‘But, um,’ Stef said, ‘weren’t we just talking about that? Either we win, or we move to fairyland?’
Curt wiped his hands on a napkin and shook his head. ‘There’s some shades of grey in the middle, newbie.’
She turned to look at him, then looked up at Ryan. ‘You two have been at this longer than me, stop groupthinking!’
Ryan folded his hands on the table. ‘While we have to account for the possibility of a total Agency shutdown or suspension, implementing Contingency 32 on this scale means a few things a lot more immediately.’
‘Sir,’ Curt said, ‘this is huge.’
‘Come on guys-‘ she started.
‘Stef,’ Ryan said, ‘why don’t we shift all the Solstice into cells right now?’
‘Blackout zones.’
‘And those not in blackout zones?’
‘Cause they’re- They’re blacked out as well, we can’t touch them.’
Ryan nodded. ‘They use various methods to block us, it’s very similar to our Contingency 32, except they use time energy or-‘
‘Or shots of fae blood,’ Curt said, ‘that’s what the hardcore guys do. It’s messier, and it’s nowhere near as effective, it’s just macho crap that generally leads to them running out of protection at inopportune times.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Can I do the “Solstice are hypocrites dance”?’
‘Dosing yourself with time energy easy,’ Curt said, ‘it’s just treated water, it’s easy to use, it’s easy to transport, and it disperses really well. It’s used in all the food prep and in the water we’re given on patrols, so w- they’re always safe.’
‘So why don’t half the Solstice have timey-wimey powers?’
Ryan sighed. ‘Stef.’
‘Magic isn’t that simple, yessir, sorry, yeah, I know.’
‘I am not involved in the planning stages of any of this,’ Ryan said, ‘all I know is that it’s being discussed. We cannot administer blue to every person in the world by hand, it’s not even worth thinking about, so we have to go for better methods of distribution. We start by “contaminating” water sources,’ he said. ‘That gives us a start. Drinking water, cooking, and to a lesser extent, bathing, hand washing, they’d all be ways to start the population absorbing blue. Obviously, this is not going to be quick, and it’s not going to be as effective as necessary on a lot of people. From there we move to the same level of “contamination” of food processing plants, and bottling plants. This is a lot better, because everything ingested – unless it’s home grown – becomes a source for ingesting blue. After that, we have to move to a vaccine cover story and more direct methods.’
‘Every person in the world would be connected to the system,’ Curt said.
Whoa. This is heavy.
‘I hadn’t,’ she said, ‘I hadn’t thought of it like that. Even if it’s just tracking blue, then…This is way to Orwellian for me. This isn’t something we’d ever give up. It’s too much power to have then abandon. You don’t get unlimited power, and then just give it up and be normal again.’
‘If this is done,’ Ryan said, ‘and it’s not even something we have a say in, this is above the Directors, above the Enforcers, this is-‘ He paused for a second. ‘This is so far up I don’t know who is dealing with it.’
‘This is massive,’ Curt said. ‘It’s the ultimate Solstice nightmare.’
‘The Agency would change overnight,’ Ryan said. ‘Our entire method of operation would have to adapt to fit this new way. The number of Agents would become tenfold, a hundredfold, a thousandfold, and in a very short amount of time, to say nothing of how many more recruits we would take on. We would interfere to a far greater degree than what we do now, we wouldn’t be able to help it, even tracking blue tracks life signs, how could we stop ourselves from stopping crimes in progress, shifting out those being abused or harmed, getting those to medical care who can’t reach a phone in time?’ He put a hand over his mouth for a moment. ‘It would be wonderful, it would be terrible, and we cannot handle this much power. We would be gods.’
‘I think this is what Death meant,’ she said, ‘when she talked about not interfering.’
He gave her a nod.
‘Despite the advantages this would give us, I don’t want this level of power. I would rather live and fight the Solstice, and all of our other enemies for that matter, for the rest of my life, than to take the easy way out. I don’t think I’m alone in this,’ he said, ‘it’s why official policy is to destroy mirror, rather than gathering it to deal with our enemies.’
‘But you brought up Contingency 32 at the meeting,’ she said.
‘What’s the lesser of two evils though?’ This level of power, possibly forever, or to allow the entire human population to die if the blue hatchling is killed?’ He lifted his wine glass and took a small drink. ‘Sometimes I am very glad there are decisions that I do not have to make.’
She lifted her own glass and took a sip. The wine was light, fruity, and a sweet counterpoint the morose turn in conversation. ‘So,’ she said, ‘bunnies are great. They’re small and they’re fluffy and they’re-‘ Both of them were staring at her. ‘If there’s nothing we can do about this, nothing at all, then it isn’t worth our time thinking about. We’re as safe as we can be, and so are the people we care about, so why don’t we focus on the things we can control, and not the shit we can’t?’
She emptied her glass. ‘There is a reason the extent of my daily news comes from the Cheezeburger network and gaming blogs. Hole in the ozone? What the fuck can I do about that? Terrorism? Same. Nothing I can do about that. Taxes? I don’t understand them, and I don’t want to. Cost to raise a family going up? Can’t have kids so it’s not a worry for me. Running out of fuel? I never go anywhere anyway! The only reason I have avoided going completely and utterly mental to the point where I cannot function is simple: I don’t worry about things I cannot do anything about. If I choose to get stressed out because some release date is pushed back, or there’s some giant wank over X getting cast as Y and why would you do that, that’s my choice, because I control how much I care about the situation. I’m been more emotionally invested in following the evolution of the official fem!Shep than I ever have been in politics. Either of your guns to my head right now, I couldn’t tell you who the bloody prime minister is!’
Ryan smiled a little, then finished off his wine and nodded. ‘Jones is working on birds, we’ve got everyone patrolling as much as we can, and we’re using our double-agents to gather what intel we can. So far, we have nothing, but given the situation, that isn’t a bad thing. We still have no proof they know what they have, or the intent to use them.’
‘Has the informant dude woken up yet?’ she asked.
‘The Parkers think tomorrow,’ Ryan said. ‘We’ll be able to question him then.’
They sat in silence for a little while.
‘Can we has cake?’ she asked, looking over at the selection of sweets.
‘I thought you were going to explode,’ Ryan said.
‘Maybe I can fit a little bit of cake.’
‘Curt?’ Ryan asked.
The cakes were shifted back onto the table, and Ryan topped up their glasses.
An hour later, with all but a few of the small cakes gone, Ryan stood. ‘Sorry, you’ll have to excuse me.’
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked as she looked up at him.
A fresh uniform rippled across his body. ‘Directors’ meeting, it was supposed to be in the morning, but it’s been rescheduled. This is going to take a few hours, so I’ll see you both in the morning.’
‘I may be in the tech department,’ she said as he kissed her on the head. ‘But I’ll pop down when I get a chance.’
He a nod, straightened his just-required already-impeccable uniform, then shifted away.
‘Go ahead,’ Curt said, pushing the tray at her, ‘you can finish it off.’
She shook her head and pushed it back. ‘If I eat any more I’ll puke.’
He shrugged. ‘Fine.’ He stood, picked up the tray, required a small fridge in the corner of the office, and packed the leftovers away. ‘Breakfast, if Ryan doesn’t need a late-night snack when he gets back.’
She looked at the clock in her HUD. ‘It’s late,’ she said, ‘want to head to bed, or have you got stuff you need to do first?’
‘What do you- Sorry, right.’ He gave a smile. ‘I’m fine. I don’t need-‘
She shrugged and began to prep the bird-making software. ‘It was just an offer, it’s not like I’m going to force you down on me. Again.’
‘And you aren’t the least bit weirded out by this?’
‘Oh, like we were ever going to have a normal friendship,’ she said with a smirk. ‘You find it comforting, and that helps you, which is good, cause I don’t really do that much for you.’
‘It’s not like you owe me,’ he said.
‘I’m not doing this because I feel indebted to you, I’m doing this because you’re my friend. And it’s not like I hated sleeping with you last night, so accept, or I’m gonna go pull an all-nighter with the techs.’
He considered it for a moment, then stood and held out a hand. ‘Fine then, come to bed with me.’
She took his hand. ‘You attempt to carry me over any thresholds and I will stab you in the neck a flash drive.’
‘Duly noted,’ he said as they left the office.
* * *
Curt moved a little closer to Stef as they walked down the first section of hall. There were recruits about, he could hear them. Keeping their cover, keeping up appearances, it was necessary, for so long as they needed to maintain their fiction. How long they would need to was another issue. It had been necessary, he knew it was necessary, but she’d backed them into a corner. It had been a rumour, an assumption, but now so far as the recruit population was concerned, it was fact.
A public breakup would end the fiction, but then they’d be expected to answer on how they could maintain a stable working relationship.
At least it wasn’t killing any dating chances – none of the recruits wanted him. Any outside prospects…those were bridges to sell when he got there. Until then, the fiction, and his usual infrequent trips to fairyland would have to do.
As they turned the corner towards the recruit dorms, the sources of the voices were revealed. Four of the field recruits – two coming back in off a patrol, two going out, loitered in the hall, regurgitating the rumours and half-truths that the recruits knew about the situation. The conversation died as they walked past.
He had liked having a room at the end of the hall. It kept him away from the others. Now, it made the walk longer and more uncomfortable than it needed to be.
At least there were no whispered comments this time.
His door popped open with a thought as they approached. He slammed it harder than he needed to once they were in the room.
‘They will get over it,’ he said, unsure of who he was trying convince. ‘There’s just not a lot of fodder for the rumour mill here.’
‘What about Mags and Taylor?’
‘It’s what I said when you told me, it was a forgone conclusion that they were already f- That they were already together. Mags may have gone through half the Agency, but with how close they were even before they were together, it was easy to make that leap.’
‘Mags and Taylor. Sam Beckett would not like that leap.’
He felt himself grin. ‘Quantum Leap, I know that one! It was on after Trek sometimes. Never watched much of it though.’
She gave him a nod of approval. ‘I’m going to break you, just you wait and see.’
She jumped onto his bed, shoes disappearing before she touched down. ‘Coming?’
‘Mind if I have a shower first?’
She pulled all of the pillows behind her. ‘Go ahead, I’ll be making birds.’ She pulled her knees up and rested an unattached keyboard on her thighs. She was tapping away at the keyboard before his jacket was off.
He hung the jacket behind the door, and reached into the pockets for his ID and wallet. Missing.
‘I left my bag in Ryan’s office, can you shift it down for me?’ It was in his hands as soon as the words were out of his mouth. ‘Thanks.’
He pulled out his wallet and ID, and placed them on his bedside table. The items from the gift shop were there, and required a second bedside table on her side of the bed to place them on. Her side of the bed. Accurate. Innocuous. Innocent. Somehow weird. Convenient. He hadn’t given her a choice of sides the previous night, pulling her in while half asleep, but now, she’d voluntarily picked the left side of the bed. Convenient, it meant not having to argue about who had which side of the bed – an argument he always yielded in, no matter how weird it was to sleep on the left side of the bed.
Her eyes moved beneath her lids like she was dreaming, fingers tapping away on keys that was probably more of an ingrained response than an actual need. He smiled down at her, lifted the magic wand and turned it on, before going into the small bathroom and closing the door. He stared at the door for a moment, then locked it. It would do no good if she shifted in, but it made him feel a little better.
Clothes fell into a messy heap on the floor. He stepped into the shower, requiring the water on with a thought – it was always best to require the water on, then it was at the perfect temperature to begin with, the taps still worked, and it was easy to adjust, but starting out with a requirement avoided the problem of dodging too-cold or too-hot water.
He stood under the warm water for a moment, feeling his muscles relax and some of the stress slip away from his shoulders.
He reached for the soap, lathered his hands and touched his head to the wall. He’d woken up, and accidentally “searched for droids”, which had resulted in nothing but a moment of embarrassment. Spending a whole night, curled up to a warm girl – even if it was Stef – that was going into more dangerous territory.
A half-asleep agent with little-to-no impulse control and an autopilot that could take a man’s head off was not something he wanted to encounter with morning wood. Getting poked in the back, however innocent, had the possibility of being construed as an attack, and agents dealt with things swiftly, and decisively.
He was sure the Parkers could make the necessary reattachments, but it wasn’t a skill he wanted to put to use.
He moved his hand slowly, teasing up his erection while trying to focus on sexy images, sexy memories. The feel of a breast. A look of raw lust. The tingling rush of looking at porn at work.
It was no true defence, but it was a better plan than simply hoping.
His mind refused to focus on any one girl, any one sensation, his mind turning into a slide show on fast forward. He urged himself on, trying to stay focused on the nymph girl from the Rose Room, but came, thinking about nothing in particular.
He rinsed his hands, letting the shower’s warm spray take care of the rest.
He pulled his shampoo off the small shelf and quickly washed his hair. He lathered his hands, washing his body in quick, efficient order. He turned away from the spray lathered his hands again, and covered his tattoo in a layer of soap, obscuring it a little.
Some semblance of pride had made him keep it in the beginning, the false belief that they hadn’t entirely broken him, that it was up to him when he got rid of it. Shame had overtaken imagined pride, and it was stronger, longer-lasting. It had been a mark of honour, something to boast about, something to show off, to show how good he had been at beating half-truths out of fae and making them beg for death.
‘What’s your name?’
Stef stared at him, already broken. She’d been broken before they’d started, now she was shattered and he’d barely begun. His hands hurt from hitting her, and he was sure ribs weren’t supposed to poke at the skin like that.
She opened her mouth to answer him, but he grabbed her face, both thumbs sticking up under her chin, keeping her mouth closed. He brought his face close to hers, expelling hot air over her face, trying to share a tiny bit of warmth, while keeping up the façade of intimidation. ‘It’s not going to be that easy, bitch,’ he snapped. He pulled his hands away, gritted his teeth, and slapped her across the face. She cried out in pain, a tiny, surprised, noise, and he felt his resolve threatening to break.
He prayed for forgiveness, and picked up a pair of pliers.
The soap slipped from his hands, and he knelt to retrieve it, staying under the spray of the hot water for a long moment.
He was a monster. He was a fucking war criminal. He didn’t deserve happiness, and he didn’t deserve her friendship. She’d made it clear she didn’t give a damn for his opinion on the subject.
She’d forgiven him. Absolved him. He didn’t deserve it, but he wanted it. Wanted to believe he was worth it, wanted to believe he deserved it.
Some men found god. Some men found gods. Some men found the bottle. Some found a gun, a knife, or a bottle of pills and a rather final decision.
He’d found a dirty little hacker who made him feel human.
He stood, placed the soap on the shelf and rinsed his body off.
He stepped out of the shower, dried off, required a pair of conservative boxers, and a t-shirt, wrapped the towel around his shoulders, and left the bathroom. ‘I’m going to be very disappointed-’ he began as he walked back into the main room, towelling off his hair.
She still had the vacant-playing-in-her-HUD expression, but lifted one hand off the keyboard and pointed the wall. A huge flat screen TV, with what surely had to be the first episode of Quantum Leap paused and waiting.
‘That’s my newbie,’ he said as he slipped into bed and under the blanket. She was still wearing her suit. ‘Do you even own pyjamas?’
She shook her head.
‘How can you not own pyjamas?’
‘I may in the technical sense own some,’ she said, ‘well, did, until I dumped the majority of my old wardrobe a couple of weeks ago, but it’s not like I ever wore them.’ Fingers continued to tap. ‘I just used to fall asleep in whatever I was wearing, couldn’t see the point in separating my waking clothes from my sleeping clothes especially when I- Oh, fuck you, bird-’ She grumbled for a moment about reconnecting a bird. ‘And now I have to flag that to Jonesy in case that’s a phoenix spotting instead of a coding error. Ten million birds, we’re going to be chasing typos more then legitimate leads.’ She blinked a few times, and the keyboard disappeared from her under her hands. ‘I’ll do more in the morning, he’s got another shift coming on now anyway. What was I saying?’
‘Come on, this is me, if I wore pyjamas, it’s one-to-one odds that I would have gone shopping in them at least once. It’s not worth the risk.’
‘Yeah, I can see you doing that,’ he said as he required his towel away. ‘But seriously, you sleep in your suit every night?’
‘Depends if I’ve been playing with the techs or not.’
‘And you’re comfortable?’
She gave him a serious look. ‘It’s weirding you out a bit, isn’t it?’
‘You’re an agent and you still walk into walls if you don’t look where you’re going, I’m just wondering how you manage not to choke yourself to death with your tie, or something stupid like that.’
‘Easy answer, my uniform isn’t evil.’ She pouted, and her suit rippled, replacing itself with a fuzzy blue onesie and a nightcap.
‘No, newbie, just…no.’
Her clothes rippled one more time, leaving her in a long-sleeved but loose blue shirt and flannel pyjama pants. ‘How’s this?’
‘Much better.’
She lifted the remote. ‘Shall we?’
He tugged on the blanket. ‘Come on, come under.’
She blurred in place as she shifted under the blanket.
‘Show off,’ he muttered.
She slid down on the pillows a little, making herself more comfortable.
He looked at her. ‘May I?’
‘What do you think I’m here for, stupid?’
He moved closer. If she intended to make him watch television, then her lap wasn’t going to work. He laid her head against her side, angling so he could see the flat screen, but comfortable enough to sleep, if he fell asleep before the episode – or episodes if he knew her – were over.
She put an arm over him, and for a moment it was perfect.
She relaxed a little, hit play and thoughts of phoenixes and the end of the world seeped back into his mind, ruining the serenity of the moment.
‘Thank you,’ he whispered.
She squeezed him tight for a moment, then relaxed her arm. ‘Any time. Now shh, and watch.’