Being a gentleman, he opened the car door for her.
Being some sort of gremlin, she’d stared at him, at the car, back again, and said, “you have to drive, I can’t”.
‘Newbie, I’m not-’ He felt his head tilting as he tried to figure out if she was fucking with him, and then sighed as a tiny smile broke through her tired expression. ‘Come on, in.’
Curt circled the car and settled into the driver’s seat, enjoying the one luxury he really allowed himself when it came to his life at the Agency.
He kept his room so close to default it seemed like he had no personality, even when some recruits – like Sacha – had entire mansions hidden behind an ordinary door.
Part of it had not been wanting to feel like he had a life at the Agency. Part of it was not wanting to get smacked down for taking advantage of the freedom they’d allowed him. Part of it, he knew, was just punishing himself.
A car, however, was okay. In his mind, it was like a rental, something he could enjoy when needed, but he could handle the loss of if they decided to restrict his requiring licenses.
So while it lasted, and each day that was more of a sure thing, with Queen Street becoming somewhere he belonged, somewhere he had a place, if not somewhere he felt comfortable yet…While it lasted, he’d drive something fast, expensive, and red.
He looked across at Stef to make sure she was buckled in, and that she had managed not to strangle herself with the seatbelt and drove off towards the garage exit.
It was a simple plan, and one that made for a good first day, as getting her used to the city through new eyes was part of her ongoing training.
And a drive to show her where all the outposts were was a good, no-stress way to begin her official job as an agent.
‘So we’ll do south of the river before lunch,’ he said, ‘north of the river after lunch. A few don’t fit into the route that well, so you can get some shifting practice in.’ He took one hand off the wheel, reached into his jacket, and handed her the map he’d made the previous evening. ‘Here’s the plan.’
He slowed down to not run the yellow light. ‘Mm?’
‘Can I keep it?’
‘I mean, sure, Newbie. Why?’
She tugged on the edges of the paper to stretch and straighten it. ‘I’m gonna scan it in and make a copy, but I’m also going to tie some AR notes to the physical copy, cause I’ve been doing that with some,’ she paused, ‘stuff. And it’s really fun.’
He knew she’d been making virtual – and only visible to her – lists to help with all the education and cramming she’d had to do while she’d been in her post-agentification phase, but there was something in her tone, in the slight hesitation that-
‘Does “stuff” include people. Does “stuff” include me? Do you have a bunch of murder board notes around my head?’
She lightly tapped his left shoulder, the touch so brief he wasn’t sure if it had been real. ‘I have most of them branching off from here. But they’re not on all the time.
‘Anything I should be worried about?’
‘No,’ she said, and he wasn’t at all convinced.
‘Okay, so we’re hitting up Wynnum first. Do you know anything about Agent Kelly?’
Somewhere to his left, a truck horn sounded.
Almost immediately, Stef screamed, then went silent.
‘Fuck, fuck, Newbie?!’ he started to turn his head to look at her, but another horn sounded as he began to drift into the next lane. He jerked on the wheel, overcorrected, and nearly hit a second car.
There was something wet on his leg. Fuck. Blood. But there hadn’t been a shot or- The noise from the truck might have-
He pressed the accelerator to the floor, overtook two cars, and barely missed the guardrail as he shot onto the closest exit.
Drive. He had to drive. If he took his eyes off the road for a second- Well, she’d probably be fine, but there might not be enough of him left for Parker-2 to put back together.
Red light. Through the red light. More horns.
He tried to overlay his mental map of where he was and, for once, was grateful for all the long, lonely hours he’d spent just driving around the city, trying to get used to his new home.
Tyres screamed as he took a left turn. Park. There was a park with a hidden entrance to Faerie. If they couldn’t shift, then at least they’d have a way out.
He eased off the accelerator a little, took his left hand off the wheel, and reached towards Stef, awkwardly slapping his hand against her face. Warm. Breathing. Tears. Good. Whatever had happened hadn’t-
Gravel crunched under the tyres as he slammed to a halt in the parking lot of the small picnic area.
Gun in one hand, he unclipped his belt, turned, braced his back against the steering wheel, and looked for signs of pursuit. After a count of five, nothing, so he spared a look at Stef.
She was barely moving, her body tight and curled, her face wet with tears. In her hands, the slushie was a mess, spraying green ice and sugar over her uniform, her seat and- That was what the wetness against his leg had been. Not blood. Good. But-
He looked out through the back window again, still no pursuit.
He looked at Stef again and saw no signs of injury. No- This hadn’t been an attack. It had been something else.
A thought dismissed his gun. Opened his door and quickly rounded to the passenger side. None of her weight was against the door, so she barely moved as he opened her door and knelt on hot gravel to bring himself down to her level.
She blinked once as he came into her field of vision, but otherwise, stayed locked in place.
‘Everything’s okay,’ he said as gently as he could. ‘I know that sounds like bullshit right now, but it’s true.’
Green slushie dripped off the leather seat onto the gravel and dirt.
He looked at the cup in her hands – she’d completely crushed it, her fingers ripping through the cardboard to curl back to form two tight fists, each holding onto sodden remnants of the cup. Blood mixed with the ice on her hands, her fists so tight she was cutting into her own skin.
‘Oh, Newbie,’ he said quietly.
He looked down at his hands and required a copy of a cat plush he’d seen once – an almost perfectly spherical purple cat with huge eyes and a little tail. Carefully, he reached in and grabbed the piece of the cup in her right hand slowly enough so that it wouldn’t scare her.
‘Please, Newbie,’ he said and gave it a tug, gentle enough to not seem threatening, strong enough so she’d have to expend energy to fight him on it.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her blink, and at a glacial pace, she relaxed her grip just a little and let him pull the wet cardboard away.
He dropped the cup to the ground, took her hands in his, just long enough to see that the fingernail cuts were healing themselves, and placed the plush in her sticky hands.
Her hands immediately curled around the purple cat and pulled it to her chest.
This little bit of movement seemed to unlock her a little, enough to let her curl further towards the fetal position, her face mashed against the leather of her seat, eyes aimed out towards the park, but not really seeing anything.
He turned his back to her and sat crosslegged, the back of his head just barely touching one of her pointed knees. ‘Just…tell me when you’re okay. We don’t have to move till you are.’ He reached into an inner pocket and pulled out the pen she’d gotten him as a present for officially becoming an aide.
‘Got this if you need to talk.’
There was no change to the engraving on the clip. It just sat as the poking-tongue-emoji that had been her final parting shot after a playful argument about Star Trek uniforms.
He required a tablet and brought up the specs for this car. He’d only made a few alterations to it, mainly in the performance and armour categories. Driving around in an Agency uniform made for an ongoing target, even if the red sports car wasn’t the first thing most Solstice would associate with agents.
‘It was the truck horn, wasn’t it?’ he said. Unless this had been an entirely out-of-the-blue panic attack, the loud horn had been the only external stimulus that had coincided with her reaction.
And it wasn’t as though she didn’t have moments where she froze without external cause, nothing he could clue in on. But…a lot of those moments seemed to come more from stress, and the scream he’d heard had been pulled from some deep, primal place of pain or fear.
After a long moment, the engraving on the pen’s clip changed to a thumbs-up.
‘What I can do is change the sound-proofing qualities. I can-’ He paused and looked at a few more options. ‘Actually, I can entirely filter out that entire category of sounds. It might fuck us a little if we’re ever in a chase with a truck or something, but I’m going to take that risk.’
He made the necessary changes, and with a button tap, the car behind him refreshed, taking on the new attributes – and clearing away all the splattered slushie, though not the chunks that had melted into her uniform.
‘There,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t help what happened, but it can help going forward.’
For a long few minutes, there was nothing but the background sounds of traffic and the closer noise of someone stupidly mowing their yard during the hottest part of the day.
Something soft touched his hair, and he smiled as Stef bounced the purple cat up and down on his head.
‘I’m covered in green.’
‘I know, Newbie.’
‘I look like Slimer puked on me.’
‘Yeah, you do.’
Slowly, she shuffled behind him, and he moved over so she could slide down to the ground beside him. She held the cat in her lap, turning it over and over, squeezing it gently with her hands that were covered in dried blood and the remains of green syrup.
She adjusted a bit, pulled out a pointy rock from under her butt, chucked it towards the edge of the parking lot, and then settled, her arm barely touching his.
‘Is this okay?’
He leaned to bump his shoulder against hers. ‘The Khitomer Accords do allow for this breach of territory without punitive action.’
She hugged her purple cat tighter, and with a sigh that made her body sink even lower, she pressed her arm against his. ‘I didn’t used to- I used to handle everything by myself.’ She resumed rotating the plush. ‘But now it’s like- There’s people I can rely on, and that’s still scary. And I know I’m too much. And- I want you to be mad at me cause I fuck everything up. And I want you to hate me-’ Her voice shook. ‘And even more than I want you to hate me, I want you not to hate me.’
‘I don’t hate you, Newbie. There’s not a lot you could do to make me hate you. This was a bad moment. You had a bad moment. If we stay friends, I’m gonna see you have a hundred more, a thousand more, and that’s okay,’ he said, stressing the last two words. He shuffled to sit facing her. She was staring at the patch of ground between them, arms still tightly wrapped around the cat. ‘Look at me? I know it’s hard.’
After a moment, she lifted her head enough to stare through the hair covering her eyes.
‘I know things are easier for you when they’re said in really plain words. So you know there’s no subtext or doublespeak or whatever. I don’t hate you. I don’t think less of you when you have a bad moment. I would like to be a better friend and know your coping mechanisms or what you want me to do in specific situations. There, okay? Got me?’
She puffed out a long breath and blew some of the hair out of her face. ‘I hear you.’
He waggled a finger. ‘There’s no “buts” okay?’
‘Yeah, there is. I just had a rock poking in mine.’ She smiled weakly. ‘Okay. I’ll trust for now that there’s no “buts”.’ She pressed a hand to her chest, and her uniform finally refreshed itself, clearing away the sticky, melted slushie. ‘It doesn’t usually- I’ve heard trucks before. Just not- Not that close for ages. It’s different when they’re on the street, and you’re in a building. And I was feeling good and safe and- And- Just- Just- Ripped straight through. Car accident. I was in a car accident. I don’t know if I said that. EMS didn’t bother pulling me out at first cause they thought I was dead. I mean- I musta looked dead. Had enough shit ripping holes in me. The fact that nothing fucked with my spine is some sort of miracle.’
‘Holy shit, Newbie, I’m so sorry.’ The words came out reflexively. It was the kind of rote thing you said when someone shared a tragedy. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, trying to sound sincere and not like a sympathy greeting card.
You weren’t always supposed to share a similar story, even if it proved you could empathise with their situation. It could be seen as taking the spotlight off them, but- If he was wrong, he could apologise, but part of him knew she’d appreciate the context.
‘My little sister got hit by a car. I was like, nine, she was like, seven. Drunk guy mounted the footpath, she was in the driveway. We were gonna go out- My parents weren’t watching.’ He brushed the ground in the small patch between them and drew a naughts-and-crosses board. ‘She’s the reason I do okay with you. With your…you-ness. It was different with her. She was close to non-verbal all the time, so I got really good at trying to figure out what her tells meant. When she was angry versus frustrated, when something was a little problem, when something was going to cause a meltdown. Even if- There are always going to be people who understand you and people who don’t understand you. You need to stop thinking you’re worthless just because your brain is a bit different. Everyone’s got stuff, Newbie, even if it’s not as obvious.’
‘Most…’ Her voice faded, and she drew a circle into the board, then wiped the dust on the leg of her pants.
He drew a cross.
‘It’s hard. Existing…when you feel like bedlam orderlies could show up and drag you off to a padded room. It’s not safe being like me. Not safe having other people know what I am. You-’ Tears dropped into the dirt. ‘You are the first friend- First? Yeah, first really. I don’t remember most of primary school. The only reason anyone spoke to me at boarding school was public civilness, and most of the time, that didn’t exist. You are my first friend, and I am terrified to say anything.’ She dropped the cat onto the ground. ‘Everyone has stuff, fine. How many hurt themselves to get through a conversation. Or-’ She blew her nose into her sleeve. ‘How many have hallucinated? How many have a voice in their head?’ Her question barely made it out through ragged breaths.
She looked terrified. Blue eyes sat wide in a snotty, tear-streaked face, her expression telling him that the merest thread of a tether was stopping her from shifting away and never coming back.
He’d seen men about to die less afraid than the girl in front of him.
‘I’m still here. I’m not leaving.’
She blew her nose into her other sleeve.
He retrieved the cat and offered it to her.
Stef stared at it for a moment, wiped her nose again, lifted the cat out of his hand, dropped it into her lap, and then took his hand with both of hers. ‘Is it- Really okay?’ she asked, staring at the ground.
‘Yeah, Newbie, it is.’
She squeezed his hand and let out a shuddering breath. ‘Thank you.’
He looked at her carefully – sometimes, there were times to push. Sometimes, there were times to back the fuck off, and moments like this needed a very, very careful decision. The terror was mostly gone, but some shadow of it still remained, some unneeded reminder of how fragile she was.
She’d trusted him with the big thing, so maybe it was okay to ask the questions that would help him help her, to be the kind of friend she deserved.
Unfortunately, the book recommendations he’d gotten from Two didn’t cover anything in this arena – he’d focussed on supporting what was obvious, what he’d been able to glean from their interactions, the moments that had led to giving her the soundboard, or figuring out how to work with her inconsistent concentration. To draw out the occasional seconds that would let her feel accomplished and to see her weird, unpracticed smile.
These were entirely new waters.
She was still holding his hand, and he angled his hand a little so that she wasn’t doing all the work.
“I’ve got voices in my head” brought to mind a hundred horror movie images, conjecture if something like that was even real – even possible – and on and on, a pile of useless facts, trivia and tropes.
Having read some comics with Harvey Dent in them meant nothing. Being able to approximately quote a bunch of Gollum dialogue was useless.
He needed to tread carefully.
One time, he’d asked her, “tell me what I need to know”, to not push for information but to let her know he was listening. Part of him was tempted to go this route again, but it didn’t seem quite right.
‘What would you like to tell me?’
Her hand jumped under his, surprised at something – either that he’d spoken, or that he’d asked this question, or maybe that they were still there.
‘I’ve-’ her knee bounced. ‘It’s not like I’ve ever- Talking about it is hard. Like. It’s hard and weird to even put it into words in my brain.’
A car pulled up at the other end of the lot, and three tiny primary schoolers immediately ran for the playground. Their mother followed, imploring them not to get their uniforms too dirty.
‘I told Ryan it’s like I’ve always had an older sister in my brain. It’s not how I think of her – me, her, me – but it’s an easy analogy.’ She pulled her hand away to draw in the dirt, not a rejection of him, but some easily understandable “need to do something with my hands” moment. ‘I’m- I’m always me.’ She wasn’t looking at him, and the tremble was back in her voice. ‘It’s not like- You don’t have to get used to Newbie-one and Newbie-two or something.’
Her left hand latched onto her head, and he could see her fingernails digging into her scalp.
‘Hey, you don’t-’
She shuffled to turn a little away from him, enough so that he didn’t reach for her. ‘I always- I already told you the bad bit,’ she said. ‘Leaving this bit unsaid now-’ She wrenched her hand away from her head to hold onto the stuffed cat with both hands. ‘I think it’s easier cause I told Ryan already. But I’m- I’ve had this bottled up since I was barely older than them,’ she said, lifting the plush to point at the kids on the playground. ‘Do you know what- What it’s like to have been crazy for what feels like your entire life? Especially when it’s- It’s not a- We’re barely past the point where having depression or anxiety, both of which I very much have,’ she said, bouncing the cat emphatically, ‘is something more than a very special episode of TV. I know I’m a lot, and I’m a lot, even without this. And this is the kind- I’m some special edition secret magic fed now, and I’m still- I don’t know that bouncy walls and hug jackets aren’t in my future. I’ve never been safe enough to not worry about that.’ She leaned a little and put the cat on his hand, holding his hand by proxy. ‘So I hope you have some idea how much friendship XP you’ve power-levelled through.’
‘I’m still here, Newbie. You didn’t scare me off.’
She let the cat rest on his hand and switched to patting its head, fingers pulling dust and leaf litter from the fur. ‘It’s just basically like- Like there’s a more responsible me in here. Someone who isn’t stupid and distracted all the time. The optimal Stef, the all-business-mode Stef, the one who stops me from walking into traffic and tells me to eat when I’ve had nothing but Coke for thirty-six hours.’
He nodded, taking it all in. This wasn’t some villain origin story or even some more mundane…faces? His fingers itched to take notes about what he would need to research. What terms he was going to need to know.
It sounded nice, in a strange way. To have someone looking out for your best interests, even if that person was…also yourself?
‘Do I need to call h-her, you, anything different? Do you need me to do anything different?’
She shook her head. ‘Like I said, she doesn’t come out, so it’s always me. It’s more like-’ She twisted her fingers together. ‘I wish there was some clean metaphor. Just bits that make up the whole. I get to be as dumb and scared in here as I want, and I just get nudged towards something a little less catastrophic, and, yeah?’
‘I think I can handle that, Newbie. Now-’ He let out an “oof” as she turned back and hugged him, squeezing the air out of him. ‘If you kill me,’ he said, ‘that’s a breach of the accords.’
‘I’m not used to hugging people that need to breathe.’ Her grip didn’t lessen. ‘Thank you- For being safe. For- Friend. Being a friend.’
He pressed his right foot into the ground and gave himself the leverage to change positions just a little bit so that he could awkwardly hug her back. Gently, nothing she couldn’t break away from, hopefully not too much to handle.
‘If- If I think about- Think of anything else I need to tell you,’ she said, pulling back after a minute, wiping more snot and tears onto her sleeve, ‘I’ll let you know. But- I think these are the important bits.’ Her gaze was off to the side, but he was getting to know her well enough to know this wasn’t just “direct eye contact avoidance”, this was “ooh, something shiny”.
And he didn’t even need to turn his head.
‘You can have a turn when the kids leave,’ he said. ‘Just for five minutes, okay?’
‘If I agree to ten, promise you won’t ask for fifteen.’
‘Deal.’ Without looking, she held out a pinkie, which he shook.
It would have been weird to say “thank you”, but he mouthed the words at the back of her head as she sucked on another slushie while she waited for the kids to finish with the playground, and by the look of the pacing mother, it wouldn’t be a long wait.
It was something big, and he still wasn’t sure he’d earned the trust she had in him, but he had time to work on it.
On the day he’d escaped Adelaide, Doctor Farnshaw – who, of all the agents there, had treated him the most like a human, if a monstrous one – had told him to find a reason to keep breathing, to make something of his second chance.
For a long time, becoming an aide had been the thing that had kept him going, but it had never felt like what Farnshaw had meant. Becoming an aide was more…a way to keep breathing. A path to finding something worthwhile to do with his second chance.
And it was starting to seem more and more like being friends with a girl who needed a signature to confirm their ongoing friendship status might just be a good reason to breathe, so long as she dialled down the strength of any future hugs, lest she accidentally grind his bones to dust.
It wasn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things, but it didn’t have to be. It just had to be enough.
The car with the mum and kids pulled away, and Stef turned to him, everything about her demeanour embodying a puppy begging to play.
‘Ten minutes,’ he said, his tone serious but letting a smile onto his face.
‘Yipee,’ she said, scrambling to her feet and running – Stef running, which was a weird kind of gentle jog – towards the wooden play structure.
‘Yipee?’ he echoed, but couldn’t keep the smile, a real, unaffected, not-carefully-calculated smile off his face.
He let out a long breath, and for the first time in forever, it was easy to breathe.