A dozen different delays had led to the meeting getting pushed back and back and back.
Part of her hadn’t minded, it had meant she could keep the image of how she expected things to go in a perfect little snowglobe of expectations.
The rest of her had been poking at the little bits of research Ryan had suggested, somehow simultaneously wanting to learn everything and nothing about a significant patch of magic in her life that she had no real memory of.
Stef adjusted her back a little, careful to keep her shoulder angled so that it didn’t hit the slats of her bed. Agent or not, small contained spaces were still safe when the world was too loud.
Maybe one day, she’d install a wardrobe and recreate the really very comfortable escape nest she’d had in her apartment, but for now, the tiny world of under-the-bed was more than suitable.
She’d strung tiny fairy lights to give the space an ethereal glow, and there was a snack basket under Frankie’s side of the bed, along with a good quality cuddle blankie and an extra pillow.
On the page, an illustration of Wendy Darling smiled at her, and she wished this wasn’t a painful set of memories to revisit.
Peter had been very real, and he’d left. Flown away to Neverland, even after calling her Wendy, even after promising her a place in his family. A love lost, a lifetime ago.
Hook had never been real. He’d been a part of childhood play, a friend, a wonderful grandfather of a storybook villain she’d conjured to fill an empty life. Just another part of her imagination’s universe, along with Queen Charlie and the weird Doctor Moreau abominations she’d made by dissecting various soft toys.
Her Captain had just been imaginary – any fuzzy memory examined too closely always had its edges. Any memory of being on a pirate ship recalled the touch of pillows on the carpet, and climbing to the crow’s nest came with it the jitter of standing on furniture that wasn’t meant to hold the weight of an excitable child.
Not real. Just the earliest example of her mind providing what had been needed at the time.
Except…one conversation with someone else who couldn’t have been real, someone else she’d thought was nothing more than dream and imagination, had told her that the pirate had been real. And that there was an entire Court dedicated to helping lonely children and rescuing who they could from situations that needed a little more than escapism.
Some cases were referred to them, some they found on their own – and she was so curious to figure out which she had been.
Before this, there’d been moments of magic in her life. Meeting Ryan for the first time and Death holding her hand as a rescue crew had tried to figure out what had been mangled car and what had been mangled child. There’d been – to her knowledge – nothing else. The simple fact that she was alive seemed to speak to the fact that James had been some unaware civilian.
Surely, if James had ever peeked past the curtain, he would have arranged for something nasty to happen to her. Not just to disappear her body in a way that had no legal consequences, his status already guaranteed that – but in a way that had no social repercussions.
He could have played the part of the grieving father for the tabloids and put out a reward for her safe return. All the while, she’d been ground up and sold for mystery meat on the fairy black market.
Her family was ruled out.
They might have had a fae member of staff. Still, contrary to the world of cinematically-idealised rich people and their relationships with those in service, most people below stairs did their level best just to get through the day. To involve themselves in as little of the family drama as possible and go home at the end of the day, content to draw a paycheque whilst waiting for the aristocracy to burn.
Hook could tell her if she had the guts to ask.
Like Ryan, it would take some measure of getting used to the fact that he was real. It had been easier with Ryan – pretty much from the moment she’d stepped into the Agency as a recruit until the moment she’d accidentally offed herself, they’d barely been apart.
It was easy to accept and understand someone was real when…you could see them being a person. When she’d seen the confused looks he’d given her or the polite smiles when she’d attempted a joke, and it had utterly failed to land. To see that, despite being some creation of perfect code, if you scraped the surface, he seemed almost as weird and awkward as she was.
It’s not just that.
She clapped the copy of Peter Pan closed and let her fingers trace over the carved leather cover. ‘I know.’
Ryan had been the one to find this information out, to make contact with the Lost, to arrange the meeting. Hook – and she couldn’t keep calling him that; he had to have another name, a real name – had agreed, obviously.
But there was the heavy question of exactly why he’d agreed – if Ryan had pushed or swung the Agency’s name around. She had no proof he wanted to see her after all this time. If he even remembered her, or if she’d been just another case amongst hundreds.
You had to – probably – be a wonderful, caring person to get into the line of work that the Lost did. That didn’t mean every single child under your purview was a wonderful, special, perfect person that you thought about years later.
All her memories about him were fuzzy, but she didn’t remember anything about him after she started boarding school. That made sense. That would have been the year she turned thirteen, and maybe teens were handled by a different department or something. Or it had been that – alone and miserable as she’d been at school, and as absolutely fucked as her mental health had been – it hadn’t been the constant, soul-crushing misery that living with her family had been.
Part of her wanted to go into this meeting and suddenly be seven again, for Hook to hand her a child-safe sword and to go on an adventure.
Part of her wanted to stay under the bed forever, happy to live with the fuzzy memories and not set herself up for rejection.
She at least wanted to thank him, though. That was the safe middle ground, to greet him like a real person, to thank him for doing his job, and to see where the conversation went from there.
The lights twinkled in the small world beneath the bed, and she held the book to her chest, grateful for the escape it had given her from the world of Stephanie.
The…headquarters, or whatever they actually called it, of the Court of the Lost wasn’t precisely located on Earth or in Faerie. It was, like, a lot more places than she realised, in some sort of weird in-between space.
Earth and Faerie were a binary that was easy to understand. One was “here”, and one was “there”.
Bolt holes, dens, burrows, and the dozen different names people had for the weird bubbles that straddled the line were the in-between spaces. Imperfections in a piece of blown glass. Places where Earth and Faerie had flexed, but instead of like tectonic plates creating mountains and valleys, little…extra bits of space were born.
Some could only be entered from one plane or the other, some created a portal between – though most of these known sites had been turned into the earliest fairy stairs as stable wormholes between the worlds.
They could be as small as a coffin or as large as a city – as was the case of Madchester. As part of the liaison Agency that dealt with the Court of the Mad, Milla had promised a tour as soon as she wasn’t Top Secret anymore.
The Lost had a larger pocket, but from what she understood, maybe the size of a university campus rather than a city.
So many facts. So many little pieces of information. None of which were distracting enough to keep her vision straight or the anxiety-puke-lump out of her throat.
Ryan had gone from occasionally patting her hand while they waited to holding a firm, tethering squeeze to stop her soul from escaping through her fingertips.
The reception office for the “Starlight” building – most of the buildings in the main campus had celestially-themed names – reminded her of a doctor’s office. Simple chairs. Magazines that were years out of date. Just an overall…slightly outdated, homey feel. An emergency phone on the wall with a fading paint fingerprint on the side from where someone had failed to clean up after fixing a patch on the wall. Plastic flowers with just a touch of dust.
A kind of real she’d never seen in a childhood where perfection had come before happiness.
I want to puke and die.
She bit the inside of her cheek but tried to stop herself from drawing blood.
And I’m really good at one of those things.
Ryan had checked in with her about whether she wanted to go through with the meeting. Given her every chance to back out. Even now, she could shift to Canada with- Well, with a quick sprint back out into System territory and then the press of one button.
And she wasn’t above running from tough conversations. Or one that her diseased and stupid brain imagined might be tough.
But she was supposed to be- Not growing up, not exactly, really growing up was probably going to take a lot of time. But…trying, at least trying to be more than she’d been as a hopeless hermit hacker, now that she could act and know that there was an emotional net to catch her when she inevitably fell.
The receptionist’s phone rang, and he spoke to the caller for a moment. There was a click as he came out from behind the desk and waved them towards a door that would take them further into the campus.
‘He’ll be with you in a moment. Erstwhile is on time for the children, not so much for anyone else.’
She nodded politely and allowed Ryan to gently push her out into what her brain immediately parsed as a garden square – a large park-like area in the centre of this group of buildings.
Wards – children looked after by the imaginary friends of the Lost – were supposed to be the ones to ask for their friends’ true name, if and when they grew up or became aware of the friend as more than a figment. But the receptionist had just-
‘It might not be a term you’re familiar with,’ Ryan said as they headed towards the one open park bench in the square.
‘Erstwhile. I can’t imagine fae terms of endearment for partners is high on your research list? It’s something you call a former partner, but one you are on good terms with. Someone who is a friend, even if no longer anything more.’
She curled her toes inside her shoes. ‘Thought it might be his name. He’s gotta have one, but-’
‘You’re free to ask, and he’s free to offer. It’s not an obligation on either party, though.’
She nodded and looked around the square, looking for the sign of a pirate stalking across the grass, or standing, melodramatic, in the shadow of a doorway, but saw nothing.
There was something weirdly familiar about the place – some sense of deja vu that had her looking for black cats. It wasn’t the entire place, just- She looked around – there were benches, mismatched paths, a few large trees – in the shade of one, three people lounged on a blanket, under another, a child read a book, and under the last, a white dog so large it could have been a baby luck dragon snoozed.
Just a green space for people to spend their lunch.
She looked up at Ryan as they sat, and a strange, small smile on his face told her that maybe she was missing something.
There was the smell of salt in the air.
The detail of the memories were long gone. Out of costume, she wasn’t a hundred per cent sure she’d recognise Hook. For most of their adventures, she would have needed to improvise detail beyond “we hunted the Lost Boys” or “we swashed some buckles”.
The smell of the ocean made her a child again, and somewhere, the second star to the right twinkled.
Striding with the confidence of a man who ruled the seven seas, Captain Hook approached them, just as regal as her dreams had allowed her to remember. He looked like an old king who had handed over his rule to younger men. He was content to tell the stories of his glory days to whatever children would gather around the fire.
Most depictions of Hook tended to put him in red – as to stand out from Peter’s green – but he’d always worn shades of dark forest green, teals that had verged on blues, and rich tones that made you think of water, seaweed and brine.
A cutlass was strapped to his side, and his silver hook glinted like treasure.
She reached for her dad’s hand and squeezed it, not afraid of the approaching villain, but afraid she wouldn’t measure up to the bright-eyed promise she’d surely held as a child before she’d grown into a disappointment that was-
His pace slowed as he approached the table, all the swagger of his cool, action-hero entrance gone as brown eyes, surrounded by wrinkles familiar to her soul, if not her mind, settled on her.
‘Hello,’ and there was a little choke in his voice, ‘dearheart.’
Immediately, she scrambled off the picnic bench and ran to him, all doubt assuaged and gone with two words. As she reached him, he held her at arm’s length for a moment, looking at her as one did a relative they hadn’t seen in a very long time, then gently embraced her, arm and hook crossed behind her back, crushing her against crushed velvet.
After a moment, he pushed her back to arm’s length and touched his hook to the side of her head. ‘I’d say you’ve grown,’ he said, a little laugh in his voice, ‘but you’re no taller than the last time I saw you.’
‘I run best on compact hardware,’ she said and sat back down at the picnic bench, smiling as Hook took a moment to disarm himself so he could sit comfortably.
‘I…’ Hook trailed off and shook his head. ‘The uniform looks good on you, little one. I never expected to see you again, most of the time, we never see our charges again, so it’s a treasured thing when we do.’
‘I understand exactly what you mean,’ Ryan said. He extended his hand to Hook. ‘Thank you for taking the meeting.’ Ryan held onto Hook’s hand for a moment longer than usual. ‘She hasn’t noticed, Captain, and I’m curious. I won’t say anything if it’s not time to share, but…’
‘Clever boy,’ Hook said.
For a moment, she felt arguments bubbling in her brain. That despite the “I dunno, probably forty-something” appearance she’d say Ryan had if someone asked, agents were mostly a lot older than they seemed. But someone working for a faerie court would know that. And that might mean Hook was even older than Ryan.
Which meant potentially hundreds of years of looking after kids, and somehow, she had still been worthy of a hug and being remembered.
I’m…gonna process those feelings later.
Can you stop thinking everyone hates you now?
Still mostly everyone.
She’d latched onto the least important thing in their exchange, as was the norm, and she tried to refocus. ‘What’d I miss?’
‘Yourself, as it happens,’ Ryan said and gestured towards one of the trees. She followed where he was indicating and, again, saw a child relaxing in the shade, reading-
She stood hurriedly, caught the back of her knee on the bench, and immediately sat down to rub at the sore spot. ‘Is that-’ If this had been System territory, she could have zoomed-and-enhanced, but here, she just had an agent’s naturally good eyesight. ‘Is that me?’
‘Illusory,’ Hook clarified, ‘but yes. I can’t imagine you have any memory of our first meeting, so I thought I would give it to you as a gift.’
She briefly looked at Ryan – things getting stuck in her memory were responsible for so much of her life. But unlike one memory remembered and recycled and dreamed until he’d become no more than a memory of a voice and a positive association with the colour navy, this was a memory purposely aged to be forgotten.
But there had been the feeling of deja vu.
She focussed on just the tree, under which a sim – or probably something like a sim – sat, reading what had to be her old copy of Peter Pan.
‘Kensington,’ she said slowly, ‘this is- No. Not all of it.’ She whipped her head around. ‘Not this whole square, but just a little bit of it is Kensington Gardens.’ She looked up at Ryan. ‘The Peter Pan statue is here – there – yaknow what I mean. My parents knew if I came here that I’d be well-behaved. Sometimes Mum would make James- If we came here, he knew he could read the newspaper or whatever, and I wouldn’t be a bother.’
Ryan gave her the look he did when she said something stupidly tragic about her childhood.
‘On this occasion,’ Hook said, ‘you might have been a little too quiet.’
Long, long ago memories started to turn like gears without grease. Context clues and faint impressions making little things start to click. She hid her face in her hands for a moment, trying to drill down on something from so, so long ago.
The gears slowly ground forward a little, and she looked up at Hook. ‘There was one day. James left- Forgot he’d taken me on a walk. Went home without me. But- They found me? I remember getting in trouble for causing so much trouble.’
‘There are…many things I would say to that man,’ Ryan said.
‘You seem to recall a rather mild version, little one.’
I got yelled at a lot. At least, I don’t really remember this.
Dappled sunlight played over the pages of Little Stef’s book, and she scooched back further against the tree.
‘Some of this we had to put together afterwards, of course. There was a phone call, and the man responsible for your safety forgot he had been in charge of something precious. He left you here, alone, from the early afternoon and into the evening.’
‘O-oh,’ was all she could manage.
That was a lot worse than what little she could recall. That wasn’t just negligence. That was “should have been discovered as a corpse the next day”.
‘You were spotted by chance. We take cases like this when we can. Most often, it’s a child wandering off. A parent turning away in a crowded market, a little adventurer straying from a campsite, understandable lapses and incidents. I haven’t often had a case like that take up half my day.’
Across from them, an illusion of Hook joined Little Stef, and he sat a good few feet away from her, the sun shining on his hook, jewels, and sword.
‘It was an easy job,’ he said. ‘We didn’t know the situation, so there was no way to get you back to someone responsible. You, for your part,’ Hook’s eyes twinkled, ‘seemed far more comfortable being with a stranger than the idea of being reunited with anyone you knew. That was a red flag to us and a good deal of why I tried to rush some things behind the scenes whilst keeping you fed and safe.’
Under the tree where Hook and Little Stef, and only under that tree, the quality of light changed, warmer afternoon light melting into a sunset, and then twilight
‘We agreed that if no one came to find you by nine, we’d take you in as a foundling. They collected you about seven.’
The illusion of the tree faded, taking with it the little piece of Kensington Gardens – there were a few looks from other people enjoying the real parts of the square. Still, none reacted as if this were anything unusual.
‘It’s more or less a “finder’s keepers” system,’ Hook said. ‘If we have room for a new charge, of course. The less change and the more stability we can offer our children, the better. I had the space, so you became one of mine.’ He smiled with a warmth she’d never seen on either of her grandfather’s faces. ‘I was happy to serve, though.’ He pressed a hand to his chest. ‘I’ve been him before, though often as an enemy for one of my colleagues’ wards to fight. I do rather like the roles associated with the sea. Though, I will choose not to say more for her sake,’ he said, gesturing to where Little Stef had been. ‘It doesn’t matter how old our children get, the mask we wore is one we’re glad to maintain.’
If she were grown-up, she would have asked him to drop the disguise. Told him it was okay to tell her his real name. Learn more about everything behind the scenes of a court that had been one of the few good things about her childhood.
‘You can tell me a couple of things,’ she said. ‘That’s as much as-’ She examined the grain of the picnic table’s weatherworn wood. ‘I don’t think I’m ready to know everything yet.’
Hook smiled. ‘Then let me tell you just a few stories.’