So sometimes I feel in the mood to poke my original characters. This is for an unspecified urban fantasy world of mine, where I basically have a ton of different characters and their own stories whom I can pretend are all co-existing in the same world. A fairly alarming number of them come from dreams. I think the progenitor story is well over a decade old by now. Apparently I had this idea almost exactly three years ago! And it decided it wanted to be poked at today. It's more character building than anything else, a little slow exploration.And what might be a recruitment.
I kind of love that while I had the character concept in mind before, she wasn't actually a person with any sort of details until I started putting words together. Then it comes out that she's named Rhea, is a plump twenty-something mixed race woman of indeterminate queerness, rooming with a cheerful morning person Asian girl she met in college. These things happen.
Also in this universe are, notably, the blind arbiter, the okashira maitre'd and the restaurant ninjas, the journeyman sorcerer and the unicorn, the reality-challenged Seer, the changeling child and his foster-fae counterpart, and even possibly a very disgruntled accountant. (The sorcerer waits tables at the ninja restaurant for cash, the arbiter judges cases from the police detectives who may or may not be a Pixie and Minotaur, no one wants to admit to being even distantly related to the accountant but possibly the organization he encounters has tendrils that reach into all of the above. Certainly they'd be happy to employ one misplaced unicorn from Summer. *jazzhands* It's all connected!)
Her roommate was a tiny stick of a Japanese girl, Fuuko, who had been an art student before becoming a full time barrista at an organic cafe three blocks away. Between their different shifts, sometimes Fuuko was awake to give her a high five when she shambled home from the bar, usually stinking of smoke and sweat. Rhea joked that Fuuko won out for ambiance, coming home smelling like coffee and sweet pastries, but truth was, the drunks tipped better than high-strung yuppies, and she wouldn't want to see four a.m. from the opposite side for love or money anyways.
Their apartment claimed to be a two bedroom flat in Sheridan. It lied. It had one, windowless bedroom with a generous, open living room. For the price, they agreed to split it. It wasn't like they were both home and awake at the same time that often, and the cave suited both Fuuko who had to sleep before the sun set and Rhea who crashed after the sun rose.
(And it had a bath tub and a balcony. They agreed, certain sacrifices could be made.)
They'd stopped trying to argue with people who thought they were lovers. It was easier to smile and nod than explain that Fuuko was waiting for her blond muscle-bound ideal who looked suspiciously like Captain America to sweep her off her feet, and Rhea couldn't find her ideal with two hands, a flashlight, and the best GPS ever programmed. Friends were better than lovers; a constant understanding instead of a roller coaster of passion.
Different days of the week had different characters. The much-coveted Friday and Saturday shifts were raucous, hectic from nearly start to finish, and when 60% of her pay was made. Thursdays were younger, louder and more reckless, and not quite as lucrative. Sundays were daring, unwise, and bound to regret it tomorrow, and otherwise very similar to Thursdays. Mondays through Wednesdays were usually slower, quieter. Sometimes Rhea didn't work them at all, but she didn't mind taking the shifts when they came her way. They could be almost relaxing, soothing nights, if sometimes melancholy or a little desperate.
The man slumped at her bar on a Tuesday night didn't look like one of the regulars. He could have been anywhere between fourty and sixty; the only thing Rhea could think of looking at him was that he looked grey and threadbare. The sort of man worn thin by life, weary and washed out. His whiskey had more color than he did.
He didn't look like the sort of man who drank out of habit, or to forget. She knew those on sight by now.
Rhea slid a replacement for his drink across the bar just as he went to sip absently from an empty tumbler, stopping in belated confusion to consider the dry glass and the offering in wait. He came around quickly enough, politely pushing the empty glass her way. "I. . . only meant to have one, but thank you."
Rhea smiled easily and shrugged. Part of her job was to sell more liquor, but she had a certain number of comped drinks on her tab anyways. Being a bartender who wasn't actually that fond of getting drunk meant she usually had more than a few to spare for good will. "Consider it on the house, then. Looks like you could use it."
She spared a glance up and down the bar, keeping a weather eye on the smattering of other patrons in the mostly empty bar. Three guys at the other end (two Coronas and an old fashioned), keeping themselves entertained with a loud conversation about their sports team's latest developments, and a woman in her thirties at a table by the window, nursing her hard cider and keeping an eye on her watch. Meeting someone who was late, she bet.
Either way, enough time for her to hobknob. That was the best part of the quiet nights; sometimes, you talked, and sometimes, you felt like you made a difference. She offered a neutral opening, "Rough day on the job?"
"You could say that." The older man slowly curled his fingers around the tumbler of whiskey, balancing it between both hands before taking a slow drink, eyes closing to savor it. Either he didn't get out much, or he was treating himself; it was a good, smoky blend, and they didn't use the cheap stuff here. It was one reason Rhea liked working for this little hole in the wall.
Rhea leaned her elbows on the bar, propping her chin on her hands out of habit more than anything else. (In the right shirt, that move meant ample cleavage, and ample cleavage frequently meant slightly more ample tips.) "Let me guess. Architect or graphic designer?"
The man's thin lips twitched, like he wished he could spare a smile but couldn't quite gather the energy. "That's more complimentary than what most people guess."
"Oh, then what are you used to hearing?" Rhea countered.
"Accountant or actuary," he replied dryly. He sat down his drink briefly, rubbing condensation from his fingers with the pad of his thumb. "I suppose it's not far off. I do balance the books, so to speak."
Rhea took a moment to reach over and slide the empty glass into the bar sink before bringing her focus back to drawing out her patron, "What is it you actually do?"
He brought his eyes up from considering his hands to meet hers calmly. "You could call me a mediator."
And yeah, she could see it. The bland, unassuming man just felt unflappable. Then consider what a rough day for that must mean. . .
Rhea winced sympathetically, "Ouch. Tough job."
That time she could actually see the faint smile in his eyes, if not his face. "I find it worthwhile."
"Hey, doing the right thing usually is."
Colorless eyes zeroed in on her at that, but his tone stayed as polite and level as before, "You believe there is such a thing as the right thing?"
God, he was certainly philosophical for only being on his second drink. Rhea almost quipped about it, then thought better. An honest question deserved an honest answer. "I don't know. I think the right thing changes with the circumstances."
He took a moment to sip his whiskey, seeming to linger over both the taste and her answer. His next question was mild, "Do you think justice is blind?"
Rhea didn't even think about it. "It should be."
He nodded slightly in return, not betraying agreement or dissatisfaction. Rhea smiled back anyways and stood as she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. Corona-guy was all out and looking for a refill, and lady at the window's rendezvous had finally shown up. "'Scuse me a moment."
Bantering with the three men came naturally (co-workers out for a few after work, she found out), and a quick polite discussion with the dating pair followed along with his beer (draft from the tap). By the time she made her way back over, the threadbare man was slowly finishing his second whiskey.
He flicked his gaze over to her as she washed up the empty glasses, near-scalding hot water something she was long used to by now. She appeared to have piqued his interest, for whatever that was worth.
He cradled his glass in both hands again, suspended perfectly level, and asked mildly, "Do you enjoy your job?"
"Usually I'm the one asking questions." Rhea ducked below the bar to find a clean, dry towel, lining up the wet glasses behind the counter before tackling them one by one with thoroughness. He didn't strike her as the sort to be fishing for information, or coming on to her. Sometimes flirting was part of the job, had to be, to get bigger tips, but this was just . . . one of the weirder but more mellow conversations she'd ever had at the bar. "I guess so. It pays the bills, and it can be interesting. Not what I thought I'd be doing with my life, but sometimes you go where the work is. How about you?"
The neutral man not-quite-smiled again, "As I recall, you started it."
He considered the last half-inch of his drink as he replied slowly, "As I said, I find it worthwhile, but I have been doing it for quite some time. I'm ready to retire.
"The one challenge in my field is the lack of applicants."
"Not enough psych grads lining up?" Rhea arched an eyebrow, the sound of her bar towel squeaking on the glasses filling the pauses. "I'm surprised."
"It takes a certain aptitude and . . . willingness, to do what I do." He carefully finished his drink and set the empty glass down on the bar with a measured thump. His lips twisted in something that wasn't a smile, "You might even say it takes guts."
"I'd believe it." Rhea wasn't about to argue with a man who got between angry people on a regular basis. Thin, bland, unmemorable as he was, she thought it'd be a mistake to underestimate him.
He stood up in one easy movement, taller than she'd thought he was. He pulled his wallet from within his jacket, not his pants, and laid down more than enough bills for both drinks and a not inconsiderable tip. "Thank you for the conversation. And . . . if you ever consider a career change, I think you might find your calling."
Level as his voice was, it was hard to not feel like she was missing some sort of emphasis there. Rhea didn't manage more than a surprised blink before he tipped his head, more in acknowledgment than a nod, and departed.
There was a card beneath the bills on the counter. It was solid dove grey, cut of a smooth-textured paper heavier than the average card stock, with the words "Arbiter of the Hallowed Court" in white. There was no number, no e-mail, no name.
Rhea didn't expect to see the grey man again.