Curt felt Stef let go of his hand as Ryan’s office blurred into view. He required a fresh uniform, the few crumbs of breakfast disappearing. Three months, and she was still relying on tactile contact to reliably shift things other than herself. Shifting something away from herself she could do all right, but when it came to bringing people or objects with her…she still needed touch.
It was strange, considering how anti-touch she was when it came to almost everything else. Everything that wasn’t in an “exemption category”. He’d made one of her exemption categories, he’d slipped past the impregnable wall that she kept up, and stopped him from making another worst decision of his life.
Walk away from the Agency. It had seemed like a good idea. It had seemed like the only thing to do. Things were good, and he didn’t deserve things to be so good. Ryan-approved or not, Aide or not, everything still felt transitory, like it could be ripped away, like they could still cast him aside.
Leave. Avoid hurting them. Avoid getting hurt when they ditched him. It had made perfect sense. She’d held him. She’d let him cry. She’d shown him “perfect sense” made none at all. Decisions made from fear were so stupid in hindsight.
Home. Home had always been one of those four letter words that hadn’t really meant anything. It had meaning in the abstract, the raise-the-hand and define-for-teacher way, but never as something that had resonated and really felt real.
One decision of fear, one act of comfort, and he had a home. He had a place in the world.
He had his second chance.
He clapped his hands together. ‘Ok, let’s-’
‘Are you going to be bright and perky all day?’
‘And if I am?’
‘Defenestration, definitely defenestration.’
He smirked at her, then looked to the computer. ‘Could you start by making all the paperwork physical? Most everything should be here already, but he might have some stuff stored away as a digital copy.’
He ran through a mental checklist – there, for once, would definitely big a large chunk of files that would be stored digitally – there wasn’t enough paperwork here, especially not when the previous day was taken into account.
Paperwork had been done early the previous morning, before Ryan had gone down to the Marches, but the whole day and the afternoon had been a wash. Nothing had been done during the meeting, and he’d left right after for activities that had nothing to do with paperwork.
Stef crinkled her nose in concentration, and a lot more paperwork appeared. A half dozen stacks that nearly rose to his shoulders from the desk top appeared.
‘That’s more like it,’ he said.
‘This is…normal?’
‘Don’t forget he’s the Director, it’s just not Queen Street he has to look after. At least he doesn’t have to deal with most of the Outpost day-to-day stuff for most of them, so we don’t have to see their schedules and whatnot, except in the weird circumstances.’
‘Weird like what?’
‘Career changes mostly, sometimes Outpost agents get bored out of their minds if they’re looking after an area where the fae keep themselves in line. Some decide to switch cities with each other, some petition to become Academy instructors-’
‘Why is it everyone knows about the Academy but me?’
‘I don’t think it was intentional, newbie, it’s just one of those things that doesn’t come up unless it’s relevant, we had no Academy-trained recruits here, no one is taking remote courses. It’s kind of like…Hungary, it’s there, but unless it’s relevant, no one talks about it, doesn’t mean it’s being hidden from you.’
She gave him a shifty look, then relented. ‘Fine. It really, really makes me feel like a newbie though.’
‘You are a newbie, newbie.’
‘I’m trying.’
‘Hey, for someone who’s only been at this three months, you’re doing ok. You can’t learn everything all at once, and it’s stupid to try, that’s why only taking in the relevant stuff works, because you’re more likely to actually process it.’
‘It’s taking forever.’
‘It would take less time if you stopped going on tangents to try and figure out why-’
She held up a hand to stop him, and her eyes took on the vacant look Agents got when they were talking to someone through their HUD – or when she decided to space out and read “FUNNY THINGS ON THE INTERNETS ONEONEONEONEONEONE!!!!!!!” when things got too overwhelming. Things of the decidedly not-overwhelming category, he gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed it was the first.
Nonetheless, he took a look at his watch and required a five-minute timer. Five minutes and it was either something she should shift away and deal with in person, or it was the internet.
He turned to the desk and began to sort the paperwork by type and order of priority.
A moment later, she poked him on the shoulder. A poke with her finger, thankfully, not with some long, sharp required stick. Another touch, another contact, another proof of his exemption status. It was nice. It was less painful than a stick.
‘Brb,’ she said, ‘Jonesy wants me now.’
‘Come back straight after, and we’ll tackle some of this.’
‘Fine.’ She gave him a wonky salute and shifted away.
He turned in a slow circle just to make sure she hadn’t shifted back into the office to give him a jump scare, or to randomly shout “NINJA!” before disappearing again, then began to organise the piles of paperwork.
He required a small table off to the side of the desk, and began to move all of the director paperwork there, leaving only the field agent work on the desk.
Ryan’s chair sat invitingly empty, but he ignored it.
Within twenty minutes, the paperwork had been split between the desks.
The chair still sat, empty, the leather cold and lonely without a suited suitor.
He turned, looking at every corner of the office, making sure that there were no hackers, wizards or ninjas hiding in non-existent shadows. He felt a smile tug at his lips as he rounded the desk.
With a small, silent apology, he sat in the chair.
He felt his body relax into the leather almost straight away. It was so comfortable. He closed his eyes, and drank in the softness of the seat – it was definitely a chair one could do paperwork in for long stretches of time. It was definitely next on his “to require” list.
His eyes opened at the thought. When he required a chair, that’s what he required, a chair. A standard office chair when he was doing paperwork, or at the small desk in his room, a normal couch when the situation called for it, a small stool if he had to sit in the tech department for any length of time.
They were all just…normal things. The normal level of comfort that he’d acclaimtised to over the course of his life. If they frayed or stained or broke, a thought replaced them, but otherwise, he made whatever he required work for him.
His bed was the one that had come with his room – and it always felt extravagent, like soemthing he never would have been able to afford if he’d stayed working at the fruit store, or taken some dead-end office job, or whatever he would have done if his life hadn’t gone the way it had.
The bed he let pass as an anomaly though – beds in swanky hotels were softer than usual, and that’s all his room was, a place to put his head. It wasn’t his space, it wasn’t his home. It hadn’t been his space, it hadn’t been his home. It was his space, it was his home. It was his home and it was time to show it. Time to actually make it look different to a standard recruit room, time to add some personal touches.
It hadn’t even taken a day, and everything was already changing.
He leaned forward, elbows on the desk, his chin resting on steepled fingers. The seat of power, the chair that commanded Brisbane and a dozen Outposts, and he was sitting in it.
He had thought chair large, scary, intimidating. That it was sized like that to make an impression, rather than for simple comfort.
‘Recruit O’Connor?’
He was already looking the agent in the face, so there could be doubt that he was paying attention to every word, but he strained to stand a little straighter. If he tensed any tenser, something would snap, and he’d probably make a mess over the agent’s carpet.
The agent wasn’t scowling like the ones in Adelaide did. The agent wasn’t looking at him like he was something had scraped from his shoe. The agent – Agent Ryan – if anything, looked disappointed in him. Probably expecting someone better, someone not so-
‘Yes sir?’
‘I don’t have time to show you around, and I haven’t had any volunteers from my recruits. They aren’t comfortable with you. You have to understand that.’
‘Of course I do, sir,’ he said.
Fresh start. It was supposed to be a fresh start. It was supposed to be a second chance. It wasn’t. It was the same shit in a different Agency.
‘They know you’re Solstice,’ Agent Ryan said, ‘but no one here has been briefed on the details of your role with them, nor can those details be accessed by anyone with recruit clearance.’
His eyes widened a little, and felt gratitude push a small smile onto his face – the first real smile he’d had in months. ‘Thank you, sir.’
‘It will be your choice if you reveal the details or not.’
He wouldn’t. There was no reason to. Slide in, let the past slip away, obfuscate his past, pretend he was just another red shirt.
‘Do you have a schedule for me, sir?’
‘Take a walk, have a look around the Agency, customise your room, then come back in a couple of hours, I’ll have some time for you then.’
‘Any areas I should stay away from, sir?’
‘The combat floors.’ The agent paused for a moment. ‘But that’s not just you, Agent Taylor doesn’t allow recruits of other divisions there.’
‘Yes sir.’
He gave the agent a nod and turned to the door.
He turned back. ‘Yes sir?’
‘I’ll expect a lot more from you than the other recruits.’
‘Yes sir.’
He spun on the chair, turning to face the window wall. ‘Captains’ log,’ he muttered, ‘I am continuing this…strange…new…mission. I’ve just had a-’ He shut his mouth at the sound of a knock.
He stood and straightened his uniform. ‘Come in.’
The door opened, and he kept his professional expression up as Brian walked in the door.
‘Where’s Agent Ryan?’
He looked left, then right, then left again. ‘Not here,’ he said pointedly. ‘What did you need?’
‘To book some leave.’
He looked at the other recruit’s empty hands. ‘Where’s your paperwork?’
‘What do you mean? He does it.’
He scratched his ear, and felt a crack in his professional mask. ‘Actually, no, recruits fill in the majority of it, then it goes to their agent for approval or rejection.’
‘That’s not the way we’ve done it all these years.’ Brian paused for a moment. ‘But I don’t expect you to know that, O’Connor, you even entitled to leave yet?’
He kept careful track of Brian’s words, amazed at how often the recruit managed to convey the phrase “you filthy Solstice fuck” with only his tone.
‘My downtime doesn’t concern you, but you’re going to need to do the paperwork-’
‘I’ll wait for Agent Ryan to come back. You don’t get to change things, just because-’
‘I’m an Aide,’ he said, ‘my job is to make his easier. He’s far too busy to deal with the petty shit of giving you a week off, and I’m doing the scheduling, so he’ll ask me if we can spare you.’
‘Three weeks,’ Brian said, ‘I need three weeks off.’
‘That’s a big ask,’ he said, ‘when?’
‘Starting the end of the month.’
‘My parents won lotto and they’re taking the whole family on a cruise.’
He required the leave paperwork. ‘I’m not sure if that’ll get approved, but fill this in and bring it back.’
Brian grabbed the forms and sat on the leather couch.
‘I said-’
‘I’m not bothering you, am I, O’Connor?’ Brian said as he began to fill in the forms.
‘So you’re fucking Mimosa, what’s that like?’
He closed his mouth, leaned against the desk and let himself slip into the same cold bastard mode he had used when “questioning” fae. ‘Fill that out somewhere else.’
Brian shook his head. ‘You start doing an agent-’
‘I wasn’t asking,’ he snapped.
Brian looked up. ‘You can’t intimidate me.’
He bit back on arguing the point. They hated him enough thinking he was just some nobody, without knowing how much blood had drenched his hands. The lie had held for more than a year, there was no reason to reveal it now.
‘I don’t kiss and tell,’ he said, ‘that’s all.’
Brian stood and shoved the paperwork at him. ‘I guess I’m grateful,’ he said, ‘I figured her for a dyke. Tell her that when she wants a real man, I’ll step up.’
A hundred lies flew through his head, wordy descriptions of testicular tortion, bruises in uncomfortable places, and teeth. He looked at the ground, playing the part of the meek, defeated foe. Escalation now would do nothing, would lead to nothing but problems. Appearing as the weak bitch-boy though, that couldn’t lower their opinion of him any further.
‘That’s what I thought,’ Brian said, then walked out the door.
He required the door locked, sighed heavily, and went back to sorting the piles of paperwork, throwing Brian’s leave forms to the side, to be dealt with later, if and when he felt like it.
Piles sorted, he went back to the chair, but light thoughts of faux log entries wouldn’t come back. Maybe next time. If Stef insisted on doing Ryan’s work for more than one day, then there’d be plenty more times to play captain, to play agent. Between the two of them, there was the chance to make one decent agent.