Stef opened her eyes. The air smelt fine again. The temperature was right again. And…her pillow her returned. She rolled over and stared at it – unsure if she had retrieved it without realising it, if it had fought the good-
She froze, thoughts of where she had just been in her head, thoughts of…bad thoughts in her head, thoughts of insane thoughts, thoughts of-
A hand touched the back of her head, and for one short moment, she thought it was Peter, come back to rescue her, come back so that she didn’t have to-
The hand was too big though, and too warm, and too agenty. She was fairly certain she recognised the hand’s owner, but wasn’t sure, and didn’t want to roll over and find out, just in case she was wrong. Being wrong, judging reality the wrong way…wasn’t something she wanted. ‘I wanted to be here when you woke up,’ Ryan said, ‘so I could-’
Slowly, she was rolled over, away from her pillow, away from the tiny world made of linen, to the much larger one made from a small room and a small fridge.
‘It was a glitch,’ he said.
She kept quiet, afraid to ask what part, afraid that he would say the sheep, or her hand- Hand. She looked down, and saw a simple bandage wrapped around her hand and forearm, one that indeed looked like it was covering up an explodified hand, rather than a matching set of still-healing wounds from an attempt to escape life.
‘What happened, what you saw, it was a glitch.’
‘What was a glitch?’
‘Your…’ he trailed off, ‘incarceration,’ he said after a long moment. ‘It wasn’t real.’
She lifted her head, then let it fall heavily onto his knee. ‘How do you even know what I saw?’
‘The glitches. The ones we induce. We can watch them. I saw what you saw.’
She pulled the blanket up to her chin. ‘It’s where I really am,’ she admitted. ‘I’m finally lucid enough to realise it. Sorry.’
‘Stef.’
‘You don’t have to pretend for me anymore.’
‘If your theory was correct, you’d be telling yourself that.’
‘I’ve told myself off before.’
‘Stef-’
‘You’ve read my bio, right, that’s how you did your narcy “Miss Mimosa” thing the first time, I assume you’ve had more time to read it since then.’
‘Of course.’
‘What exactly does it say about my mental state?’
‘Not a lot.’
‘Does it say I almost went into psychiatric care? A couple of times, no less?’
‘The recommendations are listed in your medical file, yes.’
‘…I don’t think I avoided it. I really don’t think I avoided it. In this reality, sure, but this reality’s in my head, it’s all in my head.’
He touched her head, and began to stroke her hair. ‘Then I thank you for making such a complete world, could you perhaps do something about the Solstice, though?’
‘Goddammit!’ she cried, though she couldn’t hold back a giggle. ‘I’m being serious.’
His hand moved from her head, to rubbing small circles on her back. ‘As am I,’ he said. ‘If the fact was that you were in that place, isn’t it better that you’re here?’
‘But it’s just…me, seeing things, thinking it’s all real.’
His hand stopped moving. ‘Define real, Stef. If you’re happier here, then be here while you’re here, and when you’re there, make every attempt to get back here. If…the world of your glitch is true, is there anything there worth being there for?’
She thought of Peter, then shook her head, and how his escape to Neverland had made him nigh-unreachable, and the one way of following him was- ‘No, nothing now.’
‘Then be here.’
She pushed herself away from him, and sat, back ramrod straight against the wall, steadying her enough to look him in the eyes. ‘Aren’t you a responsible adult? Shouldn’t you be all…Jesusfuck, Ryan, you know I talk to myself, you’ve seen me break down and go nuts, you know I’m…you damn well know I’m crazy.’ She brought her knees up to her chest, staying hidden under as muc of the sheet as possible. ‘Why aren’t you all “Miss Mimosa you need drugs” or “Miss Mimosa you need to be in a padded room” or “Miss Mimosa, why did I give you a gun?”. I mean, you’re programmed to keep law and order, shouldn’t I be the kind of person you keep away from the rest of society? I mean, I did the best I could, but I’m not locked in my flat anymore.’
‘I’m not real,’ he said, ‘according to the Solstice. I am not a man, I am not a person, I have no right to exist. This Agency is an artificial construction to further the goals of those who aren’t real…according to some definitions. There is an entire faerie court dedicated to caring for those whose world views are…counter to the accepted reality, but that’s the only way they can be, they are happy that way, so why change them? I could, as you suggest, get you a doctor, drug you until you…are no longer yourself, but what would it achieve?’
‘…I’d be normal.’
‘No, you’d be a zombie.’
More tears fell. ‘But I’m insane, that shouldn’t be ok.’
‘I’m telling you it is.’
‘…and if I’m really there?’
‘I have no control over that world, just this one, and in this one, I’m going to do everything I can for you.’
‘…Ryan?’
‘Yes?’
‘…are you real?’
‘Yes Stef.’
She reached for him, and in one shifted second, she was bundled up on his lap, safe. ‘Then I’ll be here,’ she whispered, ‘I’ll be here.’
‘Good.’
The all-too-real glitch began to slip away, everything except one face, one old wound, one broken heart. ‘…you saw everything?’
‘Yes. And I promise if…if we have to get you a room, it’ll be a lot nicer than that one.’
‘…you saw Peter?’
‘Yes.’
She bit her lip for a moment. ‘I try so hard not to think about him. I…but this is what glitches do, right? Fuck you over?’
‘Do you want to talk about him?’
‘…he was the only person I ever could have imagined having a life with. I loved him. I…god, I still love him, and I lost him.’
‘You never really stop loving someone. My ex-wife, so much as things soured between us, and the rift she caused with Alexander, I still have some affection for her.’
She searched her mind for the name. ‘What about…Carol?’
He smiled sadly, a widower’s smile. ‘I still love her, and I cannot foresee that changing anytime soon, I cannot imagine myself with anyone else, but…that will change. I will meet someone, and I’ll love them too, it won’t replace my love for Carol, nor diminish my memory of her in anyway, it will be someone new, something different, and that’s how life works.’
‘Love is for other people,’ she said, ‘I’ve got my hands full looking after myself.’
‘So I don’t have to worry about scaring off any potential suitors for some time to come?’
‘…huh?’
He smiled. ‘Well, isn’t that my job?’
She grinned. ‘Yeah, you can use a shotgun.’