Three weeks later.

‘Stef?’

‘Hm?’

‘Stef?’

‘Hm?’

‘Newbie!’

She minimised the tech department windows in her HUD and blinked to focus on the real world. ‘What?’

Something was wrong. Magnolia was in Ryan’s office.

‘Um?’ she said.

Magnolia sighed. ‘My brother’s lawyer is coming to the Agency this afternoon to- Fuck if I know, open a dialogue, I suppose. As it’s a meeting in Agency territory, an Agent needs to be present. Taylor won’t be back in time for it to start, and the bastard wont’ reschedule.’

‘Are you asking me to babysit you, Mags?’

‘You don’t appear to be doing anything,’ Magnolia snapped.

‘I’m working on extrapolating-’

‘Will you do it or not? You can continue to do whatever it is you’re doing, there just needs to be an agent present, I would prefer it if you didn’t listen in, as a matter of fact.’

‘Actually, you probably want me listening in,’ she said as she stood, trying to look the recruit in the eyes. ‘Lawyers are doublespeaking bastards, but I can grok on to a lot of what they’re saying. The King’s Law stuff not so much, but the general flow of things.’

‘Is this the day of the month where you’re actually useful?’

‘Magnolia,’ Ryan warned from his desk.

‘Sorry,’ Magnolia snapped, not sounding the least bit apologetic. ‘Will you, or won’t you?’

‘What time?’

‘Meet me in the lobby in an hour.’

‘Fine.’

Magnolia turned, and stalked out of the office.

‘I really don’t like her,’ she mumbled as Curt closed the door.

‘I know, newbie.’

‘This is actually one of your duties, Stef,’ Ryan said. ‘Her choice for Taylor is obvious, but supervising meetings in Agency territory is something that comes under Field’s jurisdiction. This will be good practice for the future.’

‘Yay.’

‘Going back into my head now.’ She closed her eyes. ‘Make sure I’m up in an hour.’

‘Of course,’ Ryan said.

She cut her audio and visual feeds from the outside world, and focused on the reports that were coming in every time a tech – or someone pulled in to be used as a tech – discovered something or implemented a new piece of methodology. Updates read, she turned back to the code pieces she was retrofitting and recreating to extrapolate if the typos made during the creation of ten million birds had in fact been random, or if it meant something.

She missed her keyboard, but coding in the HUD was something really, really to get used to. Coding at the speed of thought, unfettered by fingers that got tired from a lack of caffeine.

Someone shook her.

She closed the coding window, but stopped, and read the latest three reports.

She smelt coffee.

Audio and visual may have been off, but she didn’t bother to turn off her nose – the Agency smell was neutral enough to be unobtrusive if everything was fine, but if there was a random fire, at least she’d be able to smell the smoke.

She brought her senses up to normal, and took the cup being waved under her nose. ‘You’ve got a couple of minutes,’ Ryan said as she sipped at the coffee – which had the right amount of sugar. A treat, obviously she was doing something right.

‘How’s stuff coming on your side?’ she asked.

‘They’re making the Contingency 32 decision later,’ he said, a defeated look on his face.

She put the coffee down and hugged him. ‘Whichever way it goes, we’ll deal with it, ok?’

‘I hope we can. I’m heading out to a short meeting myself, I’ll see you when I get back.’

She let go of him, drained her coffee, and stood. ‘BRB,’ she said.

She left the office, walked down the hall and caught the lift down. Magnolia glared as she stepped out.

‘You’re late,’ she snapped.

‘I still have forty-eight seconds. And I’m doing you a favour-’

‘He’s already here, just…stay out my way,’ Magnolia said as they started across the lobby.

A man stood at the front desk, wrapping the visitor’s lanyard over his neck.

Her father stood at the front desk, wrapping the visitor’s lanyard over his neck.

Her legs gave out, and she fell against Magnolia.

‘The fuck, Mimosa?’ Magnolia said as she shoved her away. She scrambled for footing, her eyes glued to James Mimosa.

‘He can’t be here-’ her voice coming out as a terrified squeak.

‘Would you-’ Magnolia started.

James turned and saw her.

Her throat went tight, and she felt tears burning at her eyes, held back by fear.

[Call me Recruit!] she screamed at Magnolia so loud she heard the echo of her voice coming from the recruit’s earpiece.

‘What?’

[Call me Recruit! Call me Recruit! That is my father and he can’t know I’m an agent!]

James walked towards them, and the world tilted, his footsteps echoing like a Terminator about to make a kill.

‘You’re related to that sack of shit?’ Magnolia hissed.

[Command: slash-serious]

She felt a wave of relief as her body righted itself, and her expression force itself neutral. All of her screams, all of her rage, all of her tears aborted.

‘You’re late, Miss Hammond,’ James said. ‘Can we get moving on this already?’

‘There’s a room upstairs,’ Magnolia said as she pressed the button for the lift.

‘I expected as much, and I see you’re still dressing like a whore.’ He turned to look down at her and she felt sick. ‘Stephanie, I saw your obituary. Can I presume it was wrong and you’re simply brain dead as your presence in an Agency would indicate?’

Words refused to come, and she simply hung her head and stared at her feet as she entered the lift.

She opened her friends list and found Ryan. [Help me.]

[Stef?]

[Help me. Help me. Help me.] She clicked on an option for streaming video, and looked up at her father. [Help me. Please help me. Please help me.]

There was silence in her head for a moment. [I’m in a meeting, but if you need me, I’ll come.]

Meeting. Right. Responsibilities. Agentyness. [No. I can- Just don’t- Just answer me if I call, okies?]

[Of course I will.]

Ryan smiled at her in her HUD, and she felt a half percent better. [Whatever this man has done, he can’t take what you have now, what you’ve achieved, and who you are. You’re my daughter, and I’m so proud of you.]

There but for the grace of /serious, the threatened tears would have fallen, Pokévolved from sad, frightened tears, to happy tears. She gave him a small nod, and broke the connection.

The lift opened, and they stepped out and walked towards the conference room.

‘Hey!’ She turned at the sound of Curt’s voice. He jogged up to her and pressed a folder into her hands. ‘You need to sign this.’

‘Hurry up, Recruit,’ Magnolia snapped.

She looked down at the folder, flipped it open, and required a pen. The pages inside were blank.

She looked up at him, and he looked down at the paper.

Words appeared on the paper. You ok newbie?

She shook her head.

So that’s him?

She gave him a confused look.

Ryan brought me up to speed.

[I’m really not ok. But- But I have do this. I’m an agent and it’s my job.]

I can fake some paperwork and come babysit with you.

[No. I’ve got my job to do, then I want some answers out of him.]

If you’re sure.

[No, but I’ll do it anyway.]

He reached out for her hand, fingers sliding over her palm, and left a large cookie there.

For luck.

She pocketed the cookie, tried to give him a smile, then stepped in the conference room and shut the door.

She took a seat at the foot of the table, letting Mags and her father sit across from each other at the head of the table. Close enough to listen, far enough away to be out of his direct line of sight.

Two hours passed, and she barely noticed.

‘Half hour break,’ Magnolia said she walked past. ‘Don’t be late back.’

She watched the magpie leave the room, wanting to run from the room.

‘Stephanie.’

Ice twisted in her gut as she looked back up the table to her father. ‘What?’

‘Come here.’

The voice of authority. The voice that demanded to be obeyed. The voice that won court cases – and apparently, Court cases. The voice from the study demanding she walk more quietly, or go back to her room, the voice that yelled when she did something wrong.

She got up from her chair, quietly, walked quietly down towards him, and sat in the chair at the head of the table.

He stared at her for a moment. ‘Require me some pasta.’

‘Don’t think for a second you can order me around. I’m not-’

‘Require me some pasta,’ he snapped. ‘The Agency is supposed to be hospitable, if nothing else.’

‘Sorry, aren’t you working for the bad guys?’

‘Only from one very naïve perspective of one faction of one Court,’ he said. ‘This situation doesn’t involve you, so don’t even try to understand what’s going on.’ He stared at her, and she wished the plush leather chair would swallow her. ‘Require me some pasta, or I will make a complaint about you.’

‘Why do you hate me?’

She raised both of her hands to cover her mouth. The question had just slipped out, a lifetime of wondering and self-loathing unable to keep it locked up any more.

‘Require me some pasta.’

She wiped at her eyes. ‘Just answer-’

‘If you want to get anything out of me, Stephanie, you are going to at least feed me.’

She hung her head. ‘What do you want?’

‘Alfredo, and something to go with it, at least a hundred years old.’

She required the pasta, and ran a quick search to pull up a food/wine pairing list, and required the first thing suggested. The glass appeared, beading with condensation, a perfect clone of the picture from the search.

He ate half the bowl of pasta before the question tumbled out again. ‘I need to know why you hate me. I-’

He tapped the end of his fork on the glass tabletop.

Clink.

‘Do you really want to have this conversation, Stephanie?’

‘WHY DO YOU HATE ME?! What the fuck did I ever do to you? Why was I never good enough? The hell, James-’

‘Shut up.’

‘You weren’t our first,’ James said. ‘Your mother. She was pregnant once before. We were still at university, it wasn’t the right time to start a family, so we aborted.’

Clink.

‘We graduated, we moved here, and then we were ready. She got pregnant with you. You. The little thing that ruined our lives. The sad thing is, you don’t look like a monster. The fae at least, they have the decency to look as though they could destroy your world. You, you’re just this innocuous little thing that no one would look twice at.’

Clink.

‘How long have you known about the fae?’

Clink.

‘That’s another conversation entirely, one that has nothing to do with you. The answer is, of course, long enough. Do you want me to continue, or not?’

She gave him a slight nod.

‘The pregnancy was-’ Clink. He looked away for a moment, took a large drink of his wine, then lifted it for a refill like he had always done with the serving staff. She refilled it with a thought, it was easier than arguing. ‘Problematic,’ he said at last. ‘It nearly killed your mother, could have killed the both of you. You were trying to kill my wife before you’d taken your first breath, you little monster.’

‘You can’t blame me for-’

‘Of course I can. No matter how short her first pregnancy was, it was trouble-free. You, on the other hand, were choking the life out of her from the moment you were conceived.’

Clink.

‘That wasn’t my fault.’

‘She rejected you as soon as you were born. I did the only thing I could do, I sided with my wife and tried to keep her from slipping away from me. It took months, but I helped her through it.’

‘And what about me?’

He finished off his glass of wine, and lifted it for another refill. ‘What about you?’ he asked. ‘We were stuck with you. All I could do was hope you become one of the Starbright.’

‘You can’t blame the child for post-partum depression.’

‘Of course I can. And don’t you dare judge, you can’t know how she was feeling, and you never will, given it’s one of the things you’ll never experience.’

‘Did you ever think of me, even once, after you left me at the hospital? Did you regret it once?’

‘My only regret is that Death refused to trade your life for your mother’s. I asked, and she refused.’

‘You what?’

Clink.

‘You heard me, Stephanie.’

‘Stop calling me that.’

‘It’s your name. I refuse to call you by any Agency rank. Now, I have a question of my own.’

Clink.

He twirled his fork for a moment, then slammed it into her hand.

She yelped and tried to pull her hand away, but he grabbed her wrist, lifted it, and pushed the tines right through her hand. He yanked on her wrist and pulled her closer. ‘How did something I father become a fucking agent?!’

She pulled back from him and wrenched her wrist away. She pulled the fork from her hand and dropped it to the table, and watched as her hand healed. She wiped the remaining drops of blood onto her vest and glared at him.

‘Now you can’t even deny it,’ he said.

‘I wasn’t going to,’ she lied. ‘How’d you know?’

‘You don’t make a very good effort to hide it, and with how well I’ve hidden myself from the Agency over the years, I’ve learned how to spot your kind. Now answer my question.’

‘No.’

‘Who’s kink are you?’ he asked. ‘That’s the only reason I can come up with as to why they would-’

She pulled her gun from her holster and slammed it down on the table. ‘You should be glad that I have excellent impulse control.’ She glared back at him, relishing the hate, hiding behind the tiny bit of courage it gave her.

‘Oh, poor you. Poor, stupid you. You have no idea what kind of legal nightmare you would bring down on your precious Agency if you were to lay a hand on me.’

‘Don’t call me stupid, I’m-’

‘Objectively a genius, I know. That’s usually your trump card, isn’t it?’ He shook his head. ‘Your intellect is still pitiable compared to mine. You have an IQ test, a piece of paper that you may brandish and crow about, your actions on the other hand-’

‘You don’t know me!’

‘True, but I know enough to judge you.’

‘Fuck you.’

‘Oh, so eloquent. You’re such a disappointment, Stephanie.’

A message filled her HUD: [Blackout zone: Type M]

What?

Alarms blared in her HUD.

Blackout.

She took her eyes off her father for a moment, and looked around. Agency. They were still in the Agency. The Agency was in a blackout. That couldn’t happen. The Agency was safe. The Agency was safe.

Alarms began to sound, and a recorded voice told everyone to move to the lobby.

This isn’t happening.

She pushed herself out of her chair and went to the window. As far as the she could see, everything was blacked out. A view, clear across the city, and it was just a blackout zone.

‘Oh, gods.’

Pull it together, Agent Mimosa.

‘What?’ James asked.

‘It’s a blackout,’ she said, ‘you’re going to have to go downstairs, and GTFO, Mags is going to have to reschedule.’

‘A blackout?’

‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘so GTFO already.’

She moved to the next window, to get a different vantage point, trying to see any edge of the blackout zone. It didn’t end. It was everywhere. She looked down, and saw the streets full with people – too many, too random as selection for them all to be fae. Big blackout, but not the death of the blue phoenix, possibly a major injury dealt, but-

‘If it’s a blackout, you’re vulnerable, agent.’

‘Yeah, no shit.’

‘You’re such a disappointment, Stephanie.’

Clink.

She spun at the sound.

Not the clink of a fork against glass, the sound of her gun being taken from the table.

The world dropped into slow motion as he raised her gun.

No-

* * * * *

‘Blackout.’

Curt looked up, and saw the fear obvious on Ryan’s face. This wasn’t a time for stupid questions, this wasn’t a time to ask “are you sure?” or argue if they were in an Agency, that they were supposed to be safe.

‘What do we do, sir?’

An alarm began to sound, recorded instructions to drop everything and meet up repeating over and over.

‘Get everyone downstairs,’ Ryan said, ‘lobby. I need to upstairs, to make sure the basement is contained, otherwise that becomes our first priority.’

‘Yes sir.’

He stood, grabbed a thick marker pen from the desk, left the office, and jogged around to the recruit quarters. To their benefit, most of them were already moving quite quickly already. He began to open each room, check for occupants, then scrawl an X on the door.

Quarters cleared, he began to check the other rooms, the storage rooms, the small meeting rooms, the common area and the gym.

He looked into the conference as he went past, saw it empty – Stef and her father were already gone – and reached in to turn the light and air conditioning off – no use in wasting resources in an empty room.

Something froze him, and he took another look at the room. There was something wrong, something out of place. He closed his eyes, cleared his mind, then looked at the room again.

There was a chair missing.

On a normal day, it wouldn’t have mattered – it would have been incongruous – chairs could easily be required, so there was no need to borrow them. This wasn’t a normal day, so everything mattered.

He brushed his hand against his side, felt for his gun, and rounded the table – giving it as wide a berth as possible, just in case there was some sort of chair-eating terror fae waiting to eat recruit instead of-

He saw dirty sneakers.

A chair was tipped over, lying beside her still form.

The carpet beneath her head was a pool of blood.

Tears streamed down his cheeks.

Training told him to check for a pulse, so without anything else to do, he checked for a pulse.

The body was still warm.

He lifted the chair, turned it upright and wheeled it to the far end of the room, out of the way, then moved the other chairs that would prevent the stretcher from getting in.

He crouched beside her. He refused to look at her face, at the bullet wound, the tacky blood, at the-

He reached a hand forward to close her eyes and he heard himself scream, something raw, something dangerous – the sound Taylor would make if he stepped on a toy plastic brick. The image brought quirked his lips a fraction of an inch toward a smile, and tears flowed freely.

She had to look good. He pulled her arms to her sides. She had to look good. He brushed her hair back, feeling blood, bone and brain as he lifted her head slightly. She deserved to look good. He straightened her tie with bloody fingers.

He pulled off his jacket and laid it across her body, leaving the sneakers visible as a means of identification for anyone who saw her.

He wiped his bloody fingers against his pants, wiped his tears on his forearms, pulled his gun from his holster, then ran from the room.

He stepped into the elevator and rode it down, the stillness of the enclosed space reverberating his hitching breath back at him.

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

He punched the wall and his knuckles came away bloody.

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

The doors slid open into the pandemonium of the lobby and the recruits spilling down from upstairs.

The recruits, and the murderer.

‘Recruits, down!’ he shouted as he aimed his gun.

The techs dropped to the floor, hands over their heads. The murderer, not one speck of blood on this expensive suit, gave him a bored look. ‘I’m sorry, what do you think you’re doing?’

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

He could hear someone screaming.

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

He slid his finger off the trigger, and stepped over tech recruits, every movement controlled, every movement measured.

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

‘I had every legal right to-’

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

He swung his gun against the man’s cheek.

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

‘Consider your life over, young man,’ the lawyer said as he reached into his pocket for a handkerchief.

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

He took a step back and levelled the gun. The screaming got louder.

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

Someone slapped the gun from his hand and it went skidding across the floor. The screaming got louder, overwhelming his ears.

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

The gun gone from his hands, he lunged forward. He could kill the man with his bare hands. It was easy enough. Lift and twist and dead.

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

A huge arm wrapped around his body and he ran on air for a moment. He felt himself yanked back, yanked away from the murderer.

‘Stop.’ Taylor’s voice.

The screaming was louder still.

He swung his arms, twisting in Taylor’s hold, hit the agent with the back of his hand, and swung for another hit. Taylor took the hit, shook him, and put a hand over his mouth.

The screaming stopped.

‘Stop,’ Taylor said again.

He struggled in the agent’s grip, the screaming – his screaming – muffled by the large hand across his mouth.

He watched through a haze of tears as Magnolia hit the lawyer – only hard enough to knock him out – and cuff the unconscious body.

Taylor carried him over the small sea of tech recruits – all of whom were still on the ground, arms over their heads – and out of the lobby. He kicked and struggled against the agent’s immovable grip.

Taylor kicked in the door of one of the small meeting rooms – rooms they used to question people as to whether they needed the Agency or the regular federal police, rooms where the magical nature of the Agency stayed hidden.

Taylor dropped him, and he stayed on the ground. ‘I will-’ he started.

‘Pick your battles,’ Taylor growled. ‘It’s not the time.’

‘He-!’ he heard himself wheezing, out of breath from the screaming, fighting the truth, fighting the reality of having to say it. ‘He-!’

Taylor stooped and grabbed his bloody hand. Stef’s blood. Stef’s blood. Stef’s blood. ‘I guessed,’ Taylor said. ‘It’s not the time.’

‘Not everyone-’

‘You need the right,’ Taylor said, ‘it’s Kings Law. Have the right, then do it.’

‘I don’t care if-’

‘What good are you dead, O’Connor?’

‘He killed Stef,’ his voice tiny, hollow.

‘So don’t do him the courtesy of killing him quickly. Your Solstice training. Use it. You’re good at it.’

‘He killed Stef.’

‘If you’re grieving, stay out of the way.’

Tears dripped onto his hands, and he stared at the floor.

The mountain that was Taylor moved towards the door, then stopped. ‘Ryan?’

‘He doesn’t know.’

‘I’ll deal with it.’

The door closed, and he was left alone in the dark.