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[ B E F O R E ]

It was Aria's first night on the job at Altitude and there was a good mix of people there, a comfortable overlapping of worlds. There were the ones who went to get high and dance, and the ones who went to do business under the table in a venue where everyone knew to look the other way. It was that kind of club and Aria was that kind of person now, whatever that meant. Maybe she'd always been that kind of person and it had just taken her a while to find her place. And it did feel like her place, more than the fake happy bullshit clubs she used to hang out in with fake happy bullshit people. Life was too short for that noise.

She could already breathe better than she could anywhere else. Maybe that was what it was like when she was all right just being herself, when she didn't feel like she was fucking anything up with her presence. Besides, the money she needed wasn't coming from anywhere else. Her first pay was going to get her into her own place. Then her parents could find a new target for their disapproval and Vic could shine ever brighter once he didn't have to tolerate the lingering cloud of disappointment that Aria couldn't get out from under while she was still living with them, taking up too much space, not being invisible enough. If her parents ever admitted to making mistakes, she would have been top of that list.

Everything was going fine at work though. Drinks were easy. Cells were easier. Everyone was getting on the aura casts in the different rooms, but it was obvious most of them had their own freqs on the go as well. It was cracking her up watching the ones who had no clue what they were doing trying to look all casual about it as if they couldn't buy heavier shit from the staff if they knew the right way to ask.

A girl bounced up to the bar, all pink hair and bubblegum lipstick. She was pretty, but Aria wasn't looking at anyone that way, not really, not yet. Emeli had broken up with her less than twelve hours ago because, for all her decent-human-being vibes, she didn't want to be with someone who "doesn't have any actual plans, like, for life, you know?"

Just because Aria's plans looked different didn't mean she didn't have them. Those plans were still uncertain, but paying her own way, living her own life, was a start. Not everyone had their future mapped out in the first two decades. Sometimes the tests didn't tell people anything useful and it deeply frustrated the ones who prioritised clear paths to productivity and recognition above everything else. Anyway.

Bubblegum girl ordered three sodas and leaned in, all conspiracy-mode. "Do you still have the private room upstairs with the blue light in the window?"

The magic words. "Are you thinking of booking it for an event?"

"Yes, please. I'd like to hear more about it."

"It's closed tonight, but I'll bring pictures to your table so you can see what it looks like."

She grinned and winked with a sweep of heavy eyelashes, pushed the soda glasses together in a triangle and lifted them in both hands, then swayed back to her table in the corner. There was another girl there, blonde, less glittery, with epic below-the-knee leg blades. They both looked about Aria's age. It wasn't clear who the third soda was for.

Aria scanned into the lockbox under the bar and took out the freq screen. It looked like a regular tablet, where customers could choose what they wanted from a menu and scan their payment, but then a compartment—hidden until it was ready not to be—slid out of the side with their order. Totally shifty, but smooth as anything. Apparently, they didn't usually let employees loose with it on their first night, but maybe they were short-staffed. Or Aria really was that kind of person.

She got to bubblegum girl's table and set down the screen. Blonde girl looked at Aria like she was trying to figure out if she knew her. Eventually, she said, "You're new," and it wasn't a question.

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