Everything was in slow motion.
Ryan felt his heart stop. Psychosomatic response or not, it jumped, stopped, then thundered in his chest, the sound booming in his ears, the only thing that was close to real. His eyes were betraying him, showing him something that couldn‘t be real; his skin betrayed him, letting him feel things he would never feel again; his nose betrayed him, her scent
Her lips brushed against his again, and she reached a hand to his bruised face. He winced at the pain…but it was real pain, a pinch woke a dreamer, and this proved it wasn‘t a dream.
He let himself be aware of the thought, the possibility.
It wasn’t a glitch.
If it wasn‘t a glitch, then it had to be…
He looked away from her, to the empty room, to the silent bathroom beyond.
‘Stef,’ he said, ‘Stef?’
The silence sent a hundred terrifying thoughts through his mind.
She peeked around the corner. ‘Present.’
He looked back to Carol for a moment. ‘I-’
It couldn’t be real.
It wasn’t real.
He cupped a hand under her chin, looked into her eyes again…eyes he had spent hours staring into. He kissed her, and everything else dropped away.
She pulled away to wipe her tears. ‘It‘s me.’
‘I- I need a minute. Gods, please, I-’ he looked towards Stef again, and she gave him a slight nod. She gave him another chaste kiss, and moved out of his way.
He pulled himself, painfully, from the bed, and walked into the small bathroom. He closed the door, needing to concentrate, needing to focus on what she‘d done.
There was blood on the floor. There was blood on the sink, There was blood on her shirt.
‘Gods, Stef, you-’
‘You were miserable,’ she said as she washed her hands and dried her hands on her pants. ‘I had to.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I brought her back for you. I made sure I made the right wish. I wished for the real her, I wished for her to be better. Stop talking to me and get out there already.’
‘Are you all right?’
‘I‘m still here, aren’t I?’
He fixed his best fatherly expression on his face. ‘Are you all right?’
‘I wouldn’t want to make a wish that big again right away, but I’m fine. Ten fingers, ten toes, voice in my head, I’m all here…so much as I was five minutes ago anyway.’
She dug into her pockets, and pulled out handkerchief. ‘There‘s a bit extra here,’ she said, ‘just in case I forgot something, or you need something.’ She pressed the handkerchief into his hand. ‘I can give you four hours, then I’m coming back. We’ve got a meeting tonight, and you need to go that, okies?’
He bent, and gave her a tight hug. ‘I am so mad at you,’ he said, ‘and I love you.’
She smiled. ‘I love you too, and you’re only made cause I did something stupid. I have to borrow your jacket,’ she said, ‘I didn‘t bring mine, and I don’t want to walk around looking like I got stabbed.’
He let her go. ‘Of course.’
She opened the bathroom door and smiled again. ‘Go.’
* * *
Stef watched as he went back to the bed, held the hands of the woman he loved, then kissed her again. She ignored the pain in her chest, of the empty feeling around her cold heart, of the uncomfortable feeling of a blood shirt again her chin, and retrieved his jacket from the small wardrobe.
The jacket swam on her, it always did, but she buttoned it up, hiding the blood stain, and closed the door on the hugging couple, wondering if Cupid felt like this every time he got a couple back together.
Note to self, find out if Cupid or Eros are real.
Her chest hurt…it never usually hurt after she zipped the skin back up. But…the previous wishes had never been this big before. A heal here, an arm there, an escape. Tiny in comparison to freeing a woman from a cage older than the universe, and giving her back her sanity.
She felt hollow. It was worse than the training sim that had pitted her against a facsimile of some oversized monster. It had kicked her, torn her stomach open and let her innards pour out onto the gym floor. She had only lain there for a moment before being whisked away to respawn, but the feeling had stayed with her, and this was worse.
Three months, three months of being an agent. Three months of being more than a person, less than a person, and a person for the first time. They had been the best/worst three months ever. Three months of steadfastly ignoring the lack of a heartbeat. Three months of having a weird, solid, cold feeling in her chest every moment. It was so strange to miss a heartbeat…and it wasn‘t even something you normally noticed.
She pushed her way through the drinking patrons of the bar, through the fae recounting the best of the forty-nine rounds with varying degrees of accuracy.
She breathed a sigh of relief as she stepped out into the afternoon air of the Marches.
It was just over a kilometre walk to the storage facility, and the shifting spots.
The Marches were a marvel. A small marvel, but a marvel all the same. Borderlands. System-friendly territory inside fairyland. It had taken decades – the initial prep work had been done over a hundred years ago, and the work was ongoing, and maintenance was a lot of work. Magic was magic…but it was also easily enough to explain and imagine as radiation, wave harmonics and quantum…or a gave of rock, paper, scissors.
They…whoever the they were, olden times tech agents and fairy scientists, had found a way to irradiate areas of fairyland to make it at least somewhat system-compatible. It took time, effort, expense, but it had been worth it. The Marches as they stood was a pilot program for an endeavour that had never taken off. One small hunk of fairyland where blue took twice as long to deplete, where it was much harder to kill an agent. It was a promise of a cooperative future that still hadn‘t come to pass, but it was better than nothing.
It was also the best place in the world for the storage facility. A storage facility for all the spoils of war, artefacts, and things the Agency may or may not have. The place to store off the books items and secrets.
It was only in the storage facility that it was possible to shift in and out – and even then it took fives times as long as normal shift…and it wouldn‘t work if something was being “temperamental”.
She swiped her access pass with a hand that somehow still had blood on it, and walked through, avoiding all of the other agents…most of which were probably still at the bar.
The shifting spots were conveniently painted blue. She stood in the centre, and looked up at the skylight above, let her eyes lose focus from the real world, and stared at her HUD. She pulled up her friends list, and opened a channel to Curt. [Hey.]
Her HUD popped a message. [Recruit not on channel, initiate contact?] She clicked the “yes” option. And waited for the earpiece to require itself into existence near Curt, and start to get his attention. [Relaying initial message] her HUD reported after a moment.
[It’s weird for you not to be on channel, you ok?]
She heard a sigh and a rustle of paper. [I was…reading a magazine,] he said. [This is my downtime you know.]
[I need you.]
She refocused on the skylight, and drank in the calming view of the clouds through the dirty glass. [Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve times five. Chrstmas Eve times ten. Please, I-]
[Shift me down already.]
Shift: Recruit O’Connor to current location,
Fifteen seconds later, he appeared.
[Not here.] ‘Heya,’ she said, forcing her voice to sound light.
She required a bag of equipment, and handed it to him. ‘Carry, please?’
‘Sure thing,‘ he said, already in “fake-happy-there’s-nothing-wrong” mode.
He followed her out of the facility without a word, and fell into step beside her as they were a block past the facility. He linked his arm with hers, walking close enough to whisper…and looking innocuous enough to anyone who gave them a casual glance.
‘Need to have a private conversation.’
‘Non-Agency,’ she said as loud as she dared.
He slipped his arm away from hers. ‘Sure,’ he said, back to fake-happy. ‘I know a place.’
He took the lead, and after a half hour walk in the opposite direction of the bar, he turned into a wide concrete driveway.
‘We’re…where?’ she said as she stared at the dilapidated hotel.
He took her hand. ‘Remember that time I found you playing WoW when you were supposed to be learning new paperwork?’
‘What, you mean, yesterday?’ She gave a guilty smirk.
‘Keep that look on your face,’ he said as he pushed open the door.
A thin fairy with a fifteen-o’clock shadow looked up from behind the desk. ‘Hourly or nightly?’
‘Just a few hours,’ Curt said with a ate-a-flock-of-canaries grin.
‘Card,’ the fairy said.
Curt swiped his Bank of Three card against the machine, and the clerk slid across a room card. ‘Upstairs, left. Toys and stuff for sale if you need them.’
‘We‘ll see how we go,’ Curt said with another grin. He squeezed her hand, then dragged her up the stairs.
He swiped the card against the reader, and stepped into the small room. There was a bed, a TV, a tiny bar fridge and a bathroom. It was smaller than the room Ryan had.
Curt placed the bag on the bed, then flopped onto the bed. ‘Close the door. And the first words out of your mouth are going to be “I trust you but”.’
‘I trust you but…’ she prompted.
‘You want a conversation that no one will listen to, you come somewhere like this. It’s cheap, it’s out of the way, and people only come here when they can’t afford anything better, or they just really need a bed in a hurry. No one is going to look twice, and even if they do…’ an awkward look crossed his face. ‘Can I level with you without you going catatonic?’
She sat cross-legged on the bed. ‘Shoot.’
‘Half…more than half of the recruits already think that we’re sleeping together. Sorry.’
‘Why would they-?’
‘We’re always hanging out, we kick everyone out of the gym so we can have it to ourselves, and in other circumstances, it wouldn’t be an altogether unreasonable assumption, I mean, I’m a good looking guy,’ he said with a wink. ‘And it’s better than the alternative.’
‘…do I even want to know?’
He pulled out his small Stef-English dictionary, and flipped through it. ‘That instead of shipping you with me, some people ship you with Ryan.’
She opened the equipment bag, and pulled out the small bag of emergency cookies.
‘So I’m the lesser of two evils then?’
‘People are weird.’
‘Says you.’ He stood, rounded the bed, and bent down to her level. After a moment, he began to unbutton Ryan’s jacket. ‘You going to tell me why you’re covered in blood?’ he said as he pushed the jacket to the floor. ‘What happened, newbie?’ He looked at her bloody shirt. ‘I mean…I know what blood there means.’
She patted the bed in front of her, and he sat.
‘I made a wish,’ she said. ‘And I don’t know if it’s the best or worst thing I ever did.’
‘How much bigger than Christmas Eve is this?’
She lifted a hand and held her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. ‘This time a million.’
‘You can’t can’t can’t tell anyone about this, ok? Only the four of us can know, cause it’s deep, deep shit, it’s…it could be…Oh Christ, this could be waltzing into punishable-by-death territory.’
‘Gods, what did you do. And who’s the fourth?’
‘That’s the secret. You, you in all the way on this?’
‘You never have to ask me that, of course I am.’
‘Do you know the rumour about Ryan killing his girlfriend? Lie. Well, truth as it is on reports, and official stuff, but lie. He had a girlfriend, love of his life kinda girlfriend. She got the same deal I did, but without the mirror.’
‘Human into Agent experiment?’
‘Yeah. Something went wrong, and she went…she killed people, and Taylor, and Ryan had to deal with her.’
‘He couldn’t pull the trigger on her.’
‘Not on someone I loved.’
‘He locked her in an Oubliette. That’s where she’s been for twenty years. Today’s her birthday. Ryan was doing some sort of vengeance fight club thing…you’ll have to ask him for the details, I didn’t care about that bit. You should have seen him, he was…sadpants. Major sadpants.’
‘And you brought her back.’
He closed his eyes for a moment. ‘I’m not going to get mad at you, because that’s not what you need right now, but…you could have wished yourself away.’
‘It was worth the risk.’
‘No it wasn’t.’
‘He looked worse than I did after I tried to kill myself.’ His eyes went wide at that. ‘Oh come on, does that really surprise you?’ she said, forcing a cold edge to her voice. ‘Second-worst day of my life, and he looked more miserable.’
‘And do you think he would have been happy if you’d evaporated?’
‘He would have had her. I can’t do everything for him, and there’s ways that a partner can make you happy that a child can’t. I take so much from him that it’s never going to be an equal exchange.’
‘Life isn’t alchemy, newbie.’
‘Hey, you’re learning,’ she said with a smile. ‘We can talk, but I can’t fix his problems, I can’t be there for him like a real person can.’
‘I’ve known him for longer than you have, newbie. He never used to smile before you were around. I think you’re underestimating yourself.’
‘Even so. He needs…her.’
‘Not at the expense of you.’
‘I have no idea what to do about this. I have no idea what I’ve done, if it’s good, it’s bad, or if he hates me for it because I made things complicated.’
‘Did he seem mad?’
‘He seemed like he was in shock.’
‘That’s completely understandable.’
He dragged the equipment bag between them. ‘What’s this for?’
‘I needed a second pair of hands, pull it out.’
He went about pulling the items from the bag as she unbuttoned her vest, dropped it on the bed, then stripped off her shirt.
‘You already know what I look like naked,’ she said as she dropped her bra on the pile of clothes. ‘So don’t get weird, it’s easier to do this naked.’
He rubbed at his eyes for the moment, then lifted the hand-held scanner. ‘Ultrasound?’
He handed her the tube of gel, and she spread it over her chest. She wiped her hand on the sheet, and pulled the tablet computer from the pile and switched it on, then reached across and turned on the scanner, then laid down. ‘Start with my heart.’ She turned her head to the side and propped the tablet up, one more pressed started the program, and she gave him a nod. The cold metal touched her chest. ‘Hold it there for a moment.’
The readout reflected what the empty feeling in her chest already told her.
‘How bad, newbie?’
She swallowed. ‘Ok, do a sweep.’ He ran the small scanner over her whole chest. ‘Oh, that’s what that weird feeling is.’ She gave a short laugh. ‘My lungs have a lot more room to move in there now.’
He dropped the scanner. ‘What.’
She sat up, and turned her back to him. ‘Same area, from the back, please.’
He picked up the tube of gel, squeezed a dollop onto her back, then rubbed in it. She held the scanner in her lap, and stared at the image as he ran the scanner over her back. It gave her the same results.
‘Well?’ he said as he pulled the scanner away from her back.
‘About half,’ she said quietly. ‘I used about half. There’s a lot of spare space in there, so it all feels really weird, and I don’t think it’s healthy.’
‘And going to Jones for help isn’t an option.’
‘He doesn’t even know about your arm. According to Agency records…yeah, well, Russia happened, and that’s about it. Your arm used up hardly anything at all, but they’re going to notice this the next time I get a scan-’ she noticed his look. ‘I didn’t invent this stuff on the spot, Jonesy has had to mod a bunch of stuff so they can keep track of every step of experiment 5323.’ She rested her chin on balled fists for moment. ‘Huh, that might work.’
‘You going to get mad if I make another wish.’
‘Are you going to try and wish for a million wishes and see if that makes you heart whole again?’
‘That’s weirdly poetic. There’s a scalpel in the bag.’
He retrieved the blade. ‘I can’t make it better, but I might be able to hide it. She pressed the tip to the familiar spot over her heart.’
He gently grabbed her hand. ‘You sure you have to do this?’
She put her other hand over his, and held it as she cut into her chest. She let his hand go as she dug in to touch the heart. She made a wish, and felt her heart expand.
‘I can’t change the mass, but I can change the size. Same size, but less dense or whatever,’ she said, the empty feeling disappearing, leaving her with the familiar cold sensation, she made the little wish to zip her chest up, and yanked her fingers free. ‘Maybe it’ll hide, maybe it won’t, but at least I have plausible deniability.’
She lifted a cookie with bloody fingers and bit into it.
‘You have to stop wishing,’ he said, ‘you’ve only been around for three months, you keep going at this pace, and I won’t have to get you a Christmas present.’
‘I’m not celebrating your made-up holiday.’
‘I don’t think he has any more not-really-dead girlfriends I have to worry about saving.’
‘I’d like to be able to buy you a Christmas present. You’re chipping away at the one thing keeping you alive, and…gods, you could have died today, Stef.’
‘Like I said, worth it.’
She looked up at him. ‘Don’t think that I don’t know, ok? I know, I know, but I haven’t made one frivolous wish, and I can’t have this…god, great power, great opportunity, you know the deal. It’s so hard to see things that I could change, and do nothing about it. Most of the time, there’s other ways to deal with it, guns, paperwork, hugs, whatever; sometimes there’s no way out but wishes, and then I have to.’
‘Don’t do it again.’
‘I can only promise to try.’
‘Do or do not?’
‘Oh, don’t you dare. And only a Sith deals in absolutes.’ She reached into the bag and pulled out a black t-shirt, and slipped it over her head. ‘I got scared. Usually, I make a wish, and it just happens. This time, it poured out through my fingers, and I thought I was going to melt away with it. I don’t want to make another big wish, at least not for a long time, not if I don’t have to. It’s never hurt before, and it hurt this time, and I’m so tired.’
She pushed the scanner and the tablet off the bed, crawled up the bed, and put her head on the pillows. ‘Don’t let me fall asleep, ok? I just need to think about what we’re doing next, but don’t let me fall asleep.’
He grabbed the remote off the bedside table. ‘Even crappy hotel pay TV has like a hundred channels, Ollit’s Life should be on one of them, it’s sort of like the fairyland equivilent of The Simpsons.’
Everything was in slow motion.