Grief and sleep were old bedfellows.
Ryan opened his eyes. The quality of the light coming in through the wall of windows at the far end of his office told him it was mid-afternoon, something his HUD was kind enough to confirm as he sat up and felt himself speed back up to full function.
As he usually did, he stood, stretched, and refreshed his skin and clothes with requirements. To the outside world, he was sure he looked like a perfectly ordinary agent, not one who had barely escaped the worst tragedies it was possible to befall a man.
Or had hopefully escaped.
Stef was safe for now. But with the way Jane had spoken, there had definitely been an implied asterisk in that safety – maybe not malice from the Agency, but just in how mirror wishes worked.
He rubbed at his eyes, then moved to sit at his desk.
A few menu options in his HUD accessed his inbox and required paper copies of all automated requests – simple things like leave requests, schedule changes, changes or extensions to rooms.
All simple things that an aide could do with little supervision.
Almost without thinking, he opened his contacts list and hovered over the option to contact Curt – only pausing when he saw that Curt’s contact card was listed in yellow – meaning he was unavailable.
More of the morning came to mind, including the phone call from Cresta Lan Oca – Carmichel – and his request to borrow Curt for a couple of days.
There were more than enough reasons to assume this was simply Curt seeking forty-eight hours of refuge in Fairyland after the events of the morning, which was more than fair – his actions had been…inexcusable.
If it was more, however, Carmichel’s interactions with the Agency had always been to their benefit, so at worst, the situation would be a net neutral gain.
He did need to find a way to apologise though. He’d been exhausted, grieving, and awaiting a death sentence. Still, as many reasons and excuses as he had…he needed to rectify the situation. The wrong word at the wrong time – especially words that had been borne of an attempt to rescue Stef – shouldn’t have led to violence.
In a way, it would have been simpler if Jane had handed down the order to end his life, and escorted him to the recycling chamber. Death was neat in a way that life never could be. Apologies and gestures done from beyond the grave could tie a bow onto relationships, be an ending. Living on was far messier, where even grand gestures could seem hollow.
He’d written up paperwork that would have promoted Curt to aide, paperwork that had only been missing a final signature. Paperwork that had disappeared along with the other end-of-life requests that he had made – all of which, he was sure, would factor into Jane’s final assessment of him and his Agency.
If he were to offer Curt the position now, there was no telling how the young man would react.
Their working relationship had always been fragile – he, unwilling to trust someone who had worked for Solstice; and Curt seemingly unwilling to trust any agent. Trust or no, Curt was in most other ways a perfect recruit – and for better or worse, the only recruit he had that deserved the aide position.
But if it was offered now, Curt might see it as nothing more than an apology for the violence. A conciliatory gesture to stop him from making a report – even ex-Solstice recruits were guaranteed a life free from violence from the agents around them.
Worse, though, might be dead-eyed acceptance of the position, a simple “yes, sir” with no real change in their working relationship.
As an end-of-life boon, it would have been appropriate; as a consequence to live with…they weren’t there yet.
It would be something to ask Jane. To request that she kept off the table – another small grace that she could grant, on top of the mercies she had already shown.
Ryan neatly gathered the simple paperwork into a pile and laid it under a glass paperweight on the far corner of his desk. With no one obvious to shunt it to, it could wait for a while.
The emails from Jane came next – one was a simple reminder that he would have to explain the situation at the six PM meeting. Three hours to put everything into words. Explanations that would have to cover the simple and complex aspects of what was going on. Words would have to convey the current situation, as well as his wishes for how to move forward…even though that was largely dependent on one sleeping young woman.
His father, dreaming without death; and his daughter, dead without dreaming.
The next few emails from Jane were meeting invites – surely the beginning of the audit, each of which he accepted.
The last email held the subject line of “The Least of It, Newborn”, and was a series of file extracts.
He clicked to open the first, closed it, then retreated to his couch, paper copies of the file extracts appearing on his coffee table, along with a glass of scotch.
Each file held the story of a recruit, agent, or Agency-adjacent person who had come into contact with mirror. And few of them were stories with fairytale endings.
So far as the extracts showed – though, if he could infer from the subject line, this was only the first set of examples – there wasn’t a one-to-one reflection of Stef’s situation. No-one in this batch had been killed by the mirror piece they’d encountered.
Injured, yes. Maimed, yes. The ultimate cause of an early death, yes. But…no one left cold and bleeding on a rooftop as Stef had been.
The effects ran the full gamut from almost mundane to amazing. In some situations, the mirror encounter had essentially granted a superpower – being used up by whatever momentary wish had been on the victim’s mind as they’d made contact.
These were – generally – the happiest of cases. With no lingering presence of mirror, the situations were a lot more stable. They, therefore, could be judged with seemingly all factors taken into account.
Recruits who could teleport. An agent’s spouse who could shapeshift. An agent who could manifest their wings without pain or consequence. In most cases where the mirror had been used up to grant the wish, there was simply some internal re-categorisation, sometimes a new job better suited to new powers, or just some additional rules to follow in order to keep within Agency guidelines.
Small, ultimately mundane events, logistically not far from a part-fae recruit coming into power later in life.
And it didn’t take a genius to realise that these were going to be the happiest of the stories the files contained.
The cases where mirror stayed spread more of a continuum of outcomes. Recruits that had been…euthanised as a last resort, to individuals who were able to maintain some sort of working relationship with the Agency.
There was more to dig into, more to understand, but none of it would help him explain to his colleagues the situation they found themselves in. Would help him find the words that would help him ask for compassion and patience.
He required a legal pad, uncapped a pen, and began to scratch down some notes. Some basic facts. What he knew, what he was comfortable saying.
There was also a matter of playing to his audience – the six PM meeting was designed for primary department agents, along with their aides. In an ideal Agency, that was one director, at least one agent for Field, Combat and Tech; their respective aides; a Liaison agent, and possibly even a Director’s administration officer.
Ten, possibly eleven – more, if that Agency had secondary agents for any of their primary departments.
In a full room, he held court in a room of five people, including himself.
Jones would be no issue – he’d already well and truly proved himself. Taylor would….in all likelihood, take his cues from Magnolia. Magnolia would need to be convinced of the safety of their Agency in regards to the presence of mirror, and the worth of the project overall.
Clarke would make trouble, as he always did.
Most Directors loved their Liaison agents and praised their work for making inter-intra-and-extra Agency affairs far easier. Most Liaison agents, it seemed, actively loved their jobs – finding the mix between diplomat and PR manager, an interesting and intricate task that both challenged and rewarded.
Most Liaison agents weren’t small-minded, venal men who could barely see past their need for personal gain.
Bribery mostly kept Clarke quiet and content, but he was most often more trouble than he was worth.
Notes began to pile up on the legal pad sheets. Simple, black and white facts and timestamps pinning down the timeline before he had to embellish the situation with emotions, with vulnerability. With the fact that he still didn’t know if Stef was ever going to open her eyes again.
He looked at the chair across from him, imagined Reynolds sitting there. Reynolds would urge caution, even while gleefully living his own life to the fullest. “Caution,” when Reynolds had said it had really meant more “are you sure it isn’t Rhys doing this?”.
Reynolds had sought emotion in him, and just as readily rebuked it. Had seen every action as a reflection of a dead man. Had wanted a newborn to not fight against the grain too much. Impossible contradictions. Care and worry that had come from a place of love, even if too much of that love was spent venerating someone long since gone.
In a careful hand, he wrote down something Reynolds had been fond of saying when discussing the Agency – “without family, what are we?”. It was a simple platitude, and one Reynolds had repeated joyously.
To Ryan, it had always seemed more morose than rewording it as “what are we without family?”. Reynolds’ words had almost seemed to posit that “without family” was the default state, that it was something you had to earn.
For agents, that was true enough, though the intended hierarchy was supposed to provide something of an in-built family, it was never a guaranteed thing – as he himself had proved with his treatment of Jones. But Reynolds, beloved by all, had never acted as though being alone was even a possibility.
“Without family, what are we?” he knew the answer. He knew long years of loneliness and the fear that came with reaching out when you finally found someone to connect with.
“Without family, what are we?” Stef knew the answer, knew so much pain for such a young life. Seemed to know what it was like to be rejected by the entire world.
Reynolds would never have looked twice at Stef, wouldn’t have done more than treated her as a witness to be kind to before dismissing.
Reynolds wouldn’t have seen an amazing, slightly grimy young woman, who’d never been able to show the world how brilliant she was.
He laid down his pen and required a photo of Stef, a moment of joy and understanding, of…simply shining while being told how the Agency dropbox system worked. Another requirement had the photo in a simple frame, and he set it atop the stack of folders of stories with sad endings.
They both had a chance for something more than sad, lonely years, and he’d do his best to make that come true.
“With family,” he wrote beneath Reynolds’ platitude, “we can be more.”