Stef slammed the door to the warehouse shut – she was already safe, but something about a closed door always made her feel truly secure. Like how hiding in a toilet stall at school didn’t provide any real protection from the outside world, but gave you the false sense that you had some control over a tiny space in the world.
Kayden was crouched beside the agent, pressing a very bloody handkerchief to his face. She marvelled at his condition in comparison to hers – she had a ripped shirt and some minor scratches from where the hob’s sharp shoes had landed on her, but other than that, she was fine.
Her opponent, however, had scratches up and down his arm, sweat and dirt hung on him in a filthy film, and he looked exhausted – and angry. ‘What’d you do?’ he demanded as he got up from the floor. ‘Hide the entire time?’
She blinked slowly, then looked to Ryan. ‘I assessed the situation.’
‘And your assessment?’ the agent asked.
‘It – the hob,’ she said, quickly correcting herself, ‘was only dangerous because it was provoked. It hadn’t harmed civilians, and if it was open about its intention to eat me, then I don’t think it would bother to lie about past crimes.’
Ryan’s expression remained expectant, and she scrambled for more coherent sentences.
‘With no further information, I extrapolated that I was to judge the situation independently. It didn’t warrant– I didn’t see the need to shoot it.’
‘I don’t know what you had on your side, dork, but I was dealing with some vicious little bastard who wanted to-’
‘Kayden.’ Ryan’s voice was commanding – the voice of a boss, rather than the gentle tone he’d been using with her. Wordlessly, Kayden turned towards the agent. ‘Dismissed.’
‘Sir,’ Kayden said, all fight and snark from his voice, then disappeared, disappearing with a rush of air, despawning without another word.
‘Um,’ Stef said at the same time as Ryan started to speak. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘you go first.’
Ryan handed her a bottle of water, then gave a small shrug. ‘Kayden was part of this sim – there is usually more to his part, some anti-magic rhetoric, but you already dealt with Solstice last night. For my part, that element is secondary to the impact during the warehouse scenario.’ He smiled. ‘It’s always interesting to see how potential recruits react when they have the perceived permission to injure the fae in the scenario.’
‘To see if they’re susceptible to peer pressure?’
‘A little more complex, but in essence, yes. We need people who are able to look past initial impressions.’
‘I’m not going to say I wasn’t- Surprised, pissed, something, but I went into its space – if someone broke into my apartment, I mean, there’s a reason I keep a knife block on my desk.’ She winced at the lack of flow to her thoughts. ‘Um. Someone like Dorian’s always going to get a free pass because he’s probably handsome, I have no idea, but I think he is? No one is going to go at him, like, gun first. The hob dude, like, bed head and bad fashion, but- Yeah. I think I did the right thing?’
‘Yes, Miss Mimosa, you acted appropriately, and that will be reflected in your final score.’
‘So how does that work?’
‘Each of us will give you a score out of ten, these scores are not averaged, as each department is very different. The Field score, however, impacts all three, as it determines the level of assignment that you can be tasked with outside the Agency.’ He paused. ‘A shorthand some I’ve heard some recruits use is that it’s the “danger rating”, for example, many Tech recruits have a Field score between three and six. A minimum score of four allows recruits to assist in active operations.’
‘So what happens until the scores come in?’
‘I have them already.’ He extended a hand. ‘So now I can officially welcome you to the Agency.’
She tucked the bottle of water under her arm, then shook his hand. ‘Thanks. Thank you.’
He nodded, released her hand, and headed towards a door off to the right. ‘First, I’ll issue you a uniform, then I’ll take you to Agent Jones.’
The urge to bounce off the walls deflated. Jones. Of course. The Sorting Hat had spoken – and working for Jones was probably going to be fun, but- She stared down at the floor as she followed Ryan – as fundamental as the memory of him was to her, it had probably just been another day for him.
There were probably a hundred kids out there, just like here, who had the important-but-indistinct memory of being saved by a steak of navy blue.
So other than being a mildly interesting coincidence, nothing was stopping him from assigning her to Tech Support, then retreating back to deal with his own, much more competent recruits.
She scratched at her arm and dug her nails into her elbow. This was the logical way the situation went, and there was no reason to- Her heart felt weird and heavy. Talking to him had been – not fun, but- Meaningful. Communicating with another person in a way she hadn’t done for years.
And she owed him so much. Owed him for how often the lingering memory had brought her comfort. Owed him for her entire goddamn life. Twice.
It was an end to something, even more than being welcomed to the Agency was the beginning of something.
This next room was cluttered and gave the immediate impression of a military surplus store – racks of clothes with an ever-so-fine hint of dust everywhere. There were six racks of uniforms – the suits for Field, lab coats for Tech and BDUs for Combat.
Along the back and right-hand side walls were metal shelving units – and she walked towards them, wanting to delay the moment she had to pull a lab coat off the rack and say goodbye to the agent for probably forever.
The shelves contained accessories of a myriad of types – she saw everything from hats to scanners that wouldn’t have looked out of place next to a Tricorder. One shelf held tablets and phones on the top half and-
Stef felt her brain hitch as she stared at the small device on the bottom half of the shelf. ‘Is that a fucking nuke?’
Ryan looked at her from the other side of the room. ‘Yes.’
‘And you keep it with the hats?!’
He gave her inscrutable smile as she continued down the line of shelves. There was a small container of what seemed like promotional badges. They all contained phrases that were counter to the Solstice beliefs – or what Dorian had led her to believe were their beliefs. She picked the container up and experimentally shook it.
‘Agent Clarke’s idea,’ he explained. ‘It wasn’t something that really took off.’
She stole a pin, then moved to the next shelf. ‘So if we’re the Men in Black, where are the neuralisers?’
‘I think you might be disappointed, Recruit.’
‘I thought you said you can fuck with people’s memories?’
‘We can, but it’s not in a convenient handheld device.’
Accessories – and a fucking nuke – seen, there was nothing else to distract herself with, so she turned back to the uniforms, and headed for the brightest of the white lab coats. Compared to Jones’ Portal shirt, the rest of the official Tech uniform seemed to consist of a white dress shirt – of which there were several cuts and styles available, and simple black slacks.
She pushed at the lab coats and began to pick through them, looking for one in her size. ‘So, do I just pick one out, or what? Do I have to fill out some kind of form showing what I took so my sizes are recorded?’
‘Whatever you pick here will be recorded as your default uniform requirement – some people feel comfortable with a tighter or looser cut, so we allow them to pick out their own sizes and styles from those available to their department.’
She fidgeted with the cuff of a lab coat in her size, feeling the weight of the fabric as she rolled it between her thumb and forefinger. If she were sensible, she’d pull it off the rack and look for the other uniform components, but her feet were as stuck as her brain, unwilling to move forward.
She heard the scrape of metal-on-metal as Ryan picked something from one of the racks – probably trying to hurry the process along so he could be done with her as soon as possible.
‘I thought uniforms would be, um, uniform,’ she said.
‘We make accommodations for comfort and choice where we can,’ he said, another scrape telling her he’d picked another item from the rack. ‘As to sizing, I believe these should fit.’
She finally let go of the cuff, exhaled a breath to try and clear the mess of emotions in her head, then made an effort to lift her head and look at him.
In his hands was a suit.
She promptly turned away, then back, slower this time, just to be sure that her eyes weren’t deceiving her. Her level of confusion was a notch above what it would have been had he been holding purple ice cream and gibbering about kittens.
A suit, identical to the one he was wearing. Black pants, white shirt, blue vest, blue tie, big black jacket.
‘I’ve assigned you to Field.’
A lump formed in her throat, and she quickly swallowed it. ‘Just so you know,’ she said as she walked over to him. ‘I make a problematic pet.’
‘I’ll take my chances,’ he said. ‘Come on. This way.’
He hung the suit on the hook of a changing room, then beckoned her to a rack of guns. ‘I find a lot of recruits request something like this,’ he said, pulling a large handgun from a high shelf. He handed it to her. ‘Most regret it within a day.’
‘Oof. I think Lara Croft uses one of these,’ she said as she tried to lift it.
‘They like the look,’ he said with a sigh. ‘A gun’s not a status symbol; it’s not for style. It’s a tool, nothing more.’ He replaced the Desert Eagle, then handed her a much smaller and lighter handgun. ‘Until you pass a proficiency test, it will fire modified paint rounds. Within the building, these serve little purpose, but outside they’ll be laced with tracking blue, so firing them while in the field still does serve a purpose.’
‘Tracking what? Like, that phosphorus paint stuff to make trailing someone easier?’
He smiled. ‘A little more advanced than that, Recruit.’
She looked at the gun. ‘So I start with this, then work my way up to the rocket launcher?’
‘Recruit, I actually fear what you’d do with a rocket launcher.’
‘Just…blow some stuff up?’
He indicated back to the changing room. ‘Get changed, I’ll gather your other accessories.’
She locked the door of the changing room and began to strip down. She knelt, her pants stuck, then half-shuffled, half-fell onto the small wooden bench and slid her sneakers off, her cheeks burning with embarrassment.
I’m twenty-something years old, you’d think I’d have figured out this getting dressed thing.
She exhaled a long breath, tried to avoid looking at her scars in the mirror, then began to separate the pieces of the uniform. Knee-length jacket; blue vest, black pants, white dress shirt. An exact copy of what he was wearing, right down to the fact that the shirt was the right of straight cut straight from the menswear section, rather than the softer-cut blouse she’d seen amongst the girlier clothing.
There was a bump against her foot, and she looked down to see that a cardboard box had been slid under the door – she pulled off the lid, ripping into like it was a present, rather than just more bits to her uniform.
Inside were two clear, sealed bags – a sleeveless undershirt, and a T-shirt styled undershirt; there were two pairs of socks – one navy, one black; the standard navy tie, and a small folder containing a varied selection of cufflinks and tie pins.
Another sliding sound and a pair of black leather shoes appeared under the door.
Those are a nope.
Pinchy leather shoes were the harbingers of a lot of bad memories. Cute little shoes, a bit too small, that her mother didn’t care to replace, because the style was no longer available, and they were “so perfect” with so many of the doll-like perfect-little-girl outfits that she’d been forced to wear.
And then there’d been her school shoes, which she’d had to clean dozens of times to scrub away the proof of half-drunk puking in the bathroom.
The leather shoes were an absolute non-starter.
She slipped on the pants, found a belt in the cardboard box of accessories, then selected the sleeveless undershirt. When you had a chest as flat as a pancake, bras seemed mostly optional, so an undershirt was a good line of defence for when she forgot to dress properly.
Shirt. Vest. Tie.
She stared at the collection of cufflinks and tie pins, already feeling sick. Too many decisions. She’d already made too many choices. None of the options were probably wrong, but-
Stef balled her hands into fists, walking the fine tightrope of digging her nails into her palms so hard it gave her the pain to concentrate, without going to so far as to break skin. Explaining to a new boss where sudden and mysterious blood had come from was a conversation to be avoided forever.
Inside voice, Spyder.
She sat back on the bench and buried her face in her hands. ‘Can’t. I- Can’t.’ It was so stupid. It was just getting dressed. Just making a couple of decisions about what she wanted. And it was too much. And if this was too much, then- Then there was no hope. And she had to leave now. And it didn’t matter that magic was real, she wasn’t functional enough to be around it.
One action. Another action. It was so easy in theory. So, so easy in theory. All she had to do was- Everything all at once. Every action had to be simultaneous, and any less was an imperfection that wouldn’t be allowed.
The world was spinning.
So go home.
She pulled the black socks from the box and put them on, feeling so mechanical with her movements that she expected error messages to flash across her vision, telling her that extremities.exe was encountering an error and needed to be shut down.
She forced herself to stand, then moved stiffly and stepped into her sneakers.
Okay. Good. Good.
She looked down at herself, trying to work out what the bare minimum was in order to present as “ready”. She unbuttoned the vest, aligned it properly, then redid the buttons.
After two long, lung-emptying exhalations, she looked at herself in the mirror.
For a brief second, she could almost see a confident version of herself. With a blink, reality set in and she saw a crisp and tidy uniform covering some sort of weird lab experiment.
‘Once more unto the breach.’
She exhaled and opened the door of the changing room, leaving the jacket behind – even in air conditioning, it seemed like it might be too hot and bulky, like wearing your school blazer in the classroom – you could do it, but most people didn’t.
Ryan stood near one of the shelves, idly rearranging items, so she coughed to get his attention. He raised his head, smiled, and walked over to her. He looked her up and down, but his gaze seemed to get stuck on her shoes. ‘Re–’
‘I–’ She wrinkled her nose, waiting for him to rebuke her. ‘I don’t like those other shoes. I can put them on if you want, but– Are- Are these okay instead?’
‘I was simply going to ask – I required those shoes less than an hour ago. How did they get so dirty?’
She shrugged. ‘My shoes do that. I think it’s my superpower.’
‘That wouldn’t make you the strangest person to work within these walls.’ He looked back towards the rack of guns. ‘Between now and when you pass your proficiency test, you’ll need to pick a style of holster, but for now, I’ll set these clothing options as your default uniform requirement. It’s easy enough to change later, so don’t feel locked into any of your choices.’
‘So what now?’
‘Now, you have to go see Agent Jones.’
‘But-’ Fear squirmed like a snake. ‘I thought I was your new pet?’
‘It’s Jones that arranges for you to access the ability to require. You’d be the first, but if you’d prefer to skip that-’
‘I’m gonna get to poof stuff?’ she asked, her voice far too close to a screech. ‘You didn’t tell me- Ooooh, I’m gonna conjure so much shit. Wait, can you require shit? Why would anyone want to require shit? I mean, if you were doing a Biff-Tannen-manure thing, but-’
He offered his hand to her. ‘If you would.’
She grabbed his hand and smiled as she tried to take in the detail of the world blurring and smearing as they shifted away from the supply room.