For the longest time, Stef didn’t say anything. She barely moved, she barely breathed. Ryan simply held onto her, his back resting against the cold glass of the tank’s door, rocking her gently as she clung to his arm.
Twenty minutes after Crawford had shifted away, her grip slackened on his arm, her arms instead wrapping around herself as she leaned against his chest. ‘Sorry,’ she mumbled.
‘Don’t apologise to me, Stef, please don’t.’
She slipped from his lap and knelt in front of him, her left hand resting over her heart, her right flexing and fisting for a moment before she hunched forward and began to poke his knee.
‘Because you-‘ she started, her voice thick. ‘You were gonna get in real trouble for this,’ she said, beating her hand against her chest. ‘I- And I’m not worth it. But I guilted you or something. And you shouldn’t have. And now you’re stuck with me. I fucked up and it killed me. You should have let me stay dead.’
Ryan reached forward and held the hand that was poking his knee. ‘You know I couldn’t do that.’
‘And why the fuck not? I know you said you don’t need the best of the best of the best of the best, but I Darwin’d myself!’
‘Because you didn’t deserve to die. Because I could save you. Because I promised to look after you and I meant it.’
Stef pulled her hand away, pushed herself to her feet and started to pace the tank. ‘I don’t deserve it,’ she snapped. ‘You’re supposed to be so smart, why are you being stupid on this? I don’t deserve- I don’t deserve anyone giving a shit about me. I don’t deserve respect and I don’t deserve lo-love.’
Ryan stood. ‘That means you need it all the more.’
Her hands shook violently. ‘I’m- I’m- I’m-‘ She stopped and grabbed her pants, seemingly in an effort to still her hands. ‘I’m crazy! I don’t deserve anything good! Crazy people deserve to be-‘ She made a wild gesture around the tank. ‘This is what I deserve! Locked up and away from where anyone has to see me. Forget what I said before, just shift away, leave me down here and forget about me.’
Her hands yanked away from her pants and she slapped her head. ‘Persistent,’ she said haltingly, ‘auditory hallucination which- Which- That I can’t live without. I should be locked away and forgotten about and-‘
Ryan wrapped his arms around her. ‘I’m not going to lock you away, and I’m not going to forget about you.’
‘But you should!’
He bent slightly, lifted her, then deposited her on the bed.
‘I told you, I told you,’ she said. She whimpered for a moment. ‘I try and keep it- I don’t think I can function in society like I’m gonna have to.’
‘I think you’ve been doing fine,’ he said, one arm wrapped around her, while he smoothed hair back from her face with his free hand. ‘Stef, you’ve got no need to fear-‘
She pulled his hands away. ‘Do you think that’s the first time I’ve tried to kill myself?’ Her voice was bitter, cold, distanced. Stef crawled to the end of the bed, slipped off, grabbed her tie from a pile of clothes containing her uniform, then moved to one of the corners of the tank, the tie lain out like a border. ‘What kind of agent is so unstable they turn a gun on themselves?’ She stared at the floor. ‘Ok, last time it was pills, but same difference. Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Just let me go, I’m not worth it.’
Ryan stood, then sat on the outside of the tie border. ‘From what I’ve observed, you seem to be getting along well with Agent Jones.’
‘If he can go ahead and reprogram me to be functional, then that’ll be awesome, you’ll have the body for whatever experiment this is supposed to be without the sick little shadow inside it.’
‘Agent Jones tried to kill himself. He suffered through a devastating glitch-‘ Ryan paused, looking for a way to explain the context of the word. ‘A glitch is essentially a nightmare for an agent, they feel completely real. Sight, sound, taste. There’s no way to tell they aren’t real. And due to the fact that the majority of them essentially extrapolate from a real-life scenario that’s it’s also impossible to tell when you’ve woken from one.’
‘That’s, um, really, really shitty.’
‘He’s never shared what he saw, but he shifted to the edge of a blackout zone, walked in and- Taylor saved him. I haven’t requested a new tech agent, so why should I request a new recruit?’
‘But you can’t be so good as to accept this- Accept me. You can’t just- You should surround yourself with people who are just as awesome as you are.’
‘Recruit, until you came along, I’d never had anyone use that particular appellation when referring to me.’
‘I haven’t lied to you yet.’ He required a cookie, laid it flat on his palm, and held it up on his side of the border. She snatched it away, but made no attempt to remove the tie. ‘Has anyone explained the Courts to you yet?’
‘I went to one of them,’ she said, suddenly brightening a bit. ‘It kinda reminded me of an airport. They’re basically embassies, right?’
He required another cookie and held it up. ‘The local and the minor ones essentially function that way. The major Courts are a little different. The Kings work with the fae laws, the Liars are…not people we like to deal with, but what’s relevant is Madchester.’
‘My family’s not from Manchester.’
Ryan smiled. ‘Madchester, the Court of the Mad is a sanctuary for all those who cannot-‘
‘Why am I imagining some big creepy asylum?’
Ryan shook his head. ‘It’s nothing like that at all. They care for those whose minds operate in a different way. They are accepted, they are cared for, they are not shunned, they are not rejected. The fae have a different view of-‘
‘-the differences in minds than many human cultures do. No one mould fits everyone. When you have races who may spend a decade as a tree, or who think only in emotion and colour rather than structured speech, how can someone who simply requires a little extra consideration be seen as alien?’
‘Because that sounds like some awesome fantasy and not how reality works.’
‘If you want fantasy, we should talk of the Lost.’
‘Stop distracting me,’ she said, pressing her hands against the floor. ‘All I’ve ever tried to do is play nice-nice enough to not get stuck I a straightjacket and my brain fried. I’ve- Even how I’ve been here the last couple of days is better than how I am usually, and you’ve seen what a mess I am.’
Ryan held up his hand, clicked through a few menu options in his HUD, and removed the illusion of skin, showing nothing but flowing blue. ‘This disgusts some people. And more are unnerved by the concept that we aren’t real people. Neither of these things bother you.’
She made a small noise, then looked up. ‘You know I’m going “that is so fucking cool” over and over in my head when you do this, right?’ She reached forward and grabbed his hand like she’d done the first time he’d shown her. He worked his fingers, and the blue moved accordingly, and the data flowed as bright lines within the blue – the ambient temperature, the pressure where she was playing with his hand, and the constant checks on the levels of blue integrity.
‘You saved my life,’ Ryan said. ‘And you’re one of the smartest people I’ve recruited, and I’m including those that are now techs.’
Stef pressed down hard on one of the flowing lines of data, then looked up. ‘You recruit techs?’
‘When I find someone with recruit potential, it’s not always for their Field strength. And a few times, it’s been by accident.’
She slowly lifted the tie away, and he moved to lean against the wall beside her. Stef hugged both of her arms around his left one again and leaned against him. ‘How do you accidentally a whole recruit?’ She coughed before he could query her phrasing. ‘Yanno, how can you accidentally recruit someone?’
‘Have you met Raz? He’s one of-‘
‘It’s hard not to notice we’ve got a couple of Psychonauts upstairs.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I don’t often take patrols-‘
‘Unless you’re placating some stupid recruit.’
‘But sometimes, when I have the occasion lull between paperwork, I enjoy walking around the city. I make an effort to know it as well as I can, it is the focus of my Duty, after all. It was-‘ Ryan thought for a moment, then opened up the personnel files to find the recruitment date. ‘Eight years ago.’
‘That’s longer than a lot of stories I’ve heard so far.’
‘Tech recruits tend to have longer careers, and they quite often start younger as well. Sacha-‘
‘-the other Psychonaut.’
He looked down at her. ‘Is there something I should know?’
‘We’ve got a couple of recruits with names from a pretty awesome video game, that’s all.’
‘I see. Well, Sacha has been here fifteen years.’
‘Stop it,’ she snapped suddenly, pulling her hands away from his. ‘You’re doing that thing where you make everything ok! I’m trying to be morose and miserable here!’ She leaned back. ‘So much as I’m ok to talk to you, that doesn’t mean I’m ok for anything else.’
‘Do you trust me?’
‘Yeah, of course, but-‘
‘Then just trust me,’ he said. ‘Please. I haven’t read through the protocol properly, I’ve had to take it on faith from Jones, but parts that I’ve seen…’ he hesitated for a moment. ‘There are elements that are far less than pleasant. You may very well hate me by the end of it, Stef. If you do, I’ll-‘
Stef’s expression changed to one of confusion. ‘Um?’
‘I- I don’t- You’re kind of an idiot if you think I could ever hate you.’
Ryan smiled.
‘You- You made an offer to-‘ She swallowed. ‘You said you’d be- Act in a parental capacity. In a paternal capacity. Da-‘ She quickly looked away. ‘I’ve done nothing but cry and be stupid and get hurt since I showed up, and you still haven’t gotten rid of me. You want to know what my baseline for comparison is? My father. I was sick once, yanno, just the regular kind of sick with a couple of days off school, but I was really nauseous. I don’t even know why he was near me, but I puked on him. I couldn’t help it, and I said I was sorry, and- But it didn’t matter. I’d done bad,’ she said, drawing out the word. ‘I’d done bad and I needed to be punished. Actions have consequences. He- He chose a completely proportional consequence, of course. The suit just had to be dry cleaned after all.’ She stared for a moment, then wiped her nose. ‘He sold my pony. I puked on him, so he sold my pony.’
Ryan sat shocked for a moment – she’d mentioned the sale, and that it had been as punishment, but had failed the mention the inciting incident. He quickly reached for her hand and squeezed it. ‘He sounds like a bastard,’ he said.
This, somehow, made her giggle. ‘You- You sound really classy when you say that.’ She leaned her head back against his arm. ‘So that’s what I have to compare you to. He never wanted me around, ever. The fact that you’re willingly in the same room as me is still astounding. He never wanted me, and he never loved me.’
Ryan leaned down and kissed the top of her head. ‘Well, I love you, Stef.’
Her tears returned, and he held her.
‘But I’m such a fuck-up.’
He shushed her.
He shushed her again.
As the minutes passed, her breathing began to slow, then she started. ‘I hate that.’
‘When your leg shakes just to check if you’re still alive. Do agenty legs do that?’
‘No. We have enough other methods to see if our extremities are still functional. Are you tired?’
She nodded against him.
He stood, and offered his hands down to her.
She grabbed them, and dragged herself to her feet. ‘Am- Am I gonna be ok if I sleep?’ she asked as she sat on the bed and kicked her shoes off. ‘I mean, um. Ok. See you in the morning?’ She lied down and grabbed for the corner of the quilt.
Ryan pulled the quilt up for her. He couldn’t promise her anything. Everything was an unknown. ‘I hope it will be,’ he said.
Her hand shot out from under the blanket and grabbed his hand. ‘I’m sorry. I’m scared. Like- Like I’m only still alive cause I’m awake. Like if I shut down I won’t be able to restart.’
‘Would you like me to stay?’
‘I should be able to handle this myself. I’ve always handled everything by myself. I’ve already-‘
Ryan sat on the bed beside her, then hesitated for a moment. ‘I used to read to Alexander every night. It helped him get to sleep. It was something I rather enjoyed doing.’ He watched her for a reaction, worried that he had insulted her – there was a difference in treating her as his child, and treating her as a child.
Her reaction was one of wonderment. She opened her mouth to talk, then closed it. ‘I’d- I’d like that please.’ She sat up, leaned against the wall and sat cross-legged. ‘Doesn’t- Doesn’t this make me a poor candidate to be an agent though?’
He required a large, leather bound book of stories – a replica of the one that had been on Alexander’s book shelf – and leaned against the wall beside her. ‘Perhaps if you stop thinking of agents as paragons of excellence, you’ll stop judging yourself so harshly in comparison.’ He opened the book to the table of contents. ‘Pick one.’
She rested her chin on his crooked arm. ‘Are these the nice ones, or the original ones?’ She sat up. ‘Ok, um, I don’t recognise these. I thought you would have gone with Cinderella and stuff.’
He ruffled her hair. ‘If you want human stories-‘
‘These are fae stories?’ She looked up at him, her eyes wide. ‘So, like, faerie-fairy tales? Fae tales?’
Ryan looked down at her, momentarily regretting the decision to show her fae stories instead of familiar ones – she seemed far more awake and excited than was conducive to sleep. On the other hand though, the excitement and wonder was amazing and heartening, considering what she had been through.
‘So much as you have the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson, the fae tend to grow up with Spi of Sol and Amberjack. Spi’s collections focus on the stories of starchildren, preserved stories from different cultures. Amberjack simply picked the popular stories from the fae races and adapted them for a wider audiences – not all gnomish values translate, and the nuances of sheti are impossible enough for adults to comprehend, let alone children.’
She grabbed the edge of the book and angled it so she could see the cover. ‘This doesn’t say Spi or Amberjack though.’ She looked at the logo. ‘Clover.’
‘And so much as you have Disney, fae children have the Clover Corporation.’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘So these are the nice ones.’
‘They are a little less sanitised. I couldn’t show Alex the movies, of course, but one more book of stories wouldn’t be out of place.’ He lifted his arm, and allowed her to lean against his side, moving the book so that she would have an excellent view of the pictures.
He closed the book, opened it again, and let her see the empty name plate – one requirement wrote her name there, and she made a happy noise against his side.
Ryan sent up prayers of thanks to Life, to Death, to everyone and everything, to all the coincidence, circumstance and luck that had let his strange little girl live. He rolled his shoulders, settled himself against the wall, and turned the page.