Title: my late cousin: childlike
Author: Sita Loire
Summary: Astrid loves to pretend.
Warnings: None, this time. Not even any swears! Wow.


"He was so, so pretty, you know," Astrid tells the woman dreamily. "So pretty."

"Yes, dear. I know." The woman's manner is brisk, but not unkind. She is always in a hurry. She has two young children at home, a husband who loves her. She doesn't want to have to come here every day; it's depressing. But Astrid never takes any notice. She loves to chatter, and this woman is her favorite audience.

"His hair was this color." She touches her own head, fingering over the jagged blonde pieces. "But… it would be longer than mine, now." Sorrowfully. "Why won't they let me grow my hair, Leah?"

Her name isn't Leah. She doesn't say anything, anyway. She just wants to get out of this room. "Sh, dear, you know why. Here, raise your arms."

Astrid does so, obedient and solemn as a child, but pays no attention as the woman strips off the thin white cotton shift and drapes a new one over Astrid's shoulders.

"Sometimes people say I look like him," Astrid continues vaguely. The woman has to gather her hands up in her own and lower them to her lap again. Astrid never pays attention to what she's doing. She'd sit poised like that for hours, if the woman left her alone.

"Do you think so?"

"Pardon?" She smoothes the bed sheet. Glances surreptitiously at her watch. She'll be off in a few moments; she may as well stay here. Childlike and needy though Astrid may be, she's better than some of the others.

Astrid is staring at her with the disturbing, pale set of eyes that she still hasn't quite gotten used to. "Do you think I look like him? I think I might, a little."

"I think you're very pretty." She doesn't answer the question, and she doesn't tell the truth, either. The truth would be that Astrid doesn't look a thing like her cousin anymore. The woman couldn't say whether she ever had. Now her near-white hair is flat, stringy, and cut close to her head. Her eyes are more gray than blue. Her shoulders droop. No, the woman doesn't find her pretty at all, but she knows what Astrid will like to hear.

Sure enough, Astrid's eyes have lit up. "Prettier than Darren?" She persists eagerly.

"Of course." She tucks a corner of the sheet in more securely, not paying much attention to Astrid's one-sided conversation anymore. Then something catches her attention.

"Perhaps Paul will come see me today."

"Paul?"

"He loves me, you know." Astrid's voice has taken on a new intonation, one the woman hasn't heard before—smugness, or something. She stops fussing over the bed and stares at the girl. "He's absolutely obsessed with me."

"Paul?" The woman repeats. "Is… isn't that—"

"Darren's boyfriend?" Astrid interrupts. She nods, a sickly smile stretching over her pale lips. "He was, once. But now he's mine. All mine." She hugs herself tightly, aiming that ghoulish smile at the starched white sheets. "I'm sure he'll be coming. He doesn't like to be away from me for long, you know. He gets quite jittery."

"Ah," is all the woman says, quite faintly. Astrid scares her. She can't say how such a small girl could frighten her, but Astrid certainly manages it anyway. "Well, dear, it's about time that I headed home." She reaches to take the used frock from Astrid's lap, but two colorless hands clamps down over her own. The woman gasps softly before she can help it, and looks up to meet steady gray eyes.

"He will come, won't he."

"Probably," the woman answers hurriedly. She extracts herself from the cold grip and backs away. She's new here, and she probably won't last. She doesn't have the stomach. Or the heart. She pictures her child becoming like this, flat and lifeless, confined to a bed in a mental institution, and her chest aches. "Astrid, take care of yourself. Good night."

"Good night," Astrid says softly after her, but the door has closed quietly behind the nurse. She gazes intently at her hands. "Go away, Darren, I'm about to have a visitor. Paul will be here any moment—and he wants to see me, not you! So shoo. I'm tops, now. You're just… nothing." There is a strange hesitancy in her voice as she says this, but then her voice strengthens. "You're nothing at all, Darren! Now go. I have to get ready for Paul."

Outside the door, a tall blonde man crosses his arms over his chest and frowns. "There has to be something more you can do for her than this," he complains. "She doesn't seem better at all. In fact, she seems worse." He seems something like a parallel version of the girl stretched limply on the bed inside the door. A healthy version. His hair is similar in color, but brighter; his eyes gleam effortlessly. At his side, in an effort to distract himself, Paul is staring with fascination at the full curve of his lips.

The nurse is nervous, ringing her hands. "I'm sorry, sir. I—we're doing all we can, sir, I'm sure. I—I don't know anything." She hurries past him without another word, barely throwing a glance Paul's way.

He doesn't mind. "Can we go?"

The line of Darren's mouth tightens. "Paul."

"Darren. I'm sorry, all right? I know how you feel about your cousin. But she… she gives me the creeps," he pushes on bravely. "All these things she makes up—Darren, she pretends you're dead. How can you be okay with that?"

Darren's eyes are focused on the slight figure through the small rectangular window. "She's my cousin," he says simply. "I'm her best friend."

"She doesn't have a best friend."

"But I know her best. We were close."

Yes, they were that.

"Let me take you somewhere else, Darren. I can drive you downtown for lunch, we can… We can forget all about this. We can forget…"

"She looks just like me," Darren notes absently.

"She wishes," Paul mutters, and a tinge of franticness has entered his voice. He moans softly. "Oh God, Darren, she's looking at me. She sees me. Please, let's go. I hate this. Please."

Darren keeps staring through the glass, his lips twitching at the corner in a humorless half-smile. "Well, you're lucky."

"What?"

"She doesn't even see me." Darren watches for a second longer, then turns to go. "Come on, let's leave. Maybe tomorrow she'll be better."

They leave, but inside the room, Astrid hasn't noticed the departure. She's smiling gently at the empty white corner.

"Hi, Paul," she hums softly. "You're looking much better today."

And down the hall, Darren watches her door until the elevator closes.