September 28th

Curt stopped walking as his headset made the tone indicating he had a new email – his Agency phone buzzed a moment later confirming this.

He took a quick left, and walked to the hall that overlooked the street – the wall beneath each window was shaped in such a way to allow a person to sit – or two recruits if they didn’t mind being close.

He sat at his favourite window – the one furthest from the secondary emergency stairs – the ones known to the recruits as the “make out” stairs.

Curt pulled his phone from his pocket, and his heart seized as he saw the meeting invite. An invite from an unknown Agent, the day after he’d requested Mags to report Ryan’s fuck up could only mean one thing.

Or it was completely random and unrelated. It could be a PR session. It could be a follow up on his last probation evaluation. It could be about his superannuation. It could be anything.

It was about Stef, and it was stupid to think otherwise.

He dutifully tapped the option to accept the invitation, then a Vox alert appeared in his tray. He opened it and saw the same agent – Agent Jane, which was nearly as plain as Agent Bob – giving him a choice of times.

{Recruit O’Connor. Your advocate is available now, at 2.15 and 5.45, what time suits you best?}

Agencies and their agents were damnably efficient when the mood struck them.

He leaned back against the window – he’d heard from various sources that a couple of buildings had windows with the nasty habit of falling out, they’d never said whether or not the Agency was one of them.

He sighed and knocked his head back against the glass. Even if he plummeted towards the ground, the invisible safety net would catch him and take him to Lost & Found, where he’d be berated by yet another agent, only to leave him back in the exact same situation.

Curt drew in a deep breath, and tapped out a quick response that, of course, now was fine.

The thing that had caused him the most pain with Petersen had been the interminable waits where the man would leave him, with the promise of returning to cause more pain – promises that were carried out, of course, but the lulls between torture sessions hadn’t been restful – it was hard to relax when it was just the eye of the storm. Hard to sleep knowing that this time you might not wake up. Impossible to be happy with a decision to switch sides when every piece of inhuman rhetoric about the Agency was true.

He’d put himself in Ryan’s line of sight.

The agent had given him chances to back off. To drop the subject. He’d walked away once – he doubted that he was going to have that kind of luck again.

He was dead, so there was no need to put off the inevitable.

Curt tilted his head back, cherished the feel of filtered sunlight against his face, and headed towards the assigned meeting room – it was on level two, one of the neutral, non-departmental floors. A strange choice, given the agent was here to investigate a Field agent.

He rode down in the lift, wondering if he could reschedule, grab his things and get into Fairyland before they noticed he was missing. The local Court likely wouldn’t give him sanctuary – no one showed kindness to Solstice where they didn’t have to. Carmichael, on the other hand, could likely find him a job, even a shit job like courier or driver, not that he’d need much money, the apartment was already taken care of.

It was a decent plan.

It was a plan that he thought about when surrounded by recruits who hated him. When Ryan ignored a greeting, or refused to take heed of information he would have taken from any random source on the street.

He was trying. That was the part that hurt the most.

He stepped off he lift, and found the meeting room easily. He knocked, waited a polite three seconds, then opened the door.

His advocate was Agent Jones. He felt some of the stress uncurl as he looked at her – his odds of leaving the room alive had just gone up.

Jones grinned at him, and Curt felt himself smile in return – there was something completely gorgeous about Jones in her female presentation. Andrea was brunette, though the style seemed to alternate between a perfect up-do and “gamer frazzled”, and tied back with whatever had been on the desk at the time.

Today was messy, a large chunk of it was captured with a green clip that matched her eyes, and long curled strands spilled down over her shoulders.

Jones was, of the regular agents, the one he felt he could relax a little bit around. Jones always seemed to treat recruits with respect, treat them as though they were people.

The other agent at the table was also a woman – tall, probably as tall as Jones, black, pretty, in a flat black suit with no feature colour – no immediate way of telling what Agency network she was from. If any network at all, he realised, it was likely – even probable – that she was from Central.

He walked up to the table, and extended a hand as she stood. ‘Recruit Curt O’Connor, ma’am, reporting as ordered.’

The agent nodded. ‘That was quick, Recruit, I hope I didn’t pull you away from anything.’ She released his hand, and indicated to the seat across from her. ‘I’m Agent Jane. You can already guess why I’m here.’

Jane. Plain. Perfect for an agent. An accent that wouldn’t have been out of place at Hogwarts. No mention of an Agency, though Raz could likely get him a profile, if he made it out of the meeting.

Jones was sitting in as advocate, there was a good chance he was going to live.

Curt sat, waited for the chair to attack him, then forced himself to appear relaxed. ‘About the report I had Magnolia file. The accusation against Agent Ryan for dereliction of duty.’

‘That’s the one. I’ve read the report, but do you need to expand on any of the content?’

He let out a long breath, and folded his hands on the table in front of him. ‘It’s pretty much all there, ma’am – Stef was a brand new recruit, she-’ he looked at Jones. ‘Her test scores indicated far more of a technical skill set than a Field one…’

Jones nodded, as he hoped she would. ‘I have to admit that her score came partially from the examination of her laptop, which we had as evidence at the time. I…had actually been looking forward to discussing the code in question. Director Ryan overruled my-’ Jones considered her words for a moment. ‘My obvious right, at least in terms of test scores, and placed her in his own team.’

Jane nodded at them both. ‘Continue, Recruit.’

‘Whether or not she could have improved as a field recruit is a question, but she was really fucking smart-’ he immediately winced at his word choice. ‘But she was more the kind of person, and I mean this as a compliment, that should be in someone’s ear, not in the field.’

‘I think we’ve got that well established,’ Jane said. ‘Moving on to the actual incident.’

‘I had been given the impression she was going to be loaned to the techs for the night. There was no way it would be a reasonable expectation that a new recruit would be coming on an operation like this, especially in an active capacity. If she’d been assigned to one of the observation posts or something, maybe i wouldn’t be pushing this, but…’

He went quiet for a moment, trying to order the memories. ‘Ryan ordered me to the gym, and asked me to run over some exercises with her. I questioned her on her motivations for wanting to go. She had what i consider to be insufficient reasons for wanting to break protocol. And that’s to say nothing of Ryan approving this.’

Jones leaned towards him. ‘Do you feel comfortable sharing those reasons?’

‘She wanted to impress Agent Ryan,’ he said after a long pause. The look on her face had been so earnest, so needy, a kid wanting a parent to love a picture and put it on the fridge. Hard to help, because it meant enabling a stupid decision, but impossible to refuse.

Agent Jane gave no reaction to this. Uncomfortable silence filled the room. ‘And the operation itself?’

‘I went in, did my duty – didn’t see her during that time. First point I knew something was wrong was when Ryan called me in to help secure an area that had broken pieces of mirror.’

Jane looked to Jones. ‘A shatter?’

Jones nodded, auburn curls bouncing. ‘Everyone always acts so surprised, but it happens in about a third of cases. More chances seems to appeal more than bigger wishes.’

‘Recruit, continue.’

‘Stef wasn’t with him. I tried to ask if she’d been shifted back, but he ignored me. There was blood. A lot of blood. Enough for the Agency to announce her KIA yesterday.’

Jane nodded. ‘That’s procedure.’

‘I had a tech rush me the results, to confirm it was Stef’s blood. I asked Ryan if the Agency was pursuing official channels to see if she was still alive. I understand,’ he said quickly, ‘that some degree of questioning isn’t unusual when there’s been confirmed Solstice activity in the area. A KIA is a KIA, but if a phone call and a bit of bargaining can get a recruit back, why not take that opportunity?’

This seemed to surprise Jane. ‘Yes, of course, that’s usual procedure. We can’t-’ she seemed to be considering her words.

‘Recruits are expendable,’ he said, his voice neutral. ‘The Agency can’t expend resources on getting them back.’

She nodded. ‘Quite right. But if the cost is low enough, we have no trouble making it happen. We aren’t entirely unfeeling, just pragmatic.’

‘I understand, ma’am. But Agent Ryan didn’t even seem willing to do this.’

‘And that’s why you’re pushing this charge?’

‘I’m-’ He carefully schooled himself neutral. ‘I am simply asking for an investigation to be started on the basis of the facts provided. A Recruit is dead when Duty and procedure should have protected her.’

Jane leaned forward a little, mirroring how he had his hands folded. ‘Curt. What is your ideal outcome for this situation?’

He faltered. ‘I understand there are several levels of- That it is up to the investigating agent and their superiors to pass that judgement, not the person who instigates the report.’

‘And you’re correct, of course, but what would you like? What would you feel is justice in this situation?’

Curt felt sweat on the back of his neck. It was an Agency trap. It had to be. One of those questions that was a test. His answer determined his own fate as much as it did Ryan’s.

He forced himself to breathe. ‘I want-’

‘Do you want him to die?’

‘No!’

Curt pushed himself back into his chair. Jane’s question had come quickly, and his response had been even quicker – no time to think, no time to consider his answer or allow anything to temper it. A pure reaction, and the answer surprised him.

Ryan deserved to die. It had been the only thought in his mind since slipping in Stef’s blood. The only thought since realising that her life had been cut short, just like Tara’s.

And in one moment, it was gone.

He didn’t want Ryan dead.

The man was cold, aloof and distant. Ryan treated him like shit and didn’t give the chances he deserved.

But he was so much better than a lot of other agents out there. A lot more fair than agents who held people captive. A lot more kind, even when compared within his own Agency – Ryan, unlike Taylor, didn’t have the nasty habit of throwing recruits out a window.

What happened sucked. He deserved the full extent of what procedure and protocol said was coming to him, but it wouldn’t be…fair if it led to an execution.

Jane was staring.

‘Just checking,’ the agent said with a slight smile. ‘When a report is filed by someone other than the accusing party, it’s always a good idea to check what their opinions are. Magnolia seems to have been a bit stronger in her convictions against Agent Ryan.’

‘Field and Combat are always at each other’s throats,’ Jones said. ‘It’s nothing new. Magnolia probably saw a chance to go after Ryan and took it.

‘Yes,’ Jane said distractedly. ‘Jones could you stay for a minute after this? I’ve got something else to discuss with you.’

‘Ma’am?’ Curt asked, half-afraid of getting her attention back on him.

‘This will be an ongoing process,’ Jane said. ‘So don’t leave town, Recruit.’

Curt smirked. ‘Couldn’t even if I wanted to, ma’am.’

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