Every interaction with a person was a tiny snapshot of their whole. Sometimes, one moment could express everything about that person – a moment of courage or cowardice, charity or callousness.
The rest of the time, it took a lifetime to build up a picture of a person, and even then, they could surprise you.
Ryan tried to adjust his face so that he wasn’t staring so dumbfounded at the newest aspect, resplendent in shades of green.
The more he learnt about Stef, the more he realised he didn’t know.
He had always known, logically, that he had a very incomplete picture. That despite the almost immediate feelings of fatherly affection and the want to call her family, that he had really known her for an amount of time best expressed in hours.
Even in that time, there had been a multitude of little quirks showing him that at all at once, he knew enough to love her but not enough to predict when she’d be frustrated enough for little affectations to show in her accent.
Still, he had built a picture around what she had shown him. Someone with little care for her appearance, with almost the ability of a Dickensen stage urchin to accumulate dirt, even in clean spaces. A person content to wipe her hands on her pants to clean her hands of grease and crumbs rather than reach for a napkin.
And those experiences were at odds with the immaculately presented young woman standing before him. An expensive dress, subtle make-up and the shine of jewellery.
The aspect reached out, and there was the echo of another person’s hand as she accepted a necklace, which she carefully put on, then took a moment to make sure it was straight.
‘I wouldn’t have thought she went to her formal,’ Jones commented from the far side of the lab, where monitoring equipment capturing every bit of data whilst the aspect was active. ‘Or maybe she’s a wedding guest?’
‘I’ll have to ask her,’ he mumbled.
The hand that had handed over the necklace reappeared, and the tiny, incredulous smile on her face finally married the image of what he was seeing with the Stef he knew.
She accepted the hand, and her partner drew closer, and they swung into a waltz.
Jones stepped up next to him. ‘Aside from the fact that your nine-hundred-cookies-per-second child is wearing a dress that costs more than a high-end gaming system, want to know something extraordinary?’
‘I’m guessing you didn’t run recognition on the young man she’s dancing with?’
‘It hadn’t crossed my mind to do so.’
A message from Jones appeared in his HUD – a screenshot from a dossier, showing the man dancing with Stef, his name – Leonardo – and his title-
He looked to Jones. ‘Prince?’
‘Of what’s essentially a city-state a little bit bigger than Monaco, but yes.’
‘This is a story I’d like to hear.’
The prince spun Stef, and a lock of her hair fell onto her cheek, making her shout some unheard complaint, though the smile on her face didn’t waver.
With one more swing of the waltz, the aspect disappeared – short and happy, a nice contrast to some of the misery these mono-coloured ghosts had shown.
‘I feel like I’m reading her diary,’ Ryan confessed as the last of the green light faded. ‘Like I should look away. But another part of me sees it as something like the parade that precedes a mirrorfall. That these are memories that should be witnessed, in case they are the last time they are remembered.’
‘I’m jealous in a way,’ Jones said after a moment. ‘I…Let me explain,’ he gestured to the couch, where Merlin slept under a warm blanket. ‘Bio parents don’t get a heads up as to what their kid is going to be like, but we’re not that, are we? Adoptive parents usually get some information ahead of time. Stories that their child might not choose to share on the first day, but that can give the prospective parent a leg up on providing a good environment. The aspects are an unusual way to get this information, but it’s information all the same.’ Jones looked away, almost ashamed. ‘I still don’t know how old my son is.‘
His tech sighed deeply – this was pain well-trodden.
‘Besides, sir,’ Jones said with artificial brightness. ‘we’re not human, and I think that fundamentally changes the equation. Almost every interaction you have with a stranger, you know information about them that they haven’t volunteered. Every time a field agent pulls a “hello, Mister Anderson” on a witness to show we know more than they think. Every time we pull an address to take a victim home or contact a next of kin. We’re fundamentally used to dealing with more information than the average Joe. We all have to draw our own lines as to where we feel comfortable. Some people misuse it because there are always people who go too far, but I don’t think that’s you. You’re a good man, sir, that’s a constant of the universe. ‘
A substantial folder appeared in Jones’ hands. ‘This might feel less like sneaking a peek at her diary. Or it might make it worse. It’s all the relatively public information about her that’s available. I didn’t go digging for old forum posts or whatever fanfic she wrote as a teenager, but other than that… it’s about the same kind of dive you’d do to vet an aide.’ Jones’ lips quirked in a slight smile. ‘Speaking of which…should I be filling in those gaps in Recruit O’Connor’s file?’
‘That’s just temporary for now,’ he said, almost automatically. There were still too many conflicting emotions to feel comfortable thinking about his temporary aide as anything more than…temporary.
Then again, he had roughly the same feeling about his appointment as director. This wasn’t his job, it was an interim position.
But some things persisted.
‘There’s little of what I’d call truly germane,’ Jones said. ‘But there’s one-’ he paused. ‘I almost said “aspect”, but that word means something different right now. There’s one thing of note, something I’d be shocked if she even knew herself.’
Jones laid the file on the nearest bench and pulled out a few sheets of paper, held together with a slim gold paperclip. Before he had a chance to read any of the words, the crest of the Court of the Lost in the upper right corner caught his eye.
As much as he felt the jolt of surprise, it made a sad amount of sense. It also further spoke volumes – whatever she had let slip about her family were mere shades of the depth of the abuse or abandonment that had really happened.
The Lost were one of the major fae courts – like Madchester, it was one of the major courts that had formed to perform charity.
The Court of the Mad took in – or otherwise cared for – the neurodivergent, the ones who fell through the cracks of their society, and those who needed a little bit of help.
The remit of the Lost was far narrower. They cared for abused and abandoned children, providing “imaginary friends” to help them survive homes that had too little love.
For many situations, that shoulder to cry on, that little bit of care and attention, was enough to sustain most of their charges until they could escape their situation.
With the more severe cases, they simply absconded with the child, giving them a new home in the court or amongst its network of foster and adoptive parents.
Given her lack of knowledge about the world, Stef had obviously fallen into the former camp, which somewhat mitigated the second-hand worry. Abuse not bad enough to warrant kidnapping, but still of a threshold to catch the attention of a fae court would have still been significant.
And it was all the more reason she needed to open her eyes; needed to know she was loved. Needed to know she didn’t need to shy from every compliment or worry that affection could be torn away in a second.
Jones quickly reached across and laid his hand on the folder, stopping Ryan from turning to the next page. ‘I’d like you lay a little flutter…bet me a dollar. Guess what form her imaginary friend took.’
He stared at his tech. ‘There’s more than countless possibilities, I-’
Jones flipped the page and the photo of-
‘A pirate?’ he asked, looking at the man’s elegant green coat and wig. While the look was more romantic than realistic, it still didn’t seem-
Jones pointed to a feature that he’d missed – the pirate was missing one hand, and in its place was a sharp, silver hook.
‘Somehow,’ he said with a smile, ‘this makes sense. Something more mundane just… wouldn’t be Stef.’
‘If you want to speak the man behind this mask,’ Jones said, ‘I’ve checked with their administration, and he still works for them. I know you’ve still got a lot on your plate, but-’
‘I still haven’t spoken with the-’ He thought back to the last email from Aide [XXXX]. ‘The special projects aide regularly refers to the group as the “mirror mutants”, though I’m not sure I’m invited to do the same.’
‘I know you have to pretend things are normal, but throw Curt some more work and make some time to go visit the children of Professor X.’ Jones’ tone took on a slight melancholic lilt. ‘As much as we’re hoping for a good outcome, I need you to see the existing Agency personnel who fall under this banner. I don’t want to take away hope, but I do want to temper expectations.’
It was sensible. It was something he had to do, but…
‘The pirate first, perhaps,’ he said, ‘before I have to fully readjust my expectations.’
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