Curt exhaled after the long shift, mentally counted his limbs, then looked over to Stef to make sure she hadn’t lost or gained anything. Normal. As normal as she got anyway.

‘That is so weird,’ she said as she walked around the edge of the blue-painted shifting circle, arms out like she was on a balance beam.

‘What?’

‘Shifting down here, or up from here, always feels like I’m getting hit with server lag. I don’t want to know what happens if I get an IRL disconnect.’ She hopped out of the circle, a strange, but proud look on her face.

‘You broke rule one,’ he said.

She tried to look innocent. ‘Which one was that?’

‘Always be considerate to your partner?’ he indicated to his singed suit. ‘We’re headed deep into fairyland, I need a couple of minutes to prep. We’re going to be gone for hours out of a system area, some slight forethought is needed.’

‘Like?’

He fought a sigh. Baby steps. Everything was baby steps. He’d checked, and her profile matched her often claimed cry of genius – but that was on paper, abject genius was of very little use in the real world, if she couldn’t focus for two minutes. She was getting better, but she was still so…tangential to what was going on in the real world, interacting with it when it suited her, not glued to it full-time like everyone else.

He caught her gaze and held it, the eye contact focusing her for a moment. ‘Are you disarmed?

She nodded. ‘I set my Marches shift to convert my gun into a low-wattage taser – which, yes, is street legal without a license-‘

It was a smart move. ‘Good thinking. Are you working on your licence application?’

She stared at the ground. ‘I can’t apply yet.’

‘What?’

‘Citizens have to be sixteen, non-citizens have to be eighteen, unless your race doesn’t live that long, then it’s a case-by-case basis, agents have to be at least five, and I should be grateful, because they only lowered that last year down from ten.’

‘Sorry, newbie.’

‘It’s ok, I don’t usually come down here with the intention of getting into fights.’

He made a macro requirement, and a shoulder bag appeared in his hand, and he crouched to open it and check it. ‘Haven’t been down here on a mission, so I could only plan ahead so much. Water, map, required currency, all my usual stuff, and trust me, having a bag is always useful.’

She smiled. ‘Yeah, but you’ve got one, so you can carry all of our stuff.’ She handed him down the IV bag of blue. ‘Do you mind?’

‘Remind me again which one of us is the agent.’ He said as he gently shoved the blue into the bag before zipping the main pocket, careful to keep it away from anything that could pierce the plastic and leave his things covered in liquid agent.

She stuck her tongue out at him and headed for the door. ‘Come on,’ she said, ‘we don’t’ have all day.’

He let her walk towards the door, and sighed before jogging to catch up. ‘You’ve got to follow me,’ he said, ’you don’t know which way you’re going.’

‘I-‘

‘Point in the direction of the capital, you’ve got a one in four chance of getting it right.’

She pointed south.

‘Wrong.’

She pointed west.

‘Wrong.’

She pointed south.

‘Wrong;’

She pointed north.

‘Wrong.’

‘How can all four be wrong?’

He smirked. ‘Because you pointed in the same direction twice.’

‘I did?’

‘Bus is this way, newbie.’ He pointed an arm east. ‘And it’s that way.’

‘How do you know? How can you memorise this stuff?’

‘This one’s actually easy,’ he said, ‘there’s a massive interchange this way, the Marches Terminus, half of the buses that go from there will at least get us going in the right direction.’

‘I’m no good with public transport, least not here. I mean, I can probably still draw half of the tube map without peeking, but I’ve never really gone anywhere since I came back. I came back, got my flat, and haven’t left since. I know what buses go between the city and the valley, and on the train it’s one stop.’

‘So, functionally, I know more about the city than you do, and I’ve only lived here a year?’

The first thing he had done after feeling comfortable enough to leave the Agency on his downtime was take the major train lines to their end points, to see the limits of the city by rail, by bus and by ferry. He’d made sure to announce his travel plans each time – even if it wasn’t something Ryan had asked for, just to keep on their good side, so they didn’t think he was running. Running was bad. Running led back to the cold, black room and-

He swallowed, and casually brushed his fingers against his throat, phantom agent fingers there, choking him until he saw red, till he saw black, till he was sure he’d seen Death out of the corner of his eye, then leaving him winded on the floor, before doing it again. Over and over and over-

He faked a sneeze, turning away long enough to make sure his eyes were still dry.

Stef was rambling, a good natured rant about the things he was better at. ‘Congrats,’ she said as her rant wound down, ‘you win again.’

He fought to remember what they’d been talking about. Public transport. The sights and sounds. Well, he knew the sights, she knew the sites.

He brushed his arm against hers as they crossed a narrow street, glad of the tiny bit of contact, of comfort, of being reminded of the present.

‘It’s not a competition,’ he said. ‘I feel kind of sorry for you.’

‘Don’t be,’ she said as they walked past a sign announcing the Marches Terminus was only half a kilometre away. ‘I’ve been to plenty of places, Silverpine, Loch Modan, Elwynn Forest-‘

None of the names sounded familiar. ‘Never been.’

‘I could take you,’ she said, ‘anytime you want to start up a WoW account.’

‘Oh, newbie,’ he said with a groan. ‘If they’re not real-‘

‘They’re real enough,’ she said, ‘so are the memories attached to them.’ She turned and walked backward so she could face him. ‘The Enterprise isn’t real either, but I’d say you have some real familiarity and attachment to it, even though it’s been a purely non-interactive experience.’

‘I still don’t think of it as a real place.’

‘I know what’s real and what’s not, doesn’t change the fact that Ironforge is always warm and comforting, and the perfect sort of background image while you’re lying on the bed with a head full of snot.’

He grabbed her and turned her around. ‘You need to look were you’re going, there are people here shorter than you, and “I accidentally committed a murder” isn’t going to wash with a judge.’

‘I will get you gaming,’ she said.

‘Not in this life, Stef.’

She gave him a shrug, and they walked in silence the rest of the way to the bus interchange.

‘Oh…wow,’ she said as they stepped through the large arch that had “Marches Terminus” spelled out in large red letters, and smaller letters of a half dozen other languages.

The rounded, child’s-drawing buses sat at stops that led to sloping tunnels. Information booths – both automated and manned sat to their left; ticket booths were to the right, and several small food carts sat scattered through the place, selling drinks, cakes and strange-looking delicacies.

He stared at the screens above. ‘Seventeen minutes until the next express, or five minutes till the next all-stops, your choice.’

‘What’s the difference?’

‘Two hours versus four hours,’ he said. ‘The all-stops is coach though, so it’s more comfortable.’

‘Wait for the express,’ she said as a small cart carrying four Barbie-sized fairies whizzed by her foot.

‘Stop sixteen then,’ he said, and she followed him through the mostly-fairy crowd.

Only four other passengers waited for the express – two fairies, a hob, and a nymph dressed in a Beatles shirt and her own vines. The nymph watched them as they sat, orange eyes staring and making him self-conscious. For every fae he’d help catch, there were five or more that had slipped through his fingers, every step in Fairyland was another chance to run over someone who had known him, someone who wouldn’t mind-

The nymph beckoned him with a slim finger, and he rose, passing his bag to Stef.

He walked across to the woman – full nymph, at least a fae crossbreed, there was nothing human to be seen in her. Flowers were threaded through her hair, and there was a brand of knotwork running down the side of the arm, wood grain mixing seamlessly with skin.

‘If I asked you to go buy roses,’ she said, ‘would you know what I meant, Agent?’

Agent. Definitely full fae. Halfbreeds and less generally made an effort to distinguish between agents and recruits – unless they’d been raised fae, with the traditional values instilled.

He couldn’t help a slight smile at the “roses” though. ‘It’s not my first time in fairyland.’

Buying roses. A casual, non-expletive way to ask for anonymous sex. As open and sexually liberated as the fairies were, there was still something crass about being in need and walking up to people you found attractive and bluntly asking if they wanted to fuck. “Buying roses” had been coined by one of the larger sexporium chains as a way to capitalise in on those that couldn’t get to one of their establishments, and quickly entered everyday use.

It also helped them brand their interests. The app – which he knew he’d need in a minute; the jewellery that shone or otherwise let out a signal for those bashful about initiating the “I really need to get laid” conversation.

He looked up at the clock. Sixteen minutes until the bus. Perfectly achievable.

‘There’s rooms just over there,’ he said. ‘Meet you there.’

She gave him a nod and quick stepped toward the rooms. He went back over to Stef, grabbing his phone and wallet from his pockets before slipping off his jacket and dropping it beside her. ‘There’s a Gameboy at the bottom of the bag, can you amuse yourself for five minutes?’

‘What’s up? Anything I can help with?’

He gave himself credit for slipping into a poker face before he laughed at her. ‘Nah, I’m good. I’m just going to show her the tourist map. Ten minutes, tops.’

He left her digging for the Gameboy – it had been on the tech-suggested list of “toys to keep Stef busy”, along with a pouch full of games, surprisingly Pokemon heavy – and headed for the room, and the nymph.

She had her hand near the scanner of an unoccupied room – a Rose-branded room to little surprise, they were fast becoming the preferred provider and servicer of the public rooms, other than in establishments that insisted on maintaining their own. ‘No, let me,’ he said as he tapped his wallet against the scanner, and waited for the door to slide open – the single tap had bought them twenty minutes, more than enough time.

She stepped in, he followed, and locked the door behind them by hitting the large black-and-red rose-patterned button.

‘Don’t get that courtesy from a lot of guys,’ she said as she stripped off the shirt and began to unwrap the wide, flat vines she was using to cover the rest of her body.

‘I figure it’s the least I can do,’ he said as he stepped out of his shoes, placed them on the small rack, and unzipped his pants.

He hung his pants over the rack, and dropped his boxers on top of his shoes – there was no point in modesty, no point in keeping unnecessary clothes for the allure, or to be stripped during foreplay. He took off his shirt, but left on the tight t-shirt he wore under his formal shirt, the one he used to hide his tattoos, no point in scaring her. No point in reminding himself.

A vine wrapped around his leg and snaked up to skate across his groin as he pulled on a condom. He reached out a hand, grabbed the vine and turned to face her.

‘You’ll do,’ she said with a grin as she looked him up and down. She held out her phone, the Rose app already loaded and waiting for him. He retrieved his Fairyland phone and booted the app, then tapped his phone against hers. Their screens swirled in unison for a moment, then announced that their mutual details had been recorded, recorded under their usernames of course – their real details wouldn’t be disclosed without contacting the company and following proper procedure.

Even in Fairyland, STIs could be lied about, but with the details recorded for each anonymous encounter, there was paper trail. Failure to disclose an STI was considered a crime – even if it was generally dealt with without the help of the law, or at most with a civil case. It was generally quite a non-issue – the payment for the treatment or medications needed to deal with the frankly weird spectrum of sexually-transmitted nasties the fae could carry. In the rarer cases, when it was something that could last a lifetime, then the punishments were a lot more severe, so the app was a little insurance for all concerned.

‘What’s your preference?’ he asked, ‘bed, wall or floor?’

The Rose Rooms were adequately equipped to handle all quickie styles. Packed into the space was a wide single bed, a sloped section of wall to accommodate those who preferred to stand, and a carpeted section for those who wanted it…uncomfortable and with carpet burns.

‘Bed,’ she said, pushing him onto the supportive mattress.

Two thin white vines reached for the hem of his t-shirt, but he pushed them away. ‘No.’

She stepped up and onto the bed. ‘I’m letting you see everything,’ she said, roots moving across her breasts, teasing the nipples erect.

‘Scars. Car accident. It’s really not a pretty sight, and I’m not comfortable letting anyone see,’ he said, lying with a straight face.

The nymph pouted, but moved forward, settling herself onto his erection without further comment or complaint. He hissed in pleasure at the intimate contact, of the moist warmth, the pulse of life beating against him. He knew well enough not to move – the first moments for a nymph were very important, and all about them, not about their partner.

She reached her arms over her head, and they twisted and melded together, forming a strong trunk that reached toward the ceiling. Reaching vines and branches touched the off-white ceiling and began to spread out. Her spread legs spread further, taking him deeper as her calves pinched against him, thick roots moving beneath his back and wrapping around him to keep him in place.

‘All right,’ she said, and began to move against him.

Sex with a nymph – especially anonymous Rose Room sex with a nymph – was a largely one-sided affair. She pounded against him, enjoying herself without any real need of assistance from him. It was enjoyable to be serviced like this, to have nothing expected of him, but he always felt guilty, as if he should have been doing more. Half-nymphs like a more equal experience, but they still generally preferred to be on top, as it gave them more room to spread out.

Tiny roots flicked and teased his body, eliciting sounds he hoped were suitably manly. The vines against the ceiling spread and curled, and Curt made a promise to himself to try nymph sex on sensory stimulants one day. He came with a soft sigh, but she continued to pulse against him, drawing out the experience. She continued to move against him, keeping him inside her, and a minute later, she came, flowers bursting into life across the vines covering the roof.

Soft petals fell down on them as she collapsed onto the bed beside him, the flowers withering and disappearing as she retracted all of the roots, branches and vines back into the appearance of clothing.

She gave him a pat on the chest, then stood and began to dress. ‘Thanks Agent,’ she said as she pulled her Beatles shirt back on. ‘I really need to be able to focus this afternoon.’

‘Work or class?’ he said, grabbing a tissue from the courtesy stand and wiping himself off.

‘Class,’ she said, ‘engineering.’

He dressed quickly, and smiled as she left the room. He pulled on his shoes, straightened his tie, and pulled a few petals from his hair. He checked himself in the mirror, making sure he had none of the tell-tale signs of getting laid – not that Stef knew what the signs were – and gathered his phone and wallet, then left the room. The sign on the door changed from “occupied” to “awaiting clean” as he closed the door. A small Rose Room maintenance golf cart was already zooming towards the room as he walked back to the bus stop.

The nymph had taken a seat, her face buried in a university-branded tablet computer, bright blue headphones cutting her off from the world.

Stef had a similar ignoring-reality expression as she concentrated on the Gameboy. He grabbed his coat and slipped it back on, then sat, nudging her in the arm before she even noticed his presence.

‘Miss me?’

She gave a shrug, and didn’t look up from the machine. ‘There’s still three minutes until the bus.’

He looked up at the screen – she was correct. ‘How are you keeping track?’

‘I synched a countdown in my HUD.’

‘Of course you did.’

The bus pulled in two minutes later. ‘Come on newbie.’ She turned off the machine and passed it back. ‘Got your card?’

She pulled her card folder from her pocket and extracted her bus card from behind her Agency ID. They tapped on, their uniforms making the bus driver do a double-take and then claimed the backseat on the nearly empty bus.

‘Thought it would have been busier.’

‘On a weekday. After the morning rush. To a city two hours away?’

Concern flashed across her face. ‘Two hours?’

‘You’ve got plenty of time,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry. And if for some reason we get caught up and you get close to your time limit, there’s quicker ways back, but two hour taxi rides aren’t cheap, let alone anything more expedient, so we’ll save those for back-up plans, ok?’

‘And if I need to use the bathroom?’

He pointed to a red pod that sat where most buses had a back door. ‘That’s a toilet, so you’ve got nothing to worry about.’ He took off his jacket and settled into the relatively comfortable seat. ‘Settle in, like I said, two hours.’

She stared out the window for a moment. ‘Can I ask a newbie question?’

‘Of course.’

‘Why is it two hours? I mean, I know there’s not fairy stairs everywhere, but it seems a little extreme that’s there’s nothing closer.’

‘It’s the exclusion zone around the capital,’ he said. ‘It’s so that the stairs can’t be used to bring down invading armies. It’s paranoid, but it’s also prudent, there’s nothing to say people would use it for evil, but there’s too great a chance for exploitation, sort of the same reason recruits can’t shift, it’s not worth the risk.’

‘This is the closest point?’

‘There are a couple of closer ones, but most are useless because we don’t have cars down here – something the Agency really needs to work on – and the other place with busses is a much small interchange than this, so we get transport quicker, and your blue lasts a little bit longer.’

She stared past him, at something up behind his head.

‘Stef?’

She squeaked, and started babbling. He tried to pick out words from the stream of happy-excited sounds. ‘Nonsense?’ he asked. ‘What’s nonsense?’

Her babble stopped as she moved across the seat and knelt in his lap to get a better view at the advertising banner that ran along above the windows. ‘Nonsuch!’ she said, bouncing happily in his lap. ‘But, why, how, what?’

The bus went around a corner, and she fell back, happily sprawling onto the seats.

‘Sit up,’ he said, ‘we don’t want to get kicked off the bus.’

‘But that’s Nonsuch!’

He looked up at the poster, it was an ad you saw everywhere in Fairyland, a picture of the royal palace, with the prices and times for tours. ‘It’s the royal palace.’

‘It’s Nonsuch!’

He gently grabbed her by the shoulders and brought his face closer to hers. ‘I’m happy you’re happy, but I have no idea what you’re on about.’

She stared up at the poster again. ‘It’s Nonsuch Palace. King Henry – the one with all the wives – built it, but it got ripped to shreds hundreds of years ago.’

‘So they copied the design? I still don’t get what’s so special about it.’ He hated himself as soon as the words were out of his mouth. She deflated like a balloon, turned around properly on her seat and sat as still as he’d ever seen, hands folded in her lap. He looked from the poster, down to the agent, and wondered if he could get the driver to stop long enough to let him throw himself under the bus.

He touched her shoulder, and she shuffled away. He felt a stab of regret in his chest, and he withdrew his hand. ‘Sorry,’ he said, trying to cram every bit of sincerity he could into the word. ‘I’m really sorry, newbie. Explain it to me?’

She continued to stare down at her lap. ‘It’s nothing,’ she said, her voice flat, she’d tripped “slash-serious”. ‘You should tell me the plan, how do-‘

‘I want to hear about the palace,’ he said. ‘Seems to be something more than a landmark to you.’

‘What should I expect from Carmichael?’ she asked. ‘If he’s private intelligence, does he work out of firm, or-‘

Voluntarily talking about work, her shields really were up. ‘Stef.’

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t mean to.’

‘I’ll take you on the tour if you tell me.’

She snapped her head up, and slowly turned to look at him.

‘I’ll even pay for it,’ he said, ‘and all the gift shop stuff.’

‘I’m interested in the Tudor period?’ she said, her voice still emotionless.

‘Turn off your macro and try again.’

She turned away, wiped her eyes, and smoothed back her hair, tucking it behind her ears. Her eyes were still wet, but the hurt was gone from her posture. ‘It’s Nonsuch,’ she said again. ‘Henry the Eighth built it, cause he wanted it to be better than anything that had come before, “nonesuch place more magnificent” I think was the idea. Had some production hell issues, stood for a bit, then got torn down and buried.’

She stared at him to make sure he was still listening. She tapped out something on her knees. ‘It- I- I guess I like the idea of it more than the building. Nonsuch, it seems so…fairytale. It seemed like such a shame that it just didn’t exist anymore, so I hoped that like-‘ her cheeks flushed so much he prepared to grab her in case she fainted. ‘I hoped that maybe fairies or elves or something stole it away, that it was saved, not destroyed. It’s a replica, obviously, but I’m still so close to being right that I could burst!’

Her excitement had returned, though far more restrained.

‘Don’t get me wrong when I say this,’ she said, ‘but I find sometimes that I’m a little at odds with myself when it comes to magic. There’s the awesome of it being real with the disappointment of it not working exactly like I thought as a kid. It would seriously drive me insane-‘ she stopped to smirk at that. ‘-if we had to do these big-ass incantations every time we wanted to do something. I couldn’t live without requiring though, but I don’t mind the sparkly, frippy stuff sometimes.’

‘When we’re done with Carmichael, presuming it doesn’t take all day, we’ll go. If it does take all day and you’re running out of blue, we’ll come back tomorrow.’

‘But Ryan said-‘

‘If the world is going to end,’ he said, ‘shouldn’t we get to have a bit of fun first?’

She gave him a small smile, and nodded.

He squeezed her hand for a second, then let it go. He pulled his phone out. ‘Want to have the tourist commentary so you can see the landmarks?’

‘…you has a fairy phone?’ she asked as she took it and began to examine it.

‘It’s kind of necessary down here, I’m surprised you don’t.’

‘I come to Fairyland to ride my pony. And occasionally other ponies. And muck out stalls. And eat as much cake as a gnome can pile onto my plate. It’s more like visiting the country than anything else.’

‘I picked this up on my third trip. It’s nothing fancy, it’s a fairly basic model, and because I’m a non-citizen they can screw me on the plan rates.’

She fingered the magic lamp symbol on the back of the phone, and it cycled through a rainbow of colours before turning to gold again. ‘Oooh.’

‘It’s Genie, it’s sort of like the Apple of Fairyland.’

‘I’ve never had a mobile,’ she said, poking the lamp symbol again.

‘You haven’t, but you’re-‘

‘Who would I call?’ she said, staring down at the phone. ‘I never needed to call anyone, so I couldn’t justify the expense.’

‘We’ll grab you one this afternoon,’ he said, ‘you can call me.’

She stared off into space for a moment. ‘Oooh,’ she said after a moment. ‘That’s nifty.’

‘Share it with the class?’

‘So, like, when there’s stuff I don’t know I get these automated tips, or agent wiki stuff pop up. There’s one for fairy phones. If I’m reading this right, the Agency has a sort of corporate account thing, so we won’t get screwed by the plan rates.’

‘You can if you want.’

‘Huh?’

‘Some degree of separation from the Agency is nice. Just that little bit of protection for situations like Carol.’

She smiled. ‘When I hear you preaching paranoid, I listen. But yeah, my first phone, this afternoon.’

He laid the phone in her hand and opened up the app. ‘Go with the text, the voice is sorta annoying.’ She leaned against him, folded her legs up and stared down at the phone, flicking through the information as it loaded.

He rested his head back against his jacket and closed his eyes, happy for the moment, despite the threat of apocalypse.