Magnolia turned in a slow circle, taking count of all of the combat recruits that had been shifted out. All but two were accounted for. She pressed a hand to her earpiece. ‘Merlin?’
‘Yupyup!’ came the too-loud response in her ear.
‘Yu and Johnson are still missing, send drones.’
‘Sure thing ma’amy-ma’am.’
She pressed her earpiece again, and dismissed the recruits with a wave. As they dispersed, she saw Taylor cross in front of the gym’s door, blood dripping from his hands, a moment later, even over the din of the recruits, she heard his office door slam.
Hewitt’s voice. ‘What, Recruit?’ she asked without turning. She heard Hewitt hit the floor. She turned and saw a pool of blood slowly spreading out from his shoulder. ‘You didn’t report an injury,’ she said, then bent to grab his reaching hand. ‘Magnolia to Parkers, shift-’ She looked to the blood trail Taylor had left, then down at the blood on her own clothes. ‘Two to shift.’
The gym disappeared, and infirmary appeared. Parker-1 moved to deal with Hewitt, and she took the spare bed behind Parker-2, who was – with some glee – stitching a foot-long gash down O’Connor’s arm. The ex-Solstice was shirtless, something she’d only seen once or twice – and would have been attractive, if not for the tattoo that crowed about how many fae he’d killed.
She cleared her throat, and Parker-2 stopped in his rendition of some poem that involved the words “bile” and “pus”.
‘Fuck,’ O’Connor swore as he caught her eye for a moment, and a sleeveless shirt appeared, covering his chest, but allowed Parker-2 enough room to work.
‘Be with you in a minute, Mags. Curt’s already had to wait an hour and a half.’
Magnolia pressed a hand to her hip. The pain was bad, nothing she couldn’t handle, of course, but it was a sign she wasn’t good enough yet. A sign she was a disappointment to Taylor.
She slipped from the bed, smirked at the blood stains she’d left behind, crossed the infirmary and opened the door to the morgue. The lights came up automatically as they did in any Agency room, and she looked at the occupied drawers.
Two had been in use before the operation, but there were three new names – Patterson, Kumar and- She stopped in front of the third, open drawer. The name read “Mimosa”, that made sense – that the recruit had been a bad match for Field was an understatement. That the drawer was empty meant she was a KIA – presumed dead, with a drawer waiting for a corpse.
Presumed dead, probably dead, dead so far as the Agency gave a fuck.
She focused on the image of Taylor’s office, hoped he hadn’t set his security precautions in place, and forced herself to fade. Immediately, the infirmary went black around her, and her vision tunnelled, stretching and skewing, the image of his office suddenly a real thing, but it seemed so far away. She forced herself to rush down the tunnel, unable to see, or even feel, her limbs, focused only on the light from his office.
Every time she faded, she expected the tunnel to collapse in around her, and to be trapped in some in-between space forever. It wasn’t a proper fade, at least, it didn’t matched the descriptions that other fae had given her – though the process was the same, focus on a destination and fade away, others always described being able to walk, being able to take their time, and most importantly – being able to see and feel while in the fade-world.
What she did, apparently, was far closer to what very young children described when they faded by accident.
It was, however, still nearly good enough for Taylor – it was an advantage none of the other combat recruits had.
She reached the image of his office and appeared there – only to have it not match the image she had raced towards. She always pictured his office in its default state – neat, clean, a weapon on the desk.
The desk wasn’t even in one piece.
There were holes in the walls, blood smeared on the paint. The door that led to the corridor was intact, the door that led to his private gym was off its hinges. Sounds of items being thrown around in the gym told her that he was still present, and needed a moment before being greeted with more news – especially news that came without proper intelligence, or a full scope of understanding.
None of this was unusual – and her Duty was to deal with it. She paused for a moment, unzipped the tiny pocket on the back of her fingerless glove and extracted a tiny yellow packet of powder – a fae painkiller, it would deal with her hip until she had time to take care of her own needs. She put the packet to her lips, and swallowed the powder – which tasted oddly of strawberry jelly crystals, returned the packet to the glove and felt the pain subside.
Magnolia looked to the office, and began to require things back into place – though the Agency’s automated cleaning subroutines would eventually take care of the damage – it was far more efficient to do it manually. She moved to the centre of the room and began her requirements. The broken desk disappeared, and was replaced with an identical copy, the walls repaired themselves and a fresh coat of paint settled over the whole room. Paperwork cleared itself of blood and formed neat stacks on the table.
She raised her head and looked into the gym.
Now there were only the rhythmic slaps of fists against the punching bag now.
Magnolia required a clean dress – a copy of the one she had had worn into the field – short, no actual lace, though the hem of the black fabric was patterned with white, and only a minimum of ruffle on the short skirt.
He had seen her in the dress, it was his baseline expectation for the next time he saw her, so it was important for ease of dealing with whatever the situation was.
She didn’t announce herself as she walked into the gym – he knew she was there, and she took in the damage as she crossed to him. The gym was larger than most private gyms – pale polished wood floors below and a ceiling high, high above their heads.
The wall panels on the far wall had slid back, revealing the armoury behind them. A neutral sign – it was just as possible he was returning weapons he had used in the field as it was that he was gearing up for an assault.
Taylor stood, broad back to her, facing the punching bag, His uniform was ripped and bloody – he hadn’t required a new one since returning to the Agency. He stopped punching the much-abused bag, shrugged off his jacket, and came at her.
This was entirely expected.
She neatly dodged his first three punches, noted that he hadn’t bothered to bind his hands, then jumped as he aimed a kick at her chest, her feet lightly touched on his leg for a moment, then she vaulted over his head, landed, then punched his back before he could turn.
He shifted before she could attack again, appearing behind her, his thick arm wrapping around her neck.
He could kill her so easily – lift and twist her head, or simply hold her until she stopped breathing. It was a test for her – he was still testing her, ensuring that she was battle-ready. Whatever the situation was, whatever the empty morgue drawer and the secure paperwork meant, she was still needed.
‘Fade,’ he demanded.
She stopped struggling in his grip, despite her dwindling air supply, and focused on the other side of the gym. Her vision tunneled, the pressure disappeared, and she landed on unsteady feet. She sucked in a quick breath, then turned back to look at him.
He had covered the short distance to the armoury in the time it had taken her to recover. Too long. She was too slow.
He pulled a black bag from one of the shelves, shoved it at her, then moved towards the bleachers. This bag she was more than familiar with – it was their medical kit, and it meant he wasn’t willing to go to Jones for medical attention.
She ran through a list of everything that had happened – nothing stood out as a major transgression by the tech department, though it was arrogance to assume she knew everything. He knew the level of care she could provide, and what Jones could do. It wasn’t her place to argue with his choice.
They moved to the bleachers – he had purposely made the lowest tier wider so that it could function as a de facto work area when they needed it. His shirt disappeared, and after a moment, all of the excess blood, sweat and dirt, leaving only fresh blood from wounds that needed attention.
After a moment, his pants disappeared as well, leaving him only in the standard-requirement blue boxers. She looked away from the boxers, there was nothing inside them – Taylor, to her infinite frustration, was as smooth as a Ken doll. The rest of him, however, was more than enough to fuel her fantasies.
Her hands moved automatically, pulling out the usual items from the med kit – antibacterial creams from the Parkers, sensibly-sized bottles of blue, bandages and adhesive strips.
She set to work dealing with the burn on his thigh first – this wound was one she hadn’t seen him receive, and it was ugly, the edges of it looked infected, and there were trails of dried pus down his leg where he’d ignored it.
‘Just do it, Magnolia.’
Taylor leaned back against the second tier of the bleachers, and his legs parted with ease, allowing her room to work. She required a low stool, sat, then jerked her knife from her boot. An automatic protocol she had set up sterilised it on return to the Agency, but she required it clean again, then laid it on the wooden slats beside her, and pulled an anaesthetic spray, uncapped the bottle and liberally coated his thigh.
He would talk – it would just take time. If there was information she needed to know, he would share it. In the meantime, wounds needed repair.
She lifted the knife and cut into his skin. It was crude in comparison to how Jones performed the task, but the end result was the same – the affected area was removed so that there wasn’t the chance for a loss of integrity. Most times, Taylor would follow up with a begrudging visit to the techs sometime in the days following a fight, but it was on his terms, and only on his terms.
Her knife cut through his skin with ease – it was a fae weapon, so even with the numbing power of the spray, it would hurt – previous offers to use a scalpel had been met with beatings – he insisted that she use the weapon she was most comfortable with.
With the bulk of the burnt and oozing skin cut away, she placed the bloody knife back onto the wooden slats, and picked up a larger bottle, and unscrewed the lid to reveal the brush inside. This was something the Parkers had adapted – essentially an acid, it burnt away blue on contact, so it compensated for the crude nature of their medical care.
She brushed at the wound, burning further into his leg. She made sure to cover every area touched by her knife, lest that be the basis for integrity loss, then began to apply blue to the area. She slopped the jelly-consistency blue onto the wound from a small, round container with a tongue depressor, shoveling more as it rebuilt the area.
New skin stayed raw for a moment, then the wound was healed. She wiped away the excess blue, applied a layer of cream, then placed a large, square, blue-backed patch to the area, and taped it down.
His hand wrapped around her throat, and he pushed her down onto the slatted bleachers and straddled her, his massive hand still holding her throat – not enough to choke her again, just enough to keep her still, to ensure he had her attention.
It was her commander’s one failing that he thought he needed to force her attention to him.
His gaze slid away from her face, and he looked to her hip, and the blood that had soaked through the dress. ‘You’re injured.’
‘It’s nothing, sir.’
His hand released her throat, then he seized her skirt and tore it in two, giving him a view of the wound, and her spectacularly battle-inappropriate silk panties. Wishful thinking imagined him looking, lingering if only for a second, but reality crashed back in as he touched the wound.
Direct pressure was something completely different to simply ignoring it.
‘You were slow,’ he said. He seized the edge of one of the pieces of metal that had taken up residence and pulled it away. He dropped two more to the ground as her knuckles went white with the force of gripping on to the edge of her seat.
‘What happened?’ he asked, the words coming out as a growl.
‘I was near one of the blackout bombs when it went off – it had some traditional ordinance behind it. It was in a car. I think this was part of the licence plate, sir.’
He grabbed the same cream she’d used on him, coated his thick fingers with it, then rubbed them over the wound. He was always surprisingly gentle when he did this. He pulled his hand away, and she placed the bandage herself – it would do for now.
She stood, retrieved the cream from his hand, and went back to work on the scratches over his chest. Butchering his leg was her Duty, rubbing cream into his chest was definitely Pleasure.
Magnolia let her fingers linger for a moment too long.
‘The mirror was-’ he growled. ‘It’s unacceptable. Scholars didn’t have eyes. Could have been Agency.’ He grabbed her hand and moved it to another scratch. ‘Looks bad. Made the problem worse. A lot of enemies got pieces.’
‘Not combat fault’s, sir-’
He squeezed her hand hard enough to bruise. ‘Still. Looks. Bad. Agencies can be brought down by one department.’ He released her hand. ‘Ryan-’ he growled and stared at a far-off point beyond her. ‘Are the Scholars working on further retrieval?’
‘I would assume so, sir, I haven’t had time to get a report from them.’
‘Put our people on it. Double shifts. Quarantine the area. Use Merlin, I know you know he’s a reader. Just fix it, Magnolia.’