24 – A Balanced Party
There was a knock at the door.
‘You know you don’t have to knock,’ Stef called as she tidied the circular table.
The door opened, and Ryan walked in, two plastic takeaway bags in his hand.
‘It’s weird,’ she said as she set the last of the folders and tablets on the sideboard. ‘It’s dinnertime, and I want to say “I’m starving”, but I’m not because I’m, y’know, a robot now-’ She smiled, as he didn’t even react to the “robot” comment anymore. ‘But it still feels right to say. Am I ever gonna be hungry again?’
He set one of the bags near the folders on the sideboard and then placed the cardboard containers on the table. ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘spend any significant amount of time outside of System territory, and you’ll need to eat.’
‘Is this a red or white or purple or what kind of meal?’ she asked as she opened the sideboard’s right door and looked at the small collection of piccolo wine bottles that Jane had gifted her.
‘White should be fine.’
She pulled a bottle of white out for him, laid it on his side of the table, and then poured herself a champagne glass of Coke.
It wasn’t a special occasion, so it didn’t warrant drinking. But there was nothing wrong with him having a drink. One day, she might be able to be normal around alcohol, but that was probably a long way off.
But seeing her dad have one small glass of wine with dinner would help start to scratch away the wall of bad thoughts she had whenever she caught the scent.
One agent, having one responsible glass, was so much different to her teenage self, self-medicating to get through school.
He finished opening the boxes. The main star of the meal was like a fae version of okonomiyaki – a savoury pancake with veggies and other ingredients. But the stars of the show were the side dishes – specially designed, bred and refined…you had to call them flowers because they were just that pretty. Still, botanically, that was probably so far from the right word.
Some were savoury, and some were sweet. Some had been fried or covered in sauce.
And each one was different – some looked enough like ordinary flowers, all their petal edible. Others had petals as thick as succulent leaves. Some shone and reflected the light in a way that made them almost seem metallic.
Ryan explained each, then let her have the first pick.
Immediately, she grabbed one that looked like an edible succulent. She popped off one of the petals, and a fresh, crisp smell met her nose.
It tasted like cucumber with a hint of pepper.
‘I hope you won’t take this the wrong way,’ Ryan said as he cut himself a slice of his pancake. ‘But you’ve seemed to be in a strangely good mood today.’
She popped off another cucumber petal. ‘Don’t recalibrate your baseline. I’m still your chronically-depressed mistake of a recruit.’
The “frustrated dad look” counter increased by one.
She stared down at her plate and pulled a second flower from the middle of the table – this one, a collection of delicate purple leaves and a white sauce. ‘Mags, um, helped me figure out something today and- And it’s- Fixed is the wrong word. I. Um.’
She looked to the sideboard, where the folder that was basically “How to Ace 101” sat, buried amongst various bits of paperwork.
‘I’m not entitled to all of your thoughts, Stef,’ Ryan said. ‘If it’s not something you’re comfortable sharing, then you don’t have to.’
You’ve held my soul. I’d die for you. I don’t have barriers. I just-
She closed her eyes and tried to get her thoughts into order. ‘Words aren’t- Never easy for me. You know that. And this is all new stuff. And- Oh, fuck it.’ She slipped out of her chair, grabbed the folder, pressed it to his chest, and then ran back to her seat.
Ryan opened the folder, looked at it just long enough to take in the title, and then looked back at her. ‘Is this you coming out to me, sweetheart?’
She shrugged so deeply that her shoulders brushed her ears, then nodded.
‘Is it something you’d like to talk about?’
‘I’ve just kind of been living all day with the fact that, at least in this way, I’m not broken. I always thought I was. Like maybe-’ She scratched at her scars. ‘Like, I know- I know- I know- But- Maybe it was punishment. You know. Like. You can’t have kids, so you don’t deserve to be a full person. Or-’
Even not looking directly at him, she could see the concern and pity on his face.
‘That- That controls- Controlled. So much of my self-worth. I told you. After we saw Jane’s grandkid that day and- Sex and babies have always been linked- And-’ She grabbed her glass and started to drag her fingers through the condensation. ‘I know they’re linked. You know what I’m saying. Like, I don’t get one, so I don’t get the other. I don’t deserve either. And- And it was probably a good thing that I didn’t ever- Cause who would want me if I couldn’t give them a family. So I figured karma or whatever self-selected me out.’
He kept quiet and let her ramble have its space.
‘I never- Not once. Everyone around me. Had crushes. Dates. Partners. People getting snuck past security to stay overnight at school. And it was all…’ She pulled another petal from the cucumber flower. ‘It was like we were all at the theatre. And everyone was buying tickets to movies. And wherever I looked, all the movie posters were just, like, plain white with just the title in Times New Roman. Nothing that…nothing to entice me. Nothing that made me want the experience. Except- I wanted to want it. I wanted not to be a fucking freak,’ her voice cracked, and she felt tears. ‘I know how messed up I am. How- But- It hurt so much that I couldn’t just be a seventeen-year-old girl. That I couldn’t be normal in just this one way.’ She looked down at her plate. ‘It hurt a lot more than being crazy.’
‘May I intrude on your space?’
She heard his chair slide back from the table. A handkerchief was pressed to her face, and she blew her nose, then cleaned her snotty-teary face.
And then came the thing she’d never get sick of, a solid, everything-will-be-ok dad hug.
‘I’m sorry you ever felt less. I’m sorry there was no one there to tell you that it’s normal. That you could have found people like yourself.’
‘I’ve got the Vox group link for when I’m not top secret anymore,’ she said and wiped her nose again. ‘It’s weird.’ She sat up and tried to look him in the face. ‘It’s happy and sad. It’s like, grieving for what could have been, and so grateful to know that I’m just the little bitest, littlest bit, okay.’
He pressed a hand to her cheek. ‘I’m glad you’ve found a piece of yourself.’
Dinner resumed, and she cut a slice of her pancake, then added dots of all three dipping sauces around her plate to try it with. The inside was rich purple, and the smell of spices – new and unfamiliar was a welcoming blend.
Ryan was staring at his food, and not in the “oops-just-reading-email-in-my-HUD” way.
‘You, um, look like you’ve got think-thoughts in there,’ she said, wondering if it was even her place to intrude.
‘I’m feeling grateful that you’re in my life. And amazed how many commonalities we seem to share.’ He took a small sip of his wine. ‘As much as we look human, as much as some of us strive to be as human as we can, we aren’t. We are very much defined by them, and we run parallel in many ways, but there is always a degree of separation. Love and such is one way we’ve differed.’
She refilled her glass, brought her legs up onto her chair, and settled in to listen.
‘Every era, every country, and government has views on what is acceptable in terms of love. What’s expected of someone, what a person wants, what the law will allow. That’s what we run parallel to, but we come into the world not bound by those restrictions. Every agent has their preferences, but it’s never-’ There was the briefest of pauses. ‘Never truly an issue.’
‘I’m waiting for the giant “but” to fall out of the sky.’
‘That’s quite an image, Miss Mimosa.’
‘Oh, shut up, narc. But don’t. Keep going.’
‘I think I’ve expressed that as much as I care for and respect Reynolds, we were…somewhat of a mismatch as parent and child?’ He sighed. ‘I- You need some more context if you’ll allow me?’
‘There are two types of agents. One is created using various pieces from recycled agents, with no particular bias on who those pieces come from. The other-’
‘Template?’ she asked, recalling what Milla had said. ‘That’s what you are, right?’
He nodded. ‘My former was a man named Rhys. It was Reynolds’ Duty to recycle him at the end of the Dusker program. He felt- He wanted some part of Rhys to live on, so he templated his Field agent after the man whose life he’d taken. I…think he hoped I would simply be Rhys? That enough of him would shine through and supplant the newborn agent’s personality.’
‘But you’re going to tell me that he figured it out quickly enough, right?’ she asked, hope dying as she saw his expression. ‘That’s not fair.’
‘He eventually saw enough of me that I was no longer just existing in Rhys’ shadow. This has a point, though. In my early years, when he treated me more like a friend than a son. He would bring me to the parties he attended, always arrange for someone attractive to be on my arm, and encourage me to participate in-’ Pause. ‘Frivolity.’
She buried her face in her hands. ‘Why is the phrase “Roman orgies” in my head?’ she asked, her words muffled.
‘“Bacchanal” is not an entirely inaccurate description of many of those events.’
She opened her hands and let her forehead hit the table. ‘Yeah, I- I think “mismatch” was a good word to use. I know we still- That’s- I haven’t even ever seen you out of your uniform. Bacchanal doesn’t seem like your vibe at all.’
‘Humans aren’t the only ones to capitulate to please their parents. I was very much given the impression that I should enjoy things like that. And I won’t say that I didn’t find individual moments or activities enjoyable. Still, when they were over, they weren’t experiences I craved or sought out on my own.’ He lifted his wine. ‘There were some very good cheese boards,’ he said with a wry smile.
‘When things shifted between us, he became more interested in seeing me in a long-term relationship. In finding a spouse of some kind. And I carried that expectation. I’ve had a few long-term relationships, none of which I initiated. I’ll clarify that I was not an unwilling participant, and I did love each person I was with. Just, truthfully, probably not as they wanted or deserved.’ His smile was sad. ‘Carol- And I do truly need to tell you of Carol one day soon, has been gone for a long time. And…I don’t imagine myself taking another partner. I no longer feel that expectation or obligation to play at something I don’t truly feel. You’re not broken, Stef, and neither am I.’
‘No heart feelings and no pants feelings?’
‘None without effort. I love, I’m just not sure I’ve been “in love”, which, if I am to listen to every other person who has been in my life, is entirely another thing.’
She quickly brought up the little reference guide that the Ace 101 folder had linked and scrolled through it. Lots of new terms to learn. Lots of flags to get familiar with. Terms and nicknames and community jokes.
‘There’s a cool name for you,’ she said, finally finding what she’d been looking for. ‘Archer. Cause aro-ace arrow ace and- That doesn’t work in voice.’[Aro-ace “arrow ace”,] she sent.
‘Which definitely means you have to play a ranger in D&D when Jonesy manages to pull me into a game.’ She paused, thinking through options. ‘Or maybe a fighter with the right build. Inquitivistive rogue would work well. They’ve got short bows and-’
‘Jones has been trying since the seventies to get me into a game. I’ve managed to avoid it so far.’
She stilled herself from going on a tangent about missing the good, the bad and the weird of the previous editions and instead smiled. ‘We’re sposed to break patterns, right?’
‘And if I’m Robin Hood, what are you?’
‘Not an archer,’ she said slowly. ‘I- I’ve only been in love once. And I was twelve, so I know it doesn’t properly count, but- I- And I’m not gonna go on a thing about how no one would ever want me, cause you’ll just spend an hour telling me I’m not terrible. I think I could be in love. I think I want to be one day. When I’m finally a bit older. A bit more okay. I’ve never- It’s not like I sit around and daydream and do wedding mood boards and stuff. Cause it’s never seemed possible. But I have to re-evaluate what I think is possible now. And I never- Whatever amorphous blob I occasionally think about doing MMO sessions until three AM with doesn’t really have a gender. I don’t think my heart’s gender-locked. So, according to all the little flaggy things, that’s bi or pan, and if I pick pan, I can call myself a pancake. And I’m always gonna go with baked goods. So apparently, I’m delicious.’
‘Please do not attempt self-cannibalism.’
‘On your deathbed, you are going to be glad you adopted me cause no other set of circumstances could have ever led to those words coming out of your mouth.’
‘I am certain that you will have caused me to say far stranger things by the time I die.’