Stef stirred, still in that lovely place that wasn’t the shallow sleep that was commonplace for agents, nor was it proper wakefulness.
She’d been aware of Curt leaving the bed and returning – a morning wee, something she no longer needed to deal with. There had been more silence, more stillness, but there were soft disturbances in the air that indicated he was facing her – something he only did when he was ready to wake up.
She exhaled air from her nose, a tiny protest against being brought into the waking world.
‘I’m just going to touch your face, okay?’
She let her eyes open a little, and nodded her consent. A moment later, Curt’s fingers brushed over her cheek, and she felt strands of hair moving.
‘You were eating your hair again. I think you might need to invest in a hair net. Or cut your hair.’
She blew out a breath, freeing the last of the strands from her mouth. ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘I should probably start giving a crap about what I look like. Last couple of years, I’d just kinda grab scissors and lop it off when it got too long. I’d get a proper cut every once in awhile, but it wasn’t something I liked to waste money on.’
Curt propped his head on his hand, and gave her a careful look. ‘Most of the time, you seem like this manic little rabbit, then you say something like that and it just…makes me realise how sensible you can be, hidden under all that nerd.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Okay,’ he said, ‘now correct me if any of this is wrong. You basically grew up like Richie Rich. Financially, you never wanted for anything. You probably never even had a concept of bills, or something being overdue.’
‘Then you get booted out, given one lump sum of cash, and are expected to somehow make do or die.’
‘I know several people who would have preferred the latter,’ she mumbled, and finally sat up, and brushed her hair back with her fingers.
‘You ever hear of the lottery paradox?’ he shrugged, ‘it’s probably called something else. It’s like, when some people win lotto, they burn through it all, and end up basically in the same financial situation that they started in. No offence, Stef, but that should have been you. But you didn’t. You survived, and I hope you’re proud of that.’
She required a coffee, and hung her head over it, and inhaled the life-giving scent of caffeine steam.
‘Shrug,’ she said, ‘I did what I had to do. I wasn’t alway sensible.’ She raised her free hand and tapped her temple. ‘I’m lucky I’m forever stuck with the voice of reason.’ She squeezed her eyes closed, the memories of some of her expenditures still stinging.
She looked down at Curt, whose brown eyes were appraising her carefully. He was safe. He was a friend. A pain shared was a pain doubled, but he was probably someone she could bear to- ‘How far down the rabbit hole of my crazy are you willing to travel?’
‘I’m with you to the end of the line, Bucky.’
‘How am I Bucky?’ she spluttered.
Curt sat up, and bumped his shoulder against hers. ‘How are you not, Newbie?’ He leaned his head against hers. ‘Whatever you need to say, I’m here, you know that.’
‘It’s this thing with Austin. It’s making me think about children. Kids…I- I’m always kind of protective of kids. I didn’t have a great childhood, so- So I always wanted to-’ She sucked in a deep breath through her nose. ‘It was always my plan to have a kid, and give them all the love I never had.’ She leaned against him for a few seconds, comforted by his closeness. ‘Do you want to meet her?’
Curt was a master at controlling his emotions – he was able to lock himself down as well as an agent with a /serious macro, but even now, his lack of reaction was something spectacular.
No movement, no sounds of surprise, nothing. ‘If that’s a part of you that you want to share, Newbie,’ he said, ‘then sure.’
She bumped her shoulder against his, then stood, her uniform and shoes appearing with a thought. ‘Angst now,’ she said, offering him a hand, ‘breakfast later?’
He got to his feet and his pyjamas were also replaced by a uniform. ‘As you wish, Newbie.’
She reached for his hand, and shifted them to a graveyard.
‘You’ve seen my scars,’ she said without preamble. ‘What I haven’t- What you don’t know- There was corresponding internal damage. I can’t have kids. Never could have kids. Had the hardware deleted before the system had updated to-’ She let out a heavy sigh. ‘I was twelve. I hadn’t even hit puberty yet.’ She gestured to herself. ‘That’s- That’s why I look a bit weird. I never went through puberty. I couldn’t have kids, so I didn’t see the point.’
There was warmth against her hand, and she looked down to see Curt grasping it.
‘I never- I thought I always- I never got over it. I always thought I could.’ She looked down at the grass beneath their feet as they walked through the rows of graves. ‘I thought about my child. I thought of all the things we’d do together. I bought toys and clothes. I spent thousands of pounds on- I wasted thousands of pounds. I wasn’t always so sensible.’
‘Newbie,’ Curt said gently.
‘She was the reason I tried to kill myself. The thought that I could never- Never be complete. Never be a mother. Could never give a child all the love I never had. After I…failed at that, I had to stop.’ She tugged on his hand, and they turned down a row of small graves. ‘I had to bury her. Put her away, otherwise I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life mourning what I never had.’
She stopped in front of a grave. ‘This is Lucy,’ she said. She knelt, and pulled a few errant strands of grass away. ‘I lied a little. Said it was a miscarriage. I buried clothes and toys.’ She looked up at him. ‘I know she was never real. I still feel like I lost a child. She was my child. The only-’
She stopped talking as Curt started to hug her, his arms wrapped around her from behind. She leaned back against him for a moment, then shuddered with tears. ‘You’re the only-’ She looked up, but could only see the underside of his chin. ‘I’ve never told anyone about her.’
He awkwardly sat on the grass next to her. ‘So tell me about her.’
Stef reached out, placed a hand on the grave, and began to tell him of all her imagined adventures with her never-to-be daughter.