Ryan stared into his HUD. [Can I come in?]
A text only message popped up a short moment later. [I’m busy. I’m doing work. You want me to do work, right?]
He put a hand to her office door, only to have a message box appear in his HUD, informing him that she’d locked it with her security code.
Another text-only message appeared. [I can hear you out there! I’m busy!]
[The more exclamation marks you use, the less likely I am to believe.] He smiled. [Let me in, Stef?]
He stepped back as a rectangle of fabric appeared nailed to the door. A small blue flag emblazoned with a white spider – itself holding a small flag. [Can I assume this is the official flag of the land of Steforia?]
[No visitors allowed.]
He overrode her security code and opened the office, he stepped inside the dark office, and closed the door behind him.
The dress was beautiful. The girl was miserable.
‘Curt told me you locked him out,’ he said as he walked across the office, to where she sat up against the wall behind her desk, knelt, then leaned against the wall beside her. ‘What would you like me to say?’
She waved a tiny version of Steforia’s flag. ‘Well, you did just commit an act of war by invading, can we sue for peace first, I don’t have the resources to start a war.’
The words were one hundred percent Stef. Wonderful nonsense. The tone was far from light or happy though. He required a handkerchief, and pressed it to her nose. ‘Blow.’
‘It’s my condition of suing for peace, blow.’
She pulled the handkerchief from his hand, rubbed her nose with it, then started to cry. She pushed off from the wall, fell against him, then let her head slide into his lap, and hugged his legs.
[Dammit, I was ok! I was ok! And then you wrecked it!]
He slowly leaned forward, lifted her from his lap, and wrapped his arms around her. ‘You weren’t fine, Stef.’
‘What’d you do?’ she asked, shaking the handkerchief accusingly, ‘magic it? Did you magic it?’
He picked it from her hand, and wiped her face. ‘Talk to me.’
‘Yes you do.’
‘I dun wannnnna!’ she wailed, and hugged him tighter.
‘I’d compliment your dress, but I think that’s the problem.’
She stood and gave a twirl. The midnight blue fabric shone and flowed, equal to anything that was going to be on display at the gala. ‘Of course it’s not the problem,’ she said, and gave another twirl. ‘It’s gorgeous.’ Another twirl. ‘ It’s wonderful.’ Another twirl. ‘ It’s so so so so so damned pretty.’
He stood, and stopped her from twirling. ‘And it isn’t you.’
‘It’s blue and it doesn’t try to pretend I have boobs or make me wear a push up bra, so it’s probably the best dress I’ve ever put on.’
‘Where did it come from?’
‘Mags’ fairy tailor.’ A hint of amusement crossed her face. ‘And now I’m thinking about a fairy Taylor. And what he’d look like with wings. Yanno, fairy wings, cause I’ve seen him with angel wings. Do fairy wings come in arterial red?’
‘But didn’t Magnolia get the dress?’
‘Yeah, I hope so anyway.’ She tugged at the blue fabric. ‘This is a required extrapolation of the design he did before I rejected the offer. So it’s not as good as it could have been, but it’s still gorgeous. Mags said people would kill for this dress. I don’t think she was being hyperbolic. And I don’t want it!’
‘Then take it off, you aren’t obligated to wear it.’
She grabbed the skirt, and pulled the dress roughly up over her head. She stumbled for a moment as it came away, then dropped it to the floor, leaving it as a pool of satin and beads. She leaned against her desk in her underwear and buried her face in her hands. ‘I am such a fuck up. I am such a fuck up!’ she went to her knees and gathered the dress up, and held it to her chest. ‘Sorry, I’ll- Sorry, I’ll- I’ll stop being an idiot. I’ll be a good girl, I’ll be a good girl! I didn’t mean to-‘
He crouched and pulled the dress from her protesting hands, stood, pulled his gun from his holster and shot the closest window before she had a chance to argue, then hurled the dress into the wind.
* * *
Stef choked, and felt her tears evaporate, replaced with sheer disbelief. She found her voice. ‘Did- Did you really just do that?’
He looked down at her and required her into her uniform, then placed his gun back in his holster before reaching both hands down to her.
She ignored his hands. ‘…did you just shoot out my window and commit littering from a high-rise?’
He looked out the window, turned back and raised an eyebrow. ‘It hasn’t hit the ground yet.’
This spurred her into action, and she jumped to her feet, leaning against the frame of the shattered window, and looked down at the fluttering dress.
‘It’s gonna hit a bus! It’s gonna hit a bus!’ she shouted. The dress disappeared. ‘Stupid safety net!’ She turned and leaned against the frame, and started as subroutines replaced the glass. ‘At least Applebaum gets something pretty to wear.’ She hugged her arms around herself. ‘Uniform, that feels so much better.’
‘You don’t have to wear a dress tonight.’
She gave him a disparaging look. ‘Come on, you’ve been a smart, awesome dad up until now, don’t ruin it by being an idiot. Of course I have to wear a dress!’ She shook her feet. ‘At least that dress is long enough for me to get away with wearing sneakers if I don’t chicken out and go for flats, but of course I have to wear a dress!’ She twirled again. ‘You can’t twirl in a suit! Maybe if I wore the jacket, but I don’t even wear the jacket! You can’t twirl in a suit, the suit won’t look good in the photoshoots, and I can’t walk up to the bloody king of fairies wearing the same stuff I wear every day!’ She wiped her eyes. ‘So of course I have to wear a dress. And you just chucked it out the window. Which was one of the coolest things I’ve seen ever. Ever.’
‘It’s your gala, Stef, you can wear what you want.’
‘Liar! Liar! Liar!’
He held her. ‘I very rarely lie to you, Stef. And I’m not now.’
She wiped her eyes with his tie. ‘I always like when you say that. That, yanno, you acknowledge that you have to lie me sometimes. All parents do, but like, ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine-nine-nine percent of them say that they don’t, that they wouldn’t, that they’d never have to.’
‘I do not enjoy the times I have to lie to you.’
‘I know, and that makes it even better. And it’s always for, like, Agency reasons and stuff. I get that. It’s the acknowledgement that means so much. I just wish you’d acknowledge that I’m a fuck up and that I’m going to ruin this stupid gala tonight.’
‘Unless you walk in and fling faeces at the attending royalty, everything will be fine.’
‘You don’t know I won’t do that!’
‘I do, and you do too.’
She gave him a small smile. ‘Yeah, I suppose.’
‘Shall we get your attire sorted out.’
‘We’re T-minus an hour and you’re in your suit!’
He snapped his fingers and it was replaced with a very James-Bondish tux, and with another snap, his uniform returned. ‘I’ve had to attend formal occasions before,’ he said, ‘I have a few outfits in my rotation.’
‘Everything I attended was always formal,’ she said as she sat on her desk, and swung her feet. ‘From as soon as I was able to walk, and before, but I don’t remember the before.’ She tapped on her knees. ‘You’re so lucky, you know, and me, I’m more lucky. If what happened had been a few months before, I don’t think I would have remembered it.’
‘You would have,’ he said, ‘I’m sure of it.’
‘I was excused from that, or maybe they just hoped I’d kill myself if they left me unattended for too long, but everything after that. Stupid little dresses with ribbons and hats and pinchy shoes. Smart little blouses and sensible skirts. Dresses to try and pretend that I was beautiful, back when I was young and that was still a possibility, even if I already wasn’t as pretty as the other girls. I was a stumble-step behind back then, now I’ve been disqualified and have to sit on the bench. I’m not pretty and no dress is going to change that. I mean, I get to wear a mask, so that’ll keep up the illusion for the people far away, who aren’t looking too closely.’ A coffee appeared in her hand and she drained it, then slammed it down on the desk. ‘Can’t we get the heat off me? Say we lied and that it was Mags? She is the kind of girl that was supposed to save the world. She’s tall and she’s so pretty and she’s fae, so they’re already on her side. It’s what people keep saying, the girl who saved the world, the girl who saved the world, cause it not quite rhymes, but sounds good when you say it. I’m a girl, but I’m not a…girl. I’m not what people imagine when you say something like that. And I’m not even going to make the argument that a lot of people probably think a guy should have saved the world, cause that sounds so much stronger, we can nominate you for it, “the man who saved the world”! Doesn’t that sound much better than “the girl who saved the world”?’
‘If it has to be a girl, then it should be Mags, cause at least she has boobs!’
‘Enough, young lady.’
He held her hands. ‘You saved the world, Stef, you did. Tonight is to celebrate you and the lives people have because of you. It will be a very sad day if the guest of honour shows up and is miserable because she’s forced herself to wear a dress to conform to standards that she’s had forced on her for her whole life.’
‘Ryan, I have to wear a dress, I have to look- I have to look like I belong at a gala. It’s just all part of how it works.’
‘Do you trust me?’
‘Close your eyes.’
‘You don’t trust me not to peek.’
‘No, you’re right.’ He required a length of cloth and gently tied a blindfold. ‘Now I trust you not to peek.’
‘I could still look through the cloth if I wanted.’
‘I trust you not to go to the effort.’
She felt her uniform disappear.
‘You’re going to have to sign a form if you get the dress back from Applebaum.’
‘I don’t need that dress.’
She felt a dozen different fabrics touch her skin as outfits were required and dismissed. A dozen pretty dresses that belong on a dozen pretty girls. Cool fabric settled against her arms and legs, and stayed. He removed the blind fold. ‘Keep your eyes closed.’
His fingers smoothed out her hair, then she felt the hard touch of a comb against her scalp.
‘At least there’s no brain and blood this time,’ she said as she dipped her head forward to make it easier for him to tame her hair.
‘I could just required your hair into place,’ he said, ‘but I thought you might prefer this.’ He dropped a section of hair over her shoulder, and combed the remainder. ‘I can’t imagine that James ever did this for you.’
‘Of course he didn’t.’ She let out a long breath through her nose. ‘And I do like this. It feels like-‘ She shrugged. ‘I dunno. Being pampered or something?’
‘Lift your head back up for me.’
She tilted her head back up as he twisted her hair and began to pull it into whatever style would match the outfit he’d required for her. She felt a clip slide into place. ‘If I’d raised you,’ he said, ‘I would have done your hair every day before school, I never would have forced you to wear clothes that so ill-suited your personality, and-‘
She turned and blindly hugged him. ‘You would have loved me,’ she said, ‘I know. You’re doing a really good job of making up for lost time. Even if I’m mostly a fuck up cause they made me a fuck up, I still don’t want to disappoint you. That’s why I’ll wear a dress or whatever, cause it’s the mature thing to do, it’s the least you should be able to expect of me. So I’ll do it, for you.’
‘You can open your eyes now.’
A tall mirror sat across from her, and reflected his requirements, and her new outfit back at her. It was black and blue and perfect. She touched her uniform with new reverence, the same uniform she worked in, ate in, slept in and died in. The same uniform that had been her first clue that her life from moving from hermity hacker to nascent narc. The uniform that marked her as belonging. That did a lot to define her. That made her feel so much more comfortable than it should.
‘There is nothing more fitting for you to wear tonight, Agent,’ Ryan said as he lifted her delicate mask, his fingers light on it, careful not to damage the delicate, almost nommable sugar-candy like detail. ‘And anyone who wants to argue the point can bring it up with me.’
She jumped into his arms and clung to him. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!’ She pulled away and wiped the remnants of tears from her eyes. ‘How do you do that?’
‘Always make me feel better?’
‘I’m your father, it’s my job. Now be careful with your hair.’
She stopping moving and reached her hands up. ‘So that wasn’t obfuscation too? You did something?’
A live feed appeared in her HUD and she looked down at herself through his eyes.
She turned, watching herself turn away in the feed. She saw a flash of silver in her hair, and saw the clip as he leaned toward her. A long silver clip to match her silver mask.
‘Huh,’ she said, ‘I’ve never put my hair up, my neck feels naked.’
‘I can take it out.’
She stepped away and turned back towards him. ‘No! It’s a little bit of pretty and it’s my stupid gala, so I have have a little bit of pretty.’
He looked at her with mock surprise. ‘Oh, so it is your gala?’
She pouted and ground her shoe against the carpet. ‘I suppose.’
He held her mask out to her and she slipped it on. After a moment, she fished her necklace out from under her shirt and let it hang down over her tie, it was silver, it matched, and hopefully it would distract a few people from looking directly at her.
Ryan crooked an arm to her, his suit replaced with the James Bond tux again. ‘Are you ready?’
She held on to his arm. ‘Yeah, I suppose.’
The world blurred as they shifted, and the conference room came into view.
‘Everyone except O’Connor owes me!’ she heard Magnolia say as they reintegrated. ‘Mimosa, what is wrong with you?’
She bit her lip as she turned to look at Magnolia. ‘Oh wow, you’re pretty,’ she said, the insult dying on her mouth as she stared at the violent magpie. The dress was something that people would have killed over, if they’d cared about that sort of thing. Black and white, with beading and delicate piping.
‘Thank you. But what’s wrong with you? Where’s the dress?’
‘Mags, she’s the guest of honour,’ Curt said from somewhere behind her, ‘stop trying to give Rier a heart attack, fairy hearts always shrink when they go into arrest, the Parkers will want at least a kidney for their trouble.’
Magnolia stood, the dress flowing with her as she walked across the room. ‘Even you look good in Yo,’ she said, almost kindly, ‘do you really want to go to a gala in your honour in your uniform? A uniform, that I’m betting will be dirty by the time we get out of the limos?’
She required twenty dollars and handed the orange note to the magpie. ‘It will be dirty, the shoes too, I’ll pay you now to avoid the rush.’
She felt Curt wrap his arms around her, and she blushed. ‘It’s a gala for an agent, Mags,’ he said, ‘half the people there will be in something mimicking a uniform.’
Magnolia looked at her again, then sighed and retreated to her seat.
Curt pulled her towards a seat, and Ryan walked around the table to sit next to the red head.
Rier stood at the head of the table, pale and still gawping at Magnolia, but composed herself and began to talk them through the schedule for the official photo shoot, then the route the limo would take.
She tuned the fairy out, knowing she’d be told when and where to go as appropriate, and looked around the table. Ryan in his James Bond tux. The redhead in a green dress that complimented her hair. Hook in his nearly regal regalia. Magnolia in a dress fit for a queen, a huge black jewel hanging from her neck. Taylor and Grigori in matching tuxedos – Taylor’s managing to make him look slightly less scary than usual. Slightly. A quantum step less frightening. Grigori looked at home in his, the same easy expression on his face as usual. Patty wore a golden dress, and Mike matched it with his tie and waistcoat. Clarke stood at the back of the room in a slick suit, his phone in one hand, a cigarette in the other.
She turned to look at Curt. He wore a nicely cut suit – but the lines were strange, it was fairy or fae, not human, and his tie was uniform blue. He’d known what she’d do. She slipped her hand under the arm of his chair and found his hand, and held his hand tightly.
He pulled his hand free, brought hers up over the arm of the chair, and raised her hand to kiss it. His cufflinks matched the star around her neck.
‘I love you,’ she whispered.
In response, he smiled, and kissed her fingers.
Ryan’s face appeared in her HUD. [This next part concerns you, you’ll need to pay attention.]
She nodded to him, closed the window, and spun her chair towards Rier to pretend she’d been listening all along.
They’d been right, it was going to be a great night.
Ryan stared into his HUD. [Can I come in?]