Curt stared.
He watched as Stef looked down at her burger, the look of sheer terror still plastered to her face as though he’d told her she was eating kittens.
After a minute, she looked back up. ‘Should I be worried?’
He leaned forward, his chin resting on his hands.
He started to laugh. He slid away from the table, laying lengthwise on his side of the booth, legs hanging off the end of the seat. More than a few of the fae looked over to see what must have appeared to have been one of the Agency’s finest experiencing a mental break. After a couple of solid minutes, he sat up, took a long drink, and shook his head, and tried to settle back into his role as the more sensible one.
‘Who are you,’ she asked, ‘and what did you do with my padawan?’
‘You should have seen your face,’ he said, then took a big chomp of his fauxnicorn burger. ‘Oh, gods, your face.’
‘Your face!’ she retorted, then she gave him her standard not-really-that-mad-pout. ‘I’m glad I amused you.’
‘I haven’t laughed like that-’ he cut himself off. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever laughed like that.’
She was still staring at the burger like it could grow legs at any time.
‘It’s vat meat,’ he said. ‘Grown in a company lab. A lot of stuff in fairyland is manufactured like that. You hadn’t picked up on that yet?’
She shook her head.
He took another bite of his burger. ‘Population of about a billion,’ he said, ‘it’s so much more efficient to make stuff in vats than waste the land on cows. Most of the farmland there is mostly goes to fruit, vegetables, orchards, that kind of thing, and specialised animals that aren’t grown for food, ones that are grown for like, wool or feathers or whatever – and even then, organic fabrics are a niche industry.’
She poked her burger. ‘It’s future-y, I should like it.’
He broke off a chunk of brikni and leaned across the table. ‘Open.’
She opened and he dropped the orange-sauced chunk in her mouth – and he was glad she didn’t make an attempt to bite his fingers off. ‘Chew and swallow.’
She chewed, and swallowed.
‘Still like it?’
She nodded.
‘It’s made of the same stuff your burger is, so shut up and eat your science burger,’ he said with a wink.
She nodded as she reconstructed her burger. ‘Yessir.’
They ate in silence for a few minutes.
Memories stirred and old pain surfaced.
‘The agent who-’ he started as he upended his chips onto the tray and squirted sauce onto them. ‘Once he realised that unless he just killed me, I was stuck being a recruit. I did all the tests and passed. I probably could have gone combat if I’d pushed, but I didn’t want to chance the mortality rate, that’s why I’m field. I’m glad I did that, I don’t think my life- It wouldn’t be- My life would be shit if I was anywhere else.’
She gave him a little nod.
‘He wanted to prove me unsuitable. He- I had to last a month in Fairyland. Provisions were put in place so I couldn’t cheat and come back up.’ Provisions. A nice way of putting it. A nice way of saying “bomb in brain”. ‘He got me some shitty hotel room, like the one we used, gave me enough money to ensure I’d stay just this side of starving, and yeah.’ He cast his eyes down onto the table, went quiet for a long moment. ‘You’re my only friend, Stef.’
‘What about-’
‘You’re my only friend,’ he said again, ‘and I need to get this off my chest to someone, I need to-’
She stood, walked around to the other side of the booth and slid in beside him. ‘Talk, padawan.’
He picked up a chip and tapped it against the table, leaving little sauce stains. Red sauce. Red stains. Blood. He looked down at her, trying not to see her covered in blood, trying not to see her in pain. He tossed the chip back into the pile, and looked away from it.
‘He wanted proof that I could change. Proof that it was worth his while to leave me down here. He took me to a place like Carmichael’s, but not as nice, got me a girl and watched. I mean, what’s more proof of a change than letting a fairy be intimate with me? Wild fairy too, and not wild like- Not the good in bed way. The kind with teeth, and claws and a real mean streak.’
The fairy’s black and blue skin had been alluring at first, exotic. She’d been beautiful, a world away from the monsters they’d always shown him. The teeth showed themselves when she’d smiled. The claws had come out when the agent had ordered him to take off his shirt and expose his tattoo.
The skin was camouflage, the claws were to catch and kill, and the teeth were to tear flesh from bone. Wild fairies still hunted, still preferred to eat their food raw. It made them cruel. It gave them pleasure in hurting people. It-
‘Most humiliating experience of my life. She knew what I was, and showed me no mercy for wanting to change.’ He unbuttoned his cuff and rolled up his sleeve to the elbow, and showed her three thin scars.
There’d been so much blood, for such a shallow cut, for a wound that turned into a barely noticeable scar, it had bled like a mortal wound. And she’d laughed at his pain. Laughed harder when she’d sterilised it with liquor and he’d cried.
‘Everything else healed, but this left a mark.’ He rolled his sleeve back down, buttoned and rolled his drink between his hands, slicking his hands with the condensation. It wouldn’t wash away the memory, but it gave his mind another sensation to focus on.
‘I couldn’t get it up. Between the two of them. The insults, the judging. My- I think the relevant parts just tried to retract into my body out of some sense of self-preservation instinct.’
He took her hand, but didn’t look at her. ‘They drugged me so I could…perform. He was staring at me the whole time. Just…staring. I can’t even remember the sex, not really.’ A lie, but easier than trying to explain to her the lack of passion, the utilitarian way in which he’d been fucked. It wasn’t worth remembering.
‘When she was done, she left me tied to the bed, then went and fucked him.’ She had enjoyed the agent a lot more, and the agent had demanded he watch. The fairy had shown her passion then, screaming and moaning, laughing, parroting whatever the agent demanded. It had been open, pornographic sex, showing him what he hadn’t gotten, what he wasn’t worth.
He bit the inside of his cheek. He flexed and splayed his spare hand against the edge of the table. ‘It wasn’t rape,’ he said. ‘I knew what I was getting into, and I agreed, and she probably would have stopped if I’d said anything, but it wasn’t- Sex isn’t supposed to be like that. If that’s your kink then fine, but then you’re enjoying it, not lying there, hating every single second of it. It was his test, and I passed, so because of it I got everything I have now, but-‘
He heard her breath catch.
This was it. It was over. She was going to get up, and walk out of his life. Like he deserved, like he deserved, because he was-
She shifted a little beside him, and he fought the urge to reach out, to grab her, to beg her to stay.
She was going to leave, and he deserved it. He deserved it.
He was still holding onto her hand. It was the reason she hadn’t moved. Obviously. He was holding there, holding her prisoner. He jerked his fingers straight and pulled his hand away. He moved along the booth seat, putting a bit of distance between them, so she knew she was free to leave,
She was still there, he could hear her breathing.
‘Go,’ he said hoarsely.
There was no need to drag it out. No reason to-
‘Just get the fuck away from me, Stef.’
He cherished the attempt at anger, it would keep him strong until she as gone, keep the emotion back long enough so that-
‘You don’t want me to leave.’
‘When do we get to the part where you shut up and put your head in my lap?’
She grabbed his head and pulled him sideways, forcing his head down. He struggled. ‘Stop it!’ he said. ‘It’ll look like I’m going down on you.’
‘You are going down on me,’ she said. ‘Head. Lap. Now.’
He stopped struggling – struggling would make more of a scene than the one they were going to make. It was Fairyland, and public sex – or the impression of such – was usually no more than an informal warning, screaming or arguing in a restaurant, however, could result in them getting kicked out.
He adjusted himself, pulling his head away from the edge of the table, and stared up at her. She wasn’t supposed to comfort him. He wanted it. He didn’t deserve it. He-
‘Stop glaring at me,’ she said.
He made an effort to soften his expression.
‘Now,’ she said, ‘do you want me to leave?’
He shook his head.
‘So why say it?’
‘I knew if there was one story that would push you away,’ he said, ‘it would be that. You shouldn’t- I’m damaged goods, Stef.‘
‘Who isn’t? Ryan’s messed up about Carol, and has been for nearly as long as we’ve been alive. Taylor wanders around imitating Trogdor because he can’t feel feelings. I’m crazy. At least you know what’s messing you up, and the fact that you can vocalise it, that you can talk about it, even a little, means you have a really good shot of getting over it. Part of it will be there forever, of course, but maybe you won’t have to hate yourself forever.’
‘I don’t-‘ he stopped. ‘I do, don’t I?’
‘You do. A lot.’
‘But I’m-‘
‘Even realising it helps a bit. But you shouldn’t. You’re good.’ She poked his chest with her pointer finger. ‘You are, trust me.’
‘Let it go for now, just keep it in mind, ok?’
‘I needed- That part was important so you could get an idea of- It’s because of what happened there that I met Carmichael.’
She gave him a nod.
‘After-’ He shrugged against her legs. ‘After. He dropped me back at the hotel room and left. I finally got cleaned up, dressed my cuts, then I just sat around. Didn’t want to do anything, didn’t know where anything was, wasn’t even grateful I was alive. I was just-‘
‘Just sitting there existing?’ she asked.
‘Pretty much, yeah. I think I ate that night, but I’m not sure. Next day I turned the TV on, figured out how to order from the food channel. Just sat and ate and, gods, I wanted to get drunk, but I knew I had to budget the pittance he gave me.’
She nodded, and started to play with his hair. It was relaxing, even if she only seemed to do it to keep her hands busy. It was comforting, and even if he didn’t deserve it, it was too nice to argue with.
‘Fourth or fifth day, I had a shower, got changed, tried to take a walk around the place. Was on the edge of the city, so there wasn’t much to see. Found a park, sat, tried to keep out of everyone’s way. Just sat and watched it all go by, trying to draw attention to myself, trying to figure out what the fuck the Solstice have against the fae when most of them are just people stuck with shit jobs and shit lives like everyone else. It’s not like the human race has a patent on crappy existences.’
He reached up and grabbed his box of aole. ‘Got dark, and I got hungry, so I tried to head back to the hotel, but I got lost, just walked around and around because I wasn’t’ gonna ask anyone for directions. Heard a fight, tried to ignore it, but it sounded like an unfair fight, so I went to have a look.’
He nodded. ‘In a seriously one-sided fight. Did you get a good look at his wings?’
She nodded.
‘All that gold you saw, that was because of this fight. That’s how much of his wings had to be replaced. Him fighting…six, I think, guys. A couple of other fairies, and some random fae. I only took enough notice to hurt them.’
‘How’d you know he didn’t deserve it?’
‘He didn’t look like he deserved it. We managed to beat enough of them down to scare the others off, then I dumped us into a cab and we went back to the hotel room. Didn’t want to risk a real doctor, and my first aid is good enough. He got lucid enough to shrink down his wings so the bleeding wasn’t dangerous, he let me bandage everything else, then he fell asleep without even thanking me.’
He chewed on the aole. ‘He only slept for a couple of hours, and woke up paranoid and swinging – tried to take me out with the lamp cord before I got him to calm down. He told me who he was, what he did, and then pretty much indebted himself to me. It was worth a lot more, apparently, because I’d saved him without hope of reward, or knowledge of who he was.’
She was still playing with his hair. It was absurd how relaxing it was. How good it felt to lie in her lap, to just be close to someone for reasons other than a Rose Room quickie.
‘First thing he did was get us a real doctor, then we went back to his place and he finally asked who I was, what I was doing, if I wanted a job, that kind of stuff. Almost said yes to the job, but I knew the agent would come after me, or get some grey-listed fae to off me, so I declined. He offered me a better hotel, I declined, terms were that I had to sleep in that shit hole. He offered me new clothes, that I was grateful for, since I’d had to rip up most of my stuff for bandages. New wardrobe, and a couple of real nice suits. Tailored, not off the rack.’
‘I like a good suit,’ she said with a smile. ‘Show me when we get back home?’
‘They’re not back at the Agency,’ he said.
‘Oh man, do not tell me you got rid-‘
‘They’re at my place.’ He tried to sit up, but he couldn’t muster the will to leave the safety of her lap. ‘I didn’t need a job, I couldn’t use a car, a massive amount of fairy gold would do me no good, so he gave me an apartment. It’s only like a studio, but it’s mine. I’ve only used it a few nights total, but it’s in a building he owns, so it’s maintained, and I have a foothold in fairyland if they ever decide to close their borders. It’s not citizenship, but property ownership also means a great deal.’
Her fingers were tapping on his head now. No. Typing. She was using his head as an imaginary keyboard.
‘And-‘ he started.
‘And,’ she interrupted, ‘you’re about to use your serious voice and tell me that the Agency doesn’t know and that I should keep it a secret.’
He smiled. ‘Yeah.’
‘Can I see it?’
‘Not today, but yeah. When the world is saved-‘
‘Thanks to the Powerpuff Girls!’ she said.
‘I am not a Powerpuff Girl.’
‘See? You already think you’re gonna save the day, you can’t be that bad.’
‘That’s stupid trickery and you know it.’
‘The world runs on stupid trickery.’
‘Not today,’ he said again. ‘but sure.’
‘And if the world blows up?’
‘Then we wait. For fifty trillion years for every life form to die out, for Chaos to come back, live out his life, die again, restart the universe, and the whole of history and creation happen all over, until we’re sitting right here again, and then I’ll say, “sure, let’s do it today”.’
She looked stunned for a moment. ‘I think that may be the most epic thing anyone has ever said to me.’
His phone buzzed and he sat up. He unlocked it, and opened the alert, saw a countdown and two options. He grinned, and hit accept. ‘Guess who gets to go to see a palace?’
‘I’ve only got like three and half hours until I have to be out of fairyland, or in the Marches on the way out at the very least.’
‘I got us tickets on an express,’ he said. He waved the phone. ‘This is an app for one of those last-minute ticket deal sites. There’s a bus that stops here, then goes directly to the Marches, it’ll be a longer walk out than the Terminus, but the trip only takes just over an hour. They’ve just had a couple of cancellations and I snagged the seats. We can’t do the tour, but you can at least see the damn place and hit up the gift shop.’
She looked almost ready to cry. ‘Thank you.’
He kissed the top of her head, and gave her a slight shove. ‘Come on, sooner we leave, the more time you have.’
She stood and grabbed her drink. He tossed the box of aole into his bag and straightened his suit before crooking his arm to her. ‘Come on, you’ll like this part.’
They walked out the back door of the Fry’s, across a small street and to a paved square, containing a couple of fruit trees and a half dozen benches. ‘You’ve never been to the city before,’ he said as he took his arm away, ‘so you probably haven’t noticed this. I’m going to see if you can work it out.’
She turned in a slow circle, then shrugged.
‘Try looking down, newbie.’
She gave him a wary look, then did as instructed. She let out a small gasp of surprise as she saw that she was standing on the intersection of a eight coloured paths. ‘Ok, pretty, but I don’t get it.’
‘They’re guide paths,’ he said, ‘they each lead to a different part of the city, or to a different landmark.’
She jumped from one to the next to the next, before landing on the yellow one and stopping dead. She looked up at him. ‘No.’
He couldn’t hold back a smile. ‘Yes.’
‘No way!’
She took a couple of small, careful steps along the yellow-painted stones. ‘Follow the yellow brick road? Seriously?’
He walked ahead of her. ‘Are you coming or not?’
‘Are we skipping?’
‘We are definitely not.’