‘I fell asleep again, didn’t I?’ Stef leaned against the wall of the small kitchen, staring at a red-eyed Curt and a steaming cup of coffee.
‘I thought you would,’ he said as he stood and pulled out a chair for her. ‘
She sat on the comfortable chair. ‘Am I awake for reals now?’
He lifted his head, slowly, to look at a clock on the wall. ‘Probably?’ he said. ‘All of that crap should be out of your system by now. How are you feeling?’
She made an effort to take in the details, to look at his face, at the bags under his eyes, at the small jitters of his hands. ‘Better than you, I think, how come you didn’t nap with me?’
‘Had to be awake,’ he said, ‘just in case you had to puke again. I’ve been inducing most of it, but- I’d be a really lousy boyfriend if I let you choke on your own vomit.’
She rested her elbows on the table, wrapped her legs around the chair, and leveraged herself closer to him, the chair legs making a squeaking sound on the shiny tiles. ‘You’re not lousy, or fail, or a bad boyfriend of any kind.’
‘I left you alone!’
‘Everyone at that gala was there to thank me, to celebrate me, and none of them stopped him,’ she said. ‘Look at me, I’m fine, and-‘
‘-and if Taylor had taken one more minute, it would have been my fault that you got sold off to some pervy fae. My fault that you would have been-‘ he choked. ‘Used and shown off, and wished away.’
She covered his hands with her own. ‘I’m ok.’
He pulled his hands from under hers and gripped hers gently. ‘How can you be ok? How can you always be ok? I tortured you and you made me soup five minutes later. You die, and-‘
She pulled her hands away and shrank back into her chair. ‘Bad things happen,’ she said, staring at the ceiling.
‘Bad things happen to everyone,’ he said, ‘that doesn’t mean-‘
‘Bad things happen a lot to me,’ she said. ‘I- I expect them. Bad things aren’t unusual to me, it’s good things that are the problem.’ The wording was bad, and she curled her hands in case it could pull them back. ‘Ok, not the problem, but- But the thing I don’t expect. Bad things are going to happen, and I expect that. It’s why I- Why I can’t believe it when things go well. Why I think there’s always another shoe to drop.’
I deserve the bad things.
‘Newbie-‘
‘It’s why I’m scared of you. You’re too good. You haven’t done anything wrong, and that-‘ She blinked, then stared harder at the ceiling. ‘That almost makes me feel unsafe. Good things like you don’t just happen to me.’
‘What about Ryan?’ he asked. ‘He’s something good-‘
‘He’s the best thing,’ she said, ‘but at least he comes with caveats. He can kill me with a thought, like, literally, and he’s been open about the fact that he has to lie to me about some aspects of my experiment. I belong to the Agency, forever, and I’m ok with that, if I wasn’t, it would suck. Ryan’s…Ryan’s good, but there’s been enough bad in there that I feel safe with the situation. You- I’d almost feel safer if you hit me, or meant it when you call me an idiot.’
She heard crying, but her eyes were dry.
She counted slowly to twenty, then looked to Curt, his face in his hands on the table, shaking and crying.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I should probably just stop talking.’
‘No!’ he shouted. ‘Gods, you should not keep that shit locked up in your head!’ He wiped his eyes. ‘You can’t even fathom how messed up you are, can you?’
She scratched her ear. ‘I know I’m crazy. It’s hard to ignore that with the-‘
He’s not talking about me.
‘I’m not talking about the voice in your head!’
Huh, echo chamber.
She stared at the table. ‘Yeah, but that’s easier to think about than the other stuff.’
He stood up suddenly, his chair falling down behind him. ‘The maddest part of you seems to be the sanest part of you,’ he said as he knelt beside her. ‘So I’m kind of grateful you’re crazy.’ He wrapped his arms around her middle, and buried his head against her chest. ‘You shouldn’t expect bad things, you shouldn’t-‘
‘I have an entire life to prove you wrong.’
He looked up at her. ‘And I,’ he said fiercely, ‘have the rest of your life to keep you safe, and to stop bad things from happening.’ Tears slipped down his cheeks. ‘I’ve just done a really bad job of it so far.’
‘But if I stop expecting bad things to happen,’ she said slowly, ‘then it’ll just hurt more when they do happen.’
And the rest of my life probably isn’t going to be that long.
‘Hope sucks,’ he said, ‘I know. But you deserve better than- Than to think that you don’t deserve better.’
‘What’s it going to change?’ she asked, more bitterly than she’d hoped. ‘Happy thoughts only work in Neverland! Happy thoughts wouldn’t have stopped that Solstice from killing me, wouldn’t have stopped that truck from crushing the car with me inside, wouldn’t have changed physics so that the mirror wouldn’t have run me through. Hope wouldn’t have stopped James from shooting me like a dog and good will wouldn’t have stopped Clarke!’ She choked out the lump in her throat, and stared down at his hair.
‘Nothing will change,’ he said, ‘but everything will. You can’t stop some things, but you can-‘
‘I can’t do anything! I can’t do anything!’
‘Stef.’
She counted to ten, then looked down at him. ‘What?’
‘You deserve better.’
Her own tears finally started to come. ‘I can’t believe that.’
He held her tighter. ‘Trust me?’
‘If I deserve better,’ she said in a small voice, ‘then why do bad things keep happening?’
‘Bad things happen to everyone,’ he said, ‘it doesn’t mean you deserve bad things.’
She looked away.
He stood, walked around her, crouched and held her gaze. ‘But that’s what you think, isn’t it? You think you deserve bad things.’
‘If I wasn’t-‘ she started. ‘Stupid. Bad. Argumentative. Arrogant. Stupid. Bad. If I’d pretended to be a better kid for James. If I hadn’t insulted Clarke. If I’d faked-‘ He wiped her tears away. ‘For everything that’s happened for me, I can see where it’s my fault. Bad things happen, and they’re my fault, and they’re always going to happen, and it’s always going to be my fault. It’s not- It’s less scary if it’s my fault. It’s- If it’s my fault- Then it’s my fault and it’s not just out of my control. It’s- It’s-‘
He held her, and she cried.
Everything melted into a mess. Every bad thing. Everything horrid. Not being good enough for mother. Not being Stephanie. Her fault, her fault, they’d brought her in to the world and she was just wrong, just wrong and she refused to be right. They would have loved her if she’d been right. They would have loved a proper child. It was impossible to love some little shadow that crept in and took the place of their little princess. They’d fed her, clothed her, and hadn’t kept her beneath the stairs. It hadn’t been enough. She’d wanted to be loved, just to be loved, not quietened with gifts. Not put in the corner in a pretty dress and expected to keep her mouth shut. Presents could be taken away, ponies could be murdered. Hugs and cuddles lasted forever. Hugs and cuddles made a person real. Being held proved you existed. Pretty dresses didn’t make real people, ghosts could have pretty dresses. Ghosts got more attention. But it was her fault. Her fault that she was wrong. She’d failed them, failed to meet expectations, failed to-
She felt the softness of the bed and clung to Curt with all of her body, begging him not to leave.
He’d shot her. Picked up her own gun and shot her. He’d brought her in to the world, and he had the right to kill her. He had the right to get rid of the wrong little thing. She was wrong, she was bad, and coming back was cheating. He’d put her down. Put her out of his misery. She was wrong and she didn’t belong.
She’d tricked Ryan. She should have given her statement and left. She didn’t have the right to be a part of the Agency. She wasn’t good enough. She’d never been good enough, but she’d wanted to know him. Wanted to know a man from an impossible memory. Wanted to be around a narc that actually smiled at her, actually noticed her, didn’t put her into a corner. He hadn’t put her into a corner and that had made her bold. Made her think above her place. Made her think she could have a better life than what she had. Made her greedy for good feelings. It had been a mistake, had all been a mistake. There’d never been a person less fit to wear the uniform.
He’d taken a risk on her, and she’d failed miserably. Discounted physics in the face of magic and managed to become an hero. It should have ended there. It should have ended there.
She pulled on the thin robe, shrugging it off her shoulders, scratching at the scars on her chest.
It was so hard to breathe.
Stabbed by her own stupidity and some cosmic forces conspiring to show her how unfit for the real world she really was. There hadn’t even been time for it to hurt. A flash, a spark of regret, and then nothing. He had found her, and saved her. Made a wish that could have had him executed. Guilt, he’d acted out of guilt, acted out of some imagined obligation. She was nothing to him, and he’d still saved her. She was nothing to him, just like she was nothing to James, nothing to mother, nothing to anyone.
She retched and gasped for air.
A shiny new uniform and a second chance she didn’t deserve. A new life that should have gone to someone else. A man willing to be her father that needed a worthier child. He was an agent, a good man, and an awesome narc, and he’d picked the world’s smelliest hacker who caved to fear and was really only ok at patrolling the corner. He’d pushed her out of her comfort zone. No, not pushed, held her hand and walked her through it, showing her magic, showing her all the things that were impossible but that she’d believed in always.
She wasn’t worthy. Everything she had belonged to someone else. Misdirected pride and undeserved love. She’d earned none of it and feared all of it. Anything that could be given could be taken away.
And it was all going to go away.
‘Breathe, newbie.’
A hand on her back, rubbing small circles.
‘Breathe, newbie.’
Everything was transitory, wonderful transitory. Good moments in the shit. Bright spots interspersed between the standard horribleness.
She retched again, choking on tears and snot.
She deserved all the bad things. She was worthless. She was bad. She was a cuckoo, a changeling, a thing pretending to be a person. A shadow pretending to be a princess. A crazy pretending to be functional. A hacker pretending to be an angel. It was all pretend. All of it. Every single fucking second was just all playing pretend.
The pretense that a father could be proud of her, that a boy could love her, that she could actually mean something, that she could achieve something.
All of it was fake. All of it was pretend, a farce, an extended hallucination.
She pressed a wet hand to Curt’s chest, waiting for it to pass through the illusion, waiting for him to disappear into smoke.
They all expected her to be something better than she was, more capable than she was, more able, more better, more everything. And she was none of it.
I want to die.
They could have the mirror. They could use it to save the world. The mirror was what was important, not the fleshbag around it. Not the stupid recruit who couldn’t do anything right. Everything would be fine, it just required a simple subtraction from the equation. The world would be fine, everyone would be fine. She was a bug in the code some cosmic coder had failed to find in beta.
I want to die.
There needed to be a subtraction, because whatever she was, she wasn’t working anymore. Worthless. Useless. Redundant. Trash. It was too hard to think to be, to exist in the moment. It was impossible, just impossible. She’d been built wrong, coded wrong, flawed. Broken before breathing.
I want to die.
Everything that was so simple for everyone else. Focussing, processing, effect following cause, recognising patterns. Interacting without pauses, without considering words, without freezing up. Performing and interacting. Everything that seemed to come so naturally to everyone else was just impossible. The corner was fine, fine for staring out and wondering how other people thought, what it would be like to be in their non-brokey heads, how different their thought patterns would be, what they thought of her.
It must be like flying.
Looking someone in the eyes and not having to look away after a few seconds. Being able to think about the future and imagining things other than what the front page of Cracked would be like five years from now. Being able to consider self without immediately counting a voice that was her and not her and the best part of her and something she could never be. Just…living, without needing to hide, without having to retreat to the corner and shut up and pray that you weren’t noticed.
It was death, without being allowed to die.
I can’t do this anymore.
Jesus, not that tone of thought again.
I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this.
‘Newbie?’
I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop. I just want it to stop. Everything just needs to stop.
Spyder, stop it.
Fear settled, cold and sharp, in her stomach.
I can do it.
No, don’t you dare! Don’t you dare!
You won’t stop me this time.
I don’t need to.
It’ll be simple. And quicker, and I won’t-
Spyder-
I need to do this. I need to, I need to, I need to!
Stop her.