The credits started to roll.
‘Another?’ Stef asked Milla’s hair.
‘Yarp,’ she replied. Milla slowly sat up, shook herself, and stood to change the DVD – it was still so strange to be using physical media – habit she’d ditched, even long before joining the Agency. The idea that you were reliant on a laser to read a circle of compressed plastic – and that you had to sit through unskippable ads was – frankly horrible when with one thought, you could skip straight the movie.
Something about the act of removing the disc – of adding some physicality to switching between movies – seemed to calm Milla, and she was the last person who would begrudge another crazy girl her quirks.
The scar on her left arm itched – it hadn’t, so far as she’d ever been able to work out – some potent of Voldemort, nor of a financial crisis, or anything else. It was just a stupid old injury that itched at inappropriate moments.
All of her scars itched to some degree or another when they felt like it – and this was something that, unfortunately, stayed with her, even whilst she’d ditched her humanity. Pros: she was a computer-person now. Con: old injuries remained.
She pushed up the sleeve of her T-shirt as Milla pulled the next disc out of its case, and scratched at the scar. Serena. She’d named it Serena, because it was a vaguely crescent-moon shape – like most of her scars, she couldn’t remember what bit of the car had gouged out pieces of her body; she suspected though, that it had been some part of the door frame.
Milla turned, and she froze, her hand clamping over the scar, hiding it from view. Her freeze response, unfortunately, didn’t go unnoticed by the other recruit.
‘What?’ Milla asked, ‘sorry? Did I do-’
Stef pulled her sleeve down with her free hand, then slipped her itch-scratching hand free. ‘No, it’s me,’ she said. ‘I don’t like- I don’t like people seeing my scars.’ She stared at the carpet. ‘Hell, I once let someone see my- Well, my chest, instead of letting them see my scars. I know what’s more embarrassing. I know what makes people stare. I know what makes people-’
‘I won’t- Stare. Not unless you want me to.’ Milla said. ‘I promise.’ She knelt in front of Stef and held out her pinky finger. ‘I swears it, precious.’
Stef extended her hand, and made the pinky promise.
She bit the inside of her cheek, and slid her sleeve back up, exposing her scar for Milla to see. ‘They get itchy sometimes. In summer. Australian summer, you know, it can get bad. Dunno why, they react badly to heat. Other times, it’s just…completely…random,’ she said, her words slowing as Milla came back up onto the couch. ‘You said you wouldn’t stare,’ she said, looking down at the carpet again.
‘I’m not,’ Milla said, ‘I’m looking at you.’
There was something in the way that Milla said the words, that the recruit was looking at her, that brought warmth to her cheeks. ‘I’m not that interesting,’ she said, trying to deflect the weird moment that she, Milla and her scar were having.
Milla’s fingertips rested on the scar, a feather-light touch. ‘Fall out of a tree, agent?’
‘And you think people-’
‘I have scars on my stomach. On my chest. On my back. On my arms. On my legs.’ The words were mechanical. Information being pushed out. ‘I can’t take off my shirt without worrying that someone will scream.’ There was more heat in her cheeks, and she was sure she was blushing now. ‘Not that I often have the urge to take off my shirt. But I always have to wear layers if I go to the pool. You know?’
‘Anyone who thinks less of you for what you look like is someone who isn’t worth very much.’
‘Yeah, but I don’t think a lot of people are worth very much.’ She folded her hands in her lap, the action pulling her arm away from Milla
‘When I was younger,’ Milla said, sitting with her legs crossed, a mirror image of Stef, ‘I- Cut. I used to do the trick with the ice cube. And I’d do- Everything. But sometimes, sometimes I just needed to- Sometimes breaking the skin was all that made sense. I had scars. Used to wear long sleeves all the time. I hated them. I hated myself. I got rid of them because- Because it was something I wanted to forget. But it’s not like that for you, is it?’
‘They’re part of me,’ she said. ‘I’d say for better or worse, but there’s no better. I lost- Some idiot lost a red light and I- And I got to miss out on everything I could be.’ Tears welled in her eyes, and she brushed them away, unwilling to continue down that train of thought. Unable to think about the ramifications of everything she’d lost. Of everything she’d never be.
‘They don’t make you less,’ Milla said. ‘They’re proof you’re a survivor.’ Milla gave her a lopsided smile. ‘They really don’t make you any less cute.’
‘I’m not fscking cute,’ she said, reaching to the floor, and throwing a cushion at Milla.
Milla grabbed the cushion, pressed it to her chest, and fell forward, the squishy cushioning softening her fall against Stef. ‘You’re cute,’ Milla said, her head resting on Stef’s shoulder. ‘You really should trust the lesbian in the room on this.’
Stef looked down at Milla, at the face that was inches from hers, and idly brushed some of Milla’s textured hair back from her face. ‘Tell me, Recruit, do you use that logic in other situations? I’m a lesbian, therefore-‘
Milla nodded enthusiastically, her chin bumping on Stef’s chest. ‘I get the last piece of cake!’
Stef clucked her tongue. ‘No, I believe that’s factually inaccurate. I’ve been doing some research, and from what the internet tells me, it pretty much seems like aces have dibs on allll the cake. So the cake is mine. Sorry.’ She looked around. ‘And now I kind of want cake.’
Milla’s eyebrows raised. ‘Ace, aro-ace, grey or demi? Neutral, repulsed or disinterested?’
Stef gave a little shrug. ‘I’m still- I never knew it was the word for me. I thought I was just- Broken. Like it could apply to other people, but it wasn’t right for me to take the word. I’m not aromantic, and I’m definitely not aromatic. I think I could fall in love.’ She focussed on a point on the wall. ‘I mean. Like. Again. There was someone I loved. But it was long time ago. And he left me behind. But it felt like love. And I’d like that again. I’m just not sure I’ll ever find anyone who-‘
Milla shook her finger, and leaned up on the cushion that was separating their bodies. ‘Please don’t pull that crap. Movies and songs and stuff always talk about one in a million, that’s over seven thousand people, if you only include the human population. There’s porn for every rule thirty-four. There’s a community for every fetish. And there’s at least one person in the world for everyone.’
‘With all these scars, I’m sure I’m someone’s fetish.’
Milla crinkled her nose. ‘Is that how you really feel?’
‘I don’t hate them,’ Stef said, almost more to herself than to Milla. ‘They’re my great what if. I can look at them, and see what my life would have been like if I didn’t have them. If I’d taken one more minute when I was changing my shoes. If Mother had driven five miles an hour slower. If, if, if.’ She slipped her hand up her sleeve and traced the scar. ‘If. If. If. I think about her sometimes. Less than I used to. But- Still. I don’t know that she would have been happy. The me without scars. But I think it would have been a different kind of sad.’ She gave a lopsided smile. ‘She’d be a princess, probably. She’d probably have friends. Have a family. Have children.’
Milla’s hand rested on her cheek. ‘What about this you?’
Stef tilted her head to look at Milla, their faces inches from each other. ‘You know the answer. It’s your own answer. Happy’s ephemeral, happy can slip through your fingers. You try and hold onto it, but it never lasts, you just hope that it comes back often enough. But- But I want happy. Even if I lose it.’
‘I know that feel, bro,’ Milla said, and Stef smiled as Milla’s breath tickled her face. Milla hesitated, then smiled with one side of her mouth. ‘We got off my point, Agent. You’re cute, and you shouldn’t deny that.’ Milla shifted her head so that it was back in the hollow of Stef’s neck, steady breaths rolling across her skin. ‘I don’t date long-distance,’ she said. ‘Otherwise, I’d ask you out.’
Stef started, and pulled away, smushing up against the edge of the couch, the heat in her cheeks telling her she was close to blushing herself into unconsciousness. ‘Wha- Why?’
There was a sad cast to Milla’s eyes for a moment as she righted herself, and pulled the cushion back to her own chest. ‘Huh, I didn’t think- Sorry, I didn’t think you’d freak cause I- I’m not a cannibal, there’s no reason to be scared of-‘
‘It’s not because you’re a lesbian, it’s because I’m a dork,’ Stef said, the words coming out as a croak. She tried to compose herself. ‘I’ve just never had- Not since Peter. And I’m not sure twelve-year-old love counts in a conversation like this. No-one’s ever liked me. Ever- Never even asked me out on a joke date. I had to call in a favour to get an escort to one school dance, just so I knew what they were like. And you-‘ There was a renewed heat in her cheeks. ‘You like me?’
‘Yeah, Agent, I think I like you.’ Milla reached forward, and brushed some hair from Stef’s face. ‘But like I said, I don’t do long-distance. Even with shifting, there’s a strain. You’re always on the wrong end of the day. You don’t have the same local references.’ Milla leaned forward, and kissed her cheek. ‘So unfortunately, I’m going to have to keep you in the friend bucket.’
‘You’re not mad?’ Stef asked.
Milla looked confused. ‘Why would I be mad?’
‘I dunno, you always hear stories, like- People getting mad because they can’t have the object of their affection. Like it’s their fault or something.’
‘Patriarchy, lol,’ Milla said sadly. ‘Making friends is as important as making love. More important. I’ve had very few lovers that weren’t friends. Sex can only replace so much conversation, and at the end of the day, I’d rather fuck someone I like spending time with, than some random hottie.’
‘I’m glad to know I’m not in the random hottle bucket then.’ The words had come out before she’d thought them through. It was clever wordplay, it was making a callback to something that had just been said, but with context-
Milla leaned back against the other end of the couch, and extended her legs, so that their feet meet. ‘Are you asking me to fuck you, Agent?’ Milla asked, rolling the word around in her mouth.
Three paths lay before her. There was the Stef that said yes. The Stef that said no. And then there was the Stef that told the truth.
She drew in her legs, and pulled them tight to her chest. ‘Something. Something. Um. Happened in Russia. Or nearly happened. Or didn’t happen, but might have. Whichever way you want to put it.’ She picked at the fabric covering her knee. ‘Something that- And I’ve been wondering every hour since if I should just go get laid. Just so that it’s my choice. So that if I ever do-‘ She stared down at her hands. ‘I know it doesn’t make any sense. I’ve never wanted to have sex. I’ve never been interested in it. And now it’s all I can think of. Which is bad because it makes me think about Russia more than I ever want to. And because I have so little actual knowledge, I can’t even do the imaginings properly, so it’s mostly just boobs seen through Dutch-angled, blurred-edged Kirk!vision.’
‘Never rush into sex,’ Milla said. ‘I was too young for my parents to ever give me any advice, but Billy’s about the most sensible father anyone could wish for, and we had a lot of frank, open talks when I was younger. Not so much mechanics, but the consent, the idea of being ready, and busting all the stupid myths about virginity, and how losing it makes you dirty, or less special, or whatever. Your first time is always going to be your first time, but it doesn’t have any bearing on your future relationships. I was too young. I was fifteen. I was young, dumb and in love. And she was so pretty. And a year older. I thought she was amazing. Physically, it was good, but emotionally…I wish I’d waited, at least a bit longer. So I don’t count my first time as anything special. But I’ve had plenty of special experiences since then.’
‘It feels like I have to,’ Stef said, trying to parse her feelings into words. ‘Even though I know I won’t enjoy it. I feel like I’m…on a track towards a decision, one of those cartoon train bridges, where there’s nothing but Wile E Coyote drops either side, and the Hogwarts express is screaming down the track behind me. Ahead is sex. To the side is cowardice. And if I don’t move, I’m going to get run over.’
‘You realise,’ Milla said, ‘these are all the worst possible reasons to have sex, right? I can understand wanting to be in control, but it almost seems like that’s the overture, but not the heart. You want to do it because you think you have to, with no- You’ve never even considered the possibility that you could enjoy it, have you?’
Stef stared at her fingers. ‘I imagine a dark room. Lying back. Closing my eyes. A guy. And- Not…pain, but an uncomfortable experience.’
‘And that’s your- That’s your ideal scenario? Have you never thought about being swept off your feet and-‘
Stef pointed to the ceiling. ‘See above where I said I didn’t think anyone would ever like me? I’ve always thought fantasies like that would just be cruel to imagine. To dedicate mental processes to embellishing details to a fantasy that could never come true. I can’t be disappointed for not getting something when I’ve never wished for it in the first place.’
‘You need to realise, Agent, that’s it’s not such an impossible proposition. I’m not going to say you’re going to go out and trip over the individual of your dreams.’ Milla paused. ‘You’re ace, but do you have any gender preference for the person you could potentially fall in love with?’
Stef quirked an eyebrow at the Milla. ‘Not that I’ve ever really thought about it. But- No. I don’t think I’d pass on someone who was a potential match for me just because of their gender.’
Milla grinned. ‘Well, you know what that makes you, right?’
Stef lifted her hands to her mouth, almost afraid of her words. ‘The acey version of a slut?’
Milla slapped the couch. ‘Don’t use that word. That’s a shitty word. And no. You’re a pancake!’ she said, taking delight in the word. ‘Panromantic asexual. Pancake.’
‘Oh no,’ Stef said, a smile crawling across her face, even as she kept her voice deadpan. ‘I’m delicious.’
‘You probably are,’ Milla said, a probably-flirty smile on her face.
Stef felt another blush. She was being flirted with. Someone was flirting with her. Someone was calling her cute. The flattery was working. She paused for a moment, wondering if even considering moving forward with the proposal made her…easy. The idea of attraction, of looking at someone and going “hot” was still a static grey wall, and always would be…but for the first time, the concept that she might partake in the act, didn’t seem so far-fetched. Didn’t seem so…utterly outside of her scope of what she expected to experience within her life.
Milla was…so much like her. She knew what it was like to be crazy. To be on the outside. To- To have good things, and still feel that shitty, deep, dark sadness that meant you knew you’d never truly be one of the happy, shiny people.
‘I really, probably don’t taste like pancakes,’ she said, and she was unsurprised to feel a tear crawling its way down her cheek. ‘It’s just become this really big thing in my head, and- And I don’t want it to be anymore.’
Milla slid closer, and held out her hand, then slowly folded back all of her fingers bar one. ‘I pinky promise we can still be friends afterwards.’
Stef looked at Milla’s hand, then reached out, and hooked pinkies with the recruit. ‘Not- Not tonight though. I need-‘ She barked a laugh, and some of the tension slid away from her chest. ‘I need to figure out if this is the decision I’m actually making.’
Milla grinned. ‘I technically have to take you around the borders of Hyde’s Agency territory tomorrow. There’s nothing to say we can’t turn it into a date.’ Milla’s eyebrows raised. ‘One-night-stand or not, I don’t mind wining and dining my lovers beforehand.’ She considered for a moment. ‘Or soft drinks and snacks. Whatever we actually feel like eating. I don’t actually like wine. Billy buys a bottle every year or so, and stashes it away for my future wedding, but I actually prefer the pretty fae drinks. Angel water and cream, or Scotch and sparkles, or a pitcher of purple foam.’
Stef looked down at her hands, at the pinkies that were still linked. ‘And if I chicken out?’
Milla shrugged. ‘We still have a bunch of DVDs to watch.’ Her eyes shone. ‘And we can raid Doc Holliday’s laserdisc collection if we really get bored.’
Stef leaned forward, feeling unsure of her actions. Feeling- Feeling like she’d stepped off the edge of the world, and was waiting for a cloud to catch her, and kissed Milla’s cheek. She let her lips linger for a moment, then retreated, her cheeks burning again. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I haven’t kissed anyone in like a decade. I just- Thank you.’
‘Cute lady agents never have to apologise for kissing me,’ Milla commented mildly. Milla stood, and extended a hand. ‘I have to have my meds and head to bed. Sleepover? We won’t- Spooning’s pretty awesome, even when it’s not following sex.’