Ryan stared at an impossibility.
Enforcer Crawford’s monitor held an image of Stef, weeping in the corner of one of the holding cells. Only half-aware of his own movement, Ryan stood and reached out for her image – as if he could reach through the glass and provide some remote comfort.
He felt wetness on his cheeks – he was crying, and he couldn’t muster the control to cut off his visible emotions.
She had been dead.
Her body had been in the oubliette. A grey, empty thing, devoid of mirror and soul. An empty shell that he’d failed. He had known, even as he’d held a hand that would never move again, that he’d failed her.
He had known, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he would never see her again.
Ryan’s fingers brushed the screen, touching the image of her crying face. ‘Stef?’
Crawford grabbed the edge of the monitor and turned it away from Ryan; and as he did, reality seemed to rush back into the room.
Ryan stumbled back into the guest chair, the chair almost tipping as he sat, but he felt Jane’s hands steady it as it rocked. He sucked in an unsteady breath and stared across the desk at the enforcer.
He had never sat on this side of his desk before, never been in such a powerless position in his own office.
Some recruits had commented that his chair looked intimidating, and for the first time, he saw that they were right. The high-backed chair had been chosen for its comfort – paperwork demanded he be at his desk for hours each day – not for its power to make people on the other side of the desk feel helpless.
Crawford stared at him, the enforcer’s brown eyes emotionless. ‘Agent, is there anything you want to amend to your previous final statement?’
‘No, sir,’ he whispered. ‘When I saw her– She was dead.’ He felt like a child under the eyes of a parent, but as feeble as the words were, they were the truth.
‘That’s counter to the evidence here, Agent,’ Crawford said.
‘I have been honest,’ Ryan said, ‘I respect my duty, and if she was– If she’d lived–’
He looked at the back of the monitor, needing to see her again. He flicked through his HUD menus, scrolling through the security feeds until he found the angles that covered her cell.
Ryan took a deep breath. ‘I would have at least investigated the possibility of bringing her back to the Agency. Sir, I never expected to– May I go see her?’
‘No,’ Crawford said in an even tone. ‘Not just yet, Ryan.’
‘Agent, it would be in your best interest to shut up, right this very second,’ Crawford said, warning heavy in his voice.
‘For what it’s worth,’ Jane said, ‘I believe him. Mirrors are…unpredictable. I’ve seen that first-hand.’
Crawford turned his gaze to Jane, and his expression softened just a little. ‘Agent, we don’t talk about that.’
Ryan took a moment to process the conversation, and several facts sprang out at him.
First: Crawford clearly knew about at least one of Kayla’s wishes, and he likely knew about Jane’s involvement in trying to help the woman who had become her wife.
Second: Crawford was clearly uncomfortable acknowledging that he knew.
And third: Crawford, likely, didn’t know about Ryan’s involvement. If Crawford knew, then the current situation would be a lot harder to ignore – two incidents were the start of a pattern. A pattern that indicated he was willing to go against his duty when mirror was in the picture.
To a certain extent, it was true. He had gone against the word of Duty. He had used contraband to– He had…corrected untenable situations, with no further desire to disrupt his usual patterns of service.
Wishes had led to life, and–
Stef was alive, and he needed to do everything to arrange an outcome where at least she survived.
‘Where was she?’ Ryan asked, his voice hoarse. ‘Where did–’ He looked up at Jane, hoping for an ally. ‘Who found her?’
‘Taylor and Magnolia,’ Jane said. ‘From what Taylor was able to tell me, she was in your Local Court, alone and not willing to cooperate with them.’
Ryan felt his lip curl. ‘I doubt cooperation was an option.’
‘Agent,’ Crawford snapped. ‘That’s enough!’
Ryan moved uncomfortably in his chair. ‘Sir, how are we going to proceed?’
Crawford folded his hands and placed them on the desk.
Ryan stared at the position of the enforcer’s hands on his desk. They were precisely where he put them when he was trying to look formal in front of recruits. Had his desk not refreshed at regular intervals, there would have been a small worn spot on the surface.
The world was coming apart, and he could only stare at his desk.
‘Agent,’ Crawford said, and it took Ryan a moment to meet the man’s eyes. ‘What do we do with mirror?’
A cold feeling spread in his chest. ‘But sir, you can’t–’
‘It would be in your best interest not to use that word with me,’ Crawford said, his face losing some of its calm. ‘What do we do with mirror?’
‘It’s not just mirror–’
‘Destroy it,’ Ryan said, dropping his head to look at the floor.
In a flash, it was clear. Crawford would stand, give him a short speech, then kill him with three words. His blue would come apart, and he would be nothing but a short scent of ash on the air. Everything he was would disappear. His templated line would come to an end, to the shame of all of his formers. Nothing of him would be preserved to be carried forward in other agents. He would have no legacy, no remembrance.
Crawford would step through his ash cloud, then go murder Stef.
If the enforcer had any kindness, he’d knock her out first, get the Parkers to drug her into unconsciousness before ripping the mirror from her chest and destroying whatever magic had brought her back.
Ryan closed his eyes, not wanting to see any of it.
He knew the words were coming.
‘Agent, stand up.’
Ryan stood, took a moment to refresh his uniform, and stared straight ahead, ready to die.
‘Agent, what is your duty?’
‘I have done my duty,’ he said, staring out the window behind Crawford, through the window that he had looked through every day of his life. ‘I made a choice, I told Jane, I never– I never went–’ He swallowed. ‘Frankly, if I had wanted to turn away from my duty, with that much mirror, I could have fallen and prospered.’
It was a foolish thing to say. Brazen. Something Reynolds would have attributed to Rhys.
Crawford stared, his expression slipping back to unreadable. ‘What is your desired outcome for all of this, Agent?’
Ryan slipped his hands into his pockets. ‘I wish to continue to do my duty. To serve. To maintain my rank and position. I want this to be seen as what it was – an error in judgment coming from the same drive we have to protect life – and for that life to be spared.’ He finally met Crawford’s gaze. ‘She’s innocent, and she doesn’t deserve to die again.’
‘If certain things fall into place, some or all that can be arranged.’
The world blurred as he was shifted, and Ryan found himself standing outside Stef’s cell.
Taylor was to his left, body rigid against the wall beside the cell, an immovable sentinel. Magnolia paced past Crawford to his right, a small throwing knife twirling in one hand, a small tablet in her other. Violence and organisation, the recruit’s two pillars.
And ahead of Ryan was the young woman he kept failing to save.
Quietly shaking, Stef sat on the ground, towards the back of the stark cell, dried blood on what he could see of her nose, her arms behind her as she leaned against the wall.
Ryan forced himself to look at Crawford. ‘May I, sir?’
The enforcer lifted a hand, and the thick plastic door disappeared.
He stepped in, expecting that Crawford would trap him in the cell as soon as he was over the threshold, and not caring in the slightest.
Stef whimpered as he approached, not looking up, awkwardly shuffling further back towards the right corner of the cell. He knelt in front of her and placed one hand on her knee. ‘Stef?’
She jerked her head towards him, her eyes red, her face wet with tears. Her expression changed – recognition, hope, fear. ‘He– hey,’ she said shakily, more tears coming.
He leaned forward and tried to pull her into his arms, but she shook her head even as he wrapped his arms around her shoulders. ‘I– I can’t hug you back.’
It took a moment for him to recognise the awkward position that her arms were in, but he held onto her for a moment longer before letting her go. He pulled gently on one shoulder to look behind her and saw that her hands were cuffed.
His first instinct was to free her.
His first instinct would make him look bad in front of the man who controlled their lives.
He hesitated for a moment, then stood to face Crawford. ‘Sir, may I remove the cuffs?’
Taylor and Magnolia moved in simultaneously to flank Crawford.
‘I’d suggest against it, sir,’ Magnolia said, her black eyes narrowing and the tablet disappearing from her hand. ‘The prisoner is displaying several properties that–’ She spun the short knife. ‘I can demonstrate if you wish.’
‘No need for that, Hammond,’ Crawford said. ‘Taylor’s initial statement to Jane covered the demonstrated healing characteristics. Has anything else become obvious since arrival? Anything that can indicate travel capabilities?’
Magnolia stared down at Stef. ‘I don’t think she could even stand on her own two feet, let alone fade out of here. Sir.’
Crawford gave him a nod, and Ryan dismissed the cuffs – a dismissal that needed his directorial override. The dismissal told him two things: Taylor wasn’t trusting anyone – normal prisoners didn’t have cuffs that needed high-level access to dismiss – and he still had all his rights and permissions as interim director.
The first wasn’t unusual for Taylor’s paranoia.
The second had to be taken as a good sign.
He knelt again and helped Stef move her stiff arms forward. She rubbed at her wrists – both of which were also covered in dried blood.
‘How– How did you…?’ He put a hand to her face. ‘You were dead.’
If she mentioned the oubliette, then they were in danger, but he needed to ask anyway.
She sank forward, wrapping both of her arms around one of his. ‘I was alone, I didn’t know what to do.’
‘I’m here,’ he said. ‘I’m here now.’
Crawford stepped into the cell behind him. ‘You’ve seen her. I’ve satisfied one of your wishes, Agent. Now, if you’ll excuse us.’
The texture of Stef’s shirt changed under his hand. For a brief moment, it felt like liquid static electricity – the prelude to a shift. It was the same momentary change in texture that had stopped him from shifting her from the arms of a Solstice two decades ago. His hesitation, coming from the fear that the man was trained well enough to feel for it and would shoot the child he held as a human shield.
Ryan tried to hold onto her, even though it was useless.
A second later, Stef and Crawford were gone.
Ryan stared at an impossibility.