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Eggshells

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You end up visiting Aubrey every day. The doctors pose no further problems for the rest of her stay, thank God. It’s still obvious that she hates being there, but you don’t see any more of the sheer panic that overtook her at the prospect of an extended stay. Despite her disdain for the situation, she doesn't ask anything of you beyond your company, even when you offer to pick up food or drinks or things for her to keep her mind occupied. There’s the TV in her room, and her cyberdeck, so you guess that’s enough, but it can’t be pleasant for her, being shut away inside her own head all day.

Unsurprisingly, she's itching to go, the day she's discharged. When you arrive, she's already packed up and waiting, dressed back in the casual wear from her locker. She looks like she wants to take off at top speed down the corridor to the exit, but she doesn't, and definitely couldn't, even if she tried.

"Can I have my ammo back?" she asks the secretary at the desk, as she’s in the midst of signing one of the numerous forms she’s having to swipe through on a screen in front of her.

"Your...?"

"My ammo. The magazines for my guns. They're cybernetic. They took them out when I was anaesthetised. They told me I'd get them back when I was discharged."

 

 

"Right. One second." The secretary stands and disappears through a door in the wall behind her. A minute later, she re-emerges and presents Aubrey with two large magazines, which Aubrey takes and quickly slots back into place in her arms via panels that open on the undersides. You didn't realise before how beefy those guns were. They look so unassuming when all you can see are the tips of the barrels in her palms. What would she need something like those for?

You don't have long to ponder the question. The second the last form is signed, Aubrey drops the pen and turns to leave.

Once outside, you lead her to your car and help her into the passenger side before hopping into the driver's seat. She plugs her address into the GPS while you manoeuvre out of the parking lot, and once you’re out onto the main road, leans her head against the window and stares out absently as the world rushes by.

 

 

The more time you spend with Aubrey, the more questions you have, and answers are scarce. You didn't learn much about her during her hospital stay; only that she spent most of  her life on bad terms with her family, and that she’s prone to troubled sleep. Everything else you've pieced together from the implications of telling comments, or the process of elimination. You know one thing for certain: at nineteen, she's been through more hardship than some people experience in decades. If this girl needs anything, it's a friendly shoulder to lean on. The least you can do is try to give her that.

“Do you want to stop for anything on the way?” you ask, trying to jumpstart any kind of conversation to break the stifling near-silence filling the car over the quiet hum of the radio.

“...No, I’m good. Thanks.” Aubrey turns to look at you, just for long enough to shake her head, then fixes her attention back on the outside world. There’s a long pause, and then: “Are you sure you can’t just leave me when we get to my place?”

“No,” you answer firmly. “I know you don’t like this, and I know you want to be at home, but that’s not an option right now. I’m sorry.”

Aubrey falls silent again, and remains so for the rest of the ride.

The tower block the GPS leads you to is bland and unassuming, sitting among a row of several identical buildings in an equally bland and unassuming area of town. You ride an elevator that’s seen better days to Aubrey's floor and she jams a card key into the slot to unlock her door.

The tiny studio apartment inside is... a mess. The mattress on the floor with a collection of pillows and blankets heaped on top of it looks more like a nest than a bed. The kitchen is the cleanest part of the room, but judging by what you usually see her eating, you can safely assume that it's because she never actually uses it. There's a coffee table, stacked with empty drink bottles and plastic food packaging. A TV screen sits propped precariously against the wall beside what you assume is the bathroom door. While you’re taking it all in, Aubrey heads for the mountain of junk in the far corner, but you catch her wincing as she kneels to begin rummaging through it.

“Hey. Let me take care of that.” She looks up at you as you stride into the room and stares at you for a moment, then concedes without argument, dragging a battered duffel bag into sight and sitting back.

 

 

“Go ahead. But I don’t know where anything is.” She pulls one hand through hair greasy from a lack of washing, and grimaces as she teases out a loose knot. “I don’t even know if I have any clean clothes.” Everything she owns--which doesn't appear to be much--is heaped haphazardly around the room, so confirming or denying that is… well, you’re inclined to assume the negative.

"It’s fine. We can do some laundry when we get to my place." She visibly perks up, like it’s a privilege she’d never even considered, and immediately starts pointing you towards various indistinct piles of clothing.

Under her instruction, you manage to pack what looks like most of her figurative wardrobe into the bag before she decides she's done and ready to head back out. The drive back to your building is quiet and uneventful. You stop at the laundromat next door to get her clothes in the wash, then carry on up to your apartment.

"The bed's already good to go, if you want to make yourself comfortable," you tell her, as she slings her drawstring bag off her shoulder and hangs it on a coat hook; you leave the duffel by the door for later. 

She patters into the hallway and peers around the door into the living room, where you've unfolded the futon and made it as inviting as you can, with a generous pile of pillows and the comfiest blanket you could find. She gingerly takes a seat, then lies back against the pillows, unzipping her hoodie and throwing it off now that you're out of the early-spring chill outside. For the first time since… actually, maybe since you’ve known her, she actually looks relaxed.

 

 

"Do you want anything?" you ask, sticking your head in the doorway. "Something to eat? Drink?"

"A drink would be nice."

"Sure. What do you want? Water? I've got OJ, or I can make tea, or coffee…"

"...Water is fine. Thanks."

"Gotcha." You're out to the kitchen and back again in a few short moments, handing off the glass to her. “Is there anything I should know about before I make a start on dinner later? I’m flexible, if there’s things you can’t eat or don’t like.”

Aubrey bites her lip, and takes a slow sip from her water before she speaks.

"I don't… eat a lot of food. The textures gross me out, and I can’t taste any of it, anyway.”

“Wait, what?”

“I don’t taste anything. At all.” You feel like you should have known this by now, even though it’s perfectly reasonable that you didn’t.

“How come?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugs. “I just don’t.”

“Huh. Well, that… sucks.” Is that the right response? God, you hope that’s the right response. “I guess that explains why you’re always eating the same things all the time.”

“Can I just eat what I normally eat?”

“If that’s what you’re comfortable with, sure. Ping me a list of what you like, and I’ll grab something from the store later. The offer’s always on the table, though. Literally, I guess. I don’t mind cooking for the both of us if you want a proper meal. How's your side doing?"

The smile that had been forming on her face fades, and she pauses and stares down into her water before answering.

"It hurts."

"Did you take anything for it?" She shakes her head. "Did they give you anything?" She nods. "Yeah? Where is it?"

"In my bag, on the hook. There’s two bottles. Antibiotics and painkillers." You turn and hone in on the grey bag hanging from one of the pegs in the hallway. There's not much in there. The pill bottles are the first things your hand finds. You skim over the labels as you return to the living room, then pop open the painkillers and shake a couple out into your palm.

"Here you go." You offer them out to Aubrey and set both bottles down on the end table beside the couch. "Is it worse than it was the other day?" She shakes her head as she swallows the pills down with a gulp of water.

"It hurt then, too."

"You told the doctor it didn’t."

“I know.”

“How come?”

That question might have been a bit much. She says nothing.

"You don't have to answer that, if you don't want to."

"Yeah. I don't want to."

"Okay. Do you want anything else?" She shrugs. So, that's a yes. "What are you thinking about?"

"I don't know," she says. And then: "Can we put the radio on? Or the TV? It's all wireless, right?"

"Of course.” You realise what she might be implying half a second later. “Oh, you--you want access. Right." With a few taps at the commlink on your wrist, her deck has access to control the handful of devices around the apartment you deem appropriate, and the TV flares to life almost immediately. This might take some getting used to. You'd be lying if you said it wasn't a bit unsettling.

Aubrey seems satisfied and burrows down into the pillows and under the sheets, setting aside her water. You've seen her training tapes, and you've seen her temper, and they both stand in stark contrast with how placid she looks now, wrapped up in blankets on your couch, of all places. She looks so... small. You're reminded again of just how much she's endured despite her youth. At least she's comfortable now. You feel better, knowing she's not stressed just by being where she is, and knowing nobody else is around to mistreat her in your absence.

"I have some things I need to do," you tell her, deciding it’s time you left her be. She might be comfortable, but she still looks wiped out. "If you need anything, just yell, okay?" Aubrey, now settled on her back, hands on her stomach, and looking more than a little drowsy, gives you a tiny nod in response. Perhaps she'll sleep better here. You can only hope. She deserves some real rest.

(Your comm buzzes once, before she drifts off: it’s her shopping list, and it’s short. You tack it onto the day’s to-do list.)

 

***

 

You're busy in the kitchen when Aubrey finally emerges from her nest on the couch, bleary-eyed and bundled up in a blanket.

"Hey." You glance up from chopping vegetables and shoot her a little smile. "How're you feeling?"

"Fine," she answers, padding across the room and peering over your shoulder. "What are you making?"

 

 

"Stir fry. Do you want some?" You can feel her hovering behind you, eyeing the pan.

"...No, I’m good. Thanks." She backs away, leaves and re-enters. "Can I refill my water?"

"Sure. First button on the fridge there, if you want it ice cold." You hear her top up, and in your peripheral vision you can see her take a seat at the table, still sporting her blanket. "Oh, your clothes are done, by the way. I went down and ran them through the dryer for you. Everything’s back in your bag."

"Thanks," she mumbles, metal hands clinking against the glass as she takes a drink. "Can I use your shower later? I didn’t get around to it while I was on the med bay."

"Of course, as long as it’s okay for your wound.”

 

 

"It's fine. I know how to look after it. I’ve dealt with worse." You pause with your knife mid-chop for a second, and… now that you think about it, yeah, she must have done. You saw the brutal scarring around her shoulders, earlier, where her cybernetics meet what scant little is left of the flesh of her shoulders. It makes the cleanly-stitched bullet wound pale in comparison.

“I picked up your stuff, too,” you continue, resuming your chopping and glad to be able to steer the conversation away from the uncomfortable off-road it was veering towards. “Like, the Soylent and everything. It’s up on the counter, there, if you want to help yourself.”

“Oh. Thanks.” She abandons her blanket and joins you at the countertop, picking through the packets of powder and nutrition bars. “You-- Am I supposed to pay for this?”

“No, no. Don’t worry about it.”

“No, I’ll--I can cover it.”

“You really don’t have to.” You glance up at her. “You have enough to worry about right now.”

“I want to cover it.”

“If you’re sure...”

“I’m sure.” Even as she’s ripping open one of the packets of powder and measuring water out into the beaker you left out for her, the commlink on your wrist lights up, notifying you of the money transfer. It’s almost dead on what you paid. She knows her stuff. The off-white drink she takes back to the table a minute later looks a lot less appetising than the pan full of vegetables you’re dumping a packet of noodles into, but she seems content enough with it.

“So,” you chime in, once you’re sat down and a couple of minutes into what had been an otherwise-silent dinner. “I’m back at work tomorrow, which means you’ll have the place to yourself for most of the day. I’ll… leave a note or something about where the important stuff is, in case you need it, but you’re all set for food, and you’re welcome to pretty much anything in the bathroom, if you want to freshen up.” She just nods. “How’s your side doing?”

“Fine.”

“Still sore?”

She hesitates, making brief eye contact with you, then nods again, slowly, as she stares into the cup she’s drinking from.

“Hey,” you murmur gently. “You don’t have to act all tough. If it hurts, it hurts. Better that you tell someone so we can pick up on it if something’s not right.”

“It’s fine,” she says, again, louder this time, sighing and rubbing at the side of her face. “It hurts, but… it’s fine. It’s not as bad as it was. I can take some more painkillers after I shower.”

“Okay. That’s all I want to know.” Satisfied, you can comfortably resume eating. “I just don’t want you popping a stitch or getting an infection or something.”

“I won’t. Or, I’ll know if something’s really wrong. I’ve had things go wrong before.” You raise an eyebrow. There’s a story--stor ies --behind that comment. It’s too tempting.

“What kinds of things?” You take the plunge and end up regretting it, as she turns her gaze up towards you and stares. Hard. It’s unsettling. You feel like you’re getting a taste of your own medicine; you’re the willowy little nurse being loomed over by a 6’4” security guard, except Aubrey doesn't need the height advantage when she's got guns in her arms.

“I’ve been hurt before. I’ve had surgery.”

“Right. Things go wrong. I get it.” You are suddenly very, very eager to move on from the subject. “Well, just--you know. If you feel off, let me know.”

Aubrey is quiet for the remainder of dinner and disappears into the bathroom once she’s done with her drink and rinsed the cup out. Later, after taking a shower yourself, you walk into the kitchen to find her at the sink, scrubbing away at the dishes.

 

"What are you doing?"

 

 

She locks up and whips her head around to look at you.

"I just thought I'd help, while you're-- I thought--"

"Hey, hey, don't worry about it. This isn't your mess to clean up, especially not right now. Leave the dishes. You deserve a break."

"I've been on a break. I haven't done anything in six days."

"Being on a medical bay for a gunshot wound doesn't count as taking a break," you tell her gently, picking up and offering out a towel for her to dry her hands off. "Don't worry about stuff like this. I've got it. We don't even need to do most of this by hand, anyway. The dishwasher can clean most of it."

Aubrey looks at you, then at the towel, then slowly takes it from you and rubs it over her hands.

"Okay. Sorry."

"Don't be. I appreciate that you want to help out." You give her a little smile. "But you're here to rest, not do chores. You can relax." She looks at you with uncertainty on her face, but it eventually breaks into a smile.

"Thanks."

"Hey, you're welcome. Go on, let me deal with all this." You nudge her back towards the living room, and thankfully, she doesn't flinch at the contact. When you're done tidying up and you go to check in on her, she's already fast asleep. You quietly take up occupation on the other side of the couch, and for a while, the two of you just sit there like that; your attention trained on the TV, her drifting in and out of consciousness. Surprisingly, it's not at all uncomfortable. It's the most at ease you've ever felt with her. That feels like progress.

You call it a night, eventually, leaving Aubrey to put herself to bed when she's ready. You're going to rest easier tonight knowing that she's safe in the room next door.