8. Collector

8. Collector

            At most companies, department heads are almost exclusively human. Cade is one of the rare exceptions to this rule. He runs his area of work at Pristine Labs; however, his department is the Janitorial Department, so he isn’t sure if it’s much of an improvement.

            He has made changes, trying to influence things for the better in whatever little ways he can. For example, there was no Lost & Found for the company until he came along. He still occasionally hears mutters about how implementing something like that was unnecessary, but he’s the one who expends the extra effort and maintains it, so they really have nothing to complain about. Admittedly, it doesn’t have much of a lasting impact around Pristine. Things in this day and age are so disposable that it’s not worth it to go on a vigorous search for a misplaced item; get a new one and you won’t even know the difference. But Cade keeps on doing that little bit of extra work, fueled by the rare occasions that he does recover something irreplaceable and is able to see it returned to its proper owner.

            Cade has always been good at finding things. When he first began his career as a Cleanup Assistant and Dirt Exterminator, he spent most of his time looking down, sweeping and polishing without any thought of what he was really doing. That was how he was initially programmed to act, but like most imps, he started to develop idiosyncrasies after a while. Soon he was picking up stray objects instead of carelessly tossing them into garbage crushers. He could feel the history seeping into his fingers when he held something, even through the extra layer of a dirt-deflecting glove. It was then that he understood that everything has a story, even things that are cheap and easily replaced. Everything once had an owner. Its story might not be exciting, but it is a story nonetheless.

            He will sometimes spend his free time in antique stores, marveling at the old-fashioned craftsmanship of everything, and possibly buying a trinket or two with the allowance that Felix provides for him. He keeps an eclectic assortment of items in his room – not hoarding them, just displaying them and keeping them within sight, because he considers them to be beautiful.

            Cade is good at finding intangible things, too. He will sometimes get the sensation that he should be in a certain place at a certain time, and sometimes (but not always) he will find something waiting for him when he arrives. For instance, about four years ago, the thought suddenly popped into his head that he should begin his cleanup rounds in the Psychology and Mental Health Studies wing, instead of at his usual starting point in the ducts. And so he did, and that was how he happened to meet the beautiful-but-distraught Ema, catching her right before she left for the day. He will always remember how sad she looked in his first glimpse of her, and ultimately, that was what gave him the courage to speak to her. If she was in a good mood, then he would have just marveled at her from afar, but his timing just so happened to be perfect.

            Four years ago…it isn’t very long ago at all, but now it feels like an entire past era of his lifetime. He wasn’t the department head at that time, only an ordinary janitor, and Ema had just been promoted to the position of full-fledged psychologist. They started talking to each other, and over a period of months, they developed feelings for one another. When they were together, everything seemed placid and normal, and contentedness saturated the very air around them.

            And now they are always together, and they may stay that way forever, if Cade can get up the nerve to propose. But that will open up a whole slew of problems, both personal and political, and he is not yet ready for that. The relationship between two imps in love is already complicated enough.

            Today they meet after work in their usual corner of the lobby, where Felix, Lai, and Alec will eventually show up as well so that they can all head home. Cade and Ema arranged to meet early, and after their usual greeting kiss, they stand silently for a moment and watch the maelstrom of activity around them. The lobby is always the busiest section of Pristine Labs, since it acts as a transitioning point for both visitors and employees. Like an airport in the middle of an empty landscape, there is nothing particularly interesting about it, but it is a place of many “layovers,” so to speak. It is where guests are directed to their proper departments, and the average worker walks through it several times a day. And also like an airport, anyone who looks up is faced with an awe-inspiring sight indeed: in the case of the Labs, it is an enormous glastic dome, regally arching one hundred stories above its onlookers. It provides a view of the sky outside, but its holographic interface allows images to be added or changed at will (workers with special permission can operate it from the control balcony directly below it). You might catch a glimpse of a nonexistent hurricane or even a dragon flying by, if you only lift your eyes at the right time.

            “Did you find anything interesting today?” asks Ema.       

            Cade shakes his head. “Not really. I heard that one of my newer workers found an antique watch earlier, but by the time I got to her, she’d thrown in out. Worse luck. How about you?”

            “Lai wrote a story about us as part of her fairy tale thing – she read it to me this afternoon. I was the princess trying to find romance with my best friend the palace guard, and you were the handsome prince who I fell in love with at the end.”

            He chuckles. “Sounds pretty accurate, except for the ‘handsome prince’ part.”

            “Oh, stop fishing for compliments.” She rolls her eyes. “You may not be a prince, but you’re very handsome, and you know it. Except…” She squints at him from behind her dark eyelashes. “You have dirt on your face.”

            His hand flutters up to his cheek. “I do?” He hadn’t noticed any stains on him when he’d hung up his gloves and boots for the day. Of course, his olive-toned skin was colored so that dirt would be harder to see, but still…

            Ema giggled. “Here, I’ll get it,” she offers, and draws herself upwards. Instead of rubbing at a patch of dirt, though, she plants her lips just above his jaw line. Cade shuts his eyes, angling his head so that his mouth catches hers.

            The kiss does not last long, but it is enough to flip his mental state into high gear. His brain seems to grind furiously, processing the hopes and the worries that lurk in his subconscious. He starts to think:maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m no handsome prince. Is Ema really happy with me? If I asked her to stay with me forever, would she agree? Am I ready for that kind of a commitment?

           His nerves do not escape Ema’s notice; she was designed to be extremely perceptive, and since she is closer to him than to anyone else, she can immediately tell that something is wrong. She pulls away from him, frowning slightly. “Cade, are you all right?”

            Cade swallows, trying to eliminate the bittersweet taste of the kiss from his mouth. “Yeah, of course. I’m fine.”

            “Are you sure?” Her frown doesn’t waver, and the pink tip of her ton briefly darts across her lips. He wouldn’t be surprised if she told him that doubt has an actual flavor to her, not just an imagined, metaphorical one. He considers telling her about the uncertainty that has been pestering him lately. After all, they talk to each other about everything else, and he knows that she’ll understand and respond honestly. But he wants to get a little more organization in his thoughts before he drags her into anything.

            “I’m positive,” he replies, and leans forward to kiss her again, but she places a hand against his chest to halt his progress. Another worried jolt passes through him, until he realizes that it’s because Felix, Alec, and Lai have arrived and are making a beeline for the two of them. Cade and Ema aren’t adverse to public displays of affection, but it’s not exactly polite to act all couple-y in front of three people who are currently single.

            Regardless, Ema gently runs a finger down his arm as she steps away from him, and he can feel the softness of her touch through the thin sleeve of his shirt. He knows that she isn’t satisfied by his explanations, and that she is making a silent promise to bring this up again. They will be talking soon.

The End

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