‘Recruit, do you have a moment?’
Curt turned, and saw Jane leaning against the gym’s door. ‘Sure ma’am.’ He turned back to the target range, and reset everything with a couple of requirements, the paper targets who had stood in for Petersen disappearing into the void with every other dismissed object. He checked the safety on his gun, and holstered it. ‘How can I help?’
Jane walked forward, a slight smile on her lips. ‘Are you aware it’s two in the morning, Recruit?’
‘Something on your mind?’
He almost screamed. Everything was on his mind. Everything Petersen had done. The feeling that he was sure that scars on his arm were burning. The fact that sometimes, on the rarest occasions, the nightmares were enough to burn through the Parkers’ miracle sleeping tablet.
He gave a casual shrug. ‘Nothing extreme, ma’am, just a bit of insomnia.’
‘Since you’re up, do you have time for a few questions?’
He nodded – company, even the company of an agent, might be enough to pull him outside of himself. Might be enough to distract him from his thoughts long enough to chance going back to sleep when they were done.
Jane nodded, and walked out of the gym, towards the common room.
‘There’s a meeting room down this way that I like to use,’ he said. ‘I doubt anyone else is up at this hour, but it allows for a bit of privacy.’
She seemed to consider this for a moment, then nodded. He headed for the little meeting room – the one that no one but him seemed to use, a space contaminated, as now it made him think of Stef.
He slid into his usual chair, and ran his hands down his suit, ensuring that he was presentable enough for the visiting agent – despite the ungodly hour.
‘If you ever want to be Aide,’ Jane said after she sat, ‘it would probably be a good idea to get used to being around your peers.’
His jaw dropped – it was a strange sensation, in cartoons it was a movement that came with a sound effect, with a lolling tongue, and possibly a smaller character rolling your tongue back into your mouth.
In reality, it was a strange coldness as you realised your mouth was open, with no memory of opening it to speak.
‘You seem surprised to hear the concept brought up,’ she said, folding her hands in her lap. ‘It doesn’t seem to surprise anyone else.’
‘Wha- Hu-’ he shut his mouth before he sounded like an idiot. ‘I’m afraid I might need some more context, Agent Jane.’
An agent was not discussing this with him. He was sleeping – he was dreaming. Any moment now, Jane’s face would split open, and Petersen would be there, laughing and deriding him for trying to make the most of his situation.
For trying to be something more than he was.
For wanting anything.
‘You’re the reason I came, and that issue has been resolved to the satisfaction of Enforcer Crawford. Ryan’s position is safe here, though the exit report from this audit is going to have several recommendations. The least of which means we’re going to need some movement to correct the criminal lack of Aides in this Agency. Jones will have to choose someone, and Ryan will have to learn to accept some help.’
Curt shifted nervously in his seat. ‘He occasionally passes me some work which would traditionally fall to an Aide-’
Jane nodded to this. ‘That much I’d gathered. And you’ve made one petition for the position already.’
‘Too early,’ he said, staring at his fingers. ‘It was far too early to be taken seriously.’
‘It was an effort that should have been rewarded,’ she said gently. ‘I’ve spoken with all the key people in this Agency and over and over, it’s your name that comes up when I reference the potential Field Aide position.’
His head dropped. ‘I’m Solstice.’ His heart seized, knowing the wording was the worst thing ever. That it was- That she would- ‘I- I- I mean-’ he stammered.
‘I know what you meant.’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘If you’re still Solstice, you’re doing a damn good job of being a resource whilst you’re here, so keep it up.’ She winked, then sat back in her chair. ‘Sometimes you just have to have a little bit of faith in people.’
He shook his head, still not quite believing the conversation. ‘I’m former Solstice, ma’am, people like me don’t rise up, don’t become Aides, we just-’
‘Oh, who’s been feeding you that horseshit?’ she asked sharply. ‘Former-’ she stopped herself. ‘Reformed, rather, Solstice, who have taken the necessary steps to prove themselves have just as much right to opportunities as the next recruit. And given some of your peers, there are far worse things you can be than someone who was misguided in an earlier part of their life.’
‘I don’t even know any other Solstice recruits,’ he said quietly. ‘There’s none in Brisbane’s network, none that I knew in Adelaide before my transfer.’ He stared down at the table. ‘It doesn’t make me feel special, it makes me lonely.’
‘I will admit you’re a rarity,’ she said, ‘and also that the Agency takes steps to ensure Solstice recruits don’t cross paths with others like them early into their recruit careers. It’s a touch paranoid, but we want to keep the appearance of association to a minimum. For the ones we don’t trust quite so much as we do you, we don’t want a chance of them slipping back into their old ways by being around people who may have the same temptation.’
That made a lot of sense – it was actually something he had suspected. Like the inverse of group therapy and support groups – rather than have a network of sympathetic people to bolster you in your new post-Solstice life; there was the lack of temptation to pick up your old ways.
It made perfect, twisted, sense – so it lined up with the other bits of odd Agency logic. Treat it like the rules of parole, because you were nothing but a criminal.
‘Ryan doesn’t want me for Aide,’ Curt said, meeting Jane’s gaze. ‘I think…if there was the possibility, that there would have at least been discussions and movment toward trialling the position. Informal or formal, doesn’t matter. He gives me the overflow work, and as much as I appreciate it, I know that it’s just because he’s got too much on his plate.’
Jane stared for a moment. ‘You appreciate it?’
He grimaced – the sentiment had been an expression of honesty that he hadn’t been planning on, but it was too late to play dumb now. ‘It feels like recognition,’ he said at last. ‘I know I’m kidding myself going for the Aide position, but any work he does pass my way shows he has some measure of faith…some trust, to at least believe that I won’t mess up the schedules or the reports.’
‘Recognition is one part of it,’ Jane said, ‘but where’s the reward?’
Curt looked away, proud that he was at least smart enough to hold his tongue this time. The reward was the courtesy that allowed him to keep breathing. The reward was keeping him as far away from Petersen as possible. The reward was allowing him to wake up each morning, almost as free as his peers.
He gave a casual shrug. ‘The recognition is the reward?’
Jane shook her head. ‘No. That’s no how an Agency operates. If it makes you feel any better, all of the key players here outside of Ryan have pegged you as belonging in the position. The only competition you seem to have is a recruit that-’
‘Brian,’ Curt said flatly. ‘If this were any other Agency the competition is between me and Brian, but I’ve actually asked for the job, whereas…’ It was late, and eloquence was a thing that seeed to be beyond him. ‘I apologise for using this phrasing, but…you know when a guy fuck-zones a girl? When a fedora-wearing asshole acts like a passably decent person, and believes he’s owed sex for the courtesy?’
Jane gave a small smile. ‘It speaks well to your character that you describe it that way, and not for condemning girls for not acquiescing.’
Curt nodded. ‘An expectation of sex from anyone, of any gender, for any reason, is something that bothers me. A lot.’ He shook his head. ‘Anyway. It’s my opinion that that’s how Brian is treating the Aide position. He does passably well as a recruit, but basically expects Ryan to drop the job into his lap. He feels like he deserves it, just for doing his job.’
‘And you don’t?’
He wished that this conversation was happening during the day, after he’d had some sleep, when he’d had a chance to prepare, and while he wasn’t fighting the urge to scream his throat raw.
Curt sat back in his chair, and tried to gather his words. ‘Aide is so much more than just being a recruit. I’m fairly certain Magnolia doesn’t have a social life, not outside of a few friends within the Agency, anyway.’ He gave a small smile. ‘It’s almost like being an agent, I suppose,’ he said, knowing the wording was inelegant. ‘Your entire life becomes the position. There’s no such thing as a standard working day anymore, because-’ It’s your entire life. He’d just said that. He grimaced. ‘There’s no separation. It’s everything you are, because there aren’t enough hours in the day to be anything else.’
‘That’s at the extreme end of the spectrum,’ Jane said, ‘it’s not how it should be.’
‘With respect ma’am, I think you would have picked up by now that this Agency isn’t at peak operating efficiency. We are that extreme end of the spectrum. I’m not sure some people – Brian – understand that. I could do it, because I’ve got not-’ He closed his mouth. ‘The terms of my probation position me well to take on additional responsibilities.’ He winked, and tried to look casual. ‘No one wants to date an ex-Solstice, so my personal time requirements are minimum.’ He leaned on the table. ‘Don’t bring the idea up with Ryan, please. Or if you want him to get an Aide, leave my name out of it. I don’t want him to feel like I’m being forced on him.’
Jane gave him a funny look, then nodded. ‘Very well, Recruit.’ She stood and indicated to the door. ‘Curt, I think you should get some rest, you look dead on your feet.’
No. He wasn’t dead on his feet. Petersen had never allowed him the respect of standing whilst-
He shot to his feet. ‘Yes ma’am. That’s a good idea.’ He nodded. ‘And, thank you, even being considered a candidate is an honour, even if nothing comes of it.’
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