13 – Running from the Mask

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Curt stared at the ceiling, his bloody hand cradled in his lap.

At least here he could breathe properly – it was always so hard to breathe in the Agency. Anywhere outside of those four walls still seemed…safer.

The first months had been the worst – expecting Petersen to appear at any moment and finally finish the job. To kill him one more time without calling on Agency medical technology to bring him back from the brink.

As time went on though, the odds of that happening anywhere outside of his nightmares dropped further and further. A tiny bit of safety, even if he only had the words of an agent to rely on as to that decreasing likelihood.

Farnshaw, Adelaide’s medical agent, though in no sense the equivalent of the Parkers – had explained agent emotions to him. That they might burn bright sometimes, but they burned out just as quickly.

It was one of the first real conversations he’d had with anyone in the Agency. Words had been exchanged with Petersen, but begging for death and recounting his sins could hardly count as conversation.

Farnshaw had been cold, saw him as a monster, but was at least willing to acknowledge him as…someone that might be capable of change. Even if he’d never wipe out the crimes he’d committed.

It was one of the areas where the Solstice were…almost right when it came to agents. The more he’d learned about the Agency, the more he’d found that either the Solstice purposely disseminated false information, or knew precisely jack and squat about their enemy.

Probably a combination of both.

Agents were always presented as inhuman, as unfeeling, as…robots in suits, capable of only hate and murder.

What Farnshaw had explained was that agents were capable of every emotion that humans were. But, because of what they were, allowing strong emotions to linger could be detrimental to their work – an agent couldn’t lie around for weeks after a bad breakup.

He’d been the single-minded target of Petersen’s rage for weeks. The change had been slow, but as the agent had reached the end of the catalogue of cruelty it was possible to visit upon a human body, Petersen had grown bored.

No longer interested in stripping flesh from bone, Petersen had been left with a toy he no longer wanted to play with. Without a second thought, Petersen had flung him halfway across the country – out of sight, out of mind.

Going from Petersen to Ryan had been a shock – not night to day, but maybe Tuesday to Wednesday.

Whereas Petersen had just been rage, Ryan had been…blank.

He touched the back of his head and felt the dried blood. All this time, Ryan had been capable of the same rage as Petersen, the same violence, the same-

In a sick way, he felt validated – he’d been right to be afraid of Ryan all this time.

And now he needed to put on his good-little-recruit face and go back to work. Pretend nothing had happened. Bury himself inside the mask until-

Bury himself until…

He couldn’t.

He just couldn’t.

There was a knock on the door, and Carmichel let himself in, a first aid kit in his hands.

Wordlessly, Carmichel sat in front of him, took his hand, and started to clean the blood away.

‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ Carmichel said. ‘If you want me to attend any death observances with you, just give me the time and location.’

He winced as Carmichel spread cream across his knuckles. ‘Might be a few days,’ he said, ‘status has to change from MIA to KIA, then- I mean, shit, I don’t even know if she’s got arrangements made.’ He gave his friend a lopsided grimace. ‘Not everyone has a will with their preferred burial methods.’

‘When I have to take care of the arrangements for someone, I default to a good scatter, don’t go with a cheap provider, you want something beautiful.’

He stared at the fairy. ‘Carmichel,’ he said flatly, waiting for the cultural mismatch to register.

Carmichel returned the look, then chuckled. ‘Right, I guess involving nymphs in an observance isn’t common for your people.’ He tapped the covered wound. ‘Done. Want to help me clean this wall?’

‘Yeah, and I’ll pay for-’

‘You never have to pay for anything, kallabrae.’

‘Except time in your establishments,’ he teased.

‘You get the same number of employee passes as anyone else, giving you more would just be bad business.’ Carmichel stood and offered a hand. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t help you with this.’

‘You did more than the Agency did.’

‘Curt, my offer still stands. If you ever want a different job, then-’

‘I’ve told you. It’s not that easy for them to let a monster go. There’s a reason there’s no current time limit on my probation. I think it just keeps going until they feel I’ve paid my debt to society. It’s purgatory, it goes forever, except at some point it stops.’

‘When I die,’ Carmichel said, ‘I plan on asking for the grace of Lady Limbo, to be allowed to wander her forest for a time. To make peace with myself before whatever comes next.’

‘I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to make peace with myself,’ he said as he scrubbed at a bloody mark on the wall. ‘I’ve told you this before, but I feel…trapped. I know I’m- I’m whatever you want to call me. Monster. Murderer.’

‘Deceived child,’ Carmichel said mildly.

‘I know I deserve whatever punishment they want to bring down on my head, but- Fuck, I’m trying. And I never- None of my actions seems to mean anything.’

‘Come work for me. Ask your agent. I’ll pay whatever they’re asking to release you from purgatory.’ Carmichel grabbed his shoulders and turned Curt to face him. ‘You’ve done bad things, you’re not a bad person. I don’t think you’re a bad person.’

Curt hung his head. ‘I can’t face Ryan. Not right now.’

Carmichel wrapped an arm around his shoulders. ‘Then use your apartment for a night or two. Relax. Process. Grieve.’

‘I don’t want them to think I’m running.’

‘I’ll deal with that. The question is, do you want to?’

He nodded slowly. ‘Please. Yes- Please.’

Carmichel stood, and dialled a number on his phone. ‘Good morning,’ he said smoothly. ‘This is Cresta Lan Oca, and I need to talk to your Director. He should ask you to put me right through.’ Pause. ‘Thank you.’ Pause. A slight roll of eyes indicating hold music.

‘I understand, Director,’ he said, turning on the charm, ‘ten seconds of your time is all I need. Well, ten seconds and your recruit for a couple of days.’ Pause. ‘O’Connor, of course, he served me well the last time I danced with your Agency. Two full nights, I’ll get back to you if I need him longer.’ Pause. ‘Wonderful. Don’t worry, you’ll see my gratitude for this. Wonderful. Thank you. Have a lovely day, Director.’

He ended the call and smiled. ‘You’re free for a couple of days. Go kiss a spring, I’ve got a couple of quick things to finish up, then we’ll head home.’ Carmichel offered him a hand, and he stood. ‘Breathe, kallabrae, you’ve got no worries for a few hours.’

‘It’s hard,’ he said, as if admitting weakness.

‘I know, but try,’ Carmichel said, then left the small room, already making another call.

After a minute of trying to breathe, he slowly made his way down the hall to the bathroom.

“Go kiss a spring” was roughly the equivalent of “go splash your face”, but with a different attitude. The human version had always seemed to him to be to shock yourself back into normality, to reset your face after crying. The fairy equivalent had seemed to encourage being in the moment, to just be still for a few seconds and work through whatever emotion you were feeling.

He turned on the tap, cupped his hands, filled them, then lowered his face into the water. He tried to count to ten as the cool water covered his face. Tried to listen to the slight trickle as rivulets of water found the cracks between his hands and fingers, tried to enjoy the ticklish sensation of letting a stream of bubbles from his nose into the small pool of water.

He didn’t feel any better, but he didn’t feel any worse.

He split his hands and let the remaining water splash into the sink.

A wet recruit stared at him from the mirror – but he didn’t have to be Recruit Curt for the next couple of days.

Angrily, he twisted two handfuls of his dress shirt and felt it rip as he dismissed it. Dress shoes were replaced by simple boots, slacks for cargo pants, shirt and tie replaced by a simple T-shirt.

Somehow, he didn’t feel more relaxed.

And he felt so alone.

With one last look at himself, he made his way back to Carmichel’s main office and found the fairy already packing to leave. ‘We need to make a couple of stops,’ Carmichel said, and handed him a leather satchel, which he accepted without thinking. ‘Your agent might not think you’re good enough to be an aide, but I think you’ve got potential.’

‘It’s measuring trust against competency,’ Curt said as they walked down the hall towards the car park. ‘And he’ll never trust me.’

‘His loss,’ Carmichel said.

There were two stops before they headed into Fairyland.

The first, to empty Carmichel’s post office box – something that one of his assistants should have done the previous week, a comment that was made with a significant look.

And it gave him hope that the offered job wouldn’t just be a useless, do-nothing nepotism paycheck.

He had the skills to be an agent’s aide, he could apply at least some of that to be one of Carmichel’s assistants.

It always amazed him that he’d somehow ended up friends with someone that others had to wait days or weeks to see.

Carmichel wasn’t one of the significant top-tier players when it came to the world of information and liaisons. Still, he was solidly somewhere in the upper-middle.

He was a man that, through the various pies that he had fingers in, employed dozens of people in one way or another. Had worked with the Agency on a dozen operations, and had his chain of sexporiums.

Carmichel was capital-I-Important, but he always had time for him.

The second thing they did was change cars. Carmichel let his security detail go and then selected a Fairyland town car from the garage.

The drive was quiet – Carmichel let him sit with his thoughts – something that was easy enough to do, even with the radio on.

The apartment had been the gift that he still couldn’t believe. In Carmichel’s eyes, it had been the real repayment for saving his life – both in terms of monetary value and in following with tradition.

The monetary value was easy enough to understand. Carmichel had explained that anyone who had known who he was would have milked him for far more – that they would have seen nothing but his bank account and taken him for all that he would give.

Tradition had been harder to understand. There was a fairy saying that didn’t translate very well, generally being rendered as “life needs a home, home needs a life”, but in practicality, it was something like the fairy version of a life debt.

“I saved your life, now you have to serve me forever” had no place in fairy cultural history. When you were a people who had been, until a few centuries before, a popular snack for larger fae, life-long debts could be a matter of weeks.

Offering a place to live, to someone who had saved your life, on the other hand, was something far more manageable.

With how many family members tended to be eaten, and how many tiny houses were destroyed by giants wanting that perfect addition to a stew, there had traditionally been a healthy mix of people needing home and homes needing people.

Their society was no longer like that, but the tradition had remained in some forms. When you were rich enough, as Carmichel was, that meant buying your saviour a damn apartment.

It was in a building of serviced apartments. Carmichel owned a few other rooms in the same building – mostly being used by employees that needed to be in town overnight, or won an office raffle for a weekend getaway.

Carmichel pulled into the curved driveway and waved away the valet as they approached. ‘Call me if you need anything, all right?’

‘All right.’

Carmichel reached across and squeezed his shoulder. ‘This will have passed. This passes. This passed.’ Another phrase that didn’t translate with all of its cultural history, but the meaning and intent settled into his chest.

‘Nylae,’ Curt said as he laid his hand on Carmichel’s. ‘Nylae, Cresta.’ Nylae, a form of “I love you” that siblings used. Cresta, Carmichel’s real name – even though it amused him to use a human nickname, sometimes…sometimes a moment called for a real name.

Names had power, even when the world wasn’t built on the fairy magic from stories.

‘Nylae,’ Carmichel said, then pressed the button that popped open the passenger door.

The doorman nodded and let him into the building. The receptionist signed him in with the tenant app on his Genie phone – a convenience that meant he never needed to have the physical room key on him, then he headed for the elevator and up to the apartment.

He tried not to spend too much time in any part of Faerie that wasn’t explicitly asked for and approved by the Agency. He was entitled to his time off, even as a scumbag on probation, he had some rights, and not being on-call twenty-four-seven was one of them.

But he couldn’t take the chance that they thought he was running.

He sipped his water bottle.

If they thought he was running, they might-

He pressed the bottle to his head.

Petersen had put a bomb in his head. No one had ever confirmed that it had been removed.

But if they let him go, if Carmichel paid out his debt, his contract, whatever they wanted to call it, they would surely have to-

They were the Agency, they would do whatever they wanted.

The only comfort he had was that they wouldn’t charge Carmichel full price for his life, only to have his head explode ten days later. They didn’t care about him, but they cared enough about maintaining a good relationship with Carmichel as to not fuck him over in the deal.

He stepped off the lift and walked down the luxuriously carpeted hall to the door that displayed the number “158” in Glyph.

He tapped his phone against the security scanner, the app cycled and the door unlocked.

The apartment always smelled like a new hotel room – which wasn’t surprising, even the unoccupied rooms were regularly serviced to avoid the build-up of dust and to stop the air from going stale.

The entry table was covered in letters, with a stack of small packages beneath – it had been a while since he’d been there, so gifts from Carmichel tended to build up. Most were little things – he got entered into the same weekly giveaways as the employees, and sometimes by random chance, he would win; and there were the small statutory gifts for a dozen Faerie holidays.

Faerie as a whole has a lot more “present giving” holidays than the world he was used to. Still, most of them had traditions of a single gift, and most times, that gift was something edible – chocolates, flowers, cheeses. A moment with something delicious given by someone who cared about you.

He kicked his shoes off and pushed them into the little “shoe house” under the coat rack by the door. After a moment of staring at the gifts, he grabbed the top couple that likely contained something edible, and walked into the apartment.

It was much larger than his room at the Agency, and the colours were far from the sterile corporate-ness that invaded every corner of Agency living. Each room of this apartment had a deep, richly coloured featured wall – it felt cozy, like a space he could really make a home.

He sat at the dining table, ambient light above coming on as to not leave him sitting in a puddle of darkness. He slowly unwrapped the top box – expensive chocolates in a box with a lenticular cover, shifting between various fae languages, giving greetings and well wishes for whatever the holiday was that the chocolates had been a gift for.

This could be his life, this could be his home, and he hated that such small wishes seemed so out of reach, so impossible to attain.

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lightdefender

Seeing both Ryan’s and Curt’s pov for this is kind of an odd juxtaposition. Neither is really in the wrong, but things turn out wrong anyway. And it’s not even the “poor communication kills” trope, since they both have damned good reasons for not telling the other certain things (or, on Curt’s end, reason to believe Ryan already knows, and doesn’t care). It’s kind of sad, really.

lightdefender

Technically I suppose one conversation could solve (at least part of) it . . . but neither of them can reasonably be expected to have that conversation.

(I was in a role-play situation one time where the other person’s character thought my character knew some things she didn’t, but she didn’t know that there were pertinent things that she didn’t know, so had no reason to ask. It got messy.)

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