Stef slowly got back into her seat, slowly clipped the belt in, and focussed on breathing.
A moment later, Curt got back into his seat – and closed his door as quietly as he could, rather than slamming it. Another little consideration, another kindness she was grateful for.
She pressed her tongue up to the roof of her mouth, and looked across at him.
She turned her palm upwards and pressed it at him, than flicked through her HUD and started a voice-only chat. He raised a hand to his headset and pressed the button – and her HUD showed the open channel.
[Thanks,] she said. She shrugged deeply and leaned her head against her shoulder. [Thanks, Padawan.]
‘No problem, newbie,’ he said. ‘You still want to go to the park?’
‘We’re going to a park?’
‘The park,’ he said, ‘technically, it’s the Alon Jesh Memorial Gardens, but recruits tend to just call it the park.’
Stef looked over at him. ‘So…swings and seats and stuff?’
‘The park a cooperative operation between the Local Court and the Agency,’ Curt said as they pulled back into traffic. ‘It’s presented as a member-only private garden, so civilians don’t try to get in. For the fae, it’s somewhere they can…literally stretch their wings, or let all their leaves hang out, or whatever. It means they can drop the glamours and just be themselves without having to go anywhere in Faerie. For Fairyland citizens it’s free, subsidised through tax. Other residents of Faerie pay on a sliding scale. The Agency gets a percentage and in return…keeps up security via drone surveillance, and has a barrier wrapped around the place projecting a false image to hide what’s going on inside.’
‘That makes a lot of sense,’ Stef said, her breathing nearly back to normal.
She locked a stare onto a truck one car ahead of them.
Yeah. Just stay where I can see you.
She felt her fingernails digging into knees, but couldn’t bring herself to lift her hands away.
Ask for help.
The truck continued straight when they turned left.
She snapped her head to the right. ‘Huh?’
‘What was the last thing you heard me say?’
‘Perception filter lol stupid civvies.’
‘I’m pretty damn sure I never said that.’
‘There is eloquence in brevity.’
She watched Curt’s face pinch as he kept his eyes on the road. ‘You haven’t actually seen anyone fly yet, have you?’
‘I don’t think so. Isn’t scary goth girl a bird?’
‘She’s got a bit more hang time than most, but I’ve never seen her fly. No wings, that’s a big clue too.’
‘If she’s a bird, shouldn’t she have wings?’
‘Not all bird fae do, especially not the ones that are half-human.’
‘They could be hidden under her dress. Then one day she’ll-’
‘I’ve seen under her dress. Trust me, no wings. A few feathers, but nothing that could flap.’
Stef considered the words for a moment and tried to make the inference. ‘You’re dating her?’
He let out a short laugh. ‘Mags doesn’t deign to date anyone.’ He lifted one hand off the wheel and gave it a vague shake. ‘It wasn’t anything so formal, if you take my meaning.’
‘But she’s kinda scary.’
‘More than a little, newbie,’ he said.
‘Pretty won out over scary?’
‘Something like that. I’ll spare you the detail, cause I really don’t think you’re interested.’
‘Thanks,’ she said, grateful that he wasn’t going to start expounding on all of the superfluous and gross squishy details.
She required a cookie and focussed on it. She lifted it to her nose and huffed the chocolate, the sweet smell helping her to concentrate. People and relationships were complicated, so it was generally best to ignore them.
Marriages across her extended families had always been big affairs – except for the occasional, small intimate ceremony – usually where the couple’s idea of quickly eloping meant “only” renting an island and bringing twenty of their closest friends.
Her passport had gained a tonne of stamps going to the destination weddings; and her wardrobe had gained tiny beautiful dress after tiny beautiful dress.
Mother had treated her like a doll at all times anyway – making sure her clothes were perfect, her hair was long enough to style, without being out of style, and dressing her to match the season.
Weddings and other big events, though, seemed to breathe a whole new life into her mother’s passion – the outfit had to match the theme, the weather and the current interpretation of simple forms; and the accessorising could take as long as picking the dress – agonising hours had been lost “helping” her mother pick between three nearly identical clutches, or swapping back and forth between belts and shoes.
It had been nigh-impossible to keep up with who was dating who, who had given birth to what kid, or which royal was being chased.
It had always been so insubstantial, so ephemeral, so outside of her interest or inclusion.
All of the interest, however, had fallen on her head when Snake had become involved.
A high school sex scandal with a prince.
A gay, gamer prince – not that the public knew either of those facts. Both tidbits, apparently, could be damaging.
The scandal had bounced her from persona non grata to person of interest. Every ear had mysteriously become deaf when she had tried to argue that she hadn’t slept with him. It had been topical, it had been interesting, and it had been centred on her.
It had taken months for things to calm down – until she’d brought more hell down on herself by inviting him to one of the school dances.
The dance had at least let her know he was all right, that he’d found a beard, and he was happy.
It was a happy ending to their non-affair.
And she was owed several favours from a crown prince, should there ever be anything important enough to warrant contacting him.
Stef made a small note in her HUD about Curt and the scary goth girl, then relaxed back against her seat.
‘Since we help run it, I assume we get in free?’
Curt gave another nod. ‘Yeah, of course.’
‘Dumb newbie question?’
‘No, I want to ask one. If it’s- If it’s like a cooperative thing between them and us, does that mean there’s park recruits?’
He took one hand off the wheel, flipped it palm-up and a gold-star chocolate appeared there. ‘Not a dumb question.’
She grabbed the chocolate and began to unwrap it to get at the reward inside.
‘There are Agency personnel who work there, but they aren’t recruits as such. They are in the broadest sense, as in humans or fae working for the Agency, but in every way that counts, they’re civilian contractors. The Agency has several…non-vital operations like this, where combat and planning and dead bodies are highly unlikely. There’s a few kinds of people who take these positions – people who are unsuited to being recruits, but don’t – or can’t – go back to civilian life.’
Sounds like maybe I should have had one of these jobs.
‘Then there’s the people who were normal recruits, but want a half-step towards retirement, or want an easier job when they have family concerns.’
‘Can they still require and stuff?’
‘It’s a lot more limited in scope. Some people are restricted down to food and clothing, but for those people there’s also a ridiculously generous cash budget.’
‘Dumb newbie question?’
‘Shut up, lol.’
Her nose wrinkled. ‘Wh- What?’
‘I’m going to stop teaching you stuff if you preface every question with the presumption that you’re an idiot.’ He turned his head, winked, then turned back to the road. ‘Eloquence in brevity, and all that.’
She shook her head. ‘Oh, Padawan, you have a lot to learn about parsing meme.’
‘Well, if you’d learn to speak English-’
‘Do you really want me speak English?’ she asked, summoning the toff-iest accent she could, dropping every syllable with perfect received pronunciation. ‘One can maintain this until the sun sets on the British Empire.’
She looked up and saw him slowly shaking his head. ‘No. Please, go back to normal.’
Stef mentally shook herself, knocking loose the thoughts of secondary school. ‘Better?’ she asked, in what was hopefully her normal voice.
They drove in silence for a few minutes.
‘There should be at least a few people flying, if not, there’s always nymphs in residence.’
She nodded, and the silence resumed.
After a few more minutes, he turned the radio on, and turned to her with a half-smile. ‘If this bothers you, just let me know.’
Her scars still itched.
I can’t stop- I can’t stop thinking about it.
Count. It’ll make you feel better.