Stef clutched the broken doll tighter, the sharp edges of the shattered porcelain head digging into her skin, threatening to break it, threatening to make her just as broken. Crying on the floor, that’s really mature. She stared down at her doll through its faded red curls and wished that there was some way to make it all better. That there was some way to-
A hand appeared in her vision, and she panicked. When she saw that the hand was attached to a suit, however, she calmed down. The hand gently tugged the doll from her hand, and she let him take it away. It just a toy, just a-
He crouched in front of her and handed Alexandria back, perfect as the day she’d been found in the store. Perfect as she was in her memory. There were no cracks, no faded paint, and no missing pieces. She was whole again.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered as she clutched the doll. ‘Thank you.’ He smiled at her and a question formed. ‘How…how long have you been standing there?’
‘Not long,’ he said as he proffered a hand.
She let him pull her to her feet, held Alexandria under one arm and indicated to the complete sty that used to be her flat. ‘Why would they do this?’
‘To see if you had anything of value. Any information. You haven’t made your presence known on the net since I-’
‘Been kinda busy.’
‘Therefore,’ he said, ‘it’s their assumption that you’re dead. They…in all honesty, probably thought they killed you with the others.’
‘Don’t remind me,’ she said, ‘seriously, don’t remind me. So much could have gone wrong that night. Anything. Any one piece out of place and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I wouldn’t have…’ Her eyes went wide and she pushed the doll at him. ‘Hold her for a moment.’
‘Hold her for a moment,’ she said again as she stepped over the piles of stuff and stumbled into her bedroom. Ryan, predictably, followed her. She stepped up onto a tall pile of clothes and leveraged herself into the wardrobe.
‘I didn’t mean to upset you,’ he said, the remorse obvious in his voice, ‘but you’re safe here, you don’t need to hide.’
She smiled as she pulled shoes off the pegs that lined the inside wall of her wardrobe, then used them as steps to get higher up into the wardrobe, then used the shelf to balance herself. ‘I’m not hiding,’ she said, ‘I’m checking something.’
She punched the roof of the wardrobe until one of the panels came loose. Gripping it, she twisted it and dropped it to the floor. Reaching deep into the roof, she grasped the edge of a large biscuit tin. Once she had a grip, she pulled on it, then jumped down from the pegs.
Looking away from him, she pulled open the lid. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered before stepping out of the wardrobe. She looked up at him, staring at him through her messy fringe. ‘I guess I must seem pretty pathetic like now.’ She quietly stepped out of the wardrobe and placed the biscuit tin on her empty desk. ‘If I’d said “no” to you. If I’d been here. Would they have…?’
‘Do you really want to hear the answer?’
She shook her head. ‘No. No, I don’t. Does this whole world have a “shoot first” policy?’
‘The difference is, we take responsibility for what we do, the Solstice don’t. We take care of the bodies, the evidence, we arrange for widow’s pensions or placement for orphaned children – so they as they don’t follow in the deceased’s footsteps.’
She stared at him. ‘Yeah, but some of that is to protect you, er us, as much as it is them.’ She ran a finger through the dusty imprint on her desk. ‘So my computers are just casualties of war?’
‘Though the tech recruits would like to convince us to do differently, we don’t mount rescue missions for computers, especially when it’s likely that the items have already been taken into a blackout zone. When it comes to blackout zones, we don’t even mount rescue missions for-’ He cut himself off, and focused on one of her piles of clothes.
‘For recruits,’ she said, finishing his sentence for him.
‘Yes, that,’ he said.
She yanked on the upturned bed and sat on the corner of the mattress. ‘So if I get snatched, policy dictates you let them take me?’ He continued to stare at the pile of clothes. ‘Then I guess I’ll try and not get snatched.’
He looked up. ‘That is…always the best course of action. Recruit, you’re-’
‘That’s not my name.’ She picked up the biscuit tin again and placed the lid on the desk. ‘Everything that’s happened to me is because of you, so you can at least call me by my name. I couldn’t really remember you, but I…’ she looked away, pushed Alexandria off the tin and slowly opened it.
She pulled a dusty book from the old tin, flipped the back cover open and held it up to him. On the inside of the back cover was a blue crayon stick-figure, a small brown stick figure and a little red circle. ‘So sue me, I’m not an artist.’
He took a step closer and looked at the book. ‘I assume…I’m the blue one?’
She closed the book and stared ashamedly at the cover. ‘I thought you were an angel.’
Ryan shrugged. ‘Technically, I am.’
She stared at him, an eloquent inquiry formed, but it somehow failed to translate when she opened her mouth to speak. ‘Buh-what?’
‘We were created by the gods, we act as their proxies.’ He tilted his head. ‘Though…not like those in your book there.’
She snapped the book closed and placed it back in the biscuit tin. ‘You remember that thing where you said you’re not gonna shoot me?’
‘Of course. Are going to give me a reason to change my mind?’
She hugged him.
She was sure that it was a hug – it was different to hugging a doll, or a pillow, or even a laptop. For one thing, she couldn’t fit all of him into her arms, and then there was the question of where to place her arms. It was an inexpert hug. She was sure she was freaking him out, and she was convinced that he’d been half way to requiring a gun – sudden movements around magical narcs probably weren’t such a good idea.
‘Thank you,’ she mumbled into his suit. ‘Sorry. Thank you. Sorry.’
He lifted an arm and wrapped it around her shoulders.
Ball. Light. Laughter. Sadness. Darkness. A neverending night. A scary darkness that wanted her. Safe. Someone was holding her and keeping her safe. Keeping her safe from the darkness.
She broke away from him, and knuckled away a few tears before they had a chance to form. ‘Sorry,’ she muttered, trying to keep her voice as monotone as possible. ‘You probably don’t recruit many emotional cripples.’ She looked away, and wished that the abandoned laundry would choose this moment to strike – to punish her for letting it gain sentience, then abandoning it.
‘A facade of strength can only serve so many purposes. Sometimes it’s necessary, other times, not so much.’ He pressed a handkerchief into her hand, but she still couldn’t look at him. ‘Now, are you planning on leaving your apartment like this?’
‘I’m not sure if you’ve seen my sneakers, but I’m not exactly a whiz at cleaning.’
‘You don’t have to be,’ he said. He held up his hands and the bedroom slowly pulled itself back together – the bed turned the right way up and the sheets replaced themselves, making the bed better than she ever had. The clothes disappeared into the wardrobe, and the door slid shut. The carpet beneath her feet brightened by several shades and the curtain appeared back on their repaired rods.
‘Um, wow,’ she said as she tried to force her eyes back into their sockets. ‘You know, you’d make one hell of a nanny.’
He smirked, then walked from the room, quietly cleaning the rest of the living room, and the dining room while she walked into the kitchen. ‘Okies, this can’t be that hard. Bad foods disappear nao!’
What, you didn’t really expect that to work, did you?
Require: all rotting food gone. A lot of the smell in the kitchen disappeared. Require: all the rubbish gone. The rest of the scraps disappeared from the floor. Require: clean floor. The floor rippled for a moment, then sparkled in a way that it likely hadn’t done since before she’d taken the flat over. Require: fix the cupboards. The doors on her kitchen cupboards replaced themselves, the cracks and holes in the wood disappearing in seconds. Require: new fridge. Her old, noisy fridge disappeared and was replaced by a new one – a small part of her took note that it looked exactly the same as the one in her room at the Agency.
She pulled the fridge open, enjoying the strange “new white goods” smell, then opened the freezer, enjoying the cold breeze against her face.
‘Are you all right?’ Ryan asked from the entrance to the kitchen.
She continued to stare into the empty freezer, small curls of breath dissipating as as they appeared. Yeah, expect that now you know exactly how screwed up I am. ‘Yeah,’ she said slowly, ‘expect for the fact that I had ice-cream and it got all meltified.’
‘It’s quite easy to get some more.’
‘Yeah, yeah, I know I can just require some, but…’ A hand touched her shoulder, and she fought the urge to brush it away, to shudder, or to jump into the entirely-too-small freezer. The world blurred, and her new fridge disappeared.
‘Still…not used to that,’ she said as took a stumbling step after the world became solid again. Teleportation was always a lot easier when there was a helpful Scot or Irishman there to let you know that you were indeed all there and that you hadn’t left behind one of the smaller, but still important, organs. The lights of an ice-cream parlour stared back at her. ‘Huh?’
‘This was,’ he said as he walked toward the door, ‘the closest open establishment. And it will take some time for the smell to clear out of your apartment.’
‘Am I supposed to ask how you knew exactly where to come?’ He simply raised his eyebrows and opened the door. ‘It’s ok,’ she said, ‘it’s not like I’d make fun of you for liking ice-cream, or think of ways to exploit that like for my own gains, and be currently drafting plans in my-’ There was the tinkle of a bell, and she realised that he’d left her outside, talking to herself.
She pushed open the door, and smirked as she caught the expression of the clerk – she suspected he wasn’t used to late-night narc invasions. This, finally, was something she could understand. This time of night, it was more a time when vampire-wannabes came out to get red gelato, or goths asking for blacker-than-black licorice ice-cream, or stoners getting very happy at the prospect of rainbow flavour. Narcs and ice-cream weren’t exactly something that were supposed to mix.
Somewhere in her head, a heavenly chorus sang as she approached the freezer, all the colours of the sweet, frozen rainbow danced in her mind and congealed into something delicious, topped with a cherry. Silently, she began counting on her fingers, then grabbed Ryan’s closest hand when ten weren’t enough – somewhat to her surprise he let her use him as an angelic abacus. Four fingers later, she was done. She looked up at the server and began to list off each flavour and topping until it culminated into a monstrous sundae.
‘Is that…all, miss?’
She looked down at her fingers, then the fingers that weren’t hers, then up at Ryan. ‘Was that all I wanted?’
He shrugged. ‘It seems to be sufficient.’ She opened her mouth to protest, but he smiled. ‘You can always go back for seconds…if your stomach doesn’t explode first.’
‘Yeah, it’s not fun when that happens.’ She looked back into the freezer. ‘So what are we getting you?’
‘We’re here for you, I don’t want anything.’
She pressed her nose up to the cold glass and spied the perfect thing. ‘And he’ll have a kid’s rocky road.’
A tiny contrainer of ice-cream, accompanied by a small pink spoon joined the enormous sundae. She went to fake taking money out of her pocket, but he simply swiped his credit card/ID and signed the docket. She grabbed the desserts and found a seat by the window.
‘Just for your information,’ Ryan said as he sat on the stool beside her. ‘I’m not eating that, I have no need of the sugar or approximations of nutrients that it contains.’
‘Don’t you have some sort of angelic directive to enjoy all the sweet things in life?’
He shrugged. ‘I’m not one of the angels from your book, the term is simply applicable.’
She pulled the cherry from the very top of the sundae and ran it through the melting fudge. ‘I have to ask, do you have…?’ She held out her hands out to the side and flapped them.
‘A motor function disorder?’
She pouted. ‘You know what I mean.’
He shook his head. ‘Not anymore. Once we did, and it’s the form we’re best remembered for.’
She swallowed the cherry with a gulp. ‘You’re not like, Lucifer or something, are you?’
He shook his head. ‘We take the form that serves us the best. At one point that was to appear as angels. We’ve been any number of secret organisations and orders. The guise of a government agency has served us well for decades, and will likely continue to do so for a while yet.’
‘So were you-?’
‘Don’t ask.’ He paused. ‘We are essentially…reset every time we move into a new incarnation, we retain facts, knowledge, records, but not our memories.’
She took a spoonful of ice-cream. ‘So after the inevitable apocalypse and the world turns into some bad eighties movie and you’re not the narc you are now, you won’t remember me?’ Great Spyder, he tells you something insanely big and you want him to validate your existence. She grimaced, and stared intently at the sundae, hoping that her “magical earth-swallowing power” would actually activate this time. ‘Sorry, forget I asked.’
‘If I thought being remembered was some great evil, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.’
The world exploded.