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The world went fuzzy.
Curt tried to keep his grip on the bag Farnshaw had given him – he wasn’t sure what it contained, but the agent seemed to be under the impression it would be weird if he showed up with nothing but the clothes on his back.
At least they were new clothes – the dirty grey t-shirt and track pants had been replaced with the snap of Farnshaw’s fingers – he now wore a short-sleeve button-down shirt, in a dark, Agency navy, which he was grateful for – if the shirt had been white, then his tattoos might have shown through.
And as awkward as that would have been around new people, he was so far from being able to ask for anything yet. He was barely beyond being grateful for each breath he was allowed to take that asking for anything was- Simply impossible.
Shifting wasn’t something he’d had time to get used to yet.
He wasn’t completely comfortable with all of the Agency terminology – he knew more words of Russian than he did Agency-specific terms, but where possible, he tried to use the right word.
His ex had been a fan of repurposing the quote of “fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself” to laugh at fucksticks who refused to use anatomical names for perfectly ordinary biological functions. Idiots who claimed to slay pussy on a nightly basis who couldn’t bear to hear the word “period” without flinching and demanding that the subject be changed.
Periods. Voldemort. Vaginas. It was always best when the right word was used. It wasn’t teleporting, or transporting, it wasn’t getting beamed somewhere, it was shifting. Precision was important. Precision was always important.
For a second, he saw nothing, then the world became clear again. His cell was gone, replaced with the cool tones of an Agency lobby – nothing special, as was standard operating practice, but also, definitely not Adelaide.
He let his arm holding the bag hang at his side, aware that the shift had taken him from a seated position to a standing one, and wondered if that was default, or if you could select that, and if so, what the limitations were on it.
If nothing else, it probably made Agent sex lives very interesting.
He tried to take in the detail of everything around him – but the furniture and artwork seemed to fade into the background in comparison to the people – a girl dressed for an anime convention, and a sticky child of indeterminate age wearing a long white coat.
It wasn’t their job to make the first move, he was the intruder. He tried to set his face into something neutral, something non-threatening. A smile was too much, but he could do business-like. ‘Hi. I guess you’re expecting me. Agent Farnshaw wanted me to pass along apologies for being late, he had a small medical emergency to deal with.’
From behind the high wall of the central desk, a thin woman stood and placed a clipboard and pen down. ‘I need you to sign in.’
Curt nodded, adjusted the grip on his bag, and walked to the desk, trying not to seem like he was staring, trying to seem normal, like he was breathing, like he wasn’t expecting Petersen to come out of nowhere and slide a knife across his throat.
When he got to the desk, he placed the bag down – gently, there was no call to look like a threat – and looked at the form. Name, employee number, department, time in and time out.
He carefully wrote down his name, wondering if invisible ink on the paper meant he was signing over even more of his life than they already owned. He wasn’t sure what else they could take that meant anything, what else they could strip from him that hadn’t already been ripped away, but the creative and the sadistic always found a way to make you hurt more.
Petersen had been so good at that. Leaving him with tendons cut, dehydrated and unable to crawl towards a glass of water. The pain had been there. The humiliation had been the Agent pissing on him, and leaving him to-
He looked at the clock on the wall and wrote down the sign-in time, then clipped the pen to the board and slid it back across to the secretary.
The girl in the cosplay outfit caught his attention with an incline of her head. ‘I’m Magnolia. Aide to Combat. Follow me.’
He nodded and picked up his bag. She walked towards the elevators, and he tried to assess her without staring like a creep. She was hot, that was undeniable, but also kind of scary. The lolita dress was a cute, girly veneer over a body that surely knew how to kill with ease.
Lace couldn’t hide the muscles. Ribbons didn’t disguise scars.
And moreover, the boots were practical. As fanciful as her dress sense was, her boots were ordinary combat boots, made for function, not for the aesthetic. This wasn’t someone who was going to twist an ankle when the shit hit the fan.
He wasn’t surprised that an aide was greeting him. An agent’s aide-de-camp probably had a lot more free time to greet problematic visitors than an agent did – and though a lot about the day-to-day operations of Agencies were opaque to him, he knew aides were somewhere between a gopher and a second in command. And as strangely wide as that span seemed to be, that’s as far as he’d been able to get the role narrowed down to him.
The elevator slid open, and he followed the girl in.
Likely, it depended on the needs of the individual Agent, how big their staff was, the general size of their operation, and a hundred other things his sluggish brain weren’t thinking of.
Aide wasn’t unexpected. Combat was.
Farnshaw hadn’t been able – or perhaps he’d just been unwilling – to tell him much about the transfer. The most that the agent had been able to say was that he was being sent to Brisbane, which apparently had a pretty shit reputation amongst the other agencies.
The opinion had been given in a very matter of fact kind of way. Water was wet. Agents wore suits. Brisbane was kind of shit.
Curt had tried to infer if that was why they were willing to take on the risk of an ex-Solstice; if they were doing it to earn some sort of credit with whoever rated the shit-ness of Agencies, or if whoever was in charge had some other reason for-
A wave of nausea ran through his body, and he leaned against the cool wall of the elevator, hating himself for showing weakness, but unable to stop himself. Unable to stop the possibilities from running through his head.
He tasted bile, and closed his eyes, trying not to throw up in front of his new- Colleague? Boss? Executioner in a cute dress?
Petersen had wanted him dead. Maybe this transfer was the fire, and all he’d done was escape the frypan.
There were probably a hundred agents in this city alone that would love to string him like a pinata, would delight in taking weekly turns at practising their own interrogation skills on someone who could provide professional feedback.
Had to be more than a few agents who wanted to practice smaller, more personal cruelties. Wanted a warm body to fuck and hurt without consequences.
That was one line Petersen hadn’t crossed, seemingly content to only penetrate him with knives. Whatever joy Petersen had rent from his body, that particular cruelty hadn’t been on the list. The Agent had watched him fuck a fairy – something Petersen had made a condition of his recruitment, having to prove with a hardon that he would be able to get along with fae.
And that had been-
He gripped the handle of the bag tighter and swallowed the bile.
Anything could happen. Anything could happen, and no one would care.
He tried to breathe and hated that he could hear himself shaking.
‘This way,’ the girl said as she exited the elevator.
‘Would-’ He focused on the words. ‘Would you mind if I used the bathroom?’
‘It’s no skin off my ass,’ she said. She thrust a hand to the left. ‘About halfway down that way.’ She jerked her hand over her shoulder. ‘Boardroom when you’re done. It’s marked as such.’
He nodded and tried not to run to the bathroom.
As soon as the door swung closed behind him, he dropped his bag and ran into the closest stall.
He dropped to his knees and threw up. The mess splattered, half on the seat, half on the bowl, and tears he didn’t want slid down his cheeks.
He fell backward, cracked his head on the wall of the stall, and ripped some of the soft toilet paper from the roll and wiped at his mouth.
Farnshaw had asked him why he was breathing, and he wasn’t sure.
He’d never intended any of this. Anything in his life. All of it had been- Nothing had ever been in his control. All the choices he’d ever made had been influenced by someone else. And whatever measure of control he’d had, all of those decisions had been bad.
The Solstice had lied. Maybe not about everything, but about far too much. Faces he’d trusted had told him the right kind of lies to manipulate him. To encourage action. To-
He wiped at his mouth again.
To make him the kind of person okay with torture.
He’d only ever seen monsters. Brutes with too many arms, too many legs, tentacles strong enough to rip people apart. Beasts that needed to be put down. And he’d still done it.
He couldn’t scream to the heavens that what was happening was unfair.
He couldn’t ask for salvation that he didn’t deserve.
And no one was going to rescue him, because this was a sentence that needed to be served.
Whatever happened, as much as it hurt, he deserved it.
He didn’t know why he was still breathing. He wasn’t entirely sure he was.
He hadn’t wanted to die. And he’d fought with every breath against every time Petersen had made the world go dark. Had screamed and scrambled, and wept every time he’d woken on Farnshaw’s bench, back in one piece.
It had been something to escape. Something to survive, because you had to survive because that’s what- That’s just what you did. The bad guys captured you, you survived, and you went home the hero.
It had been darkness and blood and shit and begging silently to the universe to live one more day.
Then there had been the bright unkindness, the harshness of the white cell, and the knowledge that- That those circumstances were going to be his new normal. That it was going to be his new normal. That it was going to be grinding him down, whatever was left of him, until there was nothing left.
And this- Surely this was going to be the continuation of that.
Whether he was going to be a plaything, a pinata or a bitch, he couldn’t- They couldn’t really be giving him a second chance. It was too magnanimous. Even if his recruitment had been done to hide Petersen’s sins in the paperwork, someone had to know- Someone had to be judging the worth of his life and finding him wanting.
He threw the sick-covered toilet paper into the bowl and tore off another piece.
There was no happy ending to be had.
But if he didn’t move, he’d die.
Someone would find him on the floor, decide that he wasn’t taking their offer of a second chance seriously, and dispose of him.
And he couldn’t bring himself to want that.
He wanted to live, even if he hated himself for the desire.
Survival was the thing. The only thing. One moment. One breath. One step.
One more chance to figure out why he was still breathing.
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Tooth & Claw, Book 5
Han Xie had a fatal heart condition, and only the intervention of his best friend Ellis O'Neill could save him. Now Han is an unsanctioned vampire in a city happy to kill him for it, and the one man who could protect him seems to be falling apart piece by piece.
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