[So his opening line was “So, your dad is a robot?”]
Milla’s eye roll was perfectly captured by the HD webcam – the image so instantly memeable that Stef had to screenshot it. And for the hundredth time, she wondered if a screenshot you took in your head could realistically be called a headshot.
Curt said she was an idiot, and reminded her that she still couldn’t shoot straight without her aimbot – and the Tech Department came down about fifty-fifty – though as they didn’t have HUDs, it was purely theoretical for them.
Stef made sure she was tabbed onto the video window in her HUD – so that gestures would be translated through into video, rather than happening in the real world – and stared blankly back at her friend. [Are you going to rewind back to the part where he was hitting on you. He?] she asked, stressing the pronoun.
[Straight boys,] Milla commented, then rolled her eyes again. [He thought the best way to cosy up to the Director’s daughter was to hint at the prowess of his cock.]
[After fundamentally misunderstanding what an agent is.]
[I mean,] Milla said as she rubbed cream onto her face – part of her evening ritual, [I don’t mind that so much. Going with “lol!dad!bot” is a bit much. But…most newbies do tend to think that agents have a chassis they can open.]
[I just stare them dead in the eye and tell them I’m a T-1000, not a T-800.]
[No you don’t.]
Stef gave a smile of contrition. [Yeah, but in some AU I’m brave enough to do that.] She looked to the clock in the corner of her HUD – an entire lifetime of using Windows products had made her move the default clock position from top-right to bottom-right, and clicked it so that the time zone displayed Milla’s local time. [Take your meds?]
[Yes, Agent Cutebot, I did.] Milla smiled. [Thanks though.]
[You going to head off?]
Milla nodded. [Yeah, I have…thre- okay, thirty chapters of a fanfic I want to finish reading. And probably some paperwork. Chat tomorrow?]
Stef nodded, and waved at the screen, the gesture following her into the real world as the video window went dark – where it turned into a gentle slap/pat of the man asleep in her arms.
‘Fuck,’ she whispered, and hoped it hadn’t woken him – his sleeping pills tended to help him get his whole eight hours, but just sometimes, the right sound or the right movement could pull him from sleep – and that was the last thing she wanted to do.
He deserved his rest, even if it was too-often plagued by nightmares.
Thankfully, he continued his regular breathing, undisturbed by her unintentional emoting.
People were amazing.
It was a strange thought, and not one she had often.
Up until six months ago, give or take, people had been just…background noise that caused pain. They were faceless harbingers of everything that had ever been bad in her life. The worst, without any best to ever compare it to.
People had been her father – abusive, her mother – mothering a version of her daughter that only existed as a carefully-constructed illusion, her teachers, and everyone else. People hadn’t represented kindness. People had been an obstacle. Something in the way of being alone and away from where anyone could hurt her.
And now people were…family. Her dad. Her boyfriend. Milla, and her other strange and wonderful friends.
In her arms, Curt shifted slightly, his head nuzzling her chest, rubbing against where her boobs would be if she was a proper girl. They didn’t fall asleep like that – after talking and cuddling, they would retreat to their own sides of the bed, but when his nightmares came, he would seek her out, even whilst asleep, drawn towards the warmth in his bed, looking for comfort and kindness that he’d been missing for far too long.
He was fucked up, and so was she – and even if it was in different ways, very different – PTSD versus something that was probably paranoid schizophrenia, they were still able to make the room they needed. To understand the need to cling, or the need for space, how hard it could be to breathe, and how the tiniest thing could trigger and ruin your entire day.
Stef brushed a curl of hair away from his face, and tucked it behind his ear. That was something subtle – he was growing his hair longer. Just a little, but it was no longer something that seemed to be the age-appropriate version of a standard-model agent haircut.
He was finally starting to feel safe, and every baby step was one to be celebrated.
Under his eyes, his eyes rushed back and forth – either dreaming or downloading something from the Matrix – and as she didn’t do REM-y eyes during her own software updates, it was probably the former.
Even at this hour, her HUD buzzed with activity. It wasn’t irrational – the Agency operated all over the world, and even account for that, a lot of the feed activity was automated alerts. System-generated messages about the availability of various servers, drives and individual files.
A new hotfix was available, for the 0.0006% of agents who had been affected by the last patch – according to the notes – and growing collection of tagged memes – two agents had reported that their ears were randomly becoming invisible. The “Agent Siddig isn’t listening” reactions were inevitable – as Siddig appeared to be cool with the memes, whereas the other agent was simply listed as Sasina [combat] – and it was fair rarer to find a combat agent cool with being memed.
Not as rare as the preconception would have new recruits believe. Most combat agents weren’t Terminators-in-tailored-BDUs, but a lot of them fell into the mould of serious soldiers. So it was a case of meme at your own risk.
Curt wasn’t making noises, so the nightmares must have been of the relatively mild variety.
They weren’t nightly, he had reassured her over and over, but they were regular enough that any given night might contain them. They could be memories, construed and coloured by guilt, or the haphazard imaginings of a sleeping mind, imagery twisting over and over itself, moving from metaphor to nonsense.
She slipped out of the bed, slowly replacing her body with a pillow, as to not disturb him, and moved to the dorm room’s bathroom. White tile blazed under fluorescent lights after she had closed the door.
Four AM. In five hours, she would start the first shift of her new role. One she had been too afraid to ask for, and almost too afraid to accept, but one that meant everything. Tech Aide to Agent Jones – finally moving from the Field role that she was so ill-suited for that it had gotten her killed during her first week on the job.
Field had meant Ryan, had been the chance to follow in her dad’s footsteps, even if she was no good at it. But once the chance to be Jones’ aide had been dangled in front of her, it had been an albatross around her neck, until she’d pulled its wings off and used them to fly.
Metaphors at four AM were weird.
A thought had her in her new uniform – the full uniform that no one, including Jonesy, wore. A button-down white shirt, black dress pants, and a white lab coat. It felt new. It felt right.
Code had been in her soul, even before she’d been reconstituted as nanites. Tech was her home, and she got along with the Tech recruits far better than she did with anyone in Field. They spoke the same language, loved the same things, and they respected her, whereas Field had always viewed her as someone with a rank they didn’t deserve.
It wasn’t inaccurate, but it was unfair. There had been prices – big and small – to her becoming an agent. Favours and goodwill burned by Ryan like a forest fire. Saving her life had a kindness – but one, according to the rules, he shouldn’t have performed.
But he had, and with much ado, agent she had become.
So now, with Ryan’s blessing, and weeks of forms, applications, and interviews, she was finally being allowed to step into the role of Tech Aide, a position previously unfilled, due to Jones’ inability to choose between his favourite “kids”.
The voice broke her from her thoughts. She turned away from the mirror, and the reflection of her new self, and opened the door. Curt sleepily brushed past and stumbled towards the toilet.
She left the room, allowing him his ablutions in private.
The room didn’t have windows that looked out onto the real world – it was one of the dorms towards the interior of the building. They did have a small window, though, the size of a mirror above a dresser, that looked out onto a world that wasn’t Earth, and that wasn’t around any more.
It was memory glass, the image of a landscape taken from the mind of a traveller, someone who had fallen through the void from a dying world. A legacy, a remnant, so that in a small way, something of their world remained.
This piece had been a gift from the Queen of the fairy court of those most would call crazy – Madchester. It was a gift she’d done nothing to deserve – five minutes of conversation rarely warranted a gift from royalty, but one she had graciously accepted.
And in one of the small modifications they had made to their room, she had arranged for a window seat to be placed beneath it – the sounds of an alien sea were good background noise to sleep to.
She leaned her back against the wall, and heard the cry of something that was probably an alien seagull.
‘What time is it?’ Curt asked as he exited the bathroom, wiping his hands on his boxers.
‘Too early, go back to sleep.’
He grunted something to the negative, walked to the bed, and fell forward – his usual position when he was too tired for conversation, but wanted to indicate to her that he did intend on being awake and functional soon, rather than going back to sleep.
She allowed herself another moment of listening to alien gulls, then slipped back into bed, lying across the bed, so that he could shuffle forward and headbutt her stomach.
‘You should sleep.’
‘You’re not the boss of me, Newbie.’ He adjusted his head, and kissed her stomach. ‘I’m always going to have seniority.’
She made a playful growling noise. ‘I’m sure there’s an alternate universe where that isn’t true.’
Curt slowly flipped over, then rubbed a hand over his face. ‘Earth-2 arguments hold no weight at shit-o-clock, Newbie.’
‘You okay?’ she asked as he lapsed back into silence.
‘No, but yeah,’ he said. A standard answer when something in one of his nightmares had brought up pain he didn’t want to discuss. The answer he gave before looking into shadows for the rest of the day. As good as life could be, his demons never seemed to be more than half a step behind. Following footsteps that only he could hear. ‘Don’t want to- You know.’ He found her hand, and held onto it. ‘I’ve got my session with Parker this weekend. I’ll get it off my chest then.’
She twined her finger with his. He was her first boyfriend – first grown-up one anyway. A couple of weeks in love with Peter Pan didn’t count, love could be real at twelve, but it was different to this. She was sure – from what TV told her – that some people would have been upset that their partner couldn’t immediately share all of their bad thoughts, or taken offense that he could discuss it with his counsellor, but not his girlfriend.
And all of those people could rot in hell.
He had bared his soul, told her of every crime that he felt he needed to confess, to air his dirty laundry before accepting that she wanted to be his friend. The mere act of that had exhausted him, and there will still moments – and probably would be forever – where she caught him looking at her, as though she was going to take flight at any moment. That her acceptance of him was temporary, something that wasn’t going to last.
She couldn’t always describe the pile of fuck that her brain was, and he accepted that; just as she accepted his need to speak to someone with the equivalent learning of a couple of dozen PhDs.
Parker-2 might have been the scary, evil twin out of the two medical agents, and someone who frequently asked for organ donations from the recruits, but whatever counselling he was giving Curt was working.
Two crazies in love wasn’t always the easiest relationship, but it was a hell of a lot easier when you accepted someone’s coping mechanism, instead of demanding that they use a different one.
‘What’re you wearing?’ he asked after they had lain in silence for a while. ‘You don’t have to- Agent Jones doesn’t expect you to show up in uniform.’ He snorted. ‘I mean, Agent Jones doesn’t even wear the full uniform.’
‘Jonesy,’ she said gently. ‘Come on, you can start calling Jonesy Jonesy.’
‘You can’t catch me with a tangent, even at this hour, Stef.’
She groaned, then wiggled out from under his half-hug and stood. She indicated to the uniform. ‘This is proper. I want to- I want to make a good impression. Just like I did for Ryan. I know it’s not the same thing, cause Jonesy knows me and-’ She sat on the edge of the bed. ‘It’s the first day of school all over again. I’ve never thought about it, you know, when Jonesy has asked me to look after things for an hour. It wasn’t something I ever had to think about. But now that it’s real, you know, it’s real,’ she said, stressing the word. ‘It’s what I want, and I’m scared that if I mess up, then-’ She sighed, and stared down at her feet.
‘You’ll make mistakes. You’re a person, and people make mistakes. And, you know, this Agency…statistically we’re more prone to mistakes than the others in our network. But you’re- You’re going to fucking rock this, Newbie. The Techs love you, no one is going to haze you, not anymore than they do to Ag- Jones anyway.’
‘I just- A few test day sims and explanations of common tasks as laid out by the System…it’s not going to bear any semblance to reality. Jonesy already told me that. Any schedule goes out the window by nine-thirty.’
Curt stood, and sat at the small desk opposite the bed, so that he could look at her. ‘Call centre. R&D. Operators. CSI. General technicians.’ He said, ticking off the areas of the department on his fingers. ‘Sacha runs the call centre so well we pick up the slack from other local networks. It wins awards. It’s one of the few parts of this Agency that Clarke doesn’t bitch about.’
‘No one sees R&D,’ she said. ‘Jonesy said he’d take care of them. He’s got all those projects managed.’
‘Right, so,’ Curt said, and there was a fuzz in the air as his own uniform appeared on his body. ‘Operators. You’ve spent your entire Agency career as Field so you’ve got an advantage there. You’ll always have the schedule of the Field and Combat go teams if you need to deploy someone to assist, otherwise, it’s just monitoring the operators themselves, and you’ve looked in the mirror enough times to know what someone having a bad day looks like.’
‘CSI, no problem,’ she said, brightening a bit. ‘Raz already agreed to be my runner there, because I haven’t had much to do with Santiago, and I don’t want to step on his toes.’
Curt stood, then stepped forward, and kissed her forehead. ‘You know what you’re doing, and you know you know what you’re doing, so trust the people who know you, and stop listening to the dumb bits of your brain.’