After the third of five performances, an intermission was called, and dinner was served.
Curt took a moment to peruse the dishes – most of the sides had been provided in dishes for the group, rather than for the individual – three different-coloured mashes, two pots of leaves representing nearly every colour in the rainbow, and in the centre, a small, decorated bucket of aole chips.
The brikni smelled amazing, transcending anything Famous Fry’s had managed to produce – it smelled far more “real” than anything he’d ever eaten at Fry’s.
Across from him, Screen cut into into her main dish – essentially a stuffed baked potato, with the usual fae twists.
The meat of the night seemed to be colk – which, while being a cheap-ish staple of most restaurants, fit somewhat thematically with the last performance, the one that had been a story of the first “dark time” of the newly-split hobs and nymphs – the first point at which they had considered different rules for the makers and shapers.
The nymphs had argued for better positions, due to their ability to create something from nothing; that they were closer to Life.
The hobs had argued that as they could shape their environment, and become a part of it in a way that a nymph could not, they were truly the children of Life, and that the makers were there to serve them, those that could shape the life created.
It was a philosophical argument without a true answer, and thankfully it had mostly become a background argument in their societies – something for scholars to argue or write papers on.
He excused himself, and went to the bar for another drink.
He heard another chair scrape on the floor – Magnolia, and she followed a half-step behind him. As he reached the bar, she put a hand to his back – a strangely comforting gesture from her, something she didn’t usually do.
‘You’re off your game, O’Connor,’ she said as she pursued the drink menu again. ‘Was it a mistake to ask you here?’
‘This is really the first time I’ve socialised with anyone from the Agency. I’m still getting used to it. I’m off-balance because I’m out of practice.’
She looked at him, concern in her eyes. ‘And that’s all?’
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘what else would it be?’
She ordered something fizzy and sweet from the bartender. ‘I didn’t know if you’d seen my report, or if you’d taken offence.’
Fear prickled along the back of his neck. ‘What- What report are you talking about?’
‘My report on the mission you went on. Don’t worry, I really talked you up, but I had to tell the truth; and as much as I admire the quickness of your actions, we probably could have interrogated him, and that would have been a better result.’
‘I know what you’re capable of,’ she said, ‘and it’s truly beautiful. I understand not giving those skills freely to the Agency, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t do favours, and I would have asked…very nicely.’
He stood a step away from her, his heart hammering in his chest.
He turned, slammed into the bulky fae next to him, mumbled a half-assed apology, and walked as quickly out of the bar as her could.
He stumbled on the stairs up to the ground level, and did his best to tune out Magnolia’s voice as he stepped out into the night air.
Air, there was air all around him, and he couldn’t breathe any of it. None of it was reaching his lungs. He was choking. He was going to die.
She grabbed his shoulder – this was a far more Mags-ish action than the gentle touch of a moment ago, and tried to turn him.
‘Don’t,’ he said, trying to pull away, the ground spinning, ‘don’t, Mags, please don’t.’
‘I’m complimenting you,’ she said hotly, offence heavy in her voice. ‘I know your file, O’Connor, I admire what you can do – Taylor teaches expedience, we don’t tend to take our time. Efficiency is our key, it’s how we operate. If we had a middleman-’
He whirled at her and screamed, a hoarse, wordless attack, a prayer for her to let him go. A need for her to stop talking. To stop portraying his…talent in a good light.
She let go of him and he stumbled back, catching himself on a lamp post, its rigidity the only thing keeping him upright.
‘The others don’t know,’ she said, coming around the lamp post so she could look at him, ‘I respect your need for privacy. It’s only Aides and above who are allowed to know information like this.’
‘I’m not that person anymore.’
‘You can’t turn off violence like that, and talent like that shouldn’t be wasted.’
‘The guy I shot? The guy you wished I’d tortured. I have a lot more ink than he did. I should be black list. I should be dead.’
‘You won’t lose that safety if you start to-’
‘Jesus Christ, Mags, how can you not get it? I hate it. I fucking hate it. I hate that I can switch off whatever makes me human and…rip someone apart till we’ve got what we need to know. The thing you seem to love about me is the one thing I’d change if I could.’
‘Grow a pair and accept the things you can’t change. You’re not any better because you don’t-’
He straightened and punched the lamp post. It hurt, and he was sure he needed to let one of the Parkers look at his hand, but at least it was a release, and at least it had shut her up.
‘Don’t…don’t finish that sentence,’ he said. ‘If I’m not- I am- I am a better person because I don’t. Even the Agency can’t judge you on your thoughts. Actions are everything, and my actions say- I’m better than the Solstice that surrendered. I have to be, otherwise what’s the point?’
‘Fighting yourself,’ she said gently, ‘only makes it worse in the end. You have to reconcile yourself, make peace with yourself, otherwise you’ll just punch more things and break more fingers.’
‘How much are you willing to bet?’
He looked at his hand, then lowered it, keeping it free of his body.
‘And it’s not the only thing I love about you,’ she said, ‘you’re a good recruit, you’re good at your job, you’d make a competent combat recruit, you put up with the shit the Agency throws at you and you keep going. I admire that.’
He could feel tears pricking at his eyes. ‘And that would mean so much, if it wasn’t coming with the caveat of…wishing I was willing to pick up my old trade.’
She shrugged. ‘For all I knew, you were looking for an excuse to pick it up again.’
He closed his eyes and tried to breathe. ‘And now that you know I’m not?’ he asked at last.
‘It won’t stop me from asking once in a while,’ she said. ‘It’s stifling to have an asset you can’t use.’
‘I’m not an asset, not for that,’ he said. ‘Never for that.’
She shrugged. ‘And that’s disappointing.’ She looked down. ‘You going to go back to the Parkers?’
‘Yeah,’ he said flatly, ‘I mean, this pretty much ends things with us, doesn’t it?’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘Does it? It’ll take him five minutes to deal with it, that’s still in intermission, you don’t want to throw off the harmony of five do you? You’ll disappoint Caipe.’
‘I’m sure he won’t even notice.’
She kissed his cheek, then pulled away. ‘You’re a lot more valued than you give yourself credit. Now go get your fucking fingers healed and maybe fucking will be a verb later.’
He stared at her, absolutely uncertain as to what emotion he should be aiming for. ‘You are seriously fucking confusing.’
She smiled and turned back towards the stairs. ‘I’ll make your excuses, move your ass.’
He nodded vaguely, and watched her walk away. He stood for a moment, breathing in the night air, then required his headset and popped it into his ear. ‘O’Connor to the Parkers, medical shift.’
The world blurred a moment later, and when things became clear, things became a little too clear – both of them were shirtless, though at least they were wearing pants – for what little good they did to hide telltale bulges.
‘I’ll start charging if you keep staring,’ Parker-2 said, indicating to the nearest free bed. ‘And give me a look at the hand.’
Curt hopped up onto the bed, careful not to jostle his hand, and wondered when getting treated by a doctor that he’d seen naked multiple times had become normal.
Parker-2, thankfully, required his uniform after a moment.
‘This isn’t too bad,’ Parker-2 said, staring at the hand as an x-ray appeared on the wall beside him. ‘A shot of this, a shot of that, a bandage and you’ll be good by morning.’ The doctor looked up at the x-ray. ‘Is this the same-’
‘Yeah, doc, it’s the hand that got shot.’
‘Well, this is only a sprain, but be careful to not exert yourself too much. Use your left hand if you need to,’ Parker-2 said with a wink.
‘I don’t think I’ll be in the mood to jack off tonight, but thanks for the advice,’ Curt said.
Parker-2 made a doctorly hmm noise, and the monitor beside the x-ray lightbox changed to a familiar readout – the forever squiggly lines that indicated a recruit’s vitals. Parker-2 zoomed out a little, lengthening the timeline, and it made the spikes even more evident.
The spikes. The argument with Mags. Him losing control and proving just what a piece of shit he was.
Parker-2 smeared ointment on the sprained fingers, and testament to his skill, Curt didn’t feel a thing. ‘You doing okay, Recruit?’
‘Curt, I’m your doctor and there’s a certain amount of confidentiality that you can count on. If you need to talk-’
‘I’m fine. I’m okay. I’m always okay because if I’m not then I’m a problem, and if I’m a problem then-’ He shrugged. ‘I know what happens to Agency problems.’
Parker-2 put down the gauze. ‘Nothing like what happened in Adelaide will happen here. Not whilst we are the medical agents here, and not while Ryan is Director. We regularly commit unconscionable acts, but we don’t hurt our own.’
Curt looked away. ‘I’m fine.’
‘I am better at dealing with the brain than the mind, but my door’s open when you’re ready to talk.’
His breath caught again. ‘What makes you think I could ever talk to an agent?’
Parker-2 put a hand on his shoulder, and he flinched.
‘Because even after being wronged by one member of a group, it is possible to learn to trust individuals from that group again.’
Parker-2 knew – well, considering the link between the twins, they would both know.
Curt put his hands behind him and leaned back a little, staring at the doctor in confusion. He’d never considered that anyone outside of Adelaide knew – it wasn’t on his official transfer report, and there was nothing in his file. It had been, he had thought, a secret.
He could obfuscate, he could pretend Parker-2 meant something else.
And that was pointless.
‘How?’ he asked after a moment. ‘I mean, it’s not something Petersen would advertise.’
Parker-2 pushed on his arm, then sat on the bed beside him. ‘All we know,’ Parker-2 said, ‘comes from Felix. Your medical regimen isn’t as simple as you would think, though it’s mostly just maintenance now. When he found out that you were being transferred here, he sent up his exit report.’ Parker-2 turned to look down at him. ‘Coincidentally,’ he said, drawing out the word sarcastically, ‘he happened to send us this study we thought would be of some use. It was one of those Agency journal articles with the nameless test subjects. This one was on the effect of torture and repeated partial augmentation to heal the damage.’
‘Doc, please,’ he said, his voice thick, ‘I don’t- I don’t want anyone to know.’
‘And no one else does. But we’re your point of primary care, and it’s within our scope to at least enquire about your mind, and not just conditions I can treat by stabbing you in one way or another.’
‘I do love our chats,’ Curt said, forcing a smirk onto his face.
‘I’m serious,’ Parker-2 said.
‘And I’m seriously not ready to talk about it,’ Curt said. ‘Just drop it. Please.’
Parker-2 hopped off the bed and lifted his hand, and stared at it, another x-ray appearing. ’It’s looking good.’ He plucked a white bottle from the air. ‘Two now, two before bed, two in the morning, and you’ll be right.’ The doctor tucked his pen into his lab coat. ‘Now do you want a shift back to where you came from?’
Curt popped the lid on the bottle to the painkillers, needing to avoid an answer for a moment.
He couldn’t give Magnolia what she wanted. He couldn’t be- He couldn’t be who he had been. Who he probably still was, once you scraped away the Agency protocol and clothes.
He was a monster, and there really wasn’t anything anyone could do.
Except to keep trying, and wait for everyone to pretend he was a good person.
And the end of the world would surely happen before that.
‘Yeah,’ he said, letting his mask slip back into place, feeling himself ready to assume the part of a happy, social person again. ‘Shift me back, people are waiting for me.’
[table id=15 /]