Please. No. Don’t wake me yet. I’m happy here.
The Agency seemed to shudder around her – a view down onto Queen Street shimmered for a moment, then became a window, showing the leaves of a tree.
She managed one more lungful of air, and then the Agency was gone.
It would come back. It always came back. It always came back for her. She always went back to it. Hither and thither and to and fro, whichever, whoever went where, the connection was always made.
The Agency was one slip of consciousness away.
She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to adjust herself back to what they called “reality”, a thin, pale thin in comparison to the Agency. The place with the pills and the simple schedule. The place where she didn’t belong. The place she kept going to.
She pinched her nose. Play the role. She had to play the role. “Reality” had a shit baseline, but there were far worse possibilities. Some level of concentration in this place was required.
She let out a giggle, and knew she’d made a mistake.
She opened her eyes. The office was clearer now – all vestiges of the Agency had faded away. Augustus “stop making Roman Emperor references, Miss Mimosa” Davis, stared at her, a pale imitation of the man she had turned into Jones.
Blonde and green eyes – the same as Jones. Unlike Jones, though, he wasn’t cool, wasn’t a gamer, and wasn’t turning her into something better than human.
‘Are you with me now?’ he asked.
She shifted uncomfortably in her chair. ‘As much as you’re going to get me.’
Polite answers, to the point. Anything to avoid the worst drug regimen. The kind that took away her constant companion, and took away the Agency. The kind that left her a zombie in fog for months at a time.
Anything but that. Please, anything but that.
It was the worst kind of time travel. Time wasted, rather than spent.
‘Your nurse says you’re healing up nicely.’
She looked away, unable to meet his gaze. The sleeves of her shift were too short to even make an attempt to cover the bandages that ran the full length of her forearms. Down the road, not across the street.
Each arm had a dozen cuts.
She couldn’t remember what had caused them. That was the frightening part. It was one thing to be fucked up and broken and know when you wanted to kill yourself. It was another thing entirely to have no memory of trying to take your own life away.
It was, weirdly, an amazing insight into how normal people must have seen her – to only know parts, not the whole.
‘It itches,’ she said, knowing not-Emperor-Augustus appreciated small truths.
How do you feel?
‘How do you feel?’
A question asked a thousand times, a question impossible to answer. ‘I want to go back on the last regimen. This one isn’t working.’
The not-Emperor nodded. ‘I was already considering that. I just don’t feel it puts you in a very strong position to transition back to-’
‘Sleeping for twelve hours a day is better than trying to kill myself,’ she snapped. ‘And you agree with that. It would be unethical for you not to.’
‘We can work on lowering the drowsy effects. You avoided the question though.’
Stef drew her legs up onto the chair. ‘No shit.’
‘What do you want me to say that I didn’t say the last six times?’ she stared at the tree outside the window. ‘I’m pretty confident at least this time it was purely chemical. I haven’t had ideation for weeks now.’
‘How’s your sense of time?’
‘It’s been better. I’m usually within a day. Now…I’m three or four days out. I want to go back on the previous regiment. I want some new crayons, and I want to go outside for an hour.’
Augustus followed her gaze. ‘That isn’t usually a privilege you ask for. Has something changed?’
‘My life,’ she said, using the words timidly, ‘has been a bit more positive lately. I feel like some fresh air.’
He nodded. ‘I think we can arrange that. And I’ll move you back to the old regimen over the course of the next two weeks.’
There was something unusual about his tone. Clipped. Not as many follow-up questions as normal. ‘Are- Are you rushing me out, Doctor?’
‘A little, and I must apologise, we’re in the middle of an audit.’
She raised a single eyebrow. ‘And cutting sessions short is going to reflect positively?’
Augustus leaned forward. ‘Patient satisfaction is fairly low on their radar, Miss Mimosa.’
She gave a conspiratorial smile. ‘Are you allowed to tell me things like that?’
‘You’re crazy,’ he said in a lofty voice, with a wink, ‘who would believe you?’
The boring reality sucked, but it had its good moments.
Her doctor lifted his phone to his ear. ‘Amjad, you can come in now. Miss Mimosa has the use of the grounds for an hour.’
She touched her right hand to the bandages on her left. ‘I don’t want this. You know I don’t want this. It’s just easy to believe it’s…easy.’
Augustus nodded. ‘I know. You seem to be having a good day, make the most of it while you’re here. And when you’re not…I’m sure my proxy will have some wise words.’
She nodded, and followed the tall orderly out.
Twenty minutes later, Amjad led her back to her room. The sun had been too bright. The leaves had been too noisy. Another patient had been screaming.
The world was spinning, and no amount of trying to counterbalance it was working.
The orderly locked her door, and she sank to her butt, leaning up against the smooth wall, crying with relief to be alone again.
Time passed, and the heat in her mind grew.
She pulled at the bandages, ripping away the tape, and finding pale skin under layers and layers and layers of gauze.
Her arm smelt like medicine. Everything smelt like medicine.
Medicine. It was good for you. Good for what ailed you. Good to correct what made you different, made you wrong, made you frightening to the normals of the cogs. It made you a cog. And it tasted awful. It was one thing to be on a forced path to what the narrow-minded considered normalcy, it was another for it to taste so fucking awful it was a fight not to retch it right back up.
Walk the right path, go the right way, be the good little cog. Operate the machine. Operate the machine. Be like everyone else. Comply. Comply.
She started to tear at the second set of bandages, but a hand laid on hers. ‘You don’t want to do that, Wendy.’
She took her hand away from the bandage, and looked up at Pan. The one actually, really good, really really good element of being away from the Agency. ‘I’m not Wendy here, Peter. I’m nobody.’
Pan crouched, his hands resting on his knees for a moment, before he started poking her in both shoulders. ‘You seem like you’ve got a body, Wendy. If you didn’t, it would be a lot easier to sneak you out of here.’ She giggled a little, and he sat in front of her. ‘Bad day?’
‘I’m still here, aren’t I?’
‘Maybe you just really wanted to see me.’ He looked down at her arm. ‘Does it still hurt?’
She shrugged. ‘I’m on so many drugs I wouldn’t even know.’
‘You look tired,’ he said, then he leaned forward to pick up the strands of hair that were across her face. He pulled them up and away, then blew out a big breath, blasting them all back, in an attempt to tidy her hair.
‘You always say that,’ she admonished lightly.
He always said it, because it was always true. Hard to be anything but tired in this place. Hard to be excited for anything except the times when she could escape from the Agency. Hard to look presentable, when she wasn’t even allowed a mirror.
Peter grinned, a sun-bright smile that seemed to burn away some of the crappiness of reality. ‘Well, let me take you away from here, and I might be able to get you looking good for once.’
‘Covered in mud and leaves is more like it,’ she said, poking her tongue out.
Peter laughed and flopped back, floating in midair. ‘Exactly!’ he crowed. ‘Proof of play is the best! We can always go in the lagoon when the mud dries.’
She looked to the door, and wondered how much of a chance she had to get past the orderlies. None. None whatsoever.
And when Peter was around, it was hard to get back to the Agency.
It was a hard choice, and impossible choice. Peter or the Agency. Peter had no equivalent in the Agency – it was-
‘No, no, no, no,’ she mumbled, wanting to kill the line of thought.
The Agency was real. The Agency was real because it had to be real. The Agency was in her head, but that didn’t make it less real, it just made her brain a lot more special. It meant-
It wasn’t real, and sometimes, she knew that.
It was hard to separate the real and the real and the real. Augustus called times like this, like the now, “lucid”, and she felt no reason to refute that. But when she was at the Agency, it was the realest real that ever realed.
It still felt…wrong to acknowledge, even in the tiniest part, that it was imagined.
It’s like there was chance it would break the spell, that the Agency itself would take offence, close its borders forever, and never let her return.
Peter, or the Agency.
Not a choice she could make today.
‘Has anyone said when you’re getting out this time?’ Peter asked, as he flew up to stare through the window in the door.
Never, if she had her way. Here was safe, here was stable, here was where there was always someone to make sure she ate something.
Or stop her from killing herself.
Here was the best of both worlds, because she had both worlds.
‘No,’ she said, staring at the floor, ‘not yet.’
Peter landed with a soft thump back in front of her, and reached across to tap out a tune on her knees. ‘I’m still waiting for you, you know.’
Mother had always said crying was unladylike, that it wasn’t something a girl was to do in front of other people. It wasn’t polite, and grief wasn’t to be shared.
Father had always said that crying was a sign you were ungrateful; or that you weren’t good enough to change an outcome to your advantage.
Neither of them had specifically stated that she hadn’t been allowed to cry while growing up, but doing so probably would have made things worse – mother hated “crass” people, and father looked for any reason to ignore her more than he already did.
Erecting the dam had been the logical conclusion. Tears started behind the eyes, and if you concentrated hard enough, you could force yourself not to cry. Sometimes you had pinch yourself, or press a fork into your leg, if you needed to cry at the dinner table, but concentration, hard work and pain made it possible not to be a further disappointment.
And imagining a dam helped with the focus. An image to hold on to. A metaphor that needed to be preserved and kept whole at any cost.
Sometimes, however, the dam just broke.
Tears slipped down her cheeks.
‘I’m still waiting,’ he said again.
‘You aren’t going to wait forever.’ There was a wretched lump in her throat, choking away her breath. ‘You can forget about me, Peter.’
‘You’re going to be mother to my boys,’ he said, ‘so I will wait forever. That, and you’re kind of wonderful.’
‘And if I never get let out?’
His infectious grin returned. ‘You’ll find a way to escape, I just know it. We will be together. Stop worrying, girls are too wonderful to spend their time worrying. And one girl’s too tired to worry, so you’d better get some sleep.’
‘I’ll still be tired tomorrow.’
His face screwed up, an impish, teasing expression. ‘Then maybe I won’t come tomorrow.’
‘Oh you,’ she retorted, lightly shoving him.
‘I’ve got a present for you.’
She held out her hand. ‘Then you must give it to me.’
He took her hand, and gave her a thimble. ‘Do you want to sleep?’
She nodded, and he held down his hands to her. He hadn’t aged a day since she’d seen him last – still the immortal little boy, as he would be forever and ever. And still, he was stronger than she was – the benefits of fighting pirates all day.
There weren’t a lot of chances to build muscle, when the heaviest things you were allowed to lift were crayons.
Stef slowly walked across the tiny space, and flopped onto the bed. Peter drifted beside her as she righted herself, and pulled up the thin sheet.
‘Sleep,’ he said, and he was gone.
She stared at the space he had occupied for a moment, then turned her thoughts to the Agency.