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Seeing her again was like sitting on a chair that was just a few inches shorter than he expected it to be: a tiny moment of panicked free-fall, and then he would be sitting safely, with no injury, heart unexpectedly pounding in his chest. Author's Notes
Undercover propaganda agents weren't supposed to run into each other that often, so Rassun hadn't actually expected to see her again. Certainly not at a gathering of cripples; he couldn't fathom why the Empire would find this kind of assembly worth sending two agents to. A bunch of broken misfits who couldn't be grateful that the Empire was providing every crumb of food and every brick of shelter they could possibly need without asking for labor in return didn't seem like that much of a threat. It was a larger group than he expected, but it didn't seem that menacing, and if the speakers seemed well-spoken and charismatic, it wasn't alarmingly so.
He was grateful he'd been sent only to observe, not make a fuss, as it gave him the opportunity to watch her from far back in the room. His job often involved working the energy of such groups; a stampede was easier to steer than stop, and mobs were much the same. He waited for his counterpoint to work the crowd - make disruptive comments, or ask innocuous questions that would steer the conversation where the Empire wanted it to go.
She was blonde again, he noticed, with some dark dye still lingering at the ends of her loose locks. She was pretending to suffer some kind of injury, one leg propped up on a chair beside her, and the same arm strapped close against her body. Probably, her backstory would involve the railcar crash from a few months back.
Rassun found himself rooting for her performance, waiting for the moment in the meeting where she would chide them for their selfishness, or turn their speech back on itself... maybe point out that able-bodied people needed the jobs they were arguing for, that disabled citizens were provided for, or maybe she would demand something outrageous involving concessions an employee ought to have to make to hire her. He thought over the angles he would take in his own head, waiting to see if she would think in similar ways. This was a motley group of entitled discontents, he thought scornfully. They ought to be easy to lead.
The outburst Rassun kept expecting never came. The other agent remained quiet, listening intently to the speakers with a convincing slump to her shoulders.
Before he realized it, the meeting was adjourned, and he was dodging people who tried to make conversation with an unfriendly scowl and a practiced limp. He should have left immediately, according to his script, and gone back to his housing to jot down notes about any figures in the meeting who seemed critical to the movement or posed active threats to the Empire. But something made him linger, just for another glimpse at the woman who worked the same job in balance to him. He'd only seen her a handful of times, scattered across the Empire, but there was something magic about the way he always recognized her... and he wondered if she'd recognize him, too. Sometimes it seemed like they shared a subtle, knowing glance, and it often seemed like she was as close as he would ever come to having an actual friend. Agents of their type were not supposed to have friends.
So it was with some surprise that he saw two citizens helping her to her feet, getting a crutch under her good arm and helping her pull her coat up over her shoulders. A flint-eyed girl with a ribbon indicating deafness on her own coat was fussing at her in a startlingly familiar fashion as they passed him going out the door. He pretended to fix his boot, an expert at faking a simple act into a reason to linger, and he looked up at exactly the moment that would let him see the other agent's face.
If seeing her at first had been falling a few inches into a chair, seeing her now was having the chair pulled utterly away.
A terrible scar marred the plane of her cheek, and he realized at once that her injury was not fake, and was not temporary. A heartbeat later, he realized that her friends were also not fake, and he wasn't sure which realization caused him more consternation.
She could not be an agent anymore, not crippled as she obviously was. She was barely a citizen now, just another burden of the Empire - like all the other ones at this meeting that Rassun had spent the last hours feeling smugly superior to.
She made no sign of acknowledgment, though Rassun was not sure if it was because she genuinely didn't recognize him, or if she was simply a better actress than he realized. He was grateful for the anonymity, falsified or not.
He spent several hours that night staring at the empty page before him. Usually his notes went down with practiced ease; he was an expert in observation and had a knack for separating ineffective troublemakers from genuine threats. He thought back over the various speakers, and each of the people in the audience who might have been influential or powerful. Several of them had been more wealthy-looking than a crowd of this type ought to draw in, and the dialogue had been surprisingly... educated. There had been an easy camaraderie to the group with a simmer of resolve that was more worrisome than heated anger would have been.
If she chose to join this underground movement, really join it, as an actual cripple, the woman who had played counter to him for all these years could give them a wealth of information about the Empire's propaganda department and how they operated. She could hand them the keys to countering their work, if she chose. Rassun kept picturing her face, drawn into thoughtful lines of pain. He kept remembering that she had been flanked by friends, and the idea gave him an unexpected pang of jealousy. He ought to be writing her down. She was clearly a genuine menace to the Empire, consorting in this group of restless subversives, probably the most dangerous single person in that room.
He sighed, and capped his pen.
She would have lost all of her contacts and official reach when she'd been stripped of her job. She probably hadn't even been allowed to keep her own original identity; certainly she would never be eligible for a travel license or access to the right libraries and files. Her knowledge would be valuable, no doubt, but her clout was as crippled as she was.
She was the closest thing in the Empire that he had to a friend and what Rassun had been ready to accept as simple justice for a room full of strangers seemed suddenly unpalatable. He uncapped the pen again and began putting down notes that bore little resemblance to his actual observations. He filled the page with the names and roles of the most innocuous speakers and the least alarming audience members, downplaying the organization and resolve.
The most dangerous person in that room had been him, having seen her there, witness to her fall and unexpectedly... sympathetic.
I knew that Rassun would make another appearance as things started to heat up in the Empire, but I wasn't sure where or how. I also knew that he would run into his nameless counterpart again and everything fell into place from there.