38 – A Second Life
‘I’d like to ask, daughter, if you got any sleep at all.’
Stef looked up, the warm fuzzies from the word “daughter” beating even that of her third coffee of the morning.
‘None at all,’ she said and patted the moss-covered stone of the wall beside her. ‘It’s like- I mean, proper agents might not get this, but…trying to sleep before Christmas or a holiday or something, your brain is too excited or hyped or nervous or whatever to properly allow sleep.’
Ryan took off his jacket, folded it, laid it on the cleanest patch of the wide wall, and then sat beside her. For once, they matched – he rarely took his jacket off, and she rarely wore hers, so the tiny moments where they met in the middle were nice.
‘Alexander was like that,’ he said. ‘I would hear him trying to sneak around the house to see if Santa had arrived.’ His face took on the getting-familiar sad-nostalgia look it did whenever he spoke of his family, and she squeezed his hand to try and get rid of the bad feels. ‘Sometimes I would require a sound here or there to add to the magic, but nothing that didn’t come with plausible deniability. Reindeer noises on the roof could be possums, that kind of thing.’ He paused. ‘I can see security cameras. I assumed you’ve accounted for them.’
He was checking, but it had come with an inbuilt assumption of her competence, which was nice – unfamiliar, getting familiar, weird, still weird – but nice.
She nodded and tapped her head. ‘There were always a couple of blind spots on this side of the garden. Security tech has gotten better and less obtrusive, but when the existing layout covers eighty-five per cent and physical security is likely to deter all but the hardest-core thieves or crooks, why would you bother installing new poles or whatever that ruin the aesthetic?’ She paused. ‘And because I’m paranoid, I did jack into the security system and loop the two cameras that get even close to this fence with some nice harmless footage. We’re safe.’
She swept her gaze across the grounds again for what had to be the hundredth time since she’d shifted in about an hour ago.
The house – the mansion – where she’d grown up. Where she’d first met Ryan. Where he’d changed the course of her entire life.
So much, and yet so little, had changed. All of the big, old, established trees were still there. Most of the hedges that acted as dividers or walls to partition sections of the gardens also remained. Many of the smaller plants, the flowers, however, and most of the statuary had been swapped out.
This was a place that had never been “home”. Not like her apartment had been, not like the Agency was. It had been the place where Stephanie had lived and where Stef had to fight at the corners for any kind of existence, any kind of freedom.
‘You deserved better than what that little girl had,’ Ryan said, turning his hand to hold hers, returning the compassion and love. ‘There are a thousand “ifs” that can be wondered about, but I hope there is at least one world out there where some version of myself realised that it wasn’t luck that gave me the quick and easy cleanup. That no good parents would leave a child alone as long as you were.’
She leaned against his shoulder and gently kicked the cool stone of the old wall. ‘I love you too.’
In the house, a light went on, and she tried to figure out what room it would have been – too far to the right to be her bedroom, but not- The third upstairs bathroom. The one with the lavender theme.
A room she’d used mostly for hiding when she’d been out of her room, and she’d heard someone on the stairs. She’d been allowed to use whatever bathroom she’d wanted to, of course, but- It was less trouble if she used her ensuite. It was where she was expected to be and being what people expected-
She scrubbed at her face with the back of her free hand.
‘I’m okay,’ she said to the offered handkerchief. ‘Relatively. You know. Whatever.’ The handkerchief stayed offered, and after a moment, she took it and blew her nose. ‘I knew coming here would make me feel shit and feel like shit. But it’s- This is me, this was me, I’ve got an anchor here, whether I like it or not, and it’s probably a good thing I’m immortal cause healing the sad little girl who lived here is going to take forever.’
She folded, then balled the handkerchief, and passed it back and forth from hand to hand, hoping the motion would keep her brain moving, thinking, processing. ‘I also never got to say goodbye to this place. Hospital. Boarding school. I never got to come back before it got sold. I think some further flung bit of the family lives here now, but it wasn’t like I could have knocked on the door and asked to come in for tea. So no closure. And I wanted that, wanted to do that before I start the first real job I’ve ever had in my life.’
She required the handkerchief clean and turned to face the first person who had ever loved her, ever wanted her, who wouldn’t have minded which bathroom she’d used, or if she’d played in the gardens instead of sitting quietly, making as little noise as possible.
‘I’m- I’m not good at being a person. Or being- I’m barely good at anything. And I still want to remind you that you can- I know you said you don’t want to get rid of me- I’m nothing. I feel like I’m nothing, but for the first time, I feel like I can be something. I want what you’ve offered me. I want this. I want you to be proud of me. I want to be proud of myself. I’ve gotten everything I’ve ever wanted, and- I’m happy.’
More tears fell.
‘I really am. And I’m still worried that I’m gonna puke on my shoes when I have to meet everyone again. But that’s okay. I can live with that. Cause I wanna live. And that is still such a new and weird feeling. But- Thank you. For everything. And more than everything. And I’ll make you proud. And you’re gonna do the dad thing and say…’ She lifted her hand and made the “come on” gesture.
‘I’m already proud of you,’ he said obediently.
‘But I’m going to earn it. I am. And I’m gonna fuck up too. And cry. And sometimes, I’m just gonna live under my bed for a week. And- And I think that’s all okay. Because things are okay. And I got my fairy tale. And I got magic. And everything she,’ she said, pointing to the house, to the little girl she’d been, to everything she was finally able to take a step away from, ‘never thought she was going to get.’
The first time Ryan had tried to introduce her to the rest of the recruits, she’d hidden in the bathroom.
Now, as an agent, she didn’t really have that excuse.
Jonesy had been nice, and had handled the details with an email blast. Mags had said she’d take care of her recruits.
That only left Field, and it made sense that she’d have to make an appearance in her own department to stand in front of people she could technically order around.
/serious had her face set to something appropriate, a nice, neutral, alert face that showed she was present and attentive, and that would hide all of the anxiety that was making her want to shift to the middle of Canada.
Why is it always Canada? I’ve never even-
Ryan had specifically chosen the time so that there were the most possible Field recruits available for the meeting, finding the sweet spot where a couple of the shifts crossed over.
That fact gave her some comfort, knowing that she was inconveniencing as few people as possible, that at most, she was stopping some patrols that should be happening – something she and Curt were scheduled to do right after the meeting – or that a couple of reports might be a little delayed in their submission.
Other than the people who had known all throughout her Top Secret existence, Curt and Mags had used their aide privilege to break the street date on her secret about twelve hours earlier by telling three Techs, one Combat recruit, and a civilian.
The reactions had been…positive, so far as she could tell.
Screen had sent customised “congrats on not being dead” gifs, and asked if she would still be her primary operator moving forward.
Raz had suggested a group chat with Curt so he could send memes once, which she had accepted.
Sacha had sent an invite to a group dinner to be held the next week, which seemed to be the same group that had been present at the pub the previous night, which she had tentatively accepted.
And…not much else had happened. Which was the best possible outcome.
If Field followed what Tech had done and went, “lol, yay, congrats on not being dead”, and then proceeded to ignore her as much as possible, it would be an absolute win.
Paranoid scenarios ran continually, bringing her useful and productive thoughts to a crawl.
There was the possibility that they’d be mad at her, either for “faking” her death, which wasn’t accurate, or for “skipping” the line and becoming an agent, when that was usually a boon only bestowed on the best and brightest recruits.
They could call her out as unfit to lead or to give orders, which she agreed with.
They might – and this hurt the most, made her the most anxious – question Ryan, belittle him for his choice to upgrade such a shit recruit, and ask if he was fit to be Director.
It didn’t matter what vitriol came in her direction, so long as Ryan didn’t suffer any more for her presence than he already did because-
With the timing of a mind-reader, Ryan’s hand came down onto her shoulder, and the connection evaporated some of the anxiety. Just the tiniest bit, but maybe enough to stop her from having to explain her presence to confused Canadian agents if they had to rescue her from a bear.
Are there bears-
‘Whatever happens,’ Ryan said, his perfect dad smile on his perfect dad face, ‘whatever happens today, tomorrow, or in the future, I’m proud of you, and I’m here for you.’ He straightened her tie, and some tiny part of the broken little girl healed.
Words would be too much, so she just nodded.
As far as the hall stretched in her mind, as much as it seemed like it could go on forever, they reached the common room in just a few seconds.
Everyone quietened down as Ryan walked in, but no one seemed to have any reaction to seeing her beside him. No one screamed “zombie” or “cheater” or anything.
This much, at least, was expected. As far as the rest of the Agency was concerned, she’d died, and it hadn’t really made an impact. She hadn’t been present long enough to make an impact on anyone.
Except for Ryan. And probably Curt.
Ryan began to speak, and it was everything they’d discussed beforehand. The simple cover story, her injury, her upgrade and the not-precisely-a-lie that she was his daughter.
As much as she worried about the backlash, and people getting mad at her for the upgrade, the concept of “agent’s kid” cast a pretty comprehensive protective aura, as it was relatively routine for agents to do this.
He finished by explaining her position as a secondary Field agent but that inquiries should first go through Curt or directly to himself until she was more experienced in the role.
After a call for questions, which yielded no raised hands, he dismissed the recruits, and she started to breathe again.
Extra verb in this sentence. Probably an editing artifact.
Something seems off in this sentence. Not sure if “first” is maybe not the intended word, or maybe there’s something else missing.
I don’t think “either” needs to be there? There doesn’t seem to be a contrasting alternative.
Is “quietened” an Aussie thing? I’m used to seeing it as “quieted”.
1 – fixed
2 – it sort of parses in “Stef-language” but I redid it to make it clearer
3 – fixed
4 – I think so?