“Who’s that?” Derek asked, staring. He was sitting on a couch in the common room, holding a car magazine. It looked like he’d been reading it until we walked in.
“This is Jane,” I said. “Peaches when she has her game face on. She’s going to be working with us.”
“She is?” he asked, staring. I could tell that he wanted to ask about the name—Aiko did not look much like a Jane, after all—but he didn’t.
“Yeah,” I said, like it was the most natural thing in the world. “We cleared it with David. Did he not tell you about this?”
“No,” Derek said. “He didn’t tell us anything about it.”
“Huh,” I said, with a broad, shit-eating grin. “I guess he didn’t want to get your hopes up in case things fell through at the last minute. You know where he is? We’d probably go let him know that she got here.”
“I think he’s in his room working on some paperwork,” Derek said automatically. He looked like he was still too busy staring to think clearly.
“Thanks,” Aiko said, in her best sultry voice. “It was nice to meet you….” She trailed off suggestively.
“Derek,” he supplied promptly, stammering a little bit. “It was nice to meet you too, um, Jane.”
“See you later,” she said, still with that sly, suggestive smile.
That lasted all the way until the stairs, when she broke down laughing. “Did you see his face?” she asked me breathlessly. “That was priceless. How new is that kid, anyway?”
“Pretty new, obviously,” I said. I wasn’t laughing. “It’s not funny.”
“Of course not,” she said. “It was hilarious. It’s been ages since I got somebody that good.”
“And if you can get to him that easily, what do you think will happen when he runs into one of the Sidhe?”
The laughter stopped. “Oh,” she said. “Good point.” She frowned. “We’re probably supposed to keep him from ending up as some faerie’s pet, right? Or vampire’s, or whatever.”
“Probably,” I said, starting up the stairs. “That seems like something you’re probably supposed to do for a teammate. Generally speaking.”
“Huh,” she said. “Do you figure we ought to get him laid, then? That seems like it’d probably help a little. He didn’t seem like the sort to pay for it, but maybe if he didn’t know we’d hired her we could make something work.”
I closed my eyes for a second, standing next to the door. “Let’s leave that for later, okay?” I said. “I mean, it’s probably not a terrible idea, but…bloody hell. This is why I don’t work with children.”
“Says the guy who just hired a bunch.”
I groaned. “Don’t remind me,” I said. “I’m already regretting that decision. Being the good guy is such a pain in the ass.”
“It’s adorable, though,” she said. “Now are you opening that door, or just fondling it?”
“All right,” I said, opening the door. “Let’s do this. It should be a fun conversation.”
The seventh and top floor of the building was set aside for our personal quarters. Theoretically I had a set of rooms up here, though I hadn’t really spent any time in them. I hadn’t had much time to spare since I started this work, and when I did have a few minutes to myself, I wasn’t going to spend them here.
The stairs opened into a sort of hub area with a dozen doors spaced out around it. Those rooms that were occupied had signs on the door with the name of each room’s inhabitant. The signs were paper, cut in the shape of flowers. It was the sort of arrangement they’d used in college. I hadn’t spent much time in the dorms, but I remembered them doing something very similar there.
That comparison made me smile for about half a second. Then it just reminded me of how young most of the people living here were. They’d have fit right in at a college dormitory, and instead we were sending them out to fight monsters. Granted, I’d been doing things just as stupidly dangerous when I was their age, but still.
I shook myself out of it and walked over to the door that said David. I knocked twice, paused for a couple seconds, then opened it.
I was a little surprised by how…normal his rooms were. It was sparsely furnished, not much more than a bed, a chair, and a desk. The desk had a laptop sitting on it, with what looked like an email client open. A half-open door on the other side showed a bathroom, which looked to be organized with military precision.
It wasn’t completely without personality. There were a couple of watercolor paintings on the walls, and some pictures on the desk. Photos of David and his family, it looked like. There was a picture of him and an elderly couple, presumably his parents. Another with him and a smiling young woman sitting on a park bench. She was wearing a floppy hat and a “I LOVE NEW YORK” shirt, and couldn’t have looked more like a tourist if she wanted to. The last photo looked like a school photo of a little boy. Next to the photograph of his parents, it was impossible to miss the resemblance.
I’d never really thought of David as having a family, somehow. It wasn’t a context I was accustomed to thinking of people in.
“Hello, Jonathan,” David said, minimizing a couple of windows on his computer and turning to face me. The desktop image was a sunset. It was a pretty typical photo to use as a desktop background, but I didn’t think it was just a stock photo. “Who’s your friend?”
“This is Jane,” I said. “She’s going to be working with us.”
He looked distinctly unimpressed. “She is,” he said.
He sighed. “Close the door, please.”
I did, stepping into the room. As the door closed, I felt a set of wards flare to life, so subtle that I hadn’t even noticed them from outside the room. They weren’t designed to prevent entrance, I didn’t think. Probably just soundproofing, making sure that this space stayed nice and private.
“Are you out of your mind?” David asked bluntly.
“Probably,” I admitted. “But no more so than usual. I know she hasn’t been offered a spot, but between your authority and the connections I’ve got I’m sure we can smooth over any issues with the Guards.”
“That assumes I want to,” he said. “Bringing her into this seems like a pretty terrible idea.”
“You know who she is?” I asked.
He sighed. “Think about this,” he said. “You really think I was going to start this job without reading a full dossier on you and everyone of importance that works for you? Of course I know who your wife is. Give me a little bit of credit, here.”
“Fair point,” I said. “But what’s your problem with it?”
“What are you even going to do?” he asked her. “Have you thought about that? Granted you have talents, but they aren’t much like the magic we do. The kids might not know much, but it’ll only take so long for them to catch on to that.”
“Easy,” Aiko said. “I’m him.”
There was a pause. “Excuse me?” David said at last.
“We already worked this out,” she said. “See, Jonny here has to be careful about what he does, since you don’t want any of these kids finding out who he actually is. Like you said, they aren’t dumb. If he shows off too much of what he can actually do, eventually they’ll put two and two together. But if they think I’m the one doing all the stuff he does, you get his talents and he gets to stay the dumb thug werewolf.”
“There is no way you can pull that off.”
“You might be surprised,” she said, grinning. “He’s good at doing his thing without anyone realizing he’s doing anything. And I’m really good at lying. I think you’ll find we can sell it better than you think.”
“Let’s assume for the moment that, against my better judgment, I go along with this,” David said. “How are you going to explain the fact that you’re always together? I’m assuming you are, anyway, because you sure as hell aren’t selling this story if you aren’t.”
“Way ahead of you,” I said. “See, Jane here is my wife. She’s been thinking about joining, but she wasn’t sure whether it was a trap. So I came first to check things out and see whether you were on the level. Since you’ve impressed me so much, I told her to go ahead. But I’m wildly overprotective, so I don’t want to let her out of my sight while we’re here.”
“You might be able to make that work,” he said after a moment. “Maybe. I’m still not seeing how we really get all that much out of it, though.”
“Well, here’s the thing,” I said. “Let’s assume, hypothetically speaking, that this is the only way I’m going to be staying here. I’m not doing any more work with you guys unless I have someone I trust to watch my back.”
“And you think the loss of your talents is such a dire fate that you can use it as a threat.” David smirked. “Well, don’t you think highly of yourself.”
“Oh, cut the crap,” I said, rolling my eyes. “You can’t really replace me, under the circumstances. You’re good, but everything I’ve seen you do is…mobility, support, and ranged fire, for the most part. If you have to stand your ground, your skills suddenly become a lot less valuable. And who else are you going to get to do that job? Derek could conceivably play the tank, but we both know he’s too raw to last five minutes there against a real threat. Tawny could summon something to do it, but nobody wants her bringing in things that scary on a regular basis.” I grinned. “Or are you going to argue that point?”
He said nothing, and he said it pretty loudly.
“Thought so,” I said. “That means that if you wanted to replace me, you’d have to bring in someone from out of town. Now, the Guards are stretched thin as it is, and mages in general aren’t typically good on the front line, so your chances of getting a replacement sent out are slim. So yeah, actually, under the circumstances I think if I leave you are in a bit of a bind.”
He glared at me for a few more seconds, then sighed. “You’ve got a point,” he said reluctantly. “As much as it pains me to admit it. All right, then. We’ll do it your way. For the moment. But if you can’t follow the rules, I’m dumping you both, and muddling through without your assistance.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Aiko said with a wicked grin. “I’m real good at playing by the rules.”
“Well, that’s settled,” I said. “Good. Now, I’m guessing you’ll want to introduce our newest member to the rest of the team. Her name is Peaches when we’re in the field, by the way. Then you’ve got a meeting at three.”
“Yep,” I said cheerfully. I was grinning almost as broadly as Aiko. “With me, in fact. Though I’m going to send a proxy instead at the last minute. I’m sure it’ll be terribly insulting. Try to act surprised.”
“You aren’t remotely as funny as you think you are,” David said sourly.
“Oh, I know,” I assured him. “But the funny thing is, it’s more or less a self-perpetuating cycle. All those years I spent just having this shit inflicted on me, I’d have said that I’d never be such a jackass myself. But now that I’ve got the chance to be on the other side of it, it’s actually surprisingly fun. Anyway, do you want to go ahead and get those introductions taken care of? You’ll want to have plenty of time to get ready for your meeting, after all. Plus Peaches here has to have a chat with the PR department. I’m looking forward to that one, myself.”
David took a deep breath and let it out, looking like he very much wanted to strangle me and was having to remind himself of all the ways that was a bad idea. “Yes,” he said, through gritted teeth. “Let’s.”