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29 - Coming Home
Her eyes were open.
His heart jumped into his throat.
He put a hand in front of her mouth and nose.
He felt something.
The tiniest bit of warmth tickled his fingers.
His hand and his heart, went still. After the longest moment ever, he felt curls of heat against his skin.
She screamed, and he recoiled in fear, backing up against the far wall of the morgue before he knew what he was doing. She screamed again, a deep, painful noise as though she was emptying herself out. He ran back across to her, grabbing her arms, touching her face, shaking her, anything to try and wake her up.
‘Stef! Stef! Come on!’
She thrashed under his grip, throwing herself off the drawer and onto the floor with into a pained heap.
A blue outline skimmed her curled body, growing brighter and brighter. It tried to pull away, and he saw it for what it was – her soul.
‘Don’t leave!’ he screamed, trying to grab the soul. ‘Don’t leave!’
The blue ghost of his newbie tried in vain to pull itself away from her body, eyes wide and uncomprehending, face twisted in torment, screaming like a siren, the sound of hurting his ears, his heart, his soul.
‘Gods, please don’t-‘
The screaming stopped as it seeped back into her body, and she went still, no more screaming, no more thrashing.
He slid to the ground beside her and pulled her head onto his lap.
She wasn’t moving.
She was breathing.
He pushed the hair back from her face, seeing the bullet wound gone.
With nothing better to do, he checked her pulse. It was there, strong and healthy and alive and alive and alive she was alive she was alive she was alive. ‘Stef?’
She gave no response.
Her eyes opened slowly, but looked straight past him, not focused on anything, not seeing anything.
She still gave no response.
He stood, awkwardly, lifting her as he did, unwilling to let her go for even a second. He had to hold her, to keep her there, to keep her alive, she was alive, she was alive, she was alive.
He felt his body shaking with relief, with joy, with new fears, with the cold.
He kicked open the door to the infirmary and called for the Parkers.
The infirmary was empty – they’d probably gone downstairs with everyone else. He put her onto the closest bed and wrangled her into a sitting position, her legs hanging off the side, one arm still wrapped around her as he fumbled for his phone.
Cold, stiff fingers scrolled through the phone book for the emergency number assigned to Ryan. He put it on speaker, and laid it on the bed beside her.
He waved a hand in front of her eyes, and she didn’t even blink. He snapped his fingers, and she gave no response.
He checked her pulse again as the call timed out. He scowled, and tried Jones’ number.
It only took two rings for the tech to answer. ‘Curt?’
‘She woke up.’
There was silence for a moment. ‘I’ll go get him,’ Jones said. ‘He went with Darren so he could be in a system area.’
He looked into Stef’s no-one-home eyes. ‘What do I do with her? Where are the doctors, what do-?’
‘I don’t know,’ Jones said, ‘I don’t know what to do, just hold on.’
The phone call ended, and he slipped the phone back into his coat pocket. After a moment, he took his coat off, kicked it under the bed, and began to dig out medical supplies from the close cabinets, trying to keep at least one hand on her as much as he could.
He tied her hair back with a rubber band, and began to clean her face off – there was no need for her to wake up to a face covered in her own blood, brain and-
‘Gods, it’s not-’
It couldn’t be that simple. It was impossible for it to be that simple. He squeezed both of her hands for a moment, then raced across the infirmary, digging through drawers for a small instrument.
The doctors didn’t look after the agents – at least they didn’t in Queen St, some Agencies were different, but with a lack of medical recruits, Jones and the Parkers happily split the workload – Parkers worked on blood, Jones worked on blue.
Agency infirmaries were just that though – Agency, and always equipped to handle agents despite the choice of the staff.
He found the small, slim device at the back of a drawer. It looked sort of like the lovechild of an EpiPen and a calculator. A pointy end under a cap, a couple of buttons and a tiny screen. He ran back across to her, held her hand palm up, and pressed the small needle into her thumb and waited for the reading.
The screen gave him a zero reading. No blue. She had no blue in her system. He looked to the clock – it was just after one in the morning. He had found her just after four. Nine hours, give or take a few minutes. Nine hours for all of her blue to disappear.
He tossed the device onto the nearest cabinet and went back to her. She was an agent – the logical thing to do all the time was pump her full of blue, it was the first step any doctor took, it was the first thing a tech did. Blue was always the answer.
Blue wasn’t an answer if she wasn’t an agent.
A reading of zero meant she was physically human. As human as a girl with a dead planet for a heart could be anyway. Human meant no blue, meant regular first aid. Regular first aid was easy.
Her hand twitched, and he jumped. Slowly, her fingers wrapped around his thumb.
Her eyes were still dull, still unfocused, still unresponsive.
He stared at her for a moment, then slumped. This was nothing that simple first aid could handle, this was nothing that taking a pulse, applying a bandage, and kissing a scraped knee could deal with.
He hopped up onto the bed beside her, wrapped his free arm around her, and held her slowly-warming form.
Dried blood in her hair scratched against his cheek. She still smelt like the morgue. ‘Hey, newbie, it’s ok, I’m here.’
She was still, nothing more than tiny silent breaths moving her body. Her fingers stayed clamped around his thumb, holding onto it as if it would bring her back, a tether to the living world.
Snow White. Sleeping Beauty. Princesses woken with a kiss. It always worked in fairy tales. The world was magic, and grains of truth could be found in even the most stripped-down, family-friendly versions of the stories. He leaned close, and gave her a tiny kiss on her warming cheek. Her skin felt rubbery under his lips, cold, zombie-ish, dead and she remained as still as she had been, unresponsive and locked away from the world.
He held her closer, and looked to the door, waiting for people who actually knew what they were doing to come and save the day.
She moved slightly under his hands, and he heard words, soft as an exhale.
He leaned closer, his ear right next to her mouth. ‘What did you say, newbie?’
A little more movement, and more warm breath against his ear. ‘...boy germs.’
He blinked back tears and squeezed her tightly for a moment, then gently turned her so he could look at her. ‘Hey newbie.’
She blinked for the first time since opening her eyes, and focused on him. ‘Am I back?’ her voice was so faint, he had to strain to hear it.
‘You’re right here.’
Her arm moved, and he flinched at the sudden motion. With clumsy, newborn, stiff moves, she crawled into his lap, pushed her small chest against his and held him tightly. Her chin locked over his shoulder, and she went still again.
He adjusted one arm to wrap around her small waist, to stop her from slipping off the bed, the other rubbing small circles across her back.
He looked to the door again, wishing for the cavalry.
‘Where did I go?’ she asked, her voice still cracked and unsure.
‘I don’t know Stef, you’ll have to tell us.’
‘I came back.’
‘Took you long enough,’ he said, his voice cracking.
She squeezed his shoulder with her chin for a moment, then moved to look at him, her nose squishing against his. ‘Boy, why are you crying?’
‘Because you died, newbie.’
‘Don’t apologise,’ he said, trying to wipe the tears from his eyes without losing hold of her.
She shook his head slightly at him, fished his tie out from his vest, and dried his eyes. ‘Better?’
‘We lost you.’
She shook her head again. ‘I don’t get lost, I just get…misplaced.’ She moved back a bit, took one hand away from him and pushed it to the back of her head. ‘Just the one shot?’
He nodded. ‘I’m already hating myself for asking this, but are you ok?’
‘I thought that- I thought maybe if I died, maybe it would nightmares forever, like being awake, being alive was the only thing stopping me from sliding into hell.’
She clutched at his shirt.
‘Hey, hey, shh, sorry, you don’t have to-’
The door burst open and Ryan ran into the room. He made a move to let Stef go, to let Ryan grab her, but he was caught up and the agent’s wide-armed hug.
‘You need to stop doing this,’ Ryan said after a long hug. ‘Stef, you-’
‘Sorry, I’m sorry, I-’
‘Don’t be sorry, just-’
‘Don’t be dead,’ she finished, ‘I know, I know, it’s not like I do it on purpose!’
‘I know,’ Ryan said as he lifted her away, and held her, her legs dangling like a rag doll. ‘I know. I’m just glad- Stop making me lose you.’ He placed her back down onto the infirmary bed, then patted down his pockets and produced a bag of cookies. ‘I thought you might need these, since our system connection is-’
‘Where the fsck is my HUD?’ she squeaked suddenly.She waved her hand in front of her face. ‘Did I forget how to turn it on?’
He slowly raised his hand and waited for them to notice.
‘Mister O’Connor, in the back,’ the voice of Agent Jones said. Ryan stepped aside and the tech joined them, wheeling in a cart of equipment. ‘Sorry, some of this stuff was hard to find.’
Ryan looked at him. ‘You know something?’
‘Actually, sir, I’ve got a theory for a lot of this, if you don’t mind.’
Ryan helped Stef open the bag of cookies, then gave him a nod. ‘Go ahead, Curt.’
‘She doesn’t have any blue in her, none, I already tested her, otherwise she’d be hooked up to an IV.’
‘Oh gods,’ Jones said. He pulled a phone from his lab coat pocket, stared at it for a moment, then leaned heavily against his equipment cart. ‘It’s obvious, but- I never thought of that, or if I did, I dismissed it.’
‘I think I’ve missed something,’ Ryan said.
‘Nine hours, sir. Her blue was cockblocking her heart. I mean,’ he shook his head, ‘you know what I mean.’
Ryan turned back to the look at the tech. ‘Jones?’
‘Makes perfect sense, actually,’ Jones said, ‘if you think about it. We had to make the mirror subservient to her blue in order for her agent functions to operate as close to normal as they could. We didn’t think about it after that, we focused on the system side of things.’ The tech paused. ‘It’s not like we could have tested this anyway,’ he said quietly. ‘If you were a normal agent, you’d be dead, Stef.’
‘Freak one, normalcy zero,’ she said with a slight smile. She hung her head for a moment, then looked up. ‘Ok, I’m done with this for the moment. Catch me up. We still blacked out? Who did it? All that stuff.’
‘We’re still blacked out,’ Ryan said, ‘and given the scope of the blackout, we have to assume it was the blue phoenix was harmed.’
‘How many dead?’
‘Just you,’ Ryan said, ‘now none.’
So it’s blacking us out, but it’s not stripping out the muggles?’
‘Something like that,’ Ryan said.
Jones gave a polite cough. ‘I need to get back to work.’
‘Of course,’ Ryan said, and the tech left the room.
‘i-‘ Stef said. ‘I think I need to have a shower. We’ve still got lights, do we have hot water?’
Ryan nodded to her, then turned to him. ‘Do you mind if she uses your room?’
‘Sure newbie,’ he said, ‘go ahead.’
Ryan pulled Stef close for a moment. ‘Go on, we’ll catch up in a minute.’
She nodded, and walked from the room. He watched her leave, praying she wouldn’t disappear as soon as he took his eyes off her, blinked back a couple of tears, then looked around the infirmary.
‘One question and one piece of advice,’ Ryan said as he leaned against the infirmary bed beside him. ‘The advice first. She deals with this in her own time. She might seem fine now, she might seem fine later, she processes this in her own way, all we can do is be there for her when she needs us.’
He hopped of the bed and retrieved his jacket from under the bed.
‘Are you going to tell her how you feel?’ Ryan asked him as he slipped it back on.
‘...am I what, sir?’
‘Tell her how you feel, Curt.’
‘I already told her I’m glad she’s back, she’s taking it- I didn’t expect her to be so normal. I know she’s got some practice, and now I’ve got some idea of what you’ve been through, but-’
‘I didn’t mean that.’
He stared at the agent. ‘Sorry sir, I don’t-’
‘You didn’t leave her side. Think about that for a moment.’
He forced a quirk smirk, uncomfortable with how serious Ryan looked. ‘Confidentially, sir, I’m thinking about how my bladder isn’t so frozen anymore.’
The agent’s expression remained serious. ‘Curt.’
He adjusted his uniform. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir’
‘Stop, and think for a moment. Please, indulge me.’
He squirmed as Ryan looked down at him, so closed his eyes to escape a little just a few millimetres. Stef. Waiting for Stef. Not a good title for a play, and the worst way to spend a night. Worst way. Worse than torturing her. Worse than being tortured. Worst night of his life. Understandable. Completely understandable. She was his friend. She was his best friend. She was the best and she had died. She had left him alone. Taken away the only small bit of solid happiness in his life.
She’d left him alone. Alone where no one would indulge and nurture his closet nerdiness. Alone where there was no one to smile at him and make him feel half human, feel like a good person. No one to cling to. No one to hold to make the nightmares and memories go away.
Four nights in three weeks. Three and the “droids” incident. Three nights where he had someone to share his bed, to connect with, to fall asleep with and just hold and be held. Three nights of cuddles and hugs that rivalled any wild night he’d spent with the most talented of fae girls.
Stef. Newbie. The little hacker girl that he couldn’t live without because-
His heart skipped a beat as he opened his eyes. ‘...oh crap.’
‘Not...quite the reaction I was expecting,’ Ryan said with a small smile.
He took a step away from the agent, out of Ryan’s immediate punching range. A step away from the truth. ‘Sir, I’m not- It’s Stef, I’m not-’
He deflated, confusion and fear rooting him to the spot. ‘Yes sir.’
‘Now tell me what you think.’
He closed his eyes for a moment, and hoped his death would be quick. ‘I think I might have non-platonic feelings towards Stef.’
‘I think you’re in love with her, Curt.’
His execution stayed for a moment, he backed away another step. ‘I’m not!’
Ryan had an agent’s voice. A sensible voice. A voice that demanded an end to bullshit. He swallowed. ‘Yeah...maybe. Yeah, I think I am.’ He sank down to his knees, hands covering his face as tears came. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I’m sorry! I won’t let this- Gods! I’m sorry! It’s ok, I won’t- I’m so sorry, sir. I’ll stay away from her, transfer me if you want to, but I swear I won’t-’
He fought an urge to curl in on himself, as he’d done with Petersen. If Ryan wanted to kick him to death, then he wasn’t going to-
A handkerchief was pushed into his hand. ‘Curt-’
He looked to the agent crouching in front of him, not screaming, not threatening. He had a chance. A chance to make it all go away. A chance to make his feelings disappear. ‘I didn’t mean for this to happen! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’
‘What makes you think I disapprove, Curt?’
The question stopped him. The answer was obvious. ‘Because it’s me?’ he said, wondering if long exposure to a blackout could impair an agent’s faculties.
‘I’m a piece of shit.’
‘You’re a good man.’
‘No, sir, I’m really not. Look at everything I’ve done, look at- Why aren’t you punishing me?!’
‘Look at how you feel about it, Curt. That’s how you know you’re a good man. If you didn’t feel guilt, if you didn’t regret what you’d done, then you’d be justified in feeling like a monster. Monsters don’t hold graveside vigils, holding out hope, that’s what good men do, that’s what you do for someone you love.’
‘Of course I love her,’ The words came so easily. So naturally. ’She’s my friend. She’s my best friend. I’m not going to ruin that just because-‘
‘I’ve known people who’ve ruined friendships by adding romance, and I’ve also known people who’ve had the strongest relationships because they were friends, and that the foundation, their friendship, could pull them through anything.’
‘You’re her father,’ he said, staring down at his feet. ‘Everything I’ve done aside, why would you even-‘
‘You both deserve to be happy,’ Ryan said. ‘And I think you could be right for each other. Don’t you owe it to you both to at least consider it?’
‘I don’t want to hurt her.’
‘And you still wonder if you’re a good man,’ Ryan said, shaking his head. ‘Just think about it.’ Ryan lifted the towels. ‘Come on, we should check on her.’