‘Everyone knows? Why does everyone know?’ Stef stood and stared down at Ryan, waiting for the explanation.
‘So many agents died,’ Ryan said. ‘How you survived became an obvious question.’
‘And no one thought to lie?’
‘Lie and say what?; he asked as he moved back up to the couch. ‘And people who did know about your experiment were disseminating the truth faster than we could have possibly caught with a cover story. It was the best move to come out and reveal the truth. It’s one less complexity. I am sorry, but given what you’ve done, you’re safe, no one is going to try and take your mirror from you.’
‘And in six months when they’ve moved on to the next person burning in their fifteen minutes of fame?’
‘Saving the world isn’t something that people will forget easily, especially with how publicised this is.’
She required another couch and sat opposite. Curt sat beside her and laid a hand over hers. ‘We’ll figure six months from now out when we get to it. We’ve still got another phoenix to find.’
‘We’re getting off topic,’ she snapped, ‘I want to see the bastard. Even if I can’t scare him to death, I need- I need-‘
‘it will only cause you more pain.’ Ryan said, ‘and you’ve already been through enough for-‘
‘What the hell is stopping him from trying again?!’ she snapped. ‘He in here and he killed me, tell me what the hell is stopping him from doing it again?’
‘That’s the only good thing about this deal,’ Ryan said. ‘You don’t belong to him anymore. He can’t hurt you without consequences ever again.’
‘I want to look at this deal,’ she said. ‘Can I has the paperwork, I want to-‘
‘Require his employee file,’ Ryan said, ‘you’ll have access to read anything in there.’
Require: employee file – James Mimosa.
The sound of a failed command played in her head as the error message popped into her HUD. [No current employee.]
She felt herself twitch. She bit her lip and looked across at Ryan. ‘Try it yourself.’
She held up her hands. ‘Try it yourself.’
His mad!face returned, then it turned into one of confusion. ‘I don’t- I’m not sure what’s going on here.’
‘Sir, newbie, I don’t have a HUD. What’s going on?’
A look of concentration passed over Ryan’s face – his looking-at-his-HUD face. ‘He’s no longer listed in our current employees register. I’m checking contractors – he’s not there either. Checking former employees.’ Mad!face returned. ‘Found him.’
‘Does former mean dead?’ she asked.
‘No, not dead.’ A stack of paperwork appeared in Ryan’s hands and he spread it across a freshly required table between the couches. ‘I’m trying to process this as quickly as I can.’
Curt leaned forward and grabbed one of the files. ‘Liars?’ he asked as he flicked through the contents. ‘What do the-‘ he went quiet, and flicked through more pages.
She leaned forward and sorted through the files, until she found the original agreement that had saved the bastard’s life.
‘The Liars bargained for him,’ Ryan said, ‘according to this, they gave us a decent deal to buy out his contract.’
Curt growled an impressively Taylorish growl, then looked across to Ryan. ‘He should have been blacklisted, how could they bargain for him?’
She focused on the papers in her hands, skimming through the terms of James’ work for the Agency, through the details of his pay. With each paragraph, her fingers tightened the paper in her grip until the contract ripped in two.
‘Who. The. Fuck. Wrote. This?’ she demanded, blood pounding in her ears.
‘Clarke,’ Ryan said. ‘His deal, his contract.’
Shift: location of Agent Clarke.
Ryan’s office blurred, and a quiet, smoky room of a nightclub appeared. Clarke lay on a couch, a woman kneeling in front of him.
Steady. Focus.
‘Get out!’ she screamed at the woman as Ryan and Curt appeared at her side.
Clarke’s head shot up, blinking rapidly as he worked to cover himself. ‘The hell?’ he asked as the woman ran out of the room.
She kicked a table, and it flew against the wall.
‘Are you fucking stupid?’ she screamed. ‘No, I know the answer to that, you are fucking stupid! What I want to-‘
‘I’m not on duty,’ Clarke snapped, ‘make an appointment.’
She waved the two halves of the torn contract in his face. ‘Did you write this tripe?’
‘If I had some fucking idea of what you were waving in my face, Mimosa, then-‘
‘Your deal with James!’ she snapped. ‘Are you solely responsible for this shit?’
‘I am.’
‘How do you even manage to dress yourself?’ she demanded. ‘I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a professional, and I can see the holes in this! James lives and breathes this stuff, why the hell didn’t you get someone who knew what they were doing to write this? This deal is entirely one sided!’
‘Your boytoy would have slaughtered him!’ Clarke snapped, ‘I might think with my dick, but at least my dick is capable of critical thinking! He was a resource that you people left to starve in a cell.’
‘Is that why he belongs to the Liars now?’ She rolled the papers and hit him like a naughty dog. ‘You practically invited him to walk out! You didn’t black list him! You locked him in for exclusivity, but you didn’t block him from being bought out, but because you don’t know what you’re doing-‘
Clarke slapped her across the face.
Her knee came up to his groin before he had a chance to react.
‘I hate that man more than anything else,’ she said as she stepped away from him. ‘I would love nothing more than to watch him bleed out. He deserves to suffer like the bastard he is, and even with all that in mind, I would not dare insult his intelligence. He is a godsdamn genius, and he used you. Thanks to your utter ineptitude, he doesn’t get punished for my murder. You rewarded him, you validated him.’
‘It’s not a murder because you didn’t stay dead!’ Clarke spat. ‘You irreverent little whore, who the fuck do you think you are?’
‘I deserved better than this,’ she said. ‘You fucked up.’
‘I did my job.!’ Clarke said.
‘You went around me,’ Ryan said, ‘you rushed the contract and you kept it a secret until it was too late to do anything about it, and you didn’t even inform me that he’d been traded.’
‘That just came through last night,’ Clarke said, ‘I’m getting my sorrows sucked out, or I was until you burst in. We got the better end of the deal,’ he said, ‘so it was a gain for the Agency, so while I don’t have a new Kings expert, this still looks good for me.’
She punched him. The hit was measly, ill-aimed and weak, but it made her feel better.
‘Touch me again and I’ll-‘
‘And you’ll what?’ Ryan demanded as he stepped between them.
Clarke sat back down on the couch. ‘He’s still in Central until nine a.m., you want to bitch at someone, go bitch at him.’ He looked up at Ryan. ‘With all due respect, sir, which isn’t a lot right now, unless you’re planning on compensating me for interrupting my downtime, can I please go back to getting my cock sucked?’
‘I need a year to date report regarding your activities, and projected expenses until the end of the year.’
‘It can wait.’
‘That’s an order, Clarke. You’re on duty as of now, I want it on my desk as soon as possible.’
‘Interim Director Ryan, you’re being a petty bastard.’
Ryan glared. ‘Be grateful I don’t put you through the wall.’
Clarke gave them the finger and shifted away.
‘Given how early it is,’ she said, ‘I assume we can’t go see James now. If you don’t mind, I’d like to be alone until then.’
Ryan squeezed her shoulder. ‘I don’t think-‘
‘Please,’ she said, fighting for control of her voice, ‘please, I just want to be alone for a while. I can’t- I-‘
Two sets of arms hugged her, and the world blurred, Ryan’s office coming back into view.
‘You’re not alone any more,’ Ryan said, ‘you don’t have to go through this alone.’
‘But I-‘
A kiss on her cheek. ‘We’re here for you, newbie.’
‘We’ll deal with this as a family,’ Ryan said.
She felt Curt stiffen and she pulled away from the group hug to point at him. ‘Haha, you got adopted too!’
‘All of us have been treated like bastards,’ Ryan said, ‘and none of us deserve that.’
She sat on the couch, and stared at her fingers. ‘I love this.’
‘Newbie?’ Curt asked as they sat either side of her.
She looked up at Ryan. ‘You going to dad!face at him as well.’
‘I’m not sure I can help myself.’
She nodded. ‘Ok, let’s see if I can work this out. You’re my dad. You’re now his dad. He’s my older brother, and I’m mothering him. Best. Family. Ever.’
‘Your mind works in disturbing ways, newbie.’
‘Yeah, but you love me.’
‘I do-’
‘I didn’t mean to go psycho at Clarke.’
Ryan looked down at her. ‘Your anger was warranted.’
‘Yeah, but he’ll crucify me in my next evaluation.’
‘I think that-‘ Ryan began.
‘Saving the world isn’t a blank cheque forever, you know,’ she said. ‘They’re going to want me to keep to some standards of agentyness, and I don’t think accosting a fellow agent on his downtime is being the bestest little narc.’
‘I’ve had worse spats with Taylor over mandatory reporting requirements, you’re fine.’
‘I- He- James gets to- I guess I don’t deserve better. I didn’t mean to be self-centred. I’m sorry. I should have expected that-’
‘You’re free from him,’ Ryan said, ‘that’s the victory, it isn’t much of one, but at least he can’t hurt you again.’
‘I still want to talk to him. There’s things I need to know.’ She looked to each of them. ‘And I really wouldn’t mind an escort this time.’
Ryan nodded. ‘We’ll have to wait until eight, but we’ll come with you.’ He smiled. ‘Try and get some rest until then.’
‘Like I could,’ she said.
‘I could,’ Curt said as he leaned against her. ‘That or I have to go to the Parkers for some stimulants.’
‘Oh, fine,’ she said. She looked across at Ryan. ‘We’ll be back.’
He nodded.
She put a hand on Curt’s hand, and shifted them back to his room.
‘I’m not sleepy,’ she said as his suit disappeared, replaced by his boxers and t-shirt.
‘Bed. In. I don’t care if you play WoW in your HUD.’
‘Jonesy refuses to make that possible.’
‘Good man,’ Curt mumbled as he pulled the blanket up over them. He kissed her on the cheek. ‘You don’t have to sleep, but rest, or plan out what you’re going to say to him. If he’s going to the Liars, you’re probably never going to get to see him again. Which is good, but if you’ve got things to ask him, it could be your last chance.’ He kissed her cheek, turned away, and began to snore a few moments later.
She pressed her back up against him, pulled the blanket up to her chin and sank into her HUD. The world disappeared, other than the sensation of being pressed up against the boy who wanted her. Good feeling. Warm feeling. Better than the rage. Better than the desire to fuck duty and shoot the bastard. No mirror, no second chance.
She opened her HUD browser, and clicked on one of her lists – fifty tabs of content immediately loaded. More than enough to keep her mind busy, keep her distracted from wanting to kill the bastard.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair.
She hadn’t earned the right to be an agent – she was barely a passable recruit, but still, she was trying. Trying as hard as she could, which wasn’t very hard, but was still harder than she’d tried for anything in her life. Everything else was always the path of least resistance. Don’t achieve, don’t try, don’t want for a better situation.
School had been a trial of survival, nothing more. It had been an unavoidable challenge, and one she’d barely passed intact.
Life on the other hand, was much easier, because no one had ever expected anything of her. Pay the rent, set up automatic deductions for the utilities, and eat enough to stop her stomach from revolting. Hack the various email and social media accounts for hateful teenagers to have some sort of income – but that was really an incidental percentage of her week. There was no challenge when she could crack most accounts in five minutes.
Path of least resistance. Don’t have any goals. Don’t try to achieve anything. Life lessons that her father had taught her. Life lessons that had stuck and sunk deep into her soul.
She was shit. She was shit and she was never going to achieve anything.
She pulled herself from her HUD and sat up. She slowly turned her head and made sure she hadn’t disturbed Curt, then shifted away.
‘Couldn’t sleep?’ Ryan asked as he shifted in beside her.
She held out her arms, zombie-style. ‘I sleep-shifted?’
‘Why’d you come here?’ he asked.
She looked down at her precarious position on top of the fence, and slowly sat on the white stone. ‘It’s on my mind, I guess.’ He sat beside her. ‘And I always wanted to get up here, but I was always too chickenshit to try.’ She looked across at the darkened mansion. ‘I lived here for the first half of my life, but it never felt like home.’
‘It takes more than four walls to make somewhere into a home,’ He said as he pulled his jacket off and wrapped it around her.
‘How could he not notice?’
‘There was a lovely string quartet,’ Ryan as he put an arm around her. ‘And I’m sure-‘
‘I died, and he didn’t notice. You killed a Solstice in the nursery and he didn’t notice. You followed me into Death’s realm and he didn’t notice.’
He gave her a guilty look. ‘I also kidnapped you for ten minutes and no one noticed.’
‘You said you didn’t kidnap me!’
‘I don’t class it as kidnapping when it’s a medical emergency.’
‘But I thought-’
‘If you make it back from Death, you retain a wound, but it’s of a far less magnitude. What had been a mortal wound turned into a flesh wound, and not a severe one at that, but it would have been noticeable if I’d used simple first aid, so I shifted you home and had the Parkers take care of you. They were amused afterwards, treating children isn’t something they’ve done all that often.’
She leaned into him. ‘Why didn’t you just keep me?’
‘If I could go back and do it over again, I would, but I had no idea of your circumstances.’
‘Come on, if they were that oblivious, someone evil could have kidnapped me, or I could have stuck a fork into a socket or something.’
He kissed the top of her head. ‘Are you advocating the theft of children in the future?’
‘We can always leave them on the Lost’s doorstep.’
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that reminds me.’
‘You’re a celebrity, young lady, you have to designate a charity.’
‘I has to do what now?’
‘There’s a lot you need to catch up on regarding the world’s reaction to surviving. It’s not just the gifts and the gala, there’s a fund in your name – the fairies officially only throw the gala and grant the favour, they then…crowdsource the monetary gifts to be given. There’s a second fund set up for people who don’t want to contribute directly, but will gladly give to your nominated charity. You can nominate the Lost if you like.’
She pulled his jacket over her head. ‘Don’t say stuff like that, it’s scary. I don’t want to know that there’s a save-the-world tip jar. But yeah, I nominate the Lost, totally, do I have to wave a sceptre or something?’
‘No, they’ll ask you at the gala. You’ll need to decide on your guests as well, you can invite as many people as you like, of course, but it’s polite to keep it at a conservative number.’
‘I have to go, don’t I?’
‘That- Yes, you have to go. You deserve to be rewarded for what you did.’
‘It was dumb luck and coincidence that saved the world!’
‘It was dumb luck that the service entrance was open,’ he said as he pointed to the small green gate in the wall. ‘And coincidence that it was a day when your family was occupied.’
‘Yeah, but-’
‘And it was coincidence that I was the agent assigned to go to the mansion. It was potentially a combat mission, I could have passed it to Taylor. And it was dumb luck that hiding in a wardrobe saved your life.’
‘You’re trying to-’
‘Dumb luck and coincidence don’t take away from the end result,’ he said. ‘and your end result was saving over eight billion lives.’
She buried herself back into the coat. ‘I’m not good enough.’
‘Then just think of it as an opportunity to go back to Nonsuch.’
She pulled herself free of the coat, and looked up at his smiling face.
‘I take it that you’ll go?’ he asked.
‘When were you going to tell me?!’
‘Not until I needed to, it was my only trump card.’
‘Okies, okies, we’ll go.’
He stood and helped her to her feet. ‘Still not tired?’
She shook her head.
‘Then we’ll take a dawn patrol, give a couple of our new recruits a break.’
* * *
‘I bought you breakfast.’
Curt looked across at her as she sat on the bed. ‘Shoes!’
She awkwardly angled a socked foot at him. ‘I remember the boarding conditions, captain.’ She pushed a bag at him, she crossed her legs and shook the bag in her hand. ‘Food.’
He sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. ‘You actually bought food?’
She picked a croissant from the bag. ‘Dawn patrol. I can’t resist a bakery first thing in the morning. And because I’m so rarely near bakeries this early, I extra really couldn’t resist. There’s lots of stuff. And chocolate mousse.’
‘Mousse is not breakfast, newbie,’ he said as he found a breakfast wrap.
‘Stop being constrained by your linear concepts of breakfast foods.’
‘You disappeared.’
She choked on the croissant.
He stared down at the wrap. ‘And now I can’t make gag reflex jokes without it being weird.’
‘I’m skinny, I’m not bulimic, I don’t choke up on purpose.’
He bit his lip, knuckled his eye, then sighed and chewed on his wrap. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘You had to sleep, I don’t mind. I mean, I-’
‘That you couldn’t talk to me.’
‘I didn’t- I-’
‘Trusting you with my life is easy, I don’t value it. The rest- I don’t know how much crap you want to deal with.’
‘All of it, newbie, all the crap, all the issues, all the stupid and frankly frightening misconceptions.’
‘But you shouldn’t have to deal with any of that. It’s not fair- I like you, and just the fact that I exist should be enough to scare you away, but you’re here, and you’re with me, and I-’ her breath hitched, and tears fell onto the croissant. ‘-and I’m not ready to lose this just yet. And the more I dump on you, the quicker you’ll get tired of me. I can-’ her hands shook. ‘I can’t be a real girl. I can’t be a good person. I can’t be- Anything. I can’t be anything for you. But I- It’s still playing pretend, isn’t it? You know me, but- But if I keep some of it locked up. Keep some of the extremes locked down, then maybe I can get a few weeks. Or a month. Or something. You can meet a nice girl at the gala. You helped save the world, that should mean you get girls. Real girls. Not a broken thing. But please let me pretend until you find someone better.’
He stared at her, then moved off the bed.
She gripped the blanket beneath her, stopping her from grabbing him, from begging him not to make her leave, from pointing to the door, and giving her wordless marching orders.
She heard a drawer open, then slid closed.
‘Turn around.’
She stuffed the tear-salted croissant into her mouth, and turned on the spot.
He knelt beside the bed, like the first time he’d kissed her and shook his head. He leaned in and kissed her cheek. ‘You little idiot.’
He placed a little box on her knee, and nodded to it. ‘Go on. And it’s totally not what you’re thinking. Please.’
She lifted the box and opened it.
A small silver thimble sat inside.
She dropped the box, but he caught it as it bounced off her leg.
He pulled the thimble – and the chain it was attached to – from the box, and draped it over his hand. ‘I listen to everything you say, even when I don’t understand you, and I know you more than you might think, and I love you. If you’ll have me, if you want me, then not a damn thing is ever going to pull me away from you. Who the hell is better than you, Stef?’
Her face crumpled more. ‘…everyone?’
‘Not for me.’ He brushed away her tears. ‘I just want you.’
‘No buts.’ He unclasped the necklace. ‘May I?’
She shook her head, and stared down at her hands. ‘No.’
‘Why not?’
‘Cause- Cause if you- It’s ok for me to take a leap of faith for you, cause I’m not- Scared. Ok, I’m a lot scared but- It’s less of a risk for me cause I don’t have anything to lose. I accept that you’re gonna find a pretty girl, then get married and have babies and follow the stupid life plan. And I don’t mind, I’ll be happy for you, and I will still be your friend, but as real as I want this to be- As much as I want to- As much as I want it- As much as I want you and cuddles and- It can’t last because I am too broken.’
He stood, sat beside her on the bed, and fastened the chain around her neck, catching more than a few hairs as she made no move to help him.
‘Mine,’ he said, and kissed her upper arm through her uniform shirt.
She shook her head. ‘No can has.’
She heard a rustle of pages. ‘Do want.’
She pulled the necklace off and dropped it on the bed. ‘No, you don’t.’
He returned the chain to the box and snapped it shut. ‘I can has?’
‘Sometimes when I’m in the tech department playing games it’s not because I forget, it’s because I’m trying to hide cause whatever I’m supposed to be doing is too hard or too scary.’
‘I know.’
‘I’m scared of this. Of- Not of you but- This.’
‘I know.’
‘I’m crazy and have a voice in my head.’
‘I know.’
‘I have issues about everything ever.’
‘I know.’
‘And you want still want?’
He put a hand over hers. ‘Do want. I can has?’
She gave a little shrug.
An alarm beeped in her HUD. ‘Great,’ she said, ‘it’s time.’ She refreshed her uniform and her skin, taking away all evidence of tears and weak emotions that James could exploit.
[Are you two all right to be shifted?] Ryan asked as he appeared in herHUD.
She looked across at him. ‘Do you still want to come?’
‘Of course I do, newbie,’ he said gently.
She opened the channel. [Sure, go when ready.]
The world blurred and a random Agency corridor appeared. Central, apparently, looked and smelt exactly like Queen Street.
‘That room there,’ Ryan said with a point at room forty-seven.
She looked up at Ryan. [I- I- I can’t. Do it for me, please?]
[Of course.]
She stepped aside so Ryan could knock. They waited a minute, then Ryan knocked again.
‘If you aren’t my taxi,’ came James’ voice, ‘then I’m not interested.’
‘Open the fucking door,’ she snapped.
Curt squeezed her hand for a moment. ‘We’re here,’ he whispered. ‘We’re not going anywhere.’
The door opened. ‘What do you want, Stephanie?’
‘Justice and/or revenge, but I don’t think I’m getting either.’
‘You ignorant little-‘
She pushed on the door and stepped into his room. It was massive compared to a regular recruit room – styled much more like an expensive hotel suite, rather than the nice-but-modest hotel room look of the standard recruit quarters.
Curt and Ryan stood behind her, far enough to let her try and stand on her own, to face down the monster, but close enough for comfort, close enough to prove she wasn’t alone.
Unclench your fists.
Just do it.
She looked down and saw her hands formed into shaking fists. She let out a breath and relaxed her hands as James walked around the room, glaring while quietly dressing, an open travel bag on his bed.
His open wallet sat on the dresser, two pictures visible – one was old, showing him as not much older than she was, his arm around her mother, the other was a print of an ultrasound.
‘Why are you carrying a picture of me?’
‘Don’t be stupid, this isn’t a picture of you.’ He snatched up his wallet and slid it into his pocket. ‘That would have been your younger brother. Your mother was pregnant when you killed her.’
‘I never wanted to do ballet!’
‘That’s because you’re an ungrateful little shit. What do you want, Stephanie? And I will remind you that I’m of the Liars now, you touch me with one of those filthy blue-laden hands, and it’s war between my Court and your precious Agency.’
‘You’re just one life,’ she said, ‘like they’d even notice if I shifted you into an active volcano.’
James glared down at her. ‘Firstly, I doubt that you could name an active volcano off the top of your impaired mind. Second, the bastardised magic that your kind uses is limited by rules that serve to do nothing but choke your abilities. You can’t require me dead, Stephanie, nor could you shift me into a situation where the outcome would be my death.’ He sighed and slipped on his jacket. ‘And don’t make me correct you about your kind again, it bores me, and does nothing but serve to make you look like even more of an idiot.’
‘The maybe I’ll just-‘
‘Empty threats only serve to make you look weaker, Stephanie, and you already look more vulnerable than a misick.’
Her agent-wiki automatically spun and opened the article on the tiny, fuzzy mouse-sized fae.
James’ face could have been used for an arrogant lawyer meme. ‘The Liars have been after me since I qualified as a Kings scholar. I rejected them and that only made them want me more. I’ve done all I can to improve my standing with them without becoming a member of their Court, precisely for a moment like this. It’s a little ahead of my desired schedule, but the Agency payout does make up for it a little.’
She felt shock slide onto her face. ‘What?’
She opened up a copy of his agreement in her HUD and scanned the last few pages – the ones she’d torn before reading.
Bastard. Monster. Kill. Bastard. Monster. Kill. Bastard. Monster. Kill. Bastard. Monster. Kill. Bastard. Monster. Kill. Bastard. Monster. Kill.
Six months worth of pay as a severance package if he was bought out before the end of his two years.
Bastard. Monster. Kill. Bastard. Monster. Kill. Bastard. Monster. Kill. Bastard. Monster. Kill. Bastard. Monster. Kill. Bastard. Monster. Kill.
‘You fucking-!’ she stared.
He grinned a self-satisfied grin. ‘The Agency owns you, so your Agent Clarke tells me, you’re a slave and you will be for the rest of your unnatural life. I, on the other hand, essentially got paid a fantastic sum of money to have the pleasure of watching you die.’
‘Why didn’t you kill me before this?’
‘And don’t you dare cite lack of opportunity,’ she snapped. ‘If you owned me, if you hated me so much, why didn’t you kill me! Why didn’t you throttle me in the cradle?! Why didn’t you sell me to some fae meat market?! If I made you so miserable, then why did I even get to live this long?!’
‘If you’ll shut your mouth, I’ll give you the rather simple answer.’
‘I’m listening,’ she said.
‘So much as I have immunity among the fae, there’s still the problem of human authorities. Many ways of disappearing a child lead to suspicion, and I didn’t want the bad reputation. Once you were old enough to walk and get lost, I simply never received a suitable offer. I suppose I could have gotten a deal if I’d auctioned you at the slave markets, but frankly, I didn’t need the money – I work for money, I trade for power. A lack of an opportune deal is the only thing that kept you alive. Besides, there are many benefits to owning someone.’ He smiled and swirled his coffee. ‘No matter how unattractive you are, you are a sack of compatible organs, and I felt it was worth keeping you alive in case I was ever injured or dying.’
She stared at the floor.
‘I’ve been robbed of the opportunity,’ he said, ‘to see them extract your organs. I would have insisted you were conscious for the procedure, and I would have taken everything all at once. Storage of organs does come with a price tag, but it would have been cheaper than boarding you in a meat market kennel, and the merchandise would have been kept in better condition.’
‘So I guess I wasn’t completely worthless,’ she spat.
‘Your worth is only thanks to my DNA, you yourself are still inherently worthless.’
‘…I saved the world.’
He smiled at this. ‘Actually, Stephanie, I really should thank you for that. Mimosa, the name of the one that saved the world, do you have any idea what that’s done for my reputation? Even in the few days I’ve been here among your kind, I’ve been treated to more free drinks than any other single week of my life.’
‘And you conveniently forget to tell them that you murdered me?!’
‘They don’t ask.’ He took a step closer. ‘I wish I’d known though, a hunk of mirror would have come in handy.’
She backed away from him. ‘Even if you owned me, the Agency owns the mirror, you never would have-’
‘Did you feel it?’ he asked. ‘When I shot you, did you feel it?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I didn’t.’ She felt a weight disappear from her shoulders as she said the words.
She stared at James, and smiled.
‘What?’ he demanded.
‘I didn’t feel it when you killed me, and it was probably the least traumatic of my deaths.’
‘You tormented me my entire life,’ she said. ‘You ridiculed me, you belittled me and you treated me like I was something your valet scrapped off your shoe. You made me doubt myself. You took away my confidence, my worth and my potential. You left me a broken, unloved wreck of a person whose only way of dealing with the world was to hide from it! And because you treated me like some worthless fuckstain, you are here to stand and condescend to me.’ She stood a little straighter. ‘I saved the world! Me! Me and all of my worthlessness are the only reason that there are any living things left on this world! And no, I can’t handle that, and I don’t deserve the adulation, and I still feel like I should apologise, because I’m not good enough to have saved the world, but I still did it! Sometimes losers get lucky, and I got lucky.’
‘Would you please-‘
‘Shut the fuck up, James.’
‘Don’t you dare-‘
‘I told you to shut the fuck up,’ she snapped. ‘There are so many things in life I will never have because of you. So many things I missed out on. So many moments I- But you know what? Because you treated me like a bastard, I got the life I’ve got now.’ She let out a long breath. ‘Thank you.’
She stepped forward. ‘From this moment, I’m going to do my best to forget you, to forget everything you ever said me, and everything you didn’t do for me. I have people who deserve better than the person you made me, and I’m going to do my best for them.’
James looked from her, to Ryan, to Curt, back to her, then laughed. ‘If they can really be pleased by you, then their standards leave a lot to be desired.’
‘We’re bastards,’ she said, ‘we’ve got low standards but they work for us.’
‘My name is Stef!’
‘Stephanie, no matter what you do, you’re never going to be good enough.’
‘Maybe, but you’re going to die alone, James. And no one is going to cry for you.’ She looked back to Ryan. [Shift us home, dad.]
The world blurred, and Ryan’s office came into view again.
She hugged herself for a moment, then looked to the two most important people in her life. People who wanted her. People she didn’t want to disappoint. People she wanted things from.
She wanted things. She was allowed to want things. Probably. Hopefully.
She looked to Ryan. Less of a gamble. Better chance of a good outcome. Safer. ‘I- I’m not his anymore. And I never have to think about him again. And I’m free. Do- Do you still want to the job, like, official and stuffs?’
He nodded.
‘Then- Then please proper adopt me. Properdopt me. Please. Even if it’s only Fairyland adoption, since I’m not sure the local Births, Deaths and Marriages office would be cool with someone they have no birth record of adopting someone they do have a death certificate for. You’re my dad, not him, and I want that official and on paper somewhere. You’re responsible for me, and for the good stuff I do through dumb luck and coincidence,’ she said with a smile.
‘I’ve got the paperwork in my desk,’ he said. ‘All I have to do it submit it.’
She hugged him. ‘Thank you. Really. Thank you. I’ll get you the best daddy’s day gifts ever, I promise.’ She paused. ‘And- And- Ok, what’s the plan for today?’
‘We’ve got a phoenix update meeting at twelve, other than that, nothing for the next few days. Light duties at most, so that’s tech department or low-rated patrols, but frankly only if you feel like it, no one is going to force you to do anything for at least the next couple of weeks.’
She gave a nod. ‘Okies then.’ She looked to Curt. ‘I know you’ve got paperwork and the boring normal stuff to deal with, but can I grab you for a minute first?’
Curt looked to Ryan. ‘Can you spare me for a little while, sir?’
Ryan nodded. ‘Of course. I think we were all caught up yesterday, so there’s nothing urgent. Take what time you need.’
She grabbed Curt’s arm and shifted back to his room.
She sat on the bed and pulled him down beside her. She stared at him for three seconds, licked her lips, then kissed him. ‘I want you,’ she said as she put a hand to his chest. ‘I want you.’
He exhaled a long, heavy breath. ‘Context,’ he said as his slid a hand into her hair, ‘context would be really good right now, newbie.’
She kissed him again. ‘You. I want you.’
‘Context is rapidly becoming important, newbie.’
He kissed her temple. ‘What do you want?’
He tapped a finger on her lips. ‘You’ve got to use more words than that.’
‘You. Us. This. I want it. If I can has, then I want it.’
‘You can has.’ He took her face in his hands and pulled her close. Longest kiss yet. Six seconds of contact. ‘So you’re over thinking that I’m going to ditch you?’
‘You still can if you want.’
‘If I kiss you every time you say something stupid, my lips are going to get very tired, very quickly.’
‘I don’t want to trap you.’
‘How about you trust me to make my own decisions?’ he said. ‘How about you wait until I say that I want to leave? Can you do that?’
‘What changed your mind?’
She pulled her legs up and sat cross-legged. ‘James.’ She splayed her fingers across her knees. ‘I know I can’t blame him for everything. I know. It sucks but I know. It would be too easy. Even if I’d had the perfect dad growing up, I still might be…me. I know I can’t blame him for everything, but I know I can blame him for a lot. I know I’d be a lot better if it wasn’t for him, maybe not perfect, but better. I wouldn’t- I wouldn’t be afraid of love. Of this. I wouldn’t be expecting you to be rejecting me. I’m just- I don’t want to be- I’ve never wanted anything for myself, not really. Cause I didn’t deserve to want anything. Cause I’m not good enough to get anything.’
‘Come on, you know that’s bull.’
She gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘I don’t know anything. But I know that James is- That I need to prove him wrong. I- I- I- I get to figure out for myself if I’m worthless or if I’m useless, I don’t have to listen to him anymore. I don’t have to rely on his opinion. It’s my life and I get to fuck it up however I want. And I also get- I also get to want things.’
‘And number one on your list is me?’ he asked with a smirk.
‘I want to,’ she said. ‘I want- I want all those stupid little nice moments that I thought I’d never get. I want you to hold my hand cause you’re bored and it’s nice, or to get a kiss while we’re waiting for the lift or the green light. I want to want all that. And to- If I want much more it’s going to turn into one of those stupid princess songs.’
She pulled him close enough to whisper in his ear. ‘I want to grow up. Just- Just a tiny bit. Just a little bit. And I’m scared of thinking that, but if I whisper it, then it’s not like I’m really saying it, and you can pretend I didn’t say it.’
He bought his mouth to her ear. ‘It’ll be our secret.’
He pulled away, grabbed the little box and pulled out the necklace again. ‘Want to try this again?’
‘I ruined that too,’ she said. ‘I shouldn’t have, but I did. First time I get a present from a boy and I ruin it.’
‘You didn’t ruin it.’
‘I did.’
‘Ok, but it’s not your first present, I’ve bought you stuff before.’
‘But that was at a different point in the timeline! It was before we jumped into romantic, so it’s a different first.’
He unclasped the necklace again. ‘Newbie, shut up.’
‘Not a thimble. I don’t want a thimble. If- If I want to grow up, then I have to let go of Peter. And thimbles.’
‘You don’t- I’m not trying to make you give up anything.’
She shook her head and wiped away tears. ‘You’re not, and that’s not what I’m- That’s not what I mean. I’m not trying to give up anything I don’t want to. Peter went to Neverland, and I think- I think that’s part of why I didn’t want to grow up. This- This is one of the- I can let him go, I can let that go. If you- I know it’s a present and I’m not supposed to argue, I’m just supposed to shut up and take it-‘
‘Never just shut up and take it,’ he said. The thimble disappeared from the chain. ‘What do you want instead?’
‘Something’s that’s us.’
Charms appeared and disappeared on the chain – a cookie, a gun, their initials entwined, then it went back to a bare chain. He wrapped the chain around his fingers, a look of concentration on his face, then smiled. A star appeared, a small silver replica of the head of the magic wand. ‘There. And that was your first present, not this, so you didn’t ruin anything.’
‘We weren’t a couple then.’
‘I liked you, even if I didn’t know I did. I didn’t just pick random gift shop crap, I got you the wand cause I knew how much of a kick you would get out of it, and I like that, you sort of…light up, and not in a radioactive way,’ he said with a smirk. He held up the necklace. ‘May I?’
She stood, bowed her head, and pulled her hair away from her neck.
He stood, draped the chain around her neck and fastened it. His hands stayed on her shoulders, and then he leaned closer to kiss the back of her neck. ‘Do you like this?’ he asked after a few quick pecks.
‘It’s warm,’ she said as he wrapped his arms around her. ‘It tickles.’
‘If you don’t like it-‘ he started.
‘I like it.’
He laid a few more kisses against her skin, then let her go. ‘Want to help me and your dad with paperwork, or do you want time off to play videogames?’
She pouted. ‘Can’t I do both?’
He spun her to look at him and smiled. ‘Newbie, I have absolute faith that you can.’