A short bridging story for Stef, set between Mirrorshades and Ebb and Flow.
On the morning she’d gone to Heathrow, she’d arrived five hours early, consumed three litres of coffee, lost her wallet and cried in front of security.
It had been a nightmare, from start to finish.
Only when finally sat in first class, and checked with the steward three times that she was on the right plane, had she even begun the process of calming down.
And that had only been to make room for so many more fears, so much doubt, the unending abyss of things she didn’t know, and how very, very likely failure had been.
When she’d landed in Brisbane, she’d been also to do little more than grunt at the thankfully-booked-ahead driver, sling her much-abused Louis in his direction and ask for him to go through some sort of drive-through on the way to the hotel.
The hotel staff, having seen far, far worse than a jetlagged, old-money scion in socks and a stained blouse, had swiftly conveyed her and her bags to a suite befitting her name.
Two mostly-unconscious days that had been scattered with moments of room service and waking to open requested packages – like a country-appropriate sim card – she’d opened her laptop, and looked at the smattering of documents and notes needed to start a life.
As much as it was a staple of kids’ movies and rom-coms, she was living out the trope of “princess has to learn how to do peasant things”.
She didn’t have a title, but until her grandfather had exiled her, she had been a part of a family richer than some monarchies.
But her money wouldn’t last forever, so renting somewhere cheap was the sensible thing to do. It was the biggest cost, after all, so this would mean long-term savings.
And there had been weeks of trying, of crying, and questioning whether or not she should go back, tail between her legs, and just beg for them to find her some out-of-the-way corner to exist in, some small hole she could stay in until she died.
One little cardboard square had given her a start. Had given her the first place she had ever called “home”, even if it had been a lonely one. It had been her space, something she had done, untainted by her family.
Stef looked to the window, where the little sign had been, and saw nothing but a sun-faded logo of a security company that she was sure was just there for show.
Keys well and truly misplaced, she touched a hand to the main door of the apartment building and required it opened.
One more time through the main doors, it had felt right, rather than shifting straight into the lobby. Even if it wasn’t a special experience, even if it meant nothing really, it was nice to do one more time.
The black-and-white checked tiles of the lobby and the ever-so-slight layer of dust welcomed her as she walked towards the always-cracked door of Mr Jenkins.
She knocked and waited for the nymph man to pause whatever vintage TV show he was watching, and open the door.
‘Stephanie,’ he said, and she schooled away the expected wince. ‘How can I help?’
‘I’m,’ she’d practiced the conversation in her head – and out loud a couple of times – but as always, actually conversing was harder than talking to herself. ‘I’m going to be living on property now, so I wanted to let you know. I’m hoping to have everything cleared out by the end of the day, but let’s call it the end of the week to be safe?’
He smiled. ‘Of course. I suspected this might happen, so I’ve already put out a few tendrils, and there’s some interest.’
She nodded and looked at the list in her HUD. ‘Anything I’ve paid you, keep, I don’t need it. I’ll wave a wand and clean it when I’m done, so you won’t need to organise a bond clean.’
‘Much appreciated. Your mail?’
‘Already re-routed. You shouldn’t get anything more for me here.’ One last item on the list. ‘It’s stupid,’ she said, looking at the floor. ‘But- I wanted to say thank you. And- You didn’t have to rent to- Me.’ She pulled a sheet of paper from a vest pocket. ‘So I pulled a couple of strings with Tech. No more council rates. Means nothing in terms of Agency resources, and will make things easier for you.’
Hand it over, genius.
She started, then extended the paper forward. The letter was simple, explaining that all applicable local fees and whatnot would now be covered.
She’d offered Jonesy an hour of her time to pay for organising it, and had been waved off. Instead, there was a note sitting in her Vox chat with Jonesy to get some small token of appreciation the next time she went to the Local Court.
Jenkins looked at the paper, took in the detail, and then nodded. ‘Thank you, it’s much appreciated.’
She smiled, nodded, waved an awkward goodbye, then walked up the wide, creaking stairs to her second-floor apartment.
When she’d first moved in, the adjustment had been…hard and easy in all of the strangest ways.
The amount of space in the one-bedroom flat was fine. Bigger than her room at school. Smaller than her suite at the family estate, as even the rooms in the wing reserved for PITA family members were large.
That had been easy.
Bills – utilities – were easy enough. Most had been an online sign-up, and direct debit linked to one of her bank accounts meant she didn’t have to think about it.
Remembering that food expired and that there was no longer an entire quiet army of household staff to take out her trash was harder.
She opened the door to her apartment, stepped in, locked the door behind her, then began to open the few blinds, and the door to the small Juliet balcony.
It didn’t smell bad – for once – but there was the mustiness of having sat idle for weeks.
Every small, stupid thing that most people learned growing up had been something she’d had to seek out a YouTube tutorial for.
How to clean a bench. If you were supposed to wash a kettle after each use. Whether or not fridges were supposed to make weird noises.
Even the simplest things had made her feel like giving up.
And cooking for herself had been the battle that had nearly lost the war.
She stepped into the kitchen – it was the easiest room to start with – and began to open cupboards and dismiss all of their contents, pausing briefly to remember to dig the diamond ring out of the flour container.
The ring – worth at least enough to pay the flat’s rent for a couple of years – had always been the next item on the list to sell, but she hadn’t gotten around to it.
She patted at the zip lock bag that contained the ring box, then wiped her floured hand on her uniform pants and set it aside.
It had been one of the gifts that had shown up for her seventeenth birthday. Something purchased by one of her grandfather’s assistants, who, she knew for a fact, had a spreadsheet that designated how much could be spent on any family member for a given event.
And when you didn’t love that person, automatically-calculated representations of their relative value were easy to rely on.
And in comparison to the little bag of chocolate-covered coffee beans that Ryan had bought – while she was dead, on the off-chance that she’d wake in time to celebrate her birthday – it meant far, far less.
Kitchen emptied and scrubbed clean with magic, she moved to the lounge room.
Everything except the couch was dismissed with one thought. There’d never been anything of value here, except Alexandria, who Ryan had retrieved and brought to the Agency while she’d still been on Top Secret house arrest.
Walls and carpet were cleaned. The glass in the French Doors of the Juliet balcony was replaced, and its lock refreshed and polished. All neat, all tidy, even more so than when she’d moved in.
The bedroom loomed large, but she was prepared for it. Three days of getting up the courage – and the free time – to do this had to mean something.
The blackout curtains were the first thing to be zapped into the void. As much as she could curse the light, it was needed on a day like this.
Her desk was easy. A command copied the contents of her desktop to her Agency cloud, then – with a crouch and a whispered “thank you” – she dismissed the unnamed computer. The rest of it, peripherals, papers, and the detritus of a workspace went next.
A few small figurines were tossed into a box on the bed, the beginning of her “keep” pile.
Next, she pulled the first of three suitcases from under the bed and hauled it up onto the mattress, an action made so much easier by her agent strength. Even agent strength that was still, for the moment set at “Regular Ass Human Man”.
This was, judging by the incredible family of dust bunnies, one of the suitcases that had been shoved under the bed when she’d moved in and never looked at since.
Not surprising. Probably all three were like that. Old memories and whatnot, things she’d packed at the estate, but not wanted to deal with in her new life.
She unzipped the case and found a bunch of surprisingly-neat smaller cases inside.
This was probably one of the ones she’d had one of the staff pack, else it had been done on a very good day.
She grabbed for the first – and largest – case and unzipped it. Inside, protected by a layer of tissue – telling her this was indeed one packed by the staff – was a collection of jewellery boxes. Small, square ring boxes. Thin bracelet boxes. Large necklace boxes. A good number were a signature blue, others came from more exclusive stores.
‘O-oh,’ she mumbled as she picked through the tiny dragon’s hoard. ‘Oh, fuck, my brain.’
The giggle was small, but resounded through the half-empty apartment.
One of the things she’d done in preparation for exile had been to sell a bunch of her birthday-and-other-holiday gifts to inflate the exile fund granted by her grandfather.
And while there were probably a dozen pieces in her wardrobe in the “real stuff” jewellery box, rather than the “just costume” box, these pieces had entirely slipped her mind.
Easily, easily, two hundred thousand dollars or more, had entirely slipped her mind.
Awkwardly, she stuffed it all back into the small case and dragged it out to the kitchen to sit on the bench next to the diamond ring.
Returning to the bedroom, she slid the mirrored doors of the wardrobe to the right, revealing the shelves and the two jewellery boxes there.
The “real jewellery” box she carried out, and dumped the contents on the pile, easily adding another hundred thousand to the value.
“Costume jewellery” box in hand, she sat on the bed and opened it up. The box was nice, green and blue glass, with a velvet liner. Something cheap she’d seen while out one day, but had been pretty enough to bring her momentary joy.
Piece by piece, she dismissed the cheap pieces, a mix of truly poor quality pound shop junk, and others that, while a little more expensive – some running to a hundred dollars or more – the little rich girl in her brain had been trained to see as no different to the three-for-five-pound items.
At the bottom, beneath a cheap unicorn pendant that was undergoing some sort of truly remarkable technicolor death, was the one piece that meant anything.
Just inside her front door, on top of an entryway table that she needed to dismiss, was a book that covered both people wanting to rob her, and people who might find her corpse.
Politely, she’d pointed out the location of the “real” jewellery and had advised the thieves to stay away from the fake, cheap jewellery in the glass box.
It had been her saving throw, her one little hope, that if she came home to a ransacked apartment, that Snake’s necklace might still be there.
She picked up the royal heirloom piece, and let the handcrafted pendant swing on the silver chain, catching light that was no longer held back by theatre-strength blackout curtains.
As short as their – friendship seemed to be a strange word for it, but nothing seemed to be better – had been, it had changed the course of both of their lives. Her, a royal-fucker gracing the tabloids. Him, a fickle princeling who hadn’t waited a day to get a new lover after breaking off what many had predicted would be a relationship that would end in a royal wedding.
They’d both gotten what they wanted though, what they’d needed at the time. He’d been given a beard, and plausible deniability until a long-term solution could be found. And her…her family had backed off a little, treated her like slightly higher-quality shit while the rumours persisted that she was fucking minor royalty.
City state or not, royalty was royalty, and it would have added another title to the extended family, given them more influence, more pies to finger.
But none of that had ever really been part of her sphere of concern. She was happy to do favours for someone whose life sucked as much as hers did.
And he’d given her one night of normalcy, one night of being an ordinary seventeen-year-old girl, albeit one struggling to keep inside voices inside.
A school dance. A fancy dress. Three makeup artists, including one who had been there to cover the scars on her arms so she could show a little more skin than usual. Dancing. Laughing. Pretending to be normal for a few hours, pushing herself into a world that had never had space for her.
It had been beautiful, it had been special. It had been important enough to be one of her guideposts when putting her soul back together.
She curled the chain into a pool in her hand, and slipped it into one of her inside vest pockets, there was a special spot waiting in her wardrobe at home waiting for it, a little stealthy cardbox box, because there was no more fitting home for this memory.
Clothes were easy to get rid of. What wasn’t a slowly-deteriorating nerd shirt or pants chosen for their approximate fit were the few Stephanie outfits she’d kept for the moments she’d needed to be able to pull on that part of herself.
And moments like that would still happen. As much as she wasn’t Stephanie, Stephanie was still a zip file of useful programs and scripts.
But it would hurt less, knowing that she was using that part of herself for her new life, instead of burying Stef further and further, sanding down her unacceptable elements to be less of a problem for her family.
With the wardrobe empty of clothes, her little nest was exposed to unfamiliar sunlight.
Camp mattress, pillow, blanket, a hydra of chargers, and the constellation of glow-in-the-dark stars.
For so long, it was the only place she’d be able to find any comfort, a place to escape to that felt even safer than burying herself in blankets on her bed.
Small, contained spaces felt safe. Felt like she could control them.
And as much as maybe it wasn’t a step towards “grown up, responsible, Agent Stef”, the space under her Agency bed was already its own little wonderland, one even better equipped than this nest had been.
Her new one, after all, had fairy lights.
One by one, she peeled away the stars and placed them into a little gauze bag.
Somehow, everything after the stars was far easier than the things that had come before. One by one, she opened suitcases that hadn’t seen air since entering the country and dismissed their contents with barely more than a look.
Alexandria. Leonardo’s pendant. Those were the two things that had been at the top of her “grab in case of fire”. The only other thing on that list of any note was paperwork, all of which was now basically useless.
However she ended up dying for really reals and for the last time, she doubted the Agency would need her pre-paid funeral plan, and at some point, she was sure she’d write a new will. One that James hadn’t had a hand in.
Part of her had pondered the idea of sending him a condolences card, but – other than potentially stirring issues for the Agency when some civilians came knocking – it probably would have caused him more joy than confusion.
James and her will did make her look back at the To Do list sitting in her HUD, and with a sigh, she moved to do one of the necessary, annoying jobs of the day.
Spread across the pieces that had been in non-costume jewellery box, and several of the suitcases were about fifteen pieces that – in all technicality – didn’t belong to her.
Pieces passed from mother to daughter that, thanks to some weird bit of rich people legal bullshit, remained the property of the estate, the trust, the whatever, and were only loaned to each successive generation.
Mother had given them to her at appropriate intervals, and had loved regaling Stephanie with stories of how she had received the pieces, and notable events from the previous couple of generations.
Delicate jewellery that wouldn’t overwhelm whatever doll-like costume a child would be expected to wear. There would have been others, assuredly, but getting even more bangles and dangles that she wouldn’t wear had been far from the top of her priority list as a teenager.
Sitting on the bed, with a duplicate of a boba tea that Mags had given her during her testing days, she pulled up an intranet How To guide and lazily scrolled through the instructions, whilst trying not to choke on balls.
She squirmed, feeling the still-new-getting-familiar-always-lovely joy of playing with a new bit of Agency magic.
Copy-pasting a command, a prompt window came up, in which she selected a country, then inputted the address of the estate, something she could still – to her chagrin – recall without issue.
‘Stupid genius, brain,’ she mumbled, letting some balls roll around in her mouth.
After a few more selections, a semi-transparent AR black box appeared, floating just in front of her.
One by one, she picked up the matrilineal jewellery and pressed them forward. As each passed the threshold of the invisible-to-everyone-else box, there was a static feeling against her hand as they were dismissed, disappearing into the shift-suspended, hammerspace storage box.
After the last piece, she hit a button in her HUD, and the black box animated closing, wrapping and addressing itself, then disappearing, putting the package into the hands of Royal Mail to be delivered the next day.
‘So fucking cool.’
Now with all of the suitcases open, and all – probably all – of the pieces of jewellery found, she dragged the stragglers to the kitchen, and – mostly by shoving and pushing the boxes like an arcade machine – got everything into a large, blue Ikea bag that had been hiding behind one of the suitcases in her wardrobe.
Originally, she had planned to deal with the leftovers at the end of the day, but she could feel the “do it now or it’s not going to get done for a week” itch already setting into her brain.
Even made of tech, even holding mirror, her brain was still a mess, and doing as much as she’d done was a lot to ask someone whose executive function was…what it was.
A couple of HUD clicks had her Vox chat with Mags up, now she just needed…the courage to contact her.
It wasn’t like Jonesy or Curt or Milla, where there were ongoing chats. It was a lot more intimidating than reaching out to Sacha or Screen.
Even Curt had said Mags was who he wanted to be when he grew up. She was…so easy to put on a pedestal. Cool, competent, pretty, smart, really super talented with violence, and far…kinder than expected. Even as stressful as her position seemed to be, Mags had ensured that the recruits who had called her out for being a prince-fucker were suitably admonished, and had immediately come to her rescue when they’d tried to…haze? – bully? – be assholes? – during her first sim training with the other Field recruits.
And, overriding all of that, Mags had helped her figure out that she was ace. That as broken as she was in a myriad of ways, maybe not having pants feelings was valid, and not just another element of her brokeyness.
Mags’ time was valuable, and she always felt like she was intruding, even if the older girl had never said anything to that effect.
Whatever she did, she always felt like she was taking up people’s time, that she was a-
Use the picture.
She minimised everything else in her HUD, and activated a shortcut. A picture of Ryan, doing the dadest face to ever dad appeared, centred in her vision, and it took a moment to even be able to look the picture in the face, to imagine all the kind things he’d said, and to scrap her little birdy beak against the mountain of self-doubt.
‘Love you, Dad.’
She closed the picture and brought up the Vox chat again.[Not Agency related, do you have a couple of minutes?]
A pin and shift shortcut were dropped into the chat as a response.
There weren’t explicit words, but it was an invitation, and she was learning to adapt this into her social programming. A location on its own might not have been clear, and would have made her think, doublethink and triplethink, but the addition of the shift-to-me icon may as well have been “you can come here now”.
She could adapt to new commands, could integrate new programming, even if she had to push it live without getting a chance to sandbox it first.
Ikea bag in hand, she tapped on the shift icon, and her apartment fuzzed around her.
The bright space of Mags’ and Taylor’s private gym appeared, one of the few times she’d been in there without the expectation that she’d been about to watch her zombie get murdered in increasingly esoteric ways.
Mags, wearing black combat pants and a sleeveless top, stood amongst a maze of small cones, her face pinched in some kind of frustration or anger. Off to the side, Hewitt was putting the cap back on a sports drink.
‘Sorry. Um.’ She obviously interrupted some kind of training. But the invitation had been there, so maybe this was a break and-
She forced herself to take a breath.
Mags waved a hand. ‘I’ve got a couple of minutes.’
‘I’m not unteachable,’ Hewitt said, and sat on the bleachers.
‘Didn’t say you were.’
‘Loudly didn’t say it,’ he said, pointing his drink at her.
Stef put the bag down on the lowest level of the honey-coloured bleachers. ‘This might not be a thing. But- I heard some people say they still like to buy some real stuff instead of requiring it? Like how Jonesy is building up her games library with all sourced-from-the-real-world copies?’ She pulled on the handles of the bag, exposing the plethora of little boxes. ‘You might know some people who would be interested in-’
Hewitt’s hand reached into the bag to grab the topmost blue box. ‘How to fuck much-’ He scooted closer to look into the bag. ‘This looks like Sach’s accessories wardrobe.’
‘I- I imagine so,’ she said. ‘And it’s- Three hundred and fifty? Three hundred and eighty? There’s a couple of custom pieces, but I don’t think any are engraved, but if they are, that’s easy enough to change.’
Magnolia’s black eyes appraised her. ‘We could make a night of this, Mimosa. Drinks, snacks, gossip and raiding this horde.’ A small smile settled onto Mags’ face. ‘Or does that sound like hell on Earth to you?’
‘A little,’ she said, her voice strained.
‘All right, I can take care of it.’ Magnolia gently pulled a diamond tennis bracelet from Hewitt’s hands and snapped the box closed. ‘You, get back on your feet.’
‘I have dibs on that,’ Hewitt said, but walked over to the cones and-
She had expected some kind of…kung fu pose, or some stretch that would indicate he was about to run through a series of martial exercises.
Posing, partnerless, for a waltz hadn’t been anywhere in the top one hundred possibilities.
Mags smiled, and secreted an amethyst ring into a pocket. ‘His fiancé can dance, he can’t. He wants to learn before the wedding. Everything else, he picks up without issue, this he’s having trouble with.’
‘I just don’t want to step on his toes,’ Hewitt said, rocking from one foot to another.
It was Stephanie, but-
‘Doyouwantmyhelp?’ she asked, staring at the floor. ‘You- Saw me practice autopilot. I-’
‘It would be appreciated,’ Mags said.
The music, loud enough to dance to, quiet enough as to not be overwhelming, filled the gym. Mags stepped in as Hewitt’s partner, and – still stumbling over her words, though not as much as Hewitt stumbled over his own feet – she started to walk them through the basics of the waltz.
Forgoing the riding crop that had been a fixture of Madame Costeau’s ballet instruction, she corrected footing, restarted the music again and again, until-
It was strange, that someone physically talented enough to be in Combat, who didn’t seem to have any issues with the various requirements of all those positions and poses, would have an issue with something like this.
Dance was something you learned, sure, and something you got better with over time, but the repetition of mistakes for what was one of the easiest dances to learn was strange.
Anxiety in this smiling, probably-handsome, confident recruit looked a fuck-tonne different to the face that had stared back at her for twenty-three years, but-
‘You’re in your head,’ she said, ‘you’re getting in your own way.’
Hewitt let Mags go, and for a moment, she braced for him to scream at her, to- ‘I just want it to be perfect. And I can’t-’
‘Stop looking at your feet, you know where they are. Trust your proprioception, I’m sure that’s what keeps you alive in your job. Listen to the music, it tells you where you need to be. And- If you’re marrying him, I’m sure he’ll love you, even if you do step on his feet.’
The music restarted, and he kept his head up. It wasn’t perfect, but it was…better.
‘So I can get rid of the steel caps?’ Mags asked as she and Hewitt broke apart.
‘Keep them for a bit longer,’ Hewitt said, then turned to smile at her. ‘Thanks.’ Pause. ‘How do you want me to address you, ma’am? You’ve got rank, but I don’t want to presume that you want everyone to call you “Agent”.’
‘Stef is fine,’ she said.
One shift swapped the gym for her apartment.
Just go through the list.
With half-full suitcases still all around her bedroom, she focussed on the other three rooms, requiring repairs and refreshing carpets and paints as she went.
With the bathroom done, she settled onto the bed again, and-
It was heavy, but it wasn’t hard.
So many things had been hard. Being alone. Being unsupported. Figuring out how to do even basic chores. All of it to just achieve basic survival. A status quo that had never held the promise of anything more than breathing the next day.
But that wasn’t true anymore. Trauma would always follow like a shadow, but she had some choice in what else followed her, and being able to shed the remnants of Stephanie, of a life she’d squatted, ill-fittingly into, really did feel good.
More clothes were banished to the shadow realm. Yearbooks and school photos went, flung like frisbees across the room before disappearing, never to bother her again.
A couple of medals for dressage and show jumping went into a long-term, shift-suspended storage box, which felt very much like uploading physical things to be stored in the cloud.
Two suitcases disappeared, and she shifted the next onto the bed.
A small case was filled with little touristy knick-knacks. A postcard from Brighton, a lanyard from Alton Towers, small things that – for another girl, for another life – would have been the cornerstones of precious memories. For this girl, they disappeared, taking with them the lonely feeling of being the third wheel around her parents. Of seeing other families, and understanding that there was something wrong, but being unable to ask why she wasn’t good enough.
If she’d been a brat, she could have understood why James had looked at her like he was barely restraining himself from getting rid of his problem. If…if there’d even been any one big incident where she’d done something that had ruined a priceless antique or some expensive item by crawling over it as a babe, even that would have been…something.
But he’d hated her, always hated her, since she’d been old enough to remember his face.
She ran her fingers over the binary cufflinks Ryan had gotten her, and scratched at the mountain of self-doubt again. Time. It would just take time. And reassurance. And love.
One by one, she whittled the suitcases down, saving a few items here and there, most of them going into cloud storage.
And as the light changed outside, moving into evening, there was nothing left in the apartment, other than the bed, and one thing she’d always wanted to do.
She kicked off her shoes, and stood up on the bed.
With a snort, a giggle, and a good chunk broken off the mountain, she started to jump around.
It was stupid, it was childish, and it was something she’d never been able to do before.
It had never been worth the risk as a kid, or at school, and once she’d had her apartment, there hadn’t been the whimsy necessary to do it. Or the want to have the replace the bed if she broke some of the slats jumping about.
Now, there was just the squeak of wood, and the soft sensation of socks against sheet and mattress.
Simple, uncomplicated and…good.
After a few moments, and a couple of ceiling touches, she collapsed down, arms and legs spread like a starfish, content, and grateful for the small joys that she was allowed.
She reached back, brushed her fingers against the wall and whispered thanks to the place that had been the first space where she could be herself.
A command queued the bed to be dismissed upon leaving, and after retrieving her shoes, she took one last look around, she shifted home.