Stef couldn’t stop shaking.
The door to the room that held Grigori was twenty feet away.
And inside, was a man who’d orchestrated things – unintentionally or not – for her to get tortured.
She hugged her arms around herself and pressed her hands to her upper arms. She closed her eyes for a moment, then doubled over and puked against the wall.
She retched twice more, and some of the tears started to shake loose.
If I start, I’ll never stop.
‘Hey, here,’ Curt said, dangling a cloth beside her face. ‘Sorry, it was the cleanest thing I could find.’
She accepted the cloth and slowly wiped her mouth. After three long, slow breaths, she stood.
‘We can leave him for his own people to find,’ Curt said. ‘You don’t have to see him again.’
‘Fuck that,’ she said. She slapped her face a few times. ‘Do I look like I’m crying?’
He shook his head. ‘No, ma’am.’
‘Good.’ She tugged on Ryan’s jacket, pulling it into order. ‘Let’s go get the bastard.’
Stef straightened her tie, stood as straight as she could, then nodded to Curt, who pushed the door open for her.
The agent looked…awful. Some of what the Solstice – and Curt – had done had apparently had an effect after all.
And he deserved every iota of the pain.
She strode forward, and he lifted his head, blond hair matted with blood and plastered to his face with sweat. Despite the injuries, despite the chains, he still looked defiant, he still looked…dangerous.
And she hadn’t lasted a minute before begging for freedom.
‘Cut me down, now,’ Grigori demanded, ‘and I won’t beat the both of you to death.’
Stef knew she was shaking again, each of his words sliding in like another knife, or another-
Curt stepped in front of her, blocking Grigori’s view of her. ‘Newbie?’
His voice was cold. ‘Turn and walk. Now. I’ll be with you in a minute.’
She stared at his back for a moment, at the unfamiliar Solstice clothes on his body, and shuddered.
She watched as his hand dug into his pocket, and came out with his gun.
A gun he was going to use to shoot Grigori.
For a moment, she didn’t care.
For a moment, she wanted to see the blond agent die.
She reached a hand up to her mouth, not quite able to feel ashamed at how much the idea appealed to her.
Curt took a step towards Grigori, and she slowly reached up – her arm moving in slow motion compared to him, and grabbed one of the folds of cloth in his jacket, and tugged on it.
If he killed Grigori, there’d be consequences.
She tugged on his jacket again. ‘Come with me,’ she said, her voice sounding tiny and childish, even to her own ears.
For a moment, he didn’t react, then his head dropped, and he turned to face her. ‘If that’s what you want, newbie.’
She nodded, and backed out of the room, leaving Grigori in chains.
There was a thundering of boots, and Curt stepped forward – consciously or not, placing himself as a shield in front of her.
She released the grip on his jacket, and did her best to hold onto her magic gun. There hadn’t been any more Solstice on the video monitors – so unless these were reinforcements-
A group of soldiers rounded the top of the corner. ‘Agency,’ the one at the front shouted. ‘Weapons down or-’
‘Don’t be a fucking idiot,’ a familiar voice said, and Magnolia pushed past the soldier at the front. She shoved him against the wall, and pushed his weapon against his chest. ‘Remind me to slap the shit out of you later,’ she snapped, and ran forward.
In deference to the weather, she had switched her usual goth-loli gear for a standard riot-quality Combat uniform – blue BDUs with reinforced sections.
‘O’Connor,’ she said, with a nod at Curt. ‘Mimosa,’ she said, her gaze not even bothering to swing down. ‘Can you walk out of here on your own?’
‘Just point the way to system territory,’ Curt said.
Magnolia turned and made a complicated gesture with her hand, and two of the soldiers came forward. She turned back. ‘Grigori?’ she asked, a quaver of worry in her voice.
Curt jerked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘In there. We don’t have the tools to free him.’
Magnolia nodded, and pressed a hand to her headset. ‘Sir. My location.’
A hand clamped on her shoulder.
Someone was going to hurt her again. Cut her. Burn her. Choke her. Bruise her. She was going to die-
She was screaming before she realised.
Safe. She had been safe. And now-
Words tore through her throat like glass. ‘Stop touching me! Let me go! Let me go!’
The hand released from her shoulder, and she fell forward, unable to control herself, unable to do anything.
She couldn’t see. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t-
She closed her eyes, and wept, unable to keep the tears at bay any longer.
There were sounds beside her. Someone grabbed her feet, and someone grabbed her shoulders.
She screamed again, and tried to-
Stop touching me. Stop touching me. Stop touching me.
The grips were released a moment later, and she felt a rush of air on her face as she was lifted.
She bit down on her tongue until she tasted blood, and tried to crawl inside herself. Tried to imagine herself dead. Tried to get away. Away from where any of this had happened. Away from everything.
There was the soft feel of a shift, and bright light invaded her personal space, even with her eyes closed.
As an experiment, she sniffed – and through the tears and the lingering smell of blood, she smelt the infirmary.
‘Agent,’ one of the Parkers said. ‘You’re here for triage, but we’re not scanning anything wrong with you.’ There was a pause. ‘Except that you’re less agent than when we saw you last. I assume-’ Pause. ‘Healing magics other than blue were involved?’
She made a small, affirmative noise.
‘That will be between you and your tech to deal with. Do you feel able to sit up? Your clothes are cold and bloody.’ Pause. ‘Is this Director Ryan’s jacket?’
He was talking quietly, slowly. Like you did with someone who-
Someone who was still curled fetal and weeping.
She forced her eyes open, and saw Parker-1. He was face-to-face with her. ‘You’re back in System territory, Agent. Give it a couple of minutes, and you’ll begin to feel more stable. Is there anything you want right now?’
She managed to move her hand a little, and pointedly gripped the jacket.
‘I thought that might be the answer,’ Parker-1 said. ‘He’s waiting just outside.’
The doctor retreated, and Stef carefully grabbed for the white sheet on the infirmary bed. It was normal. It was something she knew. It wasn’t-
She took a breath, trying to suck as much of the System into her lungs as she could. Lungs that had been bubbling with blood. Lips that had been bruised and bloody. Fingers that had been broken. Cut. Bruised. So damaged they shouldn’t have been able to type ever again.
The curtain to her bed was pulled aside, and Ryan stepped inside, his footsteps strong, real. Footsteps that meant that she was safe. That she had something strong to cling to. That she had a dad who was going to hold her as she cried.
Ryan stepped forward, and in a couple of awkward movements, she sat up, and flung herself at him, clinging to him like a baby koala.
‘I’ve got you, sweetheart,’ he whispered, ‘you’re home, you’re safe.’
She buried her face against his chest, and opened her eyes until all she could see was the blue of his vest. The same view she’d had when he’d carried her from limbo, when he’d saved her life, and given her the one single, solid memory of being safe that she’d been able to carry with her for her whole life.
He’d always been there – a memory that had metamorphosed into a dream. A guardian angel, long before she’d even known that was far closer to the truth than she could have ever known.
‘It’s too bright here,’ she whispered, and clutched him harder, and felt the shift.
‘May I require you clean clothes?’ he asked after they reintegrated. She latched onto his neck, and hung, supported by his arms, her feet barely touching the ground.
She slowly took his jacket off and handed it back to him. Underneath were the warm, layered clothes that she’d wished for. There was a smear of blood across her chest. ‘Not my blood,’ she muttered, ‘it’s Curt’s. He was- He got shot.’
He reached for her, and she flinched, tears immediately flowing when she realised what she’d done. ‘Let- Let me-’ she sat on the couch and folded down, resting her chest against her thighs.
A chest everyone had seen.
If she hadn’t been such a disgusting freak- If she hadn’t been covered in scars- She’d been cuffed, exposed, and- And Curt couldn’t have done anything without breaking his cover. She’d been offered up like meat on the block-
Stop thinking about it. Stop thinking about it.
Ryan placed a large mug of coffee on the table in front of her. ‘It’s made the way you like,’ he said, ‘though I do have to disagree with the amount of sugar you use.’
He sat on the couch – but left a buffer space between them.
She slowly reached out, slipped her fingers into the handle, and drew the coffee back to her.
‘Stef- Stef, what happened?’
She pressed a hand to her heart. ‘Grigori wanted a wish. He didn’t listen when I said no.’ She hung her face over the coffee.
‘You disappeared. We couldn’t find you. The Solstice facility- That place shouldn’t exist. It’s always been reported that they were completed eradicated within the region. Someone is going to have to double-check Grigori’s work. Then you called- You-’
She grabbed for his jacket and pulled the magic mirror from the pocket. ‘It’s a bit fairy tale,’ she said, something approaching a sheepish grin on her face.
Ryan took the mirror, holding it as though it might bite him at any moment. ‘What did you wish for?’ he asked, holding his fingers a fraction of an inch above the smooth surface of the glass.
‘Guidance,’ she said, ‘though it really just seems to be a phone with an unbeatable signal strength.’
Silence fell for a moment.
‘If I say it,’ she said, looking at the floor again, ‘then it’ll be real.’
‘Curt isn’t wearing his uniform,’ Ryan said after a long pause. ‘And given what his former profession was-’
‘Yes,’ she said, curling her hands into fists. ‘Yes. To what you’re asking. Don’t make me say it. Please. I got a thorough preview of his skills. He had to. There wasn’t a choice. He called me recruit. He kept me safer than if they had known I was agent. They were going to shoot me. They were just going to shoot me. He saved my life. Don’t punish him. Don’t think he’s evil. I wouldn’t be here-’
‘Tell me what you need,’ Ryan said quietly. ‘Whatever it is, you can have it.’
She put the coffee down, turned her head, and faceplanted against his chest, burying herself in the blue of his vest. ‘I want you to tell me that it’s okay. I want to-’ She gripped onto his vest. ‘I need to feel safe. Like when I was little.’
Ryan cradled her head against his chest, his warm hand holding her in one piece. ‘I can- I could-’ Something appeared in her HUD. ‘Run that command,’ he said.
She navigated to the slowly-pulsing box and hit the run command and watched it execute. there was a moment and then her body began to feel strange a different kind of strange to the myriad of unpleasant sensations the last couple of hours and held she looked down her hands, hands that had been bloody, bruised, beaten, broken. Hands that had typed one hundred billion million lines of code became stubby fingers shrink and became the hands of a child.
The rest of her body flowed to match.
As naturally as if he’d done it a million times as if she’d always been his daughter, Ryan lifted her up. She was tiny. She was small. She was the same size as the day he’d first met her.
She’d had a wish granted, without using mirror.
She grabbed at him with her tiny hands, and buried her face against his chest.
‘I don’t know what happens from here,’ Ryan said as he began to walk around his office, using the light bouncing motion of a parent trying to get a child to sleep. ‘I don’t even know where to begin.’
She didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say. Word somehow failed to summarise what had happened, what was happening, and what had to happen.
After a few minutes, or a few hours, or a few hundred years – time was hard to tell when your mind was as fucked as it was possible to be – she cancelled the command, and grew to her regular size, Ryan holding her until her feet touched the floor.
‘I can’t sleep,’ she said. She lifted a hand to her head. ‘There’s too much- Too much in here.’ She moved back to the couch, settled herself into the smallest space possible, and stared at the floor.
‘What can I do for you?’ Ryan asked, somewhere off to her right, close enough so that his voice enough was comforting, far enough away to stop her from screaming.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, her voice cracking. ‘I just need- Time.’