Curt stared at the table, unable to look at Ryan, unsure of what he could say, unsure of what he should say.
Ryan rose from his place across the table, and seated himself in Stef’s chair. ‘Tell me what happened.’
He balled his hands in front of him on the glass tabletop. ‘How did you know?’
‘I can see a log of attempted shatter sequences over three words long,’ Ryan said. ‘Naturally, I ask for an alert each time there’s a new one. What happened?’
‘I failed her,’ he said, still staring at the table. ‘I failed her so badly. She- She almost-‘
Ryan wrapped an arm around his shoulders. ‘No, she didn’t.’
‘Six and a half words!’ he shouted, pulling away from his director. ‘Six words and I couldn’t stop her, and she-‘
‘She doesn’t have permission to run her shatter sequence,’ Ryan said. ‘She doesn’t know that, but she doesn’t, I couldn’t take the chance that she would use it against herself.’ Ryan crossed the room to stare out the window, his hands folded behind his back. ‘This- This is the third time she’s tried. The first, I only saw a memory of it, and she doesn’t know that. While she was- After the mirrorfall. Some of her memories came to the surface, and that was one of them. I had to watch, and do nothing, because it was just a memory. The second time was desperation, was trying to protect me, was unnecessary because the Enforcers gave us mercy. For everything that has happened, for everything that she’s been through-‘ Ryan slid his hands into his pockets. ‘In all honesty- For a given value, I can understand it. I have never been there, never felt the need to end my own life, but I can understand that she might feel that need. And all we can do is be there for her and make that need less every day.’
He grabbed the agent’s arm. ‘But I-!’
Ryan turned, shook his hand away, and held his upper arms with the strong, but gentle agent grip. ‘But you, nothing, Curt. Did you do anything to contribute to this?’
He pulled back from Ryan. ‘Of course I did, I told her I loved her! I gave her one more set of self-imposed burdens, one more set of ideals that she thinks she has to live up to! I’ve spent more time telling her what she doesn’t have to do than I have doing anything with her.’ He slumped into the closest chair. ‘If I’d just stayed her friend, it would have been one less stress she would have had. And I still would have been there for her, still would have helped her, but she wouldn’t feel obligated to do anything in return, to feel that she has to be someone she’s not.’
‘I credit you with being a smart young man,’ Ryan said. ‘You would have known at least some of that before you said anything to her. If you weighed the outcomes, why did you say anything at all?’
Because there hadn’t been a choice. Because he loved her. Because she was the best-worst-best thing to ever happen to him. Because he didn’t repulse her. Because a few nights of platonic snuggles had meant more than a year with his ex. Because she was his dirty, smelly hacker and telling her had been worth the chance of losing her.
‘I had to,’ he said.
Ryan smiled at him. ‘I know, so don’t blame yourself for that. All right then, tell me this, would you prefer she was with someone else? Could anyone else have been so…gentle with her? I worry about each and every evaluation she has. I worry about reports she submits. I’m worried what other agents think of her. I don’t worry about her relationship with you. I trust you with her, and more importantly, she trusts you, that has to mean something.’
He stared at the floor. ‘It does.’ He sighed. ‘That still doesn’t mean that-‘
‘She’s fighting against a lifetime of being unloved. Of being ignored. Of being treated like a worthless bastard. Again, this isn’t something I can really understand. From the moment I opened my eyes, I had Reynolds to rely on, and he treated me like a friend, like a brother, like a son. He was there for me, and I’m an agent, perfectly capable of acting entirely independently. The reason she knows me is because her parents felt comfortable leaving a toddler unattended. You met her father, you saw what he was like. She’s fighting a lifetime of his influence, his rebukes and belittlement. If I could, I would tear out all her memories of him, and leave behind what she deserves – memories of being loved. I can’t-‘ Ryan stopped. ‘I could, but I won’t, because it’s not fair, and it could damage her more. I cannot change the past, but I can be there for the rest of her life, and you can too.’
‘But, sir-‘
‘The other option is to do nothing, and she’s had far too much of that.’
‘I still couldn’t stop her!’ he said, his breath hitching. ‘Promises and happy thoughts and pixie dust is all good, but I couldn’t stop her. I was holding her and I couldn’t stop her!’
‘You did, though.’
‘By trying to crack her skull open!’
‘I saved her life by making her an agent.’
He glared. ‘That’s not the same thing.’
‘What would you have had me do instead? What should you have done instead?’
‘Are you all right, Curt?’
‘She’s the one who-!’
‘And as soon as she has done her duty, I intend to spoil her in every way I can, and talk and listen and do all I can for her. I can do none of that until she has dealt with the phoenix and done her duty as an agent. I need to have her do this, I need to have told her, I need- I still need to have her actions be above reproach, I cannot be seen as emotionally compromised, else that endangers her. Even after everything she’s done, if anything, she’s more vulnerable now because the use of her heart is more important than her use as an agent. If anything, it’s the PR boost she’s given us that’s saving her.’
Public relations. That brought up another question. ‘Clarke?’ he said after a moment. ‘Do we get to vet his replacement, or do we get a newbie?’
Ryan sighed, and looked out the window for a moment. ‘There are times I detest Taylor’s efficiency, that bastard deserved to suffer. In light of everything, Central gave a quick ruling, accepting the report from the palace guards and the accompanying police report. After the emergency situation drops, that may change, but for now- We’ve had several agents already volunteer for the job, and one I’m likely to take. Queensland’s never had a Smith, and with the calibre of his work, it might do something to raise our reputation.’
‘In a way that housing the girl who saved the world doesn’t?’ he asked, forcing a smirk.
‘I would eventually like to make it into the top five Australian Agencies, eventually. Reynolds may wake first, but it’s a goal.’ Ryan paused. ‘And you didn’t answer my question, Curt.’
‘No sir,’ he said, ‘I’m not all right. I don’t know what to do for her. I don’t know what I should do, or shouldn’t. If I should talk about it, or just let the system fuck with her head until she’s ok and doesn’t think about it until the next time she’s crying on the floor trying to break herself apart.’
‘You do what I do,’ Ryan said, ‘you do what you think is best, and hope that you’re right.’
He stared at the ground again. ‘How- How can- How do things seem so close to normal already?’
‘Because this is how life is, young man. There’s duty to get on with, and- And you know how bad it is in her head every day, this was just one of those days where it boiled over. Just as you don’t force her to talk about things on a regular day, you don’t force anything out of this situation. You let her talk when she’s ready, listen to what she has to say, and to be there for her. She might be ok, she may need help getting out of bed every day for the next year, but only she can tell us what she wants, what she needs. Sometimes it’s enough to have a moment of complete desperation, to have that moment where you’re lost, but it’s just a bump in the road, and things get back on track. And I may be mixing my metaphors,’ he said with a small smile.
Ryan’s face went a little blank, a looking-into-his-HUD look. ‘And if I interpreted her correctly, the phoenix has snacked, and she’s going to sleep.’
‘Would you mind shifting me, sir?’
‘Of course not.’
The world blurred, and his room came into view.
Stef lay on her side of the bed, naked but for her small blue panties, her skin slicked with blue, which was slowly soaking the quilt beneath her.
He stepped out of his shoes, removed his socks, and crawled to her from his side of the bed. He knelt, and smoothed her hair back from her face. ‘You ok, newbie?’
‘Can’talksleeping,’ she said, waving a lazy hand at him.
He required a towel, and began to wipe the blue away.
‘Meeeeeh,’ she said, then yawned.
He quickly wiped her arms and legs, then threw the towel off the side of the bed. He grabbed the quilt, dismissed it, then required a new one.
A thought replaced his uniform with boxers and a t-shirt, and he pulled the quilt up over them.
‘Booooooy,’ she said, blindly groping for him, until she snuggled close, her head on his chest, her arm across him, her legs lying beside his. ‘Nightboynight.’
He stroked her hair, wiping the remnants of blue against her unused pillow. ‘I’m here, sleep.’
She pressed her lips against his shirt, then snored, her body relaxing against him.
He buried his fingers in her hair, closed his eyes, and listened to her breathing.
He’d love her, he’d protect her, he’d keep her safe.
‘I love you, newbie, I love you.’