Stef stared at her reflection in the wardrobe mirror. At the weird, dual reflection caused by the sliding doors overlapping each other by a few inches. It was probably a metaphor for something, but she’d always just enjoyed trying to be quick enough to outpace her own reflection. A stupid game she’d used to play when doing ballet practice, chasing and dancing with her mirrored doppelganger, all while keeping her technique tight enough as not incur her instructor’s wrath.
She’d closed the door this time – not that Ryan was the kind to wander in like Dorian had done, but having four walls to herself for a couple of minutes was…necessary.
Practically speaking, she’d excused herself to change out of snotty scrubs. Realistically, she needed a few seconds to understand that she was no longer alone in the world. That- That someone wanted to be her family. Someone cool, someone amazing, someone- Someone she already respected so much. Someone who had shown her magic and who would show her more.
She curled her hands together and pressed them to her heart.
It was stupid. She was hallucinating.
It wasn’t stupid. She wasn’t hallucinating.
She stared at her collection of ratty shirts – most of them were her preferred style: black graphic T-shirts bought at a game store at a convention. Beside the shirts – some of which still had weird food stains on them, even after washing. Or probably after a wash. Sometimes the piles could get confusing, so dirty clothes could get hung up, while clean clothes got kicked under the bed.
This wasn’t a time for a Metal Gear shirt that mysteriously smelled of ramen.
This also wasn’t the time for a Stephanie outfit. He hadn’t-
‘What the hell is even the word?’
She walked to the bedroom door, opened it, and poked her head out to look in the direction of the couch. ‘So, um, we’re going with “adopted” right? Like, as a summary word?’
‘If that doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable.’
‘Nope, it’s good.’ She closed the door again and returned to the wardrobe.
Weirdo. She was a complete weirdo, and he’d adopted her. She didn’t need to hide behind a Stephanie outfit and a fake mask. She didn’t need to pretend to be someone she wasn’t, because, despite all sensible logic, he seemed to like Stef, so there was no need to pretend to be Stephanie.
She closed the sliding door, blocking off the little nest that had kept her safe for so many days and nights, a place to be when the world didn’t make sense. It had been minutes since she’d been there, crying and wanting to die, and now-
And now, there was still the ever-present background radiation of fear, anxiety, dread, apprehension, paranoia, fear, and fear and-
She required her uniform.
It was her in a way that nothing else had ever been. Maybe it was partly the memory of Ryan, a thing so old it was part of the bedrock of her formation. Maybe it was because it was representative of the first goddamn choice she’d made in her life, maybe it was just that it was far more comfortable than it appeared. The slight restriction given by the vest was even comforting, like a heavy blanket or a fat pillow, that added bit of gravity and control that helped to keep herself together.
The feeling as her hair tidied itself was still something tickly and hard to get used to. It had been a bonus to find out that along with customising what “Require: uniform” conjured onto your body, that it was possible to set specific parameters about your body at the same time. All the options were cosmetic – so far, there didn’t seem to be a way to access the world’s character creator and give herself an extra foot in height.
But being able to set hair and make-up were definitely useful, even if she had no wish to set make-up for her uniform. If she had to set up something like a proper act-like-Stephanie undercover outfit, then that was an outfit macro that could use some powder and paint.
Right now, she didn’t want it.
Make-up had always been Mother’s world – five minutes of ritual and prep spent between mother and daughter. She’d always loved the feel of dragging her mother’s brushes across her face. Her mother hadn’t minded, so long as the brushes had been naked – playing without wasting expensive cosmetics had been acceptable.
Stephanie had worn make-up sometimes – sometimes it was just easier to put on a real mask over the metaphorical one, to blend in rather than fighting. It had always been pretty basic though – though sometimes a seasonal package sent to school had featured a cool or punky lipstick colour – something interesting, if definitely part of a trend.
It had always been strategic and never for fun.
Fun was those photosets of intricate eye make-up or ombre looks that invoked the colours of a superhero. Amazing skills, captured in a photo, or on the eyelid of a pretty girl passing by.
Not now. Nothing to think about right now. But-
But maybe if she was going to be a person. Going to be walking around in public pretending to be functional. Then perhaps it was something to think about. Reclaim something else that had only ever belonged to Stephanie.
She smiled – tried to smile – at herself in the mirror, and saw the expected wobble in her expression.
Someone wanted to be her family, and that was never going to stop being amazing.
With one last check to ensure that she was presentable, she left the bedroom.
Ryan had cleaned the small lounge room – it wasn’t the nuke-from-orbit approach that it required, but in a way, it was better. He’d simply moved the non-rubbish contents of the couch to one corner of the coffee table, and-
He’d definitely either cleaned the couch itself or replaced it with a clone. Long-ingrained stains were gone, and the long, thin split in the centre cushion where she’d slashed it with a knife had been repaired.
Alexandria sat in the centre spot, and he’d obviously taken some pains to sit her up properly.
The cloth-wrapped package sat in the empty left-hand spot – and she sat and settled the gift between her and Alexandria.
‘Tell me about them,’ she said. ‘Your son. And- Do you have any other kids? I want to know what mistakes not to make. I don’t want to-’ She ignored his hand, motioning for her not to worry. ‘It would make me feel better knowing…If that’s okay.’
‘Then I guess I would ask the same of you.’
She looked up and poked her tongue out. ‘I asked first, narc.’
‘Alexander is the only child I have. His mother, Eilise, is someone Reynolds introduced me to. He’d known her father and thought we would be a good match. She had a brilliant mind, she studied philosophy. Understanding the agent mindset, how we relate to ourselves, each other, our past, our present, it was fascinating to her.’
‘I mean, sounds good so far?’
‘When Alexander was born, and we discussed how to raise him, she expressed…disenchantment with the world as it is. She felt it would be better to raise him human, and introduce him to magic later on. I fought against this, but lost.’
She looked towards the small linen cupboard that had, for nearly the entire time she’d lived in the apartment, been home to a hope chest of sorts. It had held beautiful baby clothes and cute toys for a child that would probably never come to pass. For Lucy, for a baby girl so fervently wished for that the dream had caused nothing but pain.
The clothes were gone, the toys were gone, and she’d buried the dream of a little girl to love and care for.
She wanted a child, but she probably wasn’t done growing up yet.
‘I couldn’t imagine,’ she said, ‘holding so much back. I mean, you’re-’ She waved lazily at him. ‘Like. You’re you. You’re made of magic, how do you hide that? At least superheroes just kind of have to hide their day job, you don’t turn your HUD off at five PM.’
Ryan nodded, and there was a lot of sadness in that one small movement.
She didn’t know how to people, but this didn’t seem like a moment to push.
‘I’m pretty easy,’ she said. ‘I just- Mum wanted a pretty doll and didn’t like it when I wasn’t. Father, James just hated me from day one. Don’t hate me, don’t yell at me when I read expensive books, and you’re already a million miles ahead.’
‘Speaking of books,’ he said as he pushed the cloth-wrapped bundle towards her.
She picked it up, found the knot tied in the cloth and carefully unpicked it. Inside was an old book – he’d said it was an antique – with a delicately carved and embossed cover.
‘A Collection of Stories for Children,’ she said, reading the title out loud.
In the upper left-hand corner, a shimmer ran across the leather fairy’s wings.
‘Is this-’ she asked, trying to clip her words to keep calm, to not vibrate out of her skin, ‘is this-’ She carefully opened the book and looked for the publication data. ‘Is this fae fairy tales?’
‘And it’s for me to keep?’
‘Gifts generally are, Miss Mimosa.’ He leaned closer and flipped to the table of contents. ‘It has many of the most popular stories. There are more updated versions, most with art from the Clover adaptations of the movies-’ he noticed her inquisitive look. ‘Think of them as the equivalent of Disney for fae children. Starting with this collection will let you see the changes over the last century. It’s a good point to begin with, should you want to see the evolution, or trace where a story began.’
‘And if I ask nicely, you’ll read them to me?’
Ryan nodded. ‘I’d love to.’
She looked at the story list, each one with an alluring title: The Elk of Never-was, The Strongest Lute, Shells and Shields, and on and on.
Part of her wanted try saying some word that approached “dad”, even if in her own head, just to push the moment, but every other sensible part of her knew it was an age too soon, a hundred years before it would be time to say that, but one day…maybe.
‘Why is it in English? I mean, I haven’t actually picked up on it until now, but shouldn’t these be in some kind of fae language?’
Ryan lifted Alexandria, traded the doll for the book, and moved into the lounge’s centre seat. She cuddled the red-haired doll and leaned in next to Ryan, her head on his arm.
‘It’s not in English,’ he said as he smoothed the page. ‘‘It’s… There are a lot of names for it. We’ll use “glyph”. It’s a form of ideographic writing and printing that is used on most public signage, and in areas where you’re going to have multiple fae languages in constant usage. Fae have the gift of languages, something fiction has probably well prepared you for.’
‘That only works on a person-to-person level. If you ever watch a fairy movie or fae television, you’ll notice, unless it’s a work that’s been specifically translated – that, you’ll be reading subtitles throughout. Subtitles will use glyph – it’s the closest thing there is to a unified language, however…primitive it is. It is a way of conveying a collection of fairly simple concepts, but it tends to fill the gap when you’re dealing with people who don’t speak the language.’
‘So I can read “hamburger with cheese” but not War and…Peas?’ she asked, trying to force the words to rhyme.
Ryan nodded. ‘Correct. It’s a lot easier to have “bathroom” written in glyph than it is to convey a work of poetry or exactitude. It’s why you’ll find a lot of tourist information is written in relatively simple language. Also, some things on a menu will have additional qualifiers where an exact ideogram isn’t available.’
‘So wouldn’t that mean this is like the simplified version of the stories?’
‘No. Because these stories are…special, and they want the widest possible audience, the updates and translations are done with love and care. There are fully translated versions that don’t rely on glyph, but these are the set that most human children start with.’
‘So what I’m looking at is actually written in another language, but my brain can’t see that – my brain sees English? That is…creepy and cool in equal amounts.’
‘Lead the words with your finger.’
Ryan turned the book towards her, indicated to the titles, and she slowly dragged her fingers along the words “Shells and Shields”. As she did, the words turned into ideograms, and after a moment, she was able to see the whole page for what it was – but it went back to English after she blinked.
He pointed to a title. ‘I’d like you to read this one first. It’s a simple story, but there’s a lot of fairy history behind it. Would you like the story or the background first?’
‘Both,’ she said as she cuddled Alexandria, ‘at the same time.’
‘I expected that answer,’ he leaned down and kissed the top of her head. ‘Both,’ he agreed, ‘at once.’
He turned the page, and read her fairy tales until dawn light coloured the walls of her apartment.