Raz took a deep breath, held it, then released it.
He closed his eyes and listened to his anti-anxiety app as it took him through five minutes of breathing exercises, designed to calm him the fuck down.
It wasn’t working, but it kept him breathing.
In his three months at the Agency, there hadn’t been many dangers. No Solstice had attempted to breach the building; there’d been no end-of-the-world scenarios – nothing that compared to the “here be monsters” whirlpool he was about to hit.
Speed metal slammed into his ears, and the music did more to slow his hammering heart than his breathing exercises did.
One dinner with his parents.
The first dinner since he’d joined the Agency.
He’d been to dinner with Jess a few times. She kept trying to give him back the money that he’d passed her way, but he’d finally managed to convince her to keep it. She’d told him that she’d kept it a secret from their parents, but he wasn’t quite sure he believed her.
Jess was starting – still only starting – to treat him like an adult. Like the person she thought Michael Hu Luk should be – should have been. Like he was something more than her crazy little brother.
She was happy for him – or felt a measure of happiness, anyway – but it still seemed as though she expected him to crash and burn at any time. As if he couldn’t handle the responsibility of having a job. Of socialising. Of being a person.
It was astounding how easy things seemed to become when your sheets were clean and you weren’t starving for every meal.
There were still bad days – days when all the colours burned and he couldn’t get out of bed. The walls still screamed obscenities at him, though they were becoming quieter.
It was easier to be a person when people treated you like one, not like a piece of shit to be pitied and disdained.
He looked down at himself one more time. Formal Agency uniform: black pants, white shirt, blue vest, black blazer.
It was almost strange to go to dinner wearing it, but it was a decent uniform, and it wouldn’t look out of place at whatever fancy restaurant his parents were taking him to.
And it was going to be a fancy restaurant. They hadn’t told him where. They had simply told him to dress up for the night, that it was to celebrate his new job.
Five minutes until he had to be in the lobby.
He turned away from the window and saw Agent Ryan standing there.
In a perfect world, they’d be a mirror of each other – they were both men, both working for the Agency. In reality, Ryan was ten times the man he could ever be. But because of the man in front of him, Raz finally had a chance to be someone – even if it was a someone he’d never expected and maybe not the man his parents wanted him to be.
He owed Ryan more than he could ever say.
And right now, he wanted to sit and discuss procedure and Agency policies with Ryan a hundred times more than he wanted to have dinner with his parents.
Ryan smiled, and the expression was a paternal one. ‘Your tie is crooked, Recruit.’ The agent lifted his hands. ‘May I?’
Raz nodded and lifted his head as Ryan fixed his tie. The action reminded him of his first day of grade twelve – it was the same thing his father had done.
A bit of paternal love that he hadn’t received for years. Not since he’d stopped being Michael. Stopped being Hu. Stopped being someone that parents could be proud of.
‘You’ll be fine, Recruit,’ Ryan said. ‘Family is what it is, but your home is here.’
‘Sir, do you just– Walk around the agency, dispensing good advice?’
‘Jones mentioned earlier that you were going to see your family. I’m just here to pick up some reports. The timing is coincidental, but I hope the advice helps.’
Raz stared at Ryan for a moment, weighed the pros and cons of what he wanted to do, declared the pros the winner, then quickly hugged the man. He held onto Ryan for a moment and enjoyed the feeling of the man’s hands on his shoulders. ‘Thank you, Agent.’
He’d wanted to do that for a long time. He’d given his thanks a dozen times, but all that Ryan had done for him seemed to require a hug.
He pulled away.
Ryan lay his hands on Raz’s shoulders again. ‘Go on, Recruit.’
Raz nodded, smiled, and walked towards the elevator. He hit the button and waited the eight seconds for the lift to arrive.
Once in the lobby, he signed out with Natalie and then walked outside into the evening air. After a few more minutes in the cool air, his parents’ silver car pulled up.
His parents’ car pulled past him, to the head of the small waiting area outside of the building.
They’d driven right past him. Hadn’t recognised him.
It was strange how a suit could make a man invisible. It was definitely a point in the Agency’s favour that their main method of camouflage worked so well.
His phone rang, and he let out a peal of nervous laughter after he saw the caller ID: Mum.
He cancelled the call, walked up to the car, and waved at his dad in the passenger seat.
His mum always drove. His dad avoided it where he could – it was something he’d tired of since his youth, when he’d spent thousands on fast cars and countless weekends on being a gearhead.
Raz’s agency was strangely free of people taking advantage of requiring to do cool things with cars. Most recruits would – and often did – require a sports car on the weekend, but no one seemed to spend hours in the garage, tuning things up past the point of perfection.
The one potential exception was Taylor, who occasionally vaguely like engine oil, but Raz had never seen any sign of a car to go along with the smell.
His dad started and turned, looked at him.
His dad blinked, then blinked again. His dad’s gaze went down, then travelled back up, seeming to take in every detail of his suit. Then the window slid down. ‘Hu?’
Raz smiled and greeted his father in Mandarin.
‘This is a five-minute spot,’ his mother called from the driver’s seat. ‘Michael, get in.’
Raz quickly sat in the back seat of the car.
The lights ahead turned green, and his mother pulled off into traffic.
‘Michael,’ his mother called, inclining her head without turning it. ‘Are you well?’
‘I’ve had a good week,’ he said. A neutral conversation-starter. An open-ended invitation for his parents to do or say whatever they wanted.
‘Good,’ his mother replied, as neutral as an agent, then said nothing more as she drove.
White mother. Chinese father. Mixed kids. The situation was almost storybook, but he aligned more with the looks of his father, whereas his sister was their mother’s daughter – she’s always had to deal with creeps calling her “exotic”, but she’d never had the random calls of “chink”.
Raz wished there was some kind of cultural bias for the way his parents treated him – that something in the Western or the Eastern made them more susceptible to hating on the crazy – but in that, they’d always presented a unanimous front. They were disappointed, because he was a disappointment.
His palms started to sweat.
He had his Agency phone, and Vox was running. All he had to do was type in a quick message, and someone would get him shifted home. It would leave his parents wondering if he’d leapt from the car into slow-moving traffic, but it might calm his heart down.
The silence bit into his ears. The weight of words unspoken.
He licked his lips. ‘What has Jess told you?’
‘Not much, duckling,’ his mum said.
Duckling. A name she’d stopped calling him when he was six – and had only started up again post-crazy. Whether it was a way to remember the happier times, to indicate that she was infantilizing him, or to try to assure him that he was still loved…he had no idea, and he wasn’t sure that he wanted to know the answer. There was more than a fifty percent chance that the answer was going to be something he didn’t want to hear.
‘Do you want me to just start at the beginning?’ he said.
‘That’d be good,’ his dad said. ‘Government work isn’t easy to come by. Your selection criteria must have been well-done – did you get it professionally written up?’
Raz was glad they couldn’t see his face or the slack-jawed stare he was giving the back of his father’s seat. Professional selection criteria – paragraphs about how and why he could fulfil certain aspects of a job – would have cost a decent chunk of his fortnightly disability payment. That wasn’t something he could have ever afforded.
And this was another reason that talking to his parents always sucked. They were always under the mistaken impression that living on welfare was “tough, but manageable” rather than “just this side of The Hunger Games”.
He’d had to weigh whether or not eating expired food was worth being able to afford the latest Humble Bundle, or if he’d just turn to piracy again.
Job hunting had been – aside from the impossible hurdle created by his mental illness – outside of his ability. He could submit a résumé – but if someone had ever given him a job interview, he would have turned up in pants with frayed cuffs and shirts that likely still smelled, no matter how many times he’d washed them.
Clawing one’s way out of poverty wasn’t easy – another thing his parents, both from upper-middle class families, would never understand.
His mother launched into a speech about the project she was working on, and his father told him how the extended family was going – and that two of his cousins were coming over on work-holiday visas.
It was harmless prattle, but it only increased the feeling of dread in his chest.