Ater reached down, his fingers lazily brushing the wrappings. He wiggled his fingers, apparently choosing, and then his hand swooped down and snatched up a lumpy, chocolate-covered bonbon. He popped it into his mouth. "Ooh...praline."
Sorrell was sitting stiffly on the couch, clutching a glass of water. He watched Ater. "You might get fat, you know. Eating those chocolates like that is going to make you gain weight."
Ater threw back his head and laughed. "Are you kidding me? I'm going to eat as many as I want. Why are you so uptight about weight, anyway? I let the girls worry about that." He tossed a caramel into the air and caught it in his mouth.
Sorrell shifted uncomfortably.
"Well, I think you should take more care of your health. Especially..." His voice trailed off. Ater looked up, eyes narrowed. "Especially what?"
"I have a message from Miss Whip." Sorrell mumbled miserably. Ater raised his eyebrows. "What is it?"
"She asks why you stopped courting her. She wants to know if you are ever going to see her again. And...she says she really loves you." Sorrell looked extremely unhappy. He eyed Ater nervously, whose face had broken into a look of incredulity.
Sorrell sighed deeply. "You need to take care of yourself, Ater. These women are serious. I don't know what you did to Miss Whip that she became all emotional like this..." Sorrell lifted a hand and ran it through his short, dark hair.
Ater's incredulous look was replaced by one of anger. "I didn't do anything to her! That woman had her eyes on me the moment I was inducted! How can I help it if she suddenly falls in love with me?" Ater frowned, thinking. "And I never courted her once," he
"Well, you must have done something to make her think you liked her." Sorrell took a tiny sip of water. "Are you sure you never did anything alone with her?"
"Well..." hesitated Ater, “I worked with her on that one project, remember? The Kraken business. Now when I think about it, she was flirting a lot when I was with her..." Ater paled. "I guess I ignored it..." He turned slowly to face
Sorrell, who was watching him over the rim of his water glass.
"There you have it. She obviously thought you were going for her." Sorrell stood up abruptly and drank the rest of his water. Ater gasped "Don't leave yet!"
"I wasn't going to." Sorrell answered calmly. He placed his glass on the table and sat back down.
"How am I going to get rid of her?" Ater muttered, pacing. Sorrell thought for a moment.
"Couldn't you just tell her it was a mistake?"
"I could." Ater stopped pacing, rubbing his forehead. "But I don't want to."
"Why not?" Sorrell asked, folding his arms.
"Because...I'm afraid of Miss Whip. I think...I think she's a witch."
Sorrell stared. "You're not serious?"
Ater nodded. Sorrell looked utterly confused. "What do you mean, Ater?"
"I've noticed she has this sort of charm around men. She has the entire Association wrapped around her little finger. I didn't notice this until after I finished the project with her. When we both returned to the Plaza, she began talking
to the Leader and he followed everything she said. I didn't like the feeling I got, so I asked to work on my own for the next project."
Sorrell still looked skeptical. "Are you sure the men around her were really "charmed"? I've noticed quite a lot of women use charm to get their way. She could have just been flirting with them, like how she did with you."
"I don't think so. All the men she talked to had this blank look on their faces. I ignored it at the time, but now when I think about it, it seems strange..."
Sorrell frowned. "I don't know what to make of this. Can't you just go and apologize to her? Her "charm" didn't seem to work on me," he added, rolling his eyes. Ater crossed his arms.
"Why aren't you taking me seriously?"
"I can't understand it at all, Ater. When she asked me to take the message to you, she wasn't flirting or anything. At least, I think she wasn't," said Sorrell. Ater sat down beside him on the couch.
"Maybe she did flirt, but her charm didn't work. I've seen every man she's spoken to go blank."
Sorrell gazed tiredly at Ater for a moment. "Why are we talking about this? Are you going to apologize to her or not?"
"No." answered Ater flatly. Sorrell sighed. "The next best course of action is to get another project that lets you go someplace else. Then she won't be able to track you. Maybe you could get a project with me."
Ater jumped up. "That's an idea," he grinned. "Why don't we head to the Plaza right now and ask, Sorrell?"
Sorrell let out a long, slow breath. "All right. I was just spouting ideas; I didn’t know you’d take them seriously. Are you sure you want to do a project with me?”
“Yes, I’m sure! I’ll do anything to get away from Miss Whip.” Ater popped the last chocolate into his mouth. Sorrell narrowed his dark eyes.
“Who were those chocolates from, anyway?”
Ater grinned. “An admirer. They aren’t from Miss Whip, I checked the card. Apparently this girl is smitten with me.” He chuckled. Sorrell scowled and stood up. He was shorter then Ater by a head, which subjected him to the rather harsh
nickname of “Shorty” by some of the people who worked in the Association. Ater never called him this.
Sorrell headed to the foyer to put on his coat, Ater close on his heels. They walked out into the crisp autumn air. The street on which Ater lived was quiet and peaceful. Sorrell visited him from another nearby neighbourhood, which
was much less posh and close to becoming a ghetto area. Ater had asked him if he wanted to move in as a roommate, but Sorrell had flatly refused. Ater suspected it was pride.
They walked, silently, each lost in their own thoughts. A red brick pathway stretched out ahead of them. A mist was already shrouding the upper branches of the tallest trees lining the path, and there was a chill in the grey air. As
they walked, the land around them changed. Skyscrapers loomed in front of them. The sound of traffic rumbled steadily on the main road. They turned a corner to face the Plaza.
It was a towering structure, with four marble pillars in front of the revolving door. The two young men climbed steadily up the stone steps and entered the building through the revolving door. The huge lobby was completely silent, but
a woman was still sitting at the desk marked “Inquiries”. Ater and Sorrell immediately advanced to the desk. The woman looked up, her small spectacles perched on her nose. “Yes?”
“Hey, Amelia,” Ater whispered, flashing a small smile. Amelia flushed. “There is no need to flirt, Ater,” she snapped. “Now, what are you here for?”
Sorrell stepped forward, throwing Ater an uneasy glance. “We were…uh…here to check if there were any out-of-town projects available.”
Amelia raised an eyebrow. “I was under the impression you two were on a break.”
“We were,” Sorrell amended hastily. “But we wanted to come back and help some more. The work here is interesting,” he added, lamely. Amelia glared at him, and then lowered her face to a pile of papers lying in front of her. She shifted
through an entire sheaf until she found the one she was looking for and pulled it out.
“This came from the Leader this morning. He asked me to tell you to come to his office whenever you were ready to begin. Luckily,” she pursed her lips, “it is both and out-of-town job and one that was categorized as ‘fun’.” She smirked.
“Good luck.” She stuffed the sheet of paper into Ater’s outstretched hand and turned her face firmly away. Sorrell nodded nervously at Ater and they began to walk towards the elevators.
“Amelia is uptight today,” Ater muttered, glancing over his shoulder at the lady behind the desk. Sorrell rolled his eyes.
They entered the elevators, pressed the floor number and waited. When the doors opened, they were standing at the end of a narrow, dark hallway. The Leader worked from a penthouse office at the top of the building. Ater stepped out
of the elevator, Sorrell following silently. They stood side by side, staring at the tall wooden door in front of them. Ater hesitated, and then lifted up a fist to knock.
“Come in,” answered a sly, cold voice. Ater turned the handle and stepped inside.
It was an enormous, spacious office. The floor-to-ceiling windows offered a view of the city from three directions. The only wall that had no windows was the one with the door. The Leader was standing with his back to them, seemingly
looking out of the window. Ater stopped dead and heard Sorrell stumble behind him. The Leader turned around.
“Please, take a seat,” he said pleasantly. He was a tall, imposing middle-aged man with two stripes of grey hair on either side of his head. The effect of this made him look like a humanized skunk. Ater warily slipped into a chair in
front of the polished oak desk. Sorrell copied, throwing glances at the windows. The Leader strode over to stand behind his desk, staring openly. Ater carefully met his eyes. The Leader smiled.
“Well, I suppose you know why you are here. Did Amelia brief you on the terms of the project?”
Sorrell spoke first. “She did tell us it was an out-of-town job. But she didn’t tell us anything else-”
“Amelia likes to keep things simple,” the Leader cut in. He stared out of the window for a moment, and then pulled out his chair to sit down behind his desk.
“There are three terms to this project. First, you cannot become emotionally entangled with anyone. This could put the whole thing in jeopardy. Second, you tell no one about what you are doing, for obvious reasons. Finally, you have
to come back with the object specified or your job is not completed. Any questions?”
Ater began talking before Sorrell opened his mouth. “Amelia said the project was classified as ‘fun’. What did she mean?”
The Leader smirked. “Well, Amelia was right…in a way. This project has a certain risk of… injury. I’m sure two able young men such as you should find it suitably exciting. Unless, of course, you want to drop the project and choose an
Sorrell and Ater exchanged uneasy glances. Here was a chance for them to rise up in the ranks of the Association if they managed to pull this project off. But it sounded like they would have to be ready to take a chance. Before Sorrell
could change his mind, Ater spoke up.
“We’ll do it.”
“Good.” The Leader pulled out a contract. “Both of you sign below on the dotted line, please.”
Ater pulled the sheet towards him and skimmed the print. It outlined the three terms the Leader had discussed with them, plus a small family reimbursement in case of death. Ater sincerely hoped that money was only as a precaution. He
signed and passed the sheet to Sorrell, who skimmed it and signed quickly. They both stood up and shook hands with the Leader, who gave them a grin. “I wish you luck in your newest endeavour.”
They left the office and headed back to the lobby, where Amelia was waiting for them, clutching a file folder. “Did you sign?” she asked. Sorrell nodded. She dumped the folder in his hands. “It will make for some interesting reading.
Good luck. You’ll need it,” she added, with a slightly unpleasant smile. She began packing up her briefcase. Ater and Sorrell left through the revolving door.
The thin chill coating the tops of the trees had persisted and frosted the branches with lacy ice. A wind blew, ready to freeze exposed skin. A feeling of snow hovered in the autumn air as Sorrell and Ater walked back to Ater’s expensive
“Let’s hope this project gets Miss Whip off our backs.” Ater muttered.
It was a hope played by Fate itself.