10 Years Ago.
Curt stared at the plates. ‘You did the carrots wrong.’
‘I wasn’t supposed to be cooking tonight,’ she said, ‘blame your father.’
He bit the inside of his cheek. ‘I’ll fix it,’ he said, picked up the two plates, and fled from the kitchen. He stared at the plate, taking stock of everything else – at least it was the right plate, the pink one, with the flowers. The sausages were ok, one of the ones on his plate was even curved the way she liked. The gravy was all wrong though – it was touching the potato and peas, unacceptable.
He placed the plates on the low card table. ‘Not yet.’
Small hands grasped for the plate anyway.
He dug into his pocket and handed her a purple pen. ‘Not yet.’
The pen was taken from his hand, the cap was placed neatly to the left of the colouring book, and she went to work with the new colour, filling in the petals on the flowers.
He set about cutting up the carrot into small slices and tossed the ones that were too far from perfect circles back onto his own plate, transposed the sausages, then cleared away the gravy-contaminated potato.
He took one more look at the food, decided it was good enough, and pushed it toward her.
She finished colouring in the last petal, recapped the pen, then put the book in the small basket beside the table.
‘Tara.’
She didn’t look up.
‘Tara.’
He lifted a hand, and brought two fingers close to her face, trying to make her focus. She caught his eyes for a brief second, then looked away again. Good enough, it was a good effort. He handed her the fork, and she began to eat.
Headlights swept across the room as his father pulled into the driveway. There was a two-minute lag before there was the sound of a key in the door. His father always sat there, in the car, in the dark, when he got home, he said it was to clear away the day so he could enjoy being home…it wasn’t an excuse he believed. Whenever he peeked through the window, his father would always be sitting there, his head against the steering wheel, just…sad.
The door was shut, and he watched his father pass through the living room, a bag of fruit in his hand – the best stuff, and also the stuff about to go rotten. The best stuff went in their school lunches, the nearly-bad stuff was dessert, or tossed into the worm bin in the backyard.
Each of them got a kiss on the head as he passed through. ‘How was school?’
‘Great,’ he said. The answer was always “great”, no matter how the day actually had been – except on Tuesdays, on Tuesdays his dad was always in a good mood, so he was ready to listen to if school had been crappy or actually great. It wasn’t Tuesday.
His mother brought in the other two plates, and a bottle of wine.
His parents sat, and ate in silence.
He looked back to Tara, who smiled – not at him, but it was a smile all the same.
Curt watched Stef stare at him like a complicated piece of paperwork – unlike paperwork though, she wasn’t able to crumple him into a small ball and toss him across the room. Not without provoking her, anyway.
‘Huh?’ she said at last.
‘There’s a reason people like me are so rare,’ he said, ‘it’s because we just don’t work. You can rehabilitate monsters, a Solstice is a Solstice is a Solstice and nothing-‘
‘Blah, blah, blah, you know that’s not true.’
‘Name one other Solstice recruit you know, name one other Aide.’
‘Did you ever stop to think that might just be a special snowflake, Curt O’Connor?’
‘I can’t stand being around you every day.’
She shrank back like he’d slapped her. ‘I didn’t think I was that annoying,’ she said in a small voice.
‘I’ve never had to be around anyone I’ve hurt. Every time I look at you, all I can see is you strapped to that godsdamn chair, or what you looked like when I stabbed you. I could have killed you, I could have kiled you and I can’t forgive myself for that. You’re not one of the monsters that I can rationalise away-‘
‘You wanted punishment, so you turned yourself in, they decided that you should get a second chance. Are you going to argue with angels?’
‘I’m a monster,’ he said, defeated.
‘I don’t see a monster, I see my friend.’
‘I don’t deserve to be your friend.’
‘I’m not the greatest company, if you haven’t noticed.’
‘You really think I have a future in the Agency?’
‘…you just got the Aide job, why are you leaving?’
He stepped away, but she pulled him back onto the bed. ‘I’m not letting you go so easily.’
He pulled at her grip around his arm, but it didn’t move. ‘Let me go.’
‘You really going to do this to yourself? To Ryan? To me?’
He shoved her. Let me go, Stef.’
‘Nope.’
‘You’ll be better off-‘
‘I would have been better off if I hadn’t taken Dorian’s job offer, I would have been better off if I hadn’t been a recruit, I’d be alive if I hadn’t insisted on staying in the field, I would be better off, but I wouldn’t be happier.’
‘Let me go, Stef.’
‘Nah-uh.’
He shot out his right hand and wrapped it around her throat – no pressure, just the promise of pain.
She gave him a bored look. ‘You’re not going to hurt me.’
He leaned closer. ‘And do you have absolute faith in that?’
She gave a small nod.
He applied a small bit of pressure to her throat. ‘Move. Please.’
‘If I don’t get to leave, then neither to you. Ryan needs you, he took you on as his Aide, doesn’t that mean anything?’
‘More than you can imagine.’
‘Then stop being an idiot.’
For a moment, he imagined squeezing her throat, forcing her to react, to let her autopilot take over and deal with him.
For a moment, he wanted it.
She gave a small smile – she trusted him, she trusted him, even though he didn’t deserve it. He let go of her throat, and sat, slumped on the edge of the bed, ‘I’ll hurt you, I’ll disappoint him.’
‘You done fine so far.’
‘I don’t deserve-’
‘Get over yourself!’ she snapped. ‘Yes, you’re a murderer, you killed people, you probably killed innocent people, and nothing you can ever do will change that. There’s no checks and balances that say “ok, you’re good and this didn’t happen any more”. Story Thieves can’t bring back the dead, so no matter what you do, those people are going to stay in their graves.’
‘Sometimes,’ he said, his shoulders slumping even further. ‘And this is one of those times, I wish you were a normal girl.’
‘My life is bad enough-’
‘-because a normal girl,’ he said, ‘wouldn’t ever want to be around me. I appreciate what you’ve done for me, but it’s so hard to be around you. You might not have nightmares about Russia, but I do. I’ve done-’
She wrapped a hand around his neck, drew him close and kissed his forehead. ‘I forgive you.’
‘Stef-’
She kissed him again. ‘I absolve you, for everything you’ve done.’
He stared at her.
Forgiveness. From an angel.
Heat pricked the back of his eyes.
He wrapped his arms around her waist, let his head flop into her lap, and began to cry.
* * *
She stared down at the crying recruit in her lap – his arms wrapped around her, holding on to her as though she knew the answers to life. She leaned forward, and wrapped both arms around his head as best as she could.
‘Sorry,’ he choked through tears, ‘I’ll let you go, I’ll-’
‘Haven’t you figured out that you may have made it to one of my exemption categories? I’m ok with this.’
‘I don’t deserve it,’ he said.
‘Shh.’
‘You can’t forgive me. You don’t know what I’ve done. You can’t absolve crimes you have no idea about.’
‘Then tell me,’ she said, ‘if you think it’s necessary, then tell me.’
He held her tighter, but raised his face to look up at her. ‘You’ll hate me.’
She pushed the hair back from his his eyes and began to stroke his head. ‘No, I won’t.’ She gave him a warm smile. ‘Tell me.’
He dropped his head back into her lap. ‘A month after I joined up I helped with my first. And damn I was good. I’d never done anything like that before, never. I swear to you. Fights at school, sure, but I never hurt animals or anything. I was just supposed to be watching, but this…thing wasn’t cooperating, so I stepped up.’
She made a small noise to let him know she was still listening.
‘This thing was horrible-’
He recounted his first kill, what he’d done, what he’d felt, what he hadn’t felt. She felt tears seeping through the fabric of her pants, and she moved her legs to give him more of a lap to rest his head against. He whimpered with every small movement, as if she were going to bolt for the door and leave him behind.
She resumed stroking his hair, her fingers brushing the side of his face.
He told of of his second, his third, how they have given him monsters, things that looked like they had come from nightmares – they had never given him the human-seeming fae, never an agent to work on, never anything that could make him question hunting the things that went bump in the night.
The fourth, the fifth, the beginning of the tattoos, the pride of protecting people from evil. The thought that he was a hero.
The six, the seventh, the breakup with his girlfriend.
The eighth, the ninth, the first time he had seen an agent, the first time he’d run from an agent, learned to fear the people in the suits. The stories they’d rammed into his skull about what agents would do – torture, mutilation, sucking out souls, every scary story they could think of, reused to make everyone afraid of the good guys.
The tenth, and his first promotion.
His stories started to slow, and he took long breaks between sentences, then finally, he was quiet, asleep in her lap, still clutching her for comfort. She began to lift her hand away, but his face twitched in discomfort, and she resumed petting him.
I’m supposed to be the broken one.
You wanted to mother the lost boys, well, one just fell into your lap.
Need more fairy dust.
It’s going to take more than happy thoughts to fix this.
She stared at her HUD and greyed-out the hotel room to focus on the floating windows. A reminder for the meeting sat in a tiny window. Just over two hours till the four hours she had allotted Ryan were up, but they already knew what to do. Get Carol out of fairyland and to her apartment. Easy enough. Easy enough, except for all the things that could go wrong.
She could have made the wrong wish. Ryan could hate her. Ryan could decide that his girlfriend was better than his job and decide to stay in fairyland…and let Taylor run the Agency. Carol could go bad…again, and he’d be even worse than before.
Or…everything could be ok.
She opened up three windows – one paperwork, one coding, one Tetris, and attempted all three at once. It was horrible, but it focused her mind on things other than reality.
The recruit in her lap slept for three forms, eight failed games of Tetris and part of a new macro – just over an hour.
‘Sorry,’ he said as he sat up.
‘Do you feel better?’
‘I feel horrible.’
‘How’s that compare with before?’
He gave a shrug. ‘Dunno yet, ask me in a week.’ He sat up and pulled her close. ‘Thanks Stef, I mean, really thanks.’
‘You’re my padawan, someone’s got to stop you from turning to the dark side.’