Ryan looked at the door as Stef left.
‘Go for your gun,’ Carol said, a soft hand to his face. ‘You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t.’
He flushed with guilt, of looking a gift horse in the mouth, of thinking that there had to be something wrong, of trying to steel his melting heart against the possibility that he would have to…deal with her again.
‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered, and stood. He went to the wardrobe and pulled his gun from his holster. He kept the safety on, but leant against the wardrobe door, away from her touch, away from her scent, away from a thousand thousand wants for it to be real.
‘I remember…everything,’ she said, tears in her perfect eyes. ‘Everything I did, every one I hurt, I remember it all.’
‘What about after?’
‘The Oubliette? That’s more like a dream.’
‘How do I know that you’re- How do I know this is real?’
‘There’s one way an agent can tell the truth from a lie.’
He set his jaw. ‘Never.’
‘If it’s what it takes for you to believe me, then-‘
‘No Carol, no.’
She stood and held his hand, then pressed it to her head. ‘I don’t want you to doubt me.’
He pulled his hand away. ‘I’m not going to. Tell me something-‘
‘You begged me to kill you. Before you banished me, you begged me to kill you.’
‘I couldn’t imagine being without you.’
‘How am I here, Ryan?’
‘Mirror magic,’ he said.
‘Could you use that convince yourself?’
He put his gun down. He pulled away from her, and opened the handkerchief Stef had given him. A small, bloody shard of mirror sat in the centre.
He pressed two fingers to the silver shard. Is this real?
The piece of mirror turned liquid and Stef’s blood beaded before sinking into the fabric. The mirror sat as a small pool of mercury for a moment, then formed into the three simple letters that spelt “Yes”.
They stayed like that for a moment, then returned to the small pool, before becoming solid again. He wrapped it back up in the bloody cloth, then returned it to his pocket.
He lifted her with weary arms, and carried her to the bed.
For two hours, they just held each other. After the shock wore down, they each cried, taking turns at needing comfort, and giving comfort.
Talk began slowly. A question here, a small snippet of information. Stories of the aftermath. Small, painful truths, old memories brought to the surface.
‘What was Taylor’s funeral like? Twenty-one gun salute?’
‘Taylor,’ he paused, ‘we brought him back.’
‘You can do that?’
‘Most often, it’s done to retrieve a memory of how an agent died. We did more than that. And he spent twenty years hating me for it.’ He went silent. It was the question she hadn’t asked. It was the answer he had wanted to delay giving.
‘It’s been that long?’
He gave her a nod.
‘You didn’t give up on me.’
‘I didn’t stop loving you, but I didn’t think I would get you back.’
‘Is there someone else? That girl who was here?’
‘Stef? Gods, no. I haven’t been in love with anyone. I didn’t look, and I didn’t respond if anyone showed an interest. I did my duty, that’s all I did, it was more than enough to fill my time.’
‘That sounds so lonely.’
‘What free time I did have, I spent it talking to Reynolds.’
‘Is he still dreaming?’
‘I still like to believe he hears some of what happens in the waking world.’
‘I didn’t mean to bring you so much misery.’
He pressed his hands to her face, then kissed her. ‘I have you back, that’s what matters to me.’
‘What’s going to happen now?’
‘We can’t stay here, I only have this room for a few hours.’
‘And I can’t go back to the Agency.’
‘Then what-‘
There was a knock, and Curt’s voice came through the door. ‘Sir, it’s us.’
He opened the door, and ushered them in – Stef noticeably a few feet behind.
‘Are you sure you’re all right?’ he asked as she came into the room.
She nodded. ‘I’m fine, now stop giving me dad!face. Are things ok here?’
He gave her a nod.
‘Hi,’ he heard Curt say, ‘Curt O’Connor, I’m his Aide.’
‘Hello,’ Carol said.
‘We has a plan,’ Stef said, moving to lean against the wardrobe – the room was small enough, but it was crowded with four people there. Curt took a position on the threshold to the bathroom, and he returned to the bed.
Stef turned to look at Carol. ‘We didn’t get a chance to get introduced before, but I’d like to offer you my apartment. I’m Stef, by the way.’
He looked to her. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m not using it, you’ve been there a ton of times, it’ll fly under the radar better than any other plan we could come up with. Three of us have to be at a meeting in a couple of hours, and I don’t think you want to leave her behind in some crappy fairy hotel. You come up with a better plan later, that’s ok, but for now, you think it’ll work?’
‘I think it will.’
Stef pointed at Curt. ‘We’ll go back up through the warehouse, you take her up some stairs that aren’t in the Marches, just so no one sees, have you got petty cash for a cab?’
‘I should have plenty.’
‘Then shift her across to my apartment, which we will try and clean up a bit by the time you get there. I’ll at least get my stuff out of the way.’ She turned back to Carol again. ‘The meeting’s supposed to last two hours, unless Clarke decides to spend an hour on anecdotes…like usual.’
‘I’ll be all right,’ Carol said. ‘And thank you, thank you all.’
‘Welcome,’ Stef said with a bright smile, and Curt gave a nod.
* * *
The walk back to the storage facility was quicker than before, but as before, they slipped through without being noticed by the warehouse agents – something she was glad for. One long, laggy shift had them back in the Agency.
‘All limbs present and accounted for?’ she asked.
Curt gave a grunt of annoyance.
The Agency blurred, and her apartment faded into view. ‘Not what I expected’ Curt said as he set about opening the windows.
‘What did you expect?’
‘It’s surprisingly normal.’
‘I didn’t want to piss off my landlord,’ she said, ‘so I was nice. It’s not like I spent much time out of the bedroom anyway. What’s the point of modding meatspace if you never spend any time there?’
‘Where do we start?’
She stepped into the kitchen, and closed her eyes. Requirements emptied the fridge and filled it with the basics; cleaned and emptied the cupboards, leaving only the necessities to make tea, coffee and ramen. Another requirement cleaned the floor, and replaced the tiles.
She looked back. ‘Chuck all my DVDs in a bag.’
‘…and you can’t require more why?’
‘Hey, some of those are signed!’
‘Fine, newbie, fine.’
She stepped into the hall, requirements cleaning and repainting the walls, replacing the bulbs, and putting a bouquet of fresh flowers in a vase on the small entryway table.
She moved the the other bookcases in the living room, requirements sending back books and figures, depositing them in boxes in her office before allowing the bookcases to disappear.
‘You should get new curtains,’ he said as he deposited a handful of DVDs into a bag.
‘Girls like pink, right?’
‘Just go for some neutral colours, they can fix it up later.’
She required light, lacy curtains, a new couch, a new rug, and a new coffee table. It didn’t look like her living room anymore. A new TV and a new radio finished off the room.
She looked down at the bags he had packed and shifted them back to the Agency.
‘This way,’ she said as she went into the bedroom.
‘Ok, this is more like what I expected.’
Thoughts immediately switched out the curtains and the carpet. She jumped on the bed and bounced up and down. ‘Always wanted to do this,’ she said, ‘but I never did, I didn’t want to have to buy a new bed.’
‘…are you sure you’re older than me?’
She shifted him up onto the bed, and grabbed his hands. ‘This is fun,’ she said as she bounced. ‘Come on, Agent C, have some fun.’
‘I’m going to kill Raz.’
‘You act like more of an agent than I do,’ she said, letting his hands go, and bouncing in circles.
‘One of us has to.’
‘You’re allowed to have some fun,’ she said, bouncing near him to make him move.
He bounced once – off the bed. ‘They’ll be here soon.’
‘And I should get to enjoy this place one more time.’
He picked up Alexandria from the bedside table. ‘Didn’t figure you for a doll collector.’ She squeaked, jumped off the bed, and grabbed the doll from his hands. ‘Sorry,’ he said.
She smoothed out Alexandria’s red hair. ‘She’s just very precious. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.’
‘Oh?’ he asked as he moved to open the windows.
‘She was a bribe,’ she said, ‘Ryan brought her with him when I died the first time. She was something familiar, and it worked. It’s probably because of her that I remember him at all, just that tiny little bit of memory hanging on. She is my very favourite thing.’ She held the doll tightly then shifted her back to her office.
He gave her a funny look.
‘Nothing, just getting a whole different side of you today.’
She turned and replaced the bed.
‘Uh, Stef.’
‘Come on, a double bed at least.’ He snapped his fingers and replaced the small single bed with a king-sized one.
‘Oh, that looks springy.’
He grabbed the back of her vest. ‘No jumping.’
She hung limply, held up only by his hand, and he gently swung her side to side. ‘You still have to clean out your wardrobe.’
She required away the wardrobe doors, picked through the clothes, saving the black-shirts-with-white-writing, and requiring everything else off into the void. Seldom-used duffle bags disappeared, as did shoes long since past their used-by date.
Then, with a few more requirements…the apartment was no longer hers.
She let out a long breath. ‘Goodbye,’ she said under her breath.
‘It’s not like you’ll never come here again,’ Curt said as they returned to the living room and sat on the new couch.
‘Until the Agency, this was the only place I’d ever felt at home.’
‘Personal question if I can?’ he said as he required an energy drink.
‘How’d you even get this place? You don’t work, you don’t have a steady income, I can’t imagine that’s too attractive on a rental application.’
‘You have no idea. When I came back over the last time, I lived in a hotel for weeks – playing the rich girl, room service, getting the front desk to do my every whim, then going out every day and looking at dirt-cheap shitbox apartments, trying to find anywhere that would take me.’
‘No luck?’
‘None, and hotel living is expensive, so it wasn’t something I could sustain. I could have gotten into like, student housing, but I couldn’t stand the thought of being around people like that. I just wanted this,’ she said, with a gesture, ‘four walls that were mine and a door I could close and lock the world away.’
‘So how?’
‘After the second week, I started carrying around a five thousand dollars in bearer bonds. It was a bribe. It worked outstandingly badly. Do you know how many people don’t know what bearer bonds look like? Or believe that some teenage girl has cash like that to burn while trying to rent a place that has piss stains on the walls?’
‘Yeah, I can imagine.’
‘I found this place by accident. I was looking at a place up the road. Saw a tiny sign in the window to the lobby, knocked on the door, and got to see it straight away.’
‘The bribe worked?’
‘Gods bless him, Mr Jenkins is one of the few people I spoke with who actually knew what a bearer bond looked like. He just asked what my situation was, accepted that it was weird, but that I wasn’t some sort of crazy person, er, some sort of dangerous crazy person, took the money as an advance on my rent, and I moved in the next day.’
‘I never had to do the rent thing,’ Curt said as he drained the energy drink. ‘My dad owns a few pieces of property, so he let me and my ex stay in one. Big townhouse, she always complained that it was too big to clean, even though I was never there to make any of the mess. He just took the pittance he asked in rent out of my pay check.’
‘You gave me the impression you didn’t get along with your dad, but you worked for him?’
‘I needed a job, and he paid me so long as I showed up, even I didn’t do anything. I let him think he could buy love back.’
‘Didn’t work?’
‘No. Nothing he-‘ Ryan and Carol appeared in across the room from them, and he shut his mouth.
‘Welcome to your new place,’ she said as she stood. ‘You can use his mad requiring skillz to make it you like, my casa is..now your casa.’
‘Thank you.’
She looked up at Ryan. ‘Twenty minutes, okies?’
She grabbed Curt’s arm, and shifted them both back to her office. ‘You want to go grab your stuff and I’ll meet you in the conference room?’
‘What I’ve got prepared anyway, I didn’t prep much this afternoon, so I hope it’s enough.’
‘I’ll take the blame if we get any flack for it. Unless it’s Taylor, then you can has alllll the flack he can give.’
‘Thanks newbie,’ he said with a glare. He turned and left, and she grabbed everything from her meeting inbox, shoved it under her arm, and headed to the conference room.
She took her usual seat – halfway down on the left side of the table. No one else was there yet – Jonesy was usually the first, but on the occasions he wasn’t there first, he was generally last.
Jonesy was the only one who had a chance of beating her there – after being late to a couple of meetings, and the disappointed dad!face Ryan had given her, she had made it a priority not to be late, so always arrived about half an hour early. Disappointed dad!face had evolved into proud dad!face, and it guaranteed she did at least one right thing every week.
Taylor and Magnolia always walked in with about a minute to spare, unless Magnolia had a lot of paperwork, in which case they walk in with as much as two minutes to spare.
Agent Greg and his Academy Aide June – for the few meetings they’d been around usually got in with five minutes to spare.
Ryan was an unknown quotient, sometimes late, sometimes early, sometimes he would arrive with her, then leave to do something, and come back when Clarke arrived. Curt was another variable – sometimes he came in with her, sometimes not – this time, he was early.
He slid into the chair beside her, and pushed a sheaf of paper across at her. ‘Here, have a look at this for me, then check over last week’s minutes and see if there’s anything we have to comment on.’
‘The hob situation,’ she reminded him.
‘No, Ryan’s dealing with that. Anything else?’
‘Possibility of sourcing some recruits from the Academy, we’re lower than optimal, we’re lower than low-but-ok.’
‘Yeah, got that in here somewhere.’
The others began to filter in – all but Jones.
‘Ok, since we’re waiting on Jonesy,’ Clarke said, a lit cigarette appearing in his hand, ‘how’s everyone’s week been? Taylor? Getting laid regularly dislodged anything yet?’ Taylor growled, and Clarke leered at Magnolia. ‘Keep up the work, Mags.’
‘Give me that one,’ Curt said, pointing to a report just out of his reach.
‘Would you two get a room,’ Clarke said as they shuffled more paperwork back and forth. He turned to Ryan. ‘And boss, you actually look happy, what’s new with you?’
‘We did,’ she said, her mouth working faster than her brain.
Clarke looked back to her. ‘What?’
Curt, to his credit, said nothing.
‘Got a room. We did. So, um, yeah.’
Silence fell over the room for a moment, before Clarke filled it. ‘Sleeping with a Solstice is a real good way to prove your loyalty.’ He exhaled a long stream of smoke. ‘It’s gonna look great on your next evaluation.’
‘That’s enough, Clarke.’
‘But if you’re open for business, then there’s a couple of high profile targets I’d like to turn, people who would love a chance to-‘
She wanted her chair to eat her. She wanted the world to spontaneously combust.
Magic earth-swallowing power go!
‘Clarke!’ Ryan’s voice was a rumble of thunder.
‘You don’t get maternity leave, you know. You don’t get to be a chick if he breaks your heart, no sobbing while watching soaps. All you get to be is an agent, Mimsy, so I hope for your sake it’s just fucking.’
Jones shifted in, a laptop in his hands. ‘If we haven’t started, you should-‘ The tech looked from Ryan, to Clarke, then closed his laptop. ‘Ok, levitating cats can wait until later. Anything I should know?’ He asked as he slid into a seat across from Greg.
Levitating kitteh would be really good right about now.
Clarke aimed a cigarette. ‘Not much, those two are-‘
‘If we could just start, Clarke?’ Ryan said, the cold edge still in his voice.
[I can has linky?] she sent to Jones.
[After the meeting.] Jones sent back. [You and Curt, OTP?]
Really, really, magic-earth-swallowing power, go!
[I’d prefer not to air my dirty, er, sheets.]
[Of course. Anytime you want to talk, you know where I am.]
‘All right, we’re all here,’ Clarke said, ‘we can start now. Everyone’s read through the minutes of the last meeting-‘
The meeting went for two and a half hours, most of which was uninteresting. Reports, reports, recruit complaints, notices of transfers in and out – the usual stuff that came up at the weekly meetings.
Clarke shifted away as soon as he declared the meeting over. Ryan shifted away a moment later. Taylor stood, ran a hand over Magnolia’s arm, then walked out of the room, Greg following him. The three aides moved to the far end of the conference table to begin their own mini-meeting.
Jones shifted across the table and opened up his laptop. ‘If it wasn’t being played for laughs, I’d take this down, because I’m pretty sure this kitteh is being held up by fae magic.’
‘I’m guessing invisible-whatever memes aren’t so big on the fairy internets?’
‘Not really,’ he said as he hit play.
* * *
Curt slid into his chair as Magnolia took the seat at the foot of the table, she always did – she claimed it as her right for having seniority among the Aides. His argument that he was the Director’s Aide fell on deaf ears – not that he cared, she kept the meetings mercifully short.
‘Really, O’Connor?’ Mags asked him as he shuffled his papers.
‘June, you ready?’ he called to Agent Greg’s Aide.
She held up a phone. ‘Can I make a quick call?’
‘Go ahead,’ Mags said with a smile. She turned back to him. ‘Really, O’Connor?’
‘You’re acting like you care, Mags. You want to start the Brisbane chapter of the “I’m sleeping with an agent” club?’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Your application would be rejected due to the technicality that she’s not really an agent.’ She opened her work book, and clipped in the meeting notes. ‘Usually, banging an agent is something you can brag about, somehow, this is a step down for you, and you weren’t getting anything other than your right hand.’
He gave his hand a quick kiss. ‘And we’ve been very happy together.’ He leaned across toward her. ‘I’d always accept a pity fuck,’ he said.
‘Bed. Made. Fuck. It’s not my problem.’
He looked down at his papers for a moment, a long-unasked question dancing on the tip of his tongue. ‘Why’d you never fuck me, Mags?’ She flashed an angry look at him, and he held up his hands to calm her. ‘I didn’t mean anything by it, just, you went through half the Agency at least, techs included, and you never even looked at me. It kinda hurts the ego.’
She gave a shrug. ‘You’re just not my type. It’s not personal, well, it is, but not in the way you think.’ She looked up at Stef as she laughed at something playing on Jones’ laptop. ‘What do you see in her, I mean, really. Half the agent fetishists I know wouldn’t even touch her.’
‘What do you see in Taylor?’
‘Careful Mags, people will start to think you have feelings.’
She kicked him in the shin. ‘Don’t push it, O’Connor.’
June sat down. ‘Sorry, so where were we?’
* * *
The windows of Stef’s apartment were open, the curtains drawn back, soft music coming out of the radio. So little time, and it already felt like a different place.
Carol sat on the couch, wrapped up in a soft blue blanket.
He laid his jacket over the back of the couch, and sat beside her. She reached out for his hand, and held it in silence for a few long moments.
‘I didn’t recognise any of the music,’ she said with a look to the radio. ‘So I had to put it on the classics. Everything is- Twenty years?’
‘It will get easier, I promise.’
She shrugged off the blanket and stood. She knelt in front of him, and removed his shoes and socks, his vest, his tie – the same thing she had done every night before everything had gone wrong. Her ritual, stripping away the agent, leaving the man.
She melted into his lap and nuzzled at his neck. ‘So long as I have you,’ she said, ‘I’ll be all right.’ She kissed his jaw. ‘And I think you should make love to me.’