Stef looked into her HUD again, and toggled some of her emotional display options again – now that he wasn’t touching her, there was no need for the fear response to be hidden.
Emotions had never been easy, but when they literally sat as a control panel within your field of vision, at least choosing how your face reacted gave you some control over the situation.
The fear would pass. It was just too fresh to ignore.

He’d saved her, returning the favour was the least she could do.
And if he didn’t calm down and sleep soon, he’d probably explode. And exploding was rarely good.
Curt returned to his chair as almost a default action – she hadn’t said anything in the last three seconds, so there was nothing to react to.
It was an action she understood – it was easier to concentrate on people when they were demanding your attention with words and stuff; when they were quiet, it was quite possible to lose focus on them.
He was just sitting through, he hadn’t pulled a laptop from thin air, or a Gameboy from his pocket – something she would have to work on.
Just because people were hard to focus on, that didn’t mean the important things in life were.
‘I’m an agent, right?’ she said as she sat in Ryan’s chair. ‘So I can give you orders?’
Curt blinked slowly, then turned to look at her. ‘Within reason, newbie.’ He gave a low, sick laugh. ‘Well, within what the Agency considers to be “reason” anyway.’
‘Well then, I’m ordering you to bed.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘If I can make a suggestion?’
‘Um, sure?’
‘If you want someone to sleep. You should use “sleep” or at least “rest”, not just “bed’.’ He paused, searching her face for a reaction, which apparently she didn’t give him. ‘In some contexts, newbie…’ he said. ‘People could misconstrue…’
She flushed and dropped her head. Beds, for some people, weren’t just for sleeping, eating and gaming. ‘Um. Right. Sure. Sorry.’ She lifted her head. ‘I’m ordering you to get some rest by going to sleep. Please. My Parker said you didn’t sleep at all since we got back.’
‘You checked up on me?’
‘I think I’m kind of your boss now?’ She smirked. ‘And the welfare of my minions is an important thing.’
He looked away for a moment. ‘Did you get any sleep either?’
‘Ryan required me to sleep after a few hours. It’s kinda weird, your feet go first, and you have just enough time to realise how weird that feels, then you wake up four hours later.’
‘I guess being an Agent does have some advantages.’
She nodded. ‘Now, if Jonesy will only let me play MMOs in my head, my life will be complete!’
‘I can’t sleep, Stef, I’m on shift.’
‘I’m pretty sure anything I say supersedes that.’ She opened the HUD bookmark with the Agency rules and began running searches. ‘I’m pretty sure it does anyway.’
‘I have to ask you one question. Newbie. I know everything you’ve said, but-’
No, please don’t ask that.
‘Are you okay?’
I told you not to ask that.
Give him an honest answer, Spyder, it’s what he deserves.
She rested both of her elbows on the table and rested her head on her hands – no Gendo-style to make a joke and put him at ease, just somewhere to rest her large head.
Truth. Honesty. The Superman route. I’m no good at that shit.
He’s going to know if you bullshit him.
‘Of course I’m not alright, Padawan.’
The sad look came back to his face.
‘I’m- I’m not alright. But I’m a lot more okay than I think you think I am. And- And I’m processing this, I’m not just looking at it from an emotional point of view. I understand it. I’m grateful. And I’m not scared of you.’
‘You should be.’
‘I’m spending all of my fear tokens on Taylor. I’ll- I’ll never be able to trust him. Or not want to shift away when he’s in the room. You know it’s different with you, right? You didn’t hurt me cause you could, you… You did your Duty, Recruit.’
‘I didn’t expect- Newbie-’
‘Death and pain are old friends. This stuff I can process. The happy stuff is a lot harder. Like- Like are we friends now? Like proper friends? Intense bonding activities hurry up the friendship timeline, right?’
‘You really don’t believe that, right?’
‘You really don’t believe I have no friends, do you?’
‘I know it’s not the dork thing, stereotype aside, the techs are the most gregarious people I know.’
‘It’s not a nerd thing, it’s a me thing. I’ve got like an anti-people field or something.’ She dropped her head through her hands and looked up at him. ‘Most people don’t want to be friends with a crazy girl.’
He regarded her quietly for a moment. ‘I knew you were…’ he trailed off.
‘Fucked up?’
‘My little sister Tara, severe autism, so I had to get used to reading really subtle cues and picking up on non-verbal stuff. That’s why I’m so good at reading people, that and I score high on that microexpression stuff – one of the techs did a test with me. I knew- I know you’re not neurotypical, however much more you want – or don’t want – to tell me, is up to you.’
Stef took in a deep breath. He already knew, confirming it would do no harm. If it did harm-
‘I’m crazy,’ she said, wishing her heart was pounding, wishing that it knew how big of a moment this was. Ryan had known more when she confessed – having multiple episodes in front of him had really told him everything he needed to know.
Curt knew she was…weird. He didn’t know where on the scale of “manic pixie dream Stef” to “call the men with white coats” she was.
‘I…’ she faltered. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve never wanted to know.’
‘Stef-’
‘Labels give people power. I don’t care if people think I’m crazy, I am, so it’s only fair. I care if people can look at me and go “oh, there goes case eight-four-seven-two of paranoid schizophrenia.” If that’s even what I have, it’s my best guess. I don’t want to find out what’s wrong with me because it’s not wrong, it’s just me. I don’t want them to label me because a label means they can lock me away, force pills on me, and take her away.’
‘Her?’
She looked up at the ceiling, desperately pulling a /serious before the tears started. ‘I’m- Um- It’s just- I’m not- I’m never alone. Not in my head.’ It was so hard to describe. Too hard to describe. People couldn’t know. If people knew, then bad things happened. If people knew, they’d scoop out her brain. She’d die, without being dead.
‘You don’t have to tell me anything, Stef. I don’t- Just because you know my deep dark secret-’
‘You’re smart. You’ll figure it out. At least this way, I’m-’ She swallowed. ‘I have a voice in my head. It’s not destructive and it doesn’t tell me to burn things.’
No, I stop you from doing that.
Stef smiled. ‘It’s been there for a very, very long time. It’s- It’s me. It’s not like a ninety-year-old guy or anything. Just- Just a better me. A sensible me.’
Curt reached his hand forward, and then lifted it away, leaving a bowl of chocolate stars.
She took three and crammed them into her mouth.
There was silence for a moment.
‘Do you switch out? Do- Do I- Does she have a name? How-?’
She shook her head. ‘N- No, I’m pretty much always me. If I’m not, it’s because I just…can’t, I’ve reached a point where I just…can’t. And you’ll know. It- It doesn’t happen much. I got really good at keeping everything inside.’
She stared at the ceiling for another moment, and then looked back at him. He was going to be disappointed. Laughing. Feeling pity. Feeling disgust. Negative reactions, there could only be negative reactions.
Crazy people needed to be locked up, put away and kept from ruining the lives of normal people.
Admitting you were crazy was…a crazy action in and of itself. People didn’t accept crazy. People didn’t want crazy. People hated crazy.
It had been stupid to take a chance. Stupid to think that-
He was smiling.
That was even worse.
‘You can have a real reaction now, if you want,’ she said, pulling the bowl of candy closer. ‘I’ve already got all the possibilities catalogued, if you give me another minute, I’ll have the odds calculated.’
‘This is my reaction, newbie,’ he said, stressing the words. ‘Just the same as it was when you were a recruit. Give me a head’s up where you can, and let me know when we’re working in a way that’s bad for you, and we’ll adapt.’
‘You can’t be okay with this,’ she said, keeping her voice steady.
‘Is Ryan?’
‘Yeah, part and parcel of adopting me.’ She stood up. ‘Recruit. Off to bed. Drop and give me forty winks, all that crap. Please? I promise I’ll wake you up when there’s something to do.’
He stood and gave her a single, solemn nod. ‘Night, newbie.’ He stood a step towards the door. ‘It is unlocked this time, right?’
She made a quick requirement. ‘Of course it is.’
‘On the thread of…doesn’t need to be said, but needs to be heard. Your secrets are safe with me. You don’t need to worry about me using them against you.’
She looked past him, focussing on a spot on the wall. ‘I know. I feel like I’m not sure, but I…know, if that makes sense. I wouldn’t have said anything if I wasn’t sure. I think…I think that’s friendship, right? Trust and all that junk?’
‘Yeah,’ he said with a smile, ‘trust and all that junk.’