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Ryan turned the coaster over and over in his hand, something just to keep his hands busy, something to dull his mind as he watched light reflect and refract through it.
The resin was clear, with gold flakes here and there, but nothing that would overwhelm the rose petals – Carol had made them as a pair, one for each of them, something subtle they could keep on their desks, a reminder of each other, even when work pulled them apart.
And now, it was one of the few things left of their relationship.
They had loved, he’d mourned, and time had passed.
Cruelly, the guilt had left more of a mark on him than the grief – but Taylor kept that wound open, a constant reminder of everything he had lost, of the mistakes he’d made.
It hadn’t been an unusual start. Carol had been recruited after initially being a witness to something they’d been investigating. Unbeknownst to her, her lover had been fae and mixed up in matters far over his head.
She’d taken to the world easily, and just as easily to fieldwork. Not an unusual beginning at all.
What had been surprising had been the way she’d looked at him.
She’d made the first move, and he’d reciprocated.
And for a few years, they’d been happy – he often suspected that she was in love with an idealised version of him more than his true self. However, it had still been a far happier time than his relationship with Eilise. Carol didn’t insist he ignore his magic, instead embracing that side with a glee that Eilise never had.
And then she’d nearly died – one unlucky moment on a mission had nearly stolen the light in her eyes. He’d petitioned to have her augmented – to be made into an agent, and as it was the ask of a Director for a recruit with an excellent track record, the request had been granted.
She’d taken some time to get used to the change, but before she could fully adjust, the world had ended.
It had been an ordinary day – so many of the best and worst days were ordinary, as if the weather had no sense of the moment, no desire to add to the atmosphere.
People shouldn’t die when there were fluffy clouds in the sky, marriages shouldn’t end in the light of a sunset as perfect as a painting.
It had been such an ordinary day.
And then Carol had plunged a knife into him.
It had taken a moment to register, to feel the pain, to know that he was dying. He’d fallen, bleeding out on the carpet of his office while Carol shouted about enemies, shouted for backup, called for him to be at his side.
Whatever she’d been perceiving, it hadn’t been reality.
All she could see, every person – recruit, civilian or agent – seemed to be an enemy. Seemed to be someone attacking her, leading her to fight back, even when in reality, recruits had been running for their lives.
In all the investigations after the fact, it had been determined to be a rare kind of glitch. Not something unheard of, but something that had rarely led to so many deaths.
Glitches were common enough – waking nightmares that you couldn’t tell from reality. Everything seemed real, felt real – was real as far as your mind was concerned. The only way you knew it wasn’t when you woke screaming, having collapsed in the middle of whatever you had been doing.
It was so cruel that for a people who’d had their ability to dream torn away from them that the world had contrived a way to still allow them to have nightmares.
Glitches were – like nightmares, only harmful to your psychological and emotional state. Often they drew on something that had been weighing on your mind, so they could be confronting, but ultimately, impotent.
Glitches like the one Carol had experienced, where you could interact with the real world without seeing reality were as rare as lottery wins. And that one-in-a-million chance had left his lover dead in his arms, and his brother dead, pinned to the wall like a butterfly in a display box.
They’d tried to put Taylor back together. But Jones had been able to save less than ten per cent of his original memory. Some gaps had been filled in with files, and copies of memories from those closest to him. But in the end, what had opened its eyes hadn’t been the man who had died.
And a couple of weeks later, still reeling from twin losses, he’d held a tiny dead child in his hands, and begged Death to let him change her fate. A penance. A life saved, even if it had been the life of a stranger.
He dropped the coaster and struggled to sit up, his gaze sweeping from left to right to find the source of the voice he’d been wishing to hear for hours.
In one of the armchairs on the other side of the coffee table sat Stef, and he was on his feet and moving towards her before small details finally started to crystallise.
This was a Stef, but it wasn’t his Stef.
Hating himself for taking a chance that she’d disappear as soon as his eyes left her, he looked back to the coaster. He found it floating in the air, in the exact position he’d let go of it. Whatever this was, it was outside of time, likely being facilitated by Death.
‘I-’ Stef said as she got to her feet. ‘I wouldn’t mind a hug. I’m not her, and you’re not him, but maybe we’re close enough?’
Gratefully, he wrapped his arms around her, drawing her into his chest, holding her tight, just in case he never got to do the same to his own little girl ever again.
After a long moment, she poked his arm. ‘I can’t breathe.’
Regretfully, he pushed her to arm’s distance and took in the details. Rather than the Field uniform that his Stef had almost exclusively worn since he’d issued it to her; this Stef wore a black t-shirt and a Tech Department lab coat, the right breast of which sagged with pins and patches.
‘What’d you call yours?’ she asked, wiping away tears.
‘Hmm, Wendy then,’ she said. ‘Just so it’s not confusing for you.’
‘Short answer for all that,’ Wendy said. ‘You just lost me, right?’
‘I hope not, but I’m…not sure if you’re ever going to wake up.’
Wendy nodded and squeezed his hand as they sat on the couch. ‘I don’t even have that hope. You – my you – he died a couple of months ago. When he did, I asked Death if…if sometime I could help someone going through the reverse. I don’t know how similar me and your Stef are, but I know there are some commonalities across every world I’ve ever seen a sliver of. In every timeline, you love a stupid, messed-up kid, and it makes her life so much better for it.’
‘You aren’t talking like we met this week.’
This got a snort-giggle of surprise from Wendy. ‘Sor-sorry. I didn’t realise. Gods, these are two very different timelines. My you? He’d been stuck with me since I was a drunk sixteen-year-old. I ran away. Came home to die. Found you and a million reasons to stick around.’
‘I’m glad you had someone. I’m worried that I’ve done nothing but-’ He shook his head, unable to finish the sentence. ‘In every universe where I make a good decision,’ he said, ‘there has to be one where I don’t. Where I make the wrong choice. The wrong wish. Where I ruin a life instead of save one.’
‘Sure, but are those decisions made from a place of malice? When you send recruits on a mission, you know there’s every chance that someone could get hurt, that someone could die, but you do it anyway. The world is a fractal nightmare of choices, of what if and but. You still have to act. If you don’t…then you’re still acting. Inaction is an action. If you don’t send a recruit on a mission, then someone else has to make the call, someone who might not be as wise or have the same instincts you do. Whatever the action, the secondhand moves and the world ticks on. You can’t stop it, and it would be madness to want to stop it.’
He took a moment to consider the words. ‘You’re a very wise young lady.’
‘No,’ Wendy said. ‘I’m a smartarse. I just had someone very good at teaching me to temper it into sounding a lot more profound than if I just went “chaos theory fucking sucks, right?”’
‘As much as I want to believe that I make the best choices, given what information I have, the road to hell is-’
‘You’ll be shutting up right now.’
Obediently, he closed his mouth but raised an eyebrow in enquiry.
‘I know no-one, not even the Lady herself knows what happens when you cross that last threshold, but I refuse to believe in hell. And moreover, I refuse to believe that someone can be tormented for eternity for trying their best. And even in a less literal way…I hate that sentiment so much. It paralyses people from trying, from being afraid to make everything but the very best decision, the no-clip, game-winning cheat with no repercussions. That isn’t reality. Whatever the choice, whatever the choice, Dad, it’s going to fuck someone over.’
‘Good intentions don’t help, sweetheart, when your child is dead in your arms.’
‘But what about all the good moments that came before that?’ She pinched the bridge of her nose and sniffed for a moment. ‘I’m twenty-two, and I’m an orphan. I don’t get to ever ask your advice again, and that hurts. One day, when I’m big and grown-up, I want to adopt, and the fact that my kid will never meet their grandfather fucking kills me. But…I don’t hate him. I know he didn’t choose to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Decisions, a hundred million of the tiniest decisions led to that moment though, and I can’t hate him for those either. Without the worst of times, there wouldn’t have been the best of times.’
She picked up his water glass, downed half of its contents, then looked at him, smiling, despite the shine of tears in her eyes.
‘If not for a hundred bad decisions, a hundred wonderful ones, mistakes, happenstance and leaps of faith, I wouldn’t be here, you wouldn’t be here, none of us would.’ She smiled. ‘If people never made bad decisions, I never would have come home crying from the first date I ever went on.’ She fished beneath the collar of her shirt and pulled out a ring on a chain. ‘But just as importantly, I chose to keep trying with other people. And if I hadn’t taken a leap of faith, I would have missed out on this.’ She spun the ring. ‘Wearing it on my finger fucks with my typing speed.’ She smiled. ‘And I’m lucky enough to have someone who gets how important that is to me.’
‘Given how different our worlds are, you might not know them, or they might be so different from my version. I’m not from the future, this isn’t a guarantee for your Stef, just the result of a series of decisions, mistakes, and some really nerdy dates. I’ve got someone who loves me, respects me, and makes me happy.’
‘I couldn’t ask for more.’
Wendy nodded and tucked the ring away. ‘I’ll be okay, but I’m worried about you.’
‘You’ve..given me a lot to think about.’
‘If it helps, something Death once said to me is…okay, it was years ago, so I’m paraphrasing. That you make the decisions of a good man, not always wise, not always perfect, but…good. And if good intentions are enough to get praise from a fundamental force of the universe, maybe give yourself a break?’
‘What if I hurt you? Hurt her?’
Two words from Taylor – “you didn’t” – had sent him into a spiral of old memories and regrets. Old wounds reopened, pain he was used to.
These two words, this was pain to come, pain to-
Wendy laid a hand on his cheek. ‘Look at me, Dad. You will hurt her. You will fuck up. You’ll say the wrong thing. You’ll be tired and snap in anger. You’ll get frustrated with Central or Smith or some stupid politics and take it out on her. And it’ll hurt. And she’ll cry. And for a moment, she’ll wonder if you hate her, if you want her to run away and never come back. If she’s ever been anything but a burden.’
She wiped away his tears.
‘And those moments will pass. There’ll be apologies and ice-creams and angry, childish notes delivered to you by your Aide demanding favours in excess of what’s owed to make the situation right. And she’ll never stop loving you because you never stopped loving her. Parents fuck up, it’s like, on the first line of every baby manual. Trying. Those goddamn steps to hell, that’s what’s important. You do your best because life is too goddamn short to be around people for whom your best isn’t good enough.’
Slowly, and all at once, a weight began to disappear from his chest. Guilt that had been as omnipresent as breath began to slip away. Regrets and second-guesses, links in a chain around his heart snapped.
And for the first time in decades, he felt as though he could breathe.
It was an absolution he had never been able to give himself, but one granted so freely he couldn’t help but grasp for it.
It was nothing more than a beginning, a second chance at living a happy life, one where he could look forward, instead of comparing every moment to the past.
And it was a gift whose value was beyond words.
He reached for Wendy, and he held the reflection of his daughter for a long time; hollow but for the hope that tomorrow and beyond would bring better days.
‘I can’t stay,’ Wendy said after he released her. ‘I know this isn’t real-time, but I have responsibilities at home, and he’d- He’d want me to carry on, to look after the recruits that depend on me.’
‘If my Stef becomes half the young lady that you are,’ he said, ‘I – he – would be so proud of you, I hope you know that.’
‘I know,’ Wendy said, an easy smile on her face. ‘He told me all the time. Especially when I fucked up something. When I learned something new. When I did my best and still failed. I-’ For a moment, the face of the amazing young woman he’d been conversing with crumpled a little, revealing someone still grieving for a parent. ‘Can I ask you a favour? You aren’t- I know you aren’t him, but you’ve got his voice.’ She pulled a phone out of her pocket. ‘But maybe could you record it, for if I forget it? For when the days are hard?’
‘It would be my pleasure,’ he said as he took the phone. ‘Step into the hall for a moment?’
She sniffled, then left the office.
He took the phone and retreated to the desk. He woke the phone and smiled at the lock screen – a messy candid photo of Wendy surrounded by Tech recruits, all during a celebration or party – some moment of joy.
A swipe unlocked the phone, and he found the recording app. “I love you,” was easy, as was “I’m proud of you”. He took a moment to think of a dozen other small platitudes, the kind of words one needed on a hard day, words that he’d said to Alexander, words Reynolds had said to him.
It wasn’t much, but there was one more thing he could do.
He finished the last recording, locked the phone, then stood from his chair, pushed it aside, and knelt. At the bottom of one of his drawers, there was a plastic box containing the few things he’d kept from Alexander’s childhood.
Most of it was too personal, little keepsakes that would mean nothing else, but carefully rolled to one side was a set of three bibs, all in shades of pale, sunny yellow. They’d been part of a gift from a former recruit, one of the tiny few ways the Agency had touched his son’s life.
He selected the one that had a small chicken embroidered onto it, laid it on his desktop, and tidied the box away.
Bib and phone in hand, he found Wendy in the hall, idly tidying a noticeboard.
‘Here,’ he said as he passed the phone back. ‘And-’ he hesitated, then proffered the bib. ‘It’s not from him, but you can still tell your future child it’s from their grandfather.’
She took the bib with trembling hands, as though it was a holy object, then jumped and threw her arms around his neck. ‘It’s perfect. It’s really perfect. Thank you.’
When she dropped back down to the ground, he laid his hands on her shoulders. ‘Go home,’ he said, ‘and live a long, happy life. Promise me?’
‘Only if you do the same.’
‘I promise you that I will try.’
‘Good enough,’ she said, and with a wave, she faded from sight, leaving nothing but the vague scent of fresh-baked cookies.
‘Thank you, my Lady,’ he said, knowing that Death could hear him, even if she wasn’t present. ‘Thank you.’
There was the faintest trace of a cold breeze, and the echo of a small, cold kiss on his cheek.
For a moment, he stood alone in the timeless world, then sound resumed as life came back.
In no time at all, in one conversation, everything had changed – he had changed. For the first time in the longest time, he had a future he wanted; and now, after that single conversation, he had hope that it would come to pass.
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