Curt flexed his hand, and watched as the careful construction fell into ruin. The screen flashed game over, and he started what felt like his thousandth game of Tetris. He looked over the small selection of cartridges in his bag – plumbers, apes and all the rest. All classics, all things he had played before, on a hand-me-down Gameboy that was identical to the required one in his hand, right down to the worn edges and tiny scratches from dropping it to many times.
Prayer was pointless, the gods didn’t listen, Chaos was dead, and none of them could help. Mirror fighting mirror, or mirror saving mirror, whatever the case was, it had been enough, was still enough, the world was safe. The world was still there She’d saved the world, or was still saving the world, whatever was the case – and even the purported experts weren’t sure if they were safe, or if it was just a stay of execution.
He required a cup of coffee, Stef-style and took a few mouthfuls before adjusting it to his normal standards.
Coffee. Games. Prayers into the void. Wishes to bring her back.
He looked across at the pile of congealed metal slag, at a couple of the braver techs taking the next hourly sample.
He wasn’t sure what scrapings of metal would tell them, but they insisted on taking the samples every hour on the hour – or near the hour.
Taylor and Grigori had brought the building down, and several of the surrounding ones. Everything had burned or melted into one huge pile of molten metal. It had boiled for days on end, still shooting out massive jets of fire and roasting waves of heat, even as they built up an emergency outpost around it.
It had been impressive to see – a building materialising out of nowhere – they’d required in cranes and scaffolding, temporary walls and fencing, but bringing in the illusion of construction had taken longer than creating the actual building.
It was large for an outpost as well – not quite the size of their Agency, but not like one of the tiny buildings usually occupied by a single agent and a half dozen recruits, and the design was unlike anything he’d seen.
It was all built around the boiling pile of metal, everything ran in rings around it, rather than the standard straight lines. The centre of the building was hollow, allowing for the massive jets of fire to fire off towards the sky unimpeded – but covered, so that the media didn’t’ catch wind of it. Observation posts had been built into the inner circle, but mostly, up to the sky it had been a solid wall of brick.
After the metal had stopped boiling, stopped shooting off flame, they opened more and more of the inner circle – glass fronted balconies now stared down at him from the dozen levels above his head, and they’d put more and more of the research, observation and tech stuff on the lower levels.
After it had congealed into a solid, cooling mass, they’d opened the lower levels to visitors, and to those wanting to hold a vigil.
And there were a surprising number of visitors.
Thousands of agents came through each day, staying for a minute or an hour. All to see how close they really were to the end of the world, or how close they had come.
He looked to the doorway behind his couch, and saw Ryan beckoning him.
He looked to his watch – his ten minute break had stretched into twenty, and he cringed. He turned off the Gameboy, hopped over the couch and walked through the doorway into Ryan’s Queen St office. The doors – the same kind of doors that let every level walk into the infirmary, or allowed recruits the world over to use the singular Agency library, had been installed to make things easier for all involved.
‘Carmichael’s brought us another six contractor recruits, can you do their paperwork and organise their orientation?’
‘Another six?’
Ryan nodded. ‘That’s fifty in the last four days, just for us. I know other Agencies are using him, but-‘
He smiled at Ryan. ‘He’s giving us the best, he told me and I believe him, sir. Even the ones that aren’t the best would are good enough, considering the circumstances.’
‘It’s a pleasure to have this many recruits in an Agency.’
He looked back through the open door at the congealed rubble. ‘She’s gonna get a kick out of having this many fae around.’
Ryan handed him the files. He placed them on his desk – a mirror of Ryan’s own, and began to read through the top file, and fill in the corresponding Agency paperwork – most of which were forms that Magnolia had repurposed in a couple of hours to cover the strange circumstances.
Contractor recruits. Not exactly an unheard of thing across the Agency, but so far from the norm that several people – agents and recruits – had through they’d been invented for the crisis.
Recruits on a fixed term, and ones serving closer to regular hours than a normal recruit ever could – morning shift, day shift, afternoon shift, evening shift and overnight shift, and overtime if required. Unlike normal recruits, they were paid, weekly or monthly stipends paid in fairy gold.
For now, they’d managed to keep the fact that they were paid staff a secret from most of the recruits – but the secret wouldn’t hold forever, and they were on a crash course with the HR nightmare of the year.
He looked up after he finished with the last file. ‘Where are they?’
‘They’ll be here this evening, they’ll be doing overnight shift for the first week, so if you could have their rooms ready by then.’
‘No problem, sir.’
Keep working. Don’t stop to think too hard. Hope. Don’t think the worst. The half-assed mantra repeated endlessly in his mind.
She wasn’t dead, the few readers they’d managed to get had said as much. They couldn’t get much, but they could get a read on two distinct entities – one hacker and one phoenix.
Merlin came by every couple of hours to stand at their open door and listen, then he’d nod, babble for a moment, then disappear.
She wasn’t dead, and they had work to do.
There was still another phoenix out there. They had the red one, but the blue one had never been with it. If she’d managed to calm the red one, to actually save the world, then whatever happened with the blue, the outcome was no longer the utter devastation of everything on earth.
With fingers crossed that he red one was no longer a danger, there was hope in the Agency for the first time in weeks. Complete apocalypse off the table, everything else seemed minor. Contingency 32 had been voted down, so the near-end of the human race was still possible, but compared to a week ago, people were positively cheerful.
He required a fresh pen – it took ten seconds to appear – and began to scratch down notes on room arrangements.
The city-wide blackout was still in effect, as was the small system area surrounding the red phoenix and his hacker.
Though means Jones had explained, but that everyone in the room had zoned out to, the techs had managed to make the phoenix’s system area “leak” over into their blackout zone through the infirmary/library door system. It wasn’t perfect, and you still couldn’t require on the first three levels, and no one had been brave enough to try and shift through it, but it was good enough.
The leaked phoenix energy, dump tanks installed in every spare room, and liquid blue running through hoses in Jeffries tubes throughout the Agency had given them something approaching normalcy. Normalcy that tended to fail a half dozen times a day, but normalcy all the same.
He looked up. ‘Sir?’
Ryan ran through the door, towards the heap, he pushed himself from his chair and followed the sprinting agent.
There was a tunnel in the side of the heap. A small, dark tunnel. Not something the techs would have done – they were nervous enough taking the small scrapings that they did.
Stef stepped into the light.
She looked up, a huge, dopey smile on her face, then fell forward. A mattress appeared beneath her before she pulled off an epic faceplant, and Ryan slid to his knees beside her. The agent turned her over, his shaking her gently and checking her pulse before he even got there.
She looked like hell.
He knelt on the other side of her, and grabbed her hand.
Stef was pale. Her normal state of being was pale, fearing the sun and instead choosing the bask in the comforting glow of whatever computer she was closest to. This however…her skin – what wasn’t burnt, sooty or missing, was positively translucent. Printer paper would think she was pale. Vampires would covet her complexion. She was also naked, save for the soot. She was gaunt and wasted, limbs thin and weak, her ribs making her a candidate to be used as a human xylophone.
The phoenix egg in her arms though, was strong and vibrant, its shell a swirl of red and orange and gold.
She’d done it.
‘Lift her up,’ the Parkers said in unison as they brought in a gurney.
‘Can’t we shift her?’ he asked the doctors.
‘No,’ the taller Parker said, ‘don’t want to chance pissing off that little firebird.’
He looked across at Ryan. ‘What do we do with the egg?’
Ryan stared for a moment. ‘Let her hold on to it, it seems safest.’
They carefully lifted her onto the gurney, and the Parkers wheeled her over to the service elevator on the far side of the rubble.
Her eyes were opening by the time they stepped out onto the floor of the new outpost’s infirmary.
Ryan put a hand behind her neck and helped her sit up a little, then placed a straw to her lips.
Fourteen glasses of water later, she finally lay back on the gurney and let the Parkers start to tend to her wounds.
‘Stef?’ Ryan said.
She looked up at him. ‘You wanna hold it?’ she said as she offered the egg to him. ‘It’s warm like a kitty!’ Her head dropped back, and she snored loudly for a minute, then woke up again. ‘Thirsty.’
Another eight glasses, and she tried to sit up.
She pushed the egg at Ryan. ‘It’s safe. It’s asleep. It’s safe.’
‘Keep still,’ the Parkers ordered in unison.
She was still doing that thing where she wasn’t focussing.
She lifted her right hand and it drifted towards her chest. ‘How much did I lose?’
Parker grabbed a small scanner – the same type he had used on her in that cheap motel room weeks ago, and ran it over her back. Stef winced, tears leaking from tired eyes.
He held her hand tighter.
The taller of the Parkers made some stock doctory noises, then fiddled with the tablet computer for a moment. ‘Fuck me.’
‘Later, darling,’ his twin replied.
‘Just under half of what was recorded last.’
‘Oh, fuck me,’ she whispered.
‘No, no vigorous activity for you,’ the short of the Parkers said. ‘Your boyfriend is going to have to wait before he gives you victory sex.’
‘My what?’
The taller Parker grabbed him, lifted him and waved him in front of Stef. ‘This guy?’
‘Ohai,’ she said, another big, vacant grin on her face.
She collapsed back and started to snore again.
‘Ok,’ the shorter Parker said, ‘I’m making sure she’s out this time. She needs sleep, she needs fluid, she needs food-‘ He looked at his twin for a moment. ‘I mean, we could just dump tank her if you like and let Jonesy deal with the fallout, but she’s not in any actual pain at the moment, so it’s our recommendation that you let us look after her.’
‘All right,’ Ryan said. ‘Let us know when she’s ready for visitors.’
* * * * *
There was a light shining in her eye.
‘Nuuuuurg,’ Stef said.
‘Are you thirsty?’
Parker’s voice. The nice one, probably.
‘Is that a yes?’
She tried to enunciate something that sounded positive.
‘And we’re sitting up,’ he said as the bed moved.
Spinny, everything was spinny.
‘That would be quite a trick,’ he said, ‘here.’
A plastic straw touched her lips.
‘Given how dehydrated you are, I required that glass to keep refilling itself once it reaches a quarter empty, drink as much as you want.’
She slowly opened her eyes. ‘Magic glass?’
‘How’s the pain?’
‘What pain?’
‘Very good’.’
She sucked on the straw. Water good. Water very good. Water the best thing ever.
‘You ready for a couple of visitors?’
She gave a little nod, and the Parker smiled at her. ‘Ok, I’ll give you five minutes to wake up, then I’ll call them in, all right?’
‘Require cookie?’
‘I think you can take your pick without a requirement.’
He stepped aside and a wall of colour hit her. Flowers and balloons and gift baskets covered every spare inch and more – some stacked several deep.
‘I’m not gonna steal from someone’s goody basket.’
‘Mimsy, while I am capable of stealing from myself, I’m not sure it’s a feat you can manage.’
I’m deducting smart points from you.
‘…all this is for me?’
‘No,’ Parker said.
See, told you.
‘This is just what we could fit in here.’
She sat up a little more. ‘What?’
‘And we’ve had to task half a dozen recruits just to sign for stuff from the couriers.’
‘I’ll get you some visitors, you can deal with your loot later.’
He lifted the closest gift basket and placed it on the bed beside her. ‘This one has cookies in it.’
He left the room, and she stared at the wall of gifts.
Gifts. For her. Flowers. For her. Get well cards. Muffins. Cookies. Bows. Ribbon. Balloons.
She wiped tears away with bandaged hands.
Get ripped apart by a car and be lucky enough to survive earned no presents, no flowers, and definitely no balloons with smiley faces. Pull off a suicidally stupid plan to save the world, and apparently it earned enough of a haul to stock several small gift stores.
She ripped into the gift basket and pulled out a handful of tiny cookies, each no more than a mouthful each, and chewed on them until she heard a knock.
Ryan and Curt stood there, and she felt herself start to cry. ‘Hey,’ she said as they dodged gift baskets and came across the room, Curt taking the right side of the bed, Ryan taking the left. Ryan held a large wooden box in his hands, which he placed up onto the bed.
‘Is there chocolate in there?’
He shook his head, ‘It just came by courier, and I thought this would be something you’d want to see.’
‘But it’s not chocolate?’
‘You should open it, Stef.’
She gave him a wary look, but her smiled and gave her a nod. ‘Trust me, Stef.’
She leaned forward, spun the small gold key and lifted the lid of the ornate wooden box. She peeked inside, then laughed.
‘Ok, fine, brilliant.’ She looked across to Curt. ‘You sent it round trip via courier?’
‘Take a closer look, newbie.’
She reached into the box to grab the plastic crown he’d bought her from the Nonsuch gift shop.
A plastic crown that felt like metal.
She swallowed, and weighed the suddenly very real crown in her hands.
‘Ok, um, what?’
Ryan took it from her hands and placed it on her head. ‘There’s an accompanying letter, and a whole lot more for you to read through, but I know the short version, I’ve seen this happen before, but never to-‘ He looked away, his voice thick with emotion. ‘Never to one of my agents. I’m proud of you, Stef, I’m so proud of you, and it’s not just me recognising it this time.’
‘For the love of god, tell me I’m not an honorary princess or something.’
‘Not quite,’ he said as he smoothed out her hair. ‘You don’t get to keep the crown, not forever. It’s the fairy’s way of extending their gratitude, appreciation and recognising contributions. When something big happens – it can be saving the world, or as a lifetime achievement – like a knighthood, or as recognition of an achievement, they send this crown, or its twin, and plan a gala. There, you’ll give it back, and instead receive something in return, something of your choosing, that’s your reward, not the crown.’
‘…you just said gala, right?’
‘I did.’
‘A fucking gala?’
‘Well, the fairies are hosting it,’ Curt said, ‘you should probably request they cancel your whores.’
‘Ugh,’ she said as she dipped her head forward and took the crown off. ‘But seriously?’
‘Stef, you saved the world.’
‘I didn’t mean to!’
‘You saved the world,’ he said again. He wiped tears away. He was crying. Big strong mister-magic-MiB-man-was crying. Because of something she’d done. ‘You saved the whole world, I can’t even begin to tell you how proud I am of you, what you’ve done, do- Do you realise what you’ve done?’
‘I’m sorry?’
Ryan stood, and leaned over and gently hugged her before taking his seat again.
‘Do you know how long you were in there?’
‘Is it bigger than a breadbox?’
He gave her a patient smile. ‘How many days fit in a breadbox?’
‘I don’t know, I never had a breadbox.’
‘How long do you think-’
‘Just tell me, dad.’
‘Nine days.’
‘You’re shitting me.’
‘I’m not.’
‘By the time I reach my next birthday, I’m going have spent like six months asleep, I’ll be twenty-three, but with like only twenty-two and a half years of experience.’
Ryan gave her a strange look, then gave a little cough.
She turned to look at Curt. ‘Yeah?’
‘How old are you, newbie?’
‘Think about it.’
‘…I am?’
‘When’s your birthday?’
‘October thirteenth.’
‘How old did you turn on your last birthday?’
‘How long ago was your last birthday?’
She stared at him. ‘…I, what?’
‘You’re twenty-three, Stef,’ Ryan said. ‘You were- The mirror? You were-’
‘Dead in my apartment. Shit. I’m twenty-three?’
‘You seriously didn’t know?’ Curt asked.
She looked to the crown in her hands, and turned it over and over, her face distorting in the shiny gold surface. ‘My birthday’s never been important. It was an excuse for mother to pretend I was someone I wasn’t and invite over a dozen kids I didn’t get along with, then it was just random gifts picked out by assistants totalling a certain dollar value, and send by courier, and then, nothing at all. I liked the nothing at all part. It meant no one expected anything of me. And I’m not so terminally sad and pathetic as to throw myself a party.’ She shrugged. ‘Ding twenty-three.’
‘We will do something about that this year,’ Ryan said. ‘I promise.’
‘You don’t have to-’
‘We want to,’ Ryan said. ‘For the moment though, the phoenix, is it stable?’
She nodded. ‘So long as no one is stupid enough to try and hurt it, it’ll stay in its shell.’ She looked down at the bed for a moment. ‘And it’s might peek out for food.’
‘What’s it eating?’
She bit her bottom lip and rubbed a hand over her heart. ‘Me?’
Ryan shook his head. ‘No. We’ll find another-’
‘If it wants to eat me, it can eat me, if we find other mirror, fine, but I didn’t do all this just to be precious with my life. I’ve still got more than enough mirror. It doesn’t eat that much anyway.’
‘I’m not going to argue with you now,’ Ryan said.
‘But you will later?’
‘Of course I will, I’m your father, I know what’s best for you.’ He stood. ‘For now, I think that’s to leave you two alone,’ Ryan said as he stood. He touched a hand to her face. ‘I’ll see you later,’ he said, and quietly left the room.
She nommed on another handful of the tiny cookies, then looked to the boy beside her bed. ‘…Ryan doesn’t get mad at me when I do stuff like this, he knows me too well, and if I hadn’t done something stupid we wouldn’t be here. Him, I don’t have to worry about.’
‘You’re worried about me?’
‘You kissed me and an hour later I dive bomb a phoenix, wasn’t sure if you’d take that as a bad omen. Wasn’t sure if it meant that you wouldn’t want-‘
He stood and leaned in close. ‘I’m gonna kiss you now, newbie.’
He kissed her, and she pulled him up onto the bed beside her.
He shook his head as he let his fingers play with her hair. ‘You’re an idiot to think that I would stop wanting you for being yourself, you’re especially an idiot if you think I’d stop wanting you after you save the whole damn world. There’s a pile of proposals as long as my arm in one of your gift rooms, half of them came with rings, if not entire bridal sets. Hell, I’d be surprised if you didn’t trade up to a-’
‘Oh shut up.’
‘Yes, newbie.’
‘I knew it was a risk. I knew that. I could- I could have spent however long we had left cuddled up to you, letting you has lap as the world burned. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I knew I had a chance of fixing it so I had to take it. I had to. Even if I’d burned away, you could have found someone else, and Ryan could have adopted you as his new kid, yay, world saved, and everything is good. The world can go fuck itself, so far as I’m concerned, but it can’t go fuck itself unless it’s there. And I wanted it to be there. It-‘
‘I know what you mean.’
‘…so do you still want to be my boyfriend?’
‘If you’ll have me.’
‘I do.’
He grinned. ‘Seriously, you should check out some of those proposals though, one of them has a rock the size of your head, and you have a really big head.’
He traced her face with his fingers. ‘I like it though. More places to kiss.’ He looked at her, and she gave him a nod. ‘I can kiss you’re here..’ He kissed her mouth. ‘Or here.’ Her cheek. ‘Here.’ Her other cheek. ‘Down here.’ Under her chin. ‘All along here.’ A dozen tiny kisses around the curve of her jawline. Her temples. Her forehead. The corners of her mouth. Her closed eyes. He rested a finger against her lips. ‘It’s a good head.’
‘Would you hate me if I wanted to go to sleep?’
‘Would you let me hold you?’
She nodded. ‘Yeah. Please.’
He lifted the blanket and settled in next to her. He wrapped his arms around her and held her to his chest. Her toes turned to marshmallow, and stayed gooey, the feeling slowly expanded, making her gooey, making her relax into his arms.
It was nice. So nice. More than she deserved. What a real girl deserved, not what she-
He kissed her head, his fingers twisting in her hair, and she stopped arguing with the marshmallow feeling.
‘Before-’ she started. ‘Before all this, when you kissed me, I saw something-’
He went stiff, and made the same little choking-scream noise. ‘It was an accident!’
‘Your tattoo. I mean. The lack of your tattoo.’
‘I got rid of it.’ He looked a little scared. ‘Do you mind?’
She shook her head. ‘Means you like you a little bit. And that’s good.’
‘I don’t know about that,’ he said, ‘but you like me, so I’ll lean on that a bit.’
She smiled up at him. ‘That works too.’ She put her head back against his chest. ‘Thank you.’
‘For what, newbie?’
‘You’re- You’re- For not pushing me. I mean Parker mentioned- And- You didn’t even-’ She closed her eyes. ‘I’m this close to you. With you. And I’m not scared. I love you.’ She pulled back a little and shrugged. ‘I didn’t mean it when I said it the first time. Just before I- I didn’t mean it. I wanted to say it cause you deserved to hear it. But I- We’d had an hour and I was still in how-the-fuck-do-you-even-like-me mode. Loved you. Wasn’t in love with you.’
‘And you’ve had time to reconsider that?’
‘I’m willing to make a leap of faith.’
He swallowed. ‘Full disclosure, that’s the best thing anyone’s ever said to me.’
She smiled, yawned and turned over to let him spoon her. ‘Tell me this is real.’
He moved into position. The big spoon. A feeling she was going to get used to very, very quickly.
He kissed the back of her neck, and she shivered at the ticklish sensation. ‘It’s real. Go to sleep, newbie.’
She pulled his arm tight across her chest, a safe cocoon of boy, breathed in the safe smell of Agency air, and let herself sleep.