Ryan heard music.
It was the barest of sounds, a thing on the edge of hearing that other people might have been able to ignore, or assume that it was coming from a neighbouring office.
One blessing of the Agency was how soundproofed all of the rooms were – you could hear someone knocking, but most other sounds were drowned out by a combination of materials chosen and subtle programming.
There was, after all, no need for someone passing an agent’s office to hear that agent loudly condemning a recruit, or at the other extreme, to hear a loud tryst.
The music was coming from somewhere in his office, and there was no logical source for it.
He focussed his hearing, tweaking the sensitivity in his HUD. It was…pop music, something inoffensive and forgettable.
Ryan froze, and pulled the oubliette key from his pocket.
It became louder, just for a moment, and then Stef was standing in front of him.
He panicked, knowing he’d be unable to stop the aspect from wandering through the walls and showing the entire Agency his secret.
He had made the assumption that there was some correlation between the location of key the key – and therefore the oubliette that held her – and the place where the aspects appeared. It was a wild guess, but it made sense.
And hopefully, it was a way to keep her away from prying eyes.
Ryan turned to the wall and pressed his hand on a hidden door – it sprang open after a moment, revealing the secondary room.
He held the key up, and hoped that Stef’s aspect would follow as he stepped onto grass.
The secondary room held the sim of his garden – a place Reynolds had helped him build. It was a place for quiet contemplation, a place within the Agency so that he was close enough to always be on hand, but with the separation of appearing to be outside in order to a break when he needed it.
The grassy path led up a hill to a large, leafy tree. The weather was always the same – a high sun, a cool breeze and the smell of lavender in the air.
Ryan turned and looked – glad to see that the aspect was being dragged along by the location of the key in his hand.
He knew his exposure to her was limited, but still, this aspect was Stef as he’d never seen her – in a dress whose true colour he could only guess at, her short hair up, diamond pins in the loose bun.
She swayed gently in time to the music, though the look of annoyance on her face stopped the moment from being serene.
The aspect looked to her wrist, then slapped it – presumably punishment for not wearing a watch – then looked up, the annoyance breaking as a smile crossed her face. ‘You’re late, Snake,’ she said to someone he couldn’t see.
The impression of a young man appeared – his face first, as he kissed her cheek – the rest of him flowing into sight a moment later. ‘There were guards,’ he said, ‘had to be careful.’
Stef grinned, but looked annoyed anyway. ‘You mean you failed to dodge the press.’
‘Just as planned.’ He dipped a hand into an inside pocket and handed her a small velvet pouch. ‘You want me to put it on?’
Stef tipped the pouch up, and a simple, but antique necklace poured into her hand. ‘Old, but not extravagant, your grandmother’s?’
He nodded as he unclasped it. ‘It’s not on any of the inheritance lists. Special, but not priceless. Perfect for my mistress,’ he looped it around her neck. ‘You agree?’
‘That’s how we’re playing this?’ she asked, her hands touching the silver chain. ‘I’m not up with your escapades, who are you romancing now?’
‘I’m disappointed, Otacon, I thought information was your game.’
‘Isn’t it poor form to keep tabs on a one-night stand?’ she asked with a smirk.
The young man grinned, took her hands and spun her. ‘I wouldn’t know, you were the only one I didn’t pay for.’
Stef rolled her eyes. ‘Spill, Snake, how’s it going?’
Ryan circled around the dancing couple and waited for the young man’s face to become clear enough to start a facial recognition. The aspects ebbed and flowed, more wisps of green smoke than anything else for a moment.
Finally, the image became clear again, and the young man’s face froze in his HUD, the program finding the points of reference and beginning their scan.
‘His cousin,’ the young man said, ‘she’s known for ages, has her own aspirations, and being a princess will further those. We’re feigning a rough patch at the moment, which will make the New Year’s Eve proposal all the better for the paparazzi.’
The scan brought back a result that was unsurprising, given the conversation. A prince. She was dancing with a prince.
‘Oh, congrats,’ she said. ‘Do I get an invite to the wedding?’
He twirled her again. ‘Now that’s where we step into poor form. You know I’m grateful, right?’
She nodded. ‘And you know I don’t want anything in return. This is-‘ She stopped as the music changed to something slower. Fear crossed her expression for a moment, and the aspect faded to simply her hands and face, before everything reappeared as he stepped closer, and allowed her to put her head against his shoulder. ‘This was a favour as a friend, not as blackmail.’
‘I know, Otacon, I know.’
She stumbled, but the prince held her. ‘I just wanted to go to one of these once.’
‘Then enjoy it, you’ve got me till midnight.’
‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘we’ll get you back to your pumpkin.’
He lifted her hands and slowly twirled her, and the aspects faded as she spun back around.
Ryan pulled off his jacket, folded it, then sat and leaned back against the large tree and looked up at the simulated sky.
All of the aspects up until now had been…draining to some degree or another – memories that he wished didn’t exist. A dead girl, an injured girl, someone neglected by her parents.
This aspect was the first one that seemed to be a happy memory – a piece of her framework that wasn’t mired in something painful.
And for that, he was grateful.
[table id=15 /]
Ryan heard music.