Stef unwrapped another burger and ate hungrily – already feeling her stomach wanting to rebel. Eating too much after eating not enough wasn’t the smartest combination, but the burger was just too good.
She looked at the food in front of her – way too much for just her. Even past the inevitable puke, it was too much.
She opened the Fry’s bag – placed one more burger and two more doughnuts in that, then lifted the other Fry’s bag and the doughnut bag and carried them to the donations table, and placed them down, before running back to the seat.
It was good to share – and one way or another, this was probably going to be her last night in the Local Court.
Ryan didn’t hate her. Might not hate her. Would probably hate her for jumping to conclusions.
She should have been patient. Should have waited-
You acted on the information you had. It was the only reasonable thing to do.
But what if I wrecked everything?
Then it was…flimsy magic, and was going to break anyway.
She wrapped her arms around herself.
God, I hope you’re right.
She slowly finished the burger, praying with every bite that she didn’t puke, then folded down the Fry’s bag and stuffed it in her laptop bag beside Frankie – no sense in wasting food, especially if everything went bad and she end up on the run again.
Stef pulled the twenty from her pocket – it was so weird to be folding fairy currency. So weird that fairy currency, even if colloquially referred to as “gold”, was as functional a currency as dollars or pounds.
Fairies were real, fae were real, and they were just…normal. People with jobs and computers and fast food chains. They weren’t frippy little things who lived in mushrooms, who danced about in circles waiting to charm some human girl away.
Well, not the ones she’d seen anyway.
She watched the flow of people walking past the homeless area – nymphs, fairies, hobs and a dozen more kinds of people she couldn’t identify yet.
Is that a fscking golem?
She sipped at the leftover coffee – trying to make the last quarter-cup last as long as possible, and zoned out, watching fairy after nymph after hob after-
Her throat went tight-
A woman with white hair. In a cute black dress. Followed by an agent with red hair.
Taylor, Magnolia and a prisoner – unless they liked to keep their friends handcuffed and gagged – walked down the thoroughfare beside the homeless area.
Don’t move. Don’t react. You’re furniture! You’re furniture!
She felt warm coffee on her hand as she crushed the cup in her hand.
Stef did her best not to move – though her eyes felt like they were bulging out of her head – as the trio passed, seemingly without noticing her.
Count to ten. Count to ten. Count to ten.
She struggled to pull in a breath, and it came out as a ragged half-sob.
She grabbed Frankie’s bag and wrapped it around her neck – he had to come with her. Until it came down to her-or-him, he was coming with.
She put the paper cup down, adjusted the strap, then stood and looked down the tiled walkway – and saw that they were just getting out of sight. She waited until the last hint of Taylor’s ginger head was gone around the curve, then started to walk.
Running was bad. Running was stupid, as any direction could potentially put her in their path. She had no idea where prisoners went, let alone what path they would take when they left.
They might stay and eat breakfast – surely there was somewhere that sold the raw, bloody meat that Taylor surely dined on – or they could leave straight away.
Running was dumb, hiding was smart.
Hiding had worked in the mansion.
She was maddeningly aware of her own footsteps – her left foot seemed too loud, too fast; her right was too slow, too quiet, barely moving. She was going to freeze in place, there for everyone to see, unable to move or run away.
A hacker weeping in fear of an angel.
Come on feet, come on feet, come on feet!
Slowly, quickly, unevenly, she made it to the bathroom, and as soon as she stepped over the threshold to the darker tile, her lungs seemed to release, letting her breathe normally.
It was getting to a safe zone when playing tiggy, the feeling of slipping free of the monster coming to get you.
She shook her hands, entered the end stall and stopped to stare at the toilet for a moment – the bowl was a lot rounder than the standard toilet – and had a series of concentric lids – allowing you to size it to suit yourself.
She closed all of the lids, and the cover, and sat, then drew her legs up, hugging them to her chest.
All she had to do was stay still, and quiet, and no one would know she was there.
Just like old times.
There was something incredibly safe about a bathroom stall. It was seemingly impenetrable to outside forces. It was a place you could cry, freak out, or escape bullies.
It was a place to have space, when there was nothing else available.
And if the stall kept her safe today, she would erect a monument in their honour.
Stef counted to a thousand.
A dozen people came, used the facilities, flushed and left.
I can stay in here all day.
She counted backwards from one thousand.
The main door swung open again but the new person didn’t immediately go into a stall – this wasn’t unusual, some people had just come in to wash their hands, or check their appearance in the mirror.
There was no noise of water running.
Heavy footsteps slowly crossed the floor.
No, no, no, please no.
She lifted a hand to her face and pinched her nose and mouth closed to stop herself from screaming.
‘We have a good relationship with this Court, Mimosa, don’t make me kick down the door.’
Tears started, even as her insides twisted – she was sure her lungs were breaking free from their moorings and her kidneys were going for a merry jaunt around her midsection. She was going to break apart and there’d be nothing for the bird girl to find.
‘We saw you when we came in. You’re on tape coming in here.’ The boots shuffled a bit, Stef looked up, and saw a black eye staring through the tiny crack in the door. ‘And I can see you.’
Stef leaned forward and twisted the lock, and the door fell inward of its own accord.
Magnolia took a step forward, grabbed her arm, and yanked her out of the stall. ‘You can quit the Agency, you know,’ Magnolia said as she shoved her up against the wall. ‘Going AWOL is the act of a coward. Going AWOL got us audited and disrupted-’
Wait, wait- She doesn’t know! She doesn’t know!
Stef let all of her fear show. ‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry okay! I just- I just got scared! I got scared and I ran away! I figured no one would even notice!’
Magnolia shoved her again. ‘Not that you probably care, but you put Ryan in danger of execution with your cowardice. You’re coming back to the Agency with us. You’re going to explain yourself, and you’re going to get punished, it’s the least you deserve.’
No, I can’t- Someone will-
Magnolia grabbed her arm and swung her across the slippery floor towards the main door. She tripped on her own feet, trying to maintain her balance, and slammed, face-first, into the floor.
Stef pushed herself up onto her hands, shook her head, and watched as drops of blood fell from her nose to the floor.
‘Get. Up.’ Magnolia snapped from behind her, grabbing the back of her shirt.
Stef stood, and felt a small twitch in her nose – something mending itself.
And it was a twitch that Magnolia didn’t fail to see.
Magnolia reached forward, grabbed a fistful of hair, then punched her in the face.
This time, her nose was definitely broken.
She screamed in pain, but didn’t even try to ask why, or try to deny what Magnolia had seen. Sometimes, obfuscation was just pointless.
Magnolia kept her fingers wrapped in her head, staring at her face as her nose popped back into place.
‘You’re human,’ Magnolia said, ‘I read over your file after O’Connor came whinging. You’re entirely human, where’s the healing factor come from?’
‘I know a guy!’ she shouted – hoping that made some sort of sense, hoping that getting fae advantages via surgery or magic was even possible to-
Magnolia shoved her again and she managed to grab the sink this time.
The magpie walked past her, the door swinging loudly for a moment.
She had to run. She had to escape. She had to-
There was only one door, there were no windows, there was-
The door swung open again, and this time Agent Volcano accompanied Magnolia.
It only took three of his long strides to bring him close enough to grab her.
‘I didn’t do anything-’ she managed, before he stabbed her in the arm.
The knife disappeared and he held her arm still – and she watched as he watched it heal.
Taylor dropped her arm, then took a step back, and stared at her.
He’s scanning me…
She felt the urge to lift both hands to her chest and try to cover her heart – to stop him from seeing it, from seeing straight through her.
‘I’m in- I’m here,’ she said, trying to find her voice. ‘No matter- This is out of the Agency’s jurisdiction, right? I don’t have to go anywhere,’ she said, crying already strangling her words.
‘We can if you’re blacklisted,’ Magnolia said. ‘And any agent, with justification, can make that call.’
Taylor gripped her shoulder, turned her against the sink and slammed her down. Cold metal wrapped around her wrists – handcuffs.
No, no, no, no, no.
‘Move,’ Taylor growled.
I don’t even know how to…feet…
Taylor growled again, grabbed her by the neck, and pushed her forward.