The bus went through a tunnel, and pulled into an exchange that could have been a clone of the Marches Terminus, other than the signage that identified it as “Basin’s Passing”. Like at the Terminus, the bus sat at stop sixteen. ‘Is this it?’ Stef asked.
‘Has it been two hours?’
‘I’m used to shifting, it feels like ten.’
‘This is the halfway point,’ he said. ‘Give me the phone for a minute.’
She passed the phone across, and watched him compose a message.
‘Texting Carmichael,’ he explained.
‘Shouldn’t you just call or something? How do you even know he’ll have an appointment free?’
‘He does very little work himself,’ he said as the phone beeped. ‘And he always has time for the Agency. Always.’
‘How do you know so much? I’d never even heard of this guy.’
Curt went quiet for a moment.
‘They threw me in the deep end,’ he said at last, moving closer so he could keep his voice down. ‘I-‘ He fidgeted with the phone for a minute. ‘Do you know why I’m a recruit, Stef?’
‘You wanted to be a good guy,’ she said.
‘No, I wanted to stop being Solstice. I didn’t think about anything further than that, I couldn’t hurt people anymore. It doesn’t automatically follow that they’d recruit me, especially not with-‘
She took his hand and squeezed. ‘You don’t have to-‘
‘I want to,’ he whispered, ‘I want to talk about this. Not all of it. Never all of it, but- I want to.’
‘They interrogated me,’ he said, ‘let’s just say that. I wasn’t as cooperative as I could have been, but they- I’d had a couple of close encounters with Agents, but always gotten away, it wasn’t until they-‘ he swallowed. ‘They made it really easy to understand why Solstice kill each other rather than be captured.’
‘But aren’t there rules about-‘
‘Not if there’s no paperwork,’ he said, ‘I was there for a two weeks before there’s one official mention of me. Unless there’s a real reason, Agencies can only hold a prisoner for a week before moving them on to Central or prison. Recruits, however, recruits they can keep forever.’
His words sank in, and she heard blood pounding in her hears. ‘Oh my god.’
‘They were going to push for the death sentence. I wouldn’t have minded. Gods, I would not have minded that at all.’
The bus pulled away from the stop.
‘Petersen left me the form and the pen and an hour to decide. I think at that point I hadn’t eaten for a week. I was hurting, I had nothing left. Dignity, pride, self-worth, none of it. Nothing they hadn’t taken. And…if I didn’t sign that form, then it was all going to be over. At least they feed you in prison before they execute you.’
‘Why’d you sign it?’
‘Honest to god, newbie, I couldn’t tell you.’ His fingers threaded through hers. ‘I don’t think it was any one thing. It was all the things I hadn’t done or wanted to do. I’d never been in love, I’d never been on a roller coaster, and I- I I was just too damn afraid to die, I didn’t want to die. I wanted the pain to be over so much, I don’t think I’d have put up a fight if he’d come in and put a gun to my head, but I couldn’t just lie there and not do this one tiny thing that would give me a chance.’
He was sharing, the least she could do was reciprocate, especially when it was relevant. She swallowed, then looked over to him. ‘There’s nothing wrong with a good, healthy dose of fear,’ she said, ‘I think that’s what stopped me.’
‘When you tried to-‘
She nodded. ‘Sleeping pills. Started to fall asleep, and I think I did, for just like a second, but I woke up, and then I was more scared than I’d ever been. Went and threw everything up, and hated myself more than I ever had for that, but the hate was better than the fear.’
He put an arm around her and held her close. ‘We’re so fucked up, aren’t we?’
She heard his heart pounding in his chest. ‘Yeah, like, Olympic-level mixed-doubles amounts.’
‘Once I was on the books,’ he said, ‘they could get away with a lot less. Still worse than what Taylor did to Mags, but not as bad as what they’d been doing. And at least I got food, water, and a chance to shower. Then he just…ran out of steam, or it stopped being amusing, or something, and he was stuck with a recruit he didn’t want and had no idea what to do with me.’
‘So what happened?’
‘Their doctor, who was like the only one who’d had an issue with the way they’d treated me, made the argument that I was already on the books as a recruit, I was fit, I was smart, and yanno, that I had damn well surrendered. I-‘
She felt him shaking.
She pulled away from him, and looked at his barely composed face.
‘I’m ok,’ he said, his voice cracking.
‘No, you’re not.’
He tried to look cocky, but it fell apart in a second. ‘Well I’d better be, cause if I’m not, then-‘
She wrapped a hand around the back of his neck and pushed his head down into her lap. He struggled for four seconds, then stopped, wrapped his arms around her like he had done in the hotel room, and sobbed quietly. Just like in the hotel room, she stroked his hair until he calmed. After a moment, he twisted in place, head lying flat in her lap so he could look up at her, tears rolling from his eyes down his cheeks.
‘There was nothing I could do,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t save the girl, I couldn’t save the agent, I could only save the baby.’
‘I believe you.’
‘She begged me. She knew she was going to die, she knew they were killing her agent, and she begged me. I did it, I let her kiss the baby, and then I ran. I surrendered and they still tortured me. I couldn’t have saved them, and at least I got the baby out and safe, and they still tortured me.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘The mother was Petersen’s ex, so I got told. The baby wasn’t his, but he still loved her, and I murdered her.’
‘You didn’t.’
‘That’s the way he saw it.’
Silence fell for a few moments, and he stayed in her lap, eyes half-closed as she played with his hair. ‘Have you thought about, I dunno, pressing charges or something?’ she asked after a moment.
‘No,’ he said. ‘No. It’s over, and I’m trying to forget it ever happened. I’m finally starting to stop looking over my shoulder for Petersen. I really thought he was just going to show up one day and off me. I made Aide and he didn’t do anything, so I think I’m safe.’
‘You are safe,’ she said.
He smiled. ‘I hope so. Do you mind if I stay?’
‘You’re the one who said we had another hour to go.’
‘Not on the bus, newbie, here. Here where I am here,’ he said, leaning into her hand.
She shrugged. ‘Can I has the phone back?’
He passed up the phone. ‘Give it back if I get a message though.’
‘Sure,’ she said as she started to flick through the other apps. Halfway through a game of Solitaire, he started to snore.
She felt a note of panic as she looked out the window – they were about an hour from the capital, but unless there were fireworks upon reaching the stop, she had no way of knowing what stop they needed to get off at. She looked back at the phone.
Tech don’t fail me now.
She found an app with the logo for the transit service and waited for it to boot. As it did, the screen went grey and asked if she wanted to sync with their current transport. She carefully tapped “yes” and the bus’s route information appeared, along with a stop list and a live-updating map. The panic disappeared as it let her select the stop she wanted, and gave a running countdown of the estimated tine, along with changing the map to give their stop a little star icon. Everything was fine.
Curt moved in her lap, turning, a shoulder digging into her thigh as he planted his face against her stomach, exhaling warm breaths into her uniform. She wiggled her leg until his shoulder moved to a less-painful position.
She’d thought mothering the Lost Boys would be easy, and she had told Peter as much. Peter had believed her boast, had agreed, had crowed in delight at finding someone “wonderful”, a “wonderful girl” no less because apparently girls and boys were different kinds of wonderful. Mothering them had seemed like an easy prospect from afar, a kind word, a comforting gesture, a simple presence that made things better.
The theory was great, the reality wasn’t so easy. Torture by agents wasn’t something that someone could just get over. Starting over, starting in a new life that had been forced on you wasn’t something that could be made better with a kiss and a bit of medicine. Feeling alone, feeling unworthy and feeling like dirt weren’t things that went away after one good adventure. Happy thoughts, maybe, but solid years of happy thoughts with facts and feelings to back them up.
The bus pulled over, and changed drivers before starting off again.
To be counted as a friend was wonderful. To contribute validated her. To be relied on was terrifying. She looked down at the sleeping lost boy taking refuge in her lap again. He was welcome to whatever small comfort she could give, for the next hour anyway.