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The trail finally came to an end at the base of a steep hill. The root they’d been following had come up out of the ground and lay on the surface, its slow pulses making it seem like a sleepy snake on a cold morning.
Curt put his hand to his ear, acknowledged something, then pointed at the other three recruits on the East side of the hill, and they moved to join them.
One of Brian’s cronies had a bandage around his arm, and bright orange paint had splattered onto his pants.
‘How many?’ Brian asked Curt.
‘One sentinel. Red saw four.’
‘One conscious,’ Red elaborated, ‘the other three are close though.’
‘You got the bodies; we had the resistance. Half a dozen hobs. We’ll take the hill before they can get back up.’
‘Negotiate or terminate?’ Curt asked.
‘Just follow my lead, O’Connor.’
Curt didn’t argue.
‘Red,’ Brian said, ‘you got anything to say?’
‘They’re not making a lot of noise,’ the tall recruit said. ‘They’ll be weak.’
‘Good,’ Brian said. ‘We’ll move up as a team. The Brit can take point.’
The words took a moment to sink in, and as they did, she felt her mind grind to a halt. She looked around, hoping to see someone else waving the Union flag. Still, unfortunately, Brian’s glare was aimed squarely at her.
‘Did you hear me, Mimosa?’
She opened her mouth to speak, but instead only expelled hot breaths that fogged the shield of her gas mask for a moment. ‘I– Huh?’
Brian marched forward and grabbed her shoulder, fingers digging into her upper arm as he got a grip on her. She wanted to scream, to fight back, to get away from- All she could feel was his unwanted, unwelcome grip on her arm. It was going to leave a bruise, and she couldn’t even whisper an objection.
He pulled, dragging her to the front of the group, and she barely stayed upright, stumbling on stiff legs.
And he hadn’t let her go.
And she couldn’t hear. And she couldn’t see. And- And there was nothing except the pain in her arm and the fact that he hadn’t let her go, and-
She shook her arm feebly, but he wouldn’t release her. Panic turned into pain, jabbing spikes up and down her back. The world was hot, and- Spinning and-
There were words. In front of her and behind and-
She wanted to throw up.
He let her go and grabbed the filter of her gas mask. ‘Are you listening to me?’ he demanded. He wrenched her head around to look at the hill, where presumably the grove was. ‘Take point and-’
A hand grabbed onto Brian’s wrist. ‘Let – her – the – fuck – go,’ Curt said, enunciating every word.
Brian released his grip on her mask’s filter. ‘Get your hand off me, O’Connor, or-’
‘Do you think I could be afraid of you?’ Curt asked, his voice cold and emotionless and- Bad guy voice. Not the trying-to-hide-it Trekkie she’d been dealing with, but a glimpse at-
One of Brian’s droogs grabbed Curt and pulled him away from their leader.
‘If I give you an order, you follow it,’ Brian said, towering over her. ‘I tell you to take point; you take point. I tell you to eat shit; you don’t get to ask for sprinkles. Insubordination in the field kills.’ He grabbed the side of her mask. ‘And take that off, you look like an idiot, and the rest of us are breathing just fine.’ He found the straps and yanked it from her head.
She punched him.
The blow was weak, poorly aimed, and not helped by the uneven ground beneath her feet. It missed his nose entirely, almost caressed his cheek, and grazed his ear before hitting empty air.
His face was unharmed; his ego wasn’t.
She stumbled back and turned to run as he balled his hand into a fist.
The punch caught her in the shoulder and propelled her forward faster than her legs could accommodate. She fell forward, landing heavily on her stomach in a patch of sloppy mud.
Tears, hot and huge, dripped down her nose and onto the ground. There was a scrape in the leaves beside her as Brian knelt. He grabbed her hair and forced her face against the ground.
Don’t fight him.
She pressed the tips of her fingers into the ground and tried to pretend she was dead. The dead didn’t cry. The dead didn’t get scared. The dead didn’t feel the need to wet themselves.
The dead were lucky.
The tears didn’t stop.
He took his hand away from her neck and pulled her up onto her knees. Her body shook, and she refused to look at anything but the ground. The ground wasn’t judging her. The ground wasn’t laughing at her.
‘You’re expendable. Now stand up and–’
‘What the fuck are you shitheads doing?’ Magnolia’s voice from somewhere behind her. ‘Your hands off that recruit, now.’
Brian released her, and she fell back to the ground, this time at least managing to land half-upright.
‘Individual training,’ Magnolia ordered. ‘All of you, get the fuck out of my sight.’
Curt’s hand entered her vision. ‘Come on, Newbie.’
She stared at his hand for a long moment, unwilling to make more physical contact. His hand stayed, unwavering, but not pushing, just giving her the option if she wanted it, if she needed it.
She couldn’t stand.
After a minute or so, the hand retreated, and Curt knelt to get into her field of vision. ‘Please, let me help you up.’
She looked at her hands, then lifted her left hand.
Gently, he took her hand and let her get a grip before hauling her to her feet. As soon as she was steady, he let her go. ‘Thank you,’ he said, and she wasn’t sure if he was talking to her or to Magnolia. ‘Newbie, follow me, okay?’
She followed him, watching the ground beneath her feet change from the leaf litter of the sim forest, to the lacquered wooden floor of the gym, to the thick linoleum of the halls that lead elsewhere in the Agency.
She raised her dirty hands to her cheeks and wiped away the drying tears.
Eventually, his shoes stopped moving, and there was the sound of knocking. His shoes moved again, and she lifted her head enough to see the threshold between the hall and a carpeted room. ‘Come on,’ he said, and she followed. A pointing finger entered her field of vision, indicating to the left. ‘Go on, sit.’
She turned her head slightly and saw the couch. She took tiny steps, then turned and sat on the very edge of the cushion.
‘Recruits?’ Ryan’s voice.
His voice shook some more tears loose. He’d trusted her to try, to- To not fuck up, and she hadn’t managed to even get through one training session.
Curt knelt in front of her. ‘I’m going to book out that conference room we were using last night for the rest of the day. Send me an email when you feel up to it, and we’ll do some more paperwork, okay?’
She gave a slight nod.
She heard him mumbling at Ryan, then the sound of the door closing.
She swallowed and tried to hold her breath. Holding your breath until you die was supposed to be impossible, but it just meant that–
A leaf fell from her knee and slipped onto the ground.
She stared at it. It wasn’t the ground, it was carpet. And she was dirty. She was covered in mud and wrecking Ryan’s couch. Wrecking his couch and giving him one more reason to hate her. She hunched in on herself, trying to minimise the impact on what had been his pristine office.
Blood pounded in her ears.
Aneurysm, please. Please. Please.
The sound of Ryan’s approaching footsteps finally cut through the miasma, and she pushed herself up from the couch, more leaves and detritus falling to the ground as she did.
She knelt, aiming her knees at the dirty footprints on the carpet, and began to brush the detritus from the couch. It was leather, which helped. Her hands were muddy, which didn’t help.
‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.’ She wiped her hands on her pants and tried again, still leaving muddy smears. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,’ she mumbled, tears starting again as she almost got it clean again, before mud dripped from her jacket and onto the black leather. ‘Shit!’ She tried to wipe it away, but only smeared it further. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.’
Big, strong hands came down on hers and held them still.
The cushion became clean again in a second, then the dirt on her hands disappeared. The dirt and leaves on her sleeves and skin vanished as she felt the new-but-getting-familiar feeling of a new uniform appearing. A proper, suity uniform, not a doing-things-outdoors uniform.
There was a pfft of air as Ryan sat on the couch. He lifted her hands away from the cushion and held them gently. ‘Stef?’
Words were for people. Words were for people who didn’t fuck up. Conversations were for the worthy.
Please just– Just let me I can’t be here
‘Tell me what happened.’
I fucked up. I fucked up and–-
Hide. She needed to hide. She needed to hide and– She tugged her hands away from his, pressed her head against the edge of the cushion and wrapped her arms around herself. It wasn’t a rational action. It wasn’t the action of a sane person. It felt safe.
He put a hand on her shoulder. ‘It’s all right. Everything is all right.’
Just let me go home; just let me go home. I wanted this, but I’m not good enough. I’m–
‘–not good enough. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Just let me go home, and you’ll never have to look at me again. I’m sorry for wasting your time; I’m sorry–’
She shut her mouth and pushed herself to her feet.
If you won’t tell me to leave, I’ll just go! I’ll-
She turned for the door but was blocked by a wall made of agent.
He bent to her level and brushed the hair back from her face before slowly wiping at her cheeks with a handkerchief.
‘I’m sorry!’ she said again, nearly choking on the words.
Just let me leave before I screw things up.
‘You don’t have to go. You don’t have to-’
She flung her arms around him.
It was almost more of a flail than a hug, and something she shouldn’t have done. Something that- She was stupid and-
Before she could pull away, one of his arms wrapped around her shoulders, then the other around her back, and held her close.
His arms held her tight, held her together, and slowly started to chase away the scariness of the world, just as he’d chased away the panic back at Dorian’s mansion. Professional-level hugs.
He was warm and strong and- And it was a real hug. And- And Mother had hugged Stephanie, but-
She tried to adjust her arms to something more comfortable, unsure of what she was doing, unsure of when she’d last hugged someone. Her father had avoided her after the accident, arranging for her to go to boarding school once she was out of the hospital. Neither set of her grandparents liked to show affection. And-
I think Mother was the last person to hug you.
She was eye level with his vest and tie, and it was so familiar, it was safe.
After a long moment, he let her go and bent down to her eye level. ‘Do you want to talk about it now?’
She gave him the tiniest nod, then went back to the couch, unafraid to sit on it now that she was clean.
He sat on the couch beside her, apparently willing and ready to listen to what was wrong.
Talking. Getting listened to. Conversing. All strange things. All things that required an adjustment period. He sat, waiting for her to talk, like a dad from a storybook waiting to hear about school bullies. She tensed at the thought, at the presumption of the metaphor. He was just a boss listening to the problems of the newbie, just–
But she’d been thinking about her parents.
And he’d already shown more love and care than she could ever remember from either of her parents.
And he was just being nice. Just- Being polite and- And she was reading too much into his actions. But even so, it felt nice to have someone caring for her. Even if it was out of a sense of obligation.
It was make-believe, and play pretend. Touch starvation, having to think hard about the last time someone had cared enough to give her a hug. Emotional starvation being fed by someone looking kindly at her, when she’d only ever been a burden.
She had to back away. Had to pull away before boss-being-nice-to-new-employee patience ran out and he looked down on her like everyone else did.
But part of her wanted to ride this out, to have a couple of wonderful days before running away, to build up a couple of good memories to look back on the next time she-
He was the reason she was alive, and there was no way she could tell him that.
Tears started to well up again. She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes and tried to push away the tears.
‘Simulations aren’t mandatory for agents,’ he said as he gently guided her to sit on the couch. ‘We don’t have a lot of standardised training. There are certain ones that we are all asked to do in the interests of gathering statistics or comparing regions against each other.’
She tried to look up at him. ‘Are you going to tell me that you sucked at your first sim, too?’
Ryan handed her a glass of water and leaned back. He shook his head. ‘No, I was efficient with my first. With my fifth. With my tenth. You have to understand that when an agent is generated, it is very hard for them to do any wrong.’
She slowly moved to lean against the arm of the couch and brought her legs up beneath her. ‘What do you mean?’
‘When we’re generated, all we are is Duty and policy and the knowledge of how to be an agent. While we’re not at our best because we don’t have experience, we can do no wrong, as we haven’t yet learned to act outside of our initial parameters. So, when I ran my fourteenth simulation, and my actions led to three dozen civilians causalities, my actions were still beyond reproach, because I had followed my Duty to the letter.’
‘So – so it takes a while for you to become people?’ She bit the inside of her cheek. ‘Wait. That sounds insulting. I didn’t–’
‘It’s not insulting,’ he said. ‘It’s accurate. Personality is an adaptation to and a product of your circumstances. Everyone deals with things in different ways. Some adaptations take longer than others.’
She looked up at him and shrugged. She stared down into the water, tapping the glass to make it ripple. ‘I couldn’t get through one exercise without-’
‘I’ve talked to Recruit Haskell about his behaviour before. As I understand it, you didn’t do anything wrong.’ Ryan sighed. ‘I don’t-’ He paused for a long moment. ‘I don’t have as much control over my department or my recruits as I should. I focus more on my directorial duties and keeping this Agency going as a whole, and as such, Field suffers for it.’
‘So why don’t you ask for help? Hire a bunch of temps or something to do the boring shit. Or delegate discipline, that kind of thing.’
‘If I had an aide, a person I could trust, things would be easier. At the moment, I manage as best as I can.’
‘I wish I could help, but I nearly puked my guts out getting up enough fortitude to ask if I could do the fucking mailbox schedule.’
‘I…appreciate the sentiment,’ he said dryly.
‘I feel like I’m completely out of my depth,’ she said after a moment.
‘Do you want me to tell you what I see?’
She traced a spiral on her knee. ‘I wasn’t, yanno, fishing for compliments or anything.’
‘You are asking the right questions, and you’re keeping an open mind. That’s all I ask of my recruits. Everything else will come in time.’
‘That can’t be enough. What would happen if I had an argument with someone when I was actually out on a mission or something, and it made something bad go wrong?’
‘I’m not going to put you into any dangerous situations before you’re ready for them.’
‘Why are you being nice to me?’
‘Do I need a reason?’
She hunched in on herself. Smaller, she could make herself smaller. Small enough, and she’d collapse in on herself like a black hole, and then–
I’m wasting your time. Just tell me to leave.
‘Forget I said anything. Sorry.’ Smaller. Disappear. Smaller. Hide. ‘Just, I’m sure you can’t– Curt said you’re already doing two jobs, is counsellor a third? I don’t need false courtesy; I don’t want you to pretend to be nice if you really want to tell me that I’m a fuck-up.’
‘You weren’t afraid of Death. You played with Limbo like she was any other child. I had too many things on my mind at the time to think about how extraordinary that was, but with hindsight, it’s easy to see. And I don’t think you’ve become any less amazing with time. I don’t know you, Stef. I have the memories of a little girl, and I have my new recruit, but…I don’t think the world has been too kind to you.’ He reached over and placed his hand on her head. ‘I want to give you the chances you need to become whatever you want. If it’s never anything more than collecting from the drop boxes and asking me about the minutiae of every Fairyland government service, I’d be happy with that. So long as that makes you happy.’ He ruffled her hair and withdrew his hand.
‘It’s a slogan that belongs on a t-shirt, but I don’t think I know what happy is,’ she said after a long moment.
‘I can understand that sentiment, happiness isn’t always the easiest thing to find.’
‘I like being here, I like learning new things. I just don’t know if that’s “happy” like other people would define it.’
‘It’s your definition to make. On the subject of learning new things, the mirrorfall, there are several stages to it. If we have our timetable right, then there should be something rather spectacular to see tonight. If you don’t have anything booked, I’d love your company, most people never get to see a phoenix. I cannot recommend it highly enough.’
She looked up and saw him smiling. ‘I approve of your verbal clickbait,’ she said. ‘When and where?’
‘Keep your evening free. I’ll send you a message when things seem to be starting. Do you have a phone yet?’
She nodded. ‘And a little Bluetooth ear thingy. I did the comms module last night. I’ve got to do the intranet one next, and Curt’s gonna help me through picking a weapon to work on the proficiencies.’
‘No flamethrowers, Miss Mimosa.’
‘Yessir,’ she said, then stuck her tongue out.
‘My director used to say that so long as you learn one new thing each day, then the day hasn’t been wasted. It seems minor, but it represents improvement every day, and that is not trivial.’
She smiled. ‘I think I can manage that.’
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