04 - Ebb and Flow

10 – Messenger

CW: SA/attempted SA

It had been slow, but he was building a routine. One that was changing and evolving as the rest of the Agency came back to life; even while the Field floor stayed mostly quiet, but it was a start.

Jonathan made his coffee the slow, human way, taking some pride and comfort in the small actions. Boiling the kettle, measuring the exact amount of instant granules, and deciding how much sugar to treat himself with that day. Choices he was allowed to make. Control he was allowed to have. 

Sometimes, Vincent hid springloaded snakes and other simple pranks in the kitchen, and each was as much a joy as they were a dagger to the heart. Vincent was here. Joel wasn’t. And what remained of Vincent – personality without memory – left him feeling adrift, even if Vincent was making an effort to reforge their friendship.

Each smile on Vincent’s face reminded him that it wasn’t so much that he had lost “a lot” as it was that he had lost “everything”. Whatever he had now was new, not something he’d been able to save from before.

And that was as much a blessing as it was a curse.

Coffee mixed, he took it out to the balcony where the pigeons were making their way through the premium seed mix he’d researched and concocted, something a little more nutritious and better for them than the dropped chips and abandoned sandwiches that had to compose the majority of their diet.

He looked at his visitors carefully as he carefully stepped through the patches of birds. Even for the relatively short period he’d been feeding them, they’d stopped seeing him as a threat and barely reacted when he was near unless it was to waddle and swarm for more seed. 

Standing in a warm patch of sunlight was A19. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to give the birds names. Still, he had generated a list of alphanumeric combinations so that he could track individuals and keep an eye on his regulars. 

A19 had arrived the day before, his leg tangled with string, and he’d gently shifted the bird into his hands, freed the string, and ensured there was no serious injury. After the examination, A19 had sat in his hands for a moment longer than expected, then flown away.

It wasn’t that there had been gratitude in the pea-sized brain, but- But maybe for the first time in his life, he had done something that was undoubtedly good, with no ulterior motives imposed on him, for no goal other than to be kind. It wasn’t an action that had served Victor. It hadn’t been some small step along the road to hell that had killed Joel and wiped Vincent. It had just been…good.

A19 defecated on the tile, then waddled over to peck at the seed with its brethren. 

Jonathan walked to the railing for the next part of his new routine. Across from the Phoenix Agency was an office building with a similar open-air balcony to the one he stood on, where many of the staff would have short meetings or just – like he did – enjoy a morning coffee in the sun. 

And one man with a set routine took a coffee break at ten AM and would always raise his coffee cup in Jonathan’s direction. A small connection with someone, something meaningless that meant so much.

Taking up his usual spot, he looked across the way, where the middle-aged man stood, a white coffee cup in one hand and a phone in the other. After a moment, the man looked up and raised his coffee cup as usual. 

Jonathan smiled and lifted his cup in a return caffeine salute.

The man across the way dropped his cup and phone, placed his hands on the white railing, vaulted over, and dropped like a stone.

Time seemed to stop.

Jonathan felt the start of a scream, every single muscle in his face stretching as his mouth opened to defy the moment as it was happening. Panic flowed like a heavy liquid, energizing and freezing his body in equal measure.

A blink, and his- Not a friend, not even an acquaintance, just someone he had seen, someone who- He’d fallen further. Ten stories. He wouldn’t- So few seconds, so little time-

His shoe scraped the tile as he launched himself over his own railing, hands extended towards the man, even while the shift processed, even while gravity-

He had to make it, had to-

Momentum preserved, he slammed into the man as he reintegrated, his arms wrapping around the falling human even before they were fully solid. His back hit the glass and concrete of the building behind him as he held the man securely, the ground so close, but now that he was here, it was fine. It was-

The System automatically registered his fall, set a safety shift and-



The air split. His throat tore in one direction while his body twisted in another. Everything was pulled apart and put back together, just one atom, just one inch wrong and- He- The- The floor – there shouldn’t have been floor – there- He’d failed and- Too slow and the ground- And-

‘Take a moment.’

On autopilot, he nodded to the voice that always told him what to do, the voice that he obeyed without hesitation, without-


A moment ago, he’d screamed the word, worried that he’d failed, hit the street, that the man he was trying to save was dead beside him. 

Now, he’d said the word so softly he wasn’t sure he’d felt breath on his lips, wasn’t sure that it hadn’t died, just short of being said, like every other time he’d tried to defy-

Victor cupped his cheek with the gentleness that came before great cruelty. ‘Sit up, Jonathan, there’s a boy.’

He couldn’t move.

With less gentleness, Victor grabbed a handful of his shirt and pulled him to a seated position, which finally let him look around to see that the room was a garage or some sort of converted warehouse. Industrial. Tidy, but only to a point, which meant Victor hadn’t been here that long. Short stacks of large wooden crates were dotted around the space, and while he could only recognize a word here or there – Victor had never allowed him to carry fae languages on board, to keep him useless and helpless when they visited Faerie – he’d be able to translate it once he was back in-


There was a genuine possibility that he would never be let free. That this was Victor reclaiming his property and that the last few weeks had been just an anomaly, just- Just enough hope to ruin him forever.

A few words on some crates wouldn’t help, even if he could go home. Maybe the full shipping labels, but none had been visible in his short scan around the room. 

He closed his eyes for a moment and begged his heart to calm down, for the solid panic in his body not to turn him into a statue. When he opened them, he saw that Victor had turned away and was talking to-

Jonathan blinked. The man he’d rescued. The man who had thrown himself off a balcony. There was a certain slackness in the face that he recognized, that of one of Victor’s experiments taking orders. 

The man – whose name he had never learned – handed something to Victor, and one mystery was solved. A wide leather bracelet with the stonelike inserts that was the design aesthetic of clap jackets. Mostly, the inserts were sewn into the sleeves of a jacket. Still, smaller – and therefore less reliable, less pleasant – versions existed, like the bracelet that had pulled him from System territory. 

Victor tucked the bracelet away and, without turning, snapped his fingers and pointed up. The kind of command you’d give a dog. The kind of command he was used to. 

Jonathan stood and quickly cast his eyes to the floor, doing as expected, as needed, as would bring as little wrath down on him as possible. 

At least the coffee drinker was safe, for the moment. Even if – and he couldn’t imagine it any other way – the man’s actions had been entirely programmed by Victor, even if the brief hello of a coffee cup had been nothing more than to slowly ensure that Jonathan would be in a certain place at a certain time, he didn’t deserve to be hurt. He was innocent. 

Jonathan didn’t doubt that Victor had collaborators. Other agents interested in seeing where this project went, in all the possibilities that programming humans presented. Fae who could use variations of the technology for their own ends. But none of those collaborators or accomplices would be human…as that was exactly counter to Victor’s entire motivation. 

But he was in no position to do anything, to save anyone, so the most he could hope for was that this was the one task the man had been assigned and that Victor would set him free. 

Another snap of fingers, and he followed Victor out of the garage and down a well-lit hallway full of small rooms that seemed like they could easily become either storage or offices but were, for the moment, empty. 

He kept his usual close pace behind Victor, as was expected, as was desired. Near enough for Victor to turn and grab him without effort, far enough so that it was clear he wasn’t Victor’s equal. 

Up a flight of stairs, another hallway, another flight of stairs, and while there were signs of life and noises elsewhere in the building, they passed no one. 

Part of him, detached from all the fear, was still trying to do his job. Trying to act like the Field Agent that he was supposed to be. That Adams had given him permission to be once more. That he would have been in a kinder world. 

The building was more anonymous than an Agency. 

While Agencies were very plain, there were small touches you could look at to know where you were in the world, even if you had no HUD to position yourself. 

A slight touch of a feature color, the choice of plants, the design of windows, and the thickness of glass. All little clues that could lead you to an educated guess.

There were likely a hundred clues that he wasn’t picking up on, but in fairness to himself, there weren’t the little touches that Agencies had.

An electrical socket was the only real detail that wasn’t a choice of paint color. Even that had been no help, as it was a Pershone-type plug, standard across at least seventy percent of Faerie.

There had been an occasional window – but those that hadn’t been behind heavy curtains had privacy film on them, blocking any detail of the outside world.

He wasn’t even sure if it was daylight outside. 

Useless. He was useless.

Victor opened the door to an office, and like a dog, he continued to follow.

The room was laid out much like Victor’s office in Phoenix – a desk, a couch, a table, and two comfortable armchairs. 

Victor sat on the couch, in the center seat, as usual. As was expected, Jonathan moved to sit by his feet, but halfway down, Victor grabbed him by the back of the jacket and yanked him onto his lap.

‘I’ve missed you, pet,’ Victor said, fingers wrapping around Jonathan’s tie to keep him positioned just a few inches away. 

A short kiss, a much longer one, then a slap and a shove. 

Jonathan let out a small whuff of air as his back hit the arm of the couch, and he tried to keep his face neutral, despite knowing this position all too well. Knowing the events that were to come. Knowing how little he could do to stop anything Victor would do, and had done, hundreds of times before.

With his ass in Victor’s lap, he could already feel the erection starting to stiffen in his Director’s pants. 

‘I’m pleased, if a little surprised, that you’re still alive, Victor said as he casually flicked Jonathan’s belt with a finger. ‘But it proves my point that they realize what I’m doing is for the greater good. For the Agency’s sake. You wouldn’t be breathing if they didn’t believe in me.’

Arguing was pointless. Saying anything was pointless. 

Victor pulled Jonathan’s belt free, and Jonathan flinched, wondering if it would be the leather or the buckle that struck him across the face.

Some mercy existed in the world, and it was only the leather. Two short, sharp cracks on his cheek before the belt was thrown to the floor.

‘All I want from you today,’ Victor said as he started to play with the buttons of Jonathan’s shirt, ‘is to carry a message back to Adams.’ He pulled Jonathan in for another kiss, slapped him again, and tore his shirt with two hands, apparently not in the mood for subtlety. ‘Can you manage that?’

‘What message?’ Jonathan asked, glad to hear his own voice, even if he hated the deferential quaver that had come right back as if it had never left. 

‘I am still loyal to the Agency. As such, I’ll have four more Solstice deliver themselves into custody tomorrow.’ 

Jonathan kept himself from repeating the word “more”, but Victor noticed the look on his face, and nodded.

More. The attack a few days before. It had felt wrong, too easy. As much as he’d wanted to brush it off as Solstice incompetence, it made sense that Victor had been behind it. 

And to throw that many toys away, with more coming tomorrow, it meant that Victor had a lot more people affected by the programming than he’d ever gleaned. He knew the part of the experiment he’d been privy to, complicit with, had only ever been the tip of the operation. 

But this revealed a lot more – and for Victor to be so comfortable letting the Agency know, that spoke to terrible arrogance and confidence.

‘I am sorry you got hurt, but I wanted to see how dear Vincent was doing after the memory wipe.’ Victor shook a hand. ‘Anyway, they’ll arrive and be docile until given the code phrase of…’ Victor’s smile became cruel, ‘mandarin.’

Jonathan felt his body slacken, felt the thin veneer of resistance break, and lay docile as Victor’s hand went into his pants.

Mandarin. The first breakfast he’d had in the empty and desolate Field Floor. A decision he’d made for himself. A small moment of pride for not picking an apple. It should have been- It had felt like one of his first moments of freedom. A decision he thought had been free from oversight. 

And now it- Victor had seen him, somehow. Had been monitoring. 

He’d never been free. He’d never be free. 

As always, as forever, he tried to find some empty corner of his mind. Some patch where he could stop thinking, die in some small way, and escape the moment. 

At least- 

Victor’s hands wrapped around his throat, choking him until his vision went fuzzy with tears. A shove and he fell to the carpet, his cheek scraping against the too-sharp corner of the coffee table as he went down. 

Blood trickled into his mouth as he lay, staring down at the carpet, his hands, and any tiny detail he could to ignore the sounds of Victor walking around the room behind him. Of a drink being poured. Of the clink of his belt buckle as Victor lifted it from the floor. 

Sometimes he made it easier for Victor. He never fought, but- Sometimes, he was more compliant. Sometimes Victor would hit him less if he was good. Sometimes it was quicker when he was good. Sometimes, Victor didn’t want to injure his favorite pet.

The sound of leather tapping lightly against Victor’s palm told him this was one of those times when his cooperation wouldn’t make a difference.

There was a heavy sound to his right as the coffee table was dragged aside. A foot came down on his back, pulling at his torn shirt, and pushed him into the floor as the belt came down on him, buckle first, over and over, drawing blood where it touched skin and blooming bruises to the surface where it didn’t.



Jonathan flinched as Vincent – if it was Vincent – snapped his head towards him, the movement sharp and unnatural. Feral.

‘Failsafe,’ Victor commented, sounding more disappointed than angry or surprised, ‘I knew there was a chance he would be discovered. I’m surprised-’

Jonathan took a step closer to the bleeding man. To- ‘Vincent?’ Not all the blood was his, quite a lot of it wasn’t- But he’d been shot, and he had to- 

Vincent sniffed the air, but there was nothing human, nothing- Even through the matted hair over his eyes, through the blood and strings of gore, there seemed to be no recognition, nothing to tell him that Vincent even knew where he was, that he was even aware that he’d been shifted into an Agency, that-

There was a gunshot, and Vincent crumpled, falling first to his knees before pitching forward, bleeding from a new wound in his chest. 


Victor stepped back, tipped his drink over Jonathan’s bloody back, then answered a ringing phone. 

Sobbing, well past the point where Victor expected him to keep quiet, Jonathan slowly curled into himself and tried to breathe. 


They always met right on the border of blackout zones. Unusual, given it was a meeting between Agency personnel, but with how atypical this mission was, it was strangely safer for Vincent if he stayed in blackout zones. 

An ongoing contrast, as most of his meetings with Joel, someone who should have felt at risk outside blackout zones, were done in cafes and diners solidly in System territory. 

But so many things about this mission, this experiment, had to be compartmentalized into little boxes in his mind. Broken down and detached, otherwise, he- 

Otherwise, he might question Victor. Might fight back against- 

It wasn’t his place to question. Wasn’t his place to-

‘Bought you coffee,’ Vincent said, indicating to an old, rusty oil barrel bisected with a line of grey spray paint to mark the edge of the blackout. A two-cup tray was sitting directly over the line, the white cups marked “Vincent” and “John”. 

It wasn’t the first time Vincent had catered their meetings, and Jonathan felt the rarely-used combination of muscles pulling a smile onto his face. ‘Thank you, Recruit. Now, your report, please?’


Throughout the course of the short phone call, Victor went through four languages. 

All of it was useless without context. Even as useless as Victor had always cast him as, even a pet was capable of remembering and repeating, so every word was careful, giving nothing away. 

A few minutes in, Victor, still giving simple or monosyllabic answers to the conversation, crossed the office to a filing cabinet and pulled out a folded white shirt and black pants. A spare, clean, unbloodied uniform.

Victor smiled as he put the uniform pieces on the coffee table and held his phone to his chest, muffling the sound as he spoke. ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty in your size. You’re going to be carrying messages for a while.’ A smile. A touch to Jonathan’s bloody cheek. Victor put the phone back to his ear, swore casually at his contact, and moved to pour another drink.

Plenty. Plenty of spare uniforms.

Precisely the kind of preparation Victor would do. 

And Jonathan hated himself for his gratitude, that he was thankful that at least he wouldn’t be thrown into Faerie in a torn shirt and missing or bloody pants. 

Because he’d always had to be thankful for the small graces. For the traces of kindness in cruelty. For the moments that existed between, where nothing was better than something. 


{I didn’t stand you up, Agent.}

Jonathan lifted his head and scanned the diner again, then flicked to the drone view in his HUD. All the ambulatory fuzzy patches in the scan – fae, Solstice, or other magic-flooded people or objects – were the same as they had been three minutes prior, meaning Joel hadn’t entered the drone’s one-mile radius yet. 

And while Joel was often ten-to-thirty minutes late to their meetings, something the Solstice did to ensure he felt safe enough to approach, usually, he was within that radius during that time. 

The waitress deposited his coffee and a slice of apple pie. A dull, ordinary combination. Enough to be in front of him to make him seem like he belonged, enough to help him blend in. Not something he would have chosen if he’d been free to peruse the entire menu. But meetings weren’t time to express his wants or-

He lifted the phone that Joel insisted he use. It made the Solstice feel more comfortable than “texting someone’s fucking head”. 

{Should I wait for you?}

Three dots appeared and disappeared. {Not today. Schedule changed, and I can’t get away.}

Jonathan hesitated, considering the words he was going to type back. Some admonishment was needed for missing three meetings in a row. Still, he needed to not seem hostile, as any meeting between Solstice and Agency had to be a dance of delicacy. 

His thumbs stalled after typing “Joel” as another word appeared from the Solstice. 


While their meetings had been largely cordial, most niceties from Joel had been reflexive, the kind of unthinking Pavlovian responses that were programmed into humans through decades of life. 

Text was different. There was time to consider your words. Especially separated from the first paragraph. A Solstice. Someone who still left most of their meetings via the bathroom window or kitchen back door directly into a vehicle treated with magic or time. A man he’d met by leveling a gun at him. Someone on the opposite side of the war had apologized. 

And while it was probably nothing significant. Nothing more than the kind of nicety that would preserve this fragile treaty they had, it- 

It somehow meant something. 

{You’re forgiven, Joel.}

{Good. Otherwise, this would have been awkward.}


The phone stayed silent, and he took a sip of his coffee, doing his best to blend in, to seem like he belonged. Like he was allowed to take up space. 

Halfway through his coffee, a man walked past, dropped a yellow envelope on the table, the corner digging into the soft top of the apple pie, and continued without breaking his stride. 

He opened the envelope, and inside was a men’s wear magazine. Someone – presumably Joel – had taken a red marker to the cover to make the model’s tie red, like a Phoenix agent. Inside the magazine were three printed letter-size photos, two of prison cells showing living prisoners and one of a small pharmacy, with a time and date scrawled on the back in the same red marker. Intel they could act on. 

{Did that timing work out?}

{Yes. Thank you, Joel. Your cooperation is appreciated.}

He started to type another message. One expressing a wish that the- That Joel actually show up for the next meeting. Intel was useful. Was the point – one of the points – of this relationship, of these meetings, but-


He tucked the photos back into the magazine and laid it aside. 

He now had no reason to stay. No reason to finish the coffee and bad pie. 

He liked finishing the coffee and the bad pie. Enjoyed- 

It wasn’t his place to do anything other than his Duty.

He let his fingers rest over Joel’s name on his phone screen, just for a moment, dropped enough cash to cover the bill and tip on the table, then left, wishing he didn’t wish for anything.


Victor tugged at Jonathan’s shirt, which stayed in place, thanks to his position. After a kick to the head, Jonathan sat up and lifted his arms, cooperating to help Victor undress him. It hurt as the fabric tugged at half-dried tacky patches of blood, but it was just another note in the cacophony. 

Fully exposed to the air, the coldness bit into the welts and wounds. Pain he’d felt before. All of this was so familiar. Rote. He knew how this went. How this always went. And it was never any different, never-

Victor would always- Had always- 


His head shifted a little, rough carpet stinging the open wound on his cheek as he tried to chase the small half-thought. 


Nothing had- For days on end. Weeks now. 

A temporary reprieve. 

Moments where he’d known choice. Even if- Even if- Victor had been watching. Monitoring. Waiting to resume old patterns. 

But it had been a world without this. Without- Where he’d been free. Where hope hadn’t been something imagined and not really held with any conviction. 

He was worthless. Had been created worthless and weak. A toy. A hand-made doll to be broken in new and interesting ways, in familiar and awful ways. Just a thing and nothing more. 

And he was useless. Had let his only friend be captured and killed. Had been unable to do anything to help Vincent. 

Useless. Worthless. Weak.

Joel had seen him as a person. As a person to be feared for what the Agency represented, but a person. Even with Solstice indoctrination. It had taken months of false starts, but Joel had started showing up regularly for their meetings, and sometimes even early. Things would start with a smile. With some joke about Cold War-era spies sharing information while feeding pigeons. 

And he’d been closer to Vincent than any of his recruits. Someone he mostly spoke to, separated by lines of red and gray spray paint. In short meetings to keep them both safe. Even in those few minutes before and after Vincent reported, they’d built a friendship. 

And these things had belonged to him. Belonged to a person. Not to a thing. 

His- Friends. Had seen him as a person. As someone real. 

And it had made him feel real. To feel like more than a marionette and a dog at his master’s command.

And he-

He wanted to be real. Wanted to have hope. Wanted a-

Didn’t want to be hurt. Ever again. 

He lifted his head and looked up at Victor, who towered over him. A giant. A god. Some undefeatable force of the universe. 


Victor moved faster than he could see, his Director’s fingers digging into his face, keeping his mouth from moving.

‘If you finish that word, Jonathan, you’ll never speak again.’

You never let me speak in the first place.

He reached forward, his most simpering, most pathetic look of apology on his face, anything to buy a second of inaction from Victor. Just a pet reaching out, pawing at his master, just-

Jonathan squeezed the pocket where Victor had secreted the clap bracelet.

The universe punched him in the gut as Victor’s office disappeared. 

This time, he was more prepared for the disorientation, ready to fight against watery, unfocussed eyes and a mind that had been tumbled through a tornado.

And if things were kind, truly kind for just once, Victor wouldn’t be prepared. 

He’d only ever seen Victor use the higher-grade, full-size version of the magic, and he imagined – hoped – that the bracelets were dispensed to underlings and puppets for ad hoc use. 

Bright, hot sun touched his skin, and he ran.

Anywhere. Anywhere but where Victor was. It had been a risk, using the bracelet like this, in such a way that it meant Victor would come along for the ride. But it had been his only chance. Trying to fully take the bracelet from Victor wouldn’t have worked.

It was only one chance, but it was still a chance.

As he ran, he desperately tried to hold his pants up, to zip his fly, so that they didn’t fall down around his knees and trip him, didn’t slow him enough to let Victor catch him.

Grass changed to pavement beneath his feet, and a horn let him know he was on a road. 

He’d been prepared for the disorientation, but things were still taking time to come into focus. 

He ran.

Pavement became grass again, and there were people around him now. A park. He could hear children. 

Ahead of him, a pair of red and yellow wings shimmered in the sunlight. A tall fairy, a muscular woman carrying the boxy bag of a food courier, her wings fluttering like she was about to take off. 

‘Arellya,’ he called, reaching toward her, needing one more favor from the universe to stop her from flying away. ‘Arellya, please.’

Sometimes, words were magic. 

There were certain words, specific phrases amongst agents that could be hurled like a spell from a story. In truth, they were simply verbal hacks. Pieces of programming that responded to the agent hearing the word. 

Sometimes, those words could incapacitate. Sometimes they could kill. 

Arellya was a magic word that worked with the fae. 

It was an invocation for aid, for help to be rendered at any cost for any reward. Something you employed when you had no other choice. 

Arellya, my child is dying. Arellya, help, or a hundred hostages will die. Arellya, the world is ending.

Not something to be invoked lightly. Not something to ever joke about. 

The woman’s eyes snapped from confusion to understanding. She scooped him into a bridal carry and shot off from the ground, climbing until she was breathless.

‘Where to, Agent?’

‘Stairs. Earth. Please.’

She adjusted her grip on him, and with one sharp nod, she headed east towards a small city and stairs that would take him to the safety of System territory.

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  • Stormy

    She/her Bi nerd, originally from Brisbane, currently in Melbourne.

  • Shade

    Shade has a strange sense of humour. He met Stormy mostly by accident and, shortly after, wedged himself into her world like he'd been there forever. Again, completely by accident. Living in Utah most of his life, he's come to loathe snow, casserole, and traffic, and enjoys gaming, puns, and gaming puns. He intends to take over the world some day, but is, quite frankly, too lazy to do it.

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