If there was one kind of person Curt hated more than agents, it was people who said that “everything happened for a reason”. People who stuck by that platitude when some minor inconvenience, but who could only gawp like a dying fish when you asked about something awful.Reasons seemed to vanish if you brought up childhood cancer, family members dying, people abusing animals or the utter inhumanity that humans were capable of.
Things didn’t happen for a reason. Things just happened.
Petersen had insisted on one condition.
One test that would determine whether or not he would be allowed to be a recruit.
Petersen had dragged him into Fairyland and insisted he fuck a fae. The agent had arranged a hotel room and a blue-skinned wild fairy. For a moment, he’d thought she was beautiful, and then he’d seen that the cruelty in her eyes had been as bad as the agent who had hired her.
But it had been the price of freedom.
And he didn’t think about it. Didn’t think about how they’d had to use alcohol to make him quiet, and drugs to make him hard. That Petersen had been sitting in the corner, laughing as the fairy scarred him – scars that the agent hadn’t allowed Farnshaw to erase.
And when the condition had been met, Petersen had looked down at him, and dropped twenty dollars onto his chest, and insisted that he survive for a day before returning to the meeting point. The bomb in the base of his skull, Petersen had mused, would ensure he was prompt, or he was no longer a problem.
Petersen had undone only one of the knots tying him to the bed, leaving him and his battered body to slowly free himself over the course of the next hour.
And then he’d been alone.
And hollow. And broken.
He’d done the best he could with the meagre supplies in the hotel’s bathroom, pressing pieces of toilet tissue against bleeding wounds, and wadding it thickly so that it didn’t show through his clothes when he got dressed.
He’d folded the twenty dollar note into the pocket of his pants and just started walking, unable to be in the room any longer, unwilling to look at the bed where-
And he’d walked and walked, his feet trying to carry him away from though, awake from feeling.
When his feet had been too tired to keep going, he’d found a park, sat on a bench, and stared at the sky until the stars had come out.
He’d been cold, hungry, and still able to feel the fairy woman’s nails cutting into his skin.
And nothing had broken in – not attempts by passers-by to enquire if he was okay, not the strange dog that had come up and tried to encourage him to play, nothing…until there had been sounds of fighting.
He wasn’t sure how long the fight had been going on when he’d first become aware of it, or how long he’d let it continue before he’d found the power to stand – and then run – into the alley behind the park.
He’d walked into a bloodbath – four fae had been beating on a fairy man whose wings were broken and cracked, his face covered in blood, one arm bent so horribly Curt hadn’t been sure how it hadn’t been twisted entirely off his body.
It hadn’t been a drunken scuffle, it was a murder attempt – but one where the mastermind had insisted that the participants take their time.
He had jumped in, and then all four attackers had been his problem.
He’d been weak – Petersen hadn’t really been feeding him, and most of his sustenance and rejuvenation had come from those moments when Farnshaw had been putting his body back together, but for the first time in weeks, he’d been making choices. He was getting hurt, but it had been in service to something – to a dying stranger, but that was better than an agent’s sadism.
One of the attackers had stabbed him in the side, which had taken almost all of his remaining strength.
As blood had oozed, he’d made a deliberate effort to fall over the crumpled form of the fairy man, and had begged him to go small – figuring that at least he could throw the man a few metres if he reduced himself to Barbie-size, give him one last shot.
And as one of the attackers had cracked him over the back with something blunt, a security team had arrived – by his calculation, it was too late, but thankfully, not too little.
They had bundled him and the fairy man into a van, and he’d felt the squeeze of the fairy man’s hand as he’d fallen unconscious, along with whispered thanks.
A couple of hours later, after a nurse had seen to them both, he’d officially met Carmichel.
The fairy man had been in much worse shape – and had greeted him with wings bound and unusable until further repair, and prosthetic additions could be melded in with what had been left of his beautiful, but mangled appendages.
Carmichel had thanked him for saving his life. Curt had apologised for being a Solstice, and offered to leave immediately if only someone would tell him where his shoes were.
The fairy had sat, asked him if he was still working for the Solstice, and when Curt had finally answered “no”, told him that he didn’t care. Carmichel had said that he’d done things he wasn’t proud of, and that the only proof of his character was that he’d been willing to risk his life for a stranger.
He’d offered rewards, favours, and fabulous riches.
Curt had asked for friendship.
He’d explained some of his situation – that he was a recruit, or nearly one, but no idea what his future looked like. That he couldn’t stay in Faerie, even if a job were offered, because Petersen had taken precautions to ensure his return – the agent had been happy to tell him about the bomb, but surely there were redundancies. It wasn’t a risk he could take.
So over dinner, Carmichel had gently insisted that he make contact when things became settled.
And things were as settled as they were going to get.
So after he’d woken up after Parker’s knock-out drug, he’d emailed Carmichel and asked if they could do lunch.
The return email had told him a few things – one, that Carmichel’s real name was Cresta Lan Oca; two, that the default Agency browser displayed Faerie emojis; and three, that Carmichel had been worried about him, and was willing to meet up anywhere and anywhen.
They’d traded a few more emails, made plans, and then there had been nothing to do but kill time until lunch.
The address Carmichel had given him led him to a very plain-looking building a half dozen blocks from the Agency – the kind of place the housed lawyers that could afford city rates, but not river views, or rented out space to low-budget startups. Nothing special, nothing that most people would look twice at – a lot like the Agency itself.
He waited, wondering if he’d made a mistake, that trying to force friendship from what could – should – have been an intense but short interaction was selfish, was the wrong thing to do, and if there was any way to kindly bow out of it.
And part of him just needed someone, anyone, to look at him without disgust.
Someone to give him hope, even though he could barely bring himself to think the word.
‘Gessa!’ someone shouted in his direction, and he turned to see Carmichel. ‘Sorry, I mean- Wait. You don’t have a single word for that. You said you wanted to learn, that’s your word of the day.’
‘Hi,’ Curt said as Carmichel ran up the few steps of the building. ‘Well, what’s it mean?’
‘It’s basically a “hello, sorry I’m late, please forgive the inconvenience” sort of thing.’ Carmichel pulled open the door and waved Curt in. ‘This is…not where I expected you to land,’ he said as they waited for an elevator. ‘I will admit I don’t know much about your Agency or its network. I know it used to have a pretty nasty reputation pre-Agency, the Dusker here was a violent bastard. I mean, I know about him a hundred years later, so that’s…’ Carmichel made a face. ‘A lasting impression.’
‘Pre-Agency?’ Curt parroted, and almost expected Parker to jump out of the wall and award him fuckwit points. ‘But-’
Carmichel shook a finger. ‘You’re a recruit now, there’s a lot of history to learn.’
The elevator doors opened, and Curt followed Carmichel into a small, buffet-style restaurant, where a pretty fairy woman sat them in a quiet corner, away from the other patrons.
Carmichel slid off his satchel bag, unzipped it, and placed several small, gaudily-wrapped presents and a card on the table in front of Curt. ‘At some point, I will stop thanking you for saving my life. At some later point, I’ll stop being surprised that you did it without knowing who I am. A little while after that, I’ll simply be left with the warm, fuzzy feeling that you could have asked for your weight in mirror, and been disappointed when I deemed the price worth paying for your service was well below that.’
‘I didn’t do it for a reward.’
‘But a lot of people would have treated me like a bank afterwards. You asked for- Friendship? A few language lessons? That you’ll have because I wish someone had given me a chance when I was trying to break out of my own cycles. I wish I was paying some old favour forward, continuing some tradition of giving kindness where it was needed. I didn’t have that. You need it. So I’m giving myself what I never had.’
He touched the first box. ‘New phone. Works on both planes. It’s on my business plan, so don’t worry about the data cap.’ He tapped the next. ‘We give these to VIPs at my establishments. Garbar balls, like cigars, but you suck on them. A week’s both of day passes. And a keyring. Because my secretary always puts a keyring in the VIP packs.’ He touched the envelope. ‘Bank account with a nominal amount of money in it. Most recruits end up getting poor interest rates and high fees when they get around to setting up an account. Here, it’s sorted out for you.’
‘Thank you,’ Curt said, ‘I was so far from organising any of that, but- Thank you.’
Carmichel laid a hand on the last, slim present as the waitress placed cups of coffee on their table. ‘This one, I wasn’t sure about. You probably won’t get any use out of it for a while, I imagine some terms of your probation include fewer days off than the average recruit. But when they loosen up a little, and you get weekend passes-’ Carmichel drummed his fingers. ‘It’s the keys and security cards to a small studio apartment. You’ll always have a place to stay.’
Curt stared, unable to say anything. The words “it’s too much” danced in his brain, but refused to make themselves heard.
‘My life was gone. I wasn’t getting out of that fight. It will be months before I can fly again. They had taken it. I was breathing, but they had taken it. You stole it back for me. Restored what I could not. I don’t owe you my life, because you gave it back to me freely.’ Carmichel sipped at his coffee. ‘A home and a life are intertwined. A lot of what I’m saying probably sounds like nonsense or platitude without cultural context. You gave me my life, I’m giving you a home. This is a balance.’
‘It’s too much,’ Curt said, the words finally freeing themselves. ‘I told you what I am. You know what I am. I’m shit. I’m a monster. I’ m-’
‘Trying,’ Carmichel cut in. ‘You’re trying. Give yourself a chance, and you’ll find your purpose. If you didn’t want that, you wouldn’t be here.’ Carmichel raised the coffee in a mock salute. ‘From one bastard to another, you’ll find your way.’
Curt closed his eyes and took a breath.
Nothing was okay, and he was a monster.
He took another breath.
He had a second chance he didn’t deserve.
He took a third breath.
And he had to make the most of what he had. Had to find ways to repay his debts, to clear the ledger a hundred times over, and to, in a thousand small ways, make up for what he’d done.
He opened his eyes.
Nothing was okay, but he had time. He had a chance. And maybe one day, he could have hope.
‘Where do you want to start?’ Carmichel asked.
‘I want to learn everything,’ he said. ‘I want to fix every stupid idea. Right every misconception. I want to learn how to pronounce your fairy name. Maybe we can start there.’
Carmichel smiled. ‘Then let’s begin, Recruit.’