Stef opened her eyes. A jumble of nightmare imagery vanished under the scrutiny of the infirmary’s low lights.
Something beeped – an ECG. Familiar sound. Comforting sound. Sound that meant she was still alive.
She looked at the other pieces of equipment, at the various lines and cords leading to her bed and to her body, and she relaxed a little. She let her eyes close halfway and just listened to the soft beeping for a moment, confirmation that she hadn’t–
Her eyes opened again.
‘He – hello?’
The curtain around the bed was pulled back, revealing one of the Parkers. She blinked. ‘Sorry. Which one are you?’
The Parker starred at her for a moment, then grinned. He walked over, placed his hand on the bed, and leaned close, still grinning. ‘You just won me a blow job, Recruit.’
‘The fuck?’ She leaned away from him. ‘Isn’t the nice one my doctor?’
The curtain opened the rest of the way, and the other Parker appeared. ‘Don’t mind him. He’s just excited about winning.’
‘Is Ryan okay?’ she asked. ‘And winning what?’
‘Ryan was up and about hours ago,’ the nicer Parker said. ‘And we have a standing bet. I usually win.’
She let out a long breath. Ryan was okay. She hadn’t gotten an angel killed. He was okay. She’d nearly gotten him killed.
He was definitely going to hate her now.
She swallowed and tried to stamp down on her emotions. ‘What bet?’ she asked, hoping it would distract them.
The taller twin flicked her IV bag. ‘Most recruits are influenced a little too much by the idiot box. They wake up, and the first thing they do is undo all of our hard work, rip out their lines, unstick the electrodes, and then try to get out of bed.’ He pointed an accusatory finger at her. ‘If you rip our stitches through idiocy, I have free rein to harvest your fucking organs.’
She shrank away from the finger. ‘I’m not sure that’s in the Hippocratic oath.’
‘Hippocrates can suck my dick.’
The shorter Parker put a hand on his twin’s chest, and they stared at each other for a moment. The taller twin shifted away, and her doctor pulled the clipboard from the end of the bed. ‘Are you interested in your condition?’
‘Are you sure Ryan’s okay?’
‘Yes, Recruit, I am. Jonesy knows what he’s doing. He’s a damn fine tech.’
She squeezed her eyes closed for a moment. ‘Jonesy fixed him? But – but he was shot and bleeding and–’
‘You can ask one of them for a lecture on agent biology when you’re feeling better,’ he said. ‘Suffice it to say, he’ll have no lasting effects whatsoever. The director is fine, and he’s not my patient. You are.’
She looked down at herself – she was dressed in scrubs, rather than a loose gown. ‘I was shot. I’m almost afraid to ask. Do I get the time off to heal, or do I just get kicked out and have to organise the physical therapy on my own?’
The doctor gave her a confused look. ‘You’re excused from training tomorrow, and I’m recommending light duties for the rest of the week, but even that’s being overly cautious.’
Stef stared at him. ‘I was fucking shot,’ she said.
‘And you’re in my infirmary,’ the nice Parker said. ‘You’re part of the Agency now, Recruit. You should adjust your thinking.’
‘Okay, I know I got scratched up yesterday, but–’ She let her hand rest lightly on her stomach. ‘This is different.’
Parker pulled her hand out of the way and lifted her top to reveal her stomach. The light gauze wrapped around her middle disappeared, revealing a simple patch held to her skin by tape. ‘And there’s one just like this on the exit wound,’ he said. He tugged at the tape and lifted it up so she could see.
She angled her head for a better view, and a square mirror appeared in his hands, showing her a perfect view of her stomach. She looked past the familiar scars and saw bruising and a small row of stitches, but on what looked like a wound that had already had a week to heal.
‘How – how long have I been here?’
‘Just a few hours.’ The mirror disappeared, and he taped the patch back into place before the gauze appeared again. ‘Don’t exert yourself, take the painkillers we prescribe, and you won’t even notice anything.’
‘But I was shot,’ Stef said, still trying to take everything in.
‘Welcome to the Agency,’ he said. ‘Now, do you want to sleep it off here, or would you like me to shift you back to your room?’
‘My room, please.’
The world blurred, and she found herself in her bed, under the Agency-blue sheets. She cuddled into the quilt for a moment, tucking it beneath her chin, hands pressed to a stomach that should have been painful to touch.
Stef could sleep. She could sleep and worry about everything in the morning. It had already been hours; it was already too late for an apology. There was no way to apologise for being the reason someone got shot, much less a someone who mattered.
The phoenix had been incredible. Life-changing. Magic.
Ice cream had been childish and–
She pulled the quilt more tightly around herself, then pulled it up over her head. Hiding was the second-best option to running, and running hours after surgery didn’t seem like the best idea.
She required a star-shaped night light and turned it on, letting the soft light illuminate the all the corners of the blanket-cave. She grabbed at one of her pillows, hugged it tight, and closed her eyes.
Stef opened her eyes.
I fell asleep, didn’t I?
Don’t even pretend to be surprised.
She’d managed to maintain her blanket cavern, and the night light was still pouring soft light into the space. She lifted it and clicked it off. She cradled the night light to chest for a moment, then pushed the blanket off.
Her hair went in a dozen directions as the quilt came free. Stef slowly sat up, still expecting pain but feeling nothing. She pressed her hand against the wound but still felt nothing. A clear bottle sat on the bedside table, and she recognised painkillers without having to look at the label.
No need to take chances. She read the label, swallowed two pills with water, then stood.
Standing should have been impossible. Should have been painful. Should have led to ripped stitches and angry doctors. She stumbled into the bathroom and leaned heavily against the sink. She peeled off the blue scrubs and let them fall to the floor.
She unwrapped the gauze and dropped it to the floor on top of the clothes. There was no blood on the patch, and nothing to indicate that bleeding was going to be a problem. She grabbed the gauze with her toes – it had likely been used more for social engineering than for medical reasons. People expected bandages. People expected to be wrapped up.
Stef required a full-length mirror and turned to look at the patch on her back. There was a tiny bit of blood on the exit wound’s patch, but less than she expected. Less than was logical.
She turned and faced the mirror head-on. Everything was normal, other than the patch. Even the bruises were gone. With one hand, she traced her fingers over the familiar scars. Each had a name. Names had made them real, made them close, made them less scary. The scars of the entry and exit wounds would need names too – rhyming names, twin names, would make sense.
A thought had had her in a uniform. Another made the mirror disappear.
She ran her hands through her hair, trying to make it neat.
‘Huh.’ She turned to look at the round mirror that hung over the sink.
Require: tidy hair.
Her scalp tingled as her hair straightened itself and settled into something that looked neat and narcy. She lifted her hands to her tie and straightened it again, just as Ryan had done.
I want this.
Tell me I can do this.
I’m impressed you’re even trying, Spyder.
She walked from the bathroom and paused upon seeing that the bed had been made. ‘Um, hello?’
There was no answer.
Huh. It did that yesterday, too. Room service?
She walked forward, grabbed the edge of the quilt, and pulled it away from the bed. She backed into the kitchenette and stood by the sink, her attention glued to the messy bed.
Thirty seconds later, the blanket disappeared from the floor, and the bed made itself.
Stef went to the bed, patted it in thanks, then walked from the room.
Silence hit her in the hallway. Stef looked left, then right, and heard nothing.
Fsck. Zombie apocalypse?
That’s pushing it, Spyder.
She required a watch.
‘Oh, you are fucking kidding me!’ She kicked the wall and dismissed the watch.
Four thirty in the morning does not exist. Four thirty in the morning does not exist.
She growled, coughed as the sound hurt her throat, and walked through the recruit-free halls towards Ryan’s office.
She froze when the office door came into view.
What if he’s asleep? Do angels sleep?
She giggled at a sudden image of Ryan sleeping upside-down, bat-style, with wings wrapped around him.
Only one way to find out.
But if he’s already mad at me…
The office door opened, and she backed up against the wall.
Ryan, looking as normal as he ever had over the last couple of days, looking nothing like an angel that had been bleeding to death, stared at her for a moment, then quietly beckoned her in.
I think I want to run instead.
Do what you think is best.
She curled her toes in her sneakers, then walked into the office and closed the door.
‘Did – did I wake you?’ she asked, leaning against the closed door, cutting off the option of running.
‘I wasn’t asleep.’ Ryan sat at his desk. Unlike the rest of the times she’d visited, his chair wasn’t facing forward, wasn’t looking at her and the door, but was instead parallel to the desk, giving him the option of turning to look at the door or the window.
Giving him the option to look at something that wasn’t the personification of abject failure.
The desire to run away rose like vomit.
‘Do you sleep?’ she asked, managing to push back the important question.
‘I do,’ he said, his voice professional but– Cold. Or sad. Or disinterested. ‘Agents do. We don’t need as much sleep as humans, but a rest is useful for many reasons. It lets our minds rest, our caches clear, our diagnostics run.’
Another dozen questions formed, but there was one more important. Her head pounded. ‘Do you hate me?’
He looked out his windows for a moment. ‘I’ve been wondering the same thing.’
Her heart sank. ‘Let me know when you figure out the answer.’
She grabbed the door handle, but she heard it click locked. ‘You know what I meant,’ he said in his calm and narcy voice.
‘But you just said–’
She fixed her glare on the door, unable to look at him. ‘Taking it any other way than face value doesn’t make sense,’ she said, feeling rather brave against the door. Cause that means that you think I hate you, and that’s just stupid!’
‘I nearly got you killed.’
‘I nearly got you killed!’ she shouted at the door. ‘You got shot because I wanted ice cream! You got shot because–’
She choked for a moment and let her head hang. ‘You got shot because of me.’ She banged her head against the door. ‘You were dying, and it was my fault.’ She pounded her head again. ‘It was my fault.’ She rammed against the door again. ‘It was my fault.’
When she brought her head forwards again, she hit against something a lot softer than wood. She opened her eyes and saw his hand sandwiched between her head and the door. ‘It’s only logical that you’d hate me.’
He put his hands on her shoulders and slowly turned her away from the door. ‘Doesn’t this seem a lot like the conversation we had last night?’
‘Last night I was just a criminal. Now I’m an accessory to your almost-death.’ She slumped forward, held upright by his hands on her shoulders. ‘But there’s a “but”.’
She closed her eyes. ‘But. But I want to stay. If you don’t hate me. If it’s okay that I stay. I – I – I want to stay. I know I suck more than anyone ever, but I’ll get better. I promise.’
Apologising was normal. It had been so normal. Such a part of growing up. Apologies had been the majority of words said to her father. Sorry for misbehaving. Sorry for disappointing Mother. Sorry for not winning at dressage or show jumping. Sorry for making teachers call, just to make him decline invitations for her to attend advanced classes or conventions for excelling students.
Apologising was normal.
Apologising and– She hugged her arms around herself. Apologising and expecting forgiveness wasn’t normal.
Hoping for things wasn’t normal, either.
Ryan crouched low enough to catch her gaze, then rose a little as she lifted her head. ‘I don’t hate you, and I don’t want you to leave.’
‘Thank you.’ She stared at her feet. ‘And I’ll get better, I promise.’
He ruffled her hair, and her face hurt from the smile that formed. ‘I know.’
She looked up at him. ‘So, um, what do people do at this hour of the morning? I’m not used to seeing it from this side.’
Ryan indicated at the couch, and they sat. ‘It depends on the person.’
A small table appeared, covered in breakfast foods, and Stef began to load up a plate as he continued to talk.
‘For myself, it depends on the previous night. Sometimes I sleep during the early hours, or I complete paperwork.’
She made a small noise as she reached for the silver jug with the hollandaise sauce for the eggs Benedict, unable to reach it without tipping her slightly overloaded plate.
‘For example,’ – he grabbed the edge of her plate as it threatened to spill onto the floor – ‘when it’s an easy day, and I haven’t had to do any field work, I’ve generally caught up on my necessary work by eleven or midnight, so I’m free to rest. On nights when I find hackers in wardrobes,’ – he grabbed the sauce jug with his free hand and poured hollandaise over her eggs – ‘I do dedicate some time to writing reports and putting things in place for my new recruit.’
‘I hadn’t even passed the tests yet. Shouldn’t you have hedged your bets and got Jonesy to do recruit set-up…as…well…’ she said, trailing off when he looked back at her. That time, his expression was really easy to read. Guilt. Or gas, but it was unlikely that angels farted, so it had to be guilt.
‘Oh my god,’ she said quietly.
He didn’t say anything.
She ate a square of toast, starchy courage for the rest of the conversation.
‘I–’ Words continued to fail her. ‘Would the outcome have been any different if we’d just skipped the recruitment tests?’
He shook his head.
She leaned forwards and put her plate back on the table. Eggs weren’t important. Toast was nice, but not relevant. Waffles could wait. ‘Can – can we actually have this conversation here? Is Big Brother, Big Sister, or Big Bird listening?’
‘There’s no significant surveillance being done on this office.’
The world blurred, and South Bank appeared. Stef stared down at the river, realising she’d never seen it this early before.
‘Does this make you feel safer?’ Ryan said.
She nodded and looked up from the river. ‘It’s harder to mic the open world than an office.’ She balled her hands into fists. ‘So how much did you…’ She searched for a diplomatic word but failed. ‘How much did you fuck with my test results?’
The guilty expression got worse, and he turned to look out over the river, as well. ‘I – I merely weighted your actions a little more favourably than I would have in most cases.’
‘That’s a very narcy answer.’
‘The numerical results given are far from empirical,’ he said. ‘If you have one recruit tested by ten agents, you could get ten different scores. Had you been another recruit–’
‘How much did I suck?’
‘If I didn’t know you, I would have rated you at three-point-nine. Increasing that to four-point-two is well within the margin of error.’
‘And conveniently gets me up over the magical number of four that lets me into the field department.’
He let out a heavy sigh. ‘Yes.’
‘That’s not as bad as I thought,’ she said.
‘The score does not change my assessment of you. I think you have potential. If you’d been another recruit, I would have assigned you to the techs, but at least encouraged you to work in a field interface role.’
‘Was Jonesy mad? I got a much bigger score for tech.’
‘As director, placement of recruits is ultimately my decision.’
‘And you ultimately decided to keep me around? So why the hell do you– Why do you look so guilty about it?’
‘You could have died.’
‘But you want me around,’ she said in a small voice. ‘That means a lot more than getting shot.’
No one wants me around. My family doesn’t want me around. My own father never even wanted me around.
‘It was still a–’
‘Don’t say mistake.’ The words tumbled out before she could stop them. She stared at the ground. ‘Please.’
‘Then I won’t say mistake,’ he said. ‘But it was still unfair to you.’
‘Life is unfair,’ she said. ‘This. This isn’t unfair. This– This is someone giving me a chance, and I don’t get that. Ever. So.’ Words were so damn hard. Words about her were harder. Words where she said things she wanted were the hardest. She stared at the ground. The nice, safe, non-judgey ground. ‘So – so – so can we just do this? You give me a chance, and I’ll try, and no one feels guilty?’
She could barely breathe.
‘If that’s what you want.’
She looked up and nodded furiously. ‘I – I don’t promise to stop sucking overnight.’
And I’m a lot more messed up than I’m letting on.
‘But I’ll try, I promise.’
Ryan smiled and ruffled her hair, and for a moment, Stef felt loved.
[table id=15 /]
Stef opened her eyes. A jumble of nightmare imagery vanished under the scrutiny of the infirmary’s low lights.