‘Are you sure you won’t need coordination on this one?’
Ryan looked across the conference room table at Clarke. ‘We don’t anticipate much competition for the mirror – according to reports, Remington’s forces haven’t moved, neither have-’
‘Then who are you expecting?’
‘Opportunists, Solstice, and a leech.’
He looked up to see Taylor and Recruit Magnolia. The girl was bleeding again – not that this was uncommon. Her medical reports and psychological evaluations were brought to his attention on a near-daily basis, he had ceased voicing concerns as neither agent nor recruit would listen to them. It didn’t, however, stop him from seeing that the recruit was properly cared for – Taylor would consistently let her linger near death, especially on those occasions where it was he who had caused the injuries – Taylor always said that it was practice, that he was making his recruit stronger. The results were clear, but it was hard to ignore the means.
‘There’s a second leech,’ Taylor repeated. ‘I-’
He looked back down at the folders on the table. ‘Get your recruit some medical attention.’
‘The first leech men-’
‘I said: get your recruit some medical attention.’ This time, he left no trace that it was a suggestion, or anything other than an order to be followed immediately.
Taylor grunted and waved a dismissive hand in Magnolia’s direction, who disappeared from sight.
He indicated to the chair next to Clarke. ‘Now, you were saying?’
Taylor ignored the chair. ‘There’s another leech, it may not be as simple as we thought.’
‘We haven’t detected any sign of a second leech. Where did you get this information?’
‘The leech itself. It indicated it wasn’t alone.’
‘If you had read any of the reports, you would know: the leech intends on using the mirror to recreate another from his world.’ He sighed. ‘Could that have been what it was referring to?’ Taylor opened his mouth to speak. ‘Keep in mind – leeches always think the mirror will be drawn to them, and therefore they will succeed.’
‘It is a possibility,’ Taylor conceded. ‘However, it also led us to believe that another it has encountered is a leech we have missed for an extended period of time. One not from his world.’
‘Wouldn’t be the first time you gents have overlooked something,’ Clarke commented as a lit cigarette appeared between his fingers. ‘Well, director,’ he said sarcastically, ‘what are you planning on doing?’
He looked at his subordinates. ‘Without evidence, we will not change the plan.’
Clarke gave a nod, then disappeared.
‘I’ll do the paperwork, and release the witness,’ Taylor said casually.
He jerked his head up. ‘You had a witness?’
‘Not a very cooperative one.’
‘Do you need the Parkers?’ He asked, calculating a compensation plan, and getting ready to summon the doctors.
‘Then release them, we need to enter lockdown soon.’ Taylor shifted away, and he went back to his paperwork.
Two minutes later, a grumble informed him that Taylor had returned. ‘What is it now?’
‘There’s a problem with the witness.’
He closed the folder. ‘I already asked you if your witness needed medical-’
‘The witness is gone.’
‘Did your recruit move them?’
‘She hasn’t had a chance.’
‘What was the nature of this witness? Human, or something else?’
‘Human. And a serious problem, sir, for you.’ Taylor gave him a contemptuous stare.
‘It means you have to execute another of your recruits. Then again, nothing unusual for you, sir.’
He expelled a long breath. ‘My recruit? I assume you mean Mimosa. Under what-?’
‘I was doing my job. It’s not hard to doubt a new recruit, but even you have to recognise that her behaviour is closer to that of a Solstice than of a recruit. Duty first, sir.’
‘Duty first,’ he concurred. He stood and snapped his fingers. His recruit appeared, a large cup of coffee in her hand.
‘El-der-berries?’ she squeaked.
She had time to put down her coffee before he grabbed her shoulder, spun her and closed a pair of required cuffs around her wrists. She tugged at them, then went still. After a moment, she sank down onto
one of the chairs, sitting awkwardly on the very edge.
He looked away from her and back to Taylor. ‘Satisfied now? I’ll deal with this.’ Taylor grunted and shifted away. He looked down at his recruit. ‘How did you get out of the interrogation room?’
She wrestled with the cuffs a little more, then looked up at him, her arms still moving and her face pinched in pain. ‘‘You’re joking right?’ she asked, shaking the cuffs for emphasis. ‘After what I did, this is how you treat me?’
‘How did you get out?’
‘Why does it even matter?’
‘So much as it pains me to say, you were in custody. Any escape under those circumstances is very suspicious.’
‘Get the fucking cuffs off me.’
‘How did you get out?’
She stood, then stepped onto her chair, up onto the table, then walked three steps toward him. ‘What,’ she asked him as she stared down, ‘exactly do you want from me? You know I’m not a Solstice. I was bleeding out on the floor beside you, and you have some idea of how messed up I am, so you know I can’t be that fanatically devoted to anything. I’m not a Solstice, you know that, right?’
She took another step, but slipped on one of the loose sheets of paper. He shifted to catch her from falling, but she shook him off, and collapsed onto the hard, wooden table. ‘If I’m not Solstice, what is it that you’re afraid of?’ He lifted a hand and shifted her back into the chair across the table – it had to be more comfortable than lying on the table.
‘The possibility remains,’ he said as he rested back in his chair, straightening his jacket, ‘that you might be working with the leech. It’s not a theory I ascribe to, but-’
‘But nothing!’ she cried. ‘I haven’t done anything wrong. Not lately anyway! I haven’t done anything, and he was treating me like-’
‘Any escape,’ he repeated, ‘whilst in custody, is suspicious.’
‘Do you trust me?’ she asked.
‘One minute, twenty-seven seconds.’
She shook her head, her arms still fidgeting with the cuffs. ‘Huh?’
‘That’s how long I had left,’ he said quietly. ‘How long I had left to live. Without you, I probably wouldn’t have made it out of there. I trust you, Stef, but I’ve made mistakes in who to trust before, with…less than pleasant results. It’s a simple question, if the answer if simple enough, why are you having trouble telling me the answer?’
‘Please get them off me,’ she whispered, ‘I can’t breathe.’
‘Just tell me.’
She took a shuddering breath. ‘I used one of the building macros.’ Her voice was distant and cold, and he could imagine some of the insults that she wished to sling in his direction.
‘The “lost property” cheat?’
She nodded. ‘I thought he was going to leave me in there, or that the loli was going to release the hacker-killing gas.’
He required away the cuffs, and she immediately swung her arms around, hiding them in her lap. ‘Did one of the other recruits tell you about it?’
She shook her head. ‘I extrapolated.’
‘Taylor is your superior, you have to respect his orders.’
‘I didn’t do anything wrong. He thought I did. He thought-’
‘That there was another leech. Yes. He told me. I should tell you that you got off easy.’
She stared back at him. ‘Being locked in a small room isn’t exactly “easy”.’
‘This coming from-’
Her hand flew up and pointed and she shook an angry finger at him. ‘You. Don’t. Just don’t. You-’ She dropped her hand to the table, winced in pain and swore, after a moment, she panicked and withdrew her hand. ‘Forget it.’
He stared at the bloody stain on the table. With a thought, he was across the table, in the seat beside her. He spun her chair to look at him, and she carefully avoided his gaze again, staring at her lap and the bloody wrists it held.
Her shirt cuffs were covered in blood, and the skin beneath the stained material was ripped and torn. She shifted uncomfortably in the chair, as if trying to disappear into the leather again. Trying to escape him again.
‘Why did you-?’
‘You cuffed me,’ she replied in a monotone, ‘what did you expect me to do?’
‘What would you- You couldn’t have slipped your wrists out, and you knew I was going to-’
‘I knew nothing. And there’s no need to slip my wrists out if I just saw through the bone.’ She looked up at him. There was no indication on her face that she was anything less than serious. She lifted her hands and rested them on the table.
‘No you’re not, you didn’t hesitate to do it, and you didn’t listen to me when I told you to take them off. Cuff the hacker. Shoot the hacker. Scare the hacker. Rescue the hacker. Be nice to the hacker. Pick a goddamn…decide on how you’re going to treat me so I know you’re the safe lion.’
He lifted his hand toward her chin, and she lifted her head it to avoid his touch. ‘Duty first. Absolute loyalty. Follow the rules. We don’t ask much.’
‘Rule one of the Agency, never talk about the Agency?’She sounded like she was quoting, but he didn’t recognise the source. He reached for her left hand, but she pulled it back. ‘I got it, sir, I can handle it, sir.’
‘You’re not Magnolia, please don’t start learning her bad behaviours. I don’t want you to be anything like her.’
‘Then what do you expect me to do? What do you want from me? I’ve given you everything. I’ve told you everything. This is all of me. This is all I am. And I who I am is someone who will try and escape a cell if I get put in there for no reason.’
‘He was wrong.’
He paused for a long moment. ‘No.’ He reached for her hand again, and time, she relinquished it to him. He undid the cuff button and tore away the strained material, taking a moment to record all of the injuries. Her wrist was raw, patches of skin had caught against the metal of the cuffs and torn. His eyes drifted to the clock – she’d been in cuffs for less than five minutes. She’d willingly hurt herself that much for less than five minutes of discomfort. It was somewhat disturbing. It wasn’t something that he was going to ask her about just yet, he’d shaken her confidence him enough already without prodding into her motivations, or memories.
He required a bandage and some antiseptic cream – it was simple enough to wrap without bothering the Parkers.
‘Either get me a band-aid or propose,’ she muttered. ‘It’s not that interesting.’
She pulled her hand away and grabbed the bandage. ‘I said I can do it myself.’ He watched as she haphazardly wrapped her wrist and tied it off, much too loosely to be of any good. She looked away. ‘It’s really hard for me to trust people, and we didn’t exactly get off to the best start. I’ll be the number one, bestest little recruit ever, if I know that I can trust you. You get my brain if you promise never to put me in cuffs again, and if you keep the gun-toting gorilla away from me.’ She tugged at the bandage. ‘Ok, fine, I really suck at bandages.’ Slowly, she pushed her hand at him. ‘I think I trust you. I think. Can I?’
She relinquished her hand and watched silently as he wrapped her wrists.
‘I think,’ she said quietly, ‘I might know who the other leech is.’
His hands froze on hers. ‘Oh?’
‘Astrin…he said, he…’ She put a hand to her head. ‘I think he’s pregnant.’
He shook his head. ‘No, unlikely to be the one he mentioned. Are you sure there’s nothing else you can think of?’
She looked away for a moment, lost in thought, then looked back at him. ‘There’s nothing else,’ she said, her voice straining a little, ‘I swear I don’t know anything else.’
‘All right,’ he said, ‘I believe you.’
It was a white lie, but it was better than the alternative. Better than holding her down and invading her mind. Better than forcing his mind into hers to view her memories, and by association her thoughts, dreams, and fears. Trusting her was better than violating her, better than using a power that every agent wished they could rid themselves of. It was a last resort, only ever a last resort.
And one never to be used on her, he’d already done enough to hurt her.