Ryan kept his hands at his sides in an effort to keep himself from reaching out for Stef.
‘Here we go,’ Jones said, tapping a button on the tablet, then immediately discarding it on the bench behind him.
Stef’s eyes went half-lidded, as if she was going to sleep.
Her body seized, blue sloshing as she thrashed in the small space.
‘Jones?’ Ryan asked, worry heavy in his voice.
‘Don’t touch her. Whatever it looks like, don’t touch her.’
The blue sloshed more, rivulets of liquid running over the sides of the tank – then, after a moment, the blue changed consistency, becoming a gel that enveloped her body, helping to quell the thrashing.
Her eyes went wide, but they weren’t anything like the eyes that had closed – there was no pupil, no iris, and no white. The entirety of her eyes were blue.
‘Sir, her mind is being uploaded and held by a tether to her body.’ Jones’ voice was calm but serious. ‘This is as pretty as that process can be.’
Her body quietened after a moment, and the blue lost its thicker consistency, going back to water again.
Jones put a hand on his shoulder – it was strange to be comforted; usually he was the one doling it out. ‘I’ll keep her safe, sir. You need to go work on the paperwork angle of this.’
Ryan blanched. ‘I’ve never written a–’
Jones tapped the side of his head, and a file transfer window popped up in Ryan’s HUD. ‘That’s the notes I’ve got so far. Start working it into the standardised format and set us up a two-hour meeting later. We can work on the finer points then. For now…focus on the field agent pathing post-augmentation. That’s your area, not mine.’
Ryan accepted the file, then turned to look at Jones. The tech agent was a few inches shorter than he was, so he needed to tilt his head down, just a little. ‘Have I thanked you yet, for all that you’ve done? For me? For her?’
Jones gave a small smile. ‘I know you’re grateful, sir.’
Ryan shifted from the lab to his office – specifically to the secondary default position behind his desk – and pulled a lockbox from his third drawer. He touched a hand to the box, and a security window appeared in his HUD, prompting him for the security code. He entered the code, then opened it and took out the two small, gold-embossed tickets from inside.
He stared at them for a moment. He had held onto them for over a decade, a thank-you from a woman with far more means than he could ever amass. He placed the lockbox back in his drawer and shifted back to Jones.
Part of him had honestly expected the tech to be standing there, gaping and waiting for his return. The larger part expected what he saw: Jones had simply gotten to work, ignoring the sudden disappearance of a director who was far too distant.
Ryan lifted the tickets and held them out towards Jones, who looked up from his chair, confusion on his face.
‘Sir?’ Jones asked.
Ryan turned the tickets so that they were right side up to the other agent. ‘This restaurant has one of the last stocks of unicorn meat left in Faerie. Ninety percent of the remaining stock has been allocated, and these two tickets represent part of that allocation. There’s a number of dishes you can–’
Jones pushed the tickets back towards Ryan. ‘Sir, you don’t need to bribe me.’
‘It’s not a bribe. It’s my gratitude for everything, long overdue.’ Ryan curled his hand around Jones’ until he felt the tech accept the tickets. ‘There’s two tickets. Do you have someone you can take?’
Ryan tried to keep his voice light, but he was more than a little curious about the answer to the question. For all appearances, Jones didn’t appear to have a personal life, outside of his parenting of Merlin and hobbies that took place within the agency.
The tech agent, so far as he could tell, didn’t even maintain a separate bedroom within the Agency, let alone quarters or a residence outside of it.
And Ryan had never seen the agent take a romantic or sexual interest in anyone.
Jones seemed to ponder the tickets for a moment. ‘I suppose I could invite Crossfade. He does complain that we don’t have enough Agency functions for our contractors.’
The answer surprised Ryan.
Crossfade was one of their external contractors, a person they deemed to have “entirely human magic”, where any fae heritage – if any was present – was more than four generations previous. Crossfade – the man’s stage name – was one of the examples where they could find no fae heritage.
Persons like Crossfade were rare, so the Agency as a whole made every attempt to get them onto their books – for control, collaboration, and record-keeping.
Crossfade had some minor reader talents, though he had used a combination of fae products and sleight-of-hand trickery to brand himself as a “wizard”. He maintained both a store purporting to sell love potions and a stage show.
‘I enjoy the conversations I have with him,’ Jones said. ‘Once you scrape away the charlatan airs, he’s quite intelligent.’ Jones’ mouth quirked into a smile, then into a grimace. ‘And he is right, we should have more dinners. We’ve had four contractors transfer their contact point away from us this year.’
‘If I had an aide–’ he started to say.
Jones raised an eyebrow. ‘Didn’t Jane practically appoint Curt your aide?’
Ryan looked away. ‘I have been giving him some work, but–’
Curt would make a brilliant aide, but there was a level of trust required that he kept baulking at. He had admitted to Curt about making a wish – once it had been practically a matter of public record – but allowing the young man into his everyday life was another thing.
He was allowing himself time to contemplate the idea–
Jones looked back to Stef. ‘Aide Mimosa?’
‘No,’ Ryan said ‘I don’t think so.’ Nothing in the – admittedly short – time that he’d known Stef had demonstrated the kind of skills he wanted in an aide. If he was to break his decades-long streak without assistance, it would be with someone who wouldn’t be completely overwhelmed by the requirements of the position.
Jones slipped the tickets into an inside pocket of his lab coat. ‘I don’t imagine I’ll have free time to use these anytime soon, so if you would like to reconsider…’
Ryan put a hand on the other agent’s shoulder. ‘They’re yours, Jones. Enjoy them, please.’
He turned and looked down at Stef, his gaze catching on her unnatural eyes. ‘Can I touch her?’
Jones looked up, and nodded.
Ryan crooked a finger and touched the side of Stef’s face. ‘Be safe.’
They could both be dead. He should be undergoing punishment – induced glitches and worse. In worlds that were half a step away, he knew there were many multiple versions of himself that were being forced to watch Stef getting dissected.
This her and this him were safe, but he could still feel the stress beating around his chest.
He took a breath, then left Jones’ office.