An hour, and three burgers had passed.
Stef stared at the form, finally felt satisfied with it, then signed her name.
Curt pushed the last of the shared fries in her direction. ‘Do you want to see some fae?’
‘Are you going to ask me that every time we go out? Cause the answer is always going to be yes!’ she smiled. ‘I mean, for like, the first twenty years I’m at this anyway.’
He grabbed his jacket, stood, and slipped it on. His uniform was still bright and shiny and clean.
Hers, however, had congealing sauce and a small coffee stain. She sighed and required a fresh uniform.
‘That’s something else we’ll have to do,’ he said, checking a phone.
‘Get me a bib?’
‘You can change the loadout of your uniform requirement. Ryan’s already done something with yours – I think – or do you specifically require it without the jacket each time?’ She shook her head. ‘Okay, that’s one example, but you can take it further – you can pick what equipment or-‘
She nodded. ‘Yeah, yeah, like setting equipment sets in a game.’ She grinned. ‘Oh, I am going to have sooo much fun with this.’
‘No explosives,’ he said, ‘please, don’t include explosives.’
‘Oi,’ she said as she walked up the stairs. ‘That flashbang worked out pretty well.’ Two civilians stared at her as she walked passed and she flinched. It was a sentence without context, it wasn’t a security breach, but it was still a warning – you had to shut up around civilians, else it was bad for everyone. Talking about a flashbang could be brushed off as an over-excited gamer talking about an FPS; talking about other things might not.
I guess I can go back to not talking at all. Probably safer.
Curt nudged her shoulder with his own. ‘It worked out,’ he said, ‘if you forget the part where you nearly took a header down a flight of steps.’
She sniggered. ‘Yeah. Right. I forgot that. So where are the- So where are we going?’
He turned right as they walked out of the restaurant, and headed down the slight slope towards Elizabeth Street. The cross-section of the mall, like the main thoroughfare, had also been a functional street at some point – the end of it still continued up towards the botanical gardens, escaping the mall’s grasp.
Curt turned right again, and walked down a steeper slope – this one going down into a loading bay, but stopped halfway down, his red car appearing as he required it.
‘I still don’t get how people don’t notice this stuff,’ she said.
‘You’re part of “people”,’ he said, indicating for her to get into the car. ‘You never noticed either.’
‘I don’t notice a lot of things.’
And I’m an insane hermit who can barely trust her own eyes.
‘It’s the innate human aversion to weirdness,’ Curt said as he started the car and began to slowly move up the slope – waiting for civilians to stop walking so that he could pull out. ‘There is always stuff you don’t notice, or came into your field of vision as you blinked, or whatever. Most people aren’t going to make the leap to thinking that “oh shit, someone just conjured a car!”.’
He waited for a man with a pram to cross in front of them, then pulled out of the driveway and into the first functional part of the cross-street, pulling up to the red light.
‘Okay, so where are we going? We just ate, so it’s not back to the fae-buffet.’
‘Don’t say that,’ he snapped, driving forward as the light went green. ‘You had no way of knowing, but…avoid that phrasing. Fae-buffet is how some Solstice refer to doing shots. And-‘ She watched as his hands tightened on the wheel. ‘Fae blood shots,’ he clarified. ‘If you slam back six in a row, it’s a fae-buffet. It’s not particularly clever, but then again, neither are most Solstice.’
‘Did you?’ she asked quietly.
‘Yeah, a couple of times. Mostly I just drank the dosed water. I mean, macho as it is, blood is blood, and drinking it isn’t the best idea ever.’
‘Tell me there’s no, like…vampire mentality or anything?’
He took a right. ‘Nah, it’s more the warrior strength blood-of-your-enemies thing.’
They drove in silence for a while. Stef leaned against the window, watching the world go by. People, cars, buildings, the river. All normal things she’d seen before…all now with a dozen or more possibilities. Any person could be Agency, Solstice, fae or something in-between. The river had creatures in it. A tree swaying in the breeze might be a person.
She smiled, depressed the button to roll down the window, and enjoyed the sensation of the wind buffeting her hair and the side of her face.
It was still strange not to feel completely afraid to be in a car.
Sitting in the front seat was easier than sitting in the back – her parents had never let her sit in the front – either because that had meant sitting with the driver, and sitting next to the help was so plebeian; because her parents had both been sitting in the front; because mother needed somewhere to put her purse; or because she’d been alone with James.
A few things with her father had been easy enough – and travelling alone with him was one of them. He never asked her to the sit in the front, and she never wanted to. They didn’t speak unless necessary, or because he felt the need to berate her more about whatever she’d done to disappoint him that week. He chose the music, no arguments. She could amuse herself – with dolls, or books, or a Gameboy, so long as it was quiet.
A truck blew its horn and she seized, hugging her arms around herself, her hands gripped her upper arms.
She felt her mouth open, and felt the scream, even if she couldn’t hear it.
The truck passed harmlessly on the right.
It didn’t come for her. It didn’t slam into them. It didn’t-
‘Newbie?’ Curt said again, his voice louder.
The car jerked as he pulled into a small parking lot in front of a row of shops. He turned the car off and undid his belt, the fabric zipping as it was sucked back into the car, the buckle clanged as it stopped.
‘I’m- I’m okay,’ she managed, the words barely more than shaped breath.
‘I’m going to touch your arm, okay?’
She managed to lift her head a little. ‘Huh? Why?’
He leaned closer and gently pulled her hand away from her right arm. Wetness touched her fingertips and she looked down to see him cleaning her fingers with a baby wipe, which was slowly turning red.
‘Jesus, what?’ she asked, jerking her arm away.
He dismissed the baby wipe and required another, then pointed at her sleeve. ‘Are you okay?’
She looked down at the patch of red and looked at her fingers – agent strength, apparently, made it a lot easier to claw through her own skin.
Her arm tingled as it healed and she required a clean shirt.
I’m gonna shift to Canada.
She dropped her hands down between her knees, and hung as far forward as the seat belt would allow. ‘Sorry.’ She blinked a few times and realised she was crying. ‘Sorry. You shouldn’t-‘
‘Can I ask what triggered you?’ He raised his hands in a placating gesture. ‘Not why, I’m not asking that; just what, so I can avoid-‘
‘The truck,’ she said. ‘I hate big trucks. And I wasn’t expecting-‘ She raised her hands to her face to wipe the tears again, her nose filling with the slightly-chemically-vanilla scent of the baby wipe. ‘I just wasn’t expecting-’ She turned her head. ‘I already said that. Sorry. Sorry. Shit. Sorry.’
She heard his door open, and a moment later her door opened, and he was kneeling on the ground beside the car. ‘Do you want to head back to the Agency? I can get us shifted back and-‘
‘No, I want to see the fae!’ she said, her voice a lot louder and angrier than she’d expected. She fumbled for her belt, released it, and slumped further, curling in on herself as much as she could. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell.’
‘What can I do to help? What’s your- Do you need me to shut up?’
She shook her head.
‘Do you need the stimuli toned down? I can black out the windows or-‘
She swung her legs to the left, hitting him lightly in the side. She stood, her legs wobbling, and leant against the side of the car for support. ‘Why are you- I was annoying. You should be-‘
‘You got triggered, it’s not your fault.’
‘You can just tell me to shut up. If you say it a few times, I’ll be able to shut down enough to-‘
‘What can I do to help?’ he said, cutting her off. ‘What’s your routine to calm down?’
‘I just need time. I’ll be okay in a few minutes. You know, as much as normal anyway. I’m sorry.’
‘Stop apologising, please.’
He stood a step away, required a tablet, and laid it on the hood of the car. ‘I haven’t really modded the car too much. If you want the truth, I saw it on the cover of a magazine one time, and just decided I wanted one.’
A giggle exploded from her, completely cutting through the walls of bad memories.
He looked at her in shock. ‘What?’
‘I thought it was something like that, but I didn’t think it was that!’ she said, laughter shaking her body. ‘If- If you know what I mean. I mean, it does look like a magazine cover kind of car, but I thought there’d be some long-winded guy-explanation as to why you wanted it. Yanno, it’s got this horsepower or that horsepower or, fuck if I know. You just wanted it cause it’s pretty?’
He raised a finger. ‘And red. The red is very important.’
‘Yeah, red was popular for my cousins when they got their cars as well. I’ve never liked red on a Maserati, but it’s a fairly popular choice.’
He slowly blinked, then drummed his fingers on the car. ‘There’s…multiple Maseratis in your family? You’re not getting confused with-‘
‘Maserati. Car. Costs as much as a small house. Vroom vroom?’
‘And your family-‘
‘Usually buys them as graduation presents. Well, depending on your status within the family-‘
‘Are you from a mob family?’ he asked, his eyes as wide as they could go.
‘Of course not,’ she smirked, ‘mob families have proper values. And, like, morals.’
‘But they’re rich?’
‘Filthy. Stinking. Re-donk-ulously rich.’ She scraped her shoe across the pebbles on the ground. ‘There’s old money and new money and some minor nobility. I grew up in a house with servants. We had a cook. My father had a valet. So yeah, I’m fairly familiar with fancy cars.’
He blinked a few times. ‘Well, that’s, um- Do you have a title or anything?’
She tugged on her vest. ‘Yes. It’s “Agent”, Recruit, and I’m feeling a bit better, thanks.’
He lifted the tablet. ‘As I was going to say. I haven’t modified the car too much.’ He showed her the tablet and there was a wire-frame diagram of the car. ‘It was the noise, right? The air horn going off?’
The truck that had hit them hadn’t sounded its horn – the driver hadn’t been sober enough to sound the horn, but the association was still there.
Her scars itched.
She needed to take off her shirt and scratch them until they bled, to cover them with her hands and pretend they weren’t there, to sit and stare until she started to entirely dissociate from her body.
She wiped away a few more tears.
He touched a few menu options on the tablet. ‘I can change the body composition a bit, keep out all outside sound. Would you be okay with that? It should stop-‘
Stef hugged her arms around her middle, rubbing her arms up and down a little to try and sate the scars, and looked away. ‘It’s your car, you don’t have to-‘ She kicked the ground. ‘You shouldn’t have to make compromises for-‘
There was a beep from the tablet. ‘And done,’ he said, cutting her off. ‘And it’s updated my preferences, so each time I require this vehicle it’ll remember the mod. I’ll try and remember to make the change if we’re using a different car, but remind me if I forget.’
She kicked the ground again. ‘Why are you being nice?’
‘I don’t need a reason-‘
She forced her arms away from her body and turned to face him, not quite able to meet his gaze. ‘Why. Are you. Being nice?’
She watched his mouth move around for a moment, his jaw twitching from side to side like he was chewing on the question. ‘Because I’ve seen too many people treated like shit to be yet another douchebag. Because it’s not that hard to be considerate.’ He dropped his shoulders. ‘Because you’re giving me a damn chance, and I don’t get too many of those.’