Stef sucked in a breath and tried to convince her heart that no matter how quickly it beat, it was unlikely to achieve escape velocity.
Ryan’s office door stood like some impenetrable castle wall. It had been an epic job to delay it so late – acquiescing to being dragged to the gym, rewriting the report three times, and managing to sneak off to the tech’s comic library for a few hours.
It was late. It was too late to be doing this. She could try again tomorrow. It was better to try again tomorrow.
She stood a step back, but the door opened.
‘You could have knocked,’ he said, opening the door wider to allow entry.
‘I was busy thinking about stuff,’ she said. It wasn’t a lie. It wasn’t the whole truth, but it wasn’t a lie.
She held up the report. ‘One drop-off and one question.’
He took the report and sat behind his desk. A spare chair appeared for her, but she retreated to the couch. Distance made it safer. Distance made it easier to do.
He flipped through the report, then looked up to her. ‘You had a question?’
Courage fled, but it was too late not to ask.
She bit the inside of her cheek, waited three more seconds for a convenient apocalypse, then swallowed. ‘How– How, um–’ She squished herself against the arm of the couch and stared at the carpet.
‘How do I quit?’
Stef hunched in on herself. ‘How do I quit?’
Ryan moved from his desk to sit beside her. ‘Why do you want to quit?’
‘Is there a drop-down list I can choose from? Cause I always just say “other” and don’t write anything in the free text box.’
‘I’d prefer for this not to be a multiple choice answer,’ he said. ‘Did something happen? What–’
‘I’ll– Please– Just please?’
He put a hand on hers, and she shoved him away, then stood and backed away from the couch. ‘I’ll pay for whatever I required. And the cleaning bill for the uniform. And the room costs. J–just send me the bill; I assume you know where I live. I’ll pay it, then I’ll do my best never to get in the Agency’s way again, I promise.’
Or you could just go with your first plan and shoot me.
She remembered him. She remembered the darkness and the fear. She didn’t remember the pain. She didn’t remember the shot. It’d be easy. It’d be quick. It would stop her being a problem with very little effort.
You can shoot me. I don’t–
‘You don’t need to pay for any of that,’ he said quietly. ‘It’s all required. It costs nothing.’
‘Then – then I’ll just need to get my laptop and go.’
‘You haven’t told me why yet.’
Tears slipped down her cheeks. She reached into her pocket and threw the crumpled-up flyer at him. She backed away to the far wall and slid down to sit on the floor as he smoothed out the paper.
He stared at it for a moment, then looked at her. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘It’s my flyer,’ she said.
‘It’s–’ he started, an amused smile on his face.
Amusement. A strange precursor to anger.
‘A poorly designed piece of crap using clip art that should have been shot into the sun?’
‘I wasn’t going to be so harsh, but–’
‘I designed it to look like crap. I didn’t want it drawing too much attention.’
He looked away from her and back down at the flyer. ‘And you want to go back to this; that’s why you want to quit?’
She slid her hands up into her hair and pressed her nails to her scalp. ‘That wasn’t even– It’s– Do you have any idea what I do for a living?’ She let out a long, hot breath as her chest threatened to burst. ‘You – you – you – you just recruited me, and you didn’t ask me anything about myself!’
‘I didn’t need to know anything to know that I wanted to recruit you.’
Her heart pounded in her throat. ‘You’re – you’re the good guys. You’re in charge, so that makes you, like, the – the good guy. And – and I’m just. I’ve been having fun. And please let me remember it. But I’m not this. I’m not a good person. I’m–’
The world blurred, and she found herself back on the couch beside him.
‘I’m not a good person,’ she said, staring at her knees. ‘And you deserve better. There’s not that many people here, so you probably look for the best of the best, and I am so far from that it’s not funny.’
This earned a chuckle.
‘My agency is not precisely filled with “the best of the best”. This agency doesn’t win awards, it’s not highly ranked, and we have an absolute plethora of problems. I guarantee you, whatever problem you’re imagining is nothing to worry about.’
She grabbed the flyer from his hands. ‘This is what I did. Do. Will do again. Ostensibly it’s a low-level tech support and password recovery. Yanno, sometimes people find the password protect option and decide to protect their thesis, then can’t remember the password? I did some of that. I make a lot more money recovering passwords of accounts that don’t belong to the people who hired me. People who went through bad breakups who want to slander their ex’s name across social media, or check their partner’s email cause they think they’re cheating.’
Heart go burst now?
She gasped for air. ‘I’m a criminal. I can’t work here, because I’m a criminal. And–’
–now I’ve disappointed you.
She closed her eyes.
There was a hand on her back. She braced in case he hit her, biting the insides of her cheeks to–
The hand began to rub small circles, each rotation making it easier for tears to escape.
‘All you’ve done is ensure that I’m going to have to let the techs borrow your services from time to time. Hacking into civilian accounts is a day-to-day reality for us. It’s part of the information control we have to do. The fact that you’re already accomplished with it–’
‘But that’s not–’
‘In this agency alone, we have people who have avoided jail time by becoming recruits. At least three embezzlers in the tech department, as well as someone who made and lost a small empire on providing fake identification. None of that matters, because now they’re recruits.’ He took his hand away from her back, gently wrapped it around the side of her head.
For a moment, she hoped he’d squeeze, crack through her skull and expose her stupid brains to the recycled air of the agency.
He drew her close and kissed the top of her head. ‘None of that matters, because you’re a recruit now.’
She threw her arms around him and clung to him. ‘You – you can’t just forgive me. You can’t just say it doesn’t matter.’
‘I can and I just did.’
‘I did it because people are petty, and if they want to hurt someone, they’ll figure out a way out to hurt someone, so I may as well profit from it.’
He resumed rubbing small circles on her back.
‘I – I – I tried doing things normally – I swear to god I did. Normal stuff. Legal stuff. I tried freelancing, but I never lasted more than a couple of days, and that was the couple of times I got someone to give me a chance with no freaking references or track record. And then I would get distracted, or not report in, or say that their code sucked.’ She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. ‘That was something that I should have been good at, and I couldn’t handle it. This – this is way out of my league, so I’m going to suck worse at it.’
He was quiet for a long moment.
He agreed. He was in total agreement. He was going to acknowledge that she sucked. He was just trying to find a tactful way of saying that she sucked more than anyone had ever sucked in the entire history of sucking.
She closed her eyes, feeling his chest raise and fall against her cheek.
She was still hugging him. Still clinging to him like a kid trying to chase away a nightmare. He hated her. He had to hate her. She was so stupid. She probably had cooties.
He was still letting her hug him.
She slowly detached herself and retreated as far on the couch as she could, smushing herself back against the plush leather arm.
He was still quiet.
I’ll just leave. I’ll just leave. Just tell me go. Just tell me to go.
She dug her nails into her palms.
Please don’t make me go. Please don’t make me go.
Her father’s study had always been a place to sneak past. A place to avoid. A sanctuary of law books that was, in no uncertain terms, a childfree zone. A Stef-free zone. Most of the time, it hadn’t been worth it to try and sneak past – the long way around, using the other staircase, was better than chancing whatever random rebuke he had wanted to hand out.
Ryan’s office wasn’t a place to be avoided. It wasn’t a place where–
She dug her nails deeper into her hands, feeling the sharp bite as rough corners of her nails threatened to break skin.
Please don’t make me go.
She wrapped her arms around herself.
I’ll try – I swear, I’ll try.
‘This agency,’ he said at last, ‘isn’t home to the best of the best. It isn’t home to perfect agents and recruits.’ He turned to face her. ‘But it’s home.’
He hesitated for a moment.
Say it, please.
She let out a small sound – half exhale, half plea, half desperate prayer for it to have all been a dream. A nice dream, but a dream all the same that meant she wasn’t trying to–
‘It can be your home, too.’
Home. “Home” was a word that didn’t mean anything. It meant something in isolation, but it never really, really meant anything. Ruby slippers could wish you home, but it meant leaving Oz. There’s no place like home.
There’s no place like home. An absolute statement. A true statement. A statement that could be made about any place. There’s no place like anywhere. Similar, but every place had differences. Even chain stores that aimed to be clones were different.
There’s no place like home. There was the inherent implication that home was better, that home was…good. That it was somewhere you belonged. Somewhere worth returning to.
Home was a place in stories. A place with a parent or two and a dog. A place of–
She felt one more tiny wave of resistance. One spark of defiance left, one more paranoid peek for the other shoe.
She pressed her knuckles into her eyes for a moment, shook her head, then stared at the agent. ‘Wh – why do you give a fuck about me?’
‘Why do you give a fuck? Is it because I’m some pity case? If that’s it, I’ll take it, but I’d like to know.’
‘I don’t need a reason to care, Recruit.’
‘And suddenly I lose my name again. If it’s guilt, if you feel beholden, then forget it. I forgive you or whatever. I–’
‘I feel guilty; of course I do. But, more than that, I feel gratitude.’
‘What the hell for?’
‘This– This probably isn’t going to make a lot of sense. But I’m grateful for being remembered. The very point of the Agency is that we do our jobs and fade away without a great impact on civilians. We aren’t meant to be remembered; we aren’t meant to stick out; we aren’t meant to be remarkable.’
‘But– But it was kinda important.’
‘And do you think I haven’t rescued other children? I have saved dozens. More. I’ve taken bullets for some, grabbed some right on the edges of Solstice territory before they were lost forever.’
She gave a nod.
‘I failed you, so I feel guilty. I was not– I had just lost someone; I wasn’t as efficient as I should have been. I should have caught that man before he ever stepped foot onto your property, let alone had enough time to take a hostage.’
‘I forgive you and stuff; I’m here. I’m okay, right?’
‘I never thought there was the remotest possibility that you would remember anything about that day. Again, poor judgement on my part. I should have wiped your memory, instead of leaving you with such a–’
He smiled at the forcefulness of her reaction.
‘I – I–’ She stared down at the couch. ‘It’s a good memory. It’s barely anything at all, but the good bits are stronger than the bad bits. Someone being nice; someone– Safe. It’s a memory of being safe.’
She winced as one of her nails finally broke skin.
‘I used to be scared of the dark, but I wasn’t allowed a night light because it was a stupid frivolity. I’d – I’d remember you and go under the covers with Alexandria and not be so scared anymore.’
Another nail broke skin.
‘Can – can I tell you something unfathomably stupid? Like, so fucking stupid that you’re gonna need to go verify that some piece of paper says I’m a genius, cause it’s–’
‘What is it?’
Her heart seized up. Her lungs turned to stone, and breathing became impossible.
It had been stupid to say anything. Stupid to speak. She should have run; she should have–
She sucked in a wheezing breath. ‘I thought you were an angel. Like– Like I’d– I had an imaginary friend when I was a kid, so what’s one memory of a different one?’ She exhaled, trying to loose her soul from her body to get away from the conversation. ‘You were kind to me. How could I not think you were an angel?’
‘You were right.’
Tears dried with a wave of scepticism, and her hands flopped onto her knees. ‘What?’
He lifted her bleeding hand and placed a small blue strip over the wound. ‘Agents haven’t always been agents,’ he said. ‘Our designation has always changed, depending on the time and place. At one point during our history, we appeared as angels, and it’s the form we’re best remembered for. You’ll often hear fae refer to us as–’
‘Get back to the part where I was right?!’
He simply smiled.
She lifted herself up a little to see if he’s sprouted wings in the last few minutes. ‘Wh – why were you angels?’
‘For the same reason we are agents now. It was the form that would attract the least questions. An angel slaying a demon, during a time where such absolute and literal belief was common, made sense. Just as now, few question a man in a suit.’
‘Do – do you still have?’ She held out her arms and flapped.
He shook his head. ‘There are certain ways that we can manifest wings, but they are all complicated and…painful. The first time I grew mine…’ He looked away. ‘I was bleeding to death at the time, and those injuries were less painful than giving me the means to escape back to system territory.’
‘S – sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.’
‘They’re only memories. They can’t hurt me.’
‘I – I feel a bit less stupid, I think.’
Ryan smiled. ‘Good.’ He stood, and offered a hand down to her.
‘I’ve moved a few things in my schedule so that I have some free time. Do you want to see some more magic?’
Like you even have to ask!
She grabbed for his hand, but he pulled it back. He bent to her level as she swung her legs off the couch. ‘That is, assuming that you don’t want to quit,’ he said with a smile.
‘I – I want to stay.’
‘I thought so.’ He offered his hand, and the world blurred as she grabbed it.
[table id=15 /]
Stef sucked in a breath and tried to convince her heart that no matter how quickly it beat, it was unlikely to achieve escape velocity.