Prologue: Sang; blood
"Agent R, it has recently come to my attention that your field work these past months has been. . .less than exemplary. Do you have an explanation for this lapse?"
The painting behind Valjean's head is achingly familiar –in the way of old wine and gold crucifixes. R is nearly certain he has glimpsed the same blend of colours and detailed lighting in a foreign museum somewhere. If the nagging suspicion scratching his throat is right, then his boss has been dabbling yet again in the most prominent habit of his youth: art theft. Not that R minds. In his limited perspective, art is rarely valued by the common populace –unless created by Picasso for some obscure reason never explained. Besides, in all the years R has worked for Valjean, the paintings would never stay for more than a week after their initial appearance.
"Ahem." R rouses hastily. The combination of unamused cough, disappointed fatherly glare, and R's own incessant foot tapping perfectly erase the art stupor he had unwittingly fallen prey to.
He is fairly certain there was a question lingering in the stale office-air. . .one he was supposed to answer.
For a brief, feverish moment, R allows himself to hope that it had been rhetorical. The part of himself that must have heard and disregarded the information as useless is something he really needs to reprogram because this is constantly occurring. Beneath the desk, he crosses his fingers; praying for all the luck he has been cheated out of during his short existence to materialize for this sliver of time.
R shifts uncomfortably, the chair’s mild creak beneath him a betrayal of the highest order. Why a government facility operating in one of the most highly advanced cities on Earth requires their operatives to endure the spinal pain these unforgivingly hard chairs supply, is beyond him.
". . .I see." Valjean's voice could slice diamonds.
In a rush of movement, R straightens, unwilling to be indiscriminately benched for yet another undetermined period of time based on his posture. The last time that happened, four diplomats were assassinated, a child-welfare corporation was revealed to be corrupt, and the Food Industry succumbed to the fact that donuts are better than anything yet conceived.
Eponine taunted him for months.
Valjean may carry the aspect of a father in his bearing, may help old ladies safely cross the street, and support same-sex marriage with a zeal that is terrifying to those who accidentally stumble across it (R has had the great pleasure of witnessing many fall into Valjean's genial trap; five businessmen in the past month alone) but the entire office is laid up with bids as to how much –if any - of this persona is real. They are spies after all: actors at their core. It is inconceivable that Valjean is truly that kind of person. . .and if he is then no one will ever recover due to how pitifully they measure up. Currently, the second option, the one people hesitate over betting on, looks to be the strongest. Valjean is cast in iron, face a granite cliff that should be carved onto the Alps to commemorate its ability to personify stillness.
"Sir. . ." Any words R might have once said stall upon his tongue. There is no correct option, nothing that will solve this issue. However, he has already started –and now must continue because Valjean is staring.
R has never been able to handle those eyes. They make him itch to sketch the echo of years within their depths, make him freeze, make the bad days surface from the corners of his heart, a tidal wave of desperation encroaching along the edges of his vision.
"I just wanted to say that," he has no idea where this is going. This is why Eponine has been getting all the good missions, because she is ninja-precise with every movement, unwilling to compromise, and gorgeous as a viper. "I apologize for the. . .inconvenience I've caused. It was unintentional-"
"I know all about that, R."
He does? Until two hours ago, R had no idea that the progressively worsening mission reports betraying his recent struggles had even crossed Valjean's radar. He must be even more of a burden than he expected.
Valjean steeples his fingers. "It is because of the many facts, growing months of. . .unprecedented behavior that I am reassigning you to an ongoing mission."
Long-term. Heavy cover. Hacker informant vital. Alias to be protected at all costs.
"I've –never -" R's throat seizes up; he cannot say what is begging to be released. It will cast him in an incompetent light. Something dull and untrained; the ultimate unprofessional.
He can feel the cave walls closing in even now; the words untouched.
"Yes, you have never done anything like this before, R. It is precisely that fact which encouraged me to assign you to this mission. It will require more from you in the acting department; less in the constant surveillance and physical aspects."
Essentially Valjean is stating that he is-
"Both of which you were getting tired of."
That is farther from what he was anticipating than Pluto is from the fiery sun. The first bet, that Valjean is genuinely a good and truthful person seems far more credible with this conversation for perspective.
"All agents experience this after a certain point. That is why schedules are switched, new targets assigned, and agents placed in unlikely positions that contradict their backgrounds. In summary: the mental health of our operatives is essential to the success of our work and the corporation as a whole."
None of the other operatives have mentioned undergoing this talk. Possibly because it is impossible to glance away from Valjean's eyes, clear and brimming with dedication. Possibly because the combination of words and all-seeing eyes makes something rise up in R's chest, something he thinks is astonishment, or gratitude. Or possibly what a son feels like when they discover their father does not actually hate them and all they stand for.
Not that R would know.
". . .I understand, sir." The pause between Valjean's statement and R's confirmation might have been too long; certainly, if it were anyone else, R would be cringing by now. He is not a natural at masking his emotions like the other operatives, not a genius with computers or weaponry that extends beyond fists, but here, in the gentle silence of Valjean's office, he does not feel that his awkwardness, is out of place.
Valjean smiles at him. It is confidence, not in the way arrogance can smear itself across a face, but in the way that drips molten with pride into an unsuspecting heart.
R fiddles with the throwing knife strapped to his wrist, trying to refocus. He has never faced this particular obstacle before. In all honesty, it should not be considered an obstacle at all, but the remnants of memories are difficult to vanquish.
"That is good." Valjean shuffles through some papers, graciously allowing R a chance to breathe while his gaze is not tearing apart skin and the barest mirage of order. "You will be working under the persona of Rene Grantaire. Freelancing artist, alcoholic, and gradually converted cynic."
He hands a manila folder across the desk to R. "You will be monitoring, from within their ranks preferably, a political group which recently came to the public’s attention. They are called Les Amis De l'Abaisse: The Friends of-"
"The People." Finishes R, laugh grating against his throat. "That is particularly idealist, even for a political group."The French translation lingers against his eyelids like the shadow of tears, or his mother’s laughter.
A wry smile crosses Valjean's lips, but he makes no comment, simply turns back to his copy of the briefing documents. "Les Amis are mainly comprised of university students and recent graduates."
As he speaks, listing off potential areas to focus upon, R leafs through the papers: skimming the manifesto, recent rallies held, patrons gained –and then his heart stumbles, hands fumbling in an undisguised effort to retrace where exactly that brush of crimson and gold disappeared to.
That is his first thought. There is too much gold, too much burnished fire for it to be anyone else. The breath in his lungs stills, the captured blue of Apollo's eyes searing past blood and into bone where it will never be forgotten.
Valjean is saying something, likely concerning economic funds and net worth information, but R interrupts him without thought.
"Who is he?"
Valjean leans over the desk, glances at the picture and as if that is enough, as if his heart did not require his eyes never to leave this photo of perfection that could vanish at any moment, leans back and settles into his chair with a scrunch of leather.
"That is Enjolras, their leader in all but name."
R allows himself a breath of time to glance quizzically at Valjean.
"They are a democratic group, everyone has an equal voice in their proceedings. A leader, or so the website insists, would undermine that belief."
"So Eponine said when she provided this information –but with a considerably longer list of far more graphic obscenities." His voice is dry with humour.
R smiles. They, at least, know that democracy is a failed ideal. A dream for the dreamers with sun-captured hearts; a dream for the Apollo's to chase after, forever unable to achieve the unattainable.
"When do I leave?"