02 - Mirrorheart

47 – Ready to Start

Missed a Chapter?Content Warnings
Mirrorheart - Chapter ListMirrorheart - Content Warnings

Stef stared at the three-foot-tall crystal.

 

On her first day as a recruit, she’d had no baseline for what was and wasn’t normal within the Agency, so it hadn’t seemed out of place.

 

Now, with the Venn diagram of magic and tech being a near-perfect circle, it seemed to stick out like a sore thumb.

 

Everything about the Agency was…simple. Streamlined. Simple commands and defined parameters.

 

The crystal didn’t fit into that worldview.

 

‘Andrea?’

 

Andrea raised her head from the preparations she was making at her computer. ‘Mm?’

 

‘I-’

 

There was a straightforward way to test the theory. She folded her hands in her lap, out of sight of the tech.

 

Require: cookie.

 

The light weight of a cookie materialised in her palm.

 

Now, I didn’t wish for that, right?

 

No.

 

‘That thing’s bullshit, right?’ she said, pointing to the crystal with her empty hand.

 

Andrea looked at her, looked back to her computer, clicked a couple of times, then looked back. ‘It’s impolite not to bring enough to share.’

 

Stef grinned, broke the cookie in half and handed the larger half over.

 

‘Okay, spill.’

 

Andrea dunked the cookie half into her tea. ‘Social engineering, like so much of what we do. We arrange things so that we get the desired reactions and outcomes. We look like feds, at least in this day and age, because it’s what flips the switch in civilian brains to listen and accept our questions or commands without much questioning. We don’t immediately offer up the “lol we’re AI” truth immediately to new recruits because most of them are still adjusting to magic being real. This thing,’ she said, patting the crystal, ‘is just another bit of our faux mythology. Solstice, in particular, have a lot of false impressions about how we operate what our powers and limitations are. So the more apparent frippery that’s involved with our magic, the more they think they understand us. Hell, there’s still an ongoing theory that requiring and shifting require vocal or somatic components.’

 

Stef grinned. ‘Okay, that’s awesome.’

 

The crystal disappeared, and Andrea pushed a white case over to her. ‘You got your phone with you?’

 

She pulled out her phone and laid it beside the case.

 

‘You’ll have a new app on there.’ Andrea unzipped the case, and inside were a pair of futuristic-looking wraparound glasses – one uninterrupted sheet of clear curved plastic. Andrea tapped one end, and the clear plastic flooded with electric blue light, lines and boxes settling a moment later.

 

‘We’re not going to start agentifying you just yet-’

 

‘Is that the real word?’ she interrupted.

 

‘It’s my preferred term,’ Andrea replied. ‘But you can start with these.’ She lifted them and offered them to Stef. ‘HUD glasses.’

 

Stef hurriedly wiped her hands on her pants to clear away the cookie crumbs, stilled her hands to stop herself from ripping them away from Andrea, and gently accepted them.

 

‘They might be a bit disorientating at first,’ Andrea said, ‘like the first time you put on a VR headset.’

 

‘I…may have puked the first time I rode a virtual rollercoaster,’ she admitted before slipping on the glasses.

 

She closed her eyes and settled the glasses comfortably, giving herself a moment to get used to the feel.

 

Computer in the brain, this is all I ever wanted.

 

She opened her eyes and knew that this was another one of those steps forward that would change everything.

 

Running from her family. Accepting Dorian’s offer. Becoming a recruit. Saying yes to Crawford.

 

And now, a sneak peek of her – literal – new outlook on life.

 

It was a very simple interface. All that showed was a clock in the upper right-hand corner and a lower central taskbar with a couple of simple icons.

 

She turned her head slowly from left to right, getting used to viewing the world with an overlay. As she did, the taskbar collapsed, becoming a Field logo icon in the lower left.

 

She turned her head a couple more times, aware that a very subtle eye-tracking cursor followed wherever she looked.

 

When she looked at Andrea for a moment, a tooltip appeared, identifying her as Agent Jones, Technical Agent. Under this information were three small icons that were easy enough to interpret as text, voice and video options.

 

Beside these three icons was a down arrow, indicating more options – this expanded into a larger list of icons, some of which weren’t clear until she moused over them.

 

Shift to location, request meeting, see schedule, see location and a half-dozen more.

 

‘Hmm.’

 

Rolling the eye-tracked cursor over the icons was easy enough – and like mousing over regular icons, alt-text displayed, and that was good, it meant it wasn’t opening menus and programs without a conscious input, but-

 

But there had be a way to click, or-

 

She looked at the chat icon and blinked – which popped open the chat box straight away.

 

A couple of blinks later, she’d sent a smiling emoji.

 

‘That’s the way most people start,’ Andrea said, sending back a nerd emoji. ‘But for agents, it’ll become more natural, and you won’t have to use a physical indicator to interact with it.’

 

She nodded.

 

‘It’s on lowbie mode for right now. Giving you everything at once might be fun but also stupidly overwhelming.’ Andrea held up a hand. ‘Yes, yes, of course, there’s an option to view everything, but listen to me first, okay?’

 

Stef slipped off the glasses. ‘Yes’m Jonesy.’

 

‘The new app on your phone will work you through a bunch of modules training you on getting used to using the HUD.’ Andrea tapped her fingers on the desk. ‘I know of a lot of cases where these are issued recruits complain about it essentially being homework. They just want to start using all the functions without being stuck in the tutorial…’

 

‘There’s fun in just jumping in feet first and finding out things as you go,’ Stef admitted. ‘I think that’s part of what made Dorian’s project exciting, that what he initially showed off when canvassing for programmers was just a shade away from complete nonsense. And a lot of times when I start games, I ignore tutorials and just try and fuck about and find out- But once you get past that initial excitement and actually understand what the fuck you’re doing, the experience is so much better. It’s like finally getting a function to click, and you feel accomplished.’

 

‘I understand completely, but after the initial excitement fades, a lot of recruits try and skip the basics, so you end up having to gather a group and classroom it.’

 

‘Not with me,’ she said, pushing earnestness into her voice. ‘Every step the tutorial shows, I’ll do. I’ll get the achievement for clicking on something a thousand times or whatever.’

 

Andrea smiled. ‘Achievements kick in after module seven.’

 

‘Fuck yeah,’ she said and reached for a high-five, which Andrea hit with a satisfying, on-target smack.

 

‘I fear I’ve got bad timing,’ Ryan said from somewhere behind her.

 

She swivelled on her chair, targeted him, and sent a barrage of emojis. ‘Is it work?’ she asked as she begrudgingly slipped the glasses off.

 

‘No, Jane’s ready to show us around her estate,’ he said. ‘And-’

 

‘And it would be rude if I spent the entire time figuring out how pixel-perfect I have to be with my clicking,’ she said, finishing the intent of his sentence, if not the actual wording he would have used. ‘Okay, okay, I’m not so- I’m still not good at people-ing, but I’m not going to be rude. And I can do horse talk.’

 

She slipped the glasses back into the carrying case and pushed them towards Andrea. ‘Can you keep them safe for me?’

 

Andrea quirked an eyebrow. ‘Would you also like me to put a temp block on the requisition licence so you can’t require one?’

 

Stef felt herself make several weird faces. ‘It hadn’t actually occurred to me that I could require them. But. No. I have some measure of self-control.’ She looked at Ryan. ‘A little bit. Promise. I’ll be good.’ She slipped off the stool, clapped her hands to her chest and required a clean uniform – now with the binary cufflinks as part of the base loadout.

 

‘This isn’t an official meeting,’ Ryan said, ‘you don’t have to wear a uniform.’

 

She gave him a deadpan look. ‘You’re wearing one.’

 

‘I-’

 

‘Okay, settled.’ She turned back to Andrea. ‘See you later.’

 

‘Don’t get trampled,’ Andrea intoned seriously, then winked.

 

The lab disappeared, and grass almost too perfectly green to be real appeared beneath her feet.

 

They stood before a large country manor, perfect gardens and lawns so far as the eye could see, a line of tastefully elaborate fountains leading up the drive towards the front door.

 

She reached for Ryan’s hand before she realised what she was doing, then stared down as she squeezed his hand for comfort.

 

She’d always been alone. Even before her family had told her to GTFO. Even before getting dumped at boarding school, only allowed back to the family estate for certain holidays. Even- Always. Always alone.

 

There’d never been someone to reach for to comfort her. Nightmares were cured by dolls or plush toys, not one of her parents rushing in to hold her and tell her that there was nothing to fear.

 

No one to tell her that she wasn’t broken. Or that it was okay that she was broken, that her worth wasn’t in how well her brain functioned.

 

No one to love her. No one to comfort her. No one ever.

 

And now, mere anxiety had her reaching out for reassurance and knowing it would be there.

 

‘What’s wrong?’ Ryan asked at least a six-out-of-ten level of dad concern in his voice.

 

Jane’s manor was smaller than her family’s estate. Still, it was pulling on so many Stephanie levels that holding Ryan’s hand was the only thing stopping her from running or texting Jonesy and asking for a shift to the middle of Canada.

 

‘Reminds me of family,’ she said.

 

The door opened, and a butler opened the door. ‘Director, Recruit, you’re expected. Please follow me.’

 

‘This you’ll find interesting,’ he said, his voice shifting back to secret-agent-teacher. ‘You see that man?’

 

‘I mean, yeah,’ she said.

 

‘Do you think we hire human staff to look after our residences?’

 

‘Fae?’

 

He shook his head and took a couple of steps closer to the door, gently pulling her along.

 

‘Recru- No, that would count as human. It would be a waste to have agents do this.’

 

Another couple of steps closer, and the speed of her thoughts started to overtake some of the edges of her anxiety.

 

‘Any guesses?’

 

He wouldn’t – probably wouldn’t – be asking if she didn’t know the answer. So that meant it was something she’d seen before, and that left a limited number of-

 

‘A sim?’ she ventured.

 

He nodded. ‘When there’s a need for a basic function to be carried out, or we don’t need true intelligence or sentience, sims will often do that work.’

 

He gently detached his hands from hers and passed his jacket to the butler. Now, for the first time, they actually matched, full uniform, minus the jacket – though she still had her sneakers compared to proper leather shoes.

 

‘Household staff, for agents who maintain larger residences – though automatic subroutines take care of things like cleaning, as they do within an Agency, many see the value in someone they can talk to, a face they can issue commands to, or in this case, answer the door.’

 

The entry foyer immediately cut her anxiety in half. Externally, the place looked like any other manor that might have belonged to friends of the family; inside was far from the impersonal art gallery that most of those homes tended to be.

 

In the place of art pieces that could cover the cost of a typical home, most of the walls that she could see were covered in photos.

 

As they walked deeper in, following the sim butler, the trend continued, showing scenes from a long, long life. Some framed art started to join the collection – both childish fingerpaints and other relics from a child’s life and pieces that were all signed with the same signature.

 

‘Jane’s wife,’ he said as he saw her looking.

 

‘Who you’ll meet later,’ Jane said as she walked up the hall, dressed in a simple pair of slacks and a white blouse. She gently embraced Ryan. ‘Welcome to my home, Newborn.’

 

‘Thank you,’ Ryan said.

 

Jane extended a hand. ‘I don’t know if you’re a hugger.’

 

Stef shook the hand. ‘Mostly not,’ she admitted. ‘Sorry.’

 

‘Nothing to be sorry for, love. Now, I’ve got a little afternoon tea set up in the back garden.’ She smiled. ‘I’ll feed you, then work you hard.’

 

Okay, a uniform is probably not the best choice for shovelling horse poop.

 

Change later.

 

Jane led them through the house, out the back door, and to a luscious patch of grass, expertly surrounded by tall trees, which only let in the prettiest filtered light through their leaves.

 

A long white table covered in food was surrounded by comfortable chairs. In one of the chairs, a middle-aged man bounced a baby on his knee. ‘Toby went to get mama,’ he said to Jane. ‘Third time’s the charm, right?’

 

Jane looked at them. ‘I love my wife more than the heavens and earth, but no power in the universe can get her to any on time.’

 

Stef opened her mouth to make a joke, then clamped down – but whatever face she’d made was enough to catch Jane’s attention.

 

‘You can speak freely here. Everyone knows all about you.’ She pointed to the man. ‘My son, Alejandro.’ She paused. ‘Ryan Alejandro, he’s a namesake, but I doubt that means much to you right now.’

 

Alejandro nodded, then stood and passed the baby to Jane. ‘I’m going to chase them down,’ he said as he headed towards the house.

 

‘This is Leaf,’ Jane said as she settled the baby onto her hip. ‘At least for now, their first naming day is in a few months.’ She adjusted the baby’s hat. ‘Toby’s part nymph and their family has traditions about not choosing a name straight away.’ Jane indicated to the table. ‘Come on, sit, Chaos will wake before my wife gets here.’

 

Stef followed Ryan to the two unclaimed chairs but felt her gaze keep slipping towards the baby.

 

Scars burned, and she did her best to keep her face neutral.

 

‘This is all lovely,’ she said, hoping her voice sounded almost natural as she selected a glass from the middle of the table.

 

‘Green for alcoholic drinks,’ Jane said, ‘red for soft drinks.’

 

‘Huh?’ she said, then looked around at the glassware – every glass, no matter the shape, had some indication of either red or green on them. The stemware had a bead of colour mid-stem. Others had slices of colour worked into the pattern or full-coloured bases.

 

‘It’s a fae courtesy,’ Ryan explained as he poured them each a shimmering purple drink, its jug marked with a red stripe. ‘There are other colours, depending on the situation, but it’s to convey to those around you and those serving the meal what your preference is.’

 

The baby babbled, and she focussed on the drink.

 

Other than passing prams when out and about or sitting near a parent on public transport, she hadn’t been close to a baby in years. Babies, being so unpredictable, didn’t tend to attend the fancy events at her family’s estate.

 

No need to ruin someone’s thousand-pound tie with milky spit-up.

 

And she’d forced herself to make peace with the fact that motherhood wasn’t in the cards for her. That all her dreams and hopes of a perfect little daughter – one whom she’d already picked a name for – had to be put away from the hard light of reality.

 

Wonderful little Lucy wasn’t to be.

 

But that dream had been so much a part of her for so long that letting it go wasn’t so easy.

 

It was a foregone conclusion if you were a girl. You were born. You grew up. You had a baby.

 

You…got to correct all the mistakes your own parents had made. You got to give that baby all the love you’d been denied.

 

And it was just part of the life plan. Part of everyone’s life. Grow up, then baby. It was part of the goddamn fabric of the universe.

 

At least, it was like that for seemingly everyone else.

 

Sometimes, the fabric of the universe twisted, crushed your body under a truck, and left you unable to be a real girl.

 

Unable to ever have a tiny baby of your own that would look up at you with love and give you the family you’d never had.

 

‘Um,’ she said, ‘bathroom?’

 

Jane snapped her fingers, and the world went sideways, the grass under her feet being switched for tile.

 

She immediately made sure the door to the large, full bathroom was locked, grabbed a towel from the rack, and crammed herself into a corner next to the bath.

 

‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!’ she shouted into the towel.

 

FUCK.

 

She was supposed to be – whatever she was supposed to be – something, anything, normal. Enjoying afternoon tea in the shade, chatting about nothing over tiny sandwiches.

 

Instead, she was spiralling, and she wasn’t sure there was a bottom to it.

 

She’d tried to make peace with never having kids. She’d gotten rid of every cute outfit she’d spent too much on. Burned a few and scattered their ashes to try and get closure.

 

Tried to tell herself she’d be the worst parent on Earth. Tried to convince herself that even if a baby was dumped in her lap that she wasn’t capable of being what it needed.

 

Babies needed people who could look after themselves, and she was barely capable of that. Babies couldn’t live off way too many cans of soft drink, instant ramen and a sleep schedule as fucked up as it was possible to be.

 

She knew the logic. She knew every reason why it was a bad idea, knew how bad it would turn out, even if it was possible.

 

And it still hurt her heart so much it felt like dying.

 

But that deep, horrible pain wasn’t there this time. That was one new fact learned – hearts made of mirror couldn’t feel psychosomatic pain.

 

But hearts made of wishes could probably pop a child into existence.

 

It was simple enough to try. Get something sharp, cut through skin, jab her fingers into her chest and wish.

 

And it would lead back to the place of logic that she hated so much.

 

As many good intentions were in her heart. As much love her a life not yet formed as she had. As many stars as she’d wished on for a fairy tale, it wouldn’t work.

 

A year ago, it wouldn’t have mattered. A year ago, alone and full of stories she kept telling herself about a perfect future, she would have made the wish, consequences be damned.

 

Now, so much had changed so quickly.

 

For the first time, everything she had ever wanted was one wish away. She could be a mother. She could be…normal. She could get rid of the voice in her head and the ever-present knowledge that she was a worthless piece of shit.

 

A few wishes and the world would turn into a storybook.

 

And that was never the way fairy tales ended.

 

Wishes like that were lies.

 

Cinderella dolled up and went to the ball, but the prince proposed to the scullery maid, reality stripped of the glamour provided by the fairy godmother’s magic.

 

She could wish herself to be someone else, but then that would be someone else getting the happy ending, and whatever made her…her would be dead and discarded.

 

And she’d just clawed her way back from being dead.

 

Whatever perfect bubble Stef and Lucy existed in was a world she could never touch, a dream fading in the light of morning.

 

A gentle buzz indicated an incoming message on her phone.

 

The push notification showed Ryan’s profile picture – unlike Jonesy, he’d never changed it to something more personal.

 

{Are you all right?}

 

No reply came to mind other than making some tasteless joke about poop.

 

She couldn’t stay in the bathroom forever, no matter how safe it was.

 

She looked from the message to the profile picture, and back again.

 

Things changed.

 

Things could change.

 

Ryan had done the proper life plan thing, grown up, had a kid, been a wonderful parent, and now…apparently that kid hated his guts.

 

And then, one day, after assuming he’d be alone forever, he’d picked up a stray and had a second chance to dispense all of his over levelled dad prowess.

 

And maybe, one day, that could happen for her.

 

She could grow up, be a proper agent for a couple of decades, and find some lost child in a wardrobe who needed an imperfect mother.

 

Maybe, by then, she’d be ready.

 

Maybe, by then, she’d be done growing up.

 

But right now, she was a half-baked cookie.

 

Lucy would have been a way to give all the love she’d never gotten.

 

Life hadn’t given her that.

 

But life had given her a second chance to get all that love herself.

 

And maybe that was better.

 

And maybe it still hurt.

 

And maybe the hurt would fade.

 

She wiped her face on the towel then set it aside.

 

{Jonesy gave me requiring back, right?} she tapped into the reply box.

 

{Yes. Is there a problem?}

 

{I tried “require: hugs”, and it didn’t work.}

 

She looked up at the door and slowly counted down from five under her breath. On “two”, there was a knock.

 

‘You can open it.’

 

Ryan stepped inside, closed the door behind him, and crouched in front of her. ‘Is it something you want to talk about?’

 

‘Not…not yet. It’s old stuff. Things I’m working through.’

 

Something that might be finally ready to start healing.

 

He offered a hand down to her, and helped her to her feet. ‘Understandable. Just know that I’m always willing to listen.’

 

‘You know that goes for me too, right?’ she said. ‘Stuff about your son or whatever. This- This new family thing we’ve got. It’s different for me. You’re not stepping into a role that was previously occupied by someone I loved. For you, it’s- I’m not a replacement, but you loved – still love, I think – your son. There’s still got to be a comparison in your mind. Still shit you probably want to talk about.’

 

He reached across and straightened some of her hair. ‘A comparison of experiences, but not of people. Don’t ever feel like I’m measuring you against Alexander. I take you on your own terms, and if you feel otherwise, call me on it.’

 

She hugged him, staring at the always-safe, comforting blue of his vest and tie. ‘I’m- I’m not- It still feels weird to say “dad”, even if that’s definitely the spot you occupy in my head. But-’

 

‘I love you too, Stef.’ He opened the bathroom door. ‘If we head back now, we still may beat Kay to the table.’

 

She nodded, grabbed his hand and followed him back towards the garden.

 

I think I’m-

 

Not a child, but not where she should have been. Someone who could barely take reality as it was and had only made it this far through tears, frustration, and luck.

 

The part of her that had always wanted the book to end, the cover to close, and for her story to be over so she didn’t have to rail against what she wasn’t capable of anymore.

 

So many things weren’t possible alone. So many things were so fucking hard when no one had ever taught you how to do it.

 

Video tutorials could teach you how to use a plunger but didn’t give you headpats and tell you that a mistake wasn’t the end of the world.

 

Being more, trying, cracking out of your shell, none of it was safe to do without a safety net.

 

And now she had one.

 

I think I’m ready to grow up.

 

It was going to suck, and every failure was going to come with a thousandfold more tears than not trying, but at least there would be someone to wipe them away and tell her to try again.

 

And maybe that was all she’d ever wanted.

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46 - Decisions
48 - Onward
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I'm the idiot who initially conceived of all this, so throw your praise and your daggers my way.

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