Stef struggled against him – at first because she didn’t realise whose arms were wrapped tightly around her, then because of whose arms they were. She struggled and tried to pull away, but he held on, not giving her an inch.
For a panicked moment, she worried that she’d become the only thing she’d ever feared becoming – delusional. The concept of other psychological ailments didn’t bother her, but not being able to distinguish between what was real and what wasn’t frightened her.
To be imagining the strong hands around her, the faint old-books musty smell that all agents seemed to have, the smooth material of his vest, the hard button digging into the side of her head- ‘Damnit, you’re here.’ She choked for a moment and the tears broke free. ‘You aren’t supposed to be here,’ she whispered into his chest.
‘And I’m so glad you are’
He loosened his grip enough so that she could breathe properly, and she looked longingly at the door – even if she ran, he’d catch her, so it was useless. Stupid scary agent powers. Stupid scary narc powers. After a moment’s hesitation, she finally looked up at him. ‘Please don’t be here.’
‘I accepted whatever consequences that will befall me the moment I brought you back from Death’s realm.’
‘No you didn’t. You didn’t tell me that they’d put you in the recycling bin. You didn’t tell me it was dangerous for you.’
‘That’s because it isn’t your worry, it’s mine.’ He looked toward the bathroom. ‘How did you escape? How did-’
The heart felt heavy in her chest. ‘It’s a magic mirror, right? I made a wish.’
He took a half-step back to look down at her. ‘How did-’
‘I don’t have a breastbone anymore, and it only takes a pound of pressure to break skin.’ She considered her statement for a moment, then turned back to look at Jones. ‘And I‘m quoting scientific fact, not Firefly, just for your piece of mind.’
‘As you say,’ the tech agent said, then went back to typing on his laptop.
‘Where have you been?’ Ryan asked her.
‘Somewhere safe,’ she answered. Astrin had been a necessary sacrifice, he’d been a danger to everyone – and himself – he had been new to the world, and unstable. He was the dangers that the Agency principle of “one kilo could sink a ship” applied to. Jon on the other hand…if what Dorian had said was true – and she had no reason to disbelieve him – then Jonowoi had been on Earth since at least the Blitz, he was more a citizen of the planet than she was. He wasn’t dangerous, he wasn’t going to throw the world off-balance, and she wasn’t going to give him up. ‘Just somewhere safe.’
He gave her the look that she’d grown used to over the first twenty-four hours of knowing him – the look that was suspicious of what she was saying, the quintessential “narc look”.
‘But you came back,’ he said after seemingly letting the issue go.
The phantom pain in her shoulder came back and she sat quickly on the couch, unable to believe that she’d forgotten about the tiger for even a moment. ‘I wasn’t the only- There’s a ghost in-‘ She drew her knees up to her chest. ‘I’ve been alive re-alive just over twenty-four hours now, and I’ve spent most of that time asleep.’ She pressed her palms flat against her thighs and dug the short nails in, bracing herself to get through the explaination. ‘I’ve woken up and I wasn’t alone. It was this thing, like a big damn tiger.’ She lifted her hands and held them apart, ‘like this big, big tiger. It was also green and glowing.
I thought it was just a nightmare, gods know I haven’t been in the best frame of mind since walking through the poppy field. It bit me.’ She looked up at Ryan. ‘That was number three and I’m not rolling pens across your desk.’
‘You di-‘
‘Yeah. Trust me, definitely yeah.’
Jones cleared his throat. ‘I’m afraid I’m a little behind on this issue.’
‘So much as three times is a basis for a conclusion…it seems I’m functionally immortal.’ She looked up at Ryan. ‘I’m so fucking scared.’
‘Could be…ghosts given psychical form by the mirror, sir,’ Jones suggested. ‘Or aspects given the same. Sustained forms are unlikely, we haven’t had any reports of anything that could indicate this.’
‘Just fix me.’ The agents looked at each other, their expressions changing subtly. She bit the inside of her lip and waited for one of them to speak. ‘Are you two…doing the psychic thing?’
Ryan shook his head and looked down at her. ‘Jones is going to consult the collective unconscious. Mirrors are…We don’t have a lot of data on them. We don’t know if anything like this has happened before, we don’t know if-‘
‘Don’t finish that sentence the way I think you’re going to finish it.’
He looked over her head at Jones again. ‘We don’t know what we can do for you, if anything.’
‘You’re not big on taking requests, are you?’
Jones closed his laptop and put it on the arm of the couch, stood and walked over to the glass doors that opened out onto the tiny balcony. His head dropped and his body froze in place.
Ryan took Jones’ place on the couch. ‘Please don’t be here,’ she said again. ‘I don’t care how you feel, I don’ t know if I can live with the consequences.’
‘Agents…We do what is right, that what we’re made to do, it’s what we do. We keep order, we protect, we don’t-‘
‘Breaking the rules to create an undead hacker isn’t exactly keeping order.’
‘It was still the right thing to do. It wasn’t the logical choice, or even the smart choice, but it was the right choice.’
She buried her face in her knees. ‘I don’t want you to die. I don’t care what happens to me, but I don’t want you to die. I die, no biggy. You die,’ she shrugged, ‘then there’s no superhero to kidnap-slash-save babies.’
‘You die,’ he countered, ‘and I have no proof that I saved a precocious little girl.’
‘Yeah, and what’s the bitch from London gonna say about that?’
‘Emma…Whether or not her judgements of me are correct, the decision is ultimately not hers. She can threaten, she can try and convince me to quit, to recycle myself, to accept the judgement of my peers, but in the end, it’s not her decision to make.’
‘Then who?’
‘The Enforcers. I’m not sure my position is defensible, so I’ve been afraid to call them in. Emma won’t hesitate once she finds that you’re still-‘ He looked to Jones for a moment, then back to her. ‘There is…one other option.’ He stood and held out his hand. ‘Come with me.’
‘You said shifting was faster than running.’
‘You always have to enter a Court humble.’
Her face contorted in confusion, and eloquently, she said. ‘Huh?’
‘Come with me.’
She stared at his moment, part of her wanting to take it for the comfort, for the safety, the other part of her afraid to take it, afraid of the unknown. She buried the fear, took it, and allowed him to pull her to her feet.
Had it been beating, her heart would have skipped as he pulled her toward the bedroom.
A blast of cold air blew from the bedroom, and the sharp smell of snow met her nose.
‘No…’ She pulled away from his hand and ran to the relative safety of the kitchen.
You’re not delusional, that was real.
Shutupshutupshutup, I don’t care.
Your eyes can lie, your nose can’t.
That couldn’t have been snow, it couldn’t…It’s only my bedroom, just a bed and a desk.
And nothing.
‘And nothing, damn you!’ she cried, slamming her fist on the counter. ‘And nothing.’
And what?
I’m not going to say it.
And a wardrobe.
She closed her eyes and looked away from him. ‘I’m not delusional. I’m not. My brain got scrambled, but I’m not delusional.’
She felt him grab her hand and force it open. Something cold and wet was deposited in it. A snowball.
‘You didn’t imagine anything.’
‘Why is there snow in my bedroom?’
‘There’s more than snow.’
She crushed the snowball in her hand until the chill numbed her hand, then she let it slip to the floor. ‘Why is this happening?’
‘It’s the other option.’
She opened one eye to look at him. ‘Not that I believe that there’s snow in my room, or…anything else. – especially the anything else – but what would happen?’
‘The Lost look after their own. Madchester would welcome you, but I don’t want you in the same Court as the traitor, the Lost is the second-best option, and you’re already familiar to them.’
Again, the eloquent question came. ‘Huh?’
‘I had suspected it would come to this, so I investigated the Courts while you were…’ he trailed off and fumbled for a word.
‘Dead,’ she supplied.
‘Yes, that. The Mad, the Lost, the-‘
‘These are…fairy courts aren’t they?’
He nodded. ‘What else would I be talking about?’
She opened her other eye so she could stare at him disapprovingly. ‘You’re going to send the girl who can barely say the word “magic” without feeling cynical to a fairy court.’
He gave her a kind look. ‘You can accept me as an angel without a second thought-‘
‘That’s different,’ she said with a pout. ‘You’re a-‘
‘You’ll get use to it,’ he said. ‘You’ll be safe there, that’s the point. If you have sanctuary with a Court, the Agency can’t touch you.’
‘Thought you guys could reach everywhere.’
‘We keep order, the Courts keep their own order, we try our best not to get in each other’s way.’
‘…but why is there snow?’
‘The Lost,’ he said, ‘take care of those who get lost, whether it’s physically or emotionally. Those who go beyond the black stump with no destination in mind, and no intent of returning, children who take refuge in their minds to escape whatever bothers them, little girls who conjure an imaginary friend from a book-’
‘Shut up.’
‘You’re familiar to them, they know you Stef.’
‘Shut up.’
‘I’m not lost anymore,’ she whispered. She reached for him and let herself be pulled into another hug. ‘I’m not lost anymore.’
It was strange how good the hug felt – it was a guilty pleasure, it wasn’t something she was entitled to, it wasn’t something that was meant for her. It was a stolen comfort, and it felt good. Despite her guilt, the hug continued.
‘I don’t want to run away,’ she said. ‘I will if you tell me to, but I don’t want to.’
‘You would have to ask for sanctuary, so the decision is ultimately yours.’
‘And what about the tiger, and the bitch, and the-’
‘Not all records are Agency,’ he said, ‘there’s a chance that they would know something we don’t, or be able to do something that we couldn’t.’
‘So it would be goodbye?’
‘Goodbyes aren’t always forever, my dear,’ a voice from the past said.
She let Ryan go, let her arms drop to the side, but stared intently at his chest, not wanting to chance seeing the pirate.
‘I don’t want to be a pirate anymore, Captain,’ she said, still staring at Ryan’s chest, taking note of every stitch and button, anything to keep her from chancing a look at her beloved Captain.
‘You don’t have to be,’ Captain James Hook said, ‘within the Lost, you can be whatever you want. The lost boys won’t bother you if you don’t want them, neither will the crowing boy.’
‘You’re imaginary, and I’ve turned delusional.’
‘The book was destroyed, and that was your way to us, you wouldn’t have accepted me had I just come to you.’
She looked up at Ryan. ‘Make him go away.’
‘You won’t have to hide in wardrobes anymore,’ the agent said, ‘you will have found the one you’re looking for.’
‘I don’t want to be a pirate, I want to be a narc.’
‘The Court is a guarantee of safety, if you stay, then I can make no promises.’
‘Life is nothing but terms and conditions stating that no promises are made, the free stuff isn’t free, it is supplied as is, and it is working as intended. I don’t want the guarantee. I want my own story, not to re-live someone else’s.’
‘You never re-lived any story, my dear, you were rewriting it as you went.’
‘Captain, you’ve got other pirates to look after.’
‘Is this really your decision, Stef?’
She stepped back from the agent, walked around him, eyes to the floor so that all she saw of the Captain were his shiny black boots and into her bedroom. The sharp smell of snow was still there, her wardrobe was wide open, with a pine forest in the back that she didn’t remember being there before.
A few fur coats were right in front, and she allowed herself to run her fingers through the thick fur for a moment. The faint light of a misplaced street lamp filtered through the trees.
It was everything that she’d ever wanted, everything that she’d ever hoped to find in the back of a wardrobe, all the escape that she’d ever dreamed of during a sleepless night.
Everything she’d wished for.
She slammed the wardrobe doors shut.