Stormy Note: So I’m going to go through the scratch I have for IOI, and upload the pieces that are closest to being done – it won’t make it a proper and full book, but it’s something while this hiatus is going on.
Note for this chapter: Time wise, this takes place at least a few days after the last chapter – basically, Stef opening up about her “child” made Curt think about his kid. Thus we have…
They drove past the unremarkable house again.
And again, as they passed, Stef watched as Curt pinched the bridge of his nose. He was stressed, far more than he should have been – even with his hesitation at coming back to South Australia, even if they were well outside of Adelaide proper, and Agent “Dickbags” Petersen’s territory.
She reached across, and laid a hand on his left arm. ‘We can circle again if you like.’
He looked briefly from her hand, to her face, then turned his head and looked back out the windscreen. ‘It already looks suspicious.’ He let out a world-ending sigh, and pulled over at the end of the street, finally bringing his little red car to rest. ‘This is only delaying the inevitable. I’m going to do this.’ He pulled the keys from the ignition. ‘You sure this is the place?’
She tried to give him a reassuring smile. ‘The Techs don’t get stuff wrong. And I double-checked and cross-referenced with muggle records. It’s the place.’
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Yeah. Okay.’ He put his hand on the door handle, then hesitated before looking over at her. ‘Legolas, what do your elf-eyes see?’
‘The more time I spend with you, Padawan, the less I’m able to believe that you think you’re not a geek.’
‘Stef, he said, his voice strained, ‘please.’ He gripped the steering wheel with both hands. ‘And besides everyone saw Lord of the Rings. And the techs are always shouting that at Jones, I’m quite observant.’
‘I’ve observed,’ she said with a smirk. ‘And seriously, call him Jonesy, how can you be scared of someone named Jonesy? And don’t make the argument that Jonesy was the cat in Alien; otherwise I’m going to have to think about the fact that someone has actually designed an acid-blood system for agents as a defence mechanism. And now I’m thinking about it. And who ever thought that was a good idea. I know it’s not implemented, but it’s stupider than the mer-agent! Acid blood is not civilian friendly! Imagine the collateral damage from paper cuts!’
He gave her a sideways glance. ‘I thought I was supposed to be the stressed out one?’
‘The more I stress, the more you go into big-brother mode and the calmer you get.’
‘…that’s evil, newbie.’
‘Yes, I am,’ she said with a grin before putting her forehead against the window and looking back to the house. She opened up the visual overlays menu in her HUD and hit the one she’d bookmarked as “Superman!” and initialised it. The world turned blue as the pseudo-x-ray vision took over. The trees flexed for a moment, then went still, expandable options to take closer scans appearing, the parked cars did the same. The house became see-through in blue relief, and she could see the blue outline of three people inside, each pulsing lightly.
‘Two adults and a kid,’ she said.
He gave a nod. ‘Ok, so we’ll call it a maybe. Let’s get this over with.’
He stepped out of the car and she followed a step behind as he opened the gate and walked up the front stairs.
Stef increased her pace a little, caught up, and squeezed his hand for reassurance.
Curt stopped walking, then turned to look at her, and smiled – though his expression was vulnerable – there was nothing of the cocky veneer he usually displayed for the sake of keeping up appearances. He nodded, and his mask slid back into place. He turned to the house, took the short staircase two at a time, and after a moment’s hesitation, knocked on the door.
The house was nice, large, high-set to catch the breezes. A blinking light caught her eye and she looked up – there was a small video camera sitting high on the wall.
Home security, Spyder, it’s society-approved paranoia.
Alarms sure, but cameras?
Where else would you get those funny videos of packages being tossed around?
Her Spyder-sense continued to tingle – not enough to shift them to a safer location, just enough to keep her paranoia dialled up to eleven.
After another minute, there was the sound of footsteps behind the door.
She heard Curt sigh in relief, and out of the corner of her eyes, saw his body sag a little – he took the-
There was a very familiar sound.
A sound that didn’t belong anywhere near a nice house in the suburbs.
She spun towards Curt and shoved with him all of her tiny hacker might, making him stumble to the side – and out of the way of the shot that came through the door a bare second later.
A second shot slammed into her collarbone – and she slammed down on the mini-timer in her HUD, announcing that it was going to respawn her – even injured, she needed to be present. She could soak up damage far better than Curt could.
There was no pain – it had been a shot from a human weapon in System territory – there was that odd not-pain-only-pressure that you felt at the dentist – something that you knew should be pain, but wasn’t.
The shove and the two shots had happened in under five seconds. No time to do anything. Off to her right, Curt was still recovering from her shove, though his expression told her he was aware of just how badly the situation had gone to shit.
Another shot came through the door, this one passed within a foot of her head – this latest attack was enough to finally trigger her autopilot – the first initialisation having been confused by her cancellation of the respawn option.
The edges of her HUD took on an angry, staticy edge – a mod she’d installed to help with the adjustment to the autopilot.
She let out a breath, and tried to relax her mind as her body began to move on its own.
She squared up to the door, lifted her right leg and kicked the door off its hinges. The door collapsed inward and onto the shooter. She moved forward and shoved with both hands, bringing both the door and shooter crashing awkwardly down onto the ground.
The shooter grunted and yelled, and a wild shot came through the door.
Down but not out. Tenacious bastard.
A gun appeared in her hand – required without her thought – and she quickly slammed down on the bright red X in the corner of her HUD – the manual override for the autopilot. Protecting herself was one thing – and what the autopilot did best – but accidental murder of someone who might be part of Curt’s family probably wasn’t the best way to get an invite to tea.
She dismissed the gun, and collapsed heavily down on the door, driving both knees onto the wood, hoping the transference of force was enough to make the shooter finally calm the fuck down.
‘I suggest,’ she said, doing her best to imitate Ryan, ‘you stop resisting.’
She thrust her right arm behind herself, Curt’s hand immediately caught it and helped her stand.
‘Cover,’ she instructed, then crouched to pick the door up. It was a simple matter to twist it up onto its side, then pull it from the house, so that – whatever was to happen next – the field was cleared.
A man – somewhere in the same anonymous forties that Ryan appeared to be – lay on the ground, blood gushing from a well-broken nose, his gun – a matte black revolver – still in his hand, his knuckles white.
‘Dad?!’ Curt cried.
Curt’s father lifted the gun with a shaking hand, but Stef stepped into the line of sight – then pulled it from his hand and dismissed it.
‘Bastard,’ Curt’s father growled as he made an attempt to get to his feet, blood running down his face.
‘Stop,’ Stef said, resting a foot against the man’s side, and initialised a scan. ‘I’d prefer you to stay right there for the moment.’
‘You fucking shits,’ Curt’s father spat. ‘How dare-’
‘No other weapons,’ Stef reported. She looked down at Curt’s father. ‘Move slowly. And keep your hands to yourself. I can take a punch but you not might like the retaliation.’
‘They are going to kill you,’ he growled at Curt. ‘Oh, my boy, the agents will-’
‘Which agents?’ Curt demanded.
‘You know which agents, Solstice!’ Curt’s father spat as he finally made it to his feet, keeping himself upright by leaning against the wall.
Stef spared a look back at Curt, whose face could have been the example.jpg for “slackjawed”. She caught his eye, and there was a single twinkle of humour before he went back to looking like someone had slapped him with a particularly smelly fish.
‘How the fuck do you know-’ Curt started. ‘Look at what I’m wearing! I’m Agency!’
Stef grabbed the man by his collar, winked at him, then tripped opened her macro menu, and selected the one that showed visible code sliding from her right cheek across her nose and onto her left cheek and ear.
It wasn’t a trick that the Solstice could easily replicate.
Curt’s father reached out and pressed his bloody fingers into her cheek, ensuring that it wasn’t a trick of lasers – even if the argument could be made that she was little more than smoke and a mirror.
‘Satisfied?’ she asked after he withdrew his hand and slumped.
‘Yeah,’ another voice said, ‘that’s an agent.’
Stef ended the macro that showed her code, and turned towards the end of the hall – trusting Curt to handle his father, should the injured, middle-aged man make another attempt to be violent.
A fairy, huge orange and silver wings unfurled stood at the end of the hall, his hands holding onto the legs of a small, terrified child clinging to his back.
Twenty years ago, she’d been a small, terrified child when someone strange had burst into her home. There was something…ironic about the role reversal. Ironic, but it would probably mean nightmares for the tiny child.
The situation needed to be contained and descalated.
She snapped her head back to Curt, and beckoned him into the house. ‘Get the door.’ She turned to Curt’s father – who her HUD identified as Brendan O’Connor. ‘We’re coming in. I would suggest not trying to harm us again.’
‘He was protecting us,’ the fairy said. ‘You can’t blame a man for protecting his family.’
Stef pointedly touched the bloody hole in her shirt – the effect was there, even if the wound beneath was healed. ‘We knocked on the door,’ she said, ‘this was a disproportionate response.’
Brendan pointed a shaking, blood finger at Curt. ‘He’s a danger,’ he spat, then wiped at the blood on his lips. ‘There is no reason for him to be here. I don’t want him-’
‘You passed the point where you had a choice in what was going to happen when you shot an agent,’ she said, pulling on every ounce of interrogation!Ryan that she could muster. She looked to the fairy with the child. ‘We’re not going to hurt you.’
‘You have my husband’s blood on you, Agent,’ the fairy said, ‘I appreciate the intent of your statement, but you should understand that it’s a bit hard to believe.’
Curt stepped past her, and walked towards the fairy. ‘Lead the way to the kitchen please.’
Brendan started to move, but Stef caught his arm. ‘I won’t hurt your family,’ she said, keeping her voice to a whisper, and expression light and friendly, ‘but touch my partner and I will snap your fucking neck.’
Brendan tried to jerk his arm away, but she held fast. He looked down at her, glaring – though his broken nose and bloody face took most of the sting out of the look. ‘Understood,’ he said, and she let him go.
‘Good,’ she said brightly, and swept her arm wide, indicating for him to walk ahead of her.
She opened her Vox menu as she followed Brendan through to the kitchen, and pressed the text-only option for Parker-1. [I need assistance.]
[I need to fix a broken civilian nose. He knows the world, so no need to be sneaky. I don’t need a lot of questions, I just need a solution.]
[Any current tracking blue?]
Brendan turned a corner, and she followed him through the bright, airy kitchen, where the fairy stood, pulling bandages from a first aid kit.
[How important is this?]
[Necessary, but not world ending.]
An object link appeared in the chat. [Consider this a favour, Agent. And don’t tell your father.]
[ : ) Thanks, Doctor.]
She pressed on the object link, and a small needle, full of blue appeared in her hand. ‘Sit,’ she ordered as she pulled a chair from the table.
Brendan glared, but sat.
She turned to the fairy – who her HUD hadn’t been able to identify – and handed him the capped needle. ‘This will fix his nose. I’m not sure he’ll trust me to administer.’
The fairy stepped forward – the child on his back looked more confused than terrified now, but hadn’t slackened her grip around the fairy’s neck.
‘Your word, Agent?’ the fairy asked.
‘If I wanted to harm him,’ she said, adding a note of bored superiority to her tone, ‘would I bother with subterfuge?’
The fairy twisted his head. ‘Sara, I have to put you down for a minute to help Grampa, you want to get him a glass of water?’
The little girl- Stef blinked. Between the firefight and the broken nose, there hadn’t been one second to spare a thought about the child – the little girl who had to be Curt’s daughter. She followed Sara with her gaze as she waddled towards the fridge – and coincidentally, towards Curt, who had taken up his usual post of leaning against something in the corner.
The expression on Curt’s face was completely unreadable, though it displayed the telltale signs of several flavours of shock.
‘Come on, love,’ the fairy said.
‘How can you trust-?’
The fairy sighed. ‘She’s right. Agents don’t do subtle. Now sit still.’
‘I trust the intent, not the individual.’
Across the kitchen, Sara had retrieved a small bottle of juice from the fridge, and had brought it back to her “Grampa”. Sara climbed into his lap, and pressed the cap of the juice bottle to the underside of his chin. ‘Here!’
Yead – the fairy – uncapped the needle, and injected it into the side of Brendan’s nose.
Brendan held onto his granddaughter as his nose went back to normal – all signs of the break disappearing within thirty seconds. When the work seemed complete, Yead handed his husband a towel for the remaining blood.
Yead lifted Sara down from Brendan’s lap. ‘Could you go play for a while, sweetheart?’
Yead knelt and hugged Sara. ‘Go play in your room, ok?’
‘We can go to Fry’s for dinner if you do.’
‘Sara,’ Brendan said. ‘Go.’
Curt’s daughter wandered away, leaving the four of them alone.
There was a few moments of silence.
Brendan stood and looked at her. ‘Identification. Now.’
Stef pulled her ID folder from her pocket and tossed it onto the table. ‘Brisbane. Secondary Field Agent.’
Brendan glared at her – and she was starting to wonder if he had any other expression. ‘And him. Do you know who he is? What he is?’
Stef gave Brendan a careful look. ‘Do you?’
This answer seemed to surprise him, and derail him from what was sure to be a well-practiced – and from his perspective, well-meaning rant about exactly what percentage of bad Curt was. ‘What?’
Stef jerked her thumb at Curt, who hadn’t moved from his position in the corner of the kitchen, as far away from everyone as he could be. ‘You can correctly identify that young man,’ she said, forcing herself to be as “agent” as possible. Brendan and Yead had no way of knowing that she was “just” an augment – for all they knew, she could have been as old as Ryan.
She took the chair across from Brendan, her back to Curt, and folded her hands in front of her, laying them on the laminated tabletop.
Agent. Good agent. There was a simple recipe. A good dollop of Ryan for a solid base, add in Agent Jane’s BBC perfection, with just a touch of Andrea’s compassion.
And if all went to hell, become a beast that was equal parts Taylor and James Mimosa.
‘You know that’s Curt O’Connor. Congratulations, you recognise your own child. As to what he is, I would say you have no idea. I’d like you to carefully take in his uniform, the fact that he’s travelling with an agent, and carefully reconsider everything you think you know.’
‘He was,’ she said, keeping her expression true neutral. ‘And that is in the past. I would present to you, Aide O’Connor, aide to Brisbane’s Director. It’s a position of command, of respect, and of trust. We know who he is, you’re the one who requires an update.’
She sat back in her chair, and with a few HUD options, gave her eyes just the tiniest bit of an electric blue sheen, in an effort to keep Brendan hyper-aware that he wasn’t dealing with a puny human.
‘How did you know?’ Curt asked. ‘There’s a fae in the room, so you aren’t an unaware civilian. How did you know about me?’
Yead stepped up, and put a hand on his husband’s shoulder. ‘I saw you. Your father was worried about you. You were skipping shifts at work.’
‘I thought you were on drugs,’ Brendan said, looking anywhere but at Curt. ‘Your mother wasn’t exactly a good influence. I- It wasn’t a conversation I could just have. We don’t have that kind of relationship.’ He looked up at Yead. ‘It was a mistake, I could have been more direct, but I did what I did. And he saw you.’
‘Raiding party,’ Yead clarified. ‘I was above. About six inches tall. You and some…colleagues-’ he choked, and looked away. ‘And I couldn’t even call the Agency,’ he said, his voice bitter. ‘Because I didn’t want them to ride in like a Serai cavalry charge and kill you by accident.’ His hand tightened on Brendan’s shoulder. ‘Clover doesn’t make cards for “I got your child killed”.’
‘I didn’t know fae were people,’ Curt said, his voice raw. ‘It’s not an excuse, but it’s an explanation. They compartmentalise information. They- They don’t show fresh recruits people like you, they show us monsters.’
‘You’re still a murderer,’ Yead said.
‘I am,’ Curt said. ‘I’m not hiding from that.’
Stef stood, caught Curt by his upper arm, and guided him into the chair she’d just vacated. ‘And he’s atoning for it every day,’ she said. ‘And nothing about this meeting is how he imagined it. He wants to see his child. There has to be a path towards that.’ Yead opened his mouth, but she held up her hand. ‘I don’t intend on throwing around the weight of the Agency to achieve that. I can’t pretend that’s not possible, but it is not what we intend.’
Brendan raised his gaze to look at her. ‘And who are you to him, Agent?’
‘I am someone who wouldn’t be standing here if not for his actions. I’m a life he’s saved. One of many. One of a lot.’ She looked to Yead. ‘I think we should step out. Let them speak. Do you consent to that?’
In front of her, Curt tensed, but no one else seemed to notice.
‘We’ll be back in ten minutes,’ she said, ‘make a start. Make a beginning. This situation is complicated, but if nothing is done, then nothing happens.’
She pressed on Curt’s Vox shortcut. A direct voice message, no need for acknowledgement. [You got this, Padawan.]
She heard the faint echo of her own voice through Curt’s earpiece, and he relaxed a little.
Yead led her from the kitchen, through to the living room.
Before the fairy had a chance to speak, she held up a hand. ‘I figure you have maybe five minutes, so get to it.’
She indicated to herself with her right hand. ‘Agent. Requiring. Living vending machine. I won’t use Agency power to force a resolution to the situation, but I sure as hell will buy some good will. Got any leaks you need fixing? Want a reproduction of the Mona Lisa?’
A smile spread slowly across Yead’s face. ‘There is something, actually.’ He beckoned her to follow, and he lead her to the one of the bedrooms – a smallish room, decorated in subdued reds and earth tones. Yead pulled a small dress from a dresser drawer and passed it over.
Stef stared at it – it was a lightweight, forest green fabric, cut in a pattern to surely indicate it was some kind of princess dress. ‘It’s Sara’s,’ he explained, ‘she grew out of it, but it was her favourite thing to wear. She tore it the last time she tried to fit into it,’ he said, reaching forward to indicate a tear along one of the seams. ‘If you’re buying goodwill, Agent, it would make sense to direct that goodwill towards the one thing we all care about.’ He stepped back then sat heavily on the end of the bed, his wings twitching behind him. ‘It’s impossible to remove the Solstice from the man, but even just taking him as a man, he abandoned his daughter, her mother felt inadequate to care for her, we are all that precious little girl has. Whether or not Bray lets Curt back into her life is going to be a decision that takes a lot of thought. And if he wants to take back full time-’
‘No,’ she said quickly, ‘he’s never said anything like that. He just- He just wants to be a part of her life.’
‘We’re her dads, Agent. I’m hoping that one day she calls us that. She’s everything to us. We’re just looking out for her.’
‘He didn’t choose to leave,’ she said, unsure of how much she should disclose. ‘He can’t leave the state without an agent escort, which is why I’m here. Give him a chance, that’s all I’m asking, that’s all he’s asking.’
‘He’s lucky to have a friend like you.’
‘I feel the same.’
Stef looked down at the dress, required the tears to be fixed, and sized it up – then handed it back to Yead. ‘This should be good for a while, at least.’
There was a knock at the door, and they both turned to look – Brendan stood there, nursing the small bottle of juice Sara had retrieved for him. ‘I don’t know who that is,’ he said, his voice quiet, ‘but that’s not the same man I remember. I’ve told him, that on the proviso he doesn’t tell Sara that he’s her father until she’s older, we can have a go at this.’ He shook his juice in her general direction. ‘Couldn’t make this a mimosa, could you, Agent? I need a drink.’
Stef smirked. ‘I could lick it, if you like.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
She held out her hand. ‘Agent Mimosa, Mr O’Connor, you didn’t give me a chance to introduce myself before you shot me.’
To his credit, Brendan looked abashed. ‘About that-’
‘It’s not often self-defence if you shoot first,’ she said. ‘I’m letting it go for now. I will, however, keep it in mind, should I need to call in a marker.’
‘Curt is playing with her.’
‘We didn’t bring presents, because we weren’t sure of the reaction, but if you tell me what she likes, I can whip something up.’ She reached across and touched the bottle. ‘Finest French. It’s not champagne if it’s not French.’
‘He can have another twenty minutes,’ Brendan said, ‘I don’t particularly like the idea of leaving my little girl with someone who is essentially a stranger.’ He caught her glare and waved it away. ‘We’re saying he’s a cousin for now. I don’t know what the future brings, but-’ He looked to his husband. ‘We’re her parents. Nothing can change that.’
‘Tell her that,’ Stef said. ‘She can know that you’re her grandfathers, but tell her that she’s free to call you dad, or papa, or whatever preferred diminutive that you have. Let her know she’s not adrift.’
Brendan looked at her carefully. ‘Agent?’ he said, questioningly.
‘Just because I’m an agent,’ she said, ‘doesn’t mean that I don’t have family. I’ve personally found my own adoptive father to be invaluable. You love her, be invaluable to her.’
‘I think we can manage that,’ Yead said. ‘Now let me rustle up a catalogue, and we’ll point out a few things she’d like.’ He winked. ‘She’s spoiled, but she’s not rotten.’
* * *
Curt’s hand immediately found hers as Brendan closed the door behind them.
He didn’t say anything as they descended the stairs, and stepped over a few splinters of wood from the impromptu firefight earlier in the day.
There was the sound of a small hand thumping against a window, and Curt turned, and waved at his daughter – someone who was well on the way to viewing him as her favourite cousin. A cousin that brought a basket full of multicolored ponies and robots.
‘Let’s just walk,’ Curt said, dismissing the car with a wave of his hand as they reached it. ‘I just need- Shift us to South Bank or something, please? I just need fresh air.’
Safe fresh air was the word that he hadn’t said – as brave as he had been to come to the outskirts of Adelaide for his daughter, staying there longer than needed wasn’t a stress he needed.
She squeezed his hand, and shifted them towards home.
The river, resplendent in its shades of mud, stared at them as they appeared next to a green bench, shaded by a leafy tree.
‘Stef,’ Curt said, his voice strained, ‘okay if I hug you?’
‘Always,’ she said.
The breath whuffed out of her chest as he drew her close, his shaking arms holding her as though she was his tether to the world – it was almost like the first time he’d held her, when he’d been suffering the heartache of two failed suicide attempts.
She slipped her arms around him, and locked them behind his back, holding him still, holding him together, giving him the solidity that he was crying out for.
His nose bashed into the top of her head, and his chin slid down onto her nose, his lips pressed against her forehead. ‘Thank you,’ he whispered, and she felt tears falling from his cheeks onto her face.
‘I got you, Padawan, I always got you.’
He held onto her for another few moments, then released her. He turned away, then wiped his eyes before turning back. ‘Jesus,’ he said, as he gave an upsteady laugh, ‘I didn’t expect any of that when I got up this morning.’
She reached for his hand. ‘Let’s walk, the river doesn’t smell bad today.’
They walked in silence for a few hundred metres, before he slowly came to a stop. ‘Wow,’ he said, ‘I mean, God, I mean- My dad knows- And there- And Sara.’ His eyes shone. ‘She’s so bright,’ he said. ‘I don’t care if I’m “Cousin Curt”, the fact that I got to see her. I never thought-’ He turned towards the river, and wiped away more tears.
She rested her arms on the rail beside him, and leaned her head on his shoulder. ‘I got a present for you.’
She turned her hands upward, and required a frame – containing a picture of Curt holding his daughter – a still grabbed directly from her HUD.
He took it, his hands shaking, and held it gently, as though it was as breakable as a ball of spun glass. He looked at it for a long moment, then turned to her, and hugged her for a long moment.
‘Stef-’ he choked, then pulled away. ‘Can we go home? I just want-’
‘Somewhere safe?’ she asked.
She felt him nod, and with a thought, she teleported them home.