"I don't hate her," Jane said. She was perched on the counter in the staff kitchen, kicking moodily at the cabinets.
"No, me neither," Aladdin said immediately.
They looked at Jasmine's latest postcard some more. It was pinned up on the staff notice board alongside Jasmine's other fourteen postcards. This one was from Guatemala. Having the best time! Jasmine had written. Got distracted by a street festival in Antigua this morning and nearly got run over, but a local boy rescued me! I think I must be charmed. Love to everyone in the office!
Aladdin propped his elbows on the counter. "I mean," he said, "Jasmine's my oldest friend. I'm not jealous of her round-the-world trip."
Jane was jealous. Jane was so jealous it burned. It was why she was here at Sultan Partners, filing and faxing and fetching coffee, hoarding every penny she made. Jane had wanted to go to Africa since she was four years old. As long as she held down this job, she was going to get there, she was. But in the meantime Jasmine – sassy, awesome Jasmine who was loved by everybody she met – was taking six months off work because her father owned the company and he'd decided to pay to send her around the world, and Jane thought this might actually be the kind of jealous you died of.
"No," she said. "No, I'm not either."
Aladdin drooped against her shoulder, his mouth falling into a disconsolate shape.
The kitchen alcove wasn't separated from the rest of the floor by anything more than a counter and half a decorative window frame, so it shouldn't have been possible for anybody to creep up on them. Meg coming up and pushing the milk frother into the coffee maker still surprised both of them.
"Wow," Meg said, her voice a husky drawl. "The productivity going on here, it's a little overwhelming."
Jane jumped, sliding off the counter as she whirled around. Aladdin stumbled and caught himself with a hand on the counter as his arm slipped off her shoulder.
"Hi!" Jane said. "Work! I am absolutely – I was about to get back to. To work! I was just – cup of tea, you know." She held up her half-drunk cup, trying for a winning smile.
Meg must have just got in; she was still wearing shades. She fixed Jane with an opaque gaze for a moment. Then she pushed the glasses up onto her head, dislodging the long, heavy fall of her hair. "Oh, sweetheart," she said. "That's so cute. Are you worried about your job?" Her eyebrows rose. "With me?"
Jane pressed her lips together. "It's, you know," she said, waving her hand. "You're – sort of my boss? One of them?" Her smile faded and fell away from her mouth. "Er."
Meg had her head tilted to the side, as though Jane was a type of animal she had never seen before. "I think I forget what enthusiasm looks like, sometimes," she murmured.
Aladdin had relaxed back against the counter as soon as he regained his balance. He gave Meg a charming, roguish grin, taking a step forward. "Megara, can I say you are looking dazzlingly sharp today?" he said. He lowered his voice. "It almost hurts to look directly at you. I may need to borrow your shades." His teeth flashed white again as he smiled.
Jane expected him to get smacked down, but Al seemed to have a sixth sense about this kind of thing. Meg actually looked a tiny bit charmed; Jane thought bemusedly that puppyish overconfident boys must be her type. Jane didn't see the attraction, but then she'd seen Aladdin after he'd crashed on her couch after a night out and he couldn't find his pants. That probably dimmed the shine.
"You touch my shades and you die, kitten," Meg said, patting his cheek. She retrieved her coffee and drifted out.
Aladdin grinned at Jane, grabbed the pile of mail he was supposed to be delivering, and tucked it under his arm, sauntering out. "Later!" he called over his shoulder.
Jane looked at her tea for a second, then gulped it down. She threaded her little finger through the empty mug and turned to leave the kitchen alcove. Halfway through the movement she stopped, catching a hand against the window frame. The elevator doors had just opened across the way, letting three people out. The last to step out was Mulan Fa, holding a clipboard against her chest.
Jane let her hand slide down the window frame, her shoulders slipping down and her elbows hitting the sill so she was supporting her chin in her hands.
Mulan looked at her clipboard one more time, straightened her shoulders, and strode forward. She was all long legs in perfectly pressed black trousers, her corporate jacket fitted and perfect, her sweep of dark hair restrained in a neat clip that left a spray of black to fall over her ear. She was wearing a determined expression.
The effect in general made Jane's knees a little weak.
The four graduate recruits in the corporate stream had started two months ago, just after Jane and Aladdin. Jane spent her time fetching coffee, and Aladdin... well, mostly didn't do anything at all, but managed to charm his superiors into not minding it by mysterious methods Jane didn't understand. Shang, Tiana, Hercules and Mulan, though – they were young people of drive and ambition. They were going someplace in this company.
This morning the places they were going to were apparently meetings. Jane had been stuck at the photocopier all morning, and from that post she'd seen them go out and come back in again twice now. Word around the office was that they'd been in since five, for a teleconference with the Antipodes.
It wasn't that Jane didn't have any ambition. She had a lot, really – she wanted to see things and do things that were so far from this city that they shouldn't even occupy the same sentence. She wanted to become somebody different by meeting different kinds of people; she wanted to tramp through a jungle and feel like she belonged. This kind of high-powered corporate ambition, though – Jane found it a bit terrifying.
Mulan walked past the photocopier, frowning at the sheaf of graphs on her clipboard. Jane's gaze followed her.
And, all right, kind of hot.
The graduates must be on some kind of break right now. They were congregating by the water cooler. Tiana and Hercules were bent over something, Herc's face creased with concentration as they conferred. Shang was leaning back against the wall, his arms crossed as he stared across the room at Aladdin, chatting on the phone with his feet up on his desk. Mulan slumped against the wall next to Shang for a moment, closing her eyes. Then she opened them again and pushed away from the wall, putting her game face back on.
Shang and Tiana both looked a bit tired too, now that Jane looked at them. It must have been a gruelling morning.
Aladdin had felt Shang's gaze. He shifted his feet on the desk as he talked, looking up occasionally to dart a reproachful glance at Shang, still a forbidding presence across the room. Eventually Al swung his feet down, hanging up the phone. He spun his chair around and started typing, busy busy busy.
Shang pushed away from the wall and walked over.
Jane finished her current batch of photocopying. She used the excuse of needing to deliver it to walk by the water cooler, feeling obvious and stupid but doing it anyway.
Mulan looked up as Jane approached. Jane lifted her hand in the dorkiest wave of her life, closing her fingers afterwards as if that could disguise the fact that she'd done it. She let her hand fall back to her side. "Um, hi?" she said. "Hi."
Mulan's eyes had widened a tiny bit. She pushed herself up even straighter. "Hi," she said, taking a small step forward. Jane moved forward at the same time, shifting the stack of photocopies in her arms, and then their shoulders were bumping into each other and the photocopies were spilling all over the floor.
Jane clapped her hands over her eyes. "I can't look," she mumbled. "Are they everywhere? Are they all out of order?"
There was a hesitation.
"Maybe?" Mulan said. Her voice was coming from the floor. Jane snatched her hands away to find that Mulan had dropped to one knee to gather the papers. Jane made a squeaking sound and fell to her knees too. Mulan had already finished, though. She handed Jane the sort-of-neatened stack, eyeing it dubiously. "Were they very important?"
Jane hugged the papers to her chest. She had no idea; they were forms of some kind. "Yes," she said. "Very. Thank you." She smiled widely, and for a second Mulan looked surprised, her face oddly open. She parted her lips to say something, then changed her mind. She ducked her head, making a tired little sound, and got to her feet. Jane stood up too, still hugging her stack of photocopies.
"Have –" she said, wanting to prolong the conversation but not sure how to, "have you had a very rough morning?"
Mulan instantly stood straighter again. "Just," she said gruffly, "meetings, you know."
"I don't, really."
Mulan looked startled. "You don't have meetings?"
Jane bit her lip. "Not really?"
For a moment Mulan gazed at her with a hopeless, desperate yearning. "Oh," she said softly. Then she shook her head. "Not that I mind meetings. I enjoy the chance to network and to prove my worth to the team."
Jane didn't laugh, but only because her crush on Mulan was huge enough to swallow cities.
Across the room, Aladdin laughed, uncomfortable and too-loud. Jane glanced across. It was his Oh god get me out of this situation laugh; he usually brought it out around exes and people he owed money. This time it seemed to be because Shang Li was leaning over his desk, fixing him with a dark-eyed glare from close quarters while he talked.
"What's he doing?" Jane whispered.
"Oh," Mulan said. She looked a little pained. "He likes him. Shang. He's a little..."
Jane raised her eyebrows. Now that she looked more closely, she could see the nervous set to Shang's shoulders.
"He's trying to flirt?" she asked, hushed.
Mulan bit her lip, staring across at the two of them for a second. Shang had leaned back a bit, crossing his arms. Aladdin looked nonplussed and a little pissed off.
"And I ... have to go," Mulan said, sounding strangled.
Mulan held her hand out to shake, then squeezed her eyes shut, dropping it. "I'll see you around, Jane," she said in a rush, and turned. A couple of steps away she paused, squaring her shoulders, and Jane heard her mutter, "Own the floor. Walk as if you own the floor." She continued across the room to the office she shared with Shang, her back firm.
For a second Jane stared after her, feeling giddy. It took a moment more for her to realise, with depressing clarity, that that exchange had actually been the highlight of her week.
Jane's life was a terrible level of pathetic. Her shoulders slumped.
Shang must have followed Mulan to their office, because Aladdin showed up at Jane's side, tugging her back towards the corridor. He looked hunted. "I think Li wants to eat me," he hissed.
"Oh," Jane said.
Aladdin peered around the corner. The only person crossing the main floor now was Belle, a book tucked up to her face. Aladdin ducked back and slumped against the wall. "He kept asking about what I do with all my leisure time. I think he thinks I'm a wastrel."
Any other time Jane would have demanded to know what period novel he'd picked up a word like 'wastrel' from. Now she just looked at him with choked up sadness. She knew all about awkward crushes and failed attempts at flirting. "You should be nice to him," she said, resting an arm on his shoulder and looking up into his face, her eyes going big.
Aladdin leaned back. "He wants," he said, "to eat me. I think he may be able to kill people with his eyes."
The graduates kept going in and out of meetings all day. Every time Jane saw them Mulan, Tiana and Shang looked a little more worn out. Jane couldn't tell whether Hercules was tired; he didn't seem to feel pain. Aladdin had a theory that he was actually a robot, Terminator-style, but Jane thought he smiled too much for that.
Meg came and leaned next to Jane in the doorway to the stationery closet. Jane jumped and tried to look as though she hadn't been lurking.
"I've been trying to work out which of them you're watching," Meg said conversationally.
"I'm not –"
Meg smiled, a lazy curve of her mouth. "I hope it isn't Li," she said. "I think he's busy stalking your friend."
Jane's eyes darted towards the huddle of graduates waiting for the elevator. Mulan was straightening her hair, tired fingers fumbling on the clip.
Meg sighed. "Be careful, little Jane," she said. "You're as transparent as glass. Love isn't kind to that." Jane looked at her, her eyes widening. Meg rolled her eyes. "What am I saying; love isn't kind at all." She shook her hair over her cheeks, turning away with loose-limbed grace. Jane bit her lip as she gazed after her.
So apparently Jane was transparent as well as awkward and smitten. This day wasn't improving at all.
At three o'clock Jane had to take a small stack of cheques in to Mr Sultan for signing. Jasmine's father was looking at some photos. He looked up when Jane knocked on the door frame and gestured her in, waving the photos in the air.
"I have some che–" Jane started.
"Sit down, sit down!" Mr Sultan said, leaning over his desk. "Have you seen these photographs? Jasmine sent them and I had them printed – they do that these days, you know, even for electronic photographs."
Jane took the pictures as they were pushed at her. Jasmine beamed out of the first one, her arms spread wide in front of a torrential waterfall, her hair wet from the spray.
"It's that adventurous spirit," Mr Sultan marvelled. "Who could think she would just take off like that, you know?"
Jane smiled, only a bit awkwardly. "Well, you did help her, sir."
Mr Sultan waved that off. "Hardly at all." He took the photos back and looked down at them, shaking his head and marvelling all over again. "No, this was all my girl."
You paid for her entire trip! Jane bit her lip over the words.
"Er. I have these cheques for you to sign, sir."
"I used to be very protective of her, you know. But she broke right through all that. An adventurous spirit can't be contained!" He looked anxious. "Did you see the postcard in the kitchen? I thought perhaps I should have positioned it more obviously."
When she finally escaped back into the hall, Jane had to lean against the wall and close her eyes for a second.
It really wasn't that she resented Jasmine and her father's money – if you had so much money, Jane actually couldn't think of a better use for it.
It was only that Africa felt so very far away today.
Belle wandered by on a tea break, one hand holding a cup while the other kept a book inches from her nose.
"You're missing everything," Jane burst out, not able to help herself.
Belle lowered the book, blinking, and looked around. "It's only a corridor," she said. She sounded hurt.
Aladdin usually cajoled Jane into going along to the after work drinks across the road. This evening the first thing Jane saw when she walked in was Mulan slumped over the table, her head in her arms. Shang was sitting bolt upright beside her with a weariness-is-the-snare-of-the-unworthy air.
(Hercules, Jane noticed absently, was bench pressing an actual bench over the other side of the bar, while the two temps sitting on it choked and laughed.)
Jane sidled over to Mulan's table, Aladdin a reluctant presence at her heels. He was eyeing Shang with a nervous fascination. "Do you think he sleeps?" he murmured in Jane's ear.
"The sleep of the just," she said. "You wouldn't know it." She fidgeted with her sleeve.
Shang looked up, his eyes fixing on Aladdin.
"I'm going to get us some drinks!" Al said, overcome with a fit of gallantry. "I'll be right back!"
Shang's eyes followed him to the bar. Mulan elbowed him, not looking up. "Don't be creepy," she mumbled.
Jane slipped in next to Tiana's friend Charlotte, who was telling an animated story into her cell. Jane didn't think the other person could be saying much, because Charlotte wasn't even pausing for breath. She did turn to give Jane a little wave and a sweet-natured smile, though, before turning back to the phone with a shriek of excitement.
"Hi," Jane said, her eyes flitting around the rest of the long table.
Mulan's head whipped up, jerking as her arms slid from under her. "Oh," she said. Then, pushing herself straighter and trying to push back her hair where it had fallen from the clip, "Hello." She wasn't looking at Jane, though; she was paying strict attention to her crooked collar.
Tiana flopped down on the bench next to Shang, her arms sprawling on the table in front of her. "Whew," she said, "that was some day."
A tall young man with dark curls and an easy smile sat down next to her, resting an elbow on her shoulder. Tiana grinned, tilting her head sideways to indicate him. "This is my fiance, Naveen." There was a happy pride in her voice that made Jane think it must be a new arrangement.
Naveen grinned, leaning into Tiana. "My Tiana has been telling me about your very tired day."
Tiana pushed herself straight, tilting her chin with a smile. "I think it was character building," she said.
Shang turned towards her. "You are exactly right," he said. "Hard work and determination – those are the only way we can mark ourselves apart from the layabouts and the dreamers." His eyes flickered towards Aladdin at the bar, a faint frustration chasing across his features.
Tiana leaned her chin on her hands. "Yes," she said, "that's exactly what I keep telling Naveen! People don't understand the value of hard work and a little bit of pain."
"I run for two hours every morning before a cold shower," Shang said. "Sleep is a weak person's necessity."
Mulan made a pitiful little noise into her drink.
"Half an hour of sleep is all you really need," Tiana agreed. "That's what I found when I was working three jobs at college."
Naveen had been leaning forward, his gaze moving between the two of them. Now he narrowed his eyes at Shang. "You," he said. "You are one of those people with work ethic, like my Tiana." His gaze went back to Tiana, whose eyes were bright with determination and fellow feeling. He stood up. "We will switch places."
Tiana looked surprised, but she laughed, agreeable enough. Naveen moved in between her and Shang, leaning his elbow on the table and shifting his body to block Shang entirely from sight as he started telling Tiana something about his day.
Shang raised his eyebrows. Then he shrugged, his eyes straying back to the bar. Aladdin, as far as Jane could see, had no intention of bringing over the drinks he'd bought. He was drinking from each of them in turn as he chatted to the barman. He did look up and notice Shang's eyes on him again, though. He raised one of the drinks in a toast to him, flashing a reckless grin.
Shang immediately looked away. Jane thought his cheeks reddened.
Jane ducked her head to hide her grin. She looked up at Mulan to see if she was paying attention, but Mulan was yawning behind her hand. She finished the yawn and folded her wrist, propping her chin against the inside of her forearm, sliding down. "Hey," she said, smiling a bit at Jane. It was a sweet, almost sloppy smile, as if being tired was indistinguishable from being drunk, at this stage.
"Hey," Jane said, her mouth dry. Mulan yawned again, and Jane tilted her head. "Are you – you look really tired. You should probably get some sleep."
Mulan groaned, squeezing her eyes shut. Then she opened them again. "No, you're right, I should. I just – " Her eyes slid to Shang and to Tiana, and then to Hercules doing raucous lines of shots up at the bar. "Honour," she growled. "I hate being the weak one, you know?"
Jane rolled her eyes. "You work with crazy people," she said. "You should try not to let it get you down. Come on, I'll walk you to your car."
Jane caught the subway every day, but she knew from not-at-all-creepy sessions spent peering out of the window overlooking the parking lot that Mulan drove a zippy, fuel-efficient thing that was barely larger than she was. The number plate read MUSHU, which made Jane think it must have been a present from her parents, since no twenty-something inflicted personalised number plates on herself.
Mulan stumbled a bit when she stood up, making a face at herself, and Jane leaned in and linked their arms together. She felt a little bit guilty for taking advantage like this, but Mulan had stumbled. She might need support. (Maybe.)
They worked their way through the crush that had built up, Mulan a warm weight against Jane's arm. At the door Jane had to search for her coat, and Mulan leaned against the wall. She rested her cheek on her wrist, tilting her head as she watched Jane.
"You look –" Mulan said. Jane peered over her shoulder, and Mulan shook her head, her smile sweet and sloppy once more. "You know, you look like a candle burning, in the office. I noticed that the first day. You kind of –" Her eyes fell closed and pushed open again, hovering at half-mast. "You glow," she mumbled.
Jane's fingers found the material of her jacket. She hugged it to her chest, staring at Mulan in the dim glow and shadow of the doorway. "What?" she managed. Her voice came out hoarse.
Mulan's eyes flickered wider and she seemed to wake up a little. She stared at Jane for a moment, then pressed her face into her arm. "Oh," she said, muffled. "I said that."
"No, wait." Jane stepped closer, tilting her chin to stare at Mulan's face. Mulan gazed at her, open and helpless. Jane couldn't breathe. "Are you –" Jane touched the tips of her fingers to Mulan's cheek. Mulan opened her mouth, a soundless exhalation.
Jane screwed up her courage and went up on her toes, her hands on Mulan's shoulders as she kissed her. It was light, a warm press of lips that made Jane shiver. She pulled back, slowly, and hovered there as she searched Mulan's face.
Mulan wet her lips. Her hair had fallen forwards, a sleek black wave shadowing her eyes. "Oh," she said. Then she smiled, a dawning brightness in her eyes, and, "Oh," she said again, pulling Jane forward, and this time the kiss was a real one.
When Jane pulled back she pressed her face against Mulan's hair and felt the smile bubble up inside her into a laugh.
Aladdin caught up with Jane as she was leaving the parking lot, swinging her arms. She may have been skipping a little.
Al threw an arm over her shoulder, pulling her against him. "So Shang Li's kind of hot, right?" he said. "I'm not imagining that?"
Jane bit her lip over a grin and leaned into his side. "Mm hm," she said.
Aladdin leaned back, looking at her properly. "Why are you so happy? Where did you go?"
Jane broke away from him and twirled, flinging her arms out. "I walked Mulan to her car," she said, tilting her head to grin up at the night sky.
Aladdin stared at her, a slow grin building. He whooped. "Jane Porter. You totally got some."
"I did not ge– Oh my gosh, shut up." She elbowed him.
Aladdin pointed at her. "You," he said, making a squinty face. "You know, you're kind of bossy."
Jane linked their arms again, leaning up against him. "She said she noticed me the first day," she said dreamily.
Al grinned. "So, uh, Africa still? Or not?"
Jane stepped back again, her stare severe. "Oh, no," she said, "don't even say it. I am going to Africa. But –" She thought about Mulan squaring her shoulders before she crossed a room; muttering own the floor to herself; smiling sleepily in a doorway when she told Jane that she made her think of a candle glowing. Jane hugged her arms around herself. "But maybe being stuck here for now isn't so bad," she said. She couldn't stop smiling.
Now with gorgeous art: 'Corporate Crush' by mimetic-heresy