‘Where is he?’

Stef hugged her arms around herself and stared down at Ryan. The formerly sleeping agent looked up at her, blinked once, then sat up. ‘Stef-‘

‘Yeah, yeah, I know it’s the middle of the night, but-‘ She sat heavily on the couch beside him. ‘Where is he?’

The lights in the office came up. ‘I was going to tell you.’

‘What were you going to tell me?’

He put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. ‘I’m sorry, and I swear to you I had nothing to do with it.’

‘This story doesn’t end with him in tiny chunks, does it?’

Ryan shook his head.

She knuckled her eyes, forcing tears away. ‘Just tell me already.’

‘He’s an employee of the Agency.’

Shift: Canada.

The world blurred and his office disappeared. A patch of forest that she was sure she’d seen on a postcard stared back at her. She sighed, stared into her HUD, processed a couple of commands, and shifted to the closest McDonald’s.

[Stef, Come home.]

[No.]

She ordered a Happy Meal, and sat.

Ryan appeared across the booth, and looked at her, somewhere between sad!face and dad!face. ‘I’m sorry.’

She unwrapped the burger and stared down at it. ‘It’s not your fault. I know it’s not your fault. But. But. But. But but. Infinite but loop. Better than an infinite butt loop. Actually that’d be scary. Not as bad as an infinite boob loop though. How the fsck is he-?!’ Her shoulders slumped. ‘Okies. Tell me what happened.’

‘After you-’ He folded his hands on the table. ‘After you went after the phoenix, we had no idea what to do, what was going to happen, or- Or frankly, if it would do any good. We waited for hours just to see if you’d only averted the end of the world for a little while. When we realised we’d had a stay of execution, we began to get reinforcements back in to seal off the area, and begin the process of building up that Outpost, just to try and control the situation.’

‘Any idea on who’s going to run that yet?’

‘None.’ He smiled. ‘Would you like the position?’

She went limp and hid under the table.

‘Young lady, get off the floor.’

‘Only if you promise not to give me any more job offers!’

‘All right,’ he said.

She slowly crawled up from under the table, peeked her eyes over the edge and stared. ‘Are you sure?’

‘It was simply a courtesy,’ he said, ‘but if you were so inclined, we could have argued the case.’

She pulled herself back onto her seat. ‘A, I don’t even know how to be an agent. B, I had to look after Darren’s Outpost for like two days and I couldn’t handle that, and I nearly got eaten by bunyips. C, I like working for you. D, my boyfriend is your Aide, so that’s another reason not to leave. E, I have a boyfriend. F, seriously I have a boyfriend, how did that happen? G, no, really, seriously, how did that happen? H, I think I’m off topic now, but I want to keep listing stuff. I-’

‘Stef.’

‘Yessir.’

‘Thinking about that bastard was the last thing on my mind. With everything, with how worried I was for you, for the world, I didn’t think of him once, and I don’t think anyone else did either. If this hadn’t happened, he would have likely died of starvation in the cells.’

‘That would have been ok. Not as good as little chunky bits, but ok.’

‘Clarke made a deal with him.’

She saw red and crushed the burger in her hands, sauce and meat juices dripping down her hands.

I’m going to- ‘-fucking kill him! I’ll fucking kill him! I will tear out his fucking eyes and I will-!’

Her mouth closed on its own.

[I know how you feel, but I can’t let you scream in public.]

[Can I scream at home?]

[Yes.]

She stood, dropped the remains of the burger onto the tray and wiped her hands on her uniform, and walked from the restaurant. Once into the car park, the world blurred and the strong, safe scent of home flooded into her nostrils.

‘As you were saying?’ Ryan prompted.

‘I’m glitching, right? This is some sort of nightmare, right?’

‘I’m sorry.’

Her breath came out in ragged gasps, and the world seemed to spin a little. Not real. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real.

‘I need to hit something,’ she said.

He put his hands on her shoulders and the world blurred again, this time, the gym came into view. He quietly guided her into the training simulator – the simulation was of a small paved area, surrounded on all sides by squat buildings.

Something heavy was pressed against her chest, and she looked down. A rocket launcher.

‘Seriously?’

He stepped back. ‘Go ahead.’

She hefted it and rested it on her shoulder, aimed it at the closest building and fired. There was a satisfying loud boom and she reloaded it with a thought, and pulled the trigger again.

Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. Fire.

She dropped the bazooka, and collapsed back against her angel.

‘Okies,’ she said, ‘tell me what happened.’

He lifted her and the world blurred again, back to his office. He put her on the couch, and handed her a bowl of ice cream larger than her head.

‘How do you want me to refer to him?’ he asked as she lowered her face towards the ice cream and began to lick the sauce from the whipped cream.

‘The bastard,’ she said, a thought adding precisely five hundred sprinkles to the sundae. ‘You sound classy when you say bastard.’

‘As you wish,’ he said. ‘Clarke made a deal with the bastard. Contrary to the little existing records that the Agency had on him, he’s been active with the fae for decades. He’s a lawyer, you knew that, of course, but he’s also a Kings-trained lawyer, which makes him far rarer, and is apparently one of some note. He’s named in a lot of lists of their top scholars.’

‘So?’

‘Fae law is convoluted at best, and contradictory at worst. Kings Law overrides all other authorities when it comes to the fae. Each court has their own rules of course, and Fairyland has its own set of laws again, but all yield to the Kings. There are few that understand the complexity of interaction between all of the systems, and apparently the bastard is one of them. That, unfortunately, makes him a valuable resource.’

‘But-‘

‘For the record, I don’t care. He deserved to be punished for his treatment of you, let alone your murder. He came into my damn agency and killed one of my agents, he should have been executed, but the decision wasn’t mine. Clarke went behind my back and straight to Central.’

‘He doesn’t get punished at all? But he- He-‘

Sad!face morphed into mad!face.

She moaned, and looked to her sundae. ‘Whatever you’re going to say, just wait a damn minute, cause it isn’t good.’

She finished off all of the toppings, the sauce, leaving the ice-cream naked, then gulped down half a cup of coffee. She closed her eyes. ‘Ok, hit me.’

‘His punishment is a pay cut for six months.’

Words failed her.

She put the bowl of ice cream down and stared at him. ‘No.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘No.’

‘I’m sorry.’

She felt her face twitching, and her hands dug at the leather of the couch. ‘There is no way that you can’t be shitting me right now. Tell me that- That- That-‘

‘Bastard?’

‘Goat fucking shit sucking waste of carbon and oxygen is getting paid?! I- I- I-’ She slipped onto the floor and hugged her knees. ‘You want to know why I think I’m worthless? I think this situation pretty much speaks for itself. If I was really worth-‘

He came onto the floor beside her and held her. ‘It would have been the same outcome for any agent, I’ve been assured of that. It’s not a slight against you, if anything, it’s proof that you’re being treated like one of us.’

‘That…that really isn’t comforting, actually.’

‘And it shouldn’t be, but at least it’s equal.’

‘Ok, so what’s his deal?’

‘He’s exclusive to the Agency for the next two years, at something approaching emergency rates. He won’t be here, that’s our one win here, you won’t have to see him, he’ll be working out of Central-’ he paused. ‘Likely out of Central and the Academy.’

She bit her lower lip. ‘Well…I guess I’ll have to wait to go to classes.’

Tears came out in a flood.

James Mimosa, bastard.

James Mimosa, murderer.

A father who had never treated her as a child. A father – never, ever a dad – who hadn’t ever held her, comforted her, or been a figure of safety or care. He’d let a child die without noticing. He’d left her behind in the Gardens because a phone call had distracted him. He’d kept her at arm’s length, yelled at her, belittled her, made her feel stupid.

He’d always shown scorn towards magic, even the stupid princess-movie type of magic, treated it as frivolous and stupid. Not surprising, anything she liked was frivolous and stupid.

He’d walked into her home and murdered her. Come into the one place where she was safe and killed her dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.

Dead and the punishment was a new job.

She wept into her dad’s suit and felt grief empty her out.

James was Agency. He was Agency now. He was going to ruin it. He was going to ruin everything. He’d find a way to get rid of her, to take her away from Ryan, to get her thrown into a recycling chamber, to-

A soft handkerchief wiped at her face, clearing her face of snot and tears.

She’d found the Agency by mistake, and almost everything after that had been a mistake too – shooting the mirror, being useless enough to need so much help that via time and osmosis, she’d gotten a boy to fall in love with her, and saving the world. Ineptitude and dumb luck. Her ineptitude. Her dumb luck.

It was the one damn thing she’d done on her own. The one thing that had nothing to do with her parents, with her family, with the choices other people had thrust on her.

It had been hers.

It was hers and now he’d taken it.

He was right. He was smarter than she was. Whatever her IQ was, his was bigger. Whatever knowledge she had, his far exceeded it. He’d apparently made all the fancy lists that said he was an awesome fae lawyer, and her grades had never reflected how smart she was. It had been a choice of learn to manage insanity or concentrate on school – insanity was forever, school only lasted a few years, the choice had been easy.

He was smart and successful, and she was the shit stain on his shiny shoe.

‘Stef?’

The Agency’s got- ‘-the better Mimosa now, you don’t need me.’

Strong arms held her tighter than ever before. Held her together. Stopped her from falling apart.

‘He ruins everything,’ she whispered, her voice raw. ‘And now he’s ruined the only thing I’ve ever done good.’

‘He can’t take anything away from you.’

‘You wouldn’t know,’ she said. ‘He’s so good at taking things away from me. He took everything from me. I mean- Everything. I thought maybe that I started to- That I could start to- But nope, he’s back, and he’ll take it all away again. He’s really good at it. It took so little effort on his part to destroy me as a kid, and I’m sure he’s had practice being a bastard in the meantime. Why the fuck should I even bother when he’ll just ruin it for me again. Sorry,’ she said as she tried to pull away from the agent. ‘He’s won. You should probably start investing your time in Curt now, he’s actually got some potential.’

‘He can’t do anything to you, Stef. You’ve got people to protect you now, you’re not alone any more.’

‘He took away Hook, and he was imaginary! How hard can it be for him to take away people that are real?!’

‘We’re not going anywhere, newbie.’

‘Eh?’

She twisted away from Ryan and saw Curt, half-asleep and for once not that bright-and-shiny, his earpiece in his ear. ‘We are not going anywhere, newbie,’ he said again.

‘You were asleep,’ she said.

‘You needed me.’

‘I want to see him,’ she said. ‘Well, I don’t want to, but I need to. And- I-‘

‘That’s not a good idea.’

‘Did you say something about me being able to make my own decisions?’

‘You’ll get into trouble if you kill him.’

‘I won’t.’

‘Stef-‘

‘You can hold my gun, Come on, maybe I could scare him to death? I mean, the last time he saw me, I was a corpse.’

Ryan looked uncomfortable.

She sighed and required a cookie. ‘He’s knows I’m not dead, doesn’t he?’

‘Newbie?’

She turned to Curt. ‘Yeah?’

‘Newbie, do you remember that entire floor dedicated to presents for you? The entire fae world knows that you’re not dead. The entire fae world knows what you did.’ He paused for a moment. ‘And the entire fae world knows exactly what you are. Unfortunately, that includes him.’

‘My secret identity is out?’

Curt nodded.

She pouted and stared at the carpet. ‘Does that make me the worst superhero ever?’