The walk past the other dorm rooms was normal – the same looks, the same people looking right past him.
Curt, for once, was grateful how much the other Field recruits hated him. If any of them had given a damn, they would have been able to tell something was wrong. Or…they would know what he had done, and would hate him for it.
Being former Solstice was one thing. It was something in the past. Something you could minimise by not talking about it, by being a model recruit, for lying about what you had done.
A mislead redshirt. Someone fooled by propaganda. That was something that could be forgiven.
Anyone could be pulled in by “save the world” rhetoric.
It wasn’t anyone who could take a knife to someone they wanted as a friend.
It wasn’t anyone-
He clenched his hands, digging his fingernails into his palm, needing the pain for composure.
He turned two corners, and came to the hall where Ryan’s office was.
Ryan, surprisingly, was in the hall outside his office.
The agent was leaning against the wall next to his office door, his arms folded across his chest, his head bowed.
It looked like a relaxed pose, a way to stand to try and nap if you were tired. If any other recruit had seen it, they would think Ryan was trying to look casual, to mimic a human and failing.
Curt couldn’t look past the tension in Ryan’s arms. The look of concentration on his face, despite his eyes being closed.
Closed eyes could indicate the agent was in communication mode – something that usually led to a fairly passive thousand-yard stare; “HUD face” as some recruits called it. Lights on and no one home – as all facial expressions were taken from the real world, and transferred to the avatar in video chat.
It was, by all accounts, an excellent way to have a raging, screaming argument with someone, without anyone around you knowing anything was wrong.
Ryan opened his eyes and stepped away from the wall as Curt approached.
Curt silently begged for a quick death, adjusting his posture to make it easier to go down onto his knees, in case Ryan wanted to kill him right there and then.
The agent made no move towards his weapon.
Curt stopped five feet from Ryan, and snapped as sharp a salute as he could manage. ‘Sir. Reporting as requested.’ The salute was too much, he knew – it wasn’t even an official requirement among combat recruits; but it was a gesture, a sign. A supplication.
Ryan stared at him for an uncomfortably long time, but he stopped himself from filling the silence. It wasn’t his place to say anything, to do anything. It was his job to take whatever cue Ryan was going to give him; to learn what his place was all over again.
He tried to stand straighter. ‘Sir?’
‘I comprehend what you did. I understand you had no choice. I acknowledge the quick thinking on your part.’ Ryan paused for a moment, then actually met Curt’s gaze. ‘I am grateful that you saved Stef.’
Curt nodded, unwilling to say anything.
Ryan took a step closer. ‘Forgiving, or looking past what you did, on the other hand, will take time. And I do not know how much time. Right now, I don’t want you in this Agency, but I refuse to make a rash decision, whilst the emotion of the situation is so fresh.’
Curt looked at the floor. ‘I don’t expect forgiveness, sir.’
He heard footsteps. Ryan stopped beside him, and placed a hand on his shoulder, with a grip stronger than it needed to be. ‘Right now, Recruit, that works in your favour.’ Ryan squeezed for another moment, probably just long enough to ensure that bruises would form. ‘I’ll be making a final determination at the end of the week. Until then, stick to your usual schedule.’
Ryan took a step away. ‘Sir?’
‘The text said-’
‘In my office. Partner assignment,’ Ryan said, then walked away, his body still tense.
Curt waited until Ryan’s footfalls had faded away, took another breath – one he was sure wouldn’t be his last, and stepped up to the office door.
He knocked. ‘Recruit O’Connor, reporting as ordered,’ he said, then stepped inside.
Stef sat in Ryan’s chair, her elbows propped on the desk, her nose resting on laced fingers.
She shouldn’t have been there. She should have been…well, not recovering in the infirmary as blue would have easily healed the injuries, but with time off to deal with the- To deal with what he’d done.
He took another look at her, she was posing, that was obvious. It familiar somehow. Something the dorks at the fruit store had done. ‘Gendo, right?’ he asked as he closed the door.
Her hands dropped and she grinned. ‘Padawan, I think there’s hope for you yet.’
His heart seized. He could pretend to act normal, it was his job to pretend to be normal – he was the aggressor, she was the victim, she had every right not to- She didn’t have to pretend that everything was normal, because it wasn’t.
And she had no reason to be here.
She wasn’t his new partner, because that was the stupidest thing in the history of stupid things. There had been better ideas immediately preceded by “hold my beer for a minute”. She was just hanging out. Killing time. Maybe she had to warn the next person about what he was capable of.
Maybe his redshirt story was finally going to die.
If anyone had the right to expose him, it was her.
‘Stef?’ he said quietly.
She pointed at the spare chair. ‘That’s the one I was just sitting in. Sorry, I think there’s crumbs. And bacon. I convinced Ryan to let me use his office, cause I- I wasn’t sure if you’d come if I texted and said come to mine.’ She stopped talking. ‘You gonna, um, sit?’
He didn’t make a move towards the chair. ‘What are you doing here, Stef?’
‘Ryan told you, right? Partner assignment?’
‘Yes, Agent Mimosa, he did.’
The look on her face said everything.
He took a few steps forward and put his hands on the back of the spare chair. He looked down, unable to look at her for a moment – she was right, it was covered in bacon and crumbs, evidently even becoming an agent hadn’t wiped away her ability to be messy. ‘Is this a decision Central made?’ he asked, lifting his head a little. ‘You can fight it, you know. Clarke is a bag of dicks, but-’
‘I’m pretty sure it doesn’t say Central on my ID badge.’
He snapped his head up to look at her. ‘Why the fu-?!’ He gripped the leather of the chair. ‘Did they wipe your memory of yesterday?!’
A cold bolt of lightning ran through him – wiping her memory was entirely within their power. Blanket wipes, Procedure 19s, artificial memory aging; all little tricks to help agents and recruits to continue with their job of saving the world.
The grin dropped, the posing stopped. ‘No, of course they didn’t.’
‘Then why- Why on Earth- Are you fucking cr-?!’
Crazy. Yes, she was. And he was supposed to doing his best not to be a dick to her. But that paled in comparison to-
‘You know I am,’ she said as she stood. ‘And that’s a big part of why. You’re behind the curtain, Padawan, if I have to start over with someone else-’
‘Stef, I get you’re trying to be-’
‘I’m being selfish, idiot,’ she said. ‘We were never officially partners. Now we are. I’m- I’m not good at peopling. I already have a baseline with you and-’ she faltered. ‘And it’s not like- It’s not like you enjoyed it or anything-’
He turned away from her, unable to retain his composure. The professional mask was slipping and he wasn’t sure if he was crying, manic or just some twisted expression of pain and anger.
Scenarios rushed through his mind.
He could run. He could turn his gun on himself. He could turn on her, raise his hand and let her autopilot responses take care of him.
Or he could be what she needed, until she worked out what a big mistake she was making. He sat. Everything was fucked up enough without him making it worse. He forced his face under control, turned and nodded to her. ‘If that’s what you want, ma’am.’
‘What I want,’ she said, ‘is your opinion on these possible external training locations,’ she said, sliding a blue folder towards him. Photos skittered out, and she swore, leaning over the desk to tidy the contents.
He automatically started to reach for the files to help her clean up, even as she tried to scoop them back into a pile.
His hand brushed over hers as he grabbed for the next form.
His heart skipped, even as he pulled his hand back, feeling as though he was trying to pull it through solidifying amber. Time was working against him, trapping him in the moment that was going to ruin everything.
He’d touched her.
He had expected…something. He’d been planning on avoiding touching her so long as he remained in the Agency, but in the case where it happened, he had expected…
Something. Screaming or shouting or her autopilot taking his head off.
She made a small whimpering noise, something barely audible, and slid into the chair behind her, and slowly pulled her hands into her lap.
Her face was blank – not the programmed mask of an agent showing no emotion, this was different – this wasn’t a lack of reaction by choice, it was trauma.
And it was his fault.
And it was all he’d ever be. A monster. A thing that had hurt her. A thing that would continue to hurt her by being around.
If he’d had a knife, he knew he would have cut the hand off. Some sort of penance. Some sort of apology.
He couldn’t stay.
She’d made an effort – as fragile as it had been, she’d made an effort and he had pissed all over it.
Curt drove his hands into his pockets. ‘Stef.’ He didn’t wait for her to react. He didn’t need a reaction, and he truly didn’t deserve one. ‘I am sorry. I am so truly sorry I can’t put it into words. I appreciate what- I appreciate this, but I have to-‘ a sob built at the back of his throat. ‘I’m just going to go, and I won’t be around to- I won’t be in your way anymore.’
Tears were sliding down her cheeks.
‘The offer stands,’ he said as he laid his gun on the table. ‘If you want to do it. Or if you want Ryan to do it. I accept my life is forfeit, and I welcome you to get some closure on the situation.’
Tears pricked his eyes, but she made no movement towards the gun – a sign for him to leave. A sign she needed no immediate action taken against him. Freedom to get out of her way, out of her sight.
It wasn’t running if you left calmly.
It wasn’t running if you walked out the front door, and headed towards Faerie.
It wasn’t murder if the Agency did away with him, it was a death long overdue.
He wanted to sag, to drag his feet and let the weight of the world crush him into dust.
Doing that was selfish. It was showing his pain. Strong. Strong for another five minutes, then he never had to be strong again.
He walked towards the door, spun the handle, and automatically took a step forward, stopping just short of walking into the door – it was locked. He required it unlocked, and tried again. No movement. Still locked.
Requiring a door unlocked always worked – unless it was for your private room, or someone of a higher rank had overridden you.
And Stef was the only person around to do that.
‘Ma’am, he said, his voice straining, ‘you need to unlock the door.’
‘So you can leave?’
He leaned his forehead against the cool wood, trying to keep himself strong. ‘That would be the general idea, yes.’
‘And then what?’
‘That’s the point, you won’t need to worry.’
‘You can’t,’ she said, her voice choking and thick. ‘You can’t just leave.’
He punched the door, and he heard her jump in her chair. ‘Just one requirement, Stef, and you never have to look at me again.’
He whirled around, strode forward, then slammed his hands down on the desk – an extreme action, one he hated, but one he needed to get the point across.
She jumped again, shaking in the chair, looking almost as small and frightened as she had in Russia.
He was torturing her again, and credit to his talent, he didn’t even need to touch her to do it.
The point, at least, was across.
He was something to fear, not something to trust.
He slid into his chair, sliding it back to bring his apparent height down – making himself less of a threat. ‘Stef-’
‘You keep promising not to be a dick!’ she shouted, her voice going up in pitch with every word, snot flying from her nose. ‘Stop breaking your promise! Stop it!’
He lifted his head and placed his face in his hands. ‘Maybe you should stop expecting me to keep it.’
Something hit his hand, and he heard rubber against glass.
Something hit his hand again.
When it hit him for a third time, he finally dropped his hands away.
This time, it hit him in the face.
It was a little red ball. It bounced once on the table, disappeared in a shift, and appeared in her hand. ‘Do I have to throw it again?’
‘No, Agent, you have my attention.’
‘Fucking finally.’ She bounced the ball on the table for a moment, and he finally recognised it – the “prize” he’d required to shut her up in the sim. The final clue that there was in fact something wrong with her, that she wasn’t just “quirky” or “nerdy”. That she was- That she needed care, like Tara had needed someone to keep an eye out for her.
She had an agent looking over her shoulder, she didn’t need him.
‘Stef, please,’ he said, ‘just let me out of here. I’ll do anything you want, just- Just let me go.’
She shook her head again.
‘Why god why?’ he asked, his voice slipping, screeching. ‘Just- Just let me go-’
‘Don’t you remember anything I said before?’
He shook his head. Everything was fuzz. Lack of sleep and grief and too much caffeine. Everything was becoming a blur.
‘I have a-’ She paused. ‘Because I’m no good at-’ Another pause. ‘And you-’ Pause. ‘Shit. No I’m-’ Her head dropped, and she pressed her fists to the table beside him. ‘Friends. You said we could be friends. And I’m- I’m not gonna wreck that. Cause- Cause I don’t have any friends. And if I don’t make you one, then it’s gonna be extra hard to try again.’
‘Ya?’ There was a note of hopefulness in her voice. It wouldn’t last.
He looked straight ahead, fixing his eyes on the wall across from him. ‘I don’t want to be here. I can’t be here.’
He stood, and she took a couple of steps backward. ‘Every time I look at you, all I can see is you- Bleeding. Or-or what you looked like when I stabbed you. I could have killed you, I could have killed you and I can’t forgive myself for that. You’re not one of the monsters that I can rationalise away-’
‘It’s not all that matters. I’m alive. I’m okay. I’m free. Those are all also direct consequences-’
‘You aren’t alright!’ he screamed, taking a step towards her. ‘You can’t just shrug off something like that. It gets in you and-’ he made an effort to control his breathing. ‘And it stays there.’
Petersen was his ghost, a thing that haunted every dark shadow. Something that would come for him in the night. An inevitable reaper who would come back to finish the job. You couldn’t shrug off torture. Not so long as the person who had hurt you lived. It took away your sense of safety, stopped you from ever truly relaxing.
And he wasn’t going to do that to her. He refused to be her spectre.
‘I’ve never had to be around anyone I’ve hurt,’ he said. ‘But trust me, this isn’t going to work.’ He took off his jacket and folded it neatly, then dismissed his vest and tie. ‘There’s a reason people like me are so rare,’ he said, ‘it’s because we just don’t work. You can rehabilitate monsters, a Solstice is a Solstice is a Solstice and nothing-’
‘And you the one who keep telling me that Solstice are people too?’
‘Some Solstice,’ he said. ‘Maybe.’
She shifted from behind the desk, and stood an arm’s length away. Currei ‘Curt-’
He had to scare her. Again. He had to drive the point home. She was trying to see a man, trying to see a good person where there really wasn’t one. Curt took another step closer, halving the distance between them. ‘I’m going to go through that door, and if I have to go through you, I will.’
She wobbled on her feet, but didn’t move.
‘Let me out, Stef.’
He closed the distance and loomed over her. ‘You’ll be better off-’
‘I would have been better off if I hadn’t taken Dorian’s job offer, I would have been better off if I hadn’t been a recruit, I’d be alive if I hadn’t insisted on staying in the field, I would be better off, but I wouldn’t be happier.’
‘Let me go, Stef.’
For a moment, he imagined squeezing her throat, forcing her to react, to let her autopilot take over and deal with him.
For a moment, he wanted it.
She smiled, and he faltered.
‘I forgive you.’
The words cut as deeply as a knife.
‘I forgive you. I truly, truly do.’
He stared at her.
Heat pricked the back of his eyes.
‘I didn’t say it after- Cause- Cause I didn’t think you needed it. I don’t- I didn’t think there was anything to forgive because I don’t blame you for your actions. But- But it’s not about what I need to say. It’s about what you need to hear. And you need to hear this. I forgive you.’
He sank to his knees and let himself fall back onto his butt; all the tension and energy gone from his body.
Three words, and he was undone.
She couldn’t forgive him. That wasn’t in the plan. That wasn’t a possibility. That wasn’t-
He looked up as he heard her shuffling. She sat, sliding her back down the door, and lifted her feet so that the toes of her shoes rested on the toes of his. ‘Padawan?’
‘What if I don’t accept?’
‘I trusted you with my life,’ she said. He looked up, and saw more tears on her cheeks. ‘So trust me with yours, yeah?’
‘As you wish, newbie.’
The walk past the other dorm rooms was normal – the same looks, the same people looking right past him.