Stef held her breath, trying to keep track of the make-believe world as long as she could, but everything disappeared, as it had always done, fading into normality.
They were standing in a park she didn’t recognise – which didn’t surprise her, she wasn’t sure she’d recognise anything but Kensington Gardens without specific signage.

Ryan sat on a low bench, painted with bright red – playground red – paint. He looked…the expression was unreadable, or she was more out of practice than she’d thought. It wasn’t the normal, narcy blank look she’d seen a million times over her few days at the Agency, nor was it the I’m-busy-with-the-computer-in-my-head look. It was just…neutral. Not happy, not sad.
A nothing that wasn’t nothing.
What did you expect me to do?
The magical sheen of the winter wonderland dropped from her mind, the screaming reality of her imaginary friend being not-so-imaginary became less important.
Ryan had organised it. Ryan had wanted her-
Ryan had wanted her gone.
The agent looked up, having finally noticed them and stood. A big, ornate key that could only belong to the oubliette hung from his hand.
No.
She took a step back.
Almost as quickly, she stopped herself – she wasn’t scared of Ryan. Her gaze fixed on the key. It was so nice to see the sun.
He was going to lock her away again.
Hook put a hand on her shoulder and she nearly screamed. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘I don’t want-‘
Ryan stared as she approached, the neutral look on his face replaced with disappointment. ‘Stef- Stef, the Lost are your best option.’
She shied back, ashamed at herself for the action, and Hook stepped between her and the agent. ‘Back away,’ Hook said to Ryan, his hand resting on his cutlass.
‘No, no, I’m okay,’ she mumbled, trying to sort through whatever the fuck her feelings were doing.
Hook whirled towards her, his regalia and wig hiding Ryan behind him. ‘Dear one, one thing we are very good at picking up on is fear. If you want away from this man, give me any sign, and you never have to see him again.’
‘No,’ she said slowly, shaking her head. ‘Captain, I need to- I need to do this myself.’ She accepted the handkerchief that he pressed into her hand, and stepped around him.
I need to do it myself, otherwise what is the point of myself?
When you try philosophy, it comes out confusing.
When she stepped past the pirate, she was surprised to see Ryan looking as confused and upset as she was sure she looked.
Hook put his hand on her shoulder. ‘You are always welcome among us.’
‘I know,’ she said, then walked towards the agent.
Ryan kept his distance, backing away a step as she approached. ‘Stef?’ he asked, standing still as she approached.
‘Can we- Can we talk?’ she asked. She looked to the hand that held the key, then gingerly laid her hand on it and pushed it down. ‘Can we just talk, out here?’
Ryan hesitated for a moment, then nodded. ‘Of course. We should be safe.’
Stef walked past him towards the red bench and sat, the paint warm beneath her pants. She looked to where she’d come from, not at all surprised to see no hint of Hook or the door to the fantasy world. He’d always come and gone without a trace, left without any hint to let her parents know she’d been a pirate in her spare time.
He was real, and that was still too much to take in.
Ryan hesitated in front of the bench. ‘May I sit?’ he asked, as nervous as she usually was.
She nodded up at him, then dropped her head and dabbed at her eyes with Hook’s handkerchief. ‘Where are we? I know I might suck at IRL, but I can’t even pick out a landmark.’
‘I doubt that you’d recognise many places in Fairyland.’
‘We’re where?!’
Ryan gave her a small smile. ‘We’re on the edge of the Marches,’ he said. ‘A place within Fairyland that has a minor system connection.’ He lifted a hand and held it near his face. ‘Requiring has a lag, shifting can only be done from designated areas, but communication works well enough, so it’s a good place to be away from work, without being entirely off the grid.’
She nodded. ‘I would love to look over the specs and see just how they-‘ She paused, trying to push down excitement. ‘If you don’t want me, you’re not obligated to keep me.’
The agent looked hurt. ‘Stef, that wasn’t-‘
She twisted her hands around the handkerchief. ‘You don’t know how grateful I am to know that Hook is real, but- But if you don’t want me around, then you don’t have to pussyfoot around, just tell me. I’ll fucking man up and- I’ll disappear, I won’t be your problem anymore.’
‘That wasn’t what this was at all.’
She pressed her hands down onto the bench. ‘If I had wanted to go, I would have been sailing across the sea off to plunder booty and slay Lost Boys!’ She stared down at the sparkling concrete beneath her feet. ‘Without even a chance to say goodbye. I never wanted to be your problem, Ryan, so if that’s what I am, then-‘
‘You aren’t my problem,’ he snapped. She was on her feet before she realised. ‘No, Stef, no,’ he said, his voice gentle. ‘Gods, no, I didn’t mean it like- You aren’t a problem. I don’t see you as a problem, you are not a problem to me.’
‘So why’d you try and get rid of me at the first opportunity?’
‘The Lost seemed like the safest place for you to-‘
‘So why didn’t you ask me?!’
Ryan hung his head.
‘It’s my life,’ she said. ‘I know I have done nothing but fuck it up, but it’s still my life and I want some choice in what’s going on. I don’t want you to just…throw shit at me and expect me to take it. Why not sit me down and tell me about the Lost or whoever else, the pros and cons of sanctuary, and whatever else.’ She looked down at the ground. ‘Let me make an informed decision, for fuck’s sake,’ she said quietly.
‘All right,’ he said. ‘The next time I visit, we’ll discuss a permanent solution.’
A discussion means I get a choice, right?
She looked down at his hand, at the oubliette key. ‘Do I have to go back in?’
‘It’s only temporarily, I promise.’
She spread her arms wide. ‘This is the first time I’ve been outside since I stopped being dead!’
He was silent for a moment.
‘Ryan?’ she prompted as he went silent and the out-to-lunch-playing-in-HUD expression came over his face.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said distractedly. ‘I have to head back.’ He stood and twisted the key on air, a door forming before her eyes.
‘Can I just-?’ she started.
‘No.’
‘But I’ll just sit right here.’
‘I can’t risk it.’
‘It’s my life,’ she said quietly. ‘Please, I don’t want to be locked away anymore.’
She walked into the oubliette. ‘Ryan?’
I trust you.
He looked at her, his face distractingly vacant.
You’re coming back, right?
He reached towards her and almost reflexively straightened her tie. ‘I’ll see you soon,’ she said and stepped back from the door, stepping back into the room that had become her prison.
[table id=15 /]