Stef opened her eyes.
The lights in her office came up, and she threw a hand up against the cornea-burning brightness of the mellow fluorescent lighting.
Require: dimmer lights.
She cracked open one eye, and this time, the lights didn’t hurt. She brushed Alexandria’s hair with her fingers, the shifted her into the small, safe cabinet beneath her desk.
The standard white mug appeared in her hand, and she sipped at the black-with-thirteen-sugars wake-up-juice. Four cups of coffee later, she sat up properly and took an inventory.
It was early – four am, so late enough to start the day. Six hours sleep, more than enough, even when yielding to latently-human weaknesses. She was still shaking – from fear and pain, not from caffeine withdrawal, so the duration of the nightmare had been long enough. Two nights in a row – that should mean a night off. Should.
The pain in her left arm was new.
One more cup of coffee, and she felt brave enough to look. She pushed herself off the couch and required a full-length mirror. She turned to the side and required away her sleeve. There were bruises – a large patch on her upper arm, and a band around her forearm.
She required a bag of blue, tore off the end and lathered the bruises with the liquid, but they only faded a little. She dried her arm, then required her sleeve back and went to her desk.
Frankie booted with a thought, and she scanned through her Agency inbox in her HUD for new items as Frankie’s browser loaded with all of her favourite webcomics and new sites – almost none of which had updated with anything interesting in the last six hours.
She required her sixth cup of coffee and waved a hand in front of her face, transferring the Agency inbox to Frankie’s screen and began to click through the flagged items.
There were a half dozen uninteresting items of various system and database outages – none lasting more than a hour or so, and none that effected her, but she stayed on the mailing lists in case she got more involved in any of the tech department activities.
There was Clarke’s summary and minutes from the meeting – she poked the screen and required a physical copy of the minutes.
Two automated notices of recruit birthdays – both were combat recruits, and not ones she’d even be able to pick from a line-up without her staff roster, so she junked them. There was a half dozen updates from the lol!agents site, which she scanned through without taking much notice.
Finally, there were just the automated reminders for the submission reports. She kept this one, and turned to the not-so-big pile of paperwork on her desk.
She experimentally tried to lift her arm, and pain shot from shoulder to fingertip. She sighed, and required each of the files to covert into digital copies on Frankie’s screen.
Five am came and went as she worked on the first one. Six am, and her eighth cup of coffee celebrated finishing the next two.
An RSS ping at six-thirty signalled a short internet break and breakfast – four large cookies and some crispy bacon.
Eight-thirty brought Curt knocking on her door.
She required the door open, and he walked in, all bright and shiny as was normal. It had to be a fae power. People weren’t naturally bright and shiny before midday at the least. Definitely a fae power.
‘Hiii,’ she mumbled as she drained remains of the eighth coffee.
He rounded her desk and pulled up a freshly-required chair. ‘You did sleep, right?’
‘Sure, can’t you tell?’
He tapped on each cup as he required it away. ‘With you, never.’
’I slept.’ She lifted her right hand and pointed to her screen. ‘I even did paperwork.’
He leaned across to look at Frankie. ‘That’s…the wiki page about Buffy.’
‘Guess how many clicks it took me to get here from Antarctica?”
She alt-tabbed and pointed to the report. ‘That’s the fourth one this morning.’
‘What did I get wrong?’
‘Bring it back out on paper, and the other ones too.’
She required the completed reports and handed them to him, then shifted him, his chair and the paperwork to the other side of the desk. A red pen appeared in his hand and he began to flick through the report.
‘I always feel like I’m in primary school when you do this,’ she said as she required another plate of bacon. ‘Want some?’
He snagged one of the crispier pieces. ‘You’re learning, that’s the main thing.’
‘That’s what Ryan says. I just wish I could start enjoying it,’ she said, ’but it’s taking time.’
‘Not everyone takes to it like Mags did.’
‘You do ok with it.’
He shrugged. ‘It’s all paint-by-numbers, start here, finish here, it’s easy, it’s controlled. I like it, it’s never surprising, it’s,’ he paused for a moment, ‘it’s safe.’ He leaned forward and grabbed some more bacon. ‘And you’ve done this one right so far,’ he wiggled the red pen, ‘no points deducted yet.’
She looked out the window-wall to the morning city. ‘Um, what do we do about Ryan?’
‘I’d prefer not to stay in service as your sex canary, so for now, leave him be, he’ll show up when he wants.’
‘Okies, and there’s something else too.’
‘What?’ The pen in his hand changed to green for a moment, and he drew a smiley face on the cover of the report. He dropped the report and picked up the second.
‘I’ll need your help with this, and only if you-’
‘Ok, so I’m trying to think about this more long term, yanno?’
‘Ok, realistically, how much free time does Ryan have?’
‘Not even as much as he’s entitled to.’
‘Which is going to make things difficult, yeah?’
‘Regular people with regular jobs can have difficult relationships, so yeah, it could stress things out.’
‘So he needs less work to do.’
‘Your logic is sound, newbie, but-’
She required her ID and dropped it on the desk in front of him. ‘He’s not the only field agent around.’
‘It’s a nice thought Stef, but-’
‘But it’s me and I’m useless? Yeah, I know that, consider this me trying to better myself. If he had time to actually focus on the director stuff, everyone would be better off. Clarke would stop stop whinging about how weaksauce our Agency is, and he’d have time for yanno. I don’t do enough around here, and I know that.’
Curt stared at her for a moment, then nodded. ‘We’ll talk to him about that, ma’am, but it’s a good idea.’
She threw bacon at him. ‘Stop ma’am’ing me, it’s weird.’
‘So, really, what do you think?’
‘For once, I can’t see a downside. No one comes to you for field stuff though, so you’ll have to take over his office while he’s not here.’
‘I’ll have to grab the pass code to his office, but that shouldn’t be a problem.’
A message window appeared in her HUD. [Good morning.]
‘Speak of the angel,’ she said. She pulled open the message window and toggled into video mode. He was happy, and she smiled back at him. [Hey, how’s it going?]
[Very well, we’ve just been trying to make some plans.]
[Same here,] she said, [meet up so we don’t cross-planinate over each other?]
He gave her a strange look, then nodded. [Come over, we’re having breakfast.]
[Yay, free food! Want me to bring Curt?]
[If he wants.]
[See you in a sec.] She broke the connection. ‘Want free food? Ryan’s making breakfast.’
‘What is it with you and free food? You can require anything you want, but you always take free samples when we’re out, even if it’s stuff you don’t like.’
‘Free tastes better.’
‘That’s not an explanation.’
‘Your face isn’t an explanation.’
He put down the second report. ’Only two mistakes on this one, not bad, newbie.’
‘Save the rest for when we get back.’ She leaned across the table and he obligingly held up his hand. She grabbed it and shifted them to what had been her apartment twelve hours ago. The gently wafting scent of roses told her it definitely wasn’t her apartment any more.
Carol sat on the couch, wrapped in a flower-printed satin gown, her long blonde hair long but tied back, still managing to look pretty. A thought refreshed her hair and her uniform, making them tidy, even if she couldn’t live up the bright and shiny up-and-atom-recruit that Curt radiated.
‘Good morning,’ Carol said with a smile.
‘Hiii,’ she said.
‘Morning,’ Curt said. ‘How are you adjusting?’
She turned and followed the scent of food to the kitchen. ‘Are you like, cooking, really cooking, not require cooking?’ she asked Ryan as she peeked into a pot and watched lumps of white roll around in the boiling water.
‘I am.’ He ruffled her hair. ‘How’d you sleep?’
She gave him a smile. ‘Just fine. Why are you cooking-cooking?’
‘Trying to pick up where we left off,’ he said, ‘and sometimes we’d prepare food, rather than requiring it.’ He stirred another pot. ‘Eggs Benedict.’
[Is everything ok? I mean-]
[Everything is fine,] he said as he pulled muffins from the toaster. [And I can’t thank you enough.]
[Being happy is enough,] she said, [I’m just glad I didn’t screw it up.]
‘James never cooked,’ she said as he pulled the eggs from the stove and drained away the hot water. ‘I’ve never had dad-made breakfast before.’
‘I hope it lives up to your expectations.’
Eggs were placed onto muffins and sauce was ladled on top. ‘Grab those two, please.’
He lifted the other two plates and they carried them back to the living room. Curt had required another couch, and was answering Carol’s questions.
She handed Curt his plate, and flopped onto the new couch beside him.
For a few moments, they ate in comfortable silence, then responsibility ruined it. ‘I have to go see Jonesy in a couple of hours,’ she said, ‘he moved my check-up appointment, so if we’re going to work anything out…’
‘Of course,’ Ryan said. ‘We were talking about scheduling and timetables and such.’
‘Yeah, we also had an idea about that,’ she said, ’which may or may not screw up some of your plans.’
She squirmed for a moment the thought of more responsibility weighing her down, then sucked the hollandaise from her fingers. ‘I was thinking I could take over some – ok a lot some – of the field agent stuff, so you could focus on the director stuff, and have more free time.’
This seemed to confuse Carol, and she looked to Curt. ‘I thought you were his Aide?’
She looked to Ryan. ‘Does she, um, does she not know yet?’
‘My fault, I should probably introduce myself better.’ She waved at Carol. ‘Stef Mimosa, Agent Stef Mimosa.’
‘You, you’re an-’
Carol looked to Ryan, who nodded. ‘Sorry,’ Carol said, ‘we didn’t have agents who looked like you when I was a recruit.’
She gave a shrug. ‘I’m special like that?’ She looked back to Ryan. ‘You be ok with that?’
‘We’ll have to-’
‘Just say yes and give me your pass code.’
Ryan looked at her for a moment, then relented and nodded. ‘We can give it a go, at the very least.’ A popup appeared in her HUD. ‘There’s the permissions to enter my office.’
‘Thanks. I won’t let you down.’
‘I know.’ He put his empty plate on the coffee table. ‘Mostly we’ve been discussing the situation here. For the moment, Carol will be staying here – I have to check and see if she’s still in the system for the random sweeps, if she’s not, things get a lot easier. Still, we’re going to have to look into glamours or something to alter her appearance.’
‘I was always jealous of how beautiful the fairy girls were,’ Carol said. ‘Especially the wings.’
[What about that extra bit I gave you, you could-]
[It’s best to try normal means first, I would prefer not to use more mirror magic if we can avoid it.]
She smiled. ‘Well, I’ve got a decent chunk of money in my bank account, I’m happy to help.’
‘Some of these treatments were-’ Carol began.
’I’m rich,’ she said flatly. ‘Rich enough anyway. You know Grigori?’
‘Agent Taylor’s lover?’
Toasted muffin lodged in her windpipe, and she flailed for air. Curt grabbed her by her vest, pulled her forward, and slapped her across the back. The lump of muffin landed on the carpet, and she blushed red as she required it away, and wiped her mouth on her sleeve.
‘Ok, repeat that?’
‘But I don’t want to make you choke again, love.’
‘Were you serious?’
‘My brain is ruined forever.’
‘You were saying?’ Carol prompted.
‘I don’t even know any more.’ She looked down at Curt’s crumb-covered plate. ‘You done?’ He gave a nod. She stood. ‘Me, him and my ruined brain are going to go teach me some new paperwork. Meet back at lunch, or dinner?’
‘Dinner,’ Ryan said, ’I’ll come check on you both in a couple of hours, but I’ll get what work done here that I can.’
Curt put down his plate. ‘Thanks for breakfast, sir.’
‘You’re welcome, Curt.’
Curt looked at her, and held up his hand, she grabbed it, and shifted them into Ryan’s office.
* * *
Ryan required himself an iced-tea and looked across at Carol. ’Can I get you anything else?’
‘Nothing, thank you,’ she said as she extended her legs and put them across his lap. ‘They’re a cute couple. Your Aide is a very serious young man though.’
‘He has reasons to be.’ He paused for a moment. ‘And they’re not a couple.’
She gave a shrug. ‘My mistake. Shall we do some more catch up?’
‘Are you ready for more?’
She nodded. ‘I want know everything I missed.’
* * * * *
‘Come in, Miss Mimosa, and take your top off.’
She glared into the darkened lab, saw Jonesy sitting in his high-backed-villain chair. ‘Do you have to say that every time?’
The lights came up and he smiled. ‘Yes, it makes me feel evil.’
She required away her clothes, walked across the lab half-naked and sat in the big chair. ‘Where’s Merlin?’
Jonesy jerked a thumb towards the desk. ‘He’s working on something under there.’
‘Hiiii,’ came a small voice from the darkness.
Jonesy turned back to his computers and began to boot up all of the scanning software and benchmarking programs.
‘I’m gonna disconnect you from the system now, okies?’
‘One sec.’ She tidied a few things in her HUD. ‘Okies, go ahead.’
There was a strange electronic whine as her HUD froze for a moment, then simply showed a small pop-up that read [Offline Mode].
She stared at the outline of Merlin. ‘Hey, Jonesy, can I ask you something?’
He didn’t answer for a moment, then spun on his chair to look at her, a serious look on his face, his fingers steepled in his lap. ‘Oh, it only took you a fortnight this time.’
‘What were you going to say?’
She swallowed and looked at Merlin again. ‘I just- I’m not the only one here with mirror in me, am I?’
‘– with mirror in me, am I?’
‘– with mirror in me, am I?’
‘– with mirror in me, am I?’
‘– with mirror in me, am I?’
‘– with mirror in me, am I?’
She looked at him, then up at the screens behind him. Her face stared at her a half dozen times over, asking the same question – sometimes she was in the chair, sometimes it was in a dirty, snack-covered, post-raid shirt, none of them were live footage.
‘Like I said, it only took you a fortnight this time.’
Offline mode, genius.
‘And then you always try and run away.’
‘Seems like a good idea,’ she said as she tried to get out of the chair. Her legs wouldn’t move. Her feet wouldn’t respond. She punched at her thigh. ‘Ow.’
Move legs, move!
Merlin crawled out from under the desk, and leaned against Jones.
‘He has more mirror than you do,’ Jones said, ‘pieces from a dozen different worlds, and he’s had them almost all his life.’ Merlin lifted his hand and ran them through the air, snatches of light, images of birds, and sparkles trailing them like IRL particle effects. ‘That’s why he can use them, still, it’s disappointing that you can’t do anything without touching the mirror.’
She looked at her legs again, they still stayed frozen in place, unable to carry her away. ‘I won’t tell.’
‘I can’t take the chance, so I don’t.’
‘How have you kept it a secret?’
‘Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt.’
She grabbed the side of the chair and tried to push herself out, but her arms froze in place, just like her legs.
‘Stef, relax, please.’
‘How do you expect me to relax?’
Merlin leaned against her chair, his oversized goggles clunking against the side of her head. ‘It’s easier if you close your eyes.’
‘It’s not personal,’ he said. ‘It’s just what it is. The most anyone knows is that he’s a reader, and that’s the most I will let people know, it’s too dangerous otherwise. Do you know what they’d do to him if they knew?’
‘Take away all of his human rights to start with?’ she said, bitterness in her voice.
‘Oh Stef, do you really think that’s all we’ve done to you?’
She closed her eyes.
She heard herself screaming – not her real voice, a recorded version. She opened her eyes, and saw a sea of red on the screen behind his head. A sea of blood. Her blood. Her blood being spilled over and over.
‘What…what is that?’
‘Your beta testing,’ he said as he moved out of the way of the screens. She cringed as Taylor tore her head from her shoulders, and drop-kicked it across his gym. ‘And they would do worse to him if they knew. We knew what you were from the start, what was agent, what was human, what was mirror…and the majority of your mirror is subjugated, his isn’t, and we don’t know half of what he can do.’
Tears streamed down her face as every screen flicked to her body being skinned. She saw her skinless body blink – awake, she had been awake – and she sobbed.
The noise disappeared, and she opened her eyes as Jones wiped her eyes dry. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Jones said, ‘it would have been wrong if they’d killed you, and I’m grateful for the changes you’ve made in Ryan, but you also make a wonderful guinea pig.’
She stared at him, unable to form a response to that.
He looked hurt. ‘You got your life, don’t begrudge me for this.’
‘Is this why you could prep an argument to save me so quickly?’
‘The funny thing is, no one else questions that, 680 pages in a couple of hours is a lot, even for me.’
She looked from wizard to tech agent and back again. ‘Jonesy-’
‘I’m impressed that you keep working it out, Stef. I think the mirrors might call to each other.’
‘Or I’m just smart.’
‘It really is easier if you close your eyes.’
‘Do I ever?’
‘Then consider me a creature of habit.’
Merlin blew against the side of her head and…bubbles floated in her vision, bubbles with images dancing, swirling in them – Jareth’s crystals, the bubble Glinda travelled in, the-
One burst open on her nose, and she had a faint impression of suspicion. Memories, they were her memories, they were her thoughts, they were-
‘Please don’t do this.’
‘It’s better than the other option.’
Another breath against her head, another swath of memory-bubbles floating, bursting, spilling her thoughts and memories into the ether.
‘Finding a flaw with your experiment, or making you flawed, so they have no choice but to-‘
‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t want that.’
‘Then close your eyes, just this once, please.’
‘I’m trying to be as nice as I can, please understand why I have to.’
‘Can’t you just trust me?’
‘The way I survive, the way I keep my secrets secret is by not trusting anyone, and by seeming to be the cute, harmless tech agent.’
There was a loud “oops” by her ear and Merlin scrambled to gently grab a bubble. He held it in his hands and it crystalised into ice, and he pushed it against her forehead, and memories of her first day as a recruit flooded her mind.
‘Almost done,’ Merlin said. ‘Just got to erase now, and build a new now.’
‘And that is why Zelda is-‘ Jonesy said. ‘Hey, you ok?’
‘I think my brain went AFK for a minute,’ she said, ‘sorry.’
‘No problem,’ he said as he started a scan, ‘played Raz’s modded version of Ocarina of Time yet?’