Stef opened her eyes. The air smelt fine again. The temperature was right again. And…her pillow her returned. She rolled over and stared at it – unsure if she had retrieved it without realising it, if it had fought the good-
She froze, thoughts of where she had just been in her head, thoughts of…bad thoughts in her head, thoughts of insane thoughts, thoughts of-
A hand touched the back of her head, and for one short moment, she thought it was Peter, come back to rescue her, come back so that she didn’t have to-
The hand was too big though, and too warm, and too agenty. She was fairly certain she recognised the hand’s owner, but wasn’t sure, and didn’t want to roll over and find out, just in case she was wrong. Being wrong, judging reality the wrong way…wasn’t something she wanted. ‘I wanted to be here when you woke up,’ Ryan said, ‘so I could-’
Slowly, she was rolled over, away from her pillow, away from the tiny world made of linen, to the much larger one made from a tank, a bed and a small fridge.
‘It was a glitch,’ he said. ‘What happened, what you saw, it was a glitch.’
She gave him a wan smile. ‘Which part was a glitch?’
‘Your…’ he trailed off, ‘incarceration,’ he said after a long moment. ‘It wasn’t real.’
She lifted her head, then let it fall heavily onto his knee. ‘How do you even know what I saw?’
‘The glitches. The ones we induce. We can watch them. I saw what you saw.’
She pulled the blanket up to her chin. ‘It’s probably where I really am,’ she admitted. ‘and I’m just finally lucid enough to realise it. Sorry.’
‘You don’t have to pretend for me anymore.’
‘If your theory was correct, you’d be telling yourself that.’
‘I’ve told myself off before.’
‘You’ve read my bio, right, that’s how you did your narcy “Miss Mimosa” thing the first time we met, I assume you’ve had more time to read it since then.’
‘What exactly does it say about my mental state?’ She balled her hands. ‘You fucking know I’m crazy, but what does the Agency know?’
‘Not a lot.’
‘Does it say I almost went into psychiatric care? A couple of times, no less?’
‘The recommendations are listed in your medical file, yes.’
‘…I don’t think I avoided it. I really don’t think I avoided it. In this reality, sure, but this reality’s in my head, it’s all in my head.’
He touched her head, and began to stroke her hair. ‘Then I thank you for making such a complete world, could you perhaps do something about the Solstice, though?’
‘Goddammit!’ she cried, though she couldn’t hold back a giggle. ‘I’m being serious.’
His hand moved from her head, to rubbing small circles on her back. ‘As am I,’ he said. ‘If the fact was that you were in that place, isn’t it better that you’re here?’
‘But it’s just…me, seeing things, thinking it’s all real.’
His hand stopped moving. ‘Define real, Stef. If you’re happier here, then be here while you’re here, and when you’re there, make every attempt to get back here. If…the world of your glitch is true, is there anything there worth being there for?’
She thought of Peter, then shook her head, and how his escape to Neverland had made him nigh-unreachable, and the one way of following him was- ‘No, nothing now.’
‘Then be here.’
She pushed herself away from him, and sat, back ramrod straight against the wall, steadying her enough to look him in the eyes. ‘Aren’t you a responsible adult? Shouldn’t you be all…Jesusfuck, Ryan, you know I talk to myself, you’ve seen me break down and go nuts, you know I’m…you damn well know I’m crazy.’ She brought her knees up to her chest, staying hidden under as much of the sheet as possible. ‘Why aren’t you all “Miss Mimosa you need drugs” or “Miss Mimosa you need to be in a padded room” or “Miss Mimosa, why did I give you a gun?”. I mean, you’re programmed to keep law and order, shouldn’t I be the kind of person you keep away from the rest of society? I mean, I did the best I could, but I’m not locked in my flat anymore.’
‘I’m not real,’ he said, ‘according to the Solstice. I am not a man, I am not a person, I have no right to exist. This Agency is an artificial construction to further the goals of those who aren’t real…according to some definitions. There is an entire faerie court dedicated to caring for those whose world views are…counter to the accepted reality, but that’s the only way they can be, they are happy that way, so why change them? I could, as you suggest, get you a doctor, drug you until you…are no longer yourself, but what would it achieve?’
‘…I’d be normal.’
‘Is that what you want?’ he squeezed her hand. ‘If you ever want to do anything. If you ever want to investigate options, I’ll support you, but I don’t want you feeling as though they are necessary. Your mind is your business, Stef, until you ask for opinions from others.’
More tears fell. ‘But I’m insane, that shouldn’t be ok.’
‘I’m telling you it is. I’m telling you, you are.’
‘…and if I’m really there?’
‘I have no control over that world, just this one, and in this one, I’m going to do everything I can for you.’
‘…are you real?’
‘Yes, I am.’
She reached for him, and in one shifted second, she was bundled up on his lap, safe. ‘Then I’ll be here,’ she whispered, ‘I’ll be here.’
The all-too-real glitch began to slip away, everything except one face, one old wound, one broken heart. ‘…you saw everything?’
‘Yes. And I promise if…if we have to get you a room, it’ll be a lot nicer than that one.’
She dug her nails into her palms. ‘…you saw Peter?’
She bit her lip for a moment. ‘I try so hard not to think about him. I…but this is what glitches do, right? Fuck you over?’
‘Do you want to talk about him?’
Emotion weighed on her chest. ‘I loved him,’ she said, words she’d never said to anyone. ‘I mean, I fucking know I was twelve, but I loved him.’ Her face burned. Peter was a precious memory, and one that hurt to think about, and even more to talk about.
He’d been the only good thing about being in hospital, the one friend she’d had, if only for a little while.
It was the one thing that almost, almost, almost-but-never-in-a-million-years, made up for the car accident, and everything she’d lost because of it.
And he’d been willing to take her with him, when he was done healing, and went back to Neverland.
But she’d gotten too scared. She’d been willing to go, but then he’d jumped- And flown. And flown away. And she couldn’t get her feet off the ground. And he’d left her behind. And now there was no way to get to Neverland that she was willing to take.
She was crying. Even now, even ten years later, his departure hurt.
In all objectivity, it had been a short friendship, a crush, and one tiny kiss.
In all subjectivity, it was likely to be the only mark she ever made in the “romance” column of life.
She moved away to sit back against the wall of the tank, her knees to her chest.
‘You never really stop loving someone. My ex-wife, so much as things soured between us, and the rift she caused with Alexander, I still have some affection for her.’
‘What about Carol?’
He smiled sadly, a widower’s smile. ‘I still love her, and I cannot foresee that changing anytime soon, I cannot imagine myself with anyone else, but…that will change. I will meet someone, and I’ll love them too, it won’t replace my love for Carol, nor diminish my memory of her in anyway, it will be someone new, something different, and that’s how life works.’
Like anyone would ever want to love me.
‘Love is for other people,’ she said, almost automatically, ‘I’ve got my hands full looking after myself.’ She shrugged deeply. ‘Can I read today’s Field reports?’
He nodded, and a stack of paperwork, along with dinner, appeared. ‘Love can be magnificent,’ he said quietly. ‘And if it’s what you want, I hope one day you find it.’
She reached for the closest container of food, not looking at him. ‘I think I do,’ she said, not wanting to vocalise it. ‘But I can’t imagine it at all. I can barely people, I don’t think I’ve got a chance at romance.’
‘So I arrested a koala today.’ He ruffled her hair, then lifted the top report. ‘Let’s start there.’