Something hit him in the back.
Curt started awake, his mind already alive with possibilities as to what had startled him. Someone wanted to hurt him. It was Petersen with a gun. It was a knife. It was a fist. It was-
The pressure on his back was steady, and didn’t seem to actively be trying to hurt him.
He sat up, and whatever-it-was slipped away from his back. It probably wasn’t an attack. He pressed a hand to his chest, feeling his heart pounding in his chest, and tried to calm down as his higher brain functions were pulled to the surface. He felt his sheets beneath his body, felt the weight on the mattress of someone beside him. The presence beside him began to calm him, even before he recognised the lumpy form of Stef lying on the bed. Somehow, in the night, she had turned upside down, her head down near his feet, her own feet in the perfect position to kick him in the back.
‘You’re an agent,’ he said, knowing the sound of his voice would wake her – agents always slept lightly, and even if she seemed to detest waking up, programming would bring her forth into the realm of the wakeful. ‘I just have one question: how? How do you do this?’
Stef mumbled a response that wasn’t English, wasn’t Klingon, and wasn’t even Vulcan, and pulled the corner of the messy blankets over her head.
He swung his head away from the hacker that shared his bed, to the bedside clock – he’d always found that the gently-glowing red numbers were less of a shock to the system than lighting up his phone in the middle of the night, to find out what time he’d awoken to pee.
Just after five in the morning – a reasonable time to get up.
He tossed a pillow at Stef. ‘I’m going to shower,’ he said. ‘Standard warnings apply.’
‘Why would I ever bother you while you were showering?’ she asked, slowly starting to extricate herself from the sheets. ‘I mean, I appreciate you like your privacy, but I don’t ever need to pee unless I’m in Faerie, so I won’t have a reason to-‘
He tossed his other pillow at her. Stef griping about something random was just part of their morning routine. She didn’t exactly wake up cranky, she just woke up…prickly. Ready to argue small points, or be even more stubborn than normal. ‘Remember that time you were aligning the GPS on that app you were programming?’
‘I had so many windows open in my HUD I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face.’
‘That didn’t stop you from wandering in,’ he chided, and walked towards the bathroom.
He closed – but didn’t lock – the door behind him. Locks were useless against agents, and in the two months they’d been “sleeping together”, she’d only interrupted his shower twice – once to continue an argument they’d been having the night before, on the relative ethics of creating android life in Star Trek; and the GPS-alignment incident. Locking the door seemed like an unnecessary, artificial barrier, considering how close they were.
Keeping the door closed wasn’t even for the usual reasons, and he was sure she could understand that. He had never been particularly body-shy – the fact that he was able to strip off his pants and have random hook-ups with fairies using the Rose Room app proved that. He didn’t care if anyone saw his junk – he cared if people saw the tattoos on his chest.
Curt slipped off his pyjama shorts, and his T-shirt. The T-shirt had been uncomfortable at first – he’d tended to sleep just in a pair of boxers, but ever since he’s started this…arrangement with Stef, a T-shirt had been necessary, both from the point of view of hiding his shame; and from her tendency to freak out around people who were “OMG-naked-parts!”.
Her view of “OMG-naked-parts!” seemed to align with the Victorian ideals of not showing more than an ankle – at least in certain circumstances. When they did patrols around South Bank, and saw people swimming at the artificial beach, she either didn’t care about people in board shorts and bikinis, or had taken selective-blindness to an art form.
Curt stepped into the shower, turned on the taps, then adjusted them on autopilot. The water, as always, was warm, perfect, and there were never those weird pipe noises, or drops in pressure that seemed to happen everywhere that wasn’t an agency.
He lathered a loofah with far too much soap, and scrubbed at his chest, covering the array of tattoos he had there – reminders of each fae he’d tortured. Marks of pride – a tradition that all interrogators seemed to partake in without exception. Each shape with its own meaning, denoting the kind of fae he’d pulled apart and murdered. Reminders he was unwilling to get rid of.
He was – slowly – moving forward with his life. The Agency was treating him as though they’d forgotten all about his past, his position as Aide was allowing him to take a step away from the recruits that treated him like crap, and his weekly counselling sessions with Parker-2.
The medical agent didn’t act as a psychologist for any of the other recruits – there were standard channels for recruits who needed the services of a wise older person quoting textbooks and distributing meds. He’d never looked into those usual routes – it was hard enough to trust anyone, let alone trust agents, without even considering letting someone get an accurate picture of his mental state.
Parker-2, the twin that most of the recruits considered to be the “evil” one, had offered to play Freud, and after a week of gentle insistence, he had acquiesced.
The sessions were strange, and nothing at all like what he had imagined counselling to be like. There was no couch, no desk made of rare wood, and no demands to talk about his parents. Sometimes they stayed in the agency, sat in an empty meeting room, and chatted about work; sometimes Parker-2 took Curt to his house, where they’d have lunch. A few times, they’d gone to the pub, and both pretended for half an hour to be interested in the football.
And somehow, after each session, he’d gotten something else off his chest. Had talked through one more issue. Had voiced one more fear.
Parker-2 had openly voiced that he wanted Curt to get rid of his tattoos, that they weren’t good for his mental health to keep around.
And he couldn’t let them go. Not yet. Maybe not ever. He was a monster. He was a monster, and he wasn’t sure he deserved to ever be able to forget that.
He rinsed himself, and stepped out from the shower.
Owing to the grace of some god, Stef wasn’t standing there, ready to continue some point of contention. He dried himself, fluffed his hair with the towel, then required his uniform: black pants, white business shirt, navy blue tie. Since becoming Aide, he’d allowed himself the small freedom not to wear the matching blue waistcoat, an element of the full uniform he’d always disliked. It had felt far too constricting, and he’d never felt like it looked good on him.
He lifted his right foot and rested it against the sink – within the agency, since ditching the waistcoat, he’d moved from using a tuxedo holster, to an ankle holster. When going outside, however, his tuxedo holster came back, hidden under the black uniform blazer – the less-popular, though less obtrusive option, when compared to the standard field knee-length coat.
Stef was wearing her own uniform when he stepped back into the main room of his recruit quarters – which was the complete opposite of a surprise: Stef seemed to live in her uniform, only moving to something more casual when she was planning on spending all night with the Techs. Even getting her to sleep in pyjamas rather than her uniform had been, surprisingly, a conversation that needed to take place.
She wore the masculine/neutral form of the uniform, rather than the feminised version: though the differences were minimal, and with her uniform options, essentially came down to wearing the standard business shirt, rather than a blouse. Stef wore the waistcoat, but seemed to abhor the coat – and even the blazer – unless it was strongly indicated that wearing the full uniform would be the “agent” thing to do in the circumstances.
Her laptop was propped on her knees, the bed made beneath her – she’d taken that, silently, and without discussion, as her morning “chore” to do whilst he showered. Half of her second’s hard work was undone by sitting on top of it, but she always seemed to prefer sitting on the bed in the morning, seeing the couch as something to use when she was properly awake.
She looked up as he approached, and pointed to the plate of toast beside her. ‘I wanted bread,’ she said simply, then went back to whatever she was doing on her computer.
He resumed his place on the bed, required more substantial breakfast sandwich, then pulled a file from his bedside table, and began to read through it for what felt like the tenth time. It wasn’t a high priority – cold cases rarely were – but it was something that would help align his mind for the day, and if this generation of recruits managed to solve even one of the hundreds of old, odd cases, then someone’s family or descendants would have closure.
Everything about the morning was…normal. They’d developed a routine, and somehow nothing – and everything – about the strangeness of the situation influenced it. Two months ago, he’d been suicidal and ready to break. Ready to offer his life to anyone who would promise to end it. Parker-2 had given him a safe place, and Stef had given him absolution. She’d held him whilst he went to pieces in her lap, and continued to hold him for the whole night.
And after that…it had just continued. The next evening, he’d reached for her hand, wordlessly asking for comfort, needing to cry again, whilst knowing it wasn’t the end of the world. She’d come to bed with him, and been there for him. And night after night, it had continued. She’d been a comforting presence, a teddy bear against the nightmares that would haunt him until he was old and grey.
It wasn’t every night, and it wasn’t always his room – she’d insisted that sometimes, they had a “sleepover” in her room, with a ceiling that alternatively showed stars and scrolling code.
Somehow, they’ve never talked about how strange the situation was: two adults, spending platonic night after platonic night together. Sometimes, he’d opened his mouth to broach the subject, then had stopped – it was strange, it was weird – and their entire department “knew” they were sleeping together – but it had never felt wrong. Stef appreciated his friendship as much as he needed hers, and so, it had simply continued.
This morning, though, seemed to be pushing him to say something. He’d awoken to her foot in his back, only for the simple fact of her presence to calm him down. Stef was small and smelly, but she’d given him a sense of safety he hadn’t known in years. She was turning the agency from the place he lived, into his home.
‘Do you want a drawer?’
She looked across at him, a triangle of toast hanging from her mouth. ‘Hm?’
‘A drawer. For your stuff. Or a shelf, and you can put action figures there. Or a desk, for Frankie. Or a door that cuts straight through to your room. Something. You practically live here. And. And so it’s your space too. Otherwise, it’s like you’re my roommate, but there’s no proof of it.’
‘You always stress out about mess,’ she said, tucking a strand of brown hair behind her ear, ‘I figured you’d want to stem the encroachment of nerddom as long as you could.’ She looked around, her eyes tracking across the bare walls, and his complete lack of personalisation. He’d never felt safe enough to make any changes, or to even tack a few pictures onto the walls. He’d always done his best to make as little impact as he could.
‘Please,’ he said, the word coming out far more raw than he’d expected. ‘If this- If this is going to continue. I want you to have some ownership of this space. I don’t want you to feel like I’m using you.’
Her eyes went wide, then softened as she gave him a pitying look. She pushed off the bed, touched the wall, and a wooden shelf appeared, just over her head height. She looked back at him, gave him a smile, then swung her hands like an orchestra conductor. A toy robot appeared, as did a model of the TNG Enterprise. A photo collage frame popped into existence, holding several photos: Stef and Ryan; her friend Milla, holding an ice cream; and a reflection-selfie she’d pulled from her HUD of the two of them – where some trick of the glass had made them seem headless.
There was room on the shelf for Frankie – her laptop – and she placed him there, on top of a cooling pad.
‘Baby steps, right?’ she asked as she turned to look at him. She ran a hand through her hair, pulling it somewhat into order. ‘Ready to start the day, Aide O’Connor?’
He nodded. ‘I have some paperwork to do before my morning meeting with Ryan. You?’
‘I’m going to see if there any techs who want to go on the mail run, then…’ She tilted her head to the side, looking mildly annoyed. She shrugged. ‘Hit up the Ryan meeting with you, then see how much of my paperwork I can avoid. We’ve got the Valley morning run, so you’re only free until ten.’
Stef taking the morning mail run was something of a mixed blessing – on the surface, it was a good thing, it was a standard task – and routine was good for everyone. It gave her something to do in the morning, which stopped her from holing up in a corner and browsing the internet for several hours.
There was even the added bonus of interdepartmental cooperation – the mail run had a low enough field rating to allow at least some of the Tech recruits to take part – and there were a number of them who liked buddying up with a Field Operations recruit – or agent, in Stef’s case – for a little bit of “safe” field work.
If you looked a little closer though, she was spending more time with the Tech recruits – which, on a personal level was great – she’d made him realise that he wasn’t as friendless and alone as he had thought, and she was slowly collecting her own cadre of acquaintances that she could turn into friends. From the Agency point of view, however, she seemed to spend more time advising Techs than she did Field recruits, and although that was where talents lay, that wasn’t what her performance reports were judging her on.
And as something – someone – who was legally classed as an experiment, her performance reports could severely impact her quality of life.
So far though, there’d been no real cause to worry – but it was a discussion that needed to be held. A mini-intervention: “stop watching so many cat videos with the nerd brigade” was probably going to be his opening salvo.
‘We should head out,’ he said, requiring a serviette and wiping the bacon grease from his hands.
‘Wait, wait!’ Stef cried suddenly.
Even just a month ago, his reaction would have been fear, would have assumed someone was behind him, or she’d had end-of-the-world news relayed to her via her HUD. Now, he knew better. ‘What?’ he asked calmly.
‘New SF Debris!’ she said, ‘Trek review. We gotta watch it before work!’ She jumped back onto the bed, upsetting the remaining pieces of toast, which spilled crumbs everywhere.
‘I thought I was the damn, dirty Trekkie,’ he muttered.
‘Oh,’ she said imperiously, ‘you are. But I like the reviews.’
He waved his hand, and the huge TV on the wall in front of the bed flicked on, a browser ready and waiting for input. Stef pointed, getting in before he had a chance to require the URL into to the address bar – something that, although lazy, was safer than keeping a wireless keyboard near the bed – Stef had a weird habit of adopting “lost” peripherals, petting them like they were tribbles when she was bored.
The review site, then the video, loaded nearly instantaneously – thanks to the unbeatable Agency internet connection.
They watched, they laughed, Stef ate more toast, and some of the stress that he hadn’t even known he’d been holding started to unwind. It was a good way to start a day.
[table id=15 /]
Something hit him in the back.