Laurie had barely taken two steps from the elevator when Nahna grabbed her by the wrist and yanked her aside. She surveyed Laurie’s haggard appearance, one hand binding her in place.
“Of all days to be late!” Nahna muttered under her breath. With the hand not holding Laurie captive, she brushed off a fine layer of dust that had settled on Laurie’s ginger crop of hair. To Laurie, the action felt more like a reprimanding slap.
“You know what I want to say, but I think I’ve said it enough times now. What I will say, though, is that you better thank whatever lucky star’s on your side that you’re facing me and not Kian.”
Nahna’s fingers continued to hover like a swarm of flies. Laurie batted them away and removed her dirtied goggles. It was only then that she noticed her mentor was wearing a suit. In all her years working at the bureau, Laurie had only ever seen Nahna in her standard-issue tee and cargos. Today, however, the solemn lines of her face were complemented by the tailored shapes of a navy blazer and a knee-length skirt; an ensemble Laurie was sure she hadn’t seen since before the Fall. She wasn’t even aware people made them anymore.
Nahna pre-empted Laurie’s question.“The Firsts are here,” she said. Laurie stilled. “They’ve come for inspection.”
“The Firsts?” If Laurie had thought Nahna was the joking sort, she would never have believed her. First-level angels. Not the Second-levels that worked here at the bureau. No, the Firsts were much more important, and they certainly never bothered themselves with things down here on Earth unless it involved giving orders. To this day, all Laurie knew of the Firsts was from the whispered murmurs of her co-workers. Some were full of awe; others were fearful. According to Nahna, it was a First who’d found Laurie on the street the night the angels took her in. Not that she had any memory of it. In many ways, she was glad she’d been unconscious if the Firsts were anywhere near as terrifying as she’d heard.
Laurie took a moment to review the room they stood in. She could see now the layer of shine coating the walls and tiled floor, and the potted plants had been trimmed back to near-geometric shapes. She and Nahna were the only two in the underground foyer, the morning shift having already begun. Not that you’d be able to tell it was morning from the dim light. A sponge of smog spread thick across the glass roof several feet above, absorbing sunlight which should have been streaming into the atrium-style grand entrance. Energy rations meant this was the only light illuminating the room during the daytime. It made for an eerie, twilight-like atmosphere, especially among the potted ferns and stone statues, where the shadows took on a dusky, indigo hue.
The bureau itself sat just below ground level, built in a perfect circle and concealed beneath a 22-storey tower block. From the outside, it was just a standard block of flats. No human could ever tell what lay beneath. The glass roof above the foyer looked up into a courtyard. It wasn’t much, but even that small shaft of light, however bleak, went towards conserving power. As did the manual elevator descending from its centre. Nahna turned towards its glass outer wall and checked her hair in the reflection.
“What’s the inspection for?” Laurie asked. “Why haven’t they done one before?”
“It’s not my place to ask, and it’s certainly not yours. Get yourself ready. They’re going to want to meet you so please make sure you look sharp.”
Laurie glanced down at her bulky scaffold jacket; a couple of years old now, it was desperately in need of replacing. “Will passable do?”
“I suppose it’ll have to.”
Without another word, Nahna took hold of Laurie’s wrist again and dragged her across the foyer to the locker room. Its door was one of twelve identical ones that lined the outside of the round foyer. The ridiculously symmetrical layout had only recently stopped giving Laurie migraines.
Laurie and Nahna didn’t even reach the door before the sound of another door opening from behind made them both stiffen in their tracks.
The voice that called her mentor’s name was familiar, yet not. Laurie had certainly heard the voice of her boss before. Many times. But it was never usually this exuberant. Laurie and Nahna turned to face Kian. He smiled at them; a gesture as strange to Laurie as his unusually chipper voice.
“Laurie! I thought I heard you. What perfect timing. I have some people here who’d like to meet you.”
“Skies,” Laurie heard Nahna say under her breath. There was once a time when Laurie would laugh at what angels considered strong language, but a few scoldings from Nahna had taught her to watch her manners.
Before turning back to his office to call forward his visitors, Kian’s eyes narrowed at Laurie, his face morphing into the solemn expression she was more familiar with.
“Have you been somewhere?” he asked, taking note of the jacket she still wore. If she’d come straight from her flat above—as she should have done—there should be no reason for wearing it.
“No, I … was just feeling a little chilly.”
She knew Kian wasn’t buying it, but fortunately for her, he said nothing more on the matter, though he did give her a look which meant trouble later. When he turned to his office, Nahna practically ripped the jacket and goggles from Laurie, shooting her a glare which mirrored Kian’s.
When Laurie looked up again, two more figures had emerged from Kian’s office. Two large figures. With wings.
“Azuriel, Chanduel, I would like you to meet the famous Laurie Lucas,” he said with a sweeping gesture towards her.
No amount of gossip or breakroom whispers would have prepared Laurie for the moment when the two First-level angels entered into the shy light of the bureau foyer. Of course, the first things her eyes drifted to were their wings. Each one the same height as its bearer’s body, the extra limbs looked almost identical to the ones she’d seen in pre-Fall human depictions.
Unlike Seconds, Firsts lived immortal lives, and these two had most likely been around since the beginning of time. And yet, by some celestial law of physics, they looked younger than Nahna. But while those millennia of wisdom may not have shown on their faces, Laurie certainly felt it in their presence. Like walking artefacts, their very beings emanated ancient power which Laurie could swear was almost tangible.
The two angels wore nothing but a pair of loose-fitting, white trousers, leaving their sculpted chests free for all to see. But ogling them wasn’t even a notion that entered Laurie’s mind. All she could think was, should she bow? Shake their hands? Was she even allowed to speak, or did she have to be spoken to?
It took a less-than-gentle nudge from Nahna to stir Laurie from the trance she’d fallen into.
“Miss Lucas,” one of the Firsts said, walking towards her. His skin was darker than his partner’s, and he had hair blacker than the blackest night she’d ever seen, yet it shone silky even in the dankness of the bureau. “My name is Azuriel. It is a pleasure to meet you. We have all heard so much about you.”
Azuriel didn’t extend a hand, leaving Laurie standing there like a smiling fool. “Well,” she said, “it’s a pleasure to be a famous charity case.”
From beside her, Laurie heard Nahna cough.
“What she means to say is that she’s very grateful to be here. She was incredibly lucky to have been found on the streets that day. We say she has a lucky star looking out for her.” Nahna’s laugh was as contrived as Kian’s smile.
“It sounds like she has,” Azuriel said with a much more genuine grin. He transferred his weight from one leg to the other and then back again, his wings shifting from left to right. The movement was quick and only slight, but Laurie was sure she caught a glimpse of a third figure standing behind him in the doorway to Kian’s office.
“If I may ask,” Azuriel said, “how does it feel to be a human living and working among angels?”
Laurie was distracted, craning her neck to see past the angel’s towering wing to get another glimpse of the person in the doorway. “Um, it’s all right, I guess.”
The cough from Nahna this time was louder.
“I mean, it’s great. Nahna’s right. I’m lucky to be here, and I probably wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for my angel family.” She gave what she hoped was a better fake smile than Nahna’s.
Kian spoke with dramatic abruptness. “Nahna. Would you care to give our guests a tour of the mailing room? I wish to have a word with Miss Lucas in private.”
The shift in Nahna’s mood was unmistakable. Her chest puffed out like a pigeon’s with a sudden sense of importance. “Of course!” She turned to Azuriel and Chanduel. “If you’d like to follow me, I’ll show you what I think are some of the best facilities in all the sectors.” She dumped Laurie’s jacket and goggles into Laurie’s arms and led the two Firsts away.
Kian did not watch them leave, keeping his eyes squarely on Laurie until they heard the door to the mailing room close. Laurie met his stare with a cheery smile.
“Pleasant day, isn’t it, Kian?” she said. “You know, despite all the dust and smog.”
“I had hoped we wouldn’t be having this conversation again, Miss Lucas,” Kian began. The hospitable smile now gone, his expression was back to its standard gloomy mould, his downturned features elongating his already too-long face. In the few years since she’d known him, his black hair had begun to sprout streaks of grey, which only succeeded in making him look even more miserable. Like Nahna, he, too, had ditched the uniform of cargos and a practical tee-shirt and instead wore a much more formal—and even more dreary—suit and tie. From inside his jacket pocket, he produced a device about the same size as his palm; his digipad. Though a post-Fall human invention, the angels had taken a shine to the technology’s simplicity and usefulness.
He punched a few buttons on the keypad and frowned at the screen. “This is the fifth time this month you’ve snuck outside the bureau.” He turned the screen to face Laurie, showing her the strikes beside her pixelated name.
She groaned. She’d have preferred the lecture about her etiquette. She opened her mouth to protest, but she knew it would do her no good. Still, she felt a small pang of victory; it was actually the eighth time.
“You know the rules. Once a month you’re allowed out, and it has to be authorised by me. I can’t keep making exceptions for you. You’re special to us, and we can’t afford to lose you, but if you continue to take liberties then I’ll have no choice but to take stronger actions.”
He wasn’t angry with her. She didn’t think Kian knew how to be angry. Before today, the only emotion Laurie had seen on her boss was genuine apathy.
“Yes, Kian,” she said. Kian turned and headed back towards his office, but something tugged at Laurie.
He turned back to her.
“If I’m so special, why am I still working in files?”
Kian gave her two slow blinks before answering. “For the same reason as last time,” he said. “Because that’s where I put you.”
“Kian please. I’ve barely steeped a foot outside that stinking room since I started here.”
Kian’s cheeks flared red. “I will kindly remind you to watch your language in here, girl.”
“Your position will remain in files until I tell you otherwise.” He turned back towards his office, paused, then turned back.
“Meet me in my office at twelve,” he said, then walked away.