26 – Unreliable Data

Stef swallowed and tried to hold her breath. Holding your breath until you die was supposed to be impossible, but it just meant that–

A leaf fell from her knee and slipped onto the ground.

She was dirty. She was covered in mud and wrecking his couch. Wrecking his couch and giving him one more reason to hate her. She hunched in on herself, trying to minimise the impact on what had been his pristine office.

Blood pounded in her ears.

Aneurysm, please. Please. Please.

The sound of his footsteps finally cut through, and she pushed herself up from the couch, more leaves and detritus falling to the ground as she did.

She knelt, aiming for the dirty footprints on the carpet, and began to brush the detritus from the couch. It was leather, which helped. Her hands were muddy, which didn’t help.

‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.’ She wiped her hands on her jacket and tried again, still leaving muddy smears. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,’ she mumbled, tears starting again as she almost got it clean again, before paint dripped from her shirt and onto the black leather. ‘Shit!’ She tried to wipe it away, but only smeared it further. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.’

Big, strong hands came down on hers and held them still. The cushion became clean again in a second, then the dirt on her hands disappeared. The dirt and leaves on her sleeves and skin vanished as she felt the new-but-getting-familiar feeling of a new uniform appearing. A proper, suity uniform, not a doing-things-outdoors uniform.

There was a pfft of air as Ryan sat on the couch. He lifted her hands away from the cushion. ‘Stef?’

Words were for people. Words were for people who didn’t fuck up. Conversations were for the worthy.

Please just– Just let me I can’t be here

‘Tell me what happened.’

I fucked up. I fucked up and–-

Hide. She needed to hide. She needed to hide and– She tugged her hands away from his, pressed her head against the edge of the cushion and wrapped her arms around herself. It wasn’t a rational action. It wasn’t the action of a sane person. It felt safe.

She heard him moving, and she felt a hand on her shoulder. ‘It’s all right. Stef, everything is all right.’

Just let me go home; just let me go home. I wanted this, but I’m not good enough. I’m–

‘–not good enough. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Just let me go home, and you’ll never have to look at me again. I’m sorry for wasting your time; I’m sorry–’

She shut her mouth and pushed herself to her feet.

I am not too lazy to run to Adelaide Street. I’m not!

She turned for the door but was blocked by a wall made of agent.

He bent to her level and brushed the hair back from her face before slowly wiping at her cheeks with a handkerchief.

‘I’m sorry!’ she said again, nearly choking on the words.

Just let me leave before I screw things up.

His arms wrapped around her.

She froze for a moment, her hands dropping to her sides, her legs locking into place. His arms held her tight, held her together, and slowly started to chase away the scariness of the world, just as he’d chased away the impact of nearly being killed by a monster. Professional-level hugs.

Her hands balled into fists for a moment, then she relaxed them, raised her hands and tried to return the hug – which was a lot harder than hugging a pillow or a laptop or any of the other usual inanimate objects. Even apology-hugs to fridges were easier than hugging another person.

She was eye level with his vest and tie, and it was so familiar, it was safe. It was the old memory, the old dream of the old memory. Being safe and protected by a hug and the colour blue.

She slowly let him go, and he gave her a smile. ‘Do you want to talk about it now?’

Stef gave him the tiniest nod, then went back to the couch, unafraid to sit on it now that she was clean.

He sat on the couch beside her, apparently willing and ready to listen to what was wrong. Just like the day before, just like when he’d listened instead of shooting her. Talking. Getting listened to. Conversing. All strange things. All things that required an adjustment period. He sat, waiting her to talk, like a dad from a storybook waiting to hear about school bullies. She tensed at the thought, at the presumption of the metaphor. He was just a boss listening to the problems of the newbie, just–

He’d hugged her. Twice.

He’d hugged her, and she didn’t deserve it. It was a hug that belonged to someone else. Not a hug for someone who had messed up so badly–

Tears started to well up again. She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes and tried to push away the tears.

‘Simulations aren’t mandatory for agents,’ he said. ‘We don’t have a lot of standardised training. There are certain ones that we are all asked to do, in the interests of gathering statistics or comparing regions against each other.’

She tried to look up at him. ‘Are you going to tell me that you sucked at your first sim, too?’

Ryan handed her a glass of water and leaned back. He shook his head. ‘No, I was efficient with my first. With my fifth. With my tenth. You have to understand that when an agent is generated, it is very hard for them to do any wrong.’

She slowly moved to lean against the arm of the couch and brought her legs up beneath her. ‘What do you mean?’

‘When we’re generated, all we are is duty and policy and the knowledge of how to be an agent. While we’re not at our best because we don’t have experience, we can do no wrong, as we haven’t yet learned to act outside of our initial parameters. So, when I ran my fourteenth simulation and my actions led to three dozen civilians causalities, my actions were still beyond reproach, because I had followed my duty to the letter.’

‘So – so it takes you a while to become people?’ She bit down on her lip. ‘Wait. That sounds insulting. I didn’t–’

‘It’s not insulting,’ he said. ‘It’s accurate. Personality is an adaptation to and a product of your circumstances. Everyone deals with things in different ways. Some adaptations take longer than others.’

She looked up at him and shrugged. She stared down into the water, tapping the glass to make it ripple. ‘But I really, really screwed up. And I’m sorry, and I’m just not–’ She dismissed the water, and pressed her hands to her vest, aware of the imminent pun. ‘I’m just not suitable.’

‘You did fine yesterday.’

She stared down at her sneakers. ‘Which part of yesterday? When I slept in, when I pissed off Taylor, or when I nearly let a monster eat me?!’

‘When you used your head in your tests, when you didn’t let a monster eat you, and when you didn’t make fun of the misick for hiding in our drop box.’

‘But–’

‘You are asking the right questions, and you’re keeping an open mind. That’s all I ask of my recruits. Everything else will come in time.’

You don’t even know me! You–

‘–wouldn’t be positive if you actually knew me.’

‘I knew a little girl who wasn’t afraid of Death and who played with Limbo.’

‘I was a kid. I was too dumb to be scared.’

‘Recruit?’

She kept staring at her shoes. ‘What?’

‘Stef.’

She swallowed, then looked up at him. ‘What?’

‘I think you’re doing fine.’

The lump in her throat grew three sizes. ‘Why are you being nice to me?’

‘Do I need a reason?’ he said, sounding as confused as if she’d pontificated in perfect LOLcat.

She hunched in on herself. Smaller, she could make herself smaller. Small enough, and she’d collapse in on herself like a black hole, and then–

I’m wasting your time. Just tell me to leave.

‘Forget I said anything. Sorry.’ Smaller. Disappear. Smaller. Hide. ‘Just, I’m sure you can’t– Curt said you’re already doing two jobs, is counsellor a third? I don’t need false courtesy; I don’t need you to be nice.’

But he’s being nice, so don’t argue with it.

But if it’s false–

‘Do you think–’ he started. ‘Do you think I have conversations like this my other recruits?’

All the more reason not to talk to me.

‘Because everyone else has figured out that they shouldn’t bother the boss with petty crap, and–’

‘Do you think I have conversations like this my other recruits?’

‘You probably don’t need to. I can’t imagine that you recruit a lot of emotional cripples.’

‘A facade of strength only serves so many purposes.’

Why aren’t you mad at me?

She fought back tears. ‘It’s what people expect.’

‘I don’t.’

She managed to look up at him. ‘But I fucked up. I fucked up. And doesn’t that look bad for you? I just–’

‘Do you know what my director used to say to me?’

‘That you’re mister-awesome-narc?’

This earned a smile before he shook his head. ‘He said that all you have to do is learn one new thing a day. It’s astoundingly simple, but it represents improvement every day, and that is not trivial.’

Her hands flexed. ‘I learned about nymphs!’ she said, a tiny bit of excitement slipping into her voice. ‘Not everything, but more than I knew yesterday.’

Another smile. ‘See?’ he said. ‘And it’s not even lunchtime yet. I don’t think today is the disaster that you think it is.’

She unhunched a little. ‘No, it’s a disaster, but maybe there’s survivors?’

His face went blank for a moment, then he came back to reality and stood. ‘I apologise, but I have a meeting starting in a few minutes.’

‘Sorry.’

‘I have some free time this afternoon. I’ll book it into your schedule, and you can tell me what else you’ve learned.’

She gave him a tiny smile as she climbed to her feet. ‘Okies.’

He stared at her for a moment, then reached across to straighten her tie. ‘And Recruit?’

‘Yus?’

‘You still owe me your paperwork from yesterday, so don’t forget to bring that with you.’

‘Yessir.’

[table id=15 /]

25 - The Grove and the Grave
27 - Levelling Up

35 Replies to “26 – Unreliable Data”

    1. …one purpose. Then again, it’s not like MLP is ever far from my brain.

      And I totally wasn’t watching the S2 finale while writing this.

      133654911094

      Again though, not on purpose. While I do see Twi and Celestia as a psudeo-parental relationship (it’s heavily implied that when she went off to school as Celestia’s student, she basically holed up with her books and didn’t leave, so who knows how often she sees her parents). But theirs is always going to be a teacher first, family second relationship – whereas Ryan is all “I will hug her and love her and call her George! *adopt* *adopt* *adopt*”.

  1. ………..
    you need to stop making stef think like me. make me cry.
    i hates you.
    no i doesn’t, i loves you for it. but still. your fictional character sometimes gets a little toooo real.

    1. But to be fair, that’s kinda my intention. Wibbly people need more representation – otherwise we’re left to be either invisible or in literary fic where that’s the only focus, and doesn’t account for the fact that people have to live their lives outside of being wibbly.

      I do worry though for when this gets at the wider world, and a larger audience, that she might be stacked up against the typical UF heroine and be declared inadequate, because people have entirely missed the point.

      I mean, this is the second (or third) time she’s broken down crying in the last 36 hours. I’m just wary of the kinds of comments I’ll get from people who don’t…get it. -_-

      1. i know that’s the intention. (by the by, i hate/love linkin park for the same reason some days. those sneaky songs where it’s all good music and then WHAM uber-depressingly-poigniant lyrics) and i DO love that stef is so real and wibbly like me….just not at the precise moment she’s making me try reallyreeeeally hard not to cry.see, now? now i LOVE that this scene happens. totally not going to reread it just now, though, in case i cray again. my ramen is salty enough.

        1. …and give her a few more wibble moments through the series, because if you look at the original version, she’s just too normal most of the time, and even the Agency pax isn’t good enough to combat all of her issues all the time.

        2. ….i didn’t notice too much of a lack of them first time around… though that might have been the action all over the place. (besides panicking because some guy touched you and punching him in the dick repeatedly totally counts as a wibble.)

  2. 10 Points for:
    Even apology-hugs to fridges

    Thought I hope there were some apology magnets too, not sports related ones, of course.

        1. …have that much incriminating stuff anyway. She’s more likely to print out memes and “FOR FUCKS SAKE BUY COFFEE” reminders. 😛

    1. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced apology-hugs to fridges. Though I will say it’s hazardous to hug the tree that hit you when you walked by it.

        1. no, i don’t think many/any people have. i do however occasionally have to apologize to inanimate objects for running into them.and trees are …pokey. and uncomfortable.

        2. …stupidly pokey, so you’ve got to luck out and find a smooth-barked one. 🙂

          Paper trees are kinda fuzzy though, they work. 😀

        3. yes they are, as are birch, and ponderosa pine (kinda scratchy, but they smell like rich vanilla when you stick your nose in their cracks)

          Of course, our “trees” are extra pokey (in arizona, lotsa cactus)

        4. heh, it was supposed to! but really, they have long deep cracks in the bark that run down their length.

        5. but, you already did that, and at its roots, isnt all nymph porn just knot hole-y like masturbation porn?

        6. …but now I’m kinda imagining more treeish nymph porn, rather than humanish nymph porn, if that makes sense. >_>

        7. don’t resist the nymph porn! doooo iiiiiiiit! the internet IS for porn, after all.

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