Ryan slowly walked out of the park, trying to soak in as much of the quiet, relaxing atmosphere as possible before heading back to the stairs, and the inevitable shift to Zachary Street, and the sight of his son.
His feet clicked on a solar panel strip as he stepped from the park and onto the footpath – he let his gaze follow the blue line that ran the length of the street, up towards the closest bus stop.
There was a droning noise behind him, and he turned to see the bus. He jogged up the street, making it to the stop just before the bus.
‘You didn’t have to run,’ the driver said, ‘would have stopped.’
Ryan smiled at the reptilian man, pressed his card fold to the machine, waited for the beep as it read his transit card. The machine informed him that his card had a low balance remaining, which he made a note of as he moved to find a seat.
Fairy buses were inclusively-designed for the varying body sizes and types of its passengers. The bench seats were spread at varying intervals, allowing for differing amounts of leg room. There was an abbreviated upper deck, for fairies and small fae that didn’t need one of the larger seats.
He slid into one of the seats as the bus pulled away.
He flicked through a few memories in his HUD, and started a playlist of memories – choice moments from his favourite days with his son. Before everything had gone wrong. Before Alexander had rejected him.
He had kept away for years, tired of trying, tired of trying to force a connection that Alex obviously wasn’t interested in reciprocating.
It was foolish to assume that he’d been blameless in the situation, but Alex had never named any of his sins, never pointed to any specific incidents where he had gone wrong.
There had been an outright Solstice-like adoption of the idea that Ryan wasn’t human, and by proxy, that Alex himself wasn’t fully human, that had affected his son in a profound way. It had hurt Alex deeply, for reasons Ryan had been unable to truly understand.
Eilise had managed to calm most of that, but the subject always rose in the fights, or when Alex was asking for something that was more than normal. It was his free ticket to take an inch, and convert it to a mile.
Alex had made his complaints that he didn’t spend enough time at home – and, as fair as this may have been, he made every attempt to spend only a small percentage more than a human would at a civilian job.
Or, at least, he made the best of efforts to be around in the hours that counted – to be there when Eilise woke and to make breakfast, and to come home for dinner and stories of Alex’s day at school, and Eilise’s days at work.
Those were the times that mattered, and nothing but the most dire of situations could call him away.
He lost more weekends than a human father, but he had made every effort to use the ones he did have to the best of his ability – and within the confines that Eilise had set for him, at least until magic had become known.
Having to raise Alex without magic had been the only element of being a father that he had hated.
Eilise had demanded it – telling him that because their child would spend most of his time in the human world – which Eilise felt was a natural conclusion – that he should be raised without magic, and only told about it as he got old enough to understand.
This conversation had put back their plans to have a child by six months – it had been a non-negotiable point for Eilise, so he had sought out the opinions of other agents in his situation.
He had been jealous then, of the agents who chose to have children with fae partners – magic wasn’t an “if” in their cases. They weren’t being forced into keeping a large part of their child’s history in the dark.
The Agency intranet had forums, of course, where agents could discuss their various problems with those outside of their own Agency. These forums branched into topics – techs discussing blue upgrades, combat agents discussing what elements of training should be universal, historical hobbyists who dug – though not too deeply – into their recent and not too recent history, bringing forth facts and stories to be shared.
And there were forums for parents.
It didn’t take him long to find that this dilemma wasn’t uncommon among agents who had partnered with humans, at least ones who weren’t a part of the world – civilians, rather than recruits or those who were elsewise initiated.
Eilise knew the world, though – and that had been the worst part of all.
And they had talked, and still she had held her ground, insisting it would be best for their child – whom she always referred to as a daughter, their little girl – Alex had been a surprise, not unwelcome, but she had always assumed she’d have a little girl to dress up, whose hair she could braid, who could be their little princess.
He could have ensured a girl – there were many advantages to conceiving a child with an agent – a near-surety that they would be free from congenital diseases, medical facilities that could give the best pre-and-post-natal care, the option for an agent to choose when they were fertile, and the option for that agent parent to determine the child’s sex.
This, however, went against her wish for everything to be done in the human way.
All couples fought – he had known that then as well as he knew it now, but he had wished that more of their fights had been on where to spend their holidays, on how much time he spent at work, or on what he was going to wear to her family gatherings.
Not on erasing a part of his identity from their relationship, and from their future child’s life.
She had relented, agreeing to tell him whilst he was still in primary school, rather than waiting until his teens as had been her original ultimatum. He could use magic to benefit their child, so long as it wasn’t witnessed.
He could bring home fae fairy tales, but not take the child to Fairyland.
It had been a compromise, and he had wanted to be a father, so they had agreed.
Ryan stepped off the bus and walked towards the stairs, following the orange guide that lined the edge of the footpath.
Alex had been conceived, and the joys of parenthood had made all of their previous discussions seem minor. Eilise revelled in attending mothers’ groups and playdates, of inviting her friends around and letting their children gently wreck the house – for when a few requirements could fix anything, it didn’t matter when mushed peas were stomped into the carpet.
And for years, things were good.
He had a son he could boost onto his shoulders, play with in the park, and read stories to until Alex fell asleep in his lap. He had a wife who positively glowed, who was happier than she had been in any point in their relationship.
It had been good, until it hadn’t been.
He finished walked up the stairs, and felt his system connection even before his HUD recognised it – something both Jones and Samuels before him had assured him was in fact a kind of psychosomatic reaction.
His HUD confirmed a full-strength connection. He closed the Fairyland stairs door behind him, and walked up the short flight of concrete steps to the path that ran beside the river, and sat in the shade of one of the trees for a moment, simply enjoying being connected to the system again.
It had only been a couple of hours – he wasn’t anywhere even close to his first warning, but there was something comforting about being back in system territory – almost like breathing fresh air after being in a dirty environment. It just felt…better.
He looked down the edge of the broad path, and let his eyes skip from concrete block to concrete block until he found the one he’d sat on with Stef.
Eilise had always been against the idea of adoption – it had been something he’d broached when they’d first discussed having children – there were always dozens of children in the Agency foster system who needed permanent homes. She’d rebuffed the idea, stating that she’d reconsider after they had their first child.
He wondered how Eilise would react, now that he’d taken in a “stray”.
He wondered at parents who could neglect someone as special as Stef.
He sighed, placed his head in his hands, and just let the weight of what he’d done hit him again.
She was going to wake up. She had to wake up.
He balled his hands into loose fists, held them for a moment, then shifted to his son’s house.
He reintegrated in the backyard – he’d never been there, but he knew the layout well enough – he still had notifications set in place for the big events in Alex’s life – the system informed him when Alex moved, had hospitals stays, had become a father himself, and finally – when he had bought a house.
Ryan knew he wasn’t wanted, but that didn’t stop him from caring.
Using the system to keep track of wayward children was one of those topics that came up again and again on the parents’ forum – most in favour then had argued that it was no more evil than being kept informed via the grapevine, most now stated it was akin to reading public posts on social media.
Ryan always wondered how close to stalking it was.
There was a rattle to his left – a garden shed – and a girl walked out, a large floppy hat on her head and a large pair of shears in her hands.
She froze as she saw him, her eyes widening a little.
‘It’s alright,’ he said, taking a step closer, and holding up his hands to show he wasn’t a threat.
She poked the shears in his general direction and flicked a quick look to the back door. ‘Da-ad!’ she screamed. ‘Hurry!’ She backed away from his, slowly circling towards the house, and he fought back an urge to compliment her technique for dealing with a stranger.
The back door banged open. ‘Mary-Anne, you’ll-’
Ryan looked to Alexander, and felt his heart sink at the look on his son’s face. Mary-Anne dropped the shears and ran to her father, wrapping her arms around him.
Alex looked away, hugged his daughter for a moment, then knelt to her level. ‘You did the right thing, sweetheart. But it’s ok, I know him, I-’ Alex faltered.
‘We used to work together,’ Ryan said, stepping forward.
‘And his parents never taught him to use the front door.’ Alex kissed Mary-Anne’s head and gently pushed her on the shoulder. ‘It’s ok, go inside and watch TV for a bit.’
Alex closed the door behind her, then stomped down the few steps and stabbed his finger into Ryan’s chest. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing here?’
‘I apologise,’ Ryan said, ‘I didn’t know she was-’
‘I don’t want to have to explain you to her!’ Alex spat. ‘So far as she’s concerned, Klaus is the only father I have. It’s the truth so far as she’s concerned.’ He paused. ‘And so far as I’m concerned. What are you doing here?’
‘Your mother must have photos that-’
‘It’s amazing what computers can do these days,’ Alex said. He paused for a beat, then laughed a sick, dry laugh, ‘not that I need to tell you that, do I?’
‘You’re a magic program person in a suit,’ she said. ‘A magic angel program person in a suit. If you could see my brain, you’d be blind cause it’s all just fireworks.’
‘Answer one question,’ Alexander said. ‘How much influence do your…genes, fuck, Ryan, do you even have genes?’
‘It’s rather hard to father a child without them,’ he said quietly.
‘Are they affecting her?’ he demanded. ‘I know I’m- Does she have them too?’
Ryan held back on a glib answer, and instead ran over what he knew about agent biology. ‘Our…influence fades far more quickly than you’d expect. She’ll have a little advantage over a regular human, but her children likely won’t.’
‘Would it truly be so terrible?’ he asked quietly.
‘You know it would be,’ Alexander hissed.
‘I’m sorry to have bothered you,’ Ryan said, and shifted away, closing his eyes even as the world blurred into nothingness.
The front gate of a nursing home greeted him as he reintegrated. He took in a deep breath of the garden-scented air, which unfortunately was more mulch than flowers, and walked towards the front door.
The automatic door slid open for him as he approached, and the well-presented young man smiled up at Ryan as he approached the desk, the silver gauges in his ears reflecting the sterile fluorescent lighting.
‘How can I help you?’
‘I’d like to see Arthur Anderson, please.’
The young man lifted a clipboard. ‘I assume you know the drill?’ Ryan nodded, and signed in. ‘You know your way?’
Ryan nodded again, and the receptionist buzzed him into the facility.
The home was large, spacious, well-reviewed and far from the worst place to live out the last few years of a long life.
Ryan walked up the stairs, and knocked on the door to room 303. A moment later, there was a buzz as the door was unlocked from the inside, and he pushed on the door.
The room was a double – more than spacious for one person. Book cases of trinkets and photos lined the side walls, whereas the wall in front of him was one large set of folding doors, leading out onto a patio with a view to the ocean.
It was in fact, a remarkably beautiful place to live out a few years.
Arthur stood, embraced him with thin arms, and then slapped him lightly on the shoulder. ‘It’s been too long, boy.’
Ryan gave him a practiced tired look, and sat in the chair opposite Arthur. ‘How have you been?’
‘I wish I looked as good as you, but I’m not bad Ryan, not bad at all.’ He fished into a small leather satchel for a marble-sized lolly and popped it in his mouth – blue smoke leaked from the corner of his mouth a moment later.
‘Any problems with the-’
‘You know I’d call if there were problems. You found me a good spot, good enough to live in, good enough to die in, now what’s got you down?’ Arthur seemed to consider this. ‘More than usual, I mean. You’re positively morose.’
‘I wasn’t blessed with your father’s flair for life,’ he said, requiring a small selection of sandwiches and cakes. An iced tea appeared in his hand, and he sipped for a moment.
‘Few can live as Duskers did,’ Arthur said. ‘And you avoided the question, Ryan.’
Ryan stared at his feet, then back at Rhys’ son. ‘I went to see Alexander. It was a mistake. My granddaughter threatened me with shears.’
This made Arthur chuckle. ‘Well, you certainly live in interesting times.’
‘I’m a stranger to her, Art. Alex has erased me from his life, and I’ll never know-’
‘This isn’t news, it’s olds, what’s really bothering you?’
‘There was a young woman. There is- I offered to take care of her. I failed, and she’s in a coma.’ The lie was close enough to the truth. ‘And I don’t know if she’s going to wake up. It’s reminding me of every failure I’ve already made as a father.’
‘And the good things?’
Ryan tipped his glass back and forth, listening to the ice cubes hit the sides. ‘It’s harder and harder to remember the good things.’
Arthur picked up one of the large cherries and threw it at Ryan. ‘What am I then?’
‘I’m not your father, Arthur.’
‘No, that would be an impressive act of time travel, and I don’t think you’ve ever travelled in the green. But, come on Agent, you’re the only reason I know my father. You could have ignored the request for information. You could have sent a standard form. You didn’t have to meet me. You didn’t have to do half of what you’ve done. That’s a good thing. That’s one good thing I can think of, right off the top of my head, so give yourself a damn break.’
‘It doesn’t change the fact…I don’t know if she’s going to wake up. I might have gotten her killed. I don’t know if I’ll be able to live with that.’
‘And what do your doctors say?’
Ryan thought of the aspects. ‘Not to lose hope.’
‘So follow their advice,’ Arthur said. ‘Now, I hate to be rude, but Margie from next door is coming over in a bit, and I’ve got a lot of living to do before I think about kicking any buckets.’
Ryan stood, and gave a stiff nod. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure that I feel better, but-’
‘I’m not here to make you feel good, boy, that’s up to you. Go read to the girl, just because she’s in a coma doesn’t mean she can’t hear you. Doctors say it helps. I know my Livvy could hear me, so don’t waste more time.’
Ryan nodded again. ‘I will, thank you.’
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