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To Each A Tempo

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     For all the polish in the life of an Agent -- crisp formations, rehearsed moves, the ridiculous cool factor of a hoverpad or a jetpack -- J liked patrol work best. Just rhythms and beats to follow, wherever they pulled him. Just his own footfalls on concrete and good honest sweat dampening his back. He roamed the city's back passages, exploring on cat-quiet feet, watching the world through tinted shades. As an Agent, J was enigmatic friend to all.

     The park's sandy path led him closer to someone's faltering beat. Someone in trouble, full of hot-blooming worry and frantic awareness. J sped his pace and the oak trunks vanished, the canopy's dappled light blurred; he saw, felt, and breathed only music. The target thrummed nervous, she walked on age-stiff joints and a presence followed her, someone rapidly skewing from friend to foe. Her name ghosted on J's tongue, all round consonants. A frail-built woman, arthritis-gnawed hands, fear liquid in her heart and a cry trembling in her throat -- help, she cried. She needed an Agent.
     J stopped, skidding on leaves, snapping into basic position. Guitar's growl flowed through him and his blood kept time; he tightened his grip on the microphone's hilt and began.

     Makes me that much stronger~

     Suspicion, and a ragged man looming closer. Step and tap, sweep an arm and snap his head to match every driving note.

     Makes me work a little bit harder~

     She turned, quivered with new courage and wide hands came anyway, with a snarled demand for what she carried. Hop and shimmy, flow with the baseline and press harder, brighter.

     Makes me that much wiser~

     A grab for her purse, but she blazed now, her rhythm beating strong. A swing of the purse, a scolding cry and startled choke in response. Defensive strikes bubbling upward through her memory's depths. Repeat the moves, measure and mirror, a flick of hips and finishing step and J pointed at the world, at the audience. The terror fled, and she stood breathing hard and grinning.

     So thanks for making me a fighter~

     The beats faded, like a passing rumble of thunder. The urgency bled away and J stood in a calm forest grove, his limbs singing with adrenaline and sensing the woman's rhythm falling back to routine. Another job well done. He wiped hot sweat from under his pompadour and smiled broader -- he wouldn't trade the long days and aching muscles for anything in the world.

     Onward, then, to find another target, someone else in need of a helping hand. The park path opened front of him and J looked ahead at the distant, heat-shimmering asphalt of the street, the stinging glint of cars' chrome in the midday sun. Traffic murmured, somewhere beyond the park trees. It was open out there -- too open. Any number of idle gazes could snag on him. Pausing, canting his weight onto one leg, J combed his memories of the terrain, every alley and footpath and sidelot. Foster Park curved over bush-thick hills and down a creek's shallow bed. His socks would squelch wet with every step afterward but a little water never--

     Shock flared red from the corner of J's senses. He looked toward it -- at breeze-fluttering oak leaves, and a sparrow sailing past, and open columns of sun -- and the sensation dulled, and faded away. Too brief to be anything serious, J hoped. Maybe a hiker coming across an especially hairy bug, or a coordinator remembering something about whatever huge gathering was milling at the park's center. There were hundreds of rhythms out that way, blurring amiably together, maybe a wedding or something. Definitely no going over there for J, then -- gazes crept on his skin, under the Agent suit. He looked back to the street, tried the maps in his head and couldn't remember the streets' names, just their sprawling directions. That diner was nearby, he knew that much. He remembered its cluttered alleys full of the muddled-wonderful scent of food cooking, the starchy, frying smell and visions of glistening-hot French fries.
     And thinking along those lines meant break time had arrived -- a good music rush could hide even the most determined hunger pang, after all. J lifted a hand toward his earpiece. A quick check-in with Missy, her chirp of permission and J could--

     And then fear ran hot across his mind -- not just fear but desperation, terror. Close enough to sting nettle-sharp but moving away, across the road and into shadows, someone scared and running and it gripped J to sink claws into his heart. He ran, but the asphalt loomed ahead and he jerked to a stop: open space. Witnesses. He couldn't but he had to, someone was drowning in that fear and it keened suddenly: pain, dazzling agony, a mouth opening to spill voice. Help -- they needed help. They didn't say it but J knew. Movement in the open meant blending in: he was wearing a suit, there was a wedding nearby, and that coincidence would have to do. He tore off his shades, dropped his mike and ran, into the sun and heat and acrid colours. Beats hammered up ahead of him. Road and sidewalk flowed under his pounding feet, he was surrounded by tall shadows and hulking boxes but the sensation was moving again--

     A flicker of pain, a trace slithering away and it was gone. The bass line dwindled to nothing and J stood on alley dirt, alone with his own deafening pulse. A false alarm? It couldn't be. He knew when people needed help, knew better than anyone and the soul couldn't lie. The target must have just gotten away, farther away than one Agent could pinpoint. J looked around, and details formed in the shadows for him -- fence boards, cardboard's edges, darkness. A vacuum hung where song should have been. He grabbed for memory, for scraps of colour and feeling. Something, somehow, had gone wrong here.
     "Police! Put your hands up!"
     Flashlights strobed suddenly on the fence ahead, and eyes bored into J's his back. Had he really attracted that much attention? He was just a friendly neighbourhood Elite Beat Agent, but that couldn't help him now: the world didn't know, they couldn't know the truth. One wrong word out of J could reveal what people just wouldn't understand. His training spoke to him, in the Commander's voice: don't run, don't resist. You're never alone. J's hands rose -- empty, too empty -- and the footsteps closed in. Murder stood out stark in the droning voices. Cuffs bit his wrists.
     The back of the squad car swallowed J. He ached for teammates at his flanks. The police asked if he understood his rights, and he picked careful words:
     "I want a lawyer."