And you drink and drive and smoke.’
‘Angels are different,’ he said as he poofed a couple of chairs and sat on one of them. ‘We’re born grown ups. At least looking like grown ups. Thinking like grown ups can take a bit longer.’
‘That why he was yelling at you?’
Darren nodded. ‘I’m the kid in class whose dog ate their homework. I just don’t get it. Not like they do. All the other angels get a handle on it so much easier. There’s a bloke even younger than me that’s already on Ryan’s good list.’
‘Katie does all the forms and stuff.’
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘she does, that’s why-’ He looked at the bin and sighed. ‘If it wasn’t for her, I would have gotten onto his “really naughty list” and you’d be talking to a different angel.’
‘You want some ice cream?’
‘Ice cream isn’t an answer.’
He ran his hand through his hair. ‘I think when they made me they left out the ability to be organised. The scary thing, Maggie, is that if they weren’t careful, that could actually be true. Put me up against a scary thing and I can beat its head in, I can talk to people and learn what I need to know, but that’s sort of where it ends with me, I don’t care about the official side of stuff. The people around me are safe, and that’s what’s important to me, not the paperwork and bullshit. Don’t tell your dad I swore in front of you.’
‘Bullshit’s not a bad swear.’
She stuck her tongue out at him, then twisted the bottom of her shirt again. ‘What he said but, what’d he mean?’
‘Nothing. He didn’t mean nothing. He’s always mad at me.’
‘Why won’t you see your next birthday?’
‘Why can’t you be a stupid kid?’
She frowned at him. ‘Cause I’m a freak. And I like being a freak. And if you’re stupid and a freak then it’s easier for people to pick on you. If you’re a freak, you’ve got to be smart.’
‘If I don’t start being a better angel, he’ll kill me Maggie, and please don’t tell your dad I said that either. Or Katie. Especially Katie. I can handle your dad being mad at me. I mean, she already knows, sorta. This afternoon can be our little secret, right?’
‘He’ll kill you?’
‘Can’t we please just have ice cream?’
She shook her head.
‘You’re giving me, orders, Maggie?’
‘So where do we start, ma’am?’
‘Get your homework and come to the homework table.’
* * *
Magnolia stared at the green line beneath her feet – a little too far beneath her feet. Her tiptoes barely scraped against the concrete as if she were a ballerina. Forward momentum, to her embarrassment, was supplied by leaning against her commander.
It was embarrassing. It was pathetic. It wasn’t disciplined and it wasn’t the right impression to be making.
She focused on the ground as if it had insulted the Agency, and felt herself finally touch back down.
Taylor, however, kept his hand on her arm.
Marriage. An unthinkable concept. A possibility she’d never accounted for. Never a dream worth having. Agency life wasn’t a story that lead to long, happy lives and white picket fences. Fucking on duty, and dying together was about as much as one could hope for.
And once again, he was fucking with her expectations.
Unrequited love was bullshit. Bullshit she’d lived for almost the entire time she’d been a recruit. Abusive bastard that he’d been, it hadn’t taken long to fall, and fall hard.
There was a tinkling of bells as he pushed open the door to the office building.
Fairies liked things to be simple – and that included having the majority of their official buildings being able to deal with all issues that their citizenry dealt with. It was the one location for unemployment benefits, no-child payments, marriages, adoptions and parents freeing themselves of claims on children.
She quickly looked at the signage and they walked towards a bank of computers.
She slid into a chair. ‘This will just be a moment sir,’ she said as she clicked through the available files and selected the options to print a two-name/one-name marriage application.
She went back to the home screen, then looked to the printer, and the short line of fae. ‘Sir,’ she said as she turned, ‘could you find a table for us?’
He nodded, and left here to stand in the short printer line behind two giggly hob girls and a gnome with a baby fairy in a tiny carrier.
The fae ahead of her only took seconds with the printer, then she picked up the marriage application from the tray. It was still slightly warm and all-too-real.
Married. They were getting married.
* * *
Darren came into the room, a messy stack of papers in his arms.
‘Get rid of the Barbies,’ she said.
‘You seem really all right about giving me orders, Maggie.’
‘If you’re really five, then you’re like a pre-schooler, and pre-schoolers have to listen to people older than them.
The pile of pink boxes poofed away.
‘And what’s that called?’
‘You know that one, Maggie,’ Darren said as he sat and spilled his papers across the table. ‘Require.’
‘It’s require to get stuff, but is it require to get rid of stuff?’
‘Maggie stop making me think about this stuff.’
‘You’re a five-year-old that looks like a grown-up and and who can poof anything they want. You’re a freak, just like me, so that means you have to be smart, just like me.’
Darren gave a big frustrated-pre-schooler sigh and required a beer. ‘In all technicality, it’s a requisition, but everyone calls it requiring, and “require” is the word you think in your head to get something. To get rid of something, it’s “dismiss”.’
She smiled. ‘See? That wasn’t too hard.’ She picked up her blue pencil to colour the ocean on her map. ‘Now start with the easiest one in the pile.’
He put a hand over his eyes and took lucky-dipped one form out of the pile. ‘Ugh.’
She smiled. ‘Bet I can finish Australia before you can finish that one.’
‘And if I win?’
‘I’ll bet you-’ he started.
‘I saw what the forms in the bin were.’
Darren looked up, then everything went swirly as the Agency disappeared.
A strong breeze sent her hair in a hundred different directions. ‘Where are we?’
‘You were doing a map of the country, I thought you’d like to see the middle of it. Well, what someone used to think was the middle of it.’
‘You can’t tell anyone what you saw on those forms.’
‘I can keep a secret, I’m not an idiot.’
‘She can’t know I asked Ryan, and she can’t know he said no. Ok?’
‘Why do you have to ask your boss if it’s ok to get married?’
‘Angel law, Maggie. We can get married, but it won’t count according to the Agency. And I love Katie, and I want it to count in all the ways.’
She stared up at him. ‘Can we go home now?’
The world went swirly again, and the conference room reappeared.
The door opened and her dad walked in. ‘How’s everything going in here?’
She smiled. ‘We’re discussing the need for a good work ethic.’
* * *
Taylor pointed at the name designation section. ‘What there?’
‘Well, you won’t be taking my name, sir. Do you want-?’
‘What do you want, Magnolia?’
She clasped the dog tags around her neck and stared at his name stamped into them. ‘Yes, sir. If you don’t mind, sir.’
He gave her a slight nod.
She lifted the clipboard from her knees, and carefully wrote “Magnolia Taylor” into the new name designation section.
They each signed the form, and she ran over the three pages again, just to double-check it as though it was any other piece of paperwork, any normal piece of paperwork, instead of the second-biggest life changing form of her life.
She removed her small purse from the pocket stitched into the waistline of her skirt, and found her bank card.
Taylor put a large, warm hand over hers, then pulled a small stack of bills from his pocket and peeled away three purple twenty-five notes and a green ten note, then tossed them down onto the form.
‘Thank you sir.’
‘You did the paperwork,’ he said.
She stared down at the marriage application, and at the number in her hand. Three to go. She pushed down the giddy feelings and looked up at him. ‘This is the last easy point to back out, sir.’
He leaned close, his mouth brushing against her ear. ‘The statement of intent I want to give would have me recycled, Magnolia, I have no want to back out.’
‘Later,’ he said. ‘Not here. Later.’
Their number was called, and they walked over to the counter with the small blinking blue light.
The fairy took the form from her as they stepped up to the counter, and brightened when they saw it was an application for marriage. Their form was slid into a scanner, and the fairy moved away from the counter for a couple of moments before returning with their blue-tinted certificate. The fairy placed it into a small folder, then passed it through the slot. ‘Congratulations.’
A receipt printed as Taylor handed across the money. The fairy tore away the receipt first, and pointed out the charges in a perfunctory manner, then reached into a draw and withdrew a bright orange booklet. ‘Either of you been married before?’
She passed the booklet through the slot. ‘This is a book of vouchers and discounts for your affirmation ceremony, lovers’ vacations and the like.’ She smiled. ‘Enjoy.’
Taylor slipped the booklet and the receipt into one of his many pockets, and they walked from the office, agent and wife.
‘You’re kidding, right?’