Stef opened her eyes.
‘How long did I sleep this time?’
‘Four hours, sleeping beauty, you’re getting better at this,’ Curt said as he offered her a bucket-sized cup of coffee. She sat up against Ryan’s couch and chugged on the warm, sweet liquid.
She pressed a hand to her chest. ‘I wish that stupid bird would stop snacking on me.’
‘You should-‘ Ryan started.
‘No,’ she said as she stood to stretch. She rested the cup on the edge of Ryan’s desk and required herself from scrubs she didn’t remember donning to standard Monday code monkey gear.
‘No?’ Ryan asked with a perfectly narcy arched eyebrow. ‘You didn’t know what I was going to say.’
She tapped her head. ‘ESP,’ she said. ‘You’re gonna say-‘ She closed her mouth for a moment, played with some options in her HUD, then opened her mouth and spoke in Ryan’s voice. ‘Young lady, go to the techs and see how much the phoenix has nommed-‘ She did a small dance of joy. ‘You said nommed! I-you-me said nommed!’ She cancelled the voice changer. ‘You get the idea. I don’t want to know how much it’s eating. It’s not like there’s a choice, and if I don’t know, maybe it’ll regrow when I’m not looking.’
‘Stef-‘ Ryan said as Curt retreated to his cloned desk.
She sat back on the couch and required a bag of cookies. It was definitely a bag-of-cookies type of day. ‘Does the Agency have any more mirror?’
‘Not that I know of.’
‘But, I mean, come on. I’m no super speschul snowflake, and I was less of a snowflake when you flipped duty the bird and made me. You can’t be the only agent who has grabbed a bit of mirror. I mean, we’re not supposed to grab it, but are there agents who can, just so there’s an Agency stockpile of it?’
‘Again,’ he said, ‘not that I know of. In the scheme of the Agency, I’m no one important.’ He joined her on the couch and fished a cookie out of the bag for her. ‘While among agents, information is fairly free-flowing, at a Director’s level, and above me, information is very tightly controlled. I don’t know things because I don’t need to know them.’
‘I could be dying,’ she said in a tiny voice. ‘I don’t want to think about it, but the mirror’s a finite resource, and if we don’t find the other one soon…’ She counted to three, then began to tap out the Fibonacci sequence on her knees. ‘It’s not like I can say no. If I say no, either the world goes boom, or they remove me from the equation, stick a wire loop through whatever’s left of my heart and set it up in a bird feeder.’
She saw the look of hesitation on his face.
‘Whatever you’re going to say,’ she said, ‘say it, please. I don’t have time for bullshit.’
‘I half-expect that should- Should the heart run out.’ He took a deep breath. ‘I half-expect that if that were to happen, they would bring forth another mirror the next time the phoenix needed to feed, but won’t do so until you’ve expired.’
‘So I really suck that much as an agent.’
‘There are opponents to every experiment, Stef,’ he said, ‘it’s a testament to everyone involved that we’ve made it this far.’
She chewed on her thumb. ‘Ryan?’
‘Yes?’
‘Why am I like this?’
‘Like what?’
‘Why have I got a stupid lump of dead planet in my chest? Why couldn’t it just- Why couldn’t it just fix me, then refund the rest, or just use it all up? It’s so stupid this way.’
‘Magic, like life, doesn’t always make sense.’
She pressed a hand against her heart and felt the coolness of the mirror. ‘Stupid,’ she said, ‘but lucky, I guess. Whatever, we’ll figure it out, we always do.’ She sat up, and felt the small silver star bump against her skin. She smiled, surprised at how easy it came. ‘’Besides, even if I screw up and the world dies, at least we got a few more weeks, right?’
They both nodded.
She stared at the pile of paperwork on their desks. ‘I’m gonna go monitor some drones if you don’t need me,’ she said.
‘We’ll be fine, newbie,’ Curt said, and Ryan gave her a nod.
She shifted to the tech department, walked down the unusually-quiet halls and into the monitoring room. Four rows of computers had been set up, each with three monitors a piece, and plush, comfortable chairs excellent for pulling fourteen-hour shifts. All of the chairs, however, were full.
She leaned on the wall near the snack table and slowly scanned the room, looking for the telltale signs of someone being asleep. A few were close, but only one was. She quick-stepped over to his chair, touched a single finger to his shoulder, and shifted him back to his room.
A few requirements tidied the table, and she pulled on the sturdy headphones, her playlist loading as she changed users in the tracking system.
‘Which area have you got, ma’amy ma’am?’
She turned to her right and saw Screen at the next workstation. She looked back to the screen. ‘All I can see is trees,’ she said. She took in some of the data streaming next to each window. ‘Mt Coo-tha. I think. Yeah. Do these things fsck with the TV towers?’
The tech grinned. ‘Only if you mod them, and then Jonesy yells at you, so it’s not worth it. And it wasn’t one of us that did it. It was one of the guests.’
‘I don’t remember that.’
‘You were crispy at the time, ma’amy ma’am.’
She started and began to deny it, as was normal procedure for having a secret identity. A secret identity that had been blown. “Keep everything a secret” had become “everyone knows every detail”, and she hadn’t even been allowed to be at her own “I am Iron Man” press conference.
‘I always miss out on stuff when I’m dead,’ she said with a shrug. ‘I’m assuming the video’s on the common drive?’
‘Of course.’
‘Recruits-‘ Jonesy said as he walked up.
‘Oi!’
He winked. ‘Recruit. Agent. Back to work if you’re working.’
Screen handed her a bowl of M&Ms. She filled her cheeks, synched her drones with her HUD and surrendered to the flow of data.
Hours later, according to her HUD, she felt her chair spin. The disconnect in information sent her dizzy for a moment as she blinked and readjusted her vision fully back to out-of-HUD mode.
‘Huh?’
‘Need a break?’ Jones asked.
‘I can still feel my feet, so not yet?’
The tech nodded his head towards the door and she looked past him to see Curt.
‘Need a break?’ Jones asked again.
‘Just get someone to relieve me for dinner,’ she said as she logged out of the tracking program.
She stepped away from the desk, her neck snapping back as the headphone cord pulled tight.
‘I thought you’d moved to wireless,’ Jones said as he held her head still and pulled the headphones free.
‘If I move to wireless,’ she said as she refreshed her clothes with a thought, ‘then I don’t have a cord to play with when I’m procrastinating.’
He nodded as though this was a valid counter argument, and she walked over to the door.
Curt took her hand. ‘Dinner and gossip sound good?’
‘Gossip?’
He nodded. ‘Picnic on the roof?’
‘Picnic?’
‘You haven’t been out of the building all day, you need fresh air.’
‘I’m an agent, I don’t really need air.’
‘Newbie-‘
She jabbed the lift button. ‘I like the indoors, it’s safe.’
‘And the roof isn’t exactly Mordor.’
‘You’re learning.’
‘There’s only so many times you can hear techs say “one does not simply verb into Mordor” before you pick up on it”.’
She nodded as the elevator pinged and they stepped out onto the roof. Dim stars shone through the night lights of the city, and a light breeze whipped across the Agency’s roof.
A thick blanket appeared in the centre of the roof, As did several plates of food. He sat, and held his hand up to her. ‘Picnics are better in parks, but I think we can make this work.’
‘I don’t even remember the last time I went on a picnic,’ she said as she sat. He handed her an empty glass, which he filled with Mountain Dew. ‘I mean, like, literally,’ she clarified. ‘They’re no fun by yourself, so that cuts out the last few years, delete high school, and-‘ she thought hard. ‘Well, you met my father, do you think he’d be the kind of waste his time sitting on grass? And my mother threw clothes out if they got stained. I’m not actually sure I’ve ever been on a picnic.’
He clinked his glass against hers. ‘Then I’m sorry this one isn’t more traditional.’
She gulped down half the glass, then carefully set it on the blanket. ‘I don’t care about what’s traditional, I care about what’s- I feel like I finally get to care about what’s me. A-and us.’
‘Speaking of which,’ he said, ‘ready for the news?’
She nodded.
‘Mags and Taylor got married.’
‘Lolwut.’
‘Mags and Taylor got married.’
‘What.’
‘We’re not going to get very far if you keep doing that.’
‘They what?’
‘A little while ago, they got back from their two days off, marriage certificate in hand, wanting Ryan to make it all legal by the Agency.’
‘They got…married?’
He nodded.
‘Christ, tell me you didn’t bring me up here to propose to me.’ She slapped her hands over her mouth, then hung her head. ‘Wow. Ok. Sorry. I didn’t mean for that to- Sorry.’
His fingers slipped under her collar and he fished out her necklace. ‘I already gave you something pretty,’ he said. ‘But, yeah, I did want to find out what you thought about the whole issue. Mags and Taylor is going to spark a whole lot of marriage talk over the next couple of weeks. I wanted to know if I needed to censor myself, or if I should be expecting to find bridal magazines wedged under your pillow.’
She blushed at “your pillow”. ‘I forget,’ she said, ‘every day I still forget that I’m in a relationship. Not like- Not like I don’t care about you, nothing like that, but it’s such an extreme state change that I’m still catching up. I still have the urge to declare that I’m single when people ask, and then it hits me, and it does it every time. And it’s nice. And- And it’s so natural to go to bed with you, but I feel like I’m blushing myself into a coma every time I realise I’m sleeping with a boy.’ Her fingers found his, and she intertwined them. ‘I’m pretty sure I can be with you forever,’ she said, ‘but I don’t want to get married.’ She bit her lip, silently counted to three, then looked up at him. ‘Sorry?’
He kissed her.
She leaned forward, letting him hold her. ‘Lolwut?’ she said as he broke contact. ‘You realise I just said “no”, right?’
‘I think this might be the first time we’ve been on the same page.’
‘Again, I said “no”?’
‘I know. That’s how I feel too. When I think of marriage, I think of divorce, and I think of death, and all the misery that follows. He paused. ‘And I know-‘ He required away some of the food and gave her a pleading look as he knelt in front of her.
‘You can has,’ she said, and he put his head in her lap.
‘I’ve- I’ve never told anyone this. No one who didn’t already know anyway. I had a younger sister. She was autistic. My parents. Gods, my parents. Ok, maybe not as bad as yours, but they never really looked after her. They never cut her food right, or put her toys in the right order, tiny little details, so I had to pick up behind them and make things better for her.’
She gave him a nod, and began to stroke his hair.
‘There was nothing neat or clean about their marriage breaking down. I think they tried to save it a few times. The last time they tried to save it was with a family vacation. We were packing the car, and they were already arguing, about being late or which route to take, stupid stuff. They weren’t watching me, and they weren’t watching her. Car was in the driveway, I wasn’t looking, she stepped into the street-‘ He clung to her. ‘She died in the ambulance.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘They divorced after that. I blamed myself for so long. I still do. But I also blame them. They were the damn adults. They were the damn parents. I think about marriage, I think about divorce, and I think about being covered in my little sister’s blood. And I know that’s not right, but I’m not right, and I can’t help that.’
She leaned over his head, and held him tightly. ‘I don’t.’
‘Huh?’
‘Well, like “I do” but…I don’t. I agree not to marry you if you don’t marry me.’
He nodded against her lap. ‘I don’t either.’
He held onto her for a moment longer, then sat up and wiped his eyes. He kissed her lightly on the cheek. ‘I really can’t imagine you in a wedding dress anyway, newbie.’
‘Gods don’t talk about dresses, I don’t even know what I’m wearing to the gala.’
‘Maybe you should have taken that free dress thing.’
She shook her head. ‘Peace with Mags and Taylor is preferable to frippery. I’ll figure something out. Or I won’t.’ She shrugged. ‘Or maybe the- No, crap that won’t work.’
‘What?’
‘Even if someone kills the blue phoenix, Fairyland will be safe and the gala will go ahead.’
He rolled his eyes and handed her a sandwich. ‘You’d rather the end of the human race to picking a dress?’
‘…you want me to say no.’
He topped up his glass. ‘You’ve got a week, you’ll figure it out.’