Stef swallowed and tried to hold her breath. Holding your breath until you die was supposed to be impossible, but it just meant that–
A leaf fell from her knee and slipped onto the ground.
She was dirty. She was covered in mud and wrecking his couch. Wrecking his couch and giving him one more reason to hate her. She hunched in on herself, trying to minimise the impact on what had been his pristine office.
Blood pounded in her ears.
Aneurysm, please. Please. Please.

The sound of his footsteps finally cut through, and she pushed herself up from the couch, more leaves and detritus falling to the ground as she did.
She knelt, aiming for the dirty footprints on the carpet, and began to brush the detritus from the couch. It was leather, which helped. Her hands were muddy, which didn’t help.
‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.’ She wiped her hands on her jacket and tried again, still leaving muddy smears. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,’ she mumbled, tears starting again as she almost got it clean again, before paint dripped from her shirt and onto the black leather. ‘Shit!’ She tried to wipe it away, but only smeared it further. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.’
Big, strong hands came down on hers and held them still. The cushion became clean again in a second, then the dirt on her hands disappeared. The dirt and leaves on her sleeves and skin vanished as she felt the new-but-getting-familiar feeling of a new uniform appearing. A proper, suity uniform, not a doing-things-outdoors uniform.
There was a pfft of air as Ryan sat on the couch. He lifted her hands away from the cushion. ‘Stef?’
Words were for people. Words were for people who didn’t fuck up. Conversations were for the worthy.
Please just– Just let me I can’t be here
‘Tell me what happened.’
I fucked up. I fucked up and–-
Hide. She needed to hide. She needed to hide and– She tugged her hands away from his, pressed her head against the edge of the cushion and wrapped her arms around herself. It wasn’t a rational action. It wasn’t the action of a sane person. It felt safe.
She heard him moving, and she felt a hand on her shoulder. ‘It’s all right. Stef, everything is all right.’
Just let me go home; just let me go home. I wanted this, but I’m not good enough. I’m–
‘–not good enough. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Just let me go home, and you’ll never have to look at me again. I’m sorry for wasting your time; I’m sorry–’
She shut her mouth and pushed herself to her feet.
I am not too lazy to run to Adelaide Street. I’m not!
She turned for the door but was blocked by a wall made of agent.
He bent to her level and brushed the hair back from her face before slowly wiping at her cheeks with a handkerchief.
‘I’m sorry!’ she said again, nearly choking on the words.
Just let me leave before I screw things up.
His arms wrapped around her.
She froze for a moment, her hands dropping to her sides, her legs locking into place. His arms held her tight, held her together, and slowly started to chase away the scariness of the world, just as he’d chased away the impact of nearly being killed by a monster. Professional-level hugs.
Her hands balled into fists for a moment, then she relaxed them, raised her hands and tried to return the hug – which was a lot harder than hugging a pillow or a laptop or any of the other usual inanimate objects. Even apology-hugs to fridges were easier than hugging another person.
She was eye level with his vest and tie, and it was so familiar, it was safe. It was the old memory, the old dream of the old memory. Being safe and protected by a hug and the colour blue.
She slowly let him go, and he gave her a smile. ‘Do you want to talk about it now?’
Stef gave him the tiniest nod, then went back to the couch, unafraid to sit on it now that she was clean.
He sat on the couch beside her, apparently willing and ready to listen to what was wrong. Just like the day before, just like when he’d listened instead of shooting her. Talking. Getting listened to. Conversing. All strange things. All things that required an adjustment period. He sat, waiting her to talk, like a dad from a storybook waiting to hear about school bullies. She tensed at the thought, at the presumption of the metaphor. He was just a boss listening to the problems of the newbie, just–
He’d hugged her. Twice.
He’d hugged her, and she didn’t deserve it. It was a hug that belonged to someone else. Not a hug for someone who had messed up so badly–
Tears started to well up again. She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes and tried to push away the tears.
‘Simulations aren’t mandatory for agents,’ he said. ‘We don’t have a lot of standardised training. There are certain ones that we are all asked to do, in the interests of gathering statistics or comparing regions against each other.’
She tried to look up at him. ‘Are you going to tell me that you sucked at your first sim, too?’
Ryan handed her a glass of water and leaned back. He shook his head. ‘No, I was efficient with my first. With my fifth. With my tenth. You have to understand that when an agent is generated, it is very hard for them to do any wrong.’
She slowly moved to lean against the arm of the couch and brought her legs up beneath her. ‘What do you mean?’
‘When we’re generated, all we are is duty and policy and the knowledge of how to be an agent. While we’re not at our best because we don’t have experience, we can do no wrong, as we haven’t yet learned to act outside of our initial parameters. So, when I ran my fourteenth simulation and my actions led to three dozen civilians causalities, my actions were still beyond reproach, because I had followed my duty to the letter.’
‘So – so it takes you a while to become people?’ She bit down on her lip. ‘Wait. That sounds insulting. I didn’t–’
‘It’s not insulting,’ he said. ‘It’s accurate. Personality is an adaptation to and a product of your circumstances. Everyone deals with things in different ways. Some adaptations take longer than others.’
She looked up at him and shrugged. She stared down into the water, tapping the glass to make it ripple. ‘But I really, really screwed up. And I’m sorry, and I’m just not–’ She dismissed the water, and pressed her hands to her vest, aware of the imminent pun. ‘I’m just not suitable.’
‘You did fine yesterday.’
She stared down at her sneakers. ‘Which part of yesterday? When I slept in, when I pissed off Taylor, or when I nearly let a monster eat me?!’
‘When you used your head in your tests, when you didn’t let a monster eat you, and when you didn’t make fun of the misick for hiding in our drop box.’
‘You are asking the right questions, and you’re keeping an open mind. That’s all I ask of my recruits. Everything else will come in time.’
You don’t even know me! You–
‘–wouldn’t be positive if you actually knew me.’
‘I knew a little girl who wasn’t afraid of Death and who played with Limbo.’
‘I was a kid. I was too dumb to be scared.’
She kept staring at her shoes. ‘What?’
She swallowed, then looked up at him. ‘What?’
‘I think you’re doing fine.’
The lump in her throat grew three sizes. ‘Why are you being nice to me?’
‘Do I need a reason?’ he said, sounding as confused as if she’d pontificated in perfect LOLcat.
She hunched in on herself. Smaller, she could make herself smaller. Small enough, and she’d collapse in on herself like a black hole, and then–
I’m wasting your time. Just tell me to leave.
‘Forget I said anything. Sorry.’ Smaller. Disappear. Smaller. Hide. ‘Just, I’m sure you can’t– Curt said you’re already doing two jobs, is counsellor a third? I don’t need false courtesy; I don’t need you to be nice.’
But he’s being nice, so don’t argue with it.
But if it’s false–
‘Do you think–’ he started. ‘Do you think I have conversations like this my other recruits?’
All the more reason not to talk to me.
‘Because everyone else has figured out that they shouldn’t bother the boss with petty crap, and–’
‘Do you think I have conversations like this my other recruits?’
‘You probably don’t need to. I can’t imagine that you recruit a lot of emotional cripples.’
‘A facade of strength only serves so many purposes.’
Why aren’t you mad at me?
She fought back tears. ‘It’s what people expect.’
‘I don’t.’
She managed to look up at him. ‘But I fucked up. I fucked up. And doesn’t that look bad for you? I just–’
‘Do you know what my director used to say to me?’
‘That you’re mister-awesome-narc?’
This earned a smile before he shook his head. ‘He said that all you have to do is learn one new thing a day. It’s astoundingly simple, but it represents improvement every day, and that is not trivial.’
Her hands flexed. ‘I learned about nymphs!’ she said, a tiny bit of excitement slipping into her voice. ‘Not everything, but more than I knew yesterday.’
Another smile. ‘See?’ he said. ‘And it’s not even lunchtime yet. I don’t think today is the disaster that you think it is.’
She unhunched a little. ‘No, it’s a disaster, but maybe there’s survivors?’
His face went blank for a moment, then he came back to reality and stood. ‘I apologise, but I have a meeting starting in a few minutes.’
‘I have some free time this afternoon. I’ll book it into your schedule, and you can tell me what else you’ve learned.’
She gave him a tiny smile as she climbed to her feet. ‘Okies.’
He stared at her for a moment, then reached across to straighten her tie. ‘And Recruit?’
‘You still owe me your paperwork from yesterday, so don’t forget to bring that with you.’
[table id=15 /]