Ryan swung his chair away from the his windows, the view of the city no longer enough to keep his thoughts from wondering back to the one conclusion. The one thing he wanted to do, but the one thing he couldn’t. It had been an easier decision to go see Carol after not seeing her for twenty years, it had been easier to be in her presence, and to leave again, than to do this. At least with Carol, he knew he had the right, and knew, that if she were sane, that she would want him there.
Here, with this, he was nothing but an unwanted, uninvited intruder.
He required a phone, and dialed a well-remembered number.
Ring.
Psychosomatic functions made his heart race.
Ring.
There was a knock at the door, and a thought opened it. Jones walked through, saw the receiver pressed to his ear, and took a place on the couch.
Ring.
There was the crunch of a connection being made, and he fought the urge to slam the phone down, or to alter his voice and pretend to-
‘You’ve reached our house, we’re not home at the moment-’
‘Daddy, do it right!’
‘If you want to leave a message for Alex, Mika or-’
‘Me!’
‘Do your thing when it beeps.’
Beep.
He put the phone down without leaving a message. He didn’t bother to compose himself, to appear to be unaffected, he simply required a cool glass of water, and looked across at Jones.
‘Ryan,’ Jones said, ‘you need to go see her.’
‘I was going to go down in a little while, there are-’
‘Whatever you have to do, it can wait,’ the tech said. ‘Or if it can’t, give it to me to do. Nothing will fall apart if some papers go another hour or two unsigned. The city won’t fall apart, the Agency won’t fall apart…Stef might.’
Thoughts of one child were immediately superseded by thoughts of another. ‘She-’
‘Parker did as he was instructed. She didn’t take it all that well. She’s in her room, but I didn’t want to do anything without you seeing her first.’
He turned his head to his monitor, and called up the security feed from Stef’s room. She was curled up in the corner of her bed, hands to her mouth, a messy lump of sheets, scrubs, and short hair.
He stared at the stains on the sheets. ‘All right,’ he said as he stood, ‘paperwork can wait an hour.’
With a thought, he shifted to the small, white cell. Well, mostly white…the formerly clean sheets weren’t so pristine anymore, the bloodstains on them rather ruining them. He took a step toward the bed, and Stef reacted, pulling herself further under the sheet, pushing herself further into the corner, as if she were trying to force her tiny body to fit into a triangle, or worse – flat so that she could merge with the wall itself.
He moved onto the bed, and tried to pull her away, tried to extract her from the sheet, anything so that he could get a better look at her. She stayed obstinately tangled in the stained sheet, whimpering as he tried to move her.
‘Stef, it’s me.’
She only whimpered louder at this, and more blood stained the sheets.
‘Stef…’
He required away the sheet, then slowly pulled her away from the wall, not giving into her protestations, using only a little strength to overpower her weak form. Sheet gone and no longer able to hide her, he saw where the blood was coming from.
She was chewing on her hand.
Tiny, ragged chunks of flesh stuck to the corners of her mouth, and red had run down the front of her scrubs, like a child that had spilled an entire bottle of tomato sauce on themselves. She looked vaguely in his direction, then resumed her attempt to chew her hand off.
Sections of bone had been exposed just above her wrist, and the self-repair subroutines were working fine, slowly replacing the sections that she had chewed on, fighting her to keep her hand in one piece.
‘Stef, stop it.’
She raised her head, spat a chunk of flesh onto the bed, then resumed chewing.
He grabbed her hand and pulled it away from her mouth, holding it out of danger. She whimpered, the noise ascending into near a scream as she tried to get her new favourite chew toy back. Defeated, she slumped, then raised her other hand. He jerked it away as well, keeping her from beginning the injuries anew.
‘No.’
She made another whimper-scream, then doubled over. Slowly, she edged her face toward her hands, but instead of going for them, bit into his thumb.
He killed an automatic reaction to strike her, to push her away, and to stop the attack, instead lifting her hand and making it easier for her to chew on it. She chewed on it with renewed passion, but didn’t break the skin, seemingly not intent on causing the same sort of injuries to him that she had been happy to inflict on herself.
She bit down hard on his wrist, then simply began to suck on it, like a baby with a pacifier. Or a dog with a particularly flavoursome treat. He grit his teeth, ignored the pain, and kept an eye on her ravaged wrist, watching as all of the flesh and skin replaced themselves without incident.
Slowly, she pushed his wrist out of her mouth, and pulled her hands back. Trusting her for the moment, he released her hands, and watched her pull on his wrist, so that his arm was crossing her body. Pulling on his arm like a life rope, she crawled into his lap, and buried her arms inside his jacket.
She planted her head against his chest, and released a deep breath.
‘You need to drug her.’
The voice that spoke wasn’t her normal voice, wasn’t one simply laced with terror, it was different, lower and…familiar. The voice he’d heard in her apartment. When she-
‘Stef?’
‘You need to drug her.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘She is screaming in here, I can’t get through to her, I can’t calm her down. If you don’t drug her, I’m going to lose hold of her, and you’re going to lose her for good.’
‘But you-’
‘In the grand scheme of things, I don’t matter, help her, Ryan, help her.’
He stared at her for a moment. ‘Who…’ he trailed off unsure of how to phrase the question.
He felt her ball her hands into fists. ‘I’m what she had,’ she answered, ‘before she had you. I’m the one who keeps her safe, stops her from getting hit by cars, and tells her to run when scary men are pointing guns at her head.’
‘You’re…you’re the part of her that stopped her from killing herself.’
‘Yes, I am. The question is though, how do you know about that? No-one, no-one knows about that.’
‘It’s a conversation for later. If I let her, you, sleep, will it help?’
‘There’s nothing but nightmares for her at the moment, all the pain, all the stress…She isn’t this strong, she really isn’t.’
‘But you-’
‘I’m just a godsdamn voice in her head, there really is only so much I can do. Drug her, or lose her for good, those are the only choices.’
‘It’s almost over.’
‘That isn’t going to matter if she doesn’t make it. It is taking everything I have to hold her together. Please, just make my job easier.’
He lifted her from his lap, and placed her on the bed in front of him. He required a strong sedative. ‘It’s all I can do.’
‘I hope it’s enough. If not…I tried.’
He injected the liquid into her arm, and she was unconscious immediately. He caught her as she fell, placed a pillow beneath her head and placed fresh sheets over her sleeping form.
The door opened, and a worried Jones looked in. ‘Is she asleep?’
‘For the moment. Anything stronger and it would mean inducing a coma. She’ll wake for when you need her in the morning.’
Jones pushed the door open wider. ‘Come on, if she’s asleep, let her sleep. For you, I have a treat.’
He stared at the tech in confusion, but followed, keeping the security feed from the room, and a running track of her vitals feeding into his HUD.
‘Do you remember Patricia King?’
‘Recruit Patty King? Of course.’
‘You with a child again, Grigori back in town, it’s like the good old days all over again. It’s made me more than a little nostalgic. Now, remember the gnome you had cater your wedding – Miaquickno? Magic Mike? How Patty hit it off with him? I emailed them, see how they were going, they’re still together, raising a dozen or so beautiful horses. Including one sired by a Serai warhorse.’
‘I don’t-’
‘Magic Mike opened a shop,’ Jones said as he opened the door to his lab. ‘So I ordered us some pastries.’
“Some” turned out to be a dozen boxes or so scattered across Jones’ large tables. Merlin stood on a table in amongst them, wielding a long, plastic knife, and guiding the mingling recruits.
‘Share!’ the boy shouted. ‘There’s enough for everyone.’
Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned to see Patty King – much older than the recruit he remembered. She smiled and embraced him. ‘It’s lovely to see you. You still look as good as ever.’
He smiled, taking in her grey hair, her wrinkles, and her much more relaxed appearance than the proper, always-in-uniform recruit he’d had in his ranks five decades before. Somehow though, she still had all of her energy.
‘I like what you’ve done with the place,’ she said as she poured him a coffee from the beverage cart that always seemed to appear whenever there was large amounts of food on the tech floor. ‘Do you have many as young as him though?’ she asked, pointing a sugar-encrusted spoon in Merlin’s direction.
‘He’s a ward,’ he replied, accepting the coffee with a smile. ‘This is his home.’
‘How are you really?’ she asked, pulling him gently by the elbow to the side of the room. ‘You don’t look like yourself.’
‘I’m fine.’
She slapped his knee. ‘Don’t lie to an old woman, Ryan. I used to watch you, pay such close attention, you knew how to turn a girl’s head. I fancied you, still would a little, I should think, if I didn’t love my husband so much. So, please, don’t lie.’
‘This is…an extraordinarily hard week. Not just for me. And it isn’t over yet, and the worst is yet to come. I have to do something I truly wish I could avoid, but I cannot. And I have spent the last few days watching someone I care about being…’ He took a moment and sipped on the all-too-sweet coffee. ‘Being treated poorly.’
‘Agency policy is what it is,’ she said, tucking a few strands of hair into her bun. ‘Who is it?’
His recruit. His…hard to understand, easy-to-distract-with-cookies strange little girl. His- ‘My,’ he dropped his voice lower, ‘my daughter.’
‘I never knew you had a second child. Then again, it’s been a long time since we spoke.’
‘You never-?’
She smiled. ‘Other people’s kids are fine, never had the desire to have one myself, got the horses though, and my gods, they make me happy. Except for this week, are you happy, Ryan?’
He looked across the room, at Merlin dancing like a chicken on the table, at Jones handing out cans of soft drink to his recruits, and to the sleeping girl in his HUD. ‘I think I might be getting there.’
She leaned across and kissed his cheek. ‘Good, you deserve it.’
‘Would you excuse me?’
‘I’ve got to head back in a minute, but you come see me sometime, and bring your little girl. What’s her name?’
‘Stef.’
‘Stephanie, lovely.’
He smiled. ‘No, not Stephanie, she hates that. Just Stef.’
‘Well bring Just Stef, and we’ll close down the shop for the afternoon.’
‘I will take you up on the invitation, it won’t be for at least a week though.’
‘Fine by me, now go save the world, or whatever it is that you have to do.’
He stood, and walked toward the door of the lab, only to be slapped on the shoulder. ‘I bring all these cakes,’ Patty said as she shoved a plate at him, ‘you have to take a few.’
He smiled. ‘Yes ma’am,’ he said as he balanced the plate so that the cream-and-caramel-filled concoctions didn’t slide off. With a nod, he held the plate to his chest, and shifted away.
The street was dark, but the house he was facing was filled with lights. Both levels blazed with a comforting incandescent glow. A quick shift had him up on the back wall, hidden mostly out of sight by a tree-branch. He moved along the brick wall, trying to get a better view of the house.
The tree extended a branch to block his way. ‘I’m trying to sleep,’ said the tiny face within the bark. ‘Are you expecting trouble, angel?’
‘No, no trouble,’ he answered quietly, ‘return to your slumber.’
‘Smell ya later,’ the nymph in the tree mumbled, a snore shaking the leaves, before it became silent again.
He crouched, lowered the plate to the wall, and stared at the house, letting his vision zoom in on the kitchen. A pretty woman overlooking a pot, briefcase still in hand. A man joined her, wrapped his arms around her and gave her a quick kiss before ushering her out of the kitchen.
Alexander stirred the pot, shook in a little more salt, then turned to the kitchen table to chop some more vegetables. The meal smelled good, and for a moment, he allowed himself a little pride – his son, chef for his family. Alexander stopped chopping vegetables and looked up, directly at him. Or, more accurately, where he was – for there was no way that he could see him, not with the light levels, not hidden in the branches, not standing still as a statue.
His son wiped his hands on a cloth, quickly looked around, then moved out of the back door, and approached the fence.
‘I know you’re there,’ he said. ‘I can feel you watching me.’
He let himself drop from the fence and landed without a sound on the soft grass, plate of cakes still in tact in his hands. One thought shifted the cakes to his office, so that they wouldn’t become the focus of the conversation.
‘What do you want?’ Alexander demanded, his face contorting into anger. ‘You know you aren’t welcome here, I told you…god, I thought I made it clear enough. I thought I- Oh, just get out of here.’
He looked past his son when he heard a little girl laugh in the house…his granddaughter, calling out to her mother.
‘What’s her name?’
‘Mary-Anne,’ Alexander said, digging a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket. ‘My father’s mother’s name.’
‘I don’t have a mother,’ he said, unable to stop himself.
‘Not you,’ Alexander spat after he lit the cigarette. ‘My father.’
‘Alex-’
‘Stay away from me,’ he said, ‘stay away from my family. My daughter doesn’t know you exist, and that’s the way it’s going to stay. She has a grandfather, a real one, a human one. She doesn’t need to know you, what you are, what I am, and what she is. She doesn’t need to know she’s a freak, luckily, she mostly takes after her mother, by the time she has kids, most of your…influence should be bred out.’
‘I miss you, Alex.’
Alexander took a long drag on the cigarette. ‘You should go. I need to finish dinner for my family.’
‘How…how old is she?’
‘Almost twelve.’
‘Can I send her a birthday present at the least?’
Alexander smiled. ‘Her parents taught her not to accept presents from strangers.’
He pulled a business card from his wallet. ‘If you ever need me, you can reach me on this number.’
The card was not accepted. ‘The point is Ryan,’ Alexander said, ‘I don’t need you, I won’t need you, and neither will she. Go back to whatever it is that you do. Please, I have a good life, I don’t want that ruined.’
‘As always,’ he said, ‘I’ll respect your wishes.’
Alexander stubbed out the cigarette, and jogged back into the house, slamming the door for good measure.
He stared at the closed door. ‘I love you, son.’