By the time that Alan walked through the door, the employee mixer was already in full swing. Calm, ambient electronic music echoed through the space, controlled by a deejay sitting in a booth at the far end of the room. There were several long tables set up in the center of the room with light fare and small white ceramic plates. At one side of the room was a bar that served beer, cider, and wine, but at the moment no hard liquor.
Alan shoved his hands in his pockets and entered the room, murmuring to himself, “I always suck at these events.”
He scanned the room for his employees. He immediately spotted Zap, who was talking to an older employee. He held a glass of beer in one hand, and the other was wrapped around an attractive young woman with short blonde hair who cradled a glass of red wine as she watched Zap speak.
“Pazi,” Alan murmured, and resumed his casual survey of the room.
To’mas was leaning on his roommate’s shoulder as he spoke to someone else; the look on the roommate’s face was pleasant but unnerved. Loren stood near the two, looking as unremarkable as he ever did.
Matt was standing alone near the food tables, looking intently at something or someone, but Alan couldn’t quite make out what the focus of his employee’s attention was.
Focusing for a moment on a clump of well-dressed and elegantly poised people, Alan realized that he had located the schmooze circle of the store managers. He approached, curious, and soon caught sight of Paru. She was holding a glass of white wine and a small plate of vegetables in the same hand, gesticulating with the other. She exuded professional, subtle charm. As he neared the group, Alan became uncomfortable and veered away, choosing instead to approach the food table.
He grabbed a plate and looked over the trays of food, humming to himself. After reviewing his choices, Alan began carefully filling the plate’s space with vegetables and hors d’oeuvres, arranging them like tangrams to ensure that he could get as much on the tiny plate as possible; he hadn’t eaten anything else for dinner.
As he was partway through this process, he was interrupted by a honey-sweet female voice addressing him from his left. “Mr. Morganstern?”
Alan looked at the voice’s source and saw a young woman dressed in what Alan found unsettlingly similar to a private secondary school uniform. The girl had black hair and striking violet eyes that Alan suspected were surgically dyed, or perhaps she was wearing contacts.
The girl gave Alan smile dripping with seductive innocence. “You’re Mr. Morganstern, right?”
“Alan’s fine,” Alan said with a smile. “You must be Violet.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “You know who I am?”
“Steve mentioned her new roommate,” Alan said.
“She must have described me very accurately,” Violet said. Alan imagined for a moment that he could see her clenching whatever muscle she used to exude pheromones. “Or did you just really want to meet me?”
Alan laughed. “She described you very accurately,” he said. “More accurately than you could know. Speaking of people who really want to meet you, though…”
Alan pointed, and Violet curiously let her gaze follow Alan’s direction.
“See that pretty white-haired boy over there?” Alan said. “His name is To’mas, and he’s in my shift. He mentioned wanting to meet you. What’s more, I bet he’d love your help on a project of his.”
“A project?” Violet asked.
“The project he’s standing next to,” Alan said with a smirk.
Violet knit her brow for a moment, then her eyes widened and she let out a small, high-pitched noise. She looked up to Alan gratefully. “You are a very helpful supervisor,” she said, the little-girl tone in her voice gone.
“I do what I can,” Alan replied.
“Y’wanna get coffee later, though?” Violet said. “I hear you’re in a rock band.”
“You hear right,” Alan replied, dipping a baby carrot in the dollop of dressing that was slowly losing coherency on his plate. “Just lay off the act, ok? I’m a one-girl guy and I don’t feel like playing faerie tennis.”
Violet winked. “If that To’mas boy over there lets me in on his project, you’re off the hook. I guess. But you can’t blame me for trying.”
Alan had shoved the carrot into his mouth, and replied between chews. “I guesh not,” he said, chipmunk-cheeked. “I’m pretty hot shtuff.”
Violet giggled and returned her sights to To’mas, beelining for him. Alan stared at her ass as she walked, caught by the hypnotic sway of her hips.
“That girl’s dangerous,” he murmured. He blinked and looked around again. “I wonder where Click and Steve are.”
For the first time since Steve had seen it, Click’s face was grave and concerned. He reached forward with a handkerchief, which Steve took gratefully.
“Thanks,” Steve said, taking the cloth and dabbing her tear-stained face with it. “Sorry.”
“It’s ok, really,” Click said.
“I’m such a mess,” Steve said. “I see them together once and I go to pieces.”
“The way you tell it, he really led you on,” Click said, dropping to his haunches in front of Steve, who was sitting with her back against the wall.
Steve reached into her pocket and retrieved her cigarettes. “It’s not like that, really,” she said. “It all happened so fast. I didn’t warn him, and I didn’t give him any room to explain.”
“He should have been forthcoming with it from the get-go,” he said as Steve stuck the cigarette between her lips and lit it with a conjured flame. “He could have said something when they started going out.”
“Why?” Steve said. “He didn’t know it was relevant. He didn’t know I liked him, and he’s never liked me, so … y’know. He didn’t mean to hurt me.”
“Of course he didn’t,” Click said. “Zap’s a nice guy. He just maybe doesn’t see as much as he should.”
“Maybe not,” Steve said. She took a long drag from the cigarette, then drew in her shuddering breath further before letting out a plume of smoke.
“He’d want you to move on,” Click said. “He’s probably hoping you will. He’s got a girl and he’s happy with her, and he doesn’t want to see you hurt. I’m sure that when he sees you hurt by his actions, it hurts him too.”
“Well yeah,” Steve said, gesticulating with both hands, “but what am I supposed to do about it?”
“Start looking,” Click said, giving her a smile. “There’re a lot of cute boys here, most of ’em local to you. Maybe one of them would be a good boyfriend!”
“I’m really not attracted to many boys,” Steve said. “I’m not sure I can just … look. I don’t usually do that. Anyway, I’m not cute enough to just pick boys.”
“Of course you are!” Click said. “You’re gorgeous. You just look around and give it a try. If you’re at all attracted to somebody here, go for it! If you want I can help you. I’ll be your wingman,” he said, and fluttered his wings with a grin.
“I can’t believe you just made that joke,” Steve said, glaring.
“Yeah, well,” Click said. “Nice to be on this side of it for once.”
Steve sighed. “I don’t know, I just don’t. Isn’t an employee retreat a kind of bad place to chase guys?”
Click laughed. “Why don’t you go check out some of the other things happening at that mixer?” he asked. “A lot of people are gonna go to rooms that weren’t their assigned ones tonight.”
Steve laughed in spite of herself.
“Whaddya say?” Click said.
“We’ll see,” Steve said. “I dunno. We’ll see.”
“Well, at least dry your face and come get some booze,” Click said. “Don’t you like cider? They’ve got Purple Pine Brewery cider.”
“Purple Pine?” Steve made a face. “More like turpentine. But I guess I could stand to have my throat stripped.”
She put out her cigarette on the ground and pushed herself to her feet. “Okay, let’s go back in. Thanks for talking to me, Click.”
“It’s no problem,” Click said with a smile. “I just want what’s best for you.”
Steve wiped her nose and walked inside. Behind her, Click’s smile took on a somewhat triumphant cast.
“Thanks for walking me back to my room,” Pazi said, smiling warmly at Zap. “It’s nice to have company, and I was kinda worried I might get lost.”
Zap laughed. “With the tracking technology here?” he said. “That’d take talent.”
“Well, I’m talented,” Pazi replied, laughing too. “So. Give me a kiss and let me go inside. I need eight hours or my invocations won’t be as good.”
“Okay,” Zap said, then leaned in. He and Pazi kissed, eyes closed. After a few moments they broke apart, and Pazi made a happy noise, then turned and slipped into her room. With a little wave, she shut the door.
Zap stuck his hands in his pockets, smiled and sighed. He turned on his heel and walked back down the hallway. When he was nearly at the stairwell, he unholstered his small workshell and tapped it, glancing at the Local Positioning System map that appeared on its surface.
He followed the path on the screen back toward the event bar, flickering his gaze up and down, ensuring both that he was on the right track and that he didn’t bump into anything.
In five minutes, Zap heard the noise of the mixer as he approached the event bar. The murmur was less than it had been when Zap had left with Pazi; the event was dying down despite the relatively early hour. It wasn’t yet midnight, but the threat of the early wake-up had already driven most of the attendees to bed.
As Zap re-entered, he saw that he recognized a few of the stragglers. His aging roommate Arden was engaged in an animated conversation with Steve at the bar. Nearby, Alan and Paru were chatting in a subdued tone.
Zap walked over to the pair at the bar. Steve noticed him first and waved, obviously a little tipsy. “Ping, Zap!”
Arden turned to look at Zap and smiled. “Ah, my wayward roommate. What’s the haps?”
“Nil,” Zap said. “You two look like you’ve had a few.”
“A few too few, perhaps,” Arden said wistfully.
“Just filling our few-el tanks,” Steve added.
“I guess we’re suf-few-sed with it,” Arden shot back, grinning at Steve.
“It’s a blood few-ed,” Steve replied.
“That one was a stretch,” Zap said, folding his arms.
“Ehh, whatever,” Steve said. “I don’t need more lip from boys.”
“Huh?” Zap asked.
“Miss Steve was most unfairly treated,” Arden said. “She was speaking to a gentleman who caught her eye. He seemed amiable until he heard that she liked rock music, whereupon he became very rude.”
Zap frowned. “That’s … petty.”
“Friggin’ stupid,” Steve said. “Whatever. It’s few-tile.”
“Have you had any water?” Zap asked Steve. “You’ll be hung over in the morning if you don’t get water.”
“I had some water,” Steve said. “Earlier.”
“Were you two planning on staying much later?” Zap asked, turning to Arden.
“No, we’ll both be needing some sleep,” Arden replied.
“Sleep is for the weekdays!” Steve declared.
“It is a weekday,” Zap replied.
“C’mon, let’s all go,” Zap said. “You’re in B Block, right Steve?”
“Yeah, okay,” Steve replied, getting to her feet and stretching. “I get it. We’re all being responsible.”
“Don’t you want to do well at tomorrow’s exercises?”
“It’s not like I’m trying for management,” Steve said. “But yeah, it’d be nice to have the cert. Let’s go to bed.”
The group had wandered back to the B Block dorms and dropped Steve off at her room, where Violet was already asleep.
Zap and Arden returned to their room.
“That is a mighty fine woman,” Arden said to Zap as the two of them began preparing for bed.
“Stephen,” Arden said. “She doesn’t realize what a catch she is, and once she does every man will be after her.”
“I like Steve,” Zap said. “She’s a good friend.”
“She’s got a lot going for her,” Arden continued. “She’s attractive, intelligent and talented. She just needs a little more confidence and she’ll be unstoppable.”
“She’s a little abrasive sometimes,” Zap pointed out.
“She’s just being defensive,” Arden said, waving the opinion away. “It’s just a defensive reflex and that’ll go away when she comes into her own.”
“If you say so.”
“Were my roving days not over…” Arden trailed off, shaking his head. He turned to Zap. “Can you honestly tell me that you’ve never considered what it’d be like having Steve as a lass?”
Zap paused, then looked over at Arden. “…I’ve got a girlfriend, Arden.”
“Ehh,” Arden said, waving again.
The next few minutes passed in silence as the two got ready for bed. Shortly, both were in nightclothes. Arden took his place in the bottom bunk, gently checking the latch on the assault rifle he had placed in a wall mount near his bed. Zap settled into place in the top bunk, closing his eyes.
The room was silent for a few minutes before Zap spoke.
“…yeah,” he said. “I have thought about it.”