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30 - Shining on Shadows
‘This isn’t taking a shower.’
Stef raised her head and looked over to the conference room door. ‘Sorry.’ She unwrapped her arms from her knees. ‘I- I just needed to see. I just needed to-’ She looked back down to the dried puddle of blood. ‘Sorry.’
Ryan offered a hand down to her. ‘Come on, up off the floor, young lady.’
She lifted her hands and let him pull her up. ‘I don’t want to leave just yet. Please. Just. Not yet.’ Ryan turned a chair for her, and she sat. He sat beside her, and Curt sat opposite. ‘It was my fault,’ she said. ‘I shouldn’t- I shouldn’t have been in here. I shouldn’t have let him get my gun. But- You’ve got understand, I needed to know.’
‘Know what, newbie?’
‘He told me why he hated me,’ she said. ‘But…then I realised that he’d told me before. I remember because…cause it’s the only story he ever told me. I’d forgotten about it, cause I just thought it was just a crappy fairy tale. A story he’d made up because he didn’t want to take the time to read a whole book to me.’
‘There was a king and a queen, and they were very happy. They had all the treasures in the world, but they wanted a child.’
‘A child began to grow within the queen, the world’s most perfect little girl. A princess to make their life complete.’
‘They planted a rose garden for the princess, beautiful flowers that would bloom on the day she was born.’
‘A shadow saw the king and the queen and the little growing princess. A little horrible creature that had no family of its own, and it grew jealous the king and his wife.’
‘The shadow saw the princess, sleeping in her mother, and slipped in one night. The shadow tried to share with the little princess, but the shadow didn’t know how to share, only how to hurt.’
‘Slowly, the little princess choked, and the shadow took her place. On the day it was born, the roses died and the queen cried. She cried for the little princess she’d lost, and at the fate of being stuck with the nasty little shadow.’
She wiped tears away.
‘He…well, they, both of them, but my mother was weirder. Problematic pregnancy.’ She turned to Ryan. ‘I know I started it, but don’t call me a problematic pet any more, that’s something else I remembered. But it wasn’t pet. It was pest. He used to call me that when he was only mildly annoyed, and it just stuck in my head as something I should be called. Because I am. Problematic.’
‘No,’ Ryan said gently, ‘no, you’re not.’
‘Bad pregnancy, post-partum and failure to bond, that’s why my mother rejected me. But…she tried, at least a little. She had certain ideas about how having a child should be. That’s why I was a ballerina, that’s why I had a pony, that’s why, that’s why all that stuff. There were times when I aligned with her ideas, and in those moments, she truly loved me. Well, Stephanie. Even then I was splitting myself in two. Stephanie was the ballerina, the good girl, the one mother could love. Stef was me when I was alone, when I was really me.’
Ryan squeezed her hand.
‘She tried. James never did. I- I tried to convince myself that it was normal. But it wasn’t. I could see that, all the books I read with the loving parents. That’s how storybooks tell it, either the parents are great, or they’re dead. Nothing in between. Nothing to help me try and understand why they wouldn’t just hug me!’
She turned away, angry at herself for crying, then looked back to Ryan.
‘Why do you think I remember you? Other than the fact that it must have been fscking traumatising on some unconscious level,’ her voice started to strain. ‘You were kind to me.’ She bit her lower lip and felt tears brimming up again. ‘You were kind, how could I not think you were an angel?’
‘He killed me. I’m that worthless that he just killed me.’
‘You’re not worthless,’ Ryan and Curt said in unison.
‘But I am, to him. Try growing up in a household where you know you’re smart, but any time you try to express that, or do something with it, you’re shouted down and made to feel like a complete ignoramus. I stopped giving a fuck about my academic achievements when I was still in primary school, but at least I still had the grades to back it up. Competitions or whatever, no chance, couldn’t enter them, or they’d make excuses as to why I couldn’t attend. I kept trying. If I’d been dumb it would have been easier, or if I’d played dumb, maybe I could have learned to like it, and maybe…maybe things would have been different.’
‘You would have been miserable,’ Ryan said.
‘I was already miserable,’ she said. ‘One should not be a bitter, miserable cynic by age nine. One should not be resigned to the idea that no one could ever love them by age ten. James sold my pony, because I puked on him, that’s all the proof I needed to know how absolutely unworthy of love I was. I begged him and I scream and I cried and I didn’t even get to say goodbye. If you want to give a little girl proof there’s no god, take her pony away and tell her it’s being sold for glue.’
Curt set his jaw. ‘I’ll carve a pony into his chest for you. Say the word and-’
‘No,’ she snapped, forcing some volume into her voice. She leaned forward. ‘No. Don’t you dare.’
‘There’s no way that fuckstain is going to leave here alive,’ Curt said. ‘I mean, you can have a go yourself, but let me give you pointers.’
‘No,’ she said again. ‘You hate what you can do, I’m not going to ask you to do that for my own selfish gain when I know how much it’ll make you hate yourself.’
Ryan stood, and she spun on her chair, enjoying Taylor’s look of shock as he saw her. ‘You’re not dead,’ he said, recovering in a second.
She gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘Sorry?’
He grunted, then looked to Ryan. ‘One of Clarke’s fae has come to collect you, Director’s meeting.’ Taylor paused. ‘Contingency 32. Are they making a decision?’
‘Hopefully this time, they will, they were supposed to decide this morning, but it got delayed. Gods, I am not looking forward to this.’ Ryan looked down to her. ‘Will you be all right?’
‘As much as I can be.’
‘Get some rest?’
‘As much as I can.’
Ryan held her for a moment, parted her hair to find a spot that wasn’t covered with dried blood, kissed her, then left the room with Taylor.
‘Can I-’ she started to ask as she looked at Curt.
‘You can sleep with me on one condition,’ he said. ‘You take that shower you said you were going to have.’
‘But I don’t wannnnnnnnna,’ she whined, then nodded. ‘Actually, I kinda do.’
‘I don’t have any clean clothes in your size though.’
She stood. ‘Go dig in my office couch,’ she said. ‘Lift out the cushions, there’s an apocalypse kit hidden in there, just grab a couple of the uniform bags, one for now, one for morning.’
‘There’s also riot gear and rations, but I don’t think we need any of that.’
‘Why am I not surprised?’
She stuck out her tongue, then smirked. ‘Because you’ve met me before?’
They walked from the conference room, and parted ways at the end of the corridor.
She walked down the way too quiet hall to his room, opened the unlocked door, and stepped into the small bathroom. She closed the door and let out a deep breath.
She kicked off her shoes, then peeled off her socks, glad of the faint stinky-foot smell, the banality of it in amongst death and rebirth and apocalypse was wonderful. She loosened her belt and stepped out of her pants, then pushed on her underwear, the blue cotton panties sliding down her legs to join her pants.
Button by button, she opened the front of her vest, then held it closed for a moment before sliding it off. She stared at the back of it, at the gore – her gore – and choked back another sob. She ran her fingers over the dried remnants of herself, then released it from her hands.
Her shirt came next, again, one button at a time, and she could feel the stained collar sliding against her neck with every movement. She pushed it away from her shoulders, not bothering with another horror show, pulled off the purposeless bra and stared at her naked form in the mirror on the back of the door.
Scars, old and new, stood out on her skin. The old ones, from the crash, the ones that had killed her chances of a normal life, of being a real girl, or being a mother, of being a princess. The newer ones, the ones that given her everything. She put a hand over her heart, tracking each of the scars, the thick line that showed where the mirror had entered her, the tiny, thins ones from where a howler had clawed her heart from her chest, the thin scars from cutting herself open, and the new one from Ryan cutting her open to try and wish her back.
‘Never would have guessed,’ Curt said as he opened the door. He stared at her. ‘You do know you’re naked, right?’
She shrugged and grabbed one of the bags off him. ‘You’ve seen my scars. Didn’t think you needed a warning.’
He opened his mouth, closed it, shook his head and walked out of the bathroom.
She showered quickly, the blood coming away easily under the hot water. She dried herself, then tore open the bag, placed the uniform aside and dressed in her emergency code monkey clothes – cargo pants and a black shirt declaring that she sometimes knew what she was doing.
She pulled open the door of the bathroom and walked across the main room. Curt lay on the bed, already changed into a loose shirt and a pair of blue boxers. ‘Not wearing shoes, permission to board?’
‘Granted,’ he said.
She lifted the blanket and slid into the bed. ‘Coming in?’ she asked, tugging on the blanket. He sat for a moment, not saying anything, then stood, flicked off the lights, and slid into bed beside her.
‘You ok?’ she asked.
‘You’re asking me that?’ he asked, incredulity in his voice.
‘Of course I am.’
‘We lost you,’ he said as he rolled onto his side to look at her. ‘And now you’re back, and you’re ok, and-‘
‘These things happen,’ she said. ‘At least they do to me.’
‘Don’t do it again.’
‘I can’t make any promises.’
‘Make a statement of intent?’
‘I’ll try not to die again,’ she said. ‘Please. No more death talk. I can’t- Tomorrow. Or the day after. Okies?’
Horror filled his face. ‘I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to-’
She put a hand against his chest. ‘Relax. You’re doing fine. I’m just tired.’
He laid a hand on hers. ‘You shouldn’t be the one comforting me.’
‘And there’s not rules to life.’ She turned over and backed up against him. ‘I don’t think we get tomorrow off just cause I died, so we need sleep.’
For a moment, he rested his forehead against the back of her head, then retreated. ‘Night newbie.’
* * *
Skin touched skin, and it was perfect.
All he could hear was breathing, all could feel was pleasure spiking through his system.
She lay on top of him, warm, sexy, perfect, hair tumbling over her shoulders as she kissed him.
Someone slapped him in the face.
Curt sat up, blinking in the dark room. He touched his face, and looked down, and saw Stef flailing in her sleep as she drooled onto the slightly lumpy pillow that she’d unequivocally claimed as her own.
An erection strained against his boxers.
‘Great,’ he muttered.
‘Of course Zaphod was a Cylon,’ Stef said, then rolled over, nearly falling off the bed.
He shook her head, grabbed her shoulder and back towards the middle the of the bed.
‘Nurg,’ she said. ‘Is it morning?’
He put his pillow over her face. ‘Yeah, but I got the shower first, so sleep a bit longer, ok?’
* * *
Stef stared into the pillow over her face, imagining oceans and buried treasure in the folds of fabric. The dream logic of how everyone was in fact either a Cylon or Timelord – except those that were ninjas of various animal varieties – was fading, not even leaving her enough for a decent tech department discussion.
She needed to pee.
She pulled the pillow away from her face and looked towards the bathroom – she could hear the faint sounds of running water from behind the door.
‘Don’t think of running water, don’t think of running water.’
Oh, who are you kidding?
She extracted herself from the sheets and ran into the bathroom.
‘Cover boybits,’ she demanded as she ran across to the toilet.
‘Sorry, I’m not used to holding it anymore!’ Relief washed over her as her now-not-so-latently human biology performed its business.
The shower stopped running. ‘Can you toss me a towel?’ he said. She reached across, snagged the corner of a towel, and tossed it up over the shower curtain rail. ‘Coming out,’ he said. She grabbed her t-shirt and pulled it down to cover her knees. The curtain was pulled back and he stepped out, towel secured around his waist.
‘There’s never going to be a good time to tell you this,’ he said. He put a hand over his mouth, took a deep breath, then looked up. ‘But I’m in love with you. Sorry.’
He turned, and slammed the door as he left the room.
She stared at the door. ‘What. The. Fuck.’
Did he just-?
Yeah, Spyder, he did.
Get out there already!
She quickly finished in the bathroom and followed him out into the main room. He sat on the edge of the bed, still only wearing the towel, his head in his hands, tears dripping through fingers.
For the love of god, tread gently.
She swallowed, and took a step closer. ‘Sometimes I get a bit confused after I come back.’
He took his hands away from his face. ‘You’re not confused,’ he said, his voice thick and choked. ‘I said I love you.’
‘Why-’ She swallowed. ‘Clarification, please. You said “in love” right? Like the- The in love kind. With the romance and stuff. Not love like friends.’
‘With the romance and stuff,’ he confirmed as he stared down at the carpet. ‘Sorry.’
‘It’s my fault,’ she said as she sat on the bed beside him. ‘I mean, you’re stuck spending all of your time with me, so you just got confused.’
‘You can transfer me if you want,’ he said, ‘but you’ll have to wait until after the emergency situation is officially over.’
‘Maybe we can get you some sort of human version of Procedure 19, I’m sure the Parkers have something can mess with your head in the right way.’
‘Believe me, Agent Mimosa, I’ll be completely professional no matter what you decide. I just- Fuck it, I shouldn’t have said anything. I can disappear right now if you want.’
‘I’m not gonna make you leave, Ryan really needs you, but I’ll keep away from you. Do you-’ She snapped her fingers. ‘I could buy you like a week at that place Carmichael runs, that should- Should like reset you so you’re looking at real girls again, and not at whatever the fuck I am.’
‘Do you think that I’m upset because I feel something for you?’
‘Of course you are,’ she said. ‘I mean, it’s like going for a lucky dip but instead of a prize you get a spider and that spider is made of those ants that bite.’
‘Do you think the reason I’m wishing that someone would kills those phoenixes right now is that because I hate feeling something for you?’
‘Well, yeah. I mean-’
‘I forget sometimes that you’re a genius. I’ll use small words.’ He went to his knees in front of her, hands resting on her thighs. ‘Stef, I love you.’
‘I know that’s why you’re-’
‘I love you. I love you and you’re- You’re-’ He choked on the lump on his throat. ‘And I’m some rotten thing that could never- Never have a chance.’
‘You like me?’
He gave her a nod.
‘And you- You like liking me?’
‘Why would you?’
‘Why wouldn’t I?’
‘Just because I’m the person you’re stuck spending time with-’
‘You love hazelnuts and you hate your hair being pulled. You- You make me feel like I have half a chance of being a good man. Any shot I have at making something of my life will be thanks to you. You don’t recoil from me, and you let me touch you after everything I’ve done. I’d- I’d be good to you. I’d try. I’d try so hard. However you want, but just let me be yours. Please.’ He laid his head on her lap and sobbed for a moment. ‘But if you don’t-’
‘Stop,’ she whispered.
He nodded against her legs. ‘Ok. Sorry. Ok.’
‘Is this real?’
He attempted a smile. ‘Should I pinch you?’
‘No, I mean- Tell me that you aren’t doing this to be nice or whatever. That’s it’s not like the romantic equivalent of a pity fuck, or...or one of those high school plots where you have date the gorgon.’
He lifted a hang to her face, and smiled. ‘Of course it’s not.’
She felt...squishy. And warm. And good.
Oh gods- ‘-this is real.’
He nodded. ‘Are you- Do you want me to- You’re not obligated to-’ He paused for a moment. ‘Is it ok if I like you, Stef?’
‘Yeah. If- If- If you want. No!’ She pulled back from his hand. ‘I mean. Yeah. But.’
He looked devastated. ‘Newbie, you don’t-’
‘There’s a couple of things you have to know first. It could change your mind. You should have all the facts before-’
‘Nothing you could say would-’
She closed her eyes. ‘I can’t have kids.’ She hunched in on herself. ‘I don’t even know if I can have sex,’ she whispered. ‘Everything got messed up, and I don’t know-’
The hand returned to her face. ‘Do you think that matters to me?’
She kept her eyes closed. ‘I’m-’
She opened her eyes.
‘Is it ok if I like you?’
She swallowed, and gave him a tiny nod. ‘Yeah.’
He leaned a little closer, the fingers on her face extending, playing with her hair. ‘May I kiss you?’
‘I’ve- I’ve never had a grown-up kiss.’
He leaned closer, his stomach pressing into her knees. ‘I’ll be gentle.’
‘Wait,’ she whispered. ‘Tell me what to do.’
‘Close your eyes.’
She took a deep breath, and closed her eyes.
Breathe. Just breathe.
She felt his breath against her face, then his lips touched hers.
After a brief second of contact, he pulled away.
‘Should I feel like marshmallow?’ she asked as she opened her eyes.
He grinned, his face splitting, all traces of his devastation gone. ‘So you’re ok then?’
‘Yeah.’ She raised a hand and touched her lips. ‘You can still back out. You can-’
‘If you keep talking,’ he said, ‘I can’t kiss you again.’
She pinched her thumb and forefinger, zipped her lips and threw away the key.
He took her hands in his, and kissed each finger in turn, each as small and chaste the as the way he’d kissed her mouth. He smiled at her, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her again, another fleeting touch, another dose of the warm marshmallowy feeling.
There was a knock at the door.
He shot to his feet. Minus the towel.
‘So,’ she said amazed at how calm her voice was. ‘That’s a penis.’
He gave a half-strangled-choke, half-shriek and ran into the bathroom, slamming the door for the second time that morning.
She looked across to the door. ‘Come in!’
Ryan opened the door. ‘Conference room as soon as you can. The one down on level two.’
‘We know where the phoenixes are.’