‘We’ve cleared the major roads,’ Ryan said as they stood in the outpost lobby, the phoenix egg sitting contentedly on a trolley.
Stef stared at it, then lifted a hand to place on it as Ryan continued to do all of the official talk with Agent Sale. It was the same things they’d talked about at the last four outposts – naming the roads they’d cleared, asking what areas needed to be done in order for the outpost to resume something approaching normal function.
The end of the world had been avoided, continued emergency situation or not, the everyday work needed to be done. The everyday was good. It kept the focus off her, off what she’d done and away from the fact that there was going to be a gala in her name. Compared to that, the everyday was a miracle.
She lifted both of her hands onto the egg, feeling the tiny pulse of the phoenix’s heartbeat through the hard shell.
Magic princesses could talk to animals, especially the super-special-snowflake animals, dirty-shoed hackers got nothing but afterimages of emotion and thought, and only when rocketing themselves through the wall, or repeatedly burning and respawning. Other than the heartbeat, she got nothing from the egg. Also a miracle, it meant that – rooms of presents or not – she was still her, still plain, ordinary Stef. Compared to the alternatives, that was also a miracle. Alternatives like being dead. Or too mad to function. Or locked away in some lost corner of her heart far from where anyone would ever find it.
It was going to get hungry. It was going to need to eat. She was going to have to unzip her chest and let it eat her heart. It was-
‘Newbie, got a sec?’
‘Ya,’ she said as she followed him over to the reception-area couch by the window.
They sat, and he sat across from her, his all-too-casual look on his face. She tried to mimic the expression. ‘What’s up?’
‘Casual as you can,’ he said as he started to play with his Genie phone, further settling into the at-ease act, ‘look across the street and tell me if you think the guy in the jacket is watching.’
She pulled her legs under her, sitting cross-legged, and stared at a mirrored vase holding a fake plant, and looked into the twisted view of across the street, getting a fix on the only solitary figured before turning her head to look. Even with a two-second glance, it was obvious that the man was watching the outpost.
‘Brown jacket?’ Agent Sale asked as he walked over.
‘Yes,’ Curt said.
Sale waved at the man, who tapped a salute, then walked away.
‘If my director wasn’t here,’ Sale said as Ryan joined them, ‘I’d tell you that he’s a Fallen, but one who sauntered downwards for his own reasons, rather than to work against the Agency. He’s been keeping an eye on us since the blackout fell. Useful too, he’s managed to deter a few opportunistic fae.’
‘Carlson?’ Ryan asked.
‘Yeah,’ Sale said. ‘I mean, for reasons manifest, I never met the guy, but he’s always seemed like a good bloke, and I haven’t argued with the help.’
‘Good thing your director isn’t here,’ Ryan said with a slight smile, ‘otherwise there’d probably be a chase, a fight, and an execution before altogether too much paperwork.’
Agent Sale clapped him on the back. ‘Where are you going next?’
‘We’re done for the day,’ Ryan said, ‘we’ll put together another map tomorrow for clearing more areas.’
‘You can has shotgun,’ she said to Curt as they walked down the stairs to the small parking garage. Ryan dismissed the couple of recruits that had been assigned to watch the car in case of a random attempt on the phoenix.
‘But-‘ Curt started to argue as she crawled into the back seat.
She laid across the back seat and rested her head against the egg crate. ‘It’s easier to sleep back here.’
She closed her eyes as the car started, the phoenix’s tiny heartbeat pulsing under her hand as she rested her hand on the egg.
Someone was shaking her shoulder ‘Come on, young lady.’
‘I like it when you call me that,’ she said as she sat up.
Ryan sighed, smiled, and handed her a coffee. ‘Jones wants to see you.’
‘We’re home already?’
‘We’ve been home for twenty minutes. I’ve been trying to wake you for that long.’
She drained half of the coffee in one go. ‘This is human me, remember?’ she said, ‘I’m not so good with the staying awake at regular hours thing.’
‘Well, Jones is about to fix that.’
‘I get reagented?’
He nodded. ‘There were a few minor pieces of paperwork to do, that’s why we didn’t do it this morning.’
‘Can you shift me up?’
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Finish your coffee.’
She lifted the mug, tilted her head back and drained the mug. ‘Done!’
Ryan took the coffee, ruffled her hair, and the world blurred.
‘One reagentification please!’ she said as the world became clear again.
Jones spun on his chair, his fingers steepled like the mad scientist he was. ‘We have two choices,’ the tech said. ‘Either we can toss you in a dump tank’s worth of blue and build you up from there, or we can do a gradual process. The tank’s quicker, but it’s also more painful.’
A tank appeared, and she felt her stomach tie itself into knots. ‘How much quicker is the quick way?’
‘So much faster that you don’t really have a choice,’ Jonesy said. ‘Come on, into the tank.’
‘Do I need to strip down?’
Jones shook his head as she walked up the step ladder and stepped into the tank.
‘This isn’t too bad,’ she said as she submerged herself into the blue, the liquid soaking through her clothes to coat her skin with the liquid agenty goodness.
‘It starts to get bad now,’ Jonesy said, as a lid appeared and the tank began to fill rapidly.
She kicked and fought to stay on the surface, sucking in deep breaths as the air in the tank disappeared.
‘Ok. This sucks. This is sucking now! This is-!’
The last pocket of air disappeared. She held her breath for as long as she could, then took in a lungful of blue. It hurt and she convulsed against the liquid in her lungs. A shock went through the tank – or through her, she couldn’t tell, and the world turned white with pain. Her body shook, fingers twitching and extending, her legs moved at unnatural angles, and every muscle seemed to pulse.
Her vision turned blue and she let herself sink into it.
Someone was tapping out the Fibonacci sequence on her stomach.
She opened her eyes, and saw her hand moving of its own accord.
Her eyes closed, unbidden, and she heard herself laugh, scream and count in quick succession.
Her eyes opened again, blinking, winking and squinting.
‘Sorry about that,’ Jones said, ‘you should have stayed out long enough for the aftershocks to process.’
‘How long was I out?’
‘Only a couple of hours. I’m almost done.’
‘This is quick?’
‘If you were a regular agent, we’d be done already, but you’ve got all those silly limitations and rule sets, so I’ve got to double-check everything. Be patient, we’re almost done.’
‘You can’t accidentally leave me with some better access?’
Jones shook his head. ‘We’re safest following your program exactly, besides, you’ve unlocked a bunch of stuff already, if you want stuff like extra strength or agility, you’ll have to put together a case yourself, otherwise you’re stuck with the timetable.’
‘Am I an agent again?’
‘Yes, Stef, you are.’
‘I has a question.’
He held up a hand, typed one-handed for thirty seconds, then looked across at her. ‘Ok, go.’
‘How much about me can you change?’
‘You’re an agent, I could turn you into Taylor if you wanted. Give you his mindset, his attitude, his adoration of Mags… ’
‘Glitch fuel aside,’ she said. ‘I’m serious, you can pretty much reroll me in any way I want, right? Not the strength controls and stuff, but like…character select screen stuff, and…stuff, and-‘
Jones pushed himself away from his desk and scooted over on his chair to her slab. ‘I can pretty much do anything you can imagine, you’re all blue again, and just like before, your heart’s subservient to the changes we make, and I can make people from scratch, so I know how to tinker with your specs, but what do you want?’
‘I can’t even-‘ She looked away. ‘There is some sort of tech agent-experiment confidentiality thing, right?’
She sat up, rubbed remnants of blue into her skin, and played with the electrodes attached to her skin. ‘I don’t even- I can’t- Words and stuff. I want to work!’ she said, forcing the words out.
‘In what way, sweetie?’
‘I-in that way,’ she said, bringing her knees up and burying her face. ‘In- In that way. Yanno. That way.’
She felt herself blush at the word, but carefully nodded.
He put a hand on her foot. ‘Physically, Stef, other than your reproductive system, there’s no problems. Whatever you do, or don’t feel, it’s emotional, psychological or as a result of your orientation. I could change those aspects of you as well, but I wouldn’t, because I don’t feel like playing god today, and because it all makes you who you are, so it’s dangerous to change.’
‘I don’t think I’m the one you should be having this conversation with.’
‘I don’t even know how.’
‘With words. Go on. I can do the rest remotely.’
‘Relationships always are.’
She sighed, and shifted to Curt’s door.
To the door, not inside. Different to her usual routine, because it was different. Had to be different. Everything had changed. Everything had changed and she was just-
She knocked on the door, and killed an urge to shift to Canada.
Forty-seven seconds later, he opened the door, and he waved her in. ‘Something wrong?’
‘I don’t know what rules have changed now that- I don’t understand any of this and you need to-‘
I wanna shift to Canada.
He held her for a moment, but she pulled away from him.
‘I’m flying blind here, ok?’
He touched fingers to her face. ‘I know, newbie, I know. It’s easy though, keep your established rule set that has been in effect since the beginning of our friendship, and just add in the romantic stuff. You don’t have to go back to knocking on my door if you can just shift in, ok?’
‘So what has changed?’
‘You know,’ he said, ‘stuff. You don’t lose any of the friendship privileges just because we’re involved now. I don’t want things to be any different, ok? Except for the stuff that is. Are you following?’
She gave him a shrug. ‘Maybe.’
‘Newbie, are you ok?’
She shook her head.
The room spun.
She squeezed her eyes closed. ‘So when does the sex stuff happen?’
She heard nothing but silence, then a sigh, then the sound of him sitting on the bed.
She slowly opened her eyes, and stepped away from the door, putting her out of range of grabbing the handle, opening the door and running away forever.
Running. Default plan. Default answer. Easy. So easy. Easier than trying to be a grown up. Easier than facing grown up things. Grown up relationships. Expectations. Requirements. Requirements of her. Things that she didn’t-
Her stomach twisted and turned, dancing like a non-Newtonian fluid on a speaker. Making her an agent again had apparently reset everything to zero, including disappearing all the food in her stomach, which was good, otherwise the building macros would have had to dispose of regurgitated baked goods and bile.
She finally noticed Curt waving at her to get her attention.
‘What?’ she said, her voice quiet.
‘I, er, think you skipped a couple of steps, newbie, or a couple of thousand steps in your case.’
She ground her foot against the carpet. ‘Oh, come on, like-’
She looked up at him.
‘Newbie, care to explain what’s going through your head?’
‘Sex,’ she said, the word sounding foreign in her mouth. ‘If you can, I’d like to know when it’s going to happen so that I can account for it and-‘
‘Sex does not work that way. I mean, you can plan it but- And besides, I think that-‘
‘A girl is supposed to give a boy what they want. Time frames can vary from a few minutes to a few weeks, but generally to the shorter end of the scale, and whatever existing time frame there is, is generally collapsed some when there’s a pre-existing relationship. So- I- I read it on the internet. The time frames part anyway. The rest I always knew. It’s like being a good date, that’s the impression I got from my parents anyway. That good girls are cooperative. That they’re not-’ She swallowed. ‘Because I’m a girl and I’m supposed to- A lady is supposed to please her guests.’
‘Oh. Jesus Christ. I’m pretty sure that’s tea and biscuits, not- You parent did a really, really good of fucking you up, you know that, right?’
She chewed on a finger for a moment. ‘Yeah, but I don’t know what’s standard practice, what’s messed up, and what’s applicable to me.’
‘Is there a button in your HUD to make you forget everything that they ever taught you?’
‘I know you’re joking, but I probably could do that.’
‘Sorry,’ she mumbled, and stepped back so she could lean against the wall. Further from the door. Further from her escape route.
She noticed him staring after a moment.
‘So, what,’ he said, ‘if I told you to take off your clothes, you’d just lie back and take it?’
‘Yeah,’ she said, clapping her hands over her mouth at the automatic response. She pulled her hands away. ‘I mean, probably. I mean-’
Her stomach twisted into non-Euclidean shapes, and she wished the earth would swallow her.
Sex was expected. It was expected. It was what grown-ups did. It was part of going to bed with a boy. It wasn’t all cuddles and spooning and warm marshmallowy feelings. It was-
‘Do you really think I could rape you?’ his words came out slow, measured, emotion stripped from them.
‘But if I said yes-’
‘Just because you said yes doesn’t make it not rape, Stef.’ He patted the bed beside him. ‘Come here, newbie. Clothes on.’
She walked over, stiff-legged, and sat on the bed beside him.
He put a hand over hers. ‘You have some seriously fucked up ideas about how a relationship is supposed to work. You…really think there’s a friendship timeline, don’t you? And that what you want when it comes to love and romance doesn’t really matter? Or rather…what you don’t want.’
‘It’s not too late to back out,’ she said. ‘You can-’
‘I’m not going anywhere, unless you want me to.’
‘You knew what you were getting into…but I’m problematic enough without- I thought that it would make up for falling in love with me.’
‘You little idiot.’
She hunched in on herself. ‘Thought it would help you ignore me- I’m a bad enough choice without-’ She hugged herself. ‘I thought I could at least do this for you. Cause- Cause I’m supposed to.’
‘You’re not supposed to do anything that you don’t want to.’
‘I was always under the impression that-’
She went quiet, slumped, and started to stare at her shoes.
Tears dripped onto her hands.
I don’t want to be any more. I want- ‘-please just let-’ -me fade away. I don’t want to be any more. I- ‘-can’t do this-’ -I just can’t.
‘You don’t have to.’
It took her a moment to look up. ‘Huh?’
‘This,’ he said, his voice husky. ‘You don’t have to this. I never wanted- I never wanted to push you into anything, and I think I might have.’
You didn’t tell me I was using my outside voice.
Sometimes the only way to help you is to let you sabotage yourself.
Oh, so you are the evil-
Grow a pair, or he’s going to break up with you.
Now you’re using your inside voice.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘do you want to-’
‘I’m just scared and and have no idea what I’m doing.’ She choked out a sob. ‘Please don’t- I don’t want you to-’ She grabbed his closest hand and hugged it to her chest, wrapping both arms around it, and holding onto it with all of her strength. ‘Please don’t go-’
‘Well, it’s my room, so I’d have to ask you to leave, ma’am,’ he said, a tenth of his usual humour in his voice.
She looked up at him and he brushed the hair back from her face, then wiped her tears away.
‘Please don’t go,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing but I like this. I like you. I like…I like being liked, and I don’t deserve it, and you only picked me cause- But I like it. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I like it, and I’m scared, and I can’t do what I’m supposed to, and it’s never gonna be as good as if you- It’s not playing pretend any more.’
‘I never thought anyone would want me.’
‘I want you.’
‘Even- Even without the sex? Like I- I’ll- If you want, I’ll- But I’m- Not yet. Please.’
He squeezed her hand. ‘Not yet is fine.’
‘But what about the collapsing time frame due to prior relationships?’
He pushed himself off the bed and knelt in front of her. He put his hands on her knees and sighed. ‘I knew my ex for most of high school before we started dating, and we were both fairly open to the idea, so it was like on our fourth date or something that we had sex the first time. Would have been the third date, but we couldn’t get the place to ourselves. I’ve also been to bed with fairy girls after only knowing them a couple of minutes. None. And let me repeat that: none, of that has anything to do with us, and neither does any research, or any misconception that your parents gave you. Relationships evolve at their own speed, and I know, I know all of this is new to you, but stop thinking that you’re going to have to do stuff that you don’t want to. Or before you’re ready.’
‘I don’t care if I never get to touch you like that. I don’t.’
‘Sure you do- You should get something out of-’
‘I love you,’ he said strongly. ‘I’m not lusting after you like a horny teenager, I love you, Stef. And yes, I want you in this bed tonight, but I’m not trying to get you into bed, ok?’
‘But- Are we going to have sex?’
‘I hope so. One day. But not now. Not till you’re ready.’
‘But if you wait for to- I don’t think- What if I’m never ready?’
‘So then you’re never ready,’ he said, ‘I don’t care.’
‘Do you want to?’
‘I heard you, but- Do you want to? I mean, I’m not- I’m not exactly Jessica Rabbit. Do you just not care cause you don’t want to? If so, that’s an important data point cause-‘
‘Yes, Stef Mimosa, I would like to have sex with you.’
‘Being in love is very arousing,’ he said, ‘and do you have any idea how good you are to hold? Fine, you aren’t exactly the kind of girl I usually go for, and I can guarantee you that if I didn’t know you, I’d have never thought about you like this. But…you’re warm and you’re good to hold, and you fit, and it’s so natural to go from that to sex.’
‘Last night. In the infirmary. When you said you’d take a leap of faith for me, to be with me, to say that you loved me.’
‘I’ve never wanted to make love to anyone so badly in my life.’
Her stomach flipped, then settled a little. ‘But- But you didn’t.’
‘Of course I didn’t.’
‘Thank you.’ She looked at him for a moment, leaned in, kissed the corner of his mouth, then withdrew. ‘But…why didn’t you?’
He did his best impression of Picard’s facepalm, then looked up at her. ‘Ok, when two people love each other very much-’ He paused. ‘They don’t force the person they’re in love with to have sex.’
‘Do you think you’re honestly the only person on the planet who doesn’t like sex?’
He sat back beside her, and kissed her forehead, his lips lingering for a few seconds, long enough to start a second round of tears. ‘I told you,’ he said, ‘if you never want me to touch you like that, if you never want to have sex with me, that’s ok. I’ve been surviving solo anyway, aside from the occasional trip into Fairyland. Sure, sex is great, and I like it, and I’m not going to stop- Stop looking after myself. But I don’t need it from you if it’s something you don’t want or don’t need.’ Another kiss to her forehead. ‘I don’t want you in pain or feeling like shit because of something so minor.’
This made her pull away. ‘How, by any stretch of the imagination, a minor thing?’
He shook his head. ‘Do you remember that I tortured you? That I-’ He pointed to her. ‘Agent.’ He turned his finger on himself. ‘Ex-Solstice. That would be an insurmountable barrier most of the time, we’ve already gotten over that. You can deal with the fact that I’ve got a kid, even if I don’t have custody of her, which would be a big no for a lot of girls. Come on, we’ve gotten over all of the big stuff without even thinking about it, how can you think that-’
‘So tell me what to do?’
‘Get under the covers and set up Quantum Leap if you want to watch something before bed.’
He nodded. ‘That’s all.’
‘Ok. Okies. If you’re sure.’
He wiped away more of her tears. ‘I love you, newbie.’
‘Me too. Um. You know what I mean.’
He kissed her, then nodded at the head of the bed.
She put a hand against his chest, and shifted them under the covers.
‘Show off,’ he said as he adjusted his pillows.
She required the TV and the next episode, then paused it with a requirement and a blink. ‘I think-’
She hugged her knees to her chest.
‘Newbie? You ok?’
‘I think if I could- With anyone- It’d be you. I’m not- I’m not scared to be scared. Ok, I am, a lot, but not enough to stop. The future with robots might come first. But. Ok. With you. One day. When- One day.’
He intertwined his fingers with hers, kissed them, and then looked down at her.
‘You can-’ He looked confused for a moment. ‘You can has,’ he said, looking weirded out at parsing the sentence into LOLcat, ‘you can has chest if you like.’
‘Kk,’ she said, and leaned against him.
Another requirement, and another blink unpaused the show.
She was alive. She had a boyfriend. She had actual happy flooding through her veins. The world was safe for now.
Please, please, just give me a week like this.
‘Three, two, one,’ Curt counted down.
‘Oh boy!’ they said in unison with the television.
‘We’ve cleared the major roads,’ Ryan said as they stood in the outpost lobby, the phoenix egg sitting contentedly on a trolley.