The suit was starting to bend, just enough around the waist and knees and shoulders that he could loosen with it and move. Tie still felt like a choke chain, though.
He nudged his headphones aside, and ran two fingers around the inside of the collar, and that didn't help at all. The murmuring crowd noise dwindled to dull fuzz by the end of the hallway, same with the tinny mall music — he'd have given anything for a good quick-thumping baseline in his ears but there were bigger things to think about. Someone needed help; someone needed an Agent. Here was his first mission, not a real mission — this was training, probably called a field exam or something — but his first mission.
Selena Richards, age six, daughter of Meryl Richards. That was all the briefing had to say, since Agents found their targets with sharp eyes and keen instincts. There were just so many people, all loaded down with bags, endless faces passing by, and how the heck would the girl's name be any—
There, a flash of wide eyes in the crowd. Someone very small and very frightened, a little girl all right. It had to be Selena. He sidled over, one slow step, to keep sight of her long hair through all the rushing adults. This was it, and nervous sweat prickled along his sides, under the first uniform he had ever worn.
He needed a beat. Everything had a beat, he knew that. He didn't even need to study that one — the Commander's voice still thundered in his thoughts, he couldn't lay awake and look at the ceiling without remembering that every living thing exists to a beat. Heartbeats and pulses and breathing. And crowd noise and garbled conversations getting louder, too chaotic to be anything near a beat and the tie squeezed tighter, there was a starting drill he should have been remembering and panic tore through him, and then Selena turned back. Looking through the crowd, sniffling hard, so shiny-eyed with tears she couldn't have been seeing much.
She was lost and scared. She needed help. She needed an Agent, and if it killed him, he was going to be an Agent.
So there was a rhythm, he just had to find it. He blew out a breath and took another one back in — there were two beats right there. Tactic Number One: self-awareness. He was an instrument, something to let a beat resonate through. Thump-thump-thump of his heart, sliding crescendos of breath. The noise faded, and his own thump-thump clicked with another one and there was the mall's piped-in music — he didn't need to hear it, he could feel it, he could be it, let it flow through his veins and tingle in his fingertips. Lyrics floated through his mind and he recognised it now; the song was La Bamba, a melody like an old friend. He tightened his numb hand around the microphone, lifted it, and began.
And this must have been what the Agents had meant — this ease flowing sudden through him, moving his feet, snapping his arms out crisp. This was where the beat became more, became music and everything fell into place. A turn, a step, a flick of his hips, the song spread and found strength, dozens of shoes scuffing in time to his movements. There was Selena, her face not quite so wrenched anymore, looking up at the crowds. Music rolled out and away; it was helping, it was working, she had a spark of courage he could nearly close his fist around. She vanished — not in his sight anymore but she was feeling the song, every beat, her shoes were scuffing a counterpoint for him. Match and measure, follow the baseline, twist and shake and move, his footsteps echoed in the hallway and air flowed over his open, sweeping palm. This was the power of music, touching each and every person in the shopping mall, lifting moods and spirits and courage and wow, that was why the song was different now. The brass notes sang bright and clear, the beats tremored through him and through everyone and through Selena — she had a beat too, spirit and a driving force. This was what it was like to live.
He remembered ending the final chorus with a step-tap-pose, his hand held out to the audience, to the entire world. And then the sounds and colours faded, warped back to muffled grey and shuffling bodies. There he was standing in the stark hallway, alone. The tie was still there, pressing a circle around his throat. He shifted his headphones and they stuck to the damp back of his neck. There wasn't anything else he could do now, was there? Just find the others and see if everything had turned out all right. It felt so strange walking through hundreds of unseeing strangers — hadn't they all been dancing together just a moment ago, swaying and smiling?
Agents were invisible when they wanted to be; Morris and Derek found him, instead of the other way around. Morris grinned while he told the story — Selena searching the mall, combing the aisles with her eyes, concentration carved into her young face. She had finally clambered to the top of the food court fountain for a better view, and needed four security guards to coax her down and return her to her frantic mother. Truth was always stranger than fiction, Morris said, and added that he had done good, he really had. Derek didn't say much — just gave a small, thoughtful nod, and asked if he had picked his agent name yet.
His mission was complete; he had stepped up and done his job. Music really did flow and mix inside of everyone, and it felt good walking out of that mall with teammates at his sides, and he could learn to live with the tie. He resettled the headphones over his ears, smiled, and knew exactly who he was going to be.