Kath came bursting through the door, staggering and off-balance, and slammed it closed behind her. Her clothes were ragged, torn in places, and a litany of cuts and bruises covered her visible skin. As the lock clicked close, a brief blue glow shone from the gap between the door and the frame. She slumped against it, exhaling loudly. “Well, that was a bust.”
“What was?” I asked distractedly. I was lying on the couch, half-draped over the arm, holding my notebook up into the air.
There was a loud thump as something slammed into the door, rebounding off of it, and I jumped. “What was that?” I asked her nervously.
“Well,” Kath said, “as you do, I decided the best place to start was by going to dive bars and asking about assassins.”
“As you do.”
Another thump, louder. “So, turns out I’m actually recognizable now!” I glanced over to find her beaming. “Very exciting. In this specific case, one thing led to another, and now…”
“Now some mob hitman is trying to break down our front door?!”
“Hm? Oh, no, I ditched all of them way back. That’s just Jerry.”
“Jones!” yelled a man’s voice from outside. “Let me in!”
I shot upright, dropping my notebook. “Kath!”
She grinned. “He tried to catch in the lobby, but I climbed in through Mrs. Wiltshire’s window on the second floor and ran up here.”
I groaned, dropping my reading glasses on the side table and rubbing at my eyes. “You can’t keep fobbing this off on me,” I complained.
“Au contraire,” she replied as I approached the door.
“Believe me, if I had literally any chance of making you do this without it resulting in us being kicked out of the apartment, I would.” I placed a hand flat on the door just below the peephole, unlocking the wards. “But seeing as I really don’t want to go back to living with my parents at age 26…” I cracked the door open, poking my head out. “Afternoon, Jerry.”
Short, kind of oily, with tan skin and a hook nose, if you put Jerry in a suit he’d have looked like a bad stereotype of an used-car salesman. A wifebeater, cargo shorts and thongs, though, confused the imagery somewhat. He relaxed slightly as he saw it was me. Not much, but it wasn’t hard to seem like the good option when Kath was the alternative. “Young. Rent’s due.”
I sighed. “I know, I know. Listen, I have a new client, but my advance only covers expenses. Can you give us until…” today was Tuesday, so if everything went well… “uh, Friday? Evening.”
“You’re already a week and a half late,” he replied, irritated.
“I know,” I repeated. “We’re good for it, you know we are.”
“I should have kicked the two of you out months ago.”
He didn’t seem to be going for it. I ground my teeth, but before I could try again, Kath popped in from behind me. “Friday, Jerry. Or the council can somehow find out about all those fire code violations. Somehow!”
“Kath!” I protested. “Can you please not blackmail the landlord?”
“You do that, Jones,” Jerry yelled, “and you’re out on the street!”
“And you lose your apartment building! Win-win!” She paused. “Well, no. You don’t get anything out of it. Win-lose?”
“We don’t win either,” I reminded her.
“Sure we do! The vindictive satisfaction of watching Jerry fail is a major victory.”
“Please don’t listen to her,” I said to Jerry. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t do that. Just give us til Friday?”
He glared through the door. “Friday,” he ground out, before turning and stalking away. I thought I heard him swearing under his breath as I shut the door.
I lent back against the cheap wood, reactivating the wards with the tiniest mental effort. “Can you,” I said, rubbing at my brow, “please not do that?”
Kath popped her head out of the bathroom door, grinning broadly. “I could,” she said, “I could. Counterpoint, though: it’s really fun.”
“Not for me!” I snapped, losing my composure for a second. I took a breath, let it out slowly. “Not for me,” I repeated, less forcefully. “Sorry.”
She made a face, and disappeared back into the bathroom. “Look, sorry you get caught up in it,” she said, over the sound of running water. “But he wasn’t going to give us time, and, hey, I don’t even have the parent option. Plus, there are actually fire code violations.” Her voice grew more muffled, as she presumably stepped into the shower. “I could end him!”
I trudged back over to the couch. “Don’t end the landlord, Kath.”
“You can’t stop me!”
“No, but I can key the wards on a lot of buildings so they don’t let you in anymore. Donutjobs, for example.”
Even with the noise of the shower, I heard her hiss. “You bitch!” She had enough loyalty points at that place to not pay a cent for the next three years.
I plopped myself down, the couch creaking alarmingly, as I chuckled to myself. I wouldn’t actually do it, and neither would she. Well, okay, I might, if only so I could video her reaction.
The interruption had broken my flow, and it took a few minutes of staring at my scribbled calculations and notes before I found where I’d been. What Mrs. Wilson was asking from me was actually significantly more difficult than a standard job. Or, not exactly. Starting from scratch, doing a full suite of wards was ridiculously more complex than basic zoning elemental wards. But I wasn’t starting from scratch: doing the former was almost the entirety of my job, and I had all sorts of tricks and streamlining processes for them. Plus, I was just experienced at it. On the other hand, I could only recall doing something even vaguely like the latter once, maybe. I was having to do all the calculations from the ground up. It’d be a lot easier if I had some CaD software, but none of the decent ones were affordable, and a cheap one would probably cause me to screw up more than it helped. So it was freehand, pen-and-paper arcane math for me, as well as an obscene amount of technical sketches for visualisation.
I was halfway through mapping the load-bearing co-dependencies when my phone began buzzing underneath me. I groaned, lifting myself up and scrabbling around awkwardly with one hand until I found it, half-buried in between cushions. The call had rung out by then, of course. I didn’t recognise the number, so I just left it. They’d call again if it was important, I figured, and I wasn’t in the mood to deal with a telemarketer, so no big loss. There were a couple of unread messages as well, but I’d look at them later; I didn’t want to lose my flow again.
“Hey,” Kath said, coming out of the bathroom, “didn’t you have something on tonight?” Her hair was wrapped in a towel, and she had one of those gross-looking green masks on her face.
I glanced at the clock on the wall. Just gone six. “I… don’t think so?” I hazarded. “Tuesday evening, Tuesday evening…” I wracked my brain, “Nope, nothing.”
I bent my head backwards over the armrest. “Yes, Kath?”
“Do you wanna repeat that?”
“Repeat what? Tuesday evening?”
“Just think real hard about it.”
She was smirking now, and I scowled. “If you’ve got something to say, say it.”
“Are you sure about that time?”
I sighed. “Did you change the clock again?”
“Not that part.”
“Kath, can you just-” I froze. “…today isn’t Tuesday, is it?”
She shook her head. “Nope.”
“Monday?” I asked hopefully.
“Oh shit.” My phone began buzzing again. “Oh shit.”
I snatched it up as Kath began to cackle, thumbing desperately at the screen. Stupid, sweaty fingers. “Hello.” Please be a telemarketer, please be a telemarketer.
“Hey, June.” Shit. “It’s Nadine. I sent you a couple of messages, but I don’t know if they got through. Are you close?”
“Um, I actually… kind of forgot. I can be there in…” I looked down at my clothes, then at the clock, calculating public transport, “…half an hour?”
“I’ve been sitting here for half an hour already,” she said flatly.
I winced. “…it wasn’t six o’clock?”
“Twenty minutes, Nadine,” I said quickly, rising from the couch. “Fifteen minutes. Just give me fifteen minutes-”
“Don’t bother,” she cut me off. “You’ve obviously got more important things going on. I wouldn’t want to keep you from them.”
“Nadine-,” I start to say again, but the call beeped and dropped out. I stared at the red symbol on the screen, then slowly collapsed back onto the couch. “Dammit,” I said softly, covering my eyes with a hand. “Dammit.”
“I mean, she was right, you do have important things going on.”
“Oh, thanks, that really makes me feel better.”
“And you did stand her up…”
“Four times now,” I finished. “I know.”
“You want some honest advice?”
“Romantic advice from an aro person. Sounds like a recipe for success.”
“Gives me objectivity,” she said loftily. “You really don’t have time for a relationship right now.”
I let my head flop back against the rough fabric. “I know.”
“Do you?” she asked, gesturing at the phone in my hand. “Really?”
“That was… a moment of weakness,” I admitted. “Wait, shit, no, bad choice of words.”
“Too late, I’m gonna call her and tell her you said that.”
“I don’t think her opinion of me could get any worse, so sure.”
“You underestimate my abilities of defamation.”
“Okay, no, I take it back. If she met you and found out we’re friends, that would do it.”
“Why, whatever could you mean?” She placed one hand delicately against her chest. “I am a highly respectable individual.”
“You still have blood under your nails.”
“I do?” She held them up in front of her. “Damn. How’d you spot that?”
“I didn’t, you just never clean under there.”
She shrugged, dropping her hands. “Eh, I’ll just paint over it.”
“Or you could just clean your nails properly? Or better yet, stop scratching people with them.”
“And put myself out of a job?” She walked into the kitchen area. “We couldn’t afford to eat, then.”
“You think I’d support us both?”
“You wouldn’t turn your best friend out onto the street, would you?”
“If she wasn’t paying her part of the rent, you’re damn right I would.”
“Yeah, me too,” she admitted, opening the fridge. “Well, seeing as you’re not going out after all, what do we want for dinner?”
“There’s a choice?” I picked up my notebook and pen again. “That’s unusual.”
“Well, technically we do. Three eggs, a packet of mac and cheese, two old apples and half a bottle of milk.”
“Mac and cheese,” I say instantly. “Those eggs have been there for like two months.”
“Mac and cheese it is.” She began rattling around the kitchen, as I settled into the couch and dove back into my work with a renewed focus.
If I was going to sacrifice my dating life for my job, I might as well do it properly.