There were good things in the world. The situation at hand was the furthest thing from any good in the world.
Stef stared at her closest monitor, not even seeing anything that was there. It was just a rectangle of light, holding misery and disappointment. The other recruits on the code team had left – either for some sleep, or just to take a break from metaphorically slamming their heads against the wall.
Everything was shit, and there was nothing she could do to make it better.
Algorithms died like stars at the end of the universe. No one had had any luck – whether it was by themselves, or in the small group sessions they’d had, when the team had realised they’d been in a room for forty-eight hours without speaking anything more than food requests to the team Jones had sent to look after them.
It wasn’t that they had lost the ability to require, but after a certain number of energy drinks, Jones insisted on everyone eating something approaching a proper meal.
She needed to rest, to sleep, to be anywhere except an arm’s reach from a keyboard that was doing nothing but depressing her.
Tears had been coming intermittently – and she hadn’t bothered to stop them. They’d ceased being big shows of emotion – and now they were just her pure desperation leaking through in a physical form.
And all the while, Austin lay in a coma, not even dreaming of better times.
It was late. She should leave, like the rest of the team had done. There was no point in- A break wouldn’t hurt. After so many days of failing to make any progress, a break wouldn’t hurt.
She should go to bed. To- Well, Curt’s bed, not her own bed. A bed that was starting to feel more like her own bed than the one beneath the ceiling that showed stars and galaxies. It wasn’t her room, but at the same time, she wasn’t unwelcome.
She blinked once, and focused on her HUD. Just before eleven. Curt would probably be asleep already. When you needed to get up with the sun and the rooster, late nights were a rarity.
She let out a long breath. There was no impetus to go anywhere. Nowhere to be. If she’d- She didn’t want to be alone, but-
‘How do you know what a crush feels like?’
Crushes were weird things. If crush was even the word she was supposed to be using. Maybe you were weren’t supposed to get a “crush” after the age of fourteen, maybe you were supposed to feel some kind of grown up version of it.
But if you’d never felt the first form, then there was no way to know what the evolved form felt like.
Love was- Romantic love was roses and music and a hundred little things that every romantic movie ever had insisted were a reflection of reality.
Love in movies never seemed to exist in a quiet form, it never seemed to be just an “…oh” of realisation, of knowing that friendship had become something else. Of- Of…always wanting to be around that person. Of always thinking about them when thoughts turned to the future. Of knowing that you could have stupid, comfortable silences, where everything was good, and you didn’t need to say anything.
Movie love was kisses in the rain, shouted declarations of love, interrupted weddings, and a hundred other things that seemed like too much effort when they weren’t flat out emotional manipulation.
‘How do you know what a crush feels like?’
Love wasn’t supposed to be easy, but it was supposed to be natural. And her friendship with Curt was…just the right fit. They were both broken, in ways that might never be fixed, and somehow that was okay.
She was there for him when he needed comfort, or needed to be reassured that he had some kind of future when he wouldn’t think of himself as a monster.
And he would give her space when her mind was turning in on itself in non-euclidean shapes, when nothing made sense, and she couldn’t do anything more than breathe in a safe corner.
‘How do you know what a crush feels like?’
A crush felt like watching a movie on a lazy afternoon; sharing a couch, but having carefully delineated snacks; it felt like…being liked. Being loved.
And she had no doubt that she loved Curt – as a friend, and if what Ryan had said as true, it wasn’t impossible – nor even always a bad idea – for that to become more. If love could come from friendship, then-
Are you going to say it, Spyder?
Yeah. I think I might.
So go on.
I think I’ve got a crush on Curt.
The world didn’t erupt into a chorus of angels, fireworks didn’t explode, and she didn’t…really feel any different to how she had a moment before. It was a realisation realised, but it wasn’t a change.
And nothing would change until she decided if – or when – to act on this information. There was always a chance that she was wrong – it didn’t feel like she was wrong, all the logic made sense – and emotions did have a logic, even if it was a logic all of their own.
But she still needed to reflect, to consider, to weigh possibly losing her friendship for the chance at hearts and roses.
Her computer beeped – another failed piece of code. She clicked through her HUD and reordered all the currently running simulations, opened her systems menu, and closed everything that she could voluntarily shut down – low-power mode, a step before sleep. It didn’t stop her from thinking, but-
But it was harder to think, easier to pretend she didn’t have to think.
Another code simulation turned to ashes.
The noise wasn’t enough to shock her into movement – she wasn’t even sure that she’d heard it. It was just-
She lifted her head a little, which automatically brought her a little out of low-power mode, trying to figure out if Curt was really there, or if she was just so damned used to hearing him say her name that her mind was filling the silence.
And then Curt was in front of her. One on knee, like a knight pledging allegiance. ‘Hey.’ His hand touched her cheek – it was warm, real. After hours in the lab, her body seemed like it had taken on the temperature of the room – this outside influence, the heat difference, was enough to figure out that maybe he was real. ‘Newbie, you have to take a rest.’
Another simulation turned to dust. Another idea fell to nothingness.
‘I can’t.’ His hand was so warm. It felt so good. ‘I need to- I need to work more.’
‘Come to bed, please?’
It was an invitation, impossible to deny. It was where she wanted to be. Away from where she’d been failing for hours. Away from where all she could think about was how a little boy had been killed in every meaningful way. She needed a break. She needed to help Austin. ‘I haven’t managed anything yet.’
One more code fragment failed.
‘Yeah. Yeah. Okay.’
‘Stand up.’ His hand was on hers. ‘Come on, Newbie.’
‘Help?’ She allowed her hand to to roll, to fit into his, to steal more of his warmth, his strength, his…whatever it was that kept him going. ‘I don’t have…brain.’
Suddenly, his arms were beneath her, and he had lifted her like she weighed about as much as a bag of chips.
Hey, remind me to wiki if I can change my density. That would be an interesting way to fuck with people.
I’ll add it to the list.
Her head hit his chest with a light thonk noise. It probably hadn’t hurt him. He probably hadn’t noticed. ‘I’ll just rest for a bit.’ Just a bit. Just a little bit.
‘As you wish, Newbie.’
If she had been more awake, she could have shifted them, as her brain was somewhere between barely-functioning jelly and non-existing, she didn’t argue as Curt carried her potato-chip-bag body all the way back to his room.
The bed was immediately soft under her body – not that her Tech chair was uncomfortable, but there was something amazing about sinking into the luxury of an Agency bed. She reached for her pillow, and it was exactly where she expected it to be.
Through half-open eyes, she saw his form in front of her, and felt the slight tug against her feet as he removed her shoes. ‘Curt.’
His blurry form knelt in front of her. ‘Yeah, Newbie?’
She wanted to…something. He was important. And she loved him, whatever that form of love was. She reached forward and touched his face, hoping it felt as good for him as his hand on her face had felt minutes before. ‘Good night.’
She let her eyes close. All thinking was done for the night. There was nothing more to worry about. Just a soft bed and a- She felt him pull the blanket up to her chin.
A moment later, his weight depressed his side of the bed, and she felt him adjust the blanket to cover himself.
She shuffled back towards him, seeking his warmth, and his comfort. As natural as breathing, his arms came around her, and held her to him. She felt his nose against the back of her head, and the light touch of a kiss against her hair.
Yeah, I might just be in love with him.
She closed her eyes, and slept.