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12 - Unequal Exchange
Ryan had expected the aftermath of a paperwork hurricane. He had expected his office asunder, piles of paper, good intentions and ink in all four corners, attempting to be tamed by an undertrained Aide and his little girl. The office was clean, in the same condition as he’d left it – or better, judging by the faint lemony smell of freshly-run cleaning sub-routines and the shine of a polished desk.
Stef and Curt sat on the couch, Stef fidgeting with the game in her hand, Curt proud but full of trepidation – standard for the first few days after he took on new Aide duties – the knowledge that he’d done well, but the fear that he hadn’t done well enough.
‘There’s a few things in the Director’s in tray that came in during the last half hour, sir,’ Curt said, ‘we knew you were coming back soon, so we didn’t shoot them across, and there’s nothing marked as urgent.’
‘I’ll get to them in a moment. Is there anything else I should know?’
Curt shook his head, and poked Stef in the side.
‘I’m letting you do the talking, I’m about to break my record,’ she said.
Curt sighed, then stood. ‘If I’m excused, sir?’
‘Of course, Curt.’ He gave the young man a warm smile. ‘And thank you for the work you’ve done today. It can’t have been easy.’
‘Most of the forms-‘
‘I didn’t mean the paperwork.’
Curt failed to hide a smirk, then left the office.
He laid his jacket across the corner of the desk, then joined Stef on the couch. She looked up from her game long enough to give him a sheepish look. ‘I’m really seriously almost done.’
‘It’s all right.’
He required the contents of his in-tray into his hands and began to sort through the low priority requests to the director. There was nothing that couldn’t wait, so he digitized them, each form disappearing from his hand as a message appeared in his HUD.
‘And…and…and…wait, crap, and done!’ Stef said, punched the air, and let the machine disappear from her hands.
‘Did you get the top score?’
‘Yeah, but I totally fscked it up. Doesn’t matter, I’ll try again tomorrow.’
‘Did you have any plans for this evening?’
Stef shook her hands. ‘Trying to get some feeling back into my fingers? I felt like I actually did a hard day’s work today.’
‘What was that like?’
She shrugged. ‘New experience if anything else. ‘ She spun her chair in a circle and waited for it to come to a slow stop. ‘Felt like I actually earned my place here for once.’
‘Don’t. For once look at me like my boss and not my dad. I have been dragging my feet way too much, and I did good today.’ She smiled. ‘I actually did good.’
Dad. Still an unfamiliar word to hear. Still so wonderful to hear. He smiled. ‘You really did, the both of you did very well.’
‘Not as great as we could have though. According to Curt we only cleared the backlog, there’ll be just as much to do tomorrow, but give us a few days and we’ll start to get ahead. If you want us to keep doing this, I mean, I dunno if-‘
‘You did fine, and if you want to keep doing it, I won’t stop you.’
‘I want to,’ she said with a smile.
He held out a hand. ‘Come on, you haven’t been outside all day.’
‘But the sun burns us precious…’
He walked around her desk, spun her chair and aimed her at the windows, and the evening outside. ‘I didn’t plan on shifting you far enough to catch up with the sun.’ He paused. ‘You should do that one day though, chase the sunset, it’s something all agents should do at least once, it will give you a view of the world not a lot get to see.’
‘Sounds pretty, but...’
‘Ok, so sometimes I get the urge to shift to Canada, or to some random country to do some really physical comedy, like shift to France, grab a beret and come back, or whatever.’
‘And your question is?’
‘Do I have to ask permission to shift into another Agency’s territory? Or check in with them or something? Everywhere I’ve shifted, it’s either been under our jurisdiction, or I’ve been going there to meet with another agent.’
‘For recreational purposes, no, not unless you’re going to be there for an extended period of time, say a week or more – it’s just common courtesy to let them know you’re around. If you’re just passing through, no, it would just create more work for nothing. Shall we?’
She gave a nod, and a shrug, and he shifted them across to Southbank.
‘Neither of us are scheduled for a patrol,’ she said.
‘We weren’t, but we need a chance to talk, and it’s comforting to take a patrol every so often. And Wednesday is statistically the quietest day for this area.’
She slapped him lightly in the arm. ‘You do know that now you’ve said that we’ll probably run into some sort of massively rare anomaly or fae that really likes to eat agents, or something end of the worldy will happen or-‘
‘Or there’ll be ice cream?’ he said, indicating to their left.
‘-or there’ll be ice cream,’ she said with a pout, before bounding up the counter, starting her order before the clerk had a chance to blink. [Are you sure that I can’t convince you to like ice cream?]
[If you invent a kind that doesn’t melt and doesn’t drip, then perhaps.]
[Can’t you just require it that way?]
[I’m sure you could, but I’ve never tried.]
She accepted the cone from the clerk, and he handed across a freshly required twenty-dollar note. He slipped the change into his pocket and pulled up the patrol route – a circuit through Southbank and the Cultural Centre, then to several close drop points to look for messages, and to generally be a presence in the area.
‘Let’s start down along the broad walk, you can always throw yourself in the river if you get too messy.’
‘Can’t go for a swim, trashmaids will eat me.’
‘Trashmaids don’t eat people.’ He paused. ‘Trashmaids don’t eat the living. They’re probably the most harmless creatures you’ll ever encounter.’
‘They’re freaking zombie mermaids,’ she said, ‘I’m allowed to be a bit freaked out.’
‘So stay on the surface then, and you’ll never have to see them.’
She jumped up onto one of the low concrete blocks that formed the safety barrier , and peered down at the river. ‘How many of them are there? I mean, there can’t be that many, otherwise they’d get dredged up all the time.’ She stepped onto the next block, to keep up with him.
‘They do get dredged up from time to time, just like other fae are caught on camera, or get medical tests for regular jobs and accidentally give themselves away. These things just happen, and we deal with them as best as we can, it’s our job.’
‘And it helps that people don’t believe in fairies.’
He nodded. ‘We’d be in a lot more trouble if there were more animal attacks, people are more likely to investigate a report of a strange-looking dog than they are of a fairy.’
‘I don’t think I’ve seen one weird fae-animal report, and that’s the sort of low-level stuff you push in my direction.’
‘That’s how rare they are. I don’t think there’s even been a dragon sighted outside of fairyland in the last six months, let alone-‘ He stopped at the sound of ice cream hitting the concrete block. He bent and picked up the ice cream, requiring it away with a thought.
‘I- I never thought to ask.’
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the few ice cream drips from her suit. ‘I’m rather surprised you haven’t.’
‘You could have said something!’
He put his handkerchief away. ‘I could have, but I didn’t want to disappoint you.’
‘You just said-‘ she lowered her voice as a few people walked past. ‘You just said the d-word, right?’
‘I did. But it’s not what you’re thinking. Dragons are-‘ He stepped up onto the block beside her and pushed a video link at her. ‘They’re like crocodiles, I suppose is the best way of putting it, they’re large, they’re dangerous, but they’re just animals. They aren’t magical, they don’t talk and they don’t fly. Some have vestigial wings, but they serve little purpose.’
‘That’s why I didn’t say anything.’ He stepped down from the concrete block. ‘Do you want to go back for more ice cream?’
They walked in silence for a few moments – she continued to walk along the blocks, stepping from one to the next to keep pace with him.
‘Nothing has changed, you know.’
‘I think a lot has,’ she said, turning her face toward the river. ‘And it would be stupid to pretend otherwise.’
‘All right,’ he said, ‘a lot has changed, and things are going to be different, schedules are going to change, I won’t be in my office as much – especially if you two want to continue like you did today – but the important things haven’t changed. I’m still here for you, and we’re not going anywhere until I’m sure that you believe that.’
She turned to him, fear obvious on her face. ‘But you’ve- You’ve got her now. And that’s going to take up a lot of your time, and I already feel guilty that you’re here with me now instead of with her. You deserve to be happy and-‘
He lifted her down, and held her. ‘I was perfectly capable of spending time with Eilise and Alexander, and I think I’ve only gotten better with my time management skills.’
‘But you got your reset button. Everything is back like it was, and I don’t want to screw that up.’
‘Things aren’t like they were,’ he said, ‘time has passed, circumstances are different, and that’s all right, that’s life.’
‘But I’m not going to come crying in the middle of the night if-‘
‘I insist. I’m your father, it’s my job to look after you.’
She ground her foot in a half-circle. ‘…James used to end that sentence with “punish you”.’
He gave her another hug. ‘I will always be here for you. Always, and whenever you need me, Stef, all right?’
She nodded, and lifted her arms to hug him back. ‘Ok.’
* * * * *
Two Days Later
[Offer still valid?]
Ryan opened his eyes, and focused on the text-only message in his HUD.
[Of course, where are you?]
[Follow your nose.]
He sat up, and smelt coffee. He looked down at Carol, at her soundly sleeping form, kissed the back of her neck, and quietly slipped out of the bed. He straightened his pyjama pants, lifted his light dressing gown from the hook behind the door, wrapped it around himself, and closed the bedroom door behind him,. He padded through the strange-but-familiar living room to the small kitchen. Stef sat on the bench, coffee on the bench beside her, drinking it through an implausibly long straw.
'I want to say nothing, I want to say I'm bothering you for nothing, but I don't want to lie to you.'
He pulled the straw away. 'Stef.'
'Warning,' she said, trying to keep her voice light, 'incoming unexpectedly naked Stef.' She bowed her head for a moment, then required away the oversized black shirt.
'Oh, gods,' he whispered as he looked at her.
Bands of bruising ringed her torso and midsection - looking altogether too much like she had been picked up and squeezed by a giant hand. Splotches of large blueish-black bruises ran up and down both arms, and a long, thin bruise ran across her collarbone.
'This is the worst yet, yeah?' she asked.
He nodded. 'Has any of it gone away yet?'
She lifted a hand to her cheek, wincing as she did so. 'I had a black eye, that went away almost straight away.'
'What have you tried?'
'Shifting, refreshing and respawning, I don't really have enough range of movement to try blue, and I figured you didn't want me taking a dip in one of the dump tanks.'
He gave her a small smile. He required a small container of gel-consistency blue, dipped his fingers into it, and rubbed at the smallest of the bruises on her arm. She whimpered in pain, but the bruise faded a little.
He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. 'They look worse than usual, but this is working like it usually does. We'll do this, and they should be gone by morning.'
'I hope so, haven't we got stuff to do?'
'The start of this quarter's recruit evaluations, so it will be a lot to learn,' he said as he coated the rest of her arm with blue and began to rub each bruise.
'When do I get to have an Aide to do this stuff for me?'
He gave her a paternal look. 'When you're older. This will be good for you to learn.'
'Speaking of which. No. Um, nothing.'
'What?' he said as he put her arm down, required another container of blue, and began to work on her other arm.
'Nothing. It's stupid and I probably can't do it.'
'Which law of man, magic, or science are you trying to break now?'
'There was no reason that-'
'Yessir.' She looked away for a moment. 'Well, it's just...ok, so you know how we have an Academy?'
'I am somewhat aware, yes,' he said with a smile.
'And you know how I never even read the recruit handbook.'
'I am aware.'
'But I'm going to - ow!'
'But I'm actually going to blame you for that one, you really should have given it to me.'
'Would you have read it?'
'No.' She sighed, and her face immediately screwed up in pain. 'Ok, ow. Anyway. I need to build a better mousetrap, be a better agent, whatever...you think I could take some classes at the Academy, even just the online components or whatever? Just something so I can be less of a derp?'
He opened up a file and sent it across. 'Here are your credentials for the self-paced courses, you can do those whenever you have time.' He sent another file. 'This is the schedule for all the ongoing online courses - these are usually for recruits that would like to become Aides later in their careers but have no wish to attend the Academy, or their Agency can't spare them full time.' He sent a third file. 'And this is the class schedule. You're an agent, you can sit in on whatever classes you like, observations are common enough, just contact the agent conducting the class beforehand as a courtesy.'
Her eyes shone. 'You organised this all already?'
'I've just been waiting for you to ask.'
'Until June showed up I didn't even know it existed!'
'There's no need to tackle everything at once. You've been doing just fine.'
'You're awesome, just thought I'd tell you that.'
He put down her arm. 'Lean back.'
'Be gentle with these ones, ok?'
He picked the container of blue, made a requirement and it reshaped itself into a tube, and squeezed the blue onto the skin. She hissed as the cold gel touched her skin. He put two fingers to her stomach as lightly as he could, and began to spread the blue out over the bruises.
'What the hell could do that?' she asked. 'I mean, usually they're just- ow. Just bruises, but these ones have shape to them. It's weird. It's weirder than it already was, and this whole situation is already fscked up beyond belief.'
'I had something that looked like this once,' he said, spreading the gel across some of her scar tissue. 'It was during a fight with an octopus.'
She looked up at him, her curiousity outweighing her pain. 'You got into a fight with an octopus?'
'You got into a fight with an octopus?' she said again, a smile slowly spreading across her face.
'He kept a mostly human appearance,' he said, 'other than the arms. It was an...interesting experience to say the least.'
'What did- Ow. Ow. Why does this hurt so much?'
'I'm almost done.'
'Ow. Ow! Ow!'
'What the hell is going on?'
He straightened, and turned to see Carol standing on the threshold to the kitchen.
She took two steps forward and slapped him across the face.
'Hey!' Stef shouted. He raised a hand to quiet her.
'What do-?' Carol began.
'Do you really trust me so little?' he asked, requiring a cloth to wipe the gel from his hands. 'After everything we've-'
'There is a naked girl in the kitchen,' Carol snapped.
'I'm wearing pants,' Stef argued quietly.
He stepped aside. 'Look at her,' he said, 'she's hurt.'
Carol's face was stony. 'Cry me a river. Does the Agency not have doctors anymore?'
'She can't go to them for this.'
'So her alternate is to strip down and-'
'What are you doing with her?'
'She's my daughter.'
Carol went still for a moment. 'What?'
'You heard me.'
'You should have told me-'
'You haven't been making things easy,' he said, 'there's a lot for you to take in, and I've been trying to tell you everything slowly. I thought this could wait.'
'You shacked up with some whore and-'
Carol's eyes narrowed. 'They made a require: baby command? Or did you use fairy fruit?'
'She's adopted, and you owe her your life. She's the one who brought you back, she's the reason you're free. So I would appreciate it if-'
He set his jaw and turned away from her for a moment, finished spreading the gel across Stef's bruises, and required her shirt back. 'Will you be all right?'
He put a hand to her face. [Of course. It’s just a fight.]
[Okies then.] She gave him a nod, and shifted away.
He wiped his hands again and moved out of the kitchen, his suit appearing as he passed Carol. 'I haven't had a chance to tell you everything,' he said as he sat on the couch. 'I wanted to give you a chance to adjust to your own life before I told you everything I've done.'
'She was naked in my kitchen, how could I not think-'
'-the worst of me?' he asked, not hiding the bitterness from his voice.
'I can't believe that you've spent all this time celibate.'
'I haven't,' he said. 'On the rarest of occasions, I spent the night with- With paid companionship. It never meant anything, sometimes I just needed not to be alone. You can fault me for that if you want, I won't blame you. I am a man, I am fallible, and I have never claimed to be otherwise.'
She sat on the far end of the couch. 'We knew this wasn't going to be easy.'
'I've been trying.'
'And I haven't.'
'You jumped to an erroneous conclusion-'
'I saw a naked girl,' she said, 'show me a woman who wouldn't have had similar thoughts.'
'You could have asked,' he said.
'You could have told me you took in a stray.'
'Don't say it like that.'
'I wouldn't have stripped down like that for my father,' she said, 'are you sure that-'
'Don't make something out of nothing, please.'
'This is not nothing. You're a different man than the one I knew.'
'I still love you.'
'You love her.'
'Of course I do. For- For the longest time, I was alone. I shut myself off from my recruits, I stopped talking to my friends, I lost myself in my duty, I was an agent, and that's all I was. Stef...Stef was the one bright spot that broke through all of that.' He smiled. 'Because I let her in, I stopped being just an agent. I'm a father, I'm a friend, I'm a mentor.'
'Where did the mirror come from? Why was it her, and not you I saw first?'
'The mirror is hers.'
'They rescinded the law about having it?'
'She's a special exception. She was killed during a mirrorfall, by the mirror itself, it's why she was converted to an agent. She's kept alive by it.'
'Why didn't you wish me back?'
'Fear,' he said after a long moment. 'I didn't know what would happen, I didn't trust myself to make the right wish, or that you would be all right, I didn't want to make things worse for you.'
'But you ordered her to do it?'
'She chose to bring you back, she made the wish of her own volition. I never would have asked it of her.'
'Because I wouldn't trade her life for yours.’