Curt opened his eyes.
His mouth tasted like cotton, and all of his limbs felt sleep-dead, like he’d been asleep for-
‘Doc?’ he said, his voice dry, his mouth begging for water. ‘Doc, what the fuck?
Parker-2 sat on the bed, a hospital-issue plastic cup in his hand, a long straw slowly swaying as he held the cup. ‘Drink.’
Curt took the cup, but plucked the straw from the cup, and drank normally – embarrassment flaring as he felt the water slosh against his throat as he drank messily.
‘How long have I been asleep?’ he asked, knowing the answer was going to be far more than a night’s standard eight hours.
‘A few days,’ Parker-2 said. ‘I’ve been monitoring your fluids and feeding you via an IV line. You needed the time off, Recruit.’
Curt fully sat up, still feeling some of the sting in his arms. It was pain he deserved. Pain he needed. Pain the doctor shouldn’t cure.
He swung his head towards Parker-2, his face still working out its sleepiness, unable to form proper expressions yet. ‘What?’ he asked, his voice full of resignation.
‘Can I ask what you’re going to do next?’
Curt stared down at the bed. ‘It’s none of your business.’
‘I’m your primary care physician, Recruit,’ Parker-2 said, ‘and I’m one of the people who cares about you. As much as I hate the reductive phrasing, I am not going to let you do something stupid,’ he spat.
‘You can’t stop me,’ Curt said.
‘And your resolve to hurt yourself is…serving whom precisely?’ Parker-2 asked as he touched the cup to refill it. ‘Drink that.’ The medical agent folded his arms across his chest. ‘You’re the only one who wants you dead, Curt.’
‘In this case,’ he said, slipping his legs from the bed, ‘one’s enough.’
‘Do you think Mimsy wants you dead?’
Curt hung his head, and stared at his knees. ‘Stef is a genius, but she’s not always smart. She trusted me- She trusted me and I-’ He hurled the cup at the wall. ‘I can’t fucking do this!’ he screamed. He pushed himself to his feet, grabbed for his jacket that lay on the bedside table, and stood nose-to-nose with Parker-2.
‘If I let you walk out of that door, you’re going to do something far more dramatic than trying to get a bar full of fae to murder you. You’re going to- Fuck if I know what you’re going to do, but you’re a smart young man and I don’t doubt your resource and imagination when it comes to hurting yourself. You’re going to be bloody, you’re going to be dying, and at the last moment, I’ll come running with an intervention, even if we need a piece of mirror to pick the pieces of you up off the ground.’ Parker-2 put a hand on Curt’s shoulder, and slowly stepped aside. ‘I thought this might be far easier, and save everyone a lot of running around.’
As Parker-2 stepped aside, he saw Stef standing there, hidden in the doctor’s shadow.
Curt felt his heart stop.
He dropped to his knees, then fell forward, his face touching the carpet.
‘I’ll leave you two to it, then,’ Parker-2 said, and Curt heard the rush of air as he shifted away.
Curt lifted his head, enough to stared directly at Stef’s dirty shoes. Dirty shoes he’d taken off, like some reverse Prince Charming, in order to burn her feet with a blowtorch.
‘Kill me,’ he whispered, casting his gaze back to the floor.
There was a soft sound as she crouched, then a slightly louder sound as she fell back onto her butt – a curious thing she did, like a child unused to movement, despite the fact that she seemed to be capable of something approaching grace when the situation called for it. Occasionally, anyway.
A hand touched his head, fingers sliding into his hair, and he felt like he’d been stabbed. Pain, fear, some electric sensation ran down his spine and he hoped for death.
‘Suicide’s about the worst thing that there is,’ she said without preamble. ‘It’s lonely and it’s dark, and you hate yourself all the more for failing.’
He sat up, legs crossed, but kept his eyes cast downward. ‘Then kill me. I keep offering my life to everyone, but no one will take it.’ He pointed lazily towards the door. ‘The Doc made a threat, but I don’t think for a second he would have- I’m not sure the Parkers have actually ever murdered anyone. I won’t be that stain for them.’
‘You didn’t take me kite flying yet.’
The words were small, and quavering like they were a prelude to tears.
Slowly, he lifted his face to meet Stef’s eyes. There were tears shining in her eyes, but behind them, some tiredness, stillness, some wisdom that wasn’t usually on the manic hacker’s face.
‘I wanted to kill myself because I’m crazy, because I’m worthless, and because I was broken in ways I didn’t think could ever be fixed.’ She ran her thumbs across her fingers. ‘I was right- Right on the damn edge. I- I still don’t know how I managed to pull myself back, but I did. I hated myself for such a long time afterward, I still do, but if I had- I never would have had a family, or found magic, or- There’s good moments, and I treasure them. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed, but I’m grateful whenever I get a chance to smile.’
There was warmth against his hand, but it barely registered.
‘But this isn’t depression,’ he said, ‘it’s not- I did something unforgivable…to you, of all goddamn people, why are you trying to talk me out of it?’
‘Because I don’t want you killing yourself in my name,’ she snapped. ‘But it’s-’ her voice went soft. ‘If your first resort is this, then-’
‘I hate,’ he said, ‘that I am capable of- How am I even human if I can- Just-’
‘How could you not be human,’ she asked, ‘when it causes you so much despair?’
Tears ran down his cheeks. ‘I don’t know how to- How to move forward. It’s always going to be- Every time I- You’re never going to trust me again, not that I deserve it.’
The ghost of a smile appeared on her face. ‘Bet you a dollar?’
She squeezed his hand. He looked down, his brain racing to catch up the sensation. A hand she’d been holding for a couple of minutes now. A hand that-
He tried to pull away, but she held onto him.
Slowly, she let his hand go, and she raised both hands to his face, took him in her hands, drew his face towards hers, and kissed his forehead. ‘I forgive you,’ she said, ‘I give you whatever absolution you’re looking for. You’re my friend, please say you’ll stick around.’
Her hands slipped from his face, and his head bobbed for a moment.
‘It’s- Hard,’ he said. He scrubbed at his cheeks, clearing the half-dried tears.
‘But worth it,’ she said, ‘at least, it can be.’ She stood, and offered a hand down to him. ‘Your doctor ordered me – which I’m not sure he can do – to make you eat. There’s Fry’s in the dining room.’
‘Foo-food?’ he managed weakly. ‘You’re going to- This conversation, and your next logical step is hot chips?’
Her face tried to approximate something like a cocky grin. ‘Good food is one of the little things to be treasured. After I- I had chocolate flown in from Europe, and had five-star takeout delivered for a week.’ Her face scrunched up. ‘Well, okay, I didn’t. but that sounds good. I did however, have Chinese takeout every night and bought a couple of kilos of sweets from that place at South Bank.’
She flexed her hand, and he weakly placed his hand on top of hers. She pulled on him – her agent strength showing through for once as she hauled him to his feet.
Her fingers remained around his hand as they walked through to the Parker’s dining room.
He sat in the chair to the right – the one with the red plush cushion. Stef sat on the gold seat, and waved her hand over the food. ‘Dig in. You want a plate?’
Mechanically, robotically, he pulled a burger from the pile of takeout.
‘Your Doctor told me something, which I’m not sure you’ve processed. He told me that no one else at our agency has seen this place. I’m only here because you’re here. Ryan’s never seen it, Jonesy’s never seen it, and I don’t think Taylor is the kind of person you invite around for tea.’
Curt swallowed his bite of burger. ‘He told me, but-’
‘Home, the place you really call home, where you can be the no-pants king for a week, where you can crawl away from the world and know that it’s your space…it’s an intensely personal place. Not everybody treats it that way, and not everyone realises it, but…’ She picked at some chips. ‘The twins – hell, I know I’m no good at people, but they’re intensely insular. They are enough, themselves, and this space is their extension of that. They invited you in without a second thought. You’re sleeping in their bed, shitting in their toilet, and they’ve opened themselves to that.’
He just stared.
‘If you would stop- Stop thinking like some stupid goddamn protagonist, you’d realise you’re not alone. Take it from someone who has been alone, who has had no one to call on. It’s very easy from my point of view to see how much you have, and how much you don’t realise it.’
‘I’m just-’ he put his burger down. ‘I’m no one to-’
‘Your doctor. Raz, Jesus, apart from the fact that he calls you an agent. I mean, God, if someone looked at me with so much hero worship, I’d make sure I valued them. Mags,’ she blushed, ‘I mean, you said- With the naked and the squishy and the- Ryan. Me. You sure as hell aren’t alone; and you aren’t a nobody.’
He reached for a drink, worthless, but thirsty.
‘And none of that,’ he said after a long pull, ‘changes the fact that I’m a horrible fucking person.’
‘None of us are angels,’ she gave a half-hearted, forced laugh, ‘even those of us that are.’
‘Just try. Please.’
She reached to the end of the table, and picked up a blue agency folder.
She gave him a small smile. ‘Your way forward, Padawan.’
‘You want a way forward,’ she said, ‘here it is.’ She held it for a moment, then passed it over with both hands, like she was passing a great honour, or some royal symbol.
‘Agent Jane already told me I’m off probation,’ he mumbled as he automatically folded back the cover to look at the paperwork inside.
It was a standard Agency form – one denoting a status change of a recruit. His name was there – that didn’t surprise him.
‘Three, two, one,’ Stef mumbled, apparently waiting for a reaction.
He forced himself to look for the previous and next statuses.
He dropped the folder onto his half-eaten burger. ‘You can’t do this,’ he insisted.
‘I didn’t,’ she said, seemingly nonplussed, ‘Ryan did. I’m a bit biased, of course, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to argue with the Director of an entire agency.’ She paused. ‘Even if that agency is Brisbane.’
He set his mouth, and tried not to process his emotions.
Overwhelmed. He was overwhelmed. There was some deep sense of pride, some small joy that he had finally made it, that his work was being recognised, but- ‘It’s a reward,’ he said flatly, ‘I don’t want it as a reward. I want to earn it. And I don’t want it- Not now. Not after what I did.’
‘But you do deserve it,’ she said, ‘if you forget the last week, then-’
‘It doesn’t work like that.’
‘Actually,’ she said, ‘it does. You don’t always get the things you want when you want them. You get the right present at the wrong time. You get the reward before the action. You wipe your slate clean before you get a black mark. Life is…wobbly like that.’
‘The Agency explicitly trusts you now,’ she rested a hand over her heart, the salt and dip on her fingers smearing her vest, ‘you could have ruled the world, Padawan. You didn’t take a single wish for yourself.’
He made a noise of derision. ‘The Agency is proud because I didn’t steal something that wasn’t mine to take? That in their minds makes up for- For- For damn well torturing an agent?’
This time, when he said the word, she didn’t even flinch. There was nothing robotic about her face indicating she was wiping away her emotions before her muscles had a chance to display them
There was a chance, however slim, that she truly was forgiving him.
She raised her eyebrows, as if to invite him back to the conversation. ‘Mirror is infinitely more valuable than some stupid newbie.’
‘No it’s not,’ he said. ‘You have a lot more value than you realise, Newbie.’
‘Mirror doesn’t set itself on fire; or-’
‘Mirror’s not alive,’ he said, ‘whatever contribution it can ever possibly make is because of someone. Someone to direct the decisions, to decide what’s worth spending the wishes on.’ He looked down. ‘Does- Does Ryan even-’
‘Ryan just needed to be able to trust you. He does now. I would, like, suggest not beating me up in his presence, or it might activate his dad!reflexes, but other than that, the only one who doesn’t want to give you a second chance is you.’
He opened his mouth, and she lifted her hand.
‘Unfortunately, Padawan, that’s usually how it goes.’
He carefully lifted the folder proclaiming that he was an aide and required it clean, then set it aside. ‘Then what do I do?’
‘One day at a time, Padawan, one day at a time.’ She pointed to his burger. ‘For now. Eat. Your doctor told me he’s offered to be your…psycho-counsellor-therapist person, I’d take the offer. Don’t get all on me about I’m being a hypocrite for not getting myself help, my balance is internal, but I think you need someone to talk to. And if nothing else, he does have the equivalent of all the right degrees.’
He stared down at the table. ‘I’m not sure if I’m ready. I’m a monster and- And-’
‘And if you keep it all bottled up inside, you will end up killing yourself, and you’ll never, ever have a good day again.’ She reached across the table and took his hand, wrapping her fingers around his thumb. ‘And you’re not allowed to stop hanging out with me. I’m- I’m stupid in a lot of ways, but I’ve got experience here. Friends help friends, right? Let me help you.’
He looked down at the hand that held his, at the simple act of compassion, of friendship, of kindness. Something he’d been missing for years.
She knew him. She knew what he’d done. What he was capable.
His soul was bare and she wasn’t running.
She was a far better friend than he deserved.
He lightly squeezed her hand in return, anything to do to prove to himself that he was still alive.
‘If I breathe,’ he said, staring at their hands, ‘I’m going to break.’
‘Then break,’ she said, ‘because if you don’t, you’re going to shatter.’
‘I can’t,’ he whispered.
She tugged on his hand, and he looked up to see that she was standing. Slowly, he rose from the table, his legs leaden. She gave him a small smile and led him to the couch. ‘It’s always better to go to pieces on a soft piece of furniture,’ she said, sitting at one end, legs crossed. ‘That way, you’re comfortable for so long as you feel like you can never get up again.’
He looked down at her hand, still holding his.
He didn’t deserve this.
‘You can’t do this. You can’t forgive me. You don’t know what I’ve done. You can’t absolve crimes you have no idea about.’
‘Then tell me,’ she said, ‘if you think it’s necessary, then tell me.’
He held her hand tighter, but raised his face to look up at her. ‘You’ll hate me.’
She pushed the hair back from his eyes and began to stroke his head. ‘No, I won’t.’
He lifted his head, so that her hand slipped onto his face. More comfort that he didn’t deserve. Comfort that he needed, that he’d needed for a long time.
He felt the warmth of her hand.
He felt himself go to pieces.
His soul cracked, and every feeling came oozing out. Every shitty thought he’d ever had. Every twinge on his conscience from the moment he’d joined the Solstice.
There was a gentle pressure on his face, and she gently pulled his head into her lap, and he clung to her, a child to a mother, the last port in the storm at the end of the world.
‘A month after I joined up I helped with my first. And damn I was good. I’d never done anything like that before, never. I swear to you. Fights at school, sure, but I never hurt animals or anything. I was just supposed to be watching, but this…thing wasn’t cooperating, so I stepped up.’
She made a small noise to let him know she was still listening.
‘This thing was horrible-’
He recounted his first kill, what he’d done, what he’d felt, what he hadn’t felt.
She resumed stroking his hair, her fingers brushing the side of his face.
He told of his second, his third, how they have given him monsters, things that looked like they had come from nightmares – they had never given him the human-seeming fae, never an agent to work on, never anything that could make him question hunting the things that went bump in the night.
The fourth, the fifth, the beginning of the tattoos, the pride of protecting people from evil. The thought that he was a hero.
The six, the seventh, the breakup with his girlfriend.
The eighth, the ninth, the first time he had seen an agent, the first time he’d run from an agent, learned to fear the people in the suits. The stories they’d rammed into his skull about what agents would do – torture, mutilation, sucking out souls, every scary story they could think of, reused to make everyone afraid of the good guys.
The tenth, and his first promotion.
If he let her go, he’d die. Whatever was holding him together – some kind of glue of desperation, grief and pain – would weaken and he’d go into a million pieces. He was getting comfort from the one person who owed it to him least.
He’d hurt her. He’d tortured her. He’d brutalised her – even if it had been to save her life – and now, he was holding on to her for dear life, to escape the fear of the same pain.
Everything still seemed like it hurt. Like it should hurt. Like it was still really hurting. He was dying. He was still dying, and no one was coming to save him.
He clutched Stef tighter, his arms clasped around her thigh in a way that he was sure was cutting off circulation to her lower leg, and it still didn’t seem tight enough. He needed to hold her. He needed to be sure of safety.
She was stroking his head, her fingers carving patterns into his hair, and it was helping. It was a gentleness. It was a kindness he didn’t deserve, but so long as she was offering it, he’d take it.
After a long time – minutes or hours, he had no way of knowing – and no desire to find out – he finally stretched his body a little, his muscles complaining after the long period without movement. He kept his arms around her leg, not wanting to take the chance that she would bolt.
She could leave. She had every right to leave.
If she left, he’d die.
He felt her hand move from his head, and he let out a choking cry. Her hand slapped back down on his head so quickly that it hurt. ‘I’m here,’ she whispered. ‘I’m just trying to make you more comfortable.’
He lifted his head away from her thigh, his hair rubbing against her stomach as he did so. ‘I’m so tired.’ He couldn’t bear to look at her face. Couldn’t take the chance she hated him. Couldn’t take the chance she was holding a knife. Couldn’t-
Curt started to cry again, crashing back against her body. ‘I’m so tired,’ he whispered against her.
She bent down, her chest pressed to his back, her arms wrapping around him. ‘Hold on a sec, okay?’
He held his breath and waited for the world to end.
He felt Stef kiss the back of his head, and the gentle sway of a shift.
When the world came back, they were in bed, his soft mattress was beneath his body, but his head was still in her lap – she hadn’t left him.
‘I’m here,’ she said as she sat up, uncovering his body. ‘I’m still here.’ Her hand went back to his hair, stroking it in the same motion she’d been doing for…hours? Days? An eternity. An eternity had passed since he’d collapsed against her, and she was still there, still comforting him.
An eternity had passed, and he still hurt. He’d always hurt. He was still crying. He’d always be crying.
He stretched, finally able to allow his legs to rest without being bent. He adjusted his position slightly, and Stef extended her legs as well – his head was still resting on her right leg, but now her left leg laid against his back, keeping him bounded and safe.
‘I’m so tired,’ he said for a third time.
‘Sleep,’ she said. ‘Sleep, I’ll be here.’
He closed his eyes, knowing sleep would be impossible.
He felt her placing a small pillow against her stomach – bracing the back of his neck. There was the smooth, soft crush of fabric as a blanket covered him.
He’d never be able to sleep again.
He’d wither and die, unable to ever rest safely again.
‘Newbie?’ he whispered. ‘Don’t leave,’ he begged, ‘please.’ If he got one wish, one last wish, it was to not die alone. If she stayed, he didn’t mind dying.
Being here, with her, he almost felt safe.
There were no more tears to come, even though he needed them.
‘Please don’t leave.’
The words were so strange that he had to open his eyes. ‘Huh?’ he asked eloquently. ‘Newbie-’
She smoothed some hair behind his ear, her hand resting on the side of his face. ‘I didn’t leave,’ she said, ‘I stayed all night.’
More strange words. More words that didn’t make any sense. ‘What do you-’
I stayed all night. She’d stayed all night. All night had passed.
He’d slept, and she’d let him use her as a pillow. Slowly, he sat up, his body moving as though it had actually achieved some measure of rest.
Surprisingly, he allowed himself to finally let go of her as he sat up. More surprisingly, she didn’t run at the chance for freedom.
‘Did I really sleep?’ he asked, his voice broken and dry.
She held out a glass of water towards him, a straw dangling in his direction, and held her hand over his as he sipped, keeping him steady. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘It’s just after nine. You need more rest, but-’ She gave a lopsided smile. ‘Maybe some protein first?’
He sipped at the water, unable to look away from her worried face, and the tiny smile she was forcing for both of their sakes.
She’d been an angel, a real angel, for him. For his life. For his soul. Some tiny part of him knew if she hadn’t been there, there would have been a gun and- And he wouldn’t be wondering if he could stomach breakfast.
She’d saved him, and there was no way to thank her for that.
He leaned towards her, held her face in his hands, and kissed her forehead, the contact light and brief, and he felt tears against his thumbs. He looked down, and watched tears flowing down her cheeks, her face finally as tired and broken as his own.
She pulled away slowly, and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. His newbie: the height of elegance and grace. She let out a little half-laugh sound. ‘Drink your damn water, Padawan, you are so dehydrated.’
Curt obliged, finished the glass, then tipped it upside down for emphasis, before dismissing it, along with the straw.
‘I have, like, fifty Vox messages from the Parkers telling me I need to get you fed and watered. They also sent me some- Um-’ She blushed. ‘Pictures.’ She looked up, her eyes hollow. ‘They’re very flexible.’
Impossibly, a small smile tugged at his lips. ‘That’s the Parkers,’ he said, and moved so that his shoulder was leaning against hers. He didn’t have the same desperate need to cling to her as he had the night before, but the small measure of comfort from the contact stilled the anxious part of his soul.
He would never be okay. There was no possible chance that he’d ever be okay again. He was broken, well beyond repair.
Stef’s hand found his, and she leaned her head against his cheek. ‘Permission to force feed you bacon?’
He lifted a hand and lazily required several plates of breakfast food. She bit into the toast triangle, then picked up a second piece and aimed it at his mouth. ‘Eat,’ she said, ‘you’ll feel better.’
He ate the toast. He didn’t feel better. He still appreciated the sentiment.
He would be okay. It would take time.
She was still holding his hand, and he had no wish to let it go.
‘I’m not okay,’ he said, knowing she needed to hear something. The next words were harder, but for the first time in years, the were finally true. ‘But I will be.’