The chair swung slightly as Stef tried to make herself more comfortable.
She counted in binary to ten, to twenty, to a hundred, and still no solution presented itself. Press the green button and play pretend, and try. Or run away, try to make it past the techs without being seen.
Staying still and imitating a statue was always a good method of procrastination.
A hand touched her shoulder, and she screamed.
She fell forwards as a tangle of limbs, wedging between the desk and the chair for a moment before the chair gave way and dropped her to the floor.
She crawled under the desk, pressing herself flat against the back wall of the desk, her head tangling in the cords. She turned her face into the cold, laminated wood, and just waited for everything to go way.
Something soft brushed against her cheek, and she cracked opened one eye.
Red curls filled her vision.
She opened her other eye.
Alexandria stared back at her with the one eye she had left. Red curls fell into the doll’s head, the worst attempt at a comb-over in history. The pieces hadn’t been worth salvaging when she’d broken the doll. Too painful to salvage. It had been better just to throw them away, and to try to use the hair to hide the fact that the doll was missing half of its face.
She looked past the doll, to the hand of the angel holding it.
Ryan looked entirely too comfortable under the desk, as if it wasn’t the first time he’s played in the dark. Under-desks were great places. They made excellent caves and the holds of pirate ships; they could be turned into castles and a dozen other locations.
She reached out to grab the doll, but he pulled it back a little. ‘I’ve fixed her once. Would you like me to again?’
She gave a nod.
Alexandria’s face flowed for a moment, china appearing from the void to fill in the broken pieces. Another ice blue eye appeared, and touches of paint appeared on both cheeks, brightening the spot that had long faded. Ryan brushed the doll’s dress with his hand, and as he did, the moth-eaten parts were repaired and the colours became brighter, became…what they might have looked like in his memory.
He looked to her, a small smile on his face, gave the doll a mockingly critical eye, smoothed out the dress once more, then handed it to her. ‘I got you out of the dark once before like this. I’m hoping it will work a second time.’
She wedged Alexandria between her knees and her chest, hugging herself and her doll, refusing to look back at the agent.
‘But it’s safe in here,’ she said. ‘It’s not real in here. There’s the here and the outside and you don’t have to go to the outside until you’re hungry or you need to pee and–’ She shut her mouth.
Under-desks were great places, but wardrobes were better. Wardrobes that looked as though they could be gateways to Narnia were the best, but any kind of wardrobe that you could lock yourself in was just fine. The one with the sliding door in her apartment was brilliant – multiple points of entry and escape, the ability to modulate how much of the outside she let in, and broad, smooth surfaces perfect for glow-in-the-dark stickers. The skinny space inside was more than wide enough to sit up or lie down, and the hanging clothes above always made the space seem safe and comforting.
Under-desks were for adventure; wardrobes were for hiding.
She lifted her head a little to look at him.
He should be yelling at her. Rebuking her. Insulting her. Firing her.
‘E– Every time I think I can try,’ she said, her words getting muffled by Alexandria’s dress. ‘It gets too scary. I can’t do this.’ She pressed her fingers to Alexandria’s cold cheeks. ‘I want to. I really want to. But– But there’s a difference between– Everyone wants to win lotto. Everyone wants to get a Nobel prize.’
‘One minute, seventeen seconds.’
She turned the number over in her mind for a moment and came up with nothing. She flicked her eyes up to him. ‘Huh?’
‘One minute, seventeen seconds,’ he repeated. ‘Last night. That’s all I had left. I didn’t have enough control to use my blue, and even if I’d managed it, it would have been far slower, and I wouldn’t have–’ He shrugged. ‘And that’s to say nothing of getting to the phone. You saved my life, Stef.’
Her fingers dug into Alexandria’s soft body. ‘I’m the only reason you were dying in the first place!’ She pushed Alexandria to the ground and got to her knees in the small space, cracking her head against the wall of the desk. ‘Stop thanking me – it was my fault! It was my fault!’
She walked forwards on her knees, suddenly aware that the space beneath the desk was a lot bigger than it had been. She stabbed her finger against his chest. ‘You are seeing something that’s not there!’ she said, rage hot and thick in her voice. ‘I don’t know what you’re seeing, but it’s not me!’
She pressed her hands to the sides of her head. ‘I. Am. Fucking. Crazy. How have you not worked that out yet?! Normal people don’t act like this! I don’t care if this agency isn’t the best of the best of the best of the best of the best – there’s still a world of difference between that and me!’ Her throat felt raw, and her lungs complained of a lack of oxygen. ‘I can’t do this!’ She grabbed the fallen headphones and shook them in his face. ‘This presumes I can look after someone else. I can’t even look after myself!’
‘You don’t need to.’
She barely noticed the shift this time. She dropped the headphones onto his office carpet and stared at them for a moment. ‘Stop being nice to me.’
She scrunched up her face, then swung her arms to slap him in the chest. She forced her hands to form fists so she could pound against his chest. ‘Stop being nice to me!’
I’m getting used to it.
‘Stop it!’ She hit him again. ‘Stop being nice!’ She pulled back both fists, then tried to push him away. ‘Stop acting like you care!’ She slumped weakly against his chest and slapped at his tie. ‘Please, stop it.’
Strong arms held her and stopped her from sliding to the floor.
‘I’m not acting, Stef.’
She pushed away from him, stumbled back a few steps, and fell back against the wall. ‘Of course you are.’ She slid to the ground, unable to look at him. ‘No one wants me around. I– You– You’ve seen enough of me to know I’m not normal. That I’m– I’m–’ She slapped herself in the face. ‘That I’m this!’ she spat bitterly.
She let her hands drop and began to scratch against the carpet. ‘Stop, please.’
He crouched in front of her. ‘I’m not going to stop being nice to you.’
‘But– But it’s not real, and I’m starting to get tricked into believing it is.’
‘Why would you think–’
‘Because no one cares about me! No one – no one – has ever wanted me around!’ She sucked in a breath. ‘My imaginary friend abandoned me; my family doesn’t want me; my own father never wanted me around!’
‘Well, I’m not your father.’
She felt something break.
Rejection. As to be expected.
All remaining traces of the warm fuzzies disappeared.
No tears fell. There was nothing to be sad about. Any care, any emotion, any pride that she’d seen had been some trick of the light. Some stupid fantasy.
‘I’m just stating empirical facts,’ she said hotly, pushing herself to her feet. ‘No one wants me. No one has ever wanted me. So being nice to me is pointless. I’ll–’
‘I have a son.’
Of course you do.
Stef leaned on the wall for strength. Questions about nephilim sparked at the back of her mind, but she couldn’t conjure the energy to ask them.
‘I wasn’t–’ she started. ‘I wasn’t presuming anything – I was just pointing out facts. I wanted–’ She snapped her mouth shut, sucking her lips into her mouth.
Tears built up again.
‘His name is Alexander,’ Ryan said, then went quiet again.
‘Is he a recruit?’ she asked, trying to fill the silence.
Ryan made a little noise of disbelief. ‘Hardly. He wants nothing to do with me. His mother and I– We divorced when he was eight. She found it very hard to stay married to an agent. And– And she was worried about her boy following in my footsteps. Taking after me.’
‘But…’ she said quietly. ‘But you’re awesome.’
He took a step closer. ‘She didn’t want him having anything to do with this world.’
‘But couldn’t you–’ She hung her head. ‘I mean–’
‘He knows some things about the world,’ Ryan said, ‘but he has no wish to know more or involve himself more. His mother remarried, and he’s more than happy with his stepfather.’
She wiped her nose with the back of her hand and waited for her lungs to collapse.
Silence fell for a moment.
‘My point,’ he said, ‘is that Alexander doesn’t want me in his life, and he doesn’t need me to look after him.’
Blood pounded in her ears.
‘I can look after you. If you need me to.’
Her heart stopped.
He didn’t just say that. He didn’t just say that. I’m hallucinating again.
No. You’re not.
She clenched her toes, then looked up and laughed in his face. ‘Okay. Maybe you’re the crazy one. Who do you think you’re talking to right now?’
I’m strong. I’m tough. I’m stone.
‘Why the hell w–’ She swallowed, trying to dislodge the lump in her throat. ‘Would you say something like that to me?’
Strong. Tough. Stone. Gargoyle, I’m a gargoyle. Man, I miss that show.
‘I mean no offence. I didn’t mean to be presumptuous. I just meant–’
‘Your presumption isn’t the issue here, narc,’ she said, gritting her teeth to try and retain some control over herself. ‘You just – if I can return the presumption – made it sound like you were making–’ She swallowed again, and again failed to dislodge the lump. She shook her head, trying to bury herself in a lack of emotion. ‘Making an offer to act in a paternal role.’
‘That’s exactly what I did.’
‘I don’t need a reason.’
‘Do you realise you’re talking to Stef Mimosa? Stupid, useless hacker girl?’
‘Stop talking like that.’
‘No, cause I don’t think you know what you’re getting yourself into. You haven’t read all the fine print, and– And– Just stop and think about what you’re doing.’
‘I rarely speak without thinking.’
‘Congratulations! You’re experiencing your own law of averages!’ she cried and backed up a couple of steps.
‘If I said–’
She coughed out the lump, freeing both her windpipe and the tears she’d been keeping prisoner. ‘I’d give anything for a dad like you,’ she whispered, tears streaming down her face.
‘Then what’s the problem?’
‘I’m not good enough. I’m pathetic. I’m useless. I – I – I’m insane.’ She balled her hands back into fists. ‘I am literally fucking insane!’ She slumped against the wall and slid back to the floor.
I am a wreck of a person who has no business being anywhere near you.
She looked back up at him. ‘You get nothing in return. I have never been good enough, and I accept that. I’ve got nothing to offer.’
‘Why are you under the impression that you have to give me anything in return?’
‘Because why else would you do it?!’ She untied her shoelaces, drew the laces tight enough to pinch, then retied them. ‘If you don’t get something out of it, then there’s no point.’
He walked away.
She heard a drawer open and close.
Oh, goddammit, he’s getting his gun so he can shoot me and pretend he didn’t have to have this conversation.
She turned her head and pressed it closer to the wall, to minimise the splatter.
His feet came back into view, then the rest of him as he sat down beside her, hand suspiciously free of any sort of weapon. Instead, he held his gold-and-garnet phoenix feather.
‘The point is to teach, and to care. I was never able to show my son the world. I was never able to let him experience something like the phoenix.’
I can handle–
‘–being a replacement,’ Stef said.
‘You’re not a replacement. I don’t want a replacement. Just as my wife wasn’t a replacement for the relationships I had before, nor the women who came after a replacement for Eilise, you’re not a replacement for Alexander.’ He reached out and gently held her hand. ‘A replacement, after all, would give me the same relationship I had before, which was the problem to begin with.’
‘But– There’s better people.’
‘Better than the little girl who remembers me? Better than the recruit who isn’t afraid of magic, or technology, or the ways they interact? Better than the young lady who walked on air and wrote her name on the sky?’ He pressed the feather into her hand.
She went back to looking at the carpet. ‘Better than the paranoid crazy chick with– With a– Do– Do you think that’s the first time I hid in a wardrobe? At least I was actually hiding from something real that time!’ She clutched the feather. ‘I’m not all right, but that doesn’t mean I have to be a burden on you.’
‘Parents don’t get to choose their children.’
She looked at her reflection, warped in the gold of the feather. ‘Not their biological ones, sure, but any other situation, there’s choice.’
‘And the choice is yours,’ he said. ‘If you don’t need me to act in that role, I won’t. It’s presumptuous to–’
‘I – I do.’
‘Then what’s the problem?’
She slapped herself in the chest. ‘Me. I’m the problem. Problematic. I told you. I’m problematic. I wasn’t joking. It was a warning.’
‘Let me decide that for myself.’
More tears fell, but not all of them were sad.
He– He doesn’t hate me?
This is one of those weeks where your genius certification is questionable.
‘You– You can get rid of me whenever you want.’
‘I am usually the one who is discarded. I don’t know what it’s like to have a child that wants me to look after them.’
She put her feather down, wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands, and wrapped both of her arms around his closest arm. ‘So – something like this?’
[table id=15 /]
The chair swung slightly as Stef tried to make herself more comfortable.