23 – The Care and Feeding of Dragons
There was a chime on the door.
Stef sighed and sat up, simulated nebula gasses swirling around her head.
She looked down at her phone and dialled down the space sim – restricting the particle effects mostly to the room’s walls, roof and floor. Conversation couldn’t really happen with galaxies passing in front of your face.
Her HUD let her know it was Mags on the other side of the door – surprising, but probably better than one of the other options.
Mags, at least, probably just wanted to let her know what weird violence would happen to her body next. Especially since that morning’s session had been cancelled due to “Solstice motherfucker circumstances”.
The door to the sim room opened, and Mags, her outfit only a little bit bloodstained, stepped in, and the door slid closed behind her.
‘Not what I was hoping, but not surprised, unless you’re into mildly weird shit, Mimosa.’
Stef moved to sit crosslegged and gestured to a tablet. ‘Doing some of the long-form answer stuff in section nineteen. Voice-to-text is more entertaining when you’re drifting through the Horsehead Nebula.’
‘I know you’re skipping around a bit. It’s inevitable, but-’
If her heart still beat, it would have seized up. As it was, her Spyder-sense anticipated the next sentence and sent out the appropriate overdoses of anxiety and dread.
‘-part seventeen,’ Mags continued. ‘You’re about a week behind on Jones’ management schedule. I kind of hoped to come in here and find you wrapped in some cosmic horror pile of limbs. Instead, you’re stargazing.’
‘This isn’t your purview, Aide,’ she said, her voice immediately going stiff and formal, RP loading itself into her vocal cords, ready to deploy.
‘I help shit get done around here, Agent,’ Mags snapped back, ‘so unless you want to have this conversation with Jones or, for fuck’s sake, your dad, you’re going to deal with me. Part seventeen, what’s the hold-up?’
Part seventeen, subsection B, was another set of body parameters measuring feedback, responses, and handling requests for recalibration.
Unfortunately, it was very specific body parameters and feedback.
Body parameters and feedback she wasn’t able to handle.
Immediately, she got to her feet. ‘Part seventeen is unnecessary human frailty. I’ve tried to close out the associated activities with null answers, but it wouldn’t accept that. This, in my opinion, is-’
Mags held a “stop talking” hand so close to Stef’s face that any further movements of her lips would have had her kissing the probably-sweaty-and-bloody hand.
‘You’re absolutely aware that everything you’re saying is bullshit. Even if you had some weird dream to get recruited by those husks that some agents think are the platonic ideal of anyone made of blue, you’re human, and they wouldn’t even deign to look in your direction. My life is too short for bullshit. Seventeen. What’s the hold-up?’
She looked past Mags. ‘Can’t- Um- Can’t?’
‘I know being dead and then locked in here probably hasn’t done wonders for your dating life, but that’s what sims are for.’
‘No,’ she said, the word weak, a barely audible wish for Mags to stop her line of questioning.
Part seventeen, to her horror, was the part agentification process that was concerned with-
‘Everyone has fucked a sim. It’s just sex, Mimosa.’
In a Venn diagram, her life was one circle, and a circle labelled “sex” was somewhere hidden on the other side of the world, down a well, under a brick. Something never to be interacted with. Something that she only had to think about when other people brought it up.
‘Whatever you’re into, you can call it up. Vanilla, or kinky as fuck.’
Something about Magnolia’s body language changed – whatever frustration she’d entered the room with seemed to wither away. ‘Talk to me, Mimosa. Whatever’s going on, it’s probably going to be better to talk to me than to have Jones doing a concerned mum face during the whole conversation.’
Stef stared at the wall. ‘I-’ She watched a comet for a moment. ‘I can’t- Answer- Can’t do any of it.’
She backed away from Magnolia, giving her a little bit of space from whatever Mags’ reaction was going to be.
‘Broken,’ she said, finally spitting out the word. Finally admitting her shame out loud, finally- Finally admitting her deficiency.
She stepped back to the wall and leaned against it, physically bracing for-
For Mags to lay a gentle hand on her shoulder.
‘Okay,’ Mags said, ‘talk to me.’
She stared down at the floor. ‘I never-’ She looked for words. ‘I mean, I guess that’s it, “I never”. Whatever the question is, that’s the answer. I’ve never been with anyone. Never- Wanted to. Even- Even tried the-’ She felt her cheeks burning. ‘Solo variant. And that didn’t work.’ She slid to the side, and Mags’ hand fell away. ‘So I have no idea how to answer any of the part seventeen shit without letting everyone who has access to this know- Know-’ She started to choke, hot tears on her cheeks. ‘It’ll be right there in text and charts how bloody broken I am. That I’m not a complete person. That-’
‘I’m going to hug you now,’ Mags said before holding her in something that was part hug, part hold that would restrain a criminal. ‘Breathe. Okay? I don’t know if you technically need to anymore, but do it anyway, okay?’
For a long moment, she held her breath, then gave up, and sobbed into Magnolia’s shoulder, tears falling onto blood gingham.
‘I’m already enough of a disappointment, and-’
Magnolia’s hand moved to cover her mouth and stifle any further words.
‘Stop talking, Mimosa.’
She slumped and gave into the actually-really-comforting hug. In the same way that the structure of her vest seemed to help keep her soul in her body and make it easier to stumble through moments of dissociation, this hug was doing the same thing.
‘Have you never talked to anyone about this before?’
Stef shook her head.
Mags swore softly, held her for another moment, then pushed Stef out to arm’s length, her hands on her shoulders. ‘You’re a fucked up little nerd, Mimosa, but not because of this.’
‘But-’ she said.
‘I didn’t say you could talk yet,’ Magnolia said gently. ‘Not having fucked anyone isn’t something to be ashamed of. That’s point one. The more important stuff, though – so there’s no one you’ve found attractive?’
Again, she looked down at the floor. ‘I’m not unaware of beauty standards, and I generally know when someone is attractive. I’m an adult, mostly, probably. Like you. You’re pretty. Like. Gorgeous.’
Mags gave a little laugh. ‘Oh?’
Her cheeks burned again. ‘I’m not telling you anything you don’t know and don’t- You’re pretty. Jonesy looks like he walked out of an anime. Things like that. It’s all- I can know that. And it doesn’t mean anything. I’ve never seen anyone who-’ She blinked back tears. ‘I’ve never- No pants feelings. I don’t know what it feels like, but I know I’ve never felt it.’
‘You’re terminally online, Mimosa. Have you never even accidentally stumbled over the word “asexual”?’
‘Yeah, of course, but that’s other people.’
‘You’re part of people, idiot.’
She shook her head. ‘No. I-’ She fought for words. ‘That’s a legit thing, and I’m just-’
‘If you say broken one more time, I’m going to get Jones to feed your body to a shark just to see what happens. The goddamn number fucking one thing people who are ace feel is that they’re broken and that the label is for other people. Well, that and a desire to own several small dragons.’ This time, Mags looked away. ‘Same way as the first thing bi people think is that they’re just fake greedy sluts.’
‘But ace people can- It doesn’t stop them from actually- And when I tried-’ If any more blood went to her face, she was going to pass out. ‘I didn’t feel anything.’
‘Tell me, Mimosa, what did you do?’
Stef looked down at her hands, formed a fist, then jammed her index finger in and out for a moment, and then dropped her hands, ready to die of embarrassment. ‘In- In and out. Like. Pokey. Like. Sex.’
‘Oh, you sweet idiot child,’ Mags said, pulling her in for another hug. ‘Oh, you- Oh. Honey. Oh, sweetheart. You’re just terrible at masturbating. Doing that- Fingers, toy or a dick, isn’t enough to make most people come. You probably didn’t even touch your clit, did you? Do you even know what your clit is?’
‘But I tried a couple of times?’
‘And the definition of insanity is?’
‘My headshot next to the term in the dictionary?’
‘You little idiot,’ Mags said. ‘This is easily fixed. You just had to say something.’ A couch appeared, and Mags pulled her down to sit on its really-really plush surface. ‘First.’ Mags pushed a folder at her, one with a black-grey-white-purple heart on the front. ‘Start reading some of that stuff. This is your life, so I don’t get to define your sexuality, but you are being a textbook baby-ace right now.’
A plate of cookies appeared, half iced with the black-to-purple ace gradient, the others with a blue-purple-pink flag. ‘Something just clicked for me the first time I called myself “bi”,’ Mags said, taking the pink section off one of her cookies. ‘It was like…touching base when playing tag, or eye of the storm or something, everything else was spinning, and I…finally made sense to myself.’
Stef stared at the index, which included chapters like “The Care and Feeding of Dragons”, “Cake is Better than Sex”, and “How to Tastefully Display Twenty-Five Pieces of Ace Flair”.
She flipped to the introduction, which had a chibi-agent illustration floating by way of an ace balloon, and felt her breath hitching as every word resonated as loudly as a bridge about to rip itself apart.
I’m allowed not to be broken?
‘I’m allowed to be…’
Every word made sense.
On the next page were short stories from recruits and other Agency personnel. People who had found love. People who had added “aro” to their descriptor. People who liked sex, people who didn’t, and people who struck compromises with their partners.
People, dozens of people, who had felt as broken as she had.
She looked up at Mags and didn’t even bother to hide that she was crying. ‘Thank you.’
Mags offered one of the ace-heart cookies. ‘Anyone fucks with you, you come to me. Bi-ace solidarity is a thing, and it is alive and well in these walls.’
Still sniffling, she ate the cookie.
‘Now. Second.’ Mags held up her phone and waved it. ‘Jonesy is prepping an alternate part seventeen. You won’t have to do anything. Just be warned, if or when you get with someone, there’s always that one-in-a-million chance that something will go wrong, so make that part of the informed consent.’ Mags put her phone down. ‘You okay, Mimosa?’
‘Not right now, but,’ she looked down at the folder, at the new community she had, and managed a smile, ‘I think I will be.’