Stef was dropped before she had a chance to take in the new room, she bounced on the carpet, biting back at the pain in her chest as she slowly sat up and leaned against the wall behind her.
The room was surprisingly similar to Ryan’s office, a huge window-wall, a desk, about the same size. There were a key differences though: Ryan’s office didn’t have dark, wood-paneled walls, his windows showed the correct time of day – unlike the sunlight streaming in through the windows in the dead of night.
Oh, and Ryan’s office didn’t contain a corpse.
‘Where are we?’ she asked as Taylor turned his back on her and walked toward the corpse.
‘The director’s office.’
‘I thought Ryan-’
Only turning his head back toward her, he lifted the gun and fired, the bullet slamming itself into her shoulder.
…what the fuck does the world have against that shoulder?
‘Finish that sentence and the next one goes into your skull.’
‘I. Don’t. Understand.’
He pulled the corpse – no, not a corpse, a comatose man, upright, and began to brush the dust from his face, from his suit and from the desk. Almost as though he cared for him. Almost as though…he were being nice.
‘Director Reynolds,’ he grunted. ‘Is in charge of this Agency. Anything that you believe is wrong. Anyone else assigned to the position is an impostor.’
‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘He’s dreaming.’
The words were said with surprising reverence. Taylor brushed the apparent-Director’s messy hair back from his face. ‘And it’s time for him to wake up.’
She let her gaze drop to her chest, to the mirror. ‘You want me to wish him awake?’
Taylor turned to her. ‘No. To take his place.’
‘What?’
‘He is paying a price, one that does not end, if you wish him awake, you will invalidate a decades-old accord and end the damn world.’
She shuddered. ‘Ok, that would be bad.’
He took a step toward her. ‘Take his place.’
‘For…for how long?’
‘Forever.’
‘No.’
‘You say that a lot.’
‘Being asleep forever would be as bad as dying. I don’t want to-’ She stared at the floor. ‘I want to be an agent, I just want to be an agent, I can’t do that if I’m asleep forever. I-’
He aimed the gun at her. ‘Take his place.’
‘No.’
‘Either way: you aren’t leaving this office.’
A cookie landed in front of her, and she stared at it, wondering if she was once again hallucinating at an inconvenient time. Another joined it, and a third disintegrated into crumbs as it hit the wall beside her.
‘Huh?’
She looked up at him, another cookie appearing in his hand, he stared at it for a minute, then looked down at her as if she was something to be scraped from his shoe. He crushed the cookie in his hand, letting the crumbs fall to the carpet. ‘Isn’t that what Ryan does?’ he asked, requiring another and throwing it at her. ‘Give you a treat and you do a trick?’ He pelted her with more cookies. ‘Like a dog? Like a bitch?!’
Reynolds stirred and Taylor went still, but the Director simply turned his head and began to drool.
‘Scream more, nub,’ she said, quaking in fear, ‘you might just wake him up without my help.’
He fired another shot – this one slamming into her gut.
You…need some medical attention.
No shit, ya think?
Spyder. He’s threatening to kill you. Remember why he’s afraid of you?
Oh, I’m not that stupid.
He isn’t kidding around. You might need to pretend to be brave for a little while.
That was easier before I had bullets in me.
Hey, my life’s riding on this as well, shut up and do it.
She raised a hand to her chest, and managed a smile as his face began to turn victorious. ‘I’m not the only one who can die.’
His face fell faster than she did when he punched her. ‘Take his place!’ he roared. ‘That’s your duty!’
‘I’m still being tested, I have no duty yet!’
He raised the gun, pointing it squarely between her eyes. ‘Do it.’
‘I have a godsdamn piece of mirror for a heart, and you think you get to order me around?!’ she screamed. ‘You can shoot me, I can do anything to you.’
I can also wish myself the hell out of here?
Yeah, you can, but what would it solve?
I’d be safe, and I’d be getting that awesome medical attention that I need.
He’ll just come after you again. This needs to get solved now.
No, I want out of here.
He turned the gun away from her and placed it on the corner of Reynold’s desk. ‘Then do something.’
‘No.’
He took a step toward her. ‘My preference is for the return of my director, but if all I get is your death, then tonight has not been a wasted exercise.’
‘I can kill you,’ she said, her voice shaking. ‘And I want to. I really want to. I hate you so much. You’re a fucking monster. You’re some kind of sick fucking sadist. But I won’t…if I do, I don’t get the thing in the world I want the most.’
‘Do it or die, Mimosa.’
‘You’re willing to die to get rid of me?’
‘You were bluffing.’
‘I just made a wish,’ she lied, ‘if you kill me, you die.’
‘Liar!’
‘Then take the shot!’
Two more bullets slammed into her gut, and she doubled over in pain, wrapping her good arm around her middle.
Can I leave now?
Yes, better to take our chances than-
She twitched her hand and moved it toward her heart, but it was pulled away before she could make contact.
‘Reynolds went willingly,’ he said as he rolled her onto her back, holding her good arm away from her chest. ‘I’ll take the chance that you can be forced, and dirty myself by using the mirror.’
She screamed as his fingers touched her heart. There were two loud sounds, and a blur and suddenly he was gone.
Am I still here? Am I all still here?
I think so, Spyder.
She tried to process everything, but gave up and lifted her hand to her heart. ‘Heal me, please,’ she whispered. Immediately the pain disappeared, and she could feel the bullets worming their way out of the wounds, popping out of her flesh as skin closed over and bruises disappeared.
Ryan came into her vision, lifting her from the floor. She clung to him, like a baby koala, arms and legs wrapped tightly around him, hiding her face in his shoulder. He took a few steps, then turned suddenly, his body growing tense.
‘Don’t even think about it, Magnolia.’
She lifted her head a little to see the magpie-girl – dressed the nines – holding the gun. She looked away and shook her head. ‘I’m just going to return it to his armory.’
‘Good,’ Ryan said curtly, turned again, and walked from the director’s office.
The world blurred and his office came into view. He sat on the couch, and she let herself slide off him and sink into the soft leather.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘Why, you tell him to do it?’
‘Stef-’
‘He really, really, really, really wanted me dead. Or asleep. But mostly dead, I think. What is his damage?’
‘Carol,’ Ryan said after a long moment. ‘After she became an agent, she began to malfunction, she…lost her mind, and killed a lot of recruits, and Taylor. He sees you as nothing more than a personal threat to him, and somehow, a chance for Carol to end his life again.’
‘I don’t think I can handle the infodumps I’m getting tonight,’ she said as she pressed her face against the couch. ‘Can I just call this all a glitch, and wait to wake up?’
‘No, because agents have to be able to process the information presented to them.’
There was something in his voice, something about the way he said it. She sat up and looked at him. ‘I passed?’
‘You’re still here, and I really don’t think today’s tests will be needed. Congratulations, Stef.’ He smiled. ‘I mean, congratulations, Agent Mimosa.’
She stared at him. ‘I do get to keep my first name, right?’
‘Of course you do.’
‘Ok…so explain everything to me.’
‘You want some coffee?’
*****
Taylor stared down at the girl, held her one functional arm free of her body, and drove his hand toward her heart. It was such a betrayal of his code, to use mirror, but if the-
There were two sounds, the first: the door came off its hinges, landing in front of Reynolds’ desk. The second: the sound of the wall cracking as he was slammed against it, little more than a blur of blond hair to identify his attacker before Reynolds’ office disappeared from his view.
‘What the fuck, Taylor?!’ Grigori roared at him. ‘What the fuck were you doing?’
‘It was obvious,’ he stated as he crossed his gym floor, requiring clean the blood on the polished floor, replacing the hook with the punching bag, and dragging the trolley over to the weapons rack.
‘No, no, no, no, no,’ Grigori muttered as he followed. ‘You don’t get to blow me off this time. You have to talk to me!’ The taller agent spun him. ‘Talk to me!’
‘It was obvious,’ he stated again.
‘Obvious that you’ve lost your mind!’ Grigori screamed. ‘What isn’t obvious is if you’re going to be in one piece in an hour. He could be getting permission to recycle you this very second!’
‘It was worth it,’ he said as he replaced the knives.
‘What was?’ Grigori demanded. ‘Nearly killing a girl that doesn’t deserve your wrath? Seeing-’
He spun, lashing out and hitting the other agent. ‘She deserves it!’ he screamed. ‘Everything! She deserves to die!’
‘For what?’
‘For killing me!’
‘She’s done nothing to you, Taylor,’ Grigori whispered. ‘That wasn’t her.’
‘They’re all the same! They’re all the same! All trying to- She threatened me!’
‘Before or after you put four slugs in her?’
He turned on his former friend, landing a solid punch on the Russian’s face. Grigori grabbed his arm, twisted it up behind his back, and slammed him into the wall. ‘You’re listening to me now,’ Grigori whispered into his ear.
He shifted himself free, immediately grabbing one the closest knife to his hand.
‘Oh, what? You’re going to attack me too?’
He slashed at the other agent. ‘You betrayed me!’ He brought down the long knife again, and again, cutting Grigori’s shirt into ribbons, though the other agent managed to avoid being cut. Another annoyance.
Grigori danced around the strikes. ‘How did I betray you?’
‘You stopped me!’
‘And if I hadn’t?’ Grigori asked, ducking a blow meant for his heart. ‘What then?’
‘I don’t care!’
‘That much is plainly obvious, my friend!’
Two quick shifts around the Russian gave him the edge, and he buried the knife into the traitor’s arm. He pushed Grigori against the wall, driving the knife through bone, and out the other side of his arm, the tip pushing into the wall. ‘Get out,’ he demanded, ‘never come back.’
‘What would you do without me?’ Grigori asked with a grin. ‘I’m your best friend.’
‘Not anymore!’ he screamed as he tore the knife out, and pushing it to the agent’s throat. ‘Not anymore, Grigori, not after what you just did.’
‘I saved you.’
‘I don’t care,’ he said, scraping the edge of the blade against the skin, drawing blood. ‘I don’t care! I was almost rid of her!’
‘Killing an innocent won’t change what happened to you.’
‘You know what I think when I see her!’
‘You think: get that monster away from me, how can they let such a thing live, it’s counter to everything I believe in, I cannot believe permission was given so that this thing may live. Get it away. Get it away. Get it away.’
‘Exactly.’ He dropped the knife, gave the man a shove for good measure, then began to cross the gym towards the bleachers.
‘You think,’ Grigori asked from behind him, ‘I thought any less the first time I saw you?’
He turned, but Grigori was waiting, and the kick to the gut launched him across the room. ‘I’m not your friend, fine. You want me gone, fine. You’re a suicidal asshole who wants to take the entire world with you, fine. But I get to speak, first.’
He made an attempt to straighten his jacket, then righted himself on the bleachers. ‘Talk.’
‘When I am here, or when you are involved, you are always my first priority. Don’t look at me like it’s a weakness, being friends has saved our lives more times than either of us can count. I helped you torture that girl, I joined in, and yes, there was some fun. The thing is, Taylor, all of that was sanctioned, it was our job…our duty to try and prove her unsuitable.’
‘Then what’s your problem?’
‘When you go off-spec and try to commit murder.’
‘It would have been a service.’
‘To who? To you? When did you become so selfish?’
‘It’s the right thing to do.’
Grigori punched him. ‘No, it’s not. Can’t you see that?’
‘It feels like the right thing to do.’
‘Do you truly value your life that little? If you’d gone through with it, you’d be dead right now, as it is, I’m afraid to message Ryan and ask what he’s going to do. The only reason I won’t is because I know you: you won’t run, they say jump, you jump. They say step into the chamber and die, you step into the chamber and die.’
‘Duty first.’
‘And what of your duty to your friends? To those who care for you?’
‘I already know what you think.’
‘What about-’
‘We need to talk,’ Ryan said as he strode across the gym.
He leaped from the bleachers, looking for the discarded weapon. Ryan simply pointed a finger and extended his stride. ‘Sit. You know what I can do to you with three words. You know what I can do to you with five words. You know what I can do to you with a signature, and…I. Have. A. Pen. Sit!’
He remained standing, but fixed onto the knife on the far edge of the gym.
‘Do I start with one word, Taylor? Do you want that ringing in your skull? You want that on your record? Sit!’
Grigori stepped in front of Ryan. ‘Are you going to recycle him?’
‘That depends on him.’
Grigori grabbed Ryan’s shoulders, and stopped him dead in his tracks. ‘I asked you,’ the Russian hissed, ‘if you were going to recycle him.’
‘You don’t have a say either way.’ Ryan pushed past the other agent, and stared down at him. ‘Are you done?’
‘That depends on you, sir,’ he spat.
‘We used to be friends,’ Ryan said. ‘Not that it’s likely you remember that. We brought you back because we couldn’t stand to lose you, we’d already lost the director, without you, the Agency wouldn’t have been the same. We tried everything, but we failed to do what we set out to do.’
‘I’m sick of hearing you say this.’
‘You won’t accept any apology, and you jumped on any opportunity I had to be happy. I gave up, I let you win, I stopped trying. You and yours whisper so that my recruits don’t trust me, fine, I stay away from them, I don’t even try and get close to them, so I can’t number them among my friends. I…stayed away from anyone I saw the potential to love, just in case I fell for them, just so I didn’t have to watch you try and destroy that. Gods, I stayed away from Jones, in case it made you paranoid that we were scheming behind your back. I have not let myself be happy for twenty years, this is the only way I could begin to repay my debt to you. I could not make you happy, so I let you see me become as miserable as you.’
‘She’s a threat.’
‘Watch the security footage, or rewind your own damn memories, and look at the number of times she had the chance to kill you. If she had, it would have been self-defense, nothing more. You were trying to murder her, and she restrained herself from doing you any harm.’ He paused for a moment. ‘If, under threat of murder, she didn’t leave you to drown in your own blood, how can you see her as a risk?’
‘Because she’s another one of your mistakes.’
‘No, she’s one of my agents. You don’t have to be. Request a transfer, go somewhere else, or step into the chamber and go to a death two decades past-due. You can stay if you want, but realise that she does too. I have given you twenty years of penance, and my debt is paid.’
He looked away, unwilling to look at Ryan.
‘Well?’ Ryan demanded. ‘What’s it to be?’
‘I’m staying.’
‘You touch her again,’ Ryan said, his face clouded, ‘and I will kill you myself.’
Ryan turned and shifted from sight. With only one other person left in the room, his eyes fell on Grigori.
‘You’re bleeding,’ he said.
‘Tends to happen when someone stabs you,’ Grigori said with a grin, taking a seat next to him.
‘I’m sorry.’
Grigori ruffled his hair. ‘Don’t go getting soft on me, I won’t recognise you.’
‘I hate him.’
‘I know.’
‘I hate her.’
‘I know.’
‘I hate-’
‘I know.’
‘I don’t hate you.’
Grigori smiled. ‘Never thought you did.’ He dug his flask out of his pocket. ‘Drink?’
‘Gods yes.’