03 - Mirrorshades

31 – Not a Bribe

With things squared away and Taylor still sleeping, she started to go about her morning duties. As normal as she could do, anyway, given that her entire status quo had shifted since the previous morning.

Magnolia smiled as she shifted all of the unread emails from Ryan into their own little folder to deal with in a moment.

Aside from those, very little had come in overnight that she had to deal with immediately. Most incoming requests had sorted themselves according to her filters and workflows. Leave forms, education requests and schedule changes all sat in their own sections, ready for when she had some time to deal with them.

On a usual day, that was usually mid-morning.

A dozen or so other emails later, most of which were easily sorted into an existing workflow, she clicked into the new Ryan folder.

The first email had come in three minutes after she’d required the paperwork.

Part of her was surprised it had taken that long – but she was also proud that it had shocked him greatly enough to warrant that three-minute period of shock, to stump a man made of unfathomable technology, capable of so many calculations per second that it was nigh-on porn for Tech recruits.

For the next two hours, he’d spent an email every fifteen minutes and accompanying Vox messages.

He’d finally stopped in the early morning, wishing her a good night and asking if they could talk in the morning.

At no point had he pulled rank, demanded her time, or attempted to invade her space. Entirely within expectations of how he’d act. If he had been tempted to immediately prostrate himself and beg, he would have done that at the three-minute mark instead of sending a polite email.

Less-immediate prostration was still possible, though.

A Vox notification popped up, and she tapped into the app.

{Good morning.} His avatar was the default ID picture – something that hadn’t changed as long as she’d known him. {May we talk?}


She folded her workbook closed and laid beside her, then looked towards the door that led to Taylor’s office.

Many things in the world pissed her off. One that gave her a special kind of headache was the trope of a couple, or couple-to-be, spending their first night together, and one party leaving before the other woke without leaving a note.

It took maybe ten seconds to scrawl “I’ve gone to get coffee” on a Post-It or send a text.

She clicked into her Vox chat with Taylor – a place of sterile message and acknowledgments – and sent a non-urgent message – one that wouldn’t be delivered until his sleep cycle had ended and explained that she was meeting with Ryan.

Ten seconds, and now there was no chance he’d feel abandoned when waking up.

{You can shift me now.}

She expected the boardroom. Simple. Boring. What Ryan would default to. The guest suite was a surprise.

The guest suite was something she knew about, but, like the storeroom where the mirror now hid, it was a place she rarely saw. It was reserved for visitors who warranted VIP treatment, people who would warrant a penthouse or presidential suite.

And it was very much set up like one of those hotel rooms that you only got to see when a vlogger got special access. Multiple rooms, a bar with top-shelf fae alcohol, a complete set of memory glass windows and set pieces, on top of the usual sim windows that could show any view you wanted.

It even smelt fancy.

And sticking out like a sore thumb, her director sat, perched on the edge of one of the white couches, a few blue manilla folders stacked neatly on the glass coffee table in front of him. He started to rise as he saw her, but she waved a hand, and he resumed his seat.

Even if she did transfer somewhere else, there was probably no other Agency on Earth where she’d be able to as easily order a Director around as she did Ryan.

He didn’t wear the title easily, and it showed in a hundred small ways. Unless there were particular circumstances, he tended to still introduce himself as “Agent”, only referring to himself as “Director” in those circumstances when he needed to pull rank.

When she’d been young, she’d mentally nicknamed him “Agent Principal” for how he’d often treated Darren like a naughty child. It had seemed like Ryan had only visited their Agency to gripe at Darren about some way he wasn’t measuring up.

When she’d been nine, she thought he’d been a dick.

With time, with responsibility, with perspective, she would have been a much bigger dick.

Their network was a joke. Not the worst in the world, not by a long shot. Just in that lower half of average that made every other local network look askance at them, to make a joke of them, and to worry that Central would just scrap the entire group.

It had happened before, more times than anyone liked to admit. People tended to reference the Florence network as the one time Central had gone scorched earth, but that was just because the execution of that…execution had been a world-class clusterfuck.

Darren, gods love and preserve him, hadn’t been built to be a good agent. A good man, a good dad, someone who had taken in a lost man and his angry bird child just because they’d needed help, and the kind of guy who looked after his community like an unsung guardian angel.

But not a good agent.

And the first time she’d met Ryan, she’d been eavesdropping on him telling Darren to shape up or die.

A poor first impression.

That had been several lifetimes ago, and now they were in a strange position where he…treated her like an agent, like an equal. Understood and accepted that to talk to her was to talk to Taylor, that if he needed things done, he had to meet her on her terms.

She sat on the couch opposite him, immediately making herself more comfortable than his stiff, anxious form. ‘I’m here.’

‘Technically, I cannot address you by your rank at the moment, Magnolia, but given your feelings about being addressed by your surname, I would like to continue even if it is not currently accurate.’

‘You may.’

Getting this far seemed to stump him. He fiddled with the folders for a moment, then sat back, trying to look comfortable, but only managing to rise to “miserable”.

‘Aide.’ He paused. ‘Magnolia. You- Know why we’re here. You know what I need to ask you, but if you’d like me to say it, I will.’

‘I had my reasons.’

He looked even more miserable for a moment, then rallied a little. ‘You are, however, still within this Agency, so I hope it is a situation we can rectify?’

‘It’s not entirely up to you, but I am open to negotiation.’

‘Can I ask what he did? Because it’s Taylor, there’s no other reason, no other person who-’

‘You may not enquire into my personal life.’

Ryan’s head lifted a little, and the ghost of a smile settled onto his face. ‘Are congratulations or commiserations in order, Aide?’

‘What are you…’ she trailed off, shutting up before she gave away further information by inclusion or omission.

‘You’ve never referenced your relationship with Taylor as personal before, so whilst I may be inferring too much, am I on the right track?’

She kept her face blank.

‘Magnolia. If you want to stay, you’ve got a place here. As much as I might like to bribe you, I hear you and understand mine isn’t the deciding vote.’ He reached forward, laid a hand on the folders, and they disappeared.

He stood and walked over to where the bar was, but instead of grabbing the nearest bottle of high-proof booze and drowning himself over the potential loss of the only aide in their Agency, he reached over and picked up a small box that had been out of sight.

It was made of purple wood and lacquered with something that caught the light in a strange way. Both of those facts paled to the delicate silver embossed letters that spelled out, in the fairy alphabet of Below-Nine, Arshan Yo’s name.

A dozen times, she had floated – jokingly – the idea of getting something from an Arshan Yo collection in meetings. Whether it was a costume for a mission or as a reward for doing something above and beyond the call of duty.

Something she’d held a small, secret hope for, but not something she’d ever expected.

Arshan Yo was her favourite fae designer – and more than a few times, she’d torn pieces from magazines or printed out pictures to decorate a section of wall in one of her previous lives.

His company or lawyers or whatever were one of those that had agreed with Central to make their designs unrequireable and keep the supply of high-quality fakes to a minimum. Not that even required fakes would have really held a candle to the real ones, not with the bits of magic woven in the fabric that did things that blue couldn’t replicate.

The closest she’d come was, for her thirteenth birthday, her “big” present had been a single bead from a collaboration Yo had done with Fig – basically the fae equivalent of Pandora. A small silver bead with the letters for “Yo” in Below-Nine.

And she’d treasured it every day until she’d run away from home.

It was probably still in her room in Caboolture, a room that, Darren had often assured her, was the same as she’d left it.

And maybe one day, wounds would be healed enough to return to that time capsule.

She flicked the silver clasp and opened it up to reveal a pair of white gloves. Delicate and beautiful, from a collection eight years prior.

‘This was all I could arrange within budget and the short notice I had.’

‘You just said you weren’t going to bribe me.’

‘Magnolia, could I ever truly get you to do something you didn’t want to do?’


The ghost of a smile grew a little stronger. ‘Then how could it be a bribe?’ He sat back, his body a lot less tense now. ‘I hope you do stay. You know your worth.’

She closed the wooden box gently, not wanting to exert any force on a treasure like this, and looked up at him. ‘And if I don’t stay?’

‘Then they’re a gift.’

‘Oh, that’ll look good on the expense report, Director.’

‘That’s my issue to deal with. Now.’ He drummed his fingers on his knee. ‘If you do stay, I’d like you to be more selfish. You don’t take the leave you’re entitled to, and I want to sit down with you and negotiate a regular stipend. It would be small, as you don’t often operate in Faerie, but it would be something. Jane told me she ordered you to take some time off each week as part of her Agency evaluation, and-’

She held up a hand to stop him. ‘This feels like it’s in bribe territory.’

‘No. It’s what you’ve earned through your own actions. I simply want you to take it, not just accept what you’re given. I want you to want to be here, not to be here by default. I want you to be happy.’ He folded his hands together. ‘I’ve been given- It’s a rather stark difference, being and being happy. I want that for my people.’

She quirked an eyebrow at him. ‘That gremlin child of yours seems to have removed the stick from your ass.’

Ryan sighed, then smiled. ‘She is a breath of fresh air. I think a lot of us have been…stuck in habits for too long.’ The expression on his face changed as quickly as a switch being flipped. ‘Emergency.’

Even as the word left his mouth, her buzzing earpiece appeared in her hand, which she slammed into her ear. ‘Speak.’

Two – thankfully dampened – gunshots rang out in the background as Rachel shouted for backup. ‘On it,’ she said, loud enough and forcefully enough so Rachel could hear without resorting to shouting. Panic rarely did a situation any good, and already her fingers were moving across her phone’s screen, sending summons to her emergency team.

Her earpiece clicked as Taylor made contact. ‘Retrieve me,’ she said, ‘the others in thirty.’

‘Good luck,’ she heard Ryan say as Taylor shifted her from the last moments of the fairy tale and back into their real lives.

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