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The (Irregular) Right Direction

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Outside of the bar Fischer stopped, feeling rather foolish. He had judged the amount of beer as 'small', because it had been small, certainly less than he had wanted or would have drunk usually. On the other hand, it had been De Dolle Stille Nacht, and he was abruptly feeling all the 12% of it.

He turned around the corner and began ambling uphill with a concentrated effort. Maybe he shouldn't have had three. Or had it been four? He tried to recall the last time he had been truly tipsy, the last time he had felt like getting drunk.

(Probably back when he had left The Hague. He had been epically drunk back then, hadn't he. Bogdana hadn't been impressed at all.)

Fischer didn't even like pale ale, to be honest. The twilight was stretching, swallowing up the cobblestones and the meandering twists of the Old Town. Uphill again. That time that Vincent and Delphine would call "entre le chien et le loup", the bleak grey shredded by distant revelries of open pubs and still-wandering tourists and immediately stitched back together by dour silence radiated by indifferent statues and blind widows of closed shops. Maybe Fischer should have bothered to learn some French, or Dutch, or whatever, after all. Then again, he never liked them anyway. Especially Delphine.

Down, down, down.

Why was Brussels so terribly uneven?

He hurried past the old palaces and museums, some tiny, some sprawling, and blissfully thought about nothing but the careful placement of the next step. (And the fact that Delphine had just left for a cooperation visit to Croatia, and he wouldn't have to see her for a week, with her annoying voice and opinions on mutual assistance in criminal offences for which legal persons can be held liable in another member state differed from Fischer's… as much as a Spandauer differed from a macaron, basically.) (And that write-up on the internal tools the German Federal Criminal Police had developed to improve the identification of victims of labour exploitation. Fischer had really liked that brochure and indicators. They should introduce it everywhere. Fischer had been really impressed.) (The Fischer of ten years ago wouldn't have been impressed by checklists to guide identification, or by brochures. The Fischer of ten years ago had been an idiot who really could have used with reading more brochures. The Fischer of ten years ago had lacked a positive example. The only person whose opinion the Fischer of ten years ago had truly treasured had relied less on guidelines and best practices, and more on supernatural hunches and intuition.)

When had he last been drunk? Fischer dutifully waited at a traffic light, thought about for another block, another. Stopped at the next traffic light. Probably in 2010. A gloomy morning came to him, shades of grey and Belgian mizzle; a gigantic poster stretched across a high-rise welcoming Estonia to the Eurozone. Himself, stumbling out of a metro station and hurrying to a Commission building for a press conference with a hangover from hell. That ill-advised strong pale ale again, Fischer really should have learned better. But he'd been good at hiding it, he thought. He remembered the heat inside of him despite the chill. The bright lights in the amphitheatre, journalists asking questions – blessedly, hardly anything for him, Małgorzata handling most of them. The new boss had been the best thing about the new job, he'd liked her straight away. She reminded him a bit of Ingrid, only more – more put together, more ruthless, more expressive at the same time, probably what Ingrid had wanted to be for Rejseholdet. Małgorzata's Polish accent had been even thicker than his Danish back then, and they chewed their way through English with morbid cheer.

(Małgorzata's pronunciation had become more generic since. Language classes. Fischer hadn't bothered, didn't bother. Sure, he, too, had evolved since The Hague, slipping into clipped, report-suited phrases with an ease that was at odds with occasionally forgotten verbs and mixed up prepositions. He got by, it was good enough.)

He remembered standing on the dais, slowly blinking against the harsh light, watching the language regimes change. From English and French in the beginning, when the Commission representative opened the press conference and introduced the first initiative report prepared by their division, and then more lit up, he didn't remember what but Danish was there too, and Fischer remembered wondering how the Danish interpreters were working from Małgorzata's English, as harsh and confident as a tank's caterpillars and with as much consideration for the listeners' ears. He wondered what Danish journalists were there, from what paper. He hadn't recognized anyone. They had probably asked the question in English. Unless he had missed it. He had been quite out of sorts.

The traffic light blinked and Fischer hurried across the wide stretch of empty street. Mammoth buildings rising to the left and to the right, everything still and deserted now, at nighttime. He used to hate it in the beginning, hated it so much he would get stupidly drunk – but not so drunk that he would actually get called out on it, not so drunk that it would be worthy of notice, not so stupid to actually lose the job. He had hated everything, and yet. Here he was, years later, undaunted by the glass, steel and concrete, now quiet like a tomb and buzzing like a hornet's nest in daytime, home to the enormous bureaucratic and administrative machinery of the EU. He was part of it.

He had grown complacent. Quiet, efficient, fluent in legalese and conference speak; a hot-headed Eurocrat whose idea of getting drunk was four beers on a working night? And even then only because Bogdana had come over on a mission from Eurojust and wanted to say hello.

Over the past years, Bogdana had gained a little weight and cropped her hair short, dyed it blond. She must be getting grey, like Fischer, whose uneven graphite streaks were an affront to his vanity. She had taken to wearing those suits she had claimed to detest, knee-length skirts and jackets in vivid color, with brooches pinned to the lapel. Tonight, she'd seemed glad to see him, even after a whole day spent cooped up in meetings, even though she had an early flight to Vienna. She drank more than him, as usual, and pushed his fringe out of his face with a glib insult to his hair.

(He was not going to do anything about it. The last time someone he cared about had talked shit about his hair, he had chopped it all off, and nothing good had come out of it. He was not going to touch his hair.)

Bogdana had seemed glad enough to see him, and talked about UNODC, and leaving her position in The Hague and coming back to Bulgaria. Not to be a prosecutor again. They were offering her to run for office. Between the second and third Stille Nacht, Fischer had had the presence of mind not to ask why would she want to be an MP and not an MEP. She could very well become the Minister for Justice, or Head of a Parliamentary Commission on Legal Affairs, right? And what did Brussels have. Except for an MEP's salary. And Fischer.

Bogdana seemed decided, and if the prospect of money and status of a seat in the European Parliament wouldn't sway her, then Fischer most certainly would not.

(Not now, when he had a bit of a tummy and grey hair, and the most fun he had had in the past year was during a trip as a guest speaker for the Task Force against Trafficking in Human Beings. In Iceland. In January. He had talked about prevention, and knowledge transfer, and crisis centres, and in the photographs he had looked so inspired and esoteric that Małgorzata ordered them to put up the pictures on the Division's Facebook page. Allan Fischer, the face of commitment to long term priorities in European law enforcement.)

Dimly, Fischer thought that he should have had a kid with Bogdana. Maybe it would have turned all right in that case. Then again, back in the day he had thought that he'd learned better, after Mille.

But then he had been transferred from Europol to the newly-minted Division on Civil Security and Criminal Matters, left The Hague for Brussels, and somehow, it had been too late. Too much done, too little said; too little, too late; not enough done, too much said. Take your pick. He wasn't even sure who he was thinking about anymore as he hurried deeper and deeper into the bowels of the European Quarter, the darkness quickly swallowing the thick, ugly high-rises. Rows and rows of awkward architectural teeth finally hidden by the black lips of a humid, cool night. Fischer still peered into the dark, watching for the right turn. He had walked around here so many times, but everything looked the same. He was past the Schuman metro station, though. It was taking time, it was taking a lot of time, but he was heading in the right direction.

He could have been thinking about Bogdana, or Mille, or Ida. Or La Cour. Not enough done, not enough said.

Briefly, he wondered why he had had the brilliant idea to walk home on foot all the way from Rue du Midi. He wasn't even particularly winded (up and down, long, long streets); he hadn't even had wanted to smoke. Suddenly, he had the absurd urge of turning around and walking all the way to Schaerbeek, knocking on the door of Joonas' flat and crashing on his couch. Joonas probably wouldn't have minded.

But Joonas wasn't La Cour, and he and Fischer were not that kind of friends. Fischer couldn't just knock in the middle of the night and stake his claim on Joonas' couch. Joonas smoked, but not like Fischer had been, once upon a time, and his flat wouldn't have the kind of lingering smoke that was thick enough to stir with a spoon. (Joonas had a cat and was worried about it getting cancer. That cat was definitely on a more healthy diet than Fischer's son.) Joonas was twenty years younger, tall, blond, Estonian, and permanently attached to his tablet. His interests included MTIC fraud and cybercrime. Fischer did not turn around and did not go to Joonas.

It was a stupid idea anyway. It was a hell of a long way to his place in Schaerbeek.

(Joonas wasn't who Fischer wanted to see when he was fully sober again. Joonas liked to talk about accounting and value-added tax, had long fingers, and viscerally reminded Fischer of good, familiar things, like Europol operational meetings at The Hague. And, just a little, of Thomas. But just a little.)

A few more twists and turns, to Square Ambriorix and the park where Fischer went jogging in the mornings, trying to keep his stomach from getting too soft and large. He was smoking less and putting on more weight; really, it was terribly unfair.

Down, down, down. Another steep slope; almost home.

Bogdana was going to run for office, and they would probably not see each other again. And they had just chatted over beers like any two friends, half of it shop talk about negotiating agreements on the exchange of judicial information. Fischer and Ida weren't on speaking terms, even; Fischer and Mille met a couple times a year, with the buffer of cheering during Viktor's judo competition between them.

Ducking into a narrow street, Fischer felt sober enough to register a slight burn in his hamstrings. Up and down, left and right, some six kilometers from the LGBT-friendly bar on Rue du Midi where he had properly said goodbye to Bogdana without saying anything. It was a nice place; they all went a couple months ago when Vincent's husband flew over from Lisbon to celebrate their anniversary.

He needed to go to sleep, wake up fresh and write about the German experience, with methodological recommendations. He needn't convince Małgorzata that enhanced cross-border partnerships were the way to go, what with the EU Strategy 2012-2016, but he needed to write it all down with words like "emerging trends" and "improved tools" and "reliable indicators" so that they could get to "supplemental funding" for "specific preventive measures and protective actions". Ingrid was now on a multidisciplinary steering committee; maybe if he could contact her and get Rejseholdet to get involved in actively combating forced labour, they would have a good example of practice transfer, and then…

Although they would need to translate the materials from German into Danish first. Now Fischer really wanted to smoke. He would email the guys from the Bundeskriminalamt and ask if they and their partner NGOs had developed some brochures on victim identification with English versions. He was ready to translate them into Danish on his own – without Małgorzata catching him in the act – and with Delphine away for the whole week and not breathing down his neck, maybe he would even succeed. And then present it to Małgorzata as a "fait accompli". Who would doubtless chastise him about squandering the resources of her division, that is, Fischer's time, on a job that should have been done professionally by someone else.

He took a deep breath of air that somehow managed to be dusty and putrid at the same time, and went inside his building. Up, up, up the narrow stairs.

He didn't remember until morning, when he woke up groggy and entertaining the idea of skipping his morning run, that with Delphine gone Fischer would be responsible for those coming on a study visit to the Division on Civil Security and Criminal Matters that day. He didn't look in the dossier, just skimmed through the brief – someone from Slovenia working in prevention of corruption, someone from Lithuania about the same, someone from Denmark –

– so he was wholly unprepared to see La Cour walking into the conference room behind the two women. He looked older than Fischer remembered him, had imagined him being, and, somehow, impossibly, thinner. Shameless, really. They were all shaking hands, introducing themselves over the round table, and the only thing that Fischer could think of was that La Cour looked more real than anything in Brussels.

He opened the dossier when Małgorzata walked in the room in the middle of his presentation of the Division to introduce herself and found Thomas' file, but couldn't figure out what Ingrid might have meant by "coordination mechanisms" and "institutional framework"; he would just have to – ask Thomas.

It somehow felt like going in the right direction.