‘You’ve slept long enough, young lady,’ Ryan said as he looked down at the body. His best fatherly voice, even if he was far from the best father. A good father wouldn’t have landed her in this situation.
A good father would have found some way for her to wake up before now.
A good father wouldn’t be staring down at an immobile corpse.
His one small grace remained – the body appeared to be in stasis, she hadn’t begun to rot, the only change that had happened had been when the heart had been removed. Some of her colour had drained away, giving her even more of a frightful pallor than usual.
Warm wind that smelled of flowers and grass blew into the oubliette – the scents of this small corner of Fairyland.
Opening the oubliette more than once in the same place was dangerous, was an added element of foolhardiness that he simply couldn’t allow himself any more – her apartment had proved that. Familiarity bred complacency, and complacency would always give the false impression of safety.
She wasn’t safe, and neither was he.
As much as he wanted this. As much as he needed this. As much as he truly wanted to believe that he had gotten away with what was essentially the perfect murder, he knew that one or more metaphorical shoes could drop from on high at any time.
Jones knew everything – his tech hadn’t broached the subject again, and Ryan highly doubted that he would, but the other agent was still a risk.
Or he was a friend, trying to help.
He didn’t need to replay old memories to hear Reynolds chiding him for not trusting people.
Reynolds had trusted, loved and laughed freely. Had friends and lovers too innumerable for Ryan to keep count, people his Director just seemed to know, and he seemed to maintain all of these relationships without the slightest part of apparent effort.
It was another area where he had failed as a newborn. Another flaw that Reynolds could comment on.
Another area where he failed to live up to Rhys.
Rhys, the violent and ruthless man that he was had been able to number far more friends than Ryan ever had.
Ryan was still unsure if that was a comment on his failings, or if it had been a product of the past – that perhaps a century ago, people were far more forgiving of a man who walked around with blood on his coat and knives in his sleeves.
Jane was going easy on him, he knew that. She’d officially ruled his actions regarding Stef as nothing more than Cherry Syndrome – something perfectly natural for an agent of his age, and due to it not being an apparent pattern, it would, in essence, get swept under the rug.
Sometimes, directorial privilege had its benefits.
The Agency was fairly cavalier when it came to destroying their own kind – recycling was one option on a very short list of punishments. Once you reached a certain age – usually a century – though, the percentage of recycled agents tended to drop off in all but the most extreme cases.
Jane had put Stef’s case to rest, recommended a note in his file, and some basic refresher course, but no more than that.
He’d gotten away with less than a slap on the wrist.
It was, for once, a positive outcome from the Agency’s nearly-mercenary policy when it came to recruits – the only fallout from his actions had been the death of a recruit, and the Agency didn’t care about a dead recruit.
And everything would be perfect, if only Stef woke up.
What they would do afterward, was a question for when she was alive.
Death had been absent since the howler. No admonishments, but no comfort either.
He’d tried to visit everyday, not that the situation always allowed.
Jane was still investigating – the natural outgrowth of investigating a single incident was to look into the agent as a whole. One meeting a day was all that she asked, wanting to review old cases and decisions he’d made.
All to her satisfaction, so far as he knew.
He heard a child laughing, and he quickly raised his head – he had chosen the Fairyland park especially, as it was a place of quiet. It was a park reserved for meditation, for the nymphs to merge with this environment type.
It was a place that during the middle of the working day, should have been nearly empty.
It was a place where the laughter of children was unlikely.
He stood and quickly exited the oubliette, being sure to close the heavy wooden door immediately – unwilling to risk a repeat of the howler, and felt it disappear under his hand.
Stef was kneeling the soft, waving grass.
Another aspect – orange this time, and about six years old. She looked up, giggled again, then ducked down, her hands pressed against something he couldn’t see, giving her the odd appearance of being a tiny, ghostly mime.
He walked forward, and she looked to the side, then darted away, dropped to her knees again and crawling under something that again, he couldn’t see.
He knelt in front of her, and caught the briefest impression of a table leg as she moved around in a small circle. She was giggling and hiding beneath a table – playing. He relaxed, and sat cross-legged in front of her, enjoying the pleasant, if odd, feeling of almost deja vu as memories of playing with Alexander floated around his mind.
Kitchen tables became caves simply by adding a blanket. There were dozens of hiding spots around their house – Eilise’s study and the garage and the hall cupboards. A dozen places where he could walk past his son, pretending not to know where he was, until Alexander got a case of the frustrated giggles and would burst out, laughing and proclaiming he had won.
Tears welled up, but he blinked them away.
‘You can’t find me!’ a small voice called.
‘I can see you,’ he said, not caring if she wasn’t speaking to him.
She slowly counted on her fingers, making her way from ten, to twenty, to a hundred.
Even in the times where he’d tried to play hide and seek in the human manner – not cheating by using it his HUD, it had never a hundred-count to find Alexander.
The only time it took so long was when a parent had given up looking. His forehead creased at the thought – when a parent had given up looking, or had not been looking in the first place. And given that she had said that her father had sold her pony as punishment, he didn’t find that entirely out of the question.
She shook her head, stood, wandered a few feet away, and came back with a large translucent book clasped in her hands, held to her chest like a shield.
He reached for her, needing to comfort her, but only felt static – like when you tried to touch a soul. He sat back, listening to her sound out the beginning of “The Wind in the Willows”.
She lay on her stomach, her velvet pinafore rumpling, the large book spread out before her, ancient pages withered at the corners, crayon marks over the rich illustrations. She propped her head on her hands, some of her hair pulling free from the dark ribbon.
‘It all seemed too good to be true,’ he said, after he found the text of the book in his long-term memory. There was no harm in playing along, just in case her ability to sense his was tied to whatever train of thought it was following. ‘Hither and thither through the meadows he rambled busily, along the hedgerows, across the copses, finding everywhere birds building, flowers budding-’
She raised her head, crinkled her nose and went back to reading. She turned the page and ran her small hand over the next page of text.
Her head jerked up and she jumped up from the book and ran for another hiding spot. She looked around, then scrambled back, curling her arms around her legs and shushing herself. ‘I’m going to win,’ she chanted quietly, ‘I’m going to win.’
Her excitement seemed to drain after a moment – the happy light that lit up her face, the anticipation at being found disappeared.
A moment later, her head dropped and she crawled back under the invisible table to her book.
She no longer read it aloud, instead flipping to random pages and tracing over the pictures with her fingers. Every few minutes, she would look up, as though briefly sensing him, then look away.
There was a small sound, and he saw a droplet of translucent orange water on the book. ‘You can come find me now,’ she said.
‘I’m trying,’ he said, ‘I’m trying to bring you back, I don’t know how. You have to find your own way back.’
More tears stained the book. He reached for her, concentrating as hard as he had the day he’d stopped her soul from slipping away.
This time, he felt the static, and she looked up at him, her eyes focusing as she saw him. Her mouth dropped open and she jumped back. She put up her tiny fists and frantically looked around the room.
‘Stef…it’s me…’ he said gently.
‘Me who?!’ she demanded, her eyes sliding past him again, as if she couldn’t see him. ‘Ghostghostghost…’ she wailed. ‘Ha-ha-help!’
‘I’m not a ghost,’ he said, giving her a reassuring smile, and she stopped wailing.
‘Then what are you?’ she asked, unconvinced.
‘My dad’s coming,’ she said in the same unconvinced tone.
‘Is that who you were playing hide and seek with?’
‘He’s a bad seeker,’ she said with a pout. ‘Sometimes he gives up cause I’m too good.’
‘Of course you are,’ he said. ‘Just keep your voice down and he won’t find you. He can’t hear me, no matter how loud I am.’
‘I…dun mind if he finds me. I’m…,’ her small eyes closed, ‘bored.’
‘You could go seek him.’
She giggled. ‘That’s not how you play.’
‘Where are you right now, Stef?’ he asked.
Her vision lost focus again, and she looked away from him. She grabbed the book, spread it over her knees and started to read it again.
He sat back, watched her turn one more page, then she faded as a strong breeze blew through the park.
The day was warm, the breeze was cool, and he had no need to run back to the Agency.
He laid back, and stared up at the painted clouds in the sky, the images distorted by the wind, and made a quick note in his HUD to add something similar to his garden.
Alexander wouldn’t leave his mind.
He’d known it was going to be a natural consequence of putting himself in the role of “father” again, knew it would dredge up memories – the good and the bad.
Knew it would lead to one inevitable action: going to visit his son.
[table id=15 /]