Ryan knocked on the door. He focused on the small new experience, he’d been to the apartment dozens of times, nearly lived there the month Stef had been in suspension, and back and forth as much as he could in the small amount of time Carol had been back. So much time spent in the flat, but never once entering or leaving by the front door.
Carol opened the door. If he’d held out any hope for the situation, he would have taken it as a good sign. Hope was gone, and it was more cathartic than he could have imagined. There’d been no time to grieve for all the time lost, to take in what he’d done with Vink, how it had flown in the face of remaining faithful for two decades. No time to process just how much he’d enjoyed it. Any other circumstances, and he knew it would have taken weeks, even months to adjust.
The threat of the phoenixes had somehow crystallised everything. Over a hundred years of life, and there had been less than a handful of times he’d had to experience a threat like that, and with the fear, it brought clarity.
‘May I come in?’
Blue eyes glared at him, but she stepped to the side, and let him walk into the apartment. The radio was playing softly, and there was the smell of something cooking. Soup. Her comfort food.
‘I’d like to talk to you.’
‘That’s what you used to say when a recruit was in trouble.’
He walked into the living room and required a simple chair for himself and sat. She stalled in the kitchen for a moment, the sound of bubbling soup and clinking herb bottles mixing with the radio. After a couple of minutes, she sat on the couch, wiping her hands on a paper towel.
‘I truly did love you,’ he said.
This broke her resolve a little, and her hardened expression cracked a little. ‘I know,’ she said, ‘that’s what makes all of this so hard.’
‘I have a blind spot when it comes to my romantic relationships. It’s why I blamed myself for Eilise’s unhappiness, and it’s why I thought you were happy. I never meant to hurt you.’
‘You gave me the world,’ she said, staring down at her hands. ‘Dresses and jewels and Paris and fine dining. You were James Bond and a millionaire and everything a girl could ask for.’
‘Just not you.’
‘It was the Agency,’ she said, ‘more than you, but everything you are, is Agency. It was exciting, but then it was terrifying. All the death, all the danger, all of the secrets, and I can’t imagine that it’s gotten better over time. That wasn’t the life I wanted for myself. I wanted to be able to leave my job at the end of the day, and go home to a husband, make love, plan for the future, have a glass of wine and just relax.’
‘We could have done that.’
‘No,’ she said, ‘we couldn’t. We tried. You told me yourself, you separated Alex and Eilise from your Agency life and they barely saw you. There’s no point of delineation between life and work when you’re Agency. Even off-hours aren’t guaranteed, because an emergency can happen at any time. Work at the Agency, live at the Agency, it consumes your whole life. Every conversation becomes work, or policy or fae.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be,’ she said, and she gave him a small smile. ‘By the gods, you are a good agent.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Because you loved me so much,’ she said. ‘And you hadn’t done anything wrong, and it’s always hardest to break up like that, I wanted to put off feeling like the bad guy. I wanted to see if I could adjust, if I could get used to Agency life, but I couldn’t, and then it was too late.’
‘I told you that you’d be an agent, you must have known what that would mean.’
‘Any life,’ she said, ‘is better than none. I wasn’t even thirty, I didn’t want to die, Ryan. People my age don’t die, and they’re not shot and left to bleed out alone.’
‘I could have transferred you-‘
‘It would have been the same anywhere. Here, at least I had you, I may have resented the life you trapped me in, but it was better than being alone.’
‘It doesn’t comfort me,’ he said, ‘to know I was the lesser of two evils.’
‘That’s why I was going to leave,’ she said. ‘I didn’t want to cause you more pain.’
He looked across at her. ‘Where would you have gone?’
‘I was owed a favour by one of the Liars’ courtiers,’ she said, ‘it’s a good place to start a new life.’
‘New life,’ he said, ‘that’s why I’m here.’
She looked intrigued, but said nothing.
‘You don’t want be here, you have no reason to be here, and there’s nothing but bad memories. I want to give you a fresh start, and I hope it can make up for some of the grief I’ve caused you.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You can go, and not look back, you can have the life you wanted.’
‘I’ve been out of the world for twenty years, the little time I’ve had to adjust-‘ she began to argue.
‘You won’t be alone. I’ve enlisted the services of someone who is used to being a step out of time. It cost me little in comparison to the chance it’ll give you. He’ll be your guide for as long as you need until you feel you’re ready to go your own way. Papers will take a while, he will organise something through one of the courts – claim some small strain of fae heritage, the less I know, the better. That will get you’ll get recorded in the Agency system as another person. I’ve checked, the random sweeps don’t look for you. Unless you run into an agent who knows who you are, and has reason to doubt your new identity – which frankly, would be no one other than Taylor – you’ll be invisible to the Agency, and you’ll have nothing to fear.’
‘You’d do that for me?’
‘I already have,’ he said, ‘he’s downstairs, waiting. This flat is yours, should you decide to come back-‘
‘No,’ she said, ‘I won’t need it. A new life is a new life, no looking back.’
‘As you wish.’
‘I loved you too,’ she said. She stood, walked across to him, bent, and kissed him on the cheek. ‘I’m sorry that- I’m sorry, and I do hope that you find someone.’
He stood, and embraced her for a moment. ‘Goodbye.’
‘Thank you,’ she said again, wiping away a few small tears. ‘Thank you.’
He opened the door with a requirement, and pointed. ‘His name is Dorian, he’ll know you.’
She smiled, squeezed his hand for a moment, then walked out of the apartment. Out of his life.
He felt wetness on his cheeks as he walked across to close and lock the door. He made no attempt to stop his tears, to adjust his emotional output settings, or to wipe them away. They would help with the catharsis, help with adjusting to so many things at once. Thoughts, formed and half-formed spun through his mind as he went back to the living room, and sat on the couch.
Dorian had been easy to convince. His demands had been reasonable, given the circumstances, given the service he could offer. The only question he had asked after being told the situation had been “is she pretty?” and that simple to answer.
It was over.
There was a soft ping in his HUD as Stef came back into a system area. Stef, who he wouldn’t have without Carol’s death. Stef, who made all the pain and grief and loneliness worth it. So much lost, but so much gained in exchange.
He wiped away his tears, refreshed his face and opened up a communications window. [Welcome back.]
Her face appeared in the window. [Hi!]
[How did it all go?]
[He’s working for us,] she said. [Is there anything that we need to do straight away?]
[Jones could use some help generating and coordinating the birds, but it can wait, why?]
[Do you want the truth or a lie?]
She shuffled nervously for a second. [Is it bad to Contingency 32 someone a bit early?]
[Curt’s daughter?]
[Hold out your hands.]
He made a long-range requirement, and sent a bag of specially-formulated blue into her hands. [That’s all you’ll need for a child. Probably easiest to make her drink it, otherwise, use an IV.]
[You’re not mad?]
He shook his head. [Darren has turned his Outpost into a centre for getting family members processed. It would be counter-productive to stop it. Just head back when you’re done, I’ll need Curt’s help getting the agenda done for tomorrow.]
[I love you, Stef.]
Her face turned serious. [Are you ok?]
[Of course.]
[Na-uh, don’t lie to me. What’s wrong?]
[We can talk later.]
[At least tell me on a scale of one to apocalypse?]
[I broke up with Carol, but it’s for the best.]
[Is this my fault?]
[No, it was over before you could speak in full sentences, it’s not your fault.]
[You just made me feel really, really young.]
He took on an overly stern look. [Just be home before curfew, young lady.]
[Eep. Yessir.]
[Love you, Stef.]
[Love you, dad. We’ll be home soon. Bye!]
She gave him a wave, and he broke the connection.
One child was safe, as safe as someone could be, given the situation; one was not.
He shifted before he could give into his second, third, fourth thoughts. Give in to all of the reasoning that told him it was a bad idea. Give in to all of the previous experience.
For the second time in half an hour, he raised a hand to knock on a door. Alexander’s door. The door of a place he wasn’t welcome.
There were running footsteps, and the door was flung open. A young girl stared up at him, confused – he obviously wasn’t who she was expecting. A lump formed in his throat as he stared down at his granddaughter. Height, it seemed, was genetic. Alexander was as tall as he was, and the girl was taking after the both of them.
‘Can I help you?’ she asked, hand on the door.
‘Could I speak with your father, please,’ he said, modifying his emotional output just a little, so that the tears didn’t slip through, and so that he could keep sounding professional.
‘Sure.’ She turned her head to look down the hall. ‘DA-AD!’
‘Coming sweetheart,’ Alexander called. ‘Who is it?’
Mary-Anne looked back at him. ‘Who are you?’
He wanted to tell her the truth, but common sense prevailed. ‘I’m an acquaintance of-‘
‘Could you stir dinner, Annie?’ Alex said as he came down the hall.
‘Sure,’ she said and wandered away without another word.
Alex gave him a shove and pulled the door closed behind him, locking them out of the house. ‘You know you aren’t welcome here, Ryan.’
‘Alex, you have to listen to me.’
‘She’s seen you now,’ Alex said, ‘that is the last thing I wanted.’
‘You left me alone for so long, now twice in a year? What do you even want?’
‘To warn you.’
Alexander frowned. ‘If it has anything to do with your world, then it has nothing to do with mine.’ He turned to go back into the house. ‘Now if you-‘
He grabbed his son by the shoulder and shifted.
The Agency roof came into view as the world became clear, as did his son’s rage. ‘How dare you do that to me?! My daughter is home alone!’
‘I need two minutes of your time, that’s all.’
‘I don’t want to talk to you!’
‘There’s a chance the world could end.’
‘So why aren’t you telling the media?’
‘Because fear and panic could do a better job of destroying everything.’
‘Take me home. Now.’
‘Against one way this could happen,’ he pushed, ‘we have no defence. Against the other though, we do. Those that are magic will be saved. I just want-‘
‘I’m not magic, and neither is my family, and we don’t want to be.’
‘It could save your lives.’
‘Ryan, you-‘
‘Your daughter is twelve,’ he said, ‘is a life that short what you’d wish on her?’
This seemed to strike a nerve, and parental concern overtook some of the rage. ‘What’s the cost?’
‘Nothing, Alexander, nothing, I’m just trying to protect you, like I always-‘
‘No, no speeches, please. How long do I have to decide?’
‘There is nothing as convenient as a ticking bomb to tell us how much time we have left. It could be in a minute, or in a month, or – if we’re successful – never, but if you wait, it could be too late. I can’t guarantee that once it starts, I’d be able to get to you.’
‘I’ll think about it.’
‘I’ll think about it,’ Alexander snapped. ‘It’s concession enough that I’m considering it, Ryan. Give me one of those damn cards you’re always trying to leave with me.’
He required a business card and handed it over without a word.
‘If I do,’ Alexander said, ‘and big if, by the way. It won’t make you a part of our lives. I still don’t want you around, and I sure as hell don’t want you near Annie, I want magic to stay in Disney movies for her.’
‘Shouldn’t she get to decide that? You got to decide for yourself, though your mother certainly-‘
‘My mother knew what she was talking about. She still does. And, actually, we’re expecting them for dinner, so if you don’t teleport me-‘
‘Shift,’ he corrected.
‘Whatever. Send me back home now, you’re going to ruin my family dinner.’
‘You have my card,’ he said, and shifted his son away.