Stormy Note: So I’m going to go through the scratch I have for IOI, and upload the pieces that are closest to being done – it won’t make it a proper and full book, but it’s something while this hiatus is going on.
Note for this chapter: Time wise, this takes place a little bit after the last chapter.

There was something undeniably magical about the part the Lost had whipped up – the kind of old school magic from children’s stories, rather than the everyday magic of the Agency.
To his left, a vine unrolled, and offered him a glass of sparkling wine.
Ahead of him, there was a small clearing, with tables of food, and a small dance floor – beyond that was the treeline of a forest – and every tree of the forest was lit up with fireflies.
Recruits mingled with the members of the Lost. Off to the right, outside the bright lights of the party, the boy at the centre of all of this, kicked a soccer ball around whilst the pirate captain watched.
There was a shimmery, tinkling sound, and he looked up – a shooting star spiralled lazily overhead, showering the crowd in silvery glitter, which continued to shine wherever it landed, star shine made real.
He finally saw Stef – sitting in a hollow of shadow – halfway between the party and the pirate, her back up against a pole supporting a circlet of glowing flowers. She had a hand up, reaching for the pieces of light that had fallen from the shooting star.
Her hand coated in silver, he watched as she she lifted her hand to her hair and ran it through, transferring the glitter to her head, wreathing her face in gentle light.
His heart bounced, and he wondered how there had ever been a question – even on a night, lit only by fireflies and flowers, everything was suddenly clear.
There was starlight in her hair, and he loved her.
* * * * *
It was strange how natural it was.
Stef’s head was on his thigh, lank hair spilling over his uniform pants, her eyes half-closed as she half-heartedly typed on the laptop that lay on her stomach. It was her equivalent of dozing, something like a low-power mode, when she still had thoughts spilling around in her head, but couldn’t generate enough of a fuck to sit up and type quickly.
His fingers ran through her hair, a lazy, half-conscious action, starting at her forehead and running back to his mid-thigh.
He couldn’t think of anything else he’d rather be doing.
Trek ran quietly on the television, the volume low – some TNG episode he’d seen a dozen times, one he could probably quote by memory, even if it wasn’t one of the ones with a good Picard speech.
A year ago, he would have been- Stef moved her head a little, then yawned. A year ago, he would have been staring at his Rose Room app, hoping for a random hookup, ten minutes of sex to draw his mind away from the Agency, from everything he hated about his life – and himself.
And now, there was peace to be found, with a smelly hacker slowly making his leg tingle with pins and needles.
A smelly hacker who had somehow given him hope for the future, had given him some sense of peace, a tiny quiet place inside that wasn’t filled with screams and pain.
A person who came to bed with him, a lumpy, wibbly, guard against his nightmares.
His best friend, and someone he couldn’t live without, because-
Because he loved her, and needed to tell her so.
He lifted a hand to his mouth, and tried to breathe. ‘Stef?’
‘Stef, I’m going to get up.’
She made half-hearted noises of protest, but sat up, shuffled around, and leaned against the far arm of the couch, her feet coming to rest against his leg where her head had been. Feet in socks, because she remembered how much he hated shoes being up on furniture.
He lifted the remote, and switched off the television.
‘Newbie, um-’
It wouldn’t be fair not to say something. Their friendship, whatever else it had been, had always been filled with truths – easy, hard, and everything in-between.
She looked at him over the top of Frankie’s lid. ‘Should I stop watching cat videos?’
He smirked. ‘I saw your screen, you’re reading up on quantum physics.’
‘Shh,’ she said, ‘I don’t want it getting out that I’m a dork.’
She closed Frankie’s lid, leaned to the side, and placed him on the floor. ‘You’re making serious face,’ she said, ‘what’s wrong?’
He stood, and looked down at her, more and more sure with each second that this wasn’t some moment of madness, that it was just a truth he’d been too stupid to realise.
And there had been so many stupid things in his life. So many mistakes. So many- Nothing good he’d ever done with Stef had ever felt like a mistake. This – this was going to be taking a chance. There was every possibility that she didn’t feel the same way, but it-
He forced himself to exhale as his chest swelled.
She looked up at him, a tinge of worry in her expression. ‘Padawan?’
He knelt in front of the couch, going to one knee, moving Frankie out of the way so that he didn’t become collateral damage. The carpet was soft beneath his knee, the simple luxury that was always a part of agency rooms. Soft carpet, well-made beds, quality furniture.
Stef moved in front of him, swinging her legs forward, and they slipped into the small space between the couch and his own legs. Contact. More contact. Touch that she would have once flinched at. He’d somehow moved into one of her exception categories. Someone, that, against all odds, she trusted.
Words froze. His throat froze. He couldn’t think. Couldn’t move. He swallowed slowly, and tried to work through the logic – and the emotion – of the situation. Whatever else their friendship was, it wasn’t fragile.
It could survive this.
He put a hand on her knee. There needed to be some kind of contact for this. Something that connected them, but wasn’t violent – he’d always hated the habit of men on television of grabbing the object of their desire and kissing them passionately, leaving the woman catching up, a tongue halfway down their throat before they realised what was happening.
Their friendship could survive Russia, could survive farts and bad nerd jokes; it wouldn’t survive him latching onto her face like a facehugger, forcing affection on her without consent, without a chance to enjoy the moment with him.
She looked at him, and took in his silence, the worry increasing on her face. ‘I’m responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs,’ she said, the sentence coming out of nowhere.
‘I- What?’
She swayed side-to-side, her knees knocked against his one.
‘They went extinct, yanno, sixty-five million years ago. Well, that’s the tagline. There’s all the possibilities of stuff surviving the KT barrier and coelacanths and, like, cassowaries, because I cannot believe that they aren’t some kind of raptor.’
‘But then- They tried to come back. I saw them. There was one in my bathroom. It was a sauropod, made of spaghetti. It was their attempt to come back in modern times. And I stepped on it.’
He stared at her, more sure than ever of the words he wanted to say.
She put a hand on his face. ‘Whatever you want to say, it can’t be worse than that. I mean, everyone loves dinosaurs.’
‘And I love you.’
Stef was a genius. She was also a master of obfuscating – likely intentional – stupidity. She seemed to fail to understand simple things on occasion, or just process things in strange ways that led to strange conclusions.
From her expression, from her eyes, there was no doubt she understood exactly what he meant. That it wasn’t a joke, that it wasn’t anything other than what he’d meant.
She leaned forward for a moment, then rocked back, giving herself some space. ‘You- You mean- In love, don’t you? With the romance and the- Stuff. Right?’ Her voice shook with each word, but they still came with ease. ‘You wouldn’t- You wouldn’t be on one knee if you meant it like how I love Jonesy or the techs.’
‘Yeah,’ he said, his voice thick, ‘with roses and Klingon poetry and all that.’
Tears appeared at the edges of her eyes. ‘Are you- Are you okay with that, or is it just cause we hang out so much? I don’t think-’ she looked down. ‘I’m not exactly- Not-’
‘I love you,’ he said, his heart thundering at the realisation that he’d said it twice. ‘Because I love you. Because you’re my friend. Because-’ He reached for her hand, but let it hover, and waited for her to close the distance. With the speed of a glacier, her fingers slipped into his. ‘Because we work. Because you know me from my shitty, shitty soul right out to my vaguely-handsome exterior. Cause I can’t…not.’ He bowed his head, and looked at their hands. ‘Can I be yours?’
She squeezed her hand. ‘Okies.’
He lifted his head, and looked at her. ‘Are you- Are you okay with-’
‘I- I have a crush on you,’ she said, the corners of her mouth turning up. ‘I like- I like spending time with you. And-’ She looked down. ‘I didn’t think anyone would- It was like playacting something I’d never have.’
Curt lifted his spare hand and held it a few inches from her face, and she leaned against it, with far less hesitation than she’d taken his hand. ‘You can have that- Me- If you want.’ Her head was heavy in his hand, her cheek was warm, and everything felt…good.
Her eyes stayed half-closed for a moment, happy and content. She let out a long breath, and it ran along his arm, holding him in the moment, grounding in reality. Her eyes opened, and she met his gaze. ‘I’d like that,’ she said, ‘if- If it’s what-’ She slipped her head away from his hand. ‘I’m not pretty. I’m not se-sex-stuff. Yanno. I’m pretty sure I, like, permanently smell funny.’
‘And I love you.’
‘I can’t- Kids aren’t- I-’
He slowly linked their pinkies. ‘We can work everything out. I want- You. Stef. I’m not looking through the looking glass at some other version of you. I want to- Kiss you. Then get back to watching Trek. Because- Because we’re already-’
A smile flickered in her eyes, and a blush coloured her sun-deprived cheeks. ‘You want to kiss me?’
Butterflies danced in his stomach – an unusual feeling. He’d been able to fall into bed with dozens of random fae with ten-minute hookups, and fuck Magnolia without a preamble, yet now, the idea of one kiss seemed to loom large in his mind.
And until this second, he’d never considered what kissing Stef would be like. There was every chance she’d get lost in the middle, and ask for directions.
‘Yeah,’ he said, and he could feel the wattage of his smile, ‘yeah, I’d really like to.’
She brought the knuckle of her index finger to her lips, a hundred emotions flickering past on her face. ‘I’ve only- Once. It was someone I loved, but it was such a long time ago.’ She pulled her finger away from her mouth. ‘Can- Can I?’
He nodded. ‘As you wish, Newbie.’
Slowly, she put both of her hands to his face, and drew him closer, until the curls of her breath were touching his lips. She tilted her head forward, and their noses brushed together. ‘This is going to suck,’ she warned. ‘Just so you know.’
Her lips touched his, the tiniest, smallest kiss.
There was no technique, no passion, but there was love, and after a count of two, it was over.
She fell back against the couch, her face flushed, both hands covering her mouth, apparently overwhelmed.
He lifted her hand, and kissed each knuckle in turn. ‘I guess we should talk, huh?’ he asked.
She looked at him over the tops of her fingers, and nodded. He pulled himself back up onto the couch, and sat facing her, close enough so that touch was easy, but giving her enough independence so that she didn’t feel trapped – the situation was clearly already pushing her limits, even if she seemed as happy as he did.
‘I don’t know anything about having an adult relationship,’ she said, slowly tapping out a pattern on her crossed knees after she moved to mirror his position. ‘I- I never thought I’d have one. I don’t have people lining up to want to date me.’ She looked away. ‘I- I don’t even know if I can do all the stuff that happens in an-’
‘Stop,’ he said, more pleading than demanding. ‘I know- I know you, Newbie. I’m not under the impression that you turn into a confident Playboy Bunny whenever you’re hanging out with someone else.’
‘But- But that kind of- The sex stuff is- It’s expected, and I’m-’
‘Look at me, please,’ he said, and he waited a moment for her eyes to meet his. ‘This is me,’ he said, ‘and I’m not expecting anything. I want you, Stef, for whatever you want or can give. All I’m asking is that you let me- Let me be a part of you life, that I can hold you, and know that I’m yours.’
‘That- That sounds almost pretty much like what we have now.’
He reached forward, and brushed the hair back from her face. ‘Yeah, pretty much.’
She leaned forward. ‘But with kissing?’
He let her rest her cheek on his hand. ‘May I?’
Her smile melted him. ‘Yeah,’ she said.
He smiled and kissed her. Short, tiny, almost chaste kisses – mirroring how she’d kissed him. With each tiny kiss, his smile grew, matching the fluttery, brand-new-love in his heart.
After a moment, he pulled away, but kept his hand supporting her head, one question pushing to the front. ‘You have a crush on me?’
‘You’re my best friend,’ she said, slowly lifting her head away from his hand. ‘And there’s no one I like spending time with more. And it feels weird when we don’t sleep together. And- And whenever I think about the future, you’re there. When you add all of that up-’ she smiled, and blushed again, a tiny smile making her face shine. ‘It sounds quite a bit like love.’
‘You sure you’re okay, Newbie?’
She nodded. ‘I’d warn you that I’ll have a billion worries and fears and- And all that. But I think you’ve been my friend long enough to know that’s par for the course.’
‘I think I can handle that.’
She leaned in close, and kissed his cheek. ‘Then I’m okay too.’