<== ==>

The full debriefing took more than an hour. The UMBRA agent kept interrupting with questions and comments. Her laughing fit when Jonquil told her about the sewer adventure lasted three minutes alone.

Jonquil exited the debriefing in a rotten mood. What had she risked her life for yesterday, exactly? What was going on? None of this added up. Against her better judgment, she went to the break area and lit up a cigarette. She needed to kill some time- and calm down- while Aliza got debriefed.

The break room consisted of an internal room with vending machines, coffee makers and refrigerators, and a balcony for those looking to get some fresh air. The latter section was covered by an awning. Some found the drumming of rain against the glass soothing. Jonquil did not.

She tried to steady her breathing as she worked at the cigarette. “Since when do you smoke?” someone asked. 

Jonquil froze and looked up. Naturally someone she knew walked in the moment she lit the damn thing up. Fortunately, it was Mint, the gangly OPTICA_Cyber techie and one of the few people in the precinct Jonquil had a decent relationship with.

“My whole life.” Jonquil sighed in guilty bliss as she took a long drag. “I love them, but I try to avoid them if I can help it.”

“How come? They’re not dangerous or anything. I guess maybe your lungs won’t like it that much but you work out a ton.” Mint reached into her breast pocket and produced a pack of SPRING_Awakening stims. “I guess you gotta relieve stress somehow. You always look like you’re a bad day away from snapping.”

“I do?” Jonquil sucked on her teeth. Did she really come off as so fragile? And if she did, was that common knowledge? 

The techie popped a stim in her mouth and downed it with liquid from a black bottle. She shook her head and shuddered.  “So why don’t you smoke? Some kinda… proof of self-discipline?”

“No.” Jonquil found herself increasingly interested in the floor. “…Because Grace smokes.”

“Grace… Diakon? Ohhh.” Mint breathed in sharply. The stims must have just hit her- and the first rush was by far the best. “You’re so afraid of being compared to her that you won’t even do things she’s known for doing, and she smokes so you don’t? That’s fucking stupid, Jonk.”

The rail-skinny girl was now speaking twice as fast and swallowing the ends of her words. “It’s stupid, I know,” said Jonquil. “But whenever people look at me… they see her. Not me. Even the xenos see me as someone I’m not- they wouldn’t know a Mater from a Martyr, but they know that I look like Grace. Even Sepia… she’s always done right by me, but she calls me ‘Diakon’. Everyone else gets to be their first name. I’m the only one who’s her template name. And when people say ‘Diakon’, the person that makes them think of is never ‘Jonquil’. It’s been that way my whole life, everywhere I’ve gone.” 

That wasn’t wholly true… there had been one place where Jonquil didn’t feel that way. But she never thought about that if she could help it. “When nobody ever even tries to see you for what you are, is there even a ‘you’? Do I really exist, or am I just some shade? Is there Jonquil, or is Jonquil just Grace through a mirror darkly?”

“Quit your rambling,” Mint said, her teeth chattering. “It does sound pretty shitty I guess, but no matter how you looked, you wouldn’t be popular. You’re fussy and rude and have no sense of humor, and you don’t understand why anyone would make a decision you wouldn’t make.”

“And this is why we’re coworkers and not friends,” said Jonquil. She usually appreciated Mint’s brutal honesty, but certainly not now. Why had she bothered to open up to this awkward, ungainly woman?

“I don’t want friends,” Mint stuttered. “T-too complicated. The most complex code I’ll ever glimpse hasn’t got nothing on how outrageously strange people are… too much for me. I have several drug addictions to keep me occupied instead. Have you tried not giving a shit what people think about you?”

Jonquil laughed humorlessly. “I can’t. I’ve cared from moment one. It’s just part of me, on some level too deep to totally understand. And the worst part is… Grace Diakon must care what people think of her, too. A woman of the people and all.”

Mint flexed her jaw a few times. “I’ve never heard you bitch about it before. What makes today different, I wonder? Is it this UMBRA takeover?”

It was… but why did it have Jonquil so bent out of shape? Sure, it stung to have her investigation stolen from under her nose. But she had worked cases for eight or nine months only for the department to declare them cold- and that hadn’t troubled her as much as this.

There was a piece missing to all of this. A part of the calculus that she just didn’t get. Every instinct she had cultivated was screaming alarm bells at her, and yet Jonquil was no longer allowed to look into the crime. That was absurd.

“Mint,” she asked suddenly, “would you have found something about these rabbit bombs in the neo_SMOKE chatrooms?”

“Well, it’s possible. The black cats are good at keeping things quiet when they want to, and I can’t see a lot of what they say cuz it gets deleted automatically. But this kind of silence is weird. Usually there’s at least a little about any big deal, but I found absolutely nothing.”

Jonquil nodded. Exactly what she expected. “I have to go,” she said. “Thanks for listening to me complain- I know it isn’t exactly your favorite thing to hear.”

“Eh, it’s fine. Good to remind me every now and again of why I don’t want friends.” Mint waved her off. “Now then, if you need anything, I’m going to be pretending to work while watching porn.”

<== ==>

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