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A Distant Star

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The aftermath of the Halstead mission isn’t pretty.

Pointed remarks and significant looks. Thinly veiled threats and implications of what could happen if Ryan’s team doesn’t shape up under his command.

The three of them are highly trained agents, after all. So much potential that’s been wasted up until now, and if their current assignment doesn't yield the results Control wants that’s an easy enough fix, isn’t it?

Clearly their team composition is ineffective at best, disastrous at worst. They might do better elsewhere. Given the right team leader who can utilize their skills to their full potential, teammates who will push them to be better than they are now.

It sounds reasonable, pragmatic.

Control looking to turn the Lads into top agents, but Ryan knows from personal experience the kind of assignments they’d be given. The sorts of teammates and team leaders they’d be assigned. Knows it would break them, surer than anything Control’s managed to do them before now.

The Lads are too smart for their own good, and too damn useful to the agency for them to just let them go. (Not until they’ve broken them down, gotten everything they can out of them first.)

Ryan swallows his pride, bites down on the anger clawing at his chest for everything these people have done since they gained control of the agency, and plays their little game.

Makes sure to nod in the right places. Gives them yes sir and yes ma’am, because he respects these people, doesn’t he. Regards them highly and wants them to know he’s working in their best interests. Hopes they’ll remember him and all the good he’s done for them when they move up in the world, gain those positions they’ve been coveting for some time now.

Ryan’s shoulder aches, and he knows Michael and Gavin are still hovering over Jeremy after that hit to the head he took. The three of them rattled after bad intel nearly got all of them killed, and Control coming down on them for having the gall to limp their way back home instead of becoming another set of statistics. (Oh, they haven’t been quite so blunt about it, but the four of them managing to survive the mission causes more trouble than four dead agent ever would.)

When they’re talking about suitable punishments, Ryan clears his throat and offers a suggestion he knows they’ll agree to. Think it will be a good start in bringing the Lads to heel, turn them into proper agents, and so naive about that it’s almost laughable.

The training facility along the coast is rarely used anymore. Considered too remote than those closer to headquarters, but Control is loathe to give it up when other agencies and private sector security firms have expressed an interest in acquiring it for their own use on a permanent basis.

A weekend spent running his team through the obstacle course there should be enough to whip them into shape. Remind them who they work for, who holds the reins, and Ryan has to tamp down on his anger at just how pleased these bastards are about that prospect.

How quickly they agree, calculating light in their eyes as they consider how they can use this to their advantage, playing right into his hands.

========

“Oh, you stupid bastard.”

Geoff’s always had a way with words, especially when he thinks someone is being particularly stupid.

“Thanks,” Ryan says.

The weather is cool enough that most of the customers at the cafe Ryan’s having lunch at have chosen inside seating. Enough to give Ryan a modicum of privacy away from prying eyes and Control’s spies as he tries to organize the training weekend without further meddling.

Ironic, really, because Geoff’s managed to track him down.

Amused little smile as he watches Ryan figuring out how to working around the sling he’s wearing. (Something that’s proven to be far more frustrating than he’d expected, so of course Geoff thinks it’s entertaining as hell.)

“Ryan,” Geoff says, patient and amused, this twist of concern in there as well. “Let me help.”

Ryan blinks, looking up from his phone where he’s been on hold for the last fifteen minutes.

“What?”

Geoff looks at him, faint smile on his face, and takes Ryan’s phone out of his hand and ends the call. Points at Ryan’s untouched lunch and raises his eyebrows expectantly.

“I - “

“You’re going to end up in medical if you keep pushing yourself like this you fucking idiot,” Geoff cuts in, sharp note to his voice. “Now shut up and eat your lunch and stop worrying so fucking much. Jack and I are handling this bullshit.”

Ryan frowns, not sure what Jack has to do with anything at the moment since the man’s in DC, but Geoff is still looking at him, and Ryan’s shoulder is killing him.

Geoff waits until Ryan’s reaches for his fork before he takes out his own phone.

It’s a little galling how quickly Geoff gets through to the right people to book the weekend at the training facility. Arranges for a vehicle from the agency's motorpool and all the other necessary matters that would have taken the rest of the day for Ryan, but he supposes it goes along with his position.

“Bureaucracy at it’s finest,” Geoff muses, when he ends his last call and looks over at Ryan.

There’s more to it, of course, because that’s how this agency works now.

“Of course,” Ryan agrees, because what else can he do?

Geoff snorts, leaning back in his chair.

“The Lads aren’t going to thank you for this you know,” he says, taking a breadstick out of the basket between them.

Of course they won’t, but that’s not the point to all of this, and they both know it.

At best the Lads will think Ryan really does mean it to be a team-building exercise. A way to help them work together as a well-oiled machine.

At worst -

Well.

They’re not stupid.

“I know,” Ryan says, but this was the only thing he could do for them, and it’s still not enough.

========

Ryan likes to think he’s made some ground when it comes to earning his team’s trust. Has shown them he’s making the kind of choices that will get them back home alive. Isn’t going to consider them acceptable losses as long as it saves his own miserable skin.

They don’t look at him like they’re expecting a trap anymore, and that’s something.

Or was, but the days following his meeting with Control are very much like the first few weeks after accepting the position as their team leader. The three of them wary and suspicious and this touch of anger to them he understands all too well.

“Come on,” Ryan says, putting cheer he absolutely doesn’t feel into his voice because the agency’s walls have ears, and not all of them are his. Hopes to God these idiots can read between the lines, are even willing to try. “This will be good for us.”

Michael gives him a flat stare as Ryan drops the news of their training weekend on them. Spins it as a team-building exercise as opposed the punishment it was originally billed as to Control.

Jeremy’s equally stone-faced, and Gavin -

Oh, he listens.

Files away everything Ryan’s saying and breaks in with the right sort of comments to let Ryan know he knows about that damned meeting.

Too much, actually, and this look in his eyes just daring Ryan to call him on it. Thinking he won’t risk it because it would expose him as the lying bastard he clearly is, and the hell of it is Ryan can’t.

Not when Control is watching them as closely as they are. Eyes and ears everywhere and of course the Lads have to make things harder than they need to be because they’re not listening.

Don’t bother to read between the lines because as far as they’re concerned he’s turning out to be little better than all the other asshole Control’s saddled them with in the past. (Looking at them, Ryan’s not so sure they’re wrong.)

========

The training facility is half a day’s drive out of the city, which means if they’re going to make the most of the time allotted to them, they need to make an early start.

Thanks to Geoff, they’ve got one of the agency’s SUVs signed out to them for the weekend. Plenty of legroom for the Lads and more than enough space for their bags.

He pulls up to the curb in front of Jeremy’s building where they agreed to meet just after three in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed because he’s kind of an asshole.

The Lads are still half-asleep and annoyed at him for being obnoxiously cheerful as he helps them shove their bags in the back.

“Don’t forget to buckle up!” he calls as the last door slams. Jeremy shoving Gavin over to make room for him in the backseat while Michael glowers at him from the passenger seat. “Wouldn’t want to get a ticket!”

He can feel the glares directed at him, but they can’t talk freely here anymore than they can in headquarters. (Control’s paranoia that’s only gotten worse as they realize they’re in danger of losing their hold on the agency.)

The three of them are sullen and irritated by this entire endeavor. At Ryan, who is singing along with the radio when a song he likes comes on, seemingly oblivious to the tension.

After the first hour or so exhaustion seems to finally catch up to the others, and despite their best efforts they start to drift off. Fight it every step of the way, but the gentle swaying motion of the SUV and radio turned down low chips away at them until even Michael falls asleep.

Ryan reaches over to turn the radio off, chest tight at this show of trust he’s not sure he deserves.

========

The Lads have never been to this training facility, and it shows in their reactions when Ryan pulls up to the shack with the bored state park attendant.

The attendant rolls his eyes when Ryan flashes his ID at him, takes in the the SUVs plates and permit stickers and waves them through.

The parking lot is empty save for a beat up jeep parked close to the shack. It’s the off-season and aside from the park ranger there’s no one around for miles.

The others are watching him, annoyed and suspicious and Ryan hums under his breath as he gets out and stretches. Winces as his shoulder twinges, little sparks of pain reminding him he’s still healing, and rummages in the back of the SUV for his pack.

“What the actual fuck?” Michael asks, taking care to stay out of the puddles left behind by an earlier rainstorm.

Ryan grins, ignoring the ache in his shoulder and deliberately not thinking about the lecture he’s sure to get about all the ways he’s isn’t following medical advice as he hikes his pack higher.

“Part of the experience!” he says, like the camp counselors he remembers from his most miserable summers growing up. “Come on, if we want to reach the facility before it gets dark we need to get moving.”

There’s an access road that offers a far more direct route to the training facility for staff and supplies, or any emergencies that might crop up, but for agents sent here to train?

Well, there’s a reason this training facility is used as a punishment these days when it’s a hell of a hike just to reach it. Several miles worth, and while it offers beautiful scenic vistas at points, it’s not an easy path.

Ryan will consider himself lucky if the Lads don’t decide to chuck him off a cliff along the way given the way they’re looking at him.

========

Ryan sets an easy pace. Makes sure they take regular breaks, and keeps a close eye on Jeremy.

He’s been cleared for duty, but Ryan’s still worried about him. About Michael and Gavin, too, even if their own injuries weren’t quite as severe.

They don’t appreciate the gesture, looking for a trap, reason why he’s taking it easy on them when they know (think they know) what they’re all doing out here.

Still, Ryan insists on taking a moment to rest ever so often and doesn’t say anything when Jeremy takes an interest in the local wildlife during one of them. Wanders over to investigate some tracks and other signs he’s spotted and points them out to Gavin and Michael.

He doesn’t say anything when they’re crossing a stream and Gavin takes his phone out to take a few pictures, record a video of Michael after almost slipping on mossy rocks and almost falling on his face. Jeremy grinning widely as he helps Michael make his way to the safety of the bank. Michael threatening to dunk Gavin into the stream, and Gavin laughing at him like he thinks Michael won’t really do it.

Ryan definitely doesn’t say anything when they stop for lunch and he catches Michael looking at the others with a soft expression on his face as Gavin shows Jeremy the video of Michael’s earlier mishap.

No, Ryan keeps his mouth shut and lets his team have their moments while they can, because God knows they’ve earned them.

========

They reach the facility just before dark, tired and sore and Ryan’s already reading the hike back, but for now -

“Fucking hell, we’re staying here?”

The agency maintains the facility, handles upkeep and the like, but don’t see it as being cost-effective to remodel it the way they have their other facilities.

As a result, the décor is somewhat out of date.

“Bunks are upstairs. Pick whichever ones you want, we’re the only ones here,” Ryan says, and goes to make sure the kitchen’s been stocked for them.

He’s half expecting it hasn’t been. Surely an oversight on the agency's part, but to his pleasant surprise not only is it stocked, it’s clear Geoff’s exerted some of his influence here too.

“Well this is hardly what I was expecting,” Gavin says, having followed him while the others see to their sleeping arrangements, making no excuses for it.

Ryan glances at Gavin, and gets raised eyebrows and tilt of his head as Gavin skirts around him to examine the contents of the cooler.

Better than anything Ryan remembers from his stints at the training facility before. Something the higher ups might be served when they were showing off the facility and its best and brightest recruits to politicians they were attempting to woo to their side.

Gavin hums thoughtfully, gaze sliding to Ryan’s. There are a few cases of diet soda next to some beer among to start, and really, not the sort of things that should be here if this weekend is meant to be a punishment.

Ryan looks back evenly, and after a moment Gavin snorts.

Wanders over to investigate the pantry and Ryan leaves him to it and heads to the administrator’s office to check in with Geoff and Jack.

========

Ryan’s not heartless enough to wake the Lads up before the sun even rises the next day, no.

He waits until the sky starts to lighten, going from inky black to a steel gray, instead. (He’s not heartless, no, but he’s hardly a good man.)

Ryan pastes a cheerful smile on his face as the Lads shuffle outside in front of the barracks dormitory they’ve been using.

Watches the way they take in the fog rolling in from the ocean, eyes narrowing as they spot the looming structures of the obstacle course in the distance. The way their expressions smooth out into careful blankness as they stand to attention and look to him awaiting orders.

Not-quite perfect little agents, but certainly not the troublemakers Control makes them out to be.

“I’m sure you know what to do,” he says, and waves a hand at the beach and the obstacle course laid out along it.

A mile or so long, it incorporates the beach and the woods over the slight rise down the way, and Ryan remembers it well from his early days with the agency.

There’s a long moment where the Lads don’t do anything, and then Michael swears and shoves Gavin and Jeremy into motion.

Ryan watches them jog down the slope leading to the beach. Listens to the sound of their bickering until they’re swallowed up by the morning fog, and turns back towards the facility.

He didn’t get the chance to do a thorough sweep for bugs and surveillance devices the night before, but with the Lads otherwise occupied, he can take care of that now.

Devices fail, after all. And it’s been a long time since the agency has felt the need to update their equipment here. A little bit of work on his part and they won’t have to worry about the agency becoming suspicious about what’s going on out here when they seem to love their reports so much more.

========

Ryan wanders down to the beach a few hours later and finds the Lads making a half-hearted attempt to scale one of the walls in the obstacle course.

For all that there’s a good deal of bickering going on, the tension that’s surrounded the Lads over the last few weeks seems to have lessened.

A combination of being out from under Control’s eye and the gentle warmth of the sun beating down on them, perhaps. (Convenient that their stay here should come with a weekend of good weather ahead after a recent spate of storms.)

It’s clear the Lads haven’t even made a token effort at running the obstacle course. Seem to have spent far more time goofing around and challenging one another to stupid dares, and somehow managed to break part of the course in the process.

Ryan’s aware of the way all three of them snap around when they notice him, but he’s got his own problems setting up a folding chair and sun umbrella.

It’s not quite an ordeal managing things with one good arm, but it does take him far longer than he’d like.

By the time he has everything set up and his laptop open to start on the paperwork he’s been neglecting, the others have dismissed him as a threat and gone back to their squabbling.

Ryan’s not really sure if they’ve grasped the whole point of this so-called training exercise or not – the bickering and squabbling never really stops, after all – but they’re not looking at him like he’s the enemy here anymore either. Seem to be willing to offer him the benefit of the doubt, or maybe just the chance to prove them wrong.

Whichever one it is, it’s a victory in it itself, as small as it seems.

Geoff and Jack are supposed to arrive in a few hours to let him know what progress they’ve made in untangling the series of events that almost got Ryan’s team killed, but until then -

“Michael!”

Gavin’s yell, on the verge of laughter, catches Ryan’s attention. Has him looking up to see a sand-covered Michael advancing on Gavin while Jeremy hoots with laughter.

Michael says something to Gavin, too low to out from this distance. And Gavin – who’s been slowly backing up this whole time – suddenly turns and bolts, Michael close on his heels and Jeremy just a beat behind.

-until then, Ryan’s content to watch over his team as he best he can.