There was a knock at the door.
Ryan ignored it.
There was another knock.
Ryan poured himself another drink.
His warped reflection stared back at him from the cut crystal of the glass that had been his only companion for the past couple of hours.
Jones had made it clear he could come back to the lab whenever he wanted. Still, there had been things he’d needed to do, things he’d needed to organise, and weeping by Stef’s bed was not going to ensure a tidy end to his life.
He could run. There was one last piece of mirror remaining, enough for a fresh start, enough to undo the mistakes he’d made, but he couldn’t bring himself to make another wish. So, for now, until Crawford or another Central representative claimed it, it sat in an unmarked envelope, anonymous except for the weight it created in the world.
There was still dust on his fingers from his- From the inexcusable way he’d treated O’Connor. The wall had repaired itself, and the stains of blood and urine that the boy had left on the carpet were long gone. Only the particles of wall and paint on his hands and the shame of his actions remained.
He didn’t trust the young man, but such violence had been undeserved. It had been the wrong word in the wrong place, and it had been enough to sever all that had remained of his self-control.
There were a number of folders on his desk – most were slim and contained last rights and requests. All that he was entitled to from service as a director. Bequests to his family, enough money to pay for any education Arisa wanted. A small will detailing the few objects he held in any regard.
And a folder, containing the paperwork to promote O’Connor to Aide.
The finalisation forms were unsigned, but the groundwork had been laid. From a subjective point of view, he wasn’t sure how he felt about O’Connor. From an objective point of view, from the position of a life about to end, where lies and pretence found little purchase, he couldn’t fault the boy’s performance or loyalty.
And if he was gone, the elevation in rank to Aide would help protect Curt’s position in the Agency. Would preserve the second chance of someone doing his best every day to earn it.
It was a sad commentary on his life, on how few friends he had that he had spent a portion of what might be his last hours and minutes ensuring the future for someone he second-guessed daily.
There was a clink of glass, and he looked to his hand, but the ice had long ago melted, and he hadn’t found the will or presence of mind to require more. Slowly, sluggishly, he looked around the room, saw a spoon on his coffee table, then registered the fact that he had a visitor.
‘Jane?’ He asked, staring at the handsome black woman. ‘How long-?’
She smiled and placed her coffee cup down next to her spoon. ‘I knocked, Newborn, but you didn’t answer.’ She brushed something off her purple tie, the deep and rich colour that made so many jealous of London’s feature colour.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. He put his glass down, shook his head, and tried to bring his mind into the moment. ‘Please- Forgive me. I’m not-’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘I know everything, Ryan, why do you think I’m here?’
Hope, no brighter than a dust mote in sunlight, rose. ‘Are you my advocate?’
She nodded and patted the couch beside her. ‘As you can imagine, I wasn’t the first choice, Crawford had to pull a few strings to allow someone from outside Central in on this case.’
More motes danced in the sunlight.
He refreshed his uniform and appearance – whatever she had to say, he wanted to be presentable for his judgement.
He almost hated that he still had hope, despite having spent hours preparing for the worst.
The fact that it was Jane – that Crawford had assigned and sent someone familiar – meant one of two things. One, that Crawford had chosen someone sympathetic to get the best result. Or two, and the reason he hated the small sparks of hope, that the worst news should come from someone familiar, to lessen the impact somewhat. To have a friend – or at least an acquaintance – to talk you through the fact that you were to be executed.
Reynolds had been that for Rhys – a story often repeated and regretted. He’d always had the impression that Reynolds had been trying to apologise to whatever of Rhys remained, to explain that he’d been unable to do anything to prevent it.
This was his last chance. Whatever Jane said next would determine if he was to live or die.
All he had to do was make another wish, and hope that it was the right one. Wish himself human and run to Faerie. Invoke Time and roll back the clock. Do anything except passively accept that he wasn’t in control of his life.
When the time had come for his life to end, Rhys had arrived promptly. He’d spat and swore, had decried Reynolds as a poor replacement, but hadn’t fought his fate.
And he was doing the same. It was cowardice, it was loyalty to the System, it was his inability to be more than what he had been designed as. Imperfect, but loyal the end.
He gathered all of the paperwork that he had worked on, then joined Jane. He set the folder in front of her, and sat on the edge of the couch, unwilling to even feign feeling relaxed in this moment.
‘Do you need the formal words, or do you accept me as your advocate, Ryan?’
‘I accept you, ma’am.’
‘Crawford shared everything that was conveyed to him. I also have, of course, been privy to sundry and supplemental materials, such as your recent records and the file of your recruit. A few hours have passed since Crawford was here, what do you have to add?’
The question was never “do you have anything to add?”, it was always “what do you have to add?”. As, unless you rendered yourself unconscious as soon as the Enforcer left, situations that required investigation were almost always fluid.
The intervening time gave you time to reconsider your reasoning. To gather evidence if needed. To decide if you wanted to do everything you could to restore the old status quo.
He could disavow Stef, and what he had done was a mistake. He could ask to be distanced from the recruit and the mirror holding her in suspension. It was technically an option – and he would be treated better than if he accepted everything he had done, and continued to beg for both of their lives.
There were a hundred paths to take, but it hadn’t taken him long to decide on his final ask of the Agency.
‘One thing to add, one thing to request.’
Jane nodded. ‘Go on.’
He touched the envelope that lay on top of the folder. ‘This contains the last piece of mirror, Enforcer Crawford didn’t retrieve it before leaving.’ He moved it aside and laid a hand on the top folder. ‘If you are here, as I fear, to give me bad news, I would ask that Stef be treated with all leniency possible. She didn’t-’ He paused for a moment, to keep his voice steady. ‘She didn’t deserve this, Jane, I don’t want her to pay for my mistakes.’
‘And that’s all you have to add?’
He folded his hands in his lap. ‘Yes, ma’am. I’ve said all that can be said. I won’t apologise, and I won’t distance myself.’ He looked at her. ‘I’d appreciate not being held in suspense, ma’am.’
She laid her hands on his. ‘I won’t be saying goodbye to you today.’
‘What does that mean?’ he asked, trying to tamp down on his impulse to hope for a good outcome.
She adjusted how she was sitting on the couch, leaned forward and cupped her hand. A moment later, a bottle appeared – shifted in, as he doubted she would have required something that looked so old and dusty – and poured each of them a small measure.
‘A lot of people love your father, Ryan,’ she said as she handed him one of the glasses. ‘This bottle was a wedding present from him. I only dip into it when there are moments to truly celebrate. Birth of my son, gold anniversary, not saying goodbye to an old friend.’ She clinked her glass against his and sipped at the gold-flecked liquid. ‘People owe Reynolds a lot of favours, and sleeping or not, they honour those markers.’
‘Am I alive through bribery, Jane?’
She smiled. ‘A good advocate, Ryan, does what is necessary. For as old as you are, your record is relatively spotless. There are larger problems with your Agency that-’ she swirled the liquid in her glass. ‘Agreeing to an audit was part of this, say “I agree” and let me continue with the important parts.’
‘I agree,’ he said, almost on autopilot.
‘You have good, consistent service. And…when agents get to your age, there are certain leniencies that…although they don’t exist on paper, are understood by people making the decisions. You destroyed the majority of the mirror, excellent. You owned up to what happened immediately, excellent.’ She lifted the envelope and shook it. ‘You didn’t step into the rather obvious trap and try to take the easy way out. And all you’re asking for, really, is one life, and that’s something that can be managed.’
‘Is Stef safe, then?’
‘As I understand it, right now, she’s the next thing to a corpse.’
He fought for the words to argue, but it was the truth, so he nodded. ‘Yes, ma’am, I wish it wasn’t the case, but-’
Jane smiled. ‘Maybe avoid using that word for a while, Newborn.’
‘Please. Tell me. Is Stef-’
‘A lot of that is going to depend on precisely what happens when she wakes up. I need to introduce you to a few people-’ she waved a hand as he looked up. ‘Not today, not even tomorrow. Surely you can’t imagine that this is the only time the Agency has touched mirror, that your recruit is the only recruit to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.’
‘I hadn’t-’ saying that he hadn’t had time to research wasn’t exactly true. Still, it wasn’t something that he had considered, wasn’t something that he’d been calm enough to think about. ‘Whatever you want me to do, ma’am.’
She gathered the files and stood. ‘What I want you to do, Ryan, is for you to prepare for an audit. Spick and span, top to tail, put your best foot forward, please.’
‘Ryan,’ she said as she lingered near the door. ‘A lot of people love your father. A lot of people would do anything for Reynolds, even after all this time. I love him like a sibling, but I did this for you. I’ve always owed you my gratitude, and I’ve never found a way to show it.’
Speaking the truth – saying anything specific – would be dangerous while in System territory, would divulge old crimes, and put Stef at further risk.
Forgiving a Director an indiscretion was one thing. The crime of a much younger agent, especially one covered up for more than a century, would be viewed with much less grace.
He hadn’t made a wish back then, only stolen a piece of mirror, ferried it to Jane so she could save her wife. It had been impulsive, a bold, kind act, something Rhys never would have done. Something he was sure would be attributed to Reynolds by the few people who knew why Jane continued to have a happy marriage.
It had been the right thing to do, and he’d known that, even under a hundred layers of repressed and double-guessed emotions. It hadn’t been his Duty, hadn’t been what the Agency would have allowed, but it had been right, and that was all that mattered.
And after he’d left Jane in the church, healed wife curled in her arms, they’d never spoken of it.
‘Besides,’ she said, a shine of old tears in her eyes, ‘you’re not allowed to die without meeting your namesake.’
‘What?’ he asked, choking on the word.
‘We wouldn’t have a son without you, it was only right.’ She stepped back towards him, laid a small photo on the coffee table, then left the office without another word.
The photo was of a young man graduating school, resplendent in cap and gown, holding a framed certificate, his name written in an ornate font: Ryan Alejandro Cortez.
Agents weren’t meant to be noticed. The Agency was, by deliberate design, to be anonymous as possible – any humans you interacted with were to have as little impression or memory of you as possible.
It was why Stef remembering him had been so…significant, so wonderful. For better or worse, he’d left an unintentional mark on the world.
Having a child was an obvious legacy. Whether or not that child chose to remember you, decided to include you in their life…that was never a certain thing, as his relationship with Alexander showed.
Reports came and went, medals meant nothing, and the Agency didn’t make statues. You lived, you died, and you hoped that someone would remember you.
Somewhere in their history – from before they were agents – it had become a practice to name a child after someone you wanted to honour, some gratitude you wanted to repay. A namesake was another way a little part of you survived, a little way in which you could be remembered.
And no one had ever loved him enough, felt indebted enough to give him a namesake – and the fact that he wasn’t even hidden as a middle name – tears welled in his eyes, and for the first time since the previous evening, they weren’t born from misery.