Stef closed her eyes, the next line escaping her for a moment. There was a noise. She opened her eyes, and for a moment, there was a pirate standing in front of her.
‘Cap–’ She blinked, and some of the fuzziness disappeared from her vision. It wasn’t a pirate; it was the agent. For a moment, she was back in the wardrobe: in the dark, terrified, with no way of escape. Seeing no shame in a coward’s death, she pulled the quilt over her head and waited for bad things to happen.
‘Well, that answers one question,’ the agent said.
She pulled the quilt from her head and saw the agent crouching in front of her. Daylight, and being awake for more than second, made him less scary.
Confusion took over, and she sat up, wrapping the quilt around her. ‘And that question was?’ she asked.
‘A disorientated Solstice wouldn’t hide under a blanket to escape an agent.’
Solstice used HIDE; it’s not very effective?
She ran her hands through her messy hair. ‘You thought I was–’ She stopped. ‘Really?’
‘I had to consider it as a possibility.’ He smiled. ‘This is more proof that I was wrong.’
Higher brain functions pulled themselves from sleep and the clutches of pirates as she pushed the quilt away. ‘You’re here because it’s morning, aren’t you?’
‘But I only closed my eyes a minute ago.’ Another thought popped into her head. ‘Shouldn’t you have knocked?’
‘I did,’ the agent said, ‘but you didn’t answer.’
‘Given the circumstances, I didn’t see the harm. It’s nine. It might be noting for future reference, however, that my recruits start morning training at seven.’
She crinkled her nose. ‘Seven anti-meridian isn’t a time of day I even like to acknowledge as existing.’ She sat up, and let her head hang in her hands for a moment. Too early. Too early for anything. Too early to be–
The narc cleared his throat, and she lifted her head, spread her fingers and peeked at him. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m not really a morning person.’ She dropped her hands away from her head, and threw the pillows back to the proper end of the bed. ‘Hey– I mean, um–’ Her cheeks burned. Asking him favours was probably–
‘If you’ve got a question, Miss Mimosa, you can ask it.’
That’s totally a better attitude than Dorian.
‘That – that thing you did with the water last night.’
‘You call your conjuring power “requiring”?’
‘But that’s so plain and– I like it,’ she said. ‘It’s like a word that people actually use, not all “Expecto Illiad Hydro!” or whatever.’ She gave a magic wand flourish. ‘Anyway. Um. Is it like an elemental power?’
There was a slight smile on his face. ‘Do you think it is?’
For a brief second, it seemed to be a condescending question, putting her in her place for being stupid, but the expectant look said otherwise. She knelt on the bed and stared down at her hands for a second. ‘Well, I’m sure I could make some argument about some state change that could make water mimic glass, but I don’t think so. And you teleported us, so if I can make an assumption, I’d assume matter creation is just as easy as bringing us halfway across the city in a few seconds. Well, I guess it was a few seconds.’
He gave a nod. ‘It was only a few seconds. And your clothes aren’t made of water.’
She looked down at herself and saw the unfamiliar grey T-shirt and pants. ‘Oh. Ooooh.’ She looked back at him, sheepish. ‘I had completely forgotten about that.’
Great. Now I look like an idiot.
‘Sorry,’ she said, staring back down at her hands. ‘But I said I wasn’t a morning person.’
Just tell me they don’t hand out executions for being stupid.
You’re being paranoid.
‘Did you have a reason for asking?’
‘I was, um, gonna ask for a coffee?’
He took a step closer to the bed, held out his hand, and she watched as a white coffee cup appeared there. He held it out, and she took it and drank the not-nearly-sugary-enough coffee.
I’m drinking magic coffee; I’m drinking magic coffee!
‘Thanks,’ she said after emptying half the cup. ‘Really, thanks.’
Thanks for not killing me. Thanks for telling me stuff.
‘You’re welcome, Miss Mimosa.’
That’s gonna get annoying eventually.
‘Jones has finished analysing the data on your laptop,’ he said, ‘and we’ll need a few things clarified later.’
Well, could I also–
Her mind caught up with what he’d said. ‘Get a few things clarified?’
‘Of course.’ He stood for a moment, then sat on the edge of the bed. ‘Ask whatever you need to.’
She drained the cup, trying to use the coffee to burn away some of the stupider questions. ‘Okay, so Solstice, bad guys. Just stupidly idealistic and scared of magic? I mean, they–’ Her breath caught. ‘No one else even knew they were working for a monster.’
The cup refilled. ‘Last night was extreme,’ he said, his voice gentle. ‘Generally they avoid going after human civilians like that; but yes, broadly, you’re correct. They deem themselves to be a humanitarian organisation – and they wish to destroy anything that isn’t human. Their methods are…cowardly, cruel, unforgivable.’
‘And they’re your – um, our – main bad guy?’
This earned her an amused look. ‘They are only one of our priorities. They are, however, the most organised of the groups that are hostile towards us. Predominantly, our concern is keeping the fae and human worlds separate as best as we can.’
One question refused to be held back. ‘Are we the Men in Black?’ She put her hands to her mouth after the question escaped. ‘Sorry. But. Suit and secrets and stuff.’
‘There’s very good reason to believe we’re responsible for the urban legends, at least as much as any other well-dressed organisation.’
She smiled, and looked at his suit a bit more. It was the suit that had stuck in her mind. The suit and his voice. The blue of the vest–
A scary darkness that wanted her. Safe. Someone was holding her and keeping her safe.
Scary darkness, safety and blue.
She risked a quick look at him.
You were there when I died, weren’t you?
The question refused to roll out of her mouth. She started to tap out the Fibonacci sequence on the coffee cup and looked back up and tried to smile. ‘So is that the kind of suit I get?’ She looked down at her grey clothes. ‘Or do I stick with this?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘that’s a version of our training uniform. The suit is the formal uniform for all departments and the standard uniform for my recruits.’
She rolled the coffee cup around in her hands. ‘So I guess you know my next question.’
‘Field,’ he said, indicating himself. ‘Jones heads the tech department, and we also have a combat division.’
She froze the smile on her face, letting her toes curl and unfurl. Memory or not, she wasn’t going to get to hang out with him. The skinny blond agent had seemed nice too, though, and there were definite signs of gamerhood. But still, Jones wasn’t–
Can you at least tell me why I remember you? Dorian said I died. Can you tell me what happened?
She kept her expression neutral. ‘So what’s the litmus test for where I go?’
His expression was more impassive than her own. He was looking for an excuse to get rid of her, to stop answering all of her questions, to palm her off onto someone else. He rose from the bed. ‘If you’ll follow me, we’ll head to the tests.’
She tried to apologise for being annoying as she crawled off the bed, but it came out as a squeak. ‘Sure.’ She ran a hand through her hair again, stood straight. ‘Am I okay like this, or are you going to awesome new clothes onto me again?’
He raised his eyebrows slightly, and she felt the clothes ripple as they became as fresh and new as they had been the night before. The strangest sensation, though, was shoes appearing around her feet, and the ever-so-slight increase in height afforded by the thick soles.
‘Ready?’ he asked.
She nodded and followed him through the now unlocked door, and down the hall towards the lift. He pressed the button, and a few seconds later, the lift appeared. ‘Is this a magic lift? Last night and now, we only had to wait like five seconds for it. With all the buttons inside, there’s a low statistical probability that it was that close each time.’
He gave her a strange look. ‘That’s a very astute observation.’
She stared at her feet. ‘I’m, um, a genius. Sorry. I notice things.’
It’s also the paranoia, but you shouldn’t mention that.
‘You shouldn’t apologise for that,’ he said as they stepped into the lift. ‘Intelligence isn’t something to be ashamed of.’
She continued to stare at her feet and shrugged. The lift doors slid open, and she followed him out.
This floor was a lot plainer than even Ryan’s floor, but at least the doors had numbers, making navigation possible. The room he led her into contained only a few hard, plastic chairs, a table, and a television on the wall.
Oh, please tell me there’s not an orientation video.
There was the sound of voices, and the door opened again, allowing a guy with a buzz cut and a red-haired mountain to enter the boring little room. She stared at the mountain for a moment before realising that it was a volcano – one that looked as if it was going to erupt. The volcano rumbled, a deep, rocky sound – one that would have made the residents of Pompeii wish they been thrown in jail. She was pretty sure it was shaking, the red on top obviously burninating fire that would–
Ryan addressed the volcano. ‘Taylor, are we ready to start?’
The volcano – the agent with red hair – grunted, his gaze drilling into her. Volcano or not, an ancient Roman jail seemed a much safer place to be. He took a step forwards, and her heart skipped a beat, every bit of her imaginary Spyder-sense screaming at her to run.
If that’s not the guy who runs the combat department, I’ll eat my feet.
The volcano took another step forwards–
Run. Run away from the volcano. Run away from the narc she was going to disappoint. Find her way by the battleship numbers to the lobby and break out. Run to a familiar street and catch a bus home. They could follow her, but they wouldn’t bother. Get home, close the door, and lock–
She blinked up at the agent. ‘Yeah, I’m ready too.’ She looked back to the door, knowing that until she signed a blood contract that she could run at any time. Until then, there was no harm in–
You’re just too lazy to run to Adelaide Street, aren’t you?
The volcano – Taylor – opened the door at the back of the small room, and they all followed him through. The room was significantly larger than the one they’d left. There was no plastic furniture in the room or plasma screens. There were, however, two thirty-foot brick walls.
Two free-standing thirty-foot brick walls.
‘What.’ They had no visible means of support. ‘So, um,’ she muttered, ‘a wizard did it?’
The three men all turned to look at her. She imagined smoke coming from Taylor’s ears. She shrugged. ‘Sorry. Thinking out loud.’
Taylor walked forwards and stood between the two walls. ‘First test. Combat. Objective: get to the other side of the wall. There is equipment over there.’ A thick finger was stabbed towards the side of the room.
How is that combat? Is the wall gonna try and eat me?
Is the fscking wall going to try and eat me?!
She walked towards the rack of gear, the buzz cut pushing past her as to get first choice. ‘So, you’re, like, the joke I’m being tested against?’ he asked as he picked through the equipment.
She examined a set of suction cups and dismissed them – they were for climbing glass and smooth metal, not brick and mortar. Witty responses failed to form, and she just shrugged.
‘What are you, the receptionist?’ He snatched the grappling hook from her hand. ‘I used this in basic. I know what I’m doing with it.’
She stared straight ahead at the piles of equipment, pretending to be a robot, pretending not to be scared. She stole a look at the buzz cut.
Two recruits enter, one recruit leaves?
He didn’t say anything about limited places.
She ran her hand over another hook, but left it alone. The tests had to be based on individual merits; competition didn’t make any sense. It didn’t make any sense. None of it made any sense. Magic was real, and things had stopped making sense the moment she’d stepped into the wardrobe. A smile crossed her face, and she turned back to the walls. There was only one way over, one way that she could manage.
The volcano growled, and she quick-stepped over to her wall, finding the buzz-cut halfway up already. She clapped her hands, then let them swing at her sides, giving herself a little momentum.
She took a deep breath, then walked around the wall.