Stef shuffled nervously back and forth across the Hyde lobby. Ryan had told her when he would be shifting in, and even worldwide shifting didn’t take more than a few seconds, but it had felt nice to be early. It gave her the appearance of being organised – even if he loved her for who she was, there was no harm in attempting to change for the better.
Her uniform was clean, she’d brushed her hair. She looked, all the world, at least like a sensible recruit, if not a sensible agent.
The one of the minimised chat windows in her HUD flashed – Ryan’s – and she activated it. A text-only message. [I’ll see you in a minute.]
She stilled her fidgeting, pressed a hand to her hair, and faced towards the default shifting entry position – she doubted he’d been to Hyde enough times to change the default. The air fuzzed, proving her right, and she waved as he finished integrating.
Some of the tension and worry he’d been showing in every conversation since Russia had gone – he and Jones had been right, the incident already seemed like weeks ago, whatever her blue was doing to suppress the bad memories was working, and she was glad of it.
She ran towards him, barrelled into his chest, and hugged him. ‘Hi, dad,’ she said, face pressed into his vest.
He ruffled her hair, and happy tears rushed to her eyes, but they were easily blinked away. She had family, she had friends, and even if things did go wrong, or people went away, for right now, for right this second, she was happy, and she was going to let herself enjoy it.
Ryan took a half step back, his hands on her shoulders. ‘You’re looking well. Feel like dinner?’
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘You didn’t say where we were going though.’
He held out a hand, and she took it. ‘I know how Fairyland delights you, so I thought we could-’
She squeed as loudly as Milla had done about the waffles, and latched onto Ryan’s hand. ‘Okies! Ready! Which way?’
The world went sideways as they shifted from the Hyde lobby.
The shift seemed to take longer than usual – almost like they were lagging. Slowly the world came back into focus.
If this is server lag, what happens if we disconnect?
‘Ryan?’ she asked as soon as she was aware of having a mouth again.
‘Sorry,’ he said gently, ‘I’ve forgotten how disorientating that can for new agents. We’ve shifted into Fairyland.’
She quickly ran her hands down her sides to her thighs, ensuring that she could account for all of her parts. She looked up at him. ‘Isn’t that, like- Shouldn’t- Isn’t that why there are the magic stairs?’
‘There’s an area of Fairyland, one small suburb, where we are now. It’s called The Marches, it is the one place where agents can shift in, and even then, there are very places where we can actually break through.’ He pointed to the concrete floor they were standing on, and the large blue circle painted there. ‘Denoted shifting zones,’ he said, ‘most of them are in our warehouses, which is where we are now.’
She looked around, and saw what seemed to be a far messier version of Lost and Found. Ryan reached for her hand, and they walked through dusty shelves, towards a green exit sign. ‘Long ago, there was a pilot program to explore the idea of making Faerie more accessible to agents. The Marches is as far as it got. Here, we can shift, as I just said. It’s also far harder, though not impossible, to fatally harm us. Communication also works, though requiring is spotty at best.’
Stef considered all of this for a moment. ‘So it’s kind of the best place for a day pass? It’s Faerie, but safe?’
Ryan gave her an approving look. ‘Exactly. Our blue also depletes as a much-reduced pace compared to the rest of Faerie.’
‘Do you have reservations somewhere?’ she asked as they stepped out into the coolness of the Fairyland night.
‘No, I thought you could pick somewhere that appeals to you.’ He touched his coat, over the pocket that held his wallet. ‘I’ve taken a Director’s per diem of Fairyland currency, so unless we over-indulge in expensive alcohol or entertainment, we should be fine.’
‘So what you’re saying,’ she said slowly, ‘is that we shouldn’t have a cocktail dinner at a strip club?’ she stared at the ground, half-proud, half-embarrassed at making the joke.
‘Thankfully,’ he said, ‘I don’t think that appeals to either of us.’
His comment was mild, but it made her stop. Relationships had always been so far out of her scope for herself that other people’s relationships weren’t even on the radar. If she was going to try, and the night she’d spent with Milla proved that she was capable of change, then enquiring about other people should be one of those things she put on her To Do list.
‘You- You don’t like strip clubs?’ she asked, trying not to stumble too badly over her words.
Ryan gave her a puzzled look. ‘If I am to understand popular culture, isn’t it a sin for a father to talk about his relationships in front of his children. Too much information, I believe?’
She crinkled her nose at him, and they started to walk down the street. ‘I’m not- Please- Please don’t give me squishy details. But. But you’re my family. So I should probably know. You know. Stuff. I know you were OTP with Carol. And you were married to a lady. Do- Do you just like girls? Are you, actually, like dating someone and I just haven’t noticed? I’m really good at not noticing stuff.’
‘You’re actually exceptionally observant when you wish to be,’ Ryan said as they stopped, and waiting for the pedestrian signal to walk.
‘Okay, but not about people stuff,’ she said. ‘I’m bad at everything to do with people.’
He ruffled her hair. ‘The gender of a person has never been a factor in how attracted I find myself to a person. The fact that my two long-term partners were both women means nothing, they were simply the people I found myself in a relationship with.’ He paused, seeming to consider his words. ‘Please stop me, if I am verging into too much information.’
‘I’m okies so far.’
‘I enjoy romance,’ he said, ‘but it is not something I actively seek out. I am not sure if it something myself, or something left over from my former, but I have found that my most fulfilling relationships have been platonic, or familial.’ He smiled. ‘You don’t have to worry about sharing me with a stepparent any time soon.’
Stef scuffed her feet as they continued to walk down the street. ‘Milla was flirting with me. She likes me. But we’re just going to be friends. We kinda-’ He cheeks burned. ‘We kinda- Kinda went on a date last night. Well. No. We watched movies all yesterday. And cuddled. And- And-’ She felt like she had to tell Ryan. Because if there were any residual freakouts, he’d be a comforting, sensible voice. ‘And I-’ She stopped walking, turned to him, then tugged on his sleeve. She looked up at him, hoping the look on her face was enough to explain.
There was no judgement on his face. No disappointment. Nothing to indicate she should be ashamed of herself.
‘I think this is important,’ Ryan said, ‘so I don’t want to make a presumption about what you’re trying to tell me. I think I can guess, but-’
‘I spent the night with her,’ Stef said, the words spilling out. ‘And I just- I just wanted to tell you- Cause- Cause you’re smart and stuff, and I don’t know if- If I’m having the correct reaction. Or if-’
‘Was it consensual?’ She nodded. ‘Do you regret it?’ She shook her head. ‘In my experience,’ he continued, ‘those are the two most important questions to ask about any experience.’ He pointed across the street, and she turned her head to follow his finger. ‘I’ve eaten there,’ he said, ‘would it suffice?’
‘I trust you,’ she said, and they crossed the road.
The restaurant had something akin to a tapas menu – multiple plates of small foods, intended to be shared amongst a group. Ryan ordered a half-dozen plates, along with a pitcher of non-alcoholic angel water, and those chose a booth towards the back of the establishment.
‘The only thing my parents ever told me about sex, in the way of actual advice, was not to let the papers get pictures.’ She allowed herself a sardonic smile. ‘I kind of failed at that years ago.’ She held up a hand to forestall any questions Ryan might be forming. ‘When I was at school. There was a guy. Okay. A prince. We spent the night playing Metal Gear, and the paparazzi got photos of me in my underwear. Assumptions were made. Papers were sold.’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘Our department knows, by the way, someone must have Googled me, and found the story.’
‘The ethics of the news media aside,’ he said, ‘did you need to talk about this? Did you have any concerns you needed to air?’
‘The further I- I’ve had all day to think about it, and feels about it. I’m far more okay than I ever thought I would be.’ The first plate appeared, courtesy of a waiter in a striped dress. ‘But thanks for listening. Thanks for- Thanks for being my dad. Even when I’m being weird and awkward.’
Ryan leaned to the side, and kissed the top of her head. ‘Of course,’ he said, then poured them each a small glass of the blue drink. ‘Now technically, you’re still on loan to Hyde until tomorrow morning, but I think I feel safe enough asking for a report. How was it?’
Stef pulled one of the pastry parcels from the square plate. then settled back against the plush fabric of the booth. There was a lot to unpack about the last few days, even aside from her new friendship.
‘I liked it,’ she said, ‘it was nice to see a…less shooty side of the Agency.’ She gave him a reassuring smile. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not leaving Brisbane. But- But I think I’d like to research how all the Court interactions work, particularly Madchester and the Lost. So, if there’s like any extra credit to earn, I think that’s where my speciality is going to be.’
Ryan nodded approvingly. ‘Don’t get too excited when I tell you this,’ he said, ‘because it’s unlikely that you’ll be approved for an inter-agency transfer so early in your career, but there are a dozen or more paths your life as an agent could take. We are generated for a specific purpose, but the Agency doesn’t turn away natural talent, or skills honed over decades. If you have a particular interest in something, and the experience to back it up, you may become…anything. You might eventually be one of our Court representatives; a liaison with the Lost, you might work in Central refining our treaties and aide agreements.’ Ryan gave his storybook!dad smile. ‘As with every element of life, Stef, there are limitations, so it would be cruel of me to say that anything and everything is possible, but you have more choice than you may have believed.’
She nodded, and bit into her pastry – warm, spiced potato oozed into her mouth, leaving a sweet aftertaste when she swallowed. ‘I’m just hoping one day I’ll wake up and not feel like I’m completely out of my depth.’
‘Learn one new thing every day,’ he said, repeating advice he’d once told her, ‘and your day has not been wasted.’ He moved the plate of pastries to the side, as the waitress approached with two more plates. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘as you’re coming home tomorrow, I wanted to discuss- Well, Curt, to be blunt.’
She finished her pastry, and then sipped at the sweet angel water. ‘So,’ she prompted, after finishing half a glass. ‘Discuss?’
‘I wanted to tell you, first, that I’m proud of you. For your actions in Russia. For your actions afterward. It isn’t something I’d expect of all agents. You requested Curt as your partner moving forward, and I wanted to know if that was still your decision.’
‘Has he been mopey?’
‘I haven’t seen him,’ Ryan said, ‘The Parkers put him on medical leave, and he’s been recuperating at an outside location.’
Stef smiled. ‘Good, he got a holiday too.’
‘I understand your logic in choosing him as a partner, and as your Director, it’s one I respect.’ He squeezed her hand. ‘As your father, I need to ask you one question, and I promise I’ll only ask it once. All logic and protocol aside, do you trust him?’
‘I do.’ The answer was instantaneous, and one she’d been expecting to answer over and over. ‘I know it’s a fairly shitty standard to trust someone because they didn’t kill you. But- I do. Is that good enough?’
‘It’s your decision,’ Ryan said, ‘that will always be good enough for me.’ He held up a finger. ‘At least, it is, when I don’t have reason to believe that you’re making a decision from a place of grief, anxiety, depression or self-loathing.’
‘So I can make all the shitty decisions I want, so long as they’re because I’m stupid, but just so long as I’m not doing it because I hate myself?’
He wrapped an arm around her, and drew her close. ‘Don’t make me lock down your requiring licences to ban you from acquiring a rocket launcher.’
She poked his chest. ‘You never let me have any fun!’
He lifted his glass to the usual toasting height. ‘To moving forward?’
She clinked her glass against his. ‘To being wiser every day.’