|Justin pulled on his uniform, which still stunk of frying oil. He groaned, dreading the day ahead.
He left his plain, mouldy bedroom and walked into the kitchen in their flat which was still a tip from the previous night, Justin rolled his eyes.
His friend and flatmate, George was up already, bleary eyed and wrapped in a black slightly-open dressing gown revealing a stout, hairy stomach. His brown-blonde hair was tousled and he had shadows under his eyes.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?” Justin asked, handing him a cup of tea.
“Shouldn’t you?” He replied, and supped it.
Justin sighed, “I’m not paying the rent again for you, George.”
“Pfft. My employers wouldn’t know whether I turned up or not, they’re never there.” George supped his tea.
“Doesn’t matter. If you were human you could get away with that.” Justin said.
“Bitter this morning, aren’t we?”
He scoffed, “I’d be less grumpy if I hadn’t been kept awake by your meetings. Are you washing up this morning by the way?”
George rolled his eyes and waved his hand nonchalantly. One of the dishes fell off the pile of dirty crockery and smashed on the floor. “Whoops.”
“That’s why you shouldn’t use magic to do housework,” Justin murmured, “Shouldn’t do magic at all.”
“We’re not all repressed pixie changelings.” George stood up and wrapped his dressing gown tight around him and walked over to the sink to wash up the old-fashioned way. Justin looked at the clock, it was time to go, he grabbed his jacket and walked out the door. Before he left he heard George,
“See you later then!”
Justin rolled his eyes and slammed the door.
George always insisted that he had it easy, but Justin was not so sure. Every time he stepped on the bus he had to rummage though his coat or bag in response to the bus driver’s gruff,
Justin would show his crumpled, battered permit that his employers had refused to pay for. Fair labour was cheap labour, after all. And the bus driver would shake his head at him, as though he couldn’t quite believe that Justin was allowed on the human side.
Thankfully, he could always hide upstairs on the double-decker so the humans that subsequently entered wouldn’t see him. Usually he was on his own, but that day there was an imp at the front, sharply dressed and short as imps generally were, with a bald head and deep-black eyes. He was reading a newspaper. Justin glanced at him, and sat in the seat adjacent. As the journey wore on, the bus began to fill up. The ones who noticed the imp glared and wrinkled their noses, sitting well away from him. Suddenly he turned his head towards Justin, fixing him with an unreadable stare. Then his face broke into a smile and he pointed at an article he was reading about human burglars who had messed up a robbery,
“Idiots, the lot of them are idiots!” He guffawed loudly and shook the paper, turning the page.
Justin looked around, hoping that no one had heard him. He folded his arms and leant on the window, pretending to be asleep so that he wouldn’t speak to him again. Suddenly he felt a nudge and looked up, the imp was sitting next to him.
“Uhh…” Justin began. He could hear confused whisperings from passengers behind him. He managed to catch the harsh words, “shouldn’t” “..doing?...”Creature…”
“You Fair?” The imp asked. He smiled, Justin got the feeling that the imp already knew he was.
“Changeling...” Justin whispered, after a pause.
“Oi, imp! Leave that boy alone, or I’ll tell the driver to fetch the Legion!” A woman said, boldly. There were murmurs of agreement.
“Half-human, half-what?” The imp probed.
Justin turned his face away, “We shouldn’t be talking.”
He sighed, the imp was one of those rebels, like George. If he kept quiet perhaps the imp would go away. He didn’t, he chatted to him inanely for the whole journey, much to the chagrin of the passengers behind. The middle-aged woman who’d shouted at the imp walked to the front, she looked directly in the imp’s face and spat.
The middle-aged woman glanced at Justin, “You call the Legion, They’ll soon sort this one out.” She turned her head and strutted down the stairs.
The imp merely smiled, took out a red and white spotted hankie and wiped the saliva off his cheek.
“Happens to me all time,” He shrugged it off, still smiling. “This is, apparently, my stop.” The imp, to Justin’s great relief stood up.
There was a sparkle in the imp’s eye now, he merely smiled and walked away.
Justin couldn’t help but watch the strange imp go, and felt an odd hum of guilt in his gut. George had said to him quite openly before that he denied his own blood. Justin knew he was right, but at least he lived. At least he hadn’t ended up like the scores of ‘brave’ Fair Folk who’d disappeared in the night. At least he was alive and this was only because he kept his head down.
The bus stopped outside a park that Justin purposely walked through, despite being the longer way to work. It formed part of the boundary between the Fair side and the human side of the city and was untouched by the tensions between Fair and Human. There was even a statue of a famous changeling actress at its centre, which the old human government had graciously funded before the Poisoners took over.
O’Kelly’s was a squat, ugly building – with an overly cheery leprechaun on the sign. Inside it looked like every other O’Kelly’s in the world. It was green and yellow, with a dull, grey floor and the stench of refried grease. The uniform was green and yellow too.
Justin had the good fortune to look very human, but he did not get away with masking his blood from everyone. The manager, Mr Johnson grunted what constituted a hello when he found Justin in the locker room putting his things away. He came in most mornings when Justin entered. He always assumed that Mr Johnson was convinced that one day he would catch Justin in the act of something nefarious. Justin merely rolled his eyes and looked at his list of jobs for the day.
“WCM, TM.” Toilet maintenance and table maintenance for the entire 12 hours, it was Justin’s typical job. Those of fair blood generally didn’t serve customers directly. Justin entered the cleaning cupboard where he rolled out a bucket and mop and entered the men’s toilets, which reeked. Dubiously damp toilet paper lay everywhere. Justin sighed, looking at the carnage, finding it hard to believe he had left the place spotless the previous evening, then he dutifully began his work.
Steve Johnson took pride in being amiable, a well-liked manager who allowed things to slide and even gave prizes out to employees he thought worked well. Justin never got a prize, or a nice greeting. If anything, Johnson was waiting for an opportunity to fire him, waiting for Justin to slip up once. He would stare at him, almost disgusted, out of the corner of his tiny, green eyes.
“Fair labour is cheap labour,” He thought to himself through gritted teeth, a mantra he had forced himself to adopt for the sake of O’Kelly’s Ltd.
Then, as Johnson was asking the customer whether they wanted to go large on the order of Irish Beef Burger and French fries – the door opened. An imp walked in and Johnson’s mouth fell open in shock. The customer turned around, noticed the imp, then paled and quickly said to Johnson,
“I think I’ll take that to go, please.”
Johnson gulped and nodded, typing in the order, his voice shook as he said,
The customer paid, took his meal and promptly walked out, shaking his head pointedly at the imp who had settled himself in a booth at the back of the restaurant and was reading a book. Johnson glanced at Justin, who was looking at the Imp intently as well, he had stopped working.
“Oi. You.” Johnson directed at Justin, he beckoned him over, though stepped back when he thought Justin was too close. “You’re like him, aren’t you?”
“Well…if you mean we’re Fair, yes.” Justin shrugged, “I saw him on the bus this morning.”
“Go and ask him if he has his permit…then come and tell me when he doesn’t.”
Justin sighed and did as he was asked. Johnson rushed off to the phone, and prepared to use the number for the Legion. In his mind he imagined grateful customers approaching him, thanking him for his heroism, as the brave Legion soldiers shook his hand and dragged the defiant imp off, far away from decent human society. He even imagined Justin being dragged off too, for some crime the Legion suspected him of committing. It filled him with a warm relief and his finger hovered over the buttons, his heart thumping with excitement. Justin returned and held up the Imp’s permit, clean and white, mocking him. Johnson squeaked in disbelief, his stomach dropped. The phone clattered to the floor.
Justin watched the Imp all morning, he didn’t move, nor did he order food. He merely sat there, reading his book. Johnson didn’t take his eyes off him, and flinched when the Imp looked up, saw him staring, waved and said,
“Morning! I’ll order in a moment, I’m waiting for a friend,”
Justin had to stifle a smile, though he hid it well. Johnson was twitchy, over-alert. The imp looked around, stared at his watch, customers would walk in and then immediately leave again in disgust when they saw him. Some brave people managed to eat in the same room, though they sat as far away from the imp as they possibly could. Justin’s curiosity finally peaked – he looked around for Johnson, who had retired to his office with a stress-induced stomach upset. He walked a little closer to the Imp, tried to see what he was reading,
The door opened once more and Justin looked up to see an Aziza arrive. The customers forgot about the horror of the imp, they began to whisper excitedly when she entered. Aziza and Fairies gained access to the human side of Bristol easily, they were wonders, they were beauties, they were sought after. Justin could see why, the Aziza was one of the most stunning he’d ever seen. Her deep-blue eyes were tinged with something potent and incomprehensible. She had a tangle of black hair which was messily tied back from her face and sepia-brown skin which seemed to have a golden sheen in the light. She was tall, as most fairies were, her limbs were thin, her body slightly curvaceous. Golden, translucent wings flickered behind her as she walked. The humans who had the fortune to look upon her were not even fazed when she sat at the same table as the imp, who put the book down and grinned at her.
“But why?” Justin thought to himself, as he pushed the crumbs of a half-eaten Irish cheeseburger into his hand, “Of all the places, why are an aziza and an imp meeting here?”
Johnson emerged from his office, looking quite green, he looked out at the restaurant, saw the Aziza that was now sitting with the imp and immediately went back to his office again. Justin was glad.
He tried as hard as he could to listen to what they were saying. He wiped tables as close to their meeting as possible, pretending to be deaf to them.
“Ublin…Kitwana is a stubborn man.” The Aziza spoke, she had a deep, smooth voice with a very slight Nigerian lilt. Justin’s heart fluttered, he coughed and she glanced at him.
“I’m here anyway aren’t I? I need to take a witness back with me, prove to him that the horrors in the South aren’t just stories.” The imp replied,
“And who on earth would go with you?” The aziza sighed, “Who on earth would want to try and cross the border with Ublin Drukliss the angry imp?”
“Oh, Ms Oluchi…what happened to your sense of adventure, hmm?”
“I do my best down here, Ublin. I left the Council for you, joined the Fair Fighters. I sacrificed so much for you.”
“I know you’re doing your best, Njeri. But one aziza’s efforts against the Poisoners isn’t enough. I’m going to put more pressure on the council when I return.” The imp gently took the Aziza’s hand, he squeezed it. The aziza waited a moment, stared down at their entwined hands and then removed it, sighing.
At this point, Justin was utterly mystified, almost embarrassed, and decided to stealthily walk away from the table. Johnson came back from the office once more, gripping the sides of the till as though he was going to float away any second. He glared at the Imp and the Aziza.. Then the Imp spoke to Justin suddenly,
“Join the meeting lad, pull up a chair why don’t you!” He said sardonically, “Since you’re so interested in what me and my…friend here, have to say?”
Justin wheeled around, his eyes wide, mortified.
Ms Oluchi looked Justin up and down, “Ublin, you’re going to get him into trouble. Look at him, he’s just a boy.”
Justin blushed, he hadn’t considered that the Aziza was older than he was.
“THAT’S IT!” Johnson suddenly exclaimed, “PERMIT OR NO PERMIT, I WILL NOT HAVE CONGREGATIONS OF FAIR FOLK IN MY RESTAURANT! I’M CALLING THE LEGION!”
Justin ran to the tills, “No, Mr Johnson please!”
Johnson was panting with rage –then, Justin felt a presence behind him. Ms Oluchi was standing there, she raised an eyebrow at the manager – her eyes flashed, dangerously.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, sir.”
Johnson froze, his mouth open. He looked between the fierce aziza and the phone. The aziza’s wings fluttered slightly – they brushed against Justin. Johnson tried to dial the number as quick as he could and the aziza’s eyes suddenly changed from their normal blue to a harsh, grass-green,
“ENOUGH!” Her voice had taken on a alien, growling tone. Johnson suddenly froze, he couldn’t take his eyes off Ms Oluchi’s. Then quite suddenly, his face relaxed, his muscles relaxed and an aura of calm came over him. Justin was astounded, as the manager grinned as though quite taken with Ms Oluchi
“Hello there ma’am how can I help you today?” He stared at her, her eyes went back to normal – though she held a hand to her head,
“Animusi in memory takes its toll on me.”
“Animusi?” Justin frowned, Ms Oluchi looked sadly at him,
“You didn’t go to an academy, did you?” She put a hand on his shoulder, and Justin blushed again. “What’s your name?”
“Justin Austell.” Justin replied. “Thank you for…”
“Justin! I can’t remember why, but…I’ve been ever so horrible to you. You’re actually the best worker here, I don’t know why I never saw that!” Johnson looked at Justin and placed his hands on his shoulders. Justin was a little unnerved by his sudden change of opinion, but he was relieved that the Poisoners weren’t coming.
The imp laughed raucously at the table, “What did you make him forget?” He asked,
“I made him forget he hated Fair-Folk. I also made him forget we were as he put it ‘congregating’.”
“Ooft…that’s a deep one, are you alright?” Ublin asked Ms Oluchi, with concern.
As he spoke, she held a hankie to her nose, when she looked at it there was a small amount of blood.
“That’s that.” She sniffed, “I’m fine, Ublin. But we should disperse before other customers come in. Besides, the effect won’t last long, tomorrow he’ll remember his hatred, he’ll remember what happened. He’ll call the Poisoners.”
I know, I know.” Ublin regarded Justin for a moment. “What about him?” He asked.
Ms Oluchi looked at Justin, “Don’t come into work tomorrow. Finish your shift today, act natural so that your manager doubts his memory, if it returns before the end of the day. But don’t come back.”
Justin nodded, nervously “O-okay.”
“This is the last time I meet with you on the human side, Ublin, I swear you do it just to cause trouble with them.” Ms Oluchi told the imp, sternly. They walked out of the restaurant together. Justin turned to Johnson, who smiled.
“I really need a glass of water – you man the tills while I go and rehydrate, eh? There’s a good lad.”
Justin nodded, politely, unsure whether to feel happy or disquieted. His final shift at O’Kelly’s happened to be his best one, and for the first time in his life a full-blooded human treated him as an equal. He almost wished Ms Oluchi had cursed him forever, but that, he supposed, was impossible.
For the first time since being assigned his job, Justin left O’Kelly’s with a smile on his face. He waved to Johnson, and the manager replied,
“See you tomorrow son! Thanks for all the hard work.”
Justin couldn’t help but laugh to himself as he walked through the dimly lit streets. He reeked of fast food but, he was miraculously happy. He almost wished he would see the imp and his aziza friend so he could thank them properly. As he walked through the park to get to his distant bus stop, he whistled a tune. He would have to go back to the Republic Central Office to get reassigned, but that didn’t matter to him right now. Perhaps it was time for change of job anyway, perhaps his next employer wouldn’t hate him as much. He felt excited to get home to tell George about the day’s events. He crossed over to the Fair side of the park, but was distracted from his contentment by jeering shouts, and the sound of leather smacking against stone. He saw four teenaged human boys, and they were throwing rocks and kicking the changeling statue in the middle of the park. Justin immediately tucked his ears into his cap, shoved his hands in his pockets and tried to walk past unnoticed.
“Hey!” One of them shouted,
Justin ignored them, they hadn’t seen his eyes, or his ears. They wouldn’t want him.
“Hey, you dropped something!” Another shout, “Wait!”
Justin turned around. A teenager with cropped blonde hair held out his permit to him. He was wearing a deep-green jacket, a bright green shoulder patch said “Junior Human Legion”. Justin approached him slowly, not looking him in the eye and grabbed it. “Thanks.” He mumbled and tried to walk away.
“What’s the matter with you?! Is that anyway to thank me?” The boy shouted, angrily. His friends began to jeer.
“Bring him back Fred. Bring him back!”
The leader, known as Fred grabbed Justin by the shoulder, “Hey, we just want to chill out, mate. Where you goin’?”
“Get off me!” Justin struggled.
“Sit down,” Fred ordered, pushing Justin on a bench, “So you’re Fair then, eh?”
“No…” Justin denied. “I’m not.”
“Look at me,” Fred said, “Look me in the eye and tell me you’re not Fair.”
One of them piped up, “He is Fair, he’s fucking lying.”
“Shhh! I’m handling this,” Fred chastised, “Hey, just ignore him, he’s a prick. I’m only curious.” His voice seemed suddenly kind. Justin gave in and looked up into his eyes. Fred’s smile went from something kind to something triumphant. He ripped the cap off Justin, “Fucking liar.”
“I’m not!” Justin said, putting his hands over his ears, trying and failing to cover them up. He stood, “Just let me go!”
Fred pushed him and he fell and smacked his nose on the ground. They rounded on him like wolves smelling blood.
“That’s the way my dad does it, you know. Pretends to be kind, earns their trust. Fair-Folk are soft-headed twats. When we’re with the Legion, we’ll have to use techniques like this” Fred said, his friends weren’t interested in strategy, they merely jeered, entertained by his treatment of Justin.
He tried to get to his feet, blood was pouring out of his nose. Fred delivered a sound kick to his ribs and his minions whooped in response. The air flooded out of Justin’s lungs, he squeaked as the world spun for lack of oxygen. Then there was another kick to his ribs and instinctively he tucked his arms and legs in. This attempt at self-defence gave his attackers courage, and what started with kicks culminated in a hail of blows all over Justin’s body. Fred rolled Justin onto his back and began to punch him in the face,
“Please!” He moaned pathetically, spitting out blood. The world spun, hazing in and out of focus. Then as the pain of the beating intensified, Justin felt a pinprick of white-hot anger at his core. There was a rush of heat from Justin’s hand and Fred leapt up, his arm on fire, he screamed, desperately trying to put it out,
“MAGIC, HE’S FUCKING MAGIC!”
The magical fire was not willing to be put out, it clung to Fred, spreading over his limbs and engulfing him. In a daze of heat and pain, Justin heard his terrible screams. The other teenagers tried to run away from Fred, but the fire erupted away from him in great tendrils and seized them, overwhelming them as well. All four of them screamed as they burnt and Justin’s anger ceased in place of terror, subdued by his injured state. Then the flames disappeared as though they had never been there and Justin lay there for a long time on the cold ground, the stench of burning flesh acrid in his nostrils.
He gasped for breath. His ribs caused him immense sharp pain every time he inhaled. He felt nauseated and lethargic. He lifted his hands and looked at them. They were blistered, burnt and still sizzling. The heat was wavering off them. Some time passed on the cold, hard ground, though Justin was not aware how long. He heard the groans of at least one of his attackers, in the distance there was a mournful wail of sirens. He forced himself with a great effort to roll onto his stomach. Then he saw the imp, staring at the scene with narrowed eyes, he was wearing a black leather trench coat over his suit now, one that hung down to his ankles.
“You’re not having a very good day are you?” He said.
Justin found he did not have the strength to answer fully, “Help me,” He murmured,
“That, lad, is exactly what I intend to do, but your actions will start a hunt. We need to get you out of here. ”
“I…can’t move.” Justin replied, resting his head on the cool ground. “You’ll have to leave me behind.”
“Very heroic.” The imp rolled his eyes, “Not today, lad” He walked over to him and hoisted him to his feet, ignoring Justin’s cry of pain. “You’ll have to grin and bear it, now where do you live?”
“15 Birfield Road…” He murmured.
“Great. Too far away to walk, I suppose we’ll have to get a brownie to drive us,” The imp began to half-drag Justin along. Justin tried to formulate the words to say that he couldn’t afford one, but his brain was too foggy. Despite his eye which had begun to swell, Justin caught a glimpse of four burned bodies on the ground. Three of them were completely charred. They didn’t look like people anymore. Fred was, for the most part intact, he was writhing on the floor, half of his face and his entire arm was burnt badly. He turned his head and glared straight at Justin, wordlessly, his face in a terrible grimace of pain.
They arrived outside the park, and the imp sat Justin against a telephone box before he entered and dialled a number. Then he waited patiently and the Brownie driver he ordered finally arrived, just as the sirens were getting louder in the distance.