October 9th

He had been social once, he was sure of it.

Curt stared into the mirror and required the eighth new shirt in the last twenty minutes.

Easy. It had been easy in the old days. Agreeing to meet up with people to kick a ball around, or watch a movie, or sport, or just have a BBQ and talk shit about work.

He didn’t remember his palms sweating.

He didn’t remember the driving urge to finally agree to one of Parker-2’s medical malpractice experiments.

Somehow, having his liver extracted without anaesthesia seemed like a far better idea than going out for a quiet evening with some of his peers.

He lowered the lid of the toilet, and sat, his head in his hands.

Getting used to the normal things was the hardest aspect of rehabilitation.

Agency life was a fairly simple A, B, C lifestyle. Get up, do a mission, chat with some fae, do some paperwork, sleep, have horrific nightmares, and wake up to do it all again.

The fact that the rest of his department were a bunch of dicks had made it somehow a lot easier to manage – he didn’t have to manage multiple personas – all he had to do was keep a single, quiet and capitulating facade up while they talked about him behind his back and used him as the butt of all Solstice jokes.

It had made the harder aspects of Agency protocol and procedure easier, because he hadn’t had to focus on all the niceties of social interaction for over a year.

Magnolia was easy to get along with – their interactions were short, direct, sexy and without the need for too much talking. And if she did want to talk, it was thankfully about Agency protocol and procedure.

And hanging out for a few doing stretches with Hewitt was a far cry from spending several hours with recruits he had barely had a conversation with.

His resolve had cracked and he’d peeked at each of their files – just so that he didn’t make any mistakes.

Or, at least, to lessen the chances of his making mistakes.

Mags was a known quantity.

Hewitt was the only other combat recruit coming – his test score chart was interesting, scoring just as high for Tech as he had for Combat – he was sure that would have been an interesting pissing match between Taylor and Jones as to who got to dibs the recruit.

At least he was involved with someone – rule of conversation, people always liked to talk about their partners, so Caipe would be a great conversational motivator if things got too dead.

Sacha was a tech, there was no interesting aberration in his test chart, like with Hewitt. He’d been born in Germany, but been here for most of his life – he was also one of the older techs that this Agency had – at thirty-five, he appeared to have been a recruit for most of his professional life, though that was relatively common with Techs.

Long-term recruits usually fell into two camps – those who were in it for the long haul, who wanted to be recruits for the rest of their lives; and those who treated it more like mining or project work – something to dedicate yourself to for a decade, then use what you’d built up to set up the rest of your life.

So far, Sacha seemed to be falling into the former.

Screen was the one techs he’d had little to do with – a short, fat tech who seemed to be a whirl of purple hair and references he didn’t understand.

Stef had liked her.

He slumped again. Stef. He had managed to forget about her in the couple of weeks that had passed, which was right in its own way – the Agency was doing its “best” to see to it that Duty was satisfied.

On the other hand, it was wrong that any half-decent life should pass with so little remembrance.

People died, but then they died again when people forgot about them.

Like Tara.

He’d understood death, even back then, even if he hadn’t accepted it. People got…switched off, and no amount of crying could ever, ever bring them back.

It had been the final straw with his parents, and the divorce proceedings had started after the funeral.

His mum hadn’t put pictures of her up in the apartment they’d moved to, and they didn’t talk about her.

Forgotten was worse than dead.

And Stef was both.

There was a knock at his door, and he quickly stood, checked himself in the mirror once more, and went to it.

Magnolia was there, ribbons wrapped around the short braids that hung either side her of her face, her dress the usual combination of lace, ruffles and hidden weapons.

‘You ready?’ she asked.

‘I am,’ he said, ‘but you’re early. I didn’t think you’d want to be seen with me.’

She gave a slight shrug. ‘We can catch the end of happy hour if we hurry, and everyone else is ready.’

He pulled back, and grabbed the jacket he’d required earlier from the hook on the back of the door, checked for his wallet and phones, then nodded to her.

She stepped back, and gave him room to come out.

He started to reach for her hand, but stopped himself – this wasn’t a date, and she wasn’t his girlfriend. If she wanted things to progress on that path, she’d give him a sign, until then, there were protocols to respect.

Being seen with him was one thing, showing affection – was another entirely.

She strode ahead, heading for the elevator, and he lagged behind a little, wondering how fucked-up they would be as a couple.

He didn’t love her, he knew that for certain. He respected her, he was attracted to her, but his brain couldn’t make the leap to imagining sharing a room on a regular basis, going for breakfast, or watching movies together.

Then again, he couldn’t imagine that with anyone.

Which was probably for the best. People didn’t want damaged goods in their life.

*

Orrick’s Field was a strange little venue – by turns it was a cafe, a nightclub and a theatre restaurant, all – apparently – without contradicting itself.

These kinds of establishments were, from what he could tell, fairly common outside of Faerie – small outposts of fae culture without having to find stairs or go too far out of the way.

The multi-business aspect also allowed entrepreneurs to pool resources – buy a larger single building, schedule staff across the different aspects and get more bang for their gold.

Curt sipped his second drink as Hewitt continued to explain the set-up.

The cafe ran from breakfast to afternoon tea – when the kitchens started to organise dinner. The evening aspect was the one most susceptible to change – dinners often ran to a theme, matching the entertainment. Sometimes it was simply a complementary menu – pub food for a pub band, or hobbish meals during a poetry reading.

Other nights were events, when every aspect tied together – like the Tural theatre event that night with the timed meals that matched the mood and content of the show.

And every table had to be a group of five – five was an important number within the stories surrounding the Cycle of Life – which the play was based around. The origins of the plant fae and Life’s direct involvement – which was, according to their creation mythology, how they made the split from a single fae progenitor, to the nymphs and hobs that existed now.

The further deviations from the strict dichotomy of “maker” and “shaper” weren’t generally spoken about in the mass-consumption Tural theatre, as the stories were less of a romantic creation myth than plain old evolution.

Sacha returned to the table, a large pitcher of angel water in his hand. Magnolia turned away from giggling with Screen for the first time since they’d sat and held a hand up to stop Sacha from sitting. ‘You made changes,’ she said, putting a hand to Sacha’s short red skirt. ‘Where’s the tartan?’

‘Too many people were asking if it was a kilt,’ he said as he sat, ‘and I was disappointing them by not showing if I was a true Scotsman or not.’

‘You’re fucking German,’ Mags said as she poured herself a glass of the sweet, vaguely alcoholic blue liquid, ‘they couldn’t tell from the accent?’

Sacha grinned. ‘The accent might be strong to your delicate Aussie ears, Mags, but my parents say they can barely hear it anymore. I’m just hoping my future children are adorable, otherwise things could be troublesome.’

Curt poured himself a glass of the angel water. ‘You should be safe, it’s a…restart when grandkids are in the picture. You’re irrelevant, except as a delivery vehicle. They get the best parts of parenting without the day-to-day pressures. You’re giving them a better version of their experience raising you.’ He stared at the table. ‘That’s the impression I got anyway.’

He counted to three, then looked up. Magnolia’s look was neutral – he hadn’t doubted that she knew, her Aide access gave her all the detail she would ever need on a recruit, and he would bet large sums of money she knew his file as well as he did.

Sacha, Screen and Hewitt, however, were surprised.

‘I had to leave her behind,’ he said, trying to cut into the awkward silence. ‘She’s with my ex in Adelaide. Probation and all that.’ He took a drink of the faux-blue, and wondered how the taste compared to the real thing – the real blue probably wasn’t sweet, but it wasn’t a theory he really cared to test.

‘I’ll hit you up for advice when I decide to spawn,’ Sacha said, then lifted the pitcher and filled the remaining glasses with the blue drink.

‘I’ve got a question of my own actually,’ Curt said, wanting to lighten the atmosphere a bit.

Sacha folded his hands, his posture already more awkward, and looked to Magnolia. ‘Should I get the bingo card?’

‘Huh?’ Curt asked.

‘Give him the benefit of the doubt,’ Mags said.

He felt his mind screaming for an escape, all he’d done was ask to ask a question, and everyone was turning on him. He should have kept quiet, like he did around the Field recruits. It was harder to hate someone who said nothing. ‘Huh?’

‘I’m black, German and queer,’ Sacha said, his voice flat. ‘I have it down to a statistical science what people who aren’t my friends ask me.’ He held up his hand and a piece of paper appeared. ‘Hence, bingo card.’

‘I was going to ask what a stroopwafel was,’ Curt said quickly, ‘I’ve been hearing the techs talk about them every time I’ve come to drop off a file lately, and I figured you might not know.’

Sacha grinned, and the tension seemed to slip away. ‘How the fuck would I know? It sounds Dutch.’

Screen leaned closer. ‘You have heard of this thing called Google, right?’

‘I…don’t like randomly searching for stuff on the internet.’

‘Then use Urban Dictionary, it’s usually the safest way to find out if something is a disturbing sex act.’ She pulled out a phone and stared at it for a minute. ‘Huh, it’s pretty tame actually. And he’s right, it’s a Dutch thing. Now stop confusing Dutch and Deutsch, drink up and start to relax, Agent C.’

‘I’m functionally as Aussie as the next guy,’ Sacha said, ‘well when the next guy isn’t a fucking Kiwi,’ he said, jerking a thumb at Hewitt. ‘When I require a cookie, it’s a Timtam.’ He laid his hands flat on the table. ‘I’ve had a long enough week explaining to people that miraculously, I’m not related to Agent Jane, I just want to relax.’

‘You’re right, I’m sorry,’ Curt said, hoping he hadn’t fucked up things too badly, ‘next round’s on me, okay?’ Across the table Mags gave him the slightest of nods, and he fought an urge to sigh in relief.

Everything was fine. He hadn’t fucked up too badly. He didn’t need to submit to the Parkers’ experimentations.

He’d been social once, he could be social again.

 

BE AWARE THERE ARE SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE SERIES IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.

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