For as long as anybody could recall, River Loxias had placed claim on the desk in the very back of the FBI offices, their status as topmost agent unquestioned.
There were those who suspected that this had been River's calling all along, that the Powers of Destiny that Be had somehow ordered the Fairytale Bureau of Investigation to reserve River's desk for them years, decades in advance, before they had left high school or even been born at all. Some suspected that River Loxias had come into the position by inheritance, that they were the reincarnation of the very first director of the FBI agents-- a leader known to many only as The Angel.
These were only rumors, of course, but River kept to themselves, and in the offices of the FBI, that was reason enough for speculation. Not even the higher-ups could pin down exactly who or what River Loxias was, and the vast majority, to that effect, quite frankly did not care. Who they had been before didn't matter in this business.
What mattered was that they were the FBI's top agent, both on the field and within.
"Still," murmured Director Valerian, tapping their nails impatiently over a pile of dossiers. "They have some really... interesting ideas about what we should be investigating."
Saphon Goodspell, laundrywoman and coffee-supplier extraordinaire, answered by blinking owlishly at her boss. "Pardon?"
"River Loxias," the Director jerked their head towards the agent in question. "My-- our branch's-- collection of information won't get larger by itself. And though their whole 'finding Mirriah Glass' thing is what tipped us off to the existence of the Golden Gun Syndicate, they still haven't turned up any substantial proof that Mirriah Glass is actually real, and not just a pseudonym used by dozens of spies."
"There can't be too much harm in it, if it's already helped you once," Saphon cautiously replied, not wholly sure if she was supposed to be hearing this. She poured the Director a hot mugful of their beverage-of-the-week and, just in case, gave them two muffins instead of the customary one.
"We're losing hours that could be spent hunting down Silver Kiss... we're losing lives to them," Valerian scowled. "Even though Golden Gun went legal and we've got them chasing after our leads, even they can't prevent every assassination. The near-miss on the Queen of Hearts just shows how good Silver Kiss is getting... if they'd hit half a centimeter to the right, she would have died instantaneously. Maybe even I couldn't have saved her in time if we hadn't prioritized medical treatment over catching the perpetrator..."
"Oh, but I hear she's recovering wonderfully," Saphon assured them, pressing a warm mug into their hands. "You worked quite a miracle! The entire branch is proud of you."
"Yes, well, being the next physician of Death has a few perks," the Director dismissed, taking a measured taste of the tea as if habitually checking for poison. "We need every agent we can get, especially since so many are on guard duty just in case one of the Silver Kiss agents tries to finish her off. I've called in the Golden Gun liaison for a meeting with River... hopefully Professor West can persuade them out of this whole 'Mirriah Glass' business."
Whatever Saphon might have said next, however, became abruptly cut off as a man bearing a tuba case hurried in, his trench coat and several dozen infinity scarves flying in the air behind him. Director Valerian shook their head at the entire matter, and returned to going over their many, many informational dossiers. Sage Idason, surely, would not have anything to say that was not already widely known.
The enigmatic heir of Little Ida's story attempted to smoothly slide in beside River Loxias, inadvertently making himself seem all the more unusual for doing so. Casting his eyes shiftily in either direction, he at last set down the tuba case on top of River's desk.
"So," he began, "After I got the briefing for our latest mission, I managed to get access to Q-Level Classified information. You'll never guess what I found out!"
River glanced up from the mirror they had been gazing into for the last hour and a half. Their face was nearly unreadable from beneath their mask as they carefully scrutinized Sage's expression.
They lifted a notebook and turned to a much-used page, the letters penned in River's jaggedly elegant hand: "There is no information to disprove [insert theory here]?"
"Okay, so maybe you can guess it," Sage admitted. "But Q-Level has all of the information about the cargo hold of the Goosetail plane! You know, the one which crashed and mysteriously wiped the memories both people on board, as well as the only three witnesses? Nothing came up to disprove that the plane was destroyed on purpose... in fact, it looks like someone purposefully put memory loss powder in the cargo hold!"
River glanced at him and wrote for nearly a full minute: "Documented as smugglers of memory loss powder. Weren't their illegal account transactions also somewhere in Q-Level?"
Sage leaned in, whispering, "Those could have been planted to make it look like that."
River shook their head in fond exasperation. Then, as if realizing something, they lifted the hand-mirror and tapped the glass twice.
"Sorry... I didn't find anything about Mirriah Glass down on Q-Level, and that's the deepest level of information we've got," Sage apologized. "She's not in birth certificates or removed fairytales or anything. It's kind of suspicious, isn't it, how there's a complete lack of records, even on suspect lists or pseudonyms? And besides, who else would be pulling all the strings of the intelligence community? She could've gotten in and erased all records that she ever was."
River scribbled out another brief note: "Real?"
"She's got to be real... the cornerstone that holds the entire balance of the conspiratorial world order in place," Sage nodded solemnly. "The FBI just hasn't been looking hard enough to find her."
That assurance seemed to be enough for River, at least in that moment, and they returned to tapping the mirror to no avail, trying to think upon the entire matter. As if an afterthought, they leafed through the pages of their notebook until they came to the one that bore the word, "Mission?"
"We're supposed to debrief the liaison from Golden Gun on their mission in Fairytale France," Sage flipped open the tuba case, which held hundreds of immaculately-organized papers and dossiers in lieu of an actual tuba. "You know there are rumors... how their Director M is actually Mirriah Glass herself."
River paused for a second, picking up their notebook again and writing, "We cornered Director M to three suspects. Not Mirriah."
"Director Valerian 'wouldn't let me' put down Mirriah," Sage sighed, using airquotes judiciously. "Since 'she doesn't exist,' according to the lies perpetrated by Deep Government."
River flipped their notebook to a page that got an exceptional amount of use, considering its contents. The words read, "We are Deep Government."
"Not just us-level Deep Government, River," Sage formed a frame with his hands. "I mean, ultra-high security Deep Deep Government. The level of government that even Queen Apple White herself doesn't know exists. The real puppet masters, the ones who control stuff that we don't even know about."
River glanced down at the mirror, taking a good, hard look at themselves. Not for the first time, they wondered if they were wrong about Mirriah Glass, too... it seemed that nowadays, only Sage was willing to even fathom her existence.
Sage fathomed the existence of at least half a dozen conspiracies per day.
Still, he was the only one who seemed to believe River's convictions, and so, with a neutral flip of the page, River told their friend, "We'll solve it after the mission."
"All right, I have a couple of... more detailed things... there isn't time to discuss here," Sage lowered his voice, glancing at Director Valerian suspiciously. "We should go wait for Professor West in the atrium. We can't have a stranger wandering around at this clearance level."
River took up their own relevant dossier, the latest in a series of notebooks, and a fresh pen.
They held up a single yellow post-it note: "Ok."
Professor West's life, it seemed, had taken a turn for the bizarre in the aftermath of his being kidnapped by the Golden Gun Syndicate. How he'd ended up as one of their upper-level agents and their liaison to the Fairytale Bureau of Investigation was a mystery to him, but he suspected it had something to do with Director M's particular gravitas of personality and methods of persuasion.
Nevertheless, the Professor showed up precisely on time, heralded immediately into the meeting between agents known only as "Sage Idason" and "River Loxias."
He frowned faintly upon seeing them-- for though there was an abundance of documentation that had cited Sage Idason's existence, both at Ever After High and in the workforce beyond, there was nearly nothing that had turned up in Ryusei's search of River Loxias, save for the fact that there had been a desk reserved for them in the FBI offices for literal centuries.
"River Loxias" was obviously some variety of pseudonym used by agents throughout time, West thought, rolling his eyes (although none could tell, given the way his hat covered them). It was no wonder that the strange, solitary woman who went only by "Mirriah Glass" was so afraid of them.
She'd insisted-- very vigorously, in fact-- that West avoid speaking the name at all when in her presence. She'd said that "River Loxias" was "out to uncover her." Even saying their name nearby could attract undue attention to her presence. It was a ridiculous conjecture, in West's opinion, given that "Mirriah" didn't seem to do any sort of spying at all, having never once left her room within Golden Gun headquarters. Still, he had nevertheless agreed, if only because he suspected that she was attempting to protect whichever sources were really feeding her the information.
"All right," announced the FBI agent clad in his baggy trench coat and numerous scarves-- Sage Idason, according to his tag. He lifted his notebook and his many, many colored pens and highlighters. "When we last left off, you'd informed us that the particular brand of lipstick found on the perpetrator was a collector's item available only from the secret market at the top of the Black Steps in Marseilles, and that Golden Gun would send agents to investigate."
The agent who went by "River" helpfully held up an illustration of the tall, impossibly tall structure, one which seemed rather more like a clock tower than anywhere for doing business.
"Golden Gun sent only the best, of course," West replied evenly. "As the only entrance to the building in question was nearly 100 feet off the ground, we had Agents Cupid and Boots ascend to the appropriate height via carefully calculated wingflight. Magical deactivation devices were used to create gaps in the force-fields, thereby cutting all electronic camera feeds. Several rare cosmetics were stolen on Director M's orders, with the goal of masking the true nature of the break-in."
"Not because Director M wishes to sell them himself?" Sage narrowed his eyes and frowned.
"If you find them being sold through any means, feel free to arrest the seller. They certainly won't be Golden Gun," West snorted, knowing that Director M had only wanted the items for personal use. "We tapped the system, got a copy of the hard drive, and we have a working catalog of all financial transactions."
"Did you find anything out?" Sage was quick to question, eager to leap upon a new avenue of truth.
"It took a little while, but we've got a lead," West reported, passing over a carefully-composed dossier. "Analysis on Agent Arctic's behalf indicates that the cosmetician of the Marches Noirs is likely a member of Silver Kiss herself... involved in an enormous scheme of selling falsified versions of limited-edition cosmetics on the underground market. We're keeping a careful watch on her business using access codes found in the original drive. We estimate a little under half of Silver Kiss' computers have been tagged with a sleeper virus."
"I presume that this dossier contains the data collected so far?" Sage began leafing through the paper and quickly began highlighting the relevant odds and ends of important info.
"Of course," West answered, turning over a page in his own notebook. "And did the FBI make effective use of our last exchange of documents?"
"Your tip-off about the suspicious payment for an escort to the Wonderlandian High Tea Party helped our own agents prevent any permanent injury to the Queen of Hearts, though we failed to tag the perpetrator," Sage gave River a nod. "My partner did, however, manage to get a pretty decent look at the assassin."
River helpfully held up a drawing, carefully done, of the assassin in question. Their eyes were masked, their hair hidden beneath a dark cowl of a hood-- more like than not, a cloak of shadows that River themselves had only just been able to see past. Their clothing seemed to be typical Wonderland-style high fashion, probably stolen straight out of the closet of some random noble, but...
West's eyes narrowed, "Something seems... off about those shoes."
River nodded in vigorous agreement.
"That's what I said," Sage replied, shaking his head. "Director Valerian didn't believe me. They're obviously some of those mind-control devices from the Authors--"
"No, not off like that," West snorted. "They're not Wonderland-style like everything else is... I think those are uniques. One-of-a-kind, and from here in Ever After. It could be the lead we need."
River lifted a finger and carefully tapped the lip of the figure they'd drawn.
"Yes, that's silver, too. The same shade of the lipstick I submitted for further analysis," West frowned at the drawing. "Did your people turn up any new information on that?"
River quickly pulled one of the half-dozen mirrors they carried from what seemed to be a hidden pocket. They flipped open the lid, revealing that a black scribble had been drawn upon it.
"... it turns black when it comes in contact with a mirror," West lifted an eyebrow. "Hm... I can see how that might be useful for conveying certain messages, especially since mirrors are everywhere nowadays. I'll make sure to let the Director know."
River scrawled something on a notebook page. They pointed to it vigorously.
"The Evil Queen's mirror?" West questioned dubiously. "Do you have any proof or paperwork that agrees that the mirror was involved?"
River shook their head, a universal "no." They drew a face in the mirror and added a question-mark to the side.
"Your department is the one in charge of Mirror Prison," West reminded them, unsure where this line of questioning was going. "I don't think the Evil Queen is exactly dying to play messenger for Silver Kiss. You weren't lying when you said you'd fixed minor-object magic-nudge loophole, were you?"
"Of course we weren't," Sage interjected. "It's pretty clear to me that Silver Kiss is an Authorial organization that's hellbent on world domination... starting with feeding the Evil Queen information so she can break out of Mirror Prison again. Then, in the pandemonium, they can slowly suck out all of our brains before moving on to the next universe... the Monster World!"
West pressed his lips together impatiently. "And your proof?"
"Presently... nothing in favor," Sage admitted. He quickly assured their guest, "But there's absolutely nothing that disproves it either! And the lack of information on Authors and monsters altogether is suspicious. Plus, there's this recorded conversation between Raven Queen and her mom on one of their visiting days, where the Evil Queen practically confesses she's getting some help in her next escape attempt!"
Quite privately, West wondered if only the most completely crazy agents had been assigned as Golden Gun liaisons. As far as he was concerned, monsters and Authors were irrelevant myths. Furthermore, the Evil Queen made an effort to escape Mirror Prison almost every year, whether she had help or not.
"Was there anything non-speculative you wanted to speak to Golden Gun about?" West frowned.
"Well," Sage withdrew a folder marked heavily in pinks. "River's been pretty eager for a chance to ask a few questions about Mirriah Glass..."
River doodled out two mirrors and drew a line collecting them. They drew several arrows pointing to the line.
"Mirriah Glass," West shook his head, giving River a wry grin. "I'm sure that River Loxias, who uses the pseudonym given dozens of prior agents, knows all about the power that a name can have. She's every bit as made-up as you are. Possibly more."
River wrote their next words: "I'm real."
"You don't have to pretend, you know," West shook his head sympathetically. "The design of that FBI-agent uniform hasn't changed in centuries. I don't think anyone doubts that there's some name-changing and clever costuming going on."
Sage's eyes bugged out as he glanced at the other agent. "You were a conspiracy theory and you didn't tell me!?"
"I'm not fictional!" River wrote, underlining the 'not' several times. "River Loxias is a family name. The same way Snow White is."
"Oh, okay," Sage relaxed a little. "That makes sense."
"Right. Well, if you're done asking me about people that don't exist," West glanced pointedly in River's direction. "I can take my leave?"
River at last relented, carefully adding their relevant sketches of the assassin and the mirrors to the dossier they'd be passing off to Golden Gun.
Professor West, with as much grace as he could possibly muster, accepted the color-coded pack of papers and stowed them away in a businesslike briefcase. He shook his head and winced as Sage began questioning "River" (if that was indeed their name) on more Mirriah Glass theories.
And he'd thought his line of work had been bizarre.
"No!" Mirriah hissed, that accursed word magically smashing the latest in a long, long line of mirrors, tossing it to a floor already littered with shards of broken glass.
She sucked on the sliver of a tiny cut she'd sustained in the process and, frustrated, muttered a quick spell under her breath that vanished away the glass that littered her floor. She quickly paced the length of her safe-room, the carpet apple-red beneath her heels, before turning suddenly, as if she had just remembered something, and hurrying back to her vanity.
"Mirror, mirror, heed my call," she chanted, spreading her arms out wide before the empty wall. "Appear before the Fairest of All!"
With a swirl of dark, mystic magic, a mirror even more extravagant than the one which had broken answered the summons of the daughter of both the Magic Mirror and the Looking-Glass. Perhaps the people and creatures of Ever After might look towards Queen White for their leadership... but among the mirrors, there was no question of whom their queen really was.
Everything even vaguely glassy and reflective answered to one person, and one person only: the fabled super-spy, Mirriah Glass.
She carefully inspected herself in the mirror, checking that nothing had disrupted the pallor of her fair skin or the perfect curls that she had pinned in her hair. Her lipstick, as she suspected, was slightly smudged from having sucked upon her finger, but that was easily rectified with a fresh coat of the dark, rich red she favored.
Then, as if an afterthought, she bandaged her finger. The blood had dripped beautifully upon her ivory-white vanity-table, and she admired the contrast for a moment before commanding it to disappear.
"River Loxias," she scowled, laying her hand upon the glass once more as if to ascertain that most-shocking image was really, truly true.
They were sat in their office at the FBI, the mirror within carefully angled to show nothing of the screens or papers upon their desk, and even less of the rest of the room. River Loxias, with their soft silver hair and sleekly-muscled figure, still concealed beneath their full-body cover even though they weren't in the field today.
They held up a single sign: "I know you're real, Mirriah. I'm real, too."
Her breath caught in her throat.
Deeply unnerved by so obvious a confrontation, she withdrew from that image and called the mirror to show her the drawings she'd spotted before, those drawings that had prompted her to check in on River at all. She peered through the eyes of the floor-length mirror in Director M's office at the dossier which West had brought back from the FBI that afternoon.
A sketch of a mirror which bore a face in it. Several question marks. Two mirrors with a line in-between them, and several arrows pointing to that line. Something like a lead brick settled into her stomach at that sight, anxiety watering down her nerves thin.
River Loxias was getting close. Uncomfortably close.
They obviously already suspected the Magic Mirror had something to do with her existence. The Mirror Realm, at the very least. And once they figured out that Mirriah Glass was not only a real person, but that her powers were to connect to the Mirror Realm, it would be easy to deduce who her parents were, and even easier to find out where she was.
They could make her fulfill her destiny.
She couldn't be caught. She couldn't go to the Mirror Realm, they couldn't make her--
"The agent, River Loxias... they might be on to something with this whole mirror thing," came the voice of Ryusei Arctic, cutting across her panicked line of thought. His hands turned over the pages of that all-important dossier. "Have you never wondered where the name 'Mirriah Glass' comes from?"
"Blondie Lockes' mysterious news informant, of course," West answered. "It's been the newsroom equivalent of 'Jane Doe' for the last decade. I always thought that Blondie coined the term herself."
"I thought so, too, for a while. When a witness wishes to be protected, they typically stand behind a one-way mirror window to give their report... hence the name, from mirror glass," Ryusei pressed his lips together, deep in thought. He narrowed his eyes at the mirror in the office. "Then, there is the question about why Silver Kiss would want to blacken mirrors."
"To prevent someone with mirror connections from looking in, of course," West replied, though more hesitant than usual. He, too, seemed to be scrutinizing the mirror.
"Or..." Ryusei began stiltedly.
Mirriah could practically hear what they were both thinking: Or they could be leaving messages with that ink.
West slowly, carefully shut the dossier. "I think we're late for a meeting with Romeo."
"Yes," Ryusei answered, as calculatedly cool as ever. "Yes, I believe so."
They left the room for the mirrorless hallways, and Mirriah felt something in her gut drop. She swallowed anxiously as it set in that her loyalty was being questioned. How soon was it until they began questioning her motives? Whether or not she'd been leaving red herrings, false clues in her information? How soon until they figured out if she'd been feeding Silver Kiss information about Golden Gun's inside dealings?
Mirriah would do anything, anything to keep her freedom.
Anything, including cooperation with Silver Kiss.
The primary perk of having worked for Golden Gun was that they weren't associated with the government, that they weren't associated with any of the institutional fairytales that would decide to "reunite" her with her parents in the "heritage home" of all mirrors-- the Mirror Realm. She could not, would not go there, not to that place where she could never again gaze upon her own face or speak to anyone at all as she watched the realms pass her by.
And now, when Golden Gun had gone legitimate, when they were collaborating with the FBI...
Glancing to either side, she cautiously slipped closed the extra bolt-locks to her door. Then, she returned to the vanity mirror, shifting back to a message written in black, black lipstick on an enormous, wall-to-wall mirror somewhere in a safehouse far, far away.
To our darling Mirriah, read the lipstick in flamboyant cursive...
We know you exist. It's only a matter of time before Golden Gun reveals your involvement, your name to the FBI. They're legitimate, now, and legitimacy comes with a few full-disclosure clauses. It is unfortunate, but keeping you a secret isn't exactly going to be their topmost priority.
Silver Kiss can help you. Silver Kiss can offer you protection like no other agency can. We're smarter, stronger, faster than they are-- and your talent is wasted on fools like those. Just think of all you could do with this lipstick alone... and we assure you, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our little tricks.
When you decide to take up our offer, stop by Red Shoes Dance Club, Table 4. Come alone-- or not. Perhaps, if you aren't already persuaded, you will be once you see our girls in action.
Silver Kiss Recruitment.
That message had been written weeks ago. Mirriah hadn't managed to see who did it, but at the same time... neither had she outright informed any of the other Golden Gun agents about the offer. Leaving doors open, she rationalized, just in case I have nowhere else to turn.
She had always had her reservations against legitimization, against teaming up with the FBI. And Director M-- Romeo, to those who never bothered with formality-- he had always been particularly ruthless when dealing with those he thought were traitors to the Syndicate. The lucky ones were never heard from again. The unlucky ones turned up weeks later, grotesquely mutilated, their bodies still warm. Sometimes strangled with their own innards.
Mirriah swallowed. Perhaps, she thought, it was time to consider her options.
"They've just been sitting there for hours," fretted Saphon as she poured Sage a warm mug of tea. "I'm getting a little worried about them. Perhaps... maybe, could you possibly check up on them? Just a tiiiiny bit? Just to make sure they're okay?"
Sage glanced away from his enormous piles of paperwork for a moment. He blinked up at her curiously, "Excuse me?"
"River Loxias," Saphon helpfully reminded. "Your investigative partner. They've been behaving sort of oddly all afternoon..."
"Oh, no, don't worry about that," Sage was quick to reassure her. "They do this sort of thing all the time. You see, River's trying to contact Mirriah Glass. I think they're close to finally establishing communications... and then they can ask after her telepath Author friends!"
"Well... if you're positive," Saphon's worries didn't seem in the slightest bit assuaged. "Still... they haven't even stopped to eat or drink or use the bathroom. They didn't even move when I brought them tea."
"They don't want to miss her when she looks in," Sage leaned in conspiratorially. "If you can keep a secret, I think River's theory is that they can get a glimpse of her face if she has a really strong emotional reaction when she sees something. They said that seeing her face in a mirror one day was what tipped them off about her existing at all."
"Oh, um," Saphon smiled pleasantly, if a bit nervously. She was still rather unaccustomed to the whole top-secret information thing, and things had been far easier back when she served tea for the PR branch. "I'll be certain to keep that a secret, then."
Suddenly, from across the room, River set down their note and stood, throwing a haphazard cloth over their mirror in the process. They hurried out of the room with all due haste, returning only with a fresh, empty sketchbook and a most professional-looking briefcase. They quickly unlocked the briefcase in question, however, revealing that it was only full of paints and pencils and copic markers, and abruptly set to work drawing.
"See?" Sage patted her shoulder reassuringly and grinned. "River's done it!"
"I'm very glad for them," Saphon sighed in relief at last, delighted that there wasn't any sort of medical emergency. She pressed the cup of tea into Sage's hands and then set about making secondary rounds for everyone in the room-- FBI agents did seem to require caffeine more frequently than most other government workers, she'd long since noted.
Sage, however, took the chance to slip from the room to grab a quick lunch himself, knowing that River would likely be occupied with their drawing for an hour at least-- particularly if they'd seen enough to begin introducing markers and paints to their rough sketches of that figure they'd seen once in the mirror.
River had an entire sketchbook filled with that person--a female figure with long, dark hair and high cheekbones, but many features yet undefined. Sage had seen it... how a smudge of color would take the place of an eye, never quite the same shade twice in a row; how little more than a shape outlined in red served for lips, never fully colored in.
Sometimes, their sketches were of a full body, though most of the drawings stopped only at a vague silhouette, presumably the only thing River could recall. Occasionally, there would be these scribbled out tangents that River was adamant Sage not see, but as far as Sage could tell, they were only rough sketches of clothing-- elegant gowns or blouses-and-jeans or even River's own unusual bodysuit.
Maybe, Sage theorized, River had only been trying to figure out what sorts of clothes a mystery like Mirriah might wear.
(River seemed to have utterly given up, in any case.)
He was also pretty sure that River was using their imagination to fill in many, many gaps of information they could not have possibly known otherwise. Fantastic, imagined doodles of that same figure mid-step, dancing, or drinking some sort of fanciful coffee at a table down at Hocus Latte. Sometimes-- though an alarmingly frequent sometimes, in Sage's opinion-- she would be drawn in some vague, undetailed dress, seemingly waiting at a dinner table set for two, or perhaps waiting in line at the movie theater.
There was some fairly strong evidence for the case that River was beginning to develop a thing for her. Sage had been gathering proof about it in his Big Binder of Conspiracies ever since.
Which reminded him! He paused in the hallway, flipping open his color-coded, heavily-tabbed personal schedule book. Flicking the cap off of his pen, he penciled in a note for some spare time he had after work: "Remind River: FBI agent & freelance spy is dangerous combination."
He highlighted it orange for genre-savvy, and tabbed it with the same color. Then, as if suddenly remembering something, he added in orange pen: "Movie night-- Vesper Lines. Shaken, not stirred, etc. etc."
Sage was just about to be on his way when he heard a soft murmur from the typically-soundproofed walls. He glanced towards the door number, and realized he had mistakenly taken the elevator down instead of up, and that he stood now upon the (literal) deepest level of government the FBI had to offer.
So, he did the only thing he could do: he watched, he listened. He recorded.
A low, gruff voice: "-- pick up the slack within the next five years."
"Yes," came a second voice. "Let Golden Gun and Silver Kiss tire themselves out fighting each other... let them exhaust their resources on each other. The amount we're paying Golden Gun to destroy themselves for us is a pittance in comparison to what it'd cost to fight both of them at once."
Sage held his breath. He canvassed the halls around him, relieved that not even his agent-trained eyes could pick out a security camera. It seemed as if this floor had been intentionally left off security, lest the guards even find out that it existed. Of course, it would be the one time that he wasn't actually looking at a conspiracy theory that he'd stumbled upon one by utter mistake.
He was already mentally reviewing which budgeting pages he'd have to hunt down in order to prove the motive.
"Then, once they've mopped the floor with each other, it'll be simple to capture the rest of them, and bring an end to this era of organized crime," the lower voice chuckled grimly. "You're definitely a smart one. Saved us one hell of a budgeting nightmare."
"I am rather good with numbers," the second voice replied, before the brief lapse in the soundproofing spell ended and Sage was left with nothing but white noise.
Sage glanced either way in the hall, knowing that he shouldn't tarry there too long, lest the meeting end quickly, lest he end up caught at a level he very clearly didn't have clearance for. But there were many, many other doors in this oblique, hidden hallway...
He bit his lip. Something about the mysterious voices and their odd contentment with concealing the truth just didn't sit right with him. There could be perpetrators of the System behind there. There could even be a real Author, one of the illuminated few who seemed to know everything about the realms of Ever After, who seemed to be the driving power behind every plot or conspiracy.
Leaving this entire hallway unturned felt like letting them win.
Carefully, stealthily, Sage picked the lock to a nearby door. Just long enough to wait out the anonymous figures departing the premises, he told himself, and slipped in without a noise.
He didn't look at the room until he stepped inside. His eyes widened, shocked by the room, its triangular-juxtaposed walls lined corner-to-corner-to-corner with shelves of books, scrolls, files galore. The entire world seemed to spin as Sage glanced upwards at the sign, the librarian-desk which looked like it had been unmanned for centuries.
"Z-Level Classified," Sage breathed out loud, scarcely believing where he stood. "They said it was a myth."
It was obvious what had been most recently touched, Sage thought. They clearly didn't pay any sort of cleaning to come down here. His eyes soaked in the dust on the ground, the footprints of those who had visited before him trailing up the stairs. They were fresh, he could tell-- perhaps not even yesterday, those steps had been taken.
He glanced around at the rest of the room, far from sparkling. It didn't take a genius to know that any step he took out of line would be immediately noticed the next time someone dared to enter this room. I'll be back for the rest of you, someday, he promised silently, like a vow, before following the steps up carefully.
There was only one modern dossier upon the shelf littered with scrolls. The old, weak warding spells in this area were no match for the newly-invented curse-breaking gloves that had become standard issue for FBI agents. Tradition, Sage thought, was not infallible.
Still, it felt like victory when he held that all-important paper within his hands...
And thus, in his best imitation of a hacker's voice, Sage Idason whispered these words: "I'm in."
It was late, late at night when Sage, with his back against the wall, at last crept from Z-Level back to the more typically-traversed floors of the FBI building.
Technically speaking, he had forgotten lunch and dinner both, but frankly, he couldn't bring himself to care in that moment-- he had just scratched the surface of that Deepest Government, the very government that even Kings and Queens knew nothing about. He could be excused for the matter, he figured.
River turned out to be waiting in the rooms of their office, the cameras in that room having been removed long, long ago due to the Loxias of legend, whose desk had been reserved for centuries, having some sort of odd aversion to being found on film as a whole. It was nothing short of the perfect set-up, Sage decided.
"You'll never guess what I found," Sage blurted out, making triple-sure that all the soundproofing wards were intact.
River held up a box of take-out and a note, which had been apparently written for the past several hours: "Eat first."
"The truth waits for nobody!" Sage proclaimed, habitually checking the food for poison regardless. Once it was deemed safe, he shoved a forkful in his mouth and passed the stolen dossier in River's direction. "Okay, so you know the Golden Gun thing? It turns out that the Deepest Government actually wants both them and Silver Kiss out of the picture..."
River furrowed their brow, visible even past their mask. They turned to a page which had been marked with one of Sage's red tabs-- red, for imminent importance. They pointed out a line on that page: "When the majority of both factions have been eliminated, submit orders to capture and terminate all remaining members."
"Yeah, I know," Sage frowned, shaking his head disapprovingly. "They only gave orders to acquit Golden Gun so they could betray them at the end... and for what? Just to get someone else to do their dirty work? Just because it's cheaper? There are some budget papers down on Q-Level that prove it. I can go grab 'em if you want."
River held up a hand. With their other hand, they wrote: "The dossier is enough. I believe you."
"You know," Sage sighed. "I only joined the Fairytale Bureau of Investigation so I could find out the truth-- so I could show that everyone in the fairytale world should be allowed to know it. I was going to wake people up from the long, long spell of slumber that had been cast upon us by the Authors... by the entire system as a whole."
"You've mentioned this before," River held up a well-used index card from their desk, where there still sat a covered mirror.
"Yeah, but all those other times..." Sage shook his head. "All those other times, I didn't know that I'd fallen under that spell, too. We were liaisons to Golden Gun just this morning, River. Even though we didn't know it, we were helping the Deepest Government."
River paused and wrote out: "I know."
"I'm not even sure if it matters much, but... hey, just check out page thirty-four in there, all right?" Sage patted River's shoulder, putting away the last of his files in his own desk. "And maybe it's smart not to leave that thing in here overnight, unguarded."
River nodded in understanding. They flipped their notebook to another page, written in advance on the opposite side of Eat first-- "Go home."
Sage took the take-out box with him and shut the door behind him, knowing that River, for whatever odd reason, always seemed to be the last to leave the office and the first to arrive.
It was a pity, River thought, that they would be unable to avoid keeping the dossier in the office overnight even after they'd promised Sage. Then again, it wouldn't exactly be unguarded-- and it was hardly as if River went around advertising the fact that they did not merely work in the office, but that they lived, slept there every night they were not away on missions.
As Sage had suggested, River turned to page thirty-four the middle page of a long, long list of known agents that would have to be terminated at the end. Their eyes drew down to a name which Sage had flagged with multiple red sticky-tabs.
There it was, thought River, the proof that someone in the higher ups believed that she existed.
Still... it were as if the paper damned her in that wanted-dead-or-alive section, a girl who they knew, somehow, didn't want anything other than to be left to her obscurity. Only a myth for people to muse over, some vagary which had neither form nor destiny.
River had felt like that once, themselves. Before the days where destiny could be chosen or abandoned, back before Raven Queen had unraveled the Storybook of Legends and bound the choice of tales to the people's hearts... River had never wanted their destiny. They would have done anything, back in high school, to avoid it-- even if it meant dropping out of classes, even if it meant putting on a suit that concealed every inch of their body, even if it meant becoming little more than a myth that occasionally went around spraying metaphor-laden graffiti across the walls.
In that way, they felt a strange sort of kinship with Mirriah Glass.
They glanced down at the paper upon which they'd captured Mirriah's likeness, exactly as they'd seen her. Shock and terror had writ themselves across her face, and River knew-- that was not the expression of a superspy mastermind.
That was the expression of a woman who feared one thing above all else: being found.
River glanced down at the face which had been their obsession for the last several years. They looked upon the fear and despair within those dark eyes, so blue that they were almost violet, captured by River's immaculate hand. It was a fear which they had placed there in more than one way.
They thought upon Sage, and what he'd said about how he'd accidentally become an agent of that which he'd hated most. River swallowed, faintly, and felt rather inclined to agree.
Quietly, they walked over to the fireplace within that room, lighting the wood which rested there, prepared to burn at a moment's notice. They waited until the flames grew hot, and then, with an agonizing catharsis, they burned away the drawing of Mirriah they had composed, they tore out each page of their filled sketchbook until nothing remained, nothing save for the empty shell of a front and back cover.
River's fingers clenched, as if aching to hold onto that last proof that they had ever seen a Mirriah Glass, had ever thought to keep a record of what she looked like. Then, like a child at last giving up their security blanket, they let go of that last bit of evidence.
It burned until there was nothing left.
They thought, maybe, that was a tear sliding onto their mask. They wondered if this was what it meant to let go of someone you loved, except that last, haunting image of Mirriah would never, ever come back to them.
Still, they squared their shoulders. She never asked to be found, she never wanted to be recorded. Some secrets were meant to be kept, they decided, and for Mirriah's sake... this one was by far the most worth keeping.
Some secrets were meant to be kept, they realized abruptly. Some, but not all.
River quickly flung the cloth cover off of the mirror they kept in their cubicle, carefully beginning to pin choice pages out of that all-important, stolen dossier on the wall opposite. Mirriah could see the pages... she could find a way out for herself. Perhaps River had been unable to avoid the harsh press of destiny that had led them to this desk in the first place, but for Mirriah... for her, it was not yet too late.
Once they were satisfied with their collage, they took a leaf out of their sketchbook, and with the fanciest calligraphy they could manage, they wrote, quite simply: "Stay safe."
They could only hope that the message would reach Mirriah soon.
The news came the next week that Golden Gun had betrayed the Fairytale Bureau of Investigation in favor of Silver Kiss, hinging on a mysterious tip-off given both sides by a spy who refused to go by any name except 'Mirriah Glass.'
"Loxias, I want a debriefing on the suspected contents of this message, plus your top ten candidates for the tip-off by Friday," Director Valerian had pronounced, thwacking their desk with a gavel. Then, more calmly, they added, "I'm glad to see you've gotten over the whole 'Mirriah Glass is real' obsession... I'm looking forward to getting a list of real people this time around."
River had given them a thumbs up and set about making a mock-up list. There hadn't been an agent in the entire room who hadn't believed their cover story... that they'd spent the evening scouring Q-Level and realized, mid-research, that they were being a stubborn fool about the Mirriah Glass conspiracy, and obviously, no one woman could be in so many places at the same time.
Sage hadn't believed their cover-up... but Sage, with an oddly sympathetic look in his eyes, had silently conveyed that he would never tell anyone River's true reasons for "giving up." Neither would Sage, who had made copies of that secretly-read dossier for his own use, admit what he suspected River to have done that night.
Some secrets, particularly within the FBI, were meant to be kept.
Still... without the hours they once spent gazing into the looking-glass, trying to ascertain Mirriah's presence, there wasn't much for River Loxias to do with their day. Paperwork could only take up so much time, particularly since they'd unearthed the entire contents of Q-Level and come up with several data-backed theories by mid-afternoon (all of which they knew to be untrue).
They were left with entire evenings free.
They weren't completely sure what to do with themselves, and so they turned to research, the work which they had actually been assigned. And when that work had run out, River left the building at three in the afternoon, informing a pleasantly-surprised Director Valerian that they would be back in a few hours to possibly discuss the week's worth of undertakings that they'd turned in after only three days' thorough research.
It had been a long, long time since River Loxias had gone on a walk that was anything resembling leisure. They were mistaken as a particularly fanatical cosplayer no less than fourteen times, and they graciously allowed each of the costume-enthusiasts a selfie.
A craft store seemed something rather in-character for this particular fanatical cosplayer, River decided, and they were fairly certain that their blue #37 marker was running low on ink, anyways. Perhaps they would purchase a few cans of spray-paint, they thought absently, trying to recall what life for them had been like before there was Mirriah, and that haunting ghost of a face they'd seen briefly in a gallery mirror, once.
They had just rounded the corner to the marker refills when suddenly, a woman who appeared to be in a great rush bumped into them, her midnight-blue curls flying as she dropped what seemed to be the store's entire collection of calligraphy markers on the floor between them.
"Sorry," she muttered, scrambling to collect the pens.
River leaned down to help her, determined to show their apology by action if not word, and when she glanced up to see just whom she had collided into, she froze. Perhaps River froze for a second, too.
They glanced softly into her eyes, that blue so very dark it crept into violet. Those eyes, they thought, were even prettier in reality.
Slowly, so as not to startle her, they reached down and picked up the calligraphy marker that bore the same brand and width that they had used several nights ago. They lifted their notebook, the same through which they had written all of the notes they'd tried to send to Mirriah, and watched fearful recognition light up in that woman's eyes.
River's pen moved carefully across that page. They wrote, "Are you okay?"
"Yes," she answered hesitantly, though she seemed to have lost all interest in every calligraphy marker except for the one which River held. "I'm... fine."
"Do you need help?" were the next words River showed her, penned in their usual jagged-elegant hand.
"Pardon?" Her brow seemed to crease in a furrow, and even her confusion was pretty.
"I buy a lot of art supplies," River wrote by explanation. "Were you looking for a particular marker?"
"Just a marker that a... friend of mine used," the woman stood, seeming haughtily embarrassed that she'd done something so inelegant as to scramble on the floor. "On a card... which I received."
Her confidence seemed assuaged by River having attempted to help her, whatever their odd motives might have been. River silently re-capped the marker and handed it back to the woman they were now completely sure was Mirriah Glass.
"I... suppose I ought to thank you," she continued slowly, as if unsure what she should say.
"It was my fault," River wrote back using a spare pen they kept in their pocket.
(Let her interpret that as she may, they thought-- it had been their fault, in the end, their own unrelenting search which must have driven her to Golden Gun to begin with. The thought left a bitter taste in their mouth, and they hoped that they had at least begun to make up for it.)
"Yes, well, I was the one who ran down the aisle," Mirriah straightened her back, seeming to have gotten over her anxiety, at least for the moment. "At least let me pay for... whatever it was you came in here for."
River's eyes fell upon the shelf of ink refills. Hesitantly, they lifted blue #37 and held it up to the light. They'd been right, they thought, it had been a perfect match for the highlights of Mirriah's hair.
Mirriah's pale, pale cheeks flushed as she realized just how acutely that color matched. "Is that all?"
River nodded once: yes.
Then, suddenly, as if on absolute impulse, they scrawled out, their handwriting seeming to shake ever-so-slightly: "Let me buy you coffee?"
She narrowed her eyes, for a moment, neither perplexed nor suspicious-- but merely, in that second, scrutinizing. Her lips, painted dark red, curved into the slightest of smiles.
"To pay me back for the ink?" Mirriah inquired, almost too-perceptively. "Or... are you trying to ask me on a date?"
"Both," wrote River, "And neither."
"Then... I would be glad to accept," she answered, and let her curiosity get the better of her.
The cashier rang out both objects while River spent the next full minute scribbling, crossing out words multiple times-- "" and "" and other such queries struck through so many times that they were illegible.
At last, they settled on: "What should I call you?"
"My friends call me Mancia," she replied, something knowing and sharp within one of those blue-violet eyes. "Short for Romancia Catopt."
Beneath their mask, River couldn't suppress the slightest of smiles. Catoptromancy, they thought, the magic of scrying with mirrors. Romancia Catopt. Clever.
Their next words were all but a gamble--
"What kind of coffee do you like, Mancia?"