Stef opened her eyes.
Dawn light streamed through the infirmary blinds. She slipped out of the bed, pulling the blanket back up over Curt, who moved in his sleep, but didn’t wake.
First night with a boy who wanted her, survived. No different to being there for cuddles-only purposes, but so different at the same time. So different to not have to pretend it was real. So different to be wanted for her. So different to be wanted.
She grabbed one of the smaller baskets of muffins, hung it on her left arm and, walked out of the private room and out of the empty infirmary.
It wasn’t home. It was an Agency, but it wasn’t home. She walked down a curving corridor, past rooms upon rooms filled with flowers and gifts. All too much, way too much. It had been practically an accident. Something she’d had to do. She was an agent, she’d done her duty, and that was all. Agents weren’t there to be noticed, weren’t there to be thanked, they were just there to do their duty and slip away unnoticed.
She came to a junction, and looked to her right, and saw four other hallways, each a smaller concentric circle, and then a glass wall.
She walked towards the glass wall, leaned against it and stared down at the remains of the prison that had held her and the phoenix for days.
She turned and saw Ryan. He walked up, and hugged her tightly. ‘I thought you would have slept through today.’
‘You wouldn’t have let me.’
‘Are you all right?’
She shook her head. ‘Nope. Not even a little bit.’ He required a couch and they sat. ‘Nine days, really?’
‘As fast as the Agency is, we couldn’t have done this in an hour.’
‘What- What is this anyway?’
‘This is our newest outpost. Who is going to staff it and how the jurisdictions are going to be rearranged no one knows, but it’s ours, and it’s still the only piece of system territory within the city limits.’
She leaned across and poked him. ‘Require coffee.’
A small table appeared in front of them, covered with coffee and a spread of breakfast foods.
She gulped down a coffee, then nommed slowly on a plate of eggs benedict. ‘These taste just like you made IRL.’
‘Well, it’s my recipe either way,’ he said.
She leaned forward and snagged a couple of buttered pancakes, settled herself against the arm of the couch, balanced the plate on her lap, and nodded to him. ‘Okies, catch me up on everything I missed.’
He nursed a tall glass of iced tea. ‘Where do you want me to start?’
‘How many casualties?’
‘Every Solstice in the area, for starters.’
‘How many real people?’
‘Ninety agents and double that in recruits. Brian and Lisa, from our department, a half dozen from combat, I don’t’ think you would have known any of the rest though, I can get you the lists if you want.’
‘Later, maybe. What else?’
‘Contingency 32 got voted down, so if the blue phoenix is killed then we’re still looking at an extinction level event for the human race. Other than the blackout though, we’ve got no signs from that phoenix. We’ve got decent reasons to believe that Blue Earth have it, but we have no idea where they’re holding it, other than it’s still somewhere in our city limits.’
‘But that still means at least us and the fae survive, which is better than everyone dying.’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘Carmichael’s been finding recruits for us, to bolster our numbers and assist in the search for the blue phoenix, so our Agency is full of fae.’
He smiled. ‘And there’s been a development while you were asleep.’
‘I tried something,’ Ryan said. ‘I took the egg back to our Agency.’
‘Did it enjoy the ride?’
‘It burnt through the blackout zone, our Agency’s fully operational again.’
‘If you’re willing to take a drive, we could get a lot of the city back up and running.’
‘…only if you awesome clothes onto me again, I’m not driving around in scrubs, that would just be embarrassing.’
He snapped his fingers, and her uniform replaced the pale blue scrubs. ‘This way.’
She followed him to a lift, down to the bottom level of the newborn Agency, and through a magic door to his office. The egg sat on a trolley, in a padded box, content and still whole.
‘Shall we?’ he asked.
She gave him a nod and followed him through his office and down the parking garage. His green Bentley appeared and he secured the phoenix in the back seat.
‘Should we bring Curt?’
‘Let him sleep,’ Ryan said. ‘He hasn’t slept well over the past week.’
‘When did he tell you?’
‘I told him.’
The car doors popped open, and she climbed in, less afraid of damaging the car this time, but still wary of the classy interior. ‘I just gave him a little push to make him realise something he already felt.’ He started the car. ‘I apologise if-‘
‘No,’ she said, ‘don’t apologise. But- But aren’t you supposed to keep the boys away? Isn’t that in the dad code?’
‘I trust you to make your own decisions.’
‘Why would you do something like that? Half of my decisions put me in mortal danger!’
‘And the other half don’t,’ he said as they drove out of the garage. ‘You are far more capable than you give yourself credit for.’
‘Sure, in a few highly specialised areas, most of which aren’t applicable to real life for any great gain.’
‘Do I have to point out you saved the world?’
She brought her knees up to her chest. ‘Please don’t.’
‘Because I can’t even begin to comprehend it. I just can’t. As big as my head it, it’s not big enough to hold an idea that large. Everything can’t be here because of me, that’s just stupid.’ She looked out the window of the car. ‘Buildings and cars and people and trees and- Ooh, doughnuts.’
‘Later, you just had breakfast.’.
‘What I did was so- I just did it. I didn’t want you to be dead. I didn’t want everything you’d ever done to be all for nothing. Who’s gonna rescue little lost hackers if you’re not around? I didn’t save the world. I saved you. I saved Curt. I saved Jonesy and the techs and Buttercup and Magic Mike and Patty and just the stuff I care about. That’s what I did it for.’
‘It doesn’t matter why you did it, you still did it. The only reason anyone is alive right now is because of you.’
‘But I don’t want this to be the thing that defines me.’
‘Because! Because it’s not me. It’s nothing like I’ve ever done. It’s got nothing to do with who I am or-‘ She buried her face in her knees. ‘I’m not good enough to have saved the world.’
The car stopped.
‘I never want you to say that again.’
She bit her tongue, the pain helping her clamp down on her emotions. ‘Ok.’ Fine. Whatever. I’ll play the part, I’ll-
‘Look at me, Stef.’
Traitorous tears flowed. ‘I can’t.’
‘Look at me.’
‘Look at me.’
She pulled her face away from her knees and looked to him. ‘What?! What the fuck can you say that will make this ok?’
She released her seatbelt, pushed on the car door and ran into a wall made of agent.
‘Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!’ She pushed past him and ran across the park, her legs screaming from the effort, sweat already streaming down her face. No agenty bonus, just the stupid human frailties born of exercising a brain and not a weak body. She jumped into an empty sandpit and drew a line with her sneaker. ‘Don’t’ cross it!’ She dragged her foot around, making a rough circle in the sand. ‘Land of Steforia, population one.’
She sat in the circle, burying her hands in the cold sand.
He sat across from her, outside of the circle.
‘You’re gonna get your suit dirty.’
‘I rather enjoy playing in the sand,’ he said, ‘though I rarely get the opportunity. We had a sandpit for Alexander, and we went to the beach as often as we could.’ He lifted a handful of sand and let it drain through his fingers. ‘I like the texture. Grains, taken by themselves are rough, but together, they’re smooth and soft. Feels like a metaphor for something, but I don’t know what, and it’s one of those wonderful contradictions. And there’s so much history in every handful.’ He drained another pile. ‘How much of the world have these grains seen? Where did they start? Where will they end up? Some of the fae that are more in tune with nature have tried to divine things about the soil and the sand, and some of them can see a little of its history, but even then, it’s only a glimpse.’
‘You’re still getting your suit dirty.’
‘So are you.’
‘Yeah, but I’m supposed to be the dirty one.’
‘You’re supposed to be whatever you want.’
‘No. Never. I’ve never been what I want. I’ve only ever been what other people want – or as close to it as I can – or whatever circumstances thrust on me, never what I want. I didn’t want to be a ballerina, I had to be a ballerina. I didn’t want to be a pretty little girl in dresses, I was a pretty little girl in dresses. I didn’t want to be a scarred freak, I’m a scarred freak. I didn’t want to be a crazy person. I didn’t want to be a tiny little drunk. I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to have such much expected of me. I didn’t want people to rely on me. I was just starting to figure out that I was safe enough to figure out who I was, who I really was, then this happens. Now I have to be the saviour of the world and live up to that. It’s gonna be all about the image again and I’m going to have to stoop and bow and genuflect and say all the right things in all the right places. Just like when mother loved Stephanie during ballet. I’m gonna be swallowed up by this fake expression of someone I’m not.’
‘That crown thing I got. That’s major brownie points with the fairies. Wait. Turn of phrase. Is that racist. I don’t care. I wasn’t talking about those brownies. Are there brownies? I haven’t seen one. It’s major points anyway. What am I going to be expected to ask for?’
This seemed to confuse him. ‘What?’
She looked up, looked at his face for a moment, then looked down to the hand and worked on deepening the borders of Steforia. Deep enough for a moat. Moats were excellent borders. ‘This is a major win for the Agency,’ she said, ‘so basically we’d have to be working for an organisation of incompetents if no one whispered in my ear and told me what to ask for. I dunno how much I can ask for, but what if we could get citizenship for every Agency employee, or convince them to expand the Marches, or make liaising with their police easier? It’s ok. The Agency earned this. But if I say the wrong thing-‘
‘The Agency didn’t earn it, you did.’
‘And I’m an Agency resource,’ she said, ‘I am an extension of our uniform.’
‘You are’ he said, ‘so am I, so is every other agent and every other recruit, but not to the point where it swallows individual achievement. You earned this, and they don’t have the right to-‘
‘Of course they do, and I don’t even mind.’ She shrugged. ‘What would I even wish for anyway? I told you, wishes are stupid little frippy things. I mean, look at what’s in my chest, and I haven’t made one wish for myself. I don’t even know what I would wish for. I don’t mind giving up the prize, but I just hate the idea of being the perfect little puppet. But then again, that’s easier. It’s easier to have your role defined than to figure it out for yourself. I mean, for someone like me anyway.’ She shrugged. ‘You’ve probably got no idea what I’m even talking about.’
‘You know who you are.’
‘Fsck off, I do not.’
‘You are the child I rescued. You are the neglected child of an otherwise happy couple. You are one of the Lost, one of the Found. You are a ballerina. You are the owner of a well-loved pony. You are never at a loss for a good conversation, or a vocal second opinion. You are a hacker. You are a geek. You are my recruit. You are my daughter. You are Curt’s love. You are a bridge into the tech department. You are the girl who just saved the world.’
‘Let me finish.’
‘That’s just a jumble of-‘
‘You are who everyone is, Stef. You are the roles you fulfil for others, you are the qualities you invest in, and you are every single reaction to every moment of your life. There is no one point at which you truly know who you are because every change in your life changes who you are, changes how you perceive something, or how you feel about something. Everyone’s life is just a jumble of experience and love and turmoil. Everyone, Stef, not just you. Knowing yourself is just knowing enough to understand that.’
She pushed on the pile of stand in front of her and filled in the moat.
‘Can I assume that means the borders of Steforia have opened?’
‘Tourists bearing hugs are welcome.’
He knelt, wrapped his arms around her and picked her up and held her in a safe, warm, angel hug for what seemed like forever.
‘Let’s take a walk,’ he said. He grabbed her vest and the world blurred a little as he shifted her up onto his shoulders.
She leaned forward, resting her chin on the top of his head. ‘I know what you’re trying to do,’ she said, ‘but that doesn’t change the fact that, jumble or not, a big part of who I am is someone who has spent the majority of their life feeling- No, not feeling. Scratch that. Knowing. Knowing they were worthless. It’s hard for me to reconcile that- He killed me.’ Tears dripped into his hair. ‘He killed me.’
‘That doesn’t make you worthless.’
‘Any Solstice brave enough to stand their ground against an agent would call you a monster, and a hundred worse names, would you believe them?’
‘Then why believe any other single person’s opinion about you?’
‘But by that logic, I can’t believe anything you say about me, either.’
‘No, I’m exempt.’
He squeezed her hands. ‘Because I’m your father, and I’m always right.’
‘You keeping saying that.’
‘That’s because it’s true.’
‘You- You really aren’t gonna get rid of me, are you?’
‘What do you think?’
He lifted her from his shoulders and placed her gently on the ground. ‘What do you think?’
‘I think you’re going to push me into that pond if I don’t give you the right answer.’
He smiled. ‘That’s an excellent suggestion.’
She wrapped her arms around him and cried.
He let her cry for a few moments, then knelt in front of her. ‘I am not going to get rid of you, all right?’
He handed her a cookie, and a small net – the kind of moving fish from one tank to another. ‘Is the cookie going to fly away?’
He knelt beside the dirty pond and patted the grass beside him. ‘No.’ He required himself a net, and pointed to the water. ‘What do you see?’
‘I don’t have my HUD.’
‘You don’t need a HUD for this. What do you see?’
She shrugged, only seeing the obvious stuff. ‘Water. Weeds. Scum. Those little larvae things. Stuff?’
‘Look at the water.’
‘Do you see the diamonds?’
She stared at the sunlight sparkling off the surface. ‘That’s not diamonds.’
He dipped his net into the water, and skimmed it across the surface, ‘Hold out your hand.’ She did. He upended the net, and hard, wet lumps fell onto her open palm. Diamonds, shiny and dazzling, despite their murky colours rested there. He repeated the process again, and a third time, her cupped hands filling with diamonds the colour of the pond water.
‘Tessa’s diamonds. Fool’s jewels. Sparks,’ he said, pulling a few from her pile and tossing them back into the pond. ‘I knew you were having trouble with what you’d done, so I wanted to show you this. Some little bit of fantastic, utterly nonsensical magic that serves no purpose other than to put a little wonder into the world.’
She pulled out her shirt bottom and piled the diamonds there, then lifted a small one from the top. ‘I don’t understand. How…how do people not know about this?’
‘How many people look at the water and see diamonds?’
‘Someone would have done it by accident!’
‘It only works in certain locations at certain times, and you’ve got the have a special kind of net – it’s able to be required though, as you can see. They’re a type of microscopic creature, each diamond is a whole colony of them.’ He lifted one from her pile and blew on it, and it turned back into water and ran through his fingers. ‘Do you want to take some home?’
‘Can’t I take all of these?’
‘It’s just like going to the beach, if you take all the shells, there’ll be no one left for the other children. Pick out a few, and throw the rest back.’ He held out a little plastic bag, and she began to judge the diamonds in her lap, throwing most of them back. After a few moments, the bag had half a dozen diamonds – five small ones and a lumpy one that was like was like four stuck together – and the rest had been thrown back into the pond for future visitors to find.
He stood and offered a hand down to her. ‘We’ve got work to do, I want to clear at least a few of the major roads and make paths to the outposts, that way, we’ll have a functioning local network again. And Curt’s waiting at the car.’
She smiled, then blushed.
He took her hand and they headed back across the park. ‘Are you happy?’
‘That I has a boyfriend?’
‘Still in shock, really. But yeah, happy. I think I can be happy.’
Stef opened her eyes.