Stef tried to keep pace with Ryan, but his stupidly long legs – at least in comparison to hers – kept him a step ahead. Usually, he seemed to have no problem slowing his pace to keep down with her, but now he seemed…almost excited at the prospect of showing off her new office.
It was situated a couple of hallways away from his – no closer to the recruit quarters, mostly it was near other empty offices and meeting rooms. It was close enough to feel safely close to him, but still somehow far enough away to give her space.
If intentional – and she had no doubt that it was – she was grateful. He was keeping her close, but giving her room to spread her unfortunately metaphorical wings.
He stopped in front of an unremarkable door; a door that looked like all of the rest of the doors – with only a small label marking it as 7.O.7 – with “Agent Mimosa” in a sliding metal placard beside the door office number. Ryan twisted the handle, pushed it open, and then laid a hand on her shoulder. ‘Go on in.’
She took a deep breath, then stepped over the threshold. It was like some long-delayed step to adulthood. Something that proved that at least a few people thought she had a real chance at contributing something other than panic attacks and cookie crumbs to the world.
The office was smaller than Ryan’s – about half the size – though it shared the same window-wall at the back, giving her a view of the city outside. The desk was black, smooth, and functional. There was a small pile of paperwork next to where her right hand would sit.
To her immediate left was a couch, an armchair and a small square table – all of it was different to Ryan’s furniture. To her right was a small displays shelf, with several very familiar figurines. She walked to the display shelf, then turned back to him. ‘Did, you, break into my apartment?’ she asked, a grin forming on her face.
He nodded. ‘I thought you would appreciate something familiar.’
‘And it’s not unprofessional?’
Ryan returned her smile. ‘Jones helped me select the best pieces from your collection, it’s fine, Agent.’
She bounced a little at being called by her new rank, then saw something that wasn’t a feature of Ryan’s office – a door in the left wall. She pointed to it, and he simply nodded.
The door opened smoothly at her touch, and beyond was a bedroom. One of the standard recruit beds – though standard was hardly the word to describe how soft and comfy the beds were – a desk, ready for Frankie; a large TV, and wireless game controllers for all of the latest-gen consoles.
Ryan walked up beside her, and flicked off the lights, and the ceiling lit up with-
Her mind tried to parse what was happening on the ceiling for a moment as glow in the dark stars, but it only took a moment to realise it was something more. Stars and galaxies rolled overhead, like the opening to a Star Trek series, nebulas burst and roiled, amazing effects.
‘This is preset one,’ Ryan said, his hand on her shoulder. ‘Two,’ he said, the ceiling effect changed to agent code. ‘Three.’ The ceiling changed the webcomics feed from the Tech Department.
She looked up at him. ‘You’re a pretty great dad, you know that, right?’
His smile grew wider. ‘I hope you’d like it. You can change anything and everything you like. Keep the main area…professional, but feel free to express yourself within here.’
‘I’ll be good,’ she said solemnly, knowing it was what he needed to hear.
There was a soft snuffling sound from the far side of the bed, and a small bear cub came walking out, an agency-blue ribbon around its neck.
Stef squeed, and collapsed to the floor to cuddle it. ‘Dawww, he’s lovely,’ she said. ‘Sim or real? Cause I’m no good with real pets.’ She patted the cub’s head, and it licked her hair, making it stick up at strange angles.
Ryan hadn’t responded, so she looked up at him. His expression had dulled, the smiled had disappeared, and he wasn’t looking at her. ‘The bear,’ he said, looking over her head, ‘wasn’t a present from me.’
Stef slowly put the cuddling bear cub onto the carpet, focussed on a spot behind Ryan, and shifted there, without even turning to look behind her. When she reintegrated, she saw the massive, blond hulk that was…Agent Russianpants. A man who had broken her neck no less than six times, but had never introduced himself.
Fix your hair, Spyder.
Stef lifted her hair and smoothed back the bear-licked cow-lick in her hair.
The Russian agent crouched and picked up the bear in one arm, cradling it like a baby – an image that would have been a lot more comforting, if she didn’t know how violent the crook of his arm could be.
Unconsciously, she lifted a hand and grabbed the back of Ryan’s jacket.
‘Agent,’ Ryan said neutrally.
The Russian agent tickled the cub’s stomach, his eyes locked on her. ‘Grigroi,’ he said, his tone genial and light – the opposite of what he’d used during the limit tests. ‘My name is Grigori. Boris is a present for you.’
She closed her eyes, and tripped her favourite new trick – /serious. A physical command in the style of an MMO emote. It was the basic agent method of controlling how much emotion was shown, but Jones as macro’d it to a thought that came easily.
Immediately, she found herself standing straighter, and her face went neutral. After another half–second, she opened her eyes. She met his gaze, amazed at how calm she was keeping . ‘You ripped. The tongue. Out of my head. Now you’re giving me a fucking present?’
‘If you’re more interested in a fucking present-‘ he started.
‘Agent,’ Ryan said again.
Grigori stepped forward and extended a hand. ‘You were an experiment,’ he said, ‘I didn’t have to respect an experiment. You’re an agent now, I’m free to treat you like a person.’ He adjusted the bow around Boris’ neck. ‘I’m popular in the bear community,’ he paused, ‘both bear communities, now that I come to think of it. Boris is the cub of my own pet, which was gifted to me from my local court of bears. Boris has royal blood, if only a drop. You should feel lucky to-‘
‘Don’t want it,’ she said, her voice kept level by the /serious. ‘Take it back. I know it’s gauche not to accept presents, but I couldn’t give a-‘
‘It was also a bribe,’ Grigori said plainly, the bear cub disappearing from his arms. ‘I was hoping something small and fluffy would put you in a good mood.’ He took a step closer. ‘Ryan, you haven’t picked the location for her external training yet.’
Ryan scoffed, the noise making her jump, as it sounded so much like a noise that would escape her father’s study. ‘I am not sending her to Moscow. Not with you. Not with any member of your family. You have to be kidding to think you’d be taken seriously. You helped Taylor-‘ Ryan faltered, and Grigori seemed to jump at the chance.
‘That’s why she has to come,’ Grigori said. ‘It shows willing. Shows an intention to move past the limit tests, and full cooperation with the participants and-‘
‘No,’ Ryan said, and her insides went warm at how protected she felt.
Grigori cocked his head to the side. ‘Where were you planning on sending her? You must have some idea.’
‘Williams,’ Ryan said, ‘Hyde.’
Oh, not the fucking UK…
‘You’re going to send a field agent,’ Grigori asked, accusation slipping into his tone, ‘to play with a bunch of techs? Who is doing her-‘
She opened up a voice chat with Ryan, and saw him accept. [I am right here! Does he know he’s rude to discuss people like they’re not in the room?]
[His manners,] Ryan said, some of his dry humour finally returning to his voice, [aren’t always the best.]
‘I’ll send my agents wherever I deem fit,’ Ryan said to Grigori. ‘And in this case, away from-‘
‘Think like a damn agent, Ryan,’ Grigori said.
‘Get out of my office,’ Stef said, her voice quiet, ‘please. I haven’t even had a chance to- I never invited you in. You’re ruining it before I even get a chance to enjoy it.’
‘My application will be on your desk, Ryan,’ Grigori said. ‘It’ll look good for me. For you. And for her,’ he said, his ice-blue eyes coming back onto her. ‘Do one good thing for your agency this week. No harm will come to her. And it’ll likely be her only chance to see frost giants on earth.’
Stef turned, and walked back out to the main part of her office, and sat behind her desk. Her hands instinctively moved for a computer keyboard, and her eyes began to search for Frankie.
Frankie was still in her room. Still-
Taylor had trashed him. Her bed had crushed him, breaking him totally for the second time. Taylor was an enemy of technology – a neat trick for someone literally made of nanites. She sighed, and flinched as Grigori stomped out of her office. Ryan stood into the doorway to her bedroom, a defeated look on his face.
Defeat was…not the emotion she expected. He’d been angry. Defeat meant- She squared her shoulders at him. ‘Do you want me to go to Russia with him?’
Ryan pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘So much as I don’t like to admit it, he does have some arguments that hold water. It would look good on your first performance report.’ His hand fell away from his face. ‘And for the next few years, those performance reports will determine the quality of life that you’re going to have.’
She kept her expression neutral, then required a lightbulb and held it above her head.
Ryan raised an eyebrow, and some of the tension eased from his face. ‘I take it…you have an idea?’
‘If I have to go,’ she said, ‘do I have to go alone?’
He gave her a dad look. ‘I can’t go with you.’
She looked down at her her desk. ‘Funnily enough, I’d figured that part out.’ She looked up. ‘But…maybe Curt?’ She shrugged. ‘The one piece of advice from…from James Mimosa that I decided to hold onto was this: Don’t be afraid of someone you can fire. And I can fire him, right?’
‘You’d have to-’
She looked up at him. ‘If you want me to go to- To do my external training with…that agent. Just say yes.’
Ryan was quiet for a long moment, then lifted his head in assent. ‘Yes.’
‘Good,’ she said, poking her tongue out.
Shift: Recruit O’Connor’s current location.
A bright, clean, airy room met her eyes as the world blurred back into view. It was a familiar layout, albeit a little different to what she was used to. ‘This is,’ she said, ‘the boy’s bathroom isn’t it?’
There was a groan from one of the stalls. ‘Ma’am…are we alone?’
She looked left and right, the urinals weren’t in use, and the other stalls were open and unoccupied. ‘Seems so.’
‘Newbie,’ Curt said, ‘you might not be human anymore, but certain rules still apply like…no girls in here.’
‘Are we about to be invaded?’
‘…I’m pretty sure we’re not.’
‘Are we going to war?’
‘I don’t think so?’
‘…so why are you still in the boy’s bathroom?’
She shrugged. ‘I’m here now, it doesn’t smell, and there’s no one else in here, so who cares?’ She blushed. ‘Sorry, I just shifted to where you were.’
‘Guess I should be thankful that you aren’t in here with me,’ he said. There was a flushing sound and he opened the stall door. ‘You wanted me?’
She looked away. ‘Um. You wanna-’ she flapped her hands. ‘I kind of need you to come to Russia with me.’
Curt stood where he was for a moment, then she watched his shoes as he approached the sink, and she listened as he washed his hands before feeling brave enough to chance looking at his face again.
She was annoying. She was stupid. He was already a better friend than she’d ever had, and she was probably using up far too many friendship tokens for the amount of time she’d known him.
He was smiling. ‘I’ll go. Just tell me what’s going on, newbie.’
The door to the bathroom swung open, and one of the other field recruits stopped in the doorway, looked at them, then backed out, mumbling.
Curt pointed. ‘That’s why you don’t shift into the boy’s bathroom.’
‘They already think I’m a wanton woman who sleeps with royalty, I doubt this will barely register.’
She looked up at him, the corners of her mouth turning up in a small smile. Curt was staring at her, his eyebrows heading north into his hairline. ‘Newbie, just when I think I can predict what comes out of your mouth, you…go ahead and say something like that.’
‘Russia? I’ll get you one of those fuzzy hats.’
He shrugged and nodded. ‘Shift us somewhere, and catch me up on the detail.’