South Bank appeared when the world became clear again.
‘How do people not see that?’ she asked. ‘Okay, maybe you’re clever and stuff, and shift into areas where people wouldn’t look,’ she said as she caught up to him. ‘But with everyone popping in and popping out, people would have to see it sometimes, or see people where there weren’t people before.’
‘There’s a dozen different explanations,’ he said as they walked past the man-made beach and splashing toddlers. ‘What it comes down to most of the time, though, is that people don’t want to believe their eyes. They would rather believe that they were mistaken in what they saw.’ He turned to the left and walked down a short set of stairs towards the river. ‘Most people, Stef, aren’t looking for magic.’
She followed him down the steps, pressing hands to her bandages. ‘People are stupid.’
He walked up to the low barrier that stopped people from falling into the river. ‘Sometimes,’ he agreed, staring down at the water. ‘Though that does make our job easier.’
‘Ah.’ She sat on the low, wide concrete barrier, and looked up at him. ‘Our jobs.’ She swung her feet, scraping them against the ground. She saw smears of red on her sneakers and required a new pair. ‘Is this the bit where you fire me?’
‘What?’ He sounded genuinely shocked. He sat beside her. ‘What are you talking about?’
She pulled her legs beneath her and sat cross-legged. ‘Well, I messed up or something, didn’t I? We went in to do a follow-up and then there was fighting and shooting and– And now you’ve brought me out here so you can at least spare me the shame of yelling at me in front of the other recruits.’ She pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth and focussed on holding tears back. ‘Plus I was stupid and I got hurt and–’
She stared at the ground.
Don’t make me look at you, please.
‘Stef, I thought you might like some fresh air. And I wanted to see if you were okay, which you’re clearly not.’
He pressed a handkerchief into her hand, and she wiped her face.
She let a tiny bit of hope spark. ‘You’re not gonna fire me?’
‘Why would I do that?’
Because I’m a massive screw-up?
She gave a deep shrug. ‘For the greater good or something?’
‘Often when something like this happens to a recruit on their first day, they quit. When they are shown the harsh side of magic, or the ugly side of what we have to do – and you’ve seen both in such a short amount of time. Others, it only takes the Agency not living up to their expectations, and they leave.’ He paused for a moment, breeze from the river rippling his coat. ‘You’re not bound to the Agency, Stef. You are free to leave whenever you wish. I just wanted to let you know you have that choice.’
‘No!’ she said, the word tearing itself from her throat. ‘Please. I don’t want to leave.’ She squished the handkerchief into a tiny ball. ‘I’ve been looking for magic forever, even when it was stupid to believe in it. Don’t take it away from me, please.’
He laid on of his hands over her tiny, shaking ones. ‘I would never take magic away from anyone.’
She hunched her shoulders up to her ears. ‘Do you promise?’
He took his hand away. ‘I promise.’
‘He tried to kill me.’ She scratched at one of the bandages. ‘He was gonna gut me.’ She heard her voice quavering, and fat tears fell onto the balled-up handkerchief. ‘He was gonna kill me. He was–’
An arm wrapped around her shoulders, and she jumped. He started to pull his arm away, but she shook her head. ‘No, sorry, I just– I just don’t like people touching me.’ She bit the inside of her cheek, trying to ignore the want to throw his hand away.
She leaned against his arm as he gently squeezed her, her hands balled, fingernails digging into her palm to distract her from the unusual sensation.
Snot dripped from her nose as she cried, and she slowly unclenched her hands and wiped her face with the handkerchief. His arm remained around her, and she marvelled at how comforting a narc could be. It was so different to hugging a pillow when tired, or hugging Frankie or Alexandria. Cushions, laptops, and dolls didn’t hug back. Getting hugged by other person. That was– That was something that hadn’t happened in years. It was weird, it was a bit scary, it was a bit nice, and it was the right amount of comforting.
It was the perfect antidote to a monster attack.
‘Okay,’ she said after a moment. ‘Okay, I’m okay.’
He let her go, put a hand to her head, and ruffled her hair just the tiniest bit. ‘I promise,’ he said gently, ‘not every day is like this. I thought I’d take you on a patrol, so you can see that all of our work isn’t done with a gun. Are sure you going to be all right?’
‘I’ll be all right,’ she said slowly, ‘but I’m not all right now, if that’s okay.’
‘Of course it is.’
‘Okay. What now?’
He stood and offered her a hand.
She took his hand, untangled her legs, and hopped to her feet, barely able to feel the bandages any more.
‘So, um, patrol,’ she said as they walked along the riverfront. ‘Like a Buffy patrol, where we basically go around looking for trouble? Wouldn’t that, ergo, lead us back to using guns again?’
‘They serve a few purposes. Sometimes you find trouble, but mostly they serve to familiarise recruits with different areas of the city. You walk the same area enough times and you learn the shortcuts, the paths people tend to ignore, best ways to intercept and cut off people you might be pursuing. We also have to pick up the mail,’ he said as he stopped in front of a wall of mailboxes.
‘We have dozens of drop boxes over the city. Fae use them, Solstice informants use them, poorly trained delivery personnel use them,’ he said with a small smile. ‘All of them have to be checked at least once a day.’ He pulled his ID wallet from his pocket and tapped it against one of the boxes. There was a small beep, and it popped open, revealing nothing. He closed the box, and they walked in silence for a while.
‘Curt shot Astrin,’ she said as they walked past the Ferris wheel. ‘Which is apparently okay, but we can’t get at Dorian for helping him? Can – can you explain that to me?’
‘Leeches are rare,’ he said. ‘Mirrorfalls are far from a weekly occurrence, and only the tiniest percentage of mirrors fall here. There have only been three in my lifetime.’
‘And how old are you?’
‘Over a century.’
She stared at him. ‘I probably should have expected that, but I’m still kinda surprised. A little over, or a lot over?’
‘I was generated on the first of January, 1900.’
She did the rough calculation. ‘So one kinda every thirty and a bit years. So I’ll be old and probably not a recruit the next time it happens?’
‘That’s not an answer, though.’
‘They’re chaotic elements, so they’re risks we can’t afford. They could have been anyone on their world; it’s not only the good and the innocent that survive. You said this monster could speak. Most of the time, they can’t; they are so far beyond reason that it’s a mercy to kill them. There is always, of course, the issue of pathogens and viruses that could infect humans or fae. Sparing one life to lose a hundred thousand makes no sense.’
‘But couldn’t we stick them in hermetically sealed bubbles and just give them a PlayStation and some snacks?’
‘There would need to be guards, tech staff, liaisons – that’s all resources we can’t spare.’ They crossed the street with the blessing of the green man. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he said. ‘It’s not a task I take any pleasure in. It’s our duty; it’s what we have to do.’
‘Duty?’ she said, trying to echo the reverent tone he’d given the word.
‘The three rules of the Agency,’ he said. ‘Duty first. Follow the rules. Absolute loyalty.’
She swallowed a half-dozen glib remarks. ‘I think I can handle that.’
He smiled, and gave her a nod. ‘Here’s the next drop box,’ he said. ‘You open this one up.’
She required her access card and tapped it against the box. That one was a lot bigger than the first, standard, mailbox had been – and it had a slot wide enough for small packages. She caught the square door before it fell and lowered it gently.
Something moved inside, and she took a step back. ‘Um?’
She heard a small cheer, and a streak of white came running from the back of the box.
Ryan bent down to look into the box. ‘Are you hurt?’
‘Is what hurt?’
He laid his palm flat, and the small white creature stepped onto his waiting hand. ‘Thank you. Thank you so much,’ it said.
She stared at the tiny fae. It was about four inches tall, with a sharp face like storybook pictures of pixies. His skin – his hands and face were nut brown, and the rest of him was covered in thin white fur. Large ears – each with two points – stood straight up, twitched, then went flat. He wore a small uniform marking him as some sort of nature-and-yay-outdoors scout.
‘I – I don’t mean to be rude, but what kind of fae is that?’
‘He’s a misick,’ Ryan said. ‘Now, are you hurt?’
The misick shook his head. ‘No, Agent. I’m not, thank you.’
Ryan smiled. ‘Then can I ask why you’re in my drop box? Are you applying to be a recruit?’
She heard people and pulled on Ryan’s arm. ‘Muggles are coming!’
‘Close the box.’ He opened his pocket for the misick to scamper down into. She closed the drop box, and the muggles passed by, none the wiser.
‘This way,’ Ryan said, and she followed him around the corner to a bench out of the way of most of the pedestrian traffic.
The misick popped out of his pocket and moved to stand between them on the bench. ‘As you were saying,’ Ryan prompted.
‘I was separated from my troop,’ he said. ‘We’re on an excursion. A couple of the younger kids were nearly seen. There was humans and traffic, and I just lost where they were. I thought it was safer to hide than to try to make my way to the stairs in broad daylight.’
‘A good idea, but you couldn’t call for help?’ Ryan asked.
‘I lost my phone, too,’ the misick said, ‘and everyone is out of chitter range. Would you mind giving me a lift to the nearest stairs?’
‘Of course not,’ Ryan said. ‘Will my pocket suffice?’
The misick shrugged. ‘I’ve got no problem with that.’ On all fours he ran up Ryan’s leg, across the narc’s jacket and down into his pocket.
The world blurred, and when it became clear again, they were standing at the bottom of a staircase looking at a plain service door. Ryan pulled open the door and took a step into the stairwell.
He opened his pocket and raised his arm – the misick ran up his outstretched arm, ears twitching, and disappeared into the relative darkness. Ryan closed the door and quietly ushered her back up the stairs.
‘Fairy stairs,’ he said as he saw her staring at the closed door.
‘As in, to get into Fairyland?’
‘But they’re right there! How do people not–?’
‘You need the right key, the right magic, or the right requirement,’ he said. ‘There are precautions in place.’
‘And you stuck your arm up why?’
‘The misick and the smaller fae have tunnels in each set of stairs, many with slides, so it’s less work to traverse the distance.’
That’s kind of awesome.
‘So you see,’ he said as they resumed walking. ‘Sometimes our duty is rather simple; sometimes it’s a pleasure to do. It’s not all as dark and violent as you’ve seen so far.’
She smiled. ‘Okay, what next?’
‘We’ve still got eight drop boxes to go,’ he said.
‘Can – can I open the next one too?’
[table id=15 /]
South Bank appeared when the world became clear again.