Ryan flinched as Carol slapped him across the face.
‘We need to talk-‘ he started.
She hit him again, and again, and again. His cheeks stung as her hand turned red from the effort. He grabbed her hand as she curled it into a fist to hit him again.
She tried to yank her hand away. ‘Let me go!’
‘Are you going to keep hitting me?’
‘You’re an agent, you can take it.’
‘Just because I can doesn’t mean I have to.’ She swung her other hand, and he grabbed it as well. He stood, holding both of her wrists still. ‘Stop it.’
‘Let me go, you’re hurting me!’
‘I’m not. I’m restraining you, to stop you from hurting me.’
She kneed his groin and he released her hands. He shifted to the other side of the couch, to put it between them, to remove himself from her range. ‘I abhor violence, you know that. Stop it, please.’
‘You brought this on yourself.’
He placed his hands on the back of the couch and leaned heavily on them. ‘I should have told you-’
‘You ruined my life!’
He stepped back, and she walked toward him.
‘You ruined my life,’ she said again.
‘I know I wasn’t there to protect-‘
‘Do you want to know why you weren’t there?’ she said.
‘You were late,’ he said, ‘I was waiting for you. You said you didn’t need help-’
‘It was a patrol, I shouldn’t have needed help, but I was stalling because I didn’t want to see you.’
‘Because I was going to break up with you.’
‘I can’t do this right now. Not tonight.’ She turned, walked into the bedroom and slammed the door.
He stared at the door for a minute, then shifted into the bedroom. ‘I’m not leaving that easily-’
She stared out the window. ‘I can’t handle this right now.’
One question burned in his mind. ‘Do you love me?’
She still didn’t look at him. ‘I don’t.’
He shifted away.
* * * * *
Someone hit his cage, sending it spinning. His body was cramped from fitting into the tiny enclosure, and his head hurt from it being pushed up against the bars. There was the sound of a creaking chain, and a rush of air against his face as the cage fell.
It hit the ground, hard, and knocked all the air from his lungs. Bruises bumped against metal, but he held back from saying anything, from swearing, from crying, from begging, he’d done enough already. Any sound he made either set the beasts on him more, or was ignored. Then again, that was the nature of torture.
The cage disappeared from around him, but he stayed in his curled up position, not wanting to take the liberty of stretching, of making himself more comfortable. Not wanting to make his naked body more of a target. At least this way they knew they were getting to him.
A strong hand grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked. This time, he couldn’t hold back a scream as the hair was torn free from his head. The suit attached to the arm grunted and grabbed him again, this time by the neck-
A hand on his shoulder.
He opened his eyes.
A scream locked in his throat. They’d come back for him. Finally. They were going to-
A girl’s voice. Stef. He let out a long breath, and unclenched his fists.
‘Hauggf?’ he managed to say as he tried to focus on her.
She was kneeling beside the bed, chin resting on the mattress, scared, in pain. He pushed himself closer. ‘What’s wrong? What happened?’ A hundred images formed in his mind, trying to displace the dream, filling him with possible new horrors from the waking world.
‘I think I ruined their OTP.’
He ground a hand against his head. Stef-English, not something he could handle at- ‘What time is it?’ he looked around for the glowing numbers of his clock. ‘It’s two in the morning, Stef.’ He required a shirt, so there wasn’t the added panic of “ZOMGNAKED!!!ONEONE!!!” as there always was on the occasions she had to wake him.
He let his head drop back onto the pillows. ‘What happened?’
‘Carol. She saw me naked and then they had a fight and-’
She gave her strange bobbled-headed nod.
‘Couples fight, it’s not the end of the world.’
He reached over the side of the bed, grabbed her upper arm and gave it a tug. She straightened and he gave her a smile. ‘Come here.’
She stood, and sat on the edge of the bed. ‘I fucked everything up.’
She grabbed one of his pillows, and laid on it, body as straight, stiff and rigid as one in a coffin. She flopped her head from side to side. ‘I was just trying to do good, but-’
‘Take off your shoes.’
The shoes disappeared, her socks didn’t.
He grabbed the blanket, required it away, required a fresh on, and pulled it up over both of them. ‘I will listen to every paranoid little thought, and explain every bit of couple dynamics, and tell you people fight, but for the love of god, in the morning, please. I need sleep.’
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I’ll just-’
He moved closer, and laid an arm over her. ‘Just go to sleep. Everything will be ok, I promise. Stop worrying, close your eyes and go to sleep.’
‘Everything is ok.’
She moved awkwardly under his arm for a moment. ‘I’ve got a bruise there.’
‘Sorry.’ He tried to pull his arm away, but she held onto his hand.
At a nearly glacial pace, she turned under his arm and backed up against him, so that he was spooning her. ‘There,’ she said as she moved his arm. ‘Just keep it there.’
‘Ok, newbie. Good night.’
He closed his eyes, and sank back into sleep.
* * * * *
Ryan shifted, his mind filled with the image of a desert stretching out into infinity, and the open expanse of space above him. The world blurred, then became crisp again. He looked to his left, saw the nominated black stump, and walked off into the emptiness of the outback beyond.
Dust and dirt filled his shoes before a door appeared. He stepped onto the threshold of the Lost, kicked his shoes clean, and stepped into the clean, welcome lobby of the Lost.
‘You’re an agent, you know,’ the blank behind the desk said, ‘we do have easier entrances for your kind.’
‘I’m not here as an agent.’
The blank morphed, its plain body and garment becoming a suit to match his. ‘So that’ll be our cue then,’ the blank said in his voice, ‘use this door, you’re here as a man, use the regular door and you’re here on official business?’
He stared at the blank’s huge green eyes. ‘It’s you? You were the one here last time?’
The blank shrugged. ‘Not a lot of people want to pull desk duty, customer service and spreadsheets just happen to be my secret talents. This about the girl again?’
‘Remind me,’ the blank said, ‘she had a captain, right? Nemo? No, it was a pirate. Long John Silver?’
The blank snapped its fingers and nodded. ‘That’s why I got confused, that guy does Nemo as well. And he’s a backup Santa sometimes.’ It went behind the desk and slid into its chair. ‘Just let me pull up the file, because I think-’
‘She declared herself Found, yes.’
The blank looked up. ‘Then why are you here, Agent? She’s your responsibility, we don’t have the resources to look after our people as it is, let alone those who are strong enough to even think they might be Found.’
The blank came out from behind the desk and motioned to a pair of comfortable-looking chairs. ‘It’s the middle of the night, I sincerely doubt I’m going to have any more customers to deal with before my shift ends, so why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you?’ It lifted the top of the small table between the two chairs and lifted a pitcher of water and a bowl of fairy fruit from the refrigerated compartment. ‘Hungry?’
He lifted a piece of the fruit, unable to say no to the sweet fruit, and the good feelings it always gave him, and began to peel it. ’It’s not that easy to explain.’
‘I’ve read the file, I had a chat with her Captain after she became Found, and I remember you saying something about mirror making a big mess of things, you want to start from the top?’
‘She was two-’ he began.
Twenty minutes later, he had spilled the high and low points of his life story, all the while being encouraged by his own voice. Carol. Stef. The mirror. The oubliette. All of it. Enough to have him dragged before an Enforcer and recycled. All of it so good to get off his chest.
The blank leaned across, brushed a hand against his cheek, and laid a soft kiss on his lips before retreating. He looked up at the suited blank as the tingle on his lips faded. ‘What was that for?’
‘You looked like you needed it, Agent. And I think you need to be reminded that you’re loved.’
‘I know that.’
The blank gave him a small, mocking smile. ‘You know that, but I don’t think you feel it. You’ve got a rough patch going on in you love life, sure, but everything else seems like it could add up to a fulfilling life and you’re too busy guilting yourself to enjoy it.’
‘You shouldn’t need to try, Agent, that’s your first problem. The girl who was Lost, we’ve been talking for all of ten minutes, and I wouldn’t do you a disservice by calling her anything other than your daughter. You’ve got my vote for father of the year, if agents are eligible, of course,’ the blank said with a wink. ‘You’re the reason she declared herself Found, and you’re doing a hell of a lot better than the parents who made her one of ours to begin with.’
‘I stole her life, I-’
‘Sounds like you saved her life, in every way it’s possible to save it.’
‘I’ve locked her into this life, unless I do something, she won’t have a choice but to stay an agent. She-’
‘She could have run, Agent, she didn’t. When things were a lot scarier, and a lot more dangerous, and she chose to stay with you, that’s got to say something to you.’
‘I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘I don’t want her to hate me, I don’t want her to resent this life, I don’t-’
‘Ask her if she does.’
‘I can’t do that!’
‘So you’d rather plan behind her back and make arrangements for her to be taken in by a Court?’
‘I’m afraid of what she’ll say. Carol…I think Carol hates me, I can’t lose Stef too.’
The blank kissed him again. ‘Stop being afraid. If everything you’ve told me is true, the only way you’re going to push her away is if you’re so afraid of losing her that you push her away. And that makes far more sense than you might think.’
‘I should go.’
‘You’re in worse shape than when you arrived, Agent.’
‘I have things to do.’
‘In the middle of the night? Like what?’
‘There’s always something that needs to be done. I left paperwork undone, I-’
The blank moved to sit on the table, the suit morphing again – not back to its normal, plain state, but into a shorter, more feminine suit. The pants became a tastefully short skirt, the coat disappeared altogether, the vest undulated as the blank’s chest expanded into a pair of breasts, and long, loose red curls spilled down its shoulders. The huge green eyes stayed, staring at him with the same compassion and pity they’d held since he’d walked in the door.
‘What are you-?’
The blank kissed him again, not a chaste kiss this time, and he heard himself gasp as it pulled away for a moment.
‘What are you-?’
‘We’re not going to get very far,’ the blank said, still using his voice, ‘if you keep asking the same question.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘No, you don’t,’ the blank said as it pushed away his jacket, ‘and that’s a real problem.’
He didn’t argue as the blank loosened his tie and pulled it away. The blank smiled and slid across onto his lap, its chest pushing against his.
He pulled back a little. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Not in the same way Stef was, and not so that you would notice, but here,’ it said as it brushed a hand across his chest. ‘in your heart, that’s where you’re Lost, and that’s why you hurt.’ The blank smiled and continued to undress him. ‘You’re a problem applicant, Ryan, you’re one of us, but there’s not much we can do to help, you’re functionally Found. You don’t need an imaginary friend, you need a real one, or you need to realise you can rely on the ones you’ve got.’
‘It’s hard,’ he said, his voice a whisper.
The blank kissed his neck, then moved back from his lap, and pulled him down onto the thick, soft rug.
‘I don’t-’ he started to argue. ‘I don’t do this.’
‘I know,’ the blank said, ‘but a bit of spontaneity will do you good.’
The blank beneath him was soft, warm, and utterly uncomplicated. There was no life and death decisions, there was no guilt, there was nothing, except the pleasant, warm sensations of being intimate with another being. It laughed at him as he fumbled with its skirt.
‘What?’ he asked, pulling the skirt down past its knees.
‘You look so, so serious,’ the blank said, pulling itself close enough to kiss the creases in his forehead. ‘Stop being so serious, Agent.’
‘I didn’t mean-‘
‘It’s adorable, but you need to relax.’
‘I am relaxed,’ he insisted.
‘You. Are. Not,’ it said, mock-scolding. It pushed against his chest and he let himself fall back onto the rug, the soft fibres caressing his back as the blank stripped him of his pants. ‘I will make you relax. Now close your eyes, and enjoy this.’
He closed his eyes, he enjoyed it.
Ninety minutes of thoroughly enjoyable lovemaking later, they lay as a sprawl of tired limbs on the much abused rug. The blank laid its head on his head, its red hair tangled and dripping with sweat. He ran his hand through the curls, almost unconsciously as his mind drifted content, carefree, relaxed…happy.
He lifted his hand away for a moment to grab at his coat and pull it over them as a makeshift blanket, to shield them from the cold, and from anyone who might enter the lobby.
‘I didn’t know you were a virgin.’
He tapped open his recent memory in his HUD and replayed the sentence, just to make sure he had heard it right.’ I beg your pardon?’
‘No, you can’t have my pardon,’ the blank said, touching its tongue to his chest. ‘I already gave you too much tonight.’
‘I’m not sure if your Court has a different definition, or if-‘
‘I think you well and truly proved you’ve had sex before, Agent. Answer me this though, who have those other women been in bed with? The man? The agent? Their client? They’ve all been fucking aspects of you, not your whole. I just had sex with the whole of you, so I hope your first time was all right.’
‘I never- I never characterise myself as someone who has sex in public, but we-’
‘Like I told you, it’s pretty dead this time of night, it’s as private as it gets. And you’re avoiding the question.’
‘I feel good, and that’s rare for me.’ He sat up and shook his head. ‘I- We- I don’t generally do things like this.’
‘So you keep saying, Agent.’
‘I don’t mean it to sound like an excuse.’
‘You never even asked my name.’
He hung his head, shame filling him. The blank reached out and stroked his face. ‘It’s Vink, and it was nice getting to know you.’
He stood and began to get dressed. The blank smiled, stood, and pulled his tie from the pile of discarded clothes. ‘Mine,’ Vink said with a smile. ‘It’s the little bit of you I get to keep.’ The blank slipped it over its neck and cinched it loosely like a necklace.
The curls disappeared as the blank resumed its mannequin-like appearance, retaining only the large green eyes.
‘I think you were right,’ he said as he buttoned his shirt, ‘I think I am Lost.’
‘Just try to remember that sometimes,’ Vink said, ‘give yourself permission to be unsure, and you’ll be fine.’
* * * * *
The agent stood in front of him, a monster of inhuman proportions. A gatekeeper of hell. The stories, the rumours, the whispers, they all said that if an agent killed you, that you went to hell. Right now, he could believe it.
‘You aren’t leaving here alive,’ the agent said, growing even taller, so tall now that its hair brushed against the ceiling. It lifted a huge foot and stamped it down on him, holding him in place.
He beat his hands against the foot, hands covered in blood he just knew wasn’t his. He opened his left hand and saw a blue eye sitting there. It rolled to stare up at him, somehow crying without help from the socket and tear ducts it had been torn away from.
He felt himself shake from the nightmare, and consciousness began to seep into his mind.
He wasn’t alone.
There was a warm body pressed against his. Pleasant. Soft. Not the spectres from his nightmare. He adjusted his arms, one tingly and nearly numb beneath the slim body, the other lying across it, being gently lifted and up down by the simple act of breathing. Breathing. Living. Not dying in a cold room kicked to death by sadistic agents, not served up as dinner, not executed for his crimes. Breathing. Living. Spooning.
He smiled, and began to caress the chest beneath his hand. Teri, maybe, or Mirribel, both of them stayed until morning if you paid in advance. But he hadn’t-
‘I can assure you, those are not the droids you’re looking for.’
His hand froze. He sent out a tiny prayer that he was still dreaming. ‘Stef?’
He yanked his hand away at warp speed, sat up and scooted to the other side of the bed, his cheeks burning. ‘I am so, so, so-‘
‘Did you know it was me?’
‘Of course not! ‘ He hung his head, unwilling to look her in the eyes. ‘Gods, I am so sorry.’
‘I’m not going to crucify you for something you did while unconscious.’
He stared across at her. ‘Who are you and what did you do with Stef?’
‘This is me. This is me just trying not to have a disproportionate reaction to something innocent. And it’s not like there’s anything there to grope anyway, so you couldn’t have done any damage even if I hadn’t kept smacking your hand away.’
He considered her words, but something stuck out. ‘What do you mean “kept”? How long was I-’
‘Only for like the last ten minutes. You’re surprisingly persistent.’
‘You didn’t shift away.’
‘I wasn’t sure what the etiquette was, and I’m starting to think “shift away and ask later” is sort of rude, and I need to stop doing that. And it was warm and comfy, so I saw no need to move. Sorry?’
‘You sure you’re ok?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine.’
‘So long as you’re sure.’ He smirked at her. ‘I’m comfy?’
A tiny blush coloured her cheeks for a moment before it disappeared. ‘Different sort of comfy to Ryan.’
He looked down at his chest. ‘Sara did like falling asleep in my arms after I fed her.’
‘I am an agent you know, I’ve got the authority to be your escort any time you want to go visit, or just for a peek.’
‘I’ll keep it in mind.’
‘Is there a “but” somewhere in there?’
He stood and slapped his butt. ‘Well, there is, but it’s going over there, because I have to use the bathroom.’ He walked across the small main room, closed the bathroom door behind him, smiled at the freshly-cleaned bathroom, the mess of wet towels and used uniform he’d left from the previous night’s shower cleaned away by whatever bits of practical magic that kept the Agency sparkling.
He used the toilet, washed his hands, and opened the bathroom door.
Stef sat on top of a freshly-made bed in a fresh uniform.
‘No shoes on the bed,’ he said as he climbed back onto the bed.
‘They’re brand new, they’re cleaner than you.’
‘My bed, my rules. No shoes.’
She pulled her sneakers off and neatly pitched them into the kitchenette. ‘Happy?’
He wiped the sleep from his eyes, and required his own uniform to avoid her question. Happy. Still working on happy. ‘Can I assume,’ he said, ‘that you don’t want to head off to training this early?’
‘You are correct, sir!’ she said with an over-dramatic flourish.
‘Then you’re requiring breakfast, something light, because I am dragging your ass to the gym when I’m done assuaging your paranoia.’
Five plates of bacon appeared.
He sighed. ‘Wasn’t exactly what I was thinking, newbie.’
‘Eat your bacon, it’s man-food.’