[Come see me before the meeting?]
Stef put a hand out to stop Curt from opening the door to the conference room, turned her hand and grabbed his shirt, then shifted them both to Ryan’s office.
‘You rang?’ she said, giving a less-than-convincing impression of Lurch.
‘I just wanted to warn you,’ Ryan said as he rose from behind his desk, ‘and to ask your forgiveness.’
She shrugged. ‘I always forgive you. For everything. So you’ve got it. So what did you do?’
‘You gave me the remaining tickets to distribute. I have a date, I invited Patty and Magic Mike, I’ve got a special guest coming, and-‘ He paused. ‘And I invited Clarke.’
She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. She wanted to whinge like a four-year-old until he made it not true. She stared at him for a moment, let her shoulders slump and hung her head. ‘Okies.’
‘Do I get a chance to explain myself?’
‘Do you have at least a dozen of Magic Mike’s sessa cream tarts?’
‘Baker’s dozen,’ he said, and pulled the bag from under his desk. He pulled open the bag and let her nom on three of the tiny tarts before talking. ‘He apologised to me,’ he said. ‘I don’t believe it for a second, but it’ a nice effort to restore civility. That alone, however, wouldn’t do it. Tonight is about you, Stef,’ Ryan said as he looked down at her. ‘But there’s also going to be a lot of Agency questions. I don’t want you to waste your time answering the same questions over and over when you should just be enjoying yourself.’
‘He’s my FAQ bitch?’
‘In essence, I believe so.’
She un-slumped her shoulders just a bit. ‘Ok, maybe I can handle that.’
She nommed on another small tart, then offered the bag back to him. ‘Want one?’
‘No, thank you.’ A talking-in-his-HUD look cross his face. ‘If you’ll excuse me,’ he said, then shifted way.
She turned, grabbed Curt’s arm, then shifted them both to the conference room. Mags and Taylor were there, and Grigori was deep in conversation with the fairy at the head of the table. Deep, flirty conversation probably. Poor fairy.
She sat in her usual chair and required a coffee.
She took a swig of coffee, then looked across to Mags. ‘Yeah?’
Magnolia stared at her for a moment. ‘Huh. You look like you’ve been thoroughly fucked.’ She spat her coffee across the table as Magnolia turned to Curt. ‘Well done, O’Connor.’ She turned back. ‘Are there any tickets left?’
She required a napkin and wiped the dribbles of coffee from her chin, popping a /serious as she felt her cheeks start to burn. ‘Huh?’
‘Tickets. Are there any tickets left?’
‘I’ve got no fscking clue, ask Ryan.’
‘If I may,’ the fairy said, ‘There’s two tickets with no names assigned to it, unless that’s changed in the last six hours. Rier Myel, Agent Mimosa, I’m here to organise tonight for you.’
Magnolia gave her a questioning look.
‘Geeze, gimme a minute.’ [Hey?]
Ryan’s face appeared in her HUD. [Yes?]
[Are there still free tickets?]
[Yes. Hold our your hands.]
She did, and the tickets appeared there. [Thanks.] She held up the ticket. ‘Yeah, there’s two left.’
‘Are you planning on using them?’
‘Is that how you ask nicely?’
‘I want to invite Arshan Yo.’
‘I repeat: Is that how you ask nicely?’
‘You three earned yours, I’ve got no reason to be gracious beyond that.’
Magnolia leaned forward, placing her elbows on the conference table. ‘You’re not using them.’
Rier turned away from Grigori, a horrified look on her face.
‘What?’ she asked, squirming in her seat as the fairy looked from Mags to her and back again.
‘I apologise,’ the woman stuttered. ‘I’m not used to seeing people disrespect the guest of honour like this.’
She smirked. ‘You think this is disrespect? This is still in the top five most civil conversations I’ve had with her.’ She upturned her coffee cup and the liquid ate through the glass of the conference table. ‘Truce or not, old habits die hard.’
Rier looked paler than she did, her eyes wide as cookies as she watched the acid drip onto the floor. ‘Do you want them struck from the guest list, Agent Mimosa?’
‘No, but I reserve the right to do it later.’ She opened the room controls in her HUD and ran the cleaning macro, the table healing itself with a quick schop and the carpet repairing itself with a soft ripple.
Magnolia glared. ‘Please?’
‘Oh, fine, whatever.’ She pushed a ticket across the table. ‘You’re back to owing me.’
‘Everyone in the world owes you,’ the fairy said.
Only outside of these walls.
Curt’s hand squeezed hers. ‘Any ideas for the last ticket?’
She shook her head and required a new coffee.
Ryan walked in, a pretty redhead beside him, Patty and Magic Mike following close behind. She pushed herself up from her chair and let Patty and Magic Mike give her quick hugs. Magic Mike grinned as he saw the bag of tarts on the table, then produced a bag of cookies from within his leather satchel. She took the cookies and placed them on the table, then directed them to chairs away from Taylor and Magnolia.
‘Hello, dear one.’
She spun, nearly falling over her own feet to look at the owner of the voice. ‘Captain?!’
Hook, resplendent in clothes even more fancy and regal than his usual attire, removed his hat and bowed low to her.
She looked from the pirate to her angel, then back again. ‘Thank you.’
‘You’re nominating the Lost as your charity,’ Ryan said, ‘I thought it would be a good idea to invite a representative or two.’
Hook rose, embraced her, then handed her a package. ‘Save it until after the meeting, I’ll explain it then.’ He put a strong hand on Curt’s shoulder as he passed. ‘And I want to talk to you later, young man.’ Then he sat across from Taylor, and removed his pipe from his jacket.
Curt turned to her. ‘Is he going to make me walk the plank?’
‘Don’t be silly, he’ll run you through and tithe you to Tick Tock.’
‘Remember that thing about body armour?’
Ryan and the redhead found empty seats and the fairy at the head of the table looked around. ‘Are we almost ready to start?;
‘I’ll need a few minutes,’ Magnolia said as she stood and left the room.
‘Well, I’m here,’ Clarke said from the back of the room.
She spun on her chair, hands folded supervillain-style. ‘Let’s lay some ground rules for tonight,’ she said as she stared at Clarke. ‘You are there to be my FAQ bitch. As soon as I tell you to leave, you leave. And you-‘
‘I’m sorry,’ Clarke said, cutting her off. ‘Agent Mimosa, I’m sorry.’
Clarke rounded the table and knelt on one knee in front of her. ‘You have to understand. I was acting for my duty when I offered-‘ he paused for a moment. ‘When I offered the bastard his deal. We are all slaves to our duty, myself no less than the rest of you, and my duty puts the Agency first, rather than my colleagues. I don’t serve this city, and I don’t serve this Agency, to my blue, my duty is to the Agency overall. And to that duty, a resource of his calibre was not to be missed, no matter his crimes.’
‘You still fucked up,’ she said, ‘if you’d taken five more minutes to go over his damn contract-‘
‘All I can do is ask forgiveness for my arrogance and my haste.’
‘You let the man who murdered me go free.’
‘You let the man who tortured you into your bed.’
She recoiled from him, pushing herself further into her leather chair, shocked still by the emotional sucker punch.
Others, however, weren’t so immobile.
She watched as Clarke was yanked backward and halfway to standing, a cruel, beautiful silver hook neatly around his throat, ready to puncture him at the first sign of movement. A second later, a cocked, ornate pistol was pressed to his head.
She heard Ryan, his voice in full and scary narc-mode, screaming at Clarke, but individual words escaped comprehension. A wall of sound. A wall of protective sound, defending her honour.
Clarke disappeared from Hook’s grasp and appeared at the head of the table, behind the beyond-shocked fairy. She jumped in her seat as Hook’s gun fired, putting a hole in the wall near Clarke. Pirate weapons – beautiful, but far from accurate.
Ryan stormed towards him, but Clarke raised his hand in surrender. ‘If I can explain myself!’ the liaison agent said loudly, above the cacophony of sound. ‘If I can explain myself!’ Clarke shouted again.
‘Explain,’ Ryan said, his voice impressively Taylorish. ‘Explain yourself.’
Clarke straightened his jacket, took a quick look at the hole in the wall, then looked up at the sound of Hook reloading his gun.
‘To forgive him-‘ Clarke started.
Oh, go on Spyder, you know you want to.
She stood, unsteady on her feet for just a second before rage and agenty programming made her stand straight. ‘I never had to forgive him!’ she snapped. ‘He did what he had to do to save my damn life!’
‘And mine,’ Grigori said from his seat.
‘You’d do well to shut your mouth,’ she snapped at the Russian. ‘The fact that it happened at all is your fault.’ She turned back to Clarke. ‘I don’t accept your apology. I don’t. I don’t! And if you ever dare equate what you did to what he did again, I’ll wish you were never born.’
The room went silent.
‘It’s a sad thing that I have to think “oh fuck, the asshole is coming to my gala” and I’m not talking about one of them!’ she said, thrusting an arm at the people with room’s highest kill counts. ‘You can come tonight. Ryan invited you and I don’t second guess him. You’re there to be my bitch, and only to be my bitch. You’re dismissed. Someone who gives more of a shit than I do can PM you your arrangements for tonight.’
‘I think she said you were dismissed,’ Ryan said.
‘Oh, fuck the lot of you,’ Clarke said, and shifted away.
‘Someone call the Parkers,’ Magnolia said from the doors, ‘I think Mimosa just grew a spine.’
Oh, please, please, please, let the Agency carpet eat me,
She sat down, slowly, every set of eyes in the room on her. She folded her hands, and stared down into her lap.
A glass clinked on the table in front of her. ‘Drink that,’ Grigori said, ‘you look like you’re going to pass out.’
She kept staring at her hands, and slowly hugged herself.
‘Everyone in this room who knows that douche has wanted to do the same,’ Grigori said. ‘I don’t even have to work with him and I’d gladly throw him at a frost giant.’ He lifted the glass and clinked it down again. ‘Drink.’
She shook her head.
‘He opposed your experiment.’ Ryan’s voice. She slowly looked up. ‘He didn’t want you here, Stef. If he’d gotten his way, none of us would be here right now. He didn’t want Curt here. He wanted to brand those two as traitors. He despises Grigori’s rule of Russia, and he didn’t want me as interim Director. He isn’t part of this Agency. We have to work with him, that’s true, but we don’t have to like him. Civility, really, is all we can hope for. He’ll get over this, he’s gotten over worse.’
‘Might I suggest a five-minute break?’ the fairy said.
‘Fifteen,’ Ryan said. ‘Magnolia, can you take the non-Agency staff to the guest lounge?’
‘Yes.’ Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the magpie stand. ‘All of you, this way.’
Grigori clinked the glass one more time. ‘Drink.’
‘You still owe me a fuzzy hat.’
A warm, fuzzy hat was dropped onto her head, and she finally uncurled her arm to grab the glass. She downed the vodka and choked. ‘Gods, why did you require the cheap stuff?’
‘It’s what I like.’ The glass refilled. ‘One more.’
‘Grigori.’ Taylor’s voice, from the door.
‘Fine, fine,’ Grigori said, then left the room.
She heard the conference room door close, and she let out a long breath.
‘No one has ever stood up for me like that before.’ Curt’s voice. Timid. Awestruck.
She looked across at him. ‘Nobody gets to insult my padawan.’
‘Still,’ Curt said as he grasped her hands. ‘You’re amazing.’
She pulled her hands away. ‘Sorry.’ She hugged herself again. ‘Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean to. Sorry. He’s an arse. Sorry. I just- He- Sorry. I didn’t mean to.’
Ryan’s strong arms picked her up and held her. ‘You’ve got nothing to apologise for.’
‘But I do,’ she said as she shifted out of his grip and sat back down. ‘Like you said, we have to be civil with him. I didn’t exactly make it easy to be civil.’
‘I’ve wanted to say worse things to him a hundred times over.’
‘Yeah, but you’re sensible, you didn’t.’
‘No, but others have, you should have seen some of the arguments that Clarke used to have with Samuels.’
‘The tech we had before Jones. He and Clarke never saw eye to eye on any subject.’
‘Why didn’t I know this? Ok, for Cookiemas this year, can I has the secret history of the Brisbane Agency so I can actually know everything? What happened to him?’
‘Unlike Jones, Samuels used to occasionally go out into the field for some minor things. We had incorrect information. There was a blackout and Samuels died.’
‘Please stop apologising,’ Ryan said, and gently kissed the top of her head. ‘You’ve done nothing wrong.’
She ground her foot into the carpet – maybe if she enraged it, it would eat her. ‘It always damn well feels like I’ve done something wrong.’
‘Don’t say that on your day,’ Curt said. ‘Today of all days is proof that isn’t true.’
‘It’s too late to cancel this stupid thing, isn’t it?’
‘You’re not cancelling your gala because of some douchebag,’ Curt said. ‘Tonight is going to be great.’
Ryan held a hand down to her. ‘Come on. We’ll have this meeting in the lounge.’
She squirmed in her chair. ‘Do I even have to be there?’
Curt gently pulled on her hand. ‘Come on, newbie, it’ll be fine.’
She looked from padawan to angel, then down her feet. ‘It amazes me how you two think everything will always be fine.’
She stood, and let them walk down the short way to the guest lounge. A guest longue that hadn’t been there an hour beforehand – meetings so rarely contained personnel external to the Agency that it wasn’t practical to keep the room there on a permanent basis. Anyone who worked for the Agency, it seemed, could make do with hanging out in the conference room.
Curt pushed open the wide double doors to the guest lounge, opening to a room half the size of field’s gym, a well-stocked bar at one end, a loose circle of leather couches at the other end.
Magic Mike stood behind the bar, twirling bottles like a professional, being egged on by Grigori, Patty watching contentedly, sipping on a small drink. Rier sat nursing a much, much larger drink.
Taylor and Magnolia sat opposite each other. Magnolia talking with the fairy that had to be her dressmaker, Taylor just staring blankly.
Her Captain and the redhead stood speaking near the wall of windows, looking down onto the city.
Ryan went to the fairy, and she lifted an elbow and nudged Curt in the ribs. ‘Want to meet Hook properly?’
‘How likely is it that he’ll feed me to the crocodile?’
‘You’re good to me, you should be safe.’
Hook smiled as she approached and the redhead walked off towards the bar.
‘Dear one, you should introduce me to your young man.’
‘Didn’t Ryan tell you everything?’
‘Your angel told me nothing, dear one,’ Hook said as he finally lit his pipe. ‘Everything I know of him, I know from Vink.’
‘What’s a Vink?’
Hook pointed with his pipe, and she followed his gaze to the redhead.
The redhead who was giggling with Ryan.
‘Oh. Oooh. Is she his plus one?’
‘That would seem to be the case.’
She required a couch, and a plush red chair for her Captain, and they sat. Hook stared intently at Curt. ‘You know who I am, of course.’
‘Scourge of Neverland and her imaginary friend from the Lost.’
Hook nodded. ‘Whether or not she’s Found is of no concern, I want to know she’s being cared for.’ The pirate turned forget-me-not blue eyes on her. ‘Does he look after you?’
‘Where’s that package I brought?’
She held up her hands and shifted the present from the conference room. ‘This one?’
She opened it, revealing a dusty bottle of wine. ‘Between you and Grigori,’ she said, ‘I’m seriously starting to think people want me drunk tonight.’
‘This is very, very special,’ Hook said. ‘I’d be willing to wager you’ve never seen anything like it.’
She gently rubbed her sleeve over the dust, exposing the grey label. The label had a painting of an indistinct, ghostly creature, and faded letters that even agenty eyes had trouble reading. She gave up, and looked to her Captain.
‘Have you heard of the Ashreaders, dear one?’
She shook her head. ‘I’m still playing catch up.’
He blew a smoke ring. ‘They are follies, creatures with no true substance. Some people acknowledge their existence, but call them unreal, since they are hidden away, and make no impact on the world. They are, in their own way, a counterpoint to story thieves. Ashreaders are also sustained by words, but they have none of the negative effect that thieves can have. They subsist on words, though they live for words that are never seen by anyone else. Mistakes and first drafts, a wrong word that is erased as it is noticed. They will have discussions for years about the possible implications of a single letter out of place.’
‘So there’s a race of fanboying, nitpicky, fae that thrive on imperfection?’
‘That’s the least romantic way I’ve ever heard them described. Most people are intrigued.’
‘Captain, you’ve managed to make me paranoid about typos. And I’m not even sure it’s possible for an agent to typo.’
Curt leaned close to her. ‘Newbie, you speak fluent lolcat, you can typo all you want.’
‘It’s hard for them to intrude onto this plane, because they so fundamentally lack substance. Communication, can be achieved though, and through efforts that would take far too much effort to describe, we can feel a thousandth of what they feel. We can distill their remembrances of watching words form and reform. Distill, and add them to wine, most commonly. I think you’ll appreciate this bottle.’
He gently pulled it out of her hands, wiped away more of the dust, and three initials became clear: J.M.B.
‘Ca-captain, is this-?’
‘One of the few bottled memories of Barrie remaining. I also could have sourced Lewis, but your heart has always been in Neverland, not in Narnia.’
She stared reverently at the bottle. ‘Shouldn’t it go to a scholar or something? A historian, or-‘
‘Or the girl who saved the world, dear one? It’s just a token, it’s far less than you deserve, and far less of a thank you than we should provide for you naming the Lost your charity. It is the most your Captain can do, and I hope it’s enough.’
She stood quickly, and hugged her Captain tightly, his black curls tickling her skin. ‘I wouldn’t have made it here without you, Captain.’
She pulled away and sat back down.
He gave her a sad look. ‘I did far less than you needed, but I did all that I could.’
She shrugged, feeling the necklace chain against her neck. ‘And everything has pretty much worked out for the best.’
Ryan came over with Rier. ‘We’ve worked out the limousine arrangements for tonight,’ he said. ‘Unless you’d like to change anything.’
She required a couch, and he sat, the fairy standing at attention.
She looked between Ryan and the fairy. ‘You can sit too, you know.’
Rier sat quickly. ‘Thank you, Agent Mimosa.’
[it’s weird to be called Agent without you giving me a lecture,] she said to Ryan.
A tiny screenshot of his HUD appeared in the text window. [I have several prepared speeches if it would make you feel better.]
[You do not!]
He smiled in the video window, the image at odds with his neutral, professional expression he wore in the real world. [Of course not, those are my meeting notes.]
‘Ok, so what do we need to know?’ she said. ‘Limos will take us to the gala, there’ll be food at the gala, presumably the limos will take us home afterward?’
‘We’ve arranged rooms for you all,’ Rier said. ‘So that you don’t have to make the trip back in the same night.’
She squirmed. ‘That might work for everyone else, but I’m worse than Cinderella, my blue has a more limited timer than a regular agent, so I’ll need a limo back, or at least a bus ticket.’
Rier went pale again. ‘We’d- Bus- Bus-?‘ The fairy took a drink from her large glass.
‘it won’t be necessary,’ Ryan said.
‘Your blue won’t be an issue tonight. We’ve been granted permission to give you a thirty-six hour timer, that will be more than enough for tonight, and for the trip home tomorrow.’
Ryan nodded. ‘I was going to tell you later.’ He looked to Rier. ‘Rooms for everyone, but everyone can make their own way home tomorrow, rather than trying to coordinate.’
Rier looked at her list. ‘There’s really only a few items to cover with you, Agent Mimosa, you’ll have attendants by your side tonight if you have further questions.’
‘I’ll have what now?’
‘Newbie, did you cancel your whores?’
‘…you were serious about that?’
‘What part of fairy gala did you fail to understand?’
Her eyes went wide as she stared at Rier. ‘Um. No attendants. Thank you.’
‘As you wish, Agent, that’s one more appointment that we can scratch off the agenda. Do you know who is providing your mask, or will you be providing your own?’
‘I’ll presume you’ve got no idea what she’s talking about,’ Magnolia said as she walked up to them.
She ground her foot against the carpet again.
She turned away from the magpie. ‘Why do I need a mask?’
‘Yo has one he’d like to offer you, if you’ve got nothing else,’ Magnolia said.
She looked at Magnolia. ‘I ask again, why do I need a mask?’
‘It’s to make being the centre of attention tolerable,’ the fairy dressmaker said as he walked up. ‘Guests of honour, royalty, Court royalty and few others are afforded the privilege. If you are wearing a mask, no one may speak to you without your permission. I can tell you from experience that it’s a magic unto itself to have the power to make everyone shut up’ He handed her a package wrapped with blue cloth and silver ribbon. ‘You declined the need for a dress, this was the least I could do.’
She undid the loose bow, and unfolded the corners of the blue fabric, exposing the mask.
She bit her lip as traced her fingers over the delicate silver mask. It was gorgeous. It was too much. She quickly required new shoes, feeling suddenly awkward and ugly. A thing that would “just do, stop wasting time” or “just stand behind the other girls” or any of the hundred tiny put downs that she’d heard at ballet, at birthdays, at any occasion where her mother had to compare her with the other, better girls. The prettier girls. The girls that weren’t’ covered in mud. The hackers that weren’t always in dirty sneakers.
She bit back on an urge to shift to Canada.
She pulled a half-strength /serious, and smiled at the fairy. ‘It’s lovely, thank you.’
Rier looked down at her tablet computer. ‘All right, there are a few things left we need to organise.’
She sat back on the couch, required a coffee, and tried to look casual as the fairy detailed the plans for the rest of the day.