In a way, the rest of the day was familiar.
After the accident, she hadn’t been in a coma – which was apparently Ryan and the others were referring to “being dead for nearly a month”.
No coma, but a long stretch without many memories. A long sleep, like a princess in a castle.
After she finally had a longer period of wakefulness, the days had been filled with tests. Blood draws and tentative appointments with specialists to address what hadn’t been sorted in the major surgeries.
A lot of her doctors had been hesitant to give her details – assuming that either she wouldn’t understand what was going on or that what information they could tell her would just cause further pain.
Usually, there was some variety of adult present to filter this information to an injured child. Most weren’t used to dealing with a kid on their own, who had a family covering the bills but who were largely disinterested in the day-to-day recovery updates.
Her argument that she’d read Gray’s Anatomy had convinced a couple to use actual medical terms rather than breaking it down into toddler-level language. For others, it had resulted in little more than an eye roll and a disbelieving sigh.
Her recovery team – which for now was just Jonesy and her assigned Parker – Parker-1.
Parker-1 had explained that most sets of twin agents – as apparently twins were a rare-but-not-unique phenomenon had similar, simple ways of differentiating one from another. One and Two, Alpha and Beta, nothing so fun as Twin-Red and Twin-Blue or Twin-Always-Truth and Twin-Always-Lies.
Parker-1 was a lot like most of the doctors who had treated her younger self, focussing on bedside manners and positive results.
On the other hand, Jonesy was happy to give her tablets detailing the processes and tests that they were running when he had time.
Ryan had stuck around for the first hour or so, but when she’d repeatedly assured him that she was all right, he’d left to do whatever grownup-with-a-real-job stuff that he’d been neglecting to be with her freshly resurrected self.
After one particularly massive round of scans and biopsies, both Jonesy and Parker-1 disappeared to do their tests and tabulate their results.
‘I can keep you company,’ Merlin said from his spot, sitting on the bench in the middle of the room.
Merlin was something of an adorable anomaly – Jonesy had quickly introduced his son before they’d started on the tests in earnest. Merlin had seemed quite comfortable sitting in weird places around the lab for the intervening hours, colouring or playing with various handheld consoles.
Why a child – she assumed he was either a skinny ten year old or an underdeveloped tween – not that she was one to judge in that arena – was allowed to hang around while Top Secret work went on, she wasn’t sure.
But everyone had treated it as normal, so she hadn’t bothered to voice the question out loud.
‘Yes, please,’ she said and moved to sit on one of the stools around the long bench.
And apparently, she was Top Secret, or whatever the actual Agency designation for that was. She was above board in terms of being allowed to be alive, and Ryan had gotten his slap on the wrist for making a wish.
But it was very much up in the air as to what came next.
She pulled one of the unmarred colouring sheets from the pile of space-themed pictures and picked up a yellow marker to start on the stars.
Right now, she was essentially under house arrest. She couldn’t interact with any of the other recruits, not that there was a need to; she doubted anyone even remembered her. She’d been there all of a minute, and then dead for weeks.
There was probably some novelty in chatting to someone who had been marked as KIA, but beyond that, nothing.
Not talking to people was easy – that was a skill she’d honed over the years. Having restricted internet access, on the other hand… was harder.
Jonesy had given her a pile of Agency tech to play with between the tests that he and Parker-1 had been doing. But all of them were in some sort of super-incognito mode. She could browse the net but not log into anything.
While she was technically “dead”, any activity on her accounts was a no-no.
It was strange. In her little world of rainbow clouds, she’d been unable to contact anyone or anything, alone with bits and pieces of her memory the lack of being able to lose herself in endless, pointless threads hadn’t bothered her.
And now, being unable to upvote or like a comment that added to a conversation seemed like an arm being tied behind her back.
But colouring was nice and uncomplicated.
She slowly worked her way through the rest of the magic coffee beans while working on the colouring page.
All things considered, it was probably one of her better birthdays.
Another hour went by, and she looked up as Merlin slipped off the table. ‘I think that’s for you.’
She followed his gaze to the back wall of the lab, a space that had been just storage and big equipment. All of that was still there, but now there was also a door.
‘You think that’s a bathroom, cause eventually, I’m going to-’
The door opened, and a pretty woman with auburn hair in a messy bun opened the door. ‘Good,’ she said, ‘you’re both awake. Come on through.’
She stared at the woman for a moment – there was something immediately familiar about her. She was tall and thin, just like Jonesy; wearing the same Portal shirt that-
The woman smiled.
And she had the same vividly, electric green eyes.
‘Hi, Mumma,’ Merlin said and bounced into the woman’s arms.
‘Jonesy?’ Stef ventured.
Jonesy nodded. ‘Sorry, forgot you hadn’t seen me in girl-mode.’ Her eyes crinkled a little. ‘Is-’
‘Have I fucked up on referring to you?’ she asked quickly.
Jonesy shook her head. ‘Not at all. My pronouns are any-slash-all, I always answer to Jones, but I also like Andrea when I’m feeling femme.’
‘And mum,’ Merlin said.
‘And always mum,’ she agreed and kissed the top of Merlin’s head. ‘Anyway, come on through.’
Beyond the door was-
Was a party.
A round table covered in treats, a cake at the centre of it. Ryan stood behind the table, next to a handsome woman in a suit – though her tie was purple compared to Ryan’s blue.
Blue was apparently the colour for Oceania. She’d seen agents with red as their feature colour – they were Americans, but she couldn’t remember if she’d been told about purple.
But it was probably rude to just ask.
She took a step forward and looked at the table, took in the small details of spun sugar, edible glitter, tiny cupcakes with perfectly piped icing.
All of it was required, surely, but that didn’t take away from the thought behind it. That someone had done this for her.
That it was being done with love, not because it was expected. Not because it was a chance to one-up the goodie bags given out by some family friend.
‘I hope this is all right,’ Ryan said as he crossed the room to her. ‘I know today has been a lot, but-’
She shut him up with a hug.
‘You should cut this cake,’ the woman said, her voice carrying notes of London, ‘before this one explodes.’
She looked over and saw Merlin almost vibrating as he looked at the cake.
‘Okay, okay,’ she said, blinking back a couple of happy tears. ‘Where’s a knife?’
The woman pointed beside the cake to a ribbon-wrapped knife. ‘Just there, love.’
Stef rounded the table and looked at the cake. It was a simple, three-tier naked cake, with just a hint of yellow colouring in the light coat of buttercream. Three simple candles sat on top, nestled amongst edible flowers.
‘I feel hesitant,’ Ryan said, ‘to say “make a wish”.’
She grinned and blew out the candles, carefully keeping her mind blank. ‘There,’ she said, ‘we’re safe.’
She cut the first slice, the lines wonky, plopped it onto a plate offered by Jones, then handed the knife over to Ryan, who cut much tidier pieces.
‘Jane,’ the woman said to introduce herself. ‘And it’s lovely to meet you.’
She had to stop herself from dropping a curtesy. Jane’s voice sounded so much like her mother’s that it was pulling on the old, rusty levers.
‘Nice to meet you,’ she said, holding herself together.
Cake was distributed, and everyone found a chair.
‘This, unfortunately, has to count somewhat as a working dinner,’ Ryan said. ‘Inasmuch as we’ve somewhat worked out the schedule for the next few days.’
‘I’m not sure I’ve got any more blood to give,’ she muttered, then filled her mouth with cake.
‘I could test that theory,’ an almost familiar voice said.
Stef turned towards where Merlin and Jones sat and saw the scary-pretty-goth-recruit girl picking a cupcake off Merlin’s plate. ‘He insisted,’ Magnolia said and scruffed Merlin’s hair. ‘I’m just here for cake.’ She licked frosting from her thumb. ‘And I count as representing combat for this whole situation.’
‘Aide access,’ Ryan clarified as Stef turned back to him. ‘Now. Jones and your doctor will be doing some more tests. We need to establish your new baselines, should they be any different to what they were before. We also need to-’ Ryan paused and looked down at a largely-untouched plate of food. ‘We need to understand the parameters of your mirror before other decisions can be made.’
‘That sentence needs more context,’ she said.
‘People who have pieces of mirror inside of them tend to fall into a couple of different camps,’ Jane said. ‘Sometimes mirror just powers an ongoing wish and can’t do anything else without being deliberately interacted with. Others can make wishes as they please, depleting their reserves with each use, of course. There are some edges cases, of course, some people who can do a mixture, which makes things more complicated. Right now if we can drop you into Category A or B, we can start to make a host of other decisions.’
‘I don’t think I’ve wished for anything today.’ She paused. ‘But I don’t think I really tried to either.’
‘No time like the present,’ Jane said. ‘But make it something small, all right?’
Stef cupped her hands and closed her eyes.
I wish for a five-cent piece.
She cracked one eye open – there was nothing in her hands.
I really, really wish for five cents. Please.
She looked up and realised that everyone in the room was paying attention to her. ‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘Genie rules, I guess, I’ll have to rub it to make anything happen.’
‘That’s what she said,’ Magnolia snarked before stealing something else off Merlin’s plate.
‘Yeah, I- Huh?’
‘That’s good and bad in different ways,’ Jane said, grabbing her attention away from Mags. ‘It means you’re less likely to accidentally wish for the end of the world, and that’s something we can all appreciate.’
‘And the downside?’
‘It means if and when the situation calls for it, you’re going to have to cut into your chest, and that’s not going to be pleasant.’
‘Not that doing such a thing should be your first, third or even tenth impulse,’ Ryan said, his voice serious. ‘Mirror isn’t an exact science, but the amount you’re carrying seems to be in excess of what is needed to keep you-’ There was the briefest pause. ‘Up and about. But we don’t know what will happen if you do make a wish. It could be that there will-’ He stopped and smiled. ‘I’m sorry, this isn’t the conversation you expected to accompany cake.’
The fact that she could do more than just smile politely and chirp little rote phrases like a trained bird was a definite improvement over most of the birthdays she remembered.
But that was too depressing to bring up.
‘It’s important,’ she said, ‘and cake makes it easier. Keep going.’ She leaned closer, grabbed his fork and stabbed it into the cake. ‘So long as you actually eat some of this too.’
He took the fork and dutifully ate the soft, fluffy sponge. ‘Better?’
‘Much. Now. Just lay it out. I think I get where you’re going with this, but I don’t want to assume anything.’
Ryan looked down at his plate, cleared some space around the cake, then indicated to it with his fork. ‘Imagine that this is your heart.’
‘I mean, I am eighty-six per cent sugar, so it’s not hard.’
Jane snickered, then hid behind a cup of coffee.
‘So far as we know, everything you are, your memories, your soul, all that makes you yourself, is in your heart.’
‘What we don’t know is how that’s distributed through the mirror if such a description makes sense. We don’t know if, for example-’ He used his fork to carve off a corner. ‘That were to happen, you would lose a specific memory, for example, or if the-’ He seemed to look for a word. ‘Density would adjust, and you would be fine until you lost too much mirror.’
‘So avoid making too many wishes unless it’s the end of the world?’
‘That would be the safest course of action, yes.’
‘Am I gonna get back my ability to require?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Then I should be fine.’
Jane’s phone chirped, and she turned it to show Ryan. ‘Here’s your namesake with the new foal.’ She smiled at Stef. ‘That’ll be two birthdays I’ll have to remember for next year.’
Foal. The word pulled on more old levers, but most of these were happy. ‘Can- Can I see?’
‘Of course,’ Jane turned the phone, and she saw a man standing with a gangly little roan foal. ‘You’ve got some interest in animals, then?’
‘I did dressage when I was younger,’ she said. ‘but my-’ She took a mouthful of cake to give herself a moment to think of a nice lie, rather than the ugly truth. ‘But we sold the horses to some of my mum’s cousins, and I got stuck doing ballet instead.’
‘You’re welcome to come see my collection,’ Jane said. ‘I know you’re barely back in the world, and there’s a lot of work ahead of you, but I think I can bully Crawford into giving you a half-day pass if we take the right precautions.’ She smiled. ‘I may make you muck out the stables in return though.’
Stef pressed her palms flat to her thighs to force herself to have a normal reaction. ‘That would- Just be- Be just fine. Thank you.’
Doing the dirty work that came with the horses had been the best part of that whole part of her life. Looking prim and proper on Buttercup, of being the perfect little doll in a hard hat had belonged to Stephanie.
Accidentally stepping in horse poop and getting covered in straw and dust. Making the muscles on her arms burn as she brushed Buttercup’s coat to a silky shine. Those moments had belonged to Stef.
Wonderful, fleeting moments. All too few and all too long ago.
She looked up to Ryan. ‘Can I?’
‘If your schedule with Jones permits, I’m sure we can spare a few hours.’
‘With that, I think I’ll take my leave,’ Jane said. After a quick round of goodbyes, she shifted out of the room.
‘That’ll be us too,’ Jones said and lifted a sleepy Merlin from his chair.
‘Then I’ll fuck off too,’ Magnolia said but grabbed one more cupcake from the table.
‘Thanks for coming,’ she mumbled to the guests as they all left.
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