November 17th

Curt hesitated outside of Ryan’s office. He couldn’t linger long – the agent would know he was there. He’d already run a holding pattern around the entire field floor – from the dorm rooms, to the common room that was pretty exclusively used for sex.

He lifted a hand to knock, but Ryan opened the door, and quietly ushered him in.

‘I know why you’re here,’ the agent said, and Curt caught the smell of alcohol on Ryan’s breath. ‘And the answer is yes, but you need to understand something first.’ Ryan indicated to the couch, and Curt sat, then accepted a drink from Ryan as the agent began to pace back and forth in front of the coffee table.

‘What did Stef tell you about this process?’ Ryan asked.

The man was the next closest thing to drunk – he’d never seen a drunk agent. He’d seen pretty much every other state it was possible for an agent to be in, but never drunk.

‘Not much, sir,’ he said levelly, and pretended to take a sip of the Scotch.

‘There are always issues upgrading a human to an agent,’ he said, ‘each time the process occurs, there are unique challenges. And as good as any tech is, there’s always the chance that they have missed something, or some part of the human personality will conflict with the agent code.’

Or whatever mirror they have left in them.

‘Yes sir,’ he said, figuring the agent needed some acknowledgement of the conversation.

‘Stef’s no different,’ Ryan said. ‘Challenges. Risks. Limit tests.’ Anger flashed in Ryan’s eyes, and even as Curt felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck, he knew the anger wasn’t directed at him. ‘Combat. Taylor. Magnolia. Grigori. They’re performing Limit Tests.’

The anger. The drunkenness. The combination was leading towards a conclusion that made him want to run from the room.

The Agency was supposed to be safe for its own people.

‘Torture,’ Curt said, needing to say the word. Needing to have it laid bare, and to have Ryan recognise it.

Ryan met his gaze, and nodded.

Curt dug his fingernails into his leg, and focussed on the pain to keep his expression neutral.

‘It’s almost over,’ Ryan said. ‘I’ve been-‘ He gave a half-smile. ‘I’ve been trying to keep you out of it, Recruit,’ he said, ‘for your sake, for- There’s rarely anything gained in sharing this kind of pain.’

‘I could have been there to support,’ he said, praying he sounded exactly like his normal, everyday Recruit Curt; and not the screaming wreck he knew he should have been.

Agency-approved torture. It was different than Petersen. He’d deserved everything Petersen had done to him. Had deserved to be deprived of sunlight. To be cut. To be-

His hands were shaking.

Curt forced himself to focus on Ryan. ‘I’d like to offer support,’ he said, carefully framing the sentence so that Ryan couldn’t possibly think he was offering to help Taylor. ‘I’d like to visit again, if I can.’

‘Just-‘ Ryan hesitated. ‘Just be-‘

‘Gentle, sir?’ he asked. ‘Of course.’

Ryan lifted a hand, and there was the sway of a shift.

When he reintegrated, he found himself standing in front of Stef’s tank – nothing much had changed since his first visit. It was still…Stef-ish. There was the usual Tech-Department detritus, and evidence of snacking.

Stef lay on the bed, hands folded on her chest. She rolled her head to the side to look at him and gave him a half-arsed smile. ‘I’m pretty sure,’ she said, ‘that I’m still a little high, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t get up.’

Curt walked forward, and hit the access panel beside the door, hoping that Ryan had added his name to the clearance list, and was relieved to see it open. He stepped inside, screaming in his mind as the door slid closed behind him, and climbed on the bed to sit near Stef’s feet.

He wasn’t touching her – and that seemed to be her main phobia. Physical proximity didn’t seem to set her off, and in some cases, even seemed to be welcomed – as she had drifted closer and closer during their Trek movie marathon – if only so she could wave the remote in his face when she wanted to pause and make a five minute long point.

He sat on a bag of corn chips, and the smell of artificial cheese filled the room.

‘That wasn’t me,’ she said idly, ‘my farts don’t smell that delicious.’

‘More info than I never needed to know about your gasses, newbie,’ he said. He let the silence hang for a moment. ‘I know. Ryan told me. I’m here for…emotional support, or whatever.’

She kept silent, and he allowed her a few more minutes.

‘Newbie?’

‘What?’ she asked, and he could hear pain tinging the edges of the word.

He looked down – she was lying on one side of the bed – closest to the door, leaving at three feet of space behind, between her left arm and the wall, plenty of space for him. He shuffled closer, and sat cross-legged in line with her elbow.

It somehow felt better to be closer when he said this. As if cutting down the distance could keep him safer.

Nothing would ever allow him to feel safe ever again.

Nothing would ever let him feel okay again.

And she needed someone to stop her from getting fucked up and heading down his path.

‘I’ve been-‘ words died for a long moment. ‘I’ve been where you are,’ he said. ‘So don’t think that I’m talking out of my arse when I’m trying to offer support.’

She sat up and whirled on him, her face angry. ‘The hell are you talking about?!’ she asked, her voice more full of anger than he’d ever heard.

He pressed a hand to the bed. ‘You’re not the only one in this room that’s been tortured by agents.’

The anger drained like he’d flicked a switch. ‘But-‘ she said, seeming to struggle to find words. ‘But you’re a recruit-‘

‘And I started off as a Solstice,’ he said, proud at how level he was keeping his voice. ‘Or did you forget that part, Stef?’

She looked down, shame on her face.

‘The agent who- If you want to call it recruitment, we’ll call it recruitment. The agent who recruited me. He treated me- Poorly,’ he said, taking great effort to form the word. ‘He treated me like an agent has every right to treat a Solstice. He- He treated me like I’d been treating fae.’ He touched his face, then chest, then legs. ‘I can’t remember all of the injuries. I’m-‘ he chuckled mirthlessly. ‘I’m glad of that. I remember the pain in my dreams.’ It was his turn to look away, ashamed. He hadn’t meant to dump on her, or to be so honest. The Parkers knew about his nightmares, but no one else; it was smart to keep them under wraps, else someone could potentially use them against him.

Stef shuffled closer to him, and sat, his shoulder inches from his as she settled against the wall of the tank. ‘I get why they’re doing this. Intellectually. It’s the curse of genius,’ she said, ‘that I get it. I approve of it. It’s the scientific method writ large.’

‘But emotionally?’ he promoted after a minute.

‘Today,’ she said, ‘I got eaten by a fucking shark. And the Russian guy wouldn’t stop laughing. And I lost so much blood I was hallucinating, and I’m pretty sure that shouldn’t even be fucking possible for an agent.’ She lifted her hand to show him the bandages. ‘I’m okay now. Jonesy says I’m okay now.’

He reached forward, and held his hand over hers, then dropped a star-shaped chocolate into her open, bandaged palm. ‘They hate me,’ she said, ‘they all hate me so much. They like it that they’re- They like it when they hurt me.’

If he’d never offered to get Ryan, then she would have been in Fairyland, free. She wouldn’t be locked in a cage. She wouldn’t have had someone sign off on torturing her.

It was his fault, and he couldn’t do anything to help her.

‘Don’t cry,’ he said. ‘It eggs them on. When I cried- It only made him hit me harder.’

Her eyes scanned over him for a long moment. ‘I’ve never- You don’t look like you have scars.’

‘It’s amazing what blue can do,’ he said. He noticed her confusion, and pressed his hands to his chest. ‘They kept augmenting me so they could wipe away the damage and start again. Never more than thirty percent. I was never anything close to a full agent. But it kept me alive, for whatever good that’s ever done anyone.’

She gave a nervous little shrug. ‘I like that you’re alive,’ she said. ‘You’re the closest thing I have to a friend.’

‘But it’s my fault that you’re here,’ he said, voicing his guilt. ‘If I hadn’t- I could have taken you into Faerie. Gotten you a job. Kept you away from the Agency.’

She flomped ono the bed in front of him, the back of her head brushing his knee. A full agent, with the coordination of a toddler.

‘I want to be here,’ she said, ‘this is the only thing I’ve ever wanted. I want to be here.’ She awkwardly lifted an arm and gave a thumb’s up. ‘I’m grateful.’

‘But you’re being tortured, newbie.’

‘And you’re not putting a movie on.’

He sighed, noticing the not-so-subtle change in conversation. ‘Which one?’

‘Galaxy Quest,’ she said, and pulled a pillow under her head.

‘Newbie-‘

‘More movie, less conversation.’

He required the movie, and passed her the remote. ‘I’m here if you need to talk.’

Her fingers brushed his as she took the remote. ‘I just want to survive this, and forget it. It seems to have worked for you.’

He slowly lifted a hand, and brushed tears from his face, glad that she couldn’t see him crying. ‘I’m not precisely a role model you should follow.’

She hit play. ‘I dunno, Padawan,’ she said, ‘I think you’re okay.’