There were glow-in-the-dark stars all over the inside wall of her wardrobe. Most of them were at the level under the bottoms of the t-shirts she could bother to hang up. All of them were quiet now, not having absorbed enough sun to activate them like tiny Kryptonian babies. Stupid, useless, and broken, just like her.
She pulled a large cushion over her head. It was big and heavy, one for sitting on, but the crushing weight was comforting, helped bring her back down to earth, helped keep her in her own body.
It had been stupid to try. It was always stupid to try. Do anything different, and the world was waiting to fuck you.
There were tears, even though she wished there weren’t.
Crying that- Crying that she hadn’t even done when she’d tried to kill herself. That had been tears from terror. From hating herself for not being able to follow through. From being scared of the probably-imagined second of absolute nothingness.
It was misery made manifest. Sucking cries that turned into coughs when air went into the wrong pipe, snot running from her nose, tears blurring everything within her sight.
She stretched an arm out, in the direction of the end of the wardrobe that held the few emergency Stephanie outfits she kept for when she needed to put up a facade with the outside world.
Under a pair of expensive slacks and a shimmering gold top was a storage cube that held all of her camping supplies.
The world could be too much. Escaping into the wardrobe had always seemed so much safer than just hiding under a blanket on her bed. A wall between her and the world.
Glow in the dark stars, a camping mattress, a storage cube of snacks and water and a charger on an extension cord meant the space was one she could stay in for days on end.
She fished out a bottle of water, opened it, and spilled half the bottle as she struggled to sit up enough to drink without choking.
There was water all over the Agency-issued scrubs. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing mattered because everything mattered. And she couldn’t- And she couldn’t- And she-
More tears came, and she hated herself for every single one.
There was a knock on the wardrobe door, and her bladder nearly let go.
‘Stef.’ Ryan’s voice. ‘May I speak with you?’
She didn’t answer. Even if he knew she was there. Which he did. He wasn’t an idiot. He wouldn’t have gone and knocked on every- He knew she was there, but if she didn’t say anything- He’d go away. He would have to go away eventually. And then everything would go back to-
Back before she’d wanted to live. Back before she’d been scared of losing- Of having something to lose. Of having things to look forward to.
Life had always just been- Life. A biological impetus. Going forward because it was what people did. Going forward because you were too afraid to stop. Because it was easier just to exist. Just to- Ride the status quo. To take pleasure in the small things, when you could, and accept that one day it would all be over.
And suddenly, it had been different. This wasn’t looking forward to the next superhero movie. This wasn’t- This was something so much more real, in a way that was scary. In a way that had emptied her of every tear her body could provide.
It had to stop, though. She had to get over it. Forget that this week had happened. Because if she didn’t- And it continued too much longer, she’d get used to wanting to live, actually wanting to be alive, and it would be all the worse when it did come to an end.
She wanted to live so much, so achingly much, that it might be better if she died.
Because then- Then it was a clean end. And there wouldn’t be a loss. And- And she probably didn’t deserve the pain that the loss would be. Clean end. Happy end.
There was still a box of sleeping tablets in the bathroom. A back-up in case the first box hadn’t been enough.
I just want it all to be over.
I hate this. I hate this so much.
Death was so much easier than-
The wardrobe door ratted a little, and she cried out – thinking that he was going to open the door, was going to force the realness of the world on her liminal space.
‘I’m just sitting down,’ Ryan said, his voice soothing beyond anything she’d ever heard. Like the voice of someone who cared Like you’d imagine a parent to be.
She tried to imagine what she looked like – or, rather, sounded like – to him. To someone who always seemed so…perfect and put together. Narc #3 in the background of an action movie.
And in stark contrast, she was lying in a puddle of her own snot. It wasn’t cute. It wasn’t quirky. It was messy, disgusting, and more than enough to make any rational person turn away.
She was worthless, and he had no business giving even one-quarter of a metric shit about her. It wasn’t his job to deal with this. But he was still there. There was no reason for him still to be there and-
‘May I open the door?’
‘Yeah- Sure- Okay,’ she said. The words short and clipped. A compromise, rather than something she really wanted.
The wardrobe door slid open a few inches. Enough to let the light in but not quite enough to overwhelm her. A wobbly square appeared in her field of vision. A tear-blurred handkerchief.
She reached for it, her hands landing heavily on his outstretched one. ‘Go away, please,’ she whispered, trying to control her voice enough to form words. ‘You keep being nice to me, and- And I hate myself. But I’m getting used to it. I need- I need everything to go back to normal. I need this to end, because I don’t want it to end.’
Ryan pulled the handkerchief from her grasp, and she let her hands fall into her lap.
‘I’m opening the door,’ he said.
The door slid open, and he sat on his haunches, handkerchief in hand. He leaned forward, pressed the back of his hand to the underside of her chin and settled the cloth against her nose. ‘Blow,’ he said gently. She did, then took the handkerchief and wiped ineffectively at the rest of her face.
‘I never meant to cause you such grief,’ he said, as he gently pulled errant strands of hair away from her face, several sticking as they were tugged out of drying patches of snot.
She choked, and leaned against his hand, needing the comfort, even as she hated herself for taking the kindness.
His arm moved a little as he crawled forward, and joined her in the wardrobe nest, then used his hand to draw her head towards him, laying her head against his side, then he switched to stroking her head. A storybook parent after a nightmare.
She closed her eyes and buried her face in his arm, the remains of snots and tears spreading themselves over his pristine sleeve.
‘You saved me,’ he said, the back of his hand resting on her cheek for a moment. ‘And I haven’t had a chance to say thank you yet.
She stared down at her feet. ‘You nearly died,’ she said, the words croaking out. ‘And it was my- Fault!’
It had been her actions, her direct actions, her request for something as stupid as ice-cream that had left them both bleeding on cold tiles. He was important, and she’d nearly snuffed out his life, nearly erased the chance of him rescuing another child – one, this time, that wouldn’t waste the gift they had been given.
She couldn’t look at him. Not now. Not yet. Probably not ever. If she was quiet, he would leave her alone. He would- He would just leave, and things would go back to normal.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and fresh tears rolled down her cheeks.
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ he insisted, and for half a second, she believed him. ‘You saved me. I need you to understand what you did for me. What you nearly cost yourself. What you- We weren’t in a System area. I would have bled out. I warned you not to touch me, lest your blue get used in my triage. You did.’
‘You’re important,’ she whispered.
‘We have- When we’re injured, a countdown timer of sorts. It calculates what time we have remaining, based on all available factors. I can tell you, scientifically, that you bought me enough time for our rescue party to arrive. But it- You nearly traded your life for mine. That isn’t something I ever would have asked of you.’
‘I owed you,’ she said. Now or never. She’d wanted it to be never. To never burden him with this. But- But it was now.
‘You saved my life first.’
‘Stef, you were a child, that was my-’
‘Not then,’ she said, with such vehemence that he stopped. ‘I didn’t mean- I don’t mean that time.’ Fat, blobby tears fell onto his sleeve, and she hated herself more and more with each second. But it needed to be said. He needed to know how pathetic she was. How broken she was, how-
‘Not then.’ She scrubbed at her face with the wet, dirty handkerchief. ‘I-’
And if she said it, it would be real.
‘You’re- You’re a real person,’ she said, trying to find words. ‘But- But if you get the good side of emotions, do you get the shit bits as well?’ She pressed her tongue against the inside of her cheek. ‘Can agents, you know, get depression?’ the shake amplified in her voice. ‘Or- Or- Or do something- Stupid?’
There was a moment of silence before he responded. ‘Make the choice to end their life?’
‘It didn’t feel like a choice,’ she said, the words out before she could redact them.
‘Yes. We’re more than capable of reaching that level of despair. We-’ She felt his head wobble side-to-side as if thinking. ‘We tend to experience fewer extremes, and what extremes we do tend to level rather more quickly than a human experiencing the same emotion. It is – fundamentally – what allows us to go on with our jobs. Grief takes days, not months. Euphoria passes in a moment. To hear others speak, it’s a blessing and a curse, but I only know my experiences, and have no basis for comparison.’
‘I have never,’ he said, ‘if that is your question. I have known those who have taken steps. None completed, thankfully.’
‘A few weeks ago,’ she said. Detail wasn’t necessary. It would bore him. He was already- He already had no reason to be there, other than to tell her he was firing her. To end all of this. ‘I- I did.
‘I took a bunch of pills. I had…no reason to be alive. I’m just- I ran out of ways to distract myself. And I didn’t want to be around anymore. And it wouldn’t have mattered to anyone. I – just – wanted – it – to…end. All the hurt and all the nothing builds up and it just…it’s too much pain for too little reward. So I just wanted to go to sleep. I spend enough time asleep anyway because it’s easier than real life. You go to sleep, and when you wake up, you’ve skipped past a few hours that you don’t have to deal with.’ She stared at a dead glow-in-the-dark star, and wished the Solstice had been a better shot, so that-
‘And it was…easy,’ she said, stumbling over the word, her voice cracking. ‘It wasn’t a cry for help, because it’s not like- Someone would have found my body after a couple of weeks. But- I just wanted it over and done with. So I did- And I did- And- And I was almost gone. And I was-’
Words. She had to continue. Had to finish the story.
She reached out a hand and touched his vest. ‘And I saw this colour. And- And then I didn’t. And- And I made myself get up. Because I saw this. You. Because this has always made me feel safe. Because- Cause it made me not want to go. And you’ve always been there. Always helped me. All I ever needed to do was look at Agency blue and- And whatever was wrong was a little bit better. And you’ve been doing that all my life. So why wouldn’t I- You’re the only person who has ever done anything for me. Ever- Why the fuck wouldn’t I die for you? Why would you think I wouldn’t? Why-’
The force of the hug crushed the air from her lungs.
He brought her head to his chest, both arms wrapped around her as if holding her could erase every bad thing that had ever happened.
And maybe it could.
Maybe he could crush her into a tiny black hole and the universe would restart around her. And things would be different, and-
She cried until all of her tears had been exhausted, and he didn’t let her go.
Her legs cramped, and she shuffled a bit to the side and collapsed against him again, her head landing in his lap. ‘I want to live,’ she said, staring at her fingers as he stroked her hair. ‘And that’s terrifying. And I don’t know what to do. So it has to stop. So things have to go back to before. I need to go back to a save point. Before- I don’t know how to handle this. I hate it. I hate it, and I want it to stop. I wanna die, so I don’t have to live.’
‘I would ask you to try,’ he said, his voice cracking.
‘All I can see is how things will go wrong. I never get what I want, and I’ve never even wanted anything.’ She laughed, then choked. ‘No. I mean. I’ve wanted things, but I always knew I was never going to get them, so I never-’
A family. A parent. Someone who loved her. Someone who gave a shit.
‘I just want-’
Someone who- Someone who would hug her when she was sad.
‘I want someone who wants me around. And no one ever has. My imaginary friend abandoned me; my family doesn’t want me; my own father never-’
Too real. It was too real. He was nice, but he had no obligation and-
‘Sorry. I- I’m sorry- I- It doesn’t matter. This isn’t your problem.’
She scrambled to her feet, knocked a half-dozen T-shirts to the ground as she fought with the wardrobe door, and jumped over his feet to escape the small space.
She’d let her guard down. Too much. She’d been too- Weak. And now it was going to hurt more and-
She stomped into the kitchen, flicked the kettle on again, then began to require things clean. Clean the sink. Clean the floor. Tasks made manageable for once. A new bin, one that had never seen rotting juices or maggots. A repair to the countertop where she’d let a saucepan burn into the finish. A-
One by one, she opened cupboards and required groceries into each empty space. She was probably down to minutes before they stripped her of her magic powers, so she might as well get one grocery run out of it. One stocked kitchen would mean a couple of weeks where she didn’t have to go outside.
She picked up a pile of old bills, misaddressed mail and flyers, tossed them into the new bin, then moved to the next section of counter where-
There was a cloth-wrapped package sitting on the top of her breakfast bar – something she had no memory of. The cloth was beautiful, the blue and green dyes on the white fabric had an almost watercolour-like effect, and-
‘Amongst other things,’ Ryan said as he walked up to the counter and lifted the large, rectangular present. ‘I came here to give you this.’ He held it to his chest for a moment, then held it out, the counter separating them, meaning he had to stretch to reach her. ‘There are more modern versions, but I felt you might appreciate an antique.’
She stared at the present, but stepped back, out of his reach. ‘I don’t deserve- Aren’t you here to fire me? Or is this to dull that-’
‘I’m not going to abandon you, Stef. For as long as you want it, you’ll have a place at my Agency. It’s not home to the best of the best, but it can be a home.’
‘But I’m so shit at everything,’ she said. ‘How could you ever want that around?’
For a long moment, he was quiet. Five per cent of her expected him to open his mouth, and declare the exact seven-hundred-and-eighty-four ways in which she was shit.
‘Because we make room for family.’
He put the bundle down, then walked around the counter and onto the tiles of the small kitchen.
‘I have a son.’ He shook his head. ‘And that isn’t how I wanted to start this. But. I do. His name is Alexander. He’s never wanted me in his life, so I am out of practice, but- He doesn’t need me.’ He paused for the briefest of seconds. ‘But, I could look after you, if you want me to.’
The world seemed to stop.
‘I could- The thing I enjoy most about my job, my position, and something I do not get to nearly enough of, is teaching. The joy when someone discovers a tactic or a requirement that works with how they operate; a myth that is reality, a simple piece of fae tech that had been thought to be out of reach. It’s something that I never got to do with my son. The last couple of days, I got to see what it would have been like to have a child who- Who sees the wonder in the world.’
She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. ‘Why would you say…? Why don’t you want someone better?’
‘Because you’re extraordinary, Stef, and I don’t think anyone has ever told you that.’
‘I’m not though,’ she said as she stared down at the floor. ‘I’m just- Just-’
He put a hand to her cheek and slowly lifted her face to look at him. ‘You’re amazing, young lady, trust someone who has lived far longer than you. There are so many people who cannot see their own qualities, and the world is poorer for that.’
She backed up a step. ‘I’m…crazy. Tell me you’ve noticed that. Tell me- Tell me I don’t have to tell you that.’
‘I’ve observed some behaviours that could lead to that conclusion. I-’
‘I’m sick in the head. It’s not- It would be one thing if I was just useless, but- I-’ She faltered. ‘You don’t want any part of this mess. No one ever-’
‘I want you around. I- Used a Directorial override to keep you in Field. You should have gone to Jones. But I thought if- I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to know how that little girl turned out. I wanted to see a mind able to work on alien code.’
She wiped her nose again. ‘You fudged my score? You could have just bribed me again. I-’ She brushed past him, ran into the living room, retrieved Alexandria from her place on the bookshelf, then slowly walked back to him. ‘When I- When I did what I told you- I broke her. I needed a shock to help wake myself up, so I broke her so I could have something sharp enough to cut myself with.’ She held out the doll, the broken side of her face lined with Band-Aids to prevent further cracking. ‘Could- Could you fix her again?’
Slowly, like he was taking a holy relic, Ryan pulled Alexandria from her hands. ‘I had no idea,’ he said, ‘I never would have suspected that you still had her.’
‘She is my very favourite thing. I’d never let her go.’
In his hands, Alexandria’s head became whole again, her dusty clothes became new again, and her hair, frizzed with age, became shiny and smooth.
She took her back, and held the doll like she would have done a child, joyful that her oldest friend was whole again.
She buried her face in Alexandria’s hair and stared at him through red wisps. ‘I’m trying to give you every chance to back off, to walk away, to-’
‘My worry was that you would think it was presumptuous, or even insulting, that-’
‘Do you know what I’d do,’ she asked, every word cutting her open and baring her soul, ‘to have a dad like you?’
‘Much the same,’ he said, ‘for what I’d do for a daughter like you.’
Tears came again, and this time, they were the happy kind. There were still problems though. Still- Fears. Things that could go wrong. A hundred ways that-
Or maybe, for once, something good happened.
She sniffled, and brushed her hair back from her face, trying to look a little less dishevelled, despite still being in snot-covered scrubs. ‘A puppy isn’t just for Christmas,’ she said, ‘but- If you get sick of me-’
‘Please- Let me-’ She stared at the floor. ‘If you get sick me of, let me know, don’t just stop talking to me. I can be scarce, I can stop bothering you. I can- I can stop being annoying if you tell me how I’m being annoying.’
‘You seem to appreciate being given information in a straightforward manner-’
‘I don’t always- I-’ She put Alexandria down and pressed her hands to her face. ‘I can’t people right. So I don’t always know what people mean if they’re not saying what they’re meaning, and if I try- If I have to interpret, I’ll always err on the side of paranoia, because in my experience, I’m used to getting beaten with the metaphorical stick instead of given the illusory carrot. It’s safer for me to assume that things are going to turn out shit, that way I’m not disappointed when they do.’
‘I won’t be perfect, I’ve never been, but…to use your metaphor, I’m hoping I can give you more carrots.’
‘You’re going to make me eat veggies, aren’t you?’
Ryan smiled. ‘I believe that is one of my jobs, yes.’