There was a knock on the door into Ryan’s office.
Stef looked up, wishing that she’d reacted with fear, with shock, that she’d flinched in the sound…instead there was nothing but the pervasive numbness that had crept under her skin since returning home.
And the Agency, this agency, was home, no matter how much misery she’d been through since stepping through the doors. There’d been pain unimaginable, but there had also been wonder.
And now, there was nothing, except the autonomic impetus to keep breathing, because breathing was important, no matter what anyone said. You had to breathe to be alive, you had to-
She looked down at her hand. An hour ago, she hadn’t been breathing, she’d been lying on some shitty excuse for a bed, too deprived of oxygen to muster the will to take the breath that would make her live.
And then there had been the pain, the sharp pain of broken fingers being abused, which had been enough of a kick to the teeth to make her draw in breath.
She’d been dying, then she’d had another chance.
For one bizarre, uncomfortable moment, she thought her mother had spoken. She shook her head slowly from side to side, then looked up, trying to see if there could be ghosts that weren’t induced by the presence of a mirrorfall.
Instead of her dead mother, she saw a far more welcome sight: Agent Jane.
‘Agent, I know you’ve been through a lot, but we need to get a report from you. I’m sorry, but we need to determine what immediate actions, if any, need to occur.’
‘We?’ Stef asked, seizing on the one word that didn’t make sense.
‘Myself and Enforcer Crawford will be conducting this debrief.’
Stef stood, aware that her clothes – still the ones she’d wished for, minus Ryan’s jacket – were a disheveled mess, yet unable to raise enough of a shit to do anything about it. ‘I’m ready,’ she said, sure that everyone in the room knew her words were hollow lies, but lies that were necessary for the sake of appearances.
Jane nodded. ‘I’ll be shifting us, then,’ she said, and the world blurred.
The fancy wood panels of Crawford’s office appeared, and Jane led her to a soft red chair, then handed her a mug of tea. ‘It’s mostly honey,’ Jane said, ‘it’ll make you feel better.’
Crawford settled behind his desk. ‘We’re talking to you first, before anyone else involved in the situation. We only know things from the outside perspective, so I’d like you to fill in the detail. As memory retrieval is routine if we get conflicting stories, or if we suspect someone is covering up the truth, we would encourage you to be as truthful as you can with us.’
Stef looked at the tea, then took a mouthful. It was sweet. It was good.
‘I am aware,’ she said, surprised at how steady her voice was, ‘of where I am on the ladder, compared to Grigori. I have to wonder whose truth will be more valued.’
‘Something I’ve heard people say about your father,’ Jane said, ‘is that he is a good man, before he is a good agent. Grigori is the inverse. He runs an entire country, he lost more than anyone during the war, but such a life can- It is no excuse, no mitigation of what he has done, but it is, in part, an explanation.’
‘He wanted a wish,’ Stef said, her voice hollow, ‘and he didn’t listen when I said no.’
Word by word, the story came out.
Grigori’s intimidation. The Solstice attacking. Curt’s very clever plan to pretend – yes, sir, pretend – to be Solstice. Being…questioned. Getting free. Taking down the last couple of bad guys. Meeting back up with the recruits.
Crawford folded his hands in a way that reminded her of Ryan. ‘Do you have any reason to question Recruit O’Connor’s loyalty, in light of these events?’
‘I would be dead without him,’ she said. ‘If he ever wanted to fuck over the agency, having this much mirror at his disposal would have been the way to do it.’ She pressed her hands to her eyes – there were no more tears, just sheer exhaustion leaking through like a physical thing. ‘What happens from here?’
Crawford looked to Jane – they’d been doing this throughout her account – having in-brain IM was the world’s most useful tool. ‘Agent, something you have to understand about this situation, is that due to Grigori’s age, position and service, he’ll be able to argue down whatever punishment is deemed worthy.’
‘So he’s going to get a slap on the wrist, and I have to accept that?’
‘The other thing, Agent,’ Jane said, ‘is that if this goes on record, other agents of his calibre may risk the punishment, in order to procure a wish. Attacking a fellow agent, that’s punishment and induced glitches; handling contraband, he may be able to-’ she sighed. ‘He’s too old and useful to be recycled for this. A younger agent may be reset, or undergo-’
Tears fell down her cheeks, and she couldn’t stop them. ‘But- He-’ she hung her head. ‘Yes ma’am.’
Jane put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Come on pet, the Agency isn’t that unfair. He fucked with you, keeping it off the record gives you an opportunity to fuck him right back.’
Stef sniffled. ‘Yeah?’
Jane handed her another mug of sweet-smelling tea. ‘He is a man of influence and favours owed. I am sure that this incident is good for at least a year of blackmailing him. More than what he would have initially offered you for the wish, especially as he was able to recover Dmitri.’
Dmitri was the one thing – person – that had entirely avoided her thought patterns. ‘What’s his condition? He can’t be- Why would he still be alive after all this time?’
Crawford rose from his desk. ‘He’s been transferred to one of Grigori’s tech facilities. They’re being particularly careful, he could always be a plant, or an attempt to destroy an agency from within.’
She nodded. ‘So what happens now?’
‘We’ll be speaking with Grigori to ensure that there’s a consistency to your stories. If there is, we’ll forward you a close-out report. If there’s consistency, we won’t need to speak with O’Connor.’
Jane smiled. ‘And we’ll impress upon Grigori that leniency is due to you. Get some rest, Agent, you deserve it.’
One more question, then she could crawl into a wardrobe and sleep for a century. ‘And my external training?’
‘That will still need to be completed, though with one of the alternates that offered to host you. Speak with Ryan tomorrow about your choices.’
She rose from her chair. ‘Thank you,’ she said – it seemed to be the thing to say, even if it meant nothing. She shook Jane’s hand, then Crawford’s hand. ‘If I’m excused.’
Jane lifted a hand, and the world tipped as she was shifted away.
Ryan was standing by his desk as she reintegrated – a half-full glass in his hand.
‘A little early?’ she asked dryly, blinking at the morning sun as she went back to the spot on the couch she’d claimed as her own. ‘Is it helping?’
Ryan looked from the glass to her, then back to his glass. ‘I drink more than I should,’ he said, a note of shame in his voice. ‘Even if most of what I drink is human, and therefore it doesn’t affect me unless I want it to.’ He looked up, and she redness rimming his eyes – evidence he’d been crying. ‘If there’s any blame for it to be had,’ he said, ‘blame Reynolds, he always suggested a drink when things were bad. It’s a habit I’ve continued, even in his absence.’
Stef made a vague gesture at the glass. Ryan lifted the bottle from behind his back, and came to join her on the couch. He splashed a small measure of what her nose recognised as Scotch into the glass, and handed it to her, his hand trembling ever so slightly. She cuddled the glass to her chest, and shuffled, so that she had turned her back to him, then leaned against his side. ‘I don’t like drinking,’ she said. She sipped at the Scotch. It was expansive. ‘I dunno if I told you. I’m okay having a glass of wine with dinner or whatever, because I know there’s a social contract in place to keep what I drink to a minimum.’
‘Your teenage years must have been far different to what I’m imagining,’ Ryan said. The words, and his breathing, made his chest move, and her insides uncoiled a little, a single rope of tension sliding away. She had – for the first time in her life, a family, a father, someone who was willing to listen to her. Someone who cared what she said. Someone who – at least probably – wouldn’t judge her for what she was about to admit.
‘I dunno so much,’ she said, forcing a lightness into her voice, ‘are you imagining me at thirteen?’ She swirled the Scotch. ‘I was twelve when I went crazy. Well, probably before that, but I didn’t start hearing the voice in my head until I was twelve. I was alone. I went straight from the hospital and my physical therapy to boarding school. I was crazy, I was alone, and I had absolutely no way of managing myself. I knew if I said anything. If I told anyone, that I’d be locked away. I’d be- I had a thousand nightmares about what would happen.’ She smiled at her warped reflection in the alcohol. ‘Self-medicating seemed like my best, no, scratch that, only. Only solution. I found that if I had just a little, I’d get just a little bit sleepy, and I’d stop externalising my conversations. If you ever see my transcripts, this might explain why my grades are so poor.’
Ryan leaned forward, and put his glass on the floor, then leaned back, and wrapped his arms around her. ‘I can’t even imagine being in that situation. To be alone. To be without help. To-‘
‘I’m not so disrespectful of alcoholism to claim I was a functioning alcoholic, but I have a much higher alcohol tolerance for my weight than I should.’ She took another sip. ‘Why do I feel almost okay, dad? Logically, I feel like I should be screaming, but it already feels like it happened a week ago.’
‘May I answer a question with a question?’
‘I thought it was my job to be a little shit, but go ahead.’
‘Tell me about any adventure you had with Captain Hook.’
Stef opened her mouth to tell him about one of the incredible, wonderful, magnificent adventures she’d had with her Captain. They had happened. They had been real. And nothing more than scraps of memory came to mind. ‘Okay,’ she said, knowing this was probably his point, ‘explain.’
‘The Lost operate as, for the most part, imaginary friends – you know this. The kindness they provide works best, because the children they care for are genuinely able to believe that their adventures, their friends and guardians were in fact, products of their own imagination. A child apart from the magic in the world isn’t left in the uncomfortable position wondering if they hallucinated everything.’
She nodded. ‘Yeah, that cuts out the obvious, like, Narnia problem. But how?’
‘Your memories of the Lost age at an artificially quick rate. Somewhere in the order of seven times that of normal memory. A year passes, and everything of the Lost is the better part of a decade from your mind.’
‘And blue does the same thing?’
‘In a different way, but it helps us get through our days. You won’t be unaffected by what happened, but it will have less of an impact than if you were human.’ He lifted one hand and lightly tousled her hair. ‘If there’s anything I can do, please- I can’t take away that it happened, but I can be here for you now.’
Stef dismissed her drink. ‘Daddy?’
‘I want to watch cartoons.’