There was a knock.
Ryan opened his eyes, saw nothing but blue, and closed them again.
There was peace. Weightlessness. Calm. Safety.
Thoughts started to become more clear. He breathed in and felt liquid blue rush across his tongue. He was in a tank – that meant he’d been injured. That meant-
The feeling of serenity dropped away as recent memories crashed into his consciousness. He pressed a hand to his chest, feeling for where one of the exit wounds had been, and felt nothing but smooth skin.
He was safe. He was-
He wasn’t the only one who’d been injured.
He focussed on his HUD, brought up a list of recent contacts, and expanded Stef’s profile. Active. She was still listed as active. She was alive. He breathed a sigh of relief, a thin stream of bubbles flowing through the blue.
The next tab that showed her vitals and health status. An overlay showed that she was done with surgery and in recovery, with links should he want to view the progress or bother the doctors – neither was an option he wanted.
There was also an option to see a replay of the surgery, something which twisted his stomach.
There was no block on the recovery ward – meaning visitors were welcome, within reason. Relieved that she was all right, and horrified that he’d slept through her surgery, he closed the window. With the overlay closed, he was left staring at the undifferentiated list of recent contacts.
Stef’s name sat there, no different to any of his other recruits. None of his recruits had been prioritised, some naturally cycled to the top more regularly – like O’Connor – due to the frequency of contact, but-
But she wasn’t just another recruit.
He selected the dull circle beside her name, which changed to a bright, electric blue. The standard priority/favourite icon was a simple circle, but normal didn’t seem right for her. For a recruit so counter to his expectations, so far outside of any usual parameters.
If she even wanted to stay a recruit after tonight.
There was another knock, and he finally turned to look at the closest wall of the tank – Jones stood there, tablet in hand. The tech’s face appeared in his HUD. [You’ve stabilised, sir. Mind if I deal with the damage?]
He closed the window, unwilling to make any changes while his mind was still…fuzzy.
Jones was still waiting for an answer. He forced himself upright, his bare toes just touching the bottom of the tank, and shifted out of the tank, setting a requirement to appear in a set of scrubs when he reintegrated.
He followed Jones to the examination chair – a large, padded affair that bore some likeness to a high-end dentist chair, and settled himself into it as Jones found a stool, and wheeled over, tablet in hand.
‘Everything looks good, sir.’
He listened as Jones gave him a clean bill of health. Jones cautioned that several deep-level scans were still running, but that their integrity checks were expected to come up clean.
He caught Jones’ arm as the tech stood. ‘Thank you,’ he said. He didn’t thank Jones often enough for his good, careful work. There was more to say, more gratitude, and more apologies, but all of them so overdue that another day wouldn’t matter.
There was another, far more immediate apology that needed to be said.
‘You’re welcome, sir,’ Jones said, patted his hand, then busied himself in another part of the lab.
He stood and shifted to his office. When the room registered his presence, gentle illumination brightened the dark room, enough to complement the city lights pouring in through the wall of windows.
The city below was beautiful at night, and that was a thought, an attitude, he sincerely hoped was his. Rhys had always had a deep connection to the city, that was something Reynolds had felt safe in complimenting about the monster. Instinctual knowledge of the city, of its streets, of what the man had known, was one of the primary reasons they had used a Dusker template to create him.
He required his uniform, his pants, shoes and shirt appeared on his body; his tie, vest and jacket appeared on the desk beside him. It was a tradition Reynolds had passed onto him – something his Director had always done. It was simple in principle – take a moment after an injury to set one’s clothing straight, to take a few minutes to button a waistcoat and tie a tie. Reynolds had felt it was a way of taking back control after an extreme incident.
And he’d always been eager to please Reynolds, had wanted to do what the man expected of him.
He was introspective, he always was after an injury or a close call. The quiet moment after recovery were always thoughts of family, of wanting to reconnect with lost and failed relationships. Of wishing his son had some good feelings towards him.
But Alexander was finding no traction in his mind.
He’d been dying, and he’d only been able to think of the child in his arms.
Stef had almost died, and he had been helpless to do anything. Unable to stop protocols as old as the Directorial position from pulling away her blue, draining her ability to keep her own wounds stabilised in favour of saving his life.
She’d been so cold, so still. She’d felt dead. And it would have been such a waste, a small, precious life traded for his.
He kept failing her.
The child that had died in his arms. The recruit that had nearly repeated the performance.
She had remembered him, and that was amazing. A gift beyond worth. If he had been rational, had been- Sensible. If he had been sensible, she’d be working for Jones.
But he’d been selfish, and it had nearly cost her life.
He’d failed her again.
He truly was a useless parent.
His fingers paused, his tie halfway done, as the word became the only thought in his mind.
Parent. He couldn’t argue with his own word choice. For good or ill, he hadn’t been solely acting as an agent, as a superior officer. The way she lit up when he spoke of magic, when she realised how intertwined magic and technology were, everything about her spoke to the father inside him. A skill-set long disused, but one he had always hoped to dust off.
Jones had expressed – in his own way – what he was sure was the same feeling, when there had been the discussion of what to do with Merlin: “Sometimes, the universe hands you someone, and you just know ‘yep, this is mine now’.”
It was presumptuous; worse, perhaps insulting. Just because he was seeking a child didn’t mean she was seeking a parent. But- Family – the family of your own making, as most agent families were, could be the most marvellous thing.
First though, before anything else, he had to beg her forgiveness. To know if she even wanted to remain part of the Agency.
He shifted to the infirmary – the main area was empty, but he could see one of the twins through the glass wall of the office. He walked through and found Parker-2 sitting at the desk, his white coat covered in blood, drinking a beer. The doctor put his feet up on the desk and grinned. ‘Here to check on your recruit? My better half is adjusting her IV.’
He stared at a point beyond Parker-2, so that he didn’t have to take in the sight of Stef’s blood. ‘And?’
Parker-2 tipped the beer back, then tossed the bottle over his head to land perfectly in the bin. ‘She’ll have a scar, but I don’t think she’ll notice. What the hell is up with your recruit, Ryan? She’s got more scar tissue than half of the combat recruits we treat.’
Parker-1 walked into this office. ‘What he means to say, sir, is that it was a clean enough injury. It-’ Of the twins, Parker-1 was universally acknowledged to have the better bedside manner – for both patients and their guests. ‘It was serious,’ he continued, ‘but she pulled through, and that’s what matters.’
‘Bit more challenging than the flesh wound from her first visit.’ Parker-2 opened another beer, with a caduceus-themed bottle opener. ‘It’s not often we have a twenty-year gap between treating patients.’ He offered a beer to his twin, who declined. ‘I don’t like babies, except on paper, they’re efficient little organ bags.’ Parker-2 smiled at his twin. ‘I’m glad we never had any, darling.’
He accepted the chart that Parker-1 proffered, and wondered, for a brief second, how things would have played out if it had been the Parkers that had stuck in her memory, rather than him. The Parkers, like all sets of agent twins, tended to be…rather singular and tended to take some getting used to. The simple explanation given to recruits – especially those who had no interest in the more technical aspects of how agents operated – was that agent twins were one person, split over two bodies.
It was an explanation close enough to the truth that it sufficed for most, without explaining how extraordinary the origin of the twinning glitch was.
Parker-2 pulled the lid from another beer. ‘Want one?’ he asked, proffering the bottle.
He shook his head. ‘No, thank you.’
Parker-1 gave him a sympathetic look as he handed back the chart. ‘She’ll be awake in a few hours. She’s in bed four if you want to check on her.’
Bed four of the recovery room was the only one in use – with the efficacy of Agency medicine, recovery was – with few exceptions – a quick process. Allowing a recruit to sleep afterwards was generally the best decision though – there were few things that a few hours rest didn’t improve.
He stepped through the curtain that surrounded bed four and stopped. He wasn’t afraid for her – she was fine, the vitals and the chart both showed that. In a few hours, she’d open her eyes, and-
And she looked dead.
His heart locked in place, releasing only when he saw the minuscule movement of her chest as she drew a breath.
In the low, soft lights of the infirmary, she looked more like a corpse than the toddler he’d held. He looked to her vitals in his HUD, then to the machines that surrounded her. Every device, every piece of data confirmed that she was going to be okay.
He sat in the visitor chair and held her hand anyway.
It was almost comforting how familiar the worry felt. The strange, contradictory feeling of knowing everything was fine, but needing it confirmed by a smile.
The worry that had come with seeing Alexander fall from a tree and being a second too slow to do anything about it. The fear that came with the inhuman scream of a child with a greenstick fracture. The relief of seeing his son, arm in a sling, playing awkwardly with the new toys he’d had required to make the boy happy.
The worry that had come with any number of falls from a bike, from a tree, with colds and chickenpox and other ailments.
A parent’s worry.
The anguish of hearing a shot aimed at his recruit. The horror that had filled the silence that followed.
He looked at his hand holding hers. It would be easy enough to let it go, to shift away and focus on paperwork. It would be easy to distance himself from her, to treat her like his other recruits.
She wasn’t like his other recruits.
She was his recruit, but that almost seemed incidental. She was the toddler he’d saved; she was the girl who remembered him. She was excited by magic, and he was able to show it to her – something he’d never been able to do with his son.
Eilise had wanted their son raised as human as possible. He’d never been able to take Alexander to cloud-painting festivals. Never walked with him down fairy stairs. Never taken him flying in a kite rig. Never breathed a word about something so awe-inspiring and wondrous as a phoenix.
And even when Alexander had been let in on the truth of the world, it hadn’t seemed to spark any interest or curiosity in his son. It had been something to downplay, to accept for its utility without fully embracing it.
And Alexander had always hated that his father wasn’t…real. Wasn’t human. That he was somehow less because he was part-agent.
Stef’s hand twitched a little, and her fingers curled into his.
‘On the smallest farm in the world.’
He could recite the story now, but he was sure that she would cry foul, that she’d been robbed of the chance to hear a fairy tale by real fairies. And it was one of the stranger stories, more recent stories that had come to be considered a modern classic.
It wasn’t an old morality tale or an adaptation of a warning, it wasn’t from the time when fairies were food, it was far more recent. The new way that fairies created children was story enough by itself, heroic and sad, full of sacrifice and mirror magic. A choice made for an entire race by its queens.
The farmer on the smallest farm was a far more personal story.
One lonely man wishing for a family, pouring his hopes and dreams into a dying flower. Pastoral and small, it had also become a favoured story for adoptive families in Fairyland. The story had also gained popularity amongst agents – as pure agent children were impossible, adoption was the only choice for agents who had fallen in love with their own kind.
It would cheat her if he told the story to her sleeping form. And every line of the story that he managed to get out would spur at least a dozen questions, half of which would likely be interrupted with another, more important question.
For the experience to be proper, he’d need a copy of the Clover collection, or perhaps-
‘That would work,’ he said quietly.
He gently pulled his hand from hers, and stood, making an effort not to move the chair as he did so, for fear the noise would wake her. He looked down at her, and after a moment, smoothed the hair back from her face and kissed her forehead.
It was something that Alexander had always insisted had helped him get better. A bit of “dad magic”, something he was happy to provide, if only for the placebo effect.
‘Sleep well,’ he said, ‘heal.’
He shifted to the hall with no doors. A small, dead piece of the Agency, no longer connected to the rest of the building. It was always cold here, colder than the rest of the Agency – the hall felt like a mausoleum, and the association wasn’t entirely inaccurate.
He moved along the hall and touched a hand to where a doorknob should have been.
A security prompt appeared in his HUD, and he manually entered the long password string – one that was unable to authenticate automatically. Another step. Another delay. Another chance to turn around and leave.
It was almost an oubliette, in its own way.
A place to hide someone away from the world. To be forgotten by all, except by those who truly cared.
The code was accepted, and a door appeared in the wall. He twisted the doorknob and walked in, closing and locking the door behind him.
The office never changed. Nothing ever changed. And nothing ever would change.
The office was the same size as his and had the same large set of windows at the back – though these were hidden behind sheer curtains, projecting a recorded image of the outside world.
And at the large desk, made of dark wood, sat Director Reynolds.
Reynolds lay slumped across his desk, lifeless as a corpse, looking as uncomfortable as could be. As with every time he visited, a thin layer of dust covered Reynolds’ sleeping form, from dust that seemed to permeate, even in this dead section of the Agency.
He was sleeping, dreaming, and saving the world by being locked away from it.
Ryan removed his jacket, and laid it on the cracked leather of the couch, then moved to clean up his director, as he always did.
He pulled on Reynolds’ shoulders and made him sit up in the chair. He required his hair to be tidy, his suit to be refreshed, and the thin layer of dust to be dismissed.
Reynolds was breathing, his heart was beating, and his vitals were the same steady pulse as they had been since the night he’d collapsed in the street.
Ryan gently laid Reynolds back on the desk, ensuring that the chair was close enough so that he wasn’t stretched out too far.
It would have been more humane to put him in a bed, or in a tank in the basement. It would have been easier to let the Central scientists take him and monitor him.
Easier, but not better.
Here, in his office, Reynolds was home – and Ryan had to believe that some part of him knew that, that some part of him appreciated that, even if he never woke up again.
In Central, they might dissect him.
In Central, they might try to figure out the method by which Sol had stolen their dreams.
In Central, they might anger the monster that had already threatened the world once.
Ryan moved to the couch, sat, and required a drink.
Agents could become alcoholics. There were fae alcohols that could impair them, as much as any human. Standard liquor was just for the taste – but it still felt like a crutch to drink in order to think.
But it had been what Reynolds had suggested, so it was a pattern of behaviour Ryan had maintained.
He rested the scotch it on the arm of the couch, the condensation beading on the glass, then sliding down to the leather.
Reynolds drank, sang, partied, and made merry with everyone around him. He was loved by agents, recruits, and contacts. He always seemed to have time to give advice, make a joke, or simply fly the Agency flag when it was called for.
Reynolds was everything he couldn’t be.
Ryan was, he was sure, still to this day, a disappointment to his director.
But Reynolds had loved him anyway – as a father, as a teacher, and as a friend. He had put up with his “faults” and his lack of growth. Ryan wasn’t what his director had expected of him, and that had always hung in the air.
Ryan took a sip of his scotch.
He was a disappointment to his father, as much as he was a disappointment to his son.
He’d disappointed Eilise and Carol and the others that had come and gone over the decades.
He was never enough for the recruits, especially whilst trying to juggle two jobs without help.
He hadn’t disappointed Stef, but he had failed her.
Being in public in uniform always came with risk. And he’d allowed his guard to slip, to enjoy the moment, and not keep an eye on their surroundings. He’d been focused on her joy, on seeing how long she could have a chocolate stain on her nose without noticing…and failed to see an enemy recognise, then attack.
It had been sheer luck that she hadn’t died in the initial blast – glass had embedded itself in her face, in her arms, but the grace of some god had meant no sharp edges had aimed themselves at her throat.
And when the balances were totalled, she’d done more to save him, than he had done for her. She’d called in a rescue. She’d sacrificed her blue. All he’d done was shoot a Solstice – after the man had already mortally wounded both of them.
He took another mouthful of drink and stared at his director. As mercurial as Reynolds could be, it was hard to imagine what he would have thought of the idea of adopting a young woman after just a few days.
As with any difficult problem, Reynolds would have moved through his various roles, commenting as necessary. His friend would appreciate the gesture but tell him that he was wrong. His father would caution him and warn that it was too great of a leap. His director would ask about the impact on his workload.
And Reynolds would have asked him to justify it and needed an answer other than “because”.
‘Because I love her,’ Ryan said quietly.
Because she was sad and scared and lost. Because she had suspected the smallest kindnesses to be routine and not genuine. Because she remembered him, when there should have been other people to write over the memory with bigger and better memories.
Because they fit together like the family they were both missing.
He looked at his director. At the man he would have died for, living through a punishment that could last until the end of the world. Reynolds had been far from perfect as a father – he’d always looked for those pieces of Rhys that had survived, treating him almost as a replacement for a dead older sibling.
Reynolds had been imperfect with him. He’d been imperfect with Alexander. He’d be imperfect with Stef.
But somehow, it almost felt all right that he’d be imperfect again. That making mistakes would be…just what a girl with permanently dirty sneakers would expect.
He finished off his drink, dismissed his glass, and walked to the dusty bookshelves that lined the wall opposite the cracked, green couch. At first glance, they looked like the kind of typical leather-bound books that were expected in an office like this – something almost more for aesthetic than for content.
But it always rewarded those visitors to the office that looked closer. Amongst the gifted tomes of poetry and reference books were volumes of bawdy jokes and some books that were simply there as pranks, with spines that said things like “look left”, only to have the book to the left insult the person pursuing the bookshelf.
But amongst the collection, there were some treasures.
He browsed three of the shelves before finding the book. The volume was old, gifted to Reynolds in the thirties, a collection of fairy tales from a small press, with a gorgeous, hand-carved leather cover. There had initially been decorative magic, but it had long since worn away, except for the occasional sparkle, like an old toy that only spoke when its string was pulled at precisely the right angle.
It had all of the best stories, and it would be a perfect place to start.
He looked to his director and knew that despite whatever logic and warning Reynolds would have given him if awake, that his imperfect father would have allowed him to take the book, and to gift it to someone who would appreciate it.
Ryan put his jacket back on and tucked the book under his arm. He laid his hand on Reynolds’ shoulder. ‘Thank you,’ he said and hoped that some part of Reynolds could hear him.
With a whispered goodbye, he shifted from the office.