03 – Top Secret
Being top secret was weird.
It was like being back in her old life in certain ways – the life where she had no reason to go outside unless there was something she couldn’t get delivered through an app.
Outside had been a sometimes thing, and that had been fine. Outside was loud, noisy, overwhelming, and full of people.
But not having the choice seemed really limiting.
Crawford had allowed certain spaces to be added beyond the walls of her suite and office, like Jane’s estate, but visiting there was still strange, still too much like her bio-family, even if it did come with the beyond wonderful chance to keep reconnecting with Buttercup.
Reynold’s garden was a good compromise between really leaving the Agency and looking at the same set of walls all day.
It was an ongoing sim room, one that the previous director had spent decades handcrafting and perfecting.
The result was rolling countryside, with paved paths that joined individual, immaculate gardens.
It was somehow more real than real. Greens that should have only existed after hours of colour correcting a photograph; soft, tamed wilderness that rivalled the beauty of anything Ghibli had produced.
She lay on a hill, shaded by an oak tree, on grass soft enough that she didn’t mind interacting with the outdoors.
Ryan sat beside her and placed some folders on a roughly-level patch of ground. ‘Did you do the pre-reading I asked?’
She sat up, crossed her legs, and picked up her HUD glasses. ‘Yep,’ she said, ‘and I tried doing it all through these. I wanted to get – well, start to get – used to organising information in three dimensions.’
She couldn’t keep the grin off her face. ‘It’s so…natural,’ she said, putting all of her glee into the word. ‘Organising tabs is one thing. Even keeping windows of different tabs only has so much value, same with using multiple monitors. This…’ her hands shook and flapped with excitement. ‘It’s so easy to prioritise and cross-reference and keep running notes while not losing my place.’ She forced herself to ball her hands and dropped them into her lap. ‘Okay, I probably didn’t have a hundred per cent of my focus on comprehending the info, but I’ve at least got the broad strokes, and how I’ve got the workspace packed away for later will make it easier to get back into it the next time I’ve got time for research.’
A month ago, a year ago, all those words all at once would have been unthinkable. A lifetime ago, words said to another man she’d had to think of as “father” would have been met with disgust or disinterest.
Now, all she saw was pride and happiness radiating from Ryan’s face.
‘So, what is your basic understanding?’ Ryan asked.
‘Seven major Courts, though that’s a number that’s been different in the past and might be different in the future. There’s no seelie-slash-unseelie kind of divide, even going waaaaay back in history. The closest to that kind of divide was the Golden and Silver courts, and those are so lost to history that no one knows how real they are and how much they’ve been mythologised.’
This earned a nod.
‘And there’s no sort of…’ she wiggled her fingers trying to look for words. ‘Hard and fast rule about who gets to be a Court or not. Currently, it’s tidy in that there’s one Major per continent, but neither the reach nor influence of those courts are strictly limited to those geographic areas; it’s just where their home base is.’
‘Kings is the oldest. It’s…all about laws and rules and whatnot.’
Fae law made the tangled growth around Sleeping Beauty’s castle look like the soft grass she sat on. So far as she’d dared to look into it – which was very much a surface-level take – there were so many contradicting laws that every single situation had multiple ways it could be handled.
And the Kings existed to both try and streamline these laws. To unify, clarify, and act as the final arbiter when cases were dragging through the regular judges-and-robes small-c-courts.
There were the Silence, the Court of Life, the Liars, the Plenty, and finally, the two that interested her the most: the Court of the Mad, which preferred to be called Madchester, as its home base was beneath Manchester; and the Court of the Lost, their local Major.
Compared to the other five, Madchester and the Lost seemed to be primarily concerned with charity work. Madchester gave a home to anyone who society threw away. Gave space to people who just needed to converse with walls or have somewhere safe to be.
In another life – maybe still in this life, depending on how long keeping a dirty orphan around amused Ryan – it would have been a good place to live.
Madchester cared for everyone; the Lost kept their primary focus on children – they were a fae court that seemed to exist to give imaginary friends to children.
And that was the kind of beautiful, wonderful side to magic that had always made her splash in puddles, look into shadows and wish on stars.
It had left one question in the forefront of her mind. And though there had probably been half a dozen ways to find the answer, one of which would have been as simple as emailing the Court…it had seemed best to wait. To ask Ryan, who’d been insistent on the Courts being one of her research priorities.
If it had just been for her possible incoming docent, he likely would have flagged which court that docent was affiliated with.
If it had been for work purposes, it probably would have been something filtered through Curt’s schedule. And this was the possibility that made the least sense, as Queen Street didn’t seem to be an Agency that was particularly concerned with Court work.
To add to that, when weighted by file size, there was significantly more information about the Lost – not a disproportionate amount. Still, it was there if you looked for it.
And Ryan liked to give her little challenges, to make her think, and work things out for herself.
And she had a childhood full of half-remembered dreams of a pirate captain.
Whether or not Hook had been real, a question of the practicality loomed.
‘The Lost,’ she said. ‘Kids. When most kids have an imaginary friend, they know it’s imaginary. It’s a game. Like playing with dolls. I had all these storylines where I had Doctor Moreau monsters and meteor showers and all that, but I still knew I was playing with teddies whose heads I’d ripped off and attached to other dolls.’ She tilted her head to the side. ‘But if the Lost are sending real people who give the kids adventures in a simulacrum of Narnia or whatever, how…how do the kids not turn out screwed up? You’d know it was real, but everyone around you would tell you that magic wasn’t real, and it would turn into this huge gaslighting situation.’
‘Well, what do you remember?’
‘He was real? Hook was real?’
Ryan nodded slowly. ‘Think, what do you remember?’
Somehow, it was almost like finding out about magic all over again – something impossible, something that had always been true in the deepest recesses of her heart, but something that – up to that point – had been unable to withstand the light of reality.
‘It’s…almost more like facts,’ she said slowly, trying to verbalise the strange way her memories coalesced around the Captain. ‘I know I had Captain Hook as an imaginary friend. I know I spent hours playing in my room, but it was also a pirate ship or Neverland or whatever. It’s like remembering imaginings from a lifetime ago or a dream or whatever. I don’t remember it being real magic. It’s all so faint, which makes sense cause I was a kid, but…Explain?’
‘You’re quite right in your assumptions that leaving children with memories of magic would often do more harm than good, so…it’s the memories that are changed. Not removed, not even altered, just…aged at a faster rate. Playtime from the day before becomes the week before, a week segues into a month, into a year, and the child is allowed distance from it. And the more distance you get from any event, the more your mind writes and rewrites it, making it conform to something that makes sense.’
‘The fallibility of human memory wins again, I guess.’
‘It serves their needs. Often, a child only needs support for a short time, or in worse cases, the child is removed from the situation.’
‘No one ever tried to take me away from my shitty parents.’
‘It’s a matter of priority, unfortunately. The Lost are a major Court, but in a lot of ways, they lack many of the resources of the others. They only have the ability to extract so many children, and those whose lives are in danger have to come first. I’d ask that you not think too poorly of them for that, they do what they can.’
She squeezed his hand. ‘And I guess we wouldn’t be talking if they’d yoinked me out. So it’s a happy ending anyway.’
‘A happy beginning,’ he corrected gently, ‘nowhere near an ending yet.’
‘Can- Do you think I can contact the Lost? See if the Captain still-’
She stopped as he held out two business cards. The first was an appointment time, and the second was one of those little magic cards that you tore in half to activate a shift.
‘While you were in your coma, I wanted to learn more about you, and did a Court search as a matter of course. I’ve spoken to him, and he remembers you, of course, you aren’t easy to forget, Stef. And- Your horse, it was his idea. He told me the story of how it was taken. I had simply asked Jane to help arrange another animal, but she was able to track down Buttercup.’
‘I was gonna ask, but every time I thought to, I got distracted. Or tripped over hay. Or stepped in poop. I was just so excited I forgot.’
A piece of paper appeared in his hands – a partial screenshot of his HUD, and he handed it to her.
Pinned to an empty corner was a small image. A photo of her asleep in a pile of hay, face dusty and dirty, Buttercup leaning down, likely about to nibble on her hair.
‘I had hoped you would take the gift in the manner in which it was given, but…I haven’t seen joy like this in a long time.’
‘A happy beginning,’ she said. ‘I keep worrying that something is going to pull the sheet out from under me, but I’m trying to temper that paranoia, just a little bit.’
‘Things aren’t perfect, and I can’t imagine they ever will be. Reynolds…it’s banal, but always said to look for the good in a situation. He was a lot more positive a person, I think, than either of us, so I have adopted-’
He gave a slight shake of his head. ‘I have taken the stance of looking for growth, rather than good. Good isn’t always possible or reasonable, but you can often learn something about a situation, yourself, or the world, even on the worst days.
‘Today, I learned that uniforms are surprisingly resistant to grass stains.’
‘Not if you generate enough speed going downhill,’ he said, an almost-sad smile on his face. ‘That’s something I have empirical proof of.’
She looked at the appointment card – it wasn’t for over a week – and tucked it into an inside pocket of her vest.
‘This…might call for peer testing, though.’
Ryan stood. ‘I’ll meet you at the bottom of the hill.’ He shifted from his spot beside her, taking the files with him.
With one last look at the rustling leaves above her head, she looked at her positioning, shuffled her butt a couple of feet to the left, tucked her arms, and went spinning down the hill.