The British declared war in January, just after my boss’s twentieth birthday. Of course 99 percent of America just kept going to work and doing laundry and wishing creative deaths on their noisiest neighbors, because it was the Arcadia Project that was at war, and we’d done a damned good job of remaining invisible.
Inspiration had to flow to keep the world moving, but there was no polite way to hold a press conference now and say, Hey, there really is a secret society that’s been controlling human progress for centuries, and as of three months ago it’s falling apart, and you all might die. So anyone without a blood-signature on one of our contracts enjoyed the privilege of blissful ignorance.
My friends and I, though? We were screwed.
I’d taken a crash course in Project operations since opening a vein for them last October. I knew what the structure was supposed to be. A hundred ninety-eight nations, including us, reporting to Dame Belinda Barker at World HQ in London. America, being huge, was split into Western, Central, and Eastern regions, with offices in the three Gate cities: L.A., New Orleans, and New York City.
But that all got shot to hell when Alvin Lamb, our National head in New Orleans, found out that a couple decades ago Dame Belinda had authorized the abduction and torture of a U.S. citizen, aged eleven months. Once that bomb dropped, Alvin invoked the Philadelphia Protocol, which, if you’re a history buff, means pretty much what it sounds like: Fuck you, England. America’s gonna do its own thing now.
It might even have worked, if Tracy Wong in New York hadn’t decided to believe Dame Belinda when she told him that Alvin had lost his last marbles. Tracy hadn’t been there, like Alvin had, when we’d surprised Belinda into defending her atrocity. She’d had time to pull the mask back on, the one we’d all fallen for. Alvin had fallen harder than anyone until that moment—he’d been dripping Belinda-flavored Kool-Aid from every pore—and I think that’s part of why he cut ties so hard and fast.
And now here it was—January. We should have been expecting that Dame Belinda would patiently wait to line up the precision shot from cover; she’d been a World War II sniper, for God’s sake. But we weren’t ready, not even a little. My boss, Western Regional Manager Caryl Vallo, had been the abductee in question. She was kind of a mess. Alvin was back in New Orleans trying to keep the Central regional manager from panicking and joining New York. My partner, Tjuan Miller, was trying to get a fourth Gate operational at Valiant Studios while simultaneously writing a hit television show there. Meanwhile, I, thanks to a backslide in my mental health, was pissing everyone off, repeatedly forgetting my basic training, and nursing a paranoia about the Residence manager’s pet crow.
It could be argued that my intense level of crazy was, in a roundabout way, the only reason Tjuan got wind of what was about to happen to him. He’d been practically living at Valiant, and if not for me and that damned rubber suit, he’d have been right there in the line of fire when the news broke.
The suit arrived late on a Saturday afternoon—Caryl’s birthday of all days—neatly packaged with a Louisiana return address. (By this time the shot had been fired, mere hours ago. We just didn’t know it yet.)
Alvin had an in with someone who made diving suits near New Orleans, and he had put in a custom order. In theory this thing would let me wander around Arcadia without all the local spellwork being blown to bits by the excess steel that held the jigsaw puzzle of my bones together. In practice, I realized as soon as I took the suit up to my room and started pulling it on, there were problems.
Good points included the lightweight neoprene, the relaxed fit (I wasn’t planning on swimming in it), and the way they’d stitched the legs of the suit right into a pair of rubber-soled hiking boots just the right size for my main pair of prosthetic feet. But when I started to pull it up to get my arms into it, things got weird.
The suit was one big piece that opened in the back and, despite my daily stretching regimen, I still didn’t have the range of motion to get the zipper up on my own.
I didn’t like the idea of having to ask someone for help every time I needed to put the thing on or take it off. As I stood there with the back gaping open, I asked myself a question that would indirectly end up buying us two weeks of planning time:
What if I need to pee?
At first I was picturing a scenario where I was in the Residence and forgot to use the bathroom before putting the thing on. But then an even worse train of thought started barreling down the tracks: Were there bathrooms in Arcadia? Did fey even have bladders?
I’d been through the Gate in Residence Four’s tower only twice, for brief local errands. I’d stayed away from fey civilization, from anywhere that might be laced with fragile spellwork, and so I had no idea where the fey actually lived or what their accommodations were. Was I going to have to squat in the wilderness? And if so, would I have to strip naked to do it?
I wasn’t just being dainty. Ever since my semi-deliberate plummet off a seven-story building a year and a half ago (how deliberate can a person be when blackout drunk?), I’d only undressed with the lights on for one person, and that was my Echo, Claybriar. Getting naked for him was like getting naked in front of a mirror, which, don’t get me wrong, had been hard for a while too. But there was no damned way my scarred and shattered self was going to strip down in a foreign land where God only knew who or what might creep up on me.
To make matters worse—and I actually tried this, there in my room—I couldn’t figure out how to manage a squat with my prosthetic legs. I planted my feet apart to give myself a more stable base, but every time I tried to lower myself, I could feel an uncomfortable threat of torsion in the silicone sheath that held the stump of my left thigh. I worried the whole thing would wrench loose, send me toppling to the floor.
When I’d been released from the hospital to the loony bin
nearly a year ago, I’d quickly figured out how to do the basic stuff—getting in and out of the shower, on and off toilets, up and down stairs—and I’d confined my activities to those things. Now, for the first time in months, I was faced with a thing I quite possibly needed to do and could not come anywhere close to doing. I was broken.
That last bit, of course, was my borderline personality disorder talking. When people with BPD are dysphoric (think “bad mood” to the tenth power), they have a hard time balancing complexities. My dysphoria did not permit me to consider the vast and ever-changing spectrum of ability we all experience throughout our lives. My dysphoria told me I was as worthless as a shattered iPhone. It took me fifteen minutes to control my crying enough to get dressed and leave my room.
I descended the grand wooden staircase into the two-story living room where bored people in Residence Four usually hung out. My goal was to find Residence Manager Song, the most soothing human being alive, but, fortunately, even the mindful act of making my step-over-step descent as “normal” as possible helped scoot me back from the edge of hysteria.
And then I heard singing. Opera, to be exact: “O mio babbino caro,” sung almost absently, light and sweet as clover honey.
I can’t truthfully say it was the most astounding voice I’d ever heard, given that I’d been hypnotized by the siren Queen Shiverlash just a few months ago. But it did knock my socks off. I drifted toward the kitchen, expecting to find a new fey creature or maybe a Disney princess.
Instead, I saw espresso-colored curls trailing down a broad back. Her. Alondra Serrano, the new girl.
Short, fat, golden brown, and gorgeous, Alondra was my age, maybe a little younger. She was one of three refugees from New York who had reacted badly to Tracy Wong’s November ultimatum of “stand with London or get fired.” Getting fired meant having huge portions of your memory wiped, so the trio of rebels had played along while conspiring to flee.
They took almost nothing with them when they left, so as not to raise their Residence manager’s suspicions, and headed straight for Penn Station. The iron train tracks kept the headquarters alarm from going off when they crossed the Gate perimeter, and the three of them showed up thirty hours later in New Orleans, half-starved, because Tracy had canceled their credit cards as soon as he realized they were gone.
Alvin had put two to work in New Orleans and sent the other one to Residence Four in L.A., since we were down two agents. Now our little refugee was at the tiled kitchen island, singing as she cut a delicate slice of Caryl’s strawberry birthday cake.
Alondra had BPD, like me. In fact, she seemed to exist entirely to prove that I wasn’t all that special. I’d attempted suicide? She’d attempted suicide twice. I had a boyfriend and a half? She’d left two boyfriends and a girlfriend behind in New York. My parents were dead? She’d found her parents dead when she was seven. And apparently she could sing like a fucking angel. This new information didn’t do much to appease the resentment I’d been feeling from the minute she’d moved into my dead partner’s old room.
“Oh!” she said when she heard me, turning and putting a fluttering hand to her bosom. “I didn’t realize there was anyone here!” She avoided my eyes as though I’d caught her masturbating and not eating cake.
“Does that mean Song’s not here?”
It wasn’t that hard a question, but she looked like I’d strapped her to an interrogation chair. “I—I think she took Sterling to the park.”
I hadn’t even raised my voice, but Alondra flinched as though I’d struck her.
“She’ll be back soon, I’m sure,” I said, annoyed that Alondra had manipulated me into soothing her when I was the one who’d come down needing comfort. It was always like that with her. Her feelings were always bigger, more urgent.
She took the slice she’d cut and sat down on a barstool at the island. “Do you need any laundry done?” she asked, apparently to the cake.
“You’re not the maid,” I said. I’d actually been trying for nice, but then I realized it wasn’t the best thing to say to my new Puerto Rican housemate, and that only made me crankier.
She gave me a plaintive glance from under her long lashes. “I like doing laundry,” she said. “I’ve been doing Stevie’s and Phil’s. It . . . centers me.”
“Well it doesn’t center me to have other people poking through my underwear,” I said. “They’re my clothes—I’ll wash them when I’m good and ready.”
“I wasn’t trying to—”
“I need some fresh air,” I said, and walked out of the kitchen.
I could hear myself becoming an asshole, playing alpha dog, but it was Alondra’s weird obsequiousness that was triggering it. I knew exactly how she’d constructed me in that splitting, splintering borderline mind of hers. Lacking a stable sense of self, Borderlines tend to become whatever’s expected of them,
and so it was dangerous for us to be around each other. We kept playing into each other’s expectations of bully and victim. When the world stopped falling apart, I was really going to have to talk to Alvin about the idiocy of rooming two random Borderlines together.
I undid the excessive locks on the front door and let myself out onto the porch. It was cool enough to justify my hoodie, which is about as wintry as L.A. gets. Song had recently had someone clear the leaves from the yard, and she’d bought a couple of cheap rocking chairs to replace the rotting love seat that had parked there for who knew how long. Neighbors had been complaining, and Song knew it wouldn’t do to draw too much attention.
I settled into a rocking chair to await Song’s return and took all of two calming breaths before I saw her goddamned crow.
It had been October when he’d smashed into a tree or another crow or whatever dumb thing he’d done when he and eleventy billion of his brothers had been driven to a frenzy by Queen Shiverlash. Three months, and still the little turd walked around the yard, waiting for more scraps from Song. He cocked his creepy head at me and stared.
There is nothing worse than knowing you’re paranoid but having no control over it, and this crow had been driving me straight-up bonkers. I couldn’t get over the fact that even though the rest of the flock had dispersed as soon as they’d finished gorging on the carnage, this one would not leave for love or money. Ostensibly Shiverlash was on our side—or at least on my side, since she saw me as her liberator and fellow revolutionary—but was it possible she’d left a little spy?
Or what if Dame Belinda were using it somehow? She had access to all sorts of magic. The Seelie Queen and the Unseelie King were still firmly on her side, since they were both sidhe and Dame Belinda was heavily invested in the idea of sidhe being in charge of everything. I had no idea if fey magic could allow a human to look through a bird’s eyes, but it didn’t seem any more far-fetched than any of the other crap I’d seen magic do.
I took a deep breath and forced myself to focus on my current problem, which was getting an answer to my concerns about Arcadia’s restroom facilities. Waiting for Song was too passive to keep me calm, and she’d never been to Arcadia anyway.
Caryl would know, but even as I slipped my phone out of my pocket I reminded myself that it might be too soon to text her. Tjuan had taken a long lunch and invited her over for birthday cake; she’d left just a couple of hours ago. I had to be so careful with her.
My boss had been pretty easy to deal with when she’d been stuffing all her emotions into an iguana-size invisible dragon, but it becomes a bit harder to use one’s familiar as a constant emotional crutch once you realize he’s actually sentient and might want to do other stuff with his life.
Elliott was still with Caryl constantly, still acted as her familiar in many respects, but now she was trying to deal with her emotions on her own via therapy and, to be honest, not doing much better at it than I was. She had a huge crush on me, and I didn’t exactly not have a crush on her, but I had a lot more experience to clue me in that it was a bad idea. Texting her two hours after we’d been together seemed like a mixed signal.
But she had answers, and I needed them, so I did it anyway.
U there? Have a q
We need to talk regardless, came her immediate reply, scrupulously spelled and formatted as always. I shall come to the Residence.
Uh-oh. Nice move, Millie.