“Hey Alan, catch!”
Alan turned to see an object tumbling through the air toward him rapidly. He jerked backward, his hands flying up quickly to catch what he now saw was a pistol. The pistol hit his hands and bounced off, and Alan hurriedly caught it before it fell to the ground. A quick look revealed that it was a store-registered Dragon’s Fire Forcebolt. Alan looked up and saw Zap standing in front of him, his body held in a confident stance.
Zap’s eyes had dark circles under them, and a close look revealed that he was wavering slightly on his feet, but he wore a wide, triumphant smile. Zap wore a shoulder-holster rather than the hip holster he had previously worn, specifically modified to hold a wand instead of a gun. Nestled in the holster was Zap’s wand, borne plainly and ready to draw. Zap drew himself up and looked pleased at Alan, waiting for words of praise.
“Zap,” Alan said a little acidly, “we don’t throw guns in my store.”
“Aw, c’mon,” Zap said, deflating. “I took the battery out!”
“We still don’t throw guns in my store.”
“Well I’m sorry, okay?” Zap said, then pointed at his shoulder holster. “Look!”
“You made your precert,” Alan said glibly, putting the pistol in the pocket of his apron. “Did you get the shellwork processed for it?”
“Yes!” Zap said, irritated. “I wouldn’t bear a weapon in the store without following procedure! Come on, I’m not that irresponsible!”
“You don’t usually throw guns around, either.”
Zap threw his hands in the air with a noise of frustration and walked away. Once he reached the end of the aisles, he turned the corner. He encountered Steve, who was running inventory, near the front of the aisle and stopped in front of her.
“Hey, Steve!” Zap said, proudly displaying his shoulder holster and openly displayed wand. “Check it out!”
Steve looked at the wand for a moment, then looked at Zap’s face. “Did you do the shellwork on that?”
Zap stared at her for a few seconds, then shook his head and walked past her, down the aisle.
“What?” Steve said, confused. She turned to address Zap’s back as he walked away. “What? Well, did you?”
Ten minutes later, Zap was inspecting the meat in the butcher aisle when Click walked by.
“Hey, Zap!” the faerie said enthusiastically, flashing a brilliant smile. “Say! Looks like somebody got his precert!”
“Yeah,” Zap replied, smiling, then hurriedly added, “and yes, I did all the shellwork on it.”
“Huh?” Click said. “I wasn’t gonna ask you that. Are you psyched about the retreat?”
“Y’know, I kind of am,” Zap said. “I think I might need to take a rest day between now and then, though.”
“Probably a good idea; you look cold outta MP.”
“I am,” Zap said. “Literally. I don’t think I’ve ever cast so many spells in a single week.”
“You’ll be casting more!” Click chirped.
“I know,” Zap said, laughing. “I know. I’ll be ready. Say, Click.”
“You never did explain your Glamour magic.”
“Oh,” Click said. “Right! Anyway, so I can weave basic Glamour, like most faeries.”
“But there was your specialized Glamour.”
Click nodded. “Right; Granfalloon Magic.”
“What is that?”
“Well, um,” Click said. “What’s your favorite music, Zap?”
“I like ambient music best,” Zap said.
“Okay,” Click said, tilting his head one way, then the other. “Where do you live?”
“Not too far from here,” Zap said, giving Click an inquisitive look.
“What’s your favorite color?”
“There!” Click shouted, startling Zap. “Green!”
“What?!” Zap said.
“Green! Your favorite color is green!” Click’s eyes lit up. “My favorite color is green! We both like green!”
Zap suddenly found himself enthusiastic, even overjoyed at the commiseration. “Whoa, seriously?” Zap asked, breaking into a wide grin. “That’s fantastic, wow! That’s so great!” He now felt incredibly close to Click, seeing the faerie as a good friend, a buddy, a partner. He likes green! How could things be better?
“Wait, though!” Click said, holding up a finger. “What kind of green?”
“Forest green,” Zap said, surprised by the question.
Click eyed him coldly. “I like neon green.”
Zap’s heart skipped a beat. It was a betrayal, a horrible joke. How could this be? He thought there was something special between them, but how could he continue to live with the knowledge that Click liked neon green and not forest green? He backed away from the faerie slowly, his eyes narrowing.
And then the feeling passed with a mild wave of nausea. Zap couldn’t believe that he had put such weight on color preference moments ago. “What—what was that?” he asked.
“Sorry,” Click said, smiling. “I figured that showing you would be easier than trying to explain it.”
“But you still have to explain it,” Zap said.
“A Granfalloon is a group of people who choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is ultimately meaningless. Bottlecap collectors, fans of a musical artist, even New Washingtonians,” Click explained. “All meaningless associations, when you get right down to it, but people take pride in them and use them to come together.”
“I’m not sure I agree with that opinion, but I see what you’re saying,” Zap said.
“My power is to strengthen those false bonds and widen the divide between people who are in different Granfalloons,” Click said. “I’m not necessarily that good at it yet, but at least with some things I can make a really, totally worthless connection and make it mean something.”
“That’s a kind of scary magic, Click,” Zap said, shuddering a bit.
“Yeah, that’s why I try to be real careful about using it,” Click said, then clapped Zap on the back. “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna do it to ya again.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that,” Zap said. “Are you planning on making a career of it?”
“Maybe at some point,” Click said. “What do you think it’d be good for?”
“Motivational speaker?” Zap said. “Camp counselor.”
Click laughed. “Sports mascot,” he replied.
The two walked down the aisle together, talking and laughing as they went.
“Hey, Zap!” Alan shouted to Zap from across the aisle. Zap turned to face his supervisor. He saw that Alan’s apron was off, and he was wearing a Plide jacket over his shirt and tie. Nalley was standing next to him in her grease-stained overalls, and towering over both of them was Michelle-Bear, dressed in a hoodie and jeans.
“Yeah?” Zap said. “Hey Nalley, Michelle-Bear.”
“Hi Zap,” Michelle-Bear said, smiling. Nalley smiled too, and nodded to Zap.
“We’re going to head down to the range with Steve,” Alan said. “You’re precertified now; you wanna come?”
“Thanks, but no,” Zap said. “I’m seriously practiced out. I need a day off.”
“Aw, c’mon Zap,” Michelle-Bear chided, pouting. “You don’t have to work yourself hard; you should come! I’m not gonna shoot too much neither.”
“Yeah, I thought you were a melee fighter, Michelle-Bear,” Zap said to her. “That big hammer.”
“Yeah,” Michelle-Bear said happily. “I’m goin’ for moral support, and because I’m not gonna see our boy for two weeks!”
Zap laughed. “No, sorry. I think I’m gonna go home and take a really long nap. Thank you for the offer. I’ll make it up to you later, Michelle-Bear.”
Michelle-Bear grinned and winked at Zap. “Will we tell Pazi?”
Zap blushed at that, and Michelle-Bear laughed. Alan and Nalley joined in. “Okay, I’ll let you get away with it this time,” Michelle-Bear teased, an impish smile on her face. “But I’ll hold you to that whole ‘making it up to me’ thing. In a platonic way.”
“Thanks,” Zap said, managing a sheepish grin. “See you guys later.”
He waved to the three as they passed by him, looking for Steve. As Zap walked in the opposite direction, Click poked his head out from around the corner, eyed Michelle-Bear’s retreating form, and let out a low whistle.
“I know,” Zap agreed.
“That woman could break me in half,” Click said, awed, “and I think I might like it.”
Zap raised his eyebrows and cast an ‘after you’ gesture down the aisle.
“No…” Click said. “Thanks, but I don’t have the guts right now.”
“Your loss,” Zap said with a smirk, and resumed his travel toward the back room.
“Yeah…” Click said.
In the queue at the local shooting range, a line of Securemarket™ employees waited to register for use of the lanes. At the back end of the small group, Alan and Loren, who had decided on a whim to tag along, were having a discussion about the store. Michelle-Bear stood in the center, with Steve and Nalley nearest to the front of the line.
The line had come to a halt as a customer’s shellwork near the front had some trouble processing. Nalley took the opportunity to turn back and speak to Steve. “Hey,” she began. “You know, you haven’t given me an update about the boy.”
“What boy?” Steve asked, fidgeting.
“Zap, goofball,” Michelle-Bear said from the opposite direction, leaning down a bit so she could speak quietly. “I wanna hear too.”
“Nothing’s up with him,” Steve replied, shrugging.
“Are you getting along?” Nalley said.
“Yeah, we’re getting along fine.”
“Are you actually spending any time out of work together?” Nalley asked.
“A little,” Steve said. “Look, it’s really not … a thing to talk about. Anymore.”
“No?” Michelle-Bear asked. “So you don’t have feelings for him any more; you’re totally over him?”
Steve fell silent and folded her arms.
“Aw, sweetie,” Nalley said, smiling at Steve. “Don’t bottle stuff up. It’s not good for you.”
“It’s irrelevant, though,” Steve protested. “He’s got a girl and he’s monogamous and from what I hear, she seems really nice.”
“Pazi is very nice,” Nalley agreed, “but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel anything. Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”
“Not at the shooting range,” Steve said, hunching her shoulders.
“Line’s moving again!” Michelle-Bear cut in.
“Are you gonna be okay at the retreat, though?” Nalley asked before moving forward.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Steve said. “I mean, it’s not like Pazi’s going to be there.”
Nalley and Michelle-Bear stared at Steve for several seconds. Steve’s face grew uncomfortable. “…what?” she asked. After another pause, “What!”
“How could none of you tell me this?” Steve blurted, placing her hands on her head. The four were in the queue for the lanes themselves, now, waiting for adjacent spaces to open up for the full group.
“We thought you knew,” Nalley said uncomfortably.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Pazi works at the 11th Street Securemarket™,” Alan said. “Her store wasn’t originally going to seed this retreat, but the sudden changes made it so that they did. I didn’t realize you weren’t checking up on the ethsite.”
“Fuck … fuck,” Steve said.
“I really thought you’d know,” Michelle-Bear said. “She was in the news, yanno?”
“She was?” Steve asked.
“Yeah,” Loren replied. “She was the one who summoned a fire spirit to help fight off that plant mage who did all that damage. It was a headline.”
“That was Pazi?” Steve asked.
“Yes,” Alan said.
“Oh, fucking guardian,” Steve said. “She’s not just pretty and nice, she’s a nice, pretty hero.”
“I’m sorry, Steve,” Nalley said. “Are you sure you should be handling a gun right now?”
“I think,” Steve said in a strained tone, “that we’re all a lot less safe if I don’t get to shoot things right now.”
No one objected.