‘Stef?’
Consciousness sparked through my brain.
‘Stef?’
Well, sort-of consciousness. A half-awake, marshmallow-y existence. Gods, I could really go for a marshmallow right now. Anything really, just to get that god-awful taste out of my mouth. Medicine, it’s good for you; medicine, it’s good for what ails you, these things are accepted as truth, or at least the television version of truth, but if they’re oh-so-true, then why the fuck does it taste so awful. Things that are awful, are awful, full stop. I don’t give a shit what’s wrong with me, it’s not as bad as the medicine that goes along with it.
‘Miss Mimosa.’
I opened my eyes. It’s what was expected of me. Here I am, my parents are dead, and I’m still being everyone’s pretty-pretty princess, living up to their expectations, playing the part I’ve got no interest in. It’s too bright. I closed my eyes again, but it was too late, I’d opened them once, so the expectation had been placed there, I’d be expected to open them again. And again. Do the dance, play the part. Be the good girl.
Oh, how I hate being the good girl.
‘I think you fell asleep,’ the familiar voice said.
Him. Hm. Well, not as bad as what I fell asleep to. That was pretty bad. I think. There was pain, but that’s not surprising.
His sentence had died, but he hadn’t deigned to fill the silence with any more words. Selfish prick. He wanted me to say something. I can’t say anything. What kind of conversation is “OM NOM NOM BRAIN MARSHMALLOW”. Talk of nomming on one’s own brain is not the kind of pretty-pretty princess talk this man expects, even if he knows me better, even if he knows the kind of things I say. Even if he’s probably said them himself. He’s one of the quiet ones, you can’t trust the quiet ones. Ok, sometimes you can, but even then, they can pull the rug right out from under you, and that sucks.
I could be that, if I wanted, I could be the quiet one that everyone thinks its safe to trust. I could do that, but I don’t want to. Also ponies.
I gave him a grunt. It’s communication at least. Our far-flung ancestors did quite well with grunts until the learned to enunciate themselves and created contract law. Worst. Invention. Ever. Braving the evil light again, I stared at him. ‘Sorry,’ I mumbled, unsure of what exactly I was apologising for, but it seemed to be what he expected. Dude, I don’t even remember going to sleep, so I’m not going to apologise for it. Ok. Sorry. While I’m at it, sorry for my birth, World War Two, Communism not working IRL like it does in theory, and-
‘Likely my fault,’ he said, flicking a strand of long blond hair behind his ear. ‘How are you feeling?’
Ok, so now it’s your fault. Fine, apology redacted.
Jesus, my brain is really fuzzy. Worse-than-normal fuzzy. This is bad. I can’t-
‘How are your, ah, hands feeling?’ he asked, turning off the monitor, showing me that I had his full attention. Great. Just wonderful. Like I want to be the centre of attention.
Oh right. ‘That.’ I looked down, nearly spinning out as I adjusted to the new perspective. Ooh, bandages. Fresh bandages. That’s new. Honesty’s good when you can get it. ‘Can’t feel a thing.’
‘Did you want to talk about it?’
I kept staring at the bandages. ‘I’m not sure what I could say that hasn’t been said before.’
‘I won’t force you to talk, not today, I unfortunately have a few other pressing matters to attend to.’
‘Fine by me.’
‘Did you want to go back to your room, or do you feel like being a little social today?’
This finally made him more interesting than the bandages. ‘I have a choice in the matter?’
‘This time.’
‘I’ll go back to my room.’
I stood and moved toward the door, but was stopped by small cough. Not the kind to indicate there was an obtrusive piece of cake stuck in an esophagus, but rather to indicate that there was some small business as yet unfinished.
‘Don’t you have something to say?’ It really was more of a statement. A self-righteous statement, because he already knew the answer. He just wanted to hear me comply, to meet his expectations.
Several sharp thoughts permeated the fuzz.
Meet his expectations?
Fuck. That.
‘I know what you want me to say, but I’m not going to, instead, I’ll just say this: good day, and you’re lucky you get that, I have no wish to actually impart good karma in your direction, nor do I care about the kind of day you have, but it’s a societally-accepted parting greeting, so it’s what you get.’
His expression remained the same, unimpressed by a piece of self-scripting he’d heard before. Or that he’d probably heard before, after a while, they all started to blend. One suit was the same as another suit. Men in suits, men in ties, men telling her what to do. If I’d cared enough, there was a feminist argument to be made, but it would have been too much effort, so I accept it for what it was: my life.
‘It is probably best you go back to your room,’ he said, turning back to his computer, and turning the monitor back on.
I opened the door to the office, just a little pleased that I’d been able to open it myself. A little bit of of autonomy. A little bit of control. A little bit…just the right amount. There was someone waiting to escort me back to my room – unsurprising. Another element of her life controlled. Walk the right path, go the right way, be the good little cog. Operate the machine. Operate the machine. Be like everyone else. Comply. Comply.
A badly dressed and badly bleeding Solstice ran past me, panting and screaming anti-fae obscenities. He stopped to fire a gun back at his pursuers, not deeming me a threat, not paying me any mind. Cogs can’t be dangerous to other machinations. I continued along, staring at this madman – for that’s what he was, surely, firing a gun in these halls. He had a death wish. And it was just the kind of wish that got granted.
I limped along at a cog’s pace, not getting too far ahead of my escort, not wanting to frighten him by acting outside of expected parameters. I caught up with the Solstice, who had taken another couple of bullets, but was still fighting still screaming, actively denying his fate.
Swinging my leg out, I easily knocked him on his ass. He went down like…like a wet sack of meat actually, sliding in the pool of blood that his wounds had accumulated, and finally giving up. He didn’t even bother to take a potshot at me. He could have easily done it, easily added one more to his kill count before he died.
Or just maybe cogs didn’t count.
I continued on, watching recruits swarm the useless soon-to-be corpse. One jerked a thumb’s up in my direction, and I managed a smile. Just a little one. It felt nice. Nicer than the fuzz in my head. Nicer than the taste of medicine in my mouth. It stayed for just a moment, before I let my cog face come back. No use in smiling, it wasn’t what they expected of me. Smiling might lead to questions. Smiling might lead to more fuzz. Or the worse-than-fuzz, the cloud. The one that weighs down on my brain and I can barely walk straight enough to get to the toilet and take a piss. It’s like being buried alive in your own head.
They only did that to me once. After that, I got better at learning what to say, and what not to say. Lying to change your dosage works incredibly well when you have a genius-level intellect. And I do, not that it does me any good.
It doesn’t matter anyway. Most of the time I don’t even have to worry about this shit, I can just focus on my real life, there are a lot of advantages to only being a part-timer.
My escort locked me in my room. I stood and watched the door, listening to every little click and every little tumbler fall into place. It’s for my safety as much as it is theirs, and I cannot begrudge them for that.
I’m disappointed though: they didn’t grant my one request. It isn’t even like it’s such a big thing: a lid for my toilet. Ok, I mean, yeah, I could try and enact another escape attempt with a plastic lid, but Jesus, how else am I supposed to protect myself from the kind of crap that can crawl out of there? Sometimes it’s a severed head. Sometimes it’s worse. If I just had a lid, I wouldn’t have to worry, I’d have a barrier between-
…I-
-between them and me.
Request not granted, I went for the usual option: throwing my pillowcase-less pillow over the top of the bowl. It was better than nothing. If nothing else, the soft paft that the pillow would make upon hitting the ground would alert me that something had broached my room.
Bed. Sleep was good. It’s all I can do while I’m here. There’s nothing else here worth doing. I hate it here. I just want to go back to where I belong. Where I’m…where it’s ok if I don’t always meet everyone’s expectations.
I lay on my back, sheet pulled up to my neck, like I’d tucked myself in.
I want to stop being here. I want to stop being here. I’ll be allowed to go soon, I know, but it’s just so sucky here. Maybe if it at least smelt right, like the good, clean Agency air, instead of this. If it at least smelt like the Agency I could pretend I was on one of those other floors, the ones I don’t know what are on yet. Hell, maybe they do have a place like this, I mean…
‘Hey you.’
This time, I didn’t mind that I smiled. I didn’t care that I wasn’t a cog. He was here, I didn’t have to be a cog, I could just be me. I hate it here, but at least when he’s here, it’s a little ok.
He smiled at me.
Ok, maybe a little more than ok.
I pulled the sheet over my head, and sat up, and he did the same. A two-person tent. A tiny place for childish conspiracy, but at least it was just him and me, as it should be. He put a hand to my face and my world felt centred, the fuzz was ok now, just so long as he was here to focus me.
‘You look tired,’ he said, picking up strands of hair and pulling them away from my face, blowing them to tidy my hair.
‘You always say that,’ I admonished lightly. It was lovely, but it was also a reminder of the place I didn’t want to me. I always looked tired. I always looked pale. I always looked out of it. It wasn’t like they were going to let me have a getting-ready-for-the-ball montage before I went to bed every night.
It’s not like they knew he snuck in anyway.
He grinned, and it was like there was a tiny sun in the room. As much as I can hate happy people, it’s ok when he does it, when he’s happy, it’s ok to be happy. ‘It’s always true.’
‘Well, take me away from here, and I might be able to look good for once.’
‘Covered in mud and leaves is more like it,’ he said, poking his tongue out.
It didn’t sound like a bad proposal, so I shrugged. ‘We can always take a swim in the lagoon afterward, it’d be fine.’
‘What a wonderful idea! Let’s go now.’ His smile fell, and his body seemed to deflate. ‘Right, sorry. Has anyone said-?’
I scratched at my bandages. ‘No, no release date yet. I’ll be good again, fool them again, and it shouldn’t be too long. Relatively speaking.’ Sheets. Sheets are very interesting. I stared at the folds at my eye level, at the one beneath my folded legs, at anything except him.
He tapped out a ditty on my knee, and I held back tears to look back up at him. ‘I’m still waiting for you, you know.’
Bam. Dynamite. The dam broke. The tears fell. Stupid tears.
‘I’m still waiting.’
‘You aren’t going to wait forever.’ Fuck. I hate that lump that gets in your throat. It’s just so…wretched. ‘You can-’
‘You’re going to be mother to my boys,’ he said, ‘so I will wait forever. That, and you’re kind of wonderful.’
‘And if they don’t let me out this time?’
His infectious grin returned. ‘You’ll find a way to escape, I just know it. We will be together. Stop worrying, girls are too wonderful to spend their time worrying. And one girl’s too tired to worry, so you’d better get some sleep.’
‘I’ll still be tired tomorrow.’
His face screwed up, an impish, teasing expression. ‘Then maybe I won’t come tomorrow.’
‘Oh you,’ I retorted, lightly shoving him.
‘I’ve got a present for you.’
I held out my hand. ‘Then you must give it to me.’
He took my hand, and gave me a thimble. ‘Sleep well.’
‘Take me with you.’
‘Not tonight, they’ll notice.’
‘But-’
‘Sleep.’ He slipped out from under the sheet, and had disappeared by the time I could throw it off my own head. He’s like a ninja when he wants to be.
I wrapped an arm under my head – it was a crap make-shift pillow, but it was all I was going to get. I closed my eyes, the fuzz was lifting from my brain, so even if I couldn’t be where I wanted to be – with Peter – I could be somewhere a lot better than here.
I thought of the Agency, and suddenly, the air didn’t smell as bad.