Curt loved the Local Court in the early hours of the morning – it was quiet, the only people around were those opening their stores, or coming through from Fairyland for their rides to regular jobs – whether it was by pre-arranged taxi, or crow.
Getting the weekly liaison package was a task he’d gladly accepted early in his recruit career, once Ryan had trusted him enough to leave the building.
He held his phone in his hand, ready to hit accept in case any Rose Room invites popped up, though requests for casual sex this time of morning were pretty rare – most commuting fae took care of themselves before leaving home, and would avail themselves of their workplace hookers if needed after their morning coffee.

The main office didn’t open for twenty minutes – plenty of time to grab a bagel and peek into the windows of the as-yet-unopened doors, staring at toys he didn’t have the money to buy, or clothes that would just sit in his wardrobe.
He walked past the lounge area where the homeless tended to sleep – even as good as the Faerie services were, there were still people that slipped through the cracks – non-citizens and people who had fallen out of favour with their Courts, people who refused to seek help, or just needed to live off the grid for a while.
At least the Local Court provided a safe place for them to sleep, and food – even if it was some kind of industrial gruel that only provided basic nutrition.
He’d tried it once, on a dare, and nearly puked.
At least if he ever fell out of favour with the Agency, and was still breathing, he could go to Carmichael. Sleeping in the lounge was a place he hoped he’d never fall to.
He stopped in front of a glass-and-metal donation booth and emptied his fae coins into it – the pocket change was probably less than a meal at Famous Fry’s, and it was money he could live without.
The machine dutifully printed him a receipt he could claim back on Fairyland taxes, and he crammed it into his pocket.
He tried to look at the people in the lounge, even as he felt his eyes sliding past them – donating was one thing, feeling pity was one thing, looking too hard was another – there was really nothing he could do.
He looked past the people to the windows – it was a pretty place to sleep at least, the memory-glass windows showing a half-dozen different views. One wide window looked out on the sun coming up over a field, another slowly flew over a canyon, a third showed a view out to the horizon over the ocean.
His eyes skated over each of the homeless, not really seeing them, and he turned away feeling the insensitive need for a decent breakfast.
Something was wrong.
Something was out of place.
He tensed, feeling for his weapon, then looked back. He moved to put the donation machine between him and the sleeping vagrants in case of attack, and looked at each in turn. A nymph man sitting in a chair, his branches wrapped around the plastic; a fairy girl wrapped up in her own wings; a trio of goblins sleeping in a bundle beneath a bench.
None of the fae faces rung a bell, no one looked like they were going to attack him, nothing seemed to be responsible for the itchy, stove-still-on feeling in his brain.
Newbie.
He took a step back, unwilling to believe what he was seeing.
Sleeping on one of the flat, tiled benches beneath the memory-glass was Stef – dirty, disheveled and-
It couldn’t be.
It was the early-morning light and his sleep-deprived brain playing a trick on him.
He took a step closer, even as the bigger part of him wanted to turn and run: if he didn’t get closer, if he didn’t confirm, then he could believe she was out there somewhere, he could believe-
He smoothed out his jacket, trying to calm himself, and walked towards her, more and more sure with every step that it was her.
The dirty sneakers were a huge clue.
He stopped a few feet short of her, and it really was her. Stef was alive, but sleeping among the homeless – nothing about that added up.
There was a laptop bag beneath her head, the only possession she seemed to have. Her skin was even more pale than he remembered, and her face had started to take on a gaunt look.
Her clothes had the rumpled, dirty appearance of a single outfit being worn day-in and day-out with little capacity to clean it.
He knelt in front of her. ‘Newbie?’
Her face pinched, and she turned away from him, farting as she did so.
He stood, slipped off his jacket, and laid it across her shoulders. It took a moment, but she snuggled into it.
He walked out of the seating area, well aware that without the jacket, his status as a recruit was even more noticeable – likely not a good thing until he found out what was going on. He ducked into the bathroom, removed his vest, and stuffed it into the bin – anyone could wear a dress shirt and tie, he was now as invisible as he could be.
She’d be gone. He was hallucinating. She’d wake up, find an Agency jacket and run.
He looked back to the lounge and saw her still lying there. She was still asleep, he still had time. Whatever was going on was serious, and serious conversations shouldn’t take place on empty stomachs.
Curt walked up to the food court, bought two coffees, stuffing his pocket full of sugar packets, and bought a half dozen doughnuts to go with them.
He exited the food court, then considered how thin she was looking, and hopped in the line for Famous Fry’s and bought ten of their five-for-five burgers, and the usual selection of sides.
He juggled everything, then quickly walked back to the seating area, hoping again she hadn’t disappeared in the few minutes he’d been gone.
She hadn’t – her face was now pressed up against the memory glass window as she snored softly.
He put the food down at the end of the bench she was sleeping on, then found one of the unused tables and carried it back across.
He placed the bags of food there, hoping it looked like a welcoming feast, and reached for her.
His fingers curled back as he went to touch her shoulder – part of him wanted to let her sleep, part of him needed to see her awake, and part of him worried that there were things he wasn’t worrying about.
He clenched his hand into a fist for a moment, then forced his fingers to relax, and touched her shoulder.
Stef woke up immediately, and she was on her feet before her eyes were even open.
She shook her head slightly as she grabbed blindly for her bag, then looked up at him, really seeing him for the first time.
Her eyes went wide and she hunched until her shoulders nearly hid her ears. ‘Fuck. Oh fuck. Oh fuck,’ she said as she started to back away.
She was terrified. Not a good sign.
He sat quickly, taking the height difference out of the situation, and giving her the apparent advantage, should she decide to run. [He] reached forward slowly and lifted one of the coffees from the cardboard tray, holding it out towards her.
She stared at it with the intent of a strung-out junkie, her eyes somehow even wilder than they’d been a minute ago. She balled her hands into shaking fists, then stepped forward and grabbed the coffee, then began to back away again.
He lifted the bag full of doughnuts and gave her a weak smile.
She backed away another two steps, then hesitated for a moment as he opened the bag and tilted it towards her, showing off the freshly-baked, sugar-encrusted pieces of heaven.
For someone who had used what seemed like every second requirement to conjure something sweet, it would have looked like the best bribe in the world.
‘It’s just me, newbie,’ he said gently. ‘If you run, I’m not going to chase you. But- Please don’t. I’m not going to hurt you.’
She stared, her expression flat with fear, the coffee trembling in her hand.
He looked away for a moment, not wanting to push her, not wanting to drive her away.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her slip her bag over her shoulder, a sign that she was going to run.
‘Please don’t go,’ he said, more of a prayer than anything else.
‘I’m…hungry,’ she said slowly as she took a step closer to him. ‘But-’ her voice choked. ‘Don’t-’
‘It’s just food,’ he said, putting the doughnuts on the edge of the table, where she could grab them without coming much closer, ‘I won’t even talk if you don’t want me to.’ He looked up, and his heart broke a little as he saw tears. ‘Hey newbie,’ he said. ‘I know you don’t trust me-’
‘Don’t tell Ryan!’ she said, the words coming out as a rush. ‘Please. Whatever else you do, don’t tell him you saw me.’ She sat beside him, closer than he expected, stuffed her hand into the bag, pulled out a cinnamon twist, and crammed it into her mouth, half of it immediately disappearing from sight.
She choked on doughnut and tears, but managed to swallow, coughing all the while. She lifted the coffee, pulled the plastic lid off and downed half of it, rivulets pouring down both sides of her mouth.
Stef pulled the cup away, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and sat back against the window and drank more of the coffee as tears slipped down the side of her face.
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. She put the coffee down, shook out the folded square, and buried her face in it.
She folded in on herself and took a couple of deep breaths, before scrunching the handkerchief into her hands. ‘I’ve got to ask one thing,’ she said, her voice flat, ‘is the food drugged?’
‘What?!’ he asked, ‘no, no, of course it’s not.’
‘Oh,’ she said in the same flat tone, ‘good then.’ She shoved her hand into the doughnut bag again and pulled out a second cinnamon twist.
This one she ate far more slowly, and without choking on it.
After a moment, she put the uneaten half on her knee, and popped the plastic lid back onto her coffee, and drank it far more slowly.
‘Can I talk?’ he asked, shuffling away a little and putting the spare coffee between them. ‘Or should I just keep the caffeine coming?’
She looked down at the spare. ‘You sure you don’t want that?’
He swallowed, trying to keep unsure emotions in check. ‘I’ll get you another six if you want, whatever you want, Stef.’
She drained the first coffee. ‘If I ask you to go away, and never come back, would you?’
‘Yes,’ he said slowly, ‘I will. I don’t want to, but I will.’
‘Okay, good.’
‘Is that what you want then?’
‘No, but I’m keeping it in reserve. Then again, you kept breaking your promise not to be a douche so I’m not sure how much I can trust you.’ The fear returned to her face. ‘I don’t care what it costs me, you have to promise me you won’t tell Ryan.’
‘That you’re alive, or that I saw you, or-?’
‘Any of it,’ she said, her voice taking on a panicked edge, ‘all of it. I’m gone, I’m out of his way, I’m-’
‘Did he hurt you?’ he asked, unsure if he wanted to hear the answer.
She looked up, shock replacing the fear. ‘Huh?’
‘Ryan. Did he hurt you?’ he asked slowly.
Stef shook her head. ‘No, no, it’s…No, nothing like that.’ She lifted the half-eaten doughnut, then froze. ‘I- I can’t- But he can’t know. For his own good.’ She squished the doughnut between her fingers. ‘If he even- Sorry. Shutting up.’
‘Stef?’
She brought her knees up to her chest and her expression went agent-neutral. ‘What?’
‘Where have you been? You got reported as killed-in-action. Ryan had an investigation levelled against him for getting an untrained recruit killed. Where- Where have you been?’
‘The KIA wasn’t exactly inaccurate,’ she muttered.
‘You died?’
She froze, as if she’d said too much. She slowly extended her legs, and started looking around – probably for the quickest escape.
‘Newbie, please,’ he begged. ‘I’m safe. Whatever else I am, I’m safe. I know I’m a jerk sometimes, I know, but you can trust me. And…and you probably need some help, given where you’re hanging out.’
She picked at the fabric of her pants for a moment. ‘I figured hanging out in Fairyland was safer. Less Agency surveillance. This isn’t a long-term solution, but I don’t precisely have a better option at the moment. My bank accounts have been drained and what I had stashed around won’t get me much under the current human-fae exchange rates. I can’t go back to my apartment, cause again, Big Brother in a suit is watching. I’m sure as hell not selling Frankie cause then I’d really be alone, and I don’t want that. I just…I’m just here to think, but the Soylent Goop isn’t exactly conducive to feeling great enough to plan a life on the run, especially in an entirely different dimension you didn’t know existed a week ago.’
He started. A week. She’d been missing a month. He bit down on his tongue, but she seemed to notice his reaction anyway.
‘Yeah,’ she said, her voice shaking, ‘I know it’s been- It’s just still hard to reconcile my perspective and the calendar, okay?’
‘So this whole time,’ he said, unable to stop himself, ‘you’ve been-‘ He pressed his hands into the tiles. ‘Sorry. Sorry, newbie, sorry.’
‘A corpse,’ she said flatly, ‘I was a corpse. Ryan let the KIA stand because it was true.’
‘Jesus Christ, Stef, what the fuck happened?’
Tears wet her eyes again. ‘Don’t…Don’t or I’ll just walk away.’
He held up his hands in surrender. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said again. ‘I’m just trying to understand. I can’t help if I don’t understand.’
She grabbed for the Famous Fry’s bag and unwrapped a burger. ‘TLDR. I was dead. Then I wasn’t. Ryan knew, then he stopped caring. He left and didn’t come back, probably because I was going to be more trouble than I was ever worth. I couldn’t stay where I was, so I came here, cause it was the only place I felt was even the least bit safe.’
‘Agent Ryan abandoned you?’ he asked, a note of incredulity in his voice. ‘Newbie-‘
‘He was visiting every day, we had a fight, and he didn’t come back. I waited for four days. I figured he was done with me. I’m not his problem anymore.’
‘Was this a week ago?’
She bit into the burger, and gave a short, sharp nod.
‘Newbie, he didn’t- I mean, I presume- He was in a coma. He got really, badly injured. He was on one of Jones’ tables for four days.’
Her eyes stayed narrowed. ‘You’re bullshitting. Or you’re making excuses for him. I don’t care that he went away, I’m glad he did, it means I’m not operating under false pretences anymore.’
‘What false pretences?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
Curt pulled out his Agency phone and scrolled through the list of contacts. He knew she was mad without looking up. Mad enough to hit him, or to run, or both.
‘You said you wouldn’t,’ she said in a small voice. ‘You-’
‘I’m not calling Ryan,’ he said, as he he hit the screen to call Raz. He tapped it again and it went on speaker.
‘I’m here, Agent C.’
‘Recruit, on your honour as a member of the Agency, I need you to answer several questions.’
‘Of course, sir.’
‘Was Director Ryan injured last week?’
‘Yes sir.’
‘Describe those injuries.’
‘He was infected by some sort of fae poison, Jonesy- Agent Jones still doesn’t know what kind.’
‘And his care?’
‘Round-the-clock surveillance in Lab Eight, sir. For one-hundred-and-nine hours. He had at least one recruit in there at all times watching his vitals, in addition to the stream going directly to Agent Jones’ HUD. If I get clearance, I can release those logs-’
‘No, that isn’t necessary. Thank you, Recruit.’ He hung up the phone and looked to Stef, who looked a lot more confused than angry now – though still skittish enough to run. ‘Well?’ he asked.
‘This is still the smart option,’ she said. ‘I’m only ever a-’ She shut her eyes. ‘I’m not his problem anymore. Everything has gone back to normal. It’s best for everyone.’
‘You don’t have a job,’ he said, recalling her first day, ‘you didn’t go to college. What are you planning on doing?’
‘I’m a nerd, I can manage.’
‘Who’s in charge of Fairyland? What’s Genie and what’s The Mount?’ he asked.
‘I can learn, I can learn really fast,’ she said defensively.
‘A lot of the services that get people back on their feet aren’t available to non-citizens. You might be lucky and get an indenture contract to clean some guy’s house, but I don’t think that’s what you want.’ He backed away a little, all too aware he might appear to be looming. ‘I’m not pushing,’ he said carefully. ‘I just want to help, because you know Jack shit about Faerie, and there can be bad ends if you don’t know what you’re doing.’
‘Sanctuary then?’ she said. ‘But I don’t want to be- That’s what started-’
‘I have friends in Fairyland,’ he said, ‘There’s one guy I’m pretty sure I can get you a job with, but he-’ There was no need to be precise. ‘He basically owns a bunch of strip clubs.’ He pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘Maybe he needs an admin chick? I know somewhere you can stay rent-free, but unless you want to live on gruel-’
‘Why are you even helping me?’ she asked, her voice thin, desperate.
‘Cause no-one helped me, Newbie. There were a couple of points where…I- I would have given anything to get away from the Agency. If I’d had help then-’
‘But- What do you- I have literally nothing I can give you in return, so I don’t know what the gain is for you.’
He lifted the bag of doughnuts and tilted it towards her. ‘Consider it an apology for being a douche.’
She took another twist.
‘Ryan’s miserable,’ he said, trying to keep his voice casual. ‘I really think you should give him another chance before running. You don’t like the outcome, fine, but…’
She took tiny bites of the doughnut, he cheeks slowly swelling with the pieces. After a minute they went back to normal, and she looked up. ‘Yeah. Okay. So long as- So long as he knows he doesn’t need to do anything more for me.’
‘I think you might underestimate how much he cares, newbie.’
She popped the lid off his coffee and finished it off. ‘I have a good idea of how much people care about me, and it’s not a lot.’
He leaned forward and gently bumped her shoulder with his. ‘I like you, and I think you’re an idiot.’ He stood, pulled his wallet from his pocket and handed her a twenty. ‘Get some more coffee or something. I’ll drive back to the Agency, then it’ll take me a while to see him, then talk him through this. It’s going to be probably an hour before you see us.’ He paused, trying to think of her obvious paranoia. ‘And if he doesn’t seem interested, I’ll come back myself and I’ll get you in contact with some people, okay?’
After the longest time she looked up and smiled. ‘Okay.’
[table id=15 /]